I enjoyed this post over at Flavia’s. I didn’t comment, because what I thought about contributing made me feel like such an old fart: my experience with the long-distance relationship in the days before IM, e-mail, texting, Skype, and all the technological gadgetry that makes the LDR a little more manageable than once upon a time. I mean, it’s really not relevant to a taxonomy of the current LDR types.

But in my own space, I can indulge in old-fartry. Children, back in the 1980s, I moved to France after graduation, and not long after meeting a young man I thought I might be interested in, and who seemed to think the same thing about me. There was no e-mail in those days, or maybe just among serious geeks; certainly it hadn’t spread even to campus communities, let alone the rest of the world. There were no cell phones. I think fax machines were just coming in to general use, if I have my dates right.

So for the months I lived abroad, I didn’t have a phone. If I needed to make a call, I had to go find a pay phone, and feed francs into it (this was, of course, before the Euro, as well). My contact with the U.S. was entirely epistolary. My mother and my young man (YM, hereafter) were my most constant correspondants, though many of my friends were kind enough to write.

I was touched by the YM’s assiduity, and wrote him as frequently as he wrote me. The years immediately post-college, of course, are a great time for introspection, especially if you’re off to graduate school or taking a year off from grad school, as he was. And there’s nothing like introspection with a fascinated audience.

I thought we got to know each other rather well through our letters, and happily took up with him when I returned home. We did fine while we were living in the same place, though I was very tense and difficult to deal with during the season of waiting for acceptances and rejections from graduate programs. In the end, YM decided to go back and finish an MA, while I started school about 600 miles away, and then . . . I can’t remember whether he was definitely going to move where I was, or whether we were just going to see how things went.

But I didn’t have a car, and one was definitely needed to get from one place to the other, and both of us had heavy and demanding course loads that made ride-sharing tricky. And his roommate hated me, so my going there wasn’t such a good idea, really, although it was hard on him to be the only one doing that drive. And long-distance calls were expensive. Furthermore, letters are very different from actually being with someone. The YM talked a lot, which I started to find wearing; sometimes I just want to sit and be quiet, though not necessarily alone. There were other problems. I don’t think being in the same place would have saved the relationship. In this case, the LDR just made the problems more obvious.

But I blame the letters. What we got to know was not so much each other as a written construct, a voice, an idealized version of what we hoped to project. The real people were very different from the written versions. And it was impossible to have a conversation via letters that took a week or more to arrive. Writing encouraged us both to pontificate rather than interact.

For me, that relationship solidified a distrust of the written word. The slippage between signifer and signified has a very personal meaning, sometimes.

Well, my dears, if any of you are still here and awake after indulging Grandma, run off and have some milk and cookies!

One thought on “LDRs in the old days

  1. That was a really interesting read, thank you :). I’ve been noticing something similar lately, in that quick-fire online social mediums (email, chat, LJ), are letting me *know* people much better than letters ever did. I had a few penpal friendships in my early teens which went belly-up when we met – it’s hard to explain to, say, my well-meaning parental units that when I’m catching up with online friends, I already KNOW that we can spend hours talking together. Some things you can never really know until you meet someone and hang out with them, but all these whizbang tech options we have these days really do let you get closer into other people’s heads than letters ever did.

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