The cell phone is at once a great communication tool and a menace. My friends and I stay in touch through the phone like never before. Where once I would have to send a letter or pay exorbitant telephone fees, I get to dial up whenever I want.
It is that same ease of communication that takes away something good and pure about friend relationships—the joy I once felt at meeting someone after a long absence. After years of not seeing someone, I knew what they were up to and what happened to them. But the nature of the letter left a lot out and many gaps to fill. Meeting someone at the airport with whom I only communicated with through letters thrilled me.
For years, I wrote this blog in the form of letters. I missed the feel and importance of a piece of paper in an envelope that a man or woman in blue delivered to my door. The letter was succinct and vivid. It distilled life on the other end into several deeply felt paragraphs. I also felt a kind of kinship with the letter writer. They were thinking of me, the audience, as they wrote in just the same way I understood them as I wrote.
Then came E-mail. What a wonderful development! Now, we needn’t wait weeks or months for someone to have the time to sit down and compose a letter. In fact, with E-mail, I could think of someone and within a minute, send that thought to them. I could send ideas, good wishes, birthday greetings, and congratulations in brief form. I received the same from friends in the U.S. and abroad. We linked to anyone at any time of day, without the wait.
But E-mail brought loss. Almost overnight the letter disappeared. No longer did people send detailed news of life and events. The medium almost demanded that people communicate in snippets. The E-mail, after all, mostly arrived during work hours, when a thing as silly as doing a job got in the way of extended time needed to read a letter. E-mail wrought unfinished thoughts, extended ellipses, absences—and often, misunderstandings due to lack of detail and attention to the writing.
In defiance of the trend, I continued to send letters in this new medium. Sure, I got notes from people who said they didn’t have the time for long letters, but I sent them anyway. When I had a friend in mind, I wrote them as honestly as I could. If they read it, and most did, then they knew what is going on in my head. I connected to them in the mysterious ways that human build relationships that disobey the confines of space and time. And, despite the admonitions of a few, my letters delighted most of my friends. They were glad, they said, to get real letters again, even if it was by E-mail.
This is not to say I’m a Luddite who crunches the world into boundaries I define. I’ve adapted. Not every occasion calls for a long letter. Sometimes I just need to know what time lunch is. Other times, I just have to accommodate my pals. I have a friend in Germany whose attention span is short. We send short E-mails back and forth a couple of times a week. He would rather we talk this way, as he says that when he receives a long E-mail, he puts it aside to read later, and later never comes. God forbid, I tell myself, that I be put away and then forgotten.
After E-mail became firmly planted in my life came the cell phone. Allegedly, anyone could get a hold of me anytime. They need no longer be close to a computer. The computer rode in their pocket. Whip it out, pull up the antenna (my, those seem like quaint days), and dial away. We still had to worry about minutes and costs. But somehow, when we were on the phone, those worries seemed distant.
Anyone could call anytime. Only, no one called me. Instead, I called them. We have always had a couple of dogs around. They needed (and need) walking every day. Since home life for me always includes other people, about the only time I found I could talk on the phone uninterrupted was while I was walking the dogs.
Here’s the thing: I was never a phone person. Even as a kid, talking with friends on the phone while sneaking around the kitchen of my childhood home, I kept conversations short. I didn’t want my parents to catch me talking outside my allotted time. Even today, I’m generally a short phone talker. Like most E-mails, I get to business, say what needs to be said, finish, and move on.
Except . . . About 95 percent of my phone time, now that we don’t have to worry about minutes, takes place when I’m walking dogs. I talk to three people almost exclusively—a friend in Salt Lake City, another in Topeka, and the other in Atlanta. These calls generally last the length of a dog walk, which runs from 20 minutes to an hour, most of the time about two miles or forty minutes. I have not seen the guy in Topeka in five years, though we talk at least once a week. The Atlantan meets me at Hartsfield once a year except the last two years, and I will see him in the fall. I see the man in Salt Lake City once a year, if not more frequently, as his mom’s in Kansas City.
Then, there’s texting. I keep a stable of people in my conversations that consists of about 10. I would say that 90 percent of all my texts go to the guy in Salt Lake City. Nastygrams, snide comments, interesting articles about politics, religion, and culture.
All this leads to my main thought: It’s no longer a big deal when I see these guys. I talk or communicate with them all the time. There’s no longer any realization at the point of contact that we’ve aged or changed shape and style. I remember going to the airport years ago to meet friends. The thrill at seeing them again took my breath away. We talked to each other through letters, and there was so much more to say.
Fortunately, I still get excited at seeing my German friends. We talk on the phone and exchange letters. But it’s not every day or even every week. Just a couple of years ago, I went to Germany and saw my friends for the first time in ten years. Our hair was gray. We grew thicker. Our shoulders didn’t sit as straight as they once did. We loved the experience. We filled in the blanks and spent a few minutes catching up before we were back on the same page.
Still, it strikes me that the exhilaration at meeting old friends disappeared with the advent of E-mail and further slipped away with the cell phone. Again, I’m not a Luddite. I just remember when seeing someone after years of letters made my day.