On this day, March 11, in the year of

  • 1988, my daughter was born
  • 2011, a tsunami hit Japan disrupting Fukushima Daiichi
  • 2020, Covid-19 was declared a pandemic

On other days, in other years, people survived and thrived, died and were memorialized.

From 1347-1352, the Black Death (bubonic plague), killed 25 million people, 1/3 of Europe. Was it God’s punishment? The Devil scouring the world? Nature cleaning house?

Who knows? Don’t ask theological questions. They are all unanswerable.

Ask ritual questions. Search for ritual actions. Rituals: what you do when you can do no other.

Have you washed your hands? How many times? Top and bottom? 70% alcohol? Yes? You followed the sagely advice offered in the previous post? Great.

The next ritually significant step: wear a mask. Handwashing + mask = double-duty protection.

Abraham Lincoln had a beard, more famous than mine, not so white. Dead, he’s wearing a $5 mask. By the time you read this, panic buying will drive up the price on Amazon to $20, whatever the market will bear. In emergency, you can use this soft mask as toilet paper.

In hospitals, masks are useful if put on properly, which is to say ritually. The ritual is complicated, so watch this video several times. Repeat, repeat, repeat. Learn the lingo: doff and don. Imitate the scenario as you would tai chi on YouTube. Get a witness to make sure you do it right. Ritual: Have the action witnessed. Do it right. Do it precisely or die.

What is a mask? Sounds like an easy question. Is make-up on your face a mask? Are clothes elongated body masks? And beards?

Put a mask over a beard, and it’s a mask over a mask. Sawdust, fumes, and viruses creep and crawl into the cracks between your face and the mask.

The CDC (Center for Disease Control) has now issued facial hair guidelines. It’s worth clicking to read the guidelines full-screen. You’ll be astonished at how many names and models there are for beards.

My full beard earns a red X on the CDC chart. Full beards signal the threat of death, possibility of hell. Red is the Devil, color-coded.
 If I trim my beard down to a “soul patch,” “toothbrush” (Hitleresque) or “Zorro,” my fate will change to a green checkmark, doorway to survival, eventually a doorway to heaven.

When I was in Japan with my daughter in 2013, after the Fukushima disaster, I was spooked by the masks being worn on Tokyo subways. Unlike us selfish Norte Americanos, who wear masks to protect ourselves, Japanese say they wear masks to protect others, a matter of health, hygiene, and courtesy. There are other reasons too: hiding pimples, social distancing, fashion.

In the Ritual Studies Lab, near the end of the course, I would dress up as Old Death and chase the students until they decided it was time to take me down, take OD to the ground, peel off his mask to reveal a mere mortal professor-man behind the mask.

Pull the curtain. The Wizard of Oz is smaller than you think.

On Halloween I would change the mask’s name from Old Death to North Wind. I would wear a tape player under my gown playing a chilly north wind to terrify parents, whom I hoped would grow cold with fear, while my kids were giggling about being brave.

I’ve long been attracted to masks. I write articles about them. They hang on my walls. Among them is Jesus on a cross wearing a mask of straw. Why the love of masks? I rationalize. My last name, Grimes, is derived from Grim, Grimm, and Grimr, meaning “grimace,” “mask.” Am I of Viking extraction? Who knows?

Hoping to stem the pandemic, organizers have  cancelled the masked Venice Carnival. The result? More masks on police fearing the plague.

Italian police wearing mask

After handwashing and masks, what’s my ritually appropriate choice?

  • Borders blocked?
  • Doors locked?
  • Martial law declared?
  • Bunkers sealed?
  • Guns loaded?

No choice, at least no ethical choice.

So I’ll make do, improvise. Put on a mask, dance on my own grave, yours too if you invite me in for chocolates.

For the pandemic I prefer the ritual garb of a plague doctor: bird mask, medical kit, lantern, garlic, robe, gloves, hat. Plague doctors actually wore this gear. Gloves and robes were coated in pig fat to keep out moisture. The beaks were stuffed with herbs and sweet smelling things to ward off miasmas (foul odors) considered to be the source of the plague. No one yet knew about the symbiotic relationship between fleas and rats, much less viruses.

Suppose I, sporting my many qualifications (Dr. of the Deep, D.D., Medicine Man, Pseudo-Shaman, Snake Oil Healer, Hawker of all things visible and invisible) knock on your door asking to haul away rotting corpses? No? You don’t have any? Ok, how about healing? I have snake oil, CBD in chocolates or brownies, even green butter.

If you really want to die, stay home. Don’t go to airports or malls or birthday parties. Take off your mask, eat potato chips, chase with tequila, or worse, die on diet Coke.

Die in front of Netflix with your cell phone on your lap.That’s not ritual. Or is it?