Friday, March 5, 2021

Steven Ivory: Our Mask Mentality

*March 14, 2020. Afternoon. That’s the first time I wore one. My L.A. neighborhood Whole Foods wouldn’t have it any other way.

Striding across the parking lot that day, I imagine others all over the world felt as I did: awkward, self-conscious and warily hopeful regarding the science that insists our best defense against a mysterious, sinister thing called the Coronavirus is this cloth on my face.

A year later, the mask has gone from surreal anomaly to spawning its own culture.  In TV commercials, the mask is a trend almost as ubiquitous as the Interracial Couple.

We watch TV shows and movies created before the pandemic and notice things we once took for granted: the physical closeness of characters; how they hug and kiss without a care. Longingly, we reminisce back to a time when we could do that, too.

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The MaskPublic service advertisements warning of the dangers of second-hand smoke, texting while driving and discouraging bullying have been joined by thoughtful, savvy ads urging us to mask up.

And since we must wear them, humans, ever-resilient creatures, have christened masks a hallmark of personal expression and style.

Our masks, like nearly everything else we touch, say things about us. They cheer our favorite sports team. They suggest political leanings and musical preferences. And they further affirm that no object, thing or item on this planet is safe from our fixation with animal print.

Nancy Pelosi masks - Getty)
Nancy Pelosi’s face mask game is on point

Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi’s mask game is fierce. It’s as if she went through her entire wardrobe and commissioned a corresponding mask. From what I’ve seen (and since Prince is no longer with us), Pelosi’s mask-ology is rivaled only by Lady Gaga.

Some people don’t want to wear masks. They have their reasons. Asthma and emphysema can make breathing through one difficult. Others simply don’t believe masks work, arguing that mere fabric cannot protect them from a Godzilla we can’t see, hear or smell.

There are those who believe covid-19 is real but go without a mask, insisting they’re too wily to be caught by the dread disease. Still others don’t wear one simply because authorities tell them to–their civil rights are being violated, they declare. It never occurs to them that by not wearing a mask publicly, they violate the health of others.

Indeed, this pandemic arrived armed with a nifty, telling challenge for humankind: Can you care enough about a complete stranger to wear a mask in order to keep them safe? In the course of LoveThyBrother 101, a lot of folks get an F.

I’ve never had a problem wearing a mask. Obvious inducement aside, I’ve discovered that life behind a mask affords me a certain comfort that has nothing to do with the virus.

With a mask, wherever I am in public (mostly the supermarket), I’m there but…not really. In a mask, I feel inward; self-contained. In a place filled with socially-distanced people, a mask allows me the sensation of solitude.

Female-Medical-Worker-wearing-maskHowever, the mask requires a new approach to casual communication. After the CDC advised that we wear them, I read a meme online that said, “If you are ugly with pretty eyes, this is your moment!”

Crass, but in the age of the mask, the eyes have it. Take care, though–without a smile to explain things, a glance can resemble a glare.

When most people smile, it’s conveyed via the friendly squint of their eyes. I wish mine did that.  In my bathroom mirror, masked up, I practice my broadest smile, but my eyes say Hand over your wallet.  I’m working on this (the smile/eyes thing, not the wallet).

In the meantime, I’m learning to use body language. I pass people and offer a polite nod. In a friendly lilt, I extend a muffled “Hello” or “Hi ya doin’?”

Understand that we’re going to be doing the mask thing for a minute. Even with the vaccine, until scientists and heath care officials inform us otherwise, we’re going to have to protect ourselves with masks, social distancing and hand-washing. It’s where we are now.

Proof: a buddy who periodically sends me links regarding pop culture and politics, forwarded a link the other day that had nothing to do with the burgeoning mess on Capitol Hill or assorted celebrity inanity.

Instead, my man sent me a link to Old Navy. There was a sale. Masks. Cool colors and designs. I’m thinking of a daisy print, maybe. For Spring.

I know. Listen, we’re living through a pandemic. If I want to buy something I know I’m later going to have to talk myself into leaving the house wearing, let me have that, damn it.

Steven Ivory
Steven Ivory

Steven Ivory, journalist, essayist and author, writes about popular culture for magazines, newspapers, radio, TV and the Internet. Reach him at  [email protected]

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