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Talented Youth | 2011 | When I Grow Up

02.27.11 9:07 p.m.

You must have a room, or a certain hour or so a day, where you don't know what was in the newspapers that morning, you don't know who your friends are, you don't know what you owe anybody, you don't know what anybody owes to you.  

-Joseph Campbell


Anti-Social Network

Jinx and Melanie
One must pick only the best

Every day since Melanie deactivated her Facebook profile, I have hidden from my Feed three or four people. Given that I have accumulated over 450 "friends" in my travels, relationships, and schools, this is no great sacrifice. There is a satisfaction in admitting that I don't need to think about this person daily, akin to when I went through my wardrobe and donated those pants that were too big and those shirts that likely never suited me, acknowledging that these were artifacts of another life. It is not that the Hidden have done anything wrong or obnoxious - though I had previously removed people who posted racism or assassination pleas, who have supported stupidity over science, or who have been hateful and histrionic without cause - but that wading through their updates dilutes what I am truly looking for - quick connection with people for whom I care - and provides no benefit.

According to British anthropologist Robin Dunbar, humans are likely only capable of 150 relationships, including friends, family, and coworkers. Any new relationship comes either at the expense of established ones or is sloughed off before it can begin. In a world of infinite time, perhaps I could pretend to sustain the many hundreds of friendships the internet claims for me, but most of these people are strangers from a past that is little more than a story. Some of them have married or have adopted aliases, they use cartoons and infants as profile pictures. In looking at their albums, I cannot provoke in my mind the spark of recognition, so why should I waste accumulating seconds knowing what they had for breakfast? Why should I wade through social static for a signal that could be crystal clear if only I would tune in?

This isn't a statement of retreat, a profession that I have turned turtle. My amount of social currency is steady, I am simply not portioning it out indiscriminately. Those whose lives occupy space in my head have earned their places. The guy who had a gym locker across from mine in tenth grade is not owed the same as someone who will hug me or share a plate of onion rings, however much I want to believe that everyone has a spark of the divine.
The flavor is worth selectivity

In my daily life, there are people - almost all students, for example, whose names I only retain until the end of the period - who I have to interact with, but who I do not have the energy to care outside their context. Nor, I expect, do they think of me after the final bell rings. Likewise, I have many utilitarian associates who will never rise to greater levels and that is fine. I have friends. What I don't have is desperation enough to act as through I have 450 of them.

I have been in a place where I wanted badly to prop up relationships with people who moved on, or from whom I needed to move on. I am past that by miles, consciously practicing my non-attachment when possible. Continually attempting to infuse breath into flagging friendships drains the life from meaningful ones.

I won't deny that new people are exciting and that I love the feeling of potential, the sensation that maybe this person will be important to my life. But so often the fuel of friendship is burned through in one brilliant flare and there isn't enough under to replenish the source. I then come to feel resentful because I have wasted my time and optimism. Those who seemed so initially intriguing only were so because they overcompensated so avidly for a lack of substance.

I cannot bring myself to exist by the consensus of acquaintances, as Facebook seems to require. I see my students paralyzed until they have updated their statuses and responded to several friends, to see if it is acceptable to feel or act as their conscience might tell them were they to heed it unmolested. They cannot be without notice and feedback, reassurance that they are behaving as their peers require, however detrimental anonymous opinions tend to be. They behave not as they want to but as they are told. They are not individuals, they are products of consensus thinking, heavily influenced by strangers getting rich by having them dress and act as clowns (and this is coming from a man who used to color his hair blue and wear tie-dye - I know of what I speak). Though I am well aware that conformity is a necessary pit stop in finding one's way in the world, too many are unable to break free of the strings they have tied on their limbs because that is what all the cool kids are doing.
Try it, you'll be happier

When I was young, the television was most always on. I recall feeling put upon Sunday afternoons, when there was nothing of particular interest to a child. Though I was then and remain an avid reader, it somehow fell beneath my notice that consumption was not mandatory. Likewise, accepting this stream of irrelevant information and sharing my life with all and sundry is not necessary or preferable. Strangers or distant acquaintances are not owed the intimacy of my pain. Much as I chide others for compartmentalizing, some people are only good in specific circumstances. The details of my relationship with Melanie, even when her crises rattle my foundation and I feel this urge to burden those I love so they will reassure me, are not owed to anyone. Especially, I've found, if people opt to gunnysack my confessions for ammunition later. If someone truly wants to know about me or my life, they only need to put forth a little effort and ask. I do not make myself unavailable. But I cannot allow total information to be the default setting of my life, I will not become a murmur in the background noise.

However often I insist upon writing publicly about my life, the opinions of only a few genuinely matter to me. If I were to extend the weight of opinion to others, either the important ones would be devalued to worthlessness or I would be rendered prufrockian in my inability to honor self-determinism.
Jinx and Xen
Actual friendship tastes like fresh blueberries over biscuits. True story.

Relieved of the pressure of Facebook, Melanie found her life that much lighter and brighter. No longer did she have to waste brain cells dealing with the infinite variations of psychodrama Bard students can create when put in front of an internet connection. No longer did she have status scrutinized by friends of friends, no longer did she have to put her faith in the contrived faces of others. She centered herself on her sanity and sanctity, her coursework, our relationship, her friendship with Jinx. Without this distraction, it was far easier to divorce friends from "friends". Those who ceased to impact her life when she was no longer one hundred pixels on the left side of their screen were not those to be valued.

To paraphrase Vonnegut, throwing open the windows and trying to make love to the whole world is only going to give you pneumonia. We are descended from tribal apes (to the extent that people subconsciously mistake celebrities for members of their tribe, since they live in a box in our houses and are always available) and that requires selectivity and exclusion. For someone to be crucial, most everyone else has to be insignificant by contrast. This is how we are built and there is no sin in restricting your love to people who can love you back. The only failing is in letting one's social network predicate one's actual happiness.

Soon in Xenology: Maybe a job.

last watched: Thirteen
reading: Blindness
listening: Morrisey

Talented Youth | 2011 | When I Grow Up

Thomm Quackenbush is an author and teacher in the Hudson Valley. Double Dragon publishes four novels in his Night's Dream series (We Shadows, Danse Macabre, and Artificial Gods, and Flies to Wanton Boys). He has sold jewelry in Victorian England, confused children as a mad scientist, filed away more books than anyone has ever read, and tried to inspire the learning disabled and gifted. He is capable of crossing one eye, raising one eyebrow, and once accidentally groped a ghost. When not writing, he can be found biking, hiking the Adirondacks, grazing on snacks at art openings, and keeping a straight face when listening to people tell him they are in touch with 164 species of interstellar beings. He likes when you comment.

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