Masks

When I was young, there was a popular children’s cartoon about a special little boy. He didn’t have a rare talent, or an intellect capable of solving complex math equations but he was dead and that counted for something. Despite being a ghost, which would undoubtedly cause most people to bemoan the cruelty of their fate, this young lad was surprisingly chipper. In fact, he only wanted to focus on one thing: spreading good cheer. Heartbreaking, really. The show was called Casper the Friendly Ghost and the creators were quick to add the qualifier “friendly” so that overly sensitive children like myself wouldn’t shit themselves out of fear. It was reassuring to know that this fictional ghost didn’t want to drag me to the underworld, unlike the real ghost lurking inside the steamer trunk my parents kept in the basement.

As a television writer, it’s hard for me to imagine how this show got sold. If I tried to pitch it, I’m certain TV executives would put me through the wringer.

“So, this dead kid. What hilarious way did he die? Leukemia? Sudden Infant Death Syndrome?”

“My plan is to never address that.”

“Uh-huh.  And his parents… they’re inconsolable, right? Absolutely devastated?”

“I have a happy spin on that. They died when he was a baby.”

“Pass.”

Yet somehow, Casper the Friendly Ghost was greenlit and became a mainstay of pop culture. Growing up, I watched every episode having decided it was just the right level of terrifying for me, which is to say, as scary as a glass of milk. I’ve always had an uncomfortable relationship with fear, even when it’s in a safe and controlled environment. Rollercoasters might leave some people with a sense of exhilaration, but not me. I’d wait on line not to ride one. Even some movies can be too upsetting to watch. I’ll leave the theater if I sense the protagonist is about to make a horrible mistake that will destroy his life. I walked out of Fargo yelling at William H. Macy, “Please don’t do this on my account!” Why can’t someone make a movie where everyone is safe because they took the necessary precautions? I’d be riveted.

Unfortunately, none of my young friends shared my anxiety. Instead, they bragged about watching movies featuring girls that needed an exorcism, or man eating sharks that also needed an exorcism. They’d scream with joy as blood filled the screens. But not me. I’d climb over the seats yelling, “Let me out!”

But watching Casper allowed me to feign a certain level of machismo. I could tell my friends that I, too, enjoyed watching ghost stories while leaving out the embarrassingly lame details. If someone had asked me back then what I was like, I might’ve described myself as a “pussy,” were I also not afraid of using dirty words. Fortunately, a solution to my cowardly self-image presented itself on the Halloween of my first year of elementary school. I was playing in my bedroom, perhaps knitting a cozy for the thumb I constantly sucked on, when my mother knocked and asked who I wanted to be for Halloween.

“I can pretend to be someone else?” I wondered.

I stared at her blankly, leaving her to mistake my existential breakdown for a pediatric mental disability.

Part of the problem was that, up until this point, I hadn’t made many decisions for myself. Most of them were made for me by my parents. I didn’t even get to decide how to answer the phone. I wanted to say “hello” like everyone else in the English speaking world, but my father decided that would be uncouth. Instead, he had me recite a long, scripted response, the way Shakespeare might’ve answered a princess phone if he kept one on his nightstand.

“Jamin residence, Michael speaking, who is this speaking please?”

I said it so quickly, and with such little conviction, that the sentence blurred together like one word.

“Jaminresidencemichaelspeakingwhoisthisspeakingplease?”

The person on the other end of the line was usually stunned into catatonia, wondering what they had just heard. “I’m sorry,” they’d eventually respond. “Can you repeat that?” Then I’d blow through my speech even faster, dropping as many syllables as I could. I’m not sure why my father wanted his residential phone line to sound like a call center for the March of Dimes, but it must’ve been important to him.

“If you could pretend to be anyone… anyone in the world,” my mother repeated, “Who would it be?”

“I don’t know. A superhero, I guess.”

Given that superheroes are afraid of nothing, it must’ve felt aspirational to me. A release from the constant fear that seemed to lurk around every corner. Superman was the obvious choice, but even at that young age, I knew to steer away from cliches. Aquaman was a more creative selection. He could talk to fish, which was something I already did to the guppies in my aquarium, and with limited satisfaction. And was that the image of myself that I wanted to project —  that I was a strong swimmer?

So that left Batman. I liked that he wore a utility belt filled with cool safety gadgets. He must’ve slept so soundly at night, knowing that a canister of buffalo repellant was never much further than his penis. The belt my mother dressed me in, on the other hand, was a braided, hippie creation, filled only with peace and sunshine.

I imagined the affectations I’d have to assume dressed as Batman. A forceful punch or a menacing glare, but neither was in my wheelhouse. Truthfully, portraying Bruce Wayne would’ve been a lot easier, given that I was better suited to high society cocktail parties than back alley brawls. “Thank you Aunt Harriet, I’d love another serving of dijonnaise.” Don’t tell me I wasn’t born to be a well-heeled socialite.

By some miracle, I managed to convince my mother to buy me a real Halloween costume, instead of something she fashioned from scraps she could find in the linen closet. It wasn’t a money thing. We had the cash. It’s just that she valued creativity over dignity. Why dress your son in something appropriate when a homemade alternative can make him the object of ridicule? A few years later, I performed in a magic show at the public library and my mother made me wear her black, pleated skirt as a cape.

“I’m confused,” someone in the audience whispered. “Why is that little boy wearing a skirt around his neck?” I tried to make him disappear by waving my magic wand. It was an empty threat, given that it was only a pencil wrapped in aluminum foil.

I don’t blame my mother for any of that. She was born with the soul of an artist, but had that beaten out of her by her parents, who were afraid of the impracticality of passion. Fear makes you do crazy things.

As my mother drove me to the local toy store, I winced at the decorations going up in our neighborhood. Jack-o-lanterns with angry scowls, life-sized ghouls with torn veins poking from their severed limbs… why was everyone so intent on expressing their worst nightmares? Even nature seemed to be in on the terror of it all, as the cold autumn wind blew rust colored leaves from the trees. They propped themselves up against the cardboard tombstones planted on the front lawns, gasping for their final breath. Scary was in the air.

I was too delicate to handle this kind of imagery. It kept me up at night and made me dread the horrors that might befall me were I not careful. What did I have to do to remain safe? Just give me the protocol and I’ll follow it.

At the toy store, I was eager to find the costume section so that I could transform into someone who knew no fear. But the store conspired against me, planting distractions along the way. Even as I snaked my way through the aisles, a model train set circling the perimeter beckoned for me.

“Come play with me,” it called. “Watch me load coal from a factory then emerge from a tunnel.”

But I was steadfast on finding my costume, even if it meant passing up the opportunity of laying a green army man on the tracks and imagining his panic.

“Can I help you?” asked a clerk stocking the shelves.

“Out of my way, old man,” I silently shouted as I barreled towards the costume section. He couldn’t have been more than sixteen.

I found the costumes next to the educational toys. It was undesirable real estate for sure, as learning saps the joy out of everything. Back then, costumes were sold in cardboard boxes with cellophane windows so you could view the contents inside. It was almost like looking into a TV set, but in this case I could get as close as I wanted without my mother scaring me about radiation. Just as I was imagining my new life as a Batman, a bright, white glow from the top shelf caught eye. I had seen that glow before. So alluring and peaceful. It belonged to a gentle dead boy who wanted nothing more than human companionship and a response from someone that wasn’t, “G-g-g-g-ghost!” It was Casper. I was both shocked and delighted that he was deemed worthy enough to have his own costume… especially given the caliber of company he was in… with the exception of Aquaman, of course. In my opinion, his powers made him less of a superhero and more of an eccentric with a filthy hobby.

“That one, Mommy!” I shouted. “That’s the one I want.”

My mother, eager to be anywhere but a toy store, quickly asked the clerk to fetch a step ladder. When he returned, my eyes almost filled with tears as he passed the box down to me. I lifted the lid like an archeologist opening the Arc of the Covenant, releasing the sacred toxic fumes that emanated from the cheap, plastic outfit that could’ve easily been made from a garbage bag.

“You realize I could’ve easily made this from a garbage bag,” said my mother.

“You’re crazy!” I barked at her, and I gently carried the costume to the register.

At home, I stood before a mirror as I released Casper from his cardboard confines to begin my holy transformation. I drew the elastic string back and positioned the stiff plastic mask over my face. It made the world harder to see, but easier to be seen in. I was amazed by my reflection. I was no longer Michael. I was now Casper the Friendly Ghost. This is who I was meant to be. Not brave or super-heroic. Other worldly.

As a ghost, I could fly, I could walk through walls, and I could do good deeds for others which, to be quite honest, never occurred to me before putting on the mask. I could feel the condensation from my breath pooling against the stiff rim clamped against my chin.

“I’m Casper!” I gurgled in saliva, as if they were my last words before being sucked under by a riptide.

The days couldn’t pass quickly enough, as I anxiously anticipated my school’s Halloween parade. That would be the moment of my big reveal, when my true personality would be bestowed upon the world.

“Why must there be 31 days in October?” I cried. “It’s taking too long!”

When the day finally arrived, all the students marched single file down the hall, then doubled back so that we could briefly admire each other’s costumes as we passed. I was surprised to discover that I was standing right behind my best friend, Adam, who was wearing a Frankenstein mask.

“Adam, is that you? I didn’t even recognize you!” I said it without irony, failing to realize that was the entire point of wearing a disguise.

“I was gonna be the Lone Ranger,” he replied. “But I’m glad I didn’t.” He pointed to several other kids wearing Lone Ranger costumes. A couple of them were twirling silver toy pistols in the air. Today a SWAT team would wrestle you to the ground for that, but back then, you could hold a gun to your teacher’s head without too much trouble.

“Casper, stand against the wall for a group photo,” shouted my teacher, and I happily obliged, appreciative that people were now referring to me by my new name. Soon they would fear me, then grow to love me. Showing them my benevolent side, despite my considerable powers, would make me feel magnanimous and kind. And if anyone didn’t appreciate that, I would sneak up from behind and scare them off a bridge.

“Casper, make room for Raggedy Ann,” yelled the photographer. I didn’t like being admonished, but I took a half step to the right. For a doll, no less. She wore a horrible, red mop over her head that looked like it had been dyed in tomato juice, and I wondered if I my mother played a role in that.

After the photo, I noticed kids starting to take off their masks. Maybe they were uncomfortable with the sharp holes scraping against their eyelids. Or maybe they just grew bored pretending to be something they’re not. But it ruined the illusion and it made me mad. If we all wanted to enjoy Halloween, then we all needed to wear our masks. That’s the rule. It was bad enough seeing Teddy dressed as some guy named Gerald Ford, but with the plastic mask resting on top of his head, what was the point of it all? I couldn’t be the only one wearing a mask, it just wasn’t fair. And without my mask, how could I be brave?

I had a similar response almost 44 years later. It was January of 2020, and I was in the San Antonio airport having just finished giving a talk at a conference. This was two months before the first wave of Covid-19 hit the United States and even though no one here was really worried about it, I had already performed an inventory check on my emergency supplies. Anyone who has visited my garage knows I’m just one spool of razor wire away from being a doomsday prepper. Throw in the whisper of a pandemic and you’ve got me operating at DEF-CON 5. Tucked in one of my emergency bins is a slingshot that will stop an intruder dead in his tracks… as long as he holds still and is patient with me. But airborne pathogens are harder to defend against. My anxiety hasn’t turned me into a full-blown germaphobe, but for years I’ve been very conscious about not touching objects crawling with microbes. I look like a gymnast when pulling open public doors, often stretching to reach the very top of the handle or stooping over to reach the bottom… areas that fewer people are likely to have touched. Sometimes I’ll pretend to make a game out of this, so that onlookers think I’m fun and delightful instead of a lunatic like Howard Hughes.

As I walked to the boarding gate, I passed a man in his mid-twenties wearing a surgical mask. I suppose he could’ve been a doctor who had just stepped out of the operating room, but given that he wore flip flops, baggy shorts, and had neck tattoo, he didn’t strike me as an oncologist. A fugitive from an operating room, maybe, running from a detective. He was the first person I saw wearing a paper mask in public, and that made me instantly hate him. In my mind, he represented the beginning of mass hysteria. Everything I had read suggested that paper masks would do nothing to protect him if he were exposed to the virus. It was more for containing his own infection. I wanted to yell at him that the only person he was protecting was me… and for some reason I had a problem with that.

I broke away from the throngs of people marching to their departure gates to buy a snack. I wasn’t hungry, but what if I was hungry later? What if the plane got stuck on the tarmac for three hours because of a lightning storm? Or what if the plane took off on time, but got diverted to Denver because of an air traffic controller strike? It would be wise to have a knapsack full of food just in case. Before I met Cynthia, I would’ve grabbed whatever fast food they were selling by the newsstand. But Cynthia is all about herbal, organic, and unprocessed. Now I’m the snob who walks into a mid-end supermarket and thinks, “There’s absolutely nothing here to eat!” So at the airport, I spent a good twenty minutes shuttling between vendors trying to find something that wasn’t fried, cheesed, glazed or hammed. Texas is not the right place for a Californian looking for a low-carb vegan nosh. That left me purchasing a ten dollar fruit bowl. It actually cost less but I hesitated as she offered me my change. We looked like two sprinters trying to exchange a baton during the 100 meter relay, as I kept pulling my hand further and further away from her. Finally, I decided to let her keep her Covid-covered quarters and made a dash to the finish line. That should serve as a lesson: whenever I do something generous, just assume it’s because I don’t want to touch your germs.

Now, months into a pandemic that has already taken a half-million lives, I think about that masked man on the rare occasions that I venture out of my hermetically sealed home. “I’m not afraid,” I remind myself. “I’m not afraid.”

It’s not fever or chills that gets my mind racing. It’s the shortness of breath. The panicked feeling that you can’t get enough of the only thing you really need — air. I think about the people hit the hardest, dying alone, without the comfort of their loved ones. Maybe that’s the only thing you really need.

Once again, I’m the one with a mask firmly affixed to his face. And when others have them hanging from their neck, I become enraged with indignity. “That’s not how masks work!” I want to yell. “If Halloween has taught us anything, it’s that we all have to wear them!”

I step cautiously onto the street, as if venturing towards the middle of a frozen pond, whose delicate surface could break at any minute. My senses are now always at full alert. Who is walking towards me, and who might catch me from behind? What did I touch and when did I wash? It’s June and road signs remind us of the presence of plague. “Congratulations to the Class of 2020.” They mark the end of lives once freely lived, when children didn’t fear death from the breath of their friends. These signs are planted on front lawns like cardboard tombstones. Scary is in the air.