For now, at least, I’ve lost something I have loved about Texas.
I grew up in a city where you did not say hello to passing strangers on the street. That was a risky invitation to trouble.
I didn’t realize until I moved here a quarter of a century ago that living the opposite way — saying hello — makes you feel a part of something. If you grew up in a small town, especially, you know what I mean.
At the grocery store, when I pass you in the aisle, if our eyes meet, I smile and say hello. If you ignore me, that’s OK, too. But that doesn’t work anymore.
On my last shopping trip for food, several other shoppers smiled at me, but when I smiled back, they couldn’t tell. Like many, I was wearing a medical mask. The smilers weren’t wearing masks, which is how I knew they were smiling hello. Could they tell by my eyes only that I was reciprocating?
It sounds a little trivial, but there’s a certain dehumanizing aspect to this.
Oh, if only that were the biggest problem with wearing medical masks. To wear or not to wear, that is the question. I could never have predicted that masks would serve as another battleground in the ongoing political wars. For many, wearing a mask — or not — has become a political statement.
There are many mixed messages from our leaders. President Donald Trump has said that he recommends mask-wearing, but that it’s voluntary. In a memorable line, he said he could not see himself greeting “presidents, prime ministers, dictators, kings, queens” in the Oval Office while wearing one.
“I don’t think I’m going to be doing it,” he said. When he visited an Arizona mask factory, he didn’t wear one in public, but he said he wore one “backstage.”
The photo of Vice President Mike Pence not wearing a mask at the Mayo Clinic in contrast to everyone around him was symbolic. Bad optics, as they say in politics. Watch what we do, not what we say.
Pence, too, had a truly memorable line explaining why he went mask-less. He said he wanted to meet “these incredible health care personnel, and look them in the eye and say ‘thank you.’” Pence said later, “I should have worn the mask.”
Gov. Greg Abbott didn’t speak about masks in his first set of prepared remarks about reopening Texas. When I pointed that out in a real-time tweet, someone quickly tweeted back that I was a “lib.” Abbott eventually addressed masks when a reporter asked him about them. He said he recommended wearing them but called that voluntary. It felt, at least to me, as if he didn’t want to touch the subject.
In his latest open-Texas remarks, though, Abbott placed more emphasis on masks. For businesses that serve the public directly, he said, “the only safe way we can go about providing that service while ensuring that we’re doing everything possible to prevent the transmission of COVID-19 would be for both the person providing the service and the customer wearing a face mask.”
Does wearing a face mask mean you approve of government intervention in your life? Some apparently believe so. But from what the medical experts tell us, it prevents the wearer from passing germs, especially when the wearer may be asymptomatic and not physically ill, but a carrier and a spreader. Wearing a mask also helps remind you to be careful about what you touch and do.
In one sense, a mask actually is the equivalent of a humanizing smile. Wearing one should not be seen as a political act. It’s an affirmation of life.
If I could, I’d prefer to affirm life another way. But I don’t feel this is a choice. When I first started wearing one, I admit I was embarrassed. I felt awkward, as if people were staring at me. Now when I’m the only one in a small store wearing one, I don’t feel superior or like a lib. But I still feel uncomfortable, both physically and socially. I’m hoping I get used to it.
Masks are uncomfortable. They’re hot. A little hard to breathe. And sometimes a mask fogs up my glasses, which is annoying.
But these masks aren’t going away. One by one, all the major airlines fell in line. You can’t fly without a mask. A four-hour flight? That should be fun. At many shopping malls, masks are optional. How long will that last?
In a mere couple of months, masks have entered our lives. I call it “the Maskification of America.” We’re proud people. We don’t like being told what to do. And yes, this is inconvenient, uncomfortable and dehumanizing.
But consider the alternative.