Virtual Virtue

Audrey Thompson

Ivan before the Machine Age
Ivan in 1949 Florida Ivan in 1949 Florida

Ivan schooled his expression to somberness this morning. “The bad news,” he said, “is that the DVD player no longer works.”

“It probably just needs to be cleaned,” I assured him. I knew that this was not what he wanted to hear, but I schooled myself to sound comforting and upbeat.

“No, no, it is completely dead. There is nothing whatsoever that can be done,” said Ivan.

“Check to see if the problem is a blown fuse,” I suggested helpfully.

“It is definitely not a blown fuse,” Ivan said. “The DVD player is dead, that’s all.”

“How could it be dead? It’s only two years old,” I reminded him. I remember, because it all happened around the time he quit smoking. After Ivan quit smoking, he bought himself another DVD player for his computer shortly after he had already bought himself this DVD player for his television, as a birthday present.

Reflecting on the short life of the DVD player did not shock Ivan into wondering whether such a young DVD player, with its full life ahead of it, couldn’t be resuscitated. A brief silence followed our discussion of the history of the DVD player.

“What’s the good news, then?” I asked. I knew exactly what the good news was, of course.

“Did I say that there was good news?” Ivan asked innocently. “I’m not sure I was really thinking along those lines. There isn’t any good news, unless you would count the fact that we can get a new, better DVD player. It is good news, I guess, that we could get a DVD player with some great new features.”

“Yes, I thought that might be the good news,” I agreed. “I suppose it would be better not to get this brand again, under the circumstances. Maybe you can get a few recommendations from people at work and then look around on the web to see if there is something better out there.”

“Actually, I have already done all the research that I need to do. I know exactly what to get,” said Ivan.

I did not ask how it happened that Ivan had been doing research on new DVD players when we didn’t even have an old one needing to be replaced. It could sound just a little too coincidental, if you were of a suspicious cast of mind, that Ivan just so happened to already have this information on hand — sort of like those mystery novels in which a house burns down and it turns out that the homeowner took out insurance only yesterday and while he was at it put a bid on a new, better house. But in spite of the notable lack of mourning I do not really suspect Ivan of having killed the DVD player.

The reason that Ivan knows exactly which DVD player to buy is that he is a virtual shopper. Virtual shoppers always know exactly what they would buy, if there were a legitimate or at least plausible occasion for buying the thing. A lot of high school boys know exactly which car they would buy if only they had the money; a lot of adult men know exactly which high-resolution scanner they would buy, if only they could figure out a convincing-sounding reason for why the scanner they just bought is not fully satisfactory.

Not all men are like that, of course. My brother is the opposite of a virtual shopper. Although he loves shopping, he does not like owning anything. He does not like things cluttering up the house. What Chuck loves is shopping for used books and scoring finds for other people. Other people, he realizes, can always use more books. He found Ivan an excellent birthday gift at Powell’s. It’s a children’s book called Ivan, The Iron Horse. It is not as enthralling as the book that Barb got Chuck a few years ago, about a boy called Chuck, but it is pretty good. Not every book can be as good as I Want to Be a Service Station Attendant.

Ivan the Iron Horse I want to be a Service Station Attendant

What makes Chuck the opposite of a virtual shopper is not so much that he fantasizes about getting rid of things as that he fantasizes about being a benefactor. If he were ever to win fifty million dollars in a lottery, Chuck says, he would give significant amounts to all of us. Maybe as much as a million or two apiece. He and Kaarin have it all worked out. Very detailed plans have been made about which charities would benefit, which trusts would have to be set up, and what tax arrangements would have to be made. They have diligently looked into the situation from every angle. So-and-so much would go into a trust fund for Tom and Annika that they could not touch until they were thirty-nine years old, evidently on the assumption that you are not really mature until you are thirty-nine. I am never sure where Chuck gets his information. Anyway, it is too late for the thirty-nine-year deadline for Barb and Joe and Ivan and me, so our gifts would be given to us directly. Also, we are much more likely to die at any moment and may need to make use of the imaginary money straight away.

It would be quicker and easier, of course, to fantasize that the recipients of one’s largesse just got their money directly from whatever imaginary source you were planning on getting it from yourself. It seems like you could simply fantasize that your sisters won millions of dollars in a lottery themselves and be done with it. But this reasoning misses the point of being a virtual benefactor, which is to engage in enormously elaborate planning and research. It is fortunate that this is the main point of the fantasy and that Barb, Joe, and Ivan and I do not fantasize about winning the lottery or, in the complicated version, fantasize about Chuck and Kaarin winning it and giving us some of their winnings. The reason that this is just as well is that Chuck and Kaarin have never bought a lottery ticket.

This virtual virtue is a lot better than, say, virtual illness. I used to work with a woman whose identity consisted entirely of the likelihood of impending illness. When you walked past the photocopy room, she would be collapsed across the machine, and when you asked her whether she was okay, she would lift her head wearily off her arms, saying, “It’s all right. Don’t worry about me. I think I can keep going.” The next day her arm would be in a sling and the week after that she would be on crutches. Once she wore an eye patch. She had an endless supply of props.

It’s a shame she didn’t know Olin. He could have helped her out. Olin is something of a virtual doctor; in addition to a flashlight and attendant nurse, his props include patients tragically stricken with mysterious, life-threatening illnesses.

Briana, Olin, and Jeremy (with Savina watching) Briana, Olin, and Jeremy (with Savina watching)
Briana, Olin, and Jeremy (with Savina watching) Briana, Olin, and Jeremy (with Savina watching)

Briana, Olin, and Jeremy (with Savina watching)

My brother doesn’t have any props for his benefactor fantasy. Too bad; money would be an excellent prop. He and Kaarin do have props for their joint fantasy that sock monkeys are alive. Recently, Chuck sent me a forged birth certificate as proof that Sneetchy is a real person.

Sneetchy’s birth certificate Sneetchy and his kids

Sneetchy’s kids do not have birth certificates; when I get my imaginary million dollars, I will buy them several birth certificates each.

Apart from architectural and landscaping fantasies, my father doesn’t talk about his virtual life much, but Mom talks about hers a lot. Her fantasy life is not remotely a secret. Sometimes it involves revenge, sometimes it involves moving to a different place, sometimes it involves tricking people — not that this is exactly restricted to her fantasy life. Usually it involves people leaving her alone. One weekend, years ago, when Barb and Joe and Ivan and I were visiting, it got to be around two in the afternoon and Mom started to cry. Joe asked her, “Are you crying because we said that we were going to go out for lunch but we never did?” Nodding though her tears, she sobbed, “You promised you’d go!”

In the late 1970s, Mom used to drive through the car wash once or even twice a week. She said it was the most peaceful place she knew. Now she sends Dad to do it. That is also kind of peaceful.

Mom and Dad in 1977
Marian Tom

Barbara has an active virtual life. When Barb was in high school, she was asked to draw a pie chart for Social Studies class, representing how she spent her day.

Barbie draws a pie chart

Over two thirds of the pie chart was devoted to daydreaming. Barbara showed me the chart, asking, “Is this normal?” I was kind of cowardly about it. I suggested she ask Mom, since Mom was bound to consider it normal.

The pie chart

What is fascinating to me is that there are people who are such wildly unreliable judges about what is normal that they will tell you stories so elaborate that not only would you not begin to believe their claims, but nobody in my family would, either. One of my favorites was a story someone told me about being stuck in quicksand in the middle of a vast desert, leaping from her car into the clear, but having to leave her dogs in the open jeep, watching the dogs sink inch by inch while she dialed 911 to have someone come and rescue them, knowing that no emergency crew could possibly get there in time, only, just then, coincidentally, a rescue team drove by in their fire truck and snatched the dogs to safety at the very last minute. Thinking of that fire truck barrelling through the desert and managing not to get sucked into that desert quicksand, all I could say in reply was, “Wow. That was lucky.” I mean, really.

My sister’s fantasy life is awfully tame, by comparison. When Barbie was in second grade, she could often be found sitting, chin in hands, staring off into space. Grandma asked her what she thought about all day at school. “Fatty meat,” said Barb. That was one of Grandma’s favorite stories about Barbara. Fat-rimmed steak was the main thing Grandma daydreamed about, too.

Grandma, Audrey, Chuck and Barbara with our cousins Allison and Jimmy
Grandma, Audrey, Chuck
Barbara with our cousins Allison and Jimmy

Not all virtual life is fantasy life, of course. There is a whole virtual dimension to moral life — virtue by association. Virtual virtue is when one person says that he is active in reading for the blind, and the other person says, “My daughter’s roommate is blind; I know exactly what you mean,” or the first person says, “We have to fight racism in the schools” and the other person says, “Actually, my last boyfriend was a Korean American,” or one person says, “I like to keep both a fiction and a non-fiction book by the side of my bed,” and the other person says, “Oh, are you a reader? I know someone at work who likes to read.” Under the rules of virtual virtue, “one of my best friends is a reader” means that the person can be assumed to understand everything there is to know about reading, even if she does not herself read.

Whereas virtual virtue doesn’t necessarily spill over into actual virtue, the trouble with virtual shopping is that it does spill over into actual shopping.

Ivan made me go shopping with him the other day and I complained the whole way. “I have never been this far from home before,” I said.

“You have been this far from home every time you have gone to the vet’s,” said Ivan. “This is only one block further than the vet’s.”

To be honest, it is not really the distance that bothers me. It is the fact of shopping itself. I have tried to find creative solutions to this problem. I have offered to pretend to go shopping but then stay home, for example, but Ivan claims that there is no difference between pretending to go shopping and not going shopping at all. The whole point, he says, is to actually go. But I don’t see it that way. Couldn’t we not go, but say we did? After all, some of my best friends are shoppers.

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