It occurred to me as I drove off in my Zipcar Tuesday afternoon that some people might find my forthcoming journey…well, supererogatory. After all, I’d just spent eight days tearing around Wisconsin in a rented car, looking at plays, visiting museums, and sleeping in Frank Lloyd Wright houses. Why on earth would I want to jump in another rented car and drive off to the Catskills less than twenty-four hours after coming back to New York?
The difference, of course, is that I went there not to look at plays and museums but to do nothing. Now, nobody ever does absolutely nothing, at least not strictly speaking. I spent most of Tuesday and Wednesday driving up and down country lanes in New York, Pennsylvania, and New Jersey, listening to the satellite radio in my Zipcar (I’m especially fond of “Frank’s Place,” “Savoy Express,” and “X Country”), and reading the galleys of a new biography of Elia Kazan. On the other hand, I did these things when I wanted to, not when I had to, and when not doing them I sat in comfortable chairs on quiet balconies and looked at two of the prettiest views I know. Except for reading the book, I couldn’t have done any of this at home. That’s why I got up on Tuesday morning, wrote my drama column, packed the smallest possible bag, and returned to the road.
I don’t usually bring my iBook with me when I take short trips, but I had to this time, since it was necessary that I stay in touch with The Wall Street Journal to resolve any last-minute problems with the launch of my Saturday column, which was still working its way down the production line as I left town. Having admitted this much, I’ll go further and confess what a few of you already know, which is that I also succumbed more than once to the temptation to check the rest of my e-mail. (Naughty, naughty!) In it I found this note from an old friend:
I felt, during my chemotherapy, that I lived in the Goldberg Variations, because it was the universe.
I’ve never undergone chemotherapy (though I’ve watched it being given many times), but I have had a not entirely dissimilar experience with Bach’s Goldberg Variations. If you’re going to have mystical experiences accompanied by a piece of music, I guess you can’t do much better than the Goldbergs, and should the time ever come when I find myself in an extremity as dire as being on the business end of chemotherapy, I hope I’ll have the presence of mind to recall that reassuring fact.
I thought about my friend’s message late Wednesday night as I sat in a rocking chair on a screened-in balcony overlooking the Delaware River. His wasn’t the only piece of mail I had occasion to answer on my trip. That very morning I’d stopped at a Catskills post office to send eight postcards to a West Coast blogger with whom I’ve been exchanging handwritten snail mail of late. Each of them bore a reproduction of a painting by an artist I like, the artists in question being Milton Avery, Richard Diebenkorn, Hans Hofmann, Winslow Homer, Wassily Kandinsky, Edouard Manet, Henri Matisse, and Fairfield Porter.
This correspondence was inspired by my new friend, who wrote to me a few weeks ago as follows:
Isn’t it nice to open letters, too? In a funny way, I think all the email/blogging returns an almost romantic, Victorian specialness to pen & paper correspondence.
Until I answered her note, it had been years since I’d last sent anyone a handwritten letter longer than the compass of a notecard. Part of what inspired me to do so was her handwriting, which is neat, fresh, and a delight to behold. It took the place of the imagined sound of her voice: I felt as if she were sitting across a table, telling me about herself, and I felt irresistibly inspired to reciprocate.
My own hand, alas, is not so easy or rewarding. I’m left-handed, with an ink-smudging overhand hook so exaggerated that my first-grade teacher, who in 1962 was already a thoroughly cranky old woman, tried briefly and vainly to get me to write with my right hand. I’ve found penmanship awkward ever since, which is why I learned to type as a boy and why I took so readily to e-mail as a grownup. Yet my correspondent was right: convenient though e-mail is, there’s something uncanny about receiving a handwritten letter, and no less uncanny about sending one. To be sure, we also exchange e-mail on occasion, but what we say to one another in our own hands (what a perfect phrase!) is subtly but nonetheless distinctly different in tone and character from the notes we send electronically, and while I wouldn’t want to go back to snail mail on a full-time basis, it always makes me smile to peer in my mailbox and see her handwriting twinkling among the bills and press releases.
One of the postcards I sent her from the Catskills was a list of ten pieces of piano music to which I feel especially close (she’s a pianist). Three, as it happened, were musical impressions of water, and all are on my iPod, so I decided as I rocked away in the near-silent night to listen to Dinu Lipatti’s 1948 recording of the Chopin Barcarolle, Vladimir Horowitz’s 1966 recording of Debussy’s L’isle joyeuse, and Alfred Cortot’s 1931 recording of Ravel’s Jeux d’eau. I first heard these classic performances some thirty years ago, and by now I know them well enough that I tend not to return to them too often, but hearing them again as I sat by a river at night brought them back to life.
I wondered as I listened what my friend was doing. Was she practicing piano? Looking at the Pacific Ocean? Listening to Chopin or Debussy or Ravel? Might she somehow sense that she was on my mind? Such are the questions occasionally stirred up by handwritten letters, and I wonder whether e-mail will ever produce the same synchronistic effects on its future users. Or perhaps that’s mere nostalgia on my part, the idle suspicion of a middle-aged man who clings determinedly to the marvels of the present moment without ever quite coming to believe in them. And perhaps I’ll live long enough to know the answer.