Last month's live TV version of "The Sound of Music" was, to a people grown accustomed to do-overs, Photoshop and cleaning it up in post, an Evel Knievelian act of daring.
An unsatisfying pre-Christmas interaction with a construction worker reminded me of how dependent I have become on email and other electronic communication to smooth over, round out, sand down and shine up sloppy, distracted, thoughtless in-person communications.
Stanley, with his fingers splayed like damaged asterisks, has been working for us on and off for most of a year. Since last spring, he has remodeled our kitchen, built my home office and renovated Scout's bedroom. He's Polish, and at first I didn't understand much of what he said. But so enthusiastically did he try to say it, I tried too, mostly only pretending to comprehend his juggling of a terribly limted English vocabulary. Whether he's trying to tell you about the new refrigerator or his family's immigration to the U.S., Stanley's English diction consists primarily of different combinations of: "not problem," "ess connected" and "ess OK."
Nevertheless, it seemed as if his English was improving over the months. But he's been in the U.S. a long time, so it's more likely that my listening was improving. Meanwhile, Stanley and his taciturn partner Tony worked like steam engines for a not-extravagant wage. So the language barrier, not problem.
Stanley was a good sport whenever the dog got loose and ran into their construction scene. "I like dog! Ess OK! I like him!" He was warm to Scout and unfailingly good humored with all of us, even when you could tell his 60-year-old body was tired. He even did a couple of completely extra things, fixing a leaky toilet and carrying our heavy window air conditioners down to the basement.
So when he finished the kitchen, only a few days after the deadline—as Christmas approached—I wanted to thank him for more than the work he'd done. I wanted to thank him for the way he'd done it.
So I bought him a big handle of Sobieski vodka. I bought Tony one too.
But when I went to hand it to him, I kind of panicked, and didn't feel I steadily looked him in the eye while I thanked him and wished him a Merry Christmas. And when he left, I realized I hadn't even shaken his craggy hand—which I had done at a number of congratulatory junctures before!
As he left, I felt a pang of agony. In my mind, my body language had conveyed exactly the opposite of what I wanted it to convey. I was afraid I had told him: Thanks for building my house. Now take your vodka and get out of here.
And then a familiar, comforting thought came—I'll send Stanley a little note, conveying my gratitude in writing! And then that thought went, because Stanley doesn't do email. If you saw his fingers, you would know this. More to the point, Stanley doesn't do little notes of any kind. Again, the fingers. Stanley does handshakes, eye contact, smiling and laughing. And I hadn't done enough of any of that on my last chance to say goodbye to him before Christmas.
He's got a little more work to do here this month, and then we're done working on the house for awhile, maybe forever. I'll make an effort to be extra warm to Stanley this time—extra present in our interactions, which are often strained by my distractedness. (Does Stanley have any idea what it is like to write a blog?)
But it seems to me we all—and writers especially—ought to concentrate more on communicating better on the first try with all of the people in our lives, rather than relying on thank-you notes and Facebook pokes to clean up our thoughtless mistakes and omissions.
They don't work as well as the real thing anyway.