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An old fart grapples with Zoom – and survives

November 1, 2020

On Friday night, I had the novel (for me) experience of speaking at an online conference. I don’t use Zoom very often, and my days of declaiming in front of audiences have become less frequent as I move steadily towards decrepitude.

It was that decrepitude, or the perception of it, that my friend Clare, who runs a coaching consultancy out of Qatar and Bahrain, asked me to discuss. That was fine by me, because it’s a topic I’ve never really addressed, except tangentially in this blog. So virgin territory, which is always fun to explore.

The conference itself was a 24-hour marathon with speakers from a number of different countries across various time zones. It’s theme was EDI, which I always thought meant Electronic Data Interchange. But apparently, nobody apart from minor politicians and civil servants who grew up in the sixties uses that acronym any more. So Equality, Diversity and something beginning with the letter I has snuck in and colonised it . Ah, that’s it: Inclusion (sorry, senior moment).

Anyway we agreed that ageism would be my topic. So I started putting a few themes together along the lines that there’s no point trying to campaign against ageism, because it’s been around since the beginning of history, and as soon as you invent some set of rules, people will always find ways of circumventing them. Better, perhaps, to look at ways of immunising yourself against the effect that being thought of as clapped out, past it, no longer able to learn or make any meaningful contribution to humanity might have on your self-esteem.

So that was the gist of what I had to say, on the assumption that the attendees, by and large, would not be as ancient and decrepit as me.

My technique for such events is to write out what I have to say, almost as a speech, and then go through it again and again until I’ve internalised the main themes to the point that I only need notes. This becomes pretty easy if you’re speaking at multiple events, doing stand-up comedy or perhaps delivering the same training course on a regular basis. The more familiar you are with the content, the more fluid you become with the timing, the method of expression, and the variations you might wish to follow depending on the audience. Think of Donald Trump, who’s been saying the same thing in different ways since 2016.

This was slightly different, though, because I didn’t have much time to prepare the content. For various reasons, Clare had brought forward the date from January to last week at fairly short notice. What made it harder was that I was under the impression that I was due to speak on Saturday, whereas two days before, I discovered that my slot was on Friday. Silly me. One day less to prepare, but no big deal.

Another challenge was Zoom. Now I’m sure that as fellow-casualties of lockdown you’re well used to its little foibles. And I’ve been talking to people remotely for years, though mainly on Skype. But I’ve largely avoided Zoom, because I’m not the Prime Minister, and I prefer not to indulge in mass gossip sessions with friends and relatives. And anyway, I don’t have too many of either.

So I had to figure out how to share a presentation, and how to load a virtual background. The first was fine, but when I tried to activate an image I’d been given that would replace my bookshelves and hide my grandson’s impromptu incursions, I found that it made me look as if my head was on fire. I needed a neutral background apparently, and I don’t have one. Not even in the loo, whose walls are covered with adornments. So my conservatory, which offers a blurry green view of my garden, would have to do.

Another problem was where to put the laptop in a place where the camera wouldn’t pick up on reflected light. Too high and my bald pate would dazzle the audience. Too low and I would be revealed in all my jowly glory. I made this mistake when recording an introductory video that went on Facebook. One of my friends, who is not renowned for beating about the bush, commented that I looked rather odd. But what the hell. I do odd pretty well.

Then there was the multitasking bit, for which men are not renowned. I set up one laptop for Zoom and the presentation, and another for my notes. And just in case, I printed the notes. This was just as well, because as I was getting into my stride, the laptop with my notes fell over. Normally this wouldn’t be a problem. I would improvise. But because I was using new material, and because I forgot that it takes old farts longer to internalise stuff than used to to be the case, it wasn’t so easy to wing it.

So I had to leave the conference for a couple of minutes and dash off to another part of the house to retrieve the paper notes, leaving poor Clare, who was moderating the session, swinging in the wind. Never go on stage, even a virtual one, with children, animals and computers.

The other interesting aspect was that so many of the attendees kept their faces hidden. This was a shame, because it took away an essential element of interactivity that I always enjoy on these occasions. Texting doesn’t really do it for me. Perhaps this is a recent phenomenon, spurred by the shaming of a well-known journalist in the US who did something unmentionable while in full view of everyone in an online meeting. But more likely it’s because people don’t like to be seen eating their lunch or indulging in a bit of personal grooming in front of the watching world.

In the end, I think I got away with it. I hope I managed to show the necessary passion for the subject. Clare, as a coach, is a great believer in passion. I do actually believe quite strongly that you can immunise yourself against ageism, by doing stuff – whether or not you’re paid for it – that you consider valuable. And if you live your life according to that principle, you will always be able to stick two fingers up to those who write you off because of your age.

One of the things I said was that I take great pleasure in listening to people who have made it into great old age. Centenarians, for example. But on reflection, I realise that the older I get, the world they describe is becoming closer to the one I remember. Which is quite scary.

The other day, I indulged in one of those whimsical exercises beloved of Twitter users, in which someone asked what was the earliest political event we could remember. Some of the young whippersnappers were coming out with moments like John Major’s resignation as Prime Minister, which happened a mere twenty-three years ago. I pitched in with mine, which was petrol rationing during the Suez crisis of 1956. I almost detected a gasp in the ether, and soon after, someone said wow, how cool.

Was that a reaction similar to mine when I listen to centenarians talking about their lives in the 1930s, or of amazement that at my age I’m still stringing one sentence after another?

I hope the former, because contrary to popular perception, there are a number of old bastards tweeting away about all manner of subjects, especially about the efforts of two other old bastards to become president of the USA. (Actually only one of them is a bastard, in my opinion, but I suppose that’s a mere technicality.) So as long as John Cleese, at eighty-plus, is continuing to puncture the vanity of the fools who troll him, there’s probably a place for me, one the cusp of my seventies, to continue to contribute the odd snide comment in the social media.

There was a moment in the next presentation, when the speaker, who lives in Washington DC, asked a question, and commented that I looked troubled. I didn’t want to say this, but I was wrestling with whether or not to say something unkind about Donald Trump. I resisted the temptation.

But on reflection, one point I might have made in my session was that often enough the most ageist people you will encounter are the aged. A good example is to be found when a 74-year old, whom half the world considers certifiably insane, has the cheek to accuse a 77-year-old of being senile, which clearly he isn’t. A case of two bald old men arguing over a comb, you might think, as someone once said about the opposing sides in the Falklands War.

Though perhaps it’s just that the older we get, the less we’re inhibited from insulting each other. Long may that continue.

So that was my Friday evening, followed yesterday morning by getting totally soaked by Storm Aiden on the golf course. We may be about to be locked down again, but for this old fart, life is still full of interesting contrasts.

In case you’re interested, in my next post I’ll be offering an abridged version of the stuff I spoke about on Friday.

If I can remember what I said, of course.

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