Years have dimmed much, but not the memory of the morning routine my mother and I shared when I was very little. Back in those days, Poppa worked for Boeing, Wichita and carpooled to work, which meant leaving very early every morning. Mother would get up and eat breakfast with him, then, I assume, enjoy some quite time before my rowdy little ass awoke. She would fix me breakfast, which always included a Chox vitamin, some form of fried pork, and Hi-C grape juice, which came in very large cans at the time. After breakfast, I would sit in front of the very large television/stereo console, state of the art for the early 1960s, and watch Romper Room followed immediately by Captain Kangaroo. After that, Mother would usually exercise a bit with Jack LaLanne before doing housework while game shows such as Concentration and the original Jeopardy were playing. A local music show aired at noon, then lunch and nap time. Amazing how indelible that memory still is.
Somewhere early in the morning, usually during Captain Kangaroo, Mother would sit with a pad of ruled stationery and write her father. Her mother died in 1962, so her father, who was disabled after hurting his back working for the Rock Island Railroad, was lonely. She wrote, by hand, every day, usually a page front and back. In those days, the letter she put in the mail that morning would almost always arrive in Wilburton, Oklahoma the next day. I can only imagine how much my grandfather must have enjoyed those letters and looked forward to receiving each one. When my father’s mother passed away a couple of years later, she added Granddaddy to her daily writing, even though he lived closer and we saw him more often.
Those letters, few, if any, of which still exist, were more than a mere means of casual communication. They were intimate exchanges between father and daughter. I’m sure more than one contained details of things I’d done which Mother found frustrating. I started frustrating people very early in my life. Even more, though, I suspect those letters contained encouragement, words to keep Grandpa up and going, and probably sharing memories that were unique to them.
Two or three times a week Grandpa would reply. Coming from a time when education was far from mandatory, Grandpa only had a fourth grade education, and he was very sensitive about his under-developed handwriting skills. He wrote, and spelled, like a fourth grader. His words were simple and easy to read. “I’m lonely,” and “I miss you,” were frequent phrases my mind still sees scratched across the off-white parchment he used.
On Sundays, when long distance rates were at their lowest, we would call both my grandfathers. Each call would run about 30 minutes total. My part usually took less than two minutes of that. I paid little attention then to what they were saying. I’d get on the phone and say things like, “I wuv you,” and “Yes, I’m being a good boy,” and then be off playing. Communication then was thoughtful, personal, and meaningful.
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My, how things have changed. If my sons and I were to exchange letters today, the information in them would likely be obsolete by the time they arrived. We’ve colloquialized the United States Postal Service as “snail mail” because even a letter just going across town can no longer be guaranteed to arrive the next day. Out of town? Two or three days is typical. Out of state? Better plan on five days for delivery. With today’s rapid pace of change, five days can be an eternity.
So what now takes the place of those carefully worded and thought out letters that served so many so well for thousands of years? Text messaging. Never mind pages of prosaic ramblings about love or other emotions, written in ink and, theoretically, preserved for all time. Our words to each other now come in bits usually less than 164 characters and are delivered immediately, assuming the other person is getting cell phone service.
More and more, people I meet don’t even want to be bothered with talking on the phone. Sure, they carry a phone out of necessity, but when asked how they prefer to communicate, the most frequent response I get is, “text me.” Even my own sons would prefer I text rather than call. Dad’s admonishments are easier to ignore that way.
An advantage to text messaging is that it allows us to communicate more rapidly. There’s no waiting until the person is back in front of their email, or until the postal carrier finally shows up. If one feels like telling another, “I love you,” those words are communicated immediately to their intended recipient (who had better return the communication rapidly). Texting is also convenient when running late, stuck in traffic, or sitting some place where a verbal conversation would be inappropriate, such as the movie theatre or church.
What texting takes away, sadly, and perhaps dangerously, is the thought process that goes into actually writing something down. When Mother would write those letters, she chose her words carefully. She understood that voiceless communication doesn’t always convey the nuances that come with vocal inflection and eye contact. Sentence structure, phrasing, and vocabulary can dramatically impact how the reader responds to a statement. Those who text too often do so without any thought at all, and the results are that the recipient doesn’t always receive the message one intended to send.
Web sites such as Texts From Last Night and Damn You Auto Correct demonstrate just how careless, and entertaining, our text messaging can be. Here are some recent examples (for the uninitiated, the numbers at the beginning of each message are the area code of the sender):
(678): I just threw up in the bathroom next to the zebra exhibit. The kids don’t know I skipped a beat. Best nanny, ever. http://tfl.nu/08jg
(313): At what point did you actually think that you could throw knives safely? http://tfl.nu/gf43
(781): Her boyfriend was wrestling another girl. But, she said she was okay with it because she kept checking for boners–w the back of her hand like she was checking for a fever http://tfl.nu/l0sc
There’s absolutely no way any of those conversations would have ever taken place in a letter. That they’ve been preserved in digital form on the Internet is somewhere between disturbing, on a psychological level, and perhaps foreshadowing, from a paleontological view point. We have, through the wonderful means of modern technology, taken our personal communication from thoughtful to thoughtless in one fell swoop.
Not that texting doesn’t have its place. There is a comfort, when lying in bed all alone, to exchange texts with a close friend who cannot be there. That last, “sweet dreams,” on your phone allows one to close their eyes knowing that there is someone out there thinking of them, hoping for the best. I’m sure more than one person has fallen asleep with their phone in hand after an intimate exchange of messages. There are definitely some advantages.
Still, there’s something to be said for taking the time and a pen in hand to go “old school, ” writing someone a note, or a long-deserved letter. “I love you” is more sincere when one takes more than three words to say it.
Ah, but I’ve rambled long enough. To my three sons: I love you. Text me.