Looking for Me
My mother called with the number of the daughter of one her friends that she plays cards with. She's a lovely girl, my mother said. She has a marvelous personality. These particular phrases, I have learned, are warnings. When you hear them, picture the country moving to a higher state of war readiness--Defcon4 perhaps. A teal terrorist alert. This is a woman to avoid, avoid, avoid. Run, as fast as you can. Hide. Do not answer the phone. Stop thinking and you may stop existing long enough that she will lose interest in meeting you.
But I was suckered in. My mother had just sent out a wonderful black sports coat, the exact type I had been looking for over the last year and a half. It fit as if it had been specifically tailored for me, so how could I say no when she said, "Just call. What can it hurt?"
Sheila had a screechy voice along with a list of questions. What was my favorite color? What did my wardrobe consist of when I was going to see a comedic movie? Where did I expect to be in five years? I wondered if my mother had somehow misunderstood and sent me not for a date but a job interview. If so I didn't get an offer; my responses to her initial questions didn't make it past the first round because she never returned any of my subsequent calls. My mother reported to me that Sheila felt I wasn't right for her--something about clashing auras or my being born under a bad sign or my credit check had come back negative. Sheila was prepared, however, to introduce me to a couple of people if I had any thoughts of changing careers. Don't worry about it, darling, my mother said. I've seen her picture. She was no great catch.
That makes me feel so much better.
Then there was the professional marketer's approach: Seven women in seven minutes each. Speed Dating. Avoid the nightmare of three-hour blind dates. Speed Dating.
The organizers set up tables for the women and at the sound of the bell, the "date" begins. Seven minutes later the bell rings again and the men stand and change tables. Let another date begin. Let a thousand seven minute dates begin. I suspect that it's not easy to know me in seven minutes. But all of my "dates" tried, and I suppose I also tried with them.
Things may be changing for me, though. I have a new group of friends. I found them on an on-line computer service. Star 70 to cancel call-waiting (as if so many are going to call me), an active credit card, and I was ready to go. They asked for a frightening amount of information which included social security and drivers license numbers. They asked for all the numbers I carry around in my head that define me. But I surrendered to the process. I trusted that whoever was in billing at the other end of the wire would keep my life a secret from identity thieves. I didn't consider until later the possibility of computer hackers invading the system, taking those numbers and laying waste to an already wasted credit report. I decided I had to have faith.
The computer service is addictive. There are so many different places to investigate. I can shop at home, set up travel arrangements, learn what the weather is at that moment in Rangoon. I've begun spending a portion of each day and of each night in front of a color monitor tapping a keyboard, pointing my little arrow at the various picture "icons" and clicking on choices. Some places measure the response with votes or applause; I click my choices over and over again.
I have an admission.
I almost gave up when I initially signed on. It wasn't because of the necessity to divulge all that voluminous personal data. It was the new user lounge.
I wanted to get right into conversation with someone new, anyone, and so I clicked on the chat room icon. The screen announced:
You have entered the new user lounge
The neat screen stayed neat and pristine for more than 5 minutes. A little clock in the upper right-hand corner clicked off the time on-line so I could be aware of how much I was spending. No one typed anything, and I was left to wonder who was mr. cranky. I don't remember selecting that screen name. Suddenly there was a flurry of screen activity.
Then just as suddenly the sound system announced "Goodbye," and I was thrown out of the new user lounge, off the service and the screen displayed: NO CARRIER in gorgeous blue letters.
Similar scenarios occurred the next three times I logged on. Four hours passed in only five minutes. The little clock had vanished and there was no way to know in screen time with the lines on top of each other, rolling off the frame. Vrac was added to the list. Speed7 speaks to NML who asked about virtue a half page ago. "Do you mean virtual?" he says. Sned asks if anyone is listening. Rescue, added to the list. Rescue says, "What's the topic?" Speed7 wants to go to a private room as if any loose collection of communal wires stands in for low-ceilinged clubs, water beading up on whiskey glasses, a waitress bringing a new round, the three-piece combo playing, with a guy named Milton on the drums.
NO CARRIER -- again.
I had the wrong software. I got someone on an emergency 800 number, and he told me what to do. After that, I wasn't thrown off the service anymore and the carrier continued, unabated. I learned to look in other places.
I love e-mail. It's better than making phone calls. Better than personal contact. Better than sex. Rather than get together for a drink, or coffee, or invite someone over my house, or even sit by the phone and gab for ten minutes or an hour, I type in a few quick lines. I have to admit that, often, there is no consideration for grammar, spelling, or style. I say things in the easiest, most direct way possible, then I hit the send button and off goes my message, out of the machine, down the wire, into the electronic space where it is stored somewhere by someone for later retrieval -- and another electronic e-mail response, I hope -- if my new friends want to get back to me.
It was exciting to receive my first response. You have mail, the computer told me in a human-like voice. It's always the same voice, and the sameness is comforting: You have mail. Someone cares enough to write. Mail. I want to have mail. I want to have mail every time I sign on. I want there to be letter from all my new friends asking me how I am, soliciting my opinion, or generally shooting the wonderful wonderful breeze.
I never actually meet these people in the traditional you-see-my-face, I-see-your-face, both-of-us-eat-a-mint sense. Still I'm astounded at how important their opinions have become to me. I have one I ask for fashion advice, and a guy named Steve in Boston who is also between girlfriends, also usually alone, hurting, often angry; we have a lot to say, although after he types I HATE THE BITCH nineteen times in a row, I'm tempted to look up the names and numbers of area therapists and send them to Steve.
It's odd though, the distance the letters create. The level of disconnection grows, we step backward in the development of closer interpersonal relationships. It is fashionable now to avoid intimacy. Electronic distancing.
At work I keep my door closed and the shade drawn over the window. Sometimes I even lock the door to stymy the boss when he attempts to barge in. That doesn't happen often, and I can go hours without hearing a word of speech except for the cries for help in my own mind. Maybe not cries for help but the insistent list of things I should do today, things I must accomplish before the sun goes down, job things, personal things.
I use voice mail in place of the real thing. I typed up a little speech which I read rather mechanically, though I try to work on inflection. Hello. This is Ian. I am unable to receive your phone call at this time. At the tone, please leave me a message. Thank you. I sound like a machine; my callers hate the effect. Change that damn message, one of my younger brothers shouted into the phone. Change it. Change it.
At home I race down the short concrete path that leads from the driveway to my wood door. The footing is uneven because of the land upheavals due to earthquakes and their aftershocks. It's become impossible to walk without stumbling, and though the landlord has given a written indication that repairs will be effected, the instability continues.
I lock my door. I don't answer the phone. I play compact discs and never watch the news. At this time in our century, after the last few year's preoccupation with what Mr. Simpson's defense did or did not do on any given day, now we're looking forward to hearing what WorldCom's defense will be. I simply can't care. It's another tragedy in a host of tragedies too awful to consider, too seamy, too tawdry; it has nothing to do with me or it has everything to do with me, me as part of the larger collective of society that permits men to beat their wives while the authorities look the other way. Enough. I've never beaten anyone. And I don't own any stock. I don't care about those details.
I order my food in. Even going to the supermarket gives me too much contact with people, people I don't really want to interact with, people I don't want to know, people I can't stand to be around. There's nothing worse than being in a supermarket late on a Friday when the restocking begins. The grocery boys are staggered under the weight of new boxes of ham and beans, but there's nothing I want on the shelves, gaps where the citrus Gatorade is supposed to be, no fresh corn, bananas too ripe or too green. Alone, in a supermarket on a Friday night, the few women there think I'm cruising, even if I keep my head down and watch my shoes. This has led to more than few cart collisions which they believe is a ploy. I tell them I have insurance, they needn't worry. No one gets the joke.
And I need help when I shop, help from experts, which of course means from women. Is this the right cut of beef? Which package of chicken has less fat? What do I know about making food? Yet they scurry away as if I might have something contagious.
I hate the supermarket on a Friday night. If I have to go there, I rush through the store as quickly as I can.
Get out of my way.
Meeting women in supermarkets is a waste of time. None of them are on my on-line service, I'm sure of that; my new friends are much more refined. So I avoid supermarket women, which causes me to meet a changing parade of delivery boys, most of whom are older than I am -- which no doubt makes them delivery men. I've noticed a recent pattern: the delivery men are all Russian émigrés who speak English in heavy accents and have trouble making change. One of them told me he was famous poet in the Ukraine. Dacha in the summer, three-bedroom apartment all to himself; now he delivers Thai food from one of the twenty Thai restaurants perched along an east-west corridor that runs from the ocean inland to the downtown. Perhaps, I say, he should have gone to New York; he might have had a better time of it there. When the wall went down, when the soviet dissolved, he couldn't get published anymore. The times had changed and his work was not valued. It was felt that he had nothing to say.
I know the feeling. I gave him an extra large tip.
I began all this with a line about my new group of friends with whom I share a tenuous connection--via wire and complex computer programming. I'm interested in poetry and I've written some myself. So along with my new group of friends, we post on a poetry board, a kind of electronic bulletin board where the missives look like office memoranda, a form I am too intimately familiar with. I am accustomed to typing within the blanks, and so it is nothing to fill out To: Bob, From: me, Subject: Why People Hate Poetry In The United States. Then I type a few lines that present my educated view, modeled on Plato, that our Puritan society wants everything to be for a purpose -- poetry has none, I'm convinced -- then I press the send button and, voila, as many as two million people might read my little note, if they want to. Two million new friends, none of whom I will ever meet in person, none of whose voices I will ever hear, pictures I will ever see, lips I will ever kiss.
We are names with a number address. Some of us masquerade under an alias though the forum encourages a better sort of honesty. This is a kind of anti-connection delivering up an anti-poetry heavy on rhyming and marvelously fresh images like the moon hung like a gold orb over my house / I knew love was soon to be / My heart beat and beat and beat / Just like the raging waves and the dark sea. Perhaps not the instant classic its author hoped for.
I think I might be able to meet a new girlfriend this way. On the system you can tell when other people are also aboard and you can send them instant messages. This is the scariest notion of all. Suddenly a kind of window pops up in the middle of the screen. One time it said, instant message from Jill: Do you want to play?
Did I want to play what?
I frantically searched through the instruction manual for the system to find out how to respond. It took a good ten minutes to find the section and then when I tried it, I got it wrong. By the time I typed in a response, Jill was apparently gone, off playing with someone else, no doubt.
This encounter gives me hope. Though it's not as immediate as meeting someone at a bar, it certainly has a similar simultaneity. We are separated by miles and miles and miles, further distanced by the need to render speech into a written form, unable to hear, seeing only text. Still the meeting is real, it's active, it goes on as we speak.
I'm feeling it. I'm feeling the possibility. Every second I delay my return to the system, is another second where someone may get away. I think I may be able to meet someone this way. Somewhere, in the host of new friends, in the millions and millions of potential readers who jump on the system at the same time as I do, in the many who read my missives, in the people who have mailed me back directly, she who may be the one, may be there. Perhaps one of the guys has a sister, or someone has a daughter, or a cousin or someone knows someone who knows someone who knows someone who's looking--for me.
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