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Ritter: Clocking the slow crawl of pandemic time

By Geoff Ritter
updated: 8/21/2020 11:27 AM

To gain real insight into the nature of time, you have to live through a pandemic.

I'm not talking about some medieval, continent-killing plague. This is about the politically polarized pandemic of the present. Here, time crawls on with apocalyptic, tick-tocking speed, relentlessly pushing forward as the fixtures of our culture and society remain still and inert.

So far, I estimate, 2020 has lasted about a decade and a half. If you don't believe me, check your own hairstyle or waistline -- or even your ability to accept the fresh hell that now passes for our shared reality. Clearly, we've all aged dramatically in six months.

Of course, I was already old -- at least if you ask my kids. Despite solidly middle age credentials (and plenty of remaining hair, thank you), these two smirking boys remain certain I was born sometime during the barbaric epoch between the end of the Civil War and the release of the "old" Star Wars movies, which isn't even true because the first one was already out, guys. While they, too, have experienced quarantine malaise, they also maintain the resiliency of children. Facing a monumental, unprecedented rift in time, they and their buds just play on.

It helps that school, or something that at least sort of looks like school, has returned. For these guys, 13 and 10, that has meant an actual return to the classroom at schools in nearby Herrin. I swear, I really didn't go to grade school with Mr. Burns like they insist, but their rapid-fire stories of class in the time of COVID do give me pause. The kind of schooling I got now seems like something from a forgotten age.

"We go straight to our classroom," Oliver, who started fifth grade last week, tells me of how the day begins. There's no congregating in hallways or lingering in bathrooms. These kids, spread sparsely through mostly empty classrooms, don't move around the school; instead, the teachers, the lunch ladies and everything else comes to them. When it's time to come or go, only certain designated door holders touch the doors. Every movement of the children is carefully structured.

I ask him about masks and whether kids have adapted to them. He sighs. "A lot of them take them off and get in trouble. A lot of them don't even have them covering their noses." Was it worth coming back to school, I ask? "I wanted to see my friends," he says with a cool shrug.

Trust me, pal. I get it.

But will this experiment in pandemic learning last more than a week or two? Frankly, right now, it's hard to know if even gravity will function correctly in a week or two. What I do know is this: Despite this apparent glitch in time, it indeed slogs forward in some form we may yet recognize again. Hair keeps growing. So do bellies. Time moves on in much the way it always has; it's the times we live in at the moment that seem to have altered the flow.

With good health and good luck, I'll live another 40 or 50 years and get to read a history of these times written by someone armed with historic perspective and, in all likelihood, alcohol. In this imagined future, my boys are heavily invested in middle age themselves, busily shuffling their own kids to ballet rehearsal or hover cube practice.

"Did they have school when you were a kid," comes the inevitable question from their back seat, "or was it more of a hunter-gatherer situation at the time?"

I smile. These kids of the future simply won't believe it, but it's true: Their parents came from a dark, uncivilized age when plague still tormented the planet. They had to wear masks on their faces, for crying out loud. They had to, you know, touch things to get on the internet. Also, it turns out, there will be a time when all Star Wars movies are old.

All that stands between me and this grand, cathartic moment is -- you guessed it -- time. So I'll wait it out, just like you, watching as the hair either grows or goes. Eventually, we will arrive at that place -- a country of new old men, I suppose. If the kids are even remotely correct, I shouldn't have any trouble fitting in.

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