Writer Kathleen Norton Travels the World (and Meets Classmates) Through the Wonderful Web (The Final Word Opinion Column)

World class: Internet access makes far-flung strangers into classmates



Illustration by Chris Reed

My husband doesn’t do much in terms of buying what I call “decorative items” and he calls “junk around the house.” But not long ago, he came home with the tiniest little globe and set it down on the table.

I couldn’t help but think that our new miniature globe made a mighty big statement: The world certainly is shrinking day by day.

Example: I sit in my little office in the Hudson Valley on a cold spring morning, watching cardinals devour the last spoils from the winter bird feeder outside the window.

Will it rain? Could it snow? Is it really time to embrace daffodils and let the birds fend for themselves? But before I make a high-level executive decision on birdseed, I turn to the computer and take a virtual trip around the world.

My fingers peck out a Facebook instant message to a cousin in Ireland and another in Australia. Then I switch to a college Web site, where I’m a student in an online master’s program.

I check for my latest grades and begin corresponding with peers who are both near and far away — so far that the chances of us meeting in person are as good as the chances of me figuring out TiVo.

None of us has a clue what the others look like, which is just fine with me — although I did let slip during a chat on technology that I remember phones with cords.

They may have a clue of my age range.

While we haven’t shared photos, we have shared details about our locations, and — except for a student who’s in central Pennsylvania (where they brag about a dish of leftover meat scraps called “scrapple”) my location seems to be the most boring.

Here’s how I came to this distressing conclusion.

Me: I’m in New York.
Them: Near the Empire State Building? Times Square? Do you know Donald Trump?
Me: Uh, not that part of New York. I’m in the Hudson Valley, where we have beautiful mountains, lots of historic sites...
Them: Can you stand on a mountain and at least see Manhattan?
Me: No.
Them: What’s the name of your little valley again?
Me: Harrumph! It’s not a “little” valley. It’s a big valley...
Them (cutting me off): Anybody know the homework?

I even boast that the college we’re all attending (Marist) is in our “little” valley. But on the excite-o-meter, none of this competes with places like Hawaii and South Sudan.

At least that’s where two classmates say they are located. Maybe they’re right here in the boring ol’ eastern USA with me. If that’s the case, they sure know how to fake it.

The guy in South Sudan complains he only has Internet access a few times a week, which sounds totally legit.

And the gal in Hawaii, when she’s not boasting about tropical breezes, begs for someone to coordinate across all the time zones for a live chat.

So far, she’s had no takers. There seems to be a little tension in the group. Maybe those of us who like scrapple, or who are in New York but not the New York, are sick of hearing about exotic locations. Maybe one of us has just now decided it’s probably safe to cast snow shovels aside, get her pasty complexion out into the early April sun and wean a clan of cardinals from the all-you-can-eat winter buffet. Small world or no small world — let Miss Palm Trees talk to herself.

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