Word of the Day

The Word of the Day ‘Zoomotional.’

That feeling of surprise, and embarrassment, when you realize that what people are saying during your Zoom session, is authentic, moving, insightful – all of the above.

We are at a particularly interesting moment in our culture, perhaps in history. The virus is not only transforming institutions, it is changing lives.

We are being – choose one: forced, enticed, required, convinced – to use technology that we may have never used before to accomplish things we never thought possible and, we are finding that our humanity is not being entirely filtered out in the process.

I am certainly someone who prizes personal interaction. Someone who extolls live music – as opposed to recorded or ‘pre-recorded.’ Someone who likes to cook as much as I like to dine out, to read much more than I like to listen to others reading, who finds sitting in a theatre close to the screen far more appealing than reclining in bed watching great dramas reduced in scope and impact. But last week I participated in a Zoom session – with a dozen miniature screens before me on my laptop – and I heard what I am sure was an authentic, adult and ultimately moving conversation.

I am not selling Zoom: they don’t need me to promote their service.

Perhaps though, I am selling resiliency?

We are a remarkably adaptable species.Yes, yes, some of you – mostly younger people – are saying, this is nothing new. And now that I think of it, for several years now I have watched my sons playing video games through the internet: watched them interact and cooperate, both as regards the game and its objectives, and at the same time converse, cajole, connect with friends and foes.

But this is different. Or it feels different, to me.

This was a discussion of politics, and medicine, and the inequities of our society, the challenges of maintaining community and the personal and often emotional reaction of those on this Zoom session to the effects of the pandemic on every aspect of those issues, on our lives.

It was, as my sons were fond of telling me about their video games, ‘so realistic.’ It was supposed to be a campaign event, a chance to connect with friends and supporters about my candidacy for a seat on the Select Board, but the invited guests were remarkably candid.

What I had assumed would happen, or should happen, did not.

There was little need to prompt the guests. I asked, at first, simply, how they were feeling and if they had given any thought to how their lives might be different in a post-virus world. They certainly could have given, for want of a better phrase, academic answers. They did not.

Many acknowledged that the isolation, the quarantine, the slow-down and the lockdown had been, for them, an opportunity. An opportunity to ‘catch up on their reading,’ reconnect with family, get to those long postponed chores, repairs, renovations or – just catch up on sleep.

It was also an opportunity, many noted, to work to generate new interest on the part of the public in the charities that they volunteered with, to raise funds for those organizations, to plan for the future.

Yes but, one Zoomer added, those opportunities were there because, for the most part, the faces gathered on my screen were people of privilege: they had, at the very least, homes, heat, food and friends that visited – via their smartphones – regularly. If they were tending long-neglected gardens they had the space to garden in the first place. Their new books arrived via Amazon and, for many, their meals were delivered to their doors as well. She had all those fruits of privilege herself and yet said she woke every morning with a chest tightened by concerns for all those who did not.

“The coronavirus has been anything but a great equalizer,” a commentary in the Washington Post declared. ‘it’s been the great revealer, pulling the curtain back on the class divide, exposing how deeply unequal this country is…” The very old are dying, but the young, the poor, often people of color who are already crammed into densely populated urban environments or working in factories or meat-packing plants or side-by-side in orchards or vegetable farms, those newly discovered essential workers have lost their health, their meager earnings, lost everything.

We can come out of this, the discussion went on, we can regain some level of economic stability, the restaurants and theatres and factories can open up again, but can we struggle to regain what was lost without fighting for what others have never had?

Another revelation, or perhaps confirmation, that came out of the conversation was that by our muddled response to the virus America may have suffered a fatal blow to its stature, its authority in the world. “I am embarrassed by how we appear to the rest of the world,” a long-time Town Meeting member admitted.

Local leaders were praised for their level-headedness, and criticized for the same. The consensus was that while our elected and appointed leaders have presented a calm, professional face to the public, have disseminated data efficiently – all important and necessary achievements – that they have been unable or unwilling to articulate a vision for what comes next.

The consensus is that normal is gone, forever.

The question is, what will the new normal be?

The fear is that, without a concerted and creative effort, that new normal will be a shadow of our comfortable past. Will Plimoth Plantation re-open, and if so under what conditions? Will tourism rebound, or will travel be reserved for specific audiences, at significantly lesser amounts?

Plymouth’s surfeit of restaurants is itself a major attraction for visitors from the region but who will be able to survive the economic downturn, and how will they operate safely? What of our green and open spaces, our beaches and ponds, our unblemished forests and our teeming vernal pools? Will we fight to retain their purity, remember the sanctuary they have provided, understand how integral they are to our sense of well-being?

Our town meeting form of government itself, our legacy of self-rule, will it survive? Can 135 Town Meeting members ‘zoom’ at once? What is the value of the personal interactions, the spontaneous speeches, the discussions that take place in line during the lunch break? Will the lack of crowded precinct caucus meetings, the board meetings where citizen participation is now only possible if questions are submitted ahead of time, or phoned in by patient citizens – will these limitations rob our historic form of government of oxygen?

My sense is that we need to anticipate these problems, pro-actively seek remedies, go beyond what we are asked to do as regards protecting the health of our residents and those who frequent might consider visiting us during our 400+1 year.

I am getting all ‘zoomotional’ about this.

Though the meeting rooms are closed my ‘virtual’ neighbors have allowed me to see the possibilities of technology, the responsibility of the privileged, the opportunity to reshape our future and the failure that awaits us if we are content to allow others to define that “new normal.”

When the internet was new futurists proclaimed a new dawn for democracy, for direct engagement and personal expression but within moments of that proclamation pornography and other pretenders seized the day. Perhaps now, as we awaken from our self-isolation and look to re-engage with each other the potential of these tools may finally be realized.

Will fully utilizing these tools be enough to move forward, to not only regain lost ground but to claim the high ground and reawaken our sense of fairness?

With all that has been revealed, can we be content with less?

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