One by one, they appear on screen.
Friends in Toronto, Ottawa, Victoria, Chicago, Pittsburgh, New York and even Oxford, England, all moving in and out of the frame until they’ve situated their computer cameras just so. Couches, kitchen counters and tables, hairless cats and cheery, high-chair bound babies come into view. Everyone is their own little Zoom square.
For two hours, these friends and friends of friends congregate digitally for the inaugural meeting of Grant Oyston’s Social Distance Supper Club. Oyston, a 27-year-old living alone in Toronto, has made a tourtiere pie for the occasion.
His is baked full of beef, onions and apple, a recipe he got from a beat-up book on great Canadian pies that his mother purchased for $1 at a Christmas garage sale (not the only pie book in his arsenal, for the record).
Didn’t they use to make those pies with pigeons, a friend from across the ocean asks.
“Ooh, maybe,” Oyston says, kicking off a delightfully odd conversation about pigeons and other invasive species.
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Supper club is agenda-less, the conversation driven by whatever random facts dislodge themselves from the minds of the dozen or so people who’ve logged on.
The only rule Oyston half-heartedly enforces is to try not to talk about the elephant in the room: the new coronavirus.
“I’ve found lately a lot of conversations are talking about how scared and nervous we are and I kind of wanted this to be a space where we could not talk about that, to try to carry on as normal,” he says. “I think people really appreciate that and people need that right now.”
Still, the COVID-19 pandemic is inescapable. It’s come for people’s jobs and homes and support systems.
One friend, who has used the Zoom filters to transform his living room background into a dramatic view of the Northern Lights, offers a joke about how he’s in the suitcase-making business, which isn’t exactly all that in demand now that borders are closing and travel is slowing to a halt.
And yet, for the most part, the supper club abides by Oyston’s rule.
They eat chicken wings and Indian food and sip on white wine and Coke while exploring the pandemic, mostly through the hobbies they’re picking up in isolation.
In England, Frida is knitting a sweater. In the United States, a baby has just learned to use a spoon and eagerly welcomes the global applause Zoom affords him.
In Ottawa, Lilly is “spiralling into a morality crisis.” Based on “hazy middle school recollections,” she’s making a moral alignment chart for the characters from Twilight. Lilly screen-shares her early decisions and tells the group she’s open to feedback.
Moral relativism is, after all, a tricky thing when characters belong to different species, like werewolves and vampires and humans.
She has Rosalie Hale, one of the main characters, as neutral-evil, but it’s hard to know if that’s the right decision, Lilly says, so she’s continuing to fiddle with it.
“This is your gravity,” says Oyston, who’s turned his background into the Golden Gate Bridge, with a laugh.
The joke is a reference to Isaac Newton, who not only discovered gravity while in self-isolation during the plague of 1665 and 1666 but also invented calculus and discovered that white light is composed of every colour.
And yet, productivity in a time of self-isolation has been a controversial point of discussion during the COVID-19 pandemic. People have been quick to offer up work from home and other productivity tips, while others have pushed back at the idea that being home alone means you need to become the next Shakespeare.
“Don’t we deserve a few weeks of Netflix bingeing and staring into space?” wrote one U.K. writer.
“Must we always be writing a novel or sewing Instagram bikinis or crafting necklaces? At what point are we allowed to not be productive, guilt-free?”
In any case, Lilly — creator of Twilight moral alignment charts — notes: “I could be here for a while.”
And then someone — their Zoom panel lighting up green as the software detects their voice — suggests she try Harry Potter characters next. There’s time.
There is lots of brainstorming about isolation hobbies: you can bake sourdough (which many, many people are doing, if Google search trends are any indication), grow a garden or teach younger siblings how to communicate using sign language.
So far, the feedback to the supper club has been really positive, Oyston says. The second meeting is already booked.
“Especially for those of us who live alone, it’s really isolating to be eating three meals a day, seven days a week by yourself,” he says.
Now, he doesn’t have to.
“I would highly recommend that people give it a go. It’s a great opportunity to meet your friends’ babies and cats.”
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