Don’t get me wrong — live-streamed church services and virtual Passover Seders are a miracle for the sick, the infirm, the elderly. Dare I add convenient?
What is lost is the concept of being there, an expression that took off after the 1979 film of the same name, starring Peter Sellers.
I recently read a plea for newspaper subscriptions from someone who misses the thud of the rolled-up paper hitting the front door, the feel of the newsprint itself. Perhaps taking the paper back to bed, with a mug of coffee, on a Sunday morning. My husband used to do that, along with a pair of scissors to cut apart the brides and grooms and rematch them to his liking.
Hysterical! Can a Mac do that?
I wonder how many displaced senior New Yorkers remember the art of folding a newspaper to read on a crowded subway, without taking up too much room. Think Wall Street Journal origami, not cellphone miniaturization.
Being there means the smell of the greasepaint, the roar of the crowd.
“Face the Nation,” not Facetime.
On “60 Minutes” interviews with presidents and popes, crooners and kings are done from two chairs, facing each other. No props, nothing to distract from facial expressions, body language.
Just being there.
Yet what would we do in these perilous weeks of isolation without Zoom, telemedicine and whatever else substitutes?
Will it become that other cliché, the “new normal”?
As a reporter and writer, I never fully adjusted to the telephone. I’m terrible at “phoner” interviews, self-conscious on Zoom. I have driven hundreds of miles to “be there,” to see a person in his habitat, against a background that reflects her tastes and so much more. Is the sun shining through a window? Is the desk messy or compulsively neat? Cat or dog? Is the suit pressed or baggy? Only by watching the subject from 3, not 6 feet can you judge how things are going, what elicits smiles or, more important, squirms. Real eye contact isn’t possible on a screen, nor are meaningful pauses. You can’t smell a fib from afar.
Nor can you feel the warm vinyl upholstery on a diner booth seat just vacated by then-President Bill Clinton. That was the (daring!) thermogenic detail that ended my interview opportunity of a lifetime.
I shudder to think of how many “being theres” are lost during quarantines and limited social contact. Funerals, for example. We’ve heard reports aplenty about the sick dying alone, or on the other side of a glass partition. Without being there to hug, kiss and cry, to smell the flowers and see the shiny black cars, to eat from casseroles and deli platters the death seems less real.
I expect new fathers are more willing to feed, bathe and change the baby after witnessing his birth — a being there double whammy as is now the custom.
Take-out meals from local restaurants took off soon after rules went into effect but have dwindled. A few restaurants closed altogether. One reason, I learned from a customer: The food was fine but not the same as being there.
How could it?
Which is why, when the hardships caused by coronavirus are over, we should practice, then appreciate being there: Part of a congregation hymn-ing as one on Sunday morning. Cutting a wedge from a lemon meringue pie without letting the meringue slide off. Feeling the sweat roll down your face while weeding the garden. Listening to the ice tinkle in the glass of tea. Feeling the thrill when your sweetie calls.
Because some things cannot be virtualized, streamed, texted, Instagrammed, 3-D printed or Vimeo-d.
After weeks and weeks of deprivation the lesson is obvious: Given a choice, nothing beats being there.
Contact Deborah Salomon at email@example.com.