Mary Schmich: Hate that mask? You'll like it better if you turn it into a story

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Jeliner Jordan sews masks for her neighbors on April 9, 2020, during the coronavirus pandemic. - Brian Cassella/Chicago Tribune/TNS

Every mask tells a story. What’s yours?

Obviously, this question presumes that you have a mask and use it, in which case, you’re not the prime target for the new Illinois ad campaign that comes with the slogan “It Only Works if You Wear It.” The $5 million campaign, which the governor announced Monday, is aimed at the mask resisters, the legions whose behavior is one reason a killer virus continues to stalk the land.

But if you do wear a mask when you should — generally indoors in public spaces, outdoors when you can’t keep proper social distance — you probably have a story, and that story makes the mask easier to wear. You can recount where you got it, when and why, maybe who made it.

“What’s the story of your mask?” I often ask people. It’s a good conversation starter, and I always learn something about the person that goes beyond the mask, often something about their relatives, friends, passions.

Stories that question has elicited:

A man whose wife turned her pajama bottoms into a mask for him. The dog lover who bought masks from an Iowa woman who contributes proceeds to a group trying to shut down illegal puppy mills. Masks bought from the neighborhood dry cleaner who makes them at a sewing machine and an ironing board in the window.

“In my family,” reported Betsy Thibaut Stephenson, a Facebook friend, “masks are identified with their source or event: the one that Will’s mom gave you; the ones that Mrs. Talpas made; the ones we got for your (socially distanced) birthday gathering. Oh, and there’s the box you swiped from your office.”

One woman with three masks recounted the good causes each mask-maker represents, then said, “All three masks mean so much to me as they were made with not just love, but also purpose.”

Made with love and purpose. Along with a proper fit, those help make a mask tolerable.

I have several mask stories because I have several masks.

My first masks were gifts from a friend. They’re nothing special to see, just the disposable blue surgical masks that these days litter the ground like potato chip bags. (That’s another story.) In the panicky early days of the pandemic, when masks were hard to find, my friend managed to score a few, and the fact that she thought to share with me made those no-frills masks as precious as pearls.

My next two masks came from Jeliner “Jelly” Jordan, a 76-year-old woman who has been making masks for her neighbors in a Chicago Housing Authority high-rise. After I wrote about her, she surprised me by mailing me two of her creations, impeccably stitched, and though I would ordinarily return any gift from someone I’d written about, it didn’t feel right to return hers.

My next masks came from my college roommate, an economics professor who finds pandemic relief sitting at her sewing machine. She made me three, each in a different material and style.

I use all the masks, different ones for different moods. I take them out for walks, like pets. Each one makes me think of the person who was kind enough to give it to me.

The psychology of masks is complex. So is breaking down the resistance of the resisters. If shame alone worked, the problem would be solved because shaming the mask resisters is a popular pastime. Education helps, but the education about masks has been confused, and the early, wrong messages that masks weren’t important for regular people have been hard to overcome.

But masking, like the virus, is contagious. The more people wear masks, more people will wear them. And unless more people do, we’re doomed

On Tuesday as I was writing this, Illinois health officials issued the daily COVID-19 toll: 1,471 new known cases, 19 more known deaths. Remember. That’s the daily count.

In this state alone, since the pandemic began, 184,712 people are known to have been infected, and 7,545 have died. The national toll of the dead is 152,000.

Come on. We can do this. Get a mask. Turn your mask into a story, even if it begins, “I hate this !@##$% mask, but let me tell you about it.”



Mary Schmich is a columnist for the Chicago Tribune and winner of the 2012 Pulitzer Prize for commentary.


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