At Random: Handwritten letters from camp fading out

BY DANNY HEITMAN

The hotel where my wife and I stayed last weekend had the usual amenities of overnight lodging: miniature bottles of shampoo and conditioner, wafer-thin bars of soap, a complimentary notepad and ballpoint pen, a Gideon Bible in the bottom drawer.

But I’m old enough to know that something was missing. There was no hotel stationery for the guest who might want to write a letter. Instead, a desk placard offered instructions on accessing the hotel’s free Internet service. Within minutes of arriving, my wife had opened her laptop and connected to the web, sending emails as easily as she had done at home.

Which is why, of course, most hotels stopped offering free stationery years ago. In this day and age, who’s going to use it?

But as I unpacked my bag and stashed it in the closet, I remembered with fondness the letters I’d written more than two decades ago during trips to Paris, New York, Boston and San Francisco. The hotel stationery, printed with the hotel’s address, was a tourist’s conceit, letting the folks back home know that you were in an interesting city. A variation, in other words, of those wish-you-were-here postcards travelers once sent to their friends.

Those traditions are pretty much gone now, replaced by emails and text messages that send news much more efficiently, if not so romantically. While a postcard or piece of hotel stationery bookmarked a particular place, electronic text is blandly anonymous, its point of origin as vague as the ether.

But the speed and ease of email are hard to beat — so much so, in fact, that a handwritten letter, especially to a young person, can now seem as quaint as a quill pen or tricorn hat.

We were reminded of that this summer when we sent our 12-year-old son to boarding camp. The camp limited laptop and phone use to keep the kids focused, and that meant fewer options for staying in touch.

We mailed our son some stationery and suggested that he try the old-fashioned alternative of postal mail.

We might as well have asked him to send smoke signals. Postal mail seemed, to a child raised on computers and cellphones, as primitive as the Pony Express.

Our son did mail a letter or two to his grandmother, who was glad when the envelopes from camp landed in her mailbox. The small notes in youthful script said a lot about the personality of the sender, expressing that ineffable quality of handwritten correspondence that also tends to get lost in email.

I’m not arguing against email, which has greatly expanded the reach of my personal and professional writing. But I’m glad that my son wrote at least a couple of letters by hand this summer. The experience should, at the very least, be something he can tell his own grandchildren one day — perhaps in a year, not far from now, when few people will remember what a pen and paper look like.

Danny Heitman can be reached at dheitman@theadvocate.com. His “At Random” column appears each Sunday.