The Facebook Grinch


A slightly different version of this post was broadcast on the WAMC public radio program 51% The Women’s Perspective.

It was an unusually wearing December 24th. My husband and I had driven more than four hours from our home in upstate New York to rural Vermont to visit my mother and stepfather. My 90-year-old mother, in her 15th year with Alzheimer’s, seemed barely present.

The next few days would require many more hours of driving as we made the family rounds. But for now we sprawled in a large room in a funky World War I-era hotel. Arrayed between us were wine, bread, and the finest cheeses the local general store could muster. And there was Bill on his side of the bed, gazing lovingly at his smartphone–into the eyes of Facebook.

At random intervals he’d pipe up with updates: His friend Karyn sent us holiday wishes. His sister in Santa Clarita was cooking Christmas dinner. Some heartwarming bit of news had caught his attention. One item stood out. In an elementary school, students only got participation credit for activities if their phones were stored–face down–on a special shelf.

“I think that’s a great idea,” Bill said.

l couldn’t resist. “Do you think you should get participation credit for Christmas Eve?” I asked him.

“Oh but I thought…we were just hanging out,” he said. He sounded flustered and dismayed. I knew he didn’t mean to neglect me. He thought we could sit together, I with my tablet, he with his smartphone. We would munch cheese while trading holiday greetings and news tidbits from Facebook and the Web. That was his idea for making the best of this subdued evening. But it wasn’t mine.

Am I weird for not liking Facebook? I know a billion people disagree with me. But most of it is updates from people I barely know telling me things I frankly don’t care much about. Then there’s the constant barrage of requests, like a friend who never stops asking for favors. “Like this page!” “Vote for this contestant!” “Sign this petition!” “Try out this game!” I visit Facebook because I must, to keep up with our family, make contact with my many writer friends, and promote my own work. I never go there for pleasure.

Bill is the opposite. He used to spend the hour before lights out reading Facebook posts on his laptop by our bed. Things changed after I got him an Android phone for his birthday. Now he can check Facebook wherever he is, whenever he likes, and he does, three or four times a day. In between, he wanders the Internet looking for interesting stories and factoids. When he finds them he posts them to Facebook.

So when psychologists in Norway created the first-ever “Facebook Addiction Scale” to measure people’s overuse of Facebook, you might think I’d be nodding in agreement. But I’m not. I think they missed an important point.

Bill uses Facebook more than I do because he reaches out more than I do, all the time, to everyone. He spent hours driving on tiny roads from pub to pub in central Ireland, looking for relatives he’d never met. He detoured again and again to the same little music store in New Jersey, hoping to catch a long-lost friend who taught guitar there.

Facebook makes all this so much easier. My mother was born in the Philippines. Her father came from Belgium and my aunts, uncles, and cousins are scattered everywhere. One created a Facebook group for all of us, and now I know I have family members from Toronto to Dubai.

So to say that people are addicted to Facebook is to say we’re addicted to interacting with other human beings. Of course we are. We’ve lived in tribes since the beginning of the species. Keeping in contact is literally in our DNA.

I may not have much patience for Facebook, but I still want news about the people I care about. Without Bill’s constant monitoring, I would not have known that one dear friend was spending a week in Paris, or that another’s beloved pug dog had abruptly died. We live in the country, far from most of our friends and family members. Without Bill and Facebook, I’d be much more isolated.

So on Christmas Eve, I told him to go ahead and stay on Facebook. I was melancholy and tired and there was little he could do to cheer me up. But he could be my conduit to the connected world. He could send greetings from both of us, while I curled up on my side of the bed with a book.

A couple of weeks later, I attended a journalists’ fellowship in Arizona. There was spotty cell phone coverage and brief breaks between sessions. I wanted to contact Bill during the day, but what to do? Texting him wasn’t ideal—sometimes he heard his phone, sometimes not. Then I had a flash of inspiration: I sent him a message via Facebook instead.

He answered me right away.

Like this blog? Sign up here and you’ll never miss a new post. Next time: We visit abandoned buildings in what used to be Bill’s thriving home town.

Image: Birger King

Why I’m moving 2,907 miles from a place I love

Last fall, I had dinner with a group of writers. I mentioned that Bill and I were planning to move to the Seattle area later this year. Since we live in Woodstock, New York, that’s a long way away and people always want to know why. So I explained how I’ve always been happy in the Hudson Valley and he hasn’t, necessarily. As a writer, I’m lucky enough to be able to work almost anywhere. He’s a musician, or he was for many years before he got Chronic Fatigue Syndrome, and couldn’t keep up with the physical rigors of setting up and performing. He’s gotten better, though it’s a slow process that took decades. A few years ago, he realized he was well enough to perform again.

Meantime, there’s his best friend Drew, who moved to the Seattle suburbs a few years ago after he reconnected with an old flame there. Almost from the beginning, he was reporting back to Bill: It’s really nice here. People are polite. They’re supportive to musicians. There are more places to play. It really doesn’t rain as much as everyone says…

Right away, sight unseen, Bill was just about ready to pull up stakes and go. I’m the cautious one. “OK,” I said. “Let’s spend some time there and check it out.” And so we have, for the past year and a half, several weeks at a time. We’ve explored small towns and different sections of the big city. We’ve made sure to experience the rainy season, not once but twice. Admittedly, it has its dreary side. But I’ve always been intrigued by the damp majesty of the Pacific Northwest. And the literary community there is so impressive it’s almost intimidating. I love my writer friends in the HudsonValley but it will be fun to get to know this whole new writer community.

Mainly, our friend is right. When he’s there, Bill has someplace to play out nearly every night. This is something he needs and loves to do, and something he’s incredibly good at. He’s going to be 62 in a couple of weeks. He’s a pretty young 62, but still. If he’s to be a performer, now’s the time.

It was around this point in my story that I noticed one of the writers at the table looking at me with one of the saddest expressions I’ve ever seen. He had lost his wife of many years, another writer, very recently. “Maybe they had unfulfilled dreams,” Bill guessed, when I told him this later. But I think it was something else, the unspoken comment I seem to get from so many people when I tell them about this move. You must really love him a lot to be willing to change your whole life.

Fifteen years ago, we did something similar. Bill (who’s a geek as well as a guitarist) got a job at a dotcom in Williamstown, Massachusetts. I wasn’t wild about Williamstown, but after an annoying commuter-relationship period just to make sure the job would last, we packed up our cats and our many computers and books, and made the move. A year later, the company had been acquired and Bill had moved to a telecommuting job based on the West Coast. We could live wherever we wanted. We might have gone off in any number of directions. But knowing how attached I was to Woodstock, Bill insisted on moving back here, returning to a life that wasn’t his first choice.

We’ve been here ever since, and it’s been good to us in many ways. I doubt I’ll ever love a house as much as I love this one. Everything here is familiar. Our family is almost all nearby. We have deep roots of the sort that make me see why people our age don’t usually pick up and move across the country.

But we’re not usual. It’s Bill’s turn now to love where we live, and mine to have a spouse who’s as happy with his career as he is with his marriage. And both of us are ready for a new adventure.

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Photo credit: Tavis Jacobs