Tuesday, August 2, 2016

Dear Blank: the death of the letter and the human soul

For thirty years of my life, I was a prodigious letter-writer, but not now. I just don't do it any more, nor do I know anyone who does. So what's the difference? Emailing is just the same, isn't it?

No, it isn't. It's not even close.

My letters would run to ten or twelves pages, handwritten in coloured ink on funky stationery so my personal "vibe" was thick on them, and went deep into my life and the lives of those around me. When my correspondent answered, the envelopes were always fat, and my heart beat a little faster when I opened them. They were a little bit of Christmas morning in a humdrum day.

My emails are the usual hi, how are you doing, when should we meet for coffee? They are news bites and have nothing to do with how I feel.

The letters - they're gone, and, I think, gone forever. This is after they were humankind's main means of communication over distance for hundreds of years. When has anyone noticed, let alone grieved this loss? Doesn't anybody care? Does anyone pick through old emails, inhale the scent of them, notice how time has made them yellow, crackly and dry?

I've felt a sort of smothered, shameful sense of irrevocable loss about this, because after all, who misses letters, that dinosaur means of communication? It's embarrassing even to admit it. Who even writes them except Grandmas with Alzheimer's who don't know the first thing about computers? It's almost as bad as printing out your photographs and keeping them in a book.

Why don't I text? Why aren't I on Twitter? For God's sake, isn't it a better, quicker, more efficient form of communication than stodgy old email, which is now the dinosaur method of "keeping in touch"?

I feel a smothered shame because I feel left behind, but I am left behind because I don't want to go. Fuck it! It means nothing to me. The blog is important because it's my last means of self-expression, but I know my total of views is small (with a few bizarre exceptions that I still don't understand). I don't write for "likes" or hits or to be popular, but because if I don't write, I begin to die inside.

There follows a small excerpt from a book I intend to read, if I can step off the merry-go-round of my own life for long enough. I did not even think of it as a merry-go-round (sometimes, I admit, it is an ugly-go-round) until I began to think on the things Rebecca Solnit describes here.

Since the Amazon page for her book has a "Look Inside!" feature which gives away hundreds and hundreds of her words, I think I can justify quoting her here. They are but small excerpts from a chapter called We're Breaking Up, but all of them ring true for me. They express a vague uneasiness that never quite leaves me.

I too keep a blur going to partially erase or at least obscure my emotional pain. But until this moment, at least part of me assumed I was the only one who did this. Malignant uniqueness is the malady of the era. In a time when everyone is supposedly connected as never before, there is a profound sense of isolation.

Or at least, I think there is. Maybe I'm the only one.


On or around June 1995, human character changed again. Or rather, it began to undergo a metamorphosis that is still not complete, but is profound — and troubling, not least because it is hardly noted. When I think about, say, 1995, or whenever the last moment was before most of us were on the Internet and had mobile phones, it seems like a hundred years ago. Letters came once a day, predictably, in the hands of the postal carrier. News came in three flavors — radio, television, print — and at appointed hours. Some of us even had a newspaper delivered every morning.

Those mail and newspaper deliveries punctuated the day like church bells. You read the paper over breakfast. If there were developments you heard about them on the evening news or in the next day’s paper. You listened to the news when it was broadcast, since there was no other way to hear it. A great many people relied on the same sources of news, so when they discussed current events they did it under the overarching sky of the same general reality. Time passed in fairly large units, or at least not in milliseconds and constant updates. A few hours wasn’t such a long time to go between moments of contact with your work, your people, or your trivia.

The bygone time had rhythm, and it had room for you to do one thing at a time; it had different parts; mornings included this, and evenings that, and a great many of us had these schedules in common. I would read the paper while listening to the radio, but I wouldn’t check my mail while updating my status while checking the news sites while talking on the phone. Phones were wired to the wall, or if they were cordless, they were still housebound. The sound quality was usually good. On them people had long, deep conversations of a sort almost unknown today, now that phones are used while driving, while shopping, while walking in front of cars against the light and into fountains. The general assumption was that when you were on the phone, that’s all you were.

Letters morphed into emails, and for a long time emails had all the depth and complexity of letters. They were a beautiful new form that spliced together the intimacy of what you might write from the heart with the speed of telegraphs. Then emails deteriorated into something more like text messages… Text messages were bound by the limits of telegrams — the state-of-the-art technology of the 1840s — and were almost as awkward to punch out. Soon phone calls were made mostly on mobile phones, whose sound quality is mediocre and prone to failure altogether (“you’re breaking up” or “we’re breaking up” is the cry of our time) even when one or both speakers aren’t multitasking. Communication began to dwindle into peremptory practical phrases and fragments, while the niceties of spelling, grammar, and punctuation were put aside, along with the more lyrical and profound possibilities. Communication between two people often turned into group chatter: you told all your Facebook friends or Twitter followers how you felt, and followed the popularity of your post or tweet. Your life had ratings.

Previous technologies have expanded communication. But the last round may be contracting it. The eloquence of letters has turned into the nuanced spareness of texts; the intimacy of phone conversations has turned into the missed signals of mobile phone chat. I think of that lost world, the way we lived before these new networking technologies, as having two poles: solitude and communion. The new chatter puts us somewhere in between, assuaging fears of being alone without risking real connection. It is a shallow between two deeper zones, a safe spot between the dangers of contact with ourselves, with others.

It seems less likely that each of the kids waiting for the table for eight has an urgent matter at hand than that this is the habitual orientation of their consciousness. At times I feel as though I’m in a bad science fiction movie where everyone takes orders from tiny boxes that link them to alien overlords. Which is what corporations are anyway, and mobile phones decoupled from corporations are not exactly common.

A restlessness has seized hold of many of us, a sense that we should be doing something else, no matter what we are doing, or doing at least two things at once, or going to check some other medium. It’s an anxiety about keeping up, about not being left out or getting behind.

I think it is for a quality of time we no longer have, and that is hard to name and harder to imagine reclaiming. My time does not come in large, focused blocks, but in fragments and shards. The fault is my own, arguably, but it’s yours too — it’s the fault of everyone I know who rarely finds herself or himself with uninterrupted hours. We’re shattered. We’re breaking up.

It’s hard, now, to be with someone else wholly, uninterruptedly, and it’s hard to be truly alone. The fine art of doing nothing in particular, also known as thinking, or musing, or introspection, or simply moments of being, was part of what happened when you walked from here to there, alone, or stared out the train window, or contemplated the road, but the new technologies have flooded those open spaces. Space for free thought is routinely regarded as a void and filled up with sounds and distractions.

I watched in horror a promotional video for these glasses (Google Glass) that showed how your whole field of vision of the real world could become a screen on which reminder messages spring up. The video portrayed the lifestyle of a hip female Brooklynite whose Google glasses toss Hello Kitty-style pastel data bubbles at her from the moment she gets up. None of the information the glasses thrust into her field of vision is crucial. It’s all optional, based on the assumptions that our lives require lots of management and that being managerial is our highest goal. Is it?

I forget practical stuff all the time, but I also forget to look at the distance and contemplate the essential mysteries of the universe and the oneness of all things. A pair of glasses on which the temperature and chance of rain pops up or someone’s trying to schedule me for a project or a drink is not going to help with reveries about justice, meaning, and the beautiful deep marine blue of nearly every dusk.

It is a slow-everything movement in need of a manifesto that would explain what vinyl records and homemade bread have in common. We won’t overthrow corporations by knitting — but understanding the pleasures of knitting or weeding or making pickles might articulate the value of that world outside electronic chatter and distraction, and inside a more stately sense of time.

Getting out of [the rabbit hole of total immersion in the networked world] is about slowness and about finding alternatives to the alienation that accompanies a sweater knitted by a machine in a sweatshop in a country you know nothing about, or jam made by a giant corporation that has terrible environmental and labor practices and might be tied to the death of honeybees or the poisoning of farmworkers. It’s an attempt to put the world back together again, in its materials but also its time and labor. It’s both laughably small and heroically ambitious.

POSTSCRIPT. (Is that one word or two?). There may be quite a few postscripts here. Let me tell you about a longstanding friendship that broke up  - not easily, but extremely painfully. And it had to do with the issues raised by this piece of writing: in particular, modes of communication and how they can dramatically affect its content.

There were a lot of problems in this friendship, though for years I had thought of her as my best friend. No doubt some of them had to do with the uneasy transfer from written letter to email. She lived far away, though our connection first began when she lived here. Letters were our preferred method of contact for at least ten years, but like everyone else, at some point we made the switch. What happened was a gradual shift: there were fewer and fewer emails from her, though I continued to send her long, personal ones while hers became increasingly mundane. I felt as if I was running back and forth hitting the ball from both sides of the net, a pattern I loathe, and which she used to heavily criticize in others.

It wasn't just impoverished content. I couldn't see her handwriting any more. Her handwriting clued me in as to how she was really feeling. (By the way, many schools are no longer teaching cursive writing to children. Why, when they won't be using it for anything?) Pasting on a link to an interesting article just isn't the same as tearing pages out of a magazine and scribbling all over them, marking them up with circles and arrows, comments, criticisms, and exclamation marks. Sending these chunks of paper was fun, but receiving them was a delight.

Then her emails became so spaced-apart that communication had virtually ceased. Occasionally she phoned to try to catch up, and her conversation took the form of, "And how is - " (Bill, my kids, the grandkids, the cat, even my psychiatrist!). Though asking after people is seen as the hallmark of politeness and a splendid way to get people talking about their favorite subject (themselves), it isn't. That's a crock. It's what we used to call in the '60s a "copout", a way of ducking out of any sort of self-revelation, not revealing anything that could create a dangerous vulnerability.

Was she playing it safe? Had she given up? How should I know? She was only my best friend, and she wasn't giving me any clues.

Meantime, her increasingly infrequent but sometimes breathtakingly long emails went from mundane to ranty. These came as huge blocks of tiny flyspeck print with no paragraph breaks (and most people seem to have forgotten paragraph breaks exist). I had to literally copy and paste them and enlarge them in another program so I could make them out.

She lived in a small town in the Bible Belt of Alberta, and increasingly felt hemmed in by what I like to call "small town small minds". But a kind of paranoia was entering the one-sided discourse (for I could not reply in kind - there was a sort of abyss between us now, and I was growing tired of trying to reach across it). Some of them were downright shocking in their sense of persecution, and her sour attitude towards her husband made me wince. She was treating him like a burden she carried with martyrish glory. Surely if she stayed with him, when she really didn't want to, it made her a good person?

She began to obsessively write about her search for an apartment in Vancouver or, perhaps, Saskatoon. An apartment? Yes, she was going on Kajiji every day to hunt for a place to live (which amazed me, because her husband was chronically ill with Parkinson's and she had vowed in an act of total selflessness never to leave him). She was prone to saying things like, "We'll be here another fifteen or twenty years. Or maybe less," in a manner which evoked making marks on stone walls to measure time until her release.

When I figured out what she really meant, it shocked me. Her "release", the thing she was counting down for, was obviously widowhood, something which springs the trap for many unhappily married women.

Finally, I had had enough. I started an email asking her if she and her husband would witness our passport applications, but then it all came flooding out of me: what is going ON here? Are you leaving Sam, or what? Why are you spending hours going on Kajiji every day?  Are you going off on your own, and where are you moving to? Why do you keep saying you'd never even think of leaving him if you're making such definite plans? Does he even know you're thinking of leaving him? 

Then, at the last second, realizing I couldn't send all this stuff and that I'd regret it later, I deleted it and stuck to the request for witnessing our passports.  Shortly thereafter, I received a reply: "Hi, Margaret! I decided I'd expedite things by answering this. Sure, we'd be happy to do that. Sam."

I had come within a hair's breadth of blowing their marriage apart. Or had I? Perhaps he alreadyknew that she was thinking of leaving him - but I didn't think so. It would be the worst kind of news, and I would be the inadvertent messenger, reviled by both of them. But then I was hit with another shock. I didn't know if this was an isolated event, or if he was reading all her emails. Just mine? Or everyone's? For how long? Monitoring email generally doesn't happen unless a spouse is "checking up", suspicious about something. It is not a natural state of affairs.

At any rate, I was furious. Livid! I never wanted to be in that position again, risking having sensitive and highly confidential information disclosed to the wrong person. In fact, I decided I would never use email with her again. Obviously, it wasn't safe.

But she didn't get it, at all, and had absolutely no idea why I was so upset. "He was just trying to expedite things," she said in her very short paper letter, meaning (I assume) she was OK with what he was doing. Or just wanted to stay out of trouble? When I told her what nearly happened, about how I had nearly blown her secret, she had a sort of bland non-reaction. I didn't understand this at all. Did our friendship not mean anything to her now? And what about her marriage? I didn't even want to go there.

I just had the thought right now, as I contemplate the shift between letter-writing and emailing, that never by the farthest stretch of the imagination would Sam have seen one of her letters from me sitting on the table, ripped it open, read it, then answered it "to expedite things".  It just wouldn't happen. Why? It would be seen as a grave violation of privacy, at best unthinkably rude and at worst, creepy and disgusting.

It's like someone rifling through my purse, or upending its contents on the floor and pawing through it, pocketing this and that.

What has happened to privacy in 2016? Do boundaries exist? We casually speak for each other, as if we are doing the other person a "favour". Do we think about the violation of ripping open another person's thoughts and feelings? In my paper letter (which I assumed Sam would not read ), I told  her I felt too frustrated by the longstanding deterioration of meaningful communication between us to carry on with the friendship.

There was a stony silence, and I am sure she withdrew and felt deeply hurt. I had been horribly, monstrously cruel to her, for no reason! She likely believed she had played no part in this at all.

I don't know to what degree the dramatic change in our mode of communication (from letters to email) led to the drying up of our friendship. I don't even know exactly when the change happened. But it can't change back. I don't know what I learned from it, either. Time can't be turned back, we can't start writing with quill pens again. I don't even want to. A few years ago I began keeping my journal on the computer, and it is heaven - no dusty binders, ink blobs, pens running out.

But I understand Rebecca Solnit when she writes about the yearning to return to something real. She mentions knitting in particular. An ephemeral thing, and yet it produces a result, something useful or fun. I have never been more attached to my writing, or less restricted. Something is there, some sense of something growing almost organically. I can't say what it is or why it is there, but it is one of the reasons I sit up in bed, pull out my earplugs and peel off my eye mask, and start my day.

What do you give a woman who has everything?

Knitted corn!

Bentley with knitted corn.

The corn knitter with knitted corn! Crystal liked these very much.
 I am now working on the next thing. . . Nanny's Pizza Parlour. .How did I evcr get into this?!