During a business trip with my family to Washington state, I remember sitting through this documentary about Mt. Saint Helens, which had erupted only a few years prior. One image that stuck with me is one of people walking through smoggy streets all wearing surgical masks. There was also this one image from a science book about cities of the future that burned itself into my brain.
|This is the Usborne Book of the Future. It’s sadly out of print, but has been scanned and archived at various locations. It’s a little bit dated on the science side of things, but still a fascinating look into our past visions of the future. http://calameo.download/00081642432fc0bfded26|
Fast-forward to several years later when I started watching anime and generally learning what I could about Japanese culture, and I noticed a recurring theme of some people wearing surgical masks in public. I never quite put together what was going on, though there was this correlation between wearing the mask and being sick, not unlike wearing a scarf or muffler. It was later explained to me that the mask is worn by the sick person to keep them from spreading it to others, which probably took my brain more time to process than I'd prefer to admit to because you always see the surgical mask of keeping things OUT rather than IN, hence being worn by surgeons. Like almost everything in Japan, something as practical as a paper fiber mask became an entire aesthetic unto itself. While there may be some connotations with gang activity, these are very much the exception and not the rule.
Fast forward again to a few years ago when I read a post about someone with a severe tree nut allergy suffering through the holidays, and "suffering" is not being melodramatic or hyperbolic. This is someone with a tree nut allergy so severe that the mere smell of nuts can trigger a reaction requiring an epi-pen. Most of the time, this isn't a problem for her. However, when the holidays roll around, grocery stores suddenly become mine fields dotted with bushels of walnuts, almonds, and macadamias. The solution to this problem is a simple enough one, a neoprene mask with a few filters to allow better ventilation while also trapping the offending particles. Unfortunately, this solution invites more than a few stares and even full-blown suspicions from others in the grocery store. Age plays a small role in this, one might assume; someone sees an elderly person wearing one, they won't think twice, or maybe they'll put it together that they're trying to keep the bad stuff out. If it's a youngster, suddenly it becomes an issue of morals and criminal justice... never mind that if someone is going to rob a grocery store, they're not going to wander around the produce section pushing a cart and asking staff where the stuffed mushrooms are, all while wearing a mask.
A few years later, we had a really bad flu season. I had missed my flu shot because we were unseasonably warm and I had assumed (incorrectly I learned later) that it was all the more unlikely I'd get the flu and that if I did get the shot, it may not be effective because I may well have gotten it too early. Well, I did get sick, and I probably don't have to tell you how horrible it was. Fortunately, I was put on some antibiotics which helped, along with getting some of my aforementioned misconceptions cleared up by my doctor. Since then, it's become a small tradition every Labor Day to take advantage of the time off work to beat any lines and get my flu shot. Around the same time, when my roommate was sick, she hit upon the idea of getting a box of those surgical masks from the local Walgreens. It wasn’t uncommon to see people in masks, though usually it was older folks who were likely using it to keep OUT rather than IN.
Today, we’re glad we still have some left. I’ve got some reusable ones, but these served well in the time before those arrived.
It's rather surreal that seeing someone wearing a mask has become so rapidly normalized. People will likely still be wearing them long after lockdown orders are fully relaxed. I'll certainly be wearing them when flu season comes around, novel viruses notwithstanding. All of this talk about when we’ll have normalcy or what-have-you is ignoring a lot of history. Just think of how air travel has been affected by the 9/11 terror attacks. The very fact that your bathroom has an abundance of tile and similarly slick and washable surfaces is a result of previous pandemics, including the Spanish Flu, Cholera, Tuberculosis, and Polio.
When we go to buffets or cafeterias, we don’t give a second thought to the sneeze guards over the salad bar. We all know why they’re there, and I don’t know of anyone who’s raised a fit over it. Maybe that wasn’t the case when they were new, but any outrage today invites more eye-rolls than affirming or polite nods. I think about that when I go to grocery shopping and see the sneeze guards in front of the cashiers. At first, these were pretty ramshackled affairs, painter’s tarps draped over scrap wood or some PVC pipe. Now, many of them are plexiglass with some strips of particle board or metal brackets for reinforcements. Sure, it’s one more surface to clean up at the end of the day, and obviously they’re going to have to be replaced as they get scuffed, scratched, and cracked from general wear-and-tear, but as far as a regular operating expense goes, what exactly would be the harm in leaving them up? It’s no different than some convenience stores in rough neighborhoods putting their cashiers behind glass boxes that make my bank’s entrance look like a screen door on rusty hinges. If that expense can be justified, what’s a little Lexan at Lowes? What’s wrong with these handfuls of extra precautions no more onerous or intrusive on our daily lives than motion sensors on restroom sinks and hand dryers or anything being advertised as Lead-free?
It's an amusing thought that for X number of people who simply see the mask and don't give it a second thought, there's at least 1 person out of that group who is silently screaming because of some hang-up or pet peeve yet doesn't want to say anything because it's simply not worth the effort to let the world know a piece of fabric can send you on a tirade?
It’s not a new thing, it’s doing far more good than harm, and it’s not going away. No one’s trying to control you, no one’s trying to infringe on your rights, and no one is trampling on your deeply-held beliefs. It’s a practical solution to a legitimate real-world problem. It transcends politics and ideologies. Having personal freedom means taking personal responsibility for what you do with those freedoms as well as fail to do in spite of them. We are individuals, but we are singular as much as we are plural.