It sounded like someone playing the bagpipes on a cat. Out of tune and out of time. Discordant.
I looked up the definition of “discordant.” It said sounds that are “harsh and jarring because of a lack of harmony; i.e., playing the bagpipes on a cat.”
The melodious mess emanating from my computer speakers took place on Christmas Eve. Across Zoom. A family stretched through three states – Florida, Virginia and New York – all gathering together to sing – for the sake of the story, we shall call it “singing” – Christmas carols.
Even without the coronavirus, many wouldn’t be together on Christmas thanks to the distance or the cost or other familial commitments. But now, here they were, joining one another for songs like “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer” and “Jingle Bells.” Butchering them.
But if not in key, definitely in unison.
Thank you, 2020. This year, you taught us that technology could finally live up to its promise of bringing us closer together. That it could be useful and essential, not just cool, gimmicky and an escape. Most of the time we think of tech as transporting us away – in revolutionary video games, in the promise of perfect pictures through ever-thinner TV screens, in isolating wireless earphones.
But finally, the wiz-bang razzle-dazzle of “gotta have it because it’s new and expensive and hard-to-get” gave way to “gotta have it because I need to feel connected and less alone.”
And we all needed that this past year.
It happened in all sorts of ways this Christmas. We watched “The Muppet Christmas Carol” with my dad and his ex-wife (explain that one to me!) in Tampa and my sister in Chicago with her boyfriend, all while texting back and forth to debate which song was the best. A new Christmas tradition was born. We FaceTimed family to watch as their presents were opened.
Video calls by cellphone weren’t new, but they had never seemed so necessary. So imperative. So desperately needed. For my sister-in-law in Virginia, I became a robot video stand, marching her about a wrapping paper-strewn living room so she could check in on her niece and nephew, and harass her mother about something I didn’t need to hear. Any other year I would have abhorred the idea, and probably plopped her in a plant. But this “virtual reality” seemed more vital. More real.
And on Christmas Eve night, my wife, daughter and I sat comfortably on the sofa while watching our church service on a big screen TV. As the choir lit candles while singing “Silent Night,” we stood and pretended to pass the light from one another on digital candles. What should have seemed ridiculous and fake felt sentimental and heartfelt. Normal even. I can’t remember all the times I sat in the pews of Memorial Presbyterian on Christmas Eve passing the flame from candle to candle. But I know I’ll never forget this one.
I rubbed a tear from my eye as Pastor Hunter Camp talked about the need for community – that it was the thing we were all missing more than anything this year. That it was what was most important. Finding it. Keeping it. Spreading it to others. Boy, did he nail that one.
Finally, Sir Technology, you nailed one, too. Took you long enough. You were so stuck on your gimmicks and pixels and wireless technology hooked up to our socks. But now you actually saw a critical need and filled it. You saw people struggling and needing to bond. Needing to feel something, just not alone. And you brought them together. We thank you for that.
Now, for your next trick, how about an army of technology elves fanning out across the globe to help people do it better. Because I don’t ever want to witness my mother-in-law trying to explain to her sister in an assisted living facility in Virginia how to un-press the mute button on her phone. Oh, and if you can do something in video chat software to autotune the Christmas carolers. No fiber optic cable should ever carry the screeches of the bagpipe on a cat again.
Brian Thompson is a former Record staffer and the current director of news and information at Flagler College.