Masquerade

In Humaginarium everybody wears a mask.

Wearing a protective mask is a cardinal rule for avoiding and preventing the spread of Covid-19. Refusing to wear a mask is a cockamamy badge of libertarian courage. We may choose the wearing in order to conserve health and well-being, or not wearing as a privilege of personal freedom, or lazily decide nothing and go with the flow (if you want, whatever, fuggedaboutit). Options 2-3 may be the most popular in the United States during this pandemic, as indicated by tragic health statistics and my personal observations of Joe and Ms Sixpack in the heartland.

Of course any resistance to masking is ludicrous. Masks are just materials that cover the face; and the less we see of some faces (e.g. orange ones), the better! Covering the face is what many people do every normal day at work, in sports and weather, with cosmetics, coiffure. fashion, and also on special occasions like Halloween and bank heists. Masks are useful, sometimes attractive; they don’t challenge habits and lifestyles or interfere with work or play or even sleep. To refuse to wear a mask for the sake of conserving health (yours and others) isn’t courageous in any sense of the word; it’s stubborn, selfish and stupid. That kind of dull, intransigent behavior is fairly common when it comes to health (e.g. resistance to medicine and proper nutrition), so we’re accustomed to it, but that doesn’t make it right.

For hundreds of millions of years, masks have evolved in nature for protection, disguise, self-expression of animals and plants. Homo sapiens have never grown masks on their bodies, of course, but we started crafting them for ceremonial and practical purposes in the Iron Age, tens of thousands of years ago. Our oldest extant masks were fashioned by ancestors in the Judean Hills near Jerusalem, about 7,000 years before Christ arrived there. In ancient historic times, participants in Greek bacchanalia, Roman saturnalia and medieval carnivals donned masks; likewise today’s revelers at Mardi Gras, the Carnival of Brazil and countless other festivities wear brilliant costumes including masks. They love doing it!

Humans are fond of masks because they enjoy pretending to be something or somebody else. It seems to take a load off! Creative pretense involving masks gives pleasure, makes meaning, does magic, creates illusions, enhances beauty, produces power and advantages. We masquerade in order to escape mundane reality and replace it, for a while, with a contrived fantasy. We do this to see ourselves, not as we are in mirrors, but in dreams where we drive a Batmobile or leap over tall buildings. That’s why masks have purportedly played a crucial role in understanding “what it means to be human.” They facilitate escapism and catharsis, which are also two major benefits of Humaginarium.

In fact Humaginarium is health promotion masquerading as interactive entertainment. Meaning: it’s a thing pretending to be something else. In order to deceive? On the contrary: in order to reveal complicated, difficult, unpleasant yet vitally important truth. To the Sixpacks of course, and others.

Those who choose to attend masquerade balls hosted by Humaginarium in the cloud get to escape into fantasies of adventure and exploration of the world within, the world every human being creates and sustains and sometimes suffers, every single day of their lives. It’s a world so large and dynamic and awful and mysterious and elusive and beautiful and threatening and comforting that it boggles the mind, until the mind urges retreat, thinking “this cannot be, this fantasy is bewildering and false.”

The rational mind, when it thinks that about any fantasy including ours, is incorrect. The actual world within truly is as vast and intriguing as the Milky Way, just as present to our senses, even more accessible to our understanding. That’s why Humaginarium hosts creative expeditions there. There is so much to discover and celebrate and use.

Folks who thrive on fantasy in Humaginarium also have a dream that governs their choices and decisions and helps them persist even when the challenges of simulation seem insurmountable. Their dream is to leave behind the dreadful chronic illness they had when they entered. Not to be miraculously cured, only to be free and proud and in control for once and in their minds forever.

A masquerade is precisely the right way to do this, though it is never otherwise done in healthcare or health education. When Joe or the Ms arrive for a medical appointment in the real world, they never wear masks and neither does clinical staff. From start to finish of their helpless, hapless, horribly expensive visit, they listen carefully to diagnoses they don’t understand, prescriptions they won’t take and instructions they won’t follow. That unfortunately is their sad reality.

In Humaginarium everybody wears a mask. Everybody is free and empowered to explore what it’s like to be something or somebody else, for a while: what it’s like to be a happy human being whose perfect body is healthy and strong because they themselves decided it must and it shall be.

Writing

George Mallory had similar thoughts, standing at the foot of Mount Everest.

One year to write 20 pages! That is how long they took. Even for me — the slowest of the slow, the latest of the late — this is a personal best. How did it take so long?

Easier question: why didn’t it take longer? Answer: because there was a time limit imposed by somebody else. A timer was set in April 2019, giving me no more than one year to finish or be damned. Not liking the eternal-infernal option, I finished my writing with precisely four days to spare (phew).

Same sort of thing happened in 1975, when I “finished” (i.e. stopped) my doctoral dissertation in English Letters at the end of a fifth year living in the UK. There is evidently something about limits that makes me want to exceed or at least ignore them, as long and as much as possible.

My recent year of writing was an NSF SBIR Phase 1 proposal. Together with documentation it turned out to be 10 x 20 pages, but the Pareto principle applies to just those measly 20 pages comprising the Project Description and Technical Discussion of a game changer known as Diabetes Agonistes.

The National Science Foundation does very nice things for aspirants and martyrs who want to cross the chasms of technical innovation. They carefully publish an explicit Solicitation telling applicants how to write a proposal; and they reinforce the Solicitation with a Proposal and Award Policies and Procedures Guide that kind of “tells ‘em what you’re going to tell ‘em” — with more detail in different words. They further reinforce those helpful documents with myriad web pages of procedural, referential, social and historical information that strikes aspirants with awe and turns some of them into martyrs. Reading this stuff feels a bit like gazing at a Himalayan summit from a safe distance and thinking, “it’s not that tall after all.” All told, there are hundreds of fact-packed government pages that are not only helpful, but also debilitating. Even for me, a person who loves reading for its own sake, that textual mountain was a lot to take in. Consequently much of my year spent writing was actually devoted to getting ready to write and then afterwards checking to make sure that my text was complete and compliant with standards. Even now I’m not sure that it is. The summit is shrouded in mist, and there is a throbbing red glow within it.

As usual with anything related to health care (e.g. Diabetes Agonistes), there is a way to leapfrog the labor by delegating it, with cash. You can hire a consultant, one who is well versed in government documents, as your sherpa. The consultant tells you what to write, and when to write it, and how to revise it until it is ready for primetime. Alternatively, you can hire a consultant as your ghostwriter and project manager: a magus who will use you as a subject-matter expert, write a splendid proposal for you to sign, and afterwards (if successful) manage the entire project for a reasonable fee.

I considered consultants. I attended a two-day workshop hosted by one of the best, and interviewed four others who came highly recommended. I chose not to engage one because (idiot that I am) I wanted to learn and master this writing process myself. I felt there is no text in the English language that I can’t wrestle to the mat (hubris), and if I don’t do the heavy lifting myself, I won’t do all the necessary thinking either. Then I would lose an ineffable chance to experience something new: crossing one of the wider chasms of technical innovation. I’m sure that George Mallory had similar thoughts, standing at the foot of Mount Everest.

Apart from reading and processing freight cars full of documentation, another cause of my slowness was poetics (so-called). Hard as it may be for readers of this blog to believe, I am very careful about every word I write, often writing them over and over in different ways until they sort of chime in my ear and look good to my eye. For this reason, what I want to express is perhaps 30% of my writing. Wordsmithing is 70%. The nutty thing about that is, my subject matter here for the most part is technology, and literary style is certainly not one of the criteria for evaluation of my proposal. Nonetheless, I can’t help myself. My muse insists.

As soon as my writing job was done a few days ago, I turned to (what else?) more writing. I quickly wrote a Project Pitch for educational technology that may bend the curve of COVID-19. Fascinating proposal which will go nowhere, of course, but deserved to be written. Then I started writing an SBIR Phase 1 proposal for the National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases, one of the National Institutes of Health. And also began writing a series of briefs for the NSF project team, in case that proposal isn’t kicked out like a stray dog.

Will I set a new record for slowness with NIH? I think not. Having practiced and sort of mastered the process of parsing technical documentation with NSF, I am likely to cross the next chasm like a hare rather than a tortoise. I will certainly let you know when that happens.

Scientific entertainment. Female nude, back view (1831), by Alexandre-Jean Dubois-Drahonet. Pictured with coronavirus on the prowl.