Once a month I shoot a video interview with an author for the magazine I edit. Our March edition was to be no different. I had a shoot scheduled in front of a live audience at a bookstore in the heart of Seattle’s University District in mid-February, and then a certain global pandemic washed ashore, and that was that. Except for the writer I was to interview was determined to carry on, and suggested we use Zoom.
I was unsure. I was afraid the video quality would be too low. I liked having three cameras and our shots well lit; I liked the cuts and the closeups and the clear, in-the-same-room-with-you sound. We went ahead with it anyway. That morning, there was a small question of what I should wear for the conversation. I always wore a jacket for the in-person interviews. Should I wear one as well for this virtual chat? It seemed wrong. I’d just be sitting at my desk, after all. Putting on a jacket would be like pretending I wasn’t stuck at home.
We recorded the interview and I posted it a couple of days later, saying to myself, “Well, it’ll have to do.” About the same time it went up, I realized I was hardly the only one who had moved his show (if you can call it that) to his house. Every late-night host, sports talk show, news commentator–pretty much anyone who had been having live conversations in front of a camera had transposed those conversations to a laptop in their living room.
My first reaction to seeing the men and women I’d been accustomed to watching in immaculate studios in full makeup now leaning into webcams wearing sweaters and baseball caps was mild despair. This won’t last, I thought. Without the polish and glamour of real television, without late-night audiences, without clean studio sound, no one will want to watch. It felt amateur and worse, the pandemic had managed to pull back a curtain that I felt absolutely had to remain drawn: the one between The Show, and everyone’s get-up-in-the-morning, domestic, messy, day-to-day life.
My despair lasted about two days. There was something comforting about seeing everyone, celebrities included, rowing in more or less the same boat. It seemed to me there had been a growing movement, both at home in the U.S. and abroad, suggesting that ultimately people should just go it alone. From the drumbeat of nationalism to conservatives’ anti-government rhetoric, it was as if we were toying with the idea that our safety lay in how little we needed other people.
I understood this impulse. Other people can be a bother. If you start depending on them for your wellbeing, they may only let you down. They’ve got their own wellbeing to consider. Better we just take care of ourselves. I have learned, and am still learning, to take care of myself physically, financially, and emotionally. At the end of every single day, after all, it is I, alone with my thoughts once the lights go out, who must make peace with whatever demon of doubt I let slip past the gates in my mind. This is so even with my wife, as close a companion as I’ve ever known, there falling asleep beside me, perhaps contending with her own personal hobgoblins. It has been and will forevermore be so as long as people have minds capable of imagining and then believing the worse.
And what could be worse than believing that you are somehow a lesser version of human. That is, what if all your trouble, your doubt and worry, your messiness, your warts, your unfinished rooms, your unfinished books, and business and plans, what if all that is a consequence of some irreparable hole in your unique self? Yes, you know the TV personalities have hair and wardrobe people, you know they’re perfectly lit, they’re edited even, but how easy it is to compare just the same, to feel that the vast difference between the life you know and the one you see on TV cannot be explained away by mere makeup.
Then you see people in their natural, imperfect habitat and the truth is quite obvious and easy to accept. To say we need one another does not even begin to approach the reality. Look how alike we are when we strip away the normal routine of our individual lives and all over the globe we are handed more or less the same routine, the same challenge. Our shared messiness that existed long before COVID-19 is a consequence of the endless, timeless universal challenge of being human, of there being no right answer to how to live a life. Everyone’s figuring it out, and getting it wrong, and then right, and then wrong, and then right again. It’s not just that I need these other people, I am these other people, and the worse pain I’ve known is trying to convince myself otherwise.
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