A New Normal: After COVID-19

I find myself looking at this spoon a lot recently. On the one hand, it’s just a spoon, like any other spoon. It is in daily rotation with the rest of the utensils. On the other hand, this spoon is special. I stole it from United Airlines in 2001, from the last flight I took before 9/11.

That was back when planes has real cutlery. You could bring whatever liquids you wanted on board, along with your matches, pocket knife, knitting needles, hockey stick, ski poles, and any variety of other now-forbidden potential “weapons.”

This was back when every kid got a chance to sit in the cockpit, received a golden winged pin (yep, real metal), and you could chat and take a picture with the pilot.

This was back when you could get a standby ticket and wait at the airport for days until they could squeeze you onto on a flight.

This was back when you could accompany your loved ones all the way to the gate, even though you weren’t a ticketed passenger.

When I was a baby, my grandparents had a layover in Boston, so my parents brought me to the airport and handed me to the flight crew as the plane sat at the gate, unloading and reloading passengers. They passed me from passenger to passenger, my grandparents got a quick baby snuggle, and my parents and I left the airport without so much as a security check. It seems unfathomable today, but that was normal back then.

9/11 fundamentally changed our culture, but we adjusted to a new normal. COVID-19 will change our culture, but we will adapt as we have always done.

My Dad religiously threw out expired food in our refrigerator when I was growing up. He did this because my grandmother used to regularly give her family food poisoning: she just could not bring herself to “waste” what was clearly spoiled food. She wasn’t crazy; she was traumatized by food insecurity during the Great Depression, and that trauma changed her relationship with food for the rest of her life.

Even after society got back to “normal,” the survivors were forever changed. They changed, and that changed how they raised their kids, and in turn it changed how their kids raised their own kids. We don’t notice these small changes, especially as they transfer from one generation to another, but they are happening all the time in subtle ways.

I grew up in the 1980s, when the HIV/AIDS epidemic was making national news and taking many lives. By the time I was old enough to be sexually active, I had learned about “safer sex” in school. I know that my generation and the folks a little older than me ushered in a new era of safer sex behaviors, which were in direct response to the HIV/AIDS crisis.

HIV changed how we have sex; it changed us fundamentally as a culture, and it changed our individual behaviors. We didn’t stop connecting, we didn’t stop making love, and we are still working on a vaccine and a cure. We DID change our culture to normalize testing, to educate people about safer sex, and to make prophylactics more accessible.

We don’t know what COVID-19 will change about our culture, our world, or ourselves. But we do know that we are resilient beyond our wildest dreams. Just like we have adapted to every crisis that has ever befallen humankind, we will adapt to a new normal after COVID-19.

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