Media and Masks
I used to be on top of the latest media in the service of training and communication. But that was thirty years ago—an eon for exploding technological innovations. Not a straight production line, the development of media technology is more like a carousel that spirals up and up, constantly pushing new products to the spinning edge. About the time I figured out how to use one form of communication, a new iteration emerged making the former version obsolete and requiring more adaptation. And if you, as I did, step off that carousel at a certain point, you’ll find that it’s hard to claw your way back in the saddle.
I’m not a nostalgic. I don’t pine for 35mm film to make slides to show in a projector to a live audience instead of a Power Point presentation online. I appreciate that my cell phone can take a picture that I can send over the internet as soon as I’ve taken it even while I admire the skill and artistry of historic B/W prints of Yellowstone Park. And I can say that I have followed the arc of visual/data transmission tools over the span of my career in media communication and training: film to video, analogue to digital in all its forms. Still it was surprising to hear my wife squawk when I left the shower and scooted to our bedroom. Seems she was on a zoom conference and I had mooned her book club. Not only is it difficult to keep up with all the ‘advances’ but it’s hard not to get booby trapped by it. Like the time we cyber-zoomed into my daughter’s family in Denver. We caught them at dinner. Lots of children open mouths filled with mac and cheese, some of it finger-painted on the face of the two-year old. Surprising isn’t it, how an itch of affection for grandkids can be so quickly scratched. In fact, I was saying just that when I realized we had not completely exited the transmission. Oops. So sometimes it feels like technology is zooming by me like a jet while I’m clop-clop-clopping in a horse and buggy. Which brings me to the impact of online sessions in the time of Covid.
Covid is decreasing the live, 1on1 connection in both work and schooling from home. Players in our Zoom conferences can be as thin as the movie stars, sports heroes and pundits we know and idealize minus the in-depth backstory of their private lives to be found in waiting room mags. I suppose we’re used to that level of impersonality from talking to customer relation folks over the phone—we get some personal traits but not much. So, we’re lucky when our group cyber-contact involves our circle of friends and family. We bring the background of friendship, caring and love to the encounter. But what happens when we broaden and flatten that contact outside that circle?
There have long been social isolates, the modern-day equivalents of St. Simon Stylites who chose to live on top of a pillar, who are content to watch the world from the heights of the cyber sphere. But now the rest of us are being ushered into their world of limited contact and personal interchange. How much do we need to touch and feel each other? Notice clothes? Bodies? Assess gestures and mannerisms in the world of ‘seeing and being seen’ in the close quarters of social gatherings? Instead we only get voice and face…folks could be talking to us in their underwear for all we can tell. Video conferencing is better than phone alone, but is it enough?
All of which raises the question: how is our need for full-body interaction being affected by Covid? Will this mean the demise of commutes to central locations, to downtowns to work and shop? Will office complexes and pedestrian malls be morphed into distribution centers delivery hubs? Isn’t that what some magazines aim to do?—give us sneak peeks behind the paper-thin photos of folks in the news and entertainment media. Now we are all media stars, if only on our computer screens in a group conference meet. Which explains why so many people resist wearing masks. Not as a political statement so much as a survival cry to not become any more flat and anonymous than they already are. Especially if the cyber-technology is beyond them financially or emotionally.
And we all know folks who can’t stand seeing each other on the screen taking turns talking like kids raising hands in a classroom. They, we, miss the hub-bub of a large social gathering, holiday meals, weddings, where we pick up clues from body language, voice, clothes, pheromones— readily reading and assessing each other. Online media contact is plasma-screen thin. We miss full-body contact, exchange of food, drink and free-association chatter. I suppose Face Time is better than nothing—like visitation in prison? I guess some folks, lacking computers and the ability or desire to communicate at a remove, would feel as though masks are not so much a political statement as an attack on their essence. Taboos on bars, gyms, or live socializing constrains their only way to get outside themselves. They are not used to living vicariously—a step back from immediacy, in the world of books, thoughts and self-reflection. Masks and isolation are threats to their lives; as essential to their existence as air. So, to tell them they have to comply is equal to the threat of Covid. They have to deny its existence, create an enemy, put a face on the governor or scientist who is punishing them, or face the facts and logical consequence that they have to voluntarily imprison themselves within themselves and their own resources.
Alternatively, some folks welcome the reduced personal interaction. They have minimal interest in close contact and find the need for social isolation suits them just fine on top of their pillars. It’s the extraverts who suffer the most.
Less is More
My granddaughter is talking to me on FaceTime. I’m so pleased that she calls and is willing to share with me. But sometimes it feels like she is still the one-year old baby handing grandma a soggy corner of her cookie that I can’t refuse and have to pretend to eat. See, she is upset over Covid isolation and the enforced solitary confinement she faces. ‘They,’ ‘somebody,’ ‘the government’ is depriving her of an essential and irreplaceable part of her young life. She’s missing out on graduation, prom, the final track meet and all the processing with her best friends about boys, over burgers.
I try to listen and absorb and acknowledge without offering advice. It’s hard. Because she hasn’t been constrained, yet. And well she shouldn’t be, after all. She’s just a young woman whose body hasn’t been hijacked by pregnancy for a year at a time. Can’t tell her that. She has to go through it herself. Maybe more than once.
And as she moans and whines, I remember the time my girlfriend Inga and I went to visit her Danish grandparents on their farm. We got stuck there in a blizzard. For three days. At first, I was frantic, felt trapped. Then her grandmother lit candles. Got out blankets and warm wool socks and hot cocoa and a big fire in the fireplace and we snuggled in. Her grandmother called all this hygge…hoogeh. And I got the feeling that the word meant cozy, getting cozy. Like the way it feels so good to hunker down in a warm dry house in a pounding rain storm.
Or maybe like my Italian grandfather did one lazy summer day when he sprawled out on his postage stamp lawn, pants rolled to his knees, socks down to his shoes—his idea of sunbathing. He puffed on his Chesterfield cigarette, eyes closed but not sleeping. When I asked him what he was doing, he replied, ‘dolce far niente.’ It wasn’t until I took Italian in college that I figured out the words but I got the sense of it right then…to sweetly do nothing.
But how can I tell her all that. She would just say, “That’s easy for you to say…you’re old. What have you got to do that’s exciting anyway.” But she won’t because…well, because. And she has her whole life to learn that sometimes less is more.