Riding the COVID Flyer | John MacMillan

By John MacMillan

Law360 Canada (July 25, 2022, 11:42 AM EDT) --
John MacMillan
When I was a kid I loved my summer trip to the Canadian National Exhibition for an annual ride on a roller coaster called “The Flyer.” During its 39-year existence, The Flyer bore some nine million riders on its 2,600 feet of rusted iron track and creaking wooden beams; it likely has an OED entry under “rickety.” The thrill from riding the Flyer evoked a philosophical mix of hedonism and redemption: a gravitational thrill in loins and stomach, as well as the uplifting satisfaction of survival.

I think the Flyer’s boom and dip, that sine curve of excitement and fear, epitomizes where we’re at, as the health bureaucrats declare the start of COVID wave No. 7. First alpha, then delta then omicron zoomed around the viral load curves, and we clung to the safety bar and hunkered. Then the viral train peaked at the zenith of wave six, and we flung our arms skyward, woo-hooing as we plunged to smoother, more open and safer times. And now we’re back in the trough heading up the COVID slope.

But rather than the existential dread of 2020, I think people have adjusted to the COVID Flyer by changing our horizons. In waves one through six we ventured tentatively beyond lockdown borders, sticking virtual toes into ephemeral foreign pools, and imagining restarts to our businesses and personal quests. But now, summoning the old adage that, “if you fail to plan, you plan to fail,” we have started to plan again, but for a much shorter future. Consciously or subconsciously, the imagined timeframe becomes not this or next year or decade, but rather between this and the next wave or variant: a fungible period that consists of more than a few weeks, but not much longer than four months; in coaster lingo, that excitable moment where we start up the next rickety slope, but just before we feel our stomach flip.

This isn’t new: Henri Bergson, the French philosopher, said that time was both a phenomenon of measurement as well as of “duration,” an inner, subjective response beyond mathematics and science. I’ve seen that in my own life: our kitchen calendar displayed a long planned European trip to celebrate my wife’s “big” birthday, but we stopped marking the changes as the trip got cancelled and replanned more times than a Jeff Bezos rocket-ride.  I even booked the air tickets first class — for the first time, ever — not out of extravagance, but because I reasoned they’d be easier to cancel, refund or postpone. As the airports began to clog, my reasoning appeared more and more sound, but I remained confident in my strategic unconfidence. That’s what happens when you see the slope rising ahead, and realize your decision may happen not weeks, but hours before you travel. You pack a bag but keep the zipper open.

Many people, especially your more grounded friends, will chide: “What’s so wrong with living in the moment?” Every yoga or meditation class tells us we need to jettison desire and thrive in the now; breathe deeply and celebrate the horizons seen, not the ones beyond. In other words, why can’t we just stop whining about the inability to make longer term plans and just enjoy the COVID Flyer’s limited patterns of boom and slump, for one more ride until it’s time to go home?

As well, with more climate uncertainties ahead, these pandemic waves may confirm the lesson of the COVID Flyer: uncertainty rather than stasis is the new normal. Long-term vision may play well at the corporate retreat, but it’s a mug’s game in people’s real lives. So, instead of donning your wide-angle, rose-coloured glasses, try a little myopia. Limit what risks you can but expect to adapt rather than to plan. Keep an umbrella — and a fan — in your backpack. Hold a bit of cash along with your tap-card. Don’t bundle your phone with your Internet.

A lot of people, however, prefer their luggage firmly zipped, along with the mouths that preach COVID caution. Their desire for personal freedom trumps any social prohibitions, and they’ve flattened the COVID sine curve — willfully, hopefully, artificially — such that their horizon remains vast and unhindered. And, whether they are libertarian zealots or just people who feel they have mitigated their risks adequately, they vow to continue living boldly and to envisioning the long term. The economy needs that kind of exuberance, as do the arts, sciences and maybe even politics. And, as a writer, it makes me wonder what happens when the COVID ride begins to thwart hope.

Aristotle taught that wisdom comes not from knowing facts but from detecting patterns, and, smart(ish) species that we are, we’ve begun to see that COVID challenges not just our health systems, but also our perspective on time itself. The literal Flyer was demolished in 1992, but the figurative one remains with the advent of wave seven, and the likelihood of many more. Whether we continue to figuratively line up for that coaster, or choose a safer merry-go-round, will determine how our society progresses.

Meanwhile, summer’s here, vacations beckon, and the CNE (says it) will open on Aug. 19. The Flyer is no more, but perhaps we can substitute another thrilling ride. Or, if that fails, visit a park. Or just go for a walk. Masked, ’natch.

John MacMillan is a Toronto writer, playwright and comedian who lives in Toronto and wouldn’t know one end of a basketball from another. 

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