Nostalgia Rant #237

Writing letters

I got a letter in the mail with stamps on it a while back. It was sent from Mozambique from the child my wife and I sponsor there through “Save the Children” charity. It had three colorful Mozambique stamps and was hand-addressed and hand-written, and included a picture of the boy, who is now not so much a boy; he is in his teens, but was a child when we became his sponsors about eight years ago. It was the first and only letter I have received through the mail with stamps on it, written by hand, in … I don’t know when; a very long time ago.

I miss letters. I miss writing them, addressing them, licking stamps to put on them, and dropping them in the post box, then waiting for the answer to come in a few days, or a week or two, or a month — depending on how far the letter has to go and how diligent the recipient is. Letters felt valuable because to send one took time and effort, to receive one generated some degree of excitement in the day. A human value is lost replacing letters with instant messaging or email or whatever that other thing is called.

I want to be notified of an event by telegram. I want to read about it in a few cut and paste lines with stop for periods. Then the telegram can go into a box or a trunk with the letters I keep and it will always be there, the event will always live. Something told with a telephone disappears utterly when one hangs up. I am sorry I will never get another telegram. You cannot wrap a piece of ribbon or a rubber band around your telephone calls or your emails, you cannot keep them in a box in the closet that after you are dead and disappeared will be stumbled across by your granddaughter, who will sit on the floor before the box because she is too enraptured to move and read them sometimes with laughter and sometimes through tears. You can’t do that anymore and it is a loss greater than you imagine.

In the most obvious sense, I am not especially pleased that a very short bit of my life span lies before me, while the great bulk of it stretches behind. But only in that obvious way — I like being alive. Yet, I would truly hate to face the opposite of that now, to have the wide expanse of my life looming ahead, with just a tad of it in the past. Because that would mean I would not have lived during the time of letters, during the time of books. I cannot imagine what sort of life one can have without a knowledge of a world where people sat at a desk with pen and sheaf of papers and wrote their thoughts, their dreams, their romance, their desires, or just the news to one other person, word by word, pen scratch by scratch; the world where an evening spent in a good chair beneath a good lamp with a good book was a fine evening, with maybe the radio on somewhere nearby.

John Locke (the real one, not the character by that name on the TV serial “Lost”) was essentially wrong when he proposed his epistemological theory of tabula rasa, or the empty tablet, which by analogy he wanted to show how we know what we know; that is, entirely through the accumulation of experiences. He said suppose the mind at birth is like an empty tablet, nothing on it, and from that moment of birth each experience writes on the tablet, the more experiences, the more the tablet contains. What we know of the world is what is contained on our tablet. Pardon the somewhat amazing simplification; I want to make a point with this, by implication: That the longer one lives and the more experiences one accumulates, the more one knows and the more one understands, and it is logical to assume that you know more at the age of twenty than you did at the age of two, and that you know more at the age of sixty than you did at sixteen. The person at sixty has had something of the range of experiences possessed by the person of ten or twenty or thirty or forty … , has “been where the younger person is.” But the younger person has not been where the older person is and cannot project over that space, whereas the older can easily look back across the space contained by the younger’s entire life.

I have generalized because I am not writing a book about this, just engaging in another nostalgic rant, and maybe offering some titbit for consideration.


19 replies »

  1. I got a real, handwritten letter from a distant cousin in 2006, I think. Or maybe it was 2005. I can’t remember. Anyway, this was the first one I’d gotten since 1999 (a letter I remember distinctly), and I expect it will be the very last. The interesting thing to note about this is, it seemed like a handwritten letter called for a response in kind, so, I sat down with a pen and paper and tried to compose one. I found a) I had gotten in such bad practice with my illegible scrawl that I could basically only will myself into a legible handwriting that looked like a 2nd grader writing in a Big Chief notebook; b) I had no idea how to compose a letter. My went blank at the end of every sentence in a way it never does in an email. Or even actual writing. I don’t know why.

    I think I might have written the worst letter ever. Not surprisingly, I didn’t receive a response. In a way it was a relief: it meant I didn’t have to write another one …

    I never got a telegram. Sometimes when I go home, though, I still instinctively check to see if the light is blinking on the answering machine. I haven’t had an answering machine in, what, 10 years. I wonder if I’ll be nostalgic for them one day …?

    I like to think that using the future equivalent of the Wayback Machine my descendants will be able to scroll through my old emails. Letters, after all, exist only in the old shoebox that olds them; these words online are archived in servers all over the globe. Assuming there is no apocalypse, in theory these digital bits live indefinitely. Even your old blog is, I suspect, archived somewhere,
    Don. It would just take the proper know-how to access. Which I lack, but, I think that in the future such know-how will be as common as logging in to an email account is today, and writing a letter once was.

    Perhaps I give too much credit to the 1s and 0s, though.

    • I don’t know if trying to recover pixels and electrons from who knows where is anywhere near the same as a stack of letters wrapped in a ribbon and discovered in a shoe box in that old trunk stored in the basement or attic. And I don’t know if my old blog exists anywhere, because I tried with Typepad to recover it so I could allow interested parties, actually just one interested party, to save some of those old posts, and Typepad claims it is simply gone and they have no access to it. But that’s okay. As Rose said, it was my mandela and I wiped it clean.

      You may be right about what the future will accommodate. I won’t be much in the future.

      There is a shoe box in the closet of my office that contains all the letters my wife’s father wrote to his sisters in Indiana as he moved from North Africa through Sicily and Italy and into Germany with Patton’s army during WW II. They are invaluable. She would not part with them for a million dollars. A billion dollars.

      What is so irreplaceable today? What endures? What is valuable?

      You are half my age, so you figure it out.

      • I’ve thought about this for a couple days, but I have no answer. A speculation: email will, in time, become as obsolete as paper letters now are. Further, this will happen in a time in the near future when no one living will have a direct, emotional connection to letters; so such emotions, if they are universal, will have been transferred to electrons appearing on monitors. In that future, it will old be emails that inspire the nostalgia. Does the medium matter so much? I’m not sure it does. You can’t miss what you never had, after all; and anyone under age 25 has basically never had anything to do with handwritten letters.

        This thread has inspired me to see if I can go archive emails over at my ancient, unused-for-years Lycos account. It has some good stuff in it …

        • Can I just add – I just went over to that Lycos account and discovered an email from an old friend in Japan that was sent over a year ago that I haven’t thought of in, well, years … I don’t know if it’s equal to the thrill of a handwritten letter, but it sure gave me quite a jolt.

        • Of course I may be wrong, and my perspective may be limited, but electronic mail is simply never going to have the power of writing on a piece of paper. This stuff we are doing here is as ephemeral as blowing dust and cannot even be held in the hand. There is no equal to the power of a pen handwriting on a sheet of paper. All else is pretense and sparks. Yes, there are future generations who will never know this and never understand what they lost … so it goes, they have my sympathies and I am glad I am not among them.

          It is common in the world that we often lose things far more valuable than what we keep or create anew. Humans are going to imitate machinery to such an extent that they will not be able to tell one from another.

          On that note, I am to the easy chair and my book on D-Day.

  2. I have your blog posts archived in Google Reader. Or some of them perhaps. The earliest date is July 18, 2008 and the title of the post is “Publishing Oddities.” That’s probably when I first started reading and subscribed.

    I was planning to archive the text of those posts into a Word document. I’d be happy to send it to you if you like.

    As to the question of what endures now, I’d say the same things that have always endured: pain, love, longing, loss. How we express and render these things may perhaps alter, but the deep blue gut blow of each of those remains eternal.

    Our need to feel connections will persist and through this need, there may perhaps be individual revolutions of a sort that seek to preserve the sanctity of slow letters written by hand, of ribbons curled with taut intent, of shoeboxes rattling with what has passed. These things fall from the common realm, but they do not pass away.

    It is difficult to find the individual in an arrangement of times new roman burned or ink-squirted into a page, but it is still there in the language, tone, and word choice of the writer. One’s sweet may not be able to drag an email across her wrist and send that scent along with her wishes, but the wishes are there. The want or the harsh get-losts are still potent and heart bursting. It’s when we lose the ability to feel anything from words that we’ll be truly lost.

    • No shit? So my hard-work Mandela wasn’t wiped away with a single swipe? You mean you have the whole thing, including comments. As I recall, you do have it from the beginning; I think that was the title of my first post with the Typepad site,

      Yes, Brad, if you can get it onto a Word Doc, please send it to me. Maybe, like Rose suggested, I can append it somewhere for anyone interested in the old stuff … more than anything, I want to get the comment exchanges.

      Right now breakfast has my name on it, later I will come back and answer both you and Rose more thoroughly.

      Thanks, Brad.

    • I have wondered, Brad, if this is how you write all the time? I have rarely read anything of yours that didn’t simply sing. If you don’t have success with your work, then we should all turn out the literary lights and have a nap, because this book party is well over.

      Now I have this question, or this curiosity, re. my rant: Do the kind of and the depth of the human feelings that are the source of and the catalyst of our most serious utterances change (in some way) with the means of our utterances? I am thinking of Wittgenstein here, I mean, his notions of what we can say related to what we can know, and vice versa, I suppose.

      Is the medium the message?

      If we continue to dilute the power of words, do we not also dilute the feelings they produce and that produced them? Is someone a writer because they can post their writings on the Internet? Is an e-card worth a handwritten, hand-posted message?

      What I wonder is, does “the deep blue gut blow of each of those remain() eternal.”? Does it? Not if we keep watering it down.

      It was the very scarcity of letters, the effort involved in writing a book by hand, the waiting and waiting, the pure anticipation of a response, the running to the mailbox when you saw the postman coming, the trembling opening of the envelope … none of this can be duplicated by checking your email inbox.

      We value the rare, gold is more precious than lead, diamonds more precious than coal, a book more precious than a PDF file, and a letter more valuable than an email. We are losing valuable things, replaced by the cheap thrill, the easy fix; we are making common what was once the rare.

      C’est La Vie.

      • In the cultivation and rearing of my voice, I’ve found it useful to apply my particular rhythm, tone, and cadence to nearly every sentence I pen, whether it be a strident section of the novel, a business memo, or a grocery list. What I’m trying to do is form habit, so yes, I do strive to always sing. Sometimes I fail. Sometimes my throat knots. Sometimes I screech. But I will not stop trying.

        I’ve spent the past year working those sentence-level aspects. Now it’s time to focus the same attention on my thought, the structure of my work, the intent. I want those things to be full-throated as well. If they aren’t, then my work will be merely pretty. That is not enough.

        Although, I’m not sure that such things matter anymore. I’m starting to wonder if the things I like are simply not liked by many others now because so much of what I read is delivered in a generic, tone-deaf prose, maximized for business efficiency.

        But on to words and whether they will last…

        We are language. There is not a thing we experience that is not rendered by tongue. When words are shorn of their subtle aspects, they become blocky and blunt. When we think, we use words to make thought and as such our thought grows slattern and gross when words narrow their focus.

        A hand-written letter has more depth than an email. It’s true. Perhaps in this hand-written letter, we reach a heart-felt section and therein we see that the writer has increased the pressure on the pen and the letters glow with sudden ink flow. Or perhaps the thought conveyed is horrible to bear and the lines of the letters fade with reticence and a pen wary of the page. One loses this on a keyboard. Whether my finger strikes hard with intent or feathers that key, the result is uniform. There is a loss of message in that, sure.

        As for the rare becoming common…perhaps so. Although, when words increase in volume finding ones that mean anything is rare. The problem we face now and in the future is how do we find good writing when there is so much writing going on? One can never look to popular opinion for this. Do we look to our critics who are often shills for the big publishing industry?

        I don’t know.

        I suppose we look to our friends, to those that we respect. It’s a smaller group and writers need to be happy with less now, I think. In a world so full of noise, if you can move one person to reflection with language, perhaps that’s a success.

        But I’m depressing myself now. I’m going to go and work on being a better writer.

        • One thing to consider, Brad, is what I wrote about what is rare being more valuable than what becomes common. You are a brilliant writer, now forget it.

          You don’t have to work on being a better writer, you have to work on being a controlled writer. You are good enough. Don’t press your luck.

          Too bad about the comments, which were usually much better than the post to which they were attached.

          Control, Brad, control.

          • I know. I should have held off responding until my funk passed, as it always does. But I didn’t have enough…control.

            Damn! And damn the funk!

            I have made very good progress in the control area though.

  3. Hello Rose. As you can read above, I have asked Brad to send me a Word Doc of the stuff he saved, and I especially hope the comment sections are saved. I can more or less duplicate the tone and content of most of those old posts when I am in the same mood, but I cannot replace the conversation in the comments.

    Nobody sends me letters, except when my sponsored child is (I am sure) told to do it. Will your Mom write to me, too? I will write back.

    I have seen only a few telegrams, and maybe a lot of what I feel about them is associated with my memories from films that gave me a on-going stir. I have received two in my life and I did not take them for granted. They were special.

    I wish I had treated letters in a special way and guarded them as the treasures they were, which I did not recognize because most of these letters were exchanged when I was young and dramatically stupid. For a time I kept a shoebox filled with letters from a lover who fancied herself quite an artist; I remember they were astonishing, beautiful, painful, lusty, and sweet. Then once in a fit of cleaning the closet of my psyche, I destroyed them all. I could cry over this now.

    Don’t neglect or abuse your treasures, Rose.

  4. Hello everyone, I’ll try to pop in again later today because this is a really fascinating conversation that could not be more apropos these days. As in today’s Urban Dictionary Word of the Day:

    cognitus interruptus

    February 23, 2010 Urban Word of the Day

    A disruption of the normal thought process, normally by an external distraction. This occurs most often at times where mental focus is a necessity. Cognitus interruptus sometimes leads to procrastination, leading to further cognitus interruptus and creating a cycle. Not to be confused with coitus interruptus, which is something entirely different.

    Constant cognitus interruptus in my classes kept me from passing finals.


    Stay well, all.

  5. I do agree that the rendering of our lives in ones and zeros is not a positive development, both for “quantity verses quality” and the temporary nature of the medium.
    I have photo albums from my parents, and from my early years as an adult, and I will on occasion leaf through the pages looking with tenderness at the few snapshots of forbearers that have long since passed away. Back then, you had only a dozen or so pictures on a roll, which then needed the time and expense of development, after which you might be fortunate enough to get one or two that weren’t blurred, underdeveloped or light streaked. After five or ten years you could even have enough to fill an album.
    My son will have the gruesome task of sorting through thousands upon thousands of digital images, and I’m not sure the ordeal of doing that in front of a monitor will really replace the experience of a photo album; not the visual presentation, the tactile feel, or even the musty smell of old pages that all combine on an emotional level.
    With regards to distributed and archived works of humans, there is a simple law of economics that applies here also; when the availability of something goes up, the value will always go down. The harder it was to put art and literature into a substantive form, the more precious it was, and the competition for those few opportunities made it a bit easier for the best of any art form to rise to the top (I’m not claiming this was infallible, for many giant turds have come down through the ages; but it was a generalized force towards quality). Right now there are millions of writers posting to the net, (and in my field of music) there are many thousands of homebrewed mp3’s being offered up daily; who would have the time to sample even a fraction of that to sort out the gems from the turds? (and that goes for the critics also). I don’t, and I do have to say that from my own perspective, the number of quality works seems to be decreasing when it should be doing the opposite.
    The other economic point is that when everyone can be an artist or writer, who will pay the wages for someone to be a dedicated professional? Now the corporations do love this trend; they never liked paying people for making/creating the things they made profit from. So now why pay actors when you have reality TV? Why pay writers when you can just link to a page? I’m not sure this road leads to somewhere we really want to go.
    Lastly, some thoughts on the durability of the media. In the 80’s when I was producing albums, I recorded them on the very best magnetic tape available. It was made by the Ampex corp, the company that literally invented tape recorders, was very expensive, and it was guaranteed for 100 years. In the 90’s, when I tried to transfer some of those tapes to the new-fangled digital medium, what a surprise! Try to put the tape on a machine, and the oxide coating would peal neatly off the plastic backing and leave piles of randomly magnetized rust-dust all over. After commandeering my wife’s stove for days on end to slow bake the tapes, I only able to get reduced quality transfers before the tapes completely disintegrated. As for the “guaranty”, the Ampex corp was stripped by it’s executives, the tents were folded up, and it disappeared into the desert never to be seen again.

    The reason I tell this story is to say that engineers may claim that today’s mediums are lasting, but they really don’t know and only time will tell. The vast majority of these 1’s and 0’s exist on magnetic disks, and you already have my take on the magnetic thing. Oh, and one other point, let our sun put out one big flare/EMF pulse and every hard drive in the world, and by design the entire WWW will become a very real “tabula rasa”. What will we do then?

    For literature at least, paper is a proven technology; under proper conditions it will last hundreds of years. Of course it is a flimsy substitution for what came before; baked clay tablets and stone carvings were just downright forever. Ah, the good ol’ days.

    John Archer

    • Your experiences with super-dooper professional magnetic tapes in your recording studio reinforces the point of my nostalgia — it is a nostalgia based on quality and endurance.

      Maybe the best way to hear music is sitting in a room with the musician(s) live before you, and I think doubtlessly the best way to read a story is from a book held in your hands. We are leaving a generation who will not have those experiences and will not understand any of this.

      My books are going to be in various places all over the world. Tapes, DVDs, harddrives (which are nothing more than magnetic tapes anyway) are going to crumble into uselessness long before.

      I had forgotten about the distinct probability that a major flaring of sunspot activities can wipe away the entire WWW’s contents in a moment.

      Some old things are simply better than the new things replacing them.

      Are we grumpy old men yet?