Every once in awhile, you’ll hear a radio host or a comedian joke that “a letter poured in,” implying that a lot of response to something was expected, but a minimal amount was received.
Nowadays, not even one letter would pour in. An e-mail or two, perhaps. Or a text message. When one receives an actual letter — especially from a friend or family member, not some company trying to sell you something — it’s an occasion, a novelty, a treat. If — and this is unlikely — the letter is handwritten, as all correspondence was for centuries before the typewriter was invented, you might even consider it miraculous.
The other day, I got to talking with a younger colleague about texting — thumbing coded bursts of information to each other on various mobile devices and Internet social networks. Almost by definition, these are blurts, if there is such a word: a few abbreviated words dashed off without much deliberation.
They are electronic chit-chat, a product of our increasing impatience, necessarily quick because we’re busy and because our thumbs certainly aren’t going to fly around the tiny keyboard to create long words or deep thoughts.
Even my young colleague wistfully remembered the days when he kept a typewriter in a certain place in his home. That was his “writing place,” he said. It was quiet, without a lot of distractions. He could think as well as write.
What a concept!
Now, we dash off texts, tweets, Facebook updates, e-mails on laptop computers from anywhere and everywhere: on the subway, in a bar, at the office, while walking down the street, even in the middle of class or a business meeting, when we’re supposed to be paying attention.
There are fewer and fewer “writing places,” and little time to write if there were. Keep it brief, we tell ourselves. Make it fast. Get it now. Keep me up to date, day and night and weekends.
We tell our friends we’re overloaded. We’re “swamped.” We’re distracted. Friends, did I say? You bet. We have 50 of them on Facebook, and we must keep them “updated.” Who has time for conversation, books, or a good TV show? Not that there are many such shows any more. Parades of commercials interrupt them. Just when you get to the good part, say the denouement of a courtroom drama, up pop — cavorting about the bottom of the screen — a couple of idiots from a comedy show that the network is promoting.
Even broadcasts of our mellowest pastoral sport — baseball — assault us with sponsored “messages.” The fifth pitch is brought to us by Fifth National Bank. The summons for a relief pitcher, by an antacid maker.
All the while — and on news channels, too — “crawls” pass by, relentlessly “updating” other scores and events and turning us into chameleons, moving our eyes independently. One watches the show while the other follows the crawl.
On the radio, 30-second news stories bombard us — between commercials — in between traffic and weather reports “on the eights” (:08, :18,:28, etc.), 24 hours a day.
Even some billboards — once the most stagnant of advertising spaces — now glimmer and glow and move, their video displays even flipping from sponsor to sponsor every few seconds.
If you want a perfect example of the way in which our chaotic lives have been — not just assaulted and compartmentalized, but also compacted — consider the first 15 minutes of my wife Carol’s day — all in front of the computer screen, even before the morning paper has been brought in, the coffee has been made, and the cereal and milk have been poured.
She scans a Web news site to “catch up” on what she missed overnight. (God forbid we should “miss” anything.”) She checks headlines then, and time after time all day long, and has programmed a search-engine site to send her alerts whenever there’s a development concerning the 20 or 50 subjects in which she craves information.
Note that I used the words “headlines” and “alerts,” not “background” or “explanations,” or “analysis.” Don’t be ridiculous. There’s no time for such things. That’s bad news for our local newspaper, of course. At best, Carol will bring it in and scan — not “read” — it for as long as it takes to drink her coffee and juice. Except on Sunday mornings, millions of us don’t “read” the paper any more. This has driven frantic publishers into cyberspace, leaving their newspapers as shadows of their former selves, if they survive at all.
Since Carol runs four small, photography-related companies, she also checks market futures online and, once again, programs her various information devices to bleep and blurp every time there’s an economic fluctuation.
Of a-morning, too, she flits through her e-mail, trashing four-fifths of it, reading some, and saving the rest in an in-box that, if it were a physical storeroom, would be crammed, floor to ceiling, with paper. America is now “paperless,” however, they tell us. But the welter of electronic stuff coming in and going out of our lives has multiplied a hundred-fold from the old, paper days.
The rest of her day, Carol will check and send messages; perhaps order groceries on the Web; do her Christmas shopping entirely online; compare prices on all sorts of goods, selecting the cheapest, and have them sent to us postage-free; pay bills without licking a stamp; manage her finances entirely online; and pay taxes with the click of a mouse.
(Paying bills and “managing one’s finances – with a couple of computer keystrokes prompt quite the opposite boyhood memory, of my mother dragging me along on the streetcar to the bank, where we’d stand in long lines, waiting to reach the teller. Mother would withdraw money and deposit checks, inquire about her savings balance, and pay all the utility bills. Carol, on the other hand, hardly writes a check. She hasn’t stepped into a bank or department store in years, and she deals with the electric and gas and water companies only online.)
At night, if we have the energy, we’ll watch a television show that was taped automatically — from 2 or 3 favorite channels among the (no exaggeration) 250 coming into our cable box. Using one of three separate TV-related controls, we zip through the commercials to avoid their annoying braying and to shorten the programs from an hour to 35 minutes apiece. Sometimes I’ll “curl up” with a good paperback book, and Carol with a digital one — from among 100 she’s saved on her electronic reader.
You’d think that the cluttering and compacting of our daily lives into instant messages, fingertip choices, and lickety-split decisions would leave us gobs of time for family life, thoughtful moments on the job and with friends, leisurely travel, yeasty conversation, and — I may be introducing an unfamiliar concept here — contemplation.
Contemplation? When’s there time to reflect? What’s to savor when the next message is blurping? When’s there time to plan, or to dream, or to — gasp — write a whole letter to somebody?
Carol still talks about her childhood summers, picking blackberries with her grandma in a farm field. I, in turn, can still see the billowing clouds, shaped like ships or George Washington, gathering off Lake Erie as I’d lounge on the front-porch glider, thinking about not much in particular.
Who notices clouds these days, amid the distractions and sensory overload? Who, besides migrant workers, picks berries? When was the last time there was “not much in particular” to think about?
Some of my friends insist that our lives, broken into bites and bytes and blurts each day, are better, more interesting, productive, healthy and informed than those of our parents.
But are they happier lives? More nuanced? More satisfying? More contemplative?
Busy as you are, I doubt many of you have read this far to answer those questions. If you have by some miracle, send me a letter.
Ted's Wild Words
These are a few words from this posting that you may not know. Each time, I'll tell you a little about them and also place them into a cumulative archive of "Ted's Wild Words" in the right-hand column of the home page. Just click on it there, and if there's another word that you'd like me to explain, just ask!
Denouement. The final resolution of a dramatic story.
Likety-split. Super-quick. The origin of the term is cloudy. It first appeared in the 1800s, along with other references to a quick lick or click of the tongue. It may well be the mere sound of the word, akin to the clickety-clack of a moving train, that brought about its creation.
Welter. Welter. A jumble, a confusing mess.