People on social media: “Anybody got any tips for maskne (mask acne)?!”
Me [mentally noting the new term but none of the tips because I know they won’t work]: “So great to have a cute new name for the cystic acne I’ve had since I was a teenager and an excuse for it other than my trash diet!”
It’s the Sunday after the election and I am walking downtown. I live in a small city next to a big city and downtown usually means in Chicago, but these days a trip to downtown Evanston is a big adventure. It may be ill-advised–cases have been climbing for weeks–but I need to get out of the house and see some some people. I plan to sit outside the coffee shop and futz around on my laptop, maybe do some writing or listen to a lecture for that poetry course I signed up for and then never accessed. I am more after the illusion of work than work itself, just like I am engaging in the illusion of being with people when actually being with people is off limits. The coffee shop is packed, or what passes for packed in a pandemic. The patrons waiting for their orders indoors are less like sardines in a tin than fish loose in a barrel and I wait for fifteen minutes for my Americano trying not to breathe. There are no tables left on the patio so I walk one street over to the community plaza where I know I will find a smattering of rickety metal tables spaced way more than six feet apart.
I turn the corner into the square and the sounds of a street singer strumming on a guitar carry me to a table between a pretty young couple with a baby on one side and a pretty young couple with a baby and a grandma on the other side. The troubadour is playing the chorus of “American Pie Part 2,” which would have been enough to pull me into a seat even if I didn’t have nowhere else to go. That’s the song, after all, played five days earlier when the election results were trickling in, seemingly in Trump’s favor. The red wave turned out to be an illusion, too, but I didn’t know that yet, and music was the only way I knew how to move through that night.
Oh and while the king was looking down The jester stole his thorny crown The courtroom was adjourned No verdict was returned
I played some other songs too. “White Man’s World” by Jason Isbell:
I’m a white man living in a white man’s world Under our roof is a baby girl I thought this world could be hers one day But her mama knew better
“Society” by Eddie Vedder:
Society, you’re a crazy breed I hope you’re not lonely without me
Today we have a verdict. God, today is such a good day. Seventy degrees, cotton ball clouds blowing across a brilliant blue sky. The promise of a new administration. A rational, national science-based COVID response. A generous refugee policy. No more babies in cages. Reinstitution of protections for transgender people in healthcare. I still cry behind my mask and sunglasses awhile. It’s been too long since I listened to live music, since I sat with strangers, since I existed in my city. I open my wallet looking for a one or a five to drop in the singer’s tip jar and zip it back up when I see I only have a $20. I zip it back open when I remember I found that $20 on the ground earlier in the week. It wasn’t mine to begin with. None of this was ever mine.
I haven’t been sitting long when a person without a mask slow-charges me, coming within a foot of my table. “Too close, sir!” I call out, too late to stop the panic from rising up but before before I see the silver earrings hanging from her lobes. No response, and she wobbles when she passes my table. I don’t even know if she saw me. I try to dredge up some anger but find I’ve been scraped clean. I don’t have anything left for anyone who’s worse off than me. Besides, it’s not like I need to be out here in public, trying to figure if there’s any benefit left to living in a city. There is, by the way. The live music is worth the risk, as is the privilege of being with dozens of people who don’t look at the world like I do.
The singer sets down his guitar and lays hands on the keyboard spread out in front of him. “Piano Man.” Of course. Somebody I can’t see lights a cigar. A young dad eats ice cream with his little son. A hipster couple goes off on their bikes. Three university students eat Chinese food. Is it racist to go out of my way to describe food and family makeup and ignore everybody’s race and ethnicity? The singer is Asian. The couple with the baby are white. The couple with the baby and the grandma are Middle Eastern. The dad and the little boy are white. The hipster couple is white. The students are Asian. I look around and found the man with the cigar across the street and confirm he is white. There are also in the plaza two girls, Asian, a young man, Asian, a couple, white and maybe Latinx, a young man, white. Earlier there was a Black man with a slouchy hat, listening intently to the music and writing in a notebook, like me. There are three Latinx girls. There is a Black family. A white lady with a bike helmet walks up to the singer. An older Black man with a cane walks by. The lady who came at me was white, old, and unwell. I’m white. Supposedly, there is COVID everywhere. I mean, there definitely is COVID everywhere, but it is windy out and people are moving in and out of my peripheral vision faster than I can write them down.
Last week I realized I won’t see my family for the rest of this year. When winter was still on the horizon, when cases were dropping, a quick trip at the end of the year seemed feasible. People went on vacations this summer, didn’t they? People saw their families for birthdays and backyard visits? I know they did because I saw the proof on Facebook. The mayor asked us to cancel Thanksgiving, but people are going home for that, too, aren’t they? I know they are because they told me. I know they exist but I don’t know anyone else who hasn’t seen their parents, siblings, nieces, and nephews in as long as I have, their grandparents and cousins in as long as my daughter has. People keep telling me to just get on a plane and go already. Flying is reasonably safe. I could quarantine before and after and take a test before I go. I put the decision off until after the election. “If Arizona goes for Trump, I won’t want to be anywhere near the state,” I joked. Of course, Arizona went blue and and I cried when I realized I still couldn’t go home.
Another young couple walks by. The boy is Asian and the girl is white. The girl is holding a stuffed shark. All the couples I’ve seen today have been straight. Two teenage boys tear through the square on a skateboard and a BMX bike. A pair of scruffy white college students sit down with food. A group of Black men and women walk by with Target bags dangling from their wrists. A white lady holds a big toddler on her hip. I pull a sweater on against the breeze. It’s warmer than it should be, but the sun is setting already. The lady drops the toddler on top of a concrete block and lets him dance. He bounces extravagantly and clutches a yellow sucker in his hand. The mom grins and him and holds one arm out to stop him falling off. Of course I’m crying again. But why am I crying? The beautiful thing is happening right in front of me, right now, still. The beautiful thing is almost too much to bear.
The pianist starts banging out “Brandy (You’re a Fine Girl)” and now I’m tapping my feet like the toddler and bopping my head and grinning like the mom behind my mask. I’m thinking of the time my friend Caitlin crooned this song to a pretty waitress in the Ozarks on our long drive across the country to see our families out west. Is the lost year worth this moment in time?
Are 200,000+ American lives lost worth ousting Trump from the White House?
Are Rayshard Brooks, Breonna Taylor, George Floyd, and Daniel Prude in 2020 alone worth Kamala Harris as Vice President?
The questions are stunning because the answer is an obvious, resounding no.
If it was always going to play out like this, would I give up my part? Would I do any of it differently?
These are questions I can only answer by carrying on. I’m not fighting on the front lines, but I’m not sitting on the sidelines, either. I’m fucking in it, just like you.
I can’t believe it lasted this long. Not the pandemic in general, I’m not talking about that. I’m not talking about the public health restrictions. I feel every one of the 233 days since my town ordered us to shelter-in-place. What I can’t believe is that it took me this long to work up enough feeling about masks to take to my blog with a petty politicized invective. Is this even a COVID diary if I don’t defend my masking choices by slamming someone else’s? I mask up in accordance with local mandate, which means I wear one in public indoor spaces and outside when I can’t maintain six feet of distance between myself and others. I haven’t written about this because it is eminently reasonable and thus utterly boring.
I’ve had thoughts about masks, of course, but they haven’t been all that interesting. I’ve had opinions about masks, obviously, but they haven’t been especially charged. In the spring I wondered why so many runners bothered with pulling a neck gaiter up over their noses when they are made of sweat wicking material specifically designed to pull water droplets through and out. Later, I felt validated when I saw the (misleading) reports about that study that supposedly showed that neck gaiters are worse than no mask at all but also sad when I saw people use those articles to shame parents who put their kids in gaiters because they were the only masks their kids would keep on. In the summer I felt frustrated trying to find and buy masks after holding off on buying them all spring because I thought they were in short supply. Later, I felt embarrassed and ashamed when I realized that the valved N95s that my husband managed to track down did not filter air going out and were, in fact, worse than no mask at all. I’ve felt like a badass in a bandana but afraid people would judge me for not having a more protective mask. I’ve worried that the cheap masks from Target are too thin. I’ve worried that the stretchy masks from Costco are exacerbating the eczema behind my kid’s ears. I’ve worried about the big wet spot that appears on the front from her constant tonguing of the fabric. I’ve felt cute and political in my ankara print mask from Akese Stylelines and also worried that I was appropriating. I’ve worried that basically all the masks gap too much around my jaw because it turns out that I have a small face on the front of my large head. I’ve flipped out when I catch my daughter outside without her mask on and tugged it up over her nose when we’re in public. I’ve given my husband the wild eyed look with palms turned up in the air that means “. . . MASK???? . . .” when he steps into the common area in front of our townhouse without one.
With all my trying to get it right, I’ve had a hard time getting worked up over whether and how other people mask. Would I prefer people to wear masks in semi-crowded public spaces? Sure. But the way I see it is, I don’t have to be in those spaces. I don’t have to run on the lakefront trail. I don’t have to walk downtown. I don’t have to go to the apple orchard or the coffee shop. When I choose to venture out of my bubble I assume the risk of running into someone who interprets the guidance differently than I do or left their mask at home or just doesn’t care.
Living in a state that responded to COVID with strict public health measures, it can be easy to judge the rest of the country. When my family camped in Michigan this summer, we drove out to Sleeping Bear Dunes National Park for a day at the beach. When we got out of the car I immediately thought, “I’ve made a huge mistake.” The beach was crammed and nobody was wearing masks. We considered leaving, but we’d driven a long way, and wanted to try to make it work. Our friends, who have mastered the art of staying calm in stressful situations, found a shady patch of grass up on a hill away from the crowds and spread out a few blankets and we spent a happy afternoon playing frisbee in the sand and swimming in the lake, which was rocky, frigid, and mostly empty. Before that, though, when we were walking up and down the beach looking for a spot, I wore a mask, and I wore a mask when I took my daughter to the bathroom and made her tie a bandana around her face, too. On our way back from the bathroom, two park employees stopped to thank us. “We’ve seen over five hundred people over the course of two days and only five in masks,” is what they said. Well that made me feel pretty virtuous, and I felt damn near holy when the cashier at the camp store thanked me for complying with the “mask, please” sign hanging on the door after dealing with another customer who had gotten grumpy after being asked to leave. The afterglow dissipated when the friends we were camping with–Michiganders, but the kind who wear masks, not the kind who plot to kidnap their governor–pointed out that all those hundreds of people at the beach weren’t out of bounds with the law or a single park rule. If the park wanted people to wear masks on park grounds, it should make people wear masks on park grounds. If it wanted to cap admissions, it should start counting and kicking people out. But the National Parks don’t require masks and, at the time, Michigan didn’t either.
I heard from a friend that lives in a college town that students aren’t getting tested when they have COVID symptoms because they don’t want to be responsible for their friends, roommates, classmates, and teammates having to quarantine. I know, I know, college students are so stupid and short-sighted, right? Generation Z, the worst. But here’s another take: why are we asking eighteen-year-olds to make these decisions and then getting mad when they act like their frontal cortex isn’t fully developed? It’s not entirely different from the absurdity of asking essential workers who get sick to choose between a paycheck and protecting the health of the public and expecting that the vast majority of them won’t choose to feed their own families. These are not decisions people should have to make on their own.
I’m not willing to hold citizens accountable for failures of leadership. Do I think it’s dumb dumb dumb to run around Target without a mask on? Of course I do, but if you’re in a state or a city that permits it, I understand how a person might think it’s okay. That’s not to say my approach to masking is solely grounded in what’s legal. I wore a mask when we camped with my family in Michigan and when we went apple picking in McHenry County last week. I like to think I’d wear one if I lived in a state where it wasn’t required, but the truth is, I have no idea. It’s easy to be out of step with the people around you for an afternoon or a week. It’s harder to be vigilant over the long haul, especially when the people around you seem to be having more fun and not getting sick.
If I lived in another state, or worked in a job that required me to interface with the public, I might have a less charitable view. It must be infuriating to be doing your part to get cases down and see people flaunting their disregard for other people. It must be genuinely scary to be forced to deal with people who post a direct threat to the health of you and your loved ones. Earlier this week, I was talking to my sister who lives in Trumpland. We were on the phone and I was walking around my neighborhood. It was a cold, cloudy day and I saw maybe five people in ninety minutes. I gave them all a wide berth, as I always do when I’m not wearing a mask. My sister was telling me about people who refuse to wear masks to church. She was frustrated, and rightfully so. I was in the middle of telling her how different it is where I live when a man stuck his head out of a storefront I was walking by and screamed, “Put your mask on!” Well, damn. I guess different isn’t always better.
I didn’t respond because I was absorbed in my phone call, and I was glad I didn’t because there’s no easy comeback to that kind of calling out. I’ve known there are people in my town who think you should don a mask every time you step outside. I know it because I’ve watched them go at it in all caps on the local groups on Facebook and Nextdoor before I got off those apps for mental health. In this man’s mind, and probably a lot of people’s minds, he was right. He was the good person, expressing the righteous view. I was complying with our (relatively strict!) local ordinance, I was outside with nobody else around (he opened his door just to yell at me!), but he was the only one wearing a mask in a pandemic.
I had a hard time shaking the encounter. It made me angry, frankly. I’m comfortable with the approach I’ve taken to masking. It’s legal and reasonable and, I think, respectful of others. I thought I was okay with the fact that people disagree with me, but apparently my okayness was more in theory than practice. The truth is I want people to approve of my choices. Of course, that’s functionally impossible when it comes to an issue as polarizing as COVID in a country as polarized as the United States. If I lived in my parents’ America the mask I wear most of the time would invite a suspicious side eye or worse. In my town, the mask I leave in my pocket on a life-saving mid-day walk around my quiet neighborhood invites open condemnation. This makes me want to hate both states and both sides, but I know this is a failure of leadership, too. People shouldn’t have to bear a disproportionate shares of the burden of protecting the public health based on where they live and their tendencies toward perfectionism.
If I can’t make everybody happy, I at least want people to understand my choices, the way I try to do for them. My therapist asked me what I would have liked to say to the man who had yelled at me if I hadn’t been on the phone, and the best I could come up with was an annoyed “ugh” combined with pointed gestures up and around at all the fresh air and many feet of distance between us. It wouldn’t have been satisfying, though. It wouldn’t have communicated a fraction of what I wanted to say. What I want people to know is that I read the federal, state, and local guidelines and try to follow them. What I want people to know is that my daughter won’t go back to school before the end of the calendar year and probably not before the end of the school year. What I want people to know is that I haven’t seen my family in almost a year and probably won’t see them for another full year after that. What I want people to know is that I haven’t set foot in another person’s home or eaten in a restaurant or worshipped in public or worked in an office or worked out in a gym or shopped for groceries in person or flown on a plane or done all kinds of things that have been technically allowed for a long time (at least until my town reinstated restrictions last week). What I want people to know is that I’m doing my part to stop community spread. What I want is a stamp of approval from the progressive community whose validation I value and whose judgment fear. What I want is a verdict in my favor: I am not the asshole. The alternative is too upsetting to contemplate–is it possible that everything I’ve done is not enough?–until I spy the failure of leadership. If following every applicable law, regulation, and order is not enough, we need new guidance and somebody besides the loudest lady on Facebook to enforce it.
I know there’s an easier way to get what I want than writing this screed that will mainly be read by my out-of-state family. I could just wear a mask, like, all the time. Am I an asshole if I acknowledge here that masks work to stop the virus from spreading but they are also highly effective as a virtue signal? Once I ran a little ways down the lakefront trail after it opened back up in the city until I got to a sign that said “Please wear face coverings.” I stopped and pulled the stretchy headband I’d been using to keep the sweat out of my eyes over my mouth. Running with a mask is terribly unpleasant so I turned around and ran back to the street, pushing the headband back up as soon as I got off the trail, but not before I snapped a picture of myself making a peace sign with my face all covered up.
I wrote most of this post last week, when I was simmering in judgment, resentment, and anger. I was mad at the guy who yelled at me. I was mad about people in my community passing around that viral Facebook post from a mom who said she was “over” hearing people complain about how much their kids had lost during the pandemic. I was mad at every house with a “We’re in this together sign” hanging in the window. When I saw those houses, I fumed. “We’re not in shit together. All I know the fuck about you is that you live in a million dollar house and aren’t afraid to stake out safe political positions with your yard signs. You don’t know I exist.”
In twelve step recovery they say that resentments will kill us faster than a drink, but I didn’t hate that agitated state. Anger, in doses, is easier to live with than depression. Anger is fire. Depression is a heavy bog. Anger is something to talk about. Depression is a closed mouth. Anger moves up and out. Depression is here to stay. Anger is. Depression is a lack. Anger is dangerous–I might hurt someone I know, or someone I don’t. Depression is dangerous too, except it only hurts me. I should have tried rage ages ago. Honestly, I’d like a little credit for the fact that I didn’t.
I’ve mostly cooled off now. Halloween was a gorgeous sunny, blustery day and my neighborhood were perfectly wonderful. Shockingly, the city let people trick-or-treat. I took my daughter out with a few friends, masked and socially distanced. Lots of families turned their porch lights off and celebrated at home but the people that opted to participate in a community Halloween pulled out all stops to make the night safe and festive with homemade staircase candy chutes, jury-rigged pulley systems, elaborate tables, Mardi Gras-style balcony drops, treats delivered by fishing net and lacrosse stick and pushed across a shuffleboard table, and candy-lined fences and graveyards. A few houses used chalk and tape to mark socially-distanced paths up to the porches, but they didn’t need to. Kids know the drill now and when they forgot, their parents screamed it for the neighbors’ benefit: “OLIVER/CHARLOTTE/LIAM/OLIVIA! BACK UP! WAIT YOUR TURN! GIVE THEM SPACE!” I had to scream at my kid a few times, too. “HOLD UP! SAY THANK YOU! GO STAND OVER THERE IF YOU WANT TO EAT A PIECE OF CANDY!”
There was one time I wanted to scream and didn’t. At the end of the night another family started riding up on us. I looked back, startled and annoyed. It was a weirdly attractive couple, a mom and dad with three kids, one in a stroller but two definitely school-aged. None of them were wearing masks. It took everything I had not to scream in their faces, “PUT YOUR MASK ON!”
I’m listening to the audio version of Stay Sexy & Don’t Get Murdered, the memoir/advice book by Georgia Hardstark and Karen Kilgariff, the hosts of the true crime podcast, My Favorite Murder. I don’t actually listen to this podcast and I only started the book because it had a catchy (to say the least!) title and was immediately available on my library e-reader app and I hesitated before checking it out. I listen to a lot of podcasts and I definitely do dabble in true crime in several of the formats via which the culture/my husband has sought to force it down our collective/my own throat–see: Serial Season 1 (murder), Accused (murder), Bear Brook (murder), Last Seen (art heist!), The Staircase (murder?), The Jinx (murder), The People vs. O.J. Simpson (this one was not that good, right?) and probably so many more I don’t even remember–but I don’t consider myself a fan of the genre. I’m sort of squeamish and I’m sensitive to how people, especially men, sometimes talk about violence in a way that seems like they glorify or get off on or are just totally unmoved by it. I can also have a short attention span so if the storyline of the murder and/or investigation is not immediately gripping, you will lose me in the procedure and backstory and tangents that go nowhere. Also, I once read this post from Ask A Manager about an employee who was sickened by how often and gleefully her coworkers talked about violent crime and, honestly, I related to the prudish letter writer!
Nevertheless, I am listening to Stay Sexy and Don’t Get Murdered, and I’m loving it because the authors are relatable weirdos, compelling storytellers, moving writers, and funny. They are also unabashed feminists, which, really, I think should be a prerequisite for any job that involves investigating/discussing/dissecting/preventing grisly crimes against women. The chapters in the book seem to be based on various catchphrases and credos from the show, one of which is “fuck politeness.” Fuck politeness because politeness will keep you stuck in dangerous situations when you are afraid of overreacting or being rude or hurting someone’s feelings. Fuck politeness because politeness will let you override your instincts, the alarm bells going off in your head, the red flags flapping your face. Please note: politeness is not the same as kindness. Do not fuck kindness. Never fuck kindness. Fuck politeness because politeness can get you killed.
As soon as I heard the Murderinos’ theory of why fucking politeness is a life-saving imperative, I knew it was true. Looking back over my own blessedly abbreviated history of finding my way into and out of all manner of nettlesome, nasty, and noxious scrapes, I see that the pattern was always the same: 1) I followed my own underdeveloped sense of self-esteem onto the outskirts of a shady situation; 2) social grooming to be polite and pleasant muted me as I followed someone else smack into the middle of the danger zone; and, eventually, 3) my survival instinct screamed at me to fuck politeness and get the fuck out.
I’m thinking of the time I let a fully-grown weather-beaten fifty-something man I met buying cigarettes at the 7-Eleven into the car with me and my nineteen-year-old girlfriends, let him tag along with for hours going to various parties, brought him into our house at the end of the night, nervously waved off my roommates as they disappeared into their bedrooms with their boyfriends, and then resigned myself to hanging out with this guy for however long he stayed at my house. I desperately wanted to sleep, too, and I was terrified that this man thought he was on his way to my room, but I was afraid to ask him to leave after spending the whole evening with him. I was convinced I owed him my company for as long as he wanted it. If my anxiety was through the roof even before we got high, it went stratospheric after. Somehow, my altered state made it clear: this guy needed to go. My mouth was moving a mile a minute but not saying any of the things it needed to say. I knew it was unforgivable to kick him out after taking his drugs and if I wasn’t going to have sex with him the least I could do was be entertaining. It wasn’t until he leaned over me that I figured out how to fuck politeness. I jumped off the couch, sprinted to the back of the house, and started pounding on my roommate’s door and screaming for her and her boyfriend to make him leave. They did. I woke up the next morning with huge bruises on my legs and no idea where they came from.
My conditioning for is so strong that when the man came back the next day I refused to see him but told my roommates to tell him I was sorry. My politeness drive is so strong that I put this man on a list of “people I have harmed” when I worked the eighth step years later. It really was shitty to smoke his shit and run. I’ve forgiven myself for the dumb choices that put me in that situation. It’s harder to forgive myself for not knowing a way to get out of it without acting like a bitch, a trainwreck, a hot scary mess, even though I knew in the moment that hopping that train was what it would take to save my life.
I’m writing this vulgar overshare of post for COVID-related reasons.
When the pandemic hit, I rarely wore a mask. I never went anywhere except for walks around the neighborhood and it was frigid for weeks, so I scarcely saw anyone. Even when the weather warmed up, it was so rare that anyone came anywhere near six feet and it was so easy to just cross the street if I saw someone coming my way. Around Memorial Day more neighbors started spending time outside. At first I tried to keep my distance and when their kids ran up to me I would panic and tug the bandana tied around my neck up over my nose. When the data started to come out about the relatively low risk of transmission outside compared to indoors, I started to relax. When experts started to suggest expanding shelter-in-place bubbles to include one or two other families as a means of preserving mental health and making this thing sustainable, I started to relax. When Illinois started to flatten the curve and move into new phases of reopening, I started to relax. I got comfortable talking to my neighbors outside without a mask. I got comfortable taking my daughter to the playground without a mask. I got comfortable leaving the house without even grabbing a mask just in case.
That’s changing, though. The summer–hell, the year–is halfway over and the pandemic is still going strong but people are pouring out of their houses onto the sidewalks, into the parks, onto the beaches and trails and streets. More people I know are getting sick. The potential long-term complications of the virus are starting to look scarier. Now, when I see people outside, I recoil like I did back in March. I reach for my mask. It feels awkward to don a mask outside when I’ve been walking around without one for so long. It feels rude to pull it up when I pass people who aren’t wearing theirs. It feels rude to wear it when I’m with people I’ve been hanging out with outside since May. Obviously, I know it’s not objectively rude to wear a mask, but it feels that way sometimes. Social conditioning is fucked like that. Even worse than feeling rude, it feels like an admission of fault for not wearing one in the first place. Luckily, I know how to override my stupid social anxieties to save a life:
Fuck politeness. Fuck what other people think.
It doesn’t matter if you think or know you should have done a thing a long time ago or if you’re embarrassed or afraid to just be doing it. It doesn’t matter how hard you committed to your earlier course of action or how far it took you off course. It’s never too late to course correct and do the right thing.