The expert on television said that post-pandemic life would never return to normal. He insisted that handshakes, crowds, parties, and hugs will forever be extinct.
“The world will probably never go back to hugs,” he said into the camera. “I seriously doubt whether we’ll see people hugging in twenty years.”
I turned off the TV, it was making me queasy. Namely, because I don’t want to live in a world without hugs. I need hugs. I miss hugs. My mother used to say the only cure for crying is a mama-hug.
Usually she would say this to a child who was crying. Then she would demonstrate.
Today I was thinking about all this when I was rifling through old photos. I couldn’t believe what I was seeing. Have you looked at your old photos lately?
These pictures will shock you because: (a) you used to have more hair, and (b) in every old photo you’re in a crowded place, or with a gathering, or standing in a group with arms slung around each other, half hugging.
In many of my photos I am seated in a restaurant with others, sharing appetizers, double dipping, graciously distributing my personal bacteria among friends. My glowing face looks like it is made of neon joy.
There were the photos from baseball games in Atlanta. My wife and I were in a stadium with 42,000 other fans. I was eating nachos served in a helmet, cheering alongside strangers, exchanging germs with half of Clayton, Cobb, Gwinnett, and Fulton County.
And there were the photos from a past wedding anniversary. My wife and I went to a fancy Mexican restaurant. The waiters misunderstood when I told them it was our anniversary, whereupon fifteen employees swarmed our table to sing “Happy Birthday” in Spanish.
They placed a sombrero on my head and coerced me to ingest a shot of birthday-boy tequila. I tried to explain that I had been raised Baptist, but they spoke no English, so three waiters pried open my jaws and forced the devil water down my gullet. Honest.
There were photos from summer vacations of yore.
Here we are at the Grand Canyon with hundreds of tourists.
This is us in Washington D.C. at the crowded Smithsonian.
Ah, yes. Here we are cheering in the nosebleeds while Willie Nelson sings “Crazy.”
There were photographs from an event I attended in New York City. I was smiling, standing in a huge convention center, with tons of people walking around. I remember that day clearly. Because that same evening I took a cab into Chinatown and…
Lord have mercy, I had never seen anything quite as wonderful as Chinatown. A guy could spend his whole life there and still only see half of it.
Today I heard on the radio that before the pandemic there were roughly 300 restaurants operating in Chinatown. After the devastating lockdowns, some 60 restaurants remained.
So my old photos prove that everything has changed. They prove that I’ve changed.
I’m not even the same guy I used to be. I used to pump gas without wearing a hazmat jumpsuit. I went to parties. I drank from public water fountains.
I ate at church potlucks. I went to preaching and hugged dozens of elderly people. And when the preacher shouted a sermon on the evils of tequila, his spittle would sometimes land on my face and I didn’t mind.
I used to visit schools where kids with runny noses threw their arms around me.
I ran a local 10K alongside hundreds of other middle-aged guys who all happily trotted past me, asking if I needed an ambulance.
Will those days ever come back?
Don’t get me wrong, I’m not complaining about this pandemic. Too many people have done that already, and besides I’m not sorry it happened. Not by a longshot. Because I have learned a lot about myself within this trying era. I’ve learned too much.
I’ve learned how self-absorbed I can be. I’ve learned that I used to consume WAY too much coffee, eat too much barbecue, and I could have been the poster child for Hostess.
I’ve also learned that people care for their neighbors more than I ever believed. I’ve learned that humans are nicer than I thought.
I have learned that I enjoy solitude. I have relearned how to curl up and read novels. I rediscovered my affection for Bob Wills. I re-fell in love with sitting in the backyard sunshine while my dogs try to dig to Brazil. I am currently learning how to kill rosebushes.
Still. When I look at old pictures I see an old world that I miss dearly. People in the photos looked so purposeful, so at ease.
Then I notice my own stupid face in these photos. A face that smiled easily. A face that makes me wonder what I was thinking at the time the picture was taken.
I wish you could see the face I speak of. The putz never quits grinning. It’s as though he imagines his world will never change. He thinks life will be normal forever.
It was pure innocence, really. Back then I took it all for granted. And in a way I’m glad I took those good times for granted because this means I felt no anxiety about losing them forever. And anxiety screws everything up.
Take this past year. We have had too much anxiety. Anxiety leads to crying. And according to my mother there is only one thing that cures crying.
So I pray the TV expert is wrong.