Pandemic parties

Betsy Mann

“Zoom, Zoom.” Up to about two months ago, when I heard those words, my mind’s eye showed me sleek, sporty Mazdas hugging the curves on a mountain road or racing ahead in the passing lane on flat straightaways. My mind’s ear played the associated soundtrack which reverberated with revving engines, followed by a boy’s almost conspiratorial whisper, “Zoom, Zoom.” Like so many things in our world, those old associations have been replaced for me with a whole new reality, COVID-19 oblige.

Now “Zoom” has turned into an adjective, a verb and a noun, as in, “I had a Zoom meeting this morning and I’m Zooming again this afternoon. One more Zoom and I’ll be going cross-eyed!” The new image in my mind’s eye is a grid of rectangles on a computer screen, each occupied by the head and shoulders of someone I may or may not have ever met. I am reminded of a row of glass cases containing portrait busts in some gallery of ancient Greek sculpture.

The soundtrack associated with the new Zoom universe is neither as loud as the revving engines nor as soft as the whispered aside from that old Mazda TV ad. From time to time, when a thin green line surrounds a case in the on-screen portrait gallery, a bust starts speaking, or at least making some sound. Voices I may or may not recognize talk in turn, or they talk over one another until someone wins and takes the floor. What’s the etiquette here? When will my turn come? If the red microphone at the bottom left has not been clicked, household noises intrude on the soundtrack: dogs bark, children ask for homework help, and spouses announce they too have a Zoom and the wi-fi is getting overloaded. More intimate sound effects like flushing toilets and exclamations about dirty diapers can sometimes break through unmuted.

Visual effects may also be surprising. We are far from the carefully orchestrated speeding Mazdas, with their rehearsed laughing drivers. Not that users don’t try to curate their look. The busts in a Zoom gallery display themselves in front of a wide variety of backdrops. Some artfully arrange a décor of neat bookshelves, suggesting an erudite and business-like atmosphere. Others attempt to achieve an impression of order by placing themselves in front of a suspended white bedsheet. This fools no one as to the state of what is behind the sheet, but at least it protects privacy. Still others appear before a beach or mountain landscape, photos that suggest nostalgia for a long-ago vacation spot. Admittedly, these glimpses of nature can soothe the soul in a world sheltering in place indoors; however, they have an unfortunate habit of swallowing up portions of the bust should the subject relax and lean back. Since the effect of a headless torso tends to be disconcerting and can distract from the purpose of the Zoom, the use of such natural backgrounds remains controversial. Even more distraction occurs when one of the busts in the grid abruptly steps out of its rectangular case, leaving behind an empty chair. What pressing business called? Were we boring? Sometimes, a whole rectangle goes black or disappears entirely. Either the spouse’s Zoom meeting took priority or the neighbours all started watching Netflix at the same time, and the wi-fi failed. Will the bust reappear? Has the person definitively “left the meeting”?

The Mazda “Zoom, Zoom” never moved me to purchase a sports car, but I’ve come on board with this new Zoom. Without it, how would I have been able to respect isolation requirements and still greet my two colleagues to their faces while they showed me the contract and work plan for upcoming training workshops? How would I get to hear the writers in my memoir group read aloud their reflections on the big and little events of their lives—a much more complete and meaningful experience than merely receiving their texts by email? How would my book club be able to safely gather for a discussion of our current book? These five fellow readers are not mere busts in a gallery; they are familiar faces that I have known for over 35 years. Our friendships began when we were all members of the Sandy Hill Babysitting Co-op and we looked after each other’s children. Naturally, our Zooming includes a check-in about the well-being of our adult children and their families too. Seeing and connecting with these friends reminds me that I am deeply rooted in a community.

And then there are our Family Games Nights on Zoom, every second week. My sister in Toronto chooses the game and sends out the invitations to the 14 potential participants. The invitations arrive in locations stretching over 15,000 km from Townsville, Australia, through two cities in BC, to Toronto, and finally to us in Ottawa. I’ve seen more of my sisters, nieces and nephews in the last six weeks than in the last six years! We have played ‘Two truths and a lie,’ and Slang Teasers, but Pub Quiz Night with its trivia questions has been the favourite so far. Points do not count, but laughter does. Elaborate masks and whimsical hats, while optional, are generally appreciated. The faces on my screen are no anonymous busts but a gallery of dear family portraits. I look at the grid of rectangles on my computer and know that the virtual universe that has blossomed in the time of pandemic can make physical distancing and social isolation disappear.

Zoom, Zoom.

Four neighbourhood friends visit the Louvre together in May, via a Zoom screenshare.