Saturday, October 22, 2011

I gave a letter to the postman … but not recently

The personal letter – you know, the paper kind – has been in ill health for a long time. It caught a nagging cough with the advent of affordable long distance. It really started wheezing when everybody got email accounts. Now it’s nearly flat-lined because of social media.

I can’t remember the last time I found a real letter among the bills, catalogs, magazines and junk mail. Apparently I’m not alone. The Post Office says the average household receives personal mail – a greeting card with a note, for example – every two months.

Thank goodness for Hallmark. I treasure the cards I receive from family and friends and tuck many of those with personal messages away in a shoebox that is now overflowing. I especially cherish the cards from my grandkids. The birthday, Father’s Day and thank you cards they send tell a unique story that begins with a few scribbles, moves to little drawings and proudly printed names, and continues to fully formed thoughts and complex sentences that reveal the remarkable little people they have become.

I write quick notes to clients, jot a few lines in greeting cards and occasionally type, print and mail a short letter to my octogenarian father, who is not exactly cruising down the information superhighway. (He’s a retired postal employee, but I’m sure that’s just a coincidence.) The rest of my written correspondence is electronic.

My mother made me a scrapbook containing dozens of letters she had written her mother when I was an infant and toddler. My grandmother saved all of my mom’s weekly letters, perhaps in a shoebox. They are sweet, mundane and provide both an otherwise unavailable snapshot of my childhood and priceless insight into the person who was my 20-year-old mother.

When my son was in the Navy, I made sure to write him at least weekly, because I remember what it was like not to hear the mail clerk call my name. Though, I must confess that the opposite was usually true in my case. I was a newlywed in basic training and received several letters most days, much to the envy of the other well-shorn guys in my flight.

Email is fast, efficient and always available. Social media lets you correspond simultaneously with hundreds, thousands or even millions of people (if you’re Lady Gaga). Even though IT professionals and convicted inside traders will attest that email has a long electronic tail that is pretty hard to erase, I don’t know anyone who saves even their most memorable emails in a real (or virtual) shoebox. Too bad.

Saturday, October 15, 2011

If you say “f**k” when your shoelace breaks, what do you say when your tire blows on the freeway?

I was raised by a mother for whom OMG means “oh my gosh” and a father who once sent the backseat into a giggling state by calling a coworker a “horse’s rear end.” Their good example didn’t take. I played team sports, served in the military and lived in New Jersey. So I know my way around an expletive.

The same example was not set by the father in the classic “A Christmas Story,” who grownup Ralphie described this way: “He worked in profanity the way other artists might work in oils or clay. It was his true medium; a master.”

I do regret that the best curse words have lost their power to shock. The South Park kids said “shit” 162 times on a recent episode – and that’s basic cable. Keep your ears open as you walk along a city street, shop the mall or sit in a restaurant and count the number of times you hear one of George Carlin’s seven words. Not in mixed company? Forget it. Pardon my French? So passé.

The preschool teacher told the kids that “stupid” was a bad word. That was three years ago. To this day, granddaughter Ava will stare daggers through me if I call a movie stupid, but go right on coloring if I happen to let the f-bomb slip during a ballgame.

The n-word still shocks me. Last winter my son and I attended a Phoenix Suns game and sat near a group of young African American men. Some sat in the row behind us, some in the row in front of us, but they were all together. The n-word word was clearly part of their everyday vocabularies and, yes, I know the “rule” that says minority groups can use certain words to describe themselves but that doesn’t give the rest of us the right to use them. Still, I was glad that my grandchildren weren’t there to hear the casual use of that offensive word.

“I know a really bad word and it starts with an ‘F,’” five-year old granddaughter Sophie recently told her mother. “That’s a very bad word that you must never say,” Amy told her. “In fact that’s the worst bad word of all.” “Oh,” said Sophie, “I thought the worst word was ‘noodlehead.’”

I’ve been trying to curb my swearing around the grandkids, with people I’ve just met and in general. But sometimes it’s pretty darn hard. See Mom? I’m trying!