You know that nightmare
where you have to take a Calculus final
even though you didn’t realize you were signed up for Calculus,
and didn’t attend a single class?
I had something like that, last night …
except, appropriately, it was about face masks.
I was perusing earrings in cozy, dimly lit second-hand collectives in San Francisco. I’d just found a beautiful pair of enormous red, yellow, and green earrings when I looked up and realized:
There were dozens of people in my vicinity, and no one was wearing a face mask! Not even me!
Panicked, I dropped the earrings and fled.
Then, I’m sitting on a bus, as I did so many times in both childhood and law school.
I’m having a great chat with the folks all around me. I don’t even recall what we were chatting about, just that we were laughing and enjoying each others’ company.
And then I realized: No one was wearing a face mask! Not even me!
I hollered at the driver to let me off the bus.
I tried finding face masks at a nearby grocery store, but there were none for sale. And, wouldn’t you know it? Almost no one was wearing a face mask.
I thought, “zeynep tufekci talked about wearing masks of paper towels and tissue as potentially being effective!” So, understanding there was nothing whatsoever I could do about all my exposure up to that point, I could limit future exposure.
I made my way to the grocery store bathroom, where I began jerry-rigging a face mask from toilet tissue and paper towels … and then, awakened.
After a moment’s panic (What was I thinking?!), I realized I’d been dreaming, at which point I chuckled at myself:
Goodbye, surprise finals nightmares;
hello, forgotten face mask ones!
As I reflect on my face mask nightmares, I’m not at all confused about their source.
I live in southern Los Angeles County. Just over the county line from me, in Orange County, face masks are no longer required.
They’re strongly suggested, yes; required, no.
Many people consider this change a victory,
I worked in the OC for all but one year of my eleven-year stretch working in SoCal.
Crossing the county line en route to work one day in 2017, I heard something that made me absolutely ecstatic. It wasn’t so much one sentence, or even paragraph, from Nassim Nicholas Taleb’s Antifragile, which I’d just checked out from the library; rather, it was the themes underlying everything about which he wrote in the first ten to fifteen minutes of the book as read aloud.
For months, I’d had a burgeoning awareness for which I had no words, nor even the hope of words.
So early into reading Taleb, I saw I’d found someone who had all the right experience and, with it,
Words for what, though? Even that is difficult to put into words, but:
Thanks to a year of compulsive non-fiction reading on history, politics, and economics, I was then already aware of the human tendency to confuse illusion for reality, and specifically, illusory wins for actual, factual ones.
The depths of this tendency, which expresses itself almost everywhere humans are, almost all the time, fell far beyond my ability to articulate (making it what Taleb would call “apophatic”), though I witnessed this tendency in action on a near-daily basis:
People kept thinking the fact something hadn’t happened yet meant it was never going to happen—
that tomorrow would, of course, generally look like today;
Meanwhile, I was starting to see that, all around us, these things we humans perceive as set and settled are already fading. We take the light from dead stars as evidence those stars are still shining, failing to appreciate how often our perceptions break with reality and thus are forever overconfident that what we perceive as true must actually be true.
That (seemingly) innocuous moment crossing the county line links to another (seemingly) innocuous moment I experienced in the OC in 2017.
In that moment, I glanced up from something political I was reading and saw I tree;
given the nature of my read, it struck me, at that moment,
that, though the tree appeared healthy, its future death
might already be certain.
I wrote about this moment in my September 2017 post “cherishing now (and trees)”:
A few months back, I walked across a courtyard and pondered grim political news I’d just read. I looked up at a tree nearest my destination and thought, This is an illusion.
I see the tree almost every day. If I’d touched its base then, I’m certain I’d have felt the rough texture of bark, and enjoyed the coolness of the shade cast by its leaves. The tree exists, as much as I, anyone, or anything can be said to. The illusion was not in whether or not it existed, but how strong and healthy it looked at that moment.
With barely a beat skipped, I held climate change in heart and thought, The preconditions for its death have already been set in motion.
I’ve thought about this post many times the last few weeks.
I hadn’t been thinking about the tree, though, I’d been thinking about passages I’d there quoted from Robert Putnam’s Our Kids, and how those passages were pivotal to my starting to see that unperceived lag between causes and consequences is all around us.
How we’re constantly seeing today’s consequences as resulting from today’s causes, when instead, they’re functions of myriad processes converging from yesterday,
and last year,
and a decade ago,
and a century ago,
and millennia ago,
This morning, then, I revisited the post to see if I could find in Putnam’s words explanation why it’s incredibly dangerous to confuse today’s apparent health for actual health.
I was startled to find the sentiment I sought not in Putnam’s words, but my own:
The illusion was in … how strong and healthy it looked at that moment.
The preconditions for its death have already been set in motion.
Today, in the OC and around the world, some people walk without masks and call their masklessness “freedom.”
Those who do so may interpret the illusion of health today with its assured reality today, not understanding—thanks to confluences of countless factors influencing, among other things, what “news” is amplified, and where—that an unmasked, friendly encounter might plant in them seeds of COVID-19
whose stems might not be visible as symptoms for up to two weeks, if, indeed, symptoms are seen,
two weeks in which they may themselves sprinkle seeds
that’ll grow in others who’ll do the same
to others, who’ll then do the same,
on and on and on.
The illusion is in how strong and healthy each seed-spreader looked at that moment.
This early morning, I have no illusions whatsoever about why I’m having face mask anxiety dreams.
Sure, part of this has to do with what I’m reading from Nassim Nicholas Taleb, Yaneer Bar-Yam, zeynep tufekci, and Eric Feigl-Ding daily. To read them is to understand that lethal seeds are being planted everywhere, each second that proper precautions (such as wearing face masks out and about and maintaining physical distance) are not taken en masse.
But there are deeper roots, too—roots that run back to my bygone school days.
It used to be the worst thing I could
dream nightmare up was flunking a course; now, that consequence pales by comparison to the nightmare I’m watching unfold now,
which is to say:
global populations trying to pass the COVID-19 final with only a face mask jerry-rigged in a grocery store bathroom,
long after COVID’s seeds were planted in and around them.
then now, the preconditions for failure, as measured not
in one person’s final grade but whole lives lost,
have already been set in motion.
We can, of course, collectively start planting different seeds today,
but to do so, we must first acknowledge
that illusions of health today are not the same as actual health today;
that illusions of victory are not actual victory;
that actual victory later will require
we take proper precautions, now,
to stop the spread.