By royvantil on Monday, 20 February 2012
Category: Uncategorized

of footprints, fossils, and echoes at the abyss

At age 67 I can't read my own handwriting anymore, so traditional letter writing is something I do not miss.   And my clumsy, tremulous, barely legible block printing is so laborious that I get bored before I finish a single post-it note for the fridge.  I am delighted that email (and blogs too, although I can live without the snarky shorthand of texting and Twitter) came along while my generation of Mesozoans is still lumbering around the planet, brittle joints greased by chondroitin.  In the last fifteen years or so, I have written a hundred times more than I had written in my first half century.  Sure, I freely admit that most or all of it has probably been balderdash...

Hey there dear classmates/friends/soul brothers/soul sisters/family:
Been following a chain with my Swarthmore class of 6/6/66 with great interest. (Tom, Jill, Liz, Tony, etc.) It makes me proud to be part of such a thoughtful and thought-provoking group of people.
Here is what occurred to me as I contemplated the archival issues involved with the preservation of our family histories:
I agree with Tom W. that email is indeed a worthy substitute for ye olde quill. At age 67 I can't read my own handwriting anymore, so traditional letter writing is something I do not miss. And my clumsy, tremulous, barely legible block printing is so laborious that I get bored before I finish a single post-it note for the fridge. I am delighted that email (and blogs too, although I can live without the snarky shorthand of texting and Twitter) came along while my generation of Mesozoans is still lumbering around the planet, brittle joints greased by chondroitin. In the last fifteen years or so, I have written a hundred times more than I had written in my first half century. Sure, I freely admit that most or all of it has probably been balderdash, twaddle, rodomontade, claptrap, flim-flam, tomfoolery, palaver, malarkey, skimble-skamble, stultiloquence, bombast, and other forms of bullshit, (and redundant, as well!) but my productivity as measured by my unrefereed self has been the legendary bounty of countless sleepless nights. I do wonder if there has been a concomitant downward trend in the percentage of my communications that anyone bothers to read. So I am leaving a rabidly foaming wake that future generations will no doubt ignore. That doesn't really bother me, for I believe it would be a totally rational decision on their part.
I write for feeling good in the moment, and the heck with eternity and ripple effects and those other pretensions of immortality...and I write for the pleasurable immediacy of connecting with and somehow relating to a small group of people in meaningful ways over the onrushing decades that bust through our sclerotic floodgates. I don't bother printing out all the stuff I have churned out in self-deluded euphoria in the wee hours, for those warehouses full of boxes would be a burden to anyone who might ever find some occasional nuggets of wisdom or humor in my random raging raving ravaging rancid rants. More litter than alliteration. And the hoary old floppy disks have probably deteriorated and demagnetized by now, unlike the parental letters from the forties alluded to by a few of you loyal classmates, that have faded more gracefully among the rodent infestations of barns and attics. The hard disks and thumb drives have gone the way of all flash, and the more durable CD's eventually get lost and broken, so the link to potential familial generations to come may be hopelessly tenuous. The Cloud may be the salvation of the information freaks among us, or the blogs that can be stored (or, more accurately, entombed) by the terabyte or yottabyte in ostensibly secure underground vaults. Worse yet, those future generations may not have the time nor the inclination to care to reflect on the past, so intensely consumed are they in the overload packed into every nanosecond.
I was interested in Tony's L.'s suggestion to employ his extensive digital video documentation of matters familial, and I am sure we all have a few fuzzy VHS tapes lying around that should be upgraded to the new era of digital storage if the special people are still around for filming take two. But my experience is that such records are very hard to watch after the person has departed. Somehow a written record is quicker, more portable, and easier for me to handle than an all-too-vivid video on a wall-sized HD plasma. For when I read a page from an old letter, or a hard copy of an email, or a chapter from one of my dad's or mother's books or journals, I hear their voice and feel their corporeal presence as clear as day anyway. And in the mayhem of our lives as we all resist the vertiginous whorls and lethal maelstroms that await us in the coming years, it is unlikely that we or those who follow in our footsteps will have the time or energy to view these bulging libraries of endless hours of reminiscences from our loved ones. I think of the unrecoverable hours wasted by so many soccer moms and soccer dads who missed entire athletic careers of their children because they stood shivering on distant muddy hillsides with their tripods, shoulders aching from the burden of the task, their right eyes plastered to a VHS camera to record hundreds of deadly dull hours of junior high games, with their dear progeny lost in a fuzzy cloud of pixels ninety yards away. In our family there may exist one or two short, well-planned interviews on tape with parents on their fiftieth, sixtieth, or seventieth wedding anniversaries or their eightieth or hundredth birthdays. Perhaps my grandchildren will view those grainy images someday when they are old enough to wonder about their roots, and mature enough to ponder their ultimate fate as they branch out on their own.
But this last week I shared good times with my centurion mother, Bee Van Til, and rather than wallowing in predictable nostalgia or recording vignettes for future generations, we had a delightful few days willfully ignoring the calendar...choosing to share the joy of the moment without adding to the glut of stored information. So we popped open a couple of Cary Grant DVD's for a double feature one night: "My Favorite Wife" and "Bringing Up Baby." Sure, we had both seen them before whether thirty or seventy years ago, but some films age more gracefully than others. We watched the upstart Knicks beat the Lakers and I had a chance to explain the unprecedented "Linsanity" phenomenon to her. We hit the buffet for all the catfish we could eat. One night we enjoyed take-out of a couple of succulent shrimp caesar salads from the Outback. We discussed the news and talked politics amicably and looked forward to the coming re-election of our hero. We remembered Dad with great fondness. I showed her a thousand or more photos, new and old, of the most recent five generations of our family, beginning with digital restorations of images of her mother and father in Czechoslovakia and concluding with the latest megapixellated shots from the homes of her grandchildren and great-grandchildren. Then she paid rapt attention and asked astute questions about a couple of PowerPoints concerning technological innovations that Justin and I are involved with. These memories will stay with me longer than if I had once again asked probing questions about her childhood in Queens, for the old stories have lost a bit of freshness but never their charm over the years. We of course do talk about the old days and this is both fun for me to hear and good exercise for my mother's hundred-year-old brain, but I do not want to lose forever the precious hours and minutes just because I went back for too many seconds.
The conventional wisdom is whenever we write more it means less, sort of a case of useless than a shelf of Ulysses. But I never believed that. I feel that the new technologies have taken away much of the oppressive tedium of writing, allowing our minds and dreams to flow onto the hard drive and paper closer to real time, with editing and proofing and reprinting and transmission of ideas a hundred or a hundred thousand times faster than before. I realize the great typists among you who hold on dearly to your trusty Underwoods have always been able to type and think at warp speed, but to those of us for whom writing by machine was always a dreaded chore of erasers, mini-brooms, white-out, and angrily crumpled mistake-strewn sheets of onion skin, the liberating glory of email has been like a gigantic hobnail boot lifted from our wrinkled necks.
I believe both the quality and volume of my writing have increased hand in hand, although I have never published anything of note and I am convinced the readership of my intermittent blog posts numbers in the single digits or teens globally. I bet only a few of you have even bothered to read this far in this current unedited document...in which case I suggest you get a life! And if what I describe is universal, there is probably more worthwhile writing worldwide these days than at any time in human history. (The dinosaurs had trouble holding a pen and paper while devouring each other.) But there may be fewer people taking the time to read and listen, for 24/7 each one of us can be jammed beyond comprehension with nothing but the brilliant words and images and productions of others. You mean you haven't digested the mesmerizing season three of "the Wire", every escapist episode over eight years of "Entourage", the 12 spine-tingling episodes of "Homeland", the 28-hour bone-chilling audio book of "The Invisible Bridge", etc.??? What about the thousand four-star films you never bothered to see? Or the ones you saw and never understood the first time? Or the greatest writings, plays, art, music, poetry and dance produced by the most prolific twenty cultures in world history? Did you devour all of the Louvre and the Met and the MOMA and the National Gallery? And are you still working on English as a first language, although you have always wanted to learn Italian...but your chances of affording a trip there are zero...and even if you went to Florence they will probably speak to you in English anyway? Or will you have to work every day and night until no further time remains, thereby rendering moot any such laments? So we watch the sand plummeting down the glass corkscrew, and in grim resignation, lapse into the torpor of texting and tweeting clumsy shorthand and affixing annoying emoticons, 160 cold, lifeless, inelegant, abbreviated characters at a time.

Roy

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