Change, Masks & Humankindness

How many Presbyterians does it take (you may have heard this one) to change a light bulb??

C-H-A-N-G-E???

I get to repeat this, having been a Presbyterian for about sixty years and being intimately familiar with our reflex opposition to change. However. The global changes of the past 14 or so months have given an entirely new meaning to things like the trauma of switching a word in some obscure hymn.

With the baby steps we are now taking into the New Normal, some of it looks pretty abnormal. We – I, at least –  created an interim sort-of normal and adjusted to it for a year. Wasn’t that normal? But now it does not feel normal to do normal stuff because we declared it not-doable for all those months of the old normal. 

The #1 case in point is the Mask Issue. Early on, I found masks to be a giant bother: hot in the sunshine, uncomfortable oftentimes, and impossible when trying to communicate with someone hard of hearing. Not to mention the regular panic over having forgotten the mask when already a half-mile out on a walk or – heaven forbid – about to enter a Walgreen’s. In my building, one could be sent unceremoniously back to one’s apartment if unmasked in any public space, although eating and drinking were indeed allowed once public spaces opened up. But still, masks remain the rule. They can be quirky, funny, political, decorative; Brian the concierge quickly turned them into fashion statements by appearing in matching mask and tie sets (he has five in all.)

But now. The CDC says it’s fine for the fully vaccinated to go maskless outdoors. Some governors agree. Some governors are thinking it over. Some governors still think Donald Trump is president and everything is a hoax anyway: virus, masks, vaccine, you name it, it’s all just a hoax, 580,000+ U.S. dead people notwithstanding.

There’s only one universal truth:

We need to be VERY kind to one another. We’re all on the same planet, and in the U.S. that includes people who are going to keep wearing masks for a very long time and people who absolutely refused to wear masks and now are more or less validated. And definitely unmasked.

Recently, while walking in a super-trendy area of San Francisco, about a mile from my home (which is in a good but hardly trendy area itself) I had my mask hung over my left ear while eating an ice cream bar. I was overtaken – within a few feet, certainly not a proper social distance – by an attractive, well-dressed white man who appeared to be in his 50s or early 60s. He was fit, maskless – and angry. As he strode alongside we both slowed (or, he slowed to match my already-slow pace) and he glared into my eyes.

“I thought we don’t have to wear masks outdoors,” he said.

“Oh,” I said, with a disarming smile that did not disarm him, “I just keep mine handy, in case I want to go into a store or something.”

“Ridiculous,” he said, as he began to walk ahead. Which was my clue to let it drop. But still seeking to disarm I added, “Maybe we’ll all avoid getting the flu!”

“The hell with it,” he threw back over his shoulder. “I’m getting the flu. I’ve had it with this expletive, expletive, expletive.”

So much for friendly passages.

I worry about the fact that this guy and thousands with similar sentiments and temperaments will continue to co-exist (and walk the streets) with mild-mannered sorts like myself. I think we need to find ways to avoid both shouting expletives and making inane comments that provoke others to shout expletives. Could we plaster the country with posters to this effect:

AHOY, MASK-WEARERS: You haven’t been vaccinated, and are being extraordinarily considerate of the rest of us. You have compromised immune systems and must be super cautious. You have terrible cold sores disfiguring your mouth. Thank you for wearing that mask!

AHOY, ALL UNMASKED : Happy to see your smile. Isn’t it lovely to emerge from the dark days. Thank you for being fully vaccinated which I’m sure is true.

TO EVERYONE, EVERYWHERE: Let’s just cut each other a LOT of slack until the world turns fully right-side-up again.

Remaining masked doesn’t have to mean I’m a snob, or a Democrat, or a generally bad person. Being unmasked doesn’t have to mean I’m a threat to your health, or a Republican, or a generally bad person. Several billion masks have been manufactured or created since early 2020 and it’s going to take a long, long time for them to go away.

In the interim, maybe we could take a collective deep breath. And try smiling.   

Wear a Face Mask? Oh, why bother . . .

CAN WE LAUGH — OR MAYBE SMILE — OUR WAY THROUGH THIS?

“CORONAFEST 2020!” read the ad for Mr. Trump’s Tulsa rally that floated around the internet, “Come for the Racism, Stay for the Plague!” And as a sort of postscript below: “Be sure to reserve your ICU bed and ventilator.” We’re going to hope this stays funny. Although I know the Bible says not to invoke harm upon your fellow human beings, it’s really hard not to wish a moderately severe case of covid19 on every unmasked attendee. I don’t actually want anyone to die, even if Mr. Trump would then be reducing his voter base – just get sick enough to make a point.

When did public health get hijacked by crazy politics? I live in San Francisco, where we started off the pandemic with early sheltering-in-place that kept our numbers low. But our numbers, at least those showing reported cases (3,400+) and deaths (48+) continue to rise. Some other factors are “meeting target goals,” but the list I obsessively keep has never showed a decline in cases since I started obsessing on March 26. We are slowly and cautiously re-opening around here – even geezers in my assisted living fortress now leave for non-emergency medical appointments. I have one this week that is a pleasant 10-block walk away, and you never saw anyone this excited about going to the dentist. However. A few days ago, in the balmy sunshine of Lafayette Park, people weary with staying in were practically shoulder-to-shoulder on the grass, 90% of them without mandatory-in-SF masks.

We seem to have parallel narratives: “Masks & distancing will get us through this with the least damage” – or “Oh, why bother.” The difference between this pandemic and the last is that it’s not just the crazies pushing the Oh why bother. Remember the old H1N1 swine flu a decade ago? Seems almost quaint. The country was prepared, met the virus head-on, came up with a vaccine opposed only by the crazies. To be honest, vaccine supplies fell short and were funneled to the most endangered: children, healthcare workers, pregnant women, people with pre-existing conditions. But compared to the novel coronavirus, H1N1 does look like a pussycat.

Here’s my question. Is there a way to get to the other side of this pandemic without major suffering – more overrun ERs and ICUs, upwards of 200,000 probable deaths this year – or minor discomfort? Keeping six feet away from all those people you want to hug (and many you’d settle just to high five) can sometimes seem more major than minor on the behavioral difficulty scale. But it’s doable. Masks are hot and bothersome and they fog up your glasses. I have a serious dislike of even my new overpriced mask, which I bought because it’s light and washable and theoretically doesn’t fog up my glasses. (They lied. It fogs.) Still, I’m wearing the blasted thing every time I walk out the door.

Maybe a little humor will help. Political jokes? Given where we are, you might as well laugh. Or subtle joys such as a friend suggested. “My boss drives me up the wall,” she said. “But I can look at him with straightforward eyes while I’m sticking my tongue out behind my mask.” A blog about H1N1 that I posted more than a decade ago had a conclusion that still fits, if you substitute “mask” for “vaccine.” In any event, the last line is still appropriate:

The best news of the pandemic is probably the fact that it has become fodder for stand-up comics and comedy shows. Once we start laughing at things they tend to whittle themselves down to sanity. My favorite message so far came from host Jon Daily on the Daily Show, in response to some of the craziness coming from the likes of Sean Hannity and Glen Beck. What we need, Daily suggested, is a vaccine against the vaccine, so we could have peace of mind while being vaccinated.

A little peace of mind goes a long way these days. (franjohns.net 10/25/09)

(This essay was posted earlier on Medium.com)