Some guy with a name composed of left over Scrabble letters (no vowels) from one of those Balkan states composed of a few hundred pissed-off people who are still arguing over which practitioner of which religion raped whose great-great-grandmother first, and whose “profile” describes him as a “freedom fighter, IT engineer and Elvis impersonator,” wants me to be his “friend” on Facebook. What quirk of Google and “six-degrees of separation” caused this guy to drop out of cyberspace onto the desktop of my computer? Is this some guy who once handed me a long forgotten business card at a café in some burg along the Dalmatian coast? Or, maybe he knows somebody that I know, or somebody who knows somebody that I know that once shook the hand of Jimmy Hoffa? What’s the connection?
Rather, why the connection? Will he next want me to “follow him around” on Twitter while he reports house burnings in his holy war on his neighbors of the “other religion?” Something weird is going on here, some pandemic pshycologcal need for people to “have friends,” especially friends who will feign interest in their circadian doings of great moment that they are texting into their PDA when they should be reading a book, gardening, or even thinking.
Djyzyjic Scrabblysevisic isn’t the only one who wants me to be his friend. There is some strange guy from Napa who keeps asking me to come up and have some wine with him (Sure, and should I bring my Barbra Streisand records?) There’s a guy from Salt Lake city who claims to know me (Right, I went to school with one of his wives.) These are like people you met at a cocktail party thirty years ago and forgot them before you got to your car; and now they want to “re-connect” and “tweet.” No thanks. I just know that what comes next is an invitation to buy some life insurance, meet somebody who looks like Bernie Madoff, or to pay $10K to become a Thetan in Scientology. “Hi, I’m your greedy capitalist friend and religious weirdo.”
Before I go further I should say that I have some long and dear family members and friends who are on Facebook and maybe Twitter. But I knew them before and, hopefully, will long after this latest ripple in the zeitgeist fades out. They were already in my address book, and I prefer to contact them by phone or standard email, especially because the Facebook platform might “connect” them with our mutual “friend” from the Balkans or one of the other of my strange new buddies.
Back in the days of dial-up email I wrote a piece about an old postcard I had found in a sidewalk stall in Hong Kong [“Messages Bearing Music,” DIMSUM, Volume 7, Spring 2003, Pp. 116-118]. It was written from Hong Kong, in Chinese, by a family member of a Dr. Chan, who was at the time (1907) in Edinburgh, and I wonderedn what ships that card had taken to get to Scotland, and how it got back to that stall in Hong Kong. It reminded me that not all that long ago people who migrated to other countries or traveled abroad for long periods were literally out of touch with those “back home” for long periods of time. I began traveling in the postcard days. I could go to a post office and have an operator dial a home number then direct me to a phone cabinet when the connection was made. I would then have a breathless conversation for a few expensive minutes. Or, I could receive a piece of old mail at the American Express office or Poste Restante (general delivery) at some city in Europe. The time of receipt might be two or three weeks from its posting.
These days an international calling card is relatively inexpensive and the call can be made from a mobile phone. Internet cafés are ubiquitous and cheap, WiFi is becoming more widespread, and many hotels have in-room internet connections. In short, one is never more than a few feet and a few clicks from sending or receiving email and even Internet video communication. One is never really “away.” These days I receive email in which people assume I am still abroad; they did not have to think about having to put international postage on an envelope with a geographic address because wherever I am I will get the email–anywhere? everywhere?.
But there might be another “cost” to such speed and convenience of communication. In the article cited above I wrote: The magician has his price. For me, so much of the allure of travel is related to being in a different time and place. The ubiquity of cyberspace, and instantaneous communication through it, remove some of the sense of geographic and temporal distance. The low cost of E-mail means that the mundane and trivial matters that used to be left behind now can follow one around the globe. Did I want to be reminded about that root canal appointment after having spent an afternoon contemplating the Royanji Garden in Kyoto?
Then there is what might be referred to as the “aesthetic” of traditional (or “snail”) mail. Electronic mail just doesn’t lend itself to certain sentiments. The kinesthetic of typing on a computer kebyboard is not at all like putting pen to paper, and selecting “bold” and “italics” for “I love you” seems like the equivalent of sending plastic flowers. Adding a typed smiley-face doesn’t help either.
E-mail is mail stripped to its essentials and, in the end, most of us dump it or leave it buried somewhere on our hard-drive. [Tweeted text messages are even more ephemeral.] It’s mail that hasn’t had the experience of actual travel; it hasn’t been canceled, and shipped, fondled, mangled, and carried around in a pocket for days, or used as a bookmark. Email may have content; but it lacks substance. There’s no coffee spill on it from that cafe in Sienna, no stamp that says Marrakech, or Singapore, no envelope from The Hotel Metropole, or a postcard picture of the place to which the words “wish you were here” actually refer.
I’ll probably continue to travel with my laptop and cell phone, but I won’t be leaving my pen at home either. I rather like the idea that somebody in the year 2073 might discover one of my postcards in a street stall in some foreign city and wonder, as I do about Dr, Chan, what dimension of time and space its author might be traveling through.
Somehow, I feel a greater kinship with Dr. Chan than I do with that strange guy who wants me to pop up to Napa for a glass of Pinot Noir.
© 2009, and 2003, James A. Clapp (UrbisMedia Ltd. Pub. 5.25.2009)