This essay is a part of unMUTE, a collection of pieces written by participants in the 2020 Design Writing and Research Summer Intensive Online.
Two friends in New York City—an over-enthusiastic Joanna and an apathetic Liz—meet up during the 2020 lockdown for to-go drinks at their favorite bar and wind up hanging out on the sidewalk with scores of other people. They discuss whether or not Liz should throw her annual 4th of July BBQ this year.
Joanna: So you’re still on for 4th of July this year, right?
Liz: Not sure, but I’m leaning toward no because of this coronavirus thing. My rooftop parties are always filled with randomites . . . It’s just too risky.
Joanna: Yeah, but that’s what makes them so much fun!
Liz: Ugh! I’m getting sick just thinking about all those strange, grubby hands all over my meats. Aren’t you at least a little intimidated by this COVID thing? Lurking on the tips of licked fingers and in overheated mouths. The talking. The spit. Ewwwwww!
Joanna: C’mon, it wouldn’t be too different from what we’re doing right now. We’re standing on a sidewalk drinking wine and a frozen margarita from plastic cups with a ton of strangers, if you didn’t notice.
[a moment of silence as Liz swirls her drink and gives Joanna a look]
Liz: Whatever . . .
Joanna: Listen, there’s a way around all the grossness.
Liz: [smirks sheepishly] Tell me.
Joanna: Well, we’d have a ton of sanitizer, of course . . .
Liz: [sarcastically] Brilliant.
Joanna: . . . and lots of water.
Liz: Uh-huh . . . actually . . . Well, maybe we could set up a handwashing station.
Liz: And put some sanitizer next to my meats.
Joanna: Yes! Get into it! [snaps fingers]
Liz: Maybe I can get that guy—you know, the one who’s there every year with the muscle shirt that says—what is it?—“I hand rub my meat” and the trucker cap that says “Cornologist” with the little smiling corn embroidered on one side? Ha! Maybe I can get him to monitor everyone’s handwashing somehow. And mask wearing! As long as you’re not eating, you’re wearing a mask, damn it! Wish we could eat with masks on . . .
[Both laugh, Joanna with a hint of nervousness]
Liz: You know, I asked that guy last year how he ended up at the BBQ and he said, “Well, I know Trish.” And I’m like “Trish? The hell is Trish?” And he points to a group of girls and I know no one in the group’s name is Trish, but I was just too tired to pursue that any further.
Joanna: Erm . . .
Liz: Wait! I’ve heard you use that name before when you . . . OMGeeeee! You hooked up with the Cornologist?! The “hand rub my meat” guy? Bwahahaha! You fancy corn and tender meat, do you?
[Liz laughs vigorously while Joanna chuckles]
Liz: Ooh, gimme his contact! Now I have a hall monitor! I’m sure he’d be happy to have a “job” other than tenderizing meat! You know what, now that I can get the Cornologist to patrol the situation, I’m getting a little excited! This could work!
Joanna: Yeah, how about you and I just crack open a bottle of wine and watch the fireworks from your roof on the 4th instead?
Liz: What?! But my 4th of July BBQ is always so much fun! So many random people there that we don’t know! Joanna, what the hell did you do to my Cornologist?!
unMUTE Group Statement
Take a moment to think about how strange a video chat is. You can see and hear someone, but all the nuance of body language is lost—flattened into two dimensions and reduced in resolution. Conversation starts and stops, unaided by technology cuts and lags. How do you even know when someone is about to speak?
Now take that single moment of video chat and multiply it by sixteen, each tiny square on the screen filled by a student hoping to mentally escape the 2020 pandemic.. Norms need to be created so that everyone feels comfortable contributing, and group dynamics have to be explicitly established so no ideas or experiences—indicated sometimes by only the slightest wave—go unshared.
On the surface, a large group video conversation seems unwieldy. It morphs into something entirely new when the meeting happens every weekday for two weeks, pressurized by rapid-fire lectures, readings, and assignments. It’s hard to imagine, but what if—in the midst of a global health crisis and nationwide protests over racial inequality—those sixteen people created bonds so deep and discovered things about themselves so profound that they left the meeting changed? What if they wrote prose so revealing you stole a glimpse into who they are?
If you’re curious, please unMUTE.