Saturday, 19 February 2011

Big Sleep & Silent Reader

Maybe it's something in the stars, maybe it's the month of February, but everyone seems to be stretched to the limits (just one more email/ task/ emotionally needy vampire friend and *snap*). I am afraid I am no exception at times. Of course, it is at those times that the phone rings, an important email comes in or there's a knock on the door. Reliable, mysterious, rubbish. And there's not even anyone to blame: the tension really is just an accumulation of unfortunate circumstances paired with one planet or other finding itself in the wrong house.

There are several techniques to avoid unpleasant encounters of any ordinal number's kind. Sleeping, a good diet, more sleeping, exercise, sleep... I'm drifting. But most of the time the situation is not completely in our control, and no manner of Olympic sleeping will clear the inbox or magic up an exhibition. Let's be frank, mid-frenzy, pressure, isolation due to being glued to one's office chair and the instinct to flap one's arms madly until everything goes away all blend into each other, even if you hope it's all going to be right eventually. What is a girl/ boy /woman /man /lady /lord /nerd (circle as appropriate) to do?
Not everyone can stay as cheerful under pressure
as Cary Grant in His Girl Friday (1940)
Image from Wikipedia

On a faux (you'll see) non-sequitur, allow me to muse on the solitary writer for a minute. In days before electronic communication (including the telephone), letters were the most immediate form of communication when visiting was out of the question. (I've been thinking about this a lot while preparing my exhibition, glued to my office chair, flapping my arms wildly, see above - the exhibition is on early modern letters, more anon = in a different post closer to the opening). Picture the scene: you are a Renaissance woman/man, write a letter and, no, you don't affix a stamp and put it into a funny red/ blue/ yellow (circle as appropriate) pillar/ contraption/ box-with-a-flap (ditto) - we are talking pre-Royal Mail/ USPS/ Deutsche Post (ok, circling the dead horse now). Instead you hand it to someone who has offered to carry the letter to its destination. If you're

  • lucky it's one of your family or a trusted servant
  • semi-lucky, a professional letter bearer who will also carry half a gift horse to the recipient, and is known to be reliable
  • unlucky, someone who appears shifty but hey ho, you're desperate and have sealed the letter, written in cipher, extra carefully
Miraculously, most of the time, your letter got to its destination, and an answer was soon on its way, sometimes even returned by the same bearer (who is chatting up the recipient's maid while waiting for the former to write a reply). Point: instant gratification. You might have been a lone letter writer, but the writing and receiving of letters made connections which warmed the heart and its cockles.

Nowadays, awash with emails, many don't have a choice but to let emails go unanswered, promises un-followed-up, gift-horses unacknowledged. And life has probably taught us all the lesson that this silence is, more often than not, an unintentional and unfortunate effect of the general overwhelm. The same (ok, slightly different) rationale applies to blogs: comment forms don't always work, who has the time to log in anyway, and blogs are not really meant to be interactive. But in both cases, any reaction or reply, however brief, does warm the heart!

Yet I am keenly aware that some recipients consider thank-you emails unnecessary bulk and thank-yous a waste of time. It is a tricky situation for both parties, but two events (of several years and several hours ago respectively) made me realise how much I appreciate the extra step.
Scene from The Big Sleep (1946)
Image from

1. Many moons ago, while blogging for a former employer, I was wondering why there were very few comments coming in even on controversial posts (you see, I was trying to provoke to elicit a reaction - the only one I ever got was censorship, but hey ho, I was desperate). One post asked readers to get in touch with the lone blogger and comment on the absence of comments. And voila, three types of comments materialised: the common-sensical (no time); the nice (sorry, and we really are enjoying the blog); and the elaborate. This final one explained on a grander scale that most blog readers read many blogs, consume them, and take away what they liked in a private sort of manner, mulling it over in brains of their own. At the time, though, I appreciated the feedback, and blogging became easier in the knowledge that there was a silent crowd of appreciative readers, most of whom needed to sleep more.

(On a proper non-sequitur, I still haven't read any Raymond Chandler, nor watched The Big Sleep. And anticipating your silent reaction this very moment, let me say: I KNOW!!)

2. Last week, I was pottering along, alone, writing while putting myself into the shoes of the average exhibition goer, when a student popped his head into my office. First thought: He must have a question. Second thought: Not. Now! Third thought: Students, eh? Silent crowds that only pipe up when they have a problem. But life made my cynical, isolated old self beam with joy within seconds that very second: in fact, the student popped in to let me know how much he enjoyed my lectures. Nothing more and on his way. How nice!

The moral of it all? A little thumb-up (to someone who is otherwise a solitary figure writing for imaginary friends or giving without receiving) can help make a rainy, cold, occasionally stressful February feel like spring is just around the corner. If this post inspires you, I'm glad - if not, no harm done. And I vow to return with more mysterious, more alchemical and less twee posts very soon...

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