My O.C.: Holiday Tidings and Hug Misgivings

The latest surge in social hugging has me spooked. Just the other day, I was at a birthday party, minding my own business, when I got hugged. It happened so fast, I had no time to raise a sanitized hand to object, only hold my breath and pray no germy aerosols had snuck in.

“So good to see you in person!” the woman said. I recognized her as one of the birthday girl’s friends I’d pre- viously only met on Zoom. Or was it Facebook?

“You, too,” I agreed, with slightly less enthusiasm. Now every sneeze and sniffle for the next few days would be suspect. Ugh.

Thankfully we were standing outdoors at a park in Laguna Beach, a gentle sea breeze doing its part to help clear the air. But being outside and at an event with food meant most of us were maskless. With Orange County’s COVID-19 cases on the decline, it was easy to shed our inhibitions and enjoy the sun on our faces again; pass the birthday cake, please.

Still, the party PDA was making me nervous. Yes, the county’s numbers were down; and for that, I was grateful. But it seemed to me that anyone who lives in an area that hosts as many crowd-pleasing theme parks as O.C. has to stay vigilant. The dreaded virus was still out there, and to quote nearly every scary movie ever made,

“It’s mutating.” I found it disconcerting to see social hugging on the rise again, despite—or perhaps because of—our abstaining from such potentially risky business for so long. I’ll say one thing about the pandemic—it made respect for personal space a priority. No more awkward squeeze plays with people you just met or barely know. No more trying to keep your privates angled away during an embrace from a relative stranger—or strange relative, for that matter.

I’ve long believed close, intimate contact should be reserved for those, well, closest to you. But peer pressure doesn’t fade after high school. I always smiled and went along when on the receiving end of a quickie hug because I didn’t want to be thought of as the group grinch.

When the pandemic began, my status went from anti-social to socially responsible. Suddenly it was de rigueur to give those you didn’t know a wide berth; and oh, what an ironic relief it was. Those early days, when stores were still shuttered, I’d get my exercise in by walking laps around the Irvine Spectrum, blissfully empty while the piped-in music played on.

I had hoped the extra elbowroom would last a little longer, but if the recent birthday party was any indication, perhaps not. But I wasn’t ready to engage in normal hugging operations again, and not just for the reasons already stated. Truth: I was afraid.

Several of those we knew (or knew of ) were hospitalized with the virus. Two died. My husband, Michael, and I both had previous health adventures that rattled our immune systems. We got the vaccine as soon as it was available, adding a Randy’s Donuts run on the way home (spoonful of sugar and all that).

Still, I remained wary of an invisible enemy. Winter was coming, and with it, the annual hugging holidays. I needed a plan.

Hello, internet. Turns out I’m not the only one wanting to continue to keep my hands to myself. So many readers had expressed concern regarding getting close that the 20th edition of the famed Emily Post etiquette guide, due out next year, has an added section on handshake and hugging protocols during a pandemic. (Spoiler alert: Physical contact is not advised, at least when meeting someone new.)

When interviewed, great-great granddaughter Lizzie Post said the best strategy for the hug-wary is to politely decline (“You know, I’m just not ready for such close contact yet”) while expressing enthusiasm for the encounter (“But I’m glad to see you!”).

An article in the BBC News described how to make hugging safer. Since there are benefits to the activity, such as lowering stress and blood pressure, why not make it as safe and sane as possible?

Nice to know I was already doing some of their suggested safety tips: avoid face-to-face contact, keep it quick, and my forte: Be selective. Decide who is going to be on your dance card. Family members? Those you share a household with? What’s important is that you keep it within your comfort zone. Theirs, too.

Recently, a friend told me that she ran into someone she knew through work after many months of staying at home. Before making any move, the woman asked, “Is it OK if I give you a hug?”

“I thought that was great,” my friend said. “It gave me the chance to decline or accept.”

Last week, my husband and I were back at The Spectrum for dinner. I’d chosen Javier’s because of its expansive patio area—not just a tent set in a parking lot but a true outdoor veranda complete with cushioned chairs and an awning sturdy enough to shield diners from any inclement weather.

All was groovy until we got seated at a small table tucked between two larger groups. Any safety cushion between us and the group on our left was taken up by a toddler in her high-chair.

True, there weren’t any looming hugs to worry about, but the very nearness of people I didn’t know was making me uncomfortable. I was torn between wanting to play it safe and not hurting anyone’s feelings. I mean, the folks on either side looked friendly enough, and the little one was cute.

I decided to be a grown-up and stay put. High time to get back in the social game and enjoy dinner out with my husband.

Michael leaned forward and held my gaze. “Would you like me to ask for a different table?”

“Yes, please.”

I’ve no idea what he told our server, but she led us over to an empty corner booth that could easily seat six. We settled in, an island of two in a sea of empty place settings. I gave him a big hug, sans mask. It was date night, after all.

The other day, a pop-up ad appeared on my computer screen, no doubt triggered by some algorithm spotting my recent online activity. The pictured T-shirt sported the message: “Fully vaccinated. Still not a hugger.”

I’ll take a size medium, please. Color: grinch green.

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