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Unwinding in the Old Normal: Gone Forever?

Like most of the things that have changed because of the pandemic, unwinding isn't what it used to be.

Like most of the things that have changed because of the pandemic, unwinding isn't what it used to be.

It was a month into the 2020 lockdown, around April, that I started missing the convenience of being able to go to my favorite weekend spots to unwind. Of course, the context during that time was vastly different to what it is now. We were in a stage in the pandemic where so many questions remained unanswered as to what the new normal would look like. A lot of assumptions were made that Covid would eventually slow down; that the movement restrictions being implemented worldwide would work, plus the notion that vaccines would soon come into the picture to help us get back into the winning column.

But we all know at this point, that despite the multiple on-off lockdowns and the availability of several vaccine brands, (one of which already fully approved by the United States FDA) the end to the pandemic is still not in sight.

And with the end of the dreadful pandemic still far from view, our hopes of being able to enjoy things of the old normal continue to hang in the balance. With the mental toll that Covid has brought to everyone, especially to those who’ve had family or friends who suffered or died from the disease, enjoying things of the old may be so far away and worse – these things may never be the same once we’re able to do them again.

Myself trying to cope with how this pandemic continues to unpleasantly surprise us, I took some time to reminisce how the old normal was for me. A worker caught in the daily 9-to-5 grind, I treasured every weekend as it arrived, stepping back from the hustle culture that was being fed to my mind, reflecting on subjects and ideas that I found meaningful.

Reading a book at your local coffee shop used to be a relaxing way to spend your downtime. In the new normal, you have to think about your mask and be wary of the people around you.

Reading a book at your local coffee shop used to be a relaxing way to spend your downtime. In the new normal, you have to think about your mask and be wary of the people around you.

Coffee and a Book

How easy and convenient it was back then, to just take a book with you and get to your favorite coffee shop. You didn’t have to think of putting on a mask (a constant reminder that we live in a different world now) and you didn’t have to think of capping your own time in the coffee shop as a safety precaution to minimize possible virus exposure from strangers.

You could just arrive at the coffee shop, line up at the counter, wait for your coffee, and get down to reading your book. You didn’t even have to worry about the person in front of you or behind you, and the barista could easily hear your order, your voice not being obstructed by your own mask and the counter’s acrylic barrier.

Now though, simply taking a book to read at a coffee shop takes a lot more work. After picking a book to read, I put my mask on. And for me, living in a country which mandates face shields in commercial buildings, I have to put that additional ‘safety gear’ which I often wear as a crown when no security guards are looking. I also have to be more strategic about how I spend my time at the coffee shop.

When I plan to make a trip there, I usually plan out a schedule to get groceries and any other necessities that I lack at home. The reason for this is obvious – as a responsible citizen who wants to minimize time outside, I want to make sure I get done as much as I can when I’m out (This reminds me of the tight lockdown last year when I only went out once every two weeks for a supply run). It would be impractical nowadays to go out and just get a cup of coffee for its own sake.

And once I’m at the coffee shop reading my book and drinking coffee, I’m one of those people who alternate bringing the mask down when I sip, and putting it back on when I want to fully immerse myself in reading. The mask is a minor inconvenience, but again, it reminds me that the world has changed so much. You can’t read your book and have coffee without having to think about Covid.

Enjoying the beach is no longer as easy to plan out and go do. With restrictions sporadically being implemented, access to some beaches are hard to predict.

Enjoying the beach is no longer as easy to plan out and go do. With restrictions sporadically being implemented, access to some beaches are hard to predict.

Enjoying the Beach

I grew up in a coastal town, so access to the sea was not something I had to go out of my way for if I wanted to enjoy the beach. The ancestral home that I grew up in was about a hundred meters away from the shoreline. When I was a teenager, I used to enjoy going for a run and feel the cold breeze on my face while the waves crashed. Fisherfolk were out, making their daily living.

Today, I live in the city. And it’s not exactly that from the shore, but it’s just that the coast here is used more often for activities that have something to do with ships than with people. If I wanted a view of the beach, it would have to be very intentional. My career choices may have had more to do with my access to the beach, but the pandemic certainly made things worse.

Pre-pandemic, it was routine for me to visit my old hometown, not just to enjoy the beach but be with family. Most family occasions were spent on the beach, grilling pork barbecue and drinking coconut milk. The old normal allowed for gatherings (funny that we have to use the word ‘allowed’ when talking about social activities) and they didn’t even have to be planned. If one family member says they bought some fish to grill by the seaside, it was an implied invitation for other relatives to join in and bring whatever they wanted to share.

In the new normal, like going to a coffee shop, enjoying the beach has to be carefully planned. Does the local government have any restrictions in the number of people that are allowed to gather? Is this beach off limits? Is the liquor ban lifted? And in my case, if I wanted to go visit my hometown to say hello to the beach, I’d have to make sure I comply with all the requirements – Covid test, acceptance letters, etc.

The cinema may be back in some locations, but in the new normal, home is where most of the new movies are being watched.

The cinema may be back in some locations, but in the new normal, home is where most of the new movies are being watched.

Watching New Movies

When a new movie came out and if it was one which I was excitedly anticipating, especially if it came from a movie franchise I was invested in, it was fairly certain that it was going to be watched on the big screen. But as of this writing, cinemas in my city have been closed since the beginning of the pandemic. And it’s such a disappointment – one of the perks of having moved to a big city was that the theaters were bigger and better. They were a lot smaller back in my hometown.

I started subscribing to Netflix long before the pandemic, and now, it’s almost the only way I can watch new movies (not that many movies have been coming out, anyway). Video streaming exploded during the pandemic, just as online food ordering and grocery service did. Being immersed in a movie, while watching it with a room full of strangers isn’t the same as taking too long in the bathroom while you watch the Nth episode of Modern Family.

Looking back on those experiences watching a movie inside a theatre, I can’t help but think of the time Avengers Endgame premiered in my old hometown. We were in a small theatre managed by a mall chain and the seats were starting to smell, but the experience was incredible It was a movie where you heard several different levels of crowd cheers during the great battle scene, and a deafening silence when Iron Man died and a funeral was held for him. I wonder if we’ll ever experience that again.

Accepting the New Normal

I’m writing this and showing just how lucky I am to be put in a situation to be thinking about the simple things that were lost because the pandemic. People have lost loved ones, jobs, their livelihood – all of which sound far worse than losing mere hobbies.

But I can’t stop myself from acknowledging that such simple pleasures in the old normal either have become less pleasurable or inaccessible during this time. A coffee and a book requires a mask, a face shield and an entry into a contact tracing app or logbook. Enjoying the beach now requires that I get a Covid test or check which beaches are open for use.

And watching a movie inside a theatre feels like it never even was a thing – the IMAX theatre signs outside a mall are reminders that watching movies in cinemas was a thing – but these signages are now more akin to dinosaur fossils, physical remnants of something extinct.

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