Like many who suddenly become Seniors, I turn to the great literature and movies of my youth as reference points to gain a better foothold on this shifting dirt of mortality. To note the passing of an earlier age I hereby conjure up the voice of Upton Sinclair in his 1909 muckraking classic “The Jungle.” And why not? The internet is a vast Babel where History is yours for the ransacking. You, too, can be another pulsing frequency with a few deft mouse clicks.
In addition to the heartrending and thoroughly accurate accounts of slaughterhouse working conditions informed from undercover experience, Sinclair describes how economic blight and deprivation impact cultural standards. Within the immigrant Polish community in which many Chicago meat workers lived there was an Old World tradition that wedding guests compensated newlyweds for their lavish feast with gifts of money or high value items. Yet in America many invited revelers were living on the brink of survival, so the wedding banquet was only a temporary reprieve from starvation. These destitute guests had neither the means nor the inclination to contribute anything besides big appetites to the celebration. After the feast, before the customary time for toasts and presentation of gifts, some disreputable diners would exit out the banquet hall windows and jump to the street below. The hapless bride and groom would be ruined even before their first wedding night.
Bear with me. The drawing you see above was sent to Michael Wilde in ’96 (thanks to him for taking a digital shot recently). Not so long ago it was common for artists to embellish their letters and envelopes with quick sketches and doodles. Of course, correspondence has changed for the obvious reasons—the immediacy of the phone, social networking and email has made the slower exchange of ideas seem quaint. Yet these modern modes prod like alarm clocks. A well-conceived piece of writing demands rumination. There is an assumption that failure to respond immediately is some kind of lapse. But some ideas and emotions need to be absorbed before they are met in a worthy response. Part of the writing process entails showering these received ideas with attention and letting the field of present experience gradually illuminate them. Doodling and sketching are a way to get in the writing zone, or to compliment words that have been set down--and a well designed envelope is always a pleasure to receive. Some artists, most notably S. Clay Wilson, use embellished correspondence as a warm-up exercise.
Back to “The Jungle.” Though we aren’t (yet) reduced to handling cattle carcasses, most of us are struggling just to stay afloat. There are few, if any, positive predictions on the shape of things to come in the world economy. As an Icelandic wag remarked after the crash of Nokia, “We are all turning to porridge.” To step outside of the survival realm and to pretend that we are men of ideas with an innate need to communicate at the soul level is a neat trick for a cash-strapped man to perform. So when a friend or reader takes the time to imbue life with meaning via a personal contact—a feast that is shared with no other--it’s not uncommon for the recipient of that gift to jump out of the window like a sneaky Stockyards wedding guest by firing off a breezy email or simply not responding at all. Whether this is a personal failure or a savvy way to stay alive is not my judgment call to make. Only a wedding-leaper knows his true motives. But the lapse in substantive response is definitely a trend—and Facebook, tweeting, blogging, etc. don’t qualify as earnest personal communication. The obvious virtues of these social media are speed, mass replication and glitzy form; content is still dependent on old-fashioned individual consciousness.
Re: the drawing above. This is apparently a non-negotiable deal. Once you’ve made that bargain, it’s Tip-Taps, No Trade-Backs. But if I could somehow do it again, I’d exchange my Immortal Soul for Eternal Peace.