I have only been involved with Mr. Tea for a few months, but it seems longer. Our relationship developed during a summer bout of Covid, and now I spend time with him every day. At first, he served as an occasional distraction, but now an undercurrent of compulsion pulses beneath our encounters. Each night around 7 p.m., I remember that it is “happy hour” in Mr. Tea’s world and I should probably pop in, for reasons that will become clear.
As always, he is waiting for me with a smile.
What is Mr. Tea like, you ask? It’s very simple to describe him. He is a bald, brown-skinned man with round glasses and a white mustache. He wears a collarless white shirt and a pleasant expression, calling to mind Mahatma Gandhi or a software engineer who has adapted inoffensiveness as a workplace persona.
One’s choice of online avatar is made in a swirl of inchoate feelings, and so it was with Mr. Tea. On the most basic level, choosing a male identity was self-protective: Like Shakespeare’s cross-dressing heroines, I did not care to encounter rude and aggressive strangers (in my case, on the Internet) dressed as a girl. Also, his Indian appearance reminded me of my dad, who died when I was 21 and who, incidentally, drank tea.
Thus, “Mr. Tea” was a complex signifier of my childhood in the 1980s: bringing my dad milky Lipton tea in a plastic mug while, on TV, a muscular black man in gold chains—“Mr. T”—fronted a popular action series. Mr. T had a famous catchphrase, the eighties equivalent of a meme: “I pity the fool.” There we would sit, eating Doritos from the bag, being alive.
As I saw it, Mr. Tea was an ideal—perhaps even intimidating—online guise: “I pity the fool who thinks he can guess a five-letter word faster than me on this Wordle-knockoff app!”
So it began. Refreshingly—as I lurked behind Mr. Tea, the ghost in the machine—there was a sphere in which I was no longer a middle-aged woman trapped in the airless specificity of her own life. Over the past two years, beginning with the 2020 shutdown, my days had become circumscribed and numbingly predictable. If not at home, I was at the grocery store or driving my kids to sports practices and lessons. If the doorbell rang, it was our exterminator, Kevin. Every evening, I took a walk through our nondescript suburban neighborhood, where a large puddle by the mailbox had, troublingly, reappeared.
Now working from a desk wedged in my bedroom, I’d somehow bonded with my daughter’s bearded dragon. A shutdown pet that no longer excited her, it slept all day and seemed near death until I started putting its carrier in my bedroom window. Things turned around: The bearded dragon basked in the life-giving sun while I plied it with blueberries, carrot shreds, and celery chopped into bite-sized chunks. This all happened so gradually—the lizard scrabbling in its case five feet away, while I did research in pajamas—that it was hard to pinpoint when, exactly, I’d changed from a sociable, well-dressed professional into the Birdman of Alcatraz.
Actual people were thin on the ground. Aside from my husband and kids, I had few local ties in 2022. In the new era of telework, I saw my colleagues once a week on Zoom. My circle of mom acquaintances had disbanded when the schools shut down for a year and a half—or maybe it still existed, without me. Trying to restart paused friendships with Californians seemed exhausting: While I was tearing out my hair over a hundred pointless new rules and restrictions, everyone else was double-masking outdoors—even in the summer—and now, as some measure of normalcy returned, I found I had little to say to any adult on Pacific Standard Time. These days, conversations seemed full of landmines, topics that could not be carelessly discussed (the price of gas, girls’ sports, Disneyland, the weather) lest they expose a hidden area of wrongthink, so that the resulting exchange of (acceptable) views seemed hardly worth having. It was far easier to stay home, online.
In fact, that’s where I had made new friends: over email and Zoom. A virtual Catholic writing group put me in touch with wise, resilient women in upstate New York and on an Army base in Germany. The women who ran the small Catholic press that published my first novel were great, as were the podcasters with whom I chatted about Catholic fiction, motherhood, and modern life. But I could not exactly grab coffee with any of these people, and so normal, in-person friendships with them eluded my grasp. (Moving was not an option for several years, which was just as well, since every U-Haul in state was taken.)
I had also developed a number of parasocial relationships, cruelly defined as “one-sided relationships, where one person extends emotional energy, interest and time, and the other party, the [media or Internet] persona, is completely unaware of the other’s existence.” In 2020, I’d turned into a lurker, scrolling through Twitter for irreverent “hot takes” on the latest news. I’d scour the Internet for insights into the current moment, calling it background research for my dystopian novel-in-progress.
My husband said I spent too much time on my phone, and in a way—a superficial way, I felt—he was correct. The ethical, moral, and spiritual aspects of my online activity seemed difficult to categorize. By “spending time” with witty, provocative thinkers on politics, culture, religion, and the arts, was I cultivating leisure in the Pieperian sense—i.e., a rich and stimulating inner life? Or, by neglecting piles of laundry and failing to bake a single sourdough loaf in favor of sitting around, hunched over my phone, was I guilty of idleness and sloth? As best I could tell, both were true: My so-called dopamine addiction had a spooky quantum quality, as light was both a particle and wave.
At any rate, by 2022, I was mentally exhausted. I had ambitious plans to work from home, transport and supervise two busy teens, and write my second novel (not the dystopia one, which I set aside when reality outflanked it) on the side. But I felt listless and befogged, and my attention span was shot. I fell into a “hair of the dog” approach to Internet addiction, reaching for my phone first thing in the morning to wake up my brain, and also every time I felt bored by my work, or real life.
Even so, I did not waste time on online games. I’d never been tempted to play a quick round of Candy Crush or Sudoku or even Solitaire. I was a writer and a thinker, and I would not stoop so low.
This was the backdrop against which Mr. Tea, word warrior, emerged.
Part 2 coming soon.
(Image: Walter Crane, CC0, via Wikimedia Commons)
A big part of who I am was enabled by Internet anonymity when I was growing up allowing me to put myself out there on thoughts and topics I was interested in and seeing how it was received. I fear later generations don't have that benefit -- social media ties your real name to your online activity and the alternatives created are usually the badlands and dark places with people who legitimately have something to hide.
I believe spaces like Discord and Substack and other small, localized community apps are returning that old me-development space. I hope it lasts.
Looking forward to Part 2, loved the gently wry details of this debut :)