The Year Without Smiles

The year 1816 has come to be known as “the year without summer”, all because temperatures around the world were up to 3 degrees cooler than normal due to the largest volcanic eruption in world history.

3 degrees.

Doesn’t sound all that bad to me. It wouldn’t have kept me away from the beach or off my bike. Still, it was enough to wipe out crops, cause near-famine conditions, and provoke atypical outbreaks of disease, so I guess it should be taken seriously. (Do we really want to find out what a permanent rise of a few degrees created by climate change will bring about?)

What will 2020 become known as? The year of Covid, coronavirus, or simply “the pandemic”? To me, it will be the year without smiles. What is there to smile about when confronted with the anguish caused by the constant threat of serious illness and loss of life for ourselves, loved ones, and hundreds of thousands of our fellow citizens of the world? There’s little reason to smile for the overworked and overwhelmed healthcare workers watching waves of the sick and dying pass through their care. Even less for the elders spending their waning years isolated behind walls of glass or clear plastic, lacking the comfort of human touch.

(And this was written before a sitting president encouraged a mob of misguided, mentally deficient terrorists to attempt to overthrow the government. Sheesh.)

And if you are among the fortunate who haven’t lost a loved one, a job, or a business venture at the hands of this callous virus, perhaps you’ve been able to manage the occasional grin, whether feigned or from a grateful heart. As St. Paul encourages us, we should give thanks in (not necessarily for) all circumstances. It’s safe to assume that he would include Covid-19 within the definition of “all”. Psychologists have finally come around to Paul’s ancient wisdom, acknowledging the power of gratitude in emotional and physical healing.

So what do we have to be thankful for in the lengthening shadow of a killer pandemic? A number of things come immediately to mind:

  • Businesses overcoming the resistance to allowing employees to work from home. (May they not forget!)
  • Increased outdoor activity and the accommodation thereof. (Even if it caused a shortage of bicycles and their parts.)
  • A tiny-handed and tinier-brained would-be autocrat was taken out of the White House and out to the woodshed. (May he remain there.)
  • I don’t have to take my partially completed jigsaw puzzles off the dining room table; no company’s coming.
  • Increased awareness of the need to address issues of racial justice. (Even if we have yet to actually implement the necessary measures to mitigate the problems.)
  • Forced family time (for better or worse).
  • Creativity demonstrated by individuals and organizations to address the limitations imposed by the pandemic.
  • Zoom! (Saving grace for us extroverts.)

So, contrary to all logic, for the above reasons and more, I’m still able to smile and maybe you are, too.

But it doesn’t matter. All those smiles are hidden behind masks.* This is a not-to-be-underestimated problem for our society as a whole. Look, I’m used to seeing people walk down the street wearing grimaces and scowls, but there are usually enough smiles around to compensate for all those malcontents. Now, however, I have no idea what’s hiding behind those masks. I’m not the best at reading facial expressions as it is, but when all I see is a pair of eyes (and a nose, in the case of the weak-minded who seem to believe Covid is transmitted only through the mouth and/or chin) I’m useless.

This problem is most harmful to children. They are nourished by smiles, not to mention the equally unavailable hug. Outside of their immediate families, some little ones may go days or even weeks without seeing someone smile at them. (TV smiles are not and should never be a substitute.) What impression of the world are they developing? In my mind, every child needs and deserves every smile we can give them. That’s one reason I smile at every child I see. I still do, but they can’t see it.

I can’t stand it anymore. When a vaccine was initially under development, I was ambivalent about getting it, especially early in its distribution. Now, though, I’m ready to get in line first chance. By the grace of God, I’m ready to shine my smile again.


* Please note that I’m not an no-masker. Those folks are a toxic combination of ignorance and selfishness. If nothing else, 2016-2021 has amply demonstrated to us the danger of that personality type.

Something/Anything… Else!

Hello, it’s me.

The two devices that store and play most of my music are my phone and my car’s sound system. I have both set to play random selections from my entire collection. Lately, for some unknown reason, they’ve both played a lot of songs by Todd Rundgren. (Pretty much everything I listen to is over 40 years old.) I have no problem with this. I don’t think I’m alone in the opinion that Mr. Rundgren is a musical genius. The (brilliant) LP “Something/Anything” is the one that keeps getting played. Which got me to thinking…

I’d like to talk about something/anything other than Covid-19!*

I can’t be the only one who feels this way, yet it’s still all anyone talks about. Including me! Maybe it’s because we can’t think of anything else to talk about. There aren’t that many subjects we cover in most conversations anyway.

Many of those are off limits.

Religion and politics are taboo in the best of times. Now that they’ve merged into an unholy alliance, they’re even less appealing. Besides, the maniacal moron now occupying the White House part time is a one-man pandemic and just as tiresome a topic.

Others are just plain dull.

The weather is a popular, if tedious, conversational crutch. Let’s skip that one, too, for the cliche it is. Your latest purchase or home renovation? Equally banal. And equally unedifying. And maybe just a wee bit vain.

Hey, we can always rely on sports to prompt a lively discussion or argument. How ’bout that? Oh, yeah. There are no sports happening because of the… well, you know.

So what’s left?

One of my favorite fonts of conversational fodder is movies. Most people have a good stockpile of movie experiences and opinions. The same goes for books and TV shows. Those talks can also lead to deeper exchanges. Such as…

One another. Tell me about you. No, not what you own or what you’ve accomplished. You. As the equally brilliant Michael Omartian once sang:

I don’t want to hear about your conquests,
Or your casual affairs.
Each one a great new story…
But who cares.

I want to know about your feelings,
Or the ache in your heart,
The thoughts that make you what you are,
That set you apart.

‘Cause maybe I’ve had them, too.

We avoid those sensitive topics, not wishing to make ourselves vulnerable, but is anything more important? Granted, this is not the stuff of light banter among casual acquaintances. In those cases, the weather will suffice. When sharing with someone closer, though, coronavirus is as sterile a subject as any. Why not go deeper?

For example, let’s talk about God. (That’s different than religion.) The way we conceive of Him might determine what’s inside us better than any other question. As A. W. Tozer once put it:

What comes into our minds when we think about God is the most important thing about us.

What are your dreams, hopes, and plans? What are your fears, failures, and disappointments? Now we’re getting somewhere. Drop that stuff on me and we both might benefit. You get to share your burden and I could find a kindred spirit.

Or we could fall back on R.E.M.’s advice**:

Should we talk about the weather?
Should we talk about the government?

Sure. Something/Anything but Covid-19.


* I’m not trying to downplay the seriousness of the pandemic, but it shouldn’t be all-consuming. To obsess over it is as dangerous to our mental health as the virus is to our physical bodies.

** I’m of the opinion that a post can’t have too many references to quality music.

The Boy in the Box – Part V

[As a result of her unwillingness to face Billy, the boy in the box, he seems to have stopped communicating with her. ]

In the last days of the school year, nothing important ever happens. Kids are all mentally absent, thinking about summer and the beach, little league and vacations. That year, the only school work left to be done was the annual end-of-year science fair. I always did the same project: a model solar system with papier-mâché planets painted vaguely like the real things. I wasn’t particular about the likenesses. Defying astronomical norms, the planets were often egg shaped. One year, Jupiter’s big red spot was more of a purple. I got a “B”. I think the judges were color blind.

The day of the fair, as I lugged my unnatural solar system into the cafetorium (a word the school made up as a label for the space that served as both cafeteria and auditorium) I thought I saw Billy’s Mom leaving the room. I dropped my project on a table and went to look for her but she was gone, if she’d been there at all. I searched the area for any sign of her. What I found was a sign, all right.

A huge, silent crowd of admiring students and teachers surrounded one table. Curious, I elbowed my way through the group until I reached the display that had attracted them.

What I saw was like nothing I’d ever seen in a school science fair. It was a sculpture of a dolphin that looked perfect to my 3rd grade eyes. The subtle shades of white and gray paint that colored it made it look alive, as did the perfect arch of its body captured in the middle of a leap from the surf. I half expected it to continue its path back into the waves, making a perfect entrance into the water with barely a splash. Its mouth wore the mischievous smile that so captured my imagination.

Behind the sculpture was a sheet of poster board on which was clearly handwritten and illustrated all the known scientific facts about the animal’s diet, habitat, intelligence, evolution, and behavior. It even outlined a naive attempt to analyze its language.

The whole display looked as if a college professor had created it with the assistance of a professional artist. I didn’t have to ask who had created it or why.

There was no visible seam in the piece, so I was surprised when a teacher removed one side of the sculpture to reveal an extraordinarily accurate portrayal of the dolphin’s internal organs. Something about seeing that beautiful work of art opened, gutted like a fish, made me scream out loud, “No! Put it back together! Put it back!!” The people who encircled the project probably thought I was insane, which I probably was.

I couldn’t look at the mutilated animal. I shoved my way out through the crowd and stopped at the table where I’d put my solar system. My pathetic project made me sick. It reminded me of my failure. Of all my failures. I smashed it to pieces. Collecting the fragments, I carried them to a nearby trash can and dumped it all in. My oblong Venus fell from my hands and wobbled along the floor. I chased it and kicked it across the cafetorium before running home in tears.

It was Friday and I was beginning to hate the weekends. All I thought about was Billy Almquist. All I felt was guilt. I might have been his only friend, the only person outside his house who cared about him. (But did I really care at all?) It made me wonder whether those thoughts would ruin my whole summer.

Because we’d had so many snow days that year—there were also a couple of “cold days” when the school’s old furnace froze up and school had to be canceled—the last day of school was the following Monday. And it was a half day. What are the odds a classroom full of eight-year-olds in a stuffy classroom, freshly returned from the weekend on a warm, sunny day would be able to concentrate on anything except what was going on outside the windows? I was concentrating on something else: Billy’s desk. Billy’s empty desk.

The box was gone. No speaker. No Billy.

Maybe he skipped out on what was sure to be a meaningless day. It wasn’t likely. He was the most diligent student in the class and the school was going to announce the winners of the science fair that day. Billy would almost certainly take first prize. He should have been listening in.

Maybe something was wrong. Sitting in that room, there was no way of knowing. Was it my imagination or had his voice grown weaker and his class participation less frequent with each passing day after I’d dropped off the workbook? I vowed to stop at his house on the way home from school. I wouldn’t chicken out this time. I needed to know what had happened.

* * *

The “For Sale” sign in front of the house told half the story. At the door, I knocked, rang, banged, peeked, pushed, rattled. The house was completely empty with no indication of what had happened to Billy or his mother. When I realized that I didn’t know if there were any other family members, my failure was complete.

In my mind, years passed as I stood on the sidewalk in front of that house. It was crumbling before my very eyes. Over time it would become the neighborhood eyesore, a childhood terror. The place where a little boy… Where something happened to a little boy. Stories of unnatural events would spread through the town, striking fear into the hearts of children. As long as it stood there, younger children would cross the street to avoid coming too close. It would be a test of bravery for older kids who dared each other to run up to it and knock or push the long-broken doorbell. Rocks rained down on the structure until the day a developer razed it and built a cookie-cutter split-entry house in its place.

We all grew up, mostly leaving behind any thoughts of third grade. Freddie married ratfink Karen. Turned out they were a pretty good couple. It was a shame when Freddie was among the last Marines lost in Vietnam, presumed dead. Karen’s formerly perfect posture declined badly after that. Dale tried college but dropped out. A year later he was found alone in a closet with a needle in his arm. Wiggly Quigley, quite possibly the only person in the whole school who truly cared about Billy, retired after she taught our class. She’d aged beyond the norm during that school year. God only knows what happened to her after that.

As for me, after high school I bounced around the country for a few years, finally landing in a distant city, as far as I could get from my parents and my past. My former dream of becoming a marine biologist was long forgotten. I came close, I guess. I work in a PetSmart, hawking fish flakes, bird cages, and cat toys to annoying customers. No spelling skills needed there.

I never found out what happened to Billy; I never even tried. He would, in fact, haunt my memory for the rest of my life. When I was younger, I promised myself I’d name my first child Billy. Instead, I called him Michael. It was the most popular name at the time and sounded nothing like Billy. I needed no further reminders of the boy in the box, the first love of my life.

[←Part IV can be found here.]

[← To go to the beginning of the story, click here.]

The idea for this story came from my own admittedly hazy memory of grade school. We had boys and girls in boxes. It might never have been written, however, had I not met Mark Sullivan. He was a boy in the box for a while in his youth because of a chronic illness. I talked to him to get some of the specifics to lend more credibility to my tale.

When Mark’s illness claimed his life a year and a half ago, the story gained considerably more gravity. He was my age. Linda’s pain has become mine. This story is dedicated to Mark Sullivan.

* * *

As I write these words, a pandemic has driven home the need to support distance learning at the K-12 level for both individuals and large numbers. The technology already exists, but needs to be improved. As I’m fond of telling friends, if this country diverted the funds from a single aircraft carrier or even a single high-tech bomber, both of which are totally obsolete in this information-driven world, we’d be able to solve this and a lot of other of this nation’s problems.

For your edification, click this sentence to read an article that describes one contemporary approach to the boy in the box.

Thank you for reading. I’d love to hear your thoughts.