I got a letter in the mail yesterday. A personal letter. I hardly knew what to do with it.
So unaccustomed am I to pieces of personal mail, I nearly threw it out. Sandwiched as it was between flyers for Target and Bed Bath & Beyond, this rare and choice correspondence nearly made the garbage can, which is where I position myself to open mail these days, ripping and tossing or, more often, just tossing.
But something about this envelope -- certainly not the inked and penned address, which wily telemarketers know how to simulate to appear personal -- stood out.
The letter was handwritten on both sides of legal-size yellow paper. It came from a friend, a former-attorney-turned-house-painter.
Since she has never written before I was unfamiliar with the penmanship, to me as intimate a characteristic of a friend as teeth or hair or voice.
Finally convinced this was a real, live, legitimate piece of personal mail, I made a fresh pot of coffee, sat down in my favorite chair, held the three-page letter in my hand, turned the whole unit over a few times and did everything but smell it before getting down to the task at hand.
From her first line -- “Can you believe this? A letter!” -- I could tell she was as excited to be writing and sending as I was to be receiving and reading.
Eschewing politics, weather, taxes, drive-by shootings and the spiraling stock market, the letter spoke of other news, of friends, gardens, nieces, nephews and the latest barbecue hole-in-the wall. It spoke of the vague and indeterminate pith that makes up the stuff of our lives, the nitty-gritty, the material future historians will need if they want to see how real people lived and felt in 2007.
E-mail correspondence, abbreviated and disjointed with all manner of furtive and secretive combinations of symbols -- not unlike the esoteric communication, I’m assuming, of the Masons -- is just not going to cut it.
Computer manufacturers have seen to that. Unlike written language, designed to communicate and transmit meaning, new computers do not “understand” old computers. Should anyone think to save their cryptic and epigrammatic messages, an e-mail transmitted and transferred to a disc from a Macintosh in 1998, for instance, will not be recognized by a “new and upgraded” Gateway (or Macintosh, for that matter) of 2007.
To address this disconnect, the federal government -- which needs to read documents from the past -- has had to build huge warehouses to store outdated computer mainframes that can “translate” the transactions.
Then there’s our use of language to consider. Try reading the elaborate and detailed letters ordinary and often uneducated soldiers sent home during the Civil War and then the occasional letter received from a soldier in Iraq.
Still, I was energized and encouraged by my letter. I would return the favor. But since my penmanship is nearly unreadable, I chose to sit down at the computer intending to write, print and mail out a real, honest-to-goodness personal letter.
I would use capital letters and paragraphs. I would place the missive in an envelope, find a stamp and realizing the letter wouldn’t be received for at least three days, I would forgo any and all expectations of immediate gratification.
All went well until I pushed “P” for print. Apparently the “p” also means pray, an act, I admit, I failed to perform.
No can do, my printer said in so many words.
“Black ink cartridge is low on ink.”
“Paper is jammed.”
“Job is not completed.”
In the end, I gave up. It was either throw the printer out the window, wait for someone to come along who could help, buy a new $40 cartridge, buy a new printer, hand write the letter or find the person’s e-mail and bounce it off a satellite.
Being thoroughly modern I chose the satellite method.
But while I may have spelled everything correctly -- thanks to Spellcheck -- I know receiving the e-mail wasn’t as much fun as holding and reading a letter.
Maybe next time. ç