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July 07, 2003  

One Hand Speaking

A friend's father was hospitalized, following a coronary. A triple bypass was scheduled; routine enough, but always a risk. On the phone, as she was telling me about it, I could hear the unvoiced words you just know are in there somewhere -- "What if he dies?" There was also a wispy hint of ambivalence in the manner of conversation; like a recap on the news... "Well, he had a heart attack; it's pretty bad; surgery's scheduled; everybody's busy; gotta go."

When my dad died, we were effectively estranged. One day I knew he was sick; three days later I knew he was dying; two days later he was dead. I had been trying to make peace with him for a couple years (not very successfully, perhaps because I wasn't doing it very well), and had walked away in frustration only months before. I didn't like him, but I was afraid of losing him.


That is, I know now that I was afraid of losing him. At the time, in my walking-around day-to-day brain, I was so afraid of actually feeling the fear of losing him, that I didn't -- I just stumbled around, keeping aware of where fear-of-loss was, the better to keep my distance. Put another way, fear had me dogged and on the run. And one of the chief by-products of running-from-fear is anxiety; run long enough and you get stress. And there's the trap: fear-of-fear -- anxiety -- loves stress. Stress can keep you busy, make you impose order on (i.e. edit) your world, make you lock it down just a little bit tighter.... Anxiety can get you stressed [bad], but the stress then blurs the focus on the anxiety [good], which allows the anxiety to work behind the scenes making just the right amount of stress [bad] to mask just enough of the anxiety [good] to.....

My friend, OTOH, loves her father. It's a big family -- eight kids -- and very closely-knit (not unfair to say "tightly-knit," I think ;-) She'd seemed anxious and stressed on the phone, and had seemed to want to appear as being brave. In other words, it seemed like maybe she was in a little loop of fear-of-fear <=>stress... and that seemed like such a waste in a family where people actually care about each other....

I wanted to do something; express some sympathy, touch on the larger topic -- looking ahead to loss, ...and offer some hope and goodwill. So I wrote a letter. Hand-wrote a letter. On unlined paper. I was about halfway through when it struck me: "Hey, I'm not doing this on a computer. Wazzup?" Normally, I write everything longer than a shopping list from a keyboard. Even if it's just a quick list or a short note: type it in, print it out.

I do that because editing is so easy. I'm often writing myself into rhetorical corners; if I were "writing" writing, maybe half my pages would be crossed out, and the other half filled with magin notes, arrows, and proofreader's marks. And I have a tendency to think much faster than I can compose, which makes my handwriting speed up, which makes my handwriting look terrible (brain decides to have a race, but the pen hand does the running ;-). On a computer I can rearrange the page, and almost keep up with my thoughts using two hands on a keyboard. (And if I can't, I can always go back later and edit things.) It's just so darned easy!

But it's not just ease of use that has me writing so little on paper; I do it because the computer lets me change my mind at any point. Nothing is fixed, stable, finished -- all is edits. (And I think that's true; but it's a different truth than this note describes.)

A hand-written letter, OTOH, is inimical to editing. The letter is far more than the content -- it's the actual sheet(s) of paper; the actual pen(cil) in your grip; the act(s) of pre-visualizing each word, sentence, paragraph, theme; the careful transcription of mood to mode. On the computer, you can write something, anything, all things without really thinking, and then you can come back to those words later and sort them out. Literally -- you can sort out your feelings or your ideas by cuttings and pasting free-written globs of text.

A hand-written letter offers no such leisure; at best you put the pen down and come back later. Writing a letter, there is a palpable sense of "living tension" -- it's like the push and pull of a live performance, not the edits and retakes of a mixing studio. (Both performing and mixing evoke and use emotions; but performing's emotions feed back into the performance. With mixing, no matter how much you love the material, you can't change what's on the tapes.)

A letter is also unique (unless it's xeroxed, scanned, etc.). After delivering that letter, I can't call it back up from storage to see what I wrote; the words are gone. Oh, they're out there somewhere, but to me they're gone.

That's something I truly love about letters -- they are gifts. You make them out of your own ideas, by your own hands, from your own heart. And you give them away in their entirety; there's no cc: or bcc: option on a sheet of paper.

And I think that's why I took up a pen when I started to compose thoughts for my friend, instead of strapping on the usual keyboard. I wanted this communication to be as sincere as I could make it; and that meant actually having to make it -- think it, feel it, write it -- in realtime, in a single emotional experience. Using the computer would have been faking it; the structure would have been more polished, and the language fine-tuned, but the heart and soul of it -- the actual doing/thinking/feeling of declaiming for a page or two to a specific person who is not present -- would have been gone, lost somewhere between the click on the Save button and the clack of the hard drive.