The waiting is the hardest part

Stuck in line for a vaccine or a vote? Look at the system that put you there

Several weeks ago, Washington, DC, abandoned its system of heart-pounding daily scrambles for relatively few Covid vaccine slots in favor of a more humane preregistration system. You sign up, calmly and in your own time, and when it’s your turn the city will contact you to sign up for an appointment.

There is a flip side to this fairer and more efficient system, which is what I and approximately 190,000 others preregistered in the city have now been charged to do: Wait. Don’t call us, DC says; we’ll call you. Strategic advice from other states on how to grab scarce appointments or navigate confusing sign-up systems is irrelevant. Our job is to be patient, like 1950s coeds hoping for a second date. We can only hope we hear from the authorities before we hear from one of the more vicious disease variants bearing down on the US population—“impending doom,” as CDC director Rochelle Walensky described her sense of it this week.

I, personally, am going slightly out of my mind, and I’m not alone. Waiting is not something that humans are generally very good at. Our attitude makes no practical difference; patient or impatient, we are subject to some exterior timeline over which we have no control. (In some languages, a bit manipulatively, waiting patiently is actually a single verb—“Patientez SVP,” French language ATMs tell people waiting for money. Be patient, please.)

Of course, we want to shape the outcome, or at least find out when there will be an outcome. The religious turn to prayer. The superstitious look for omens. Those with an analytical frame of mind read, reread, and rereread the evidence—look at the online forums teeming with conspiracy theorists waiting for revelation, or with would-be mothers comparing subtle symptoms from what’s known as the “tww,” the two-week wait from ovulation until they can take a pregnancy test. All the tea-leaf-reading makes no difference. That is the essence of waiting.

The trouble is that what can seem like an inevitable wait can actually be happening because it’s set up that way—and some people may be forced to wait more than others. With the Covid vaccine, we’ve seen cases where richer, whiter people hardly had to wait at all compared to their browner, poorer, essential-worker counterparts, like in one wealthy Florida community that donated hundreds of thousands of dollars to governor Ron DeSantis. On another front, Georgia last week passed legislation that is purportedly about voting integrity, but which creates a number of obstacles that critics say will disproportionately block black voters—and which bans anyone from giving voters waiting in line food or water. The measure seems to involve foisting an intentionally uncomfortable wait onto a particular group of people, and while Georgians will be able to do nothing about that once in line, they are right now successfully pressuring Georgia-based corporations like Delta and Coca-Cola to decry the new laws. In the case of DC, even as officials have triaged vaccines to reach the more vulnerable first, the wait for residents is extra long because DC lacks the leverage of statehood and representation in Congress, and has received an accordingly modest supply of vaccine, a large portion of which has reasonably gone to workers who live outside the city. “DC needs more vaccine,” nearly every public announcement from the city concludes, as the mayor and other local politicians redouble the fight for statehood.

Waiting can be harrowing, whether you’re waiting for relief or for the ax to fall. Take the way many of us, even some supporters, assumed an anticipatory crouch for four years as we waited for Trump to do something awful, which he regularly did. Some staffer was always about to get fired; some nasty tweet was always being prepped for some unlucky victim; some protection for people or animals or land was always about to get rolled back. Not anymore. The suspense is over, and many Americans are sleeping better at night. Consumption has plummeted of cable news, which had basically become an anxious civics edition of the trying-to-conceive forums—hey ladies, if I’m feeling some child separation on my southern border, does that mean I’m pregnant with fascism? In the end, though half a million excess Americans died during the waiting period, a majority of the surviving voters got what they wanted: a team of imperfect but basically well-intentioned professionals to pick up the pieces.  

For my family, another wait came to an end this week, as my wife and I completed the second-parent adoption for our daughter. It’s easy to forget in these gay old times, but a birth mom’s unmarried same-sex partner still can’t have her name on the birth certificate in New York State, no matter if she is there through the pregnancy, the moment the baby enters the world, and ever after. The only way to amend that is for her to do a second-parent adoption of her own kid, complete with criminal background checks, lawyer’s fees, and a court hearing. Only because we had moved to DC from New York were we able to avoid a home study on the quality of our parenting.

That wait is now over, and it couldn’t be sweeter. I’m grateful to those who preceded us in their own patient legal fights that ensured two women could be parents to a kid at all. I’m also grateful to the scientists and the huge apparatus behind them that brought us millions of doses of multiple super-effective virus vaccines on such a sped-up timetable.

But we still have farther to go—one can dream of a world in which the wait for a vote, or a vaccine, or official recognition that you are your kid’s parent is both equitable and short. Because once you’re waiting, you’re stuck with the wait, but what creates waits for some and not others is almost always more malleable than we might think.

What to read

The testimony in the trial of former Minneapolis Police officer Derek Chauvin for the murder of George Floyd has captured the anguish of those who watched as Floyd died, pleading for his life. The New York Times’s liveblog is here. As unbearable as it has been to rehash a death so apparently cruel that it summoned millions of protesters to their feet, the moral clarity of the witnesses has been immensely moving. Darnella Frazier, just 17 at the time that she filmed Floyd’s death: “It’s been nights I stayed up apologizing and apologizing to George Floyd for not doing more and not physically interacting and not saving his life. But it’s like, it’s not what I should have done, it’s what [Chauvin] should have done.”

One question during the Trump administration was who was keeping track of his massive transformation of the administrative state so that, if he ever left office, it could be restored. At the New Yorker, Sarah Stillman reported in February on one database effort compiling Trump’s changes to immigration policy, many of which were never publicly announced. In a remarkable act of investigative reporting, she and her team of postgraduate fellows at Columbia’s Journalism School have embarked on an international effort to trace the real-life consequences. “In the past few years, we have spoken to two hundred people who bore the brunt of these changes,” Stillman writes, “and found more than sixty cases of irreparable harm that resulted, including torture, sexual assault, and death.”

Morning Edition’s Steve Inskeep, an adoptee as well as an adoptive parent, wrote in the New York Times op-ed section this week about the case for more open adoptions. A 2018 change to Indiana law permitted him to learn history he had never known about his own birth. “This spring, more than a dozen states are considering legislation for greater openness,” Inskeep writes.

What to consume

I have yet to see a more entertaining explanation of how mRNA vaccines work (such as the Moderna and Pfizer ones) than this 59-second TikTok by Vick Krishna. Genuinely servicey science education, involving FORK HANDS.

For an almost “Great British Bake Off” level of escapism, it’s hard to beat “Stanley Tucci: Searching for Italy,” in which an impeccably dressed and handsome American movie star canvasses Italy for the most delicious and regionally typical food he can find and then savors it in front of you. Clearly this is a bid by CNN to replace the programming hole left by the loss of the irreplaceable Anthony Bourdain. But while the Tucci show’s appeal is somewhat different, it is delightful in and of itself, as Helen Rosner writes in this recent New Yorker piece.

You have probably already watched the new video for “Old Town Road”-er Lil Nas X’s song “MONTERO (Call Me By Your Name),” unless you have some kind of problem with semi-Miltonian gay lap dances for Satan. This guy is the musical equivalent of AOC as far as his mastery of social media, and I remain fascinated by his whole output. (His kerfuffle with Nike over his limited-edition bootleg sneaker release suggests his grasp of copyright law could use a little work, but hey, he’ll learn.) Over on the Substack fruity, former Out editor-in-chief Philip Picardi has a lively Q&A about what it all means.

So you think you would have done a better job not crashing that container ship into the banks of the Suez Canal? Well, then, try to ace this “daunting and tiresome” interactive game from CNN. I failed. So much for my future at the Knowledge Center for Maneuvering in Shallow and Contained Water.

Here’s hoping whatever good things you await are headed your way, with a navigator who steers better than I do. See you next week.