Saturday, January 22, 2011

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Who's There?

One of the interesting things about the Internet is the way that people complain about it. "I hate Facebook," people say, and then they go on to spend hours on Facebook (and by people, of course, I'm including myself). David Foster Wallace, in his brilliant mess of an essay "E Unibus Pluram," noted a similar phenomenon when it comes to TV: "...Americans are wearily disgusted by television, have this weird hate-/need-/fear-6-hrs.-daily gestalt about it." As a result, Wallace wrote, most serious critiques of television's potentially negative effects devolve into pure whining.

The Internet, like television, simulates a quest: we click from page to page or from channel to channel like Tarzan switching vines, looking for something implicitly promised by the sheer ease with which we can move around (I say "implicitly" because, like Wallace, I want to avoid mere whining and its messy subtexts of technology as inherently sinister; still, it's hard to deny that the Internet and television are designed in such a way that continued and varied use are quite easy). But, of course, that something is never there, not, at least, as we envision that something as meaningful and nourishing. It's one thing to get online, answer an e-mail we know we have to send, and then log off; it's another to sit on Facebook for hours clicking from photo to photo, ultimately leaving a person feeling as if he's had a dinner of Chiclets.

I'm thinking about this because I'm feeling particularly lonely tonight. I don't just mean lacking for company; I mean lacking for any meaningful activity at all. It's been a bitterly cold day in Philadelphia, some things aren't going so well, and I'm just plain tired. I spoke with a dear friend in Cambridge, England and with my sister in Cambridge, Mass. by Skype today, and though enjoyable, it only made me miss them more. Later in the day, I called my good friend Lucas. We transferred from the same school at the same time, and he's back there visiting tonight, seeing a lot of people I wish I could see. Meanwhile, I'm in an unfamiliar city, not really sure where to go or what to do. Even reading, my favorite activity, is unappetizing; I know I'd just fall asleep. Lucas offered some comforting words, but there's only so much to do. There's a lot of twinkling suburbs and dark fields between us.

I wonder if technology, for all that it brings us closer together, in some ways has only made us less able to deal with loneliness. Seneca's letters to Lucilius, for instance, evince a real tranquility with the distance between him and his friend (granted, he was a Stoic). There are a few friends with whom I correspond almost exclusively by letter, and I'm much more comfortable with their absence; those friendships, rather than feeding off the illusion of proximity that gizmos like Skype offer, follow a more natural rhythm of distance, the time each letter takes to go between us a gentle reminder of the very real distance that intervenes.

Writing approximates this expectation of delayed return. It's funny, but I know I'm not alone among writers in professing that writing an essay or a short story, even one that never sees the light of day, is the way I feel most connected with other human beings. It's why, on this Philadelphia night that finds the thermometer flirting with single digits, I shut down my Facebook and sent this post out into the void.

Thursday, January 6, 2011

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Same Stuff, New Year

My American Politics professor concluded the semester's final class with an ode to my generation, a laundry list of the characteristics he sees in his students that give him hope for the future: we're moral but not pedantic; idealistic but not naive; more tolerant and aware of a global society than any preceding generation. He finished with a "God bless" and then received an extended round of applause.

I refrained from participating in the applause. I always do; I find the habit of clapping for a professor at semester's end to be an odd one, as if the preceding weeks have been a performance. But in this case, I also disagreed with my professor's words. Having spent two and a half years in the privileged enclosures of two major universities (both with elite business schools), I tended to think of my generation as pampered, apathetic, disconnected, and disbelieving. We're more tolerant, sure; but it's a soft tolerance, a live and let live philosophy that doesn't do much to address injustice. Moral? Setting aside the grotesque images that frat parties had seared onto my brain, I still couldn't help but think that my generation's morality was as mushy as its tolerance, a spineless collection of platitudes about common humanity. There's something to be said for avoiding the self-righteousness of the baby boomers, yes, but ethics require more than good feelings. It is a never-ending struggle against our own natures and within our own selves, a struggle that has nothing to do with bumper stickers. I left the lecture hall scornful of my professor's sentimentality and disdainful of my peers' blindness.

I'm as much of a curmudgeon for many of the same reasons when it comes to the hope that surrounds New Year's Eve. The notion that turning a page in the calendar, that our problems and faults will somehow be eased by the move from December 31st to January 1st, seems to me as willfully Panglossian as the notion that one generation will necessarily improve on its predecessor. Compounding my distaste is the speed with which these good feelings dissipate; by February (the grimmest of months), the good feelings are gone and gym attendance is back to normal.

My grouchiness in these two cases point to a self-contradiction I've recently been forced to face. Thanks in large part to reading a lot of Saul Bellow, I've adopted (for a lack of a better term) a sort of neo-humanism, a devotion to the individual's limitless potential in age that would force him to sign up for any number of causes, all of them suspect. I try to give people the benefit of the doubt, for human life is a messy thing, as I know from my own stumbling along.

But in practice, I've become a star chamber towards my peers, thinking every frat boy I see puking out of a window is more proof that any faith placed in my generation is misplaced. Even as I've come to see myself as more fallible than ever, I've also ridiculously begun thinking of myself as the lone voice in the wilderness, the only young person devoted to a really tough search for morality, the seer in the kingdom of the blind. As one might imagine, it's not an attitude that wins me many friends; and the more Bellow I read in preparation for my senior thesis, the more I know it's time to align theory and practice.

Christmas break has been immensely helpful to this end, one evening in particular. I spent some time with three friends from high school who have all graduated from college: Tim, Mike, and Al. Tim is doing a year of volunteer teaching at our high school, and by all accounts is doing a wonderful job. Mike is spending a grueling two years in rural Mississippi with Teach For America, doing honorable and necessary work that he well knows may do little to help his students escape a crushing cycle of poverty. He cracks a lot of cynical jokes about the South in his brilliant way, but underneath it, I know he's devoted to what he's doing. Al is at Saint Louis U's law school, hoping to become a public defender; he wants the poor to have better legal defense.

Three guys I love and admire, all pursuing different thankless ends, only Al knowing what he really wants to do. But sitting with them over a few beers, I felt better knowing they were out there, working hard for uncertain ends. It was a humbling reminder that guys like these aren't only in Saint Louis; that I'm not the only person who maintains belief in a bewildering world; that good is being done at all times, seldom though it may appear in our narrow portholes. And so, for the first time, in spite of myself, I'm feeling hopeful about a new year. I'm feeling less alone, feeling gentler towards the world, feeling that theory and practice may come together this year, however imperfectly. All this, and nothing has really changed; all thanks to a few hours spent with old friends.

Christmas break is just about over, and we're back to mucking along.