Writing anything with a topical patina runs the risk of being outdated before it sees the light of day. It’s a risk I’m willing and able to take, if only to redirect our eyes from the mayhem and tragedy of a massive military invasion.
So how about a rumination on the vestiges of a global pandemic to lighten things up?
Last month, my wife and I did something I once wondered if we would ever do again: We entered a public interior space without face coverings. It was a grocery store, and the end of the indoor mask mandates coincided with our “big” shopping night. That’s when you spend about 90 minutes inside a grocery store, fill a shopping cart or two to the brim, and then gird yourself as you watch the total escalate on the register screen like you were watching the progress of a telethon tally.
Our uncertainty upon entering was not born from worrying our masklessness would invite some unseen microbe to glide into our bodies like the 101st Airborne and knock us out; but rather what it would be like to see faces again. Interestingly, that didn’t happen because most customers in the store still had their masks on. Only a handful of us were maskless, and when we would turn down an aisle and encounter one of our fellow travelers, it felt like a meeting of clandestine extreme couponers. I almost thought we should have devised a secret handshake.
As the days have passed there have been other mask-free trips to the barber, the bank, and finally, praise God, to church. I remain agnostic when it comes to masks in general, and if it was the difference between having or not having access to the Mass, I’d be wearing one as I type this.
My ambivalence aside, wearing masks may not be generally a bad thing. In some instances, it is most notably a good thing, as in the case a person possesses one or more of those “comorbidities” (thanks, COVID-19, for expanding my vocabulary). Some of my best friends and family members fall into that category.
At the same time, I have tried hard not to be judgmental about mask wearers — I said I tried. But when I see a person driving alone in their car with the windows rolled up and wearing a mask, I wonder, what do they think they are protecting themselves from, the schnauzer in the back seat? Then I remind myself that it is really none of my business and I don’t know that person behind that wheel, and if a mask makes them feel better, so be it.
In the future, I am confident an expert will write a book telling us all about the “real” story of COVID-19. We’ll learn if it came from bat soup or a batty scientist in a lab in China. And we will learn whether all that mask wearing was for good or for naught. But a recent article in the Los Angeles Times hints masks have already had a negative impact on an “at-risk” population — middle-schoolers.
According to this article, 8th-grade boys and girls are keeping their masks on even though there is no requirement for them to do so, and it has nothing to do with microbes.
Adolescents are at risk of a lot of bad things: peer pressure, a ravenous popular culture that assaults them with messaging and imaging that can make any teenage girl or boy feel terrible about themselves, or feel invisible.
Masks are something for these kids to hide behind. Behind the masks they are not judged because they do not meet unrealistic standards. People can’t see their blemishes or their braces, or any number of things children at this delicate age can be miserably self-conscious about. Kids need to have some of those experiences to learn the importance of what’s inside rather than out, and the mask culture damages that process.
In Shakespeare’s “Romeo and Juliet,” Mercutio calls for a costume ball mask before he and his friends crash the Capulet party. “Give me a case to put my visage in. A visor for a visor — what care I what curious eye doth quote deformities.”
If you are a teenage girl or boy who has been hiding behind a visor for more than two years, the answer to Mercutio’s statement is, sadly, they care a lot.