A Zoom Family Christmas

My brother floated the idea yesterday.

“Hey, I think I’m going to set up a Zoom meeting for the family on Christmas.”

“Great idea!” I said as if I had mentioned in the previous text, which I had.

“Almost everyone is in. Even Danny.”

This was big. My Uncle Danny has long been famous within the family for his iffy views on family get togethers. Sometimes he comes, sometimes he doesn’t. Sometimes he comes and disappears without a trace.

At this time of year, I am usually heartened by the traditions that involve my visit home to my parents’ house. At this point, I would have travelled through the airports with their Christmassy atmospheres and picked up a gift or two on the way if my layovers allowed. My parents would have picked me up at Philadelphia International a couple of days ago. My mom would have taken my cheesesteak order in the car on the way home and my dad and I would have played our countdown my trip game.

“Well, you have two more weeks.” We count down like this until the day I leave. On the day I leave, tinged with mourning we count down the hours, supplanting it with “Oh, listen, we’ll see you in the summer.”    

I’d spend my time relaxing and watching football with my dad. We’d go to Barnes and Noble the day before Christmas Eve, as per tradition, and buy books and sip 12,000-calorie coffee drinks. I’d visit my brother for a night of tipsy debauchery; my liver would sue for separation. When Larry (my liver’s name) had (partially) recovered, we’d visit the Langhorne Hotel – my home away from home away from home. And I’d be gearing up for a night of food and fun with my wild and zany family.

Christmas Eve would be lovely and the impetus for a week of double doses of Xanax. The food could satisfy the U.S. Navy’s eighth fleet. My aunts and mom shout conversations from two rooms away, almost by design. My uncle and dad plot the best route from their cozy armchair to the buffet and back to their cozy armchair. There are various factors that make this subterfuge difficult, if not unlikely. Still, they bide their time and roughly eighteen seconds after finishing second dinner they are reclined and asleep for a Christmas Eve slumber in the grand tradition of all Italian-American men, about seven feet away from a football game on TV. It’s a remarkable act, but nothing close to Uncle Danny’s yearly magic act.    

Uncle Danny possesses the distinct ability to slip away before anyone has noticed. In recent years, with the hopes of seeing how the magic happens, a young family member has been charged with watching his movements like a hawk. Invariably, however, at some point usually after second dinner or fourth dessert, someone is heard wondering aloud “Where’s Danny?” We look around like a bunch of children once again taken in by a magician’s sleight of hand.

“How the hell does he do that?” we murmur, but fortunately, third dinner or fifth dessert draws our immediate and dedicated attention. None of us have yet figured out the irony of that question.  

This year, things are different. I am in Prague and there will be no visit home. I am not complaining. I am very aware of the fact that my situation is far more ideal than others’ and for that I am both very grateful and very sad.  

Out here in Prague 6 we are making do by jamming through the Christmas spirit with big meals and Christmas movies. On Christmas Eve, when I would normally be in my aunt’s house shouting conversations from twenty feet away through a mouthful of meatball, I will be on Zoom. With the family.

Zoom, in case you have been living on the moon for a year, is an online meeting platform. People appear in little gridded boxes, sort of like the online version of Hollywood Squares or The Brady Bunch opening.

I teach on Zoom. And it’s definitely a make-do thing. Tech problems can render a person mute, invisible, or with a voice like Stephen Hawking’s. Sometimes a dog in the background or a child can make you mute a participant. Students who don’t want to participate simply type “my camera and microphones is broke” and there’s not a whole hell of a lot I can do. There’s the dreaded Zoom pause – you ask a question and in the five ensuing seconds you wonder if the students heard you and are about to reply, heard you and are ignoring you, or didn’t hear you because they are out walking their dog. Then there’s the breakout room, which is where you banish someone so they can speak to another person who’s been banished there. I think traveling to a breakout room is the closest we can get to how people felt being beamed up by Scotty in Star Trek. Once you’re there, there’s a chance you’ll hang out alone if someone’s connection snaps. It’s an ominous place. Dante’s fourth circle if Bill Gates was Captain Kirk.   

I wonder how it’s going to work with my family. For example, our conversations usually involve about nine voices shouting at once. The loudest wins, unless one of the other voices is announcing the arrival of food. What will we do on Zoom when only one person can speak at a time and when dinner is not nearly as enticing when you’re in the same house? I fear that we will be allowed to speak until fully completing our thoughts. Nobody has ever done that in my house uninterrupted. It’ll be like crossing the streams in Ghostbusters.

I hope I can get into a cool breakout room. I’m afraid I’ll be stuck with my dad and uncle in the sleeping TV room. Or maybe I’ll get banished to the virtual kitchen with my mom and aunts. It’ll be more of a struggle to deal with the shouting if one of them isn’t handing me a plate of pasta. I’ll guess it’ll be fun, but I wonder who will be put in charge with Uncle Danny? He’ll still be able to slip away into the ether.

My dad is resistant, but once he gets the hang of it I imagine he’ll be hailing me to virtually watch college football with him. I’ll happily oblige. I wonder if I can get a cheesesteak on Zoom.

It isn’t the family Christmas we had ever planned, but it’s the one we have. We’ll make do. As will all of you. And who knows, with all the Zoom family gatherings going on out there, maybe we’ll get our lines crossed and I’ll see you in the breakout room. If there’s sleeping Italian men in there don’t wake them up.  

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