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Wednesday, April 1, 2020

Plague Journal, Day 19: Kumbaya-dot-com!

In the Covid-19 age, I like millions of others with an Internet connection am physically isolated, digitally connected. 

Digital links can be lovely. A recent social media thread included exchanges with two college friends, one in western Massachusetts and one in England; a Scot I met at a mid-career workshop in Berkeley who lives in Minnesota; a parent from The Kid’s grammar school, now in Pennsylvania; a friend in Southern California met through a Northern California high-school friend who now lives in Connecticut; a volunteer friend met in Indonesia; and work friends from West Virginia and Boston. 

Two decades ago I probably would have celebrated such links with little analysis. We Are The World! Kumbaya-dot-com! 

In 2020 I understand that the internet connects us via a corporate-controlled privacy-thieving infrastructure functioning both as history’s most elaborate ad-delivery device and efficient propaganda tool. 
It also, as Marshall McLuhan predicted, shapes the communication it allows. This goes well beyond comment-page anonymity and Twitter word limits. The Girlfriend, a film and media scholar, works on projects that describe the difficulties of creating digital content that critiques the structural limitations of digital content. If we cannot trust the internet’s networks or news, how to teach digital media literacy when your own content is immediately inscribed within the net’s corrosive capitalist maw? 

I say this not to sound a Luddite call to arms. I am, after all, posting this on a blog, publicizing it on social media. I mean only to point out complications of contemporary communication. Clear writing in any form is hard, perhaps harder in a world of informal chat where we lack physical and social cues to interpret context. 

Tuesday presented a digital grab-bag.

The Kid’s K-8 public school has a social media page dedicated to parental communications. Lovely in theory, a previous version was closed after a few posters abused lax moderator standards. The current one, if less caustic, I still find a bog, with accumulations of comity amid a morass of bad feeling. 

A parent wondered Monday night how many in the school community have been feeling sick and might be presumptively positive for Covid-19. She knew of a few, asked about others, wished everyone well. The thread perked up Tuesday with a variety of folks checking in, most feeling fine, a couple of whom said their families had ill members, none bad enough to seek hospitals. 

One poster — let’s say Parent A — said, “Speak for yourself. We’re fine.” 

I wasn’t sure to what “Speak for yourself” alluded. I hadn’t noticed anyone in the thread speaking for the community. I’d have moved past it, but soon Parent B described A’s comment as “selfish and callous.” Parent A repeated the original three words, in all caps with an exclamation point. Parent B pitied A’s children. The pity was returned. The conversation devolved. When I saw a Borat meme I ventured into the swamp. 

Me: “I am politely asking both of you to please stand down. This forum is not the place for personal disputes. In the name of our children, please refrain. Thank you.” 

Parent A: “By all means. But this pompous asshole felt like addressing me.” 

Me: “Please, please. That is not standing down. Please call upon your nature's better angels.” 

Parent B (to me): “I would like to politely point out that just like you felt the need to intervene when you observed what you perceived as inappropriate behavior, I did the same. If you see a substantive difference, please elaborate it here. Also, are you becoming engaged in a personal dispute by commenting here?”

Me: “I'd like to ask the moderator to intervene in this conversation. I have no interest in further communication on this thread.”

Parent B (to me): “I politely asked you to respond, but you're unable to respond rationally. Asking the moderator to censure arguments which you're unable to address yourself is immature.”

My fingers itched to type a response, at least to inform Parent B of the difference between “censure” and “censor.” But what purpose would that serve? In 15 minutes I’d be searching for Borat memes. 

[A few minutes later] Administrator: “This is a group for parents to share ideas and information. Please refrain from using inappropriate language. If something does not interest you or you have nothing to add, please feel free to ignore the post. Thanks.”

Fair enough. I shut my laptop, went for a walk. 

Later, digital interactions with folks whose faces I’d know in a crowd provided solace. 

My sister who works for a mayor texted my brother and me: “Either of you knowledgeable baseball fans want to help with an April Fools’ joke? I want to set a pretend appointment for Mayor for an old, but maybe still living, St. Louis Cardinal. Mayor shagged fly balls at batting practice in the late ’60s. Suggestions?” 

Brother: “Julian Javier, slick fielding second baseman. Just checked Wikipedia — he’s not dead. Father of former S.F. Giant Stan Javier. Stan was named after Stan Musial, who was kind to the young players of color who came to the Cards in the early 1960s.” 

Me: “I can’t top that.” 

Later, the Co-Parent reached out about yesterday’s blog post: “I take complete credit for the phrase ‘What if the war comes?’ Said in jest and routinely about your parsimony. No need to acknowledge in your journal, just remember it began as ridicule! Lol.” 

Me: “Now that you say it: Of course. It was you mocking me. I had totally forgotten that. I must have borrowed it when I wrote that speech for Dad’s 80th. It shows how much our worlds and words melded for 15 years or so. It’s like we were married or something.” 

Co-Parent: “Lol” 

Later, my college friend upstate texted without comment a phrase from Day 17’s blog that attempted to describe him: “Braiding complicated strains of practicality and New Age-tinged spirituality, common sense and mystic woo-woo.”

Me: “Fair? (It may not be nice, I realize.)” 

Friend: “Made me laugh and go hmmmm at the same time.” 

Me: “I thought it was a reasonable summation of what we discussed on the phone. If I misdiagnosed or mischaracterized, please let me know.”

Friend: “I have been known to plaster mud all over my body and chant at the moon, so fair enough.”

Me: “It’s a thing I love about you.”

Friend: “Ha. No shame in my game.” 

Me: “If it was all chanting and mud plastering, we wouldn’t be friends. On the other hand, if it was all bill paying and getting your organizations’ trains to run on time, we probably wouldn’t be friends, either.”

Friend: “It’s all a mystery. Who the fuck knows ‘the path’?”

Me: “You’re a seeker. You teach me a lot. And you really did have an impact on The Girlfriend. Just your energy, translated however poorly through me. She’s been up and about and, while the path remains rocky (better Monday, worse Tuesday morning, better Tuesday night), it’s on a healing trajectory.” 

Friend: “Awesome. I'm feeling pretty good. A little headache this morning, but I prayed to Athena to take it away and then smeared owl feces on my head.” 

Me: “You know The Girlfriend doesn’t believe in Athena. But I’m going to go look for owl feces.” 

(New York state numbers as of Tuesday: 75,795 diagnosed with Covid-19, up 14 percent; 1,550 dead, up 27 percent. Overall U.S. deaths: 3,743, up 27 percent.) 

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