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Jewish World Review July 18, 2000 / 15 Tamuz, 5760

Bob Greene

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Consumer Reports

Have the choices changed, or have we? -- MILWAUKEE | On this long summer trip I've been on, I keep coming upon small moments that aren't newsworthy in themselves -- but that seem to speak to an essential division between the way we could live and the way we do live. There are days when I feel that this division is more important than anything that makes the front pages.

In its simplest terms, the division comes down to this:

The choice between options and devotion.

We are lucky to live in an era of limitless options -- or so we are endlessly told. We have options that were never available to generations before us -- choices to make every hour of the day, a kind of endless menu of choices. We aren't constrained or tied down -- our options free us.

And yet . . . .

One of the people I have spoken with on this trip was a woman who, as if it were the most unremarkable thing in the world, told me that her late husband was a soldier serving in Europe during World War II, and that he was overseas for almost four years -- and that she wrote him a letter every day.

"Literally every day?" I said.

"Seven days a week, for four years," she said.

I tried to imagine it. "Did you ever skip a day?" I asked.

"Oh, no," she said.

She found out later, she said, that of course her husband did not receive the letters day by day; they would be delivered to him sporadically, whenever a bundle of mail reached his unit. So he had no way of knowing that she was writing one letter every Monday, one letter every Tuesday, one letter every Wednesday. . . .

She could have fudged. She could have taken a day off now and then -- maybe written two short letters in one day.

"No," she said. "That's not how I did it. I promised that I would write him every day."

Devotion? Can a person be any more devoted than that? She must have had many options here at home -- not that she would have used that word back in the 1940s, but her husband was gone, she was in a sense free, she was on her own.

And she wrote to him every day. She was devoted to him.

Options . . . I heard from a woman by the name of Louise Wright, who -- commenting about our tethered-to-the-e-mail-and-electronic pager-and-cell-phone age -- said:

"How I long sometimes for the black dial phone that kept my mom tied in the kitchen so that when we needed or wanted her, she would hang up and come see what we were doing and play with us.

"Too often now the phone goes along, and not only is what the kids need unimportant -- but so is the call you are already on when the call-waiting beeps in."

Options -- institutional options, options provided to us by the technology we bow down in front of. That black dial telephone with the cord that didn't stretch into the room where the children were playing . . . how inconvenient. How demanding of lower-case devotion. Her mother would automatically hang up the phone and turn her attention to the children in the other room. No need for that now -- the phone conversation can continue while the children are dealt with. One of the options that we are told are such valuable gifts to the way we live.

Devotion? It doesn't have to be to a person. It can be a part of the very act of existing. Juli Thorson, who lives in Idaho and writes for a magazine called Western Horseman, let me know something quite illuminating about the magazine world.

Magazine subscribers, of course, are given all kinds of options these days -- payment options, length of subscription options, options on how to renew and of what gifts or premiums to receive for signing up. It's a very competitive world out there for magazines, especially with all the free information available on computer screens. Magazine publishers are well-advised to give their readers as many options as possible, or the readers may turn somewhere else to spend their non-working hours.

Juli Thorson has noticed something, though -- something about one particular group of subscribers.

It seems that many of the subscribers to Western Horseman are men who are veterans of World War II. As we all know, these are the people who are leaving us every day.

And when they die, their widows sometimes are not interested in continuing with the magazine -- the magazine was something their husbands read. But instead of just letting the subscriptions lapse. . . .

"Almost every day, the magazine receives notes from recently widowed wives of these men, explaining why their subscriptions won't be renewed," Thorson said. "Our younger staff members have marveled that anyone would even take the time to send in these explanations."

The notes from the widows aren't necessary; they could do nothing, and just let the subscriptions run out. But their husbands are gone -- and they write personal notes to the magazine.

The option they have chosen is devotion.

JWR contributor Bob Greene is a novelist and columnist. Send your comments to him by clicking here.


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