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Tuesday, March 20, 2007

What do we owe our neighbors in this internet age?

I've been rattled thinking about something that happened last week. At the time, I labelled it "not suitable for blogging," but it's still on my mind...

As you know, I live alone and don't seem to cook for myself, so I eat a lot of shredded wheat and bananas - breakfast, lunch, and dinner.

Sometimes I suspect I'm about to get tired of shredded wheat, so I trawl for dinner companions at Craig's List. I propose thusly: "have dinner with a friendly musician..."

This is a pretty successful, low-risk proposition; at worst my dinner companion and I bore each other for an hour. No harm has been done, and at least we've gotten out of our respective houses and had a decent meal.

Sometimes we don't bore each other too badly, and in that case we do it again. In one case, I'd been having dinner once a week with a guy for almost six months - "that's longer than my second marriage lasted!" he joked.

This guy has serious health problems, though they aren't evident when you meet him, and he seemed to me to be very much alone - he moved here from up north by himself and lives further out in the woods than I do, in an apartment (found on Craig's List) over a deserted woodshop.

So anyway, for these months of weekly dinners I had it in my mind that, perhaps, one day this friend would need help from me, and though our friendship was in most senses quite casual, I would feel I owed him that help.

Last week I thought the time had come. See, this guy has been, unlike many tipos found on Craig's List, reliable and genuine with me - he showed up, on time, on the day specified, in the place specified, week after week. He kept in touch by email and we even talked on the phone occasionally. But last Monday I realized he hadn't been answering my emails, hadn't responded to my phone calls, in fact had not confirmed our dinner plans, and so, for the first time in months, we'd miss a Monday meeting.

He still didn't answer emails or phone calls the next day, nor the day after that. This was so unusual I started to be afraid something had happened to him.

Maybe I'm a little more paranoid than most people would be, but -- my own mother died this way. Cooking breakfast, she suddenly suffered a cerebral aneurysm and fell to the floor. Since she had a job - and obviously hadn't shown up for work that day - a co-worker "swung by" that night to check up on her and found her lying on the floor, still conscious. It was reported to me that, when found on the floor in the kitchen, my mom gestured mutely towards the stove, which had been on all day, ready for the pan of eggs which never made it to the burner, worrying her, hour after hour, as she lay on the floor unable to reach it. After seeing her co-worker turn off the stove, my mom went into a coma and never woke again.

In the 28 years since that happened, I have thought often about my mother, a woman who lived alone, and the way she died. I wondered what would have happened if the co-worker hadn't come by.

And in these past years when I've been living alone out here in the woods, I've thought often about what would happen if I were suddenly stricken as my mother was. How long would it take anybody to notice I wasn't answering my phone? I don't have a "job" and I'm not generally very good at returning phone messages... I morbidly collect these stories we see online of people who are found, mummified, in front of their television sets, years after their deaths...

So anyway, by Wednesday night I'd worried myself into a frenzy over this guy. On the one hand, I'd never been to his house and had no relation to him other than our casual Monday dinners. On the other hand - if not me, then who? He has no job, no family, nobody checking up on him...

Suddenly convinced something was terribly wrong, I realized retroactively I'd had a responsibility towards him from the very moment I first noticed he'd gone missing - and I'd blown it.

I wasn't raised to be a good neighbor - my parents, mired in misery, led the selfish every-man-for-himself suburban life. I didn't learn the neighborly things by observation - the charitable giving, the making of casseroles for funerals, not even the taking care of the neighbors' pets. We were a fairly solitary island there amongst the string of houses on our street. So "the right thing" doesn't necessarily come naturally to me.

By Wednesday night I was electrified by alarm. After hours of worry I finally slept two hours, then woke up at four and deliberated some more. I'd looked up the guy's address and planned to go there at a decent hour. When to implement my rescue mission?

If (a) he really had been lying stricken on the floor for days, every hour I delayed might make a difference to his survival. Or maybe he was already dead! But if (b) he was fine and had just been being flaky for some unknown reason, I would frighten him and embarrass myself by showing up in the dark and knocking on his door.

I left the house at 7:45 am, clutching the map directing me to his corner of the woods. En route I called my friend Judy. I started crying hysterically, convinced I had waited far too long, been a "bad neighbor," that the guy would be dead and it would be my fault. She said, "Promise me if you get there and he doesn't answer the door, you won't go in, you'll call 911. Promise. It's been days, Melinama..."

I drove and cried, and got lost and cried, got back on the right route and cried some more, then finally I arrived...

And he was fine. I was flabbergasted. I explained why I was there (but he didn't explain why he hadn't answered his phone or email), apologized, and left.

So on the one hand, it was a false alarm; thank God, the fact that I reacted to his anomalous behavior with days of post-modern indifference didn't have consequences. For this I'm very thankful.

On the other hand, his flaky behavior reinforced this lesson: people you meet online don't behave the way you'd expect friends to behave. They just appear one day in your in-box, so some other day they'll probably disappear the same way.

I've been thinking a lot since then about friendship, and what people in this shattered modern world owe each other. I don't mean charitable giving, I've made a lot of progress with that (it's something you can do with a pen, a checkbook, and a stamp) - I mean actual, physical aid in real time. I have no answers, just questions. Since this musing has been interfering with my blogging, I decided to share it with you and see if you have any thoughts for me.

I'm gonna go have some shredded wheat now.

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At 9:08 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Wow, what a powerful post. Considering you didn't think it was "blog worthy".

I don't know why this guy couldn't have offered up some sort of closure. Like you said, it was a casual arrangement, but with such regularity that I'm thinking that if something else came up, it would only take a second to say "something else has come up and I can't do this anymore." At least you know you're back to CraigsList.

Also, there's something to be said about the online-only mentality. It's really easy to say things to people online that you never in a million years would say/do in person. It's like the ease with which people play shoot 'em up video games - it's not real, so who cares who gets hurt?

(BTW, as an occasional CraisgLister, it's always interesting to see who answers/places the ads.)

At 9:12 AM, Blogger melinama said...

Thanks Ethan. I think you really hit the bullseye with "it's not real, so who cares who gets hurt?" Somehow people often don't put internet interactions on the same level as "real" ones - for instance, gigs which people book with my bands over the net collapse far more frequently than gigs booked by phone or in perrson (those hardly ever fall apart!). Doesn't that strike you as a dangerous precedent, that we get used to having "relationships" but they aren't real? So we don't owe the usual human decencies - reliability, honesty, etc. ?

At 11:47 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

This was a very interesting story and post. I'm actually amazed that since you had been meeting him with some regularity he didn't even bother to check in at the simplest level, as Ethan suggests.

Whatever your motivation, whether because of your mother's situation or just because you are a person who cares, you did the right thing by checking up on him. He did the wrong thing by having such a cavalier and insensitive attitude. I'm proud to have a friend (you!) who would take the time to check on an aquaintance. I hope you blew his mind and opened his eyes. If not, too bad for him.

A similar thing happened to me one time. I felt stupid at first, but then I thought, "Why am I feeling bad about caring for my fellow human? I'm not going to change the way I am. Instead of lowering my standards maybe he will raise his." Of course I'll never know but I am a cock-eyed optimist.

So I think you should feel good about being the kind of person who would do that sort of thing. Personally, I don't understand about casual internet relationships, but I may have an overdeveloped sense of commitment and responsibility.

Yes, I think it is a dangerous precedent that we as a people have relationships that we THINK aren't real, relationships to which we don't owe the usual human decencies. Let's not be like that, OK? Let's lead by example.

You did the right thing. Absolutely.

At 3:59 PM, Blogger novelera said...

Sylvia and Ethan have both said exactly what I feel. But maybe this is a guy thing. I've read in multiple articles that there is some Venus and Mars thing that makes it difficult for men to give closure to a relationship of any sort, while women want to know "what the heck happened?", even if we aren't DEEPLY involved with that person. This is in the same category as saying: "I'll call you" and then never doing so.

I agree that this is very thoughtless on the part of this guy, but maybe he just couldn't get beyond his cultural conditioning in order to let you know why he wasn't going to resume the Monday dinners. Maybe, just maybe, a few men will read your blog, have some insight about the consequences of their behavior when they mysteriously drop out of the radar, and have the guts to tell the next woman they're planning not to spend time with anymore that that's the case and (maybe) why. Maybe just so she won't show up at their door with an ambulance!

At 6:05 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Good thing I read the other comments before writing, because somebody already said everything I had in mind. Still, I'll reiterate - you should feel GOOD about what you did and not let someone else's weirdness swamp that. Also, I've known of several similar situations, and ALWAYS it was the guy who vanished, not the other way around.

At 9:42 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Something like this happened to me. I met someone in a course. Sometime later he contacted me for advice. We met several times and talked about his business. I knew it was not going really well. When, sometime later, I tried to call him, there was no one there. I remembered the name of a friend of his, and she didn't know why he wasn't replying either. After about a day of fretting I called the admitting offices of the local hospitals and found him. His anxiety eventually affected him physically, and seriously. He was someone who simply didn't call for help. That was years ago. He has relocated, and is doing well now. And we do keep in touch. I know that I did the right thing by following up when I thought something was wrong.

The son of one of my favourite authors, Kurt Vonnegut, said to his dad, “Father, we are here to help each other get through this thing, whatever it is.” I am glad that the senior Mr. Vonnegut wrote about that so I would discover it. I think it is true.

At 10:12 PM, Blogger melinama said...

I'm really glad to be hearing from folks - it helps.

At 2:54 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Melinama~~~I agree with the previous opinions. You did the right thing...the caring thing...the kind thing...the human thing. I collect quotes, and here's one to support my opinion: ''In helping others, we shall help ourselves, for whatever good we give out completes the circle and comes back to us.''---Flora Edwards~~~Susanlynn

At 9:58 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

A friend of mine I've known since I was nine years old had an acoustic neuroma surgically removed on Valentine's Day in 1984. The woman I eventually married heard him describe the symptoms he was having and told him what it was. A year later he was hospitalized after an attempted suicide. A brain scan revealed the tumor and it was treated. The surgery lasted more than 12 hours. For the next eight years I called him about once a week just to make sure he was ok. He served as best man when I finally got married. I moved overseas when my wife got an offer she couldn't refuse. That was fifteen years ago. My friend wrote to me about once a month or so for the first three years after we moved overseas. By then the letters were really essays rather than letters, some of them twenty or thirty pages long, one of them a terrific study of Yukio Mishima. When he realized that the move overseas was permanent he stopped writing to me, even after I moved to a third world country with internet access. He abandoned the window cleaning business he'd had in the city and moved to a trailer out in the woods near his parents' place. I heard two years ago that he'd been evicted from the trailer, brandished a gun in the process and spent six months in jail in Yakima after refusing legal assistance. He apparently insisted on arguing his own case, based mostly on something he'd read by Kerouac. I visited him at his trailer in the woods once on a visit home shortly before that happened. I can't say I'm all that surprised that it did.
The guy was a straight A student all the way through school and did reasonably well as a collegiate swimmer. Several profs had inisisted that he apply to grad school, but he never did. His parents are both therapists and colleagues of my dad, also a therapist. They won't tell me anything about what's going on with him. His dad has terminal cancer and won't be alive a year from now. I'll visit home next month. Any ideas from Miss Lonelyhearts?


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