Jewish World Review July 18, 2000 / 15 Tamuz, 5760
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
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
"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
"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
Options . . . I heard from a woman by the name of
Louise Wright, who -- commenting about our
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
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
Juli Thorson has noticed something, though --
something about one particular group of
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
JWR contributor Bob Greene is a novelist and columnist. Send your comments to him by clicking here.
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©1999, Tribune Media Services