A New Wave of Authentic Communication in the Era of Covid-19

A Facebook friend shared a music video with me: “Neil Diamond & Puppies to Put a Smile on your Face.” It’s a charming bit of fluff, photographed outdoors, with Diamond singing and playing an acoustic guitar, and puppies romping in the fields. The pups are a nice touch, though I have the feeling the only reason they’re present is that a producer or someone said, “Hey, if we want a video to go viral, we need kittens or puppies in it.” But what bothered me the most was that Diamond lip-syncs a soundtrack that is obviously studio produced, with particular attention to enhancing his voice. 

Overall, the video is missing authenticity, that special element that says, we’re all human, and we need connections to each other, to nature, and to puppies. Instead, we view Diamond through a technologically managed veil that doesn’t allow us to touch or be touched.

Okay, I’m being very unfair. That video was produced in 2014 – six years and a world away. Back then, life was filled with movement, activities, responsibilities. We were constantly running from here to there and back again. Proud of the long, hard hours we worked, we strove for grueling levels of excellence, holding ourselves and everything around us to a high standard of productivity. Is it any wonder that we expected hard-earned perfection from our entertainment, based on take after take, melded together digitally to create a flawless whole? The Neil Diamond video was appropriate for that time.

But not for today.

Covid-19 has changed so much so quickly. Sheltering in place, hopefully in our own homes or apartments, we’re unable to move about, and for many, unable to work. Some of us are completely alone, though lucky singles like me have a dog or cat or even a bird or snake to keep us company. But for the majority of us who have Internet connections, we’re not truly alone. We are connecting with each other on a deeper, richer level than ever before – and far more frequently. I’m no exception.

I find myself Zooming every day, sometimes more than once, connecting with friends and family, but also with professional peers and business associates. In the mornings, I exercise with my sister-in-law Lee, and we’re often joined by our friend Saroj. It’s an intimate hour that starts our day on a warm positive note. Before, after and even during our aerobics video or yoga or weight training, we share our thoughts and concerns, discuss our plans for the day and support each other. Our friendship has been permanently changed by these exchanges, deepened.

My family Zooms once a week. (And yes, it is now a verb.) In normal times, I’d be lucky to see some of them every couple of months. I haven’t seen the St. Louis contingent in years. Of course, the kids dominate while parents, grandparents and the aunt (me) sit back and smile, and sometimes get a word in edgewise. We take pure pleasure – or for those who know Yiddish, we qvell – just seeing the faces of the people we love,  knowing they’re safe, and being able to share a half hour of unimportant patter while ensconced so many miles away from each other. The time we spend together online is far richer than a phone call or any kind of communication – other than the wished-for, someday-soon in-person gatherings.

Itzak Perlman: a story & some musicEven in my quiet hours, I’m not fully alone. In addition to enjoying videos of plays from Broadway and London, I’m kept company by authors’ readings and musicians performing at home. For instance, Itzhak Perlman epitomizes this new wave of heart-felt communication. He posts periodic short videos on Facebook – just him and his violin. Looking directly into the camera, he shares a short story or personal feelings, then plays a few minutes of music. And we feel uplifted by the very same sense of love that makes Perlman a violin virtuoso.

But it’s not just personal or artistic connections that have become more authentic. Business meetings are often disrupted by a cat jumping on someone’s lap or a child running about in the background. Such personal interruptions would have once been deemed inappropriate but now create a warm moment that we can share with our associates. To use a Yiddish word that says it all, our meetings are becoming menschlichkeit . (Sorry, it isn’t an easy word to translate. It has to do with being a mensch, being a human being, personable, caring, involved, and more than that.)

We’re depending on Zoom and similar videoconferencing services in this time of isolation. As we connect through our screens, we’re allowing not only our friends and family, but business associates, fans and other “strangers” to glimpse who we are behind the public masks we’d carefully crafted. Our pets, our children, our private homes are on display, warts and all. And we’ve become – like the Velveteen Rabbit – real to each other, and to ourselves.

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NOTE: Thank you David Strom and Paul Gillin for mentioning this essay on their FIR B2B podcast.

 

The Sprecher & Rose

Sally Wiener Grotta talking with Erika Funke (WVIA-FM) about storytelling
Click to hear Sally reading this story on ArtScene with Erika Funke (WVIA-FM). The photos are from a previous appearance on the show.

My father often told me a story about his older sister Rose and the neighborhood sprecher

In 1918, my Aunt Rose lay feverish and weak, barely aware of her mother wiping her brow with a cool cloth. Even my Grandma Anna was beginning to lose hope. That’s when they called in the sprecher.

At this point in the story, Dad would explain that sprecher meant “speaker.” I never learned Yiddish, but some of his words stuck; this one particularly. And it has influenced me in more ways than I’d realized.

The sprecher’s role in the Jewish immigrant community was to sit by the bedside of a seriously ill loved one, to hold her spirit within her body with his words, to not let it fly away, to fight death itself with his own spirit.Read More

Seeking the Sunlight

Shayna finding the sun, photo by Sally Wiener Grotta

When Shayna isn’t by my side, I can usually find her sleeping in the nearest bright circle of sunlight wherever it might be as it travels across my rugs. I believe it’s more than instinct that drives her. She knows – in her flesh, in her spirit, in the way she sees life as a series of nows – how to seek (and give) pleasure and comfort even on cloudy days.

We can learn a lot from our dogs. Read More

My Short Story “One Widow’s Healing” Honored by Jefferson Hospital

Helath Odyssey Award winners

 

I received the email while I was at the International Conference for Fantastic in the Arts this past March. 

Thank you for participating in 2100: A Health Odyssey! This has truly been an exciting and fun competition… The quality and diversity  of the entries we received were outstanding. We are pleased to announce that your story has been selected as one of our six winners! Congratulations!  (And, yes, the bold font was part of the email. I suppose it was just in case I missed the point.)

I had to read the email six or seven times. Was it really saying that my story One Widow’s Healing would be honored on May 7th at a gala celebration of six writers? Even after reading and rereading, I was sure it was a mistake. It wasn’t until I received a follow-up email asking me to fill in a W-9 IRS form so they could arrange for my prize money, that it began to sink in.

I don’t normally enter short story or other fiction contests. But this one was intriguing. The writing prompt was to write a science fiction story that would illustrate the future of health care, specifically in the year 2100. What was most interesting is that the competition was sponsored by Thomas Jefferson Hospital in Philadelphia, one of the highest rated health care facilities in the country. Specifically, they wanted a positive, hopeful story that could potentially influence how health care will actually develop in the future. In the words of Dr. Stephen Klasko, the CEO of Jefferson, “Almost anything you can dream can happen, if you do it in science fiction.”

Here’s Dr. Klasko’s visionary description of what they were seeking:

 

Watching that video, how could I not want to participate?

To say that I’m thrilled that the judges felt my story gave them hope about a possible health care future is to put it mildly. No, I didn’t win the grand prize of $10,000. But my prize money is enough to pay for several weeks this summer during which I can put aside everything and just write fiction. That’s quite a present to receive. And what an honor!

Many thanks to Dr. Klasko, the impressive panel of judges and Jefferson Hospital.

Click here — One Widow’s Healing to read my short story. Then, please let me know what you think. 

Calling All Dreamers

A new popular theme is emerging in the arts – one of unabashed, unapologetic hope. While partially a reaction to society’s current divisiveness and anger, it also has a lot to do with faith in humankind and our future – and a very large dose of the courage to speak out, to try to lead the way.

The first issue of DreamForge Magazine

Yes, human beings can be cruel, violent and selfish, but we can also be kind, generous and open to learning to be better. What’s more, I believe that the latter tendencies are the stronger, more prevalent. So it is that my own art has long explored the questions we need to keep asking ourselves if we wish to reach toward a wider, richer future.

As John Lennon sang, “You can say that I’m a dreamer, but I’m not the only one.” A case in point is the launch of a new science fiction and fantasy magazine DreamForge, whose motto is “Connecting Dreamers – Past and Present. Imagine. Engage. Inspire.”

What a leap of faith – to start a new magazine in this era of so many publications failing to survive the digital transition. Yet, it’s fitting that Scot Noel (Editor and Publisher) and his wife Jane Noel (Designer) have jumped in, with all their heart and, I’m sure, a large portion of their savings. How else could they, as Scot wrote, “make a noise in favor of hope”?

I have just read the first issue of DreamForge. It’s a beautiful publication, filled with delightful stories. I was so impressed – particularly by Scot Noel’s personal message – that I immediately emailed Scot, and asked for permission to reprint his editorial as the first guest blog on this my new website.

Here it is, an editorial designed to give all of us hope about publishing and about our future as a species.


Which Shall It Be?

by Scot Noel

Scot Noel, Editor & Publisher of DreamForge Magazine

The world has been coming to an end for a long time, for centuries if not for millennia. While the doomsayers wring their hands and point to evidence of moral decay and economic collapse, the reality is – cities grow larger, nations grow richer, and the population of humankind is approaching 7.7 billion people. (It was less than 3 billion at the beginning of the space age in 1957.)

Science, technology, and knowledge itself are advancing so quickly, their growth rate is becoming exponential. Only 476 years ago, Nicholas Copernicus published a blasphemous theory that the earth and planets revolved around the sun. Today, we have charted the shape of the universe itself, and in another 500 years we, as a species, are likely to command godlike powers that any human who has ever lived, including those of us around today, would consider the province of the divine.

Why does it all seem so terrible and doomed to destruction? Are we like Icarus, son of Daedalus, daring to fly too close to the sun?

We are indeed like Icarus and the ancient Greeks, and like our Cro-Magnon ancestors of 35,000 years past: we are human. We are built for an enemy and predator-filled world where spreading bad news and taking violent action were essential to survival. Fierce tribal loyalties and a win-at-all-costs attitude have been our go-to kit since before civilization was conceived.

Times are changing. We are a young species with short memories and a dull sense of what the future really means. A thousand years, ten thousand, a hundred thousand and we will not yet be middle-aged, and by then the stars will be ours. Literally. What will we do with them, I wonder? Before that day arrives, we must mature, and the very forces of our increase will pressure us to do so.

We will grow out of our messy teenage years and clean up our act. We may pollute our planet for centuries to come; we may fight horrendous wars a thousand years from now, but we will also be learning, building, and changing all along the way. We will end suffering, poverty, and sickness at a faster rate than the worst among us can create them. We will heal this world and build new ones. Long before the end, the better angels of our nature shall – as they have been for a thousand years – rise up to overwhelm the destructive impulses of our genesis.

Hope, big dreams, and perseverance will get us there. Hope is not an illusion; it’s simply a perspective backed by engagement with the world, whatever the condition of the world may be. And fiction has its part to play. At DreamForge, we believe words are important; that the stories we tell ourselves affect the present and become the future. It’s been said that the arc by which fiction changes the world is long and subtle, but powerful nonetheless.

One day we will meet new civilizations among the stars but, more importantly, we must learn to respect the aliens among us right now. You know who they are; they’re the people who by circumstance, culture, or choice are different from you.

By our human heritage, we are built to see them as threats, competitors for scarce resources, subversive forces ready to challenge our beliefs and tear apart our communities. In the future, there will be too many different peoples, beliefs, political ideologies, and – eventually – species of human to count. We’re going to have to get over our fears and loathing.

When you find yourself thinking the people on the other side of the ideological divide are too stupid to understand your point, that you can’t empathize with them and their values, that their way of looking at the world is ruining your country, your community, and your life – that’s an ancient evolutionary adaptation the purpose of which is as extinct as the trilobite.

Mere tolerance is unacceptable, extreme diversity inevitable. It’s the only way we can ever begin to embrace the vast gulf between ourselves and the creatures we shall meet among the stars, they who know nothing of the doctrines and dogmas over which we are willing to take life and destroy worlds.

Our only true enemy is entropy, the gradual dissolution of complex systems, the force behind suffering, aging, and decay. Fortunately, life by its very nature fights entropy, and our prowess in understanding and then mastering the intricacies of universal forces appears unbounded.

In a screenplay by H.G. Wells for the Science Fiction Film “Things to Come,” the movie ends with a dramatic monologue that goes in part:

“… And when he (man) has conquered all the deeps of space and all the mysteries of time, still he will be beginning.  And if we’re no more than animals we must snatch each little scrap of happiness and live and suffer and pass, mattering no more than all the other animals do or have done. It is this – or that: all the universe or nothing… Which shall it be?”