Adjusting your thumbs-up reaction emoji to match your real-life skin tone is a poor facsimile of in-person support and agreement, a Plato’s-cave gesture of a gesture.
It was early April the first time I attended a Zoom event. In Oregon, we’d been shut in since March 23rd, and the full impact of the pandemic — its long-term implication — was just beginning to press on our shoulders and chests. I was paying half-attention, washing a sinkful of dishes with one eye on my laptop. My camera was off, but I peered curiously into the tiny worlds populating my screen, whole breathing lives and their burdens reduced to a dizzying field of two-inch squares.
There were a page or two of participants, maybe 50. It was a virtual open mic event; you could read your work or merely listen. It was, for me, a consolation prize: a temporary stand-in for the literary community I’d looked forward to experiencing in Portland. I’d moved to the city in December 2019, had gotten just a small taste of it in person, attending a couple of readings at Powell’s before the world shut down in March. The city-block-sized bookstore was 15 walking minutes from my Nob Hill apartment, but now it might as well have been in a different state, on another planet.
My hands oozed suds. Our host deftly moved the event along, patiently smiling as readers collapsed their work with nervous speed or ran luxuriously over their time. The little squares squirmed with motion: other writers like me, writers largely based in the Portland metropolitan area but a few from other time zones. Writers waiting patiently for their turn. Listening.
Whenever the facilitator called on the next participant, there was a small lag, a hiccup of time that would soon become familiar: the seconds spent recognizing one’s name called and unmuting oneself, a blip sometimes exacerbated by an intermittent connection. It was a reminder — as if we needed one — that we were not, in fact, together.
We were alone together. Or: alone with an echo of togetherness.
In the months that have elapsed since then, I — like so many others of us who, I hope, will look back on the COVID-19 pandemic as something we lived through — have used Zoom in a wild diversity of ways. Through Zoom, I testified as a witness in a Florida court case I’d been subpoenaed for, answering the lawyer’s request for my location, for the record, with Portland, Oregon — and then in my kitchen when he asked for more specificity. Through Zoom, I attended the baby shower of one of my oldest friends, a girl I’d met when I was not yet 16, who had opened up to me because I was wearing a Good Charlotte hoodie. That girl was now a young woman whose vast family tittered and laughed the whole two hours I stayed, no matter how many times the mother-to-be’s sister, our host, pled with them to mute themselves. Sometimes, in the middle of drag-queen-led, baby-themed bingo or the pregnant-or-beer-belly guessing game, someone would interrupt to speak from a black, un-videoed square, making a letter-like verbal statement: Daviah, this is Aunt Ruth. Can you hear me? I just wanted to say you’re going to be a lovely mother to a beautiful baby girl. We’re sending you all our love and we can’t wait to hug you and our new niece in person.
I have used Zoom to go on awkward first dates, sipping tea boiled on my own stove and trading book recommendations with a stranger across the city. I have used Zoom to go on only-slightly-less-awkward tenth dates that ended with both of us wearing fewer clothes than we were at the start. Through Zoom, I, newly out and hungry for community, joined the Portland Lesbian Choir — my first experience with any kind of choir at all, mediated by the weirdness of singing on mute in rehearsal, recording parts on my own to hear the finished music months later, after our director had tirelessly mixed dozens of individual tracks.
Zoom allowed me to spend, on a weekly basis, Sunday afternoons catching up with my best friend from high school; we’d been out of touch for over a decade, but the quarantine sent us scrabbling for reliable social footholds. In a fit of curious desperation, I attended a psychic reading on Zoom: a 22-year-old medium channeled my spirit guides and passed on their ethereal messages to me, closing her eyes and tilting her chin up, listening to unhearable voices, a living avatar broadcasting from the other side of the country. Through Zoom, I participated in a weekly writing workshop hosted by the same writer who ran that reading event I’d lurked in the early days. Doing so won me eight drafted essays, the makings of a memoir that would probably not otherwise have existed — and more importantly, a handful of serious, real-life friendships. The kind where we say I love you. The kind forged trough shared traumas, both remembered and lived through together today.
It’s funny, both ha-ha and strange, that as the pandemic descended, such a frankly outdated and clunky piece of technology became so essential. The history of video conferencing stretches back as far as 1970, when AT&T launched video conferencing services in select markets using the Mod II Picturephones they’d spent the 60s developing. The underlying research that went into their technology is even older: engineers and inventors had been tinkering with the idea of video essentially as soon as Bell invented the telephone. Only two years after he’d done so, in 1878, gadgets called telephonoscopes were imagined and depicted in magazines. The concept was close to what Zoom offers now: a wide-screen television connected to telephonic voice communication technology. A way to hear and see each other at a distance.
The video conferencing interface we’re so familiar with today is almost identical to what Skype released back in 2010: a video call with room for multiple participants using a client that could be downloaded for free. All you needed was an internet connection. Although Zoom has enabled more participants to join (from Skype’s original 10 up to 100, or 1,000 with the Large Meeting add-on) and has incorporated extras like filters, backgrounds, and emoji reactions, it would be hard to characterize this now-ubiquitous app — the software by which the world, or some iteration thereof, continued to function — as cutting edge.
Zoom’s coarseness is obvious to anyone who uses it on a regular basis: the obvious green-screen-like effect of the backgrounds, the speaker outlined with a telltale corona of their real, toddler-messy-living room life. The emoji reactions and filter overlays that are meant to be fun, but don’t always translate that way — particularly when Zoom rolled out a suite of virtual face masks, reifying in this last digital frontier the stultified way we all interacted everywhere else. There’s the social exhaustion, collectively known as “Zoom fatigue,” augmented by the self-conscious urge to monitor one’s own face for the duration of the interaction. See also, in the video settings menu, the option to “touch up my appearance,” with a sliding scale from zero to full-on Gaussian blur: the less detail, the better.
But if Zoom is graceless, it’s graceless like a schoolchild: dear to us even in its bumbling, eminently forgivable for its necessity, its urgency. Adjusting your thumbs-up reaction emoji to match your real-life skin tone is a poor facsimile of in-person support and agreement, a Plato’s-cave gesture of a gesture.
Even this cheap imitation of intimacy is important enough that we do it. Sometimes, of course, we’re forced. The novelty of “showing up” to work at the last minute, after a slather of lipstick or kitchen-sink smoothing of hair, became memeified and normal within weeks. The Atlantic reported once, twice, three times about sweatpants; they’ve become a hot topic, now that we’re all perpetually ensconced in the bottoms-optional, waist-up world created by Zoom’s not-quite-all-seeing eye.
But we’ve adapted the other parts of our lives to this mechanism, too — the leisure parts, the soul parts. Jackbox — the small, Chicago-based game developer of 1990s “You Don’t Know Jack” trivia fame — exploded back into the prominence as the jeu du jour for virtual game-night hosts everywhere, who rotated between Drawful and Quiplash. Zoom has been used to live-stream worship services in lieu of (or alongside) in-person ceremonies, to facilitate support group meetings, to keep those privileged enough to afford it in therapy — which God knows we need now more than ever. Weddings have been performed over Zoom, and funerals. Zoom kept the world, or some facsimile of the world, glued together when it was primed, predestined to fall apart.
Suddenly and finally, spring has come back around again, making official what we never could have imagined last February: we’ve come through an entire global gap year, and there’s more gap yet to go.
But while we’re still living much of our lives through the medium of a screen, it’s not as hopeless as it has been. Although variants and recombinants threaten to sabotage our efforts, safe and effective vaccines have been developed in record time. Although it’s slower going than we’d care for, those vaccines are being steadily deployed. The light at the end of the tunnel is growing, if flickeringly. If things go well, life might be normal again — or close to it — by New Year’s.
On a Friday evening in March, my father died in his home in St. Augustine, Florida. I’d been communicating with him and my mother not through Zoom, but Duo — another video-call app my aging parents found more straightforward to use. From 3,000 miles away, perched on the opposite end of the country, I’d peered for months through a tiny window at the shriveled body of my father, his face, hair, and lucidity rapidly thinning. Early on the day he died, I sang to him. My mother and I watched each other shake and sob.
The next morning was the most beautiful Portland had yet seen this year: 62 degrees and enough sunshine to reach the back wall of my bedroom. I pulled myself out of bed to go to a park on the east side, where a small segment of my choir section was gathering. We’d been planning the event for months, poring over and over the safety considerations and logistics. We wore specially designed singers’ masks that better retained their shape and breathability; we covered the mics, which we’d paired with headphones in order to hear each other in our socially distanced circle, with plastic bags. In the enclosed world of our sound system, we test tested and then, gloriously, sang together — the notes we’d been mouthing on mute together in Zoom-space, a chorus of mimes. The mics picked up the children laughing and shouting behind us. We were, in fact, all singing the same notes, to our director Mary’s delight.
It was my first time meeting Mary in person, and she knew about Dad — I’d sent her an email the night before explaining why I might not be able to make it, that I was on the fence. Know that whatever you decide for tomorrow will be perfect, she’d written back in less than an hour. Now she stood in front of me at twenty feet’s distance, an entire, compassionate person. She made eye contact with me as I sang invisibly behind my mask, told me afterward she was glad I’d been able to be there. We never touched.
As of very recently, I, too, have joined the ranks of the vaccinated. I was offered an appointment three days after my father died; I immediately booked a plane ticket six weeks from the first vaccination date, just enough time for two doses and full immunity. I’ll be with my mother for the first birthday she’ll spend without him in more than 50 years. I’ll walk, finally, into his room, now empty.
One day — a day that seems not too far in the future now — our movements will not be so fraught. Which is not to say that the world will look the same. Now that we know remote work is feasible, many companies are extending more permanent work-from-home arrangements. Some of us — we tell each other as we walk through a park or sit at opposite ends of a picnic table, sipping coffee as far from each other as possible — can’t quite imagine standing in a crowded pit at a concert or bellying up to a bar sans Plexiglass, at least not without some consternation. Scientists say pandemics are becoming more likely given our livestock management practices and the size and mobility of our global population. Many who survive this time around may have to face the whole mess again.
But hopefully, hopefully: choirs will soon gather bodily in auditoriums, will fill the air with contemporaneous chords. We’ll go back to our therapists’ offices with their comfortingly anonymous couches, their space comfortingly separate from our own. Dating will come back in full force, with all its usual risk and messiness — but not the unique agony of negotiating bubbles, not the singular danger of trading potential exposure for human touch. My workshop is ideating on an in-person writing retreat in the coming months, perhaps on the Oregon coast: a big house near the sea where we’ll work and read and cook and laugh together. Out loud. In the same room.
I fantasize about it like everyone else does. I can’t wait to not need to live my life through a screen anymore. I can’t wait to sing in a crush of bodies, at the top of my lungs if I want to. I can’t wait to hug my mother, to smell her for the first time in almost two years.
But still, it’s undeniable: the importance of Zoom, this absurd and necessary and outdated technology, the critical role it played during this strange year, this lost year; what it says about the lengths we human beings will go for connection. How fragile that connection is. And is not.
After the choir section let out, I got in my car and drove away from Portland. I followed the river out to Dog Mountain, one of my favorite hikes for its proximity, steepness and sweat. Despite its unseasonal sunniness, the peak hadn’t yet erupted into its springtime cloud of yellow flowers. We were still in the in between. My father had been dead for less than 24 hours.
Although I usually hike with my phone in airplane mode, at the top, I pulled it out and switched it back. As I dialed my mother, the device displayed my front-facing camera feed back to me: an unsmiling girl in a salt-stained tank top, a background of windswept trees.
But then, it was her — gray hair and the china cabinets I’d grown up with behind her, a whole other ocean waiting through the windows outside of the frame. We smiled at each other. We laughed. Then I flipped the camera to show her my river, the hills I call home now. A place she’s never been.