High- and low-brow cultural goings-on in the Second City, brought to you by a roving microtechnoanthropologist

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Friday, July 21, 2006


This entry has only a dubious place on a cultural blog, but it's partly a follow-up to my Grand Day Out with my nerdlinger nephew. To complicate things further, I'm going to screw up at least half of this story, because the interesting half is not mine, it's the lovely A's.

The lovely A has an uncle by marriage who is most decidedly a Character. He has a passion for collecting all kinds of things (e.g., ceramic insulators from railways) and will no doubt turn up as a small-town amazing story some day. But he's also downright Victorian about maintaining an organized collection of his personal correspondence.

This worked to A's advantage during college. She was taking a Tolstoy class from Edward Wasiolek who declared on the first day, "War and Peace is not a 'good book.' Pride and Prejudice is a 'good book,' but one simply does not mention it in the same breath as War and Peace." Through a series of Dickensian coincidences she learned that her uncle had, at some point, corresponded with Wasiolek. I can't recall why, but I have my theory that he's working through every phonebook in the US backwards, because the man gets around, correspondently speaking.

The pretext for the correspondence is not particularly important; the content's the thing. In a letter, Wasiolek revealed that, in his opinion, War and Peace was not the greatest novel ever written. In fact, his pick for greatest novel was not even by Tolstoy (no, I don't remember what it was). A never did get to leverage this information in any meaningful way, but there's still a certain satsifcation that comes with being able to sit in class and fix a model of pomposity with a stare that says, "I know you read V. C. Andrews in the dead of night, bitch."

For J, the equally lovely mother of the lovely A, the uncle's OCD about his correspondence didn't work out so well. She received an urgent phone call in the middle of the night (she lives in Reading, England, he, I believe, in Louisville, KY) from him. He was quite agitated and, naturally, she thought there was some kind of family emergency. There was, he insisted: For some reason (he suspected a fiendish plot), he simply could not find his copies of several letters that he had written to her in the early 1960s. Obviously the only solution to this problem was for her to forward the originals immediately. When she apologetically revealed that it was unlikely in the extreme that she no longer had them . . . well, it wasn't pretty.

The physical letter has all but died in my lifetime, and it's one of those things that I should have appreciated more during the death-rattle phase. I liked writing letters, and I loved receiving them. When my sister went away to college, I would write to her in my sporadic, 10-year-old way. Some weeks she might get three letters from me. Other times, a month might pass and she'd find that all her letters went unanswered. In retrospect that was an early sign of my hopeless sloth with regard to writing. She was always quick to tell me how not only she but everyone in her suite laughed uproariously at my funny letters, but even praise from the big kids couldn't get my pen consistently moving.

Around the same time, I was fascinated with the UK (thank you, Duran Duran and Wham! for opening my eyes to the world beyond the midwest), and my friend G and I signed up to get British pen pals. Mine was named Simone, and although I recall her lettters being remarkably dull, it was still a thrill to pull the mail down from the slot and see a neat, oddly sized envelope with the blue "par avion" sticker next to my name.

Of course, there were always notes to write in school. Whether anything worthy of being committed to paper was going on or not, one had an obligation. Through the end of grammar school and much of high school, I found myself frequently on the short end of the note stick. D, my geographically convenient "best friend" showed a remarkable resistance to any instruction in the use of the English language and she had little to say, and here was I, honor bound by the arcane codes of the pre-adolescent to be sure that the highest volume of notes flew back and forth between us.

G, in contrast, was a great note-exchange partner. She was frequently good for a collaborative short story that we'd shunt back and forth before we lost interest. Even when we weren't working on the great American novel (starring us and as many of the Taylors as we could cram in), we'd talk about music, videos, books, movies, and so on. The downside to correspondence with G was her mood swings. She had an intuitive grasp of the complex rules for preteen friendships and a draconian system for determining who was on or off the friend list on a given day. I lived to see many of my literary children dramatically shredded before my very eyes as part of the shunning, something for which I am deeply grateful in retrospect.

Overlapping with the tail end of the G Letters was my correspondence with D. I believe I still have---somewhere in one of my sealed boxes of stuff from before I became Me---the spiral notebook, bulging with additional materials, containing our story of Dr. Ditto and the Denizens of the Happyvale Home for the Hopelessly Helpless, a masterwork constructed over more than 2 years, but sadly never completed. The material from that period was much weirder than the Mary Sue stuff penned alongside G. And, not to put too fine a point on it, it was also much raunchier, at least by teenage standards. D claimed to have had extensive and strange sexual experiences pretty early on. To this day, I couldn't tell you how much of it was real and how much bullshit. She was an odd character.

In high school, the usual note conduits continued, although the pace of exchange between pairs changed imperceptibly over time. One "highlight," if you can call it that, during high school was the development of the rebus notes that my friend B and I used to exchange on Fridays. Given that I have a black hole in my brain where artistic ability should be, I can't imagine why this was fun for me, but I have quite fond memories of it.

By the end of high school, my darker, more serious notes were primarily reserved for M (no, really), who was one of my most important "chosen" high school friends (as opposed to those who were predestined friends by geography). Oh, we were very deep and angst-filled indeed. Our ideal situation would have been to have tortured romances with guys who were friends with one another. We tried hard to make that happen, but we were hampered by the fact that the die for my tortured romance had been cast long before then, and all his friends were---well---losers, many of them of the dangerous-in-an-uninteresting-way kind. But amidst the relationship and angst dross, there was good stuff in that correspondence.

We were both groping our way toward something resembling musical taste and examining why that was necessary at such a late date. My excuse was two older sisters who came of age in the '70s and parents who missed The Sixties entirely. End result: My options were Roger Whittaker or the Bee Gees, Helen Reddy or Shaun Cassidy. That ain't no way to treat a lady, let me tell you. M was the second child of two Irish immigrants and to stereotype rampantly for a moment, if you couldn't cry into your beer over it or bash in someone's head to the driving beat, it wasn't really music. So M and I discovered the Beatles (via The White Album, the only way to go) together along with the Stones (as well as The Chieftains, Roy Orbison, Buddy Holly, Peter Gabriel, and a host of others).

The Stones led us to exploit the foolishly open-ended voting process by which the prom theme was decided upon. We simply nominated "Paint it Black" on the forms helpfully provided in each of the Senior homerooms. It not only won by a landslide, but I think only one other person nominated something else. (An extremely dull, humorless individual with the initials KR, if memory serves, who once wrote a review of Ferris Bueller's Day Off criticizing it for its implausible plot.) I can't remember what it was, but it's possible that those foolish enough to attend Senior Prom wound up with a Anne Murray theme. The Before Me boxes remain sealed tight indefinitely, but I wonder how much of the M Files survived various purges.

I have in my possession one letter that I wrote the night before I left for college. It's addressed to the guy I was dating at the time, a fact that galls me beyond the telling of it. I never mailed it. I never even put it into an envelope. I guess I should maybe give myself some credit for recognizing that it should never have been addressed to him. It's the one piece of writing of my own that I have actually reread and managed to suppress the urge to tear it to shreds, burn the shreds, and bury the ashes at a crossroads. That's kind of odd, because in many ways it is the epitome of everything I hate about my own writing---pretentious sounding, bordering on melodramatic, etc. I guess I've saved it because I've built up a personal myth about how I really became Me the moment I set foot on U of C's campus, and that letter represents the crucial liminal moment. Maybe that's how A's uncle feels about every letter he's ever written.

It's hard to believe, but I was still writing letters up through much of college. The lovely A returned to England most summers, so phone calls weren't really feasible (and neither of us was much for talking on the phone anyway), so we wrote back and forth. Those letters I keep more accessible, being 9/10 joy and very little pain, and everytime I take them out, I laugh just as hard as I did the first time. But there were also college letters from my boyfriend, who lived in California and, over my first, horrible, interminable summer home, had gone to Spain. I think some or all of those survived the end of the relationship, which is remarkable, given my slash-and-burn policy, but destruction would have given the end a false sense of emotional impact that things just really didn't have by the drawn-out end.

Other things I've saved include the odd card or thank you note: One from my aunt for my college graduation in which she acknowledged that, despite being 20 minutes from my natal home, the distance to Hyde Park was incalculable; one from my little brother, thanking me for his wedding gift, which began: "6*** S. K**** [our childhood address] was created to test the faithful . . . ." But in general, I've lost most of my sentimentality about preserving every little thing I've received.

I don't know when I last wrote a real letter. Sadly, the closest I've probably come in recent years is sympathy cards. People tell me I'm good at sympathy cards. Statistically, I suppose we all have to be good at something, and that sounds about right for me. Oh, and on a much more cheerful note (heh, note), I've just remembered that somewhere in my office there should be a notebook with a letter I wrote to my brother the night after his accident, when we didn't know whether or not he'd wake up again.

Believe it or not, this entry started out as a story that, to me anyway, is funny. I guess I'll wrap things up with that part. Yesterday, I received a standard 9 x 12 envelope addressed in childish printing to yours truly. Inside was an oddly sized piece of stationery wrapped around a slip of paper that had obviously been trimmed down from a regular 8 1/2 x 11 sheet. It was---kind of---a thank you note from my nephew C for taking him to the Field Museum. I reproduce the note in its entirety, wholly without permission:

Hi Aunt [Matilda]!

I've wrote this letter for two reasons. One, I wanted to thank you for taking me to the museum of natural history! It was very fun! Two I wanted to argue against [two scratch outs] Paeleontologists (sic). I watched a video made in 2003. It said that big Theropods never lived at the same time as big Sauropods. for the exeption (sic) of theropod Giganotosauras and sauropod Argentinosuarus. But, Allosaurus is a big Theropod right? It's almost as big as T-rex. And Allosaurus lived long massive sauropods such as Apatosaurus, Brachiosaurus, and [scratch out, but please note that he embraces the serial comma, bless his buttons] Barosauras!

P.S. the grey numbers on the timeline [the slip of paper is a timeline of species] mean million years ago.

Kind of makes me feel like I ought to rise to the task of tending to and preserving such a correspondence.

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Anonymous Chawunky said...

Oh, agreed.

I rail against the invidious slackening in my production of non-electronic mail, but the brain grows tired...

7:00 AM  
Blogger Matilda said...

Ironically, "Invidious Slackening" is a great blog name, nu?

8:04 PM  

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