In Praise of the Comma

Life in the village appears to be going on as normal. The bakeries, epiceries, the butcher all are open, and people come and go throughout the day. After that first day following the announcement of impending quarantine when there was something of a rush to the stores, things have now settled back to a normal pace. This morning I made a quick shop that took me to the bakery and two epiceries, and in each case there were a couple of shoppers, keeping their distance, but carrying on normal conversations with the proprietor and other customers.

All is normal. Except once you have those groceries, you’re not allowed out of the house. Which leaves me sitting over my second cup of coffee watching the wood smoke rising lazily over the rooftops of the village, and thinking.

When my grandmother passed away, in the early 1970’s, I remember thinking that in the entire history of the world no one ever experienced a more amazing life span. When she was born in a rural village in Europe in the 1880s her home had no electricity. The simple act of going into a dark room and flipping a switch to bring on light did not exist.  Travel, if any, was powered by horse, or if a major journey, by coal or wood-fired steam engine. The notion of man flying was science fiction at best, lunacy at worst.  And yet in her lifetime man not only flew, he walked on the moon and sent pictures back for the world to see. Television, telephone, the automobile, refrigerators, and air conditioning all became the new normal, all in that one lifetime.

Now I sit here in this village where people have lived since before the time of the Romans, watching by internet Netflix or my NY Rangers, swapping emails and texting, buying books to read instantly at the press of a button, Skyping and Facetiming my kids and grandkids, seeing them on a whim from halfway around the world.

I know that by definition, I’m “elderly.”  I don’t feel old, but I can’t deny I am within striking distance of the age my grandparents lived.  My grandkids may well look at me and think that those of us who wear the now pejorative tag of “boomers” lived in as technologically primitive time as my grandparents.

And I wonder if my grandparents were as troubled as I by the unintended consequences.

Not so very long ago, hard to imagine, there was no internet. And then there was, and what could possibly be wrong  with that? Nothing, until the smart phone and tablet arrived, creating generations addicted to them, unable to disconnect even for dinner and conversation with someone in person, growing up with necks permanently tilted downward, and carpel tunnel syndrome in their hands.

Then came social media, which evolved into anti-social media.  The place where people communicated and exchanged ideas morphed into the platform for excoriating anybody with differing opinions–nobody changes anybody’s mind on Facebook.

Maybe more than anything, social media and the internet have diminished the written word. Nobody writes letters anymore. We wrote letters.

When I graduated from high school and went off to college, my buddies and I wrote letters to each other. I still have some of them. In a time when the so-called “long distance phone call”…that would be a call to another state…was darned expensive, my parents and I exchanged letters.  During the time when Beloved Wife and I were carrying on a long-distance relationship, we exchanged letters, long, thoughtful  exchanges of cabbages and kings.  I looked forward to those letters. I was excited when they arrived.  I would read, then re-read them, and think about what she had written.  I would savor those letters, just as I would savor the whacky stuff I got from my buddies.  I still have the letters she sent me, and I think it embarrasses her a little to know I kept them all. But I think those letters, and the experience of receiving them, and savoring them, and sitting down to write back, all contributed to my feeling that we had a great romance.

Letter writing made you think about what you were writing, and how you were saying it. Letter writing was a vehicle for thinking things out on paper, then offering them to a person who welcomed the exchange of thoughts and ideas. It made you careful, made you go back and be sure about what you put on paper and sent off  into the mail to be delivered a couple of days from now, careful about the spelling, the punctuation. You were, if only subliminally, aware of how it was going to look when it arrived.  Writing a letter was sharing a bit of yourself. I’m a bit sad that my grandkids won’t experience the excitement of getting a letter from someone and enjoying the sit-down to read it and think about it. Letters take too long now, email and texting get the job done.

Email and texting sounded the death knell for letter writing, for grammar and for punctuation. In exchange, we got instant send-off and instant gratification. Somehow, I don’t imagine anyone is likely to receive a long, thoughtful, deeply personal and well-written email that they will treasure and save for years.

No, these days words are replaced by fragments and emoji’s, and punctuation is an inconvenience.

Let’s eat grandma!

5 thoughts on “In Praise of the Comma

  1. Be sure to wipe down anything that comes from outside of your town ‘outside’ before you bring it into your home.

    We are all in a self imposed prison of sorts and I, for one, look forward to your posts.

    I still send Birthday, Anniversary and other Holiday cards and often write in them. People are not surprised anymore to get these dinosaurs from me. I had an elderly friend, when I lived in Los Angeles, and long after she went into memory care and passed, her son called me to say that she kept years of my missives to her. That made me feel good.
    These days, the number of people that are still around, still get cards from me for special occasions. My younger sister and I try to outdo each other with the crudest ones we can find. When I lived in Portland, Spencer’s, was the place to go for those.

    You could give us your real address in Le Leche, you might be surprised at what and who sends you mail.

    Take care, stay safe and eat fresh bread.



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