Sunday, June 14, 2009

Letters Part One

In order to avoid putting you guys through a potentially long post, I shall compose it in two parts. Before I write any further, I would like to borrow the words of Mr. Jekinson for your consideration. The following passage is taken from his weekly columns which you can read from the website,

And Then There Was Skype
by Clay Jenkinson
February 1, 2009
My daughter lives in northwestern Kansas. She is 14. Her life is as busy as it could possibly be. Whatever my tired heart has to give, has been freely given to her, and there is no other child, no other claimant.

So I live and breathe for her, which is of course insane, for she is 14, and she was born, like every other child in the world, to pull away in her second decade of life. The pain of this would be unbearable, except that I know she cannot become the adult I am so eager to meet unless I hold open the door and call after her to wear mittens and phone home whenever she can.

We see each other at least once a month, without fail. I call her (cell phone to cell phone) every day, 350-plus days per year, often several times per day, and we now text too, which is just a high tech and inexpensive way of telegraphing a wee message of affection.

It's amazing how a "Hey, Papa, 'sup," can make my day and keep me from drifting into the backcountry of despair. I write her a couple of actual letters per week, hand- or typewritten, and send them in a big white envelope, with something called a postage stamp. It's very odd, this phenomenon.

For about 50 cents, I can get a trained professional to come to my house and pick up a very small item and then carry it 751 miles to a young woman far away. She infallibly gets the little package in three or so days - for less than 50 cents!

As you can see, I regard the U.S. Postal Service as little short of a miracle.

My daughter, however, looks upon my letters as a quaint Paleolithic affectation, a very late and low-tech echo of something you might read in "Little Women" or a novel by Charlotte Bronte. She senses, I think, that I write these letters as much for me as for her. Maybe she is right.

It always settles my heart to put a blank sheet of paper in front of me and take half an hour to compose a letter to her. It means that for that half hour I am thinking solely about her. I try to guess what it would please or comfort her to read from her absent papa. It gives me a chance to try to imagine the rhythms of her life, the moments of unreserved laughter, the many plaguing anxieties of adolescence, the little feuds and misunderstandings with equally constipated classmates, and the first waves of possibility that come in these years and fill a young person simultaneously with eagerness and dread.

I went underground when I was 14. I literally moved into the basement, and much that was most compelling in my life never again found its way to the dinner table. Where is she with the subterranean, I wonder, and look up from the page with my own wave of anxiety.

She gets it that my writing actual letters to her should be regarded as something special, and she puts them, when she is not too rushed with "practice" and Scholar's Bowl or the game against the hated cross-county rival, in a special little box.

Perhaps some day she will read them through in a single night, looking for clues, remembering the days of her childhood, taking a transfusion from the unmistakable, unceasing expressions of love they contain. My letters are little more than a continuous attempt to find new ways to say I love you and I am thinking about you today.

In the mythology of my life, actual letters-in-an-envelope are one of the supreme pleasures. I don't receive many letters any more and don't write many either, given how easy it is to stay in touch by other and more efficient means. We can lament this as much as we please, but it is not likely to change. I fear the day when the last piece of traditional mail is delivered in America and the last newspaper thumped up on the porch at dawn.

The best letters I ever received came from my mentor and closest friend. I keep them treasured up in a special box. I open the box and glance into them now and then, but I cannot really read them, because they are too raw with soul. I used to write and receive love letters when I used to love.

My father, who lived at the other end of the loquacity spectrum, for many years sent me what I called "terse notes." He somehow expressed all he wanted to say in a couple of bone-lean paragraphs. I reread those terse notes now and then and smile and sometimes laugh out loud, but mostly I just miss him and wish he were around so that I could share this portion of my life with him, and put my daughter at his feet.

My daughter doesn't understand this meaning of letters - and really why should she? That was then and this is now. It's like asking her to enjoy old time radio drama or the Grand Ole Opry. She has been typing since she was 6 and she has never lived without access to a computer.

When I was struggling to produce a PowerPoint lecture a couple of years ago, I called to say goodnight, and wound up discussing my frustration. "Oh, Daddy," she replied, "let me walk you through it." Which she did.

Now we have discovered Skype. Skype is an Internet communications technology created by a team of software developers based in Tallinn, Estonia. It allows free online phone calls (ho hum) but also video conversation. Now a few times a week my daughter and I "Skype up," as she puts it, and talk for a few dozen minutes face-to-face across 751 miles.

It's so magical that it is scary. Last night, she "called" pretty late and I had to shake off my bleariness because of course I was "on camera." She wanted to talk about Homer's "Odyssey," but also about her friend Jess who is being a brat.

To see her mouth quiver just a bit, almost imperceptibly, as she tried to brazen it out and say she didn't care if Jess "ever, ever" apologized, was worth all the postage stamps ever printed.

We live in a fabulous time and we must embrace the new world that is bursting like fireworks over our heads. But I'm still going to write those letters.

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