Trying to save face after face mask fail

Photo by Scott Saalman

Guest Columnist

I have a lot to be thankful for in 2020 despite the merciless pandemic that has left global society shaken and stirred.

I am thankful for the sane people who demonstrate the simple act of donning a face mask and staying out of other people’s faces and spaces by practicing safe, spread-proof, social distancing.

In the 1980s, a college girlfriend proudly displayed a Garfield poster (the fat cat sits contentedly alone on a deserted island) on her bedroom wall that stated, “I NEED MY SPACE.” Most likely, this was a subliminal message for me, but I was slow to board the rejection train. But I get it now. If anything, 2020 has been a lesson in the value of giving everyone proper space so they don’t get sick, or worse, die.

I enjoy seeing people wearing face masks customized with pop-culture references demonstrating their likes and personalities. There are even Garfield ones. Face masks are the new T-shirts. It’s a fun way to promote coronavirus prevention. I want one with the classic Rolling Stones tongue logo.

The oddest face mask moment for me occurred in August in the quaint Roanoke Island town of Manteo, North Carolina, where my daughter Delaney and her fiancé Max were married. In the historic downtown district, I witnessed a group of people crossing Queen Elizabeth Avenue. Though they were dangerously bunched together, they at least wore face masks. Well, except for one guy. He lacked a mask, but he did sport a black eyepatch.

Apparently, Eyepatch Guy read the wrong memo. Or, he heard it was National Walk Like A Pirate Day. Or, he was just following the latest Trump Tweet regarding effective ways to ward off COVID-19. I seethed in discontent over Eyepatch Guy.

I experienced an uncomfortable face mask moment in the summer while buying a pound of coffee at one of my favorite local shops. The store’s coffee section is my happy place, an olfactory nirvana of worldly aromas that deliver momentary peace and mental escape from constant COVID-19 worries. My paradisiacal pause became muddled, however, by a boorish malcontent who obviously became bothered by me not wanting to partake in idle face-mask-to-face-mask small talk about, of all things, face masks. I don’t like standing near others in public, so I beelined for the coffee beans.

I noticed the guy scribbling something on paper. Then, to my great discomfort, he encroached well within my 6-foot safety zone, tsunami-like. He handed me a note and said, “Think about it.” He left the shop. I read his latest masterwork, which stated: “Your mask is making you meaner. Love breeds accountibility.” (His misspelling. Not mine.) Good riddance, oh great love guru, I thought.

I am diligent about face mask usage. It keeps you safe. It keeps me safe. It’s a win-win practice we all need to embrace and encourage.

Unfortunately, I’m not perfect. I have my own personal face mask failure to report. Two weeks ago, while perusing the local grocery, I kept noticing the stink eye, aka skunk eye, aka hairy eyeball, collectively aimed toward me from fellow shoppers. A face mask can hide smiles and frowns, but one thing it can’t leave to the imagination is a stink eye. Actually, stink eye is an understatement. The knitted-eyebrowed shoppers were actually staring daggers through me. Then it hit me. I had forgotten to put on my face mask. It was still inside the car where I had left it 15 minutes earlier.

I felt embarrassingly naked without my mask, my bare face making me the poster child for a community dirtbag. I felt as guilty as if I had, instead, been caught wearing a suicide bomber’s vest. Even an eyepatch would’ve given the impression that I was at least trying to be a good citizen. Quietly cursing my aloofness, I loosened the death grip I had on the sticky shopping cart handle and jogged, face-down, toward the exit. It wouldn’t have surprised me to have been struck by canned goods thrown at me by angry shoppers chanting, “Can him. Can him,” something I’ve often fantasized about doing to mask-less shoppers.

Inside my car, I pondered driving away, but instead, I masked up and re-entered the store, hoping most people who had seen me without a mask would not recognize me with a mask.

Later, on the phone, I confessed to Brynne about my face mask faux pas. My wife is an avid N95-wearer who heroically returns to the COVID-19 frontline daily as a speech therapist in an elderly care setting. Brynne is knee-deep in the pandemic. She lives by the mask. Her test results remain negative, though she carries the stress of someone playing Russian Roulette.

She didn’t chastise me for my confession. Instead, through hysterical laughter and snorting, she said: “For once, you were one of those people you hate.” I laughed too, for what she said was wickedly true.

In this time of giving thanks, I am also very thankful for having a family that totally understands the importance of not gathering as a group for Thanksgiving. To paraphrase Garfield, WE ALL NEED OUR SPACE. It will be our holiday absences, and not the shared turkey, stuffing and mashed potatoes with brown gravy, that define our deep gratitude for those we love. This is our act of accountability for everyone.

You can purchase Scott’s column collection, "What Are You Going To Write About When I’m Gone?” for $15 by contacting him at

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