Monday, March 26, 2018

Defending the Indefensible

My freshman year of college, thirty-nine years ago, I walked across the hall to the dorm room opposite mine. A guy in there - a tall guy, all arms and legs and ears - was folded on one of those tiny beds they issue, guitar in lap, playing an Arlo Guthrie tune and singing. I think we played the rest of the evening. Thirty-some years later, we are reconnected, and I know about his son, named for one of the artists whose songs we sang that night, his lovely wife, and their interesting life together.

I went out briefly with the 'tender at a bar I used to frequent, maybe, twenty years ago. She was happy and smart and incredibly funny, with a smile that one remembers and sort of sad eyes which one forgets. She still has sweet eyes, and she still seems happy with a nearly grown son and a good husband.

I met a fellow blogger I know at a conference several years back. I really liked his writing and his vibe. We are still in contact and sometimes talk on the phone. I find him inspiring as a father and as a wordsmith.

A kid I met in a restaurant fifteen, probably, years ago made a huge impact on me. I suppose he was one of the first men for whom I acted as a mentor, although neither of us knew it at the time. He is wildly successful in the field he was studying when we first met. He travels the world, looks fit and happy, and his soul glows bright and shiny, and I am glad for him.

An offhand comment one time got me to thinking and inspired a story about something that may or may not have - but sorta did - happened in the woods of Maine when I was in my twenties, a piece that really helped me work through a dilemma I'd been facing about the walls and doorways between fact and fiction.

I could go on, and probably will, presenting paragraphs like these. In fact, I could write exactly one-hundred-and-sixty-one more. You see, that's how many Facebook "friends" I have. I know it's not very many - I had way more back a couple years ago, when I thought that mattered - but I don't really mind. I get more posts about my friends because I have so few contacts; I can't imagine how much I'd miss out on if I had hundreds.

But maybe that's my point exactly, how much I'd miss.

Listen, I know Facebook is being targeted for a seemingly unending list of offenses. Honestly, I can't even keep up. There are tutorials on how to delete and archive your account. #deletefacebook is trending. A book I am reading, Adam Alter's "Irresistible: The Rise of Addictive Technology and the Business of Keeping Us Hooked", thoroughly exposes the practically Machiavellian machinations social media platforms use to keep us on and to mine our data. I witness a lot of vitriol and unkindness on the platform. I see a lot of politics and religion. I hear a lot of jingoism and bravado, "humble bragging" and passive aggression. It's really not always fun there in those forever echoing halls in Menlo Park.

But... truth be told, I like pictures of kittens and babies. I enjoy a well-executed meme. I like watching people fall down and proposing to one another and singing to babies. I am particularly partial to a well-placed, on-point quote from Thoreau or Bob Marley or Sister Jean or Rumi or Bugs Bunny. I like beaches and sunsets and sunrises, and an image of them prompts me to remember mine. A bluegrass page I follow turns me on to great new music, as do many old friends and friends of theirs, 'cause that's how the rabbit hole works. I think those NFL lip-synching videos are funny as hell.

There's more than just the silly and entertaining, though. There is real pathos and ethos on Facebook, and perhaps a certain lack of logos. But, you have to look around the edges for it, ignoring the sponsored posts, the throw-off posts, the mundane posts - although perhaps some of those hold the most pathos of all - to find, perhaps, the heart behind them.

We've all seen a billion baby pics on Facebook, you, me, my wife, all of us have done it. Some folks nearly cringe when they see them. But, what is a new mother or father, grandparent or aunt saying when they post those newborn images? Is it a plea for prayer, to think of this child and hope for his or her safety and unbounded future? Is it an exultation, an alleluia? Is it just an invitation to inexplicable joy, wonder, love?

A first bicycle ride, a cast from a fall from the shed, a toddler covered in spaghetti sauce, snowmen, a boy diving, a girl dreaming, are all proud moments that can't be forgotten and must be shared. These are the stories we used to share in letters and expensive phone calls. Pride is not bravado. Personally, I think it is always on the edge of thanksgiving.

I have reconnected on Facebook with people who, well, could have said no to my friend request and... well... I would have understood. As a younger man I was wilder and self-absorbed and, frankly, not always as kind as I could have been. These things aren't easy to admit. The comments they offer, their advice and recommendations, even the prompted birthday wishes in some way seem tacit forgiveness, intended or not.

I’ve seen a lot of other things when I look behind the frame of image and words, maybe the place between them. I've seen the strength of cancer patients and transplant recipients, seen the determination and grit as they smile up from hospital beds draped in IV lines and loose gowns. I've read the obituaries of parents and young victims and long-forgotten teachers and holy men and healers and wept. I've been outraged at the injustice of... fill-in-your-own blank, I guess.

I've seen friends fall from grace, and seen friends have Grace fall on them, and my friends have witnessed both from me. I've read sentences that shocked me and stories that have lifted me. I've watched a relative's twins, several years younger than our twins, grow up across the country and relished in the echoes and refracted memories of the same sweet times. I've marveled at a gravelly voiced old friend of mine with magic fingers playing beautiful wooden and steel instruments. I've seen images of my days and yours, long gone - a day at the park in '79, a band concert on a college green. Friends, sometimes gone, have flashed before my eyes, deep cutting and bittersweet.

Fathers and mothers, grandparents, brothers and sisters. Old bandmates and workmates, roommates and lovers and brief crushes. A beloved boss, an old football buddy, a childhood friend, you.

All this brought to me on a very flawed social vehicle that pisses me off daily... except when it doesn't.

Listen, it is hard to admit, but I'm not sure I'd be having these "connections," if you will, without Facebook. Do I wish there was a better format than it? Yes, but that's not gonna happen, Facebook is simply unpeered. Do I wish they didn't mine my data and profile me? Yeah, of course I do. Do I think there is general nefariousness and greed at the upper levels of the company? I'm afraid I do. Should I give it up on moral grounds, should I quit for the injustice and negativity that abounds? Probably.

But, you know what? My friend Terri, the ceramic artist, is working on some lovely stylized, carved clay trees, and I'd really like to see them when they come out of the kiln. I'd really like to know how my friend's daughter does at the university I went to. And Tom just got a new job. And the baby's coming for that couple whose wedding we went to a few years back. And my farming friend just got a new beehive. And old friend of a friend has MS, and I'd like to offer my support. And James still plays guitar and just got a new Martin. And...

... I gotta make sure you see these guys growing up.

 Especially the one in the middle.

Maybe I'll wait until tomorrow.

There's another thing that probably wouldn't have happened it, the "... from the backseat" posts I've been putting on these pages for the past several years. Like this one:

... things you don't expect to hear from the backseat ...

(spring break edition)

"I love sleeping in. You're not dead inside when you wake up."

Peace, and thanks for coming around. I'm probably very wrong here, but, I've been there before.


  1. Bill, this is right on. I am so glad you took the time to write and publish. I could not agree more. The only other thing i could say is, if you are worried about having your identity out there, throw away your electronic equipment (all of it including your car. And write paper letters (they my keep track of them too). I can't believe there are any living humans who's information is not available. So all of us should go ahead and enjoy Facebook but hope it will be more careful in the future with our private information. Thank you again for publishing this.

  2. Wow. The most amazing thing you've ever written, and that's saying a lot. No one has said this like you. Thank you. From one of those connections from the past - Di.