Fake friends, real friends

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The whole point of this Austrian trip was today, watching my eldest son get married and serving as his witness. It brought back memories, of course, as weddings are wont to do, in my case of that day almost thirty years ago when I stood in front of the bulletproof glass at the U.S. Embassy in Tokyo, lined up behind the pregnant hostesses and their navy boyfriends, waiting my turn to get hitched.

It was a civil service, and my dad had flown over from Texas to do the same thing for me that I was now doing for my son. My wife was Japanese, my son’s Austrian, my civil marriage service was antiseptic, his moving. I had been just about to turn twenty-four, he had just turned twenty-five. My bride was twenty, his twenty-one. I had gone to Japan to teach English, he to Vienna. Life had grabbed us both by the throat, and we had both grabbed back.

But the differences were yawning chasms, too.

My mom and her husband had disapproved of my marriage and refused to sanction it with their presence, whereas Yasuko and I, our two other kids and our toddler grandson had shown up in force for our son’s marriage. The bride’s family, her sister and sister’s boyfriend, and a whole phalanx of childhood friends were also there to celebrate.

Hans’s side of the equation was further represented; Sean, Erin, Max, Lauren, and Anna had all flown over for the wedding and reception. Elizabeth and Auvid had bought tickets but Air Berlin’s last-minute bankruptcy canceled their flights and stranded them at home. Stefan, a good friend from Magic the Gathering, was there. Tomoko and Kazuyoshi, who have known Hans since he was born, joined us from Japan.

In short, he and she were surrounded by friends.

Which is a funny word, as it came out in conversation during the dinner. We had retired to a wonderful local restaurant called Gasthaus Hansi, where the wedding menu was strictly local Austrian cuisine with Wiener schnitzel, potatoes, roast beef, fish, fried Emmentaler cheese, and the like, all served up with copious quantities of Radler beer. Hans was wearing his wedding lederhosen and jacket, and Julia her Austrian maiden’s dress.

We were several hours into the dinner and had reached that point where we were circulating around, talking to different people. I had sat down with Hans’s old classmates and talk turned to Facebook. I announced that I was about ten days into Facebag sobriety, and everyone murmured that they wished they could quit it, too.

“How odd,” I thought. “Not a single person has anything good to say about it, but no one can quit it.”

Everyone seemed to realize the incongruity, and so they began tossing out reasons they couldn’t quit.

“I use it to stay in touch.”

“I just use it for messenger.”

“I need it for work.”

“It helped me get a cheap air ticket.”

“All my friends are on it …”

It was this last one that hit me, and I thought about it, how Facebook has taken the word “friend,” one of the oldest and most powerful words in the human vocabulary, and turned it into a meaningless, empty association with a picture and text, devoid from physical human contact, divorced from the acts that make up real friendship, that is, human companionship, laughter, seriousness, compassion, conversation, silence, and all those things that bind two people together when they are physically near one another.

I looked at the guy who had said that all his friends were on Facebook. “No, they aren’t. The people on Facebook aren’t people. They’re digital photos enhanced with curated, make-believe stories. Some of the people behind those fake friends may be real friends, but for the most part they’re just bytes of Mark Zuckerberg’s advertising and marketing empire.”

“But they really are friends,” he protested.

“Not on Facebook, they aren’t. You want to know where your friends are? Look around you. They’re the people who bought plane tickets and flew halfway around the world to go to a friend’s wedding in a small village north of Vienna. Those are your real friends. The ones you see in the flesh. Not the faces on Facebook.”

I was crossing the line into grumpy old sober father of the groom, lecturing the youngsters about life, but they took it in stride. One of the guys asked me, “How can I get in touch with you if you’re not on Facebook?”

“I’ll give you my number.”

We scrounged for a pen and then, just like people used to do twenty years ago, I wrote down my number on a napkin. He folded it and carefully put it away.

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END

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