I recently received a message via Flickr from a friend I haven't spoken to in nearly a decade. In grade school he was one of, if not my best of friends. I was always jealous of his assortment of Star Wars toys and video games. We rode our dirt bikes (he had a Diamondback and I had a Mongoose) over the hills behind the subdivision. He was one of the few kids at my 13th birthday when I had the chicken pox. But he was a year ahead of me and when I was in 9th grade at the Jr. high school, he had already gone to high school. We connected a couple times in college when I became friends with the lead singer of a band he was in. After that I think there were a couple emails, nothing really substantive, always asking, "So what are you up to now?"
Why do we do this?
Don't get me wrong, I love nostalgia. I love thinking about how easy things were back in the day. Everything has a glimmer of perfection when viewed through that aged lens. And yet they never hold up. I watched a movie with Tiger Lily recently. It was one I hadn't seen for many years, but had always told people it was the greatest. It was The Last Starfighter. We watched it because a) it was one of those classic cult sci-fi movies everyone should see, like Tron and Flash Gordon and Dune and b) there was some news of a sequel coming out in the next few years. So we watched and I think she fell asleep. The Last Starfighter doesn't hold up really well, but it also isn't that bad. The problem was, it wasn't that great to begin with. I think it's an awesome movie, but I'm realistic in my understanding of how memory laminates everything in a glorious mix of perfection and raspberry preserves.
So when I get an email or friend request or some other form of communication from someone I haven't seen in over ten years I'm not exactly sure how to handle it. I've always accepted them and responded as I'm genuinely interested in what they've been doing. But it's the 8 year old me interested in knowing what the 8 year old them is doing. It doesn't take but the length of a commercial to reply to someone and if they live farther than 100 miles away, it's not likely you'll ever actually see them. The energy you must invest in communicating is low; no plans need to be made, no travel, no drumming up courage or interest or then excuses for leaving early if it becomes tiresome. Firing off a response is a negligible effort.
Which is why we all do it.
TG and I spent about 30 minutes this last weekend going over my Facebook friends. I had a bet with her that she didn't know all 420 of her online friends. She said she knew 95% and that floored me. So I went through mine and I think I actually knew 30%. And of those, most were people I have not seen since I was at that post graduation party where that one girl left me for another guy. (S'okay, she turned out to be gay so the sting wore off.) Point is, a large number of people we "know" on line we really don't know at all and the term friend as become just another watered down version of a once powerful word. I don't know anything about these people, yet I list them as my friends.
I think I'm going to change my answer to "I know OF them." Explaining who these people are in relation to you when you're having a face to face conversation is laborious. When I talk about Ms. A or TG or LMA, the people I'm talking to already know. But when I say, "I heard today from so-and-so, you know him, the magazine writer, lives in Chicago, we did that thing together." I can't just say, "You should of heard what Simon did today." It doesn't help now that there's this layer of knowing them in the past but not knowing them now.
These types of way-back-machine relationships are like winning a pricey electronic gadget that you have no use for. It's shiny, it's new, you won something, but you know you'll never use that USB waffle iron.