Forgive me, understanding reader, for I know not what I do. In my innocent doomscrolling of Twophet, I encountered something that really got my back up. Aristotle thought the brain cooled the heart but I can confidently report that even my top story was foaming like an angry lava sea.
It all started with Highlights magazine, the benign children’s periodical that’s been a staple attention-diverter in dentist offices for decades. I know what you’re thinking: I couldn’t solve the five-letter word jumble despite my proclivity for magniloquence (and no, the answer wasn’t “fries”).
Fair guess, but that wasn’t it. Highlights, which, thanks to its assiduous marketing department, mysteriously arrives at my doorstep periodically by dint of my having procreated, apparently featured artwork of a piano recital where the audience (all racially ambiguous shades of taupe, natch) was masked.
Seems an accurate portrayal of current life—at least in face-bib-happy blue states—right? Two years and three vaccines after 14-days-to-flatten-the-curve and many stores and venues still require face coverings. Many more schools force children to band a cloth cover to their spittily little mouths for eight-plus hours a day, unless they’re eating sheet-pan pizza and tater tots outside in a brisk 35 degrees.
Why wouldn’t Highlights feature the current reality of kids adopting the same COVID-curtailing measures as adults? Don’t kids want to see themselves portrayed accurately in entertainment, the way Disney tries to shoehorn every race, sexuality, and disability into its expanding web of Marvel heroes? Won’t Kevin Fiege please think of all the Indo-Jamaican animalkin children!?
Ignore the fact that one-size-fits-all COVID prevention is unscientific, and that children, besides being in little danger from the virus, are minimal SARS-CoV-2 vectors. Also blank report after report after report after report of masking heeding literacy development. And don’t even think about questioning questionable studies on tyke transmission.
Just consider: Do children really need to see ubiquitous masking as somewhat normal? Why should they? We’ve been assured time and time again by our professional clinician class that muffling is temporary until we tame the virus. Think of the movies, TV series, and books you’ve read since March 2020. Have any depicted masking, if they depicted it at all, as anything other than a nuisance to be perdured? Do hit shows like Succession or Ted Lasso feature characters capping behind N95s? Do hit movies like Spider-Man: No Way Home feature masked evil-thwarters—wait! Scratch that last one.
You get my drift. Masking is absent from popular entertainment because we all—barring the sociopathic Covidphiles—desperately want mass-masking to be a thing of the forgotten past.
Bethany Mandel, a mother of five, took umbrage with Highlights’s depiction of modern life. She did what any concerned mom would do when they see a threat to their children’s well-being: bat out a letter of concern.
“I understand the objective here: to normalize masking young children. That is not a message I’m sending my kids,” she wrote in an email she later posted to Twitter. “We get your magazine to be an escape, not a reminder of the reality we’re forced to be living right now.”
Mandel’s diatribe was nothing new; she invited an internet pile-on in May 2020 after a Twitter rant on how school, park, and museum closures were causing her kids distress. In hindsight, she was, of course, right. Children have disproportionately borne the brunt of our COVID response, from lockdowns to mask mandates to the endless fear of a deadly variant hiding somewhere in a remote Uzbekistan shtetl. Yet she was tarred and feathered as a grandma-killer all the same.
Highlights opted to not rent its own space to answer, but went for rapid response on Twitter: “We want our readers to see themselves and their experiences in our magazines, so we’ve included masks and acknowledgements of the pandemic to help support kids.”
The reference to “readers” is cute. Highlights isn’t a literary journal; it’s an activity book. The New Yorker doesn’t encourage readers to color in Susan Sontag essays. People doesn’t include perforated cut-outs of dinosaurs in dispatches on Ryan Gosling’s love life. Children don’t “read” Highlights, they tend to scribble over the entire rag with the closest coloring device to hand.
The idea that children need to “see themselves” in books is also an asinine appropriation of middle-brow bodice-ripper marketing. Good literature doesn’t strive to replicate anyone’s actual life on the page. The point of reading is to expand your horizons—not ingest a 500-page tome on an office schlub willing himself to Friday week after week. The same goes for children, who spend their days digging for lumbricus terrestris in dirt or trying to jam as many plastic farm animals into the front door’s mail slot as possible.
That quibble aside, I can relate to Mandel’s high anger, as much as any parent whose brain isn’t attached to NPR’s fright-morphine drip. The scientific evidence that younglings should stay ducked and covered to the same degree as your immunocompromised grandmother is non-existent. Yet they not only have to accept the maw-bridle regime and its capricious dictates, but are coming of age during all the anxious uncertainty. The omicron variant is rampaging through media circles in big cities. Fear is being ratched back up in spite of available vaccines and therapeutics. Teachers are demanding four-day-a-week in-person classes.
The general trend is moving towards perma-pandemic, which would ease the fears of sick-phobes, but would shatter the young’s conception of normalcy. And it’s enraging, even maddening, to consider that life two years ago may be beyond reach because policymakers won’t accept COVID-19 as endemic.
At this point, my oldest child doesn’t remember ex-ante-COVID life. My youngest was born a year into the pandemic. Why, WHY, WHY!! shouldn’t they get to experience the social life we all took for granted prior to the spring of 2020? Will they ever be able to? Our illustrious medical experts, the same ones who told us originally masks were unnecessary and that two shots were enough, don’t even bother teasing us with pandemic end dates anymore.
This is the core frustration parents like Mandel have felt for 20-odd months. And for the trouble of calling out Highlights’s unhealthy healthism, she was lampooned. A popular never-Trump anonymous account likened her to Kaczynski; a childless Daily Beast journalist recommended that Mandel “get a job” because she took five minutes to write an email.
These reflexive denunciations of COVID-crackdown-critics are suggestive of a desire to never go back. The liberal all-father of science has already made it clear that prevention has its limits. COVID-19 is here to stay. And no sane person wants to mask from cradle to grave. Something has to give—a fact parents feel acutely. The alternative is permanently warping children, unfairly depriving them of the socialization adults enjoyed growing up.
Our patrimony has to be better than the endless production of hygiene masks. Bequeathing a sterile world is bequeathing a sterile life—a crime against the communion of forebears and future generations.
Sometimes, even Highlights needs that truth underscored. Or, highlighted, if you will.