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Home / Misc  /
Gross Miscalculations About Lost Friendships
lost friendship

Sorry, most of them will leave .  Even if social networking and e-mail were around decades ago, you still wouldn't be able to save most of those long forgotten friendships.


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.

It never 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.

When I 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.

Here is 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.

The most 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.

Had I '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 became more 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 risk not 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.

I'm well 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 airplane.

Months 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.

Back then, 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.

Years 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?

At first 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.

Therefore, 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 reasons.

First, 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 since.

Our 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 their friendship.

My 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.

The 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.

Maybe one 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.

If you liked reading this, consider:
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