Tuesday, February 21, 2012
A Thousand Of My Closest Friends
Tuesday, February 21, 2012
“Who’s that nun holding the fish?” I wonder aloud as I see the photo on my Facebook page. And why is that guy telling me and everyone else what he thinks of Bobby Brown? Why does my daughter keep griping about how cold it is in northern Michigan (especially since it’s all the way up into the 20s)? And that guy with same name as me—he posts every day about nothing in particular, except that he does it in Dutch, which makes it seem even more odd and remote.
And why do I keep going on to Facebook? What am I looking for? Until now I’ve stayed off the subject of Facebook, which I became involved in only recently. I’ve considered the fact that I have a blog, which is perhaps only a more drawn-out and verbose version of Facebook. Who am I to cast stones here, when I have a page dedicated to long attenuated rants on whatever is in my head at the time? At least the people who post on Facebook say only a sentence or two. And I’ve considered the possiblity that whoever is reading this is thinking very much the same thing about me that I’m thinking about the nun with the fish, the guy with the opinion of Bobby Brown, my Florida daughter visiting the north, and the Dutch guy with the same name as mine.
The Dutchman, by the way, is one of two people with the name Peter Teeuwissen on my “friends” list, and the only reason I befriended—or more accurately “friended”—them is that we share the same first and last names and have never heard of each other. In Holland, ancient land of the Teeuwissens, this is perhaps no big deal, but where I come from it qualifies as pretty damn close to amazing, or at least weird and unsettling, like discovering your doppelganger. Part of the reason I added the two Peter Teeuwissens, I must confess, other than trying to find out if they’re shirt tail relatives, is that I have comparatively few friends on Facebook. At present I have a paltry 50 of them, including my children, a grandson, and several cousins and cousins-in-law. And also the Dutch guys who may or may not be cousins. Perhaps we’ll never know if we are, and in the meantime I’ll keep reading their daily postings that say things like “Voel me ineens oud..." which, thanks to Facebook’s handy built-in translator, I know means “I feel suddenly old.” It’s written above a photo of an audio cassette and a pencil. The photo bears the legend, in English, “Our children will never know the link between the two.” I had to think about that for a minute. First I assumed it was about the relationship between an instrument of the primitive technology of communication (pencil) and a piece of the obsolete technology of communication (cassette). Then it hit me. I was analyzing it the wrong way. The pencil is for rewinding the cassette. Cute.
Some of the people I visit on Facebook have hundreds, even thousands, of friends. I wonder about this. Does anyone really have that many friends? At present I think I know every one of my Facebook friends personally, except for the two Dutch guys. I suppose I could have quite a few more friends if I went with the “any friend of yours is a friend of mine” philosophy. Sometimes I’m tempted to do that, knowing the people with thousands of friends already will probably accept my offer of friendship, if for no other reason than to augment their friend numbers. I could go through that interminable list they have on Facebook, the one of all the people in the world who are friends with at least one of your friends. I could invite every one of them to be my friend and would surely get several hundred, maybe even a thousand, new friends. American friends, French friends, Dutch friends, Belgian friends, Arab friends. Kids, dogs, retirees. Hey wait, I think, I’ll bet that’s what other people do. Then I think, No, maybe they really do have more friends than I do. Then I start to feel comparatively friendless. It’s a vicious cycle. Would I feel more connected to the world if I had a thousand friends on Facebook, or would I feel phony and get pissed off as I’m assaulted by trivia from people I don’t even know? I could always block their comments and keep them as friends simply to impress myself and maybe others. And I could “unfriend” most of them, I suppose. I’ve done that in a few instances. But do people know when they’ve been unfriended? They must, since their friend totals go down. Is it considered unfriendly to unfriend someone, or just par for the course—necessary housecleaning, like paring down the Christmas card list? That can be a trap for the unwary, because just when you’ve got your list down to a manageable several dozen you get a card from someone you took off the list. Is there a way to unfriend someone without seeming to be cutting them? I don’t mind not having lots of friends nearly as much as I mind being thought of as unfriendly.
I have even fewer blog followers (called “members”) than I do Facebook friends. I have just 36 of them, at least of ones who have declared themselves to be followers. I don’t know some of them at all. I do know that at least one of them has been dead for over a year. And one is signed in twice. So that leaves 34 living, separate beings. And I’m pretty sure that close to half of them only followed for a time and have ceased doing so, and that half of the other half are sporadic readers. I started the blog as a log of my travels across the country. Now that I’m done walking for the present there’s less to say and fewer people to read it. This, and the rest of the postings I’ve done over the past year, could be likened to a more profane version of a weekly column in one of those small local shopping newspapers you see on the molded fiberglas seats in a laundromat. Andy Rooney-esque mutterings from an amateur. “Did you ever wonder” stuff, minus the Seinfeldian punchlines and delivery. Long musings going nowhere anymore, instead of twenty miles forward each day.
I begin to think of the comment from my namesake in the Netherlands. “Voel me ineens oud . . .” I feel suddenly old. That puts me in mind of T.S. Eliot. “I grow old . . . I grow old.” Prufrock, aging and alone, even in a crowd. Maybe I could use more commiseration, even if it’s in a foreign language. Maybe I could use more friends, readers, fellow travelers through life, telling me about the big fish they’ve caught, the cold they are feeling, their cats and horses, the gigs their bands are playing, their aches and pains. If I had a thousand of them on Facebook would they be any less real than if I had a thousand friends in the flesh? Would I then begin to crave solitude instead of the company of so many? Like those New York and Hollywood types we’re always reading about whose houses are filled with sycophants and hangers on, who throw parties for several hundred of their nearest and dearest. “Dahling,” they say, giving each a peck on the cheek. Then they talk to the same five or ten friends they always talk to. Meanwhile out at the pool people they barely know are drinking and splashing. There, at least, they come because they want and need proximity to the host, the hub of the wheel. Or they need to be close to free food and booze. “I have heard the mermaids singing each to each. . . I do not think that they will sing for me.”
I decide to leave Facebook and such dreary contemplation alone and gravitate toward what I consider to be the more concrete and real part of the Internet, my email. Real letters, or their modern equivalents, from people I know, and who know me. I click on AOL and glance at the home page first to get a dose of the latest news. There’s a blurred picture of a man, obviously filmed with a phone or a personal camera. In the middle of the image is a box with an arrow, on which I'm supposed to click. Underneath the picture it says, “Watch: He Has No Idea He’s In For Monkey Attack.” So much for the news. Then I sign in to the email. It says I have seven messages. Two are from Bed Bath and Beyond. (How did I get on their mailing list?) One each from Southwest and Delta airlines—“It’s time for your spring getaway vacation.” One from Johns Hopkins medical school about the latest research. One says “Vjagra 0.90. Cjalis 1.80. Our stores provide good pills for good price.” As I delete it I picture someone at a computer in Bosnia. Wonder what the weather’s like right now in Bosnia? The seventh and last email is to me personally. It’s an electronic bill. Then the U.S. mail arrives. Same thing. Six ads from banks and requests for money from charities for every piece of first class mail, and that’s usually a bill.
Maybe 50 relatives and friends I actually know on Facebook isn’t such a bad number. It's a pretty well-thought-out list, inclusive but not overwhelming. There’s the nun with the fish, who is really one of my oldest and dearest friends, a man who just happens to be cowled in some sort of winter fishing garb out on a cold river in northern Michigan so that only his face is showing as he shows off his catch. And my friend who bitches about Bobby Brown and other celebrities and about sports teams he doesn’t like but was a kind and helpful colleague when I was in the working world. And my daughter, whom I love even though I don’t care about most of what she writes. And the two Dutchmen who may, after all, be my third cousins once removed. These are no random acquaintances, no casual hangers-on doing lines of coke in my upstairs bathroom, no Kato Kaelins at my house on Rockingham. Were I to expand the list I would be spending most of my time wondering who the hell these people are who are talking about politics I don’t believe in, bragging about grandchildren I’m never going to meet, showing me photos of animals I don’t care about, and contemplating their navels. "Shall I part my hair behind? Do I dare to eat a peach?" I get enough of that already, but if I started receiving multiples of it from strangers it would be far worse. It would be like one of those commercials they're currently running for satellite TV. “When you have a thousand friends on Facebook, you don’t really know anyone. When you don’t really know anyone you become depressed and have to get shock treatments. When you get shock treatments they tie you down to a table and put something in your mouth to keep you from biting your tongue and your memory is partially erased. Don’t have a partially erased memory. Keep your Facebook friends list short.”