by Janet Yoder
Early in the coronavirus pandemic of 2020, two of my cousins and I did a Zoom ukulele session. Before the pandemic, we had planned a cousin reunion in McPherson, Kansas. A wheat farm near McPherson is where my cousins grew up, where their mom and my dad grew up, where my Grandpa Yoder farmed, where his father farmed, where one cousin and her husband still farm. We had planned the trip months ago. My Aunt Mary Ellen is 88 years old and lives in the skilled nursing section of her retirement home there. She is the family historian, storyteller, and one of its musicians. So, my sister Gail and our three cousins planned the reunion. We all anticipated our time together, especially Aunt Mary Ellen. But the coronavirus arrived and we had to settle for our Zoom ukulele session. That’s how I learned about audio latency.
We log onto Zoom: Cousin Matt in Greenfield, Massachusetts, Cousin Kathy in Corvallis, Oregon, my husband Robby and me in Seattle, and Aunt Mary Ellen in McPherson, Kansas. Three of us have ukuleles strapped around our necks and copies of The Daily Ukulele in front of us. Kathy explains: Each of us will lead two songs. The person leading will be heard by everyone and the rest of us will be muted because of latency. She tells us latency is the lag between a signal being sent and its arrival at destination.
So Matt leads “Freight Train.” I can hear Matt and I sing and play, though I can’t match his tempo, which seems to move around, the freight train going so fast and then not so fast. Then Kathy leads “King of the Road.” I can’t match her tempo either. I launch into “Wade in the Water” and they only hear me and likely can’t find my tempo. Normally we are all three perfectly capable of staying in rhythm and are used to playing music with others. Feeling auditory isolation, I ask what really happens when we all unmute and try to sing and play together. We give it a go. Within seconds it sounds like we are each on the edge of a mountain valley calling out sounds that chase each other down the valley but never meet up. No matter how I try to match melody, lyrics, and rhythm with either cousin, it quickly ends up a musical train wreck. We laugh at how fast it falls apart. Kathy explains how the speed of transmission over the internet varies for each of us, as does our router speed where we live, so that we simply cannot be in synch.
There is a way to test your audio signal latency. You will get a score measured in milliseconds. Latency measured in milliseconds doesn’t sound like much but it is everything for making music. There are ways to shorten the signal delay by connecting your device to your modem by ethernet cable instead of a using a Wi-Fi signal and using a specific audio app like JamKazam. It may not eliminate latency but it is way better than Zoom. However, Zoom is what we have, so we Zoom. Aunt Mary Ellen is pleased and that is what counts.
We see (hear) audio latency on the news these days, where reporters are broadcasting from their homes. The news anchor working off her home computer speaks to her guest who is working off her home computer. We witness the pause as the guest waits for the signal to arrive. Or we witness the anchor and guest speaking at the same time in an attempt to fill the pause, because on TV, the pause is deadly. But it is just audio latency, not anything truly deadly.
I consider latency during this time of SARS-CoV-2. Latency is the period of time between becoming infected with the virus and becoming contagious. Latency means the virus is dormant. It’s not doing anything and likely you don’t know it is there.
Other viral diseases, like hepatitis, herpes, measles, smallpox, shingles, can—after an initial infection—remain dormant or latent in the body for years, even decades. Then under certain circumstances like aging, hormonal change, stress, or another illness, the virus can reactivate. The virus may even take a different form. There is no guarantee it is a “one and done.” We don’t yet know about future waves of our coronavirus, nor how it may mutate or reactivate.
Without testing, we don’t know who is Covid latent, who is a temporary Sleeping Beauty lying under her glass dome, waiting for the kiss of activation. If activated, the kiss itself could infect the prince who in turn could infect all of his vassals. I confess I don’t like the idea of latency here. It feels like we are all suspended in a thick gel. We try to move but the gel holds us in place. And we must wait for a vaccine that some idiots will refuse to take because they think that it is a government plot or that it will cause autism or cancer.
Latency can be a silent future predator. Instead of sneaking up behind you or lying in wait, the predator could be inside you with its delay timer ticking but you don’t know when it will go off or perhaps you don’t know it’s there. You wonder if you had any situation where someone was closer than six feet from you when you briefly went in the pharmacy or wonder if the plumber who came to your house was standing too close. You count 14 days from each of these events and your counts overlap. You wonder about points of contact as you go out to get a little exercise or run an errand. And sometimes you must go out. You wonder when you will feel safe, when you will know that the virus is not asleep inside you. We don’t know the long game of this virus but it looks like the virus will play a long game. Latency playing a role.
Did the surprise election of Donald Trump in 2016 come from a latent feeling of resentment among his supporters caused by the loss of blue collar jobs with decent pay, loss of health insurance and pensions, loss of the ability to give their children more opportunity than they themselves have, loss of pride, status, control, even a loss of feeling superior to others, and ultimately loss of hope? Did Trump’s campaign awaken what had mostly been a smoldering latent resentment of high-paid coastal tech workers, of liberals, of Barack Obama, of Hilary Clinton, of immigrants? I think we could say yes.
The Black Lives Matter movement began with the use of the hashtag that three Black lesbian women created in 2013 after the acquittal of George Zimmerman in the shooting death of Trayvon Martin. Since then the movement has organized protests in response to police brutality toward blacks and other people of color. We all have known about Black Lives Matter. In recent years, you couldn’t walk anywhere without seeing these iconic signs. This named movement has been present for seven years, steadily calling attention.
But then the killing of George Floyd on May 25, 2020 hits us in our guts, in our lungs, at our throats. We see the video and we feel outrage, sorrow, shame, and a complex stew of other emotions that brings us out on streets everywhere to demand justice in policing. Or if the coronavirus keeps us in, then this killing causes us to shout our thoughts online, over the phone, on paper, on signs, to our mayor, our police department, our city council, our representatives, until we are all collectively screaming “Enough!” Because the video of the killing is so clear, because those eight minutes and 46 seconds are so excruciating, because it is one in an unbearably long series of killings, because it hits a nerve, because the pandemic sharpens our focus, this particular death propels us toward change. But it can only do that because the need for change has been building for a long time. No longer latent—if it even ever was—the need for change is right in front of our eyes, the eyes of our nation. It stands as big as life, as big as death, as big as our pledge of liberty and justice for all.
There is a power to coming out of latency and into real time, where clocks tick at the same millisecond and we play music together, where we enter the contagious phase and we do our best to contain that, where political change, social change, business change, and policy change happen quickly. We feel an undeniable shift. We were latent but now we are here.
Not everything that emerges from latency is good. Nor bad. But when the silent brew goes from a simmer to boiling over, there is no putting it back in the pot. I wonder what is latent now. A new swine flu? An attempted coup? A revolution? A new cultural shift? We know that latent forces are there underground, like an aquifer, and we know that they may, under certain pressures, flow up through the earth’s surface. The question is how we will we handle the next arrival from the world of latency.
Janet Yoder lives with her husband on their Seattle houseboat, the floating nation of Tui Tui. Her writing has appeared in Raven Chronicles, Bayou, Porcupine, Passager, The MacGuffin, North Dakota Quarterly, The Evansville Review, The Massachusetts Review, Pilgrimage, River Teeth, and Chautauqua. In addition to trying to survive the SARS-CoV-2 pandemic, she is currently at work on a book called Where the Language Lives about the late Skagit tribal elder Vi Hilbert who worked to save her native language—Lushootseed, the language spoken by Chief Seattle.