On the Art of Staying in Touch

I. Christmas cards This year, some are hand-delivered. At the farmers' market, I run into some friends; they pull a card out of a coat pocket, but it gets lost amongst the leeks and the potatoes and I never end up taking it home, let alone opening it. Oh well, they say, when I tell them the fate of their offering. It was just a Christmas card; it said Christmas card things - and besides, I think, we've seen each other six times since; all the card contained, I suppose, was the representation of a relationship, while here we are, living that relationship. Later, drinking wine at a friend's house late at night, she produces a card, and I'm vaguely ashamed to have nothing to offer in return, but then, I've never been good at this; even the cards I send to my family, back in California, arrive embarrassingly late if at all, little attempts to disguise the distance between us that only serve to magnify it.

Others arrive through the post, personal but to the point. Let's see more of each other in the new year, one of them says, which I like; it's an active card, an invitation of sorts. But people of my generation, maybe people in general, don't send those long letters that my parents used to receive at Christmas - round-robins, sometimes, but not always, full of life updates: how little Susie is doing in middle school and how Howard is considering Harvard but he's not sure he's got the SAT scores for it and how even though Tom lost his job earlier this year because of downsizing or company restructuring or whatever the fashionable reason to lose your job is, they've picked themselves up, are doing well, even managed a family trip to the Grand Canyon this summer!

This kind of correspondence served conflicting purposes - to highlight both the banality of everyone else's lives (they're human too, just trotting along at the same speed as the rest of us) and the magnificence of everyone else's lives (they're doing all kinds of amazing things that I'm not doing!). Who didn't feel a pang of jealousy, knowing that acquaintances were traveling further, making bigger decisions? Who didn't, also, know that these kinds of details, the cheery attitude, the photo of the smiling family lined up on the edge of the Grand Canyon (the edge of the abyss!), were just fragments? Those notes contained nothing more or less than a series of clues, designed to add up, when pieced together by detective-friends, to a life grander than the life actually lived.

II. Curation

Now we don't need to send end-of-year updates. We're busy constructing and tending to our grander selves all year round. We broadcast the bits of the truth we want other people to see every day, primarily online, combing our public image, curating our personal histories.

I'm thinking about this when I come across this post by Cheri Lucas on Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind and Facebook Timeline. I'm struck by the connection Lucas draws between Lacuna, Inc. and "my curation of my own history" and am prompted to write my own rambling mini-essay in the comments:

"Maybe what’s interesting here is the collision between two kinds of curation – the curation of personal memory and the curation of one’s public self, or one’s public image, anyway. The former has always occurred – not as drastically, as literally, as it does for Joel and Clementine, but in little ways (misremembering the last months of a relationship, forgetting certain things, placing private but heavy emphasis on others, say). I know when I tell people I meet now about relationships I’ve had in the past, I’m not telling a whole story, or even a true (in the sense of factually correct) story – but I am, usually, at least telling a story which is emotionally true for me, based on my (curated) memory. But now, as you point out, “I am able to highlight what is important in my life—or what I want others to view as important—and fill in missing details”. We can not only present (and broadcast) a certain version of ourselves; we can also edit it, for an audience, we can do on paper (or Facebook, anyway) what we’ve always been able to do in our minds forever. I don’t know if this is a ‘bad’ thing, if any of it can be quantified, but I think it’s certainly raising questions about memory and identity that are fairly unique to our era."

III. Casual Correspondence

I wrote a month or two ago about how the question of whether or not correspondence - in its grand sense, its life in letters sense - is dead, or dying, because of technology, doesn't interest me. But the art of staying in touch - well, now, that's different, that's a rare art indeed these days, and "rarity...is the precursor to extinction," as Darwin writes.

For me, casual correspondence is too difficult these days. Why write to someone (or even - the horror! - ring her), for no specific purpose other than to make contact, when you can track her movements (however heavily edited) online? And if she doesn't broadcast any aspect of his her online, you hesitate: perhaps it's deliberate, perhaps she's hiding, perhaps your friendly advances are unwelcome. My inclination anyway, in an environment where we're saturated with the details of other people's lives, is to assume that the dissapearer has disappeared for a reason, has gone underground in order not to be found.

So we forget how to make contact, how to say hello, how are you, what have you been up to? There are plenty of people I want to say that to, but not only do I feel disinclined, I feel I lack the vocabulary - and also the medium - with which to do it. I don't know how to say let's stay in touch, but more than that, I don't know how to stay in touch.

I do know this: staying in touch - or, rather, the art of staying in touch - is interactive. It is is not adding someone as a friend on Facebook so that you can passively observe; it's not consuming the fragments, the breadcrumbs. It's talking about the fragments and the breadcrumbs, filling the spaces in with conversation.

You could look at something like Facebook and think, how efficient! It's saving so much time; people don't have to write a million letters and emails anymore; all the necessary information is in one place; it's never been easier to stay in touch! This is true, on the surface; but what it ignores is the possibility for different selves, different levels of revelation. I worry (probably needlessly, nearly all of my worry is needless) that if everyone sees precisely the same thing, we'll forget how to tell different people different things - not in order to mislead, but in order to tailor relevant information, to revisit shared history, to retain a sense of dignity. And we'll let this art, this tiny art, shrivel and become extinct.