COVID has forced us all to go very virtual. Over the last four months, “virtual” may have overtaken “very” as the most common adjective in the English language. Everything has picked up a Virtual Variation—virtual lectures, virtual happy hours, virtual work meetings, virtual baby showers. And, I assume, a very, very, very large amount of virtual sex. Not that I’d know, since my Monogamous Sex Partner is also my Only Bubble Mate.
As much as this pandemic sucks, with all the quarantining and distancing and whatnot, it would indubitably be a lot worse if we didn’t have Zoom, Skype, FaceTime, email, text messaging, flat-rate phone bills no matter who or where you call, and flat-rate internet with endless streaming.
Which has got me asking myself, “Self, although it seems forever ago, remember what the world was like before the WorldWide InterWeb of Things & Stuff? Before cell phones and text messaging? Before our endless bounty of Cute Cat Videos? When our kids are convinced all we had were tin-can telephones and smoke signals?”
The answer is, “Why yes I do, Self! And we should share that knowledge with the world.”
I note here that extensive quarantining has resulted in my referring to myself more than is mentally healthy with the Royal We…
I left my utterly unremarkable Midwest hometown of Skeeterville at the age of 18, heading many hundreds of miles away to New Orleans for university. This was apparently Not Far Enough, so I added three thousand more miles to that my junior year by heading overseas to study in Scotland. Then after graduating from college, I joined the Air Force, which sent me to anyplace other than Skeeterville for the next two decades.
I’ve written before about bits and pieces of all this. But since the first 20 of these 30-odd years were Pre-Information Age, I have some serious experience with old-school distance-from-family living.
When I was a student in New Orleans, I used to head to a strange enclosure called a “Phone Booth” in the lobby of my dorm on Sunday afternoon to call my parents from a “Pay Phone.” In Orleans Parish, this required insertion of a nickel—which in 1978 was the cost of a local phone call—and dialing/pressing “0” on said Pay Phone. This connected me to a disembodied voice known as an “Operator.” Also, the phone loudly returned your nickel after the Operator answered, like you’d hit three cherries.
This is when the magic began, boys and girls born after c. 1987. I would tell this oracular “Operator” my parents phone number—which I had somehow “memorized”—and intoned the magic spell, “Please, Reverse The Charges.” This is how we engaged in the enchantment known as a “Collect Long-Distance Call.” Take that, Harry Potter.
Unlike in The Era of Cell Phones, someone had to pay BY THE MINUTE (!!!) for phone calls made beyond your local area. And this was not cheap. The phone call to my parents was, therefore, rather staccato and brief.
When I went off to Scotland my junior year, those calls were reduced by parental warning to once a month. Those conversations were along the lines, “Hi, Mom and Dad. I’m doing great. Anyone die back there? No? Good. OK, miss you. Bye.” And that would cost like nine bucks. Also, every Quaint Red British Phone Box I ever entered smelled like urine. So there’s that memory I can’t seem to erase even forty years on.
I hear the gasps of disbelief from all to Gen-Millennial XYZers, “How could you SURVIVE in that cave-dwelling era?!?!” Gather round, dear children. All will be revealed!
We created, with primitive tools and our own hand, something called, “A Letter.” You see, Back In The Day we were taught the mystical system of “Cursive Writing” as schoolchildren. And—I know you will not believe this!—we were actually graded on our ability to create these arcane symbols. (In my individual experience, lack of facility with this occult art engendered much hand slapping by austere High Priestesses of Cursive, known as “Nuns.”)
From overseas, this meant writing on a pale blue and tissue-thin origami paper called an“Aerogramme.” The weight of these flimsy missives was limited to less than one-half ounce. You could not even include a paper image known as a “Photograph.”
We were on our own when we went off to college. The notion of a Helicopter Parent would’ve been so comical to mother, father, and their parental peers. Subduing their laughter would’ve required a half-dozen cigarettes and a highball or two. Possibly even a dinner party, to share the hilarity with other parents. Which would entail consuming many more cigarettes and highballs.
We don’t use the word “highball” enough anymore…
My first encounter with a Helicopter Mom was about 15 years ago, teaching as an adjunct professor in the Government Department at Georgetown. My course was a paper seminar that had a few graded submissions over the semester. The first was a comprehensive outline, constituting 10% of the grade.
One of my students was hanging back from the after-class gaggle waiting to ask questions on the day I returned their outlines with grades. That was always a tell that the laggard student was gunning for me.
After I was done talking with the penultimate student, I noticed the final student dialing her cell phone and murmuring into it. She extended her arm and said with an astonishing lack of self-awareness, “My mother wants to talk to you.” I then got a firehose in my ear about my audacity at giving her Brilliant Angel a C+ on her outline! I note that C+ was a gift, since this student had mailed it in with this assignment.
When Mommy Dearest paused to breathe, I said, “Your daughter’s 20. She’s an adult and responsible for her own work. And I can’t talk to anyone—including you—about her grades. Because SHE’S AN ADULT.” Click. Or beep. Or whatever sound hanging up a cell phone makes.
I handed back the phone and told the red-faced angry student that if she ever did that to me again, not to bother with her final paper because she’d have an immediate F. She stomped off in an admirable state of high dudgeon, but returned the next week and ended up with an A- for the course.
The wonders of instantaneous and very cheap communications are manifold and amazing, don’t get me wrong. I can’t imagine how I survived before all those ill-advised regrettable emails or a tweet I wrote getting 500k “impressions” without knowingly impressing anyone. Seriously, I’d miss a lot of my grandchildren’s growing up on the Left Coast while we sit on the Right—a serious physical challenge in this Time of Corona—without FaceTime.
So the advantages of internet access and cell phones are beyond argument. But I wonder, in more subtle ways do these technologies magnify our collective state of anxiety in the face of this wretched pandemic? That we can pick up a phone or shoot off a text or screed an email whenever we feel sad or anxious might just exacerbate, rather than ameliorate, these emotions?
Here’s the thing. Well, two things. First, there’s a physicality to writing a letter. It may sound counterintuitive, but the tactile interaction of the writer with pen and paper, envelope and postage stamp, may create a greater sense of connectedness with the recipient than any number of DMs or selfies or two-hour late-night calls. You’re sending, along with your words, the unmistakable message that you set aside a chunk of time and undertook some tangible effort in order to connect with your distant friend or family member. And there’s an intimacy to this—the envelope’s flap and the back of the stamp had actually been in your mouth, after all.
Second, there are subtle benefits to be had from slow communications. You ponder your thoughts and words, deciding what you want to commit to the permanence of paper and ink. Unlike with an email, you take more care in writing because you don’t want your letters filled with cross-outs and over-writes. And there’s no auto-correct or any checker beyond all those spelling tests you took in 5th Grade. Email is a very distant second-best, and even use of email is waning in the face of unintelligible texts and sloppy DMs.
Likewise, there’s a wonderful ambiguity in waiting for the letter or card to arrive at the other end. And the concomitant patience required in waiting for a reply—either in kind or by phone or text.
Oddly, the increasing rarity of sending and receiving letters that’s resulted from our convenient electronics has rendered them all the more intimate and precious. My wife, Kay-Kay, is a stubborn adherent to the importance of writing letters—I’m not, to be sure, and never was even back in the day. It’s very rewarding for her when friends and family mention how much they cherish her cards and letters.
Also, I’m convinced she’s singlehandedly kept Hallmark from bankruptcy.