When the pandemic began in 2020 to wreak havoc in our lives, the digital meeting site of Zoom became a ubiquitous part of our communication outlets. Social distancing was irrelevant as we viewed and spoke with colleagues, family and friends.
It was not perfect by any means. Rapport through face-to-face interaction is nullified. But it allowed life to continue, both personally and professionally, when our lives had changed dramatically.
Our individual worlds became isolated, painfully so for an extrovert like this writer.
Zooming has not disappeared. Every three months, the Penn Class of 1967 gathers for 60 minutes to listen to a presentation by a classmate, followed by questions. The effect can be magical. The only obligation is to listen.
Such was the case two weeks ago. A classmate discussed his days as a rower at Penn, followed by years and years of coaching and writing. His four-book series on rowing has brought him international renown. He also won a gold medal in the Olympics in a four-person scull.
My classmate views rowing as a metaphor of life. He learned that rowing required trust in his boatmates, a lesson he learned the hard way in the pivotal position of “stroke.” His prowess had to blend, not dominate.
His aspiration to win and excel had to be a shared value.
In his senior year, certain he would row as stroke (seat eight and the hardest, nearest the stern), he was demoted from the number one to number two lightweight boat. He was devastated. He pressed his coach for an answer. He had known that his boat had lost speed. He learned that in believing he bore a self-imposed burden to add swiftness to his boat, he was depending less than he should on his crew mates.
My classmate, whom I hardly knew in college, shared his painful story without exhibiting any self-pity. After college, he continued to devote himself to competition, understanding he had turned a personal disappointment into renowned success on the water.
He grew a heightened sense of awareness. Disappointment can do that to all of us.
More than 30 classmates in their late seventies seemed mesmerized on our zoom by a classmate’s athletic life more 56 years ago. He willingly and poignantly revealed a vulnerability. His message was clear: life goes on, filled with success and defeat, despair and determination.
Youthful stories often become embellished over the years. They sometimes border on bragging. The recent class zoom attained a balance between triumph and terror.
Zooms can be stilted, lacking spontaneity. Camaraderie suffers. Lack of one-on-one contact is limiting. But not a dealbreaker.
I have found that the longer a zoom conversation lasts, the more likely that participants will inject questions, comments and even humor. The comfort level expands.
My theory as class president and facilitator is that my classmates want to learn. Empty conversation is worthless. Cohesion is more probable if the subject draws attention. My goal is enrichment. Not to seem too pedantic.
During the past 12 months, we have heard a classmate and financier living in London and France analyze and criticize Brexit; another, a law school professor, talked about human rights in the world—he was particularly adamant about Russia’s transgressions–and yet another explained his longtime research about penguins in Antarctica and their declining population due to climate change.
What can be challenging is ensuring the absence of politics, a sure way to ruin dialogue should the conversation veer into divisiveness.
Covid-19 forced all of us to use formerly unknown communication vehicles. It worked. We enjoyed a link to the outside world, safe and maskless. It is marvelously effective in eliciting participation from throughout the world. No one is excluded due to lack of proximity.
During my years at Penn, I chose to apply my limited athletic talent to lacrosse on a grass field. The cold, wet environs of the Schuylkill River in Philadelphia held no attraction for me. I would much rather have held a lacrosse stick than an oar. Teamwork, nonetheless, was still critical to success.
Men and women in their late 70s are willing and able to let their guard down and reveal disappointments. They neither seek applause nor approbation. Self-honesty and self-awareness are on full display. Psychological shields are in the past.
My rowing classmate impressed all of us with his candor.
Columnist Howard Freedlander retired in 2011 as Deputy State Treasurer of the State of Maryland. Previously, he was the executive officer of the Maryland National Guard. He also served as community editor for Chesapeake Publishing, lastly at the Queen Anne’s Record-Observer. After 44 years in Easton, Howard and his wife, Liz, moved in November 2020 to Annapolis, where they live with Toby, a King Charles Cavalier Spaniel who has no regal bearing, just a mellow, enticing disposition.