In 1996, at the age of 74, Kurt Vonnegut talked to Inc. about envelopes.
The magazine was interviewing the writer (along with fellow novelist Tom Clancy) about the inching role of technology in society, and at one point, Vonnegut decided to tell a short story about leaving his house to buy envelopes, in order to illustrate a point on the importance of human contact. We’ve copied his quote in full below, because it’s worth every gosh darn word.
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“We Are Dancing Animals”
“I work at home, and if I wanted to, I could have a computer right by my bed, and I’d never have to leave it. But I use a typewriter, and afterwards I mark up the pages with a pencil. Then I call up this woman named Carol out in Woodstock and say, ‘Are you still doing typing?’ Sure she is, and her husband is trying to track bluebirds out there and not having much luck, and so we chitchat back and forth, and I say, ‘OK, I’ll send you the pages.’
Then I’m going down the steps, and my wife calls up, ‘Where are you going?’ I say, ‘Well, I’m going to go buy an envelope.’ And she says, ‘You’re not a poor man. Why don’t you buy a thousand envelopes? They’ll deliver them, and you can put them in a closet.’ And I say, ‘Hush.’ So I go down the steps here, and I go out to this newsstand across the street where they sell magazines and lottery tickets and stationery. I have to get in line because there are people buying candy and all that sort of thing, and I talk to them. The woman behind the counter has a jewel between her eyes, and when it’s my turn, I ask her if there have been any big winners lately. I get my envelope and seal it up and go to the postal convenience center down the block at the corner of 47th Street and 2nd Avenue, where I’m secretly in love with the woman behind the counter. I keep absolutely poker-faced; I never let her know how I feel about her. One time I had my pocket picked in there and got to meet a cop and tell him about it. Anyway, I address the envelope to Carol in Woodstock. I stamp the envelope and mail it in a mailbox in front of the post office, and I go home. And I’ve had a hell of a good time. And I tell you, we are here on Earth to fart around, and don’t let anybody tell you any different.
Electronic communities build nothing. You wind up with nothing. We’re dancing animals. How beautiful it is to get up and go do something. [Gets up and dances a jig.]”
What’s Vonnegut Saying?
In recent years, as wellness coverage has devoted more ink to the mental health benefits of regular walks, the concept of “savor walks” has picked up some momentum. As in: go on, leave your house and take note of all the wonderful things humming around you. The dogs, the clouds, the smells wafting out of coffee shops. Last month, the New York Times wrote about the art of being a flâneur. Wandering is in. Specific destination need not apply.
Or, to Vonnegut’s point, an envelope should be excuse enough. There is nothing too trifling to take you out of the house and into the world — where silly or unexpected things that you didn’t know about just minutes before usually await. Even those things that feel rote and familiar can receive a splash of cold water once you choose to shift your perspective.
One Twitter user, in a thread on this topic, expertly compared this sensation to walking through the supermarket like a “benevolent” visiting alien. If you imagine yourself seeing certain things for the first time, your day has infinite capacity for meaning.
For some people, it’s possible that this train of thought sounds exhausting. What time do I have to “fart around” an office supplies store, when I need to hop on six calls a day? Why should I move my body more when I’m so exhausted from my commute? I spent all day out in the world. Don’t I deserve some screen time?
Perhaps. But as would prove little surprise to Vonnegut — whose thoughts on digital worlds are here made crystal clear — study after study has shown that screen time makes us less present and less happy. We think we want it, that we need it, but it’s too quick and too easy.
How to Try It for Yourself
That doesn’t mean you should never go online. And that doesn’t mean you should always live your afternoons in the manner Vonnegut outlined here, scatting around like James Joyce’s Leopold Bloom, impressionable (and susceptible) to the sensory details of every street corner. Instead, think of it more as a reminder, as a touch post for something you’re allowed to do, even just once a day, or a few times a week, that will likely revamp your mood and renew your relationship to the world.
Sometimes, the world throws you a bone. Look for the cues. Yesterday I was feeling a bit cooped up inside, and it was a bit too late in the day to still feel like crap from the night out before. I left the apartment, walked down toward the East River, and was shocked to discover it was only about 70 degrees.
This breeze was a prolonged sigh of relief: so strong down there I had to hold onto my hat, and all around people sat and chatted in this weather as if they’d gotten away with something that might not last. I tried to read my book but on the bench over a guy was telling a story about his friend who’d just opened up his marriage, so of course I had to listen to that. On the way back I picked up some shrimp for the night’s tacos, and some mint for my girlfriend, who likes to put it in her weekday salads. In the end, it was a pretty good day.