Untethered, or The Year of Living Virtually

Untethered, or The Year of Living Virtually

Untethered, or The Year of Living Virtually

Reflections on ruptured time.


New York City—When baseball legend Ted Williams died in 2002, it came to light that he had directed that his body be cryogenically frozen so he and his children would “be able to be together in the future, even if it is only a chance.” At the time, it seemed strange to me, a desire for immortality so intense that one would slow the body’s decomposition to molecular silence, the breath held in wait for the perfect cure.

Global pandemic has helped me better understand that determined longing for biostasis. In mid-March of 2020, friends began to die, and I began to lose my mind. Today, post-vaccination, and nearly 4 million global deaths later, I am slowly waking up, like Rip van Winkle, much more than merely a year older, and not at all the same. I feel as though I have been preserved by a shock of flash-freezing, and I am thawing now—slushy and watery and uncertain in my body.

It was the sensory deprivation I found hardest to bear. Early on in this plague, as my contacts with the outside world had retreated into the numbed realm of the “remote,” I vowed to try to find grace in isolation. I would meditate and listen to what I imagined might be some lost store of poetic inner quiet. Like so many, I was determined to “make the best of it”; I would gussy it up as a writing retreat, a prolonged snow day, a space to hibernate for a bit.

But the sequence of death derailed the project. More people sickened, more friends passed, more relatives of friends, more acquaintances I no longer thought of as “casual” but essential. How are you? became an existential question. I Zoomed, I Skyped, I learned to use Teams. Images of other human beings were delivered in digitized boxes, algorithmic animations with sharp rectangular edges recalling The Hollywood Squares, the flesh tones odd, and no smells of the living. I watched the incense at a Zoomed funeral; I watched the bitter herbs at a Zoomed seder; I watched a bouquet of white roses tossed at the livestream of a Zoomed wedding.

I experienced all of this as fictional, surreal, perhaps because my sense of reality depends on the echo of how a real voice in a real room hits the ear. Or how a happy person smells. Or how a handshake or a hug stimulates the nervous system. Or how looking directly into someone’s eyes reveals small inflections that enhance the meaning of words as they are spoken.

I make my living as a teacher. In a bricks-and-mortar classroom, I rely on the presence of students to read the room, on subtle expressions—a head tilted in questioning, a slouch of boredom, an excited buzzing among ones who’ve made an important connection… On Zoom, their tiny heads were lined up like figures on an Advent calendar. When they wished to speak, their little yellow hands, like cartoon Mickey Mouse mittens, went up and down. Their voices were muted and unmuted, on and off, like a sound faucet. When I divided students into problem-solving subgroups, there was no collegial hum. Using the chat feature, everyone just dropped out of sight, out of sound and existence, a timer at the bottom of the screen blipping down the seconds till they would reappear, bursting to the surface like divers from the deep. (I have a friend who, while his students disappeared into their 15-minute chat-worlds, would hop on his treadmill for a refreshing workout.)

I felt diminished by the disconnection. In order to perform myself, I had to stand within an exoskeleton of myself, a prosthetic, a platform, to translate myself, to project the three-dimensionality one takes for granted intra personas. I felt as though I were manipulating a marionette of myself, trying to get my limbs to work just right, to avoid getting tangled or lost in the strings and buttons, the lighting, the filters. Worst of all, the architecture of Zoom requires that in every encounter I had to watch my own face, sallow and flattened, in a constancy of self-regard. It was the material enactment of double consciousness: watching myself as I watched others watching me.

Yes, it was better than nothing, and we all made do. But a year of such mediation was disembodying in all those literal ways.

The word “parasocial” occurs to me as I survey this year of lost-minded time. Parasociality is a one-sided relationship with another who exists at a distance—most often a celebrity. The relation is not only one-sided but illusory, an attributed sense of intimacy or proximity, such as a crush on a pop star, or the daydream of an imaginary friend. Parasociality is the projection one places on someone who does not reciprocate, or who may not even know you exist. I am co-opting the word, I suppose—it’s a technical term in media studies—but there is something powerful about the idea of life imagined as living among others, while without them in reality. In that way, a year on Zoom was sometimes like talking to the dead. Some days navigating the geography of our miniature screen-world was like floating through gardens of computer-generated ghosts. Sealed in my home office, I would toss a bottle of my ideas into that imaginary sea, trusting that it would find shore, and be released like a religious revelation upon the screens of extant others. A clutching neediness sustained my reaching out to partial people through this ritual Zoom communion. I call them “partial people”; I mean people who exist somewhere in the present tense but whom I could apprehend only as bumblebees captured in a jar; wings beating against the glass, they buzzed with the threat and the promise to break through as real.

As the days grew darker, as the economy spiraled downward, as the political scene grew more disordered, I too grew scattered, anxious, sad. I bought a stationary bike. I wore masks and plastic gloves to collect the mail. I studied the instructive dictates of astronauts, and hermits, and Oprah Winfrey. I forced myself out of bed in the morning, I updated my will, made wish lists and to-do lists—things that are supposed to inspire a sense of purpose. I counted my many blessings. I wrote down what I had eaten, and what I should be eating. Too much Twitter was in my head to think, to feel, so I switched off all electronics for five hours a day.

Of course, it’s impossible to turn off the world entirely; the sounds of catastrophe leaked through the walls. Ambulances streaked through the streets; I wore earplugs to dull the overhead thwumping of medical helicopters. As the months rolled by, medical helicopters were joined by police helicopters, and chanting filled the streets. The National Guard materialized, and personnel carriers mustered round the city.

Last June, I hung a picture of Nelson Mandela’s stone room of a prison, where he passed some 25 years in solitary confinement. If he could do it, maybe I would make it to whatever future lay beyond. In September, I added a portrait of the late Ruth Bader Ginsburg. And after January 6, I completed the gallery with a drawing I made of a bright happy balloon that was well-tethered to a stake in the ground. This was in response to a dream that I was a balloon that had lost its mooring. A child had let go of my string, and I was being carried away by a strong, angry wind—blowing away from everything I knew, disappearing higher and higher into a dense fog, the sky around me a grey and endless opacity. I woke up with the need to draw myself down to solid ground.

The whole world will need a lot of mooring post-pandemic. I fear that one of the costs of sustained parasociality is inability to come back down to earth, to stop and listen to what real others are really saying. Perhaps the perpetual state of emergency has unhinged us all. Awakening into a changed world, I am wobbly and in need of repair. I fear the wobbliness of others—particularly the great and growing numbers of lives given over to slushy accumulated moral panic. The pandemic has been a horrendous rupture of time, a trauma requiring reinvention of purpose. We will need some link between the fear-pod of deadliness and the redemptive reassurance of regeneration.

The threat of contagion is far from over; the virus mutates and disperses itself inequitably through the lacunae of bad public policies and cultivated fears. But to the extent that there is the promise of vaccination, at least for now, I am aware of how much my watery, pulsing interior rejoices at having survived to see this moment. I open my door early each morning. I look up at the dawn sky and remember how big and how beautiful and how unimaginable the world truly is. I taste the air. I set the table and reheat the uneaten dinner that has been waiting for you, my friends; I have missed you all. I settle anew into an embodiment of vulnerable exposures, pain points, and joy, a body absolutely certain that she, this lover of life, this I, this infinite ontography, will carry on and on and on without end.

This is the final installment of Scenes From a Pandemic, a collaboration between The Nation and Kopkind, a living memorial to radical journalist Andrew Kopkind, who from 1982–94 was the magazine’s chief political writer and analyst. This series of dispatches from Kopkind’s far-flung network of participants, advisers, guests, and friends has been edited by Nation contributor and Kopkind program director JoAnn Wypijewski, and has appeared weekly on thenation.com since April 1, 2020. All 61 pieces in the series can be found in descending order on kopkind.org.

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