The Before Times

In your home, right now, you can probably look up from your device and see objects that you have invested with meaning: the anniversary picture on a wall, the family heirloom on a bookshelf, the concert or game ticket tacked to a bulletin board. Your eyes skim over them frequently on the way to looking at something more compelling. But if you look and linger, you sometimes find yourself feeling what you felt when those objects came into your life, remembering what they represent.

The BBC recently asked people to share the last “normal” photo on their cameras, taken before the virus crisis began. The picture at the top of this post is mine. It was taken on Sunday March 8, when The Mrs. and I were in Minneapolis to watch the Wisconsin Badgers women’s hockey team.

It was the end of a busy week. The preceding Saturday, February 29, was my birthday; Sunday March 1 was the first birthday party I’d had since I was eight. Wednesday the 4th I traveled to Minnesota for what was supposed to be a three-week trip; on Friday the 6th, Ann came up to join me for the hockey weekend, a trip we’ve made several times in the last few years.

We knew about the virus by then. We were already washing our hands umpteen times a day. But we didn’t fear crowds yet. On Saturday the 7th we pregamed in a bar where people were shoulder-to-shoulder (pictured), and we postgamed at places that were equally crowded. After the game on Sunday we drove an hour up the road to where I would be teaching on Monday; Monday morning we had breakfast in a restaurant with whiteray and his Texas Gal before The Mrs. headed back to Madison. That night after class, I sat elbow-to-elbow with fellow barflies in a brewery taproom. On Tuesday the 10th, I had dinner in a crowded restaurant, once again at the bar. By the next day, the United States was starting to shutter. On Saturday the 14th, I taught what turned out to be my last class. The next day I went home, my trip cut short; my final dine-in restaurant meal was breakfast at a McDonalds by the interstate. I would work a week of radio after that, but since Wednesday, March 24, I’ve been on lockdown.

Back on the Friday of the hockey weekend, while waiting for me to get to Minneapolis from rural Minnesota, Ann went shopping, and she bought me a couple of sweaters. On March 1, to decorate for the party, she got me a bouquet of birthday balloons. On February 29, when we visited Madison’s Working Draft Beer Company, I put a brewery sticker on my phone case.

I find myself wearing those sweaters a lot more than my other clothes these days. One of the balloons, pictured here on April 26, stayed aloft for over two months. It has since sunk down behind the TV, but it’s still visible from where I sit in the living room. The sticker is still on my phone case, and I find myself fingering the edge of it while I use the phone. Like the pictures in this post, they are artifacts of the Before Times, when life was what life always was, before it started on the way to whatever it will become.

The sticker will fall off, eventually. The deflated balloon will have to be tossed. The sweaters will be put away until fall. New objects will come into my life and yours, and they will have new meanings. In the After Times, we hope that there will be new pictures to take and new tickets to tack up. But when—or whether—that will happen, we don’t know.

We just don’t.

Lots of people believe that the After Times are here, that states “reopening” this week means that the virus has been beaten and that normalcy is returning. But there’s little or no evidence for that, other than fairy tales told by self-serving policitians, and our own fond and forlorn wishes.

These are still the Before Times.

We are still a long, hard road away from whatever we are one day going to be.

7 thoughts on “The Before Times

  1. I don’t think we’ll see “After Times” as much as a “New Normal.” Many restaurants will close for good. Many services will become a thing of the past. The unemployment rate was around 4% prior to the virus. Now, it will be 20 to 25%. I don’t think it will stay that high for long, but it will never get down to 4% again. If this is all a hoax, or a major conspiracy, I’d like to know who is benefiting from it? It sure seems it has affected a lot of people in an adverse way.

  2. JP

    I should mention that Billboard’s competitors, Cashbox and Record World, are also on the American Radio History site. Those have been some great late-night reading…

  3. mikehagerty

    JB: Great piece and lovely picture of you and the Mrs.

    Rhonda and I have a pretty similar experience—big event on February 29th (Herb Alpert and Lani Hall in Napa, spending the weekend there at the home of a friend since 5th grade and her husband). Even at that point, we were taking hand-washing very seriously.

    I’d had a tiny heads-up. I have a friend, a former TV journalist who I’d competed against in Phoenix who lives here in Sacramento and is an information officer for the California Department of Public Health. When he started blowing off lunches with me the last week of January because they were doing 18-hour days working on this virus that so far was only in Wuhan and Washington State, I knew something was up. I never imagined this. I remember doing the shopping (not hoarding) and figuring “They’re thinking maybe two weeks of quarantine. Let’s plan for six.” There are only the two of us, so six weeks of anything is still not a lot of stuff.

    Thank God for delivery. We’re at ten weeks and counting.

    My last “before times” pictures are from Sunday, March 8—my granddaughter’s 2nd birthday party at a local ice-cream parlor, with her then-one-month-old baby brother in his car carrier at the table.

    The day after that we got serious about planning and shopping. Already things were in short supply or unavailable. Rhonda’s last day in a store was March 12. I made a last-minute run for stuff that we hadn’t been able to find and got lucky on March 16.

    Your last four paragraphs sum up how we feel, too, JB. This is, at best, the bottom of the first in a game that could well go extra innings.

  4. That breakfast is our last time in a restaurant; we’re glad it was with you two.

    We’ve ordered in some and done curb-side pick-up, but I’m getting more and more ooky about even those, what with Stearns County now being a hot spot. Thank goodness we tend to hoard groceries in even normal times (a habit both of us think we picked up from our Depression-era parents).

    After Times? New Normal? Whatever you call it, it’s a long ways off, I think. And I doubt we’ll like it much.

    (You know, when I first read that the contagion around Wuhan was a newly discovered virus, I had a fleeting thought that it would create a tipping point for all of us around the world, and it scares me to think that that fleeting thought was right.)

    1. mikehagerty


      I’m with you about curbside pickup. I’ve done it twice at two different places—the first person wasn’t wearing a mask. The second was, but positioned below her nostrils.

      I’m sticking with delivery from here on.

  5. Wesley

    Doing the things I was doing before the Before Times is going to take a while no matter how many restrictions are lifted. I’m updating my grocery list constantly so I’ll know exactly what to get and be in and out of the supermarket within a half hour. (I’m not comfortable with their supposed substitutions they’ll make if I order in advance for pickup.) I haven’t been to my downtown because there’s hardly anything open or any reason to visit. The local film festival has announced it’s pushed back the event to September, but who knows if they’ll be comfortable then, especially in theaters where people share armchairs? Don’t even get me started about going to football games, for that matter.

    It’s going to a hot, confusing, unpredictable summer with certain morons yammering about “my constitutional right” not to wear a mask and the rest of us trying to avoid them. Of people gathering and claiming there’s no problem until their family or friends or themselves get sick or even die. Thank God we have websites like yours, JB, to make us think, learn and even have fun amid the madness.

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