Jun 072013

In 1987 I promoted a story about “Secular Organizations for Sobriety” [SOS] that appeared in the Buffalo News. SOS was one of those secular humanist initiatives promulgated by Paul Kurtz’s publishing enterprises out of Buffalo, in this case “Free Inquiry,” a quarterly journal that published critiques of supernatural belief and religious dogma. I was Executive Editor of Free Inquiry at the time.

SOS was started as a secular alternative to Alcoholics Anonymous, which has numerous religious overtones (“a higher power,” “the Serenity Prayer,” and so on). SOS has kept the peer-counseling component and left out these overtones.

I was interviewed by a Buffalo News reporter for the story. In the course of the interview, I said I had “a lot of friends in the arts and music community who were beset by terrible problems with alcohol.” The next day that quote appeared in the article. (The photograph of me accompanying the article made me look like a long-time “friend of Bill” myself: eyes not completely open, my hands clutching at a cup of coffee. I wished I had been better prepared for the interview.)

The Pink Flamingo

The Pink Flamingo

That night I went to the Pink Flamingo, a gritty Buffalo pub where lots of writers and artists took their recreation. I had been a regular there for a couple of years. I walked in, saw about a dozen people I knew and some good friends, and went up to the bar to order something (I am guessing a shot of tequila and a Molson Extra).

“Hey, Bob!” A good friend of mine, “Fay,” tapped me on the shoulder. I gave her a kiss. Fay organized arts events and wrote articles freelance.

Fay smiled, but then said plainly: “We all read that article in the News today, how all your buddies here are terrible alcoholics.”

I winced.

I was surprised by what my friend said next.

Fay neither rebuked me nor wondered aloud how I could disparage and embarrass my friends. Instead she said, “You drink here, and elsewhere, as much as we do, and often with me and everybody here. It would have been delightful had you mentioned that happy fact as well.”

Rather than telling me that I was a hypocrite, she said, in effect, “We like you, and you can tell the world you are one of us.” I was humbled by Fay’s gracefulness and courtesy.

Here was the “us” of whom I was a lucky part: a gregarious, generous, and hard-working coterie of writers, artists, students, film-makers, arrangers, editors, and their friends and lovers and roommates and their relatives who repaired to the Pink Flamingo to drink, plan projects, receive solace, read out loud, and debate everything.

After Fay and my other Flamingo buddies made it clear I wasn’t going to be scolded any further, we talked until 2AM, feeling the love, as it were, and I was reminded that scolding might succeed best as words of welcome that can rescue relationships and fortify friendship.

Feb 232013


No form of online experience more quickly insinuated itself into my life than Facebook, which I joined at the insistence of a rambunctious, third-year technical writing class back in the summer of 2007. I loved how Facebook “extended” me not just across geographical space but back into time, allowing me to fully animate relationships that had until then existed only as potential, or that had lapsed into silent curiosities.

I’ve been to a wedding and reception, completely organized via Facebook, of a former student and saw photographs of her children, soon after their birth, appear so beautifully on my time-line. And I received eighty responses to this plea posted on my wall: “Help me find a good migraine remedy!”

Although I no longer update my status as prolifically as I used to, I loyally inspect my time-line several times a day still. If Facebook disappeared, the yearning for what I would lose – in terms of what I could witness and, in that way, somehow, share – would be unquenchable.

Last week I asked my Facebook friends how much would their range of friendship and/or acquaintanceship shrink should they no longer have access to Facebook or other forms of social media like Twitter. Everybody who responded was about my age – in their fifties somewhere. Most had already seemed to have considered the possibility of going back, willingly or otherwise, to old-fashioned forms of communication. Here’s what four professional communicators wrote:

Grad-school friend Akiko: I don’t think friendship is dependent on FB, but FB does allow you to keep in touch with acquaintances and, more importantly for me, to renew friendships with old friends with whom I’d lost touch (this has happened to me, with many high school and college friends). This being said, I don’t think the quality of ‘real’ friendship is either increased or diminished because of FB. I couldn’t feel that I’m maintaining a meaningful friendship with anyone strictly through FB communication, because I need more direct contact and personal connection (face-to-face, phone conversation, or even personal email) to do so. So w/o FB I would still be in touch with friends through other means, but acquaintances would be lost. The question is whether that would matter.

My Buffalo buddy Reg: I would say it is fair to say that friendship is defined by non-virtual contact. Thus acquaintanceship would shrink a great deal but be no great loss, while friendship would shrink a bit, due to a reduction on one of its many means of intercourse, especially in periods when one’s willingness to maintain contact is reduced due to depression or great time pressures, but otherwise not suffer, because by definition it is not social-media-based or even significantly social-media-maintained. He added: A (somewhat but not entirely illusory) sense of connection would be diminished, which could have significant emotional effects, or might not. Also reduced access to new music, art, writing, and news. also reduced waste of time investigating unworthy music, art, writing, and news.

Mike (a friendly adversary from university): Fewer friends. Better stronger connections with the remaining friends. More blue sky. Smells. Sounds. Better tactile connection to the world.

And Kat (writing from Thailand): I would write more emails to my close friends yet would not bother with keeping in contact with the acquaintances and others who I am not so close with. I still write postcards to good friends and letters to my father. I think I would appreciate the time I would save being off of FB actually. Currently I rarely use Twitter, so it would not be missed for me. I still like the old fashioned get together for mock coffee along with a physical hug (rather than a cyber facsimile) to catchup with good friends. In fact that is my favourite way of communicating. You will get different answers depending on age groups. Computer was not a part of my formal education. Often I wish it didn’t exist. I think people would be more friendly and communicative without it. Rather than sitting in coffee shops on their laptops, perhaps they would observe the people around them and maybe even chat with them – like the good ole days or what you do in small towns still.

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(photo by Bob Basil)