Day Twenty-Three: An Impromptu In-Person #edchat

Facebook is essentially a non-stop party where everyone you’ve ever known is invited, only a fraction of them show up and instead of joining the party, they start their own simultaneous party.  It’s a reversal of the compartmentalized life that we live in-person.  Therefore, it’s always fun to me when I engage in a conversation with a friend from college, a former student, a family member and a co-worker.  However, it gets tricky, because I’m never sure what type of comment will offend a particular subset of friends and if I’m not careful, my Facebook can resemble anti-social media.

So, we gather together a fairly random sample of friends for Joel’s birthday party.  It’s not deliberate, really.  It’s just that, being six years old, Joel doesn’t categorize friends into separate groups that might be offended by one another.  As long as you don’t call him fart face or stupid head, you pretty much remain in his circle of friends.

We’re united, not by religious, political or social affiliation, but for the fact that we’re all pretty fond of Joel and we’re proud of him for staying alive another year.  (At this age, it’s not much of an accomplishment, in ninety years, it will be a huge deal). It’s a convergence of our community among friends, neighbors, family and church.  Thus, I’m not sure how to navigate conversation among such a diverse group.  It’s my home, so house rules should suffice.  But it’s not that easy.

I try, at first, to talk about the weather.  It’s hot.  I get it.  Somehow talking about it makes it feel hotter.  I try sports.  Epic fail.  I’ll keep away from politics or religion.  And, within a few minutes, I realize that our movie-going experiences are entirely exhausted after talking about a few Pixar flicks.

Somehow the conversation shifts to the quality of a child’s school.  When it looks like a potentially intense debate about public versus charter schools (and I’m wondering if it will get into home schooling or unschooling), I ask, “So, what’s the purpose of an education?”

“It’s about learning to think better,” someone says.

“Yeah, but it’s more than just thinking.  I want my kids to learn to empathize.  I want them to act better.  So I guess I want something that’s holistic.”

“I think we’re missing character education,” another parent explains.

“I disagree with you.  If you make it that broad, nothing gets done.  You want a holistic education?  Let the parents do that.  You want to instill values, teach your kid values.  But when my son goes to school, I want him to learn math and reading and writing.”

“Yes, but that can be within the context of a holistic education . . . ”

And so it goes, a respectful dialogue from a group that hardly knows each other.  True, it’s more like a Twitter #edchat than a Facebook wall post, but it’s that rare moments when we get an in-person, small group conversation that challenges each person’s presuppositions on a topic that really matters.  And I’m struck that there’s as much or more ideological diversity here in my kitchen than there is in a global #chat.

It has me thinking that perhaps the most powerful part of social media is the potential for us to engage in hard conversations without keeping people in ideological compartments. We have the opportunity to use social media to challenge what we believe if we use it for respectful debate rather than a groupthink echo chamber.

Day Ten: Song Lyric Updates

Trendy hipsters are quick to mock the monolithic, transnational Wal-Mart.  It’s even easier now that they’ve tried to humanize their image.  (It’s a bit like Data trying to be Mr. Rogers) For what it’s worth, I like Wal-Mart.  It’s the only place you can get a “The Right to Arm Bears” shirt, a pair of briefs with the Superman logo on the crotch, a bullet blender, a mango and a five dollar copy of Big (which, in my opinion, was the pinnacle of Tom Hanks’s career).

Wal-Mart is unpretentious, unfiltered and unvarnished.  I didn’t shave today, but no one cares.  I might have forgotten to wear deodorant.  A minor problem, but not a significant one.  I’m right within my element.

*      *      *

I have a number of friends who quote song lyrics as their status updates, which means that I can instantly recognize that Dan floats like a cannonball or that Quinn agrees with Thrice’s claim that “we can’t medicate man to perfection again.”  I struggle with song lyric updates, because I never know what to write beyond, “dude, I like that song.”  However, when it’s an artist that I don’t know, I feel like I’m now outside of a club of music insiders.

So I peruse the television section and turn to the lady next to me, “This MTV is not for free.  It’s so PC it’s killing me, so desperately,” but she scurries away.  Holy crap! I’ve managed to be the creepiest person in all of Wal-Mart.  There’s has to be some kind of a badge for that.

I look to Brenna and start talking the lyrics to an Iron and Wine song.  It’s a somber tune about our mortality and the naturalistic resurrection of a fern.  Brenna claps her hands and babbles back to me.  Fellow consumers offer their disapproval through the distinct body language of tapping toes and shaking heads.  I’m struck that out-of-context spoken song lyrics cannot be ignored in a big box store the way they are ignored on Facebook.

Perhaps context matters.

When I speak the lyrics to “Rocket Man,” a fellow shopper speaks the lyrics back to me.

“Sort-of feel like what’s his face, Captain Kirk, when he speaks those songs,” she says.  I say nothing, because I’m suddenly consumed by unforeseen shame.  It’s an awkward interaction in the paint aisle, but she finishes the lines with, “Yeah, I think it’s going to be a long long time.”

When I arrive to the cash register, the cashier says, “It’s packed here.”

I reach for a contextual tune.  “All the lonely people.  Where do they all come from?”

“I love that song,” he says.

“Me, too.”

“I grew up listening to the Beatles on vinyl.  I think my dad through them all into a pile for Goodwill.  Imagine that.”  It’s the rare moment when a comment mimics the type of comment someone would leave on Facebook.

“Wow, that’s a lot of money down the drain.”

“Yeah, imagine that.”  Then he speaks out a line from “Imagine.”  Something about no possessions.  It might be the most anti-Wal-Mart conversation that’s even taken place here.

Bizarre, perhaps, but one of the best parts of this experiment is that I’m seeing the human side of retail jobs.  I never realized just how arrogant I’ve gotten in the way I treat “service” people as invisible Untouchables.  It’s humbling.

Day Nine: Random Updates

Christy sends a text message to our next door neighbor explaining that our new floors look great and that things have been crazy.  The friend seems puzzled, but then shares his own status update.  “It was odd and it was random, but it struck me as sad that we live next door and we rarely interact.”

“Is it just a difference in interests?”

“Maybe.  Or schedules.  We grew up around each other, though.  So it’s odd to lose touch with someone who is in such close proximity.”

Status Updates #1-2

Throughout the week, I have given random status updates in random locations.  When I shared my thoughts on Yo Gabba Gabba seeming like a pothead program, six people left comments.  Everybody gave it a thumbs up.  The same comment in the staff lounge led to the following interaction:

“That was random,” a teacher says.

“Yeah,” another replies.

“My kids love that show.  They don’t smoke pot on it, either.”

“Yeah, but it has that pothead feel, right?”

“Um, I’ve never smoked marijuana,” she says.  I’m going to guess that she’s telling the truth. Anyone who calls it marijuana probably hasn’t smoked it.

Minutes later, I try out another status update that had once been popular on Facebook.  This time I preface it with a warning, “This is random, but People need to learn the difference between figurative and literal.  Sorry kid, but nobody ‘literally’ left crap all of your desk.  Trust me, we would know.”

This time they laugh.  “I once heard John Madden talk about how the Packers had a literally explosive defense.  I kept waiting for the limbs to fly at Lambeau Field. ”

It’s a quick reminder that context matters.  On Facebook, I shout out my status updates to anyone who has ever known me.  In person, I am limited by the context and its implied norms, values and shared interests.

Status Update #3

“I remember, as a child, when I would sing about God having the whole world in his hands. Now for a small monthly fee, I can have the entire world at the palm of my hands.  I could, but should I?”

Nobody responds to this on Facebook.  Nobody.  Not a single, solitary thumbs-up.  Perhaps when Facebook asks me, “What are you thinking?” the answer is supposed to be a quip about traffic or a musing on the beauty of cake.  Maybe Facebook, inhabiting this transgeographic space is already developing its own social norms.

However, when I share this same musing with a random stranger in a park, he says, “I know what you mean, man.  I think cell phones are from the devil.”

I laugh, but he looks at me seriously.

“Are you serious?” I ask him.

“Yeah.  Look, I’m a pastor and I can tell you that this thing,” he holds out his Blackberry.  “This thing is a curse.”  People have answered their phones in counseling sessions.”

“Yeah, but you really think this is the devil’s fault?”

“You can never tell.  But think about it.  If you were in charge of all evil things, wouldn’t you want to take parents away from kids by giving them something fun?  Yeah, Satan could cause an earthquake, I’m sure.  But that brings people together.  Naw, if he really wants to pull people apart, he’d work for the Apple store.”

Status Update #4

I write out, “Is the end of the world supposed to happen in one time zone first? Because, if the Brits get raptured first, I’m pissed. #patrioticamerican”

Three people re-tweet it.  Nine people give me a thumbs up.  A woman in Great Britain reminded me that they’re all screwed, because they’re not a particularly religious country.  A conversation developed among former students, online friends, good acquaintances and a few family members regarding the “rolling rapture” (think of a wave at a sporting event).

Hours later, I share with the cashier, “Is the end of the world supposed to happen in one time zone first? Because, if the Brits get raptured first, I’m pissed.”

She laughs and then stops herself and looks away.  “You know, I claim to be tolerant of other religions.  I say that I believe in relativity. I say that we should show tolerance, but I’ve been real quick to mock these people.  If anything, they deserve some sympathy.”

Silence.

We say nothing while the conveyer belt hums and the machine beeps out its solemn pronunciation that, yes, indeed, the onion registered correctly.

*     *     *

I feel torn between a deep criticism of Facebook and a certain gratitude for the role it plays in my life.

Facebook allows me to scream out my random thoughts to anyone who knows who I am.  But do I need a megaphone to share my thoughts?  How many people really need to hear what I have to say?  For millenia, people have wanted circus to amuse them in their leisure time.  What strikes me as odd about Facebook is that we have become the circus.  We are the entertainment.

When people ask me, in person, how I am doing, I lie.  “Fine,” or “good” will suffice.  Occasionally I have the permission to say that I’m tired (though I usually don’t, because people turn it into a one-up game of who has had less sleep).  Yet, I freely share how I am doing at least once a day on Facebook.  It’s as if Facebook is meeting a conversational void created by an industrial society.

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Day Seven: I Had Bratwurst Tonight

Monday:
I take a deep breath and pick up the phone. People on Facebook are always explaining what they eat, so
“Hey, I’m having bratwurst,” I tell an acquaintance.
“Okay,” he says.
“I just thought you should know,” I awkwardly explain.
“Is this a confession?” he asks.
“Sure.”
“Well, eat without guilt. You could die tomorrow.”
“Thanks.”
“Have fun with your bratwurst. Okay, that didn’t come out right. Enjoy your brawts.”

Minutes later I call up Quinn the Business Bohemian. I stall for a moment when I hear the answering message about travelling to Europe. “Hey Quinn, I just thought I would update you on my status. I’m eating bratwurst and chips for dinner. Not sure how that fits into the food pyramid. So, yeah, just thought you should know.”

Finally I call my brother-in-law and recognize what’s missing. I don’t practice random hospitality. I feel this obsessive need to show that I have it all together before someone visits the house. However, with David I go an alternative route. “I have tons of bratwurst and I’m bored. Want to come over?”

Tuesday:
I call Quinn the Business Bohemian and explain, “Just thought I would update you on my status. I know you’re out of town, but I thought you should know what I’m eating. I made this random soup from the leftover roast. It has carrots and tomatoes and black beans and onions. Pretty much any random item in the fridge. I might at some rice to it. Oh, and I added spices.”

An hour later, I tell the neighbors, “I made a soup from the roast.”
“Sounds tasty,” she says.
“It turned out pretty good. I just tossed in a bunch of random things.”
“Like a garbage stew?”
“I wouldn’t call it garbage, but that’s the idea,” I tell her.
“I’d love to try a bite,” she says.
So, I give her a bowl and she gushes about how great it is. This beats

Wednesday:
It’s chicken nuggets and steamed vegetables. I’m so badly wishing it was meatloaf so that I could at least crack a joke about eighties power ballads.
“Just calling to tell you my status. I’m feeding my kids some chicken nuggets,” I tell a friend.
“Are they home-made?” he asks.
“No, they’re warmed up in the microwave.”
“Sometimes you run out of time and you just have to go with stuff from a package.”
“Crazy thing is they’ll like this better than if I made a casserole.”
“True.”

I explain to a former co-worker, “Status update. I’m eating a stew.”
“You sound pretty normal for having food in your mouth.”
“Well, it’s not in right now.”
“What kind of stew is it?”
“It’s actually a goulage, which I think is a fancy word for soup. I’m not sure how it’s spelled, though. It can’t be gulag. That’s a Russian prison camp.”
“Interesting.”
“Well, have a nice day,” he tells me.
“You, too.”

Thursday:
I tell Javi the Hippie about my dinner. He tells me that Boston Market once gave him the runs for a week. This forces me to give him a private message that he just ruined my dinner. I suggest, however, that he should have the roast I just made. We end up deciding on sharing a pint.

*     *     *

My friend Brad the Philosopher runs a hospitality house with his wife. He once described the loneliness that soldiers face and by the end of his description, I was in tears.  He said that we’re dying for tangible community.  It’s why we need to eat after a funeral and why Jesus shared a meal in his last hours with his friends.  When I was in college Brad and Debbie used to have college students over for dinner every night.  I never felt closer to a community than in those times and the food was a major contributor.

I once mocked people who give meal-based Facebook status.  And maybe there’s reason for the mockery.  However, I’m recognizing that there is something profound in the simple act of breaking bread (it’s why I’m opposed to sliced bread).  Perhaps we update people with what we’re eating, because on a more visceral level, we want to share a meal.

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