On My 4th Grade Teacher’s Travels Across the Galaxy

I’m looking for my 4th grade teacher, Ms. Bodkin. Thirty years ago, Ms. Bodkin introduced me to “A Wrinkle In Time,” encouraged my interest in robotics, and took the entire class to a Christmas tree festival in a neighboring town. I remember her as a slight, silver-haired, elegant lady. In the small town in which I grew up, news about most folks is not hard to come by, and I still delight on the rare occasions I run into my first grade teacher, Mrs. Jenkins. Still, Ms. Bodkin has eluded me, and I’m left to wonder if, like the characters in “A Wrinkle In Time,” she now travels the dimensions of the universe via a magical tesseract, lost to us mortals left behind.

I could launch an exhaustive online search. Past searches yielded my 6th grade teacher, enjoying retirement in a knitting club in a  lake-side community after all. With social media, it seems like you can find almost anyone, almost anytime. Or at least you can find the version of them they present to the world online. And I guess that’s the problem. I may be able to find where she lives, see a picture of her traveling the Grand Canyon with her family, and find out how frustrated she is with her seasonal allergies, but it wouldn’t be her, but, rather, a carefully curated version of her. A digital avatar, at best. It would lack the intimacy of those post-lunch reading sessions, gathered around her rocking chair. It wouldn’t be a reconnection, but,rather, just a voyeuristic look into a two-dimensional world instead of sharing the real one.

I recently came across a gay couple on social media that I’ve lost touch with and discovered they had adopted a child. My jaw dropped upon learning the news, as this couple was deeply closeted when I knew them years ago and never expressed any desire to have a child. Now, years after our orbits transited to other suns, I’m left with this interesting and wonderful news, but no context in which to place it. Of course, I could reach out, reconnect, and work hard to rebuild those bridges, but, then again, there’s a reason those bridges faded in the first place. And maybe it’s okay to honor that too.

Our past sets itself in amber as the years fly by. If we’re lucky, most of those frozen memories are happy ones, and it can be tempting to travel back in time — tesseract or no — and want to fill in the gaps, find out the next chapter, and revisit those wonderful people and places that populate our own story. Technology has made it easier than ever. But before we all go chasing ghosts, maybe we have to ask if the past is better left alone. Maybe there’s a reason time only marches in one direction. Maybe letting go of people, places, and things is the only way we have the capacity to learn and grow. Maybe a little mystery never hurt anyone.

Maybe, just maybe, Ms. Bodkin, in her chair reading me wonderful books, is right where she belongs.

 

On Being a Double Agent

I haven’t been honest. I’ve been playing both sides. Duplicitous dissembling at its best. At its worst. I’ve been disingenuous, hypocritical, and opaque. I’ve been a double agent, and I don’t remember what side I started fighting for.

That’s right, over the last several years, with friends and family, I’ve had ongoing discussions about the worth of social media. And maybe I’m ready to raise the white flag, but I can’t figure out what the hell is really going on.

My sister compellingly argues that social media is one big attention grab. She’s not bothered by people wanting attention; she simply wishes the users of Facebook, Twitter, and the like would be more honest about why they’re posting pictures of their dogs, holiday sweaters, and vacations. She freely admits she loves attention too, but she maintains that most users of social media — and she is not one — delude themselves into thinking they are engaging in anything but vain self-promotion.

It’s tough to argue with her, but I do. I come to the defense of social media users, correctly pointing out that you can’t paint with such a broad brush. There are folks that use social media to keep in touch with Aunt Gertrude, who lives on the other coast. Distant friendships survive…at least in some form. Social connections, if not relationships, can blossom into more. It’s not all an exercise in vanity. I think these things are true to some extent, but good luck convincing her.

With other friends, I gleefully take the other side, threatening physical violence if they post pictures of their Thanksgiving meals, tell Mom they love her, or otherwise mistake social media for their diaries. Of course, when you write a blog, it’s tough to criticize that angle, and they rightly point that out.

Ultimately, I can’t decide what to think. It bugs me we spend so much time on social media, and, over the course of the last year, I have significantly curtailed my Facebook and Twitter viewing. Social media is not really social (and it sure isn’t media). It’s not real relationships either. I fear we’ve mistaken, at least on some subconscious level, online activity for real life. For real relationships. For real accomplishments. I’m not sure it rates more than a fun distraction with occasional communication benefits.

There’s something untoward about over-sharing, about thinking all your “friends” care about the meal you just ate, the vacation you just took, or the “awesome” moment you just had…but still had time to post about. It’s not necessarily an inversion of public and private, but it feels like we cheapen the moments of our lives by broadcasting them. The comings and goings have meaning because they happen to us, not because dozens or hundreds of people know about them or “Like” them.

All that said, telling people about ourselves and, in our minds, constructing the narratives of our lives is really the world’s oldest profession. Without a doubt, if Jesus had an iPhone two thousand years ago, he’d be blogging, tweeting, and posting. Can you imagine the humble brags about Dad?

We want to share our lives, we like the attention, the validation, the affirmation, and fighting that very human impulse is a losing battle. The fact that social media has, in only one decade’s time, grown to influence (infect) our social, personal, professional, political, and economic lives in such compelling, material, and undeniable ways attests to this. Some of us may not care for it, but it’s here to stay. And, wrapping one’s self in smug moral superiority over not participating in social media is as immature as deriving your self worth from the number of “Likes” for your most recent post.

At the end of the day, I’m left considering what my dear friend Daria said to me during one of my first conversations about social media and my occasional  discomfort with it: if you don’t like it, you don’t have to participate. She’s right, and there really isn’t much more to the debate.

For my own kicks, I’ll still be a double agent, stoking fires of disagreement and being ever the contrarian. But, in my heart of hearts, I’ll continue to move to a place of peace over it all. The ancient Greeks were bemoaning the direction of popular culture, so I’ll take comfort that seeing the downfall of modern man is another time-honored human impulse. And, with that, I’ll end. Besides, I need to go check the stats for page views for the blog!

On Staying in Touch

During my high school graduation ceremony, the principal on multiple occasions remarked that the graduating class would never be in the same room together again. It was an odd statement. It was not only the last time we would be in a room together, but it was the first time we had ever been in a room together! Moreover, when your graduating class has over 500 students in it, it’s not as if it’s a close-knit family. I’m sure there was a sizable percentage of students I graduated with that I did not know, or recognize for that matter.

I’m sure not a single classmate has bemoaned the fact that the entire graduating class can’t be back together again.  Then again, I guess I need to give my high school principal a little slack; surely he could not have envisioned how easy it would become, in just a few years, to stay in touch with almost everyone you’ve ever met in your life.

Staying in touch has never been easier. Sitting on your couch wondering what happened to your pal from 4th grade? You can probably find out in less than 5 minutes. Technology allows us to stay in touch with speed and ease, but that very ease begs the question: why stay in touch? Once our voyeuristic curiosity is settled and we learn that our 4th grade pal sells insurance in Kansas City, we’re quickly reminded there’s a reason we needed Facebook to learn about his life now: we are not close. We haven’t been close for decades. We will never be close again. Our lives stopped intersecting in elementary school. Sure, you can send that awkward “hello” message, but what will you talk about? What’s going to rekindle this relationship that barely existed in the first place?

The ease of social media to stay in touch has a bigger pitfall: it’s not a real relationship. To a very large extent, social media (like writing one’s own blog) is an exercise in vanity. We want to be seen by people. We crave the acknowledgment. The validation. The acceptance. The Likes. It’s one thing to share that cute photo with your great-aunt, it’s another to think all 289 Facebook friends really care. (Hint: they don’t) (Double hint: you don’t have 289 friends). It’s not an equal footing, a dialogue, a shared experience. Sure, you can “Like” or comment, but, at bottom, it’s bits and bytes and really not much more.

Relationships, no matter the relationship, aren’t easy. You can’t “friend and forget” — a phrase I’m definitely trademarking. They take time, energy, and intention. It takes the willingness to listen, to care, to make something not about you. To genuinely invest in and care about a life experience other than your own for no other reason than love. We shouldn’t confuse the ease of social media for the real thing.

Our inner circles are delicate, intimate things, and whom we choose to inhabit that space is no small question.  And, the more time we spend tending those real relationships, the less time we have for social media…and the less interest we have in it too.

On Mr. Stevens’ Faith

In Kazuo Ishiguro’s “The Remains of the Day,” we meet the butler Stevens as he embarks on a road trip to meet a former employee of the formerly grand Darlington Hall. Along the way, we learn that Mr. Stevens’ relationship with the former employee may not be strictly professional…even if it cruelly avoids being personal. We also learn that Stevens may be experiencing a larger crisis of faith:  did he misplace his faith in his former employer, Lord Darlington, and, if so, must he reweigh the dignity of his service against all else that he lost?

Stevens’ road trip through England represents Ishiguro’s challenge to the reader to examine their own trip through life, with the attendant successes and failures, joys and pains. What bedevils Stevens, ultimately, is not his misplaced faith in his employer, but, rather, that he abdicated the responsibility to define his life to someone else. It’s humility gone wrong, and it asks the reader to question how he or she may be abdicating that responsibility.

The dizzying pace of technological change and invasion, and our even more rapid integration of it, should give us pause. Our quiet moments are no longer quiet or solitary. We’ve solved the riddle of the long, boring grocery checkout line, but we may be answering the wrong questions. Technology and social media occupy our time, entertain us, even connect us, but is our faith, our time, our energy misplaced? Can we identify real, long-lasting gains to the value of our lives, or are most of us just more distracted?

The solution is not less technology or even less social media, for even if such solutions were possible, their absence still doesn’t require of us to identify and pursue those foundational, truly important aspects of our lives. Who and how will I love? What important work will I pursue? How will I cultivate my talents? Certainly technology and social media can assist us in these endeavors, but only when we live with intention.

Stevens has the remains of his days to define for himself dignity, value, and worth, but Ishiguro leaves unanswered whether Stevens has the capacity to do so. Luckily, Stevens’ mistakes can be a lesson for us all, and maybe, just maybe, we should post and tweet about it.