An old friend sent an email yesterday asking for my address. We moved last year and she had forgotten to enter our new address in her address book. She wanted to send me a Christmas card. That got me to thinking about Christmas cards and why they matter. She could have easily wished me a Merry Christmas in her email, but I am so glad she didn’t and I look forward to receiving her card.
Why, I wondered, do I care? Why is it that Christmas cards are really my favorite Christmas custom?
Here, I think, is the answer: Who we are, after all, depends on all the experiences we have ever had in life and that includes the interactions we have with our friends. Old or new or ongoing, our friends matter—a lot.
In fact we may not see them often; realistically we may know that we will never see many of them again. But we have not forgotten them, and when an envelope with a familiar handwriting appears in our mailbox, we know they have not forgotten us.
There may be a short note—or even a letter, though that is not often the case. But there will certainly be a signature .and we will have the opportunity of holding the hand of a friend in our hand and reflecting on our friendship and the times we have spent together. You can’t hold an email in your hand.
In looking through some old posts, I ran across one written in 2012 about finding boxes of letters our girls wrote the first few years they were away from home on their own: Elly at the University of Oregon and Sarah in New York City at the Academy of Dramatic Arts.
In the ensuing seven years since I wrote that post, there has been an enormous change in the attitude and behavior of young people who have left the nest to pursue higher education. For the most part this new breed seems to be too fragile, too insecure, too frightened to take on the job of becoming thoroughly grown up. We call them “snowflakes” for good reason. I just read that somewhere a professor of literature feels obliged to issue a trigger warning when they are about to read and discuss fairy tales!
The collection of letters from our daughters, tell the story of the everyday activities and concerns of teenagers during their first years away from home, learning to be independent during the seventies, when the digital age was just around the corner.
They are already historic documents of a sort
Hardly anyone writes letters like this any more. They were frequent and long— page after page of complete sentences. And almost all of them are written in longhand—very readable and consistent cursive. Sarah had no need for a typewriter since few papers were required at the Academy (her tool of learning was a cassette tape recorder). Elly had a typewriter, but chose to write in longhand instead of typing. The letters are truly charming, often funny, and frequently contemplative.
But I think even more important than that they represent the dying tradition of newsy letter writing is the fact that these girls were truly away from home and their parents. Today, maturing children can text and Skype and email and immediately get help, advice, or at least sympathy. Our girls had to figure it out by themselves. They could have phoned, of course, and sometimes they did, but I don’t recall too many phone calls, probably because it meant an international phone call charged by the minute. Today young people have contemporaneous back and forth texting at their fingertips. Even a phone call requires a certain amount of retrospective synthesizing of experience before you talk about it. Texting soon after or, for heavens sake during, an experience removes the probability of mulling it over independently.
However, I don’t think it was necessarily a totally positive situation. Learning to fly is hard, and many times I have thought how wonderful it would have been if we could have instantaneously communicated by email. And I am sure there were occasions that would have benefited from adult intervention. But our girls learned to manage—no doubt faster than if we had been available to help solve problems immediately. Both of them eventually lived in private housing and dealt with associated problems with landlords, phone companies , and the like. If they needed to go to the doctor, they just did. We learned about it later–a week or two later.
Instead of stuffing the letters back in the box we found them in, we decided to store them in archival boxes. Digitizing them is a bridge too far for us, but maybe someone someday will decide to do that.
I dare says everybody has important paper objects that need to be saved and protected for future generations. Not just the obvious diplomas, birth and marriage certificates, awards, and so on, but personal letters, photographs, post cards, greeting cards, children’s drawings, homework, and recipe cards. Yes–recipe cards!
If you want to know all about organizing and preserving your family memorabilia, check out the this source: http://thefamilycurator.com
Before beginning the perilous journey westward, the pioneers congregated on the edge of the prairie in what would eventually become my hometown of Kansas City. Here they outfitted their wagon trains in preparation for the arduous journey ahead.
I’ve often wondered where these women got the courage to leave loved ones and friends and all their familiar routines and possessions for an incredibly dangerous journey and a life of extreme hardship and scarcity as they tried to build a new life in a strange and lonely place.
The feminist historian, Julia Roy Jeffreys, wondered the same thing. In 1979 she consulted over 200 of those diaries, reminiscences, and collections of letters written by these women in preparation for writing Frontier Women: the Trans-Mississippi West 1840-1880.
In the introduction to this edition of the book Jeffrey writes,
I hoped to find that pioneer women used the frontier as a means of liberating themselves from stereotypes and behavior which I found constricting and sexist.
The behaviors and stereotypes she refers to constituted what is called “the doctrine of separate spheres” which dictated that woman’s place was in the home; man’s place in the world. The Victorian woman was expected to be submissive to her husband, concerned only with her home and children, having no interest or ability to engage in public affairs. She was above all genteel, pious, and pure. She was “the angel in the house; the madonna in the nursery.”
But what Jeffreys discovered surprised her
She found that frontier women did their best to maintain the Victorian stereotype even as necessity forced them to face decidedly unfeminine challenges.
That really didn’t surprise me. What did surprise me about this book was the author’s perserverance in spite of the fact that her research proved her assumptions incorrect at every turn and that in the end, though her core belief in feminism remained unshaken, she was willing to be wrong about the subject of her study.
Though my own ideological commitment remains the same, I now have great sympathy for the choices these women made and admiration for their strength and courage. I have continually wondered if any of us would have done as well.
Today, 40 years later, the attribute of open mindedness is in short supply. You just don’t see it very often, certainly not among third wave feminist academics.,
The moment we decided that we wanted to leave Manhattan came in a cab ride to the dentist, whose office is in midtown. I made the mistake of scheduling the appointment on Columbus Day. Any New Yorker can tell you what is wrong with that idea. The annual Columbus Day parade makes its way up Fifth Avenue, which means that traffic, which is always slow, comes to a virtual standstill in midtown as normal Fifth Avenue traffic is diverted to nearby streets.
So there we were sitting in a cab on Park Avenue in the middle of the day as pedestrians passed us by. I tried to divert my attention from the running meter by gazing out the window. And up—up—up—in the air so far up I had to scrunch down in my seat to see it— there was the great green dinosaur on top of a building then under construction. Okay, maybe this one wasn’t green, but it certainly looked ridiculous perched that high in the sky.
And then it occurred to us we didn’t want to live where the buildings are now no longer scraping the sky but piercing it. A boom in what are called “supertall towers” is underway in New York. In my opinion, these buildings are inhuman. They’re not awe inspiring; they’re frightening. And as Paul Goldberger, architecture critic, observes, they are changing the character of Manhattan as we have known it. Midtown, he notes, is no longer for New Yorkers. It is instead a place for tourists and globe-trotting billionaires.
A supertall building in New York is nothing new, of course. The Empire State Building is 1250 feet high; the Freedom Tower 1776 feet. (The Twin Towers were slightly over 1300 feet.)
What is different about the new supertalls is that they are super skinny residential buildings built with global billionaire investors in mind, and they are popping up all over, particularly in midtown, where their height gives them spectacular views of Central Park. In 2016, a Saudi retail magnate bought a penthouse at 432 Park (1396 feet high, 95 stories) for 87.7 million. Some sources say 95 million, but I guess it doesn’t much matter when money is literally no object. Not all of the apartments in this building are that expensive, of course. You can pick up an apartment on a lower floor for 15 to 20 million.
And Now Outside My Window
There’s the dinosaur, this one most certainly green, pouring concrete for a new apartment building. It will be a modest 16 stories tall, still too tall for the disgruntled citizens of Fleetwood, where the many apartment buildings here seldom rise above eight stories.
I guess we’ll not be having Saudi billionaire neighbors any time soon.
Snobbery is the basic cause of our nation’s present troubles. Sadly, we have been encouraging it for many years, I know because I was present the creation of modern snobbery.
First, a definition.
Snobbery flourishes when everyone is being rated on the same scale, as when the “No Child Left Behind” program forced children to move lockstep from K through 12, studying the same subjects, taking the same tests.
We have abandoned that program, thank heavens. But society still coerces students to feel it is essential that they go to college and to the “best” college possible. We ignore the fact that people who do not care for algebra or Proust may, indeed often, turn out to be “smarter” (a word no one can define) than people with degrees enough to paper a room.
America wasn’t always like this.
Before WW2, some people had college degrees; some professions required them, but most people did not, and this was not a handicap.
Old fashioned American snobbery was based on money.
But in a commercial society. a person whose status depends on money can never be fully at ease. The damndest people can get ahold of it and the grandest people can lose all they’ve got. The people with old money have to accommodate the folks with new money, and the people who used to have money have to learn new skills to survive. To some extent this uncertainty mitigated class differences.
But since 1960 we have had to deal with a more invidious class marker (bred in the bone, supposedly) that has led to the idea that America is divided into the elites and the deplorables.
In 1960 I was teaching at a private boys’ prep school When I was hired, I’d never heard of the SATs. I learned that my job was to get my students into colleges that accepted students largely on the basis of their SAT scores. The test was supposed to reveal a student’s “potential” for successfully completing college level work. Even in the innocent ignorance of my youth I had my doubts about this statistical winnowing. And the scores’ effect on my students was disheartening. When they learned their scores, they knew what (not “who”) they were: “Harvard material” or “state university material.” “Material” in any case.
Years later, I read Daniel Boorstin’s The Democratic Experience
In that book, Boorstin noted that 1960 was the first year the College Board told students their scores. Previously it told only the schools where they applied for admission. That same year, the president of the College Board made a speech in which he revealed that there had been “great fear” at the company that “students would have their values warped by learning their own scores.” Put more bluntly, he was afraid the students with high scores would be derided by the deplorables, but to his delight the students who made low scores were the ones who were derided—their lowliness having been scientifically confirmed by a multiple-choice test. He gleefully reported that his own children and their friends were referring to such “unfortunates” as “jerks,” while regarding with “awe” the “genius” who made 700. This, he declared, was a “triumph of morality.”
Yes, he actually said that!
And our screwed up belief that we should not be judgmental (that is, should not use our own experience to judge people on their character and achievements but should let multiple choice tests do our thinking for us has) been making things worse ever since.