Sunday, July 3, 2022

To Mask, or Not to Mask. That is the question. - Stephen Mack Jones

With Covid restrictions starting to ease, many of us are thinking of conferences and festivals. What are you planning? Any fond memories of past events you’d like to share?

        At one point during the devastating COVID pandemic of 2020-2022 and the ensuing lockdown, fear and strictly limited human contact had gotten the best of me. More than usual I found myself slouching around the house muttering “Nature’s trying to kill us all,” or “This is our dystopian future,” or “We’re out of peanut butter. I hate peanut butter—but shouldn’t we have some—you know—just in case?” In fact, it got so desperate that, for my own sanity’s sake, I briefly rebranded the lockdown “Artist in Residence.” I pretended that I was at an exclusive writer’s colony which included all meals and snacks, a number of comfy rooms in which to slack about, and a fat leather recliner in front of a large flat-screen 4K TV of which I had my choice of streaming services. The only thing that spoiled this wondrous fantasy was the absolutely crappy service I received from the property manager, a.k.a., my wife.

        “What are you doing?” the property manager once asked.

        “I’m writing.”

        “No, you’re not,” this pesky non-artist person replied. “You’re watching some old Star Wars knock-off with the guy who played ‘John-Boy Walton’ on TV.”

        “I’m thinking about writing.”

        “Get off your butt and help me clean
the kitchen!”

        “As property manager, I’d say that’s your job.”

        And that, my friends, is how I got this little quarter-moon scar where hair used to grow on top of my head.

        During the height of the pandemic (whenever that was), I got to know the Zoom video conferencing app quite well: Library talks, book clubs, crime fiction podcasts and panels. And though video conferencing proved vastly different from sharing a drink, a laugh, an insight, buffalo wings, and simply rubbing elbows with other crime fiction writers and conference fans of the genre, the physical distancing imposed by the pandemic only underscored the fulfilling need for community and the warmth of rudimentary human contact. Zoom meet-ups began to feel like good first dates; tentative at first, then sincerely fun and temporarily quenching the thirst for fellowship. We promised each other second and third dates. We signed off, at least temporarily fulfilled, energized, hopeful.

        Regardless of what you may have heard, there’s still a pandemic out there. People are still getting sick. Hospitalized. Dying. But we’re exhausted. Enervated from isolation. Fatigued from fear. So many of us have declared the whole mishigas “over.” We still keep a mask in our pocket or hanging off an ear and we duck for cover whenever we hear someone with a raspy cough twenty yards away. But we’ve declared nature’s microscopic death-threat null-and-void.

        Fortunately, a great number of us have received COVID vaccines.

        Me? Dosed twice followed by two-boosters. No side-affects. (Though I had at least hoped to be able to shoot the occasional high-tinsel-strength spider web from my wrists by now.) Being vaccinated has given me a measure of confidence to go maskless at several recent events including the Library of Michigan’s “Night of Notables” Book Award Event (winning my second award for DEAD OF WINTER); the Richland, Michigan Public Library “Meet the Author” event; the Warren, Michigan Public Library, etc. (According to Library of Michigan author-talk surveys my appearances have often been referred to as “part engaging author talk, part stand-up comedy routine”.)

        The question is, Am I comfortable enough to wade back into the throngs of crime fiction authors and fans at conferences and festivals?




        To begin with, I’ve become rather comfortable with my quiet, private, slacker’s life. Nothing that’s pertinent to COVID, but true, nevertheless. Also, my capacity to party has been greatly reduced over the years. Partying for me these days involves appreciating a good bourbon while listening to Herbie Hancock’s early catalog (Takin’ Off, Empyrean Isles, Maiden Voyage). And frankly, the more panels I do, the less I feel I actually know about writing and crime fiction. Both have become more ethereal, more magical and intriguingly fantastical. I am overwhelmed with wide-eyed wonder, envy and awe at the wisdom of other authors and readers.

        These days, I prefer to simply listen.

        That being said, I’m 85% willing (with a +/- 4.2% margin of error) to go to any conference/festival my publisher deems imperative I go to. On their dime, of course. (We are soon to become grandparents, so our travel dollars are heretofore committed to some godforsaken Northern California hippie-dippy-tie-dyed commune where our grandchild will likely be named “Rain” or “Topaz” or “Wolf Moon” or some such nonsense.) In fact, I might rather enjoy attending several conferences or festivals as I did the 2018 St. Petes, Florida Bouchercon Conference or the 2019 Mississippi Festival of the Book, both where laughs were plentiful, the panels fast paced and informative, embraces were freely shared, and fans were exceedingly friendly, appreciative and generous.

        And should I go, I will, of course, have my KN95 mask and a gallon jug of hand sanitizer at the ready.

        That, my friend, is how much I love you.

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