“I’m Old, Old!” he said.
He had responded to one of my essays on the Web, something I wrote several
years ago, about ego and self. That was, he said, his current field of study. He
wanted clarity, and if he could figure out the relationship between ego and
self, everything might become clear for him. At eighty, he had long ago retired
from the world—his former world, of English literature and youth who were
determined, mostly, to escape from what he thought they ought to know. Musing
about the wisdom hidden in the words of the Masters, he had lost them to the
excitement of hormones and adventure and hope.
He had responded to one of my essays on the Web, something I wrote several years ago, about ego and self. That was, he said, his current field of study. He wanted clarity, and if he could figure out the relationship between ego and self, everything might become clear for him. At eighty, he had long ago retired from the world—his former world, of English literature and youth who were determined, mostly, to escape from what he thought they ought to know. Musing about the wisdom hidden in the words of the Masters, he had lost them to the excitement of hormones and adventure and hope.
He wanted me to know that he was old. I protested that I was almost as old as he, but that isn’t what he was trying to tell me. He felt gone already, but if he could leave behind what was really he, the ripened fruit of all those years, maybe . . .
He sent me a poem he’d written, “To a Coy Mistress,” and I replied—without my usual time to think before I spoke—“I love it!” I told him I’d shared it with Judith, because I knew she would love it, too. I was surprised at his response to that. I thought he might be offended that I had exposed him, somehow, allowed another person (unknown to him) into a private conversation. I’ve felt that, at times—exposed—by a friend who simply wanted others to know about me, an innocent gesture.
Instead, he was delighted. In other messages he referred to Judith, as though she were now part of our conversation. He wondered, once, after I had not replied to him for a few days, if Judith had somehow persuaded me to back off. We continued our dialog, two old codgers exchanging email messages like the kids, using shorthand expressions to stand for things not necessary to say directly, exploring a new relationship to see if we had enough in common to keep going.
He told me little about himself. No, that’s not true; he told me a lot, but it didn’t answer my curiosity about the outer him, where he lived, was he married, did he have a family, what was his background, what was his health? Instead, he wrote about metaphors for Self, for Ego, for the urges that make us who we are. Ego and Self are both necessary, he felt, but need to be in balance. It was plain to me that he leaned toward Self—the feminine, the intuitive, the evolved, rather than Ego—the masculine, the rational, the socialized.
I pieced together an image of him, very likely an image that reflected more about me than him, but anyway . . .
Lonely—almost without question. He responded to my messages within hours, sometimes within minutes. The way Tom Hanks and Meg Ryan responded in “You Have Mail,” that movie from a few years ago about a kind of courtship between two New Yorkers separated by mere blocks of space, but safely separated by the anonymity of the big city and the Internet.
I speculated that he may have lost his wife. Something about the way he wanted to include Judith in our dialog. A widower, or maybe a bachelor. To me, of course, having a woman in my life is not extraordinary, no matter how delighted I am by that fact. People have pointed out to me that I always seem to be in an intimate relationship, whether married or not. It’s true that since adulthood I’ve never been long without a woman in my life. It’s normal. I guess I forget that not all men are like that. I do remember, however, the yearning I lived with throughout my adolescence, when female companionship was pretty sparse. This fellow reminded me of those years, and I felt a little uncomfortable. But our email conversation is still new. We have a lot to learn about each other.
There’s something remarkable about such relationships, this instant pen pal kind of thing. A number of people have gotten in touch with me after reading something on my web site. Usually, it’s a polite exchange that may last a week, mutually complimentary, and then either they simply disappear or the final message is a vague, “I’m pretty busy, but I’ll get back to you soon.” The topic that stimulates the exchange turns out to be not important enough to one or both of us, and there’s little else of common interest. Once in a while, it’s more.
I don’t know of another situation where two people can click like that, and have enough time to explore the parameters of possibility. Perhaps meeting someone on a tour, or in an adjoining seat on a long airplane trip. Most situations in which one meets a stranger leave little time or space to get to know them well enough to find them really interesting. When I was younger, my fantasies were filled with such encounters—always, of course, with attractive women.
Online romances are not rare these days. In fact, they are probably more common than meeting people in bars. But I’m past that phase in my life, and I have no need for romantic adventures. I do respond, however, to compliments, especially about the things I write about. When someone wants to talk about a topic that I’ve found interesting enough to compose an essay about, I’m not likely to turn away. At least not immediately.
Email exchanges are special for me in another way: I’m writing, rather than trying to talk. I’m more comfortable writing. I can take my time composing what I want to say, and I can go back and edit before I hit the “send” button.
Perhaps my new pen pal would be uneasy if he knew how I was analyzing our conversation and guessing about what kind of person he is. I’m curious, is all. Well, maybe not all. I’m doing what people do when they encounter a stranger—I’m sizing him up, trying to decide how to continue my side of the dialog. “Circling,” the psychologists used to call it, referring to the way a couple of dogs approach each other, a little wary, a little interested, waiting for the other one to make a move that will reveal its motive or its personality—testing the waters. People do that, too. Some people have it down pat, through years of experience. Maybe it’s a game.
I may protest that I don’t want to play games, but I know that it’s how we are with each other, if we have anything personal at stake. The result of eons of evolution. We learned how to survive long ago, never guessing that one day we’d be using those new-found skills to get to know some old guy on another computer somewhere in the world.
Donald Skiff, May 15, 2007