Zooming in on What We’re Not Supposed to See 

“Zoom” used to mean fast fast airplanes and fast cars, that noise kids make while moving their toy vehicles across the floor. Zoom, zoom!

“Zoom” also signifies making things closer, like I just did so my old eyes could read what I’m typing.

The Merriam-Webster dictionary defines “zoom” thus:  

1. a: to move with a loud low hum or buzz

    bto go speedily: ZIP cars zooming by on the highway

a: of an airplane: to climb for a short time at an angle greater than that which can be maintained in steady flight so that the machine is carried upward at the expense of stored kinetic energy

3. ato focus a camera or microscope on an object using a zoom lens so that the object’s apparent distance from the observer changes—often used with in or out

bFOCUSZERO: used with in trying to zoom in on the cause of these problems

4to increase sharply: retail sales zoomed

It’s fun to say. Say it with me. Zoom!

But these days, to Zoom means to attend a meeting from home via the Zoom app on your computer, tablet or phone. The other people see you, you see them arrayed in boxes like a photo gallery (or the old Hollywood Squares TV game show), and you talk. It’s not normal or natural, but it’s better than not meeting at all. No driving, no social isolation, no masks.

So where did this kind of zoom come from? San Jose, like me.

Wikipedia says Zoom Video Communications was founded in 2011 by Eric Yuan, a former Cisco VP who launched his meeting software in 2013. (To read more about Eric Yuan and the origin of the Zoom app, click here.) No surprise, Zoom has made tons of money, especially since the pandemic hit. I mean, who isn’t using Zoom for business, hobbies, or family connections? My brother uses it in the courtroom. My friend Karen Zooms with the family. Our church Zooms for Bible study. Students of all ages are taking classes via Zoom.  We are Zoomin’ all over the place.

Among my old film-camera gear gathering dust, I have a zoom lens, a long lens that lets the photographer get up really close. Think spies and sleuths watching people from their cars or from behind a fence. Or birdwatchers getting pictures of that tiny red-headed finch. Or a portrait photographer getting so close you can see the pores in the subject’s skin.

That’s a little too close. But you know what? That’s how close we’re getting on the computer version of Zoom.

Zoom allows us to stare at people in a way that would be rude in real life. Often facing each other’s faces for an hour or more, it’s hard not to notice every little thing—glasses, freckles, hairdos, is that a zit? I caught glimpses of myself last night as I watched a recorded Zoom meeting. Good Lord, the wrinkles, the bad hair. What was I thinking when I chose that blouse? And then I sneezed. Online. And blew my nose. Gross. The only consolation is that everybody else looks just as bad.

Members of Willamette Writers, Oregon’s statewide writing group for which I co-chair the coast branch, met the other night to prepare for our upcoming conference, July 31-Aug. 2. (Usually in Portland, it will be all online via, you guessed it, Zoom. It should be amazing. Read details at the website and consider attending.) We discussed backgrounds and lighting. You need a plain background, a light that shines on your face, and the camera slightly elevated for a more flattering view. You need to turn off the phones, background noises, kids and dogs. In other words, you need to recreate a TV set in your own home.

I Zoom from all over my house, as well as out in the yard. I’m still seeking the ideal spot where I’m comfortable and can see and be seen. The other morning, I thought the trees were a fabulous backdrop, but I was told I needed to turn around so the sun was shining directly on my face. Then I couldn’t see the computer. It might work on a foggy day like today, but it’s too cold.

I’ve Zoomed in my office, Fred’s old office, the living room, and the kitchen. The other night, caught in a tight schedule, I did an impromptu cooking show as I made my dinner while Zooming. I have not yet Zoomed from my bedroom, but it could happen.

I’m loving this chance to peek into homes I will probably never see in person. It’s like someone stripped away the walls to show us what’s inside. I see pictures, trophies, plaques, and books. I see desks that make me jealous. I see doors and wonder what’s on the other side. I catch glimpses of cats, dogs, spouses, and children.

Again, I’m staring. If we were meeting in person, the homeowner would probably ask, “What are you looking at?” They might be embarrassed that that ratty old chair is what caught my attention or that I’m reading the titles of the books stacked on their desk. I’m a writer. I’m nosy. I’m looking at all these “settings” and getting ideas.

I’m typing in my den right now. If someone caught me on the Zoom camera, they’d see no makeup, uncombed hair, and that behind me on my chair are pants that I washed yesterday but haven’t gotten around to hanging up yet. They’d see the out-of-control plant that still has two Christmas ornaments on it because I didn’t notice them before I put the boxes away. They’d see a huge fog-softened spruce tree out the window. They’d see me, my life. In all this COVID-19 isolation, I admit that I want to be seen, wrinkles and all.

How is the Zoom world going for you? Love it? Hate it? Have you found the ideal Zoom location? Have you given in to the temptation of buying a Zoom light or tripod? Do you have a most embarrassing Zoom moment to share?