A chill has returned to the London air. Rain, too, although none has escaped the sky yet today. In the elevator yesterday afternoon, one of the residents, an older gentleman dressed in a black raincoat and clutching a slightly wet umbrella who was presumably returning home from the day’s outing or working or both, expressed to two of us riding up with him his relief at seeing the turn in weather. “It’s nice to see the rain, isn’t it?” he asked rhetorically because the answer, to a Brit at least, must be “Of course!” To the rest of the world it may seem odd that a string of days that are quintessentially spring-like — of the sort that Persophone, herself, would rejoice in — would stir unease in some people. But upon closer reflection, it makes sense. It has to do, I suspect, with our practices of preparation. What are we used to and how can we cope when our rhythms are shifted without warning?
At present, I am reviewing my notes for a dissertation defense that is scheduled to take place in an hour. There is a blistering hot mug of tea and stem ginger biscuits at my side and the flat is filled with sounds floating in from outside and inside the building, including… what is the sound that pigeons make? I can replicate it, but to date I have not found the apt descriptor. There is a purriness to it coupled with the longing of an owl’s hoot that stays mostly in the lower registers and often resembles a muffled whimper as if coming from inside a large, echoing pipe. Sometimes, the flock of frisky buggers who live just outside of the flat windows flap their wings in concordance with their purr-hooting with the sort of frenzy that is part maniacal and part evil genius. Against a chalky grey sky and set to Mahler’s Symphony Number 9, today’s performance of intermittent flapping is strangely in tune.
This seems an odd setting for an event with as much academic import as the dissertation defense, but it will be my second one this spring where I have been present via Skype. For all of my appreciation for emerging digital advances in communication, telepresence, and discursive mobility, I have to make a simple confession: virtual presence gives me great pause. It stirs in me the same type of unease the gentleman with the umbrella implied. As a literal talking head, you run the risk of being both invisible and hypervisible. It’s easy to forget about the person in the machine — I know, because I have been guilty of doing just that. So, too, is it possible to give over too much attention to the electronic presence over the others in the room.
Until laptop cameras come equipped with better peripheral vision, or until all of us have the hologram capabilities that CNN continues to show off whenever possible, I will be a strong proponent of being physically present whenever possible. Of course, when participating in simply delightful conversation about work that is thoughtful and engaging — like the last defense and like, I’m sure, will be the case with today’s meeting — some of the anxiety is allayed long enough for me to stop worrying about what to do with my facial muscles and extremities.
But for now, another cup of tea while I wait for the conversation to begin.