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culture Essays personal

The True Self Gives Life to the Mask

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A million years ago, when I was attending the Actors Studio Drama School in New York, my class took part in a fascinating three-week workshop on performance in masks. While considered sort of avant-garde today, theatre more or less began with performers masking themselves or disguising their faces to tell stories. The classics of the Greeks and the slapstick buffoonery of commedia dell’arte were all originally performed in masks. The most common icon for theatre today is a pair of masks, one for comedy and one for tragedy. So this was going to be some exciting work in getting back to the roots of our craft, learning some vital fundamentals.

The sessions began even more fundamentally than we expected. To the surprise I think of many of my classmates, the first week’s session was absolutely free of masks. After a rather reverent introduction to mask work, we spent the rest of our time staring at our own faces in the mirror. Up close.

Literally face to face with ourselves, we were instructed to look deeply and coldly at our reflections. We were told to examine every line, curve, spot, and flaw with excruciating detail and meditative patience. We were made to drop all attempts at animation or expression, to let our faces find a state of absolute rest, to give up control of our facial muscles to gravity.

It was difficult and emotionally challenging, and yet we were to refrain from showing that emotion. We needed to simultaneously investigate our own faces with impartiality while also retaining mastery over them. This would be hard, I think, for anyone to do, but imagine the struggles of a room full of actors, all building their careers and lives on the imperfect, asymmetrical image before them.

As the workshop sessions went on, the reasoning for subjecting us to this became clear. Before we could ever be allowed to put on a mask, we had to reckon with the ones we were already wearing.

It’s a cliche to say that we all wear a mask to some degree, actors and non-actors alike, but it’s also true. The metaphor of the mask has special resonance with me, not just because of my life as an actor, but for the masks of normalcy that I have shielded myself with for decades. I won’t recount all the ways in which I am an odd duck, but consider the utility of “masking” for someone who has always been small, anxious, and awkward, creative and highly sensitive, bullied mercilessly in childhood and subject to other traumas in adulthood, and, for the kicker, on the autism spectrum.

Particularly since being diagnosed with Asperger’s only a few years ago, I have been working very hard to deconstruct those masks, to peel them away, layer by layer, and discover who the person behind them actually is. To pass as human had been the enterprise of my life, and over time it exhausted and sickened me. I lost myself within those masks, and I was terrified of who I’d find once they were gone.

I didn’t need to be. Here I am in my early 40s, getting on just fine, all things considered. It was enormously difficult, but I have learned to accept a great deal about who I am and who I never will be. I have grown to appreciate things about myself I never allowed myself to before, and I’ve acknowledged ugly truths about myself as well.

But just as I miss my life as a professional actor, taking on roles and living different lives, sometimes I miss the masks. Just as a costume can help bring an actor more fully into the mind of their character, a metaphorical mask allows a person to adopt qualities they might not otherwise possess. A personality enhanced by a mask may not be “genuine,” but is it necessarily false?

As part of coming to terms with my true self, I’ve had to accept and own my introversion and social awkwardness. But in the areas of my life where more confidence and gregariousness are called for, as in many work-related situations, am I better served by resigning to my “true self,” or might it be warranted to augment myself with the traits necessary for success? In other words, if I’m shy, but I decide to pretend to be outgoing, am I betraying myself?

A few years ago, I might have answered yes.

Part of the work of self-acceptance has been to insist on that same acceptance from everyone else — not for my own validation, but to be able to present myself truly, as I am, without the need to excuse or apologize for who I am. It’s been an essential part of this journey.

But that doesn’t mean that my “true self” always serves me best. An easy example of this comes from parenting. While I am very honest with my kids about who I am and what I’m like, there are always going to be moments when I am doing my duty to them as a father by presenting to them a person who is stronger, more assured, and wiser than I know myself to be. This isn’t to fool them, but to give them the care or the example they need in that moment. It’s not false, but it is a kind of mask.

And of course, there’s work, as I mentioned. As a communications professional, I can only achieve so much with creative-but-anxious, and I fail my employers if I shrug and say, well, this is who I truly am! Like an actor putting on a costume and reciting lines written by someone else, I have to put on my mask, the one that represents a character that is more confident and assertive than the real person wearing it.

This is a case of mask-as-augmentation, and I think it’s distinct from mask-as-shield. In a less self-accepting time, my masks were ways to hide who I was, to defend myself from being identified as different, to thwart anyone’s attempts to scrutinize my true self.

A defensive mask is always ill-fitting. It slips off too easily, or else constricts one’s circulation. The eyes don’t line up with the holes, or it makes it hard to breathe. To wear a mask defensively is to be in a constant state of disaster-aversion.

The relationship changes, I think, once we’ve come to accept our true face, when we take ownership of who we really are, for all our flaws. If we can get to a place where we have a handle on the whole of ourselves, strengths and weaknesses together, I think then a mask is not necessarily a shield or a disguise, but a tool.

If we mask with intention, we can thoughtfully and deliberately augment ourselves to better navigate different situations. When our natural state isn’t suited to a meaningful undertaking, we can choose the mask that supports our goals, adopting the specific qualities that help us get where we need to go, or build what we want to see come into being.

This is what we were learning in those first hours of that theatre workshop. Before the instructor would allow us to put on one of the masks she’d brought, and begin to inhabit — and be inhabited by — the character the mask represented, we needed to accept and master our own faces. We needed to take off our defensive masks, stop hiding from ourselves, and see our true faces as they really are.

To have used those masks as disguises would have been to miss the point. The goal must never be to disappear. Rather, the mask allowed us to bring something new into being. The mask was not hiding our true selves. Our true selves were giving life to the mask.

Accepting who we really are is just the start, not the end. Self-acceptance isn’t about stasis. It’s about taking responsibility for who we really are, and with intention and new understanding, finding the strength to see what else is possible. One way to find out is to try on a few masks. Who knows who might show up.

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creativity Essays personal

The Opposite of Courage

I have this idea about the relationship between courage and laziness.

Courage, as I define it, is when a person acts out of principle, knowing that the act will cause them suffering. John Lewis knew he faced beatings, imprisonment, and possibly death when he marched. Susan B. Anthony knew she faced scorn, jail, and infamy if she cast a vote. Steve Rogers knew he’d be blown to bits when he leapt on that grenade that turned out to be a dud. (Fictional examples are helpful and illustrative so back off.)

I have lamented on countless occasions my inability to choose a Major Project of some kind and see it through to fruition. (One Major Project I actually did, finally, complete, and I will eagerly share it with you when it comes into full being sometime next year.) I’d like to write a novel. I’d like to start a theatre troupe. I’d like to write nonfiction books on a number of subjects and in a number of styles. I’d like to host a podcast, write and record an album of new songs, play my music live for audiences, get into voice acting, write a newsletter, make a satire news site, and so on.

Rarely do I even begin on these fantasy projects, let alone stick with them long enough for them take flight. Why?

Sometimes, a project just isn’t the right fit. It doesn’t interest me as much as I’d hoped, or it involves commitments I am simply incapable of making. That’s no reason for anyone to beat themselves up. I mean, I will still beat myself up about it, but I shouldn’t.

But more often than not, I think what holds me back is what I’ll call laziness. That might not be an entirely fair word to use, but I want to make a point. When evaluating a Major Project, any number of factors can weigh on my mind and convince me it’s not worth beginning, or not feasible. It could be that I don’t think I have the time, or that I don’t really know how to get started. It could be that I don’t see a market for what I’d offer, or that said market is already flooded. It could be that it would require that I ask for help or collaboration with others, possibly even strangers, and my intense wincing at the thought of being socially entwined with anyone drains my resolve. It could be that I perceive that it would require a financial commitment that I can’t make, or am unwilling to try to fulfill.

All of these are justifications for inaction. Reasons not to start. Reasons not to try. Some of them might be really good reasons! Some of them might be sober and realistic assessments that lead to the reasonable conclusion that something is just not worth taking on.

Some. But not most.

Mostly, they’re about unwillingness. A lack of will, all because of an imaginary cost-benefit calculation that I have made based on a slew of unknowable factors. It’s bad math. And because the result of actually making the effort to see something to its fruition is more likely to be a valuable end in itself, regardless of anything else, it really is, for lack of a better word, laziness.

To take the first step in a new enterprise, and then to take as many additional steps as possible, is an uncomfortable thought. And each step brings with it the possibility of stubbing one’s toe, tripping, or stepping on a rake. One could take a few steps very awkwardly and wind up looking ridiculous for several paces. One could walk for a very, very long time and get very, very tired, or run out of energy entirely and collapse to the ground. One could even reach the ultimate, dreamed-of destination and find that it actually kind of sucks there. All those things could be true, and most of them almost certainly will be true.

Then what is required to do it anyway? Courage. To undertake an action of importance even though we know that a lot of the experience will be negative, even though we might not even finish it, even though what we make in the end might be kind of crappy. To work in spite of those possibilities takes courage. To put aside precious free time and resources that we may never get back takes courage. To allow oneself to be vulnerable and entreat others for help and collaboration is risky and, to me, terrifying, and it takes courage.

I’ve berated myself for being lazy for most of my life. I’ve been ashamed at my lack of courage in other instances as well. I’ve learned a great deal about myself in recent years, and I better understand the roots of my fears and aversions. But only now am I beginning to understand that what I see as my own laziness and my dearth of courage might be the same thing.

Because, in the end, laziness is about being unwilling to endure discomfort. Courage is being willing to heap it on.

I know I can endure discomfort. I believe I can take on even more. And I suspect that it might be worth it.

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culture Essays personal politics

The Old Normal Rises

There is the moment, at the point of a major crisis when it can no longer be denied, and must now be accepted as a new part of our everyday reality, that we tell the kids that everything has changed.

I didn’t have children at the time of the 9/11 attacks, but I can imagine that parents of young kids at the time had to find that right moment to explain what had happened with those planes, and why everyone was sad, scared, and angry. All of a sudden, everything was different. So much so that the kids needed to be sat down and told so in serious yet reassuring terms. I don’t know, of course, but I can guess.

I am a parent of young kids now, when the COVID-19 pandemic has really, truly changed everything. 9/11 probably didn’t fundamentally alter anything about kids’ lives back in the early 2000s, but the pandemic has utterly upended the lives of today’s kids, and it shows no signs of stopping any time soon. When schools shut down last spring as the virus broke loose, in a United States too stupid and delusional to even acknowledge it, the everything-has-changed conversation was inevitable.

My own kids had known that something called the coronavirus existed, and it sounded scary, but they had been reassured countless times that, while it was a serious problem for many people, it was not something that was likely to affect their lives or put them at any risk. I strongly suspected I might be wrong about this when I said it to them, but I didn’t know. Americans had largely avoided any upheavals due to the first SARS, West Nile Virus, H1N1, and Ebola, so it seemed like a safe bet that we’d be alright this time too. Ha.

Those several conversations with my kids over a period of weeks and months, about how they wouldn’t be going back to school for the rest of the year, about how there would be no summer camps or activities, how they couldn’t go and be with their friends, how we couldn’t bring them into the grocery store with us, how money was suddenly tighter and we wouldn’t be ordering pizza as often, and how they would be entering into a weird new quasi-school situation in the fall, they all bore the weight of that central premise: everything was different now.

Here’s the part where I admit to something uncomfortable. I genuinely regret all that my kids are losing and missing during this pandemic, and I grieve for the millions of souls lost or made to suffer from this disease. But I also felt (and, I suppose still feel) a certain twinge of satisfaction as I delivered the news of a New Normal to my kids. I think it’s because I know that the world desperately needs a new normal, a realignment of what we value and prioritize, a sober and clear-eyed look at the absurd fragility of our society. Maybe this pandemic would give our shallow, boorish culture the chance to reevaluate what really matters.

That’s not all. On a much more selfish level, I actually like some of the changes to interpersonal interaction that the virus has necessitated. I’m a severely introverted autistic with Asperger’s, I already work from home, I have little desire for travel, and I don’t have any meaningful non-familial connections that live anywhere near me. My pastimes of choice do not involve me leaving my home. The situation to which everyone else was suddenly struggling to adapt was already my comfort zone.

As I’ve written previously, I even have a soft spot for face masks, as they further anonymize me to a species that has consistently shown me that I am, at best, merely tolerated.

It’s more than that, though, because I have to hope that after such a major disruption of everyday life for an entire society, some reconsideration and recalibration will have to occur. There must be a new way of being that emerges from a disaster that is largely and plainly of our own making. If nothing else, perhaps we would experience something akin to the classic tech support cliché: we turn the whole thing off and then turn it back on again. The reboot clears away the cruft and bugs, giving us a clean slate and a fresh start.

But now, I don’t know.

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Freddie de Boer recently wrote about “romanticizing the post-apocalypse,”similarly hoping for something valuable to emerge from the chaos and death. “What I do want is some sign that we have reached a break, that events have forced us to face up to an old then and a new now, and that the tyranny of normal has been defeated at last.”

But like me, he is skeptical. “What this virus has taught me is the supreme durability of normal, the dogged survival of the mundane world, the near-impossibility of some new era in which all old expectations of civility and social norms will just extinguish or burn away…”

This is indeed what I see. While the pandemic has certainly brought out the best, most charitable, and most empathetic selves in many of us, I think for most Americans, it has simply been a pain in the ass that we need to be done with as soon as possible. Not, I should say, as soon as is best, or as soon as it’s safe, but just, like, now. This is obviously the mode of the utterly corrupt Trump administration, and we see it all the time in the outrage-inducing stories of churches flaunting social distancing rules or stupid teenagers mass-infecting each other at parties. But it’s more insidious than that, more subtle.

It’s in the insistence that we shove our kids back into classrooms rather than decide as a society that we should just pay people to stay home. It’s the delusions about how death statistics are being exaggerated (they’re not), how kids are magically resistant (they’re not), and the absurd tribalization of mask wearing.

It’s in the excuses we all keep making about who we imagine it’s safe to congregate with, because they’re family, close friends, or just people that we somehow simply know have been safe and surely aren’t carrying the virus (and, of course, neither are we!). I’m sure I’ve done it, and I bet you have too.

And yeah, it’s in the polls that show that despite the mass death, suffering, and economic calamity, we’re still a coin flip from reelecting (or reinstalling) the guy who’s primarily responsible for running us through this meat grinder.

We are simply determined not to give a shit.

Many of us have given many shits. Many of us have no more shits to give. Too many of us never did to begin with.

In a recent piece for OneZero, Douglas Rushkoff recalls the tech billionaires who have been constructing self-sustaining fortresses in remote locations to shield them against coming disasters such as climate change, global unrest, or pandemics.

“These solar-powered hilltop resorts, chains of defensible floating islands, and robotically tilled eco-farms were less last resorts than escape fantasies for billionaires who aren’t quite rich enough to build space programs like Jeff Bezos and Elon Musk,” he writes. “No, they weren’t scared for the Event; on some level, they were hoping for it.”

Well, if I had their resources, I don’t think I’d hope for disaster, but I can imagine having a silent wish in the back of my head that I’d get some excuse to go ahead and take refuge in my own personal — and perfectly furnished — Helm’s Deep.

Indeed, Rushkoff says those of us who enjoy the privileges of being able to work from home and not be gripped by the terror of imminent eviction or starvation are making a calculation: “How much are we allowed to use our wealth and our technologies to insulate ourselves and our families from the rest of the world?” he writes. “And, like a devil on our shoulder, our technology is telling us to go it alone.”

I have always found it easiest to go it alone, and I have long been grateful to the technologies of the Information Era that have given me the means to do so, ever reducing the frequency with which I am required to involuntarily interact with humans on any meaningfully personal basis. I have been trying to insulate myself for decades.

I suppose the difference is that I have not by any means lost my sense of moral responsibility to the world I share with these inconvenient humans. The fact that the current crisis resides in the form of a highly infectious pathogen, and that I live with and care for children and a severely immunocomprised partner, limits what I can do outside the home. But I try to play my part from here, with donations to those who need it and can best use it, advocacy for the right causes, and, minimal as it may be, sharing thoughts like this with you right now. It’s not enough, I know.

I do prefer the safety and distance of the domestic-digital life. I do wish, fervently, that this crisis will shake us out of our collective stupor and make us appreciate each other at a basic level. But I do not wish for the end of all things. I do not want to hide while the world burns. I want a new world to grow from this one, a better one inhabited by a people with better hearts. A new world where I don’t need to hide, but in which I retain the option to do so when the time comes.

Everything has changed, and yet it feels like nothing has. Let’s not have gone through this for nothing.

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creativity Essays personal

What’s it Like on the Other Side of the Paywall?

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Essays personal religion

Courage without Recompense

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Essays personal

Don’t Remind Me

I have trouble going to see theatre productions, because it reminds me of the work I want to be doing. What I ought to be doing. I want to be on that stage or directing the action, not just watching. Watching is what other people do, what the normals do.

I often feel the same way about music, though to a somewhat lesser extent. Listening to great music too often reminds me of the music I’m not making, the songs I’m not writing or recording or performing. Experiences with the arts that ought to, by all other accounts, be sublime, are all too frequently for me of alienation and regret.

Shit, even listening to podcasts makes me feel like a slug.

The same can also be said for my experience of great writing, particularly novels, though I suppose a part of me. that I’m not cut out to be a fiction writer (I deeply hope this is not so), and am therefore not really failing any kind of personal expectation. Movies and TV rarely bring this kind of anxiety on, as they feel so out of reach as to be akin to wishing to be a professional basketball player as a 5-foot-5 sedentary dude in his 40s. A couple decades ago I harbored illusions of future movie stardom, but now I can watch Avengers: Endgame without that kind of psychological baggage.

And I think this might be why I’ve glommed onto video games at this rather unlikely period of my life. I’m by no means a “gamer,” but lately I’ve found my greatest moments of escape and enthrallment within games such as Breath of the WildAnimal CrossingCivilization, and Skyrim. And I suspect that this is in large part because of the fact that I know nothing about video game design, nothing about programming or software development, nor even anything about how computers work at all. As far as I’m concerned, they all run on magic.

That utter separation makes video games safe. While slashing with a sword, casting spells, or cultivating my ridiculous fake garden in gamespace, I feel no pangs of remorse for the code I’m not writing. Video games are a place, an experience, I can enter and totally surrender myself to without placing any guilt trip on myself for the video games I never made.

But of course, they do have a lot of voice actors in these games. Why haven’t I gotten a voice acting role in a video game? I’m a total failure.

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creativity culture Essays media personal technology

Video Games and My Ceaseless Guilt

During the pandemic era, here in the Lost Year, we have been given a reprieve from the stigma attached to excessive video game playing. The experts have told us, as conveyed to us through the most elite media outlets, that being forced under the fat thumb of the socially-distant lockdown-quarantine absolves us of any anxieties we might have about wasted time, lost productivity, or rotted brains. For the age of COVID–19, video games are now good for us. Hooray!

So now I can spend hours exploring, battling, spell-casting, smithing, concocting, and acquiring inside the metauniverse of Skyrim, free of any worry that I ought to be doing something more worthy of my time. We’re all stuck at home, after all! These are extreme, extenuating circumstances! There’s a goddamn killer virus out there, for god’s sake!

Oh, but here’s the thing. Just like everyone else on Planet Earth, the pandemic has upended many aspects of my life, but one thing that has remained unchanged is my location in space. As a socially-averse autistic already working from home for the past decade, I was already not going anywhere. Not even the coronavirus could disrupt a life outside the home if it didn’t exist to begin with.

Nonetheless, when the Great Lockdown began in March, it still felt to me like a doctor’s note authorizing me to indulge in video games again.

(An aside for some context: I say “again” because I have had spurts of game obsession at different times in my adult life, starting with games like The Legend of Zelda: The Ocarina of Time and Final Fantasy VII near the end of college. Later, as time for games became scarcer, I would go through periods of serious Civilization addiction for installments III, IV, V, and especially VI, which Steam tells me I have played for almost 1400 hours, which doesn’t even count the additional hours spent playing it on my iPad. More recently, I became enamored with The Legend of Zelda: The Breath of the WildAnimal Crossing: New Horizons, and, my current alternate-universe-of-choice, The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim, all on the Nintendo Switch.)

Since the vast majority of my time playing video games is solitary (save for when my semi-interested partner happens to be in the room), I have always perceived playing them as a way of sinking into my own little world. But I think being exposed to so much positive social reinforcement regarding quarantine video games made me feel like I was doing something with a speck of social value. It wasn’t just me being a weird 40-something dude manipulating cartoon characters in fantasy worlds all by my lonesome. Now I was in with the in-crowd. Everyone was doing it. We were being alone together.

But despite this absolution, I knew that I couldn’t claim to be leaning on video games to get me through the pandemic. I wasn’t being kept away from my job or unexpectedly burdened with truckloads of free time I didn’t know what to do with. If anything, my job got busier, my kids were home with me more often, and I actually find I have less free time now than I did in back the Long, Long Ago. I’m not killing excess time by playing video games. I’m frittering away the precious little time I have.

So really, I shouldn’t overstate how much time I actually spend on these damn things. The fortnightly Saturday evenings and Sundays I don’t have my kids at home are really my only opportunities to truly binge on pretending to be a Destruction-magic-specializing Wood Elf. (One who just became Arch-Mage of the College in Winterhold, what-what!) All week, I’ll look forward to long, uninterrupted play sessions that will allow me to fully commit to some major quest within the game, rather than settling for less time-consuming side tasks or level-grinding. But when I finally get to dive in, it isn’t long before the Guilt sets in.

I should be doing something more productive, the Guilt says. I should be doing something more creative. I am wasting my precious waking hours and living days on an experience from which I will derive no benefit beyond the temporary sensations of escapist hedonism. That’s fine for a little break from the workaday world, says the Guilt, but it’s no way to spend an entire day.

And maybe the Guilt is right. I’m a writer, a performer, and a composer, and I have the extraordinary privilege of being safe, employed, fed, sheltered, and loved during a major crisis, and I could be using it to make the world a better place, even in the smallest of ways. Even though very few people will ever read this piece, for example, and only some fraction of them will have found it valuable, creating this piece of writing at least adds something to the world that wasn’t there before. Hours and hours spent in Skyrim, Hyrule, or Duckbutt Island (my Animal Crossing domain) have no impact on the real world outside my video game console, except in what they prevent from coming into being.

It’s probably futile to attempt to quantify, even vaguely, what is lost or gained by spending time on video games. Because I could just as well speculate that the games might be a way for me to build up the reserves I need to create things to begin with. Perhaps they are addressing something in me psychologically, such that they become a net-benefit. Before writing this, I read a number of pieces asserting just that.

“I suspect that the total intensity of the passion with which gamers throughout society surrender themselves to their pastime is an implicit register of how awful, grim, and forbidding the world outside them has become,” writes Frank Guan in the conclusion to his wonderful 2017 (pre-pandemic) piece on video game obsessives in Vulture. Earlier in the piece, he says, “We turn to games when real life fails us — not merely in touristic fashion but closer to the case of emigrants, fleeing a home that has no place for them.” Well, for me, the world was definitely grim and forbidding before COVID–19 came around, and Placelessness, USA has always been my hometown. So maybe it’s a wonder I haven’t gone whole-hog on video games sooner.

The point is, though, that I don’t know, and I do know that time spent in a game is time not spent on literally anything else. And I’m not smart enough to know whether or not that’s okay.

Categories
personal politics

American Nightmare

It was sort of like a nightmare, in the sense that time seemed to both slow to a crawl and flash by in the blink of an eye all at once. I was at first distracted, playing a video game, the president’s upcoming address to the nation up on our television. I didn’t really want to listen to it, as even hearing his voice is enough to drain a good month or two out of my lifespan. So I played my game and resolved to just let him talk in the background.

I don’t remember the exact moment I was wrenched from my pixelated reverie, but I remember almost dropping the controllers and suddenly gaping at the TV. It had taken my brain a few moments to start assigning meaning to the words coming out of the president’s face, and I experienced this odd sensation of understanding piece by piece, like Lego bricks being placed on on top of the other to eventually reveal a form. The last brick clicked into place, and I felt the realization morph into horror.

When he finished speaking, promising to use the force of the U.S. military to murder protestors, time sped up again. Even though I knew what I’d just heard, I needed confirmation. I jumped about the internet for reaction from experts just to be certain that I understood what had actually just happened. Was I inflating it in my mind? Was it actually just nonsense and we had nothing to worry about. But no, it was as bad as it sounded.

And then time slowed down again as Trump performed that bizarre lumbering toward St. John’s Church. I assumed he was going to go inside so the cameras would see him pretending to care about what happened there, and maybe perform some perfunctory pseudo-prayer. Instead, he stood there and held up that fucking Bible, held it like he was showing off a stain on a dinner plate, held it like he’d never actually grasped a book in his life. His flunkies soon followed, standing in a line on either side of him, staring sternly at nothing in particular. It was just a photo-op. And not in the sense of going into a diner to be seen chatting with the locals, but more like a photo shoot. The damaged church was just his backdrop, the Bible his prop—a prop that no one on the set thought to tell him how to use or what to do with it.

This was grotesque enough as it was. Crass and tasteless, it would have been funny under another context. And then we found out what he did to execute this moment of ugly absurdity.

He’d had the peaceful protesters outside the White House tear-gassed and hit with flash grenades. It had been happening while he’d been speaking. The very moment Trump was promising to attack U.S. citizens with the forces meant to protect them, he was demonstrating his willingness to do so a few steps away from where he stood.

It’s been about twenty-four hours since then, and like most people with a functioning conscience, I’m still in shock.

But I also want answers. I’ve read all manner of condemnations of the president’s words and actions in the form of tweets, articles, op-eds, and so on, and that’s fine. But I have not seen one word—not one word—telling me what anyone is going to do about this.

I’ve written about this before, but the urgency is even greater now. Surely, there are mechanisms through which someone in a position of power can thwart the president’s massacre-fantasies before they become real.

I don’t even mean anything as dramatic as removing the monster from power, though that would be my first choice, and I will kiss on the mouth every member of the cabinet who has a hand in invoking the 25th amendment, should they do so. But can Congress curtail Trump from wielding the military this way? Can military leadership consider Trump’s demands illegal and refuse to act on them? Can governors take a stand? Can business titans threaten to pull campaign funding? Can someone do a convincing enough impression of Vladimir Putin so that it would fool Trump into thinking that his idol was telling him to stand down?

Right now, all I hear is my own pulse throbbing. There was apparently a resolution to condemn Trump in Congress, but of course Mitch McConnell wouldn’t allow it. But who cares about resolutions? Our hate only makes Trump stronger. Someone needs to actually stop him.

But no one is. And we’re supposed to rely on the election to save us. I have very little faith that Trump and his allies won’t prevent that from happening in the first place. Either way, we don’t have that much time.

His supporters are ecstatic and ravenous for blood. His enablers are lying down for him and throwing roses in his wake. He’s got the allegiance of law enforcement and the might of the armed forces at his whim, and he’s exalting in his action movie fever dream. And he’s coming for us now.

It’s not a theory. It’s not a dream. Wake up.

Categories
Essays personal politics

The Truth Behind My Face Mask

On the old He-Man and the Masters of the Universe cartoon show, the small, hovering wizard called Orko—the comic-relief sidekick to the muscle-bound warriors—never revealed his face. Floating in a red robe, with no discernible limbs below his torso, his head was covered by a large, floppy, pointed hat, through which his pointed ears protruded. If he had a mouth or nose, it was wrapped in a cloth or scarf of some sort. All one could ever see of Orko’s face was his eyes and total blackness.

I remember distinctly an episode in which Orko, a member of the species known as Trollans, fell in love with another member of his own kind, and the audience learns that Trollans had a custom for expressing deep affection: they revealed to each other their uncovered faces. In private, they would take off their hats, unwrap their scarves, and give the greatest gift of intimacy of which they were capable, to allow their true face to be seen by the one they loved.

So Orko would loyally, courageously, and selflessly fight the most perilous evils alongside He-Man and his Eternian compatriots, but they would never be allowed to see their friend’s face. That was for Orko to save for a time, place, and person of his choosing.

I loved that.

My preferred day-to-day uniform, assuming the temperature suits it, consists of a T-shirt, jeans, hooded zip-up sweatshirt, and baseball hat.

I chose this basic getup because of its neutrality. These various garments cover me in solid, muted colors, in forms that suggest close to nothing about who I am, what I do for a living, what my interests are, or where I’m headed. One can’t tell if I’m off of work from some office job or if I dress like this all the time. One can’t tell if I support a local franchise, ascribe to a political ideology, have attained any particular level of education, enjoy any particular forms of entertainment, or earn any particular range of income (I could be broke and unemployed or just relaxing in my down time).

This developed, as so many choices do, from my experience in middle and high school, when standing out for any reason was to experience trauma. And I don’t mean standing out like a class clown or overtly quirky student. I mean being noticed at all, for any reason. If my hair was noticed, I was made fun of. If I was seen standing in some position or other, I was made fun of. If I was seen sitting in some other position, I was made fun of. If I was heard talking, expressing an opinion, or asking a question, I was made fun of. When taunted with questions meant to humiliate me, I was mocked for any answer I gave, and was equally mocked for staying silent.

If the brand of clothes I was wearing was recognized, I was made fun of for it. If the characters or public figures emblazoned on my T-shirts were recognized, I was made fun of for it. If I wore more expensive, “nicer” clothes, I was made fun of for it. If it was known that my clothes came from a store considered to be uncool, I was made fun of for it. If it was known I got my clothes from a store considered to be cool, that disconnect meant that I would be made fun of for it.

Like many other habits and precautions I built over that time, I adopted my neutral uniform to be as unnoticeable as possible. I didn’t like how my hair and my head looked, so I covered it with a hat. I didn’t like the shape of my body, so I curtained it with a hoodie.

Now in my 40s, I still prefer the relative anonymity that this basic uniform affords me. No longer quite as cowed by heartless teens (though, sadly, not immune to their eternal derision), this basic setup gives space for the kind of self-expression I feel comfortable with. Superman’s symbol adorns my hat. I have a veritable library of Avengers and Star Trek T-shirts. The hoodies, they have stayed plain, though I now have one in a rather bold red-rust color. The T-shirt/hoodie/hat combo is neutral enough to allow me to recede into the background while offering a basic canvas for those things that give me some joy. And even with this little extra information that these things broadcast to others, I remain largely physically obscured.

I also wear glasses to correct my vision, but I would probably choose to wear them anyway, as I have foresworn things like contact lenses and laser eye surgery. The frames of my spectacles add one extra half-layer to the overall veil. Take away the hat and hoodie, dress me in a shirt-and-tie, and you still won’t really see my true face, because my glasses will still be there.

And like the hoodie and the hat and the rest of it, the glasses help define the character. They are part of the mask I wear when I play the part of me to the rest of the world.

Speaking of masks, in the pandemic era we now have the growing normalization of the face mask. They’re an inconvenience, to be sure. They must not be touched once applied, and they must vigilantly be kept clean. They can make it slightly more difficult to breathe, and I assume they will be much more uncomfortable as the weather gets warmer. And of course, they fog up my glasses, and I have yet to master whatever arcane spells or incantations that prevent that from happening.

And yet, I still find myself — weirdly? perversely? — looking forward to donning one. I didn’t understand why, at first. But then I figured it out.

The face mask gives me one more layer of blessed obscurity. It prevents any scrutiny of my nose, mouth, or chin. They can’t see my crooked teeth, my overgrown stubble, my cheeks sagging with age. They can’t see me react to anything with a smile, smirk, or frown. All they can see are my eyes, which are already altered by glasses, and my ears.

And yes, when the temperature allows, I try to wear over-ear headphones, even when I have nothing playing in them.

Also, like T-shirts and hats, the mask offers a little space for a small bit of expression, should I choose to use it. My current mask was made lovingly by my auntie out of the same fabric she used to make my son’s first baby blanket. I love it.

The fact that face masks are also now part of a supremely stupid culture war, and for some serve as a kind of signal of political allegiance, is deeply disappointing to me. Beyond the obvious fact that the right-wing opposition to face masks and what they represent is astronomically asinine, selfish, portending of greater suffering, I’m irritated that their symbolism within this culture war means that they are no longer neutral.

I can feel it when I go on one of my rare jaunts to the supermarket. Those not wearing masks are clearly disdainful of those who are, and, at least as far as I’m concerned, the feeling is mutual.

The face mask is there, primarily, to protect others from me, in case I happen to be carrying the virus and don’t know it. Any protection it affords me is, as I understand it, minimal.

But I also valued the fact that while it helped stop me from unwittingly spreading any pathogens, it also stopped me from unwittingly telling anyone anything about who I am. It gave me one more step back from the eyes of the world. Now, the mask is like a flare, telling everyone in view that I am on one particular side of a conflict. And good lord do I hate that.

I very much hope our need for masks goes away as soon as possible. I also kind of wish that when the virus is gone, that the masks could stay. We are already so exposed. I’d prefer that my true face be something to be revealed only for a time, place, and person of my choosing.