Chico: “Why a duck? Why a no chicken?”
Groucho: “Well, I don’t know why a no chicken. I’m a stranger here myself…”
That exchange, from the 1929 movie The Cocoanuts with the Marx Brothers, begins when Groucho mentions a viaduct. I totally relate to Groucho and his humble defeat in the face of unwitting, practical, rational foils in the wide world. Nevertheless, there is a payoff for all involved…it’s funny and silly and superb. It makes you laugh. In that way, it is a kind of salvation.
What is this screen we are viewing, this link to the cyber world, if not a kind of viaduct, a series of arches and spans that take us, quickly and easily, across spaces where access would ordinarily be stymied and hampered. Perhaps, citizens felt the same way about the creation of the postal service: the stamp being another little square that opened up communication to anywhere in the world. I used to hear people grouse they didn’t like email, too impersonal, too gimmicky, mechanical. For me it was like sending an instant postcard. (I do love postcards and pick them up wherever I can and keep them in a box to send. Much nicer to magnet onto a refrigerator than a printout.)
Regardless of the anthropology, people today find it formidable to take up a pen and paper and write a letter. (I still like those, too. Can you recall the last long letter you received?) “Snail mail” (tell that to the tortoise),or letters can be intimidating to people. I have put off a lot of pen pals. They feel that can’t keep up the back and forth. It’s not a game of tennis and it really isn’t necessary. A letter is sent as a gift, to open, hold, and enjoy (“Dear John’s” excluded), and if you are moved to return one, fine; if not, so be it. Suddenly, there is this daunting obligation to write back and the longer you wait the guiltier you feel. How often do you see, “I am so sorry it took so long to get back to you…I apologize for not returning your letter…” Then, come a litany of disclaimers: busy, sick, house guests, flood, moving. Forgive yourselves! When I delay writing a letter it’s because I am not in the mood. I feel like shit, and I don’t want my pal to know how lousy things are. And, you need an hour to craft a fine letter. Let’s face it, it is hard to carve the time these crazy days. We sit at our desk nowadays and there is a computer, not sheaves of luxe Italian stationary, a letter opener, pen and inkwell, sealing wax, blotters, stamps, and all the fun accessories. It’s too bad. (In some it’s not. I have lousy handwriting and I feel for anyone who has to decipher my script.)
Sitting at a computer, or thumbing on a phone, seems more like repartee, especially on the social networks. They can be a lot of fun for folks. (And, yes, abusive; seen that. So, can letter bombs.) Especially fun for those wags that are truly witty. Me? I’m not, and am not always comfortable in that milieu. Like a wallflower. I’m at the dance, but sitting quietly on the side, observing, fearful of being approached, but longing to be a part.
Viaduct? On her large, interactive sculpture “Precious Liquids”, Louise Bourgeois engraved “Art is a guarantee of sanity.” Belying the stereotypical crazy artist, creativity, at any level, is a shout out, a karate yelp to help you break through, a cheer, not so much to the world as out of us. I’m in the dark and I want to get out, to call “Marco!” in the hopes of a “Polo!” in return. Like Groucho, I am a stranger here myself.
You bet your life.