Visualizing Relationships

People relate to data in different ways.  I’m very much a visual learner and putting data in charts, graphs, or other sorts of illustrations help me understand, absorb, and put the information into context.  I’ve also found it useful to track data that is important to me.  Many people use tools like this – think of exercise logs to keep track of your progress towards fitness goals.  Several companies now provide software solutions that make it easier for people to tabulate whatever it is they want to tabulate, then turn it into graphs and charts.

Recently, I tried out an application from TouchGraph, a New York-based company that specializes in visualization tools and they created this Facebook application as an experiment to demonstrate the capabilities of their technology.  Other companies that provide other visual relationship applications include LinkedIn and Daytum.com.  After entering your username and password – TouchGraph accesses your information only with your permission – they application generates a variety of charts to map the relationships of your Facebook friends. 

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Here are thumbnails of increasing numbers of my Facebook friends, from my 100 “top friends” on the left (no explanation on what constitutes a “top friend” in TouchGraph’s scheme of things) to all of my more than 600 Facebook friends on the right.  I’m fascinated to watch how the groupings make small shifts as more people, and thus more relationships, are factored into the graphic.

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I also found it interesting just to observe how these relationships are mapped out.  Using the 300 friends setting, I found nine primary identifiable groups from which my relationships arise.  AMC Theatres was my first real job after being a newspaper delivery boy and I continued working with the company through university and even for several years after.  Needless to say, a lot of my connections were made there. 

One area that is missing is a significant number of friends from post-secondary school.  I changed schools twice en route to my degree, and only lived on campus for six months total, so my number of university friends is less than a dozen.

What’s also interesting to me is the California-centric nature of my contacts!  No surprise, I suppose, given that I grew up in the Bay Area and lived in Southern California several times.  But everyone to the left and above the dashed line is pretty much in California or else that’s where I originally knew them.

Anyhow, that’s more than you probably wanted to know about my life.  I found it interesting, though. 

 

How Does Your Partner View Your Virtual Friends?

Virtual friends: How do they stack up in the pecking order of friendships?  Are they real?  This is a topic that has probably been discussed a thousand times on Xanga but I don’t know if we’ve ever discussed what our partners, spouses, boyfriends/girlfriends think about it.  This comes to mind because I recently had a conversation with another Xangan and this person’s significant other is very uncomfortable with the idea of this person having these virtual friends with whom details of his or her life is shared.

I’ll be the first to admit, back in 1997 I dated a guy who liked to spend time on ICQ, the first internet-wide instant messaging service, and I was perplexed and somewhat dismissive of the “friends” he claimed to have made online.  When he moved to Los Angeles I had the opportunity to meet one of them, and he and his partner did seem to be genuinely nice people.  Still, I was suspicious of how well you could really know someone with whom you only interacted in a chat environment.  This, of course, was before blogs really started.

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When I started blogging five years ago, I did it just to keep family and friends informed of my experiences moving to Thailand.  The idea of making new friends through the blog never crossed my mind.  Over time, though, I did start making online friends and eventually had the opportunity to meet several people in person.  Initially, they were friends of people I already knew in real life.  Then, they were people who were traveling in Bangkok so we would meet for coffee or a meal or I would be visiting somewhere and would make the time to meet them. 

I even traveled a few hundred miles out of my way two summers ago to visit the famous Dr. Zakiah and her family.  When I was flying on the prop plane from St. Louis up to Quincy, the thought crossed my mind, “Her family must think she’s nuts, inviting some guy flying all the way from Bangkok to stay in her house!”  But if they did think those thoughts, they kept them well hidden and were so wonderfully welcoming.

Over the years, Tawn has met many of these Xanga friends and he has found that they usually turn out to be warm, thoughtful, stable individuals.  Nobody longing to break up our marriage and tempt me away.  Nobody frightening.  Nobody trying too hard to insinuate themselves into our lives in an overly-familiar way.  So I’ve come to take for granted that he has no worries about my virtual friends and in fact has come to enjoy the company of many of them.

What about you and your partner, spouse, etc?  How does he or she view your virtual friendships?

 

Additional reading: entry on The Change Blog about building positive virtual friendships.

 

Dinner After Fourteen Years

Out of the blue I received an email on Monday from a friend whom I have not seen in fourteen years.  We’ve traded very occasional emails, decreasing in volume to about once a year as of late.  The friend was in town on business and suggested we meet for dinner so last night we did.

When we last saw each other fourteen years ago, it was on my first trip out of the US, visiting him in Singapore.  He had just returned from almost ten years living and studying in the states and he was doing his compulsory military service.  Already, though, he was laying the groundwork to achieve great things, becoming one of the first people to identify themselves publicly as gay or lesbian in Singapore.  In the years since, he has become very involved in pushing for more rights for GLBT people across Asia.

Back when we first met while still in school, I could already tell that he was going to accomplish a lot in his life.  My pride in knowing him has not diminished even as our communication has grown less frequent.

The opportunity to meet again and to introduce him to Tawn was a nice one.  There was a little awkwardness (I felt, at least) because it has been easier for me to keep up with his activities due to his visibility, than for him to keep up with mine.  Such is the life when you are friends with a public figure, I suppose.

I hope we’ll stay in touch in the coming years.  He remains a passionate person who is committed to important social causes.  I enjoy seeing his success.  I also hope that we’ll be able to connect again on the level that led to our friendship in the first place, a level beyond the banalities of “What have you been up to?” and “So who are you seeing now?”  That takes time to reestablish, perhaps.

The Meaning of Dreams

Normally not one to have elaborate dreams, this morning I awoke from an intense, emotionally-gripping one. 

The setting was my maternal grandparents’ house in suburban Kansas City.  Many different family members were there along with a few friends.  We were getting ready for a party and in order to make enough space for guests, I disassembled my grandparents’ bedroom furniture and moved it to another room.  The guests, strangely, were for the most part young Thais who were looking for jobs, as if at some sort of career center.  While at the party they were preparing resumes, practicing interviewing skills, etc.

When it came time for everyone to go home, I scrambled to get things cleaned up and organized.  The bedroom furniture had not yet been correctly reassembled and there were loads of dishes soaking in the sink.  My grandparents returned and my grandfather was very upset, fuming that things had been disturbed and I had not fulfilled my promise to put everything back in order.  My grandmother was calmer, yet I sensed that she was unhappy with the mess in her kitchen.

Suddenly I was outside the house, in their large front yard with huge old trees.  The yard had become a cemetery, though, and I was struggling to get back inside and finish my duties before a group of oddly Victorian mourners approached.

That was the dream.

I would generally describe myself as a person who faces life with equanimity.  Many times, friends and acquaintances have remarked about the “calm under pressure” with which I handle the challenges that life presents.  Whether managing an oversold film festival event or helping someone through the rigors of relationships, I consider myself a steady rock to which people can cling.

But beneath this veneer of calm detachment, I wonder if I’m not deeply afraid of letting those about whom I care, down.  Two themes about which I think this dream may have spoken:

The first is my relationship with my grandparents, vis-a-vis my coming out.  When I came out to my family more than 18 years ago, my grandfather was particularly disapproving and there was, for several years, a rift between us.  He was never mean, but I come from a very religious family and he and my grandmother are the root of our faith, so he saw the issue in the context of “I love you because you’re my grandson, but the Bible tells us that you are also a sinner.” 

(Let’s not get caught up in the religious back-and-forth of believers versus non-believers for the purposes of this post…)

My grandmother was more accepting of the situation and over time, thanks to I don’t know what conversations between them and also my parents, my grandfather’s view moderated.  In 2004, when Tawn and I held our commitment ceremony, both my grandparents were there.  And while they were not able to drive up to Iowa for our recent marriage, due to the discomfort of a long overnight road trip at their age, they were a part of the reception and a mention of our “civil ceremony” even made it into my grandfather’s weekly email missive to extended family members.

When I invited my grandparents to the wedding, I couched the invitation in terms of, “I don’t know if this is something you would be comfortable with, but it would mean a lot to us for you to attend.”  While often preferring to avoid the confrontational issues rather than addressing them, my grandfather acknowledged that his thinking on the topic had “evolved” (his word) over time.

I think it is safe to say that with regards to the first theme in the dream, there is still an unresolved question in my mind of letting my family down, wondering whether I am not the person they expected me to be, even though they have been and become a very wonderful source of support in my life.

A second, related theme emerges from the dream: Recently, a number of friends have shared their troubles.  From relationship problems to medical ones, from aging parents to one friend being infected with HIV by a psychopathic partner in the partner’s desperate attempt to force them to stay together, I have received more stories in the past week than I have in a long time.

For each of these people, I want to provide the very best support I can.  I want to be a good friend.  I want to be there in whatever way I can when they need me. 

And I’m worried that I may not be able to.

I know what you’re going to say.  There isn’t enough time in this life for us to help everyone or to fix everything.  We need to have the serenity to accept the things we can’t change, the strength to change the things we can, and the wisdom to tell them apart.  That’s the Serenity Prayer familiar to those in A.A. and other support groups and undoubtedly applicable to each of our lives.

Yes, I know that.  And generally that’s what I believe.  But if my dreams this morning were any indication, maybe I don’t believe it fully.

A Trip to Quincy – Full Version

In this age of internet relationships and Facebook “friends”, one could be forgiven for questioning how genuine these virtual connections are. While many may indeed be tenuous, several connections I’ve made through this blog have developed into real, meaningful friendships with people from so many different walks of life.

It was because of one such relationship that I carved two days from my visit to the United States to fly to Quincy, Illinois (population 40,000). Lying on the eastern bank of the Mississippi River some 140 miles north of St. Louis, Quincy has been the home for the past 31 years to Dr. Zakiah Ali, her husband Mohamed, and their family.

Visiting Zakiah after getting to know her through her postings, poems and comments on Xanga was a blessing. She and her family are every bit as kind and welcoming as you could imagine. While my twenty hours there were too few, I’m glad I had the opportunity and look forward to a return visit.

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Connecting in St. Louis from Kansas City, I boarded a 19-seat puddle jumper operated by Great Lakes Airways, who has the government’s Essential Air Services contract for Quincy. This Thursday afternoon I was the only passenger.

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After a 35-minute flight, most of it spent climbing and descending, I arrived at Baldwin Field. Waiting in the tiny terminal were Zakiah and Mohamed.

A few minutes later we arrived at their lovely home, the famous red Mustang convertible sitting in the open garage and the beautiful roses blooming in the front yard.

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Above, the place where all of Zakiah’s posts and poetry enter the ether.

No sooner had I arrived then the food began. Zakiah’s gracious hospitality manifests itself in many ways, not the least of which is through the preparation of copious amounts of food.

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In addition to some salad and quiche, Zakiah served mango feerni, a soup-like dessert made with homemade condensed milk, pureed mango and pistachios. It was delicate, cool and refreshing.

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After resting and freshening up, Zakiah and I hopped in her Benz for the nickel tour of Quincy. It is a beautiful town, renowned for its architecture. There were dozens of beautiful houses in many styles – colonial, Victorian, craftsman, etc. – on the shady, tree-lined streets of the old city.

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We drove past several notable sites including Washington Park, the setting of one of the seven debates in the 1858 Senate race between incumbent Stephen A. Douglas and a lanky lawyer named Abraham Lincoln.

Some of the other sites – Quincy’s mosque, which Zakiah founded many years ago, for example – she pointed out when we were half a block beyond them. Perhaps the driver was so careful about her safe driving that the “audio” on the tour was delayed. We also made our way to the banks of the mighty Mississippi, the wide river that has so profoundly shaped Quincy.

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Returning home, Zakiah began preparations for an elaborate dinner. I helped a bit but mostly took pictures and notes and filmed the proceedings. After I return to Thailand, I’ll see what I can do about editing the video clips.

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While dinner was being prepared, Zakiah and Mohamed’s daughter stopped by with her husband and two sons. If you’ve read Zakiah’s blog, you know she adores her grandsons, Davis and Noah. Davis is cute but very shy and Noah has inherited his grandparents’ cleverness. They are a beautiful family.

Our meal included Chicken Korma, a curried chicken dish;

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Beef Briyani, a dish with basmati rice and stewed beef;

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Shikampuri Kebab, fried minced beef patties stuffed with sour cream, onions and cilantro;

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and a dish of broiled vegetables tossed in Italian dressing and parmesan cheese, our only exception to the otherwise Indian cuisine.

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Dessert was faluda, an eggless custard like the Italian panna cotta. Made with milk and a seaweed that thickens the dish like gelatin does. The milk is simmered with sugar, almonds and rose water then chilled.It is refreshing and the perfect end to an excellent meal.

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We talked into the evening, covering so many topics. I was especially interested in hearing about the experiences Zakiah and Mohamed had, moving halfway around the world and starting a new life in a strange land and, even more challenging, in a small town where they appeared so different from everyone else. Hearing the stories of the challenges of their first few years, and how they were eventually embraced by the community (Dr. Zakiah received the key to the city after her retirement) and now consider it home, I am inspired at their ability to gracefully triumph against such odds. Truly amazing.

Below, the picture of the town’s well-known doctor in an interview with her in the local paper’s “Women In the News” column.

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Their living room, attached to the dining room, has particularly interesting decorations. Everything in it has an intriguing story or history attached. There is the commendation given to her great grandfather by Queen Victoria for his service to the crown. There are the paintings done by an uncle who was a notable artist. There are furniture items from her childhood home in India.  So many things, each with deep meaning and significance. The stories from the living room alone were worth the visit.

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Friday morning we enjoyed a lingering and elaborate breakfast (she even bought two kinds of ground coffee from the store – they aren’t regular coffee drinkers – to make sure I would have my morning coffee) on the backyard deck.

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Above: Mohamed and Zakiah.  Below, Eggs Dr. Ali Style, with tumeric, onion, tomatoes, and chillies.

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The morning was unseasonably cool and we enjoyed the view of her koi pond and beautiful garden. A gazebo, several rose bushes, other flowers, and a hedgerow sat behind the pond and the surrounding cluster of trees.

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As she fed the fish, which truly do come at the sound of her voice, she mused how she wishes she could show the garden to Matt, whom she thinks would especially appreciate it.

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At 9:30 I called the airline to make sure the flight was running – after the solo trip the previous afternoon I was worried they might not come back for me – and we headed to the airport shortly afterwards. The terminal is so cute, with one tiny check-in counter, security guards who show up for the three flights a day then go home, and one rental car sitting in the Hertz lot. This time our flight was packed – four passengers! Checked in, I said my farewells and headed through the security screening and across the tarmac to the plane.

As the plane climbed about the endless rolling green farmland that surrounds Quincy, I thought about my visit and confirmed that it had indeed been well worth the time and effort to make this virtual friendship into an in-person one.

 

Virtual Friends

Last month I did some pruning of my Facebook “friends” list.  There were several people on there whom I don’t really know and definitely don’t have any regular contact with.  Given the amount of information that Facebook provides me, a mostly uncontrollable flood, I finally asked myself, “Why am I getting updates about people I don’t really know, haven’t seen in more than a year, and don’t stay in touch with?”

Now, I’m the first to recognize that a virtual “friend” isn’t going to be the same thing as a real-life friend.  But there are “friends” on Facebook who, even if we haven’t spent much time hanging out together, we are still regularly in contact with one another.  We comment on each other’s updates and photos, etc.

Same thing here on Xanga.  There are many people in Xangaland with whom I feel I’ve developed a close rapport.  We share stories about our lives, comment on each other’s stories, have little dialogues.  I interact with some of these people more than I do with my family.  So I don’t want to suggest that virtual “friends” can’t have a lot of value. 

But it does seem like a point was reached where I had to make some decisions, at least with regards to those Facebook “friends”. 

I knew that doing so might come back to haunt me.  Sure enough, this week I received an email from one of these pruned “friends”:

We used to be facebook friends… OK, we haven’t hung out in a while, but I’m a little surprised that you deleted me. I’m pretty sure that I haven’t done anything to sprite you.

Anyhow, not broken up over it. It’s just kinda funny.

cheers,
R

To which I thought, “You may not be broken up about it, but it must have bothered you enough to send this message.”

After a few days of figuring out the most diplomatic way to say, “I don’t really know you so I don’t feel the need to call you a friend,” I settled on the following:

Hi R,

Rest assured my deleting you doesn’t have anything to do with you having spited me. After the most recent facebook format was put into place, I’ve found it difficult to manage the amount of information I’m receiving. The flood of status updates, quizzes, photo album adds, etc. is making it difficult for me to stay up to date with those people whom I know well and stay in touch with regularly.

Because of that, I decided to start pruning my list of virtual friends. I feel that I don’t really need to be receiving updates on people I’ve only met a couple of times and haven’t had any contact with in a year or more.

I hope you’ll understand my decision to try and define virtual “friendships” less like acquaintances and more like friendships I have in real life.

Regards,

Chris

Do you think I handled it diplomatically enough?  It is tough to tell someone that, but I didn’t want to wuss out and make a lame excuse like, “Oh, that must have been an accident.”  If I value honesty and directness from others, I guess I should be willing to be honest and direct – and hopefully tactful – myself.

Where are you on the virtual friends issue?

 

A fitting coda

As a fitting coda to my series on making friends in another country, last night Tawn and I went to a small “farewell dinner” for Stuart and Piyawat.  They have moved to Phuket, an island town on the Andaman coast (the western coast of Thailand’s ithmus) an hour’s flight away.

P1170126 Above, the “mega-bridge” project that opened last year.

Dinner was at Buri Tara, an upscale Thai seafood restaurant done up in an Asian modern style.  Located right on the Chao Phraya River between the Rama IX bridge and the “Mega Bridge” complex, we enjoyed some really tasty food, pretty strong drinks, and the slightly too loud crooning of the evening’s singer.

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Left to right: Vic, Stuart, Todd, Piyawat, Tawn and me.

Most important of all was the company, a chance to get together and say farewell to two good friends who are abandoning the Big Mango for a slice of tropical paradise and new work opportunities.  We’ll be visiting soon, I’m sure.