Photo credit: Chris Galbraith on Unsplash
Once upon a time, I awoke on a Wednesday morning in August. The sun was bright and summer-hot. My workload was summer-light. I called my friend, K, who was also a freelancer, and said, “Let’s go to the beach!”
“When?” she asked reasonably.
“Now,” I replied.
Soon thereafter, we were on our way down to the shoreline (with a quick detour for me to buy a new bathing suit since I’d lost 50 pounds since the last time I’d worn one), arriving around midday. We set up our chairs, towels, and umbrella. We unpacked our picnic, assembled from whatever we had in our respective kitchens, everything free for the sharing. We tucked our sunglasses in our bags and headed down to the water, swimming and splashing under the summer sky.
Photo credit: Igor Link on Pixabay. (Note: this is not us.)
This summer, heading to the beach involves planning. With limited occupancy rates, Connecticut beaches are often full by lunchtime; on weekends, would-be beachgoers can arrive at 11:00 and find themselves too late. Sharing the trip with a friend you don’t live with requires being very, very certain that neither of you is contagious and asymptomatic. Otherwise, the two of you must travel in separate cars, eat and drink separate picnic fare, and set up your beach sites six feet apart to ensure neither goes home with anything more serious than a sunburn. And don’t even get me started on questions like whether you can contract the virus if a contaminated person coughs or sneezes in the water nearby as you’re blissfully floating past. (On the upside, scientists say there’s currently no evidence that the coronavirus can spread through the water.)
Of course, there are always people who say, “Oh, who cares?” and just pretend nothing has changed, but this doesn’t work well. In fact, not only is it enormously selfish, but it’s flat-out dumb, at least if your goal is to avoid becoming infected and passing that infection to others. If you don’t believe me, ask Florida.
Over the past few months, though, I’ve found that I miss being spontaneous. This is weird, because I’m generally a planner. Still, living in the time of coronavirus requires far more planning than even I enjoy.
For instance, shopping. I’m old enough to take advantage of senior hours at my local supermarket, but those special shopping times are from 6:00 a.m. to 7:30 a.m. In the absence of an emergency, the only thing I’m doing at 7:30 a.m. is looking at the inside of my eyelids. Still, I tried. I forced myself to bed a tad earlier than my usual 2 a.m. and did my best to will myself to sleep. When the alarm went off at 5:15, I only hit the snooze button a couple times. At 5:45, I headed out, tea in the commuter cup (which I would no longer take inside the store) in a futile attempt to caffeinate sufficiently for the trip. Once I reached the parking lot, I donned a mask and hat (not certain why the hat, but it seemed like the thing to do), grabbed my reusable bags (once rules allowed me to bring them in), and proceeded. Inside, I found empty shelves and cases in lieu of many items on my list. On one rainy morning, there was not a single green string bean in the store—not frozen, not canned, not fresh. None. (Classic first-world problem.) So I had to focus my barely-awake mind on the options, i.e., find an appropriate substitute from what was in stock (a short list) or search other stores. By the time I hauled my stash home, wiped down whatever needed wiping, washed my hands a few dozen times during the whole post-cleaning experience, and tossed the bags in the washer, I was done for the day.
Other experiences are still either limited or unavailable, at least in my area. Online shopping is an indisputable convenience, but it’s no longer a guarantee that overnight shipping will happen even if the website promises it, so I order toner and cat food as soon as I open the last carton. Some stores are still closed; my favorite local bookstore cannot safely open for browsing because their wonderful little nooks-and-crannies layout doesn’t allow for sufficient social distance. The town library is also not open for browsing; instead, you place a hold online, and when the book is ready, a staff member telephones you to set up an appointment for you to pick up your book. At the appointed time, you are permitted to enter the foyer (the rest of the library is closed to patrons), where you pick up a paper bag bearing your name and containing your checked-out book. Drive-through banking hours are still severely limited, and access to safe deposit boxes and other assistance requires calling for an appointment.
Also on hold are spur-of-the-moment outings to the movies and/or for meals, both of which used to offer a chance to cool off while being entertained. Here in Connecticut, movie theaters were permitted to open in mid-June, but at least some either never opened or closed again. On the other hand, drive-in movies (including pop-up drive-ins) are experiencing a resurgencedrive-in movies (including pop-up drive-ins) are experiencing a resurgence, so those who enjoy watching movies on the big screen still have options. Restaurants are open for outdoor dining, but I haven’t observed a lot of people taking advantage of this, possibly because it’s simply too hot to dine outside during our current heat wave. (This, of course, is relative: a friend who is a lifelong Texan once told me 90F is too cold for swimming.)
On the other hand, creative, industrious people have pivoted with amazing dexterity, moving in-person conferences and performances online with nary a blip. Last weekend, I participated in the Mark Twain House’s Virtual Writers Weekend from the comfort of my sofa, as did people from as far away as Ireland and New Zealand. My beloved Tanglewood, a summer music festival in the Berkshires which regularly features the best musicians in the world, is broadcasting concerts from seasons past. Webinars are available on seemingly every topic; many are free or inexpensive, and since attendees are rarely visible on-screen, you’re free to listen while cleaning the bathroom or lounging in bed. Those with more energy can take part in virtual races they could never have traveled to. These folks have made lemonade from lemons, and I salute their resourcefulness.
To be sure, a reduced ability to do what you want whenever you want is what’s known as a first-world problem, the kind of problem that requires some serious luxury. There are plenty of people who wish their worst problem was not being able to take a quick trip to the beach. For so many, the spontaneity I miss was never available in the first place: people without cars, for whom every shopping trip requires riding two subways and a bus while corralling four small children and hauling bags for those last seven blocks; those whose physical challenges pile numerous logistical considerations onto even seemingly-simple errands; and the ones for whom every purchase must be meticulously balanced against an ever-tightening budget as they tick off another week of unemployment. Perhaps what people like me are experiencing now is merely a tiny taste of their day-to-day lives, with or without a pandemic.
The bottom line is spontaneity is on hold. Certain habits need to be put on the shelf. Substantial lead time must be built in to most ideas—time to plan, time to research, time to assemble the new necessary equipment. On the passenger seat in my car sits a bin containing masks, a face shield, and hand sanitizer, lest I forget to grab them on my way out the door. It’s just how life is—at least, for those of us who would like to survive this pandemic.
People like me who are fond of the last minute are feeling the drag of pre-thinking everything. Still, having to plan is an inconvenience, not a tragedy. I know it’s necessary. I know it’s wise. I know it’s the best chance to survive this pandemic. This doesn’t mean I don’t miss the days of immediate fun. What it means is that I’m willing to delay some gratification for the greater good, mine and that of other people.
Because if we’re willing to suck it up now, there’s a pretty good chance that next summer, we can wake up on a hot summer morning, toss a few things into the beach bag, grab a friend, and head down to the shoreline for a day of sun, picnicking, and swimming, secure in the knowledge that the worst thing we’re likely to go home with is sunburn.
Photo credit: Pexels on Pixabay