When I was a kid growing up in Danville, it was my job to adjust the TV antenna to pull in the signal from Indianapolis. My father, stretched out on the couch on Saturday morning, would say, “See if you can’t get that in a little better.” I would sort through my large collection of metal appendages—coat hangers, tinfoil, and copper wire—attaching some or all of them to the antennas to dial in Channel 4 and watch Dick the Bruiser battle Jimmy Valiant. These many decades later, it remains the sole example of my mastery of technology.
I was thinking of this recently while participating in a Zoom meeting, after delivering a 10-minute oration with my microphone muted. I noticed the puzzled expressions of the meeting participants, but that is fairly common when I talk, so I paid it no mind. Eventually, the meeting’s organizer held up a sign telling me to unmute myself. Believing my speech had been the most brilliant prose since Lincoln at Gettysburg, I offered to repeat it, but the other people in the Zoom meeting thought they could live without hearing it and declined my offer.
When the pandemic hit in February, I assumed things would be back to normal in a few months, given the swift and brilliant national response. Alas, here we are, still jumping at every cough, looking askance at strangers, and updating our wills. But since I’m a glass-half-full kind of guy, I’ve been seeking the sunshine in these darkened days, and I am hopeful this contagion has proved the utter futility of most meetings. Having spent much of my adult life avoiding meetings with the discipline customarily seen only in Olympic athletes, I am delighted others are discovering that the wheels of life can spin happily along without five meetings a day.
Every month, I attend a meeting of the elders of my Quaker congregation. It’s a half-hour drive from my house to the meetinghouse, our average gathering lasts two hours, then a half-hour drive back home, for a total commitment of three hours. I won’t lie, Quakers love to eat, so some of that three hours is spent munching on snacks and gossiping. But now that we’re meeting via Zoom, we’re done with our business in an hour or so. That means I’ve saved the equivalent of two whole work days since the virus hit, though for the life of me I can’t tell you what I’ve done with them. I do know this: Zoom is the best invention since coat hangers, tinfoil, and copper wire.
When we first started meeting via Zoom, people warned me it wasn’t secure, that hackers could interrupt our meetings and take over. That would be a fascinating departure from our usually mundane sessions, so I’ve been praying for it to happen, but it hasn’t yet. The elders are kind and thoughtful people, but I assure you, if a hacker took over our meeting, he would be pleading for escape within 15 minutes. No one in the 194-year history of our church has ever voluntarily attended a meeting they didn’t absolutely have to.
I haven’t limited my Zoom meetings to church matters. I meet each Tuesday with TV producers who think a book I wrote will make a good television series. I have no idea whether our venture will pan out, but I’m enjoying our discussions. Being nosy, I spend most of our meetings looking at their office backgrounds. I can tell one of them is loaded because I’ve seen a yard man puttering around outside his window. Some people have fake backgrounds when they Zoom to make you think they’re sitting on the beach, but these folks aren’t faking it. What they see in my Zoom background is a table piled with stuff I need to sort through and throw away some day when I have time, a space heater that no longer works, and my fishing pole. Sometimes they can see our dog Maizy, who visits my office for popcorn. I also have a pirate’s head made from a coconut that my friend Joe Saddler bought me while he was vacationing in Florida. It’s the closest thing I have to a beach.
The worst thing about Zoom is when people don’t mute themselves and you can hear their kids yelling in the background, or their dogs barking, or their television blaring. My wife once had a Zoom meeting while I, unaware of her activity, was in the next room singing George Jones’s immortal ballad, “He Stopped Loving Her Today.” My wife kept yelling at me to pipe down, but people always do that when I sing, so I didn’t take her seriously. Besides, it wasn’t all that important of a meeting, just a little gabfest about COVID-19 with a hundred or so schoolteachers and administrators. It’s not like it hurt her reputation or anything.
The same people who warned me not to use Zoom told me it sends all our data to the Chinese government, who will use it to take over the world. As long as I can remember, Americans have been worried that someone other than us will take over the world. When we try taking over the world, we call it “spreading democracy,” but when the Chinese want to take over, we call it a menace. By way of unintended inheritance, my wife and I own three houses and 86 acres. When I’m not mowing, I’m picking up branches, pulling weeds, painting something, or fixing a leak. If the Chinese want to take over our little piece of America, they can have it. If they showed up at our door tomorrow, I’d welcome them with open arms, invite them in, serve them pie, and hand over the keys.
In point of fact, Zoom was founded by a Chinese-American named Eric Yuan, who was born in China but now lives in Santa Clara, California. Of course, Communists are sneaky, so it’s possible he’s a secret agent sent here by the Chinese to infiltrate the United States by hacking into Quaker business meetings. The Chinese, being unfamiliar with our curious little sect, know nothing of our tendency to defy any and all efforts toward organization. After two hours of eavesdropping on a Quaker business meeting, the Chinese would reconsider their global strategy, pull their navy from the South China Sea, flee Hong Kong, and build another Great Wall.
Someday, this pandemic will end and we’ll return to seeing one another in person. We’ll grow nostalgic for Zoom and tell our grandchildren stories about how, once upon a time, we stayed home and only spoke to one another on computers. We’ll tell them the Chinese tried to take us over, but we taught them a lesson by making them attend church meetings, which might well be against the Geneva Convention. But then, all is fair in love and war.