Friday, March 7, 2008

Death by Email

I scroll down, disbelieving. The words just don’t stop. It is an effusion of suggestions, a list to top all of the lists with which I have ever burdened myself. A “we should do” extraordinaire. I’m not sure that I have the strength to maintain finger pressure on the mouse until the end. I want to grab a traditional japanese sword and commit Hari-Kari on the spot. I had slipped to my seat before the computer at 9:30 P.M. for a quick email check. It is now 11:02.

In the 1990’s movie, “You’ve Got Mail,” the cheery blip signaling new mail was a happy indicator that a friend was trying to get in touch. It was the electronic equivalent of that outdated communique, the personal letter. Meg Ryan’s eyebrows lifted with pleasure at the sight of Tom Hanks’ transmission. If it were only so!

Now that red signal glowers menacingly as if to say, "Come and get it sweetheart." I click reluctantly and through weary eyes I see a gloating “36” emails in my inbox. 36! I could cry. I pray that the majority is happily deleted porno that has wormed its way into my mail: Tammy providing the means to increase the size of my penis, or some massive missive from the National Democratic headquarters.

It is a plethora of environmental alerts, letters to write, petitions to sign, congressmen to contact. There are forwards from well-meaning friends, a few that are genuinely poignant or funny, but too many that end with the injunction to “send this on to fifteen more friends or you will receive bad luck within a week.” Argh! I do not fault my friends too much. I understand that sneaking superstition that hovers in the air, daring me to disregard the warning, defying me to delete. Do I perpetuate this bittersweet vine of life lessons ending with voodoo compulsions, or do I tough it out and brave the consequences? Yes! Delete! Check back with me in a week.....

I stumble, beaten, from the seat before my tormentor, near tears in my weakened post-email state. My husband Dave admonishes me, “Why do you do this to yourself? Just delete them.”

“I can’t! I can’t! What if there is a personal note tucked in at the end that begs a response? What if there is an alert I should be alerted to?”

“You have to chance it. Look at you! You’re a wreck!” says Dave. Sad to say, it’s true. You may be reading this, smiling to yourself, empathizing to an extent, but it's all true. E-mail will be the death of me.

When the postman was the only source for mail, there were external cues, evident in a brief flip-through, as to the contents of each piece. Sorting was easy. As the decades have flown by, the letter pile has become non-existent, the bills a constant, with the junk mail growing exponentially. But it is disposed of in a trice, lickety-split, into the recycling bin.

If only it were so with email.

You are probably solidly in Dave’s camp, thinking, “Oh please! What’s with the high drama? Just delete what you don’t want.”

The thing is, the contents of each email are not always clear. The title on the subject line can be deceptively alluring. You have to open to discern the topic. Plus, on our old computer, the screen may go blank for a minute or so, a shimmering flicker of miniscule numbers on the lower left hand screen the only indication that it is working, working, to pull up all 949 k’s (whatever they are) of the message. Sometimes the wait is rewarded with some lengthy piece of sentimental pap, perfectly geared to a menopausal mess like myself who will sniffle and bawl, as intended, by the final scroll down. Other times, the computer will surrender and freeze. Usually this happens when I am doing a quick email check before leaping into a day spent blissfully writing. Thus can a mood, but moments ago calm and beatific, explode into a screaming frenzy. “I’m just going to check my emails” can be the innocent signal of impending breakdown.

Many evenings that started with the pleasing promise of an empty square on the calendar page have been lost to email. A free night! These are so rare that I sometimes scrawl “BUSY” in those open blocks as added protection should a call come in for a last minute meeting that someone feels I simply must attend. “Hi. Let me look at the calendar. Ohhhh, I’d like to come, but I'm ‘BUSY.’” Unfortunately, a little white lie printed on the calendar cannot defend against a quick email check. It has often happened that this seemingly innocuous phrase has spelled the end of an evening spent together as a family.

On the treasured days when my daughter Casey is home from college, she begins, ends, and punctuates her day, with a staccato barrage of Instant Messages. We lost our son, Tucker, to the computer long ago. I read a Dean Koontz novel where a mother went in to check on her son who had been just a tetch too long computer-side. She recoiled in disbelief upon finding her offspring, eyes round and metallic, arms extended like two vaccuum hoses fused to the body of the demon computer. It is not as far-fetched as it sounds. It’s just a matter of time for Tucker.

I saw this coming. I forbade an Internet hook-up in our house, but I was over-ridden and you see what has happened.

There must be a solution. We could assign one email night per week per person. Or maybe confine all emailing to one night with scheduled appointments? We'll figure it out. In the meantime, I'm just going to run upstairs for a quick email check...


Anonymous said...

Hi, Lea! Your essays are great! I particularly loved the "Saved Messages" one. "Death by Email" reminds me of a lecture I went to with my brother last year, given by Marie Boroff (Yale English professor), called "Diving Under the Wreck." She talked about the three biggest threats to modern civilization, which she identified as war, environmental degradation, and... the internet! My brother said, "What's she talking about? The internet is a choice. You can opt out." But it's true that there's an overload of information--and it's information, not necessarily knowledge--online and it often lacks context... like when you print out Mapquest directions and you get lost anyway, and all you have is a string of now useless instructions, with no bigger map to guide you.

Email takes way too much of my time, too--though it's an amazing and invaluable way to keep in touch with far-flung friends. Maybe your situation would be helped by a good spam filter (I used to get tons of spam; now I don't get any), a better computer hook-up (do you have high-speed cable?), and a habit of checking at a different time of day, so it doesn't take over your evenings? Life is short... Great blog--happy writing!

DSylvestro said...

let me see... after re-reading this I think I STILL have but two words of advice for you:

De & Lete.

I haven't read this essay in a bit and it makes me laugh... because you just might be a split second from becoming attached to your screen by those diabolical tentacles as I look at you RIGHT NOW!! With Fatso about to pounce on your computer from his perch at your shoulder, ready to save you from your imminent computer assisted demise!



Chris1215tine said...

Lea - you have to be ruthless. My theory is, if the world hasn't ended yet because I haven't forwarded impending disaster e-mails then it probably won't. If people really, really want to get in touch with me they will either send another e-mail with a more urgent subject line or novelty of novelties - call me! Of course the fact that you are reading this comment instead of writing more blogs is just me taking up your time also! Great blog though, keep it up. Christine x

Meredith Charreyron said...

You and I are such SAPS that we tend to send (only occasionally, though) sweet and sappy forwards to each other. LET"S STOP and we'll save our weary souls and eyes a lot of extra agony.
Loved this blog entry. Keep them coming, dear Lea.