Dispatches from a writer on another planet.

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Rick Bragg as Captain Zoom
Credit: John Cuneo

Oh, Lord, will someone please help me? My big head is trapped in my computer, and I cannot pry it out.

I've been a prisoner in the land of Zoom for about nine months now. Not a day goes by that I don't squeeze and flatten my face into the tiny screen and send it, through the magic of the worldwide interweb, to some poor fool in Tuscaloosa or Chicago or Mars.

This time last year, I didn't even know what a Zoom was. The only one by that name I had even heard of was the guy they used to shoot out of the cannon at the circus. His name, I believe, was Captain Zoom. I myself have never really wanted to be hurled out of a cannon, but at least that man actually got to travel. I have to sit in the same darn place while the magical camera shoots my head—but oddly not the rest of me—all over the cosmos.

Maybe I ought to explain. I teach writing at The University of Alabama, and due to the pandemic, I have been doing it mostly remotely, which is just a more dignified way of saying that I'm Zooming into the world of higher education.

I type in a bunch of strange words, symbols, and nuclear equations that my graduate assistant wrote for me on a cheat sheet, and—SHAZAM!!!—a picture of my gigantic face stares right back at me from my laptop. It looks terrible. I can see the thinning of my hair, the bleariness of my eyes, the sagging of my jaw. Eek!!! If the screen isn't properly positioned, all that's visible is the lower half or two-thirds of my noggin, and if I adjust it too abruptly, I cut off my chin, which makes me look kind of like a huge, pale PEZ dispenser.

This, as bad as it was, did not trouble me so greatly until I realized that other people could see me that way too. Then they began to talk, and all I could see was their disembodied heads. At least this terrifying sight was being witnessed by an audience of college students who were so busy with other electronic devices and distractions that they might not have noticed my giant head at all. Some of them even Zoomed from cell phones in their automobiles.

And then, suddenly, everybody in the whole world wanted to Zoom. This past fall, I did an entire book tour that way, meaning that, one by one, nice people paid $29.99 to look at my massive head. They each got a book out of the deal, too, but couldn't they have just done that and left me and my enormous face at home instead of beaming us around the stars?

Month by month, we traveled—my head and I—as the rest of my body languished back at home. It went about doing all of the necessary things (eating, breathing, etcetera) until I finally logged out of the meeting and we were all reunited…at least until the next time and the next. After a while, it became kind of reassuring, as if my computer screen weren't a transportation device at all but more like a comfortable hat.

Just call me Captain Zoom.