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Saturday, June 22, 2024
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Laterally SpeakingBehind the Mask

Behind the Mask

When I was eight, my favourite item of clothing was my ‘Zorro’ mask. Simple, black and elegant, I wouldn’t go anywhere without it. Kids’ parties, walking the dog, playing in the garden or even going to bed—on went my mask and, in a flash, I was the bravest and finest swordsman on the planet and invisible to all the baddies! We’ve got masked heroes like Batman, Spiderman and the Lone Ranger and tortured masked villains like the Joker, Darth Vader, Phantom of the Opera and Hannibal Lecter, although the latter’s mask was to stop him from eating other people rather than conceal his identity!
Masks can hide you or protect you from other people, or they can protect others from you and any germs you might be harbouring. In just a few months, we have now got so used to masks that it’s become completely normal to carry them wherever you go. I pop them on and off in shops or public places without a second thought. Yes, they’re a bit of a bore and an inconvenience, but they are now a part of day-to-day life and likely to be with us for many years to come—if not in perpetuity.
So, rather than grudgingly put up with them, I feel we should embrace them joyfully and use them to our advantage. For a start, face masks are a major new item of fashion and the biggest impact to boring old clothes for decades. I’ve seen skeleton masks, smiley face, floral, cat and wild animal masks. And they don’t have to be boring old light blue. Be inventive and go for colourful art or a meaningful message which has much more impact than lacklustre phrases on a T-shirt. Text on a mask is literally “in your face”, or more correctly perhaps “on your face”. My current favourites are “If you can read this, you’re too close to me”, “Quarantine Queen” and a plain black one with “This is my happy face mask”.
One potential problem is how wearing a mask makes us all more remote from each other as human beings. It’s impossible to be 100% sure of anyone’s facial expression. Is he smiling or is it a frown? Is she being friendly or disgusted? I know that the eyes are supposed to tell us most things about a person, but it doesn’t work in practice. Seeing your eyes but not your nose or mouth conveys only part of the message where a pout can easily become half a grin. Perhaps we need hand signals as extra clues? Four fingers held up together means ‘I really am smiling, please smile back’. A clenched fist might mean ‘please go away’—a bit like pictorial emojis added to a mobile text message.
Another problem is the failure to recognise people. You’re in the supermarket and everyone’s got a mask on. A couple bump into you near the frozen fish section and they both turn their faces to you and say ‘Hello!’. Who on earth are these people? They obviously know me but they might be that nice couple from number 27 or the new Honiton bank manager and her husband. I have no idea… and because I don’t immediately respond, they walk on and will forever think I’m the rudest person in Devon.
This problem can be used to your advantage in reverse. You know how putting on a mask makes you strangely invisible to others, just like me putting on my Zorro mask? Well, for the first time in your life you can be extremely rude to people you don’t like when you’re wearing a mask. You can silently mouth all kinds of obscenities at them and pull rude faces but they will not know. They will probably think you’re smiling at them and say ‘Good Morning’ to you. This is strangely satisfying and exciting! Just make absolutely sure your mask fully covers your mouth!
You could even go one stage further if you are brave enough. Try walking into a shop with absolutely no clothes on except for your mask. Apart from causing considerable offence and an affront to public decency (and possibly getting arrested), you’ll be OK because nobody will know who you are. I’m not really promoting this idea as it is fraught with danger. And please wear a boringly common light blue mask as somebody might recognise you if you wear your individual pirate disguise or President Trump mask. You could also anonymously rob a bank I suppose, but I am not encouraging this either!
There are plenty of advantages to wearing a mask. Women never need to put on lipstick. Men can hide their embarrassing designer stubble. Acne, spots and zits are never visible. The material will also partially disguise morning ‘bad beer breath’ and nobody will ever annoy you again by saying ‘why aren’t you smiling?’ as they’ll have no idea if you are or you aren’t. The only other downside is that talking through material smothers your speech like cotton wool, but then since I am increasingly deaf, I’m already asking everyone to repeat what they just said.
But perhaps the best thing about wearing a mask is the wonderful new sensation of liberation. You know… you’ve been out shopping with your mask and finally get back half-suffocated to your car. You close the door and remove your mask. The feeling of utter relief at being able to breathe again is fantastic!

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