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December 13, 2000

I was sent this link to an absolutely incredible photo of the city lights of planet Earth as recorded by NASA. I encourage everyone who reads this journal to go immediately and look at this photo. (go ahead. I’ll wait. It’s worth it....) Isn’t that beautiful? I’m not sure why I was so taken with this photo, but I was. And it has me thinking about how small this little planet has become and what changes I have seen in my lifetime that have contributed to shrinking the planet.

I remember when I was in high school. I always wanted to know someone from another country, and it was my dream to travel abroad. However, I knew it was only the “rich” people who ever had a chance to do that. I knew that I would never have enough money to enjoy world travel, or to have the opportunity to really experience another culture.

When we were invited to host a student from Brasil in 1981, it was our way of bringing the world closer to us, since we would not have the opportunity to visit the world. As I have recounted in this journal before, over the next ten years, a parade of some 70 students from 14 or so different countries became part of our lives. We brought the world into our living room. And when the kids returned to their home country, we would continue the friendship through letters (which took 2 weeks to be delivered) or occasional telephone calls (which were very expensive and of frustratingly poor quality--we always sounded like we were speaking in a tunnel, with echoes so disruptive that you sometimes thought you should give the old short wave radio signal, “Over,” to let the other person know it was OK to start speaking in response to what you just said.)

While all that was pretty amazing, and while we were then able to do some traveling ourselves, to England and Ireland (with a side trip to Paris once), nothing quite comes close to the amazement I feel about how small the planet has become, 20 years past our foreign student days, since I met Peggy When I saw the NASA photo, it made me wonder how far it is from here to Perth, Australia. I went to “Ask Jeeves,” and learned that, as the crow flies, it is 9,187 miles. You probably can’t go farther from point A to point B on the planet without actually starting to come back. And yet, thanks primarily thanks to the Internet, Peggy and I have become very close friends. I can’t even imagine this happening 20 years ago. My friend Olivia flew to Australia for vacation. When she returned home, she told me that I simply must “meet” this woman she had visited because we were so much alike and had the same sense of humor. That night I sent an e-mail to Peggy. I was at Olivia’s at the time and within 20 minutes, I had a return e-mail from Peggy. We managed to hook her, Olivia and myself up on an Internet chat, and next thing I knew, she was calling to talk with us. The telephone connection was clear as a bell. The rest, as they say, is history.

Olivia was right. We did have a lot in common and we began exchanging e-mail daily. Then I convinced her to try Instant Messaging. She was at first reluctant, being a somewhat shy person and afraid we would have nothing to say to each other. But I convinced her to give it a try. We discovered that Instant Messaging was a great thing for us and we began to have hour-long chats each day. I’ve mentioned before here, I think, that we had the ultimate Internet sitting at my computer in California, she sitting at her computer in Australia, and both of us logged on to Africam, looking at real time pictures of animals at watering holes in Africa and talking about them. That still blows me away.

Because of the friendship we formed over a year and a half of Internet connection, Peggy decided to come to the States for her once-in-a-lifetime vacation, the details of which occupied most of the September and October entries of this journal. We discovered that a friendship which had its roots on this amazing medium of the Internet carried over to real life and only deepened with real time spent together. Now she’s back in Australia, the IM chats continue, she calls occasionally and when she does, it sounds like she’s calling from next door--and it costs her a pittance compared to what I used to pay to call Brasil in the 1980s.

When I think about the various people in my life who have moved away from wherever we once had friendships, and how the friendships gradually died because of the difficulties of trying to keep a relationship alive by mail or expensive long distance telephone calls, I realize how my continuing friendship with Peggy, at the same intensity of her in-person visit, is completely due to the marvels of the Internet. When I look at the NASA photo and see that to get from here to there you cross three continents I am as awestruck by modern technology as the first users of the telephone must have been to be speaking to someone in another city (remember the telephone scene in Meet Me In St. Louis?).

When you think about how small the planet has become, it almost makes you believe that a jolly man in a red suit with a team of athletic reindeer actually could cover the whole world in one night.

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