CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- There are many joyous milestones in life. Graduations, weddings, anniversaries, first communions, and bar mitzvahs are nice, but right now what's most important to me is the impending birth of my first grandchild next February.
Seeing your children enter the world is breathtaking, but another 25 or 30 years of life experiences are invaluable to the joy of being a grandparent. I have often heard that the arrival of that initial grandchild changes your life like nothing else and is the real reason you have children. I used to smile politely when I heard such comments, but as winter gets closer I'm beginning to understand what they mean.
Is it about having a do-over for whatever mistakes I made with my sons, without all the accountability? Is it the fact that parts of my genetic makeup and possibly my surname will continue at least one more generation? These motivations are important, but what unmistakably is driving me is the real opportunity to teach what I have painstakingly learned over these 65 years in the hope that I might help this new human being become happier and more successful. Since I am never at a loss for opinions, the list of ideas to be shared could be endless. Yet, I know that I won't be alone in providing such unsolicited advice, so I plan to be selective.
Yes, I want my grandson (ultrasounds are amazing!) to be healthy, curious, humble, honest, athletic, an excellent judge of character, and to have the ability to persuade others by making them think it was their idea all the time. Despite my own shortcomings, perhaps I can make at least a small contribution to his acquisition of some of these most desirable qualities. Realistically, though, I intend to focus my individual efforts on my greatest concern for the future generation -- the changing nature of personal communication.
It's hard to believe that it's been nearly 50 years since I began working with computers and first saw their potential to improve lives. Unfortunately, although the impersonality of reaching out to others in today's society, as when we punch in 140 numbers and letters, may be considered progress, for us old-timers the emotional component is missing. I clearly want my young man to be a master of technology, but I also expect him to recognize and utilize the art of conversation, both in person and on the phone. This disappearing social skill allows one to more readily appreciate tone, context, nuance, and body language. The loss of these types of expression will likely constrain relationships and too often lead to misunderstanding. I see this frequently in the use of blast e-mails, which work well to disseminate dry, factual information, but as a way to manage disagreements, it can be disastrous.
I also want him to appreciate the impact of the handwritten letter and plan to share with him, at the appropriate time, the 1863 letters from his great-great-great-great-grandfather Albert to his great-great-great-great-grandmother Charlotte, penned on the Civil War battlefield. Albert Foster was a member of the 5th Wisconsin regiment that fought through Virginia to Antietam and Gettysburg. These elegant messages poignantly portray the emotion and revelation of character that can only be seen in this form of communication. They are reminiscent of the soul-searching narratives of John and Abigail Adams that uncovered the essence of their turbulent times. These Foster family writings likewise offer a glimpse of their era, but also evoke a sense of ancestral values and belonging that is particularly meaningful to their descendants, like me. A future without this art form is unthinkable.
Is it too much to ask to consider balancing the seeming efficiency and speed of 21st century social networking with what the spoken and written word magically provide to the understanding of the human condition? Also, how useful is it to be exposed to the routine daily activities of people we know only superficially and, truly, is it really necessary for every individual to have instantaneous 24/7 access to the internet? All I know is that I hope my grandson will be able to honor the past, shape the future, and embrace the present and I want to be a part of making all that happen.
Foster, a Charleston surgeon, is a state senator from Kanawha County and a Gazette contributing columnist.