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Life with Liz: Awkward times

I am still not sure whether I am coming out of the pandemic in better or worse physical shape than I went into it.

I definitely got more steps in daily, both because I have an exuberant puppy and also because sometimes going for a walk was a desperate attempt to get out of the house and away from the monotony that daily life had become.

The pace, however, depended on how anxious I was to get back home. Some days, it was a downright crawl. I missed out on swimming, but I spent a lot less time sitting and waiting for practices to be over. And, finally, my weight was relatively unchanged, so, I’d have to call it a draw.

The other day, however, I realized that a different set of muscles has completely atrophied. I’d had an almost “normal” day. I got up, went to work, came home, picked up the kids, ran them to all their activities, attended a few meetings, and by the time I got home, I realized that interacting with people is a) absolutely exhausting and b) when you don’t use a skill for a long time, it really gets rusty.

I don’t think I’ve ever been comfortable calling myself either an extrovert or an introvert. I feel like I tend to be whatever the occasion calls for and enjoy the moment whether it’s one where I’m alone or if I happen to be in the middle of a large group.

There is something to be said for a quiet weekend at home with my cat and a good book and there is something to be said for dancing at the club, a pool party at a friend’s house, or dinner with a group of friends and their kids.

There is also something to be said for the camaraderie that a person can have with their co-workers and office mates that makes the day go faster, whether it’s water cooler talk or a lunch break, and there is also an appreciation for an office with a door on it.

In the past, I felt like all these things helped balance my life. They kept me from getting too isolated, and they also kept me from keeping the party going until dawn. Post-quarantine, all of that has changed.

Right now, balance for me means keeping my brood at home, working from home, playing from home, never straying too far from home. Stepping outside of that comfort zone or having any of my offspring stray far from it upsets my equilibrium.

At the same time, I know that we need to start shifting the balance. It’s hard. Activities are resuming, but they’re still not quite exactly like they were before. Masks are still an ever-present reminder that things aren’t quite normal. I will admit, I’ve been taking advantage of mask wearing to hide my facial expressions.

Now, we have the awkwardness of “should I wear a mask, shouldn’t I wear a mask?” I’m fully vaccinated and months out from my shot. I believe the guidelines say I do not have to wear the mask most of the time and in most situations. However, I still have unvaccinated people in my home, due to their age, and some organizations and places are still requesting masks to be worn. Frankly, there are places that I wish would always mandate mask wearing (I’m looking at you, grocery stores).

My friends and I have wondered if it will now be more acceptable to wear masks during normal cold and flu seasons. “It can’t hurt, and it might help” has become my mantra.

As I’ve started to come back in contact with people, and see their faces, I realize that it’s no longer an automatic reflex to smile and say, “hi.” Maybe I’m the oddball, but I find myself having to remind myself to make eye contact, smile, and make small talk. I’m struggling to remember people’s kids’ names. I find myself hesitant to ask about elderly or infirm relatives, as I am not sure whose lives have been upended by loss over the last year. Sometimes, it’s just easier to hide behind the mask and the social distance.

Recently, I ran into an old friend that I would have always greeted with enthusiasm and a hug. This time, we stood there awkwardly trying to greet each other. Later, I worried that he took my standoffishness personally, rather than a reaction to a year of not touching anyone or anything, and that kind of thing just not coming naturally anymore.

I know a lot of people who have said they’re finished shaking hands with people forever. I used to be more of a hugger than a handshaker, but at the same time, I grew up in a household where a handshake was the measure of a man, or woman, a house where shaking on something meant it was as good as done.

My dad may not have been in the boys’ lives for very long, but one lesson he managed to instill in those few short years was the value of a good handshake. Now, I find myself intentionally wearing clothes with pockets so I can hide my hands and try to avoid that awkward “should we or shouldn’t we shake” routine.

I never thought that much about this stuff before, and even now, I don’t stop to think too much about it until it’s staring me in the face, and I have to react. I didn’t realize how much agony can be experienced in just a split second or two, and then how much obsessing I do after the fact. This past week, as I found myself attending two different Memorial Day parades, without a mask on, I started to feel a little bit like my old self, smiling and waving at people across the street, as the WH and I walked with Duncan, who is also a little bit of a deterrent and tends to keep people from coming too closely, unless they’re people who adore crazy, energetic furballs. In that case, they’re more likely to want to talk to the dog than me, so that’s OK, too.

When we got back into the car, I started to stretch and contort my face. The WH asked what I was doing. “That was the longest I’ve been in public without a mask on in a year. Which means it’s also the most I had to smile and look enthusiastic in a year. Those muscles aren’t used to that much activity,” I told him. His “laughing at me” muscles still seem to be in fine shape.

Liz Pinkey is a contributing writer to the Times News. Her column appears weekly in our Saturday feature section.