Wednesday, July 18, 2012

Handwritten Memoirs

Two more days left at the lakeside cottage and we’ve taken to re-arranging things. For almost four decades, we’ve been guests here of my in-laws, but now that my father-in-law has passed away and my mother-in-law is too frail to come up here any more, we’re re-decorating as if it’s our home. Finally got rid of that basket of 27 condiments taking up counter-space when all we ever used was salt, put away the flour jars that we never once used and so on. The kitchen suddenly gleams with renewed space, clean lines, everything stored in cabinets according to our own sense of logic. What a difference!

We’ve also taken to going through desk drawers and bookshelves and such and it is here that we unearthed a treasure trove of old photographs and letters. The letters include things like postcards we ourselves sent on our travels, negogiations with the cottage builder, memories of an ill friend, expenses from a vacation trip, even grocery lists. But most poignant is to see many of them in the handwriting of my wife’s departed father. Amazing how touching it is to see mere curves and squiggles that call up the character of the writer, regardless of the content. Small crumbs of immortality hiding away in old desk drawers.

You can guess where this is going. Yet another lament about the loss of handwriting in electronic culture. We are in the midst of a constant battle between ease, speed, convenience, comfort and character, craftsmanship, care, culture and the latter are losing ground every day. A friend’s son was telling about his freshman year in college and the lecture class he took where each student in class had a clicker to send in answers to the lecturer’s questions. That was the extent of his relationship to the teacher and the teacher with him. By contrast, he told about his high school math teacher who came in with Kermit the Frog on his shoulder and sang songs about quadratic equations while playing the ukelele. “He was one weird dude,” he told us, but he certainly was memorable in the way the click-connected professor was not.

At my own “cutting-edge” school, the decision was handed down, with minimal staff discussion and input, that every Middle School student will be given an i-Pad to take around to each class. I’m sure there are many exciting features of this technology and I’m willing to look into them. But at least in my class, I will still have them take handwritten notes and accept handwritten papers, which many students oddly seem to prefer. These papers not only tell me what the student knows, but passes on yet another corner of their character.

Why are we in such a hurry to erase ourselves? Who will be gathering “The Collected Text Messages of Jonathan Frantzen”? “Historic Tweets from Barack Obama”? “The Saved Voicemails of Meryl Streep”? Will we need to include our e-mail passwords in our wills for our grandchildren to comb through? Will they sort through our 6, 750 digital photos deciding which to keep? Well, maybe it doesn’t matter. We were here, we left, let’s move on. There’s still the shirts in our closet, our CD collection (soon to be obsolete) and the like. And for my generation, perhaps there’s still a few letters kicking around in the basement or attic. Enjoy, kids!

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