All Masked Up

It’s now six months into our pandemic. I say “our” because it’s become so familiar —from its submicroscopic shape to its harrowingly wide range of effects on the human body to the ways in which it’s shriveled our lives — that it seems almost like a particularly abusive family member, or a pet that desperately needs to be put down. It’s ours now, just as we are its.

We’ve had to learn new habits in order to coexist with this unwelcome relative. We’ve had to learn a certain callousness about death counts, the way we did during Vietnam and Iraq and Afghanistan, a daily recitation of loss that too quickly loses its capacity to shock.

We’ve had to learn to wash our hands the way our mothers always intended, which is to say well.

We’ve had to learn something called “social distancing,” another one of those bureaucratic phrases, like “social media,” in which a perfectly serviceable noun is saddled with a surplus adjective, just in case we didn’t get it.

And we’ve had to learn to wear masks in public. Or at least some of us have. There are still those who think the whole pandemic thing is another hoax, like Trump’s impeachment, dreamed up by the lefties to hobble the economy and prepare us for socialist rule, and that masks, which blur our faces and muffle our speech, are a perfect symbol of the total usurpation of individual autonomy that waits only for a Democratic victory in November. Or something like that.

But most of us don’t mind the masks, and some of us actually like them.

First of all, I always wanted to be a doctor, and a mask gives you the opportunity to look like one, assuming you pick one in that nice antiseptic blue with the horizontal folds and a nose wire, the kind that comes in boxes of a hundred from someplace in, unfortunately, China. None of this cowboy bandana affectation, where I can feel your cowboy breath a mile away.

Secondly, think of all the superheroes who wear masks. Admittedly, Superman and the Fantastic Four do not, but Spider-Man does, several of the Avengers do, and virtually all of the coolest stars of the DC Comics of my youth  — Green Lantern, the Flash, Batman and Robin, to name a few — wore them. It’s true that most superhero masks cover the top half of the face rather than the nose and mouth, but hey, a mask is a mask, and I’m proud to wear one in this, our long national Comic-Con.

But apart from its indisputable health benefits, the most compelling, if unmentionable, reason to wear a mask is that most people look better in one. I know I do. Most of us are relentlessly self-critical, and wearing a mask answers a deep, unacknowledged need to hide our faces. All those wrinkles and creases around the mouth (nasolabial folds, for us would-be doctors), are eliminated in a moment, without the costly cosmetic surgery. All the dubious aesthetics of the mouth itself — are the lips too thick or thin, too pink or too blue, do they curl too asymmetrically?— are rendered instantly irrelevant. A little herpes outbreak? Rosacea? Not to worry. And finally, finally, that decision your parents made not to shell out for braces back when your teeth were just starting to go haywire can be retroactively forgiven, as the evidence of their misfeasance disappears behind blue gauze.

Women look sexy in masks. There, I’ve said it. A mask focuses attention on the beauty of their eyes, and lends an air of exoticism formerly reserved to wearers of the niqab. A hint of dominatrix with the undeniable frisson of partial anonymity, it’s the reason costume balls in Victorian England often ended in orgies.

And yes, the men get to look like cowboys if they must, that louche kerchief in a pirate paisley print hanging down around the neck just before entering Home Depot, then pulled up at the last second like an outlaw about to loot a stagecoach.

What is not sexy is the half-worn mask, with the nose sticking out above the upper edge, emphasizing the schnoz and its escaping vapors, or, worse, the mask hung down off one ear to resemble a Kleenex dangling from a wayward strand of spaghetti. These are not good looks.

But for most of us, most of the time, a mask is an enhancement. Biden and Harris look great in theirs. I guess we’ll never know about Trump and Pence, but who can doubt they’d be improved too.

Masks may endure as a fashion accessory long after our pandemic has been mercifully put down. Maybe in that longed-for future we’ll bring them out occasionally to commemorate this troubled time, and show our grandkids, and wear them for an evening, out to dinner, at a concert, just for fun. Then we’ll put them away again and look at ourselves, barefaced, and see just what we’ve learned.

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