I feel a little bit guilty, writing now, at a lab-top computer. I only have a vague idea how it all functions; how the internet can do what it does, or how these keys, laid out in an arbitrary configuration, turn into letters when I push them. To my imagination it’s still very fantastical – I have images of green circuitboards covered in silver right angles, decorated sporadically with tiny space-station technology. It’s like a toy trainset in my mind, or a dollhouse. And then it fills with electricity. Like a dam was opened, its water flows into an intricate system of irrigation canals, bringing life to the fields. It makes getting this message to you extremely convenient, in contrast to, say, shouting, or building a signal fire. Or the international postal system.


However, it also carries a sinister sense for me. It makes me uncomfortable sometimes, not knowing how it all works, yet continuing to rely upon it. Its convenience is a little red flag, a muted alarm in the back of my head – should I really be dallying in forces beyond my comprehension, merely for convenience’s sake? What if there are ramifications that even exceed my qualms? I hear they’re importing junk computers for salvage to poisonous dumps in Ghana….
Though I cannot ignore its power, and have an immense respect for its potential to change the world for the better, the inter-web is not my preferred method of personal correspondence. Only in its undeniable, complex convenience does it compare with a handwritten letter.
First of all, a letter comes right to your house in an envelope, and probably with a stamp with a tiny picture on it! The stamp’s glued on there, and you can brush across the knobby edge with your fingertips, like fondling a masterpiece relief. The ink from the post office usually tells you a little story, with a date, and a place.
Opening the envelope is like tearing into Christmas giftwrap. Some do it neatly, and reservedly fold the paper respectfully to retain every memory; some rip and rend the wrapping to tatters, and relish in the mad liberation of a coveted prize. They even make decorative knives for opening paper envelopes. Knives!
Now you’ve got a letter in your hands. Perhaps a little token fell out of the envelope with the letter; maybe a doodle, a sticker, a coin; maybe a dried flower, or even a check. Maybe you hold up the envelope and flex its creases to get a good look inside, to see if there’s anything else in there. Maybe the letter is upside down in your hand at first, or maybe the back page is facing you; maybe you can catch a glimpse of the signature, like going to the last page of a novel first.
The handwriting is unique. Like the tiles of a mosaic, even all the same letters of the alphabet aren’t perfectly identical. Maybe you recognize the style immediately, and it brings a hormonal sense of comfort or excitement to you across the miles. It could be so messy you have to decode certain words via context. There could be blotches of ink that soaked through the page during a moment of intense thought; or squashed mosquitos mixed with the actual blood of the writer; or crossed-out words and evidence of erasure. Spaghetti stains or coffee-mug rings. It could be thick, grainy, watercolor papyrus, or it could be nigh-transparent, delicate rice paper. Maybe it’s folded in an interesting way. Maybe it’s written on the back of some pertinent publication.
Perhaps it’s just a quick note, torn from a journal, and enclosed hastily with the real piece of post. Or perhaps it’s a personal letter, filled with emotions and risky secrets, charged with the adrenaline of trusting it to the postal system. Perhaps it’s been crumpled into a ball, then straightened out and mailed after all. Perhaps it’s a love missive, the only copy in existence….
In fact there is no limit to what your imagination can do inside(and outside) that envelope. Email, which to my dismay seems to be taking over the correspondence industry(for some, utterly completely), can boast only a decisive efficiency – even the same message, a letter or a poem or a thank-you, would lose its personal effect when transferred to text, this mind-boggling, alien series of ones and zeros. No digital font could compare with penmanship. No emoticon could compare with a doodle.

Make no mistake, however – I recognize and respect this modern method of communication. I make pretty heavy use of it, actually, and beyond that nagging sense of discomforting mystery, I can’t complain too much. And the results are spectacular – here I am, in a town whose name I can barely pronounce, six time zones from home, composing a message that I’ll be able to send instantly to dozens of my friends and family all over the world. And in this message, I have been able to state my personal views; I have imparted a modicum of unique style to it. And it will tell a story.
“I once crafted an address book. It was a cute little thing, with crooked, uneven pages, on which I could only write in tiny block characters. It was frankensteined together from my previous batik-print address book(which was too big), some printer paper, and a grip of black thread. It was of no minor practical and sentimental value to me, and it served and comforted me well for many months. I was slowly filling it with new friends and interesting connections, entries that held whole stories within their allotted three lines. It had a place of honor in my cargo pocket, next to my quick-quote notebook, wrapped in a red armband, all day, every day. It had a place of respect in my mind, and ranked high against the rest of my gear.
This priceless, “home”-made relic was lost to me, while traveling across the mighty hills of Cornwall. The last time I saw it, I was in one of those famous red British phone boxes in Looe, getting final directions to Windsworth, but I swear I remember mindfully replacing it in its usual spot. Yet when my stay at Windsworth came to an end, and I was re-packing all my pockets, it was nowhere to be found. Nowhere – I painstakingly retraced all my tracks. It was neither in nor out on either side of the roads I traveled since then; it was not anywhere inside or around the phone box, nor had it been turned in to any of the nearby businesses. It may be in the rubbish bin somewhere, it may be swept under some kleptomaniac’s rug, or it may be in the belly of a small inquisitive terrier named Sam. It was a hard loss, but one from which I should be able to recover, if only my friends and family have read this far….”

August 10, 2008

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