October 9, 2012

Why I Don't Do Facebook Birthdays Or Cancers

Have you ever thought about whom you would tell if you had cancer?  Or whether you would tell anyone at all? It is a question that I constantly wrestle with.

I have, once upon a time, loudly announced on Facebook that I don't do Facebook Birthdays, not mine, not yours. Very few people know when my birthday is - I'm not sure that my most cherished friend on the whole planet (let's call him Bunny Ears) knows.  He probably doesn't care, and he doesn't need to know.  Bunny Ears lives 3,000 miles away, but he's not the kind of "friend" that you hear from only once a year.  He's always been there when I needed him.  He answers every single text message - promptly.  I see him online; we don't chat that often, but we have our water cooler ritual conducted over IM and iMessage, and our mobile connectedness gives me a profound sense of comfort.  Many people would say, who cares about your Foursquare check-in's or what you're having for breakfast or your rants and raves about crazy cats and beautiful fonts and Uber cabs and Verizon dropping calls?  I care, because from this open sharing I know that my friend is alive and well and ranting and raving.  Bunny Ears will tell a funny joke on demand. He never asks why I want to hear a funny joke; he just tells it.  I try not to bother him too often, because he does have a girlfriend and he pretends to have a job, but I think we both understand that it's not about the joke but the response - that there is one, and it's immediate.  When I'm sad and suicidal (let's just go along for the dramatic effect) and I get a text with some hipster joke that I never quite understand, my mood always lifts immediately.  When I request an upbeat song on Twitter, and my dear friends respond with their suggestions, I know them to be true friends, because they are listening and paying attention.  

Being a real friend means keeping your antenna turned on.  Social media facilitates that, if you are able to tune in and put together a composite picture of a person's state of mind and current needs from various platforms.  "Oh, you're checked in on this flight.  Can I pick you up from the airport?"  I use quite a few social apps, and I have many so-called "connections," but it's the same small group of people that I consistently engage with across platforms - MY friends, MY peeps, MY tribe.  My A List people (as they're labeled in my Google Circles) are in my life, day in and day out, in a very real and tangible way.  These are the people that I'd want to spend my birthday with.  What makes a celebration special is not the occasion itself but the people involved.  Every time I interact with my close friends, I feel special, I feel cared for, I feel grateful.  I have the most amazing people in my life - everyday is like Christmas.  Who needs birthdays when you are celebrating and honoring your friendships all the time?  Before I go to bed each night, I send good wishes to a few individuals.  I don't "pray" per se, but this is my spiritual practice.  I feel secure in the knowledge that my special people don't give a shit that I'm not among the 339 people wishing them "Happy Birthday!" on Facebook.

There have been people that I was quite fond of, whom I would have liked to spend more time with.  But they never seemed to have time to do anything - "I'm too busy," "I have too much on my plate," "I have a deadline coming up."  If I told them it was my birthday, however, they would happily volunteer to take me out to dinner. I appreciate that - it's a genuine gesture.  But I knew I was not a priority in their lives, and I would not get to hang out with them until the next birthday rolled around.  It is fine - we can't be best friends with everybody - and I'm not the type to milk a birthday for all it's worth.  Relationships that are not based on relatively equal commitment levels can bring pleasure but not the enduring peace and sustained joy of knowing that someone will be there for you in good times and bad.

I have noticed that people who post their cancer status on Facebook get a lot of attention.  Friends are always "sending thoughts and prayers" and volunteering to help with the kids.  I write stuff like that too, so I'm not ripping on it.  Compassion is a practice; you have to start somewhere and fake it till you make it.  But I will be completely honest here: unless the person is a close friend (in which case I will already be doing something and not writing about it on Facebook), I always secretly hope that my offer of service will be gratefully declined.  I will have the satisfaction of having acted in a saintly manner.  This is why I have also pledged not to do Facebook Cancers: I'm not going to give people like me the satisfaction of playing saint publicly.  You know what really happens when they sit down at the dinner table?  "Sweetie, did you hear that XYZ* has metastatic liver cancer?" Makes sad face.  "Oh, that's too bad. That's the guy you went to grade school with, right?"  Puts some foie gras in his mouth.  I'm not sure that our collective exercise in doing Facebook Birthdays and Facebook Cancers has any practical value other than making us feel good about ourselves.  Are we doing so little in real life for our loved ones that we need this extra little ego booster?  *I didn't use a real name because I didn't want to jinx anyone!

We are all crying for attention, to a greater or lesser degree.  The thought had crossed my mind (in my less enlightened days) that I would fake terminal cancer for a year.  Everyone is so much nicer when you have cancer. The guy you want to go out with will escort you to every play and concert and ball game.  He will appear such a loving dude to all his friends.  Gets to put "selfless caretaker" on his resume.  I'd be really, really happy.  The problem is, Dream Boy is only nice because he knows this is a limited-time offer with an expiration date.  I'd be expected to die so folks could get on with their lives.  When people help you check off items on your bucket list, the unspoken understanding is this is a close-ended contract; you are only getting a lucky break because you've been given a death sentence.  The question then becomes, is there anything that I want badly enough that I'd be willing to off myself by the end of the year to fulfill my end of the contract?  I can't say that I'm beyond such melodrama, but currently the answer is No. Though if anyone wants to give his or her life to make a dream come true, if life is otherwise drab and hopeless, who are we to judge?

Three weeks ago I found out that a friend of mine had died of cancer.  "Friend" in the Facebook sense.  We had met through Bunny Ears actually, at a random dinner that I decided to tag along.  John was a bit out of shape but he managed to travel from Santa Clara all the way to San Francisco a couple of times for kettlebell lessons.  This was in August 2011.  He knew he was sick but he didn't tell anyone.  He asked me to go to Hawaii with him, said he somehow ended up with an extra plane ticket.  Obviously he had a thing for me.  I wasn't interested - I hardly knew him, and I like guys who are super athletic and he wasn't.  I politely declined.  Now I feel bad.  To know that I was on someone's bucket list, and it would have been an easy thing to do - going to Hawaii! - with no expectations of taking any clothes off.  If I had known, would I have gone?  I think so.  In a way, I'm glad that John did not play the cancer card.  He was kind to have not put anyone on the spot.  But I am also sort of mad that he denied himself the opportunity - I make very good company and it would have been a happy, harmless trip.  I would have let him tag photos of myself on the beach.  Why not?  He'd be dead in a bit, and I'd write RIP under the pictures, and my future suitors would not get the wrong idea.

I don't know what to think.  Everything is fucking complicated on Facebook.  I had wanted to write about this topic for a long time; it took a real death to make it happen.  I had an unambiguous message, but now I'm ambivalent.  Only the friends who make time for ice-cream with me will have the honor of being at my death bed, that's for sure.  But birthdays?  I may start telling a few select people (not via Facebook) who can afford to take me out to dinner.  A girl likes to be treated well, if only once a year!  If I ever get to have a wedding, I'll tell the whole world because I want presents.  (And Bunny Ears will be my bridesman.)  As for the funeral, if you are not already sending flowers while I'm alive, then don't bother.  (My international mystery man Agent Rutabaga will bring roses.)  The "in lieu of flowers" option would also mean a lot more to me if you make your donations before I go climb Mt. Kilimanjaro at the end of this year.  I may not make it back, but at least I'd have the knowledge that I did something meaningful as my last crowd-sourcing act.  Please click here: Point Reyes Trails Challenge.  Bunny Ears will get all my kettlebells, my Facebook page will linger on in purgatory fashion, and you people can write all the shit you want on it.  (And please click on the ads - Mark Zuckerberg sends happy condolences.)