This essay is a part of unMUTE, a collection of pieces written by participants in the 2020 Design Writing and Research Summer Intensive Online.
The scene: A zoom gallery view, filled with 30+ callers.
Chaplain Beth: Thank you all for joining us today. Please feel free to leave the call at your own pace. I will keep the call open, so you can personally take a moment to say your final words and prayers to Dorothy. [One attendee leaves.] Benny, lovely words. Thank you for sharing. [A few more attendees leave.] Thank you for joining. Thank you. Peace be upon you. Thank you. Thank you, buh-bye. Ned, what a delight having you here. Dorothy never told me about her prized petunias! What a hoot! Thank you for coming. Thank you. Yes, thank you. You, too. Merv, she always spoke of you with such warmth and joy in her eyes. Thank you. Bless you. Thank you. Thank you. Yes, thank you. Bye-bye.
One attendee remains. Ed’s video is turned off, and the audience can hear his wife in the distance.
Ed: Nance, have you seen my fishing rod? I’ve been looking for that damn thing all morning, and good God almighty, I can’t find the flippin’ thing. Yep, I looked there. In which blue bin? They are both labeled, “miscellaneous.”
Chaplain Beth: Um, uh . . . excuse me? Ed? Are you there?
Ed: Yes, I can hear you. [Audience can hear Ed’s wife in the distance.]
Chaplain Beth: Oh, great, because I wanted to let you know that the service is over, and we are just wrapping up over here, and no pressure to rush things along or anything. but—
Ed: Well, why the hell would it be there?! [Another response.]
Chaplain Beth: Par—pardon me, Ed, but can you hear me?
Ed: I said, “Yes!”
Chaplain Beth: Oh, gosh. Very sorry. I just thought—I mean, I was confused. Errr, it sounded like maybe . . .
Ed: Maybe you aren’t hearing me correctly.
Chaplain Beth: No, no, I’m hearing you. It’s just—
Ed: Oh, don’t you start with the yellin’! I’m taking my time over here, and this isn’t the easiest task. If you’d have some patience…
Chaplain Beth: Right, I completely understand, and I wanted to allow you to honor Dorothy in whatever way feels right—
Ed: Pumpkin, please. I didn’t lose it. I swear! I know it’s here somewhere.
Chaplain Beth: Ed?
Ed: Excuse me?
Chaplain Beth: I’m pretty sure you can’t hear me, but I’m entirely unsure, and I would like—
Ed: Wait a second!
Chaplain Beth: Sure, okay. No, problem. Happy to.
Ed: It was right here three days ago when I went to Dewey with Sal and Ducky.
Chaplain Beth: Ohh, Lord, give me strength, for I don’t know how to troubleshoot Zoom.
Ed: Uh uh, that was when I went shooting with Wilson.
Chaplain Beth: I do not wish to make assumptions for those I do not know or understand.
Ed: Well, that is not helpful in this situation—
Chaplain Beth: The Lord works in mighty ways and a fishing rod may be a symbol of loss for this man or a connection to Dorothy that I might not understand now.
Ed: Nah, probably not.
Chaplain Beth: Or perhaps he forgot about the call?
Ed: I’m still hearing you.
Chaplain Beth: Oh, you are?
Ed: Behind the golf clubs? Well, why the hell would it be there?
Chaplain Beth: Ed, I think I’m going to hang up now.
Chaplain Beth: Okay?
Ed: No, wait.
Chaplain Beth: Oh?
Ed: I didn’t look there, yet!
Chaplain Beth: Ahhh! Please, Lord, if you are listening, send me a sign.
Ed: Oh, shit! That call thing is still on. [Ed leaves.]
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.