Zoom? Ten takes on group meetings online

By now, you’ve probably had your fill of Zoom or GoToMeeting or Skype. (Any others I haven’t heard of?) They’ve become inescapable, it seems, and essential.

Here are ten takes from my end.

  1. We don’t look good, folks. Everybody looks older. More wrinkled. Distorted, too. (There are reasons actors use so much makeup!)
  2. We spend too much time on trying to figure out what we’re doing. It’s not just the agenda, but mostly about getting settled, figuring out who’s “here,” and tweaking our settings. It’s a real problem when we have only 40 minutes total.
  3. Tech confusion. Are you muted or not, why isn’t this or that working, that sort of thing.
  4. Remembering to cover or uncover the camera
  5. We sound wobbly. That, and all the awkward pauses and unintentional interruptions. Oh, yes, and all the ambient noise if a group is mostly unmuted.
  6. The moderator is very important. Though trying to chair a meeting and simultaneously man the controls is a bit much. We really need a “producer” for that.
  7. Selecting who’s to speak next. Do we raise a hand to the camera or press the little hand button instead? How about the Chat function? Are we unmuted? This gets difficult once the group gets bigger than a handful and the moderator has to keep scanning the panels that were offscreen.
  8. We get to “visit” in others’ homes. Often, the scene is an individual’s dining area or study, but we’ve also been outdoors on a porch and down in the cellar (which looked and sounded more like an Apollo space mission). It’s been fun seeing other sides of our friends this way, though often the lighting’s not so hot. (See Point 1.)
  9. Remembering to “attend.” Or to send the invitation out to all in time. Somehow, we’re losing track of time, even the day of the week, in this self-isolation.
  10. Doesn’t work as well on smart phones or tablets. No, you really do need a laptop, PC, or large screen for optimal control.

What stands out from your encounters?

A new kind of doctor’s house call

When I was a rug rat, family physicians would still visit patients in their homes. The docs even carried little black bags, as I remember, along with a different demeanor than we see today.

And then all of that became history. The front-line medical personnel even became referred to as primary caregivers or physician assistants or nurse practitioners rather than docs.

The Covid-19 outbreak, though, has it returning with a twist. The medico in question, even a specialist, is now calling some patients at home. Yup, on the phone. Voice, not texting. I’d say dialing them up, except nobody has a dial phone anymore.

And that’s what’s happening with my latest cardiologist checkup.

OK, I did have the echocardiogram at the hospital lab, so he has those results to work with. I’m wondering if he’s going to want my latest weight and blood pressure readings. I do have the home kit for that. There will be no listening to my breathing and other internal sounds.

Well, I’m also told of psychotherapists who are conducting their sessions over the phone, though I have trouble imagining that going very deep. Dunno. There are just certain things that come up in face-to-face interactions that don’t happen by telephone.

What’s with all the hoarding?

Where I live, any weather forecast of an approaching nor’easter, big snow, or deteriorating hurricane is enough to prompt a run on all of a supermarket’s milk, canned soup, and bread, usually in that order. It’s idiotic, I know, but it is a New England tradition for many households.

Somehow, though, those grocery shelves are always reloaded by the next day or two. Not to worry.

What we’re seeing with Covid-19, however, is something different. I mean, toilet paper? At first, I thought it was a joke, considering all the BS emanating from the hat-guy and the mess we’ve been hoping to clean up through the last three years. But no, not quite that, even if it does make for an easy-to-connect symbol of what’s passing for leadership.

I’m not sure where this one originated, but my old roommate from the early ’70s sent it my way.

Face it, people are scared.

Scared of something they can’t see, a virus.

They want something to hold on to, a sense of security or invincibility.

No wonder sanitizer suddenly became a valued commodity.

As “it” spread – the virus and the hoarding – the dried bean shelves were soon also emptied of something most Americans normally wouldn’t eat on a bet. (When’s the last time you had bean soup? It raises a specter of soup kitchens and poverty in the Great Depression, right?) So leave the chick peas (garbanzos), lentils, turtle beans, and the like for those of us who really cook with them, will ya? Store after store, ransacked.

‘Fess up. How are using beans in your kitchen? Which ones? Kidney beans in chili count, by the way.

Add to missing in action list all those ramen soup packets, which do reflect changing tastes in the USA. Besides, they’re easy to cook, even for a 10-year-old, so I can understand why they’ve been raided. But the sriracha? Maybe we should spread a rumor that it’s Chinese. (Its roots are Thai or Burmese, actually, but why quibble?)

Coffee and beer supplies, meanwhile, seem to be holding up, at least here.

We’re told of massed shoppers queued up in lines winding around one Costco building in California days on end. We just don’t have one within an hour of home, so we haven’t witnessed that phenomenon for ourselves.

We do know of one independent grocery, however, that’s being shunned – the Chinese one down the road. That’s a shame, for their food’s notable. You want fresh fish? They know their stuff. Where do you think we first found ramen and Sriracha and tofu, anyway?

Well, in all of this, we can add another phrase to our common usage: shelf-stable items.

What empty shelves and missing items have surprised you the most?    

The shrinking newspaper page

Cost-cutters have long found ways to shrink the product to meet rising costs or boost the profit. As was said years ago, “It’s getting hard to find a nickel candy bar for a quarter anymore.” I hate to think what it costs now, much less in a vending machine.

Newspaper pages are no exception. The first jolt to tradition came back in the mid 1970s when there was a newsprint shortage. The Canadian suppliers, for whatever reason – a labor strike? – just didn’t have enough to meet demand. One solution was to narrow the width of the page.

In recent years, as the Internet has disrupted the business model of the news industry, the pace of cost-cutting has quickened.

The ones around here are now 11 inches wide, versus 15½ when I started in the business or one paper where I worked where the page was nearly 18 inches wide.

In other words, today’s broadsheet is as wide as a tabloid was back then, only longer. It’s lost two columns of news on each page – or a quarter of its surface. It’s so skinny I wince.

We never had enough room to print everything we wanted as it was.

Dover’s new riverfront appearance and hilltop park access

Downtown Dover grew around the falls on the Cocheco River, where the mills could channel the current to produce world-famous calico and much more.

Below the falls and the dam atop them, tides from the Atlantic Ocean downstream rise and fall eight to ten feet every six hours or so. Boats from the ocean made their way the 14 miles upstream to pick up or deliver goods.

As pollution in the river has been cleaned up and the city itself become more of a center of the Seacoast Region, planners have been looking to develop an open stretch of unpaved parking lot and weeds across the water from downtown.

For years, the site was the public works yard – not the best use of potentially valuable real estate. That has since been relocated elsewhere. I’m guessing it was tannery and warehouses before that.

A proposal to build anew there fell through in the real estate collapse of the great recession at the end of the George W. Bush administration but now, a decade later, it’s emerging in new form.

Key to the design is the extension of Henry Law park along the river as a walkway with added attractions such as kayak and canoe landings. A hillside has already been carved back to allow moving an existing street away from the river to open the space for more pleasant picnicking or the strolling public.

Further on there will be room for new housing and small stores or offices. Done right, it should be quite welcoming and attractive.

Just as important, in my eyes, is the way this will open up access to an existing city park at the top of the hill. Rather than running into a dead end as it does now, Washington Street will rise up the slope to become the entrance to Maglaras Park. It will be an easy walk from downtown, rather than the convoluted route it’s replacing. Even for drivers, it’s a huge improvement.

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The changing face of downtown Dover

My small city is the seventh oldest settlement in the continental United States, not that there’s a lot left from its first century, when the place was largely on the sometimes troubled frontier of English dominion.

As a working-class mill town, it developed more modestly than more prosperous harbor towns like Portsmouth to the south or Portland to the northeast or Newburyport to the southwest.

Our downtown is catching up, though. A small but significant building boom is under way.

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As I said at the time …

When I was 38, several developments occurred in a way that allowed me to give myself a year of unemployment, drawing largely on savings. Rather than travel the world or undertake some related activity, I hunkered down in a writing spree [that resulted in the novels now (finally) being published]. The sabbatical meant that for the first time in my life, I had a period of uninterrupted concentration on this work. The writing itself. Three fast novels, now to be revised, and thud! skidding to a crash or whatever. Enough to expand to a dozen, in the hours of revision after I went back to the paying work. Looking back, I know it had to be done. And done then.

Nevertheless, in my struggle between practicality and art, there’s been a longstanding sense of guilt in spending time on myself. To my surprise, a resolution came through a workshop on prayer, when we were divided into smaller groups and then asked to write out a prayer request. Not for what others might need or a social issue, but for something we needed individually. “Ask for something for yourself,” which the others would then pray for.

Of course, each of us works differently. I’m not one for the blank sheet writer’s block syndrome: I’m usually springing from notes jotted down earlier. (Pacing is another matter: just where is this going? And why?)

In contrast, I recall a poet friend who was also a public school teacher; he was quite prolific during the busy school year, yet during the summer, could produce little, though he could never quite figure out why. (He could also stare at a piece of paper for five hours and then turn out a sharply focused gem.) The other friend, having all the leisure in the world, could produce only disconnected flashes. Could it be some juggling or resistance is also essential to the practice?


For most of my adult life, I’ve tended to load up on the fresh vegetables, but fruit’s been another matter. Maybe if you stuck a piece right in front of me, on my plate. Yes, I love blueberries and, with breakfast, a grapefruit. But even after living in an orchard (cherries, plums, pears, peaches, and varieties of apples), I rarely went out of my way for that end of the dietary spectrum. Until I retired.

Maybe it was a sense of reclaiming some of my ashram experience, but once I left full-time employment, I found myself in a routine of setting down for a midmorning meal of fresh homemade toast (with homemade jam or jelly, meaning fruit), fresh homemade yogurt (with fruit), and (in season) an orange I’d just peeled.

And then there are all the goodies from our garden, much of it eaten fresh and the rest, frozen for later, such as the strawberries, blueberries,  and raspberries. That’s even before we get to the trips to the pick-your-own orchards, where we focus on the half-price drops on the ground, such as peaches and apples, or the crab apples we pick from the strips between the sidewalk and some city streets. Add to that a daughter who revels in canning, as well as making jams and jellies.

It may be deep cold outside, but on my table these days, I’m reliving summer. Now, what are we having for dinner?


We’re in that time of the year when we receive cards and letters. Personal ones, I mean, rather than direct-mail advertising.

Each year, I find myself reflecting on differences among generations regarding this custom. My dad’s circles, for instance, would send out and receive about two hundred cards apiece – keeping touch long after their high school and Air Force years, and trailing off only with illness and death. My generation, in contrast, falls away quickly. Each year, more lost connections, often with a pang of disconnection. There are, of course, a few who cling on, often with nothing personal included. There are also some older friends of my parents or a handful of relatives, in some sense of duty. (Only one of my first cousins has kept in touch). There are even a few correspondents who have reconnected, after years of silence. My wife and kids, being of a practical mindset, figure the folks we see regularly know what’s up with us (and so there’s no sense in mailing greetings), while those we don’t see, well, they’re history (so what’s the point?).

I think a lot of my dad’s era was a continuation of an earlier awareness, before cheap long-distance phone calls and then email. Those connections were special. My kids, on the other hand, don’t send letters of any kind, but they do have a wide range of online correspondents and texting. (Should we ask what will happen to the timeless art of the love letter?) What all this says about American society is another matter.

Quakers in some measure maintain an ancient practice of epistles, typically sent from one Meeting to another or even from a Meeting or “weighty Quake” to individuals. Some of our most powerful expressions survive there, and not from George Fox exclusively. Still, in an email world, how do we extend our faith? What efforts will survive? What will be read over the years? How do we reach out with something personal and special? Suddenly, I notice how many people are buying candles, especially at this time of year! Candles, in an electronics age. Remarkable! A spark of Light in the dark!