Day #40: What Does It Mean to Connect?

A couple of years ago, I sought out my best friend from middle school.  We were two isolated geeks, spending our lunch time talking politics and music on the cold concrete benches of our junior high.  I was curious about his story and I wanted a sense of continuity in my own narrative.

I searched through Facebook, wondering if I would come across as an old friend or a creepy cyber-stalker.  We reconnected.  He shared his thoughts on Jose Gonzalez and I shared my opinions on Sufjan Stevens.  It wasn’t awkward, but it wasn’t a profound reunion, either.  Then, in typical Facebook fashion, he slowly disappeared from my “relevant” news feed.  The algorithm had decided what I had suspected intuitively: that it was nice to reconnect, but we would quickly go slide away again.

My friend Grant found me on Facebook.  “Found” is one of the few terms that Facebook gets right.  I hadn’t even realized that I’d been playing a very adolescent game of hide and seek.  However, after a strange falling out in high school, we spent almost a decade in silence, it felt like a gift when I was found.  And as Grant and his fiance sat in our living room, I realized that time and space and even games of hide and seek can’t poison friendship.

Friendship isn’t a tree that grows.  It’s not something that requires deep watering.  It’s a wild grass that doesn’t die even when it grows dormant.  It doesn’t have roots.  It has rhizomes, reminding us that we are interconnected through a shared story.

Christy is better at reconnecting through Facebook.  Perhaps it’s her personality.  Or maybe it’s the geographic benefit of spending a lifetimes in one city.  Whatever it is, she has met with former childhood and high school friends numerous times.

*     *     *

The term “desert” conjures up images of emptiness and solitude. It’s where you go to get lost. Uninviting. Spiky plants. Animal skulls. Lifeless. A great place for a Messiah to fast. For me, though, the desert is a place of beauty. Forests can feel crowded, suffocating beauty with a noisy positive space. But the desert has a minimalist beauty – a sense of negative space, a purity, a solitude, a place for perspective.

It might be an act of sacrilege to zip through the desert, fueled by a combustable engine. But right now I’m drawn toward the beauty of place and space and distance and everything else that my digital world cannot offer.

People. Places. Things.

Right now, it’s impossible right now to see a “friend” as a verb.  It is.  It exists.  A rhizome.

*      *     *

I’m nervous about visiting Dustin and Katie, because I don’t want them to feel used. I don’t want them to think they are a gimmick for a blog post. Instead, I want to include Dustin, because he is the only long distance friend who has ever made a conscious effort to remain connected despite the distance.

A few years back, they lived in Portland. We both got busy and I sort-of assumed the friendship had died, not out of malice, but from apathy.  One afternoon, while sorting through bills and colorful coupons and deceitful letters promising free cash, I saw a humble envelope written with a human hand.  Inside, Dustin had written a letter affirming who I was and how much he had valued our coffee-fueled conversations.

Dustin is that kind of a guy.  He’s thoughtful.  He’s intentional.  He knows what it means to value people over place or things or even the most pressing verbs.  The danger in social media is that we still feel connected despite the geographic space.  I read his status updates.  I occasionally comment on his blogs.  But we aren’t connecting.  Not really.  And I’m struck by the notion that a two hour drive is a small cost for a friendship that means the world to me.

As I drive to their home, I recognize that I haven’t planned this out.  This isn’t like Facebook.  There is no guarantee that they’ll be home.  I knock on the door and wait.  I knock again and wait.

I drive toward the hotel recognizing one of the real barriers toward deeper friendships: my lack of planning.  See, Facebook makes it easy.  Just click a button.  Post a comment.  Bam.  Friends are connected.  Right now, though, my complete lack of foresight and organization have prevented me from connecting with a close friend.

So, where do I go from here?  I could keep my distance.  I could write it off with a “that’s too bad.”  But I don’t want to.  Forget about Living Facebook for a moment.  I still want to reconnect with them.  I’ll just have to plan.  I’ll make some phone calls.  I’ll work out of an area of weakness (logistical thinking) because if the desert can convince me anything it’s that there is a very real minimalist beauty in a close band of friends with whom I will feel loyal to for a lifetime.

Day #37 – Friending My Father

Note: Christy will be sharing her experiences in joining a Mafia and commenting on photos (which we both did).  So, no, I didn’t forget how to count.

A few weeks into this project, Javi the Hippie and I run into my parents on the way to a pint-sized collaboration session.  I’m not sure how to navigate the two worlds colliding – both of them having a view of one another based entirely upon my own interpretation.

“They seem really nice,” he tells me, “but it seems as if you’re on slightly different frequencies.”

“What do you mean?”

“Like a similar station, but they’re AM and you’re FM.  Just different waves, that’s all.  Similar message, but a very different delivery.”

It’s a rare moment when real-life matches Facebook (I keep using the term “real-life” as if Facebook is a realm inhabited by unicorns, gnomes and other fantasy creatures).  On Facebook, my mom is my friend.  So are my old college classmates, childhood friends, former students and distant relatives.  I approach conversations unsure of which world will enter this vaguely undefined space.

It was strange for me the first time that my mom appeared as a friend.  Not that she’s unfriendly.  It’s just that I hadn’t seen her as anything other than my mom.  I had to rethink this concept of friendship for a moment and reconsider how our relationship had changed.  The conversations had become deeper.  I was hiding less.  And somehow, when she would stop by and we’d talk, I knew that she saw me as a grown-up and we shifted toward being equals.

So I call my dad up and ask for help with the sprinklers.  Within minutes, I admit that I don’t know what I’m doing.  Instead of shame, I experience a vague sense of relief. Instead of talking down to me, he talks as if we’re equals.  We’re working on a complicated project and I haven’t reverted back to an insecure twelve year old trying to prove something to someone who never once asked me to prove anything to him.

I think I sometimes missed that when I was younger.  I saw my dad as respected and competent and yet somehow rugged.  I didn’t see how someone who was so externally rough could be so internally gentle.  But he is.  In a very masculine way, he’s one of the most tender-hearted guys I know.

We share collective disappointment in leaky valves and collective joy when the sprinklers finally work.  We’re both impatient at moments, but we give one another the permission to be impatient.  I ask too many questions.  He gives directions with too many steps.  We’re imperfect together and for the first time I see that this is as good as it gets with my father – to be together, truly present, working toward a goal together.

I’m never truly comfortable with the work.  I never feel entirely at ease with dirt under my fingernails or long periods of conversational silence or the recognition that I am a bad student and a slow learner in something so vital to my family.

My hands still feel clumsy, but the relationship isn’t.   It doesn’t have that ethos of an awkward man hug.

As we drive toward Home Depot, he shares a part of him that I’ve never seen before.  No tears or anything.  Just a few honest thoughts about life.  He talks about aging and health and his future.  For a moment, I forget that he’s my dad.

On the drive home, we venture into politics.  It’s a verbal spar that got me into trouble at a younger age.  However, this time it’s different.  It’s humble.  The give and take is intense, but it includes common ground and nuance and paradox.  We both ask more questions this time.  More importantly, we give one another the permission to disagree.

As we enter my home, I’m struck by the fact that I like my dad.  I’ve always loved him, but I’ve wondered if we’d be friends if we met as strangers in a workplace.  Right now, though, I’m thinking we’d become friends.  Maybe he’d even become my mentor.  I’d come home and tell Christy, “I met this cool old guy at work.  He’s smart, but he’s practical and even though we see the world differently, there’s this strange sense in which we are so much alike.”

Quinn the Business Bohemian once defined a friend as someone who looks out for your best interest whether it feels good or not.  At the time, I blocked parents from the definition, but now I’m realizing that they fit this as well as anyone else.  So without an automated message, I managed to friend my father.

That evening when my kids are asleep, I flip on my Pandora station.  I listen to The Format’s “On Your Porch” and then I shut off the station, find the song on my iTunes and play it on repeat.  Tears stream down as I recall the memories of my childhood: playing on the boulders at Shaver Lake, late evening games of catch when he was wiped out from work, playing the “Snafu” on the Intellevision, funny stories and footsie pajamas, icy cold games at Candlestick Park and the sense that my dad was so clearly present and loving and strong.

And he still is.

Day Twenty-Six: Making Friends at Target

Christy decides ahead of time that she’ll make friends with the cashier at Target.  She gets as nervous as I do about it, though for different reasons.  She’s scared of breaking social boundaries.  I’m scared of being social with strangers (even as a child, when we would “share the peace,” I preferred to keep the peace to myself).

She second-guesses the friend request for a moment when she realizes that the cashier is a little bit slower mentally (I can’t think of a politically correct way to write that) and she’s scared that it will look as though she’s messing with him.

“Did you find everything okay?”

“Yes,” she says.

“Is there anything you need?”

“Yeah, but I’m forgetting something, but I can’t remember what it is.”

“I can’t help you with those kinds of things.  I’m not your hairdresser or nail person.”

“Well, you can be my friend. I was wondering if you’d accept a friend request.”  She then explains what all is required of a Living Facebook friend.

“Okay.  I accept it.”

“My status is that I just got some great deals. Want to comment on it?”

He shakes his head.

“What’s your status update?”

“My status update is that I just had a customer twenty minutes ago who ruined my numbers.  I was a one hundred and they just took their precious time and now I’m at a ninety eight.”

“Can I comment on that?”

“Yes.”

“That’s too bad.  I think you’re a great cashier.”

“You can also leave a comment over there,” he points to the customer service booth.

So she meanders over and asks for a comment card.  “Hey, what’s that cashier’s name over there?” She points back.  The woman gets a guarded look, as if to say, “you’d better not be complaining about him.” Christy finishes filling out the card, but the woman is gone.  I guess it’s possible in real life to scroll past comments.

Christy thinks this is something we should do when the experiment is over.  We could pay closer attention to the people around us and quit treating service workers like vending machines.  We could write letters to the managers or leave comment cards at customer service.  True, we can become a fan of the Target corporation, but it’s at the human, local level that it matters.

It has me thinking about education reform.  Random, perhaps.  But perhaps the greatest change that needs to happen is not the latest tech or the inclusion of social media, but a recovery of the human element.  It has me thinking about the moments (testing season comes to mind) when I felt isolated in a box like a vending machine, checking out the ScanTronned minds until we all felt like a commodity.  And I’m struck that it was often a comment from a student or a parent that pushed me back toward remembering that education is not a business.  It’s a relationship.

Day Twenty: Friending and Sharing Revisited

A group of retirees sit at a table and debate the debt ceiling.  I doubt Washington will be consulting these gurus, but they don’t care.  It’s a game where points are won through logic and humor, where talking over another is the norm and where no one bothers to ask questions.  It sounds like a bad case of real-life cable news and maybe it is – except that they pull it off with an implied wink that you’d never see from Glenn Beck.

I’m shaky nervous as I set up my MacBook.  Brenna sounds out the noises of each farm animal.  My mentor Brad the Philosopher once told me that courage begins small, in tackling tiny fears in everyday life.  It’s a habit, like washing your hands or shooting up heroine.

I’m outnumbered, though, and that makes it all the more terrifying.

I breathe deeply, stand up and gesture toward them.  “Hey, I have a funny video.  Anyone want to see it?”

For all the contentious debate among them, each man looks toward the other for guidance in this simple decision.  One man shrugs his shoulder, giving the group the go-ahead.  Maybe it’s generational.  Perhaps those raised in an era of front porches and social clubs don’t see anything odd about watching a short video with a stranger.  Or maybe it’s Brenna.  An eighteen month old can be pretty disarming.

We walk over to a clip of The Onion News Network.  The men laugh collectively, on cue at each joke.

“That was funny.  Thanks for sharing it,” a man says.

Another man pulls out a small pad of paper and writes down “watch videos from the onion on http://www.youtube.com.”  I don’t have the heart to tell him that no one uses www. anymore.   I sit down at the table and allow Brenna to listen to “Tree By the River.”

She dances.

I’m jealous. I’m wishing I wasn’t so easily embarrassed to be myself in public.

* * *

It’s been years since I made a new friend.  I’m very comfortable with my small circle of unwavering mutual admiration. However, in doing the Living Facebook Experiment, I’m realizing that “making friends” is something deep and profound that I’ve sort-of neglected as a result of family life and social media.  I “meet” people on Twitter, for example, but I have very few people who truly know the unvarnished version of me.

So I call an acquaintance.  I’m terrified.  The phone slips from my sweaty palms.  Truth is that I get this way every time I have to make a phone conversation.  It could be my naturally introverted nature.  Or maybe the years of being yelled at when working customer service.

“Is Tim there?” I ask.

“That’s me,” he says.

“Hey, this is John Spencer.”

“What’s up?” he asks.

“Well, I’m sending you a friend request.  We’re pretty good acquaintances, but I think we should be friends.”

“I’ll accept that friend request and give you a thumbs up,” he explains.

We decide on a time to meet for a pint. Friendship is never that easy.  I get that.  It happens in layers.  However, whether it’s the sense of relational isolation or the distance from community, I am beginning to see that the first real layer is fear.  And it strikes me as odd that in doing something completely irrational (like Living Facebook), I am facing the greater irrational fear that has come to feel so normal to me.

Day Twelve: Tell Me Your Friend Count

I ask Silent Boy for his friend count. He’s back from a long stint at the alternative school and most of his answers are monosyllabic utterances or the Darth Vader death stare so I figure this might be a decent ice breaker.

“How many friends do you have?” I ask again.  He looks away.

I move on to another student.  “Hey, how many friends do you have?” I ask.  It’s not as awkward as it sounds.  Students are used to teachers asking questions that are deeper, more personal and more random than what we ask from fellow adults.

“In real life?” he asks.

“No, in Middle Earth,” another boy interrupts.

“Okay.  Probably three hundred,” he answers.

“Like the movie?” I ask.

“Yeah, I have three hundred friends.”

“I have nine,” I tell him.

“List them for me,” he says.  As I begin to list my friends, he counts them off and tells me that my friend count is higher than what I had first expected.  It’s not three hundred, but I’ll take eleven.

*     *     *

I ask a teacher for his friend count and he says, “What do you mean by friend?”

“My mentor Brad the Philosopher says that they’re your pall bearers.  They’re the ones who would drop everything to carry your casket at a funeral.”

“What if you want to be cremated?”

“Then I guess you don’t need as many friends.”

“Good, because I have three friends.  We’ve known each other forever.”  He wears this as a badge of honor and for a moment I’m jealous.  I wish I had people who not only know my story, but have lived it for their lifetime.  And yet, there is something tragic in reaching an age where you add drinking buddies and quit making friends.

*      *     *

When we come back from lunch, I ask a student to quantify her friends.  She asks me to define friendship.  In fact, aside from the student with three hundred friends, everybody I ask wants a clarification on the meaning of friendship.  It’s the layers of meaning, the nuance of definitions and the ambiguity of relationships that I miss social networks.  In real-life, I might consider a person a close friend while that same person considers me a close acquaintance.  Facebook forces us into a rigid, bland definition of friend and then pushes us to share our lists with the entire world.

So I tell this student about Brad the Philosopher’s definition and she says, “I don’t have any friends.  I got burned last year.  I don’t know if I can trust anyone.  So, no, I don’t have any friends.”

A small group gathers around as students work on their independent projects.  We discuss the nature of friendship, the risk in engaging in relational conflict and the question of whether it would be better to live a pain-free lonely life or to fully engage and experience the emotional pain of an imperfect humanity.

In the midst of the discussion, Silent Boy stops by and says, “Two.  The answer is two.”

“What do you mean?”

“I have two friends. Unless you count people who have died.  Then I have three.”  I start thinking about friends, about space, about our mortality.

“What happens to your Facebook when you die?” a boy asks.

“I don’t know.”

“Doesn’t your cyber footprint last forever?  I heard that when you delete your account they still keep it.”

“Maybe that’s the promise of Facebook.  Maybe it’s our chance to feel immortal,” I say.

*     *     *

When I arrive at home, Christy and I ask her brother about his friend count.  What begins as a list becomes a time of sharing stories.  That’s another layer missing in social media.  It’s a narrative-free medium.  Or if it is a narrative, it’s one of those disjointed, postmodern Memento style stories where nothing makes sense until you see the end.

Later that evening, I go to a church meeting and wonder if this group of guys qualify as a circle of friends yet.  I leave at ten and stop by a convenient store to pick up a candy bar for a student’s birthday.  A few homeless people people chat about the weather.  I want to ask them about their friend counts, but at the last second I walk away.

“Hey, do you mind me asking how many friends you have?” I ask.

Silence.

“I’m doing Facebook in-person,” I stammer.  “I have nine friends.”

“I just moved here and I work two jobs,” he says.

“So, not too many friends?” I ask.

“Your total is $1.09,” he answers.

I drive home thinking about friends.  I’ve lost touch with four friends here in town, but the existence of Facebook allows me to feel as if we’re still connected.  I read their status updates.  That’s enough, right?  It has me thinking of the couples that Christy and I have lost touch with.  Maybe we need to the Facebook thing and invite them over to reconnect over some eggplant parmesan.

It has me thinking about my interactions with strangers, too.  I could blame social media for creating a system where we don’t know our neighbors.  However, I think it goes back further than that.  Perhaps it started with industrialization and urbanization.  We started building compartments and then living in tidy boxes until eventually we had created assembly line lives.

Or maybe the real issue is more primitive.  Maybe we’re perpetually lonely because that’s part of the human condition.  Perhaps it goes back to our mythology.  Babel babble.  We can’t communicate.  Or further still.  We’ve left the garden and we’re scared to be naked.

The light is on when I get home. I cuddle up next to Christy.  She’s asleep.  She’s beautiful.  I hold her as close as I possibly can.  Screw the numbers.  Screw the friend counts.  Forget the followers or subscribers.  I’m next to my closest friend.

Before dozing off, I think back to Facebook.  The one thing social media cannot provide is intimacy.

Day Eight: Tell Me Your Personal Information

After figuring out my Living Facebook experiment, A student recruits me to a game that he and a student created.

“It’s Homeless Soccer,” he explains.

“And it’s a real sport, because someone has already gotten hurt.”  Apparently injuries are the litmus test for athletic endeavors.

The student then explains to me the rules.  It’s essentially one part soccer, one part air hockey and it involves kicking a smashed soda can around on the pavement.

“Will you help me score a goal?” another student asks.

“Can you join my team?”  the other side implores.

And so it goes, the game moving virally from four students up to twenty.  Each time a new recruit joins the game, the student says, “If you want to play this game, I need access to your personal information.  Give me your name, your religion, your sexual orientation and the name of at least two friends.”

Most students stare at him blankly and so he says, “Well, that’s good enough.”

Finally a lunch lady steps in and blows the whistle.  “You can’t play with that.  Put it in recycling.”

“We are recycling,” the game’s creator explains.

The lunch lady gives him the mad-dog-Darth-Vader death stare and the boy sets it down.  Perhaps she’s right.  Homeless Soccer can be pretty dangerous.

And yet . . .

Few people question the danger in playing imaginary games online and missing out on the beauty of face-to-face  interaction.  Meanwhile, I can see the appeal of Facebook games.  It’s fun to be invited to play.  It’s dodge ball all over again and you’ve been picked.

*     *     *

The next day I’m at the park with Micah and Brenna.  A four year-old girl asks Micah, “Will you be my best friend?”

“Okay,” he says. “I’m Micah.”

“Do you have any friends?” she asks. He rattles off the names of any children he can remember and then she follows suit.

“I have a brother named Joel,” he says.  Minutes later, “I go to church.  I’m in the Lambs class.”  Then he asks her if she likes Kung Fu Panda. 

“It’s funny,” she giggles.  “Do you like Twisted.”  Micah shares his address with her and she promises to visit at some point.  It won’t happen, but in the moment, they don’t care.

Neither of them apply any privacy filter.  Instead, they rattle off personal details in a way that adults would never consider.  Perhaps it’s a safer way to live, applying privacy filters.  It’s probably a good thing that we don’t make “best friends” at public parks or share our personal lives with strangers.

However, I’m wondering if I have it all backwards.  I’ll give a nameless, faceless company complete access to my Facebook profile so that I can play free Tetris.  However, I have not shared the most surface-level attributes of myself to my neighbors.  Google knows more about me than most of my co-workers.  My dad had no idea I had written a book until a month ago, while Amazon knows not only what books I’ve written but how many sales I’ve had.

It has me thinking that maybe I need to share my story with fewer corporations and more humans.

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Day Six: I’m a Fan of Your Business

I don’t know who this guy is, but it seems to capture how I felt today.

I walk into Ranch Market across the street with an autograph book and a camera.

“I’m a big fan of Ranch Market,” I tell the lady at Customer Service.

“Yes, we don’t sell fans here.  Try Wal-Mart,” she explains.

“No, me.  I like Ranch Market,” I tell her.

She nods her head and says, “I like the Ranch Market, too.”

“Can you sign for the company?”

“No, no,” she shakes her head.

Fail.

*     *     *

Christy tries the Postal Service. She chooses the socialized mail system and not the band with the Mario-Brothers-Meets-Death-Cab-For-Cutie sound.

“Nice weather,” the lady says.

“Yeah, I’m a fan of this weather.”

“Me, too.”

“I’m a fan of the post office,” she explains.

“We don’t get that too often.” The postal worker is right.  People tend to make assumptions about their service, despite the fact that they tend to run things pretty well.

*     *     *

I plan to stop by In-N-Out, but instead I have to settle for QT.  It’s the Taj Mahal of convenience stores.  Or maybe not.  I suppose that would make it one part cheap fountain drinks and one part mausoleum and they’d probably lose customers if they started housing the dead bodies by the warmed-up taquitos.

“Hey, I’m a big fan of QT,” I tell the man by the counter.

“Me, too.  They pay really well.”  I bet they do*.

“I like the fact that you can choose between, I don’t know, seventy different flavors of soda.”

“Yeah,” he says.

“Can you sign for the company?”

“I’m sorry. I can’t do that.”

“Can I take my picture with QT?”

“No, they don’t let people take pictures here.”

“Sorry,” I tell him, recognizing how ridiculous I look.

“It’s a crazy rule.  They act like this is sacred ground or something.”

He rings up my order and I hang my head in dejection.  Turns out it’s harder to be a fan of a company than I had thought.  For all the signs I’ve been seeing where companies implore me to follow them on Twitter or become a fan of them on Facebook, I’m recognizing that the average transnational company is the equivalent of a high-paid supermodel.  We want to believe we know them, because we know the image they’ve portrayed and the intimate stories through their public relations efforts.  But therein lies the problem.  Public relations.  It’s impossible to have a relationship with an image.

As I grow older and more sophisticated, it’s easy to think that I’ve gotten past the Tony the Tiger stage.  I tend to think of Target or Starbucks as a mechanical “it.”  However, in subtle ways, I still to buy into the myth that I can have a relationship with the impersonal.  I perk up when I see the circular green star-headed sea lady offering me a sensual experience for a couple of bucks.

Perhaps it’s because humans are designed to be relational and in a world where social media pushes us to develop an image, create a brand and market our lives, the line between business and personal continues to blur and thus we try and find meaning through identifying with external brands.  At one time “corporate” was a word used for the sacred.  Now we’ve taken the corporate and made it sacred.

Follow-up: I’m going to become a fan of Cartwright Elementary School Administrators tomorrow.  Perhaps I’ll write some fan mail to my favorite companies.  Screw you, QT and your corporate diva mentality.  My first letter is going to In-N-Out.  After that, I’m thinking Sprouts and maybe Heath Bars. 


*My friend Quinn the Business Bohemian thinks QT might be a cult.  First they give people a high salary and a graveyard shift, forcing people to abandon friends and family.  They all wear matching uniforms and they hang out together.  Then the company offers to pay for the workers’ health care.  For my part, I think they’re colonizing the city.  Ever watched what they do?  They completely demolish the competition and set up their own cookie cutter stores, ruling the area with an air of effeciency.  QT has picked up where Great Britain left off.

photo credit: K.Muncie on Flickr Creative Commons

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