Read my lips

Babies learn to talk by watching lips as well as listening to us talk. They’ll briefly look into our eyes, then drop the focus of the gaze to our mouths. They listen, and watch, and babble back to us. To call it babble diminishes what they are actually doing. They are practicing,

“Mama,” we say, and the babies watch our lips come together and open, twice. Nice move, the babies think. They go off and try it by themselves 100 times a day. It’s so much easier to learn when you can watch the moves as well as listen to the music. Imagine trying to learn the moonwalk from nothing but a written description.

I’m pretty sure that many of us still depend on watching other peoples’ lips more than we realize. You can learn a lot about me by looking into my eyes as we talk, but eyes give us more of the overall or general sense of who that person is. Smart, disingenuous, generous, empathetic, narcissistic, fearful, distracted, dismissive, kind, or even crazy. Eyes just aren’t as labile as, well, lips.

Unless you are a TV presenter or an actor, your mouth and lips telegraph a moment by moment reveal of what you are thinking and feeling, even if you’re not talking. Without much trouble you can probably describe and list 10-15 or so specific signs, like hieroglyphs, we make with our mouths and what each means. Call them mouth emojis. Or don’t, because I detest emojis. ;-&

I’ve made three trips out of the house this past 14 days since flying back from California. The first two were curbside pickups of a couple of staples like whole wheat flour from the Warner Public Market. I went open-faced on those two jaunts.

My last trip was just a few days ago, to the NH liquor store. Uh, just in case we run out of rubbing alcohol to make wipes, right?

I have become a little more concerned this past week that the virus might be able to hang around longer in confined air spaces than the experts tell us, suspended as an aerosol. So for the first time in my life, I wore a mask in public.

There were only two customers in the store. One of them, a man in his 50s, thickset, with an aggressive way of walking, passed me in the aisle. I looked up and caught his eye, the way I’m used to doing in public, a slight tip of the head and that tight, friendly pursed lip smile most of us use to acknowledge a stranger in passing. But he couldn’t read my lips through my mask.

The look he gave me back, which, alas, I could see all too well, was cold eyes and the very slight lift of his upper lip which I translate as disdain.

I felt a sudden jolt of anger. What does this guy know of me and what assumptions did he just lock into place as he passed me.

Thinking about it now, I realize that we’ve reached a point where a lot of people see mask wearers the same way they see Prius drivers. It’s political, is it not?

But it’s also more than that. Walking around in a mask actually gives me one notch of power above a person with an open face. I can read them, but they can’t read me.

That troubles me. I don’t really know what to do about it.