Virtual Reality

960x0We pushed the stuffed furniture back against the walls, positioned the iPad on a plant stand in front of us, instructed the dog to ‘just watch’, (well, OK, a downward dog is allowed) and settled ourselves for our first, virtual yoga class. A little hesitantly at first, our ‘classmates’, usually arrayed in a loose circle of chairs in the ‘Social Room’ — ain’t that a loaded term nowadays — appeared on screen. Each ‘popped in’ as the array of little squares containing one or perhaps two of us grew and was overlaid on the ‘main screen’ of our instructor. Her own shoulders visibly lowered in relief as her aging charges all navigated the technology of the changing landscape. A subtitle for our chair yoga class floated through my mind, unexpressed: Zooming with the Zoomers.

This has been a very virtual week — as I expect it has been for a great many of us. Community and governmental suggestions morphed and escalated through guidelines to mandated behaviour as the realities of, the necessity for social distancing sank in. Just short of ‘violations’ being tagged and fined — for now.

Even if one was committed to ‘going off grid’, the constant barrage of updates, notices, posters, emails, broadcasts, news from all platforms pretty much ensures that we stay ‘in the loop’. It’s been hard to find silver linings in the darkness and relentlessness of these spreading awarenesses. One candidate however, born of need in the present but quite possibly containing the seeds of future practice, is the astoundingly abrupt but near seamless shift to a virtual world.

Two of the musicians in the family, both with passions and careers revolving around their director’s rolls at their respective churches, in a matter of days have launched projects built around bringing music to the people — if the people can’t come to the music. Choristers are diligently rehearsing the parts, compliantly socially distanced at home. The aggregate will be blended and synched; ultimately ‘aired’ as a virtual choir, accessible to an audience, a ‘congregation’ numbering not in the 10’s or 100’s — but 1000’s, and more. (If you haven’t had the pleasure, have a look and listen at the potential that lies therein:

Having moved communities recently, my wife had ‘left behind’ two much valued music teachers, friends as much as pedagogues. One had embraced the digital lesson; the other had demurred. Now, yielding to the ‘mother’ (of invention), he’s not only relented, but welcomed the shift to a platform that has brought with it the unanticipated perks of attentionally-challenged students now staying focused, his piano bench no longer adorned with discarded gum on its underside, and a helicoptering parent unable to swoop low as wee Johnny’s lower lip starts to quiver.

Closer to home (oops, sounds like a double, no, triple entendre), with our change of cities, I too had moved away from my ‘client base’. NQRTR (not quite ready to retire), I had dabbled with on-line appointments. However, I remained unconvinced: without my physical presence, how could therapy be more than a faded watermark of the ‘real deal’. Again, mamma came a callin’ — with more invention.

The landscape was now one of on-line or take down the shingle. I opted to watch a preparatory webinar (supplanting the scheduled ‘in person’ workshop — go figure!). Amongst all the usual pointers around lighting, not being undone by the half-empty wine bottles on the table and the four-year old walking thru’ with his bowl of Cap’n Crunch, and technology failure, there were some stats: on-line not only is as effective as in-person, but offers benefits on both sides of the virtual desk: ease of access and increased comfort levels for the client, holding appointments in my button down Oxford cloth shirt, sport coat. . . and sweat shorts (what’s under the desk is my business!). I’m in!

Gradually the subtext was sinking in. If necessity is the mother of invention, then crisis is the sib of creative solution. Wherever this interlude (and we must hope that that’s what it is) may take us, COVID-19 has spawned some very sustainable directions and promising practices for the future. The virtual world is not just an amusing entertainment accessible by donning a weird pair of goggles, a poor sister to ‘the real deal’, a stopgap until things ‘get back to normal’. As I’m so fond of (and, I expect reviled for) saying to folks ‘adjusting’ to a situation that we both know will not resolve, this is the new normal. We can tolerate it, resist it, deny it, wait it out. Or we can manage it, engage it, and accept the (very real) teaching points it offers. Our choice — at a time when it feels like we have none. Oh yeah, and let’s keep washing our hands for two full verses of Happy Birthday!

And one more:

Togetherness Re-defined

Screen Shot 2020-03-18 at 2.18.49 PMThere was a time, not so very long ago when the benefits of digital communication were generally accompanied by cautionary riders. The commentary would range from dire warnings predicting the demise of articulate conversation, social skills, use of complete sentences, accurate spelling . . . all the way to attention spans lasting no longer than fifteen seconds. The images included couples dining out, across the candle-lit table from each other, fixated on their respective phones — at times ‘chatting’ with each other thru’ the ethers, not their shared space. Children were portrayed as increasingly more comfortable with their ‘virtual gang’ — the Snapchat, Twitter, Facebook crew — displacing real, face to face connection. We were becoming a population of social isolates — without really knowing it.

The past week has shifted this disturbing trend, a preference for many, to a global reality, necessity. I ‘attended’ two collegial ‘meetings’ yesterday, ‘joined’ by a half-dozen others — none of us leaving our home offices. For some, it was a novel experience, accustomed to making the challenging commute into city centre and sitting in stuffy conference rooms, briefcases and laptops in tow. We’d chosen to ‘Zoom’ in. Ear buds in place, two monitors arrayed before me, sweat pant-clad, my fellow ‘attendees’ were thumb-nailed across the top of the screen, easily seen and heard (and ‘labelled’ as they spoke). The agendas flowed with documents displayed and decisions made — orderly, efficient. And an abiding sense of ‘being there’ prevailed.

Never a Luddite, I had been one of those cautionary voices. As at home with a word processor as my Waterman, I’d long made the transition from paper and pen. Online newspapers had supplanted digging the Globe and Mail out of the snowbank many years ago. Although I still compose my letters (proof-reading and using properly punctuated, grammatically correct syntax!) — before sending them off, for decades the vehicle has been email, not ‘snail mail’. But I’d always reserved the right to play devil’s advocate railing against the day when one communication platform would fully supplant the comfortable, conventional, ‘civilized’ and social way of sharing. Plays and concerts were intended to be attended. The sounds and energy of a sporting event were as much a part of the experience as the score.

Screen Shot 2020-03-18 at 5.39.54 PMBut what if we can’t. . . meet, attend, look into the eyes of the person we’re addressing? The very human need to share does not diminish. The New Yorker link below catalogues the myriad ways in which the operas and symphonies, the ball games and Broadway have overcome empty bleachers and dark theatres embracing online feeds of all stripes to keep us connected — ‘present’ and participating. With the doors to churches closed, the pews empty, and the choirs out of the stalls, the two family church musicians persevered this past weekend, playing from home, conducting choristers in another city in a celebration of Evensong. In Italy, the balconies are still ‘in play’ — just moved outside with the acoustics of a city street replacing curtained theatre walls.

I may have to lighten up a bit on the virtual. Seems to be doing yeoman’s service filling the void — rather than creating one!

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Personal Space

Looks like Jean Paul Sartre has his way. Famously, his play, ‘No Exit’ declares that ‘Hell is other people!’ In it, is explored the premise that our suffering is magnified by the presence of companions, particularly those banal and irritating folks holding views differing from our own — and who are oh so ready to share same. The ‘eternal sentence’ is one of being trapped, inescapably in the relentlessness of socialization. . . forever.Screen Shot 2020-03-15 at 11.43.13 PM

Of course, there are those days when I’ve finally peeled off a traffic-jammed multi-laner onto the solitude of a quiet country road; or emerged from the chaos of a crowded, noisy city street, into the seclusion behind the insulation of ‘my door’; or, having cleared airport security, exhaled that first, cleansing breath at the start of a ‘silent retreat’. (In the case of the latter, too few!) Being alone and freed from the need to be around folks, then, certainly has its appeal. On those days, I’m happy for, hunger after such glorious isolation.

However, the past few days, has seen me spending my time mostly opening emails from a hugely varied array of senders, all essentially with the same message: keep your distance! Most are cautiously, optimistically framed. But all echoing the theme that has come to consume an already preoccupied media. Social Distancing: the, at times, advised, recommended, at times, mandated practice of enforced avoidance of other people, self-initiated or otherwise.

Screen Shot 2020-03-15 at 11.42.57 PMA short list: a colleague advising patients that video-counselling may be necessary, supplanting the office visit that typically restores balance to a day. The accounting firm, as tax crunch time approaches, informing clients that the customary shoe boxes of documentation may be better delivered digitally — conjuring up some very odd images indeed. The vet’s office, in an odd (but understandable) inversion, notifying pet owners that sick animals are able to be ministered to; owners may remain in their car. A long-awaited symposium, exploring the efficacy of online therapy services, postponed indefinitely — again, the irony not lost on the fate of a workshop entitled ‘The Future of Psychotherapy’!

And, as the ‘circle of concern’ widens: the National Ballet, the Stratford Festival, sports seasons across the board; and this, ‘just in’, churches closing their doors! Sinister photos of piazza’s normally teaming with life, from San Marco to St. Peter’s now empty. Caution tape demarcating the minimum allowable distance between shop customers in a land where ‘lining up’ typically means pushing, pressing to the front.

Those cherished moments of sequestered peace and privacy aside, social distancing has a strangely antithetical and foreign sound to my ears. We are a social species. The benefits, both physical and psychological, of affiliation are well documented. We live longer, are happier, and suffer less depression when we live in community. During times of crisis, our tendency is to ‘come together’, drawing on the ‘higher values’ that often manifest in such periods of need. We talk, we plan, we empathize. We touch, we hug, we hearten. All in expressions of mutual support and encouragement. A compelling image for me has always been that of Indra’s net, in Buddhist tradition a ‘jeweled web’ each gem holding the reflection of all others, and symbolizing an interconnected universe.

So what is one to do when this very human predisposition is set up against self-preservation, medical and political edict, and even common sense. When we are advised, indeed instructed to ‘isolate for our own good’ — and the good of the community as a whole. Psychologically we are thrust into a state of cognitive dissonance, a kind of ‘Sophie’s Choice’, where our belief and instinct conflict with our behaviour — and we end in a mental tug of war, having to choose between a rock and a hard place. Nothing new about this condition — think being a ‘pack-a-dayer’ in the face of dire warnings about the health risks of tobacco.

Resolving the dilemma turns out to be a tad easier said than done. Three options:
change what we believe,
change what we do, or
reconcile the conflicting bits.

The belief. . . For Mr. Sartre, easy peasy: people are insufferable anyway, so no problem doing a Ted Kaczynski and building a cabin in the woods, firm in the belief that ‘getting away from it all’ is job one. Or, better yet. Channel Donald: Covid-19, fake news, a media conspiracy. Poof, all gone!

The behavior. . . I read a telling article in the Globe headlined ‘The Virus Quarantine is Social Torture for Italians’; and subtitled: ‘An encounter without a coffee, a meal, or an aperitif (with a friend) is called an email’. Try changing that one!

An uneasy reconciliation . . . It seems, then, that we’re left with mollifying some pretty strange bedfellows. But it does seem the wisest, perhaps the only option. The ‘containment’ ship (call it the NIMBY solution) has clearly sailed. Donald’s fantasy of ‘shutting out the bad guys’, closing geographic borders to a virus that may be ‘intelligent’ by some accounts — but rarely seems to line up to clear customs, may have some lapses in logic. Letting things ‘run their course’ unchecked, head down (or more likely heading for the hills) to hunker down with the local chapter of ‘preppers’ to wait for the smoke to clear is, well, just a little too socially distant. (But if that floats your boat, the graphic to the right is your basic packing list.)The-Ultimate-Preppers-SHTF-Supplies-Checklist

And here’s a novel and optimistic thought: maybe, just maybe what we’re doing in crisis to slow a virulent virus down might just be useful, respectful practices next month . . , next year, next ‘common garden’ flu season.