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On Screens

On Screens
By Lilly Milman • Issue #5 • View online
I don’t know how to care for people through screens. Or at least, not well.
How do you conjure up a smile that tells the person you are talking to that you care about them? What do you do when you miss the warmth, the physical sensation of being near someone? Are you just not loving someone hard enough if a video or phone call isn’t enough?
I’ve struggled with these questions long before the isolation of the pandemic. Growing up, I was used to most of my family living across an ocean. But the fact that I was used to it didn’t stop me from feeling jealous whenever a friend had grandparents nearby — especially after my late great-grandmother, who was one of my closest friends, leaves my house to go back to own home in Moscow. 
There are few, formal ways to say a final goodbye in Russian. We have до свидания, which is closer to “until our next meeting,” and “пока,” our way of saying “in a little while.” Neither feels quite right for my great-grandmother. She moves out of our home when I am nearing the end of elementary school, and then we learn to talk through screens — her daughter, my grandmother, acting as the not-so-tech-savvy middle person. My grandmother visits us every year while I am growing up, but her mother is too old to travel again. So, without being able to sit near each other, without crocheting and cooking and Russian soap operas between us, we get to know each other again through Skype. 
After she leaves, on weekends, I try to wake up before noon to catch her before she falls asleep on her end of the world. But I have to admit, I often just forget to. I sleep in, or see friends, or play computer games — and feel guilty when my parents remind me to log on. 
It takes my grandmother years to get WiFi, and her internet connection is weak. We call, freeze, hang up, call again, and freeze. When the internet connection holds up, we spend a lot of time sitting quietly — a quiet she doesn’t mind, that I do. “Я просто люблю смотреть на тебя,” she tells me. I just like to look at you. 
I just like to look at her, and my friends, too. But I live for small moments caught off guard: snowflakes in my friends eyelashes in college during our first Boston storm, a friend’s face framed by a sweatshirt pulled tight over his ears in the early-morning cold, the focus that falls over someone’s face as they quickly respond to a text message or email. This is the spontaneity you miss when your interactions fall entirely within Zooms or FaceTimes. 
In a study on transnational families by Liz Kerrins and Cayla Williams, they write:
“Unlike other [social] media, Skype requires much personal attention and focus for users, as people may worry about how they look. … There is a ‘grammar of Skype’ and decisions about when, whom, how and what to show, and topic management are required by those involved… A Skype call is rarely an isolated act, but part of a polymediated series of communications in which the ground is prepared for the act of being seen and seeing, often through a text message, Skype message or Facebook communication to arrange a call.”
I don’t think I’m alone in saying this is a huge reason why the past year has felt so exhausting. Yes, before the pandemic, we still needed to take the time to make plans with friends and family. We FaceTimed with those far away, and sent each other photos, and spoke on the phone. But one year into the pandemic, and I still find it eerie how similar seeing a close friend has to be to a work call. I’m still missing all of the voices I used to hear and take for granted, the events I’d show up to with a homemade cake or cookies, a serving platter that said, Look, here’s how much I care about you! The moments when a friend and I would see something ridiculously funny on the street or in a restaurant or at a party and spend minutes laughing, without saying a word. And I’m finding myself looking back longingly at the days when the weight of keeping up a relationship via video chat was reserved only for my family, and not my friends, too. 
After I got my first vaccine shot, I began making plans again — and feeling the excitement that comes from knowing you’ll see someone soon. Even though the pandemic is still far from over and the stresses of life have yet to disappear, I’m heartened by the idea of a soon — of an “in a little while” that feels grounded in reality rather than in an abstract “someday.” And I hope you are, too.
As always, thank you for reading.

For when you feel like celebrating for no reason, something needlessly festive:
Kransekake, topped with sliced almonds and red sugar
For the cookies:
  • 500g almond flour
  • 500g confectioner’s sugar
  • 4 egg whites
  • 1 tsp. almond extract
  • Granulated sugar, for sprinkling molds
For the icing:
  • 3 egg whites
  • 500g confectioner’s sugar
Optional toppings:
  • Red sugar sprinkles
  • Thinly sliced almonds
For the cookies: Lightly whisk the egg whites, and add them to a stand mixer bowl with flour, sugar, and almond extract. Mix with the dough hook attachment (or by hand) for a few minutes until a cookie dough forms. Cover with plastic wrap and refrigerate overnight. The next morning, grease the kransekake molds (I used these) with butter and sprinkle them with the granulated sugar. Preheat your oven to 300 degrees fahrenheit. Flour your work surface, and divide the dough into six or so equal balls. Divide one of the balls into three smaller ones, then roll each piece until it is long and ropelike to fit the molds. Carefully fit each piece into the mold and press the ends together to form each into a circle. Repeat with the remaining dough until all molds are filled. Place molds on a baking sheet and bake until the cookies are puffed up and light golden brown, about 30 to 40 minutes. While they cool, make the icing: Whisk egg whites (ideally either in a stand mixer or with an electric mixer) until they are frothy. Gradually add the sugar and continue whisking until the icing forms stiff white peaks. Spoon it into an icing bag or a large freezer bag and cut a corner off with a pair of scissors. Stack the cookies in size order — adding icing, sprinkles, and sliced almonds to each layer. 
For when I’m missing home, something I always make the way my grandmother does:
Borscht, served with roughly chopped dill and sour cream
For the soup:
  • 3 small beets, chopped roughly
  • 1 yellow onion, peeled and sliced in half
  • 3 potatoes, peeled
  • 2 carrots, sliced
  • ½ cabbage, chopped roughly
  • 1 tomato, peeled and chopped roughly
  • 1 32 oz. container beef or vegetable stock
Bring a large pot of water to boil. Add beets, both onion halves, and potatoes. Bring down to a simmer and cook for 20 minutes. Add the carrots, cabbage, and stock, and simmer for another 10 minutes. Add tomato, and lower heat until it is barely simmering. Salt and pepper to taste. Continue to simmer on lowest heat setting for as long as 3 or 4 hours, but at least another 30 minutes. Stir in dill. Serve in bowls with individual dollops of sour cream.
Did you enjoy this issue?
Lilly Milman

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