Sunday, May 16, 2010

Another Buggy Whip for the Rubbish Bin

When I was young, I was an inveterate letter writer. This was a habit that began long before I started writing for publication. Once I started doing stories and sending them off, I kept copies of all my submissions -- carbons , back in the day -- and that then extended to the personal correspondence. Pretty much anything that went into the typewriter got copied and put into a file.

Mail was how you communicated with folks who were afar. We had telegrams and telephones, of course, but long distance phone charges were spendy. A call on mother's day or Christmas, or to announce a birth or death had families gathered at both ends of the line, and you could take your wife and kids out for a nice dinner for what a coast-to-coast long distance call cost for more than fifteen or twenty minutes. Phones were for special cases.

At the end of each year, I'd bundle all my letters up, to and fro, stick 'em into a box, and put that into the garage or attic, depending on which had the most room.

Did that for fifteen or so years. Someday, I figured, I could go back and mine those for material. They'd be like keeping a journal. Or when I hit it big, some university could go through my letters after I croaked and some scholar could write a biography ...

Then computers came along.

Made it easier to generate copies, not having to diddle with a carbon sheet, and I would make a copy for the files that way. Did it that way for a dozen years or so.

Then the internet came along, and many of my correspondents who had computers started exchanging email with me instead of snailmail. So much easier and quicker, no postage needed, and you could jot down a graph or two instead of having to fill a whole page or two, and get it there right now.

I still copied those and stuck them into files.

Then one day, when burnable CDs got really cheap, I started dumping my email files onto those, and my correspondence with folks via the USPS dwindled to an occasional fan letter and my mother, who refuses to own a computer, even though we offered to buy it for her. And when I switched phone services, long distance charges just went away -- anything in the continental USA, free, part of the package. And Skype if you need to talk to somebody anywhere in the world who has access to the web.

A years worth of email fits onto a single CD and a couple decades of this will fit in a cigar box. I can call my mother and talk for an hour and it is cheaper than a single stamp.

I still exchange email with folks nearly every day, but I rarely ever write a snailmail letter anymore. And for this and other reasons, the post office is going bankrupt. Talking about dropping Saturday service and raising rates again.

Email is easier. Long-distance is cheap and convenient. But those hand-written letters like those sent back from the war front or between lovers or old friends have, largely, dried up. And a certain ... elegance has gone with them.

Like Judy Collins said in "Both Sides Now:" Something's lost but something's gained in living every day.

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