On the evening of Thursday, March 12, I checked my email to see that the last of my activities for the foreseeable future had been called off: Among other things, my Sunday night soccer league was no more. I had a panicky cry, followed by a wave of guilt that something so ultimately trivial is what drove me to a small meltdown. But if I’m honest, the severity of this pandemic didn’t really sink in until it ruined my plans.
As we descended into lockdown, a virtual world of entertainment popped up, inviting us to keep weekends and evenings as full as they were before. At first, I found these offers utterly delightful: Did I want to Zoom a college friend in London over brunch? Attend a friend’s livestreamed DJ set? Did I want to tour the Louvre from my couch? Or take advantage of relaxed liquor laws to Seamless a Michelada—and a complimentary toilet paper roll!—from a local bar? It all seemed so innovative; everything came with a fun twist. Life was different now, of course, but maybe a satisfying online facsimile was possible, I thought. I was wrong.
The thing I was most excited to replicate in isolation was dance class. In my pre-coronavirus life, attending hip-hop dance class at a studio in midtown Manhattan was the one thing that made me feel like more than the bespectacled nerd I am. I eagerly registered for a virtual session through a neighborhood studio. All day I looked forward to spending an hour on something frivolous and fun that wasn’t just watching more reality TV. I even ate dinner early so I wouldn’t get cramps. When I logged on, the atmosphere hummed with excitement, the 94 other attendees peering at their screens from tiny bedrooms, some attempting to clear their surroundings of toddlers and pets. But then, tinny rap music came in through the teacher’s computer and my heart sunk. I was able to follow the class for about 10 minutes before the instructor’s moves got faster, and my internet got slower, and the whole class dissolved into a landscape of jerky pixels. I decided I’d be better off doing some basic calisthenics. It was easy to quit, just a click, and I was immediately alone in my apartment again. I have not “returned” to dance class.
Hangouts with friends have gone better, but only just. The lack of travel time to a meeting spot, plus general desperation for human interaction, is causing us to see one another more frequently than usual, which is a plus, at least in theory. Every time I sign on for a virtual happy hour, my heart swells with affection at the sight of loved ones’ faces. The bliss lasts at least a couple minutes, as we swap notes on roommate shenanigans and complain about what was out of stock at our respective grocery stores. Often, these calls quickly devolve into disjointed conversation as people go off to check on their dinner, deal with ornery pets, and squabble with partners. The other day, an old friend, mid-FaceTime, left me on her kitchen counter, staring up at the looming side of her mixer, shouting at her to come back, in vain. I’m just another discarded appliance, I thought.
Not that things are much better when everyone stays focused. When the conversation is moving, it’s hard to keep up with the frenzied switching between speakers’ faces, hard to deal with lags in internet connections, and hard to keep from talking over one another. It’s also difficult to keep things from lapsing into awkward silence. I’m running out of things to say that are remotely interesting. I am, after all, in isolation. I don’t have any funny stories about what happened on the subway or bad first dates.
I’ve dabbled in other virtual amusements, though to be honest, I haven’t lasted very long with any of them. I eagerly clicked a link to join a live Headspace meditation, only to find that it was already wrapping up. I took a tour of the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam, via Google Arts & Culture, a feature that feels more or less like using Street View indoors. I quickly learned that this is not the optimal way to see art, getting digital whiplash from zooming forward 200 feet and landing suddenly in front of a fuzzy view of a Vermeer. I checked out the otter cam at the Monterey Bay Aquarium, but it turned out to mostly be a view of two gently waving kelp plants, with the occasional otter floating through the frame.
Beyond whatever technical issues there are, fundamentally, these activities aren’t satisfying because they’re based in a denial of the present moment. The truth is, no matter how much technology gets involved, I can’t pretend that I’m at a nightclub when I’m in the same sweatpants I’ve been wearing for two weeks (and I am too stubborn to get dressed up when I will, technically, be alone). I cannot shake the feeling of loneliness with flat images of my friends on a screen. I’ve realized how much someone’s physical presence matters—how important it is to actually have the bulk of another person beside you, the little noises they make, their micro-expressions, the ability to follow their gaze and see what they’re looking at. Meanwhile, I’m also worried about friends who are sick, depressed, laid off. I’m worried about the growing death toll and what will happen with the 2020 election.
I am trying to accept that my life now is not some technologically disrupted copy of what came before. I’ve stopped trying to replicate my pre-coronavirus activities, stopped trying to make everything fun and better. Instead of lengthy Zoom happy hours and Instagram live dance sessions, maybe we’re better off with 15-minute phone catch-ups with friends and walks—and sometimes, often, just being really fucking bored. It is tempting to try to match the tempo set by the exponential spread of the virus, the constant pace of the news, the barrage of lists of what to watch, what beans to stock up on, and how to feel. But churning my way toward normalcy hasn’t been satisfying, and I’m starting to figure out how to just accept that life is different now.
As it happens, I have actually found the most satisfaction in an activity that is in no way glamorous but is perfectly realistic for isolation: I’ve been reading a 3,000-page book. Those of us who are lucky enough to have the opportunity should try to be a little more still right now. It might actually end up being exciting.