Trigger warning: If you don’t want to hear a very lucky and privileged person who should be making gratitude lists or at the very least doing something more useful than bitching about their pandemic experience bitch about their pandemic experience, you are advised to stop reading now.

Let us begin by recalling the story of Dorian Gray, as conceived in 1890 by the great playwright, poet and wit Oscar Wilde. Dorian was a hot young honey who sat for a life-size portrait by his painter friend Basil. Not long after the painting was completed, Dorian started hanging out with a crowd of hedonists, sensualists, and Eurotrash, and gradually began to pay the price of fast living. One hungover morning, staring blearily at his portrait, he realized that he would soon be growing old and ugly and yet the image in the painting would remain perfect. If only it could be the opposite! This wish became a curse, and over the years, as Dorian continued his carousing, he stayed young and beautiful while the image in the portrait grew blemished, haggard and hideous.

The story continues from there, ending badly for poor Dorian, but what’s important here is the bizarrely transformed portrait. I thought of it the other day when I re-watched the Zoom recording of a literary event I had moderated the night before, and was shocked to see what might be described as the Dorianization of Marion.

One long year ago, when our lives on Zoom began, I like almost everyone else began to regularly endure the weird experience of watching myself talk. Staring at my own face was uncomfortable, but also hard to look away from. In some ways, I looked a little better than I thought I would. Or at least not as bad as I might have feared. As the year went on, I often had to appear at special Zoom events — panels, book clubs, literary occasions of various kinds. For the more important of these, I would sometimes put on makeup and try to set the laptop at a flattering angle and improve the lighting, though sometimes I wouldn’t. If these events were recorded, I never watched them so I’m not really sure how I looked.

Until last Wednesday. This was the day I watched the recording of an event I had moderated the night before for Baltimore’s CityLit Festival, one that drew an audience of hundreds of fans of the featured authors Jenny Offill and Emily St. John Mandel, and saw that while the other participants were nicely dressed and made up and sat placidly in front of bookshelves or other pleasant backdrops, moving only their faces when it was their turn to speak, in the strangely blurry Zoom box of Marion Winik we saw something else entirely.

A graying, squinty-eyed crone in a Patagonia fleece vest rocked back and forth, picked up her dog, stood up and wandered around, taking the computer with her, and occasionally slugged a clear beverage out of a glass. At one point she seemed to be — what, pulling a stray hair out of her mouth? She had puffy cheeks, frowny furrows, and brownish teeth, and if she owned a hairbrush it certainly had not been used in the last 24 hours. Her questions for the authors were only slightly less of a disaster than her appearance: enthusiastic, if not particularly articulate. Some may have wondered what that clear liquid in the glass was, after all.

What happened, Dorian?

Well. Like many of you, I have been mostly alone in my house with my cat and my dog for months. I sit on the couch in my living room working about 15 hours a day, and often pour a glass of something at, oh, five, to change the vibe. I have never been any good at sitting still — always pace during phone calls — rarely do one thing at a time. Now that most of my contact with other people happens on Zoom, I am often also eating, drinking, moseying around the room, reading and answering texts, dealing with the puppy, and God knows what else.

It’s been a long year, and a slippery slope as far as hygiene, wardrobe, decorum and sanity are concerned. It’s increasingly hard to distinguish between public and private when all of it happens in a space that used to be private. How did all these people get into my living room? I literally have to try to remember to get out of my pajamas and robe in time to teach classes that start at 5:30 pm.

On the Tuesday in question, I had crawled out of bed at 5 a.m. to try to get a vaccine appointment, because I had just learned that higher education workers were now eligible. Since vaccination started I had been desperately seeking eligibility, emailing my doctors to see if there was any way my rocky health history could get me qualified, but nope, not rocky enough. I considered finagling, as some others seemed to be doing, perhaps posing as the wife of a friend who was getting vaccinated through his employer, but it never worked out.

The reason for my vaccination fixation was not actually fear of COVID, but the fact that if all goes well I will become a grandmother very shortly (I know, I know, but no more about this for now) and the only way I will safely be able to meet my grandbaby and help his mother, whom I haven’t seen since last spring, is if I get the shot.

I really, really wanted that shot.

By now, I knew you had to go on to find sites, then get on the lists at those sites, and keep checking back, etc., but the first day I tried I didn’t have much luck. I again bothered my oncologist and he said, get up earlier. So I did, this time I just kept clicking on Find Appointment until this happened!

That was the beginning of a very long day. I had two-hour Zoom sessions with two different grad students, and at 5 p.m. opened the Zoom session for my Tuesday night class, which I planned to end early to get in the “green room” for the CityLit event before the start time, 7 p.m. I went directly from one to the other. If I had been thinking straight, I would have realized that the CityLit event was an Occasion, the kind that requires lipstick, a curated setting, and a petsitter. But I had not thought about that at all, worried only about getting there on time.

So there I was, starting my 7th hour on Zoom.

I didn’t realize that anything untoward had happened until the middle of the night, when I woke up with the nagging feeling that I had looked like a crazy hermit and acted like a goofball. The next day I watched the thing, which of course will live forever on Facebook, and immediately started sending my apologies to all concerned. Are you okay? responded the CityLit coordinator, who admitted to being “baffled” by what she kindly referred to as my “casualness.”

Good question.

Just days later, the glorious moment of my COVID vaccination arrived. As an anxious aging recluse, I was terrified something would go wrong. Maybe the car wouldn’t start, or I wouldn’t be able to park, or I would be there at the wrong time, or I would be missing some required piece of identification. Maybe I wouldn’t be able to roll up my sleeve far enough. I changed shirts, and put a tank top underneath for backup. Since by 4 pm I had lost the ability to do anything but fret, I left the house quite a bit earlier than necessary.

What do you know. My car, which I hadn’t driven in quite a while, started right up. There was enough gas to make it to the gas station on the corner. I was able to drive downtown without incident and there was a parking space right in front of the CVS on Exeter Street. What’s more, because it was Sunday, parking was free. Free parking? Okay, I thought, maybe things are going my way.

I replied to the automatic text asking me to indicate my arrival and a screen popped up for check-in. While I waited, I strolled the aisles of CVS like an extraterrestrial visitor, marveling at how many brands of seaweed chips and facial cleansers there are.

At exactly 5, the nurse invited me to sit down in the plastic bucket chair in her screened-off, dimly lit enclosure. My name was on her computer screen, but we had to wait for it to turn green. I asked her if she wanted to see the ID or insurance cards I had been ordered to bring and she said no. I laughed because I had spent half a morning recovering my lost prescription insurance card. Yeah, isn’t it crazy, she said, the other day I had an appointment at the DMV… Turned out we both had had the experience of gathering piles of papers and multiple proofs of address etc. to get our licenses renewed and they didn’t look at any of those either. Didn’t even give me a vision test! she said. We shook our heads at the strangeness of everything in our chaotic bureaucratic world.

And then my name turned green and I rolled up my sleeve — good thing you wore such a stretchy shirt, she said, and I smiled — and she injected the shot in my upper arm.

She said I had to stay in the store for fifteen minutes to make sure I didn’t have a reaction. I obediently did so. In fact, I was already having a reaction, a choked-up, teary-eyed, emotional one.

It’s ending soon. Oh my Lord, how sweet those words. And among all the many good things this entails, it means we will go back to having classes in classrooms, events in event spaces, and meetings in offices, instead of all of it happening right here in my living room on my overworked, underpaid blue couch.

And when it does, the details of how we look and how effectively we are groomed will not no longer be shoved in our faces and everyone else’s for clockwork orange hours on end. We will continue aging, of course, but without the horror of watching it in real time.

It’ll be as if Dorian stopped obsessing about that portrait, hit pause on the partying and the infamy, and lived to be a bald, wrinkly, liver-spotted, profoundly grateful old man, playing with his grandchildren.

The CityLit Festival continues and they have many great writers coming, and I will not be wrecking any more of it. Here’s the info.

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Marion Winik

University of Baltimore Professor Marion Winik is the author of "The Big Book of the Dead,” “First Comes Love,” and several other books, and the host of The Weekly Reader on WYPR. Sign up for her...

6 replies on “The Zoom Box of Dorian Gray”

  1. Marion – cheers sister ????
    I now know why my daughters scold me when in public situations and I start fidgeting, nail filing, hand lotioning and blowing my nose. ‘There is a race of man that can’t stand still’ wish I knew the rest. We are the same age and your admission of discomfort at seeing our faces on Zoom or FB Live is welcoming, a source of gratitude. Thank you for enunciating the reality and the horror ????

  2. Thank you, Marion! True words from a wise woman. Congratulations on becoming a grandmother. There is nothing sweeter in the whole world than to hold your baby’s baby. Enjoy every minute! Also, I finally tried on my jeans after one year of workout pants! Oh, the horror! Thank you for sharing the truth! Nancy Malcolm

  3. “I literally have to try to remember to get out of my pajamas and robe in time to teach classes that start at 5:30 pm.” Yeah. Gonna miss that!
    Great read.

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