The Good Old Days

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Content advisory 18+ What differences are there between friendships that are mostly face-to-face and those that are mostly online?"

So ran one of the questions in a student book that formed the basis of my Skype lesson this morning with a fellow named Roman, who has studied with me since 2009. He was Pre-Intermediate then, and now we have gone through five or six Advanced level books together. Most of our hundreds of lessons were face-to-face -- first at a school and then either at his place or mine.
Now it's only through Skype with Roman. Nothing seems different. Maybe that's in part because of Roman's personality. He is pleasant, punctual, predictable, conservative and methodical... He is a fit and athletic, Hard worker, good husband, great dad. Solid guy. But If you ask Roman a "thought" question, he is often stuck for a creative answer. Frustrating at times, but no big deal.

So seeing Roman in person and on a computer screen is not all that different. With other students, some of old dynamism might be missing (especially with the most compelling women) --but the lessons themselves may actually be more focused and substantive, since there is nothing to do but look at each other's faces. No other interfering factors impede, and the only uproar comes occasionally from my dogs who lie on the bed behind me during the lessons and periodically start raising hell when another dog barks along our dirt street outside.
I am fortunate. I have kept many of my Moscow contacts, and of course, I have a history with them. I know, for example, that they actually have stomachs, asses, and feet -- that they are not just disembodied upper torsos connected to a chattering head superimposed on a video screen! I also notice that I am now comfortable with Skype; at first, I wasn't. I can bounce from screen to screen, instantaneously producing new material that is far more up-to-date and comprehensive than the textbooks I was using.
There are other pleasures. I can simply glance at my monitor and keep track of who is online and who isn't. If I spot the green indicator that informs me in the affirmative, I can nail my ‘victims’ quickly with anything I feel we need to discuss. They cannot escape my surveillance! I confess that I think it rather cool to be sitting here in a village in Bulgaria and be able to keep a watchful eye on everyone in Moscow who concerns me.

Another benefit is that when one lesson ends, I don't have to put on my shoes and coat and amble off to the metro, crossing the city, followed by another trek through rain, snow, or muck to reach the next lesson (requiring maybe an hour). Not at all !! I can just press the red finish-the-call button and then the green new-call button and Presto! -- one face disappears and another one pops up on the screen. It is like in George Orwell's "1984". (You can just make people 'vaporize'.) Or maybe, in a gentler sense, like a radio call-in talk show. Or maybe a dispatcher switchboard for summoning taxis.

Nor does anyone seem to mind; no one feels slighted. For them, it is probably just as convenient, and I am sure they have many other things to do than go out of their way to physically meet with me. I am not so important! And, besides, the Skype lessons are cheaper.
I am also reminded (since we are on the subject of screens) how, back in America, I was a TV sports addict. I pissed away a grand portion of my life just watching football, basketball, baseball, football, basketball, baseball, boxing, tennis, football, basketball...

I actually WENT to some games, I mean to the actual stadium, but you know what? It was better on TV because I had the best seat. I could see what was happening much more clearly than 90% of those braving the bad weather to fill the grandstands and often had an even better view than the referee himself. Moreover, I could make a sandwich during the breaks, go to the toilet without standing in line, not freeze to death or broil under the sun, not pay for overpriced franks and Pepsi at the concession stand, and not have to try to remember where I had parked my car afterwards. In addition, if there were two games on at the same time, I could watch them both, deftly switching channels at the right time due to my extreme acumen as a sports junkie.
The conclusion? Friends, students, football? Just as good on a screen. Or BETTER.

Finally, my wife's sister Lucy, who lives near Omsk and has little to show for it except a TV, a computer, and a cat, SWEARS that a Virtual Tour of somewhere like Barcelona is EVERY BIT AS GOOD as actually going there (which my wife and I have). Of course, Lucy will never meet the young woman who sat on a street corner and played “Leyenda” for me on her classic guitar, following a spontaneous encounter, but, I mean, if you reside in a Siberian village you can’t expect to see many matadors or flamenco dancers either, can you?.
Yet perhaps Lucy has a point after all, because, either I am getting old or else traveling to some distant, real location is just becoming more and more of a nuisance. And why should I pay money for a week-old slice of pizza to some paunchy greaseball in front of ‘Colosseo’ who had nothing more do do with building the Roman Empire than I did? Why go to Paris to meet Ethiopians or stand in a queue with a thousand camera-popping Japanese?
So...the hell with real, first-hand knowledge. The screen in better. Right?

But this morning my mind turned back to the year 1978. I was living in Bath, England, and my two best friends were brothers Chris and Tim Bromige. Probably I was closer to Chris, a big, blond, fun-loving rugby player who loved to drink cider and listen to reggae music. He went on to become a moderately wealthy stonemason. Tim, smaller in build and brown-haired. and who eventually, opted for a career in the British Royal Navy, was also a good guy. The brothers were always making snide remarks about one another, but they were loyal bloods through and through. Their father, pug-nosed Colin, was an ex-London Irish rugby player turned business executive and, finally, pub owner. Of working class origin, he had become a sort of rough-hewn aristocrat, his speech being at once impeccable and salty. Brilliantly profane, I would suggest. Thus the father and two sons -- all hardy, robust and forever at the ready for a jug of grog -- could rejoice equally in a bon mot and a loud fart.

That summer ('78) was exceptionally warm and bright there in green, stony, hilly Bath. There was a pitch-and-putt golf course on the other side of town. Not a real one where you would need to have golfing skills, drive the ball some monumental distance and then try to find it -- a tiny speck somewhere in the bulrushes. No, on this course, you needed just two clubs because the holes were only about 100 yards apart. So you would try to chip as close to the hole as possible and then do the rest with your putter. It was ideal for guys who really sucked at golf -- which we did -- but wanted to enjoy the charms of an outdoor course without the hassle of hiking long distances from flag to flag. Furthermore, if you started at 16.00 in the afternoon, it was the perfect way to kill time before visiting our favorite 'local' (pub); (there were licensing laws back then and the Ring 'o Bells opened only at 18.00.)

Bath is a Georgian city that the Romans founded and it served for a number of centuries as a fashionable winter resort for wealthy Londoners. I was a student that Bath University which is located way up in the hills above the city. The River Avon (Shakespeare's river) snakes through the Center, and Chris, Tim, and I, after our mirthfully inept games of golf, would traverse the summery city of glimmering Bathstone (a specially quarried and almost luminous kind of bulky construction stone), and follow the river weir back to Widcombe Village (our neighborhood) and The House of Cider (Ring-o'-Bells). Following our exertions, that first crispy, bubbling pint tasted like liquid paradise. And, since it was the summer of the World Cup as well as the annual Wimbledon tennis tournament, there was always a match on the pub TV screen. As the radiant evening (like something from Vivaldi) faded to darkness, the other regulars that formed the pub's atmosphere would start to come in. Rugby players, skittles players, darts players, hippies, Irish navvies, old women sherry tipplers, even a dog or two -- quite a crew. Nobody ever seemed to get drunk; closing time at 22.30 came before they could. It was simply fun -- and often Chris, Tim and I would carry a flagon or two of Natural Dry Cider off into the night with us and stop at the Fish and Chips along the road before going home.Such was an English evening of long ago.

Why, you might ask, do I include this story in a blog about the difference between face-to-face and online friendships? It is because those memories -- precious memories, I should add -- are based on real flesh-and-blood encounters. I haven't seen either one of those guys for over thirty years. I don't even know if they are still alive. But when I sit here and close my eyes, a different pair of irises and pupils open, the keen, lucid orb-windows of memory, and I can relive it all again -- those streets, those people, that city, that summer, that cider... That vast, sinewy summer of Bath 1978..
If somehow I ever have the chance to meet Chris and Tim again on Skype, I will. Gladly.

But I don't need it. The memories are sufficiently concrete. Besides, in 1978 they are still young and so am I. Why would we need to observe each other’s carcasses now?
Yet imagine if those friendships had been mostly of the on-line variety -- like many are today. What if?? What if we -- Chris, Tim, and I, fully in agreement that we were Friends, nevertheless had had no time to actually meet ?. Suppose all of it had been on-line ?. I am ecstatic to recall that it wasn’t...
So I can just imagine some guy in tomorrow's jungle of technology, gadgets, and apps (even worse than today’s if such a thing is possible), also lamenting the passage of time: but savoring the momentous conference calls of yore, the Facebook photos and messaging chats on Viber and WhatsApp and Telegram, etc. etc. . Pure nostalgia.

"Yeah," he will reminisce, "I remember that Instagram old So-and-so sent me of those hash browns he was eating at MacDonald’s that morning. Let’s see, when was it? And his trip to the toilet too. He really nailed that one. What a photo !!"
Pausing for a moment…”Ah, yes and that Selfie that What’s-his name took atop the monument. Just before he slipped and plunged into the barbed wire modern art installation. Ouch !!”
He will remember all the cyberspace hijinks and frolics.

A tear will come to his eye, and he will mutter aloud, "I wonder what they were like in person? In real life?
And, dabbing his brow, he will announce conclusively to the computer screen in front of him: "But, those were the good old days."

===Eric Richard Leroy===

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