It's not too soon to laugh at our cocooning, masking, COVID-fearing culture

A New Hampshire lock down tale

What could James Thurber’s short story, “The Secret Life of Walter Mitty,” and our recent COVID19 shutdowns possibly have in common? Thurber’s short story, a high school staple in my day, is about a young man whose day dreams of being a pilot and doctor were more compelling than his everyday real life.

I experienced a Walter Mitty moment last summer at a time when the COVID-19 spike was keeping me mostly house bound.  I live a mile from the ocean, and as soon as the beaches were allowed open I made it my habit to take a ten minute wade and swim at 7:00 a.m. each morning. It was a fine way to start the day. It provided an excellent physical and mental start to the day.  It was a positive jump start to the morning that often carried over for afternoon house bound periods.

The beach was always sparsely populated that early in the morning.  Social distancing was a given. It was a given except for one beautiful sunny warm morning. New Hampshire has 18 miles of ocean coast, for those not familiar. The beaches are a beautiful combination of sand and rocks, and are wide and roomy. We are not talking Florida here. The Achilles heel is that even in summer our waters are rarely warmer than 65 degrees Fahrenheit. It is a cold 45 degrees today.

Imagine my delight to wake up one day last July and find it already 80 degrees out and sunny. Additionally, the waters were calm and we were at mid-tide. I rolled out of bed and parked at my reserved spot. I made the short walk to the sand and staked out a place for my chair twenty yards from the ocean edge. Not a soul was within a Patriots Jake Bailey punt from me. I made a bee line from the water and began my routine. Suddenly my relaxation was broken by loud shrill conversation. I turned and saw a thirty something woman standing a few feet behind my chair having a loud conversation with a forty something couple. None of them were in bathing suits. All of them had coffees to go in hand. I told myself that beach chairs do not require social distancing and that they surely would move on before I left the water.

These folks did not move on. I returned to my beach chair, toweled off, avoided eye contact and sat down.  Did these folks not realize that we are in the midst of a pandemic?  There was not a person on the beach within a Tom Brady Hail Mary pass and these folks are still hovering a few feet behind my chair. I would like to report that they were engaged in a spellbinding conversation about saving whales or the latest advancements in medical science. No; they were barely having a conversation at all. It was right out of a Seinfeld episode: A New England example of people talking about nothing. The woman was doing all the talking and the couple was just standing in place probably shuffling their feet. I felt like I was force listening to adults talking on a Peanuts cartoon. It was Blah Blah Blah my daughter moved 20 miles west from here Blah Blah and this and that.

What does this have to do with Walter Mitty? Well as the conversation droned on I had my day dream moment.  I imagined being a stand-up comic on stage in a smoke filled little dive. I was retelling a far more colorful version of being on an empty beach during the pandemic with a blow hard woman standing with coffee in tow, boring the life out of a mute couple held captive. Really, these folks drove a half hour and waited on drive thru coffee. They went to a two mile stretch of beach dressed in everyday clothing.  They walked twenty yards and stopped at my chair for a one sided bore of a talk.

During my day dream on stage I was hilariously funny in a way that I could only be.  (You see, I always believe what I think and say is funny, even if nobody else does.)  Another satisfied audience for this stand-up comic. Well, I do not really like smoke filled rooms. It is also the height of impractical to become a comic during a lock down pandemic. I just don’t think comic is in the cards for me, even with the encouragement of Walter Mitty.

I don’t know what James Thurber would think about COVID19 or our lock down efforts. Everything that I know of him indicates he would approach the subject with wit and humor. I think it is time for us all to share lock down stories, slowly emerge from our bunkers, and begin the business of unlocking our lives.


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