Like most folks these COVID days, I am grateful for technology, and for the virtual.
Through the miracles that the virtual world provides, I am able to connect with friends, my kids, my siblings.
Our children have taught us how to play games online — second nature to them; never before on our radar.
I can watch a concert — classical, jazz, rock or pop — virtually. Some are presented in a highly artistic way. A few have moved me.
I can go to church online. We like that we can go to the kitchen and get a cup of coffee or tea any time during the service.
At our house, as in many homes, we have been sampling, and oversampling, the endless choices offered by Amazon and Netflix.
Our oldest son caught the dreaded virus, and overcame it, but was able to check in with his doc by Teladoc.
The presidential inauguration, typically watched at home by the vast majority of Americans, seemed more special this year, somehow. The fact that almost no one could attend in person, even if they could get to Washington, made it more intimate. It was an inauguration, via film, rather than an inauguration that was filmed. The folks who were physically present were extras. The Tom Hanks celebration show, from the Lincoln Memorial — a celebration of and for the country — was as important as the swearing-in ceremony on the Capitol steps. And the president was a part of the country’s celebration and sacred ritual, not the point of it.
Just as a civil wedding with only four or six people as witnesses can be more deeply affecting than a big shindig, this inauguration, in its simplicity and directness, soothed many a shaken American heart.
We are coming through this COVID thing, as a polity and as a society.
And all the large and small virtual miracles are helping us to do it.
But one thing I hope will not happen: I hope we will not get too accustomed to the virtual. I hope we will not come to prefer it.
Church is very convenient at home on a screen. No need to shower or get dressed up. But the solemnity is broken by the availability of that coffee pot and tea kettle.
Most people don’t stand or kneel at home.
And no power or support is derived from the souls beside and behind you, because there is no corporate body of prayer.
Or take politics. Something central to politics is lost if there is no door-to-door campaigning, handshaking or oration. A speech is a different kind of thing than a TV debate. Old time pols used to say they had to “make” a speech, not “give” one.
I was at Barack Obama’s first inauguration — 1.8 million freezing people, very few able to get to their seats, no room to move, and nothing but goodwill. Most of us, even with tickets, watched on the jumbo screen at a very great distance. A man in front of me, in one of the endless lines, said: “Well, the point here is to tell your grandchildren I was there. You don’t go into the details.”
Politics is a human art, a personal art, conducted by, with and toward other human beings.
After Robert Kennedy was killed in 1968, I remember that some said: Let us conduct our politics on TV now. It’s the only safe way.
Thank God, we didn’t do that. It would no longer be politics.
Politics is a human art.
The same is true of music and of medicine.
There is a corner of ancient rock ‘n’ roll where one of the mantras is: “Live music is better. Bumper stickers will be issued.”
I would buy that bumper sticker, because most bumper sticker slogans are only partially true.
This one is entirely true.
Whether you are listening to the music of Bach, or the voice of Van Morrison, or Willie Nelson, there is no stereo system that can deliver the thrill of music being heard as it is made.
And what is medicine beyond the mending? It is listening. Medicine is the human art. Sure, your doc can listen to you on Zoom. But, let’s be honest, do you listen in the same way to a person on a screen that you do to a person across a table, or next to you by the fire, or even beside you in a car? Technology almost demands that you attempt to multitask. Distraction is the default position. A child, a patient, a customer or a constituent, in person, demands your attention.
I asked my doctor, who is a great doctor, “How do you like telemedicine?” “I don’t,” he said, “I don’t like it at all.”
Another doc, a specialist, told me, “I finally decided, if I die I die. I wouldn’t like that. But this (hands on and in person) is the only way I know to practice medicine.”
One of my sisters, a teacher for 30 years, said the same thing about teaching. She’s quitting. She can’t teach to a box.
The great Norman Mailer missed out on Ma Google and Wikipedia but lived long enough to experience the internet. He said it was nice, convenient. But he missed working in a library, actually doing research. You dig an entire afternoon for one nugget, he said.
Even writing is a human art.
And, yes, Netflix is a godsend. But it is not like going to the movies. When the lights come down and the first flickers rise with the sound on the big screen, it beats the hell out of your TV, no matter how large and plasmatic.
That experience is topped only by the first few notes of the Beethoven Ninth Symphony in a hushed concert hall. You will never, ever get that on your iPhone.
The virtual is what is possible these days, and, often, what is miraculous. And we should be grateful.
But something is also lost. When COVID is over, we shouldn’t settle. The non-virtual, the actual, is the greatest miracle of all.