I can’t stop laughing at a screenshot of the “Promotions” tag of my Gmail inbox.
There is a long list of emails sent on behalf of liberal NGOs like Committee to Protect Medicare and Planned Parenthood, usually signed by a doctor using his or her title followed by a first name. This tendency toward a pseudo-professional diminutive not only grates on me as a twee affect, it makes me nervous. Seeing an email signed “Dr. Rob” or “Dr. Max” does not inspire confidence; it’s a bit too Doctor Phil, or Dr. Nick. No thank you, I demand a Dr. Chang, Patel or Goldstein. I demand to live in a society.
There is also a promotion from n+1 with the subject line, “The police could simply stop arresting people,” as if you were receiving an email from some listless smokes-weed-once Holden Caulfield-type (except he’s 42 years old and lives in Berlin).
At the top, mercifully, is an ad for Banana Republic: “Earth Tones for Summer.” Bless you, Banana Republic. For one, I am relieved that someone is acknowledging that summer will still happen, and that we are to wear earth tones; I’m always happy for instruction, even though I usually ignore it. More importantly though, I’m relieved to read a normal commercial, rather than what Patrik Sandberg calls the post-pandemic “‘hang in there’ tone” of brand promotions. Even if it suggests, as Sandberg says, “Earth tones, for slowly sinking further and further into the floor of your apartment until you leave a groove,” I far prefer it to the progressive Sesame Street doctors, the Damn-Makes-You-Think literary leftists, and especially the clothing company telling me that it’s “ok to be selfish right now” (and by the way, a knitwear maxi skirt might make for a good little investment in self-care during quarantine).
But the worst of the promotions are the ones that breathlessly, joyously, even proudly announce the launch of a brand new line of products: “cute” face masks.
I do wear a mask (so congratulations if you made it this far into the essay without calling the cops on me), and I hate it. I’m aware that not liking the masks is neither an original nor productive sentiment, but it doesn’t hurt anyone to admit it either, so it would stand to reason that it is an appropriate and healthy thing to feel and to say. And so…
I hate The Masks. I hate wearing them, I hate seeing other people wearing them, I hate seeing the discarded ones all over the ground. I fucking hate them. I feel like I live in an open-air hospital, or a particularly cosmopolitan leper colony. I miss human faces very badly, and I hate the sensation of being trapped in a breathing swamp of my own self, as each damp exhale rolls back onto my face.
I smoke more than I ever have, just to rationalize any unmasked moment outside, literal poisonous fumes my only respite. I still wear lipstick every day and tell myself it’s another one of my hidden adornments, like how I sometimes wear lingerie under jeans and a t-shirt because it makes me feel like I’ve hidden a sexy secret, or when I give myself a pedicure during the winter, even when there’s no one who would ever see it. But to tell you the truth, I don’t know why I still bust out the glossy spring pinks that smear and stain the inside of the mask, nor do I intend to figure it out. I don’t find it particularly healthy at this moment to scrutinize one’s own behavior. Self-awareness can be a slippery slope in the midst of a quarantine; don’t stare into the mirror too long, you’ll go nuts.
There has of course emerged a predictable cottage industry of self-help articles on how to “be” under quarantine, many of which paint it as an “opportunity.” And they’re not wrong; it is an opportunity—for them to write articles for a bunch of anxious and directionless people who really do want some instruction on how to become your optimal you (while also protecting yourself and others from a potentially deadly disease that is killing people all over the world).
Big tech cannot hide their delight; finally, a truly captive user base! Facebook insists that “We’re never lost if we can find each other,” which might feel grossly insensitive, but only until you see the glee in the Apple ad: “Now, more than ever, we’re inspired by people in every corner of the world finding new ways to share their creativity, ingenuity, humanity and hope.” Totally. We can all just use this time to learn watercolors (while also protecting yourself and others from a potentially deadly disease that is killing people all over the world).
The brands are already telling us that the masks are merely another fun new consumer choice we are being offered; they’re just another way to be fashionable and/or express your individuality (while also protecting yourself and others from a potentially deadly disease that is killing people all over the world). For those skeptical of “Big Mask,” thousands of small business entrepreneurs now sew day and night, offering their own bespoke face masks through Etsy and the like, so that now you can support small businesses and wear a mask that differentiates your taste from those corporate sheeple (while also protecting yourself and others from a potentially deadly disease that is killing people all over the world). The DIY lifestyle brands now offer tutorials on how to make your own mask, because with a little instruction from the experts, you too can be competent, capable and crafty (while also protecting yourself and others from a potentially deadly disease that is killing people all over the world).
One of the more startling artifacts of World War 2 is a children’s gas mask designed by the US Army in conjunction with Walt Disney himself, modeled to resemble Mickey Mouse. The argument was that the beloved cartoon would calm panicking children as they fled mustard gas, but of course trying to make a gas mask “cute” only results in rendering them even more menacing, and the specter of chemical warfare that it’s intended to protect you from even more conspicuous by contrast. Thus, the new market of boutique facemasks repulses me far more than any makeshift from a bandana or scarf, or the cold medicality of the N95 respirator. But make no mistake; they all suck.
Interpersonally, the corporate and culture industries’ obliviousness to suffering is reflected in a marked phenomenon of social shaming, which doesn’t stop at insisting others wear masks, but scolds anyone who dares admit that this isn’t fun. After posting an Instagram story bitching about the masks, I received a slew of nervous texts and direct messages from people who also hate the fucking masks, but felt guilty about saying so, or had already said it and were instantly reprimanded. From one friend:
I wrote a fb post about how I was horrified by the culture of masks and thought it represented a horrible new chapter in society, where people were more separated, mutually suspicious, and alienated. Part of a nightmarish fantasy of frictionless life. Germ-Free Adolescence, without the irony. I was promptly defriended by a bunch of plague ambulance chasers who apparently love them and hope they’ll be adopted in normal post-pandemic life.
Another said a friend called him “irresponsible” for complaining, and another said her boyfriend got angry with her for saying how much she hated them. Strangely, all the admonitions came from progressives and lefties, the sort of generally supportive therapy-culture inflected types who are always giving others (and to no less extent themselves) “permission to feel your feelings.” Now these same people think your feelings are self-indulgent—apparently abandoning their defense of narcissism and irrational contempt for stoicism. Before the crisis, their “tolerance” was always on display because “it’s ok to not be ok”; now they are severely intolerant of any emotional expression or sentiment that suggests that their idea of a utopia is actually a dystopia for the vast majority of well-adjusted people who are not pathologically anti-social.
My friend who was mass-defriended said, “I knew when the people who think it’s abuse for grandma to hug them or to have to shake hands started getting excited that something fundamentally bad was coming.” I understand a libidinal urge to be constrained, restricted, dominated, etc., but can’t these people just find someone to choke them during sex (like a normal person)? Public health policy is not a healthy venue for the sublimation of desires.
The past few years in “left” political circles have been marked by the tyranny of hysterics and histrionics; emotional terrorists who take us all hostage with their “feelings.” Not only have these indulgent manipulations eroded productivity and all sense of trust; a preoccupation with trauma and pain has had the equivocal effect of poking a wound so that it cannot heal.
I’m on the record saying that feelings are overrated, and I still maintain people have far too many of them these days. But our present condition is a pretty justifiable moment for expression, or even the odd outburst. So why are the esrtwhile hysterical Crybullies of Social Justice Sanctimony now extolling the virtues of stoicism and censuring those who would dare admit that this moment might be a bit—dare I say—“traumatizing?”
Well, because now there’s a real terrorist in town, and they need to jump on her coattails if they intend to stay relevant. Culturally, there is no patience left for the chaotic intersectionalists and identitarians. The people who bitch about clapping can hardly claim sensory overload and maintain their virtuous posture during the daily seven o’clock thanks to the frontline workers. They look absurd continuing to try to police language when Trump is calling COVID the “Chinese Virus.” We have real problems now. As Sam Kriss puts it, “the petty tyrants are now busy terrorising people over literal rather than moral hygiene.” And so, these authoritarian personalities, delighted for a new opportunity to exercise moralistic—and now medical—authority, demand we wear two masks: a respirator and a cheerful countenance.
If there is any silver lining to this pandemic, culturally speaking, it’s that it will disabuse everyone of the idea that it’s “kind” to allow ourselves to be terrorized by the most pathologically anti-social scolds among us, who now smugly say, “Well the masks SAVE LIVES.”
Well so does chemotherapy, and it’s still incredibly unpleasant. But unlike chemotherapy, The Masks are a medical prescription to the entire population. When you walk outside, the whole world is masked. This microscopic evil hasn’t merely terrorized us with illness and death, she has stolen our very faces. She has atomized us completely, and when the threat of her presence doesn’t do enough to disperse crowds on its own, she enlists us to do it for her. And we have to comply with her demands, because otherwise she will kill more hostages.
If you are not a brand, a sociopath, or a tyrannical personality, you likely do not enjoy this moment, and there is no way for you to trick yourself into it. You probably do not possess preternaturally WASPy superpowers of denial, and you probably don’t make your living churning out piping hot takes of utterly heartless Professional Managerial Class opportunism. So you “have permission” to acknowledge that you are witnessing corrosion, decline and death. (You’re not Dr. Jill Biden, for Chrissake.)
The reality is that there’s no attitude adjustment or shift in perspective that can spin this into something positive. There is no short-cut, no One Neat Trick to turn your frown upside-down. There are basic things. Try to keep your sleep regular and your nutrition good. Don’t do too many drugs or livestream too much. But mostly you’re just going to have to grope around for a way to live that keeps you sane. Work out. Read. Don’t beat yourself up when you can’t get through War and Peace. Watch some of those Criterion Collection movies you always said you would. Bake bread, get mad about other people baking bread, be a part of the bread-baking backlash, then join the backlash to the backlash. Take selfies (with or without your little Mickey Mouse gas mask, whatever). Look at other people’s selfies. Remember faces. Think fondly back on that one guy with the strangely elegant face, remember that he was into Jung and not Freud, and wonder if you’ll ever learn what that was all about. Maybe stick to a routine. Or maybe try new things? I really don’t know.
The Jungian with the elegant face once told me the story of how his grandfather, a disgraced civil engineer, was starving during a famine in the Old Country. One day he heard a knock on his door; it was a former colleague—one who had been disgraced alongside him long ago, when their team had tried to design a defense project based on the electrocution of the enemy that failed to account for rain, and the fact that water was a conductor of electricity. They had not seen or heard from each other in many years, but the former colleague was delirious and could not explain why he was there. He shoved a briefcase into the hands of a man who I like to imagine also had an elegant face, and then he left. The Jungian’s grandfather opened the case, and it was full of candy bars. American candy bars. Candy bars that they didn’t sell in the old country. The chocolate sustained him through the rest of the famine, but he never found out where they came from.
As an immigrant in America, he couldn’t stand chocolate, not even the smell, but he gave it lovingly to his grandchildren—including my elegant-faced friend—whenever he saw them. The Jungian told me this story after seeing me take a bite of a chocolate chip cookie. He leaned in very close to my face while speaking, and watched my reactions very intently until the very end (of the story, not the cookie). When he seemed satisfied with my response—I was rapt, I love good stories and I loved this one so much I decided to believe every word—he relaxed. He then casually draped his arm across the back of the sofa we shared, grazing the length of my shoulders, and turned a now-placid gaze to a cluster of fellow Bernie Sanders supporters. They were celebrating. We were all celebrating. This feels like an ancient memory; it was about twelve weeks ago.
I don’t know what any of that means.
I think my brain is firing off warm memories and semi-mystical vignettes to remind me of the unknowability of the universe, and to reassure me that even if there is some grand order to the world, it will always be beyond our capacity to comprehend, so I shouldn’t worry too much about it. We can know some things—that material security is good, and suffering is bad. We can even construct a political agenda around those two simple principles; but basically almost everything else will always be over our pretty little heads. But we do know that suffering is definitely bad.
So I wear the mask. I wear this conspicuous physical and sensory reminder of death and isolation, because I want the people around me to feel safer. I refuse however, to wear that other mask, the facade of good cheer prescribed to me by the pathetic little tyrants this pandemic will hopefully put into perspective.
Shove it up your ass.
I hate this.
What the fuck is an “archetype?”
I think I would look good in earth tones.
Amber A’Lee Frost is a writer and podcaster who has yet to escape Brooklyn, New York.