It’s still dark in Burnaby, B.C., when our meeting is called to order. Whitehorse, too, but that’s to be expected. It is the dead of winter after all.
“It’s 10:03 a.m., Halifax time,” Neal shouts into his computer, a double monitor setup complete with a cat wandering across his keyboard. The cat isn’t Neal’s apparently. It’s his in-laws’. He says he’s minding the cat until after the meeting when he’s to take it to the veterinarian but makes no mention of the cat’s ailments nor why the in-laws can’t schlep the cat to the vet themselves. This void of information leaves me curious but I don’t inquire. In true feline form, the cat flicks its tail in Neal’s face then presents its bottom to the camera. Neal unceremoniously plops Arthur the cat onto the floor.
“Lovely to see you all,” Neal chirps, perhaps hoping his cheerfulness will perk us up as we huddle around our glowing laptops in the early morning hours. “We have freezing drizzle in Halifax,” Neal goes on, much less cheerfully as he turns to what is presumably a window, out of view, though an obvious source of light. His announcement prompts the inevitable roll call of weather reports.
“We’re to finally get some snow today!” Just-Outside-of-Toronto says.
“Snow? Just today?” Winnipeg retorts. “It started in November and we’ve been buried ever since.”
Humboldt, Sask., then reports a balmy -20 C; Burnaby, rain. I resist the urge to report Ottawa’s slightly warmer-than-usual temperatures. Experience has taught me that someone will tease about “all the hot air from Ottawa,” and I’m tired of that joke. Instead, I unmute and ask Eleanor from Whitehorse about her weather.
She’s very quiet, Eleanor from Whitehorse. Swaddled in an oversized sweater the colour of oatmeal, she sips tea with a faraway look in her eye. Her kitchen is always dark, even by meetings’ adjournments when the West Coast of our immense country is flooded in daylight. She’s easy to overlook in her stillness and silence. Much like Yukon itself, I expect.
“It’s been -35 Celsius with -45 windchill for some time now,” Eleanor murmurs, shutting us all up. Eleanor always strikes the death blow in the competitive sport of weather reports. The fun is out of it now.
Neal then rambles through the meeting agenda: budget, guest speakers, advertising, sponsors. The usual lineup.
We are a national association of music teachers planning our first virtual conference. Scheduled for July, the endeavour is a guessing game. Will more teachers participate if they don’t have to travel to the conference? Will fewer people tune in? Can we even use that phrase, “tune in?” Doesn’t that imply radio?
Our conference theme is diversity in music education. We’re not entirely certain what that means, just that it’s important. Relevant. Overdue.
“Neal,” I ask, as my six-month-old son perches on my right arm and grabs my nose as I talk, “what do we mean by diversity? Diversity in pedagogical approaches? Representative composers for study? In musical genres?” I nod my head vigorously, trying to simultaneously extricate my facial features from my son’s sticky grasp and appear serious-minded. Virtual meetings are tricky with babies, but acquiring child care in the middle of a pandemic lockdown is difficult. Possibly even illegal.
“All of that sounds good,” Neal answers, dropping Arthur to the floor for the second time in the space of five minutes.
Neal is an odd choice for the conference planning committee chair. White, English-speaking, male, originally from Toronto, Neal is the antithesis of BIPOC choice. The irony hasn’t been noted, at least not publicly, and frankly, none of us seems to mind. Gender issues don’t pop up either even though the committee and 90 per cent of our organization’s membership are female. We’re just grateful that a nice young man like Neal is taking an interest. And really, considering the dominance of estrogen in our organization, Neal is the diversity pick.
“Shall we hear from the presentations subcommittee?” Neal queries.
Two members of the subcommittee unmute but remain silent while the third member talks animatedly, howbeit on mute.
“Judy! Judy!” we shout, our voices overlapping in a strange cacophony. “Mute … You’re on … Judy … Mute!”
Judy stops talking midsentence, mouth open, eyes darting. She scowls at her screen, then throws her hands up in the air, the unmute button presumably invisible.
“No matter,” Neal says, “I’ll unmute her.” With comic timing, Neal unmutes Judy precisely as she unmutes herself. Status quo prevails – Judy continues to talk animatedly, but silently – and a collective sigh goes around the screen. Eleanor from Whitehorse slips away for more tea. I shift my son to my left arm and start a grocery list on the margin of my agenda.
I suspect we’re all are doubly or triply occupied. Judging by eye movement and flashes of light reflected on eye-glasses, everyone is multitasking, flipping between screens, reading e-mails, checking the weather, optimizing every moment of this virtual meeting.
Virtual meetings aren’t easy, of course. The muting and unmuting, lousy connections, cross-talking or even silence can be utterly vexatious. But somehow, as I sit at my kitchen table in Ottawa in lockdown, unable to venture out as the pandemic flourishes, I feel connected to my colleagues. From St. John’s, to Whitehorse, to Vancouver, we gather with a common purpose. Yes, we complain about the weather, roll our eyes at our colleague’s technical challenges and wonder if this committee is a good use of our time. But we’re together, attempting to transform an in-person event into a virtual setting. We’re not throwing up our hands, as tempting as that might be, and surrendering to the pandemic. We’re fighting back, however we can.
And I have to admit – watching the sun rise across Canada, one kitchen view at a time, is magical. I guess I can thank COVID for that.
Amy Boyes lives in Ottawa.
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