Citizen Wausau

A Site About Life in Wausau, Wisconsin

Voice the official Citizen Wausau blog

Social Media “Friends”

by on January 5th, 2016

I feel strangely compelled to write about a man I only met once in my life, yet his passing has left a hole in my heart.  A man, who without social media, our paths may have never crossed.  A man who may never be known to the casual social media pundits who’s paths he crossed as anything other than what their internal bias painted in their minds.

The man’s name may be familiar to locals from his sharp witted and sometimes biting replies to Wausau Daily Herald articles over the years.  On the surface he had all the markings of an ultra-conservative and target for many who disagreed with him online.  I didn’t always agree with him but I enjoyed his engagement.

A biting comment offended a man one day and got him suspended by the WDH moderator.  Shortly afterward, he Facebook “friend” requested me and we soon began IM discussing the WDH articles, reference commentary he couldn’t post.  I invited him to a Wisconsin centered Facebook debate group I was a member with about 100 others.  He quickly jumped into the fray and really enjoyed the freedom of being able to openly express his ideas without sugar coatings or apologies expected of more public forums.  He relished the banter and via IMs, confessed to me that he didn’t care if the WDH ever let him back in.  He could take it as well as dish it and a few in the group really gave it to him.

Our online “friend” relationship started out very narrow and limited to the politics of the day.  One day he recognized a posting of my son’s Boy Scout Eagle ceremony at St Michael’s and that prompted the discovery that we were practically neighbors and a whole series of common interests were fleshed out.  Sheepshead, Cribbage, dogs, remodeling, the old hospital neighborhood where he was born and I had rented an office from the women’s community for my work, our dislike of Chicago and …… life in general.

He invited me to a block party at his house last summer, roughly two years after he first Facebooked me. He now owned his boyhood home, the house he grew up in and fixed it up nicely.  It seemed like all of his old neighbors past and present showed up. There was a large party tent set up in the back yard just off of the awesome deck, equipped with coolers, grills, tables, heaters, music; it had the appearance of a professionally catered and decorated event.  It was a traditional block party on steroids.  He loved his connection with friends, family, neighbors and community.

Upon my arrival, we recognized each other immediately and it felt strangely like meeting up with an old high school buddy not seen for 30 years.  Within a few minutes, he introduced me to his partner of 23-years, Dale.  Kevin had a Cheshire cat grin and said, “Could you imagine the jaws dropping in the debate group if they only knew.”  He had a dark sense of humor so he thought was funny to see what my reaction would be to out himself to me in that format.  A surprise it was, but I had never thought about it before as our online conversations hadn’t developed the entire character yet. Or maybe as likely, he had been accustomed to guarding it.

I only planned to stay 20 minutes.  When I finally left, hours later, friends and neighbors had been coming in from all over the state and the atmosphere was buzzing.  Not wanting to overstay my welcome, I reluctantly headed home.  I thoroughly enjoyed the afternoon with his family and friends.  His 94-year-old, WWII, Normandy invasion veteran father, Louis, was there.  His cousin from Green Bay was there who turns out to be blood related to Steve Jobs; I talked with his “favorite sister” who gave me a little neighborhood history lesson; and a bit with his brother Greg and an old neighbor whose father had always purchased Louis second hand lawn mowers back in the 60’s…. just stuff old friends talk about.

In the months that followed, it never dawned on me to reveal what I knew to anyone in the debate group so I kept it to myself. Not because Kevin had asked me not to, but because of the implied trust that comes with friendship.  A friendship that had transitioned the Facebook “friendship” and crossed over to friendship in the traditional sense.  Ironically, Facebook uses “friend” when so many of them are anything but.

As I watched the group’s online debates play out, I often saw stereotypical assumptions being made about ultra-conservatives directed at Kevin.  I began to see the game that Kevin was playing with some of his opponents; some drew conclusions about him I knew to be wrong, but Kevin might reply with, “you don’t know anything about me”.  He was a complex person who seemed to take personal pleasure in knowing his story and didn’t care what anyone thought of him, rightly or wrongly.

On December 21, I got a note from a debate grouper asking me how Kevin was.  He had a fall at home and was in the hospital.  I stopped up there after work to see him in ICU; he was in a comma; I spoke a few words of encouragement that I had hoped he could hear. I stopped again the next day with my son and offered more debate group “friend” prayers and support as they flooded in.

I stopped for a quick Merry Christmas wish as I headed up North for my family’s tradition on Christmas eve.  When I got to ICU, I learned the doctors couldn’t do anything more for him; his family had gathered at his side as he passed.  Shocked, I stepped into the chapel down the hall for a few minutes of reflection.  Next to the Bible were a stack of book marks, I picked one up and read: “Friends do not come in beautiful blue boxes with white ribbons and satin bows; they just show up and change your life”.  My friend Kevin Arps did just that.

Kevin’s brother, Greg, gave a touching eulogy at the funeral service. He recalled a family reunion where Kevin relished his role as uncle Kevin to his many nieces and nephews.  With all the kids playing outdoors, according to Greg, sometimes the only way you’d spot Kevin from the rest of the kids, was that he was the tallest kid. He was a kid at heart and a generous man who I can only imagine the pain the family has suffered.  Yet selfishly, I feel a little empty for not getting away from the Facebook and taken an opportunity to sit down for a simple game of cribbage with him or simply catching a cup of coffee.

Having pondered Greg’s eulogy, and juxtaposing that most human and personal image of Kevin with the commentary bantered callously toward him online made me wonder if the social media phenomenon has contributed to the breakdown of thoughtful, compassionate conversation.  Are we losing our ability to recognize uncivility when we are the source?  Kids need driver lessons to drive a car, should they get a few minutes of interpersonal relationship instruction before they fire up the smart phone, iPad, or laptop out of their kindergarten lockers?

The simple lesson for me is that the guy on the other end of the online thread is a person with warts, flaws and short comings; but most importantly, he’s probably a person with a story, a family who loves him, a neighborhood who respects him and man with convictions and we short change our fellow man and our own intellectual honesty by defining a person for a few 120 character tweets and posts.

Rest in Peace Kevin Arps.

Sincerely,

Doug Diny

Tags & Categories