Low-quality physicality

Winter is over. Most people I know have either gotten their vaccine or will soon. The sun has reminded us how to be outside. It’s finally happening. We’re coming back to life, real life. 

But what about this virtual life? In many ways, it’s been a blessing. There’s no commute. No daily pressure to worry about your hair. You get to hang out with people on the other side of the country and still have all the time in the world to play with your cat. 

There will be a thousand thinkpieces about the transition back from virtual to physical, the benefits and downsides of both. I’m not going to write a thinkpiece. I just want to write about two things that happened this week that are making me think.

Thursday evening: A virtual reading. I signed up to read one of my short stories for a group called Readings on the Pike. I had been looking forward to this for months, maybe years, following this group before Covid began. Once a month, they host events for local authors to share their fiction and poetry, but in person, the event was in Virginia, not accessible by public transport, a long bike ride away, which always seemed just too far on a late Thursday night. But virtual, yes! I submitted a story four months ago and finally, on Thursday, alongside a handful of professional authors, most of which have several published books, and little old me, I got to read. 

I was the third reader. First up was a local poet named Tatiana, who spoke beautifully. In the chat, listeners expressed their gratitude, a virtual hype machine with virtual snaps. But in the middle of one sentence, from the audience, it came: a burp. Not a dainty throat-clearing burp, a major, soda-glugged burp, beginning to end. The poet didn’t flinch, she kept reading as if nothing happened. Until it happened again… and again. It became clear these weren’t real burps; they were pre-recorded, then unleashed with intent. 

Things went downhill from there. The mysterious burper was kicked out of the Zoom, but during the second reader’s story, another picked up where he left off, interrupting the reader with a loud yell, then another, until the moderators closed the waiting room, didn’t allow anyone to unmute. Then someone blew up the chat with profanities, and someone else turned on a video to… something unpleasant. 

My first Zoombombing. To all effects it was harmless. If it happened to someone else, maybe I would have laughed? But it shook me. I was next. I was about to tell a story that was deeply personal to me, one that, when I practiced earlier that day, made me cry. Yet an unknown quantity of Zoombombers reigned in the sea of names and screens. The bad actors were kicked out and the chat was closed down and no one new was allowed in, but who was left, ho was waiting undercover for their own moment to be an asshole for no reason? 

This all happened right before my piece, but the moderators felt confident they had managed the problem, so I hid the video and concentrated on my story. 

Then it was over, and no one could comment because the chat was shut down, so it was over and that was that, no reaction, and I was left with a terrible feeling. It could have been worse. Why is that always the reaction? It could have been much, much worse (content warning), but instead it just sucked. And that’s the end of this story. 

Saturday evening: A walk, no screens. I walked around Malcolm X park, I walked through Columbia Heights, a thousand people out tonight, joyful as the sun went down. I heard music. People played music on speakers at the park, cars drove with their windows down. And new music, this was different, bigger. It was music I could see from two blocks away, I mean see, so real I could practically watch the soundwaves, even though I couldn’t see where it was coming from. Drums, more drums, singers, synthesizer. It echoed around the streets, clapping on concrete. 

I found it one block away: a flatbed trailer, converted into a stage, with a dozen people playing go-go, and thirty congregating all around, dancing and taking up the sidewalks, the street. The drums. You could feel them shaking the ground. The cymbals that wanted to break apart. The singers, moaning, were secondary to the drums, so raw. The music wasn’t great. It had a quality that existed on a different plane than technical excellence. It existed everywhere. 

One woman in particular caught my eye. A middle-aged woman in a pink polo who had a huge jug of water and groceries by her feet. She had her phone out and was recording a video with intensity, not just the band but following every dancer that passed her by. No smile, perfectly serious, so important that she had to put down her groceries and capture it all to remember. 

I stayed for about ten minutes, and eventually took a photo. Not a video. Cell phone videos of in-person music always sound terrible later. 

But maybe that’s the point. To remember the imperfections, how little they matter. 


Elliephant of the week: BOX.

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