Playing Go-Between in the Digital Age
NOTE: This article was originally published in May 2000 at *spark-online.com when my grandmother was alive. I came across the link from my Web site and, after debating whether or not to change anything, decided to leave it. As Jadzia Dax said in STAR TREK: DEEP SPACE NINE, "If you want to know who you are, it's important to know who you've been." Of course, Edna Mode in THE INCREDIBLES SAYS, "I never look back, dahling. It distracts from the now." So I won't look back, i.e. revise, and will present this essay as it originally appeared.
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"Anyone home?" My neighbor Nancy's yellow inner tube enters the house before she does. She holds up her bottle of iced tea in silent response to my offer of a cool drink. No one in 80-degree California desert weather would be without iced tea. Except for me. I still have my fourth cup of coffee in hand, waiting to burn my tongue the way the sidewalk outside does bare feet.
"I'm off to the pool to do my exercises," Nancy says. "But before I go, do I have any messages?"
I smile apologetically. "None of the grandkids have written."
Nancy stands there, face puckered in an oddly stoic expression. "None of them? Didn't they get my e-mails?"
"There's no way to tell."
"They did before. They wrote me back."
I nod. "They're probably just busy." Nancy has at least seven grandchildren scattered across North America. One of the girls is reportedly backpacking in Europe right now. The rest of them are all in college.
She shakes her head slowly. "So much for 'If you had e-mail, we'd write you more often.'"
"Do you want to send them anything?"
"Nah. I have to go do my exercises." Nancy maneuvers around with the inner tube. She pats me on the shoulder. "Thanks anyway."
"I'll come get you if there's anything in my mailbox," I say before I head back to my home office. Sitting down at my keyboard, I ignore the sun shining off the palm trees and once again check Outlook Express. E-mail from my mother. Offers from Amazon.com. The e-mail newsletters I tell myself I don't have time to read.
Nothing from Nancy's grandchildren. I call up their addresses, cut and paste them into the TO line, then proceed to type: "Dear Kids, Your grandmother really wants to hear from you. She would be so tickled if you would write. Stay in school, have fun in Europe, nurse that ankle (whichever one of you is playing football), and keep warm! Love ya, Kristin."
I click Send, and get back to whatever I was doing before Nancy's visit. Hours later, I'm still checking my e-mail for Nancy, eager to tell her the new most-anticipated three words: "You've Got Mail!" I feel like the old switchboard operator in a small town, listening to everyone's business. An odd image, that, considering the vast computing power of the Internet.
Or maybe not. After all, hackers can get into your AOL or Microsoft Outlook Inbox and read all about your last fight with your mother, your latest campaign finance blunders (you know who you are), that you hate your boss, or your wild fantasies about Harrison Ford. Heck, your company and the government can read the same things, and I guarantee you they'll have less fun than the hackers.
Voyeurism: the final frontier. I could make a case for The Need for Connectedness in this Information Society. After all, E.M. Forster put it best: "Only connect." And e-mail is allowing us to reach people we wouldn't spend 33 cents, or a nickel a minute for the latest long distance plan, to talk to. It's easy, it's convenient, and as my neighbor says, "It's fun!" It allows us to feel the thrill of anticipation we used to feel when the mail carrier arrived. But that was before we became adults. The anticipation dulls when you know the mail will bring the electric bill, a solicitation for the Policeman's Ball, or a flyer titled "Have You Seen Me? Missing Children." All important, but not satisfying.
Think of writing a letter in ancient times, the thought in the act of writing. We still enjoy the passionate love letters of Napoleon and Josephine, Abelard and Heloise. It is a glimpse into someone's life we never knew.
There is something appealing about connecting this woman, who volunteers for the Red Cross and hesitates to buy a computer, with her grandkids. I am not just the letter-writer or the secretary. I am part of the connection.
Days later, still no word from the kids. I write them another letter: "Dear Kids, Your grandmother needs you! If you're worrying about her bothering me, don't. Please write to her. Only a few minutes of your time and I won't tell your parents all the things she's told me, things she would never tell your folks. What can I say, she's an incredible woman."
I'm not bluffing. I know how to find their parents. And I think they know I know. The next day, I get an answer from one of the girls: "Dear Kristin, How many things have you done that you didn't want your parents to know about?" (More than she has.) "Get on with your life and let us get on with ours. Some of us have midterms. I don't mean to sound rude. I love my grandmother. Sometimes I just get?busy. Tell her I'll call her."
I'll call. And that reminds me: When was the last time I called someone instead of just writing an e-mail? Or actually sent a card? In my memories box are two dozen typewritten letters, liberally splashed with White-Out and full of mistakes, many crossed out with X's. Several of these are writing critiques. The writer, my master's thesis final project advisor Ben Masselink -- former Marine, novelist, screenwriter, columnist and teacher -- died in January. If my house caught on fire and I had to save one item, it wouldn't be my Gateway laptop. It would be those letters, as well as every card I've ever received. Some of them are from people I rarely see. And yes, all the printed e-mails I saved.
E-mail is great, e-mail is wonderful. But it's what's behind e-mail that makes it great.
Nancy knocks on the door with her inner tube. "Anyone home?"
I smile and say, "You've got mail."
Movie reviewer/screenwriter Kristin Johnson composes personalized poems, speeches, toasts, vows, and family memories. Visit http://www.poemsforyou.com to order your personalized memories. She is also co-author of the Midwest Book Review "enthusiastically recommended" pick Christmas Cookies Are For Giving: Stories, Recipes and Tips for Making Heartwarming Gifts (ISBN: 0-9723473-9-9). A downloadablemedia kit is available at our Web site, http://www.christmascookiesareforgiving.com, or e-mail the publisher (email@example.com) to receive a printed media kit and sample copy of the book. More articles available at http://www.bakingchristmascookies.com
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