I parked at the community center in Keizer, Oregon last Sunday, climbed the stairs to the little theater where the Mid-Valley Poetry Society reading was happening and did a double-take. Is that T? And J? And . . . ?
Oh my gosh. It was surreal. Many of the faces were familiar, but I had only seem them on my computer screen on Zoom. They towered over me or were smaller than I expected. They hugged or held back. They limped or bustled. It was like going into a blind date where you have only seen a photograph. In person, they look different. “John?” “Sue?”
As people venture out of their pandemic hideaways, suddenly we’re three-dimensional, without the flattering lighting, the carefully arranged backdrop, and the option to turn the camera off. Now they can see all of us. When they saw me, did they think she’s heavier than I thought, and I didn’t know she wore glasses?
I have made wonderful friends on Zoom, including people from all over the world. I feel like I know them, but it’s not the same. It’s a snapshot, not a rounded picture. As I learned last month when I attended a poetry convention in Ohio, meeting on Zoom is not like eating breakfast with other poets, noting how they choose cereal and fruit or pile on the pancakes, whether they are chirpy or sullen in the mornings. It’s not like meeting in the hallways, elevators, or swimming pool. Sure, you still get the words of the speakers, but you don’t connect as people. Mostly you’re staring at your own stupid face wondering why your hair looks so bad.
Zoom has its advantages. I have talked to people in the UK, Australia and Dubai, as well as across the US, whom I could probably never meet in person. It’s COVID-safe, much cheaper and easier than traveling, and somewhat anonymous. But we’re becoming a nation of screen people. Even when someone is standing right in front of us, we’re staring at our screens. We’re raising a generation of young people who don’t know how to socialize, how to sit with someone, look at them, and converse. They only know how to Zoom, and that’s sad.
I also discovered that performing in real life as opposed to Zoom is a whole different thing. My two poetry chapbooks were born during the pandemic. I have done readings on Zoom to promote them but none offline. When you’re reading on Zoom, you’re more focused on the technology and your own face than the audience. Because they are muted, you can’t hear if they laugh or cheer or gasp. Nor can you hear any applause, just maybe catch a glimpse of waving hands.
You don’t even know whether they’re listening. If you look at all the people in their squares, many are moving around, playing with their pets, or checking their phones. You’re background noise. I’m one of the worst offenders. I can’t sit still when I’m at home with an endless to-do list. And who’s to know if I’m checking email or washing dishes while I listen to your poems?
But in the theater, meeting room or living room, the audience has to sit and pay attention. The performer can look out at them and see them listening. When I read at the open mic last weekend, the applause was like a loud rain after a long drought. So beautiful. I had to deal with a tricky microphone and blinding stage lighting, but just to stand there and proclaim my poems and feel my words going into the air felt so good. You don’t get that on Zoom. Now I’m longing to get up there with my guitar and sing. Church has been my only gig since March 2020.
I attended a conference in Ohio last month. It was a hybrid, in person and on Zoom. Giant screens showed the people attending online. They could see where the camera was aimed, but they couldn’t see all of us. They didn’t taste the food. They didn’t sit at the tables while we did the cut-up poem exercise, fighting over the scissors and glue sticks and laughing at the mess we were making. I ended up with a poem I liked. Did they? And who was there to admire it?
Sitting in the courtyard drinking wine, lounging on soft chairs close together and really listening to each other’s poems was a whole different experience from hearing them online.
We don’t even realize everything COVID has taken from us. We have lost loved ones in the pandemic, yes, but we also have lost a way of life. It’s not over. This may only be a temporary break before we go back into isolation. The news is full of rising case numbers and new variants. Some cities are reinstating mask mandates. We all want the pandemic to be over. It isn’t, but we’re pouring out of our houses. We’re traveling, we’re meeting, we’re hugging. Stop? It’s like trying to put ketchup back in the bottle.
On my trips to California and Ohio last month, I found myself surrounded by strangers, mostly without masks. I had no way of knowing whether they were vaccinated, whether they were infected, whether they had just been with someone who was sick. If we get COVID, we get COVID seems to be the philosophy now.
I suppose there’s a limit to how long we can sequester ourselves in fear before we have to crawl out and see what’s left, see who is left.
Meanwhile, what a gift to walk into a room, see someone you’ve grown to admire on Zoom and fall into a hug. Oh my, they’re so tall. They’re so real. They’re so three-dimensional, with arms, legs, clothing, and warm skin. It’s not the same. It’s wonderful.
Are you meeting Zoom friends in real life? What is it like for you?
Read about it:
“The Rise of Deja Zoom: Meeting Your Virtual Friends IRL” https://www.theatlantic.com/ideas/archive/2021/12/deja-zoom-pandemic-friendships-virtual/620869/
“Dating Over Zoom? Don’t Be Surprised If Those Online Sparks Fizzle in Person” https://theconversation.com/dating-over-zoom-dont-be-surprised-if-those-online-sparks-fizzle-in-person-138899