For the Love of Masks

I love masks. Maybe it’s the ninja in me. This cursed Coronavirus has cost me my job of the last twenty years so I’m struggling to keep looking on the bright side. And the brightest outcome is winning the right to wear a mask in public now.

The Ninja in me – circa mid 80s. Photo courtesy of Greg Lynch Jr.

However, in our Divided States of America, masks have become yet another pointless political platform, a symbolic battleground masking other deeper divisions. I’ve worn masks for years, for martial arts practice, for work, and for health, so it’s hard for me to wrap my mind around all this anti-mask resistance. Wearing protective masks never gave me a second thought until the pandemic. Here I feel like we just won the right to wear masks freely. Now others are trying to take right that away from me so soon? Don’t ruin this for me.

To be honest, I’ve had a difficult time with this blog essay. I started it at the beginning of the pandemic and have rewritten it several times over the last 8 months. I’m giving up and am posting it now in part to assuage my Hallowcovidween blues and also to get it off my ‘to do’ list because it’s been here for way too long – the whole freaking pandemic now. What’s more, whatever the election may bring next week, I want to get this out now, just in case it gets even more politicized. Public health should not be a political issue. It’s the failure of our nation that it has become one.

For me, wearing a mask is a warrior thing. My martial arts practice brought mask wearing into my lifestyle. I’ve worn plenty of protective masks, or more specifically, helmets. As odd as it sounds, I went to college primarily to study swordsmanship. I went to a fencing summer camp when I was in High School at San Jose State University, and the coach there, Maestro Michael D’Asaro, advised me to enroll and fence for him. I had no plan after High School and was bound toward Junior College, and back then SJSU wasn’t that much more expensive, and Stro (as D’Asaro was nicknamed) said that I’d lose NCAA years as soon as I enrolled at any college. So I fenced for the NCAA team under Stro and also earned my Prevost D’armes D’escrime under Maestro William Gaugler in a unique program under SJSU’s ROTC. I also trained in Kendo under Sensei Benjamin Hazard. Stro was a world champion and both Gaugler and Hazard were University professors. All have passed away now but their teachings still resonate within me.

Those martial disciplines taught me to respect masks. Anyone who has done any serious weapons training knows how important a mask is to protect your head. It sucks to get hit in the face. Both Fencing and Kendo are sword arts where combatants can strike your skull as hard as possible. It’s very satisfying to be on the delivering end, but not as much to be the recipient. You do not want to take that blow without a protective mask. Masking is awkward for beginners, but there is significant ritual and protocol about donning it. And soon enough it becomes a place of security and comfort, especially when someone is trying to crack your cranium.

In fencing, it’s common etiquette to salute your opponent with your mask off. But when you fence, you don your mask for your own protection.

For those who has never been in a sword fight – which is surely the majority of the population nowadays – I imagine it’s tough to relate to martial arts masking. Nevertheless, anyone who has ever sparred understands the importance of protective gear. As martial artists go, I’m not thick (as in thick skinned), so I’ve always relied on as much protective gear as is allowed. Real warriors wear masks to protect themselves, as well as to protect others.

My Kendo mask. I haven’t donned it in years.

There’s another reason why I love masks that came from my university years. At SJSU I minored in Anthropology, focusing on Cultural over Physical. Within that field, I studied rituals of masking and became fascinated by its cultural relevance. Donning a mask sends a message, whether conscious or unconscious. The type of mask you wear is an expression of the inner self, even though being a mask, it is meant to obscure the outward appearance. I made art masks as a sculptural outlet. A few years ago, I made one for a Halloween costume based on the classic Kung Fu flick, Five Deadly Venoms (1978). It was a fun project, a good excuse to watch that movie again. In this same vein, I’m delighted about the variation of mask designs that are emerging in response to the pandemic. I’m hopeful that full-on space helmets are next. Seriously, I would rock an Star Trek TOS spacesuit everyday if it was socially acceptable and functionally protective.

Poison Clan Rocks the World! My 2016 Halloween mask

However fencing and decorative masks aren’t the kind of protective masks that are being advocated to help quell the pandemic. I only bring them up to give my personal penchant for masks some context.

When it comes to protective masks, I’m disappointed at the fragility of Americans who claim they can’t breathe while wearing such a mask. Poaching ‘I can’t breathe’ from the Black Lives Matter movement is so misguided and tone deaf. Face masks are designed for so you can breath through them. That’s the whole point. Some of us have to wear masks so we can make our livings and you don’t hear us whining about it.

I worked in a shop for years beginning in the late 80s. I made my living as full-time as a swordmaker at the Armoury division of American Fencers Supply Company. Now whenever I say that, people imagine me hammering metal billets into blades, but I didn’t work in a forge. We bought blades and fitted them, so it was shop work, cleaning and polishing cast pieces with Dremel tools and polishing wheels, cutting wood on a table saw, occassionally working with a MIG welder. We wore protective masks and goggles. There were fumes, wood and metal splinters, sparks, all sorts of nasty things that you didn’t want in your face. If you’ve done any kind of industrial work like this, you know how to wear protective mask. Those that say they ‘can’t breathe’ while wearing a mask strike me as privileged – entitled weaklings that have never worked dirty jobs. They have no idea that some of us work jobs where there’s no choice about wearing a mask all day. All those frontline heroes working at hospitals now – they know. And we salute them.

Some claim that masks aren’t effective. Even with protective gear, there’s no guarantee of safety but that doesn’t mean we should disregard it. I caught a metal splinter in my eye once. It bounced into my goggles through the air vent. It was horribly painful and put me in the ER. After experiencing that, I’ve always been extra vigilant with protective gear. Even though those protective masks failed to protect me, I still wore them. Not to do so would be reckless. Just like a hard hat, work gloves, or a fencing mask, it takes a little getting used to at first, but once you experience the alternative – once you get hurt – you adapt quickly. And if it’s for your living, you get as comfortable as you can to do your job. The same goes for mask wearing in these pandemic times. To deny wearing one because they don’t always work is like not wearing a seat belt because sometimes people still die in a car crash with them on.

In 2004, I was in China during the SARS outbreak. It was an experience that I wrote about on KungFuMagazine.com – see Shaolin Trips – Episode Two: Reigning in at the Brink of the Precipice, I’ll also attach that article here (That story also appears in my book, Shaolin Trips).

Experiencing China during a major pandemic has had me waiting for another one ever since. Also, after spending so much time in Asia, I’ve seen how masking is a common courtesy. When you’re feeling a little under the weather, you wear a mask as a courtesy to shield the people around you, your family, your friends and anyone who might cross your path. No one likes to be sick. We’ve all experienced when a cold has come through school, or the office, or the gym. Being sick sucks, even when it’s not fatal. The custom of wearing masks in Asia is commonplace. If you watch classic anime, you’ve seen heroes wear masks when they’re sick from Sailor Moon to  Katsuhiro Otomo’s Memories. They’ve been ahead of the curve when it comes to masking. Now that we’re a global community, the rest of the world is finally catching up.

Training Kung Fu while masked. Photo courtesy of Debbie Shayne of The Academy of Martial and Internal Arts in Santa Cruz.

Recently, I’ve been enjoying the challenge of training with a mask. The school where I train, The Academy of Martial and Internal Arts, has been holding classes outside. We’re masked and socially distant. That’s an advantage of form-based martial arts. It’s harder to be socially distant at the MMA and Jiu-Jistsu gyms, although I do miss the ‘hands on’ drills and such but sacrifices must be made. To sacrifice is to make sacred and to practice any art earnestly is to touch the divine.

Sure, it’s harder to work out in a mask but training, especially Kung Fu training, is meant to be hard. Hardcore athletes don oxygen reduction masks to strengthen their lungs when working out. I like to think I’m getting a better workout but that’s just my self-inflated notion of my practice, not real hypoxia. I’d get a better workout if I just worked out more. Nevertheless, I do enjoy masked Kung Fu. Maybe it’s that ninja in me.

As an American, I appreciate freedom. But the paradox of freedom is that we are free to make the wrong choice. We are free to be stupid, selfish, and evil. We can vote for tyranny. That’s how freedom of choice works. If Eve never ate of that forbidden fruit, we’d all still be in Eden, naked and unencumbered by the pandemic. All of those Biblical stories, or any religious parables, are about those who exercised their freedom, for good or for evil. And when they chose wrongly, there’s a reckoning. We must all make such choices, all the time.

We all hope the pandemic ends soon. We all want things to go back to ‘normal’ However, there’s that ‘new normal’ we all face, and in all likelihood within this future, there will be more pandemics to come. If you think COVID-19 is bad, COVID-21 or COVID-22 could be worse. It doesn’t take a scientist to recognize that we’ve experienced an increasing number of pandemics in recent years – AIDS, SARS, Ebola, Swine Flu, Avian Flu – these all emerged within my lifetime. And obviously, they have been getting progressively more devastating. Pandemics have been predicted in many scientific models – climate change, overpopulation, antibiotic resistance, zoonosis from encroaching on wildlands – it’s just happening faster than expected. Masks won’t solve any of these, but I’ll hedge my bet with the added protection. In the face of imminent apocalypse, I’ll take any advantage I can.

I sincerely hope that we are free to wear masks from here forward regardless of politics and culture. If I have a cold, I will wear a mask to shield others. If I have allergies, I’ll also wear a mask. If there’s a smog alert, or smoke from wildfires, I’ll mask up then too. Don’t impinge my right to wear a mask. I’m comfortable wearing them. I love masks.

2 thoughts on “For the Love of Masks

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