Tuesday, April 21, 2009

"Hi, Uncle Ray!"

Yesterday would have been a day on which I had lots of news for my uncle Ray. Would you believe it, I always liked to begin things, I got my one and only check from my blog's former advertising network, in the whopping amount of $27 and change, representing the farewell-and-godspeed revenue from a year's worth of ad impressions. I earned about ten cents a day from my fifteen or twenty happenstance visitors, and now that I've changed networks in the hope of what everybody calls increased traffic, BlogHer has closed my account and mailed me my share. We'll see what the future holds. FoodBuzz pays your ten cents right into your bank account. This could get interesting.

And then my niece sent me a copy of the first issue of the new senior citizens' financial newsletter that she is editing, and for which I hope to write a column on economical home cooking. Her boss is out of commission, post-surgery, for a month, so I'll have no word for a while on whether or not my idea will fly with her, allowing me -- if it does fly -- almost a kind of paying writing job. And in between taking in the mail and doing the laundry and making a nice garlic soup for dinner, I was also typing up a syllabus for a potential "Wine 101" class that I propose to teach at a local community college this fall, if they'll have me. My Uncle Ray would like that, as he was quite the aficionado himself and was also planning his second wine tasting, to take place this fall at the local senior citizens' center. His first, last winter, attracted forty people, among them a number of elderly ladies who then started sending him Christmas cards.

I would have had all this news to tell him, not because my life is so very fascinating but because over the last several years, my 86-year-old uncle and I have developed an e-mail correspondence that was little short of miraculous. He is my uncle by marriage, the husband of my mother's sister. On the surface we don't have a lot in common. We are more than forty years apart in age and, because he and my aunt and their children, my cousins, lived elsewhere and family reunions always seem tempting for next year -- this year everyone is so busy -- he and I probably did not spend more than twenty or thirty days actually together in all our lives. After my aunt died four years ago, he maintained the tradition of sending my siblings and me birthday cards, always with two dollars in them. Inflation and advancing age be damned. We got our two dollars. I responded to my birthday card, three years ago, by email because my mother told me he had just gotten a computer and knew how to do that, and so did I. He wrote back right away and we have corresponded ever since.

It is only the miracle of email that has done it. We never would have written back and forth on paper, with a pen and an envelope and a stamp. I have always envied former ages their facility with the personal letter, and have wondered why the modern age, or modern America, abandoned that habit. I used to try to frankly browbeat my high school friends into writing regularly to me, but the letters always fell away on their side. Later, when we also got back in touch, a little, through email, we agreed how much more comfortable electronic writing is. "You don't feel obliged to fill a whole piece of paper," "you don't feel like you have to be perfect." "You don't have to worry about your handwriting." "You don't feel like you have to wait for something interesting to write about." (I certainly didn't. Uncle Ray and I spent a lot of ether-space discussing the weather, or the WX, as he put it. He was an ex-air traffic controller during the war and liked to keep to military abbreviations.)

There is something about the paper and pen letter that is at once presumptuously intimate and coldly formal, although our scribbling ancestors apparently didn't think so. Maybe it served as their email. Maybe technology is neither the point nor entirely the excuse for people who could correspond and don't -- maybe you are just born with a letter-writing personality, or you are not. At any rate, I am glad that the miracle of the internet came along in time for our two personalities to correspond in the way modern people feel easy with, because it was not only great fun but a great comfort, too. The last several years included some rather hectic times for me, times when it helped to remember, "I'll write to Uncle Ray." My only regret is that for the first few months, I read his emails, laughed, and then deleted them. Then it dawned on me to print them out and save them, because after all they are what they are: letters. Now I have three small binders filled with them, from August of 2006 to April of 2009. Even though by deleting the first dozen I've lost a few gems -- SORRY ABOT THE TPING NAN DAMN -- CANT SEEM TO GE T IT -- I USE THE COLUMBUS SYSTEM --- FND IT AND LAND ,,,,ALSO FLINKED SPELLING -- it happens that the first one in my collection begins appropriately enough. GREAT TO BE IN CONTACT -- WX CYCLES ARE CHANGNING FASTER THAN A BABYS DIAPER,,,

As will be pretty obvious by now, the reason my little budget of news of yesterday sits uncommunicated to Uncle Ray is because as I was working on my Wine 101 syllabus, the phone rang. I looked at the caller I.D. screen and saw the call was coming from my cousin's house. This would be Uncle Ray's son, who lives in the same town with him. There was no reason, except one, for any call to come to me from that house. For some idiotic reason I felt compelled to address my cousin as "honey" while we talked.

Uncle Ray had died in his sleep overnight, after spending a great weekend with his visiting kids, playing Scrabble I am sure, going out to eat, going to the casinos and doing all the other things he liked to do. I don't know if he had them all playing bridge "with the old folks" or playing bingo "with my senior citizen friends" -- WE DONT PLY FOR MONEY ,,, I WON AN ORANGE AND A BANANA -- HJEY DON'T KNOWKC IT PRODICE IS EXPENSIVE ARF ARF-- or for that matter sitting in on the writers' group he had just joined, but anyway they were as busy and as celebratory as he liked to be. And then, without warning, it was time. In the end, no matter that no one is ready, there are few greater blessings than a peaceful death in sleep after a full, healthy life, a full month, week, weekend, day ... night.

Now I am left with no email buddy, no unique source of support and experience from another era, and (most selfishly) no audience for a particular kind of writing that was enjoyable and, when need be, a relief to the feelings. I ended up aping his style, minus the CAPS LOCK button, and found I could dash out the day's or the week's news in ten minutes without agonizing over tone or anything. It didn't go into a drawer like a mewling little diary, somebody saw it and that alone gave it a bit of life. I could dash out little things that are absolutely meaningless except that I saw them, and amused him with them: would you believe it, the young couple next door has dragged out their fire pit for the summer -- it's huge -- why burn wood in the heat? -- oh well, he's a cop, so it's good to have him nearby (I think) .. and a huge dog just went galloping thru our yard.. good thing the kids are in school, this guy looked like he meant business...

Perhaps that is exactly the correspondence that people used to carry on in the days when they were comfortable with pen and paper; perhaps a different type of education only makes old letters, old published letters anyway, seem elegant, artistic, and startlingly soul-baring in a way email is not. Regardless, I'm extremely grateful for my three slim plastic binders filled with almost three years' worth of Uncle Ray's letters. They are a kind of distillation of a family, a little bottle filled with the years of two families' relationships. I can remember, when I was growing up, the high points of life were always the times when the Smiths were coming to visit. It was the equivalent of five Christmas Eves and a couple of birthdays all rolled into one. They were fun. You could hardly believe how fun, you could hardly keep up with the volcano of talk, laughter, and activity, and then when the visit was over and their cars bearing the out of state license plates had pulled away from the curb, life seemed very plain and ordinary again.

I have often wondered since what it must have been like to live in previous ages, when people not only wrote more letters, but also lived in extended families. What would it have been like to see the Smiths every week -- maybe every day? Perhaps people in previous ages found that the routine presence of extended family got tiresome, everybody under the same roof, good Lord, and longed only for a privacy ever out of reach. The historian Robin Lane Fox in Pagans and Christians says that anyway the cozy extended family as we imagine it did not often exist. Mortality rates being as awful as they were, often a "family" was a collection of survivors of disparate age groups and very disparate origins. Not much fun, not much union or comfort in that.

I don't know what it would have been like. We live long since in a civilization closed to the extended family. But miraculously I at least have my personal distillation. Have you ever read interviews with people in which they are asked what they would save from a fire, if they could only choose one thing? Now I can tell you. And it's not my novel.

I can also tell you how to live your life when you reach your eighties. Before that I can't judge, because before that, Uncle Ray and I didn't correspond. But here is what I want you to do. I want you to enjoy eating and drinking as much as possible, for one thing. I want you to cook good meals for yourself, even if you are alone. When you are invited to a party, go, even if you feel funny about it for whatever reason. WHAT THE HEY, ITS A PARYT. If you know things, like how to operate a ham radio or how to play bridge, then volunteer to teach classes to people. By all means, do apply for a job at the local airport when you are eighty-four, because you have a pilot's license as well as experience as an air traffic controller. Yes, organize wine tastings for the old folks, and make little reindeer and horses out of the glued-together corks, and sell them at the senior citizens' craft fair at Christmastime. You might earn ten bucks. If you join a writer's group, then you can write poems about all the politicians you don't like (WE NOW HAVE TWO APPOINTEES, OF KNOWN TAX EVASION, WHO OWE TOMES OF MONEY TO OUR BANKRUPTED NATION....). If a local university student needs a volunteer to help with a semester-long project on physical fitness and the elderly, yes, do that too. Think what you can tell the kid. Crossword puzzles, travel, playing internet poker, going gambling, and carefully figuring out what California wine club will give you the best deal per case should take up the rest of your time. You could go to the movies or read a book occasionally if you like, but then when will you sleep?

When indeed? I won't advise you to also start emailing relatives forty years your junior (or otherwise), because your personality is yours, and despite the convenience of new technology anything touching the edges of that sensitive personal issue, letter writing, can amount quickly to browbeating. There is no fun in that. But consider it. Consider unusual things like that, things that expose you, a little scarily, to other people. And if you'll indulge me I'll end as I would have ended any other budget of news. Well, I'll be going .. looking forward to getting together this summer, will be in touch .. take care, and love to all the Smiths -- TTYL

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