People can become depressed on social media, threatened by comparisons with other people whose celebratory photos of successful children, talented pets, and wonderfully full heads of hair seem like bragging. None of that bothers me. I’m a private person and an introvert, and I find that the new American culture of virtual reality suits me well. I’m comfortable with language, and I’m a fast typist. This combination makes me something of a chatterbox online. I was never a popular kid in school, but in a text-driven culture, my English-major skills have value. I have a constant dialog going in my head. I can spin out fictions and wacky ideas. I can poke fun at myself. All of this makes me self-sufficient socially, as if I were, by myself, a small society. Online my multiple selves expand into the wide-open spaces of text boxes. But, despite the fact that there is a genuine value in connecting with old friends from high school and college and keeping in touch with distant relatives, the world of social media is a framed and pixelated version of our actual encounters with people in the air-breathing world.
In this regard I’m also very lucky. Not only do I get to work on a college campus at a time in human history when most classes are still taught in person—face-to-face, as we say; but also I live in a friendly, old-fashioned neighborhood. It’s a throwback to an era when your neighbors knew quite a lot—maybe too much—about you. Several of our neighbors host gatherings on their front porches on mild evenings. Sometimes the party meets on Roger’s porch, sometimes on Gary’s, and sometimes on Willard’s. It seems to be a random thing. People bring chairs and maybe a beer. My wife and I take our dog over to meet the people. Our dog Luna needs to improve her social skills. Other dogs also arrive. Couples out for a walk stop to chat with the porch group before moving on.
Conversation wanders pleasantly. It’s informal. There’s no agenda. If we talk about politics, we take it only so far. Discussion of college football teams can be much more contentious. The talk is informational, in the sense that we find out when someone got a car broken into or someone is going to plant or cut down a tree. We express our opinions about a new restaurant. We tell stories about our day. This atmosphere of ease is helped by the fact that several of the porch group members are retired. In fact, the three hosts are living in retirement and seem happy about it. They have their own stories to tell, but they also serve as referees for those of us who are still struggling with career challenges. Retirees are somehow more spiritual than the rest of us. The demands of work keep us, I suppose, from seeing more deeply into things. It’s hard to step back. It’s hard to step back far enough for the wider view. Our elders help us there.
So, I’m lucky to have this immediate community—a diverse group, especially if you include my students and colleagues. They exist outside of the news cycle. They are part of a rhythm of life that is daily and seasonal. I’m going to make a statement now that will sound political but isn’t really: This is what America is about. When I think of America, I think of people getting together and talking. This is the backyard barbeque vision of our country. The more the merrier. Bring your stories, happy and sad and funny and strange. Tell us what it’s like for you.
Music: "Sweater Weather" by the Neighbourhood