Canoe Trip, 1970

In the summer of 1970, three friends and I decided to go on a canoe trip on the Delaware River. We had talked about it for a while, intending to go the previous spring, but we thought the river would be swollen and cold with runoff. So, we set our sights on a summer trip.

Bob, Steve, Phil, and I were members of Boy Scout Troop Seven, based at Saint Paul Roman Catholic Church in Clifton. Bob, at seventeen, was the oldest. I was sixteen, and Steve and Phil were fifteen. We were part of the core of the troop and we had leadership positions. We all worked our shifts at the annual Christmas tree sale, the troop’s major fundraiser. We earned merit badges and climbed the ranks. Steve and I had earned the canoeing merit badge one previous summer at scout camp. I don’t recall if Bob or Phil earned that badge, but they had others on their sashes. I achieved the rank of Life Scout, the rank immediately below Eagle.

From left to right: Steve, Phil, and Bob. Our tents and canoes are in the background. This is early in the trip, possibly at a campground in Callicoon, NY.

The canoes, paddles, life vests, tents, and cooking gear were property of Troop Seven. We bought dehydrated food from a mail-order catalog. Bob, if I remember correctly, acquired a set of maps of the river that showed where the rapids were and how challenging they were on a scale of zero to six. Considering ourselves well equipped, we convinced our parents to let us go. The conditions were fairly simple: We would telephone one set of parents each day from a pay phone in a town along the way, and the parents whom we called would call the others.

On the appointed day, a Saturday, we loaded our canoes, gear, and supplies into Bob’s father’s ’55 or ’56 Ford pickup truck. My Dad drove his ’61 Ford station wagon. Our Scoutmaster, Frank, came to see us off. We drove up NY Route 97 to Hancock, New York, where the Delaware splits into East Branch and West Branch. We found a spot where we could park, and launched the canoes. Many years later my Dad would remember thinking, as we drifted around the first bend and out of sight, “What have I just done?!”

For the next eight days we paddled and drifted and sometimes walked our canoes through sections of the river that were too shallow to float them. We paddled through every set of rapids that we encountered, with one exception. At Skinners Falls, the only level-six rapids on the upper Delaware, we watched as several other canoes capsized or were swamped, and we decided to carry our gear and canoes around. (A few years later I went back through Skinners Falls with another friend, and we took on some water, but we made it safely through. Still later I nearly drowned my then bride-to-be when we capsized in a level-five rapids a little farther downstream.)

I think the tee-shirt says “Schlitz: Breakfast of Champions.” This was taken near the end of the trip. We had used up the tube of sealer on the bottom of our wood-and-canvas canoe by then.

Breakfast and dinner came from the supply of dehydrated food. The food was nothing like our mothers’ home cooking, but it kept us going. We stopped midday and bought lunch from whatever store we could find. We camped on the riverbank and built cooking fires with whatever firewood we could gather. We almost certainly were trespassing on private lands many nights, but we were never chased away.

We had two canoes, one aluminum and one canvas-covered wood. I was the stern man in the wood-and-canvas canoe. Our evening routine included applying sealer to any scratches we found on the bottom of the wood-and-canvas canoe to keep it from leaking. The black splotches in one of the photos are sealer; that photo was taken late in the trip.

We drank water from the river, without any filtration, and with only halazone tablets for purification. We didn’t bring fishing equipment and we did little swimming. Near the end of the trip, though, we decided to take a swim. I remember swimming for a while and getting winded. For some reason I remember that as the moment I decided to give up whatever little tobacco use I indulged in.

Probably because we were teenage boys, we didn’t think much about our personal safety. Bob’s uncle had loaned him a single-shot .22-caliber pellet gun that looked like a large semiautomatic pistol. It wouldn’t have done much good if anyone decided to do us harm.

We managed to call home every day except one. We reached our destination, a cabin in Walpack, NJ, a day ahead of schedule. We used the free day to walk from the cabin to a nearby general store (Cal’s Country Corner?), where we bought supplies for a spaghetti dinner. Along the way we bought a basket of peaches at one of the many farm stands that dot the roadsides in that part of New Jersey. We finished off that basket, then stopped and bought another on the way back to the cabin. After a week of freeze-dried vegetables, fresh peaches never tasted so good.

The next day Bob’s father and his Uncle Bob came to pick us up. None of us had done much about hygiene in those eight days aside from brushing our teeth, so I can only imagine what we smelled like as we rode home.

I’d like to say that it was an important rite of passage and that we all formed permanent bonds that lasted us well into our adult lives, but it was really just a lark. We all got along and stayed in touch, but our later teens brought jobs, college, girlfriends, and other connections that took us away from one another and from the Boy Scouts. I last saw Bob a few years ago at the memorial viewing for one of our scout leaders. I connected with Steve in 1999 in Beaver, PA. I had learned that he had opened a sandwich shop in nearby Beaver Falls, and when Jody and I took our daughter Betsy on a college tour that included Geneva College, we spent a few minutes with Steve and his wife. I can’t recall spending a lot of time in Phil’s presence after that, and I lost touch with him.

Many times I’ve wished I could go back and be sixteen years old again. I would like to have made better choices for higher education and career (although I would not want to change how my marriage and family have turned out), but there’s probably part of me that wishes I could take that trip again, too.

Thanks for stopping by.

Pat

Grace in a Time of Uncertainty

In a chapter entitled “Sovereignty in a Time of Spanners” in Faith Across the Multiverse, Andy Walsh considers chaos theory, parabolas, and strange attractors in a discussion of God’s sovereignty and grace. God is sovereign, yet God has given the created universe, including humanity, some agency. People make mistakes. Errors occur. Mutations occur, as humanity is seeing now with the transmission of the COVID-19 virus from an animal to a human. But God’s creation is not so rigidly constructed that it can’t recover from mistakes, errors, and mutations.

The mutations resulting in COVID-19 have produced a plague, the magnitude of which humanity has not seen in a century. Left unchecked, the plague would likely sicken billions and kill millions or tens of millions. Eventually enough people would contract the disease caused by the virus and recover, or develop specific immunity through encounters with the virus that don’t make them sick. Humanity would survive. Then, if the virus were to reemerge in the human population years later, the people at greatest risk would mostly be those born since the first outbreak.

Scientists, governments, and health agencies around the world are racing to check the spread of COVID-19 and identify effective therapies, so the devastation to human populations will not be as great as it might otherwise be. That is not to say that the outbreak represents a manageable risk. Far from it; the risk from the outbreak to any one individual, or to the healthcare system in a given location, is still enormous. But the error-correcting capabilities, the grace built into the created universe, are at work through both medical science and natural defense mechanisms. As of this writing, more than 150,000 people around the world who were sickened by COVID-19 have recovered. Grace is at work.

Are there other evidences of grace in the moment? My wife is an elementary school teacher, and her students are currently learning at home. Recently she participated in a video conference with the students in her class. Some of them are using the time at home with their families to learn skills and engage in activities that they might not have time for otherwise: gardening, riding a bike, running, making home movies, cooking. Home schooling and remote instruction are not optimal in these circumstances, but families and educators are adapting.

My wife teaches in an affluent suburban district, and the children in her class have resources that children in urban districts only a few miles away do not have. Is grace is still at work in those districts as families adapt to cope with this disruption? I pray that it is.

Grace is at work as religious congregations, clubs, and other voluntary organizations are finding ways to stay connected by means that were unavailable even a few years ago, such as video conferencing. The church I where I worship has been holding services via Zoom, and it is so good to see the faces and hear the voices of people that I would ordinarily see in person every week. The congregation is filled with huggers, though, and I know hearts ache even now for resumption of in-person worship.

Grace is evident in the work of people who are still caring for at-risk populations such as those experiencing short-term homelessness, chronic homelessness, and food insecurity. Grace also allows those of us with means to support those efforts.

Is grace at work in the natural world? There is evidence that reductions in airborne pollution, including carbon emissions, can be traced to restrictions placed on travel and commerce in an attempt to slow the spread of COVID-19. These reductions, unfortunately, are not sustainable in a world whose economy depends on global travel and commerce and where employees must look many miles from their homes for affordable housing, then commute long distances to their jobs. As the outbreak wanes in the coming months, those pollution-creating features of the global economy will return. Maybe, though, we are discovering during this time how much we don’t need some of the stuff that we have become accustomed to having, and that we can conserve the resources need to produce and ship them. That may be a long-term grace that this pandemic bestows on the creation.

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I see grace that has no connection to the COVID-19 virus, but that might lift the spirits of those who are living with the fear and uncertainty of the moment. Spring seems to be lasting longer than it has in recent years, in spite of the warmer-than-usual February we experienced. The magnolia tree around the corner that blossomed many days ago still has flowers on it, as do the forsythias in our neighbors’ yards. In recent years March days with temperatures in the seventies would have accelerated the bloom-shedding process for trees and shrubs, but now those blossoms are lingering. We have a primrose in bloom in our front garden that doesn’t bloom every year. There are no dots to be connected, no lines to be drawn, between COVID-19 and what I see as a longer spring, but maybe God is leaving the beauty of these blooms around a little longer this year for a reason.

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I’m not a Pollyanna. Because of my age I have an elevated risk of developing severe illness or dying should I become infected with COVID-19. So all of this is not to say that I am assured of passing through this pandemic unscathed. But individual cases notwithstanding, there is evidence of grace, bestowed on the creation by a loving God, all around. I hope you, dear reader, will take some time to look for it. I wish you and your family peace and well-being in this time of uncertainty and fear. Thank you for stopping by.

Pat

Buy Local, Give Local

Thanksgiving is followed quickly by two important days: Small Business Saturday (Saturday 25 November 2017) and Giving Tuesday (Tuesday 28 November 2017). Intelligent readers will have no trouble deciding what to do on either day. For Giving Tuesday in particular I thought it might be good to highlight some of the small nonprofit organizations that I’ve had contact with this year.

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I haven’t donated cash to or volunteered with all of these organizations. In fact I’ve volunteered with only two; three if you count playing in the Bloomfield Civic Band as volunteering. The point of this list is to encourage you to think about the charitable organizations in your own local area and think about ways that you can support them on Giving Tuesday and throughout the year.

What I would also like most of all is for you to comment with suggestions for local charities in your area that deserve support. Updates will be posted to my FB page and Twitter feed as they come in. If you and I are friends on FB or Twitter your friends will see the posts and may also be prompted to take action. I do not plan to filter any suggestions out unless they happen to be for some organization that most readers would find abhorrent. Please supply a URL along with the name of the organization.

I look forward to hearing from. Now, here’s my starter list:

Urban Farming, Sustainable Agriculture

Environment

Autism Awareness and Advocacy

Services for the Homeless and Other Neighbors in Need

Welfare of At-Risk Moms and Children

Music Education and Performing Arts

Miscellaneous

  • Friends of the (your town name here) Public Library

From Andy Walsh  (Mostly Pittsburgh Area)

  • Light of Life Rescue Mission serves the needs of the homeless and others in the Pittsburgh North Side community where I work; in fact, their newest facility will be going up where I used to park.
    https://www.lightoflife.org/
  • The Watson Institute provides services for many individuals and families with special needs, including those with autism spectrum diagnoses. The organization has a rich history, having previously served polio patients and working with Jonas Salk in developing the vaccine.
    https://www.thewatsoninstitute.org/

Final Thoughts

It should be clear to any observer, regardless of their political leanings or affiliations, that the current philosophy and actions of the U.S. federal government will make the need for private charitable enterprise much greater for the foreseeable future. Whether the enterprise is care for the environment, care for people who have fallen on hard times, or any of the dozens of other social concerns we could name, private individuals and small organizations will have a greater role to fill to meet the challenges of the coming years. Some may think that is as it should be. No matter; the needs will be there and they will be substantial. This Giving Tuesday I hope we can all stretch our imaginations and our budgets a little to stand in the gap.

Thanks as always for stopping by!

Pat

Folding Tents, Leaving Town

On 14 January 2017 the Ringling Brothers/Barnum & Bailey Circus announced that it would fold its tents for the last time and go out of business. We’ve taken our children to the Ringling Brothers circus only once that I can recall. We’ve also taken our children and grandchildren to the Big Apple Circus, which is also in bankruptcy and selling off its assets.

There are only a few degrees of separation between myself and both circuses. We have a family member on Jody’s side who is related by marriage to a dancer who has performed with both the Ringling Brothers and Big Apple circuses. Her husband, a drummer, has also performed with both. Mark Heter, who taught me to play the euphonium, played tuba for Ringling Brothers in the days when a live band accompanied the performances with tunes such as Julius Fučík’s “Entry of the Gladiators” and Mikhail Mikhailovich Ippolitov-Ivanov’s “Procession of the Sardar.” Before that he played with smaller tent circuses that he referred as “mud shows.”

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I don’t have any great affection or disdain for the circus. The exploitation of animals is regrettable, especially since the species exploited by circuses—elephants and tigers in particular—also face extinction in the wild because of widespread poaching. But watching the circus is an opportunity to learn that even the most fearsome threats can be tamed, to admire the skill and athleticism of the acrobats and other performers, or to laugh at ourselves as we see ourselves reflected in the behavior of the clowns.

There’s another lesson to be learned from the role that circuses and other forms of entertainment have in our lives. Although modern circuses are not used to placate a discontented populace, how timely is the concept of “bread and circuses”? It also puts me in mind of Neil Postman’s excellent Amusing Ourselves to Death:

“Americans no longer talk to each other, they entertain each other. They do not exchange ideas, they exchange images. They do not argue with propositions; they argue with good looks, celebrities and commercials.”
Neil Postman, Amusing Ourselves to Death: Public Discourse in the Age of Show Or Business

Or we argue with tweets and Facebook posts.

As the administration of Barack Obama was also folding its tents, the New York Times published an article on his reading habits during his years in the White House. The comments accompanying the on-line article reflect a wide range of views. No doubt any group of people who happen to read this post will also have a wide range of views on the subject, and that’s cool. I believe with President Obama that one purpose for reading, and reading broadly, is to enable us to gain new and valuable perspectives on our lives, on the lives of those around us, and on the events of the day. I would hope that the days to come will find us looking to literature that will help us gain those perspectives, and not relying on the bread and circuses of our day.

Thanks for stopping by!

Grandma Has a Podcast: Reading to Grandchildren From a Distance

One of the pleasures of being a grandparent is reading with your grandchildren. All of Andy’s and Betsy’s grandparents read to them at one time or another when Andy and Betsy were children. We have been reading to Caleb and Sadie at every opportunity since they were infants. I admit to being a bit lax in that department with Ellie Rose; I spend more of my time with her taking photographs instead of reading to her.


In Proust and the Squid Maryanne Wolf observes, “As soon as an infant can sit on a caregiver’s lap, the child can learn to associate the act of reading with a sense of being loved.”


What happens when your grandchildren, or nieces and nephews, live at a distance? How can you read to them on a regular basis if you see them only a few times a year, or even less frequently?

When Caleb and Sadie were still babies we discovered that we could record MP3 files to send to them. MP3 is a widely used audio file format that is used to distribute music, podcasts, audiobooks, and just about any other audio content. I had the use of a Macbook Pro laptop computer and had software installed on it called Garage Band. With Garage Band we could record and edit a story and produce an MP3 file that could be played on any MP3 player. We chose to copy those MP3s onto CDs to go along with the books that we purchased for them, although in hindsight this seems wasteful.

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What’s cooler than a Grandma who can knit and edit audio files?

Caleb and Sadie outgrew their need for stories on CD, or so we thought. On a recent visit they reported that they still listen to their CDs of Grandma Jody reading Wacky Wednesday, Harold and the Purple Crayon, and Mike Mulligan and His Steam Shovel. They, in turn, have read Jan Brett’s beautifully illustrated “The Night Before Christmas” and The Gingerbread Baby for their cousin Ellie.

How Do I Do That?

What do you need to record MP3 files to send to your loved ones? You will need a smartphone, tablet, or computer with audio input and output, and some sort of recording software or app.

Smartphone, Tablet, or Computer

  • A tablet or smartphone provides the easiest solution. iPads, iPhones, and Android devices have built-in microphones and speakers, and also have a 3.5-mm jack that can be used to connect an external microphone and speakers/headset/earbuds.
  • A computer will offer more options for editing and for copying the resulting files to flash drives or other media. More about that in a bit.
  • Whether you use a smartphone, tablet, or computer, consider purchasing an external microphone. It does not have to be an expensive condenser mic. A $20.00 headset with earbuds and a microphone will serve well. The built-in microphone in your digital device will pick up ambient noise as well as your voice. An external microphone will help reduce ambient noise.

Which Recording App or Software?

A quick search for Android or iOS recording apps will return numerous choices, including many free apps. I do not have any experience with any so I can’t make any recommendations. I have used both GarageBand and Audacity. Both are available for Windows and Mac. Both have recording and editing capabilities. What do they let you do that you can’t do with a simple recording app?

  • Edit out sounds such as turning of pages.
  • Record and insert replacement pages if you make a mistake in reading.
  • Add sound effects and transition sounds. We record a transition sound that fits in with the story. When we recorded Clement Moore’s “The Night Before Christmas” we recorded a short clip of sleigh bells to signal the page turns.
  • Add music to the beginning or end. At the end of Wacky Wednesday we added Lionel Hampton’s recording of “Crazy Rhythm.”

I’ve Got an MP3 Recording. Now What?

If you read a story such as Green Eggs and Ham and add transition sounds the resulting MP3 file will be several megabytes in size. Adding a piece of music may double the size or more. That file may be too big to email. You can copy it to a flash drive (thumb drive) and mail it. You can upload it to a cloud-based file service such as Google Drive, iCloud, or DropBox, then send a link to the file via email. iTunes also offers a service for private file transfer and storage. YouTube might be a good option for you too.

Do You Have a Suggestion or a Tool That You Use?

Feel free to comment if you have a tool or technique that works particularly well for you. Thanks as always for stopping by!

9:00 p.m. Train

In observance of National Poetry Month, and with a tip of the hat to my friends at Pearson who are now enjoying commuting by train, I offer this bit of verse:

Pretty young woman,
Little black dress,
Thumbs with pink nails
Tapping out text
As fast as thoughts come.

Out come the brush
And makeup bag.
A good half hour
To brush, dab, wipe, spray.
Did she really just put
Deodorant on?

We share with her
A quartet of seats;
Two seats facing two.
We are close enough
To see the bristles
On the brush.
Yet she works
As if alone.

Where is she going?
Who is it for?
What is it that allows her
To take such a personal ritual
And perform it
On the 9:00 p.m. train?

Train entering a station.
Train entering NJ Transit Passaic station.

Halloween Late Arrivals

At about 8:15 this evening (Halloween 2014) the doorbell rang. We had turned off the porch light about 45 minutes earlier, thinking that there would be no more Trick or Treaters other than the teens who don’t bother with a costume and who use a pillowcase to hold their treats.

Flipping on the light and opening the door, I was greeted by two boys, the older of whom I would estimate to be about ten or eleven. What were they doing out so late? Then I saw their young father behind them.

This neighborhood doesn’t have too many fathers who can leave early from their jobs or take the afternoon off to take their children from house to house. I have no idea who this Dad is, but I imagine he worked a full day because his job demands it, then took his boys out for a little fun and candy. I wish him and his boys well.

I Will Miss Taking the Train

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Thursday, 10th April 2014 I walked out of the Pearson Education building in Upper Saddle River for the first time as a former employee. That was probably the most difficult day of the entire transition because it was final and irrevocable. No more enabling a subconscious denial by going into the office just to keep doing the familiar and seeing the faces of the people who have become my friends. I may have not told them all in so many words that I will miss them—I certainly will miss them. I hope that the words that I have written out in longhand, typed, or spoken aloud have served to convey the value that I place on our relationships.

I will miss the physical surroundings in Upper Saddle River. The campus is a pleasant place and our department has the best view of the grounds and distant ridges and hills visible in three directions.

I will also miss taking New Jersey Transit’s Main Line Train, strange as that might seem. For approximately fourteen years it has been my means of choice for commuting to and from the office. For about five of those years we have owned only one car between the two of us, and Jody has used that car to commute to her job. So I have relied on the train almost exclusively for a number of years.

As have tens of thousands of commuters in the New York Metro area, I have experienced my share of delays and cancellations and spent time waiting in the cold. Delays and cancellations seem to cluster in the coldest weather. No matter; I’m still a fan of the train and mass transit in general. I have enjoyed being able to read, write, catch up on email, and snooze while riding on the train. I’ve tried to convert other Pearson people to the use of the train but more often the train riders have converted to the use of private cars or carpooling.

Jody and I often use the train for recreational travel to and from New York, to and from Philadelphia, and even for longer trips. One of my favorite recent vacations was our trip to the Trapp Family Lodge in Stowe, Vermont. It was in late June. We left the house early on Sunday morning, baggage in hand and in tow, and walked to the Passaic train station. We then took the NJ Transit Main Line train to Secaucus, where we transferred to another NJ Transit train bound for Penn Station in New York. There we boarded Amtrak’s Vermonter train for the trip to Montpelier. In Montpelier we were met by a taxi that reminded us of the van that Abuelo drove at ABANSA‘s home in Valencia, Venezuela. The driver looked like he could have been an extra on Duck Dynasty. We could easily have driven from New Jersey to Stowe. It would have taken less time, cost less money, and offered us more flexibility in making stops along the way. Because we took the train, though, the vacation adventure started the minute we left the house and we got to read, write, knit, sleep, and admire the passing scenery in ways that would not have been possible in a car.

If I do take another job that requires commuting, I hope it will be someplace where I can commute by train.

Hand-Written Correspondence, Part 2

A Christmas card arrived today from Aunt Rose in Florida. Aunt Rose is the last surviving member of my parent’s generation on my mother’s side of the family. She was married to Mom’s brother Jim. She celebrated her 95th birthday in September.

Aunt Rose appreciates the value of hand-written correspondence. For years she has spent part of each Sunday writing letters to her children and other friends and family members. Several times a year we would send her a card for some occasion or other, often with a photo enclosed. Within a few weeks we would receive a hand-written note in reply, usually several pages long, telling us how she and other members of the family were and what they were doing.

The card that arrived today evoked a bittersweet memory. The other Aunt Rose in our lives was Mom’s older sister, who passed away several years ago. I had many occasions to help her with her correspondence, and with filling out forms that required her signature. Although I had power-of-attorney on her behalf, she insisted on signing her own name. As her eyesight deteriorated because of untreated macular degeneration, she lost the ability to locate the spot on the page where she needed to sign her name. She would ask me to place the tip of the pen at that spot and orient the paper correctly, and she would sign. Her muscle memory from years of writing enabled her to write legibly even though she could no longer see what she was writing.

Aunt Rose in Florida wrote her own note and signed her name on the card that arrived today, acknowledging help from her daughter Nancy. When I write that the paper and ink of a hand-written letter embody one’s affection for the recipient, Aunt Rose comes to mind. Both Aunt Roses, in fact.

Hand-Written Correspondence

As I was writing and addressing Christmas cards one recent evening I was thinking about an exchange on our company’s in-house social networking platform. The question “Should schools continue to teach cursive?” was posted for general comment. At this writing ninety people have responded over the course of about a week, myself included. Many respondents pointed out that the need for writing in cursive was disappearing except for the occasional need to sign a document such as a check or an application. Many others wrote comments to the effect that that hand-written correspondence has a timeless value that transcends its seeming obsolescence, and they decried the decline of this skill.

I asked my wife, a first-grade teacher, for her thoughts. She said that there is precious little time in the school day to teach cursive.

Camille Trentacoste, a colleague who is as technically literate as any I know and fluent in digital communication, posted this comment: “The study of handwriting and letterforms is part of the study of language. For some learning styles, writing words by hand is one of the most helpful reinforcements of learning available. Fast copy typists transcribe character for character without letting meaning slow them down, but when you write thoughtfully by hand, you spend time living inside each character, word, and sentence. Besides making a pretty thank-you note, careful calligraphy is a unique way of interacting with a text.”

In writing a note in longhand on a greeting card, a piece of notebook paper, or a postcard, I am making a connection to the recipient that electronic communication, and even typed-and-printed communication, can’t make. Just as Camille pointed out that “[writing] thoughtfully by hand, you spend time inside each character, word, and sentence,” I would say that ink laid down by hand on paper embodies my affection and esteem for the recipient. I write a note to a friend or family member in another city or state, and in few days that person holds the paper and the ink. They have received my affection and esteem in a way that electronic or typed-and-printed communication could not have transmitted it to them.

Too weird? Too sappy and sentimental? Perhaps. For now I hope to continue working toward my goal of sending one piece of personal hand-written correspondence by mail each week.