Tribal Masks

This time last year, the only people who wore masks were surgeons, bank robbers, people who wanted to add some forbidden fruit to their adult activities and the Lone Ranger.  How times have changed!  These days, we all have one.  (Of course, there are people who don’t, but I’m not going to antagonize those folks: they’re oddly aggressive about it.)  Personally, I think there’s a major upside to everybody wearing a mask.  Yeah, yeah, yeah!  There’s that whole health thing, but in these tribal times (we all seem to belong to an identifiable group!) it’s a cool shorthand to recognize who you’re dealing with.  Here are just a few examples.

Not The Nose – These are the people who genuinely want to follow the protocols but haven’t quite figured out that the nostrils are connected to the lungs.

Neck-warmers – Apparently, some people believe that the mere presence of a mask anywhere in the vicinity of the face will stop the virus – sort of like a string of garlic wards off vampires.

The Paper Pusher – These are the folks who bought a package of 10 paper masks at the drugstore back in April, and even though it’s a little dirty and the elastic’s kinda worn out, are still using the first one.

I Have A Message – Sometimes these masks feature innocent stuff like sports logos or brand names, but there are also a bunch of other itty-bitty walking billboards out there with an in-your-face/on-your-face political or social agenda.  Okay, folks!  I’ll tell you what: right now, I’m trying to navigate my way through this godawful pandemic, but the minute I do, I promise I’ll “Make America Great Again,” “Save The Whales,” “Defund The Police,” “Stop Climate Change” and “Free Ed Snowden.”  I will!  Really!

The Virtue Signaller – These are the people whose mask was woven by Syrian refugees using a traditional Bedouin loom.  It’s made of sustainable wool from a free-range desert flock and features an ancient geometric folk pattern.  The problem is despite its morally superior lineage, it looks just like every other mask.  This forces the wearer to annoy everybody with a detailed explanation of the who, what, where and why of the damn thing.  (Thank God for social distancing!)

The D.I.Y. Guy – This fellow made his own mask in his workshop out of a reclaimed wooden pallet.  It took him three weeks — evenings and weekends — and didn’t cost a cent if you discount the 22 thousand dollar investment in power tools.  It has a beautiful, high-gloss butterfly burl wood finish, weighs 2 kilos (5 pounds) is utterly useless and looks like Bane (from Batman) has a younger brother. 

The D.I.Y. Girls – The younger ones made their own masks out of spare pieces of fabric they had left over from their on-line multi-media art workshop.  They’re put together with bits of twine from an old macramé hanging basket and there are other individually handcrafted ones (including child sizes) available on Etsy.   The older ones made theirs out of a used milk jug and the plastic rings from a soda pop six-pack.  They were cut out with an Exacto knife, hot-glued together and decorated with spray-painted macaroni.  There’s a How-to video available on YouTube — if you’re so inclined.

I’m a Patriot – These are the flag guys — and they’re mostly guys — mostly American and mostly a pain in the ass.

I’m Rich – These are the people who wear the Burberry tartan, the Louis Vuitton fabric or a discreet YSL logo on their cheek.  Nothing says “I’ve got more money than you” than paying $150.00 for a 5-by-10 piece of cloth and an elastic band — when you can get the same thing on Amazon for 12 bucks.

I’m Really A Funny Person – These masks are the facial equivalent of the Dad joke.  They have such hilarious features as buck teeth, a handlebar moustache, fangs, cigars and wandering tongues.  Like the toilet paper jokes, these things were slightly cute last summer, but here in the winter of our discontent, they’re just annoying.

And finally:

I’m a Badass – These are the guys who found an old bandana in their underwear drawer and thought (despite tons of evidence to the contrary) they should show the world just how kick-ass cool they still are by wearing it instead of a mask.  Unfortunately, there’s nothing quite as sad as seeing an aging Easy Rider climbing into a minivan at the Mall.

Pure Sex – These are those hyper-female women who’ve decided masks are actually lingerie.  Hey, ladies!  Unlike man-catcher underwear, lace is not that effective in this situation.

The Pursuit Of Cool

The world is built on “cool.”  And, deny it if you want to, we all have an uncontrollable urge to pursue it.  It’s like hungry, horny and getting enough to drink – hydration: we need it to live.  That’s why everybody’s teenage years were so godawful.  Not only were we being pistol-whipped by our hormones, but every time we turned around, Susan and Dave, the “cool” kids, were standing there.  They had bodies by Mattel and clothes by Yves St. Laurent.  They knew exactly what to say on every occasion, never had an unfortunate zit and certainly never felt the need to fart.  In a word, they were cool.  Of course, we knew we would be way cooler if only we had the opportunity, but mostly we cursed our fate for being born incurable nerds.

As adults, we pursue “cool” in more subtle and sophisticated ways — what we eat, what we sit on, how we get around, what we watch on TV, even the way we speak.  (Slang is a very refined bit of “cool.”)  Plus, we convince ourselves that “cool” doesn’t matter (we’ve outgrown it) because one of the essential elements of being “cool” is … you don’t care about it.  And there’s a whole it’s-hip-to-be-square industry that’s grown up around that.  But regardless of how we chase it, “cool” is always out there.  It’s the way we define ourselves in relation to every other person on the planet.  And like it or not, some people are better at it than the rest of us.  It even extends beyond the grave.

For example, Hunter S. Thompson, the King of Gonzo Journalism had his ashes shot out of a cannon.  His buddy, Johnny Depp, did the shooting (this was back when Johnny was still “cool”) and Jack Nicholson, John Cusack, Bill Murray, John Kerry, Ed Bradley, etc., etc. all showed up to wish Hunter S. well on his final journey.  Personally, I think with that much “cool” standing around the cannon, they probably didn’t even have to light the fuse – it just spontaneously burst into flame.

Meanwhile, Gene Roddenberry, the guy who created Star Trek, had his ashes taken into space on the Space Shuttle – kind of a “There and Back” posthumous adventure.  He also had some of his ashes (along with Timothy Leary’s and a bunch of other guys’) shot into orbit aboard a Pegasus XL rocket.  Unfortunately, after several years, the orbit deteriorated and the capsule disintegrated when it re-entered Earth’s atmosphere.  But talk about totally cool — especially since the whole Star Trek phenom — from Jim Kirk to the latest Picard — is the ultimate sci-fi travelogue for nerds.  Star Trek has never been “cool” beyond its geek niche, but clearly Roddenberry is.

However, the best nerd-to-“cool” tale ever told is that of Eugene Shoemaker.  Here was a guy with a Thomas Dewey moustache and a personality to match.  He loved rocks — and not just any rocks: he was an astrogeologist.  (I don’t even know what those people do.)  Anyway, he was so good at it that, when he died, his colleagues convinced NASA to put his ashes on the Lunar Prospector, a capsule designed to crash on the Moon.  On July 31, 1999, it did just that — with a special polycarbonate “urn” containing Shoemaker.  So Eugene is the first human being buried on the Moon.  How “cool” is that?  Too “cool!”  (Eat your heart out, Clooney!)

So when all those people are putting on the brag about their “cool” walking tour of Greenland, or their “cool” new Nespresso machine, or their eco-friendly bicycle with heated seat and handlebars – remember: they might think they’re “cool” (just like Susan and Dave did in high school) but they’re never going to be buried-on-the-Moon “cool.”  That’s reserved for nerds like us.

Stranded In Paradise

Cook Islands 2b

Most folks are like me — terminally ordinary.  There isn’t much more than what the world sees, and the back story is usually just about the same.  However, give any group of these “average” people a crisis, and the interesting ones will emerge from the herd like characters in an Agatha Christie novel.  Some years ago, I was privileged to observe a planeload of tourists when disaster (inconvenience?) struck.  These people are real.  I’ve left out the boring bits and glossed over the sordid parts (this is, after all, a family-friendly blog) but for the most part, this is how I remember them.

It was a trip to the South Seas.  The cunning plan was to find a shady spot, eat like Dumas, drink like Hemingway, unleash my inner Robert Louis Stevenson and write an adventure story.  Meanwhile, my beautiful and humourous companion would soak up some sun, snorkel and take award-winning photographs of everything exotic.  Good plan, great execution — and three days in, we were entirely on schedule.  I was sitting in the sun-warm morning, having my after- breakfast rum and umbrella concoction when …

“What do you think we should do?”
It was a voice from a face I kinda recognized from the airplane.
“About what?”  I asked, pulling the umbrella out of the glass.
“Canada 3000 has gone broke.  We’re stuck here.  We can’t get home.”
“Bummer.”
There was silence, so I took a drink.  More silence.  I’d missed something important.
“Well, we have to do something,” she said and walked off, hard stomps in the sand.

Over the next ten days, because we were trapped and I was a permanent fixture at a cabana close to the bar, I got to observe everybody up close and personal.  I discovered my little slice of paradise was an unsinkable lifeboat with a list of personalities worthy of Hitchcock.

There was the fat woman and her husband who showed up to The Stranded Tourist Meeting in skin-tight pink and yellow wet suits.  They looked like two gigantic Easter eggs.  Later, over frustration cocktails, they explained that they knew the scuba gear looked hideous, but, and I almost quote, “We like pink, so screw ‘em!”  It turned out their 9-to-5 job was doing English voiceover work for foreign porno films.

There was the oilman father, full of golf and Steinlager beer, his wife, mother of none and their two children, 20-something adolescents who had travelled the world on their parents’ dime.  We hung with the kids cuz they were fun.  She was beautiful, and as far as I remember, that was her career.  He was a delivery driver who lived in her spare bedroom.  One night, they danced in the moonlight surf as if they were silhouettes in a Thai shadow play.  It was weird!

There was a man and his wife who made the airline representative cry at The Stranded Tourist Meeting and were subsequently shunned by the tribe.  One night, they confessed to us that they were married — but not to each other — and were supposed to be in Dallas at a teachers’ conference.  No wonder they were stressed about getting home on time!

There were the three amigas, office worker women who had saved up all year for a two-week bikini experience – and they had a lot of bikinis.  They were broke enough to borrow money but not at all worried about it. (“We travel like this all the time.  People are always really nice to us.”)  They hitched a flight to Auckland with a German tour group and, I suppose, got home from there.

And there were the newlyweds, who discovered they shouldn’t have when the groom, in a fury of they’re-not-going-to-get-away-with-this spent his days fighting with the airline, the hotel, Visa, the Canadian government, New Zealand and a local guy named Henry – and his nights recounting the battles to anyone who would listen.  Meanwhile, Mrs. Groom wandered the resort in pretty clothes and a bottomless Singapore Sling.  After a week, she disappeared, and the rumour was she’d dumped the prince and caught a flight to Tahiti.

A week later, we followed her and from there, flew to Los Angeles — then home.  I never did write the adventure story, but for 10 years I’ve been toying with a murder mystery — except I just can’t get the characters right.

Cook Islands 1`