Masks have never been so revealing

As published in The Providence Sunday Journal, July 19, 2020. Illustration by Emma Walsh.

Our family dog, Rhody, waits by the front door, nose to the mail slot.

“Ready to roll?” I ask, as I approach with her leash. She’s a Lab mix, and her black tail wags wildly. This is our routine, before I leave for work and when I get home. COVID-19 has turned much of our world upside-down, but walks through the neighborhood with my dog survive.

After harnessing Rhody, I pull my gray cloth face mask over my head and tuck its pleated cotton beneath my chin – a new part of our routine, thanks to the pandemic.

Our usual route takes us up Peirce Street to the towering granite steeple of St. Luke’s Episcopal Church, where we turn left and proceed past the church’s gated graveyard. Beyond, the manicured green expanse of a Little League field beckons with innocence.

On this day, with youth baseball on hold because of the virus, the empty diamond is not a field of dreams, but one of memories. Mine take me back to my days as a 12-year-old catcher, when I wore a mask of a different sort.

Back then, as I bounded out the door for games, my mother’s voice filled my ears: “Watch out for your teeth!” She had nothing to worry about, at least not when I was crouched behind home plate. Foul tips may have chipped red paint off my metal catcher’s mask, but my crooked pearly whites, clad in braces, were protected within.

Rhody and I circle the bases, meander in the outfield, and then head home. As we turn right at the St. Luke’s steeple, I see a fellow walker approaching. I pull my mask up over my nose and mouth; she secures hers, ear to ear. Courtesies extended, we pass each other with a wordless wave.

Later, when I visit Thorpe’s Liquor Store, a different kind of encounter ensues. After grabbing a six-pack of beer, I approach the cashier. A man about my age is at the counter ahead of me. I leave a good distance between us, as is the custom in these pandemic days. The guy’s mask hangs loosely on his face.

“Give me a quick-pick,” he says to the cashier, pointing to the lottery ticket terminal that is on the counter to my right. And then I see the guy sizing me up.

“I don’t bite,” he says. It takes me a moment to register that he is talking to me. I chuckle beneath my mask and say nothing.

“Jesus, they said to stay six feet apart, not twelve,” the guy says, jousting more than joking. He motions to the staggered tape markings on the floor. I look down and realize he’s right; I had unknowingly stopped two markings away from him, not one.

As the lottery terminal spits out the guy’s ticket, I shuffle a step or two forward – a half-hearted conciliation, I guess. Thinking back, I wish I hadn’t.

And that’s where we are in America today. Confrontation has replaced conversation; divisiveness derails dialogue. And wearing a mask – or not – is perceived as a political statement.

In characterizing the world’s battle with COVID-19, one physician has said, “It’s humans against microbes, not humans against humans.” Try telling that to the guy in Thorpe’s or the one at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue.

In his inaugural address, another president famously said, “Ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country.” With those words, John F. Kennedy called on every American to do what is needed to advance the common good. Today, that means wearing a face covering when social distancing is not possible.

Unlike the mask I had as a Little League catcher, the one I wear now primarily protects others.

For most of us, there may be no higher form of public service.



I don’t even know where to begin; why people feel so free to verbally accost perfect strangers, in person or online, is something I’ll never understand.

I worry about what lessons people will take away from the pandemic and will these epiphanies persist. Sadly, oftentimes, ‘the more things change the more they stay the same’.

On a positive note: thanks, as always, for your insights!!!

Thank you, John for beautifully capturing what we feel every day…at least most of us and our contemporaries …

Right on John! A perfect strike! Exactly what we are all feeling today. Our only guiding light is that “this too shall pass”…. the sooner the better!


Your writing resonates. It’s hard to recognize our world these days and it’s sad. Thanks for sharing.

With you on this one, John.

One is left to wonder what the face of America will look like once the collective mask finally can be lowered. Will the snarl of racism have vanished, to be replaced by a smile of acceptance? Will the bared teeth of anti-Enlightenment anger have given way to the firm-jawed certainty of science’s authority? Will the open-mouthed screams of ignorance as an article of faith have resolved into gentle expressions of understanding that science and faith are not mutually exclusive, but rather mutually sustaining?

The preliminary assessments are not encouraging.

It is today as difficult negotiating the world as it is negotiating the pandemic ! Who are we and where are the people I used to know?
Thoughtfully done, as usual, John! x carol

Great one John.
“No, I’m wearing this to protect YOU” – has become my response these days.

We were camped in beautiful RI last weekend, as we have for so many years, and spent our first evening on Scarborough beach. This year we were less relaxed, on high alert to maintain distance in what was clearly a divided crowd. As it turns out, your diligent gov got the message too, and we heard of new restrictions on our trip home to CT.

As you point out, the germs have no politics.

Hey Rhode Island – we come to visit you with all respect and love for your beautiful state and your kind and generous people.
Help us to do our best to honor that respect and care.

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