Sunday, November 14, 2010

Marco! Polo!

I have recently been rereading The Complete Sherlock Holmes.  It is a wonderful submersion in the life and language of a past century.  It is amazing how many witnesses in Holmes’ cases were unable to testify because of a sudden onset of “brain fever.”  And yes, the game seems always afoot.

I am currently in the midst of one of the lesser-known short stories, The Adventure of the Mazarin Stone, written in 1921.  As with all artistic creations, the meaning of the piece is a co-creation of author and reader.  The author wrote wrapped in the meaning of his mind and time; I unfold the story within the context of mine.  Different fogs inform us. Doyle creates in the mists of London between the wars.  This time, I read the story through the Kindle application on my Droid phone.  A delicious dialectic, not?

With similar irony, an old friend and I were recently emailing each other bemoaning our students’ seeming addiction to social media.  I mused that my intuitive sense of the issue was that students begin to feel a significant amount of angst when they are separated from their social media - despite the fact that the messages exchanged within the environment are trivial. An apt analogy emerged.  You know the game Marco Polo that kids play in a swimming pool? They close their eyes and the kid who is "it" hollers "Marco!" and the other kids holler "Polo!"  The kid who is “it” then tries to catch the others in a boisterous human imitation of the echo-location skills of bats, whales, porpoises, et. al. 

There is an early episode of the television show Bones [Season 1. #22: The Woman in Limbo] that puts an insightful twist on the game. Temperance is trying to reconnect with her older brother – there is a long backstory to the episode that is unimportant to the current observation.  The relevant idea is that after their parents disappeared, her brother became her protector. She would be sitting in class at school, or out on the playground and she would hear him call "Marco!" When she could she would respond "Polo!"  But even when she couldn't echo “Polo!” - she felt connected to him, she felt "taken care of."  I think that feeling of “being connected” blends into the same emotional space as “being taken care of”, of being “OK,” and lends significant import to social media's seemingly shallow interactions. I post "Marco" and the "friends" respond "Polo."  I believe it is that security, that feeling of "belonging" in a fractured world, to which my students, and many others, are addicted.

And, what, you may rightly ask, does that have to do with The Adventure of the Mazarin Stone? Elementary.  In the opening scene of the story Watson is upset to see Holmes looking even more gaunt and emaciated than was his custom.  When Watson asks why he does not eat when deep in a case, Holmes replies that digestion takes blood away from the brain, the blood necessary for his unparalleled feats of intellectual sleuthing.  He concludes: “I am a brain Watson.  The rest of me is a mere appendix.”  But he then goes on to express real pleasure at seeing Watson, the only friend Holmes ever acknowledges.  He entreats the good doctor, “Let me see you once more in the customary armchair.”

As the pages scroll past on my Droid, I am again struck by the fact that the Internet with its myriad social networks, through which we are wont to holler “Marco” to scattered “avataristic” friends in digital space, is in many ways “mere appendix.”  We hear the electronically multiplied “Polo Polo Polo Polo Polo Polo Polo Polo” of Facebook.  We may even find comfort in that cacophony. But I am increasingly inclined to believe that the tide will turn again - and sooner than we might expect – to the notion that a true friend is the one we see “once more in the customary armchair” sharing real warmth from a real fireplace, taking real shared comfort in a real room.

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