Reaching Out Through the Zoom Lens

Zoom Jazz Hands!

As you’d expect, our most requested pose. Special thanks to my sister-in-law for the screen shot.

Previously on Midlife Crisis Crossover: for the duration of the interim normal, all other human bodies are to be treated as walking land mines, held at a remove, and if one approaches you, go hide and let them detonate in someone else’s face instead.

In these extreme circumstances we’ve sometimes found ourselves doing things far outside the old, complacent, pre-fatality routines. Letting our hair grow into shaggy 1970s grotesquerie. Taking early morning walks around our neighborhood. Calling elderly relatives before they call us first. Posting on Facebook.

Our latest deviation from the norm: hopping on a communication technology bandwagon.

Much like Tiger King, people lately won’t shut up about Zoom. Web conferencing technology has existed for years, and for that matter so has Zoom the company, but no one much cared back in the good ol’ days (i.e., January 2020) when hanging out in person was legal and not a common source of crippling anxiety. They also cared a lot less before Zoom’s IPO last year, which we should all pretend was total coincidence and unrelated trivia. In more primitive times many of us were okay with using Facebook Messenger for our private discussions among families and cliques. We’re all used to typing by now, though some of us are more readable than others. Messenger was fine. Or, failing that, screaming at each other on Twitter. We had a system.

Then along comes Zoom with its advantages. Now our chats come with pictures of actual faces moving their mouths along with all the words, which we can hear aloud so we don’t have to waste time or literacy on reading. Our typos are harder to spot, but it’s also much more difficult to delete the last three to five words we just misspoke and replace them with better ones. Every utterance is a first draft, every audience reaction is instant, and you can’t rewind again and again to revisit the best spot in the conversation when everyone gave you the most Likes. No one ever gives you Likes in a spoken-word convo.

Apart from social media and one surviving message board, online chats haven’t been my thing for years. I remember boarding the internet in 1999 and discovering the wonder of AOL Instant Messenger — that intoxicating power to talk to people in other states and countries for free, the opportunity to exchange ideas and quips with new friends, the aggravating task of having to ward off trolls and pervs who couldn’t take a hint. That enchantment lasted for a while, but I turned it off permanently around 2004 or so once I realized it wasn’t all I wanted to do with my online free time. I’ve never been enthusiastic about live chats ever since. That might explain why we were generally never invited to any.

Well, not until this past month. Now that we’re all not allowed to see each other — whether due to state mandate or to grave fears that COVID-19 has turned ordinary passersby into contagious Pod People — now we’re finding a lot of folks desperately wanting to connect with others. They’ve grown accustomed to all the faces in their own houses, they’re sick of those same faces never leaving them alone, and now they need different faces in their lives or else they might be tempted to burn everything down because at least the removal of all those confining, oppressive walls would effectively get them outside in the open air and breaking the quarantine routine. So yes, it’s better they reach out and touch someone.

Anne’s family were the first to intrigue us with the proposal of a weekly Zoom chat. In recent years her four siblings have generally only had us over for birthday parties and holidays, but in this era when stuff has gotten real…everyone liked the idea of opening the lines of communication, rediscovering these neglected chances for sharing, and the more basic uses of checking in and making sure everyone’s doing okay, or about as okay as they can be given the times.

The download and installation processes were easy. Registration was no big deal. For me the most challenging part was fussing over visuals. What shirts do I wear? Which part of our house is the best backdrop? How far away should we be from the webcam? How do we make sure my big head doesn’t take up the entire screen and shove Anne out? What angle should the laptop screen be at? Which lights should be turned on? Does it matter that my naturally curly hair is growing and tangling out of control and metamorphosing into Bob Ross’ afro? With Facebook Messenger I’ve never had to dwell on cinematography.

We’ve been doing it for three weeks and so far…it’s been nice. All devices and people seem to be handling it well. Our house now comes alive with the sounds of new voices breaking up our monotony. Serious topics alternate with moments of hilarity. We feel a little less isolated, a little less overwhelmed, and a little more loved. Then the 40-minute time limit for our free Zoom accounts interrupts like a churlish bouncer and breaks up our fun. But we know we can meet again.

This past weekend, I also got to drop in on a Zoom chat among longtime internet cronies from our old message-board home, a geek resort of sorts where we’ve been posting since 1999. Somehow it still hasn’t had its plug pulled. Members have done the occasional chat-shaped thing over the years, but this was everyone’s first attempt at doing it with visuals, and the first time I’d caught an invitation to one in ages. Of those fellow geeks who made it in, I’d met two in person before (one in Grand Rapids waaaaay back in 2002; the other in two different states in 2008 and in 2015). Most of the others are folks I’ve been exchanging posts with for years but never seen live in the flesh, in person or on camera.

That was a different vibe, and at nearly three hours long a bit more wildly varied (high-five to the admin who has a paid Zoom account), but no less nice. Now I know several more voices to go with usernames, to replace the cartoon voices that my imagination had assigned to each of them. And I’m okay with the fact that no one noticed I was apparently the only one who wasn’t drunk or drinking. I think a few of them even remembered our chat the next day, some more lucidly than others.

We can’t do Zoom chats all the time — frankly, we do enjoy our hobbies and our time alone and our sleeping schedules — but it’s encouraging and odd that, thanks to Zoom, we’re technically socializing more now than we were before the pandemic. Go figure.

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