Masquerade - Phantom of the Opera Mask on Ivy Wall

Frankly, I look gruesome.

Not a term I expected to use describing myself, but gruesome fits — fortunately, only for the time being. The good news is I’m not dying and I’m not contagious. The bad news is this will last a few more weeks. I should be back to normal by Easter, at which point my good looks (well, normal looks) will return. I timed it, seemingly, to end with the celebration of the Resurrection. I’m hoping for a rebirth.

In addition to the blotchy redness that makes my face and scalp resemble the surface of the planet Mars, I came down with my first cold in two years and then threw out my back, so I’m kind of a wreck. If you saw some hideous creature lurching down the street last week, it wasn’t the phantom of the opera. It was me.

Fortunately, people are polite, and no one’s praying for me yet at church (as far as I know — haven’t attended since this began). Friends ask, “And how are YOU?” with that peculiar emphasis on the latter, but I often forget to explain that this is just a skin treatment, not a skin condition. It’s the curse of my fair Irish complexion and all those childhood sunburns, complicated by the decimation of the ozone layer, which intensifies damage from the sun’s unfiltered rays. I have what dermatologists call “actinic keratosis,” which basically means myriad “pre-cancerous” spots, some visible, some subcutaneous (beneath the surface), most of which will never turn into cancer, but a few might, so this is an attempt to stay ahead of the dreaded melanoma.

I figure writing this will save some explaining. If you’ve ever wondered whether you have enough of a social life, try this procedure. You’ll find out just how many people you know — and you’ll meet them all.

Subjecting myself to this ordeal raises my odds of living long enough to write that bestseller, maybe see my grandsons graduate from college, finally witness the Cubs win a World Series (Ha!). Who knows what might happen in the world — at least some of it good — in the next 20-25 years? Hope may wax and wane but curiosity keeps me going. I don’t want to miss the great “turning point” when humanity finally enters the “next age.”
But that’s all in the long run. In the short run, I look, well, you know. I never thought of myself as aesthetically pleasing, but suddenly becoming visually unpleasing amounts to an interesting test of one’s self-image, self-esteem and self-worth. If all you have going for you are your looks (never true, but many seem to believe that), you live in fear of the ravages of time.

My looks were the least I had to offer, so that never posed a problem. In the past, I enjoyed a certain level of self-confidence, based on athletic ability, being reasonably well educated, and having enough God-given intelligence and creativity to see me through the inevitable ebbs of life. But athleticism wanes as you age, and intelligence and creativity are vulnerable to neurological damage caused by the toxicity of our environment (plus aging).

What’s left, then, if life strips us of everything else — as it did my father, who died of Parkinson’s disease? In my dad’s case, all he had left was his humanity, which he had in abundance.

Humanity is a vague notion, partly because it’s such a mystery to us. Becoming “truly human” is a worthy goal for anyone’s life. But judging by the never-ending catalog of “underdeveloped humanity” obsessively chronicled by the media every day, we have to assume far too many people spend far too much time developing their looks, athleticism, intelligence, creativity, and/or professional reputations — not to mention the pursuit of material possessions — and far too little time cultivating their humanity.

So when someone like Jorge Bergolio (better known these days as Pope Francis) comes along, his humanity takes our breath away — regardless of religious affiliation, or lack thereof.

Pope Francis, you may have noticed, is not the best-looking guy on the planet. He’ll probably never make People magazine’s “Sexiest Man Alive” list. When he first appeared on camera after being elected pope, I thought he was downright homely. Maybe because he wasn’t smiling, likely because of the enormity of what had just happened to him. Once the shock wore off, he hasn’t stopped smiling since. And he’s become much better looking.

It’s amazing what a little humanity can do for the human face.

So if my appearance shocks you, just chalk it up to mortification of the flesh. I gave up my face for Lent.
Come Easter, after I finish heading skin cancer off at the pass, I’m going to get to work on my humanity.

With a clean slate.

And an unblemished face.

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