The Year Everything Important Happened

Throw-Back Thursday

In ancient times, in another life, at work on an IBM Selectric with its trademarked changeable balls of font, the infernal machine and bottle of Makers Mark cropped from the photograph, circa 1984.

It has been said that in my heyday I was an enticing letter writer, and they were almost never typed.  Scouting about for some analogy to this blogging phenomenon (Is it epistolatory in nature?  Will it catch on?) I found myself trying to explain to a friend who never does social media why people do (blog).  “I suppose there’s a charm to it,” he wrote back, “but it is hard for me [an academic – Ed. note] since I am used to historical and cultural and textual specificity, to figure out what is at stake in the generalized literacy of these exchanges.”

“It’s like cocktail conversation,” I replied somewhat unhelpfully, “except you don’t have to dress up and it’s typed instead of uttered with a drink in hand.”  Come to think of it, I reflected, there could well BE a drink in hand in some cases.  One-handed typing, that is, which would suggest another kind of on-line entertainment altogether and about which I ardently hoped my academic friend was unaware.

“So this explains the curiously hip and worldly-wise tone you seem to adopt?” he inquired.

“I admit,” I wrote back only slightly defensively,  “there might be an element of flirtation.”  I could have expanded on the subject but restrained myself.  One’s audience is so unpredictable and unknowable, I explained.  “We work in the dark,” I wrote, fond of the phrase.

“You don’t know who you’re corresponding with?” he asked.

Yes and No, I confessed, half-lying.

“You feel isolated,” he remarked.

“It’s not quite like that,” I countered, as if I were caught out writing to Miss Lonelyhearts.  I thought of my father and men like him with their ham radio set-ups in basement rooms across the Midwest, excited about making contact with some stranger in another state on a clear night.  Or truckers talking to each other on CB radios as they roared along some endless anonymous stretch of interstate.

“What interests me,” my friend continued, “is the relation between the isolation and the self-presentation.  Are people obsessed with self-presentation because they’re so isolated?  Or is isolation an effect of the emphasis on self-presentation?  I tend to think the latter.  It’s hard to sustain a controlled play of surfaces in a social milieu.  Just like real bodies don’t stay put the way pornographic images do.”

I agreed, for the sake of the argument.

But really, it’s ham radio, I wanted to reply.  With pictures. For strangers.  Not like letters (if you have any of mine, please burn them).

Or maybe my friend is right.  It’s a game of self-presentation.  Dear Reader, I could be an elderly Dutch woman on my grandson’s MAC for all you know.  I could be working for “To Catch a Predator.” I could be anyone.

I could be someone you know.

[Originally posted 11/13/2007]


  1. You could pass for the young Walter Benjamin in that photo . . . hard at work on The Arcades Project.

    In 1989, after you left, I occupied that same office. The Makers Mark was replaced with Stoli, but nothing else changed.

    • Thank you, my darling, I’m honored by the comparison. I also hope there was nothing else I left behind, besides empty liquor bottles.

  2. Dear Ida,

    You didn’t adopt hip. You invented it. How could anyone miss that?

    But leave it to an academic to miss the obvious. Repeatedly. What a silly presumption that the act of communicating is isolating. It has never been so, not now, and not when the first cave person stood before the community and grunted out a story. When you post your thoughts, Ida, you are at one with the pre-historic cave painters, the Greek theater, Shakespeare, Verdi and Shonda Rhimes. To name but a few.

    But as you know, dear Ida, I’m wary of self-professed “academics” these days.

    Yours circumspectly,


  3. Oh Rose, my darling, you always make me feel as if it’s worth going on. Nearly ten years at this game of blog, can you imagine? I have enjoyed it, really.

  4. Every time I watch “Suspicion,” I get a kick out of Joan Fontaine starting her day in the aptly-named “Morning Room” — reading and writing her “correspondence.” Oscar Wilde and Flaubert and Capote and tens of thousands of others did the same – instead of the internet, they dispatched messenger boys across London or Paris or New York and took a nice walk down to the village post office. It was really just slow social media.
    I am not among those who bash communication via the internet as somehow less “real” than writing letters or face-to-face exchange. I used to seek out just as much daily (or rather nightly) back and forth in bars – I remember myself as being quite witty but I daresay it was all very alcohol-inflected.

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