Janet, as requested.
I met my friend in a Facebook group created to connect people who grew up in Corpus Christi, Texas. The purpose of the group, as I recall, was to reminisce about the city’s twentieth century history. How I joined that group is a memory no longer available to me. I wasn’t a member of the group for long because, like so many other Facebook groups, it morphed into a platform for irrelevant bitching, complaining, and right-leaning political bullying. But, during my brief tenure in the group, I encountered my friend. I do not recall the details, but I enjoyed reading his occasional posts, which demonstrated that he is quite intelligent and that he and I have many common political, social, and intellectual perspectives. We became Facebook “friends” and, over the course of several months, we started exchanging emails. Most of our messages dealt with philosophical matters, examining social issues from various philosophical viewpoints. I enjoyed those interchanges immensely, as they were reminiscent of various college courses in which the bulk of the course content was dedicated to learning through conversations and discussions versus being “taught.”
During the course of our email conversations, I learned that my friend is a college professor. He taught at a college in my hometown for many years before he moved, following a divorce, to become a professor at a college in Florida. After he read some of my blog posts—essays on social issues like controlling the availability of guns, poverty, universal health care, etc., and posts including short pieces of dark fiction—he suggested I participate in an email “conversation” between him and two of his college professor friends. The other two guys were in other places; one taught at a college in Canada, and I think the other may have been in Arizona. At any rate, we engaged in conversation and debate about all sorts of issues including gun ownership, racial profiling, capitalism, theology, domestic terrorism, white supremacy, and a host of other topics ripe for deep discussion. As I recall, several conversations addressed positions taken by Stephen Pinker, a well-known cognitive psychologist and linguist, in his books and articles. Those, especially, turned into some very spirited but friendly debates.
My friend told me about the classes he taught, including one he and a psychology professor had jointly developed. That class explored the psychology of criminals and victims in crime fiction literature. Students who completed the course got college credits for both English and psychology. I found the concept fascinating. He also told me about his teaching style, which was a no-nonsense approach in which students were expected to work hard to keep up with his fast-paced presentations and to participate in class discussions and debate (he teaches, among other things, literature). I decided his teaching style should be called gonzo education, but I don’t think I ever told him so.
I learned that my friend likes to make beer and bread, enjoys making jewelry from metal he forges, loves to cook, and appreciates wine and spirits. He spends time in his pool and with his plants and greenery. While I, too, loving cooking and wine and plants, I know nothing about jewelry-making and long ago lost interest in maintaining a pool. But conversations with my friend reinforced for me that I can enjoy hearing about endeavors in which I have little or no interest in doing myself, but that intrigue me, nonetheless. Another of my friends, a fierce aficionado of beer and beer-making, became friends with my Florida friend, too, through my Facebook connection. Social media shrinks the world.
My friend and I exchanged other emails pretty frequently. He told me about his sons and daughter, the discipline he embraced that sent him to the gym most days, his current girlfriends, Greek enclaves near his home, and a hundred other things. I am sure I shared with him a great deal about my personal life, as well. We became good friends, at least as close as friends can become through email, comments on blog posts, and a few rare telephone conversations.
When my wife’s friend, who lives in Florida northeast of Tampa, invited us to come visit, we accepted the invitation. In planning our trip, we decided to “couch surf,” rather than rent motel rooms; it was our first (and I guess only) time to be guests, though we had hosted couch-surfers several times. On the way to Florida, we stayed one night with a very nice guy in Jackson, Mississippi; he was editor of a college literary magazine. We took him to dinner at an Indian restaurant, after he initially suggested Thai; I think he changed his mind on the way when we told him how much we enjoyed Indian food. Our couch-surfing experience later became fodder for conversations with my friend.
Long before we drove to Florida, I arranged to meet my, who lives only about thirty miles from my wife’s friend. A few days after we got to my wife’s friend’s house, we drove down to see my friend. When we got to his house, he was not home; he had gone to the grocery store in preparation for our visit. His son met us at the door, but politely refused to let us in, telling us his father had told him never to allow strangers in the house. My friend got home shortly after our arrival. We sat and visited for several hours, enjoying a little wine and just chatting. The experience was like getting together with a friend after being apart for many years; it was delightful.
Though we kept in close touch for some time after we met face-to-face, time and circumstances intervened, reducing the amount of communication between us. Since then, my wife and I moved to Arkansas; a new place requires time and energy to find one’s place. And my friend went through various changes in his personal life. He, who had been a fierce über-user of Facebook, left the platform several times, returning months later. During especially demanding times, the time he spent teaching and the time he spent attending rallies for Bernie Sanders left little time for anything else. The automated reminders of my daily (and sometimes more frequent) posts, coupled with other “demands” of email apparently became intrusive, so he stopped subscribing to reminders about my blog posts. Though he continued to visit and comment, the visits and comments declined significantly until they eventually stopped. We still kept in touch via Facebook, but not often.
My friend occasionally talked about going “back home” to visit friends and family in Corpus Christi. Though it would be out of his way, I’ve encouraged him to make a detour when he takes that trip to come visit us (now, just me) in Hot Springs Village. I hope he does that after the pandemic is an ugly memory. And I hope to make a trip to visit him again one day during a break in his teaching duties.
Recently, though, when I called my friend (the first time in years), I felt like I had just walked into his house again. The conversation was so familiar, so friendly, so genuine that it reminded me that strong friendships can, indeed, develop online. It also reminded me that it is too easy to let communication slide. It reminded me that giving priority to the urgent, rather than the important, is a fool’s errand.
I have met my friend only once, face-to-face, but I do not doubt that, if circumstances permit, we will meet again one of these days. Whether the first flush of friendship—when we engaged in philosophical discussions and debates—will ever return is questionable, but the fact that we remain friends is not.