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Still feeling Lucky

I saw the movie Lucky on Sunday. It’s now Wednesday and I’m still thinking about it. I alternate between mentally drafting my end-of-life plan, and wondering at the loneliness of life. I can’t get him out of my head.

Each day for Lucky was routine. He’d get up. Light a cigarette. Go through his daily ablutions. Do his exercises. Then he’d head down to the local diner where he’d sit and do his crossword. Next, he’d stop by the corner shop to pick up milk or cigarettes before heading home to watch his game shows. That evening, he’d hit the local bar where he’d sit a while with his mates before going home to bed. One day followed the next, all with a repetitive sameness. He had regular interactions. People knew him to talk to but no one really knew anything about him.

Lucky looked at life through a veil of cynicism. We get glimpses of this through is comments and see how he’s lived through snatches of conversations he has with random strangers. He notes the difference between being alone and being lonely and I suspect he doesn’t consider himself lonely, until he sees what he’s missing.

This movie has stayed with me for days. Perhaps because so many elderly people live in my building, all of whom have their daily routines. I know old people whose friends have all died, whose children are busy rearing their own families, whose partners have long since gone. Some of them are treading water, warming an armchair, waiting to die. Others will be dragged kicking and screaming from the world, their exit the same as the way they came in.

What keeps niggling at me though is what happens when there’s no routine. When there’s nowhere you’re expected every morning at 7 or every evening at 4. What happens when there’s no pattern? Who misses you then? Who raises the alarm when you don’t show?

A few years ago, this sort of stuff bothered me. I had just one regular appointment – on Wednesday mornings. If I fell and cracked my head getting out of the bath on a Thursday, it would be a week before anyone missed me. Calls or texts going unanswered would be written off to busyness.  Emails left unattended likewise. And who’d follow up? We’re all so busy doing and going and seeing to stuff that an absence might bother us temporarily but then would be forgotten in the manic minutiae of daily living.

I might deplore sameness, predictability, routine. But sometimes they have their uses.

That said, when the little old néni who sits beside me at mass in the village didn’t show up one Sunday and I saw a funeral leaving the village the following day, I assumed incorrectly that she’d died. But she showed up at mass the following week – all smiles – back from her holidays. I’d thought the worst but at least I missed her. I went on holiday for three weeks in my first year in BP and the only person who’d noticed I’d gone was the waitress in the café on the corner. Living with someone changes all that. It’s one of the pluses.

 

 

 

 

Call home

For years I lived too far from home to visit very often and had to make do with a three-week trip every 18 months or so. It wasn’t particularly hard. I was busy living my life and everyone at home was getting on with theirs. My life abroad was just what I did. I know couples here in Hungary who have all three kids living in another country. It’s become a norm,  part of twenty-first-century living.

One of the drawbacks of living in say, the States, or Canada, or Australia, is that you dread the call. The phone call that comes with bad news. Coming close to what would be the end of my time in Alaska, a couple of good friends had received one. I can’t begin to imagine what the trip home was like for them. Had it been me, a fair few miles would have been eaten up in self-recrimination. Should have called more, written more, visited more.

That was then, in the days when the Internet was in its infancy, when the postman still brought real letters and Christmas had to be mailed in November. Today, Skype has made it all a lot more manageable. The Internet has made it easier to catch up and stay up with what’s happening at home. Free phone call apps make it affordable to talk every day. For the most part, those I know who are living away from home are religious about staying in touch.

old-man-phone

This picture was posted on Facebook during the week. When I looked, it had 348 comments, most of them from parents saying how their kids never call unless it’s to look for money or help. They were waiting for a call just to ask how they were doing. A sizeable portion were from kids who’d lost their parents and would give anything to have them back so that they could call and visit. A rare few told of daily telephone calls and visits.

Then I saw a video along the same vein, but this time the kids were calling, calling to make excuses as to why they didn’t have time to visit their parents, to chat, to fix a phone. It ends with the entreaty to stop neglecting, to make time for those we love. It had 216 comments and 27k+ shares. I scrolled down through the comments and began to realise how far removed I am from other people’s reality.

You only have one life, use your time wisely. My mom is still with us, my dad passed away at 48 yrs old. We love, and we lost. My baby sister was murdered at 15 yrs old. My son was murdered at 17 yrs old. My brother lost his baby girl at 7 days old. Life is not fair. I have learned the hard way that you treasure whoever you have in your life because you never know when you will lose them. Just sayin’.

With this though, more of the comments were about letting your kids go – realising that they have lives to live, too. Don’t expect, they said. Don’t wait. You’ve done your job. A lot of these comments came from India.

Yes, there are families where the parent-child relationship is toxic and visits end in arguments and tears and so are avoided altogether. Happy families for many are something they see on TV. Remember that German ad that ran last year about an old man faking his death just to get his kids home for Christmas?

I don’t have kids, so I don’t know whether I’d be in the disappointed camp, waiting for calls that never come and visits that never happen. I don’t call home every day – if I did, my mother would wonder what was up. We email, we chat, I visit every other month. And each time I go home, my dad thanks me for making the effort. None of us are getting any younger. The time we have left together is limited. Staying in touch is important.

 

 

 

Individual liberty in a social world

I wouldn’t mind meeting Socrates for a coffee and telling him just what I think of his pearl of wisdom – the unexamined life is not worth living. I seem to be spending an inordinate amount of time lately examining various aspects of my life. Just when I think I’ve finally got a handle on it all and am indulging in a harmless bout of self-congratulations, wallowing in the fact that as lives go, mine isn’t all that bad at all,  fate intervenes and with a swift kick, lands me flat on my ass back at square one. Generally, these moments of introspection are precipitated by something I read or hear – something that resonates with the inner voice that is my conscience. The latest provocateur is writer/entrepreneur Andrew Keen, who made a recent appearance on the TEDx stage here in Budapest

Cult of the social

In his 18-minute presentation, Keen, author of Cult of the Amateur: How the Internet is killing our culture, spoke of the cult of the social and the 21st-century expectation that we reveal ourselves to all and sundry, be it through blogging, Facebook updates, or tweets. He fears for the fate of individual liberty in the networked age – what Silicon Valley is now calling ‘the social world’. He quoted the famous line from the movie The Social Network, from the on-screen character Sean Parker – we lived on farms, then we lived in cities, and now we’re going to live on the Internet – and goes on to say that we’re on the verge of a new world, a place where we are living online, where the virtual is becoming real, a world where data is the new oil and those who have control of this data, control the world. He contrasts the issue of loneliness as an essential human condition with the hyper-visibility we are embroiled in today – the new reality of the digital world.

Digital narcissism

I hadn’t ever given my use of Internet much thought. I would never describe myself as a social media junkie. I check Facebook a couple of times a day to see what my 200+ friends are up to (who’d have thought I’d ever be so popular!). I don’t access it by phone and my status updates rarely concern me. I don’t have a check-in application; the world doesn’t need to know where I am at any given moment. I never post photos of people as I see this as an invasion of privacy. The amount of personal detail available about me is negligible. I don’t tweet.  But … (gulp) … I blog. I say that as if I’m confessing to some heinous crime and wonder if this makes me guilty of what Keen calls ‘digital narcissism – the embrace of the self’?

Eliminating loneliness

Back in 1961, Clark Moustakas, in his book Loneliness, describes the phenomenon as ‘a condition of human life, an experience of being human which enables the individual to sustain, extend and deepen his humanity’. Whether we define loneliness as a state of being alone, of experiencing solitude, or simply feeling lonely, it is a fact of life.  Or it was …

In his TEDx talk, Keen quoted a line from the real-life Sean Parker in a recent interview in Forbes magazine where he says that his pitch with his new company, Airtime, is to ‘eliminate loneliness’.  Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn, YouTube, and blogs are already doing a damn good job of making us think that we’re closer than ever to our friends and family; we now have the capacity to be in touch 24/7. And while this might, on the surface, seem like a good thing, I wonder if we’re not diluting the quality of our interpersonal communications to the point that we are simply talking (or tweeting, or blogging, or updating our status) to remind ourselves that we are alive and despite the overwhelming numbers of friends or followers that we might have, we are, in fact, distancing ourselves from humanity.

If my status update doesn’t attract a bevy of comments, is this akin to being ignored? If only a handful of people read my blog, does this mean it’s worthless? If I have 700 Facebook friends and 1000 followers on Twitter and a klout ranking of 89, does that make me a better person than someone with no online presence at all?  That the lines between the real world and the digital world are blurring is scary, but it’s the pervasiveness of the social world that is scariest of all. It’s time to re-examine our relationship with the Internet and how much of ourselves we are losing in being so visible. While it might appear that we are doing little more than engaging with the freedom of expression offered by social media, perhaps Keen is right to be concerned about the future of our individual liberty.

First published in the Budapest Times 14 October 2011