"Coronalone". It's like "Home Alone", but without Macaulay Culkin. And without the burglars (we hope). It's our ridiculous name for the surreal and strange circumstances in which we currently find ourselves.
And we currently find ourselves imagining what it would have been like to experience this Coronavirus crisis back when we were in high school, say 32 years ago. First let’s just get this out of the way: How can it possibly be over 30 years since we were in high school? OK, moving on…
Imagine closed schools and trying to do “remote learning” circa 1988: It would have looked a bit different than the current situation. Back in the pre-internet, digitally disconnected antiquity that was our angst-filled teenage existence, I can think of only one no-contact option that might have allowed one to view a video from one’s teacher, and I can’t imagine it would have been particularly useful or practical. The teacher would have had to use a camcorder, copy the video onto VHS cassettes, and then mail one to each of the students in the class. Mail, as in USPS. With stamps. Not really a viable solution, as it would have been rather time-consuming and taken forever to arrive, not to mention being costly. Certainly not something the teacher could be doing daily, like today’s Zoom learning. Oh, and believe it or not, not every household had a VCR. You could rent one from the video store, but… well, never mind, I’ve just exploded the brains of anyone born after the year 2000, so I should probably just end this explanation right here.
Well, with video out of the question, we might have had to resort to something like a “telephone tree”. This, of course, would have involved “landlines” (a term which probably hadn’t even been invented yet) and not cell phones, so the teacher would have had to manage to catch each parent when he or she is home. Yes, some people had answering machines, but unlike the ubiquitous voicemail we all now seem to possess, it was not a given. The “telephone tree” works like this: The teacher calls the first student’s parent— based on a handwritten, alphabetical list, of course— with the day’s assignment, and then each parent calls the next one on the list and so on down the line until every student has received the assignment. (Back in my day I’m pretty sure the parents would have been fielding the calls, not the students. It was just “how things were done”.) Now, if our childhood games of “Telephone” taught us anything, it is that the assignment would likely be unrecognizable by the time it made it to the last parent on the list. The Adams kid would be reading chapter 15 and writing an essay on the Magna Carta, while the Zuckerman boy would think the assignment was to read chapter 50 and say something about the “Magnetic Carter” (which I can only assume would be Jimmy).
Staying in touch with friends during the crisis would have been far more difficult, too. I will refer you back to my comment about the lack of cell phones, not to mention the lack of internet. For phone calls we were tethered to landlines, and when I say “tethered” I mean, more often than not, that we were literally connected to a phone mounted on the wall by a coiled, supremely tangle-able cord which limited both one’s movement and one’s access to anything resembling privacy. Unless there was a closet or lockable room near enough in which one could sequester oneself— usually mashing that supremely tangle-able cord in the process in an attempt to close the door— then one had to resign oneself to the rest of the family listening in. This could be accomplished not only by a family member standing in close proximity to you, but by a slightly more nefarious second method which I will reveal to you in a moment, which meant that even locking oneself in a closet was not a foolproof method. Horrifyingly, they could also quietly lift any other receiver in the house and covertly listen to you dish about the cute boy in your geometry class, or whether you thought it was remotely possible that you could ever be one of the dancing teenagers on “American Bandstand”, or why your parents just didn’t “get” the lyrics in the songs by [insert 80s band name here].
No Zoom, no Facebook chat, not even the ability to text or email pics you had just snapped with your (nonexistent) cell phone. To avoid your friend forgetting what you looked like during months of isolation, you would have had to borrow the family’s Polaroid camera, had someone take a photo of you (Polaroids do not lend themselves well to taking “selfies”), and mail the photo to your friend. Mail, as in USPS. With stamps. Again with the stamps.
And this brings us to the project on which I have been working over the past few weeks, a project that could never have been undertaken in 1988. Many of you know that I usually sing once a summer at a small, local church that opens its doors just for a couple months during the summer. I also offered a few years ago to serve as their webmaster and establish an “online presence” for the church in the form of a website and a Facebook page. At the time it seemed almost comical that a seasonal church with no indoor facilities and no electricity would have a web presence, but little did we know just how important it would become in 2020, the year of Coronavirus.
The trustees of the little church regrettably— but, I believe, very wisely— have chosen to suspend services for the 2020 summer season. However, since the church relies on visiting clergy and musicians who each offer their services for one Sunday a summer, they did not have the option of doing anything like the “Zoom worship” that some full-time churches have opted to use while in-person worship was suspended. It is said, though, that where there is a will there is a way, and so the quest for an easily accessible online alternative to in-person services began. After about a week of mulling over the options, I decided to create not only a blog page on which I could post worship materials each week, but also a YouTube channel for our little, electricity-free church. Yup, the Union Church of Meredith Neck has its own YouTube channel. (I mentioned in my intro that this is a strange and surreal time, right?) In this way, I could embed videos of guest musicians right in the blog posts, so that we could continue to “make a joyful noise” even while we continued to isolate for our own safety and the safety of others. One of our trustees began asking each of the ministers who would have been scheduled to preach this year whether they would be willing to send us something via email to post as a message to the congregation: a sermon, a reflection, whatever they were willing to share. She also began soliciting videos from some of the past guest musicians, and all of a sudden we had created an “Order of (Virtual) Worship” that we could post each week to keep the community connected and support each other during this very difficult period of separation. And now I’ve even created an online prayer chain group, providing a community setting— albeit a virtual one— in which the members can request and receive spiritual support from one another.
The moral of this story is this: Yes, we are extremely fortunate to have the technology and the resources we have at our fingertips, resources which can help us stay connected during this pandemic. We should be very grateful that paying online for no-contact grocery pick-ups and pharmacy drive-thrus is a “thing”, and that technology has afforded teachers and children the ability to continue their classes from the relative safety of their own homes. (And yes, I realize how difficult that has been for educators and students alike, but just think about that whole “telephone tree” scenario, and “Magnetic Carter”, and having to rent a VCR. Imagine trying to teach without having any instantaneous way to interact with one’s students, or even to send digital messages. Imagine every parent having to home school without any online assistance from their child’s teachers. Imagine not having an internet! I’m just sayin’.) But we must also realize that even without the many conveniences and technological advances we having going for us now, if this pandemic had hit in 1988 we would have gotten creative. We would have used what was at hand to try to stay connected as best we could, and we would have found ways to help each other through the crisis one way or another. It’s that “where there’s a will, there’s a way” thing. You know: “Necessity is the mother of invention”, and all that. But you see, many of the things we would have had going for us then— and that we still have going for us now— are not “new” or state-of-the-art. In fact, some of them aren’t even things.
We have amazing and courageous people who are willing to put their own lives at risk every day to care for those who contract this virus. We have people switching gears, getting creative, even working together (yet distanced) in groups to do important things like manufacture personal protective equipment and make sure food is delivered to those in need. Our greatest resource amidst this crisis— assuming we all act compassionately and follows the guidelines that scientists and medical professionals have been giving us— is each other. Our greatest resource has always been each other. Cell phones, the internet, apps like Facebook and Zoom: These are all simply tools that facilitate the connection between human beings. Let’s remember to appreciate them for what they offer, but also to appreciate each other. That seems to be one lesson that hasn’t really changed since 1988. Be kind. Help each other. Practice compassion. Do unto others. Yeah, that last one’s been around a while. Let’s bring it back.