Columnists > Judgment Calls

Fossilized remains

What our greeting cards will say about our culture

Issue: "Illegal siblings project," Feb. 2, 2002

Lesson on postmodernism: Skip the books, go straight to the greeting card aisle of your local apothecary. When space aliens unearth 21st-century civilization in ages hence, fossilized remains of "American Greetings" and "Hallmark" specimens will tell all. Here, and nowhere better, is found the repository of all men's hopes, desires, and fears-in philosophical fast-food form. Here, the heart of the matter reduced to the grinding labor of minimum-wage poets, or the humor of Seinfeld writer wannabes, are ribald little jokes worth a thousand doctoral theses.

It started for me as a Christmas expedition. I was after gifts, not cards; but the little bristol board art works were everywhere, and I was drawn in by the hordes of humanity who paused for long silences, like so many priests with heads bowed, before the upright altars of myriad-colored messages in endless rows in store after store.

The harried greeting-card pilgrim, in his quest for just the right personal message from an impersonal message factory, is helped by the thoughtful corralling of cards into their logical niches ("niche" being a key concept in postmodernism, where many "stories" exist side by side, all true on their own terms and none truer than its neighbor).

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The sweet innocence of the child's Mother's Day appreciation is in its own place, the bawdy adult perspective on life's various milestones in another. (It is assumed by card makers that innocent children will grow up to be bawdy adults, though precisely where this transformation takes place is not clear from a casual perusal of the racks of cards; alien archaeologists will have to spackle gaps in the fossil record with creative theories on this point. This may prove challenging if, like the earthlings under investigation, they have no concept of sin.)

The humble card rack will yield a gold mine of information on the rites of passage of the mortal biped. Among the occasions celebrated are births and deaths, weddings and engagements, lost teeth and job promotions, and every sacrament of the Roman Catholic Church except Extreme Unction. Moreover, you can have your religious observances to include God or not, as you prefer. ("Preference" is another important idea in the postmodern repertoire.)

"Age Jokes" begin at "30" and run for 10-year increments till "60," where they fall eerily silent. These tiresome jabs at declining physical functions are not so much Dylan Thomas's "rage against the dying of the light" as sheer denial. When in the adjacent section we meet the somber "Sympathy" card, it is as if death has come by surprise. (These hermetically sealed compartments are a postmodern hallmark, to risk a pun; in card-land, never the twain shall meet.) To their credit, I suppose, these "Sympathy" sentiments do not seek to soothe by leaps of prognostication as to the felicitous eternal destiny of the "beloved departed," but focus on the bereaved himself, emoting vague wishes of "peace" and "comfort."

A category for "loss of pet" will be found near "loss of father" (postmodern enlightenment has evolved to a realization that animals are equal in value to people-which should have been obvious to our ancestors, as both kinds of creatures have mouths and chromosomes and oxygen requirements).

There is trouble in the Hallmark paradise, however, as the Martian explorer will soon surmise by the innovative section devoted to "troubled relationships" and to saying "sorry." Equally disturbing are the increasingly common-and slightly awkward-concessions to what are charitably called among postmoderns "blended" families: birthday cards to Mom & Stepfather, Dad & His Wife, etc. Postmoderns join and split almost casually, having no Absolute glue to hold the center: A card whose front portrayed a woman in jail-bird stripes, kicking off a ball and chain, bore the text, "Free at Last"-and then inside, the felicitation, "Congratulations on your divorce."

Time does not permit us to speak of Kwanzaa salutations, hair-stylist and dog-sitter thank-yous, good-luck wishes, and a thousand ways to showcase the "Serenity Prayer" (the perfect nonreligious religious card for people who have lost God but still have a God-sized hole in their souls that needs filling). Nor have we leisure to analyze the whole line of male-bashing cards that women delight to send to other women. (Interestingly, no female-bashing cards are to be found for the guys. Deprecation of the female is available, mainly in monotonously recycled snide remarks about women's failing body parts, but these are strictly for women from women.)

The overall impression for the hitchhiker through the galaxy will be gleaned, however, from no individual card so much as from taking in the rack at a glance. He will marvel at a time in human history when, having lost sight of the Truth, the creature was left, in its void, with endless, soulless Choice.

Andrée Seu
Andrée Seu

Andrée is the author of three books: Won't Let You Go Unless You Bless Me, Normal Kingdom Business, and We Shall Have Spring Again.


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