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We are all untouchables now


Last updated 3/18/2020 at Noon

I was standing in line this past weekend, watching a symphony of social unease played in a minor queue. There were just a few of us in line, and we were twitchy.

I could be projecting. I could have been doing all the twitching by myself.

It's just that I saw the photos from both European and American airports last weekend, when panicky stampedes to get through customs created a nightmare of impersonal space. We've all heard of disease vectors by now.

It was just alarming to see them with suitcases, coughing and sneezing and shuffling forward slowly, hampered by those four horsemen at the front, one of whom had apparently misplaced his ID (it was Pestilence; he'd lose his head if it weren't attached to his shoulders).

So I wasn't keen on standing in any lines, although, as I said, this was short. I reached the front quickly, trying not to breathe deeply, and then a couple of guys filed in behind me, chatting away, just being human. I took a step forward to give us some social distance.

And these two men stepped up with me, still conversing and relying on social skills developed over a lifetime of standing in lines – when the front moves, you move too. I completely understood.

I moved up again. They followed. Give us a Country Western soundtrack and we would have had ourselves a little line dance. It made me smile. We were involuntarily regressing to the norm, the way people behave when they're not imagining bilateral interstitial pneumonia.

I took a final step, and that's when a man walked in front of me, waiting until we were about even before he sneezed. A big sneeze.

Aw, well. This is allergy season. He properly sneezed right into his elbow and kept walking. He looked fine to me, and there were at least a few feet between us. I may survive.

I've had the very mixed blessing of working from home for the past three decades, so my life has been altered only slightly from the novel coronavirus and the concerns about COVID-19. My wife is on her second week of teaching classes online, although this has coincided with spring break and it hasn't become routine yet.

My son passes the time with video games. My wife gets to sleep in a bit later, no long with a commute awaiting her. A friend who lives with us, dealing with cancer treatment and obviously compromised, tries to get out for walks in the sunshine.

No one shows even the slightest sign of illness, aside from a rare sneeze or some sniffling, noted but nothing to be concerned about. Given the makeup of our particular household, we're coming up on two weeks of pretty extreme social isolation. So far, we're managing.

It's just that I haven't touched anyone in a few weeks. I wonder about this.

If the only time you darken the door of a church is for a wedding or a funeral, I suspect you know about passing the peace. It's become conventional, a moment in worship when intimacy is encouraged. We turn to each other, we walk around, greeting, hugging, shaking hands. Whispering words we only use once a week. Peace be with you (and also with you). Sometimes just "Good morning." The words aren't all that important.

I'm one of the 35% or so of Americans who attend church regularly, so that was the first to go. There were suggestions for alternative ways of greeting, the usual suspects, elbow bumps and little bows, etc. We all managed. I tended to wave a little, but that's me.

And now that's all over for the duration. Local churches were among the first to shutter; American churches are graying faster than even our population, and they're filled with at-risk people who feel compelled to gather once a week. It was painful but necessary.

Most of these massive disruptions in our routines will probably slowly come back, but there will be changes, and that's what I wonder about.

I wonder if easy physical familiarity is going to take the same hit that casual sex suffered in the 1980s, with a new generation learning the hard way that danger is always waiting in the wings. Antibacterial wipes may become the new condoms.

Just look at hugging, a natural human response to touch, a gesture that expanded in our culture from family and romance to casual friendship over the past 50 years. Hugs are routine now, sometimes between total strangers, and I wonder if we back off that now.

I wonder about all the changes to come, what they'll be and how quickly we'll become accustomed. I wonder if sporting events will be subdued. I wonder how many of the restaurants that have shuttered will ever reopen. Faith systems will survive, but churches may be quite different.

And I panic, a little, for the musicians and other performers who provide us with so much joy, much of it requiring a live audience. They are suffering now, as are millions of other workers with uncertain futures.

A few weeks ago, we had dinner with acquaintances. It was fun, and we greeted and said farewell by hugging each other. It felt appropriate and completely unremarkable, even as the news was starting to creep forward.

They won't be the last people I touch. For the moment, though, they are.

It feels poignant now, a signpost for an uncertain future, and it was totally worth it.


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