Tuesday, March 21, 2023
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How Twitter is making the coronavirus world a better place

Twitter has become for the most part a community in which people are trying to get one another through the coronavirus crisis.

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Mrs. T. passed away on Tuesday.

Her full name was Hilary Dyson Teachout, though I never knew her as anything but Mrs. T. She was the wife of Terry Teachout, the Wall Street Journal’s fine drama critic, and I should mention that she didn’t die of Covid-19. Mrs. T suffered from a rare lung disease, pulmonary hypertension, and on March 1, after years of waiting, she received a double-lung transplant from surgeons at New York-Presbyterian Hospital. She spent the next two weeks in a medically induced coma, and when she came out of it, both the doctors and Terry were encouraged by her progress. But sadly, it wasn’t to be.

I know all this because I follow Terry on Twitter. He doesn’t have an especially large following, but it’s a devoted one. Terry uses Twitter like no one else I follow. He rarely posts political comments, and he never insults anyone or indulges in the snark that can make Twitter such an ugly place.

Instead, he uses it as a kind of short-form diary. He tells us what old movie he is watching — with a special emphasis on the score, where his expertise is vast. Before going to bed every night he posts a “lullaby”— it could be a jazz ballad, or a Sinatra tune, or a short bit of melancholy classical music. He often tells us how much he’s written in a given day, and whether he’s pleased with the result. When he directed his play “Satchmo at the Waldorf” in Palm Beach, Florida, a few years ago — his first time directing a play — he used Twitter to describe the experience in real time.

And always — always! — there were references to Mrs. T. Whether she liked the movie they watched. The traveling they did. How much he missed her when they were apart. Indeed, what came through most of all was how much they loved each other. They had found each other in mid-life, and as Terry wrote in a short blog post after she died:

[W]e fell in love at first sight, a thing I had never thought possible until, at the improbable age of forty-nine, it happened to me, followed in the shortest order that I could manage by a middle age full of shared joy.

Thus it was only natural that when Mrs. T became eligible for a double-lung transplant, Terry used Twitter to describe what they were going through while they awaited “The Big Call.” In December, she was so sick that she was admitted to the hospital, where she was told she would probably not exit alive unless she received a transplant. As Terry and Mrs. T agonized, so did we, his Twitter followers.

Then came the transplant and the hope that followed. We sent tweets of encouragement, rooting for her to pull through. When Terry announced on Tuesday evening that she had died, there was an outpouring of grief from both well-known figures in the theater community like the actor Carrie Coon and the composer Jason Robert Brown, and thousands more who knew them only through Twitter. The fact that Twitter was how we had followed their ordeal didn’t make our grief any less real.

In the hours since Mrs. T passed away, I’ve been wondering whether her death would have affected us as powerfully without the presence of the coronavirus crisis. Maybe it would have; it’s rare in this age of irony to hear someone express love with the kind of open and heartfelt sincerity as Terry. But I also think the virus has caused us to think a little harder about life, to feel a little more deeply, to be a little more generous and caring and thoughtful. And given that so many of us are confined to our homes, the place to see this most easily is Twitter.

Yes, Twitter. As awful as it was in, say, 2016, when anti-Semitism raged and the anger from both the left and the right boiled over into the ugliest sort of invective, Twitter has become for the most part a community in which people are trying to get one another through this crisis.

Here is Susan Dominus, the New York Times writer, enlisting the composers of the songs in Hairspray to write 20-second tunes that people can sing while washing their hands. NPR’s Scott Simon is posting a daily half-hour show in which he talks and reads; he calls his show “Open Book.” The Rotterdam Philharmonic played Beethoven’s Ode to Joy — with 19 musicians playing their parts from their homes. Steve Martin gave us an incredible 78 seconds of banjo music. (Boy, is he good!)

Also read: Charulata to Edward Hopper — coronavirus quarantine is breathing life into art again

John Prine is on a ventilator suffering from Covid-19; on Tuesday, Steven Colbert played a short video of the two of them singing one of Prine’s songs. It had been taped for Colbert’s show in 2016 but never aired. Knowing how sick Prine now is, it was deeply moving.

There was some (deserved) ranting at the crowds on the beaches in Florida, but there was also Larry David posting a hilarious bit reminding people of the importance of staying inside. Indeed, there’s been a lot of humor on Twitter, though none topped this dead-on imitation of President Donald Trump. (So far, it has been viewed 6.3 million times.)

Twitter users have posted movies and TV suggestions to help the Twittersphere pass the time. Sports lovers posted trivia quizzes and brackets for things other than March Madness, like best TV theme song. Doctors posted advice. Andy Slavitt, who ran the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services during the Obama administration, spends his days calling around to state officials and health care experts, and then reports what he’s heard to the rest of us. It’s invaluable information.

There is still plenty of anger on Twitter, but it’s different. It is an anger that stems from the frustration of knowing that people are going to die because Trump took so long to take the coronavirus seriously — and that even now, the federal government’s response continues to be anemic, and based more on politics than need. Even Terry has posted some angry tweets about Trump — something I’ve never seen him do before.

Over the last number of years, we’ve all watched social media bring out the worst in humanity. What we’re watching now is social media fulfilling the potential its creators always claimed for it. It is building a large community of people who have never met, but who nonetheless have come to care about one another and who are trying to help one another. Dare I say it? It is making the world a better place.

Two days before Mrs. T died, Terry tweeted this:

Also read: In coronavirus lockdown, add the arts to essential services list


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