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The last telegram

Western Union calls it quits



Last week, Western Union delivered its last telegram. In a time when you can send a text message on a cell phone, the telegram had become an anachronism with more nostalgic appeal than actual convenience. Western Union itself will continue to do what it's mainly done in recent years -- move money around the planet. You can wire cash but not congratulations.

My own birth was the subject of a telegram my uncle Mark sent to my mother. I was born with a full head of hair that stood upright on my head. After my uncle saw me, he sent my mother this telegram: "Well, I'll be a monkey's uncle."

Although the telegram has been rendered useless by the speed of present communication, its development more than a century ago presaged the e-mail and instant messaging that has all but eliminated the writing of letters. Not only did the telegram allow rapid communication, but by charging by the word it put a premium on brevity of expression -- ideal rehearsal for IMs and e-mail. (Of course, the phone also played a part in the telegram's death, but for many years it was actually cheaper to send a telegram than make a long-distance phone call.)

I don't recall the last time I received a personal letter. I've received a few from readers of my columns and I confess I'm always wary of opening them. Handwritten envelopes actually look peculiar nowadays and I imagine some wannabe Unabomber type sending me anthrax or, as happened years ago, a little lump of feces wrapped in a clipped column. I open them at arms' length. Usually, they turn out to be from older readers who shun computers.

Zillions of words have been written to lament the death of letter-writing. It's certainly true that e-mail doesn't involve or convey what a handwritten letter does. Holding someone's letter in your hands, reading it over and contemplating a response that will reach the writer days later creates time for reflection. That means less reactive, more thoughtful writing.

E-mail and instant messaging are notoriously reactive. Something strikes us the wrong way and our fingers fly to the keyboard. Then, in a single keystroke, our reply is in our new adversary's electronic mailbox. Unlike the angry letter we write and then, having purged the anger, decide not to actually mail, the bitter e-mail can't be recalled. What often ensues is a "flame war," with anger escalating until you condemn your new enemy to a blocked correspondents list.

That such explosive encounters often occur between people who have never actually met is creepy. On multiple occasions, I've met people with whom I've had a pleasant conversation in a bar or coffee shop. But when we exchange names, it turns out that we've had an angry exchange through e-mail over something I wrote in a column or on a discussion website. Usually when that happens, the two of us end up marveling at how different people can be in person. But on a few occasions, the pleasant conversation has turned into a shocked monologue about the shit I have for brains.

While the telegraphic style of e-mail and instant messaging has brought letter writing to an end, it also has given rise to a new form of written personal communication -- web logs or "blogs," which are essentially personal journals posted on the Internet. I mean that they are personal in the sense that they are usually the work of one person, but they often are devoted to a single theme like music or politics.

The blog is like a collection of e-mails available to the public, which is often invited to post feedback. Depending on the dedication of the blog owner, that can create substantial, meaningful discourse despite the eruption of flame wars. Indeed, some bloggers have evolved into an army of citizen journalists who now often scoop members of the mainstream media. Because they operate outside the milieu of the corporate newsroom, bloggers are often able to see and state what reporters in the media fail to observe.

Of course, there also has been a kind of backlash against electronic communication. Journaling for personal growth, compared to blogging about a particular theme, has been enjoying a renaissance for years. I use journaling in my own practice with clients and have repeatedly found that it, like any aesthetic undertaking, invites people into a deeper self-examination than simply talking about themselves. Of course, writing requires a higher level of motivation than talking, since the very writing of a page tends to move you into a different way of thinking. It also preserves a record that can be objectively examined, whereas talking can recycle you endlessly in the same story, and leaves only a vague memory.

Years ago, I came across the telegram the government sent my grandmother, announcing that my mother's brother had been killed in World War II. While new ways of communicating have rendered the telegram archaic, it's also true that nothing in our present culture has become as iconic in announcing important personal news.

Look for Cliff Bostock's food blog coming soon to the Food & Drink section of Cliff Bostock holds a Ph.D. in depth psychology.

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