Dingus of the Week: People Who Tell You to Take Off Your Mask

It’s okay to still wear masks. This week we are drinking allspice dram.

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I went to Sioux City last weekend to research a story I’m working on. While I was there, I met up with Ty Rushing, the former managing editor of the Newton Daily News. We met in a dive bar in North Sioux City.

Walking up to the building, I grabbed the door to go inside and then panicked. I let go. Then, I went around back to the outdoor seating area and stood awkwardly looking around, wondering why it was empty, why all the noise was coming from inside. “Was that just you at the door?” Ty texted. I tried to laugh at myself. Of course, I could go inside. I was vaccinated. So was he. I could go inside. I repeated it like a mantra. I could go inside. I could go inside. I walked around to the front again and opened the door and then walked in.

The bar was lined with people. Bodies leaning, mouths breathing, legs touching. Fingers and arms wreathed around cans and glasses. No masks. Maybe they were vaccinated too. Although it didn’t seem likely. Not here, anyway, where vaccine hesitancy is high. 

When I walked up to the bar to order, an older man made a comment. The sort of comment that’s meant to be friendly and strike up a meaningless conversation. The sorts of meaningless conversations I used to be so good at. The ones I’ve been missing. I didn’t reply. He didn’t have a mask, and I folded my hands across my chest. I wasn’t trying to be an asshole. I just didn’t know how to orient myself to this world.

“Is this the new bouncer?” he joked. I knew I had to say something. I had to be friendly. I had to talk. It wasn’t about him; it was about me. I couldn’t think about the air, the closeness of strangers, our teetering proximity to disease. I couldn’t think about how in this town, where the pandemic had been the worst, how so many meat-packing plant workers had died and no one seemed to care. How the state had forced the plants back open so people could eat their meat, and we still don’t know the true human cost of that calculation. I felt light-headed, but I forced a smile. I told him I’m the sort who gets kicked out of bars rather than doing the kicking out. It was enough. We laughed and joked about beer. I turned back to the table with my order. I sat down and drank a beer with a friend inside.

This week, there has been a sort of backlash against people who are perceived to be addicted to the lockdown and refuse to take off their masks. It’s a ridiculous narrative that seeks to pathologize hesitancy and fear.

But, over 579,000 people are dead. Do you know that? Do any of us really know that? I think of the friend who told me that in New York City, in the early days of March in 2020, someone died in front of his building. A breathless body found in the morning and carried away. I think of my friend who got COVID-19 in July and is still struggling for air. Bodies clogging morgues in L.A. So many that the city lifted air-quality regulations so they could burn them, and now their dust is in the air, making other people cough and choke. A cycle of breathlessness I still cannot fully comprehend.

We are told to be inspired at how we did it. How we managed to get through. The unity. The horrible white-toothed unity asks us to forget the people who are no longer here. This “get back to normal” rhetoric ignores that we have not fully comprehended the craters of loss in our lives and in our communities. It asks us to forget not just the loss but the brutality of the politics that brought us here. The sneering indifference. The politicians who mocked. Our friends and neighbors who said it wasn’t that bad. 

I remember after the flood of 2008, helping the company I worked for at the time plan a “Back and Better” campaign to celebrate that they had rebuilt after the river water had consumed their entire building. We were working in the second story of the theater, while our offices were cleaned and renovated. And every day I’d walk into work, past a homeless couple sleeping in their car and walk up the stairs, past the soggy and molding remains of walls, and help write copy about how everything was better now. Someone called the police on the homeless couple, and they disappeared. The day we moved back into those newly renovated “back and better” offices, I was laid off. Because we weren’t back and we weren’t better no matter what the glossy marketing copy said. 

Now, my town celebrates all we’ve rebuilt after the flood  and forgets what we willingly razed to the ground — the homes, the businesses, the stories — forgotten now in the shiny-faced narrative of resilience. Get the beer. Take off the mask. Turn your face to the sun and absolutely forget. This is the message, because to remember, we’d have to remember that it never had to be this way in the first place.

This is what the “take off your mask and get back to normal” crowd is missing: that we still have not taken into account our losses. We haven’t yet let ourselves look into the wound. We don’t understand its shape or depth. And maybe we never will. America is good at that after all. We weaponize our national grief and turn it into wars. We take lives lost and make them metaphors about strength. We do everything we can to forget the actual skin, breath, tangles of hair, freckles, moles, laughter that compose a human form. We make them numbers. Simple loss lines in the accounting books of a nation. And what of the other countries? The people begging for vaccines who can’t get them because of American selfishness?

This is why there is a backlash against people who are still cautious. The sight of a mask is a marker of what happened, when everyone would simply just like to forget.

What I Am Reading:

This week, I wrote about the time America had universal child care and how we messed it up. Sarah Jones wrote about how the backlash to day care is about controlling women. I re-read this essay by Colin Dickey about the politics of national grief. In a real big shocker, birthrates are declining. And once again, to the people who are curious about how this surprising development could have happened, I gesture to the wreck of the American experiment and say, “Go to hell!”

I read this very long, very good read about natural disasters and how we choose to rebuild.

That one guy has a blog now.

That labor shortage? Well, maybe people are just sick of being asked to work grueling long hours for little pay and no benefits?

Kim Kardashian is involved in an art-smuggling scheme. Please leave mothers alone this Mother’s Day. I am absolutely obsessed with the TV show Mare of Easttown, which involves a Cheez-Whiz-eating Kate Winslet as a sad-sack detective. And GQ did a public service and put together a sad-sack detective ranking.

With the news about Josh Duggar, I am thinking a lot about churches and cycles of abuse, which is a topic I wrote on in 2015. It’s still really relevant.

My friend Brian Oliu wrote a book of essays about fandom, pain, and professional wrestling, and you can pre-order it!

In case you missed it in the last email, my life is changing a little bit. I’m going to be shifting into book-writing mode (!!). I sold a third book titled This American Ex Wife. And I am very excited to finally write a book, not in the margins of my life and in stolen moments, but to have it be my job. Speaking of jobs, I think it’s important you all read this about the media and how it survives.

What I Am Drinking:

I got some allspice dram and made a Lion’s Tail cocktail this week and drank it by a fire while my kids jumped on the trampoline, and it was good. The drink does taste a little like a warm fire on a chilly spring night. And I loved it. I planted all my herbs this week, and I cannot wait to start making some Arnold Palmers with fresh mint. My sister and her husband are coming to visit this weekend!!! And I think I might make them a spiced tequila old fashioned.

Please recommend your favorite memoirs about marriage and love.

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