When I was a teenager, and I made friends who lived in other states, we’d keep in touch by letters and phone calls. Long distance calls were expensive, but letters could be written any time, drawn on, dropped in the mail and delivered within two or three days for the price of a full-sized chocolate bar (in those days less than a quarter, believe it or not). “Drop me a line,” we’d say, taking our leave of each other, and get busy, on a bus, a train, lying on a couch, setting pen to paper. It was always a great moment when a return letter arrived, particularly when a friend came up with an inventive envelope (for a time we always tried to top each other with wild, ridiculous hand-made envelopes).
Now, those were, to be sure, primitive times, very similar, in terms of communication, to the previous hundred years or so. We did not carry small, powerful personal computers in our pockets that could also be used to text, tweet, make phone calls and video chats. We sat and wrote by hand, folded the pages, put them in an envelope, addressed it, put a stamp on it and dropped it in the mail box. Seems unreal now, even though I sometimes still send drawings and scrawled notes to a small circle of people from time to time.
Here’s a “funny” thing, though. People regularly don’t know what to say when they get something in the mail (and, admittedly, my letters are often more visual than literary, so theres’s also that). As often as not I never even find out my letter has reached its intended recipient, unless I follow up later by text. I have a few theories, including that people in general don’t know how to react to “art” (particularly if it is not monetized, official, etc.), but it is notable, I think, that if you ask a question in a colorful, handwritten letter, you will virtually never get an answer to that question. Although, of course, it’s not hard to see why this letter may not have received a response:
I get that there’s something a bit maniacal-looking there. It is part of my graphomania, when it strikes, I am helpless against it. On the other hand, it is not uncommon to have a question, asked simply, unaddressed when it is written on a page, with other stuff, and mailed to somebody. This is my experience anyway, not many people are attuned to the art of old-time correspondence in our era of super-terse hyper LOL instant response-demanding knee jerks. It was not always this way, my young friends, and, like anything else, the old way was not without its pains in the ass.
I had a close friend for many years, a prodigious correspondent, who was a solipcist. By this I mean that he was convinced of his own reality in the world, (because he thought, and therefore, he was), but was not convinced anyone could ever truly know what was in somebody else’s mind or heart, or even if they actually existed, independently, outside of his perception. This belief, to me, is the essence of intellectualized alienation and a ticket to misery, as it was in his case, but he sure loved to write long, complex letters, in spite of his deep skepticism about anyone actually being able to truly understand anything he expressed.
At a certain point, tired of getting ten page, two-sided letters, mostly about his troubles and unresponsive to anything I’d written, I negotiated a deal with him. We agreed that in every letter, often at the end, we’d re-read the other person’s letter and briefly respond to everything of note. These quick responses would be set off between ellipses, the old dot dot dot (or in the Orange Polyp’s case dot dot dot dot dot dot) in the manner of famous antisemitic doctor and novelist Ferdinand Celine… the Celine section we called it… as in “now I will review and Celine your latest”.
It turned out to be a great innovation. You’d get actual feedback on things you’d written, a response.
“Yer description of the putz — on the nose … no, I never tried ayahuasca, did you ever find some?… she’s always like that, remember August 1971 for but one famous example … they suck, as you have noted whenever the name of their Nazi owner comes up … funny bit about your urinary troubles, if you know what I mean … further comments on the issue of solipcism are in order, remind me next time, if you actually DO exist independent of my perceptions of you …”
While not spontaneous or ideal, this enforced mutual responsiveness was a great improvement to our correspondence and probably extended our friendship by several years.
To me, having a dialogue is like having a leisurely catch. You throw me the ball, I hold it for a second, feeling its texture and its weight, and I toss it back to you, placing the ball in the air where you can easily catch it. We do this until we agree we’ve done it enough. Nothing is more natural, I think, than tossing a ball back and forth on a nice day.
This kind of meditative back and forth is tragically a more and more rare experience in our always in a hurry, time is money, make your point in 140 characters, too late, wait, I was distracted, what was I saying? society. Because we are always in a hurry, and time is not only money but money is free speech, and because so much free speech is also false, and the firehose of mendacity sprays full bore, torrent so powerful it can rip your skin off … I’m sorry, what were you saying? Wait, I’m getting another call… oh, God, here’s a text coming in too, a very important one, can you… hang on, Oh I don’t believe it! I don’t fucking believe it! Wait til I send you this… on second thought, maybe not, can you hold, can I call… what the hell do they want now?… can you text me later?
Ah, you know what, I’ll drop you a line.
Though I’ve learned to deal with it better and better in recent years, I am predisposed to a tic about silence by way of reply, because my father, in his most sadistic moments, would simply refuse to reply, deploying the old deniable silence (“what are you whining about, I didn’t even fucking hear you”) to wound quite effectively. So silence by way of reply when I ask a question has long had a kryptonite effect on me. Still, as a general rule, we all want to know we are being heard and replied to sensibly. It does not happen enough these days in general, which is one major reason people are so isolated and ready to jump into an online rabbit hole like QAnon that provides a false sense of community to those lonely, crazy souls who embrace it, “where we go one, we go all”, and shit.
It is worth the minute or two it might take, when a friend asks you a question that requires an answer, to actually digest what they are looking for, indicate confusion if there is any, wait for clarification and then think for ten seconds or so before giving your thoughtful reply. Worth it in my humble (and my conceited) opinion, anyway.