For six years and eleven
months, I paid a facility in a small town in Oregon to store
a number of my belongings. Keyboards. Guitars. A digital
music mixer. Suits. A tuxedo. A collection of LIFE
magazines. A car. When you
tally up the total storage bill over that period, I must
have paid close to $7,000.
occurred to me when I locked those items away in October
2005 that it would be seven years before I ever saw them
again. I would have dispensed with many ahead of time and
found alternate means of storage for others had I known
this. If you remove the car from the list of items, I cannot
be sure the total value of the remaining possessions was
much more than the cumulative amount I paid to store them.
finally made it back to the facility in Polk County, Oregon
in September 2012, the owner vaguely remembered me from
seven years earlier and asked what was so important among my
items for me to keep paying all that time. People have been
known to walk away from homes when what they owe on the
mortgage is more than the house's value. What could possibly
be my motivation in paying out such a high percentage in
storage fees? It wasn't as if I were storing one of
Picasso's paintings or a Patek Caliber 89 watch.
the irony. While the car was the single most valuable item
in terms of its market value, when I returned to the storage
facility to clear everything out, the car was the first
thing to get left behind. There was no debate on the
subject. I loved that car and got a lot of use out of it
during the 7 years I drove it. Now I lived overseas. It was
not feasible, economically or practically, to transport this
left-hand drive vehicle halfway around the world to a
country where right-hand drive cars are the norm.
valuable items in that storage facility, the reason I kept
paying month after month for seven years, were things no one
but me would ascribe any value to. They were my collection
of photograph albums and journals. The photographs largely
pre-dated the digital era. The journals were mostly
handwritten notebooks dating all the way back to the 1970's.
There were also some other digital journal entries spanning
from 1987 to 2005 and some digital photographs from 2001-05
stored on CD's and zip disks.
'foreclosed' on my unit, the storage facility would have
held a closed-door auction. Interested parties bid on the
contents of the unit, sight unseen. I am sure the first
things the auction winner would dump were the photograph
albums and journals, the items I valued most.
That's the second irony
here. As my car was depreciating year by year in storage,
from a market perspective as well as its value to me in
terms of potential future usage, my photographs and journals
valuable. With every passing year in that cold and dark
facility, there was a more than decent chance that these
testaments to my past to go alongside my personal memories
were deteriorating beyond the point of no return. I couldn't
paying for storage until I eventually got back there to
retrieve them. Of course, had I ever remotely considered in
2005 that I'd be gone for years, I would have scanned the
photographs and journals beforehand.
aware how much I date myself at the mention of analog
photographs and journals. My stepson and his peers will
never be in a position that their real links to the past are
sandwiched between two hardback covers. The photographs they
take are all digital. They're uploaded regularly to Facebook
or stored in the Cloud. Journal entries, if kids even bother
to write anymore, are kept on Google Docs or some other
similar service. If these kids parked their physical
belongings in a storage unit for seven years, the item they
would most highly value is likely the most valuable item to
the general public as well, something like an expensive
piece of luggage or a posh stereo system.
Most of my stored items
wound up getting left behind with the car: one of the
guitars, one of the keyboards, most of the clothes, the nice
microphone, my extensive library of books. I did manage to
park the digital mixer and the LIFE
collection with my brother.
The suits and tuxedo, one of the guitars, and obviously, all
the photographs and journals made it back overseas with me.
I had to strip the photographs out of their original albums,
where they'd been housed for decades in an organized fashion
by year range, to make them light enough to carry on the
later, back home in my new country, I started sharing these
photographs with my wife. The entire collection was now
packed in disarray into one large bag. Stick your hand in
and pick out one photograph at random and it could be from
1989. Stick it in again, and the next photograph could be
from 2004. It was certainly a trip down memory lane, as the
photographs reminded me of people I hadn't seen or thought
about in years.
I've written about
friendship in the post-internet world in
a prior entry.
Today's newly minted teens went through grade school never
having to lose touch, at least in a Facebook sense, with
anyone they have ever met. My generation didn't have that
luxury. During my mid-1990's international travel jaunts, I
was about the only person to have an e-mail address, a
collection of nine seemingly random numbers with a period
separating five of the numbers from the other four, a
standard Compuserve account. People looked at me with a
quizzical stare when, exchanging contact information with
them, I offered up an e-mail address, too. None took it
seriously enough to write down.
to stay in touch you wrote letters out by hand or typed them
up on a computer, stuck them in an envelope with a stamp,
mailed them out, and waited weeks or months for a reply.
International calling wasn't the dirt cheap or free affair
it is today. Mobile phones weren't ubiquitous. If you did
have someone's number, it was always a land line number. If
you rang it, you may reach a parent or a roommate. Or the
person may have moved or changed numbers without telling
you. Keeping in touch required more effort and more money.
Reflecting on all that effort now, it seems difficult to
believe I expended that much energy to do it.
after the fact, staring at those happy go lucky photographs
from another time, it's so easy to think of all the "What
if's". What if mainstream e-mail or, better yet, social
networks existed way back in 1995? Those tools would have
made it all the easier to stay in touch with Michael Gunter
Bastian from Germany and Gianni Abandonato, the
Italian-Canadian from Montreal who spoke fluent French. Plus
the two dozen more names where those came from.
It's a reassuring but
completely misleading thought. Let us conjecture that
worldwide social networking and e-mail existed all the way
back in 1995. Instead of entering my newfound friends' names
into a Filofax, I'd put their e-mail addresses into my
online address book and befriend them on the key social
networking sites. It is true that we could
and probably initially
would stay in touch more often, as we would now be able to
post short notes without considerable effort or obstacle.
There would be none of those 1990's postal delays. Back then
when you were on the road, you'd have your return
correspondence mailed in care of a central post office you
expected to visit in six weeks' time.
So here is
the question. Does being able to chat, call, write, or
follow someone online for next to nothing necessarily
translate into staying in better touch on a personal level?
glance it would appear so, but here is what you haven't
thought about. Between 1994-97, when I met Gianni, Michael,
Stefanie, Ronit, and many, many others, because there was
significantly more effort required to keep in contact, you
kept in touch with fewer people. You couldn't amass hundreds
of friends and still have any time left to actually
communicate with them all. Sure, there was the kid you met
at the train station for an hour between transfers whose
address in Finland or Norway you collected on the long shot
you might find yourself in his neck of the woods someday.
But after three, four, or five months pass, and you glance
at his name in your address book trying to remember who he
is, you know you'll never see him again. For the most part,
when you collected an address in the analog era, you thought
there was some chance you'd look these people up if you were
ever in their vicinity.
Today you'd collect
every single person's virtual address.
They'd all become friends of yours on Facebook. You'd
probably send no messages to most and short but sweet posts
now and again to a fraction. There's a fair chance you
wouldn't send detailed correspondence to any. You just
wouldn't have the time to do so. That time in the 1990's
spent drafting letters now gets used up skimming your
"friends'" feeds. Staying in touch today equates to
following along with their postings on Facebook and
occasionally liking or commenting on their posts. After so
many years of being online buddies in this fashion with
nothing else to support the friendship, your relationship
enters some kind of grey zone. You're happy to keep skimming
their lives superficially, but you surely wouldn't go out of
your way to bus 90 minutes out of Paris to visit them if you
were visiting France. You may not even see them if they
lived in central Paris, and you only had three free nights
in the French capital.
I can tell you right now, with almost total certainty, that
I wouldn't be in touch today with Michael Gunter or Gianni
or nearly all of the other stack of contacts I collected,
even if I had databased them all onto a Facebook that we'll
pretend existed in the 1980's or 1990's. I know this for two
some of those contacts from my 1990's Filofax and even ones
which go back further to the mid-1980's discovered me on
Facebook in the late 2000's. I already explained in my
earlier article what happened with these old friendships. We
exchanged a few brief e-mails catching each other up on
what's happened in our lives over the last few decades, and
that was it. For most, I haven't exchanged a single post
relationships today would be little different had we been
able to establish our online networking relationship back in
the 1980's or 1990's instead. Though I can easily call any
of these contacts at zero cost and with virtually no effort,
I don't. One of those travel contacts from the 1990's did
look me up when he came to Bangkok in 2011, a year after I
submitted my original post about friendship in the post
internet world when I gave a chance of a reunion with him
(and several other reunited contacts online) only
fifty-fifty odds. We hadn't seen each other in 17 years. The
friendship wasn't restored. It was just lightly polished.
After he returned to the United States, I haven't heard from
him once in over two years. Another, who was a girlfriend of
sorts, found me on Facebook after having not seen or spoken
to me in about 15 years. She said she was coming to Bangkok
with her husband and daughter; could we get together when
she arrived? I e-mailed her my telephone number and didn't
hear from her once the two weeks she was in Thailand. Now, I
am confident, we'll never see each other again.
The second reason is my
stepson's behavior. I met him when he just started first
grade. He's now in seventh grade. When he started second
grade, I set him up with a Facebook account and several
e-mail addresses, and he's assembled all his friends online
since then. After he completed fourth grade, we moved to a
new city, and he enrolled in a new school.
I changed schools between
fifth and sixth grade, and despite the schools being in the
same city only a twenty minute walk from each other, not
ever seeing the kids from the old school meant I lost
complete touch with them. Most I never saw again. My stepson
moved three hours away yet, with the pervasiveness of the
internet and a cellular phone in every kids' pocket, his
move didn't have to seem as far. He could have continued to
keep in touch with his old friends, online and off, but he
didn't. When we'd periodically return to the old town for
short spells for my wife's work, I'd be the one who'd
engineer his get togethers, primarily with the pair of
brothers who were his former best friends and lived down the
street from us. He was so passive about it all that I
finally stopped doing it. Now, when those brothers come to
Bangkok to visit with family members, they don't bother
looking him up, and when he occasionally goes back to the
old town, he doesn't look them up. Facebook, e-mail, and
cell phones, present from the very beginning, didn't save
stepson's former best friends fell to the wayside because
they no longer played a significant role in his life. A
Facebook post or a poke once in awhile isn't a substitute
for friendships nurtured on shared experiences. The brothers
further receded in importance as the stepson met new friends
in his more self-aware older age. I take it most of this
current crop of best friends will also find themselves on
the rubbish heap once he moves to another school or
graduates and moves onto college. Facebook, e-mail, and cell
phones won't halt that decay either.
longest maintained friendships I have -- and I'm sure you are
no different -- are with people I either had 1) a sustained
relationship over many years as child, enough to keep us in
touch despite possibly having nothing deep in common
thereafter or 2) a shorter relationship for, say, the
duration of high school or college, but as someone already
grown-up enough to base that friendship on common interests.
Social media and the net don't alter the equation.
or two of my lost friendships over the years could have been
saved if social networking had existed earlier in my life. I
lived in Los Angeles for eight years. Unbeknownst to me, a
friend from college lived just two hours away in San Diego
all that time. I only found out about this four years after
I left Los Angeles when he contacted me on Facebook. Had we
re-established our connection sooner, when I still lived
proximate to him, I could have visited with him in person
and possibly, but not necessarily, given the friendship a
refurbishment. I'd still look him up today if I happened to
be passing through San Diego, but the odds of that occurring
any time soon aren't very high.
Friendships are a lot like the stuff I put into storage. You
can't file away your friendships in a storage facility for
years and expect to be able to take them all with you later.
Time alters your perception of whatever you store, and new
circumstances dictate what you leave behind. Social
networking creates an illusion that nothing in your past
ever need be discarded. The true calculations, however,
reveal that just because it's in storage doesn't mean it's
really yours any more.