The author and daughter walking downstream in Madison county, Georgia, near Athens

The Way Place Holds Memory

by David Miller Jul 25, 2011
What happens when you begin to live more of your life online than anywhere else?

The fuckedupness

THE HARDEST PART about working and in some ways “living” on the internet is that you never know exactly what the vibe is. It’s the opposite of real life, where communication is situational, predicated not on words but nonverbal cues, subtext, flow, the look in a person’s eyes, la onda, as they say here in Argentina, the feel of a place at ground level, like entering a classroom or rolling up to a jobsite or walking into a cafe or concert, and scoping the actions and “energy” of the people gathered there.

When everything is online though, your words, actions, reactions, and emotions arise not necessarily out of how you perceive a “situation” but because of an email or Gchat. You begin questioning if you would’ve felt certain emotions and said certain words had you been in a room with the person you communicated with online.

Perhaps those who’ve grown up with the internet have a cultural preparation for this that’s unavailable to those of us who grew up in the 80s and 90s and weren’t really introduced to email until high school. I sort of doubt it. Either way I just feel like I’ve spent an assload of time online over the last several years, and the cumulative effects of this can be a kind of fugue state where even if I’m not on the computer, residual email verbiage, Google task list items, and random writing ideas still keep vacillating in my brain to the point that oftentimes where I am feels less a physical location, and more a notion.

It’s still just waking up, making coffee, getting online, working. The people here are just the people here. The culture here is just the culture here. The terrain here is just the terrain here.

Compounding this is the fact that for the last 18 months we’ve been living in El Bolsón, Patagonia, Argentina, a 24 hour bus ride from my wife’s family and friends in Buenos Aires, and at least two days’ worth of travel from/for my people in the US (mainly in Georgia and Colorado). It was definitely a choice – and a choice driven by stoke / opportunity, don’t get me wrong- to move here. But this commonly portrayed notion of the “expat life” as somehow being an emotionally rich “escape” or something from the US or wherever: it never feels that way to me. It’s still just waking up, making coffee, getting online, working. The people here are just the people here. The culture here is just the culture here. The terrain here is just the terrain here.

Put in at Rio Azul, Patagonia. Photo by author.

It all has positive and negative aspects depending on your lifestyle / motivations / economic situation, although the tendency in an expat context is to take whatever really “works” (or “sucks”) and either romanticize it, stigmatize it, advertise it, or just plain talk out your ass about it. Like I could start describing the color of the Rio Azul. Or I could pontificate about how people in general seem poorer but “content” in El Bolson.

The point is that it takes time to develop truly meaningful relationships with a place and the people there, and being in this early “trial-period,” this mode of constantly observing, noting, and in some ways “evaluating” the culture / terrain / people, both in the sense of “fodder” for travel writing, but more importantly in the context of “was this really the right move to come down here to Patagonia?” — all of this contributed to a sense of total displacement, which exacerbated / was exacerbated by the fucked-up-ness of constantly being online.

My people

My parents came to visit 9 months or so after we moved down to Patagonia, but except for one friend (‘sup Josh?) it was too far / expensive for anyone else to come, or for us to visit back to the US. A year and a half was the longest I’d gone without seeing any of my friends. It also happened to be an exceptionally eventful and emotional period. Our daughter Layla was quickly growing from a toddler to a little girl (she’ll be 4 in Sept.) and our son Micael was born. Particularly around that time and the months following, the absence of friends and family nearby – sharing this time with us, stoking on this new member of the familia – felt almost like this tangible presence. Something that’s missing and always reminding you it’s missing.

We looked toward that upcoming summer as a chance to finally see everyone back in the US. More than anything I had this strong pull towards the south. Lau and I had lived in the US, but out west, Colorado and Seattle. We’d been married going on nine years, and had still never really traveled through my home ground, the southern US, Atlanta, Athens, the Chattooga River, and Western North Carolina. Most importantly, my parents (who have quickly shifted personages from “mom and dad” to “Nana y Granpa”) had yet to meet Micael.

So, with their generous Sky Mileage assistance, we devised and effected the following 6-week trip (later dubbed the “Friends and Familia tour 2011”), which allowed us to spend several days with most of my (non-internet) friends and family, as well as just general time (a total of 5 days) off the computer completely.


Mickey and Toy Story icons at entrance to Disney Hollywood Studio

YOU CAN’T TRY to choose tracks with irony. It just happens. You see “Stereolab” and think “calming” as your wife and two kids sit in the middle row of your dad’s suburban, dad at the wheel, mom shotgun, all of you heading northbound on I-75 from Sarasota to Disneyworld, the interstate traffic seeming insanely crowded for 10:30 on a rapidly-heating June morning. Only then you realize the track name, “Neon Beanbag,” the words “beanbag” and “neon” and how they vaguely seem to contextualize Disneyworld, or at least how you imagine it, not having been since you were six or so, maybe seven, and especially compared to where you’ve been the last year and a half, the high alpine ridges and worn out roads of Patagonia, or “El Sur” as it’s called, the words seeming to now represent even the general brand of Florida itself, everything from the intensity of the paint jobs on the vehicles and houses to the almost electrically-charged efficaciousness of the post office clerks and Publix cashiers, all of it somehow neon and beanbaggy.

“Amor,” she’s tapping your arm. “Can you take off your headphones please?”

“Yeah baby, “¿qué pasa?”

“Nothing, can you just participar?”

What you want to tell her is that your anxiety-levels are really high this morning and you’re sort of meditating right now, emotionally preparing for Disneyworld, or not so much Disneyworld itself, but the inevitable show, the outward appearance that you’re enjoying yourself, or at least willing to enjoy yourself.

“I am.”

She gives you a look then. Layla is watching Ratatouille on a personal DVD player. Mica is quiet, asleep maybe. On either side of the interstate are sections of pine flatwoods. Palmetto. Silver oaks with Spanish moss, all of it passing by at a steady 70 mph. When you first got off the plane you could smell the brackish Gulf water.

You want to tell her (if you could see into the future) “I don’t have your ability at pretending to be engaged and getting actual enjoyment out of just observing, such as when, an hour from now, we’ll enter the Disneyworld gates and you’ll see the sign LET THE MEMORIES BEGIN! and then make this comment about ‘people having to pay for memories,’ and that this will actually cause you some small level of enjoyment, this making fun of the sign, whereas for me it will have to be ‘sloughed off’ as letting the implications of a sign like that actually sink in could lead to a significant mood alteration and I don’t want to get all pissed / depressed and ruin it for the kids.”

[Nine hours later]

Mica breaking "Cinderella" out of her photo-posing fugue state. Photo by author.

Post-Pixar parades at Disney Hollywood studios, post-meeting with the princesses (in which Micael got “Cinderella” – a girl who posed for photos with android-like regularity in her facial expression – to break character and smile in a genuine way), post-meltdown-evasion via two merchandise purchases at the Little Mermaid and Princesses pavilions, post-lunch with a surprisingly good tomato, basil, and mozzarella panini, post-90+ temperatures and no lateral air movement in the Beauty and the Beast amphitheater, post-Cinderella castle, with Nana and Layla hitting a kind of second wind of almost amphetamine-like enthusiasm, at one point Nana attempting to enter the carousel via opening an obviously closed EXIT gate, you begin the Walk Back, feeling you’ve successfully averted dwelling on multiple alienating realities about Disneyworld, including the gauntlet-like merchandising, the lack of any sort of free-play structures or lawn areas that aren’t gated off, the high numbers of kids old enough to send emails who are being pushed in strollers, the generalized obesity, poor-health, etc.

Then you notice Disney workers taping lines on the ground, and exhausted looking parents sitting down just inside the line. You realize everyone is waiting for yet one more show.

“I don’t think I’ve ever seen so many unhappy looking people in all my life,” Lau says, although not in a bitter way.

You ride the series of monorails, trams, and buses back to the parking lot, taking turns with dad at holding Layla’s now asleep body over your shoulders. In the parking lot you see fireworks beginning over the magic kingdom. You feel a kind of sadness in a way that’s long familiar but which you’ve never been able to fully explain or articulate, although you can easily identify points of entry, such as the gap between what’s meaningful to your parents and what’s meaningful to you, and how it’s always been hard to meet in the middle, and there’s nothing deliberate about it, it’s just how it’s ended up, which is what makes it sadder somehow; or the fact that “things” in your family, as you grew up, always had to be “about something” – a trip or a restaurant or a Bar Mitzvah or an Atlanta Hawks game – and that there seemed to be some kind of blockade on just “enjoying life,” or at least not always worrying about it, in the context of what was right there transpiring in the day to day. Which of course, ironically, or perhaps predictably, you went out traveling in search of. You remember back nine years ago, when you told your dad you were getting married and that the girl was from Argentina. “It’s a mitzvah to dance with the bride and groom,” he said, worried. “But you guys. . y’all will be so far away.”

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