Mask Shaming (Both Ways): Pandemic Sub-Plot
Last week I went to a sports bar on 3rd Avenue with my brothers to watch the hockey, basketball, and baseball games all at once — a true bro-fest that would make my wife shutter, we found a bar that had great outdoor seating with big screen TV’s lining the sidewalk, sat and enjoyed a few beers and each other’s company, an all too rare occasion in the past year.
I’m an acupuncturist. My wife is an MD. We’re Liberal New York Jews, most importantly, she’s eight months pregnant, all of which are factors that put us in the absolute top percentile of most cautious and vigilant during the pandemic. We’ve regularly met loved ones for outdoor dining, but are strictly hands-off, mindful to social distance as much as possible even in the open air. I’ve been seeing patients in my office, but with every precaution, even goggles above my N95 mask, because frankly, why not? Our hard lines have been around masks and indoor dining, simply because with the admitted exception of the latter in wintertime, the risks so obviously outweigh the benefits.
I’m confident within thirty seconds of searching online, I could dive into a rabbit hole of extremists with passionate rebuttals to this logic. Everyone is entitled to their opinion and their own line of comfort; however there’s another top percentile in which my wife and I fall on the planet, which is in medical education and experience. This doesn’t mean we’re both right about everything (how could we be when we disagree with each other so often?), but our perspectives and choices are worth consideration.
After my second beer at the bar I had to go inside to pee, because you know… Science. Science is having a moment. I put my mask on, which has become as instinctive as putting a jacket on before going out in the winter, and entered a sea of mostly twenty-somethings, a packed bar operating at full capacity the way our “friends” in the red states have been doing all along. It’s still unusual, even in recent weeks with restrictions lifted, to enter a venue and not see even one mask at least over a chin, but here was the case.
No judgment. At this point I understand the vaccines are rolled out, businesses are open, and the entire planet is over this shit. Humans wish to interact with fellow humans, especially single humans for whom I can’t imagine how difficult this has been. But with an eight-month pregnant wife at home and uncertainty around the delta variant transmission, this is not my own present journey. I am vaccinated, but after incredible debate, deliberation, and research, we’ve decided she will wait the one more month until delivering.
I was the only person in the building with a mask on and I felt as if I was the only person not wearing a shirt. I was an outsider, literally, one of ‘dem still-dinin’-outdoors-fellas. As I left the bathroom I passed by a twenty-something and pushed the door open for him on his way in. He thanked me, but then called to me on my way out: “C’mon, dude, the mask? Still?”
I was two beers in — IPA’s to be exact — buzzed enough to know in my old age to err on the side of saying less, avoid confrontations, especially with strangers. I pointed at him and smiled (which he may or may not have observed), we both turned and went our separate ways, shaking our heads at one another, he at me for my philosophy, I at him for his behavior.
Beyond its medical, economic, and personal implications, I think one of the profound things this pandemic has brought to light, appropriately consistent with its political climate, is how divided we are as people; more importantly, how triggered we are by each other’s differences. Why should he care if I choose to wear a mask? Why are so many people angered by what they perceive to be unreasonable fear (in complete strangers)? Have they spent so much time ingesting information from either perspective that any behavior that deviates from their dogma is so objectively reprehensible? For my part I cannot recall any global circumstance I’ve felt less obtuse about, except of course in response to those who are most obtuse, which I am ultimately guilty of judging as being out of their fuckin’ minds.
I may be biased, but triggering those who are afraid at least bears greater logic. If you subscribe to the reality that we are in the deadliest global pandemic of the last hundred years and it is our responsibility to protect one another as well as ourselves, anger with those who choose not to do so makes sense. On the other hand, if you subscribe to the reality that this is at best over-blown by the media, at worst a conspiracy theory designed to inject us all with some tracking chip or disease, why should you care if moronic strangers refuse to take the proverbial red pill by which you define your enlightenment? As a holistic medicine practitioner, I shake my head when I see people walking out of McDonald’s with a happy meal and ice cream, but my blood doesn’t boil. I can’t believe anyone still smokes cigarettes, but as long as they don’t smoke inside my home it’s all good.
There are psychotics, like the old ladies who have yelled at my brother as he walked through Central Park a few times to sip tea in the open air, nowhere near another soul, grasping at any semblance of past normalcy, when he was startled by: “MASK!” Some maniac who couldn’t stop ruminating over the Trumpsters and/or anti-vaxxers she’d just seen on the news and unconsciously sought anyone similar to attack.
Most of us have fallen somewhere along the spectrum. We haven’t been quarantined indoors with gloves and a body suit on for the past two years, nor were we attending 100-person house parties and making out with randoms back in January. But we should learn to reserve judgment, as where we fall along that spectrum is indicative not only of our macrocosmic belief systems, but also our transient predicaments. Guy in the bathroom saw me as if I were just another guy in the bathroom. I was like him, and maybe in turn a reflection of how he defines himself not to be: Overly-conservative or cowardly, maybe even guilty of not following science; as opposed to some father-to-be with an understandably anxious, vulnerable wife at home.
My brother pointed out to take it as a compliment. “He probably thought you were fifteen years younger than you are.” I guess the mask makes me look young. But the jump we make between thinking something and actually saying it is a profound one — sometimes a noble one in circumstances where we refuse to repress honesty for the sake of mutual personal benefit. Although, other times… let’s be honest, most times it’s a case of tactless buffoonery where its speaker jumps to an inaccurate conclusion that unnecessarily hurts their recipient.
We can mindlessly cast these interactions aside as just another example of humans at odds, or we can choose to reflect on what lies beneath the surface. What did my mask represent to the guy in the bathroom? Whether right or wrong, a threat to his freedom, maybe even an ominous foreshadowing of the worst potential outcome of the winter on our horizon. For all I know the loneliness of 2020 brought poor guy in the bathroom to the brink of suicide, his depression even outweighing my wife’s present anxiety. He saw me and thought: “Does this guy know something I don’t… and if not how dare he reject the most recent recommendations” that finally appease my deepest psychological desperation. People want to believe in the science, even to the point that their accepted definition of “science” has become present conventional medical understanding. They see it as our only hope, our Luke Skywalker, while the man still rocking the mask unknowingly represents to many the dark side, and a part of our past that we insist with every cell in our being be left in the past.
I can understand those people who’ve been living their lives normally all along harshly judging those who’ve been quarantined all along, and vice versa. But the rest of us inside the spectrum of sanity have been given an opportunity in this pandemic — an opportunity similar to the one we get when we fall in love and marry: To agree to disagree in acceptance and harmony. To respect one another’s boundaries even when we can’t wrap our heads around one in particular, and to understand each other’s differences that in the end aren’t so different. On the global scale of 1–10 of precautionary behaviors there have been way too many 5’s judging 6’s as paranoid and 4’s judging 3’s as irresponsible; and worse, allowing themselves to be emotionally charged by it. Any attempt to simplify something as complex as the perfect point of reason between getting on with our lives and remaining safe and smart is as comical as it is transparently decided by each individual’s reality. To this point, the greatest red flag, in my opinion, is one of absolute conviction. The truth is, we are all the guy in the bathroom. We are all my pregnant wife. They are each other. We all want the same thing.