Checking In 2.0
Two things about the future were made abundantly clear to me growing up in the 1960s: it would involve moon colonies, and we’d be able to talk on video phones. Fast forward five decades, and as members of my family are tired of hearing, we’re no closer to dwelling on our nearest extraterrestrial neighbor than we are sprouting wings to fly there. However, I can grouse about this in living color to anyone who’ll listen thanks to Skype and Facetime, so that’s something.
Back when I entered Kenyon, so long ago you could occasionally spy the coattails of Philander Chase disappearing around the corner in Ascension in the moonlight, communication home consisted of two methods: letters or AT&T. (If there were a telegram office in Gambier, no one told us about it.) In those days, my dad would use his company’s WATS line to call the loaf-of-bread-sized phone — with a cord! — hanging on the wall at the end of my Lewis Hall wing. He rang every Friday at one in the afternoon. Rain or shine, post-Peirce nap or not, I hovered there, waiting for his call, which always came on the dot. Otherwise, I wrote my parents long missives in my indecipherable chicken scratch about my classes and aspirations and that week’s cross-country meet, and welcomed their letters in return. My mom wrote (and writes) in her Palmer method cursive so neat it rivals a computer font. My late father, with a looser, scrawlier copperplate, included funny drawings of himself, Mom or the cat.
Things had changed a bit by the time our oldest daughter entered college in the fall of 2008. Conversation was now as easy as a pair of thumbs dancing on a mini keyboard. We typed up longer messages and sent them with the click of a mouse. Phone calls were aplenty, and no longer so precious they required acquisitioning corporate communication tools. But despite all this chatter, I could tell something was missing. To fill the gap, I went back to the future.
These days, catching up with our children, including Emma ’17, falls into three categories I’ve dubbed DC, CC and WPC. DC, for direct communication, entails texting — including a family message group, our virtual dinner table — emailing, phone calls and yes, video chats. CC, or co-communication, encompasses the world of social media, allowing us to see how the kids are doing — and sometimes offering sideways comments — via their posts on Twitter, Instagram, Facebook, Snapchat and all the rest. Then there’s the third way — the Middle Path? — which I call WPC, for wood-pulp correspondence. I’m talking about letters. Notes. Cards. It’s true, they still exist. You can Google it.
My mom will often see an article in her local paper, the Rochester Democrat & Chronicle, and ask me over the phone if I’d like her to clip and mail it. I always say yes. I never point out the obvious, that I could look up the link on my smart device while I’m still talking with her. That’s because a website won’t come tucked inside an envelope addressed to me in my mom’s familiar handwriting, waiting for me at the end of a long day. Like my mom, I enjoy cutting out articles and photos and comic strips from our own local paper, the Columbus Dispatch, sticking them into envelopes and mailing them to her as well as to children’s addresses in Boulder, Colorado; Urbana, Illinois; and Gambier, Ohio. I include a note and as often as possible, a letter. There are times when I’ve done this after texting, tweeting, Facebooking, emailing and all that jazz with all the kids — and sometimes my mom — all day long.
I don’t have patience with people who eschew modern methods of communication as impersonal: in our mobile society, it’s a gift to be able to type up a message in real time to a child, or a mother, who lives far away. I also find it a little sad when people embrace these 21st-century tools at the expense of the tried-and-true epistle: after all, humans cannot live by LinkedIn updates alone. The immediacy of texts and instant messaging, the parallel conversations of social media and the familiarity of a loved one’s handwriting on paper you can hold all have their role to play in communicating with kids in college.
Now, if you’ll excuse me, there’s a letter and a couple of emails I need to write to some people at NASA.