You’re not fine and neither am I

COVID-19 grinds on and on and on and on.

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People line up to take a COVID-19 test at a free testing site in Chicago at the end of December. Infection rates are surging across the city and state threatening not only physical, but mental health.

People line up to take a COVID-19 test at a free testing site in Chicago at the end of December. Infection rates are surging across the city and state threatening not only physical, but mental health.

Associated Press

Hi, how are you doing? You all right? Good to hear. I’m fine too.

But are you? Really? Fine, that is. Because things everywhere aren’t “fine.” Far from it. These are such strange times. That’s what I’ll say to my wife, out of the blue, just to fill the air with words.

Maybe we’ll be eating dinner, or sitting, reading.

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“Strange times,” I’ll say. And she will agree that yes, these are strange times indeed.

No need to explain why. We all know. With the plague and the politics, the isolation and inflation. Not to forget school and work, for those who have children or jobs. Or both. All odd for so long it could almost seem normal by now except it’s not normal and will never be. COVID-19 is a threat both to our physical and mental health.

Though Omicron doesn’t seem so bad. Not as deadly as the Delta variant. I stopped going to the Y when Omicron first struck, because it is so contagious, and all the kids were home from college. Too crowded. Monday, I started going back, shrugging. “Life is to be lived,” I said, figuring, if I get it, I get it. Not so bad when you’re boosted.

But only 20% of the country have their boosters. Just 62% are fully vaccinated, and 20% aren’t vaccinated at all. More than 60 million people. Quite a lot.

A vast petri dish to cultivate new strains. Still plenty of Greek letters left. Nor is it just people. One of the more terrifying things I read — as if you need another worry — is that up to 80% of the deer in Iowa have COVID-19. A horror movie twist.

By the way, that bit about Omicron not being so bad. That isn’t an official medical statement. Nor a denial of all the people who are going to die from it unless they get their shots.

A COVID-19 testing banner at 2242 S Damen Ave. in Heart of Chicago, Wednesday, Dec. 22, 2021.

A COVID-19 testing site at 2242 S Damen Ave. in the Heart of Chicago community area, photographed last month.

Anthony Vazquez/Sun-Times

I’ve been lucky. Not just for being science-inclined and getting my shots. I’m also an introvert. I like being alone. When I was small, kids on the block would knock on my door, to go play kickball, and I’d say to mother, “Mom, the guys are here. I have to go outside. Wait 20 minutes and call me in.”

So I’m not missing ... oh, whatever people do together, playing charades or Twister or whatever. If somebody on the street actually slows down while walking their dog to squeeze out a few words, I walk away buoyed, almost elated, my social dance card filled.

Reading helps. This morning I reread Donald Barthelme’s 1965 short story, “Game.” He was known for his beginnings, and “Game” jumps into it:

Shotwell keeps the jacks and the rubber ball in his attaché case and will not allow me to play with them. He plays with them, alone, sitting on the floor near the console hour after hour, chanting onesies, twosies, threesies, foursies in a precise, well-modulated voice, not so loud as to be annoying, not so soft as to allow me to forget.

It’s a story about two military officers alone in a nuclear missile silo bunker, buried in some Mountain State, “either Utah, Montana or Idaho,” the unnamed narrator says. “I don’t remember.” They have been forgotten, through an oversight, and are slowly going mad, waiting to turn their keys to launch their missile, eyeing each other, the narrator suggesting that if he gets a chance with those jacks, he’ll turn his key like Shotwell wants.

Two things about the story stand out.

First, the Cold War mentality. We thought we were going to die, blown up by the Russians. Or by two crazy officers firing a missile. None of that happened. COVID-19 is far worse than nuclear annihilation, because it has killed millions of people worldwide. In 2021, more Americans died of the coronavirus than Japanese died at Hiroshima and Nagasaki — combined. Still, we’ve never been terrified of COVID-19 the way we were afraid of those atomic bombs. I’m not sure why.

Second, how long the two officers in “Game” have been down in that bunker: 133 days. Ha! That’s since last September. Ha-ha! Short time. Lightweights. If I thought this would be over in 133 days — by May — I’d be dancing in the street. These are strange times, hard times, and someday we will be proud to have survived them. But we have to live through them first.

Another strange time: During the Cold War, fearing a nuclear attack from the Soviet Union, some installed bomb shelters in their back yards.

Another strange time: During the Cold War, fearing a nuclear attack from the Soviet Union, some installed bomb shelters in their back yards.

Sun-Times file

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