This year, the Emmys were a mostly virtual affair. Writers, actors and show runners beamed in from their sofas and chairs, tucked into private spaces: homes, backyards, hotel rooms. These sorts of awards shows are usually the height of artifice, with attendants in masks of makeup, gowns with boning, hair shellacked into place. So to see stars like this — still beautiful, yes, but many dressed informally, some in pajamas and bathrobes — felt like a “behind the scenes” peek at their more authentic selves.
Online gatherings are changing how we “show up” in public. Because we participate from private spaces, people are seeing a version of us that reveals more. Our surroundings, the stuff hanging on our walls, even our lighting offers clues of who we are, of how we live our lives, of what schlock we enjoy.
But it’s not just what other people see in those meetings that makes them more intimate, it’s also who we are in them. At home, we have fewer defenses, less grooming. We tend to be more relaxed, in proximity to loved ones, dressed comfortably. The person who shows up for a meeting under those conditions is different from the person who would go to a conference room to sit.
I see this difference playing out in my life.
My condo association met last week on Zoom. Ours is a big building in downtown Seattle, fraught with issues of communal living in the time of COVID-19 — crowding elevators, refusing masks. By email, we had managed to get so riled up that two opposing groups had formed, and everyone hating on one guy in particular. Now this Zoom session was mediated by a lawyer.
I found myself staring at a grid of interiors of my neighbors’ apartments. I had met a few in the halls, but no one had invited me in. Here I was, standing in 40 of them at once. I found the box for the guy we were angry with, and something in his mood lighting and tapestry made the problem seem silly. I recognized the woman in the apartment next to mine; I could see out her window to my window.
At some point deep in the airing of grievances, as we stared intently into each other’s private spaces, the audio began to skip and drag, and so we all disabled our videos. I thought there’s a metaphor here: intimacy overwhelming the system. We ended the meeting as disembodied voices agreeing we could do better.
When I look at my own image on the screen, I wonder what people see. Behind me hangs a black and white banner, a gift from a friend, that reads: Joy Is An Act Is Resistance. The second “is” should read “of.” My friend offered to return it, but I love typos. I hung it, a little joke to myself: Don’t ask me to copy edit. Now my co-workers and students see it, and who knows what they think. I hope it’s the declaration of joy they notice.
They also see the back of my chair, which is a pink arc behind my head. I sit in a knockoff of the famous womb chair design. I feel relaxed when I’m in this chair, feet propped on the matching ottoman. My private space, where I now meet in public.
For teaching, I sit in the chair. But lately I’ve found myself holding office hours from bed.
In my defense, I make the bed. I am not actually under the covers. That might be taking it too far, but other changes out here on the new frontier of public and private space are not so bad.
For the record, the feedback I gave my students while reclining was solid. Sound advice, I promise, if delivered a bit groggily.