Our Town: Who was that masked man?

Dr Tom Ferraro

COVID has brought a world of panic, paranoia, hysteria, divisiveness and a shutdown of the global economy. We have lost our way and look for signs out of the forest. Hansel and Gretel had crumbs to lead them out of the forest. Dante had the poet Virgil to help him. Who will lead us out of this forest of woe? All I see are blue masks and the hope of a magic vaccine. If masks and medicine are the bread crumbs leading us out of the woods, then we must deconstruct their meaning.

Masks are a fashion change and like all new looks they are a reaction to the zeitgeist of the time. Men started wearing long hair in the 1960s and my uncle blamed The Beatles and communism for that trend. In the ’70s men started to wear baseball hats backwards for reasons I could not fathom. Probably something about generational tension or maybe a need to look to the past. Tattoos became popular in the ’80s and this, too, seemed to be related to youth culture.

The blue mask look does provide a measure of comfort. And at the same time crosses generational lines and insinuates “I’m over 70 and you’re under 20, but we have lots in common anyway. See we wear the same kind of mask.”

Masks have been worn for years by super heroes. Comic books, TV and movies have offered up many examples of mysterious men wearing masks. You may recall The Lone Ranger with his sidekick Tonto. He wore a stylish black mask that was thin and probably easy to breathe in. But he was not alone in his desire to remain anonymous. Zorro liked to wear a mask as did Batman and Spiderman. More recently we have masked heroes like Ironman, The Green Lantern and Deadpool.

Although Superman never wore a mask, his blue, red and yellow uniform with that signature “S” logo on the chest served him just as well. With the help of his suit he was able to run faster than a speeding bullet and leap buildings at a single bound. All very impressive. Indeed superheroes like to wear masks. OK, but why?

My guess is that comics, TV and filmmakers all know that it’s good to present superheroes with masks because it allows people to identify with them. And if you identify with a superhero, chances are you will adopt some of their powers, courage and strength. If you read enough comic books, you will get some courage just like Superman or Batman.
The truth is that courage, power and strength must be developed from within and not from TV watching or reading a comic book.

Which takes us back to our original question of why the masks. Yes it helps to keep germs away and prevent disease from spreading, but I think it goes deeper than that. The mask will become a new age talisman provided to magically give you a feeling of invulnerability and power, just like Superman. Our culture is anxiously embracing masks to keep us safe, but they also reflect a sense of fear and vulnerability. It is as if we have no strength on our own and that our immune systems don’t exist.

The other trend we see is the magic of medicine. Turn on any TV and you will see a number of miracle medicines designed to help your mood, your immune system, your sex life, your skin, your energy level. And the next big push will be the arrival of a vaccine for COVID.
Mankind has always wished that chemistry will find a way.

Von Goethe described Faust’s attempt to create a chemical homunculus, which would give him power, but that didn’t work out too well. It led him into the arms of Mephistopheles and the sale of his soul. In more recent times Popeye was the first guy to really get into medicinal cures with his use of spinach. Popeye would gobble down spinach by the can in order to fight Bluto. The Popeye character was created in the 1930s during the Great Depression when our nation needed a strong role model of intrepid perseverance.

Add it all up and what you have is culture anxiously embracing masks and medicine in an effort to stave off disease and death. What seems missing in all this turmoil is the common-sense guidance, which suggests that immunity and strong health come from a lifestyle that includes sleeping eight to nine hours per night, good diet, regular exercise, outdoor activity, a life where one is not constantly overworking and having someone to talk to about your fears and hopes.

Health and immunity cannot be purchased at a CVS or by wearing a HAZMAT suit every day. Most illnesses are produced by faulty life styles and too much isolation. You do not need to be a superhero in a suit of metal nor the Lone Ranger to survive these COVID times.

We had better start using common sense because we sure can’t use superheroes with masks to guide us. The film industry’s newest masked hero is Deadpool, a dishonorably discharged member of the special forces turned mercenary who is married to a prostitute. Heroes are hard to locate these days. Politicians and priests are out of favor, the police are defunded and teachers never recovered from “Ferris Bueller’s Day Off.”

Sure, we can say that health providers are the new heroes, but for my money I would say that the true heroes are all the parents out there who are holding down jobs, paying the mortgage, raising kids and homeschooling them as well. With or without masks I think the parents are the ones who will lead this frightened world out of the COVID forest. So how about creating some statues for them?

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