Blowing Like Tumbleweed (Reflections on Distance, Friendship, Family & Trapper Keepers)

This is a picture of Karla. More specifically, this is a picture of Karla having dinner at a badly-lit little cocktail bar in midtown Manhattan. And more significantly, this was a picture taken by me, on January 30th of this year.

This is significant because, up until mere moments before this picture was taken, Karla and I had never actually met each other in person. Despite nearly a decade of online interaction, of spilling guts and inside jokes, of hasty afternoon chats via various IM platforms as we navigate our increasingly-hectic grown-up days,  our friendship was entirely web-based. It doesn’t make a friendship any less real— I know a number of folks I gladly count as “friends” whom I haven’t had the opportunity to meet in “real life” yet– it just makes it different. Different rules are in place. Different social conventions. In lieu of hanging out, we’d IM back and forth. In place of actual shoulders to lean on, we offered our most heartfelt sympathetic smileys. Instead of hugs, we had… well, “*hugs*“.

Karla and I found each other almost 10 years ago. It was a simpler era: the internet was collectively obsessed with Kurt Halsey drawings, Ben Gibbard song lyrics and dark neon lettering. Back in the pre-MySpace age, angst-ridden teenagers postured furiously on their Livejournals (a sort of proto-tumblr, for the uninitiated), spilling their hard-earned melodrama and hammy histrionics like a violent case of mental dysentery. As is usually the case with teen age, before the weariness of adult life settles in, everybody felt everything very passionately. Every heartbreak, every deception, every disappointment triggered the sort of soul-crushing depression that could only be accurately conveyed by Dashboard Confessional song lyrics– preferably on bright purple text against a pitch-black background.  In essence, Livejournal was the Trapper Keeper of the internet.

Fuck yeah pandering to 90s kids!  Up 50 traffic points!
Fuck yeah pandering to 90s kids! Up 50 traffic points!

(Which is not to say some people didn’t– or do, since it’s still very much a thing–  use the service to post genuinely powerful, non-hammy, maturely introspective and actually-thought-provoking content, because those people are out there, but– when you unleash a tool unto the world, one that can serve as a venue for broadcasting the vainest self-serving platitudes, well, it’s going to be overtaken by people who will do just that. Just look at Twitter. Or tumblr. Or WordPress. Or this blog! Which is on WordPress.)

Karla and I developed a quick rapport after finding each other on an LJ community dedicated to song lyrics. Over the years, we built a strong bond, with me often essaying the role of the pestering little brother. As time wore on, the frequency of our chats decreased as our lives became increasingly mired in the unpalatable prosaicness of adult life. Having missed each other the last time I made the trip to NYC, we were determined to make the transition from “online buddies” to just “buddies” by meeting face-to-face. And on a rainy winter evening, we made it so.

Meeting someone you’ve only ever seen in pictures is still a surreal experience. It’s happened a number of times and I’m still left reeling from it, like my brain has a really hard time reconciling the realness of what I’m facing vs. the space this person occupies in my brain, and all its corresponding baggage. Trying to come up with a decent analogy, I ended up rambling about Astro-Boy, the Japanese cartoon from the 1950s. An iconic character, instantly recognizable by hundreds of thousands in his original 2D, black-and-white form. But then when they made him into a CGI character, it looked exactly like him, but… off. The added depth and texture throws the entire equation off-balance, so CGI Astro-Boy is stuck in this Uncanny Valley of cartoonishness where depth and texture are just completely out of place. This is the best analogy I could come up with to describe how it feels to meet an “online friend” face-to-face.

Anyway, I don’t mean to suggest that meeting Karla was weird or off-putting—I mean, it was, but in the best of ways! She’s an amazing person and we had a great time. It was one of the highlights of my trip stateside, which was filled with sheer awesomeness. I got to hang out with my brother, my sister and my mom, who’ve all taken residence in American soil. I got to wander the streets and get lost, I got to get drunk with friends old and new, I got to see great live music, I got to see a Broadway show, I got to dive face-first into the snow and do all kinds of things I’ve been wanting to do for a long time. The US was a graceful and hospitable hostess.

My brother and sister. I like these kids.
My brother and sister. I like these kids.

Taking the bus from my sister’s place up in Lake George down to the apartment I’d rented in Manhattan, I was a little sad to be leaving my siblings behind. I knew I probably wouldn’t see them for a while. This got me beaming with pride, thinking about how well they’d turned out: how my sister had matured into a kind yet passionate young woman, how my brother was growing into a real stand-up dude. I started wondering how my other two siblings would turn out when they were older, and it made me a little sad to think about how far  away I lived from them. And I was thinking about these things when the Gods of iPod Shuffle decided to labor the point and land on the song “Sadie” by the great Joanna Newsom.

As is often the case with Ms. Newsom, I don’t actually know what the song is about. I mean, I understand the words, and I understand some of the sentiments, but the overall narrative is lost on me as soon as she starts singing about pinecones and seabirds and mik-eyed menders. But it’s a lovely song, and there are some lines that hit me like a kick in the face, specifically:

“And all that I got is scattered like seed
And all that I knew is moving away from me
And all that I know is blowing like tumbleweed”

I started thinking of how strange and fragmented my life turned out. I have half my family in one country, the other half in a different country, and the life I’ve built for myself in yet another country. Some people I care deeply about have ended up thousands of miles away from me, pulled away by the fickle gusts of life, only reappearing in my periphery for the briefest of intervals. I was thinking about how I’ll never really be one of those people who can get everybody they love under a single roof for a birthday shindig; instead, my peeps are hopelessly scattered throughout the globe. All separated by thousands of kilometers and several hours of air travel.

And this is where I neatly tie it back to the whole Karla thing: I am an idiot who keeps forgetting that we live in an era where relationships can be forged and nourished regardless of physical location. I may not be able to take my little siblings out for ice cream every Saturday, but I can Skype into their lives at any time. I may not be able to taste my Mother’s cooking through the internet, but I am grateful for her extremely (and I mean extremely) detailed recipe e-mails that allow me to hopelessly try my hand at making it on my own. Shit, as a citizen and daily user of the internet, I should know more than anybody that being physically removed from someone does not mean you’re out of their lives. And no, online interaction doesn’t replace physical contact– it merely stands in, just for a little while, until the next time I’m able to see them in person. Until I’m able to put all these people together, under a single roof, for some grand celebration.

I am so incredibly lucky. Lucky to have the friends and family that I have: a truly heterogeneous assortment of individuals so kind, so caring, so hysterically funny and wonderfully idiosyncratic. I am extremely lucky to have these two amazing parents, these four hilarious siblings, and these scrutinously-vetted and meticulously hand-picked group of people I call my friends. Online or otherwise.

8 thoughts on “Blowing Like Tumbleweed (Reflections on Distance, Friendship, Family & Trapper Keepers)

  1. Jorge, I have seen you around the 20SB community but I had never checked out your blog before. For this I am ashamed and I humbly apologise. This post was beautiful and thought-provoking and you like Joanna Newsom and now you have one new follower.
    I am yet to meet any of my “online friends” IRL. I have one friend whom I met almost 12 years ago in an AOL chatroom and we still haven’t met yet. I also have another friend whom I met on MySpace in 2005. She lives across the Atlantic from me and Death Cab for Cutie’s Transatlanticism will forever remind me of her and we most certainly will meet someday, somewhere, of that I am most sure.

  2. Not to ball wash, but that’s a great analogy for meeting someone you’ve only ever known in pictures. Even their voice sounds just slightly different coming straight from their mouth instead of being filtered through a speaker.

    1. There’s also the in-between faces. When you’ve seen someone’s pictures you know what they look like when they’re smiling, when they’re frowning, when they’re striking a cheeky pose. But you don’t know the in-between faces until you have them in front of you, and sometimes they’re startling.

  3. Jorge,
    I found you stumbling around 20sb. Your post really reopened my eyes to the reality that I hate facing. I blame distance for my inability to keep substantial relationships with people that I used to cry with and laugh with and experience life in their presence. But I blamed growing up and moving away for the reason that I made no effort to remain connected. Thank you for this beautiful post.

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