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Not All Heroes Wear Capes, But They Do Wear Masks

I think people should wear masks, and I want to be clear about why.

Treat this like a story

Tell yourself that 2020 is a story where you get to be the hero.

What kind of hero do you want to be? It comes down to how you either put on the mask, or you don’t.

Choose the option that could prevent yourself and others from getting sick, or choose to assert that your personal agency and comfort trump concern for others.

On one side is Captain America, trying to save as many lives as he can, and always willing to put his personal interests aside if people need help.

On the other side is John Galt, unconcerned about the greater population; only interested in proving how special he is and being celebrated for it.

Since the free market decided the Atlas Shrugged movies were not good, I want to be clear: This is a picture of John Galt.

No mask on your face tells everyone who has to come in contact with you that you’re okay with them getting sick or dying because they just don’t matter to you.

Picture the masked barista being told by a maskless customer in a mostly empty coffee shop that she doesn’t need to put her mask on because “nobody’s in here.”

The maskless are saying that unless they know and care about you personally, you’re not a person worth saving. You’re part of the acceptable losses. Your blood can water their freedom tree.

COVID-19 isn’t an invisible antagonist — It has visible allies

The man who refuses to wear a mask because he thinks it makes him look weak, but then finds out that even outwardly strong men get sick, and sometimes die.

Or the woman yelling at the grocery store cashier about how the masks and the shortage of coins are connected, and everyone, including the cashier, is in on a global conspiracy.

Or the man with a bulging forehead vein screaming in a CostCo that asking him to put on a mask makes him feel threatened. Or the woman in a store calling people Nazis for saying she needs to put on a mask.

For all the talk some are spreading about anarchists in the streets, the people truly fighting against any kind of governance or shared social contract, and who want a lawless land of individual freedom, are the people who refuse to wear masks.

And if they will not change, they are going to hold us all hostage until doctors and researchers can finish their work.

What makes me so certain about masks?

I’m not.

But look at the options:

I Wear A Mask I Don’t Wear A Mask
Masks Reduce Infection Rate I’m helping save lives in a small way. I may cause more people to get sick or die, and don’t do anything to mitigate it.
Masks Don’t Reduce Infection Rate I tried to help, but couldn’t. I couldn’t help and didn’t try.

Whether or not masks help at all, wearing a mask better aligns with my ethical values. Not partisan. Not political. Morals and ethics.

I should try to do what good I can for others, and live as best I can without actively harming others.

It’s a little like the trolley problem

You’re on a trolley, hurtling toward a group of people stuck on the track. You can pull a lever to divert to another track and save their lives.

Or you can stay the course and ring the bell, screaming at the top of your lungs about how nobody is allowed to tell you that you can’t ride the trolley wherever you want.

A mask may not be perfect and prevent every person ever from getting sick, but it’s enough to do a measurable amount of good in reducing the infection rate of COVID-19.

Rejecting it means you see a mild inconvenience to yourself as too great a sacrifice to ask of you in exchange for protecting the lives of your fellow citizens.

There is nothing patriotic or virtuous about selfishness and turning your back on your neighbors. Demanding your freedom from any responsibility to others can only deeply wound your own pursuit of happiness, and your life.

Because even if we disagree on everything under the Sun, even if you reject everything I hold dear, even if you would condemn myself or those dear to me for who they are or the beliefs they hold dear, I still think your life must have value and is worth trying to save.

Because no one is truly beyond hope, and we should recognize every person we see, and every person we don’t, is connected to us. They matter to the people around them, and we matter to each other.

You are essential to someone. Probably many someones.

My mask protects you. Your mask protects me. And we can protect so many others if we drop the bullshit and offer each other even just a little grace and dignity.

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I want to be where the people are

As the conversations start about how and when to peel back the layers of restrictions set up by stay at home orders, I’m thinking about one part of this as a person who loves going to the movies:

Until there’s a widely available vaccine, how are we going to go back to movie theaters?

How can we return to being comfortable sharing that much personal space with a room full of strangers, sitting elbow-to-elbow (or recliner-to-recliner)? Even if theaters adopt a practice of underselling venues, that doesn’t change the basic theater layout that requires you to squeeze past each other to find your seat, go to the bathroom, or get a refill.

But if we’re unable to confidently return to the theater, part of what makes movies so memorable and engaging could be drastically altered.

The crowd is part of the story

My high school drama teacher always reminded us that “acting is reacting,” and that it wasn’t just about reacting to the other performers on stage, but knowing how to draw energy from the audience. It made every performance different.

With a film, the performances are always the same, but the people you view those performances with can shape a completely different experience.

It’s like in 12 Monkeys, when Bruce Willis’s James Cole sits in a theater with Madeline Stowe’s Dr. Kathryn Railly as they watch a movie he remembers from childhood:

“The movie never changes. It can’t change; but every time you see it, it seems different because you’re different. You see different things.”

I thought about this when I read the Indoor Voices blog post I Miss Audiences Losing Their Shit, because it reminded me of all the times that the people I was in the theater with changed the way I saw the movie.

Because it wasn’t just the film that was memorable

I think about the night I went to see Snakes on a Plane on its opening weekend, and how the entire packed theater started howling with laughter from the moment the title card appeared on screen and didn’t stop until the credits rolled.

Or seeing Toy Story 3 at a late evening screening in a theater with few, if any children. Most of us in the seats had been kids when the first Toy Story came out, and while we’d grown up a little faster than Andy, his sense of putting away childish things still felt raw, and the toys’ fears of annihilation felt a little more tangible.

There wasn’t a dry eye in the house, and knowing that the other adults in the room were sobbing just as hard over a cartoon gave everyone that little bit of emotional space to let it all out.

There was the opening night of the 46th Ann Arbor Film Festival, where I sat with my co-workers from the festival in the Michigan Theater, enjoying not only the films that were programmed that night, but the fact that we’d kept the doors open with a Hail Mary fundraising drive and survived a First Amendment lawsuit against the state government.

We weren’t just celebrating the films, but the triumph of preserving a showcase for this type of independent, experimental filmmaking.

And there was the entire third act of Avengers: Endgame, where ten years of storytelling came together, plants were paid off, the crowd cheered at all the big moments, and that long fought battle of good vs. evil finally, finally gave the good guys a win that didn’t hint at a larger conflict still to come.

For once, good could rest knowing its work was done, and we as an audience could exhale, feeling like the most important thing to talk about as we left the theater was the movie we just watched, and not the next one.

But it’s not just the audience: It’s the theater itself

The theater provides a sense of place for the story you’re about to watch. We buy our tickets, find our seats, see an uninterrupted story from start to finish, and watch our hopes and fears made manifest.

It’s a sacred space, cut off from the rest of our day, in which we enter the dark to briefly dream together.

I think about the time I took my daughter to see her first film in the theater. It was Despicable Me 3. She was going to go on a field trip to the movies with her day care the next week, and I didn’t want her first major theatrical experience to be without me.

We were able to go to a matinee on a Tuesday and do the whole traditional theater experience thanks in part to discounted tickets and half-price popcorn.

There weren’t many people there (the film had been in release for over two weeks at the time), and we settled in to our seats. We ate popcorn. We laughed. She was incredibly focused for being so young and never having been in the theater before. But that’s part of it.

There are rules. This isn’t sitting at home on your couch. You can’t just pause the movie, or trade seats, or decide that you’d rather wander over to another corner of the room and play with some toys for a little bit.

When we go to the theater, we share the space and should be mindful of the others we share it with. We want to be a good audience, not only for the film, but for each other.

It’s not the same if the movie plays in your home.

Our family rented Trolls: World Tour when it was released on demand. We talked about how it was actually kind of nice to be able to see a brand new movie without setting up a sitter for our youngest, and not having to schlep ourselves to the theater. To be able to pause the movie (and to watch it again if we started it within the next 72 hours). We talked about the fact that it cost less than taking our whole family to a matinee.

But all the convenience and economy of the moment couldn’t replace the idea of fully surrendering to another world.

We were watching the movie in the same room that we FaceTime our extended family, or do Cosmic Kids yoga videos, check work emails, or let Button roll and wiggle on the floor as he tries to figure out how to crawl.

There was no sense of surrender to the film, or of communion with strangers. We weren’t stepping into another world, but bringing a story into our private space. The story was framed by all the reminders of our present daily life, good and bad.

Right now, a chance to step outside of our world, even for 80 or 90 minutes, would be a welcome thing.

But the calculus has changed

We will be told it’s safe to come back probably sooner than many people will feel comfortable doing so. Our individual hope to return to some sense of normal will tug at us, and make us want to believe that it will be easy to slip back into at least some of our old routines.

But I think about how people are reacting to a clear and present danger right now, and wonder how I’ll feel about them after the current crisis has been contained.

I think about the people who are ignoring (and in some cases, flaunting their refusal to follow) social distancing guidelines at this time of high rates of infection. And I think about how these are potentially the same people who may also have shrugged off actually washing their hands when they left a public restroom before concepts like “flattening the curve” became part of our daily conversation.

Because if there are enough people not taking hygiene and communicable disease seriously now, chances are they’re only going to continue to laugh it off later.

It’s not just a question of when will infection rates and precautionary measures make the risk low enough to return theater-going to a normal part of life: It’s a question of if we will we feel we can trust our seat neighbors to care about the people around them.

Because if we want a chance to share the experience in the theater again, we will all need to agree how to safely share space.