Monday, April 20, 2015

The Ephemeral Text vs. The Hand-Written Letter

New Yorker Magazine

Heyyy hand-written letter…I’m sry 2 hear of ur passing, but u r just way 2 time consuming & I’m not even sure I remember how 2 print.  U r, I’m afraid, SOL.

Last week, I visited my mom with my orally fixated golden retriever puppy, Maisy. Unprepared with a bone, ball or her favorite dismembered stuffed hedgehog, we headed to my old bedroom in desperate search for a toy - of any sort.  Ultimately, we found success in the dusty-curtained cabinet above my dresser – although not the kind we were looking for. Along with my sister’s mighty super ball collection, a copy of Chaucer's “The Canterbury Tales,” a dental award statue and the tassels from my siblings’ high school graduation caps, we uncovered three shoeboxes filled with old letters, negatives and a few photos. Treasure!

Among the letters – written by family, camp friends, school friends and old boyfriends – were a pile from my dear old dad (I miss him every, single day). Penned in the early 80's when I was a teenager frolicking at sleep-away camp and performing at summer stock theatre, his letters, written on unadorned white paper, were neatly tri-folded into recycled business reply envelopes (“waste not, want not!”).


My eyes welled up as I read his jaunty prose, and I was reminded of his great wit and teasing.

Dear Audrey,

It is too quiet, we miss you but the young swan must try her wings, so!!!  We are looking forward to your letter telling us about the luxurious accomodations, gourmet vittles, heated tile floor in the “Jane,” and the good looking males across the way.”


My dad often ended his letters with an enthusiastic, "Keep up the good work!" (Even if it just pertained to a small acting role in Finian’s Rainbow,) and he cautioned me about boys, "Keep up your tennis, guitar and singing and stay away from the wild boys!” And, as all good parents feel to be their duty – and their right – he offered words of wisdom and advice.

In one letter the lessons all began with the letter "A," with a promise that the next would begin with "B" and then "C,” etc. 

Ability: You can because you think you can.
Action: Deeds let escape are never done.
Agreeability: My idea of an agreeable person is a person who agrees with me.
Anger: Delay is the best remedy for anger.
Anticipation: Nothing is so good as it seems beforehand.
Appearance: Fine feathers they say make fine birds.
Assurance: Assurance is two-thirds of success.

I wish I had my dad's whole alphabet of wisdom, but I treasure these A’s.

Thirty years hence, as I navigate the abundance of all-digital email, text messages and tweets and the many posts from friends and family on Facebook - I feel nostalgic. Those letters allowed me to hold my father’s words – written in his own unique scribble – in my hands. 

I wonder, with my own children, will there be any trace of our conversations? 

While at sleep-away camp, I did make the effort to safely tuck my children's letters into shoeboxes. But is this where it will end? Friends assure me that when my kids go off to college, the ephemeral text message will prevail.   Thoughtful ruminating and profound words of wisdom will be left to acronyms and internet slang (Gr8!), and I will be beholden to emoji’s to read their moodJ L.  The box of letters to cherish, to read and re-read over their lifetimes will be but a lost art.   

In Sherry Turkle’s book, “Alone Together,” she explores this future.  On a Skype call with her then 18-year-old daughter Rebecca in Dublin, she asks her if she would like to have an archive of all of her emails, texts, instant messages, Facebook communications, calls, conversations, searches, pictures, etc. – to which her daughter says, “Well, that’s a little pack ratty, creepy.” 

As Turkle realizes, “Archiving might get in the way of living.”

Given all of the data we share, Turkle and her daughter have a point.  We do need to filter our digital communications, or we as a species will be drowning in pools of internet prose.  According to ScienceDaily, A full 90 percent of all the data in the world has been generated over the last two years. The internet companies are awash with data that can (and should be) grouped and utilized.”


And, what of print?  When it comes to the paper mail – favorite magazines aside – the mailman in his little elfin truck rarely delivers anything to delight – but instead stuffs our boxes with junk mail and bills. 

Maybe this is the argument FOR bringing back the permanent, paperbound letter? 

Call me sentimental (Lord knows I have been called that before!), but it makes me sad to think that shoeboxes filled with precious letters may not be magically unearthed in generations to come.  Unlike the breezy, short-take text message, email or Facebook post, the long-form, hand-written letter (or typed is fine too!), is still a precious gift of thoughtful time spent in tribute to a friend, lover or family member.


Dear Jake…

1 comment:

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