Of Masks And Men

Because even a home-made mask is better than nothing.

We are now being advised to wear some kind of protective mask whenever we venture outdoors. Even home-made ones are said to be better than nothing, and there are quite a few imaginative designs out there, tributes to American ingenuity. Nevertheless, Dear Leader will not be setting the example by wearing one himself. He feels it’s not presidential. “I just can’t see it,” he said, in a moment of uncharacteristic humility.

In contrast, I have complied ardently with this directive. I wore my precious N95 to the grocery store and to the ATM. I wore it when I put out the garbage and when I brought in the mail. But I was afraid that, if I wore it out back to the spa, it would get wet. I was sure that wetting it would ruin it, so I had to come up with some alternative masking arrangement, a waterproof one.

Something made of cloth seemed like an obvious choice, but when I looked into it further, I found that cloth masks have serious drawbacks when they get wet. Virus particles normally travel through the air on droplets of spittle that my loving neighbors have coughed, sneezed, or otherwise excreted into the air. These droplets may get caught on a cloth mask before reaching my face, at least slowing their viral passengers’s attempt to reach my lungs. That is the theory.

But if the mask is wet, things work differently. Wet cloth clings to your face, and capillary action draws the virus particles directly down to your skin. I needed something else.

The internet seemed to offer all sorts of possible solutions. I found instructions for making masks out of flags and jock straps. I found ads for welding shields and for virus-resistant face creams. But the welder’s masks were all on back order, and I was sure the face creams would irritate my skin.

Rummaging through the garage, I came across my old snorkeling gear. At first, I was certain this would be perfect, but I soon ran into a few complications. First, the mask covered only my nose, not my mouth. I solved this problem by using the snorkel, stuffing tissues into it to act as a filter for the virus, and sucking as hard as I could in order to breathe. This effort made me perspire, however, and that caused the mask to fog, blinding me as I tried to grope my way out of the tub and back inside. I fell and hurt my knee when one of my fins caught on the edge of the deck. There had to be another way.

After discarding a few ideas involving flower pots¹, I hit upon the notion of using gallon freezer storage bags. They are cheap and disposable, transparent, and easily affixed to the ears by cutting a two-inch slit just under the reinforced slider. I added a bit of tape to keep the slit from spreading. My first prototype was a little flimsy, but I bolstered it with a bungee strap around my forehead, and it stayed in place well enough.

I was left with the problem of getting a virus-proof closure around the edges. A video about the right way to put on a surgical mask stressed the importance of a good seal. Let me point out that this can be difficult if you have a full beard.

But there are tricks. One, that I learned when I took snorkeling lessons, is to use vaseline. So, after shaving a clean line under my chin at the neckline, I smeared gobs of the stuff all around my head and neck, working the bag into place. I put it on extra thick at the top of my head, because that’s where the bag’s corner was, and my hair, although thin, kept getting in the way. I had to use another bungee.

I should stress that this was a prototype. I realized that I would run out of air. Had it worked, I would have punched another hole in the bag and run a piece of rubber tubing through the kitchen window, bringing virus-free air from indoors. But as things worked out, I got vaseline on everything until I couldn’t see through the bag, and I slipped three times trying to get out of the tub. It was getting to be dinner time, so I finally gave up.

Washing off the vaseline proved to be another problem. I got it all over the bathroom walls as I tried to shower it off, but it seemed that no amount of soap and hot water would break its grip on my hair. Despite all my scrubbing, I still felt its tackiness.

I needed a solvent that would effectively dissolve the stuff. Fortunately, a very large jug of alcohol, used for decontamination, was sitting in the kitchen. Even with that, it was difficult to get that stuff out of my hair. But after using half a gallon, at last I felt pretty clean. A little dizzy from breathing the fumes, but finally able to go make dinner. After a quick rinse, I headed for the kitchen. By now, I was famished.

Dinner was to be some leftover stew that only needed to be heated on the stove. My eyes were watering, I was still woozy from the fumes, and something — I thought it was water — was dripping onto my shoulders as I poured the stuff into a pan. I twisted the knob on the stove and heard the igniter click a few times before the gas caught, but the flash of combustion seemed a lot more vigorous than usual. The last thing I remember was a loud Whoosh.

There is a magic trick that involves burning alcohol in your hand. Actually, it is the vapors above the alcohol that burn, leaving your hand unscathed. This wasn’t quite like that. As the fumes ignited, they took most of my remaining hair with them. I tried to take some consolation from the fact that I did need a haircut, but I was really upset. While I was passed out, the EMTs had eaten my stew, and one of them had the nerve to say it had too much garlic.

¹As a diving bell