Close Talkers (Video Conference Version)

I’d say that I have participated in more video conference calls over the past three weeks than in the rest of my extended work life, combined.  And, as I participate in the calls, I realize I’ve got a lot to figure out.  Other people do, too.

forehead man wrinkles before and afterRecently I was on a multi-party video call with one of those split screen set-ups.  One of the participants was positioned too close to his camera.  His oversized eyes and forehead, positioned in the upper left corner of my computer screen, loomed over the other talking heads like he was Gulliver among the Lilliputians.  It made me think that, if there was a Seinfeld about life during the coronavirus pandemic, one episode probably would be about close video conference talkers.  (And I expect that, in the COVID-19 Seinfeld world, Kramer would undoubtedly violate all social distancing requirements and still barge into Jerry’s apartment to eat his cereal.)

The gigantic forehead incident made me realize that I need to think carefully about my  video conference presence.  Am I too close to the little glowing dot at the top of my computer screen, or too far away?  Is your video conference head supposed to pretty much fill the screen, or is the proper dimension three-quarters of the screen, or one half?

And the position of the head is important, too — especially for the older guys like me.  If your head is tilted forward, you’re giving the unfortunate viewer a huge dose of your forehead, receding hairline, and thinning scalp.  If you lean back, on the other hand, you’re forcing the viewer to focus on the multiple chins and the vibrating neck wattles.  Either way, it’s not exactly a pretty picture.

There’s also the issue of what kind of attitude you’re projecting with your video position.  If you’re leaning in, you look earnest and engaged, but also perhaps hard of hearing.  If you lean back, your look “cooler,” but maybe uninterested.  And if you’re somebody who uses his hands to accentuate the point you are making, as I do, how can you be sure that the screen is capturing those carefully calibrated gestures?

It’s all pretty confusing for the novice video conferencer who doesn’t want to assume the Gulliver position in the upcoming conference calls.  It makes me think that the picture element adds a really significant dimension to the communication that requires you to give some careful thought to these issues before the calls start, and position yourself accordingly — and deliberately.

Fool-Free

To the extent that the pranksters among us are tempted, I’ve got a very strong suggestion:  please, no April Fools’ Day jokes this year.

fof-the-fool-action-shotI’m not much of a prankster, myself.  As a kid I tried a few of the time-honored classics, like the well-placed Whoopie cushion on Uncle Tony’s chair, or the salt in the sugar bowl gag, but mostly my jests involved convincing a credulous person about some far-fetched story.  At the office, I’ve participated in a few jibes, too — including one incident that involved constructing a wall of boxes to block the door of a fellow attorney while he was in his office with the door closed for a telephone call.  This year, though, I’m not much in the mood for gags of the April Fools’ Day variety, and I don’t think that anyone else is, either.

It’s not that I’m opposed to pranks, in principle.  But there’s a time and place for everything, and pranks just seem kind of pointless and childish given the current circumstances.  Part of the idea of the April Fools’ Day jest is that the target will laugh at it, too — which doesn’t seem likely right now, no matter how well-crafted and humorous the scheme might be in a normal setting.  Plus, who are you going to pull the prank on — that person you’ve been spending 24 hours a day with for the last three weeks?  It doesn’t seem like a wise course when you’re going to be spending every waking hour with that person for the foreseeable future, does it?

So, I’m hoping that all of the pranksters among us hold their fire, and let this April 1 pass in a blessedly fool-free fashion.  Next year, perhaps, we all can let our inner pranksters loose.

Breaking The Bad News

We’ve been seeing a lot of our nation’s governors lately.  In Ohio, Governor Mike DeWine has been on TV so much with afternoon announcements about COVID-19 developments that some people are timing their first cocktail with the news conferences and enjoying “Wine with DeWine.”  We’re getting a living reminder of lessons learned during our junior high school civics classes and the fact that we live in a country where the states have significant powers and duties.  When a once-in-a-lifetime crisis like the COVID-19 pandemic hits, governors are put front and center in dealing with all of the issues.

img_2632Unfortunately for the nation’s governors, a lot of what they’re doing right now is breaking bad news.  They’re announcing shutdowns and “shelter in place” edicts and other orders and showing small-print graphs and charts that make people upset and anxious.  Nobody except introverts and hermits wants to be cooped up in their houses indefinitely.  But the time durations of these shutdown orders varies widely, from state to state.  In Ohio, I think the initial “stay at home” order covered the period until April 6.  In Virginia, by contrast, the governor just announced a shutdown until June 10 — more than two months longer than the initial Ohio order.

The current situation squarely raises the issue of the best way to break bad news.  Put yourself in the shoes of the governor of your choice.  If you were issuing a shutdown order, would you give your citizens the worst-case scenario — which seems to be the technique used by the Virginia governor — so that they can start to get adjusted to the prospect of being at home for two months?  It’s a kind of “rip the band-aid off” approach, isn’t it?  And, if you take that approach, you can hope that future developments might allow you to shorten that time period and give the residents of the Old Dominion a pleasant spring surprise.

Or, do you proceed in a more incremental way, issuing orders that have a shorter duration, acknowledging that this is a fast changing situation where you need to be responsive to new information?  Of course, all the while you would understand that you might well have to extend your shutdown, perhaps multiple times, and disappoint people who were hoping the current deadline would stick?  In that scenario, you’re doling out the bad news in bite-sized chunks, hoping it might go down easier.

I don’t think there’s any right or wrong answer to this, necessarily.  Some people are band-aid rippers, and others prefer to remove them a fraction at a time.  I’m normally a band-aid ripper, but I think if I were governor during this period I’d take the incremental approach.  We’re still gathering information about the coronavirus and its trajectory, and an incremental approach allows that information to be analyzed and addressed as it comes in, giving the governor the chance to keep the citizens of his or her state updated and abreast of the latest news.  The incremental approach seems a bit more humble and nuanced than the two-month thunderbolt edict issued from the executive.  And who knows?  There may be something to this “Wine with DeWine” thing, too.

Rewriting Right-Of-Way Rules

Our legislators and regulators, on both the federal and state level, have been busy with “big-picture” coronavirus issues.  It’s therefore not surprising that they haven’t yet turned their attention to a small, yet vital area:  namely, determining the right-of-way of pedestrians who are eager to get out of their houses and stretch their legs and who are turning our sidewalks into increasingly clogged traffic arteries.  In short, in this era of social distancing, who gets to stick to the sidewalk, and who must yield and swerve onto the grass or into the street to maintain the six-foot buffer?

Having thought carefully about this crucial issue over the past few days, I offer the following suggestions:

  • People pushing baby carriages or strollers have the absolute right-of-way over everyone else because it’s really unreasonable to expect them to veer out into the road or onto grass.  C’mon, folks — that’s just common courtesy!
  • People walking with little kids have the right-of-way over everyone except the stroller set.
  • People walking overly friendly, excitable dogs who might jump up on other pedestrians must yield to everyone, and probably should just stick to the grass in parks, to be on the safe side.  
  • Anyone walking with any kind of coffee cup or container must yield to everyone else on general principles, because they’re clearly not serious about taking a walk in the first place.
  • Joggers and runners must yield to any walker, faster walkers must yield to slower walkers, and people approaching other walkers from behind must always yield.
  • Single walkers must always yield to walking couples, or groups.
  • Younger people must yield to older people, especially the codgers who seem oddly oblivious to the concept of social distancing or who are projecting a “to hell with it all, I’ve got an absolute right as an American to walk on this sidewalk because my taxes paid for it” attitude.
  • If yielding hasn’t occurred within 15 feet of passing on a narrow sidewalk, you’ve got to yield irrespective of the rules — because it’s safety first out there, people!

No need to thank me.

Stay-At-Home Cookies

Normally I don’t do much baking after the holidays end, but if a pandemic isn’t a reason to depart from the norm, what is? We’ve taken our daily walk and want to be safe and respectful of social distancing and sheltering in place, and cookies seem like a good stay-at-home activity.

But what to bake? Unlike the holidays, I haven’t gone on a special shopping trip for unusual supplies — and an extended trip to the besieged grocery store for random baking supplies doesn’t seem wise under the circumstances. I’ve examined the cupboards with care, and figured I could make what we’ll call “Stay-At-Home cookies” in honor of our fight against the coronavirus.

Stay-At-Home Cookies

Ingredients: 1 1/4 cup margarine; 1 cup regular sugar; 1 cup brown sugar; 2 eggs; 1 tsp vanilla, 2 cups all-purpose flour; 1 1/2 tsp cinnamon; 1 tsp baking soda; 1 tsp salt; 3 cups uncooked oatmeal; 1 cup chopped nuts; 1/2 cup peanut butter

Combine margarine, sugar, and brown sugar and cream until well blended. Add eggs and vanilla and beat until smooth and creamy. Add in flour, cinnamon, baking soda, and salt; beat until combined. Add in oatmeal, nuts and peanut butter and try to keep your spouse from eating the batter. Try some yourself and admit it is pretty tasty. Drop heaping spoonfuls onto a cookie sheet covered with parchment, then bake at 385 degrees for 12 minutes. Have some more of that tasty dough. Drink a beer or other adult beverage of your choice while baking; preferably while listening to ‘60’s music. Let cookies cool on baking sheet while you enjoy another beer and find yourself dancing to Woolly Bully.

How many cookies this generates depends on how much dough you consume during the batter/beer/Woolly Bully steps.

Changing Lyrics

As I prepared to take my walk this morning, I had to make my music selection.  I decided to go with my “UAHS Rock” playlist, featuring songs from my high school years.  The songs on it are old, obviously, but they are still great favorites.  Who doesn’t still relish the songs from their youth?

When I walked down the steps to the sidewalk, the first song on the playlist began:  Paul McCartney and Wings’ Band on the Run, which was a huge hit during my high school days.  For those who can’t remember them, the lyrics begin like this:

band-on-the-run-labelStuck inside these four walls,
Sent inside forever,
Never seeing no one
Nice again like you,
Mama you, mama you.
If I ever get out of here,
Thought of giving it all away
To a registered charity.
All I need is a pint a day
If I ever get outta here
If we ever get outta of here.

It’s safe to say that I reacted to  those lyrics in a different way this morning, squinting into the bright sunshine as I carefully maintained my “social distance” from everyone else who was walking and jogging outside,  than I did hanging out in the basement of the family home, with the cheap all-in-one stereo unit down there cranked up to intolerable levels, in 1975.  And a few songs later Stevie Wonder’s Superstition came on, and I had a similarly different reaction to this line:  “Very superstitious; wash your face and hands.”

One of the great things about music is that the listener always brings something to the experience, with songs reminding you of high school prom or hanging with your college chums or making you think about this or that.  I wonder how many other songs are going to be thought of differently, forever, as a result of the Shutdown March of 2020?

Keen To Clean

Every year, I feel an urge to do some spring cleaning, and thereby officially heralding the arrival of a favorite season.  This year, being cooped up and working at our kitchen island for days now really brought out the spring cleaning spirit, in steroids. 

I’m not sure if it was feeling guilty about watching a lot of TV during this shut-in period and wanting to compensate by doing something that made me roll up my sleeves, or the fact that I’ve been using the kitchen as my ersatz office so much that it really did need a good cleaning, or perhaps a sense that, with all of the hand-washing and sanitizing going on in the battle against the coronavirus, a good kitchen cleaning might aid the cause, just a bit.  Whatever the reason, I tackled the task of cleaning the kitchen with gusto: scrubbing the sink, the cabinets, the countertops, the stovetop, the oven, and the refrigerator, wiping down our appliances, sweeping the floor, and getting the windows, too.  I tried to clean every crack and crevice, and even emptied and wiped down the crumb tray in the toaster.

When I finished I felt good about my efforts, as I always do when I do a household chore.  The kitchen looked clean — for now, at least — and I could almost feel Mom’s spirit hovering in the air, nodding approvingly.

The smell of ammonia in the air — sniff! — smells like victory.