Real Imaginary Friends: Life and Death in Cyberspace

I sat back in my chair, stunned. Ruth passed away from cancer. It was a simple statement at the bottom of a comment section of her last post. Ruth and I had been writing buddies for NaNoWriMo in 2012. We exchanged comments on her blog or mine for the last few years and I kept up on her entries dealing with cancer treatment. I feel terribly sad that her voice, which was so distinctive, sometimes sharp, sometimes funny, will no longer be heard. I never met her, but she was my friend.

canstockphoto5233804

Last month, I met another blogger friend for coffee. I had to laugh when she said “You’re much nicer than you seem on your blog.” Distance. The distance between who we write ourselves as and who we are. If we do it right, that little first skip from cyberspace to reality is a short one. We’re able to shake off preconceptions and get on with the business of getting to know one another. If we obfuscate and seek to deceive, it becomes a terrible blind date where we take a circuitous route home to avoid being followed.

I’ve been fortunate in my cyberlife. I’ve met friends who love to read and write as much as I do, who encourage me when I’m really slogging through things. When I moved to Minneapolis years ago, leaving behind a stale job and relationship, I placed an ad with Yahoo online personals (a precursor to the current menagerie of dating websites), because I was too old for bar scenes and too introverted for networking events. I exchanged messages with a man who responded to the ad. After I scouted his address, ran his plates and notified all of my friends about who I was with and where we were going, we went on a date. Eventually, I married him. That’s how introverts do it, yo.

When I read comments on various forums, I am often amazed at how willingly people reveal themselves to be racist, misogynist, homicidal shitheads. They think that cyberspace is actual space between what they say and who they are, some sort of magical buffer zone. Whoever they are online, it’s never diametrically opposed to who they actually are offline. They just take pains to hide it better.

Alarms have only gone off a few times in my online dealings. I tried to buy some old computer hardware from Craigslist. The equipment was good, but the seller was creepy, even in a public space. I decided to go nowhere near the trunk of his car, lest I become an unwilling passenger. And I tried to remember exactly where his kidneys were located, should I need to incapacitate him in a pinch. Instead, I had to get his phone calls blocked, which was likely a bigger hassle than a kidney punch.

I’ve never viewed the internet as a place where I lived some other life. My online persona is merely an extension of me, one that at times is more nuanced or strident or intellectual or silly than what everyday life allows. The gap between online and offline is a puddle jump. People who know me are rarely surprised by what I write here and thus far, the people who meet me after connecting online rarely run away screaming.

When I talk to people who don’t use the internet socially, it feels like I’m talking about imaginary friends. They “uh-huh” and nod and feel slightly superior for their numerous fleshy friends. I could hardly explain why I would cry about a lady I’ve never met or why I feel a void where her voice once was. It would seem to them like crying over the demise of a fictional character.

But she was real, so let me tell you about my friend, Ruth. Better yet, I’ll let her speak for herself, through her comments:

I don’t believe happiness can be ‘caught’ but is often ‘stumbled upon’ unexpectedly. I think we have to be open to those moments when they catch us unawares. Happiness to me is having nothing to do except write, or go on a ‘photo safari’ with my partner. Even then, I’m not sure if that is happiness or contentment. I am perfectly happy to be content most of the time with some giddy moments of happiness thrown in to mix it up a little.

******

Success and failure are constructs we make. If you think you’ll succeed or you think you’ll fail, you’re right. Failure isn’t in my vocabulary any more. But that depends on how you define failure – if it means not living up to someone else’s definition of success then it isn’t a failure. And if you do fall short of your own expectations, but keep trying, then that isn’t a failure, either. And I never, ever, think of myself (or anyone else) as average – there’s no such thing. We are each unique with our own set of talents and quirks, and that’s what makes us special, not average.

******

I don’t know about ‘fitting in’, but I’ve always marched to my own drummer, even in high school in the early 60s when I was taking science classes and most of the other girls were taking language and arts. I’m sure there are some demographics I fit into, but the more you drill down from the broad categories of age, gender, occupation, the more people become unique to themselves.

******

And that’s what love is – a journey together into the unknown.

******

I think there comes a point in our lives when we realize our mortality. That’s the point when we ask ourselves if this is all there is. We either get depressed and accept that life is over for us, or we get off our butts and realize we still have a lot of living to do. I read somewhere that happiness is the journey, not the destination, and that we are so often too busy pursuing what we think is happiness to realize it’s right here with us.

I have learned that nothing is certain in this life and I have also learned that it’s up to me what I do with my time here. I choose to live as long as I am physically able, and to enjoy whatever time I have left. None of us know how long we have; we don’t know our expiration date.

******

Ruth Rainwater was here. And she was my friend.

Inarticulate Hyperbole: Yes, Internet, It’s Too Soon

canstockphoto6161461I’m a fairly peaceful person, but I often write about punching people out, delivering roundhouse kicks and ramming my vehicle into other vehicles. It’s mostly in humor, but every once in a while I step back and think about the language of violence and whether it adds to the actual nature of violence in our society. I also swear a lot, which sometimes I think is funny. But again, I question if, on occasion, I use it humorously to replace actually being humorous.

This is all to say, that I spend a lot of time thinking about what I’m writing and I make choices. Sometimes I stick with the funny, even if I’m very much against violence, don’t believe in calling people swear words and try very hard in real life not to hit other cars. If someone calls me on it, I accept the consequences for making a deliberate choice.

So often these days, I run across articles or posts or comments on posts where it is apparent that the writer is not thinking, but rather blurting. So I write this post for those people, who may or may not ever read it. I have to believe that they are just being spontaneous and not deliberately obtuse, because that’s one too many humans not thinking.

Grammar Nazi

I don’t know if the casual use of Nazi began with Seinfeld soup Nazi episode or with our truly dubious politicians, whose mouths run on platitudes and sound bytes. I was reading a blogger’s About page which said something to the effect, if your a grammar nazi, go away. And I did. Not because I participated in the Third Reich’s devastating destruction of millions of people. I did because if you’re bragging about being inarticulate and using unoriginal hyperbole, it is unlikely I will enjoy reading anything on that particular blog. Thanks for the warning.

KZDachau1945This phrase is problematic for me in a couple of ways. First, having read a significant amount of well-documented Holocaust stories, having visited Dachau and the US Holocaust Memorial Museum, I find turning a perpetrator into a quip to be appalling.

There are a lot of phrases and words that have entered popular vernacular which are echoes of the torture and misery inflicted on  and by humans in the past. There’s a lot of distance from the events or the practices. One would have to do research to find that information. But references to the horrors of World War II, dropped into casual discourse because you don’t want to learn how to spell or punctuate or use correct tense is a problem. Do you know the history and do not care or are you imitating what everyone else says on the internet?

The second way in which this phrase irritates me is that having good grammar is treated as some sort of elitist skill. Treating good communication skills with contempt and derision speaks to a fad of anti-intellectualism that has swept across our culture and politics. I don’t freak out about typos (except my own). I do avoid reading media that is riddled with misspellings, lacks capitalization or punctuation, or leaves words in a dogpile instead of using paragraphs. Maybe e.e. cummings and Cormac McCarthy can pull it off, but I don’t read them, either. The whole point of grammar is to provide a unified system that can convey ideas to other humans. Maybe you’re writing for an extra-terrestrial crowd.

And honestly, if you know your grammar skills are shit, stop bragging about it and use the many resources available on and off line to start learning some basic rules. I’m still challenged by the many rules and continue to try and improve. In progress is forgivable. Giving up and calling the other passersby grammar Nazis only speaks to belligerence and inadequacy.

Drinking the kool aid

Troolie_cottages_in_Jonestown
Attribution: Jonestown Institute

In 1978, when I was 11 years old, we watched, with rapt attention, the coverage following the murder of Congressman Leo Ryan in Guyana. As the story unfolded, we learned about Jim Jones and the 909 people who apparently committed suicide on his command by ingesting a flavored drink laced with potassium cyanide. Hence the phrase “drinking the kool aid”, which I’ve seen repeatedly in articles, referenced in TV show dialogues and in tiresome comment forums. It has become a way of slapping down people who disagree, by suggesting that they’re not thinking for themselves. Ironic, since the use of this phrase indicates that as well.

The story behind that phrase is much more horrifying. The mass suicide was really a murder-suicide as many victims, especially infants and those who protested, received involuntary injections. Over the winter, I read A Thousand Lives by Julia Scheeres, who did an outstanding job of showing how ordinary people ended up on a path to their own destruction – a path that held more promise and hope than anything they’d experienced in their lives. They wanted what we all want – decent jobs, community, connections, a sense of purpose. Many of the people were marginalized in society – blacks, ex-criminals, the elderly, the young, struggling families. They died because they had hope.

♦♦♦♦♦♦♦♦♦♦♦♦♦♦♦♦♦♦♦♦♦♦♦♦♦♦♦♦♦♦♦♦♦♦♦♦♦♦♦♦

It’s quite possible I’m a humorless git who takes things too seriously. I just don’t find mass murder and suicide that quip-worthy. There are still survivors of these events alive and well on this planet – people who lost entire families to these hellish events, people who still wake up in a sweat, thinking of last words and moments and facial expressions. Maybe it’s too soon to memetically mock them.

A Few Resources:

Night by Elie Wiesel

A Concise History of the Third Reich (Weimar and Now: German Cultural Criticism) by Wolfgang Benz

Voices of the Holocaust

Telling Their Stories: Oral History Archives Project

A Thousand Lives: The Untold Story of Jonestown by Julia Scheeres

Q&A: A Jonestown Survivor Remembers