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The Interview: Larry Smith

Sharing stories around a campfire is among our most enduring traditions. From the primitive survival tips of our earliest ancestors to complex cautionary tales of love and loss, language remains the common currency of the human experience. But now we have a bigger campfire, spreading light and heat to everyone within reach of a keyboard [...]
J.R. McMillan

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Sharing stories around a campfire is among our most enduring traditions. From the primitive survival tips of our earliest ancestors to complex cautionary tales of love and loss, language remains the common currency of the human experience. But now we have a bigger campfire, spreading light and heat to everyone within reach of a keyboard or constantly connected device we carry in our pockets. That’s where Larry Smith is in his element, helping strangers rediscover the ancient art of storytelling by distilling it down to six simple words.

The Six-Word Memoir project started as a stopgap solution for SMITH Magazine, an online rendezvous for writers that launched just as social media was redefining the rules for every internet interaction. Of course, it’s hard to foresee the future from ground level. But Smith somehow did, even as corporations and his contemporaries in what we call “old media” struggled to see over the obvious horizon. Never minding the naysayers, Six-Word Memoirs tapped into something deft, yet diminutive. From boardrooms to classrooms, suicide prevention to speed dating, the platform defied critics by effectively elevating kitsch to cause almost overnight.

After a decade of didactic self-disclosure, it would be easy to descend into diatribes about Marshall McLuhan, the medium is the message, and other pointy-headed punditry. Though there is merit in analyzing the mental mechanisms behind the movement, it was never intended as an indulgent, academic exercise. Nor are there the fading flames or faint flickers of a dying fire. The effort keeps evolving to reach unlikely audiences and amateur auteurs whose unspoken autobiographies offer an intimate perspective that pierces the darkness with a few soulful syllables.

Having settled in Columbus after several stints in hipper haunts, Larry Smith kicked back for coffee to reflect on ten years of Six Words—an idea that keeps reinventing itself.

“I’m sure you’ve answered this before.”

You’re essentially a superhero of short-form storytelling. Yet some are still unfamiliar with the six-word concept. What was the inspiration? Tell me your origin story?

I love origin stories. When I’m introduced, it’s often just ‘This is Larry Smith of Six-Word Memoirs” and someone might say, “Oh, you’re that six-word guy?” I like superhero better. The origin story is a literary legend, which some of your readers may know. Ernest Hemingway was once challenged to write a six-word novel in a bar bet, where many literary legends begin. As the story goes, Hemingway wrote, “For sale: baby shoes, never worn.”

In January of 2006, I left a traditional journalism career working mostly in print magazines, but some web—Men’s Journal, ESPN Magazine, Dave Eggar’s Might, POV, Yahoo! Internet Life, which was like the people’s WIRED. I saw the user-generated content explosion coming as kind of the tech culture guy at all of these magazines.

Telling stories is hot, in almost an amusing way. It’s always been hot in film and television. But it’s hot in advertising now, because technology finally caught up with what we’ve always wanted to do. Telling stories, recording music, creating art—our ability to share these stories through Facebook, Twitter, and Six-Word Memoirs has become more easy, and addictive.

So I did something crazy and left a career I really enjoyed and I started smithmag.net on January 6, 2006 on National Smith Day, which is one of those days you get if enough people sign a petition. But it was a good media hook. I launched a user-generated content magazine where anyone could tell a story. But Six-Word Memoirs wasn’t part of it.

“You’ve got to be kidding us?”

Online magazines were a tough sell back then, especially without some sort of parallel print product. How did your early partnership with Twitter propel Six-Word Memoirs into the popular culture?

Toward the end of the first year, people loved it— but it wasn’t a business. It wasn’t generating enough traffic. “Threw spaghetti at wall. Some stuck.” is one of my favorite six-word memoirs, and that’s what I did. I remembered the Hemingway legend and thought, “What if we gave it a personal twist?”

So we Googled “six-word memoir” and nothing came up.

That was it— we called it “Six-Word Memoirs”. It was going to be a month-long contest and the best six-word story would win an iPod, which was a good prize back in 2006.  Right before we launched, I called up these guys I’d met at a tech conference with a side project called Twitter. This was when you could call Twitter and Jack Dorsey would answer the phone. We’d talked about doing a project with SMITH Mag and they thought it was great. So anyone could enter a story about any part of their lives, their whole life, an epitaph, how you’re feeling today, whatever. But if you wanted to win the iPod, you had to sign up for this funny little thing called Twitter. We crowd-sourced the decision to some interns and friends and the winner was, “Barrister, barista— what’s the diff, Mom?” from a Silicon Valley engineer named Abigail Moorhouse. The response was overwhelming. We were receiving tens of thousands of six-word memoirs— which at the time all came to my email box. Obviously now we curate it and built the site around it.

“Six words aren’t really so simple.”

Between the ease of the app and the confines of the format, there’s a surprising amount of intimacy on the site, the kind that maybe gets lost or overlooked in social media platforms without that six-word limit. How is this a fundamentally different experience?

wIt can get very deep, even though it’s short. I call it ADDeep.

We have power users on the site who have posted ten even twenty thousand six-word memoirs. They post eight to ten times a day almost like a Facebook status. Some are silly, but some are profound.

We have lots of six-word memoirs about the most emotional times in people’s lives— the birth of a child or a battle with cancer. If you go to the site as a major event is unfolding— like a mass shooting, a plane lands on the Hudson, or the death of someone like John Glenn—people share their thoughts and reflections. And because we aren’t as big as a Twitter or Facebook, people really have to sense that in our smaller community they are being heard.

When Bowie died? Whoa. Our users were able to become part of that narrative. The constraint fuels creativity.

“Some couples share everything. Some don’t.”

My wife and I met in journalism school, which means she’s either the first person to read something I’m writing—or the last. What’s it like having two writers under the same roof? How did your Six-Word experience influence your wife’s memoir?

My wife, Piper Kerman, wrote the memoir Orange is the New Black based on her own experience serving 13 months in federal prison for a crime she committed a long time ago. So, we’re both in the storytelling business. She teaches writing in two state prisons outside of Columbus, Marion and Marysville.

She is a reluctant memoirist, and a more quiet and introverted person than I am. I’m much more unfiltered than she is, which isn’t a criticism. It’s just a style and approach. Many people have a memoir inside them, but she was never like, “I want to write a book about my life.”

Everyone has an interesting story if you poke around, but when she got out of prison, people were curious. And when she went into prison, there were really no books for women. They were all about the experiences of men. People were hungry to hear about it and she felt a deep obligation to tell not just her story, but the stories of the other women as well—who they are, where they came from, and what happens to them when they get out.

I encouraged her to write it, and knew she was a great writer from living with her all those years. We have a friend who used to joke long before Piper went to prison and wrote the book that she was the better writer in the house because she would edit things I wrote and she was so good. But after getting her letters while she was in prison, it was undeniable. She’s absolutely the better writer.

“Is storytelling a calling, or curse?”

Columbus is known a test market for all sorts of products, and we’re proud of it. How did Columbus come to be the Six in the City prototype— a city of storytellers?

What I learned from Six-Word Memoirs is that I went from journalist, which I liked a lot, to someone who builds community through storytelling, which I love.

People sometimes ask if I ever get bored with Six Words. But it’s really just a tool to get people to open up about themselves, and that’s never boring. If I’m working with a Mosaic class, or Columbus School for Girls, or Independents’ Day with pieces of paper and a clothesline barking for Sixes.

Giving people agency over their lives, to be the protagonist in their own stories is empowering. I once had a teenage girl get up on stage at the Harmony Project and say, “Yes, I’m pregnant, but I’m graduating.” And they clapped. She was owning her story.

Six in the City tells the story of an entire community. I had initial meetings in New York, talked to folks with the city, and I’d get a call back three months later.

I didn’t intend to launch Six in the City in Columbus. But when I got here and looked around, and started to understand the community vibe, everyone I talked to in Columbus said yes.

Do you want to have a meeting? “Yes.” Do you want to move forward? “Yes.” Columbus is a “Yes” city. If you have an idea, and you’re willing to work hard, Columbus will help you make it happen— the city, the people, the community, everyone.

We came here two times before we decided to move here. There was an event at the Jewish Community Center, and we went out to dinner afterwards. We didn’t have any family ties or friends here. We came back one more time and my wife and I decided right then, “Let’s do this. Let’s get a house”. I was tired of that Brooklyn apartment anyway. It wasn’t a difficult decision. Now, I’m an ambassador for Columbus.

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Coronavirus

Penzone shares: what to expect with salons

Julian Foglietti

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With the closing of Hair Salons on March 18th, buzz cuts and bowl cuts have made an appearance on the heads of Ohioans, young and old. Luckily for those desperate for a do, Dewine has announced that hair salons may begin to reopen on May 15th. To guide us through the transition, I spoke with Debbie Penzone, President and CEO of Penzone Salons, about serving on the Governor's salon advisory board, dealing with the business effect of the virus, and what we can expect from hair salons moving forward. 

I understand that you served as the chair of the Governor's committee board regarding reopening salons. What did you do in that role? 

On the committee, my role was pulling from my experience as a cosmetologist and business owner to assemble a group of individuals that represent our business in Ohio. We had everyone from 10 person salons to one person barbershops. braiding salons and nail salons, to schools and three health commissioners. From there, the job was building an agenda and listening to members while consulting health professionals on how to expand upon existing sanitation guidelines.  The Ohio State Board of Cosmetology has been enforcing for years. Beyond that, it was a lot of keeping time, guiding the conversations, gathering information and reporting it.  We also wanted to build plans if something did happen in a salon, and make sure that everyone could abide by these practices so we can remain safe and open.

In what ways has the virus caused you to rethink the way salons will function moving forward?

One of the things we did was go through a COVID specific certification process with Barbicide, which produces a lot of the sanitation products already used in salons and barber shops. A lot of people don’t realize that in the Ohio Administrative Code, there are very specific sanitation guidelines that you have to follow when you get your license, and there is a major component of constantly learning new sanitation practices all the time. The main difference you’ll see is us taking that sanitation to the next level: social distancing between booths, or barriers put in place, as well as reduced capacities in many salons. There will be more emphasis on reducing contact points and sanitizing things like doorknobs and counters as well. The biggest change will be the way we interact with our clients. We're a very emotional industry. We’re huggers, and we’re very close with the people we work with. Our clients are like family to us, so having to distance ourselves and not engage in that way will be different. 

What has been the greatest challenge to overcome over the past months? 

It’s really been adapting to the constant change we're all facing. We might spend all this energy sharing with our team new knowledge, but the next week it will change again. It’s been difficult to coordinate and continue to train everyone and update them with the new practices, as well as provide support for them while we're all distanced from each other. We're all scared right now, and it’s important to not lose our community so we can give each other confidence in the direction we’re heading in.

What have you witnessed over the past few months that gave you hope?

The biggest hope for me was serving on this committee. I’ve always felt so strong about our industry, so bringing so many people together and supporting one another during this difficult time. This whole thing has really brought us together as an industry, and shown that we can work together to support each other and raise each other up. There's enough clients for everybody, and it’s beautiful to see the incredible diversity of salons and see us all coming together to work with one another.

Are you worried about customers returning?

We’ve opened our booking today, but were not opening on the 15th, because we want to have a few days to go over the new procedures with our teams before we start to bring clients in. Every salon will only be operating at 50% capacity, and then we’re extending the hours to make sure everyone has the same hours they used to, and some of them are already booked out to July.

What would you say to ease the concerns of customers?

Really that we’re regulated by the state board and have so many sanitation practices in place. We have printouts posted showing the guidelines for clients that come to the stores, and for those who are high-risk, we are opening up early so they can be the first people to come in right after the salon is sanitized. What's important to remember about salons is that the regulators randomly check our spaces to make sure we're complying, and as we build on regulations, these checks are going to be taken to the next level. 

As a hairstylist, do you see any hairstyle trends emerging from this?

I definitely think there's gonna be a boom for bobs and pixie cuts, ‘cause people are just done. Maybe some bold colors, because everyone just wants to come out and say, “I’m back, baby.” Maybe just a little more attitude with the cuts people are getting.



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Coronavirus

Meet the Saviors: from doctors on the front line to PPE makers

Mitch Hooper

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While searching for Columbus’ helpers, we found that they come in many different shapes and sizes. And this month, we are telling as many of their stories as we can.

These are the stories of the saviors on the front line, working at hospitals, and assisting patients on a day-to-day basis. Or these saviors are at home and providing essential resources to these same folks on the front line. These efforts are quite literally saving lives and risking their own in the process.

Saviors: Pauline Vales, COVID-19 ICU Nurse at Riverside

It was just a little more than a week before Gov. Mike DeWine announced the state would be going into social distancing orders when Pauline Vale and her husband had already begun leaving for a vacation to Texas. And when she returned home on March 10, the events preceding have been a rollercoaster ride of long days and nights, moments of sacrifice, and above all, bravery in the face of danger.

“We have to be mindful about what we need to do each time we enter a patient room because we can’t just run in and out when we need something. It’s harder to connect with our patients because they can’t see our faces, we can’t hold their hands without gloves on, and it’s harder for them to hear us talking through a mask,” Vales explained. “It seems like there is something new every single day, so we have had to adapt and evolve many times over in the last weeks. And there is just more stress and worry in general, but my unit has really come together as a team and done so many amazing things.”

The challenges are seemingly endless for nurses in the ICU like Vales. She said beyond medical professionals having limited contact with patience, hospitals are not allowing visitors unless it's a life situation or fits a different protocol.

There’s also the battle of resources; now more than ever, folks on the front line need protection like gloves and N95 face masks. Luckily, that call is being heard by larger corporations who can do something, such as Battelle. Battelle now works with hospitals, including Riverside, to decontaminate face masks for these front line workers.  And coincidentally, Vale’s husband works as a virologist at Battelle while she was also a former microbiologist for Battelle.

“I have been able to share my knowledge about virus research and testing with my co-workers at the hospital. It has been very helpful to understand the challenges in developing reliable testing and treatments,” she said. “When we first realized that PPE supplies were a real concern, we were worried about how we would be able to protect ourselves and still care for our patients. The relief of having enough PPE available was really palpable on the unit.”

Vales also faces challenges in her personal life. As a mother to a six-year-old boy, the outbreak of COVID-19 has severely changed his day-to-day without much preparation. Like most young children, social distancing is stopping him from going out and playing like he normally would.

“It’s difficult to convey the situation without scaring him,” she said.

But still, Vales and the rest of the team at Riverside continue to fight on the front line, day-in and day-out. And through all the adversity and tough times, she is still taking a moment to recognize the silver lining on these cloudy days.

“The outpouring of support for health care workers has been amazing and people have been so generous to our unit. We have gotten sweet treats, thank you cards, coffee, and so many encouraging words, which has been very much appreciated,” she said. “Different departments in the hospital have been doing kind things for each other, and our food service staff have been a huge support. I have seen many kind acts across Columbus as well. Food drives, to organizing financial help for families in need, to the support of local businesses. It has been great to see so many people doing what they can to help others.”

***

Saviors: Travis Ulmer, MD, FACEP

Sometimes the battle against COVID-19 in Columbus means taking your talents elsewhere; and that’s what Travis Ulmer, MD, FACEP, is doing. And even then, it’s an uphill battle.

“The toughest thing I’ve had to deal with is that I’ve been applying and registering to help New York City for multiple weeks,” Ulmer said. “But extensive red tape has prevented me from being where the healthcare workers are truly overwhelmed and need us the most.”

Ulmer specializes in emergency medicine here in Central Ohio. As someone who has worked on the front lines here, he’s been reminded of the importance physicians like himself can have—especially during an international pandemic. And all the extra steps medical workers have made to further protect their families, he said the outbreak has been eye-opening within his own life.

“I will never take for granted the impact and importance of being present for our families when we are home,” he said.

But, while there have been many struggles, he’s found the silver lining in moments like this.

“The most beautiful thing I’ve seen is that so many people appreciate the entire medical staff, not just us as physicians. There is an incredible workforce that collectively cares for patients. I am so glad they are being recognized and appreciated for the heroes that they are.”

***

Saviors: Kim and Kallie Mallett, Mask Makers

Life was normal for Kim and Kallie Mallett just a few months ago. While Kim worked at Burn Boot Camp, Kallie was busy as an American Sign Language interpreter. And then in a flash, as it has been for most of us, life was far from normal.

Gyms were one of the first of businesses to close due to COVID-19 so Kim was out of work. And Kallie was also temporarily laid off from her position. Though the financial losses have been tough to manage, the biggest thing the two said they miss is getting to interact with and help all the people they meet through their jobs. So it makes sense that the two found a way, even through social distancing and shelter-in-place, to help by making face masks.

“I have been sewing off and on for years so when an EMT friend expressed a need for homemade masks as a way to extend the life of hers and her fire stations N95 masks, we felt called to help,” Kim said. “We quickly realized how significant the shortage of PPE was across all essential workers and just kept going. In the three weeks we’ve been making masks, we have completed almost 700.”

Through mask making, they’ve been able to raise more than $900 in donations—$700 of which will be donated to the Mid Ohio Food Bank and the rest will be used to purchase more fabrics to make more masks.

“It’s been amazing to see Ohio come together and lend a helping hand to their neighbors—from six feet away, of course,” Kim said.

“I’m further reminded of how interconnected we all are and how we need to continue to rely on each other because we truly are all in this together.”

And of course, they’ve learned lessons along the way.

“I’ve learned to take it slowly and one day at a time,” Kalie said “I will be more appreciative of time with friends, the ability to workout with my gym family—really, just normal life in general.”

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Govt & Politics

NY Times lauds Dr. Amy Acton with video tribute

614Now

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If you live in Ohio, you'd have to have been living under rock these last 6 weeks to not know who Dr. Amy Acton is. Now the NY Times is making sure the rest of the country knows too with this nearly 7-minute tribute video titled, "The leader we all wish we had".

As the state's lead spokesperson on the healthcare side of the pandemic, Acton has received wide praise from both near and far. Despite recent protests that occurred outside of her Bexley home, most Ohioans believe she has been a shining star in these dark times.

She has a tribute t-shirt, "Not all Heroes Wear capes" created by Homage

Her own (Ok, Gov. Dewine too) tribute parody video

Her very own bobblehead from the Bobblehead Hall of Fame

A Facebook Fan Page with over 133,000 members

Here's our profile piece from the April issue of (614) Magazine - the cover of which is featured in the NY Times video. Very cool, Sarah!

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