Thursday, February 2, 2012


Thinking about Steve Jobs for a post-in-progress, isn't it interesting that the man who led the development of electronic devices for communicating - PCs, smartphones - never knew his biological father? And isn't it also interesting that nowadays we feel the need to stay in touch with one another, but we can only do so at one remove, through the intercession of an electronic device? Things like Skype may permit us to see one another face to face, but only because of the distances we've put between us. Being cut off from one another is a precondition of our getting "connected".

But there are greater distances between some people besides physical ones. Emotional and intellectual estrangement may account for our breakups, whether from friends or from lovers. Or they change in opposing directions. Two people can live under the same roof for years and slowly grow apart, until a distance opens up that is unbridgeable.

Like everyone else, I have managed through Facebook to unearth many people with whom I lost touch over the years - old classmates, fellow sailors and soldiers (I happen to have been both), co-workers.

The biggest reason why I lost touch with them is because I have a habit of not sticking around for very long in one place. When a friend in Des Moines told me that he'd lived there all his life, I told him it was unimaginable to me. Whenever we went somewhere around town, he would introduce me to someone he had known since the third or fourth grade.

The only people who have known me all my life are my siblings. I've known my oldest friends only since I was 30. We haven't seen one another in the flesh since 2000, and now we live on separate continents. And it's the same for all my other friends. My most recent face to face encounter with a friend was in 2005, when he was passing through Des Moines on his way to Seattle. (I'm not the only one who doesn't stick around.) They live everywhere: Maine, Seattle, Wisconsin, Indiana, Las Vegas. I stubbornly regard some of them as close friends, but others have allowed experience, time and distance to come between us.

I once told an Army buddy that, contrary to popular opinion, "absence makes the heart grow absent." (I didn't exactly coin the phrase.) It isn't necessarily true, but absence is an obstacle that only love can overcome, and then only imperfectly. Since I started using Facebook, I have found most of my old friends again, or they found me. I also found people with whom I once worked, a few of whom had even "heard the chimes of midnight" with me, and slowly let them go as soon as I realized that they simply weren't my friends. (Of course, some of them realized this before I did.)

Facebook is always asking "What's on your mind?" Speaking my mind has lost me a friend once or twice in my life. On Facebook, this is especially treacherous, since it sometimes isn't clear whom I am addressing. Or I will simply throw tact to the winds and forget that this or that person might take something I say personally. Experience has taught me how inadequate it can be to believe that all my friends are among the "happy few", as Stendhal, not Henry V, meant it.

I stay away from Twitter, even if I am somewhat interested in what Stephen Fry or Harry Shearer or Martin Amis or Niall Ferguson is up to. I acquired a few "followers" of my own, even if I've never met some of them and I'm not sure why they're following me. Rather than allowing me an opportunity to look around me at a circle of friends, Facebook has given me a chance to look back and descant on all the bridges I've burned to get where I am. In another moment from the Paris Review interview with John Cheever, he reflected on his own reluctance to look over his shoulder:

I seldom read my own work. It seems to be a particularly offensive form of narcissism. It’s like playing back tapes of your own conversation. It’s like looking over your shoulder to see where you’ve run. That’s why I’ve often used the image of the swimmer, the runner, the jumper. The point is to finish and go on to the next thing. I also feel, not as strongly as I used to, that if I looked over my shoulder I would die. I think frequently of Satchel Paige and his warning that you might see something gaining on you.

I sometimes like to think of simply getting lost, however impossible it might seem these days.

The morn of his departure, men could say
‘Either by such a way or such a way,’
And, a week later, still, by plotting out
The course of all the roadways round about,
‘In these some score of places he may be.’
How many days the voyage to secrecy?
Always the milestones by the road hark back
To whence he came, and those in idleness
Can bound his range with map and compasses.

When shall their compasses strain wide and crack,
And alien milestones, with strange figures,
Baffle the sagest of geographers?

-Norman Cameron

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