People can smell bad and have unpleasant loud voices but we can’t do without them
✎ Wayne K. Spear | October 26, 2017 ◈ Essays
THE ODDS ARE you’re not old enough to remember what it was like to be bored and lonely before the days of Facebook, so let me set the scene. In those days I watched Friends and reruns of The Rockford Files on cable television and I drank and I smoked cigarettes in my living room, or I walked the streets of my city for hours in search of diversions. One night, in my 20s, I drove to a singles party on the edge of town, circled the building twice, and went home, unable to summon the nerve to go inside. I was in a PhD program at the time and I spent my days in libraries or in front of a computer that was not connected to the world of distractions that we call the Internet. It was a good life when it was good, and when it wasn’t good it was an empty howling wilderness that I filled with words that no one else would ever read.
Many of us were already experts on isolation when Robert Putnam wrote his book Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community. A book like that wouldn’t have been written or read otherwise. In my 30s I had a family, well after my contemporaries had done the same, and I became fully absorbed in my work and responsibilities. But your world can shrink as a parent, especially if your extended family is far away. My partner and I didn’t go out for a movie or a restaurant meal for years, and even if we had tried to arrange a social outing it would have been an ordeal. To this day a drink in the neighbourhood with a friend can require weeks of negotiation. A get-together with someone from another city (and most of my friends live in another city) requires months, and often there are cancellations and deferments. The reality of post-college life for most of us is that we’ll rarely meet face-to-face with the few friends we have. The reality is that you’ll spend a good deal of time alone. Maybe that’s why Friends was such a big hit. We all want that life, and few of us have it.
I almost didn’t write this essay because I decided instead to spend my scheduled writing time at a Meetup for writers in my neighbourhood. Five minutes was all I could stomach. I sat at the table with a dozen strangers and one of them immediately took control of the group, setting down what she believed should be the terms and conditions of the meeting. I felt as if I was at an inaugural Bolshevik congress, when all I wanted was an intelligent conversation. We should have a closed Facebook group, the woman said. We should submit our writing for critique as an attachment and not in a post, she said. And on and on, we should do this and that and not these and those. I’m allergic to the word should, so I went outside, lit a cigar, walked home, and wrote this.
People have smells and loud irritating voices and ways of laughing that get under your skin like a nasty insect bite. But people can’t quite do entirely without people. When I was young I dreamed of writing for the magazines and newspapers. I fantasized about the smart dinner parties and the witty conversations that would be the collateral of my life of letters. My many writer friends would be creative and interesting and bold, and my nights would be filled with the feast of reason and the flow of soul. A bohemian life. The reality is another thing entirely, as everyone soon enough knows. The labour of writing is tedious and isolating, and for most of us it doesn’t lead to glamorous diners or even friendships. Instead, there are inboxes with messages like this:
Your a horrible writer, you dont even know what your talking about. Give your head a shake. This is the stupidest thing I have ever read. You should go back to working as a carnival barker.
Life is the same for people of all professions. Few of us bowl or join clubs or social organizations anymore, if we ever did. Less of us go to church or spend our weekends at the Legion than our parents’ generation did. We don’t drive to the singles’ dance, we look for love on Tindr. We have Meetups and Facebook and Twitter and Instagram. We go to the Internet for conversation and camaraderie and connection. There, we smell the virtual smells of other people, and it isn’t always pleasant or pretty. But it’s human, and we’re lying to ourselves if we think we can do without human connection.