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Fri, 31 Jul 2009

Hail and Farewell: Part IV

In this age of Google, it's fairly hard to stay anonymous and private. Buy a house, get a mention in your local newspaper's caption under a photo of the local Little League team you coach, get a land line phone, get arrested, have your name mentioned in the meeting minutes of the local garden club's web site, make a posting to a Usenet newsgroup, have a child, sue someone (or be sued), or have your obituary published when you die -- it takes remarkably little for the tireless little search bots to cull your name from somewhere, then cross reference it, index it, and make it available to anyone with the time and patience to ferret it out.

Some people do manage to do remarkably well at keeping themselves "offline", as it were. They stay off the Internet radar, and out of view of the search engines. But sometimes, with a modicum of luck, and by having a more-than-typical level of familiarity with where to mine for data, even someone apparently lost and gone forever will suddenly and unexpectedly turn up.

More than twenty years since I last saw her, reenter Beth, stage left.

I have previously expounded in this forum on the story of my relationship with Beth at some length. The last time I spoke to her was over an extended lunch in a Manhattan pub more than twenty years ago. Since then, I had neither seen nor heard from her. A year or so after that lunch, I stopped by the office where she used to work, hoping to give her a birthday card in person -- I didn't know where she lived, I didn't want to mail it to her office, and as I still worked nearby, I figured why not take it over myself? The receptionist remembered her, but told me that she had left the company several months before; she didn't have any contact information. Hoping I didn't look too disappointed, I turned and went back to work. Beth, who was once the center of my universe, was again just a cipher, a memory, a twinkle in my eye that my girlfriend didn't entirely understand.

Now my life moved forward in a fairly Beth-free mode. I started to lose track of some of the details of our past. I fell in love again and had a satisfying, long term relationship. Eventually, I realized the time was right, and I got married. Between work, family, and the more-than-full-time job of raising children, I found my thoughts of Beth becoming less and less frequent.

But not gone altogether. Surprisingly enough, I often remembered to say a prayer for Beth at Mass each Sunday. I had gotten into the habit all those years before, when we were together, and simply never stopped. I did not pray that we would get back together or anything like that -- instead I remembered how tired and sad Beth had seemed the last time we spoke, how she wished that she could settle down and have a quiet, boring, normal life, and that became my prayer for her. I asked God to help Beth find peace in her life, to find real happiness, in whatever form that might be, and that if she needed to find the right person to help achieve that, that they would find each other.

I also found my thoughts going back to Beth when I would visit my parents. So many places -- in the house, the neighborhood, the town, the area -- brought back memories of times with Beth, that I couldn't help but daydream about her a bit during my visits home. I would find myself driving down a road we used to walk down together (in those halcyon pre-driver's-license days) and my thoughts would go off on tangents: I wonder what Beth is doing these days. Did she ever marry again? Have kids? What kind of work could she be doing? What does she look like now? Would I recognize her? (A thought that occurred more often as the inevitable effects of time slowly crept up on me.) Sometimes, I would drive past her house, looking at the tree she had me plant in the front yard, seeing how much it had grown in all those years, and feeling a twinge of satisfaction over my having gotten it off to a successful start in its life.

But living in the past, no matter how many happy memories might be there, is ultimately a stale and unhealthy exercise. And these brief excursions down memory lane were, fortunately, just that. The voices that used to haunt me after my breakup with Beth never came back -- instead, Beth's memories became a beautiful box which I kept on a shelf, which I would take down from time to time and say, "Wow, that's really nice," and then put it back on the shelf.

Time passed, the years went by, and the world evolved as it would. Work went on in its familiar cadences, family life marched down its endlessly fascinating but ultimately unknowable paths, and life went on. Technology continued its accelerating rush forward -- first computers, then the Internet. In my job I needed to stay up-top-date on both these technologies, and I became fairly skilled at using them, both at work and at home.

From their earliest days, search engines fascinated me. I was intrigued by the fundamental principles behind them -- programs that crawled from one web site to another, reading everything on the page, recording and indexing it; then adding the secret soupçon of value to the whole process in how search results would be ranked and associated with other things (especially advertising -- the basis for Google's success). One of the first things I ever did on Yahoo in its earliest days was to search on my own name. That did little but demonstrate to me that what I always thought was a rather unique name resulted in a surprisingly large number of hits (granted, many of them not really relevant or about me in particular). And for some reason, without any conscious thought that I can remember, the next search I keyed in was Beth's name. Her name was even more common and ubiquitous than I expected. Even if there was some link to her buried in there somewhere, there was no way I had the time or the patience to sift through the (literally) millions of hits that were returned. "Not much use," I thought to myself.

And, without realizing it, Beth became my ultimate search test. Whenever there was a new or improved search engine, or when some new kind of search functionality was developed, I would always try it out, wondering in the back of my mind if my Beth would turn up in the first page or two of results. IBM had an experimental image-search program in one of their labs; I would get an account and see if, beyond all rational expectation, Beth's face would magically appear. Specialized engines promised to cross-reference public records databases (birth, death, marriage, divorce), but like always, Beth was always just out of sight, never coming into view despite some of the better technologies of the day. I realized that my "Beth test" was becoming for me like one of those lines in a farce -- the first few times, there isn't much reaction, but with constant repetition, the laughs get bigger and bigger each time it's repeated. I became more and more interested over time to see just how badly the results would miss Beth. Was it possible that Beth had become an DVM in Massachusetts? A member of the faculty at the University of Colorado? A shop owner in the Midlands of the UK? The mayor (mayoress?) of a large city in western Canada? No, no, and often times funnier and funnier as the results diverged ever more wildly from what I knew (or could guess) about Beth. (And don't get me started on the image search results -- some of those were really wild!)

Eventually, the Internet evolved dedicated people-search sites. Like a good drug dealer, the public could do an "initial" search for free. I tried those too: I certainly knew her name, her age, and at least one place where she used to live. But the results were also uniformly disappointing. Her name would come up, but usually in a hodgepodge of other names. I had no idea what her married name was. Could one of these be her? It was impossible to tell. (Did she even take her husband's name? I would have given even money that she hadn't, just out of her independent and ever so slightly contrary nature.) I certainly didn't feel like investing $29.95 for the "full" report, which in all probably would have turned up nothing useful anyway. "Not much use," I again thought to myself.

But suddenly all that changed, the impetus coming, as such things often do, from an unrelated and innocent suggestion, completely out of the blue.

Now in spite of my having to stay tech-savvy for work, I found myself over the years keeping a kind of arms-length distance from many of the techno-fads that sprung up (and often withered away). Web browsing, Usenet newsgroups, e-mail, some RSS feeds from favorite sites -- that was plenty for me to do in my spare time at home. I even went so far as to deliberately avoid getting a cell phone, mostly out of worry that if people at work found out I had one, then they would expect to be able to call me whenever it suited them, wherever I was at the time. I liked having down time that couldn't be interrupted -- that hour in the car going back and forth to work each day was my time, just for me, NPR, and my favorite CDs. So I watched the rise of social networking sites with amusement but no real interest.

"So, what is Twitter, anyway?"

"Well, you get on there and enter short messages about where you are and what you're doing, thinking, or feeling."

"Um, why?"

"So that people can know what you're up to."

"A 140-character blurb is really going to say that?"

I clearly didn't get the point, and besides, I just didn't feel like broadcasting my whereabouts to the world. And I wasn't particularly interested in knowing that much about anybody else.

So my reaction was understandable when, a few months ago, a friend came up to me at a party and started talking about their activities on Facebook. I expressed by usual reservations about privacy; she assured me that I would have control over who could see what, if anything, I posted. We talked more about it, and, while I still wasn't entirely clear on the purpose, and it mostly seemed like another tool for people with too much spare time on their hands, for some reason I didn't entirely dismiss it. My kids were on Facebook, and my wife was also, just to monitor what the kids were sending and receiving there.

I kept mulling the idea over and over in my mind, and, other than having to give up a bit of privacy, I didn't see too many downsides. After all, if I didn't want to spend a lot of time on it, I didn't have to, and, I had to admit, I was a little curious to see for myself what it was all about. So a few weeks after getting the suggestion, I logged on to Facebook and signed up.

The very first thing I did was go into my profile and set all my information to "private". (It struck me as kind of incestuous for Facebook to default many of your profile settings to public or semi-public.) Then, since the crux of the Facebook system seems to be about having "friends", I sent out a query to the person who suggested Facebook to me in the first place asking if I could be her "friend". The next day, she accepted, and I now felt like a fledgling member of the Facebook community.

Just to learn more about it, I decided to explore a little bit. One of the most important features in Facebook are the various search functions, and I decided to see how many people I knew were already members. I knew my parents weren't members, so I tried my brothers and sisters -- only one of them turned up. I searched for colleagues from work, people I knew in college, folks from the neighborhood, and a not insignificant number of them were there, happily Facebooking away.

Then I tried the "Beth test". Knowing how common her name was, I wasn't entirely surprised that pages and pages of results came back. This was no different than the other fruitless Internet searches I had done over the years. I was just about to move on to something else, when I spied one of the search options tucked away in a corner of the screen: search by school. I had no idea what would happen, but I started typing in the name of my high school, and much to my surprise, it came up as a selection. Just to see what would happen, I left Beth's name and selected her graduation year, and hit "Search" again.

And there on the screen, for the first time in more than twenty years, I saw Beth again.

Rather, I saw her Facebook profile picture. If the photo was anything close to being recent, then the intervening years had been exceedingly kind to her. She looked exactly as I had remembered her. Not a gray hair, not a wrinkle, her amazing smile just as it was. (Did she have a covered portrait hidden in her attic, I wondered?) Obviously you can't tell too much from a head and shoulders shot that looked to have been cropped from a larger picture, but I was still seriously impressed -- Beth was as beautiful as she ever was.

All of the information about Beth on Facebook was marked private, but there was one thing Facebook shows anyone who cares to bring up your profile -- your "friends" list. While not in Ashton Kutcher's league, Beth did have over a hundred Facebook friends in her list. Not an overwhelming number, and, curious, I started to browse the list. I was surprised how many names on her list I did recognize. Some of her relatives, mutual friends from high school and college, a couple of people I remembered from technical society meetings back in New York who worked for one of her former employers, the list rolled on and on. I did notice one peculiar thing -- there were quite a few entries for people with the same last name (not hers). That repeated name seemed oddly familiar to me. Where had I seen it before? I filed the question away in my mind, spent another minute or two staring at her picture, then logged off and went on with other things.

I have come to rely on my subconscious to asynchronously process problems like this "in the background" while my conscious mind carries on with the mundane activities of daily life. And once again, it worked. About a week after stumbling across Beth on Facebook, in the middle of the night, as I became semi-awake to roll over in bed, I suddenly realized what the connection was to that oddly familiar last name so common on Beth's friends list. I had seen that name before, several years ago, in conjunction with one of those people-searches I had done: those free searches just returned a list of names and locations (neither list of results being synced to the other, by the way), but one of the names that did pop up was Beth's name with this other surname. At the time I had dismissed it as a mistake of some kind, a false hit, a mis-crossed reference leading to a dead end. But now I was sure that I knew what it was: Bath had remarried, and these were members of her husband's family.

The next day, I sat down at the computer for a little more digging. Phone book lookups didn't find any matches, but I did know of one web site that did give out address information even if the actual phone number was unlisted. I keyed in what I now took to be Beth's married surname, and clicked the button. The usual animated image twirled on the screen for a few seconds, and there it was: a listing for Beth, and one for her husband, both at the same address. Either the phone was unlisted, or they no longer had a landline, but now I was 99.9% sure that I had found my Beth.

A quick lookup of the address on Google Maps showed me the pretty straightforward driving directions -- she lived only about four hours away. There and back would be no problem to do in the same day. I even got onto Terraserver and found a view of her house from on high.

But since then, nothing. I haven't taken any further action. I haven't reached out to her on Facebook asking if I can be her "friend". (Maybe it's just the fault of the terminology, but the whole notion of having to ask someone on Facebook "if I can be their friend" seems a bit childish to me.) Haven't written, haven't tried to find out her phone number, haven't attempted to drive there on the one-in-a-thousand chance that she would just happen to be outside or in the area at the time I happened to drive by, just for the sake of seeing her in person again.

Instead, what I have been struggling to come to terms with since Beth reappeared are my own feelings about her: Why do I feel about her the way I do? Why are those feelings so ambivalent? Do I think I'm really mature enough to have an appropriate relationship with my first true love, my former fiancée? Hell, is there an appropriate relationship you can have with someone like that from your past?

The idea of getting in touch with Beth again both entices and frightens me. I realize now that I still have lots of unresolved hurt over the way she treated me when she unceremoniously abandoned me all those years ago. Perhaps that's what makes me want to contact her again: the possibility that we could somehow get together and I could hear from her in person what she once wrote to me long ago -- that she was sorry for the way she had treated me. But then my fear is that she would turn me away again, not want to have anything to do with me, not even to be a Facebook "friend". In my mind that would be her confirmation that as far as she was concerned, dumping me was the right thing to do. I wouldn't want to feel like that again. Why would it be so hard for me to just say "Good riddance" to her if she did? Why can't I just put all of this behind me and not think about Beth any more, not worry about these things?

I don't know what, if anything, to do now. I need to think about it some more. I want to talk it over with my therapist (who knows the background and history, but not these most recent developments). I want to talk it over with a trusted friend or two.

And whatever I do, I want to do what's right -- for me, for my wife and family, and for Beth. I don't yet know what that will be, but it's a question I have to come to terms with sooner rather than later, lest the long-silenced voices come back to me and torment me into doing something rash, or foolish, or both.

Posted Jul 31, 2009 at 17:44 UTC, 3350 words,  [/richPermalink

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