Only When I Laugh
by Elouise Bell
[p.84]Shopping for a greeting card recently, I realized that an anthropologist could do worse than study America’s greeting cards for insight into our world of the Nineties.
For example, among other things that day, I was searching for several “Congratulations!” cards. Just simple cards to say Hoorah for accomplishments of the sort that need to be recognized by someone besides your mother. It was difficult to find generic cards, for some reason, but I did find a wide range of “Congratulations on Your Diet!” sentiments and a number of “Congratulations on Your Retirement!” cards. One might conclude that in this culture today, the two most laudatory achievements are not eating and not working.
Years ago I gave some thought to doing a book about letter writing. Three or four chapters emerged from these musings. Then procrastination set in, like rheumatism, and by the time I got back to the idea, 10 and behold—people weren’t writing letters anymore. Slowly but surely, letter writing as a regular part of life was passing from the American scene. Historian Carol Smith Rosenberg, who studied letters of eighteenth- and [p.85]nineteenth-century women, found that in the course of a lifetime they wrote, quite literally, thousands of epistles to family and friends. One particular woman’s output totaled 100,000 letters (admittedly, she was an invalid, and one can assume that letter-writing was her hobby, or possibly her calling). Those days are no more, of course.
Today, on the shelves of Osco and Hallmark, we find dozens of elaborate, cute, contrite, and breezy ways of saying “Sorry I Haven’t Written.” Now think about that for just a minute: what does the abundance of such cards tell our hypothetical anthropologist? First, that writing to distant friends (or more accurately, keeping in contact with them) is important enough in our culture that a whole sub-division of commercial production turns out ritualized apologies for the neglect of that duty. And second, that even though the duty or responsibility is considered important, it must surely be honored more in the breach than in the observance, otherwise why all the apology cards, in all their varieties? If only a few of us neglected to write, those cards would not be so numerous, nor such hot sellers. But there are numerous varieties and they do continue to take up a lot of space on the racks. It will be interesting to observe whether the passage of time brings fewer such cards, as the very expectation of letters evaporates, or more, as we find more and more excuses for writing less and less.
As letter writing has faded into quaintness (any day I expect to see it listed as a “folk art”), greeting cards have had to become increasingly diversified and complex, to cover all the bases formerly secured by letters. If you browse through a really well-stocked shop, you’ll see cards expressing feelings that in the past were vented only on the therapist’s couch, if at all. There are now several lines built solely on these serious, intimate, erstwhile confidential topics. We could call the line Encounter Cards. “I know I said things that hurt you; you said things that hurt me. Can we talk?” (The Joan Rivers special.) “I was angry at the world. I took it out on you. I’m sorry.” (The Rambo special.) “You seem to have drifted out of my life—can we reverse the tide?” (Owl and Pussycat special.) We have confessions, repentances, confrontations, apologies, revelations—all for seventy-five cents.
A lot of these encounter cards sound as if they could have been written by Leo Buscaglia. (You know him: the huggy “Love [p.86]Doctor” with the beard, author of Love, Bus Nine to Paradise, etc.) And that’s okay by me—Leo’s not profound, but neither is my Golden Retriever, and they do many of the same things, therapeutically speaking. But if Leo is writing greeting card sentiments behind the scenes, I worry a bit about who’s next: Ruth Westheimer? Can you imagine what her cards might say?
I really have very mixed emotions about Encounter Cards. On the one hand, the fact that people are saying such things as “I’m confused,” “I made a mistake and I’m sorry,” “Let’s not drift apart,” etc., is wonderful, whether they use greeting cards, smoke signals, or billboards (yes, I’ve seen a few of those, too). Moreover, I’ve been a card junkie since the old school days when we got a paper doily stuck with library paste to a construction-paper red heart on Valentine’s Day.
All things considered, I’m for all cards, any cards; I wish we had more occasions to celebrate with cards. I buy cards even when I have no occasion to use them, just because I find them interesting and who knows, I might run into someone who is actually celebrating her fiftieth Mali gourd harvest, and then I’d have the card ready.
On the other hand, too many aspects of our lives have been taken over by professionals. In California, some people are actually hiring out to hold the hands and heed the last words of people dying in institutions with no one of their own to Godspeed them on their way. In between, we hire women to have babies for other women; we pay people to tell us how to furnish our homes, arrange our closets, instruct us what colors we should and should not wear. Gertrude Stein said it well: “Let me listen to me instead of to them.”
There is another development in greeting cards that I feel less ambivalent about. These have wonderful drawings or photographs on the front, but inside—blank pages. Now that suggests a party game I would really favor: give everyone a beautiful or funny or far-out card and ten minutes in which to write her own message on the inside to be delivered at once to someone else at the party.
When you care enough to send your very self.