Monday, July 24, 2006

Don't Google if you don't want to know, or: what's the opposite of schadenfreude?

Whilst waiting for George Washington Boyfriend to return from a weekend trip to the family homestead, I found myself in front of the computer with nothing appealing to read. So I spent an hour Googling people I'd lost track of. Now, I keep somewhat regular Google tabs on the people I actually care about, envy, or fear, so these were people I'd really lost track of or, or whom I hadn't thought about in a long time.

There were pleasant surprises, puzzling surprises, and infuriating surprises.

Some people are doing very well, like the woman I was good friends with my first few years in grad school who dropped out after spiralling down into depression, and whom I'd lost touch with for complicated reasons. It turns out that she's been teaching and doing literacy work with immigrants and at-risk kids and is now working for an education nonprofit and working on a novel, all while living in a city she loves. And then there's the guy I went to high school with who's managing editor of a well-known progressive magazine and who runs a serious lefty blog.

Some people are doing unexpected or disappointing things, like my high school boyfriend. I'd known that he was married, with a son, and living in Hawaii, but the last time I'd Googled him I'd been unable to turn up any electronic trace. This time searching for him was complicated by the fact that he has the same name as a lobbyist tangled up in the Abramoff mess, but I still couldn't find anything that appeared to relate to him, specifically--until at last I came across a license from the state of Hawaii, valid as of 2003 and through the end of 2006, which suggests that he's now. . . an independent insurance salesman.

Then there's one of my former officemates from back when I was a paralegal. He was so bad at the job that it was a joke. He didn't like or understand corporate culture and was easily stressed out--to the point that my other officemates and I would occasionally take pity on him and just do his stupid mailings because he was so sad and helpless. He left the job to spend a year in China on a fellowship, and we were all convinced that he was going to wind up in academia since he was as smart as he was flakey and disorganized. Nope. He apparently returned from China and went straight to Goldman Sachs. He's been an investment banker for seven years now.

And then there's the infuriating one, a dude I knew my first year of grad school, and who Done Me Wrong. He's someone I hadn't thought of in years, but who once represented to me everything that was horrible and hideous about men (when I was in those moods, as I once was, rather often). He was also a total fuckup: had been in grad school for some five years but kept taking time off to do random shit, had failed his orals, and after finally passing them wound up dropping out. The last time I'd bothered to Google him I'd taken great satisfaction in discovering that he was back in his hometown, adjuncting at his undergraduate university, and teaching what appeared to be dreadful, 100-level classes.

Well, that was a few years ago. THIS time, I stumbled upon his gorgeous, professionally designed website--and I mean, it's gorgeous; it could win design awards--which indicates that after adjuncting he spent two years managing the medium-sized company that he "owns" (actually, it's Daddy's) and living in four different countries on three different continents, where he received certificates in various languages and subjects. He's now a professor at a university in a Far Eastern capital, teaching a subject in which he has no apparent training. His website, which is actually for his new "enterprise," touts his services as a teacher, consultant, and. . . actor. Oh yes: he lists himself as an actor, although his vita shows no evidence that he actually has, you know, acted. Anywhere. In anything.

(And yes: I know that this is all supported by family money--from the website to the expat life to the delusions of acting grandeur--but wouldn't it be nice to be able to have those delusions? And to never have to get particularly serious about anything?)

The lamest part: the email address that he lists is his alumni address at Instant Name Recognition U. The school he dropped out of five years ago.

* * * * *

The exercise of Googling these dozen or more folks was satisfying in a variety of ways (if unsatisfying in others), but tracking down so many people, all at once, has also got me thinking about my reaction to my search results--and particularly about what I apparently view as success or failure.

Which of those people seem "successful" to me (and admit it: probably to you, too)? The ones who are doing socially meaningful things that also draw upon those individuals' talents--and that seem, additionally, likely to give each a sense of personal satisfaction. They're also, moreover, in fields that are relatively creative and that have some cultural cachet. The people who surprised or disappointed me were those who had talents that they didn't seem to be using (High School Ex is well-travelled in Asia, has an M.A. in international relations, and is or was virtually fluent in Mandarin)--but they're also doing relatively boring, suit-y jobs, even if one is presumably making a ton of money and the other probably isn't.

But of course, who's to say who's actually happy, or who considers him or herself a success? High School Ex is in HAWAII, for God's sake, apparently still married to the (considerably older) woman he married when he was 23, and he may have a perfectly blissful life, for all I know--working 35 hours a week, volunteering, windsurfing, whatever. There's a snobbery, surely, to thinking that only Meaningful Work counts as success (and especially in thinking that one knows what that meaningful work actually might be).

There's also a willful disregard of the reality of work: for most people--really, probably for all of us--what's satisfying about a job isn't the big-picture stuff (I teach impressionable young minds to think deep thoughts! I contribute original scholarship to my field!), but rather the day-to-day elements: Nice colleagues. Reasonable hours. Control over one's work. Regular feedback. The ability to work alone, if one likes to work alone, or to work in groups, if one likes that.

Nevertheless, even my friends with suit-y jobs seem to subscribe at least partly to the Meaningfulness doctrine, to the point that some of them get positively (if briefly) rhapsodic about the people we know who are actors and writers and musicians, and who are "pursuing their dreams" and who "didn't sell out"--making them bear, unfairly, the weight of the dreams of those who do sometimes suspect that they themselves did sell out.*

Which brings us back to cultural capital, and to the way that those of us who have it sometimes cling to it and insist that only what is Meaningful is, well, meaningful. The wise Oso Raro wrote an eloquent essay last week about the material envy that academics often feel for those friends and ex-friends who, while nominally still of the same class (insofar as class is determined by education and a variety of cultural markers), nevertheless have beautiful, well-insulated lives: nice, understated clothes; airy houses filled with books; season tickets to the opera and the symphony. They've got the things that we at least half-believe that we deserve, since we're the ones creating or contributing to the culture that they consume.

But if we are (or if I, anyway, am) snobbish about what's Meaningful, we're also generally snobbish about our own powers of observation, and I'm sure that's where some of my judgments about the people I Googled come from. Grad School Friend and High School Acquaintance are doing the kinds of things that I'd expect them to be doing, and so they allow me to be pleased with my knowledge of their personalities and my incredible powers of prediction. High School Ex and Officemate aren't doing remotely what I'd have expected, and so they are, in a way, a blow to my self-assurance--my confidence in my own judgment.

And damned if that isn't worse, really, than getting to swan around S.E. Asia pretending to be an actor-slash-professor-slash-whatever.


*Let me make clear that I don't, myself, believe that anyone sells out except the person who believes that he or she has sold out. If the only real intellectual or artistic betrayal is to oneself, it seems unlikely that an outsider can judge whether that's happened.

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