Saturday, January 10, 2009


As I was walking down the street one day after columns of rowhomes there was a gigantic gap in between a block. The steps leading up to it remained, but the actual building had long been demolished. Gone forever save for a few steps and two small pillars. No one pays any attention to the lonely lot over which these reminders stand guard.

No one even remembers when the street became one house poorer. Have we become so insensitive to the destruction that the memory of it fades so quickly? Perhaps they put it out of memory. It is a grim memory, after all, one which reminds us just how transitory our existence is. One day you are in the here and now, cherished and beloved. The next you are bulldozed into a grassy lot and no one glances where once you shone. Even now, as I sit down and type this, I can recall those who dropped out of high school, those who dropped out of college, those who left for out of state colleges or far flung lands and haven't called back. To me, they are something like this lot. To remember them is to think about this lot.

We all can remember the true landmarks of the land. Roman aqueducts and Greek temples still stand tall through the centuries. New York's gleaming skyscrapers stand tall as they turn seventy, some eighty years old. Even here, a growing skyline is erupting forth whose disappearance would last within memory. But this small house is lost and no one cares. It is just one in a sea of them, up and down the block for almost three miles. It is not glamorous or dignified or tall. It was just a residence, and now it is gone.

Years from now, it will eventually be noticed. And in that time, a more modern structure will replace it. It might be a new house, if the city is in need of housing stock or a private investor takes interest. Or it and its block could be absorbed into a sleek new building for the university, which is slowly encroaching to the south. And then there would be no reminders of this little place at all, nothing to trigger the memories save for this small photograph (and others, hidden elsewhere). It will not be remembered for what it once was, or what might have been, but simply a plot of land now occupied by a new science center. On the land where children might have played on the porch as their mothers spied them from inside and elderly rocked recalling the good times, and the bad times, there would now be only talk of research projects and where all the good beakers had gone and of tenure and science!

When I was a child, there was a tall tree in front of my little rowhome. It was impressively tall to a six year old, taller than any building I could see in Center City. In the summer, it would cast its shadow over the porch where one could sit and enjoy some water ice, and in the fall it served as 'base' when playing tag. Then we moved. Time passes. I went down there once. It was gone. The corner store had closed up. And the neighborhood contained its fair share of lots, of memories long since torn down. I could barely recall what some had once looked like, as a kid running down the street to school, joining the slow trickle at first, escorted by the friendly crossing guards, then the massive throng at the school.

And yet some of it was still there.

The most infuriating thing about such loss is that it is never seen. Or you never wanted to see it. You didn't want to see the haggard look on the clerk's face as he struggled to turn a profit. Or the foreclosure on the poor Chikofskis whose father was laid off. Or the city slowly pulling services out from under. The thunderstorm whose winds were just a little too strong for the weakened heartwood. Crime exciting an exodus from a neighborhood already on edge with reports each day of this shooting, that shooting. And creeping slowly as the years pass, fading in like a Polaroid (remember those??), the empty lots come into focus.

Not just a local phenomenon. Anywhere people get into stride and lose notice of the little things. A small forest where teens snuck in to cut curfew and drink alcohol bulldozed for a housing development. The pastor, sent off to a larger parish as the bishops say his flock is too small to warrant a church, the church itself locked into disuse. Dust gathers upon the head of Christ as the years pass. Dust gathers upon the head of the Virgin Mary as the homes come up and come down and soon the parishioners forget they had ever held vigils in the quaint little building. Everything fades into the background, and developers set their sights upon the holy site, prime real estate in the suburban landscape.

Even the intangible. The smell of the new car fades. The attitude changes. You get a feeling that perhaps you shouldn't be there. Something has changed, either you or it or them, but the fact remains that it has changed. There is just an indescribable sense that something that once was has changed or no longer is. Perhaps the worst, after all, there isn't any there there to pin down why. And yet it evokes the same feelings.

But the greatest loss is human loss. The loss of a fellow human is nothing compared to the material loss. The lot can be put to good use in the indeterminate future. Nothing can replace a dear friend or cherished family member. Nothing. Once that life has flickered onto the next plane of existence (or into nothingness, depending on what you believe), there's no replacing them. Except the pain, I suppose, for what it is worth.

Sometimes they are remembered throughout history. They become the organic equivalent of Greek columns or arching bridges or a small flag planted on a moon. They remain visible and stalwart through the ages long after their meaty sacks have rotten into the earth. Their names resonate through the years, sometimes with reverence and sometimes with disdain. Newton. Elizabeth I. Sun Tzu. Hitler. Just to hear the name and many can recall the lives of such people. While their presence may be gone they are not forgotten. Like the temples who remain even after most of their structure has fallen and their use abandoned, just their memory lives on.

But many, too many, are like the lot. Once gone, they are gone forever, lost to the ages. Unlike the lot, they are still felt by those left behind. But as they, too, die and fade, so does their memory. Until they are forgotten.

Wander a graveyard, and marvel at all the names of those beloved now forgotten. And like the lot, with its history hidden, one can wonder who they were. What they had dreamed, aspired to, loved, hated, regretted. All lost to time. All that is left is a name, perhaps a time span and a small epitaph, on a tombstone (which these days may be nothing more than a plaque embedded in the ground). Nothing more and nothing less. The name 'Jonathan Venti' evokes nothing in you or me. Just a label of someone who was born, lived, and died without making any waves in our universe.

I had to get up early this morning for class. There was nothing on TV except the morning news (checked the weather, then flick! Too depressing) and the History channel. The History special was on the USS Arizona. They showed the sleek white memorial, and the list of those lost inside. And I thought to myself, just who were those people? Who was Lieutenant C. T. Janz? Or Seaman C. W. Miles? Seaman first class D. J. Orr will only be known forever more as just one of a long list of names of those lost in one moment of time. I will bet even those alive today who served with them have forgotten them, either through the faultiness of memory or a wish to suppress a terrible experience. This is true of almost every memorial. Name after name, these people cease to exist and turn into objects, into a singular monument. We tend to think in the macroscopic of these people and forget the individual.

Perhaps in an attempt to unify our existence, that we shall be remembered not for what or who we are but what we contributed to or participated in?

For most of us, we become just a name in an endless list of names. Essentially forgotten. But at that one point in time, at death, it seems as if it will never fade. And yet, time marches on. We become forgotten like the empty lot. Our presence on this planet only noted by a marker. For some, there is not even that distinction. For some, they disappear completely. That is tragedy. That they should be lost with none to even mourn them is tragedy.

On the other hand, it is, perhaps, for the best that our memories fade. The pain also fades with it. Life picks up again. The seasons march on in their ceaseless parade (until the earth gets knocked out of orbit, or the sun explodes, I guess). If we spent forever lamenting what was then nothing would ever get done. We would spend forever reminiscing over what was. The past, rather than the present or future, would dominant.

Still, some remembrance would be nice. Just a little nod and notice that in this sea, this mass, of people are not just names, or an event, or a simple stone but a person. Individuals who had lives outside of their deaths. Some innocent, some guilty, but all humanity none the same. I think too often we reduce them down into an event in time, or an object on display. Just one more thing to gawk at while going about your way.

Second Life is no exception to this rule save for one regard. There is always the hope that the person on the other hand has simply forgotten about Second Life. They've moved on with their lives due to some reason. They are not gone forever. And that is one relief and a welcome difference from a dreary first life fate. The pain is still there of a loss, but there is hope that someday they will return, and then we'll all have a drink.

But there is still a pain there. Sometimes they don't come back. Then you're left out with no way of knowing (unless you've traded real life info) if they will come back. Then it mimics real life. Thousands of accounts log in, make a few friends and perhaps a few lovers, and then leave. Those who knew them grieve and then move on. Only a few remain as famous figures, names who echo across cyberspace.

One devious little trick might be someone dropping their account and making an alt. Those friends left would be sad, while that person left as an alt. Starax did this to a degree. For a while, people wondered where he had gone and mourned him as if he had died. Only he turned up later. Is he excused for pulling such a stunt? I do not know. I don't know him. It is really up to those who did know him. I do know, though, that I would be happy that he did return, in any form, even if some time later.

And what of those who create alts and never tell? That's up to them, I suppose. I met someone once who did just that. Someone found out, there was much drama. I never saw them again. If history repeats, as it does so often, they probably made a new alt account. I can only wonder why they would do so, but I am not them. I am sure their reasons are there.

Sometimes, you learn that the person on the other end is gone. That is harsh. I'm not sure how closure works then. Hold an inworld memorial? The distance between people who play Second Life is enormous in most cases (often between countries). There is no reasonable way to fly thousands of miles for someone who you have only met through a created avatar and their typings. Not unless you have the time and the money which are in short supply these days. They disappear. The most recent I can think of is Kendra, someone I never knew or met, but who must have been quite a person because the day she died every SL blog went into an uproar with an obituary. Quite a testament, and in the world of Second Life probably makes her one of the 'Greek Temples' who you hear about years later in the history books. Such as Second Life history books are, anyway.

And when you think about it, all you see of most of your friends is their typing. Just their words. Nothing more. One does not need to be a particularly good actor and most people are fairly competent writers. There's no face to read or body language to provide a tell. You could befriend, or even fall in love, with some fictitious figure who is the creation of a clever mind. I would like to think that most people would rather not open up rather than lie, but who knows? I think these would be truly unforgivable. Those I could judge. It is simply not right to manipulate and play people like that.

In a small way, you could say that the small faint hope of SL loss can be compared to spiritual beliefs in real life. There is hope that we shall see our loved ones in the afterlife, whatever it may be. The key difference is that while in SL this is sometimes outright known and occurs with regularity, in real life no one has come from beyond the grave. I think ghost stories are bull. And a belief in such demonstrates a true kind of faith to believe in such hope that has never been confirmed. It is, truth be told, very comforting. For my part, I wish it true even though the more cold and calculating part of me doubts. Perhaps wishing hard enough is the same.

In the end, a loss is a loss is a loss. There are varying kinds, from material to indeterminable to permanent human loss, but in the end it is all the same. Save for few cases, what is gone is gone forever. And while spending one's life musing about it is quite unhealthy, harmful, and a waste, it is fine on occasion to devote some small thoughts to the matter.

After all, in the end, we ourselves become another's loss.

No comments: