Most boomers will remember the iconic United Airlines commercial about the executive who calls his employees together one afternoon to inform them that their oldest customer has just fired them. Explaining that they have to regain the personal touch they’ve lost, the executive hands out airline tickets to the employees, explaining that they’ll each be visiting a customer to do just that. One of the employees asks where the executive is going, and he replies sadly, “To visit the customer who fired us.” It’s clear that it’s an older commercial, because the executive explains that the proof they’ve lost the personal touch is because they only communicate by fax or voice mail. No mention of e-mail.
Fast forward to the 21st century. An interesting place, this, especially for friendship, particularly because of technology. In some ways, staying in touch, whether with friends or colleagues, is easier. We are probably the last generation that will understand the phrase, “Hurry up, it’s long distance.” Most cell phone plans charge by minutes, not by distance. Even though a thousand miles separates us, my friend Andrew and I talk every week, sometimes more than once a week. And there’s always e-mail.
Still, it takes effort. I’ve put Andrew’s work schedule into my electronic calendar. I have to remember to call during the day, because his kids demand his attention at night. But it’s worth it, because we share our lives as vividly as if we lived next door to each other. Then there’s Facebook. I’ve written before about how much I love it, but I’ve gained a new appreciation for it.
That’s because one of my high school classmates died. I didn’t know Tom very well at all, but I was shocked when I heard (through Facebook) that he’d gone to sleep one night and not awakened the next morning, leaving behind a wife and children. As it happened, the memorial service was at a mortuary around the corner from my house. I joined Tom’s family, co-workers, and a whole bunch of my classmates there, including his first girlfriend, who, like me, hadn’t seen him since high school. And there I found out more than I ever would have suspected.
I didn’t even know that Tom had gone to Stanford with me. I didn’t know that he’d wanted to be a doctor like his father. I didn’t know that, after three unsuccessful attempts to get into medical school, he shifted his career path to become a dialysis technician. He really just wanted to help people, and he adjusted his dreams to do so. I wish I’d known that.
It made me grateful to have Facebook, because I realized that some of the friends there are like Tom. We may not have known each other well, but we have a common bond in where we grew up and the dreams we had, some of which we attained and some of which we didn’t. Although it’s a great subject of disdain, the prosaic postings on Facebook have suddenly become a source of wonder to me – the comings and goings of our lives, shared and passed along, enabling us to be part of each other’s lives, no matter how much time and distance come between us.
I know what you’re thinking: that that’s superficial. It’s not enough. And you’re right.
That’s why I spent the last four days in Ohio. My wife has two close friends from graduate school who live in the Midwest. There are occasional e-mails, occasional phone calls, pictures of their kids. But I realized it wasn’t enough. As daunting as the idea of getting a pediatrician, a psychiatrist, and an internist (not to mention their spouses and kids) to coordinate a vacation was, we managed it.
We spent four days in a cluster of waterside cottages in the little town of Vermilion on Lake Erie. It was rustic. We cooked our meals family-style. The kids, ranging in age from 10 to 20, frolicked in the water. We went to the Cedar Point Amusement Park (the site of which had been a recreational area for families since 1870; see photo) and the kids (and some of the adults; not moi) rode the rollercoasters and the water rides. We cooked s’mores around a firepit almost every night. We played cards and volleyball. The friends from graduate school talked as they hadn’t for a long time.
It was not the kind of vacation we usually take. Our taste runs more to Hawaiian resorts with room service than cottages without maid service. But getting to know kids we’d only heard about, or seen infrequently, and sharing the pain and pleasures of work and marriage and life, not to mention ice cream sundaes and jambalaya, was incalculably wonderful. It was worth all the effort the logistics had taken.
It confirmed my belief that in the 21st century, technology, as wonderful as it is, is not enough. We are blessed to have cell phones and Facebook and the myriad technologies that make it easy to stay in touch with each other. But they are the equivalent of the faxes in the United Airlines commercial. Sometimes we still need to get on the plane, so that at our funerals, we are no longer strangers.