Wednesday, April 29, 2015 2:03 PM
I am saddened and upset to hear of the sudden accidental death of our friend and teacher, Gilbert J. Freeman. He touched a lot of peoples’ lives in the course of his long tenure as music and drama teacher at John Jay High School in Lewisboro, NY. We had reconnected, as so many have, with the dawn of Facebook and we had recently begun to trade little piano-playing clips of old standards, just for fun.
My sense of shock and loss is compounded somewhat by the fact that I had posted a video to his Facebook wall, after hearing of his accident—by way of saying, “Here’s something to listen to while you’re laid up in hospital.” Counting my old friend and neighbor, the late Paul Taggart, this was the second time this year that I posted a Facebook message to a dead man. Another ghoulish coincidence is that Gil passed away in the same Flagstaff trauma center where my brother Russell (also a musician) succumbed to a brain aneurism a few years ago.
I can’t help resenting Facebook for bringing me so close to people I would otherwise never have heard from again. That is senseless, of course, because of all the pleasure I’ve gotten from reconnecting with all the Facebook people I would have otherwise never heard from again. But I’m not feeling very sensible right now. Life was a lot simpler, and emptier, before the Internet.
When I think about it, it seems to me that people’s homes used to be outposts. The centers of society were in public, at the stores, churches, libraries, and theaters of the towns and cities. We went out in public to stock up on supplies for our homes, to make contact with others, and to work and to be entertained. Then we went and huddled in our solitary homes, dependent on our families and neighbors for social interaction. When we felt the need to go out and ‘live’, we literal had to go out.
We had absolutely no contact with people outside of a reasonable driving distance—everyone we worked or played with, everyone we courted or competed with, lived within a ten block radius. When we needed information, we went to the library—but back then, even with a degree in library science; information was less accessible than it is now.
Libraries were (and still are) very serious storehouses of knowledge—let’s face it, a lot of the accessible information we have now wasn’t considered serious or meaningful enough to be archived in libraries—they specialize more in ‘school subject’ types of information. There was no iMDB section, for instance—though there were printed movie catalogs with multiple indices, for the hardcore movie researcher. Finding old news stories involved card catalogs and fiche-reading machines which, when added to the original trip to the library, was a whole lot more work than a Google search.
Now, we don’t need to leave our homes to get information, or to talk with friends, or to work or be entertained. Our homes are now headquarters for our lives, instead of mere resting places where we eat, sleep, and prepare to go out again. And with the new phones, even being at home is unnecessary to these needs. On the flip side, we can no longer give up our old haunts and start over again—our social lives have a permanence that society never had before.
All through history, and for most of my earlier life, our social lives were a sequence of acquaintanceships—school days, college days, working adult, relocated working adult, retirement home, etc. Whenever a group or neighborhood we were a part of dispersed, those friends faded from our lives, and from our memories. Every move to a new area demanded the loss of old friends and the making of new ones. Yes, we could write letters, or even phone people—but the common interest would erode with distance, and the topics of conversation would dry up. What has changed?
Well, for one thing, Facebook and its ilk allow us to talk about ourselves freely, rather than have an intimate conversation, like a phone call. We don’t have to worry about how we look, how our voices sound, or whether we’re dressed up enough. Sincerity is not required, nor honesty even. It has none of the stress of an actual physical meeting—no eye contact, no self-consciousness, no invasion of personal space—it’s easy. But you get what you pay for. A Facebook friendship will never be a real friendship.
We old-timers, however, are a special case. To us, it is something of a miracle to be reconnected to people we once cared deeply about, people we didn’t want to lose touch with. Most of my Facebook friends are people I once knew, then virtually forgot about, then rediscovered on Facebook (or, before that, MySpace or Classmates).
How wonderful it was to reconnect with Gil Freeman, of all people—the music teacher who played such a big part in my adult-formative years, but whom I had barely thought of for decades afterward. What a blessing it was to be able to thank him and let him know how much his mentorship had meant to me—and to see so many others expressing the same feelings. Yet how horrible it is now, with his Facebook page still sitting there, with my stupid post right there, the last message he got—or rather, didn’t.