“I hope this note finds you well.”
I think this greeting is a sign of the times. Right now, in the middle of the pandemic, it seems a little more appropriate than “What’s up?” or even the classic “How’s it going?”
Unfortunately, in this pandemic, we all have an idea of how it's going.
Some people question if we should use greetings at all. Maybe because such phrases can come off as ornamental or insincere. Or, since none of us have enough time these days, that a message should simply get to its point and get out.
In some ways, this evokes Occam’s Razor, the principle stated by the philosopher William of Ockham (1285–1347/49) that pluralitas non est ponenda sine necessitate, “plurality should not be posited without necessity.”
Basically, “don’t add things that you don’t have to.”
And, there is the more popular saying, “K.I.S.S.” (Keep It Simple, St*pid).
But defining simple isn’t always simple. And sometimes, the point isn’t even the point. Or at least not the only point.
Developed in the early 1900s, vacuum tubes made all sorts of devices possible, from radios, to record players, to PA systems, and even guitar amplifiers. However, vacuum tubes were far from perfect. Since they worked by heating an electron-emitting cathode, vacuum tubes need time to warm up. Warming takes energy, which limits their efficiency.
Furthermore, since the life of the cathode is finite, all tubes wear out and will need to be replaced.
The invention of the transistor in 1948 seemed to spell the end for vacuum tubes. Transistors utilize semiconducting materials rather than cathodes. They are solid-state, need no warmup, never burn out, and are significantly more efficient at amplifying signals.
Nowadays, it’s next to impossible to find vacuum tube radios—or vacuum tubes anywhere, for that matter.
Unless you are a musician.
Because you can find vacuum tube amps and preamps at any music shop. Yes, transistor amplifiers are cheaper and easier to maintain, but it was quickly found that the old tube amps possessed an important capability that the “simpler” transistor amps lacked: overdrive.
There are ways to discuss and define overdrive, its warmth and musicality, but the best way to understand it is to listen to Jimi Hendrix:
Transistor amps are still commonplace, and modern emulators and modeling circuits can now mimic “overdrive,” but that seems to go against the principle of Occam’s Razor, doesn't it?
To this day, for some guitarists, a little extra care and maintenance is well-worth plugging their guitar directly into a tube amp and turning the volume to eleven.
A century before the vacuum tube, steelmakers explored the properties of a newly discovered metal called chromium. Existing steels, alloys of iron and carbon, were vulnerable to rust and corrosion. Because of this, they wore out and were difficult to keep clean.
Stainless steels displayed unprecedented resistance to such attacks. Which meant steel could finally be used in food preparation and hospitals and the military—virtually all areas of the modern world.
Knifemakers (and users) found that stainless steel, although more durable and far easier to maintain, did not hold as sharp an edge as carbon steels.
Carbon steel is harder due to its crystalline structure and so forth, but the best way to understand this is to watch Julia Child (knife magic starts at 4:55):
Stainless steel cutlery is commonplace, as it is more durable and far easier to maintain than carbon steel. And metallurgists have concocted a special “razor steel” that can, under controlled conditions, approach the hardness and sharpness of carbon steel. However, this adds both cost and complication to the process.
To this day, for some chefs, a little extra care and maintenance is well-worth the feel of a favorite knife in their hand.
When we chose one alternative over another for simplicity, we are not only making a statement about what we think the function is—but that this is the only function it has.
And so, when I hear some old Japanese guy on TV say that a handmade boxwood comb provides an experience that regular combs cannot match, I just kind of nod at the screen and think, you do you.
Because, although I am perfectly happy with the plastic comb I bought at Walgreen’s, who am I to say?
What I can say, however, is that I think that “I hope this note finds you well” is a deceptively elegant phrase.
The first person “I” that makes it personal. The verb “finds” shows some intention, that this is a note that is seeking you, because you're valued.
Unlike “How's it going?” the sentiment doesn't depend upon the recipient’s fortune. If they are doing well, they can agree with the wellness.
But if one is not doing well, there's an expression of hope.
Yes, we can cut it out and not lose the meaning of the remaining words. But I think we would lose another part of the messages we send.
We’d lose the little of the warmth we feel as we held the letter in our hand.
As we end this year there's still a pandemic going on, and many, many people are getting sick, and of those, more than a few are dying. The economy has shifted, businesses have closed, people have lost their jobs.
And all around, this pandemic has separated us from each other. I think of how easily we used to gather, how we could casually strike up a conversation while waiting in line for a cup of coffee or a donut, how simple it was to meet a friend at Taco Bell.
All’s to remind me that connections I hold dear, that weave me into the same time on this earth, the same human society, as all of you—
are so well worth a little extra care and maintenance.
And so, please be as safe and as joyful as possible on these last few days of the holiday season.
And, wherever it takes us, I hope the New Year will find us well.
Cover image: Aaron Rapoport/ Collection: Corbis Historical/ Getty Images
*Hulton Archive / Stringer/Collection: Hulton Archive/ Getty Images
** Jeff Kravitz / Collection: FilmMagic, Inc/ Getty Images