How did we let that method of communication go extinct? In our hunger for instant gratification, have we dispensed with meaningful social exchange?
For a while in the mid to late 90's and into the early 2000's, email largely replaced the posted letter. What was not to like? You didn't need a stamp, and you could correspond with, for example, multiple college friends at the same time, without composing multiple letters. We sat at keyboards, in awe of progress, and the "improvement" lasted a few years. Long distance friends exchanged lengthy email missives in lieu of waiting for the postman to deliver hand scrawled letters.
The phenomenon lasted almost a decade while email's commercial potential sat largely untapped—so much so that the leading provider at the time thought it would be a cute idea to have your computer announce, "You've got mail!" whenever a message landed in the inbox.
But then, email became ubiquitous. I.e. Not Special, But Annoying. Really, Really Annoying.
On any given morning, I have dozens, if not hundreds, of email messages, in various accounts, to delete unread: many asking for money, others updating me on news for which I lack bandwidth, others selling me items I don't need, others just spam that swam through the filters.
I've adapted by approaching email with a get-in and get-out attitude. It's great for setting appointments, sharing files, and blasting out invitations, but I don't want to sit in email and compose a multi-page missive to dear old friends, only to risk it getting lost in their inbox clear-outs.
Even messages I flag for response rapidly drop from the main screen as the relentless tide of unwanted crap pours in. If you've taken the time to write me a real message, and I haven't responded, please ping me again. I didn't mean to blow you off.
Social media looked like the solution for a while, but it's not scratching the right itch. It's a great place to network, or share photos of the kids with a broad audience, but it doesn't work for the settle in with a cup of coffee to catch up kind of conversation I'm missing.
And I doubt I'm alone.
I have maybe half a dozen out-of-town girlfriends with whom I am engaged in a perpetual game of Phone Tag.
The usual stuff gets in the way: conflicting schedules, kids that need watching, time zone issues, and plain old exhaustion at the end of the day. I've started to wonder if letter writing might prove more efficient. At least we'd get to exchange news in a thoughtful, present manner.
Frankly, most of the time, I can't answer calls because either I've set aside the precious hours while the Grape is at school to write, or the Grape is home and will self-destruct if I give my full attention to a phone conversation. I offer as evidence the last time I tried to make a dental appointment. During the four minute call, I reminded the Grape that I was on the phone, and that he needed to wait until I was done, at least three times.
I used to love the phone and now I hate it, because I can't give the person on the other end my full attention when my kid is present. The resulting conversations feel scattered, rushed, cursory roundups of the main life headlines, and sometimes leave me feeling like I just gorged on junk food instead of savored a long awaited feast of catching up.
Which is not to say it isn't great to hear the voice of an old friend, because it is. Always.
But I wonder, if instead of grumbling at the next inevitable round of missed calls, and messages that say, "I'd love to talk... Let's keep trying..." I might boldly go back in time. I might put pen to paper, power through the inevitable hand cramp, and write a few old-fashioned letters.
One of these nights. After the Grape goes to bed.