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An Ode to Email

Well, not a formal ode, but a big holler of gratitude. Sometimes I have to tear myself away from the beauties of the northwest to sit at the computer. And then what comes to me in the computer is so nourishing, stimulating, inspiring, hilarious, or provocative that I have to tear myself away from the computer to do anything else. There was a time when I was buried in academic administration and emails were a chore, a duty, and part of various silly intrigues (it’s amazing how people in the workplace will fight over trivial nonsense–and the less there is at stake, the more poisonous the language and the more devious the schemes). But that was then and this is now. Now emails are the main conduit for friendship in my life. Now I open the computer with a shiver of excitement and pleasure.

Devorah and I exchange almost-daily commentaries on our lives, and she sends me links to news I haven’t seen but want to know, like the bats dying in the northeast and radio shows I haven’t heard, like a three-part program on “deception” and the possibility that people who lie have differently-constructed brains from people who don’t; or a whole series hosted by Krista Tippett called Speaking of Faith (incredible interviews with rare and unusual people, many of whom talk about what I have never thought about, others about what I’ve thought but ne’er so well expressed).

And then there are the long, thoughtful emails from old and new friends. These emails help me negotiate what is most painful in my life (family matters, which I don’t put in the blog), give me advice about dealing with my cat’s Giardia (yes, Chloe has a parasite, and we have been to the vet, but there was more I needed to know about disinfecting the house so she doesn’t reinfect herself) or what kind of electronics to buy. These emails provide the reflection (thoughtful background and a kind of  mirror) that I need to stay sane and healthy. I always longed for a group of friends like those in Notting Hill , memorable for its portrait of friendship more than for the silly story involving Julia Roberts and Hugh Grant; sometimes I’ve dreamed of belonging to my own Bloomsbury Group. But now I see that I have such a group, although the people in it are scattered all over the planet: in Australia, northern England, and southern Africa; in Argentina and Portugal; in Massachusetts and Texas, New Orleans and Mississippi; and now–across town in Portland (PDX for short). But sadly, they don’t get to hear each other. Hmm. Maybe that’s an idea for a new kind of book. But then I think of all the permissions that would be necessary, and all the names that would have to be changed to protect the guilty…. The real drawback of our email networks is that the people in them don’t know (or hear) each other.

I can’t imagine life without this group of friends and their commentaries.  I love knowing whatever they have time to tell me of their daily lives and the world around them, and they reassure me that I’m not the asshole I sometimes think I am; or that there’s a side of some problem I’m nattering away at which I haven’t considered; or that there is a poem or a quotation or a bit of history or a piece of music or a way of thinking that hasn’t come to me. Or they just make me laugh.

There was a time in the 70s and 80s that those of us in the literary establishment lamented the demise of the personal letter. Phones had begun to take over the world as people’s favored means of communication, and email had not yet appeared. We who love to read the letters of people like Sylvia Townsend-Warner or Carson McCullers, Thomas Merton or Virginia Woolf, grieved that future generations would not have these treasures to read. Now I think that same kind of energy–that wonderful daily self-expression, rather less ephemeral than conversation, not so polished and honed (nor so heavily self-censored) as writing for publication–goes into emails and blogs. I think we should save the best of them. And I do. I print them out and tape them into my journals, or I make a file on the computer of choice bits of email dialogue. And the blogs. I met Hafidha yesterday, after having enjoyed her blog for a long time in Texas: and she is just that radiant, joyful, playful and earnest person she seems to be in her blog–and with more dimension. She and I talked about the fact that only a few facets of our lives go into our blogs; so much that matters involves other people whose privacy must be respected. But our emails: ah, there we are just about as “whole” as any of us can be. The old art of letter-writing is not dead. It has just evolved, for some of us….

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One response to “An Ode to Email”

  1. Well, there’s a reminder, as if one needs another, of not just the rapid passage of time, but as you say of its interesting evolution. Aged twelve or fourteen, I was given a Remington typewriter, rather daring then for a schoolboy when the instruments were still associated with offices and business and alien to serious study. Consequently my hand-writing has always been deplorable, sometimes to my shame as a youth when faced with lingering examples of florid italic with graceful curlicues. Still in a brief period of respectable employment, at thirty-three or so, when all affairs were conducted by hand- written memos and clerical records , a computer appeared, but it was regarded as such an ill-bred implement suitable only for mechanics that no-one took any notice of it. If I wanted anything read, I scribbled something and sent it to a subterranean bevy of female stenographers who deciphered it as best they could and then conscientiously re-typed the whole thing whenever I changed my mind, which was frequently. Word-processors were for flash journalists and hack popular novelists. That was still my attitude when I departed from the world of bureaucrats at thirty-nine to enter another reposing in a sixteenth century dream . It was a shocking revelation, then, to discover some years later that by then some people actually had the things in their own houses, and not even decently concealed in some private chamber. I was outraged to receive a letter from Brazil, giving no return address except an incomprehensible code which it appeared was an e-mail address, but as I wished to contact the sender there was no choice but to solicit aid from a computer owner. Thanks to the Remington the keyboard was no difficulty, but the etiquette was; my mentor laughed aloud when he looked over my shoulder and saw the formalized document I was trying to transcribe to the screen. “No-one wants any of that unnecessary stuff, just get on with it”, he proclaimed, so I decided I didn’t want any of whatever else was going. If anyone wanted to write to me, he or she could do it properly or not at all. I continued in that state of mind, even resorting to antiquated telegraphic systems in places like India when coin-in-the-slot computers were available in the streets of all but the most remote villages; the fact was I didn’t know how to use them and had no intention of finding out. All that changed dramatically at the beginning of the present century, when by some accident of fate I was given a computer in lieu of other payment. I was so embarrassed I hid it in the attic, and blushed when it was discovered. I regarded it with distaste for two weeks, at the end of which time I pressed the button …. and was lost. These days, like you, I might almost hesitate to visit the Grand Canyon if I thought I might miss an e-mail. It’s only fairly recently that I’ve discovered that all professional affairs are conducted by this medium, and very convenient it is. Only one old friend, well-placed in her profession, continues to decline the facility. She’s rather a nuisance in that respect, being very difficult to get hold of when postage stamps are becoming as rare as hens’ teeth, although I admire the ‘integrity’. I dare say she drives her colleagues mad.

    I dislike being old, but at the same time I regret not being old enough to have lived when letter-writing with fresh pens and blotting paper took up the morning, what with the first drafts and for the ambitious the copies all filed away for posterity and now hoarded in the University of Texas or elsewhere. They were better at it then, but then they were better at most things and the computer is the result of the deterioration, not the cause of it. Now it’s all so much easier and, potentially, embraces so much more – the whole world may be an accessible oyster. I’m saying this to you, and anyone else who cares to notice it, entirely as a result of this modern miracle, and I hope we’re slightly enlarged as a result. The corresponding danger is that we might be diminished also by the same ease that removes the care and attention and all those graceful curlicues …..

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