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#10. You've Got Mail

Tom Hanks can do no wrong in my eyes.

He could play Mussolini and I’d rethink my position on dictators.

If the Presidential election was between Tom Hanks and our jealous God, the Almighty would have some campaigning to do.

Yes, there is a point to this. It’s called covering my ass.

Remember the movie, “You’ve Got Mail?” Well, the awful truth is, I always secretly sided with the Greg Kinnear character. Meg Ryan’s boyfriend. The poor misguided schlub, stubbornly banging away on his Selectric typewriter, singing the virtues of paper. Of course he was insufferable, what with his smugness and his smarmy smile and his virtuous pronouncements (Nora Ephron knew what she was about), and yes, if I was Meg Ryan - which I’m not, but if I were - I’d go with Tom Hanks, too.

But the boyfriend wasn’t wrong.

Though like most people on the planet I use e-mail all the time now (‘use’ may actually be the wrong word for something I have to dig myself out from under every day – ‘endure’ might be better, or ‘suffer’), I never wanted it. I was teaching at Columbia when it was gently ‘suggested’ by Bruce Ferguson, the Dean of the School of the Arts at the time (and possibly the last university administrator with a genuine sense of humor), that I get with the program. Summoning Bartleby, I told him I’d prefer not to; that I picked up my mail religiously, answered it promptly, kept my office hours. No go. I dug in my heels, resisted as long as I could; by the time I caved, in late 2002, I had the university’s fingerprints all over my back.

E-mail was clean, instant, efficient. It was the inevitable future.

I was unmoved. It’s not that I didn’t see its advantages – any idiot could see them. It’s just that I believed that e-mail, like all technologies, would kill off its predecessors, among them the personal letter. And so it has.

I hate being right.

So, the natural question: Was it worth it? That is, was the gain in efficiency worth the cost?

Most people, I’m guessing, would answer, ‘Of course it was!’ or, more likely, question the question: ‘What cost?’

I’d say ‘no.’

Go ahead and laugh – laughter’s good for us.

When you’re done, though, consider the price we’ve paid for that business app (because that’s what it is) that we were all so excited about once. The one that’s multiplied like those tribble things on Star Trek and spawned a lot of dumb-ass technological children.

There’s something about e-mail that narrows the range of our expression, that cramps the soul, that militates against wandering. The great letters of the world (and the not-so-great) were deeply personal; they were a way of thinking aloud. About love and hate, fate and failure. Personal letters laughed and swore and celebrated, connived and cajoled, gossiped and commiserated. Above all, maybe, they reminisced: Remember that trip we took, that day, that dream? Remember when we . . .

What’s strange is that there’s nothing particular about e-mail – nothing that I’m aware of, at any rate – that prevents us from writing on it the way we wrote on paper. We just don’t. Though there are the exceptions who still occasionally put pencil or pen to paper, we’re the cultural equivalent of Spotted Owls. Why? Who knows. Most people don’t have time, maybe - or think they don’t. Or maybe the friction-free medium itself – no paper, no ink, no typewriter keys smacking the carriage – encourages a kind of friction-free communication as well: just the essentials; no contemplation, no introspection, no memories. Something about the form precludes history.

It’s a loss. A big one. By losing a certain way of writing, we’ve begun to lose a certain way of thinking. A way of thinking that expressed something fundamentally human about us.

What’s sad and revealing about the case of e-mail is that while it’s proved undeniably useful for shorter, to-the-point communication (how many e-mails have I received lately that are one sentence long?), it’s short-circuited the other kind. Which is how technology works: It’s always ‘either/or’; hardly ever, ‘both/and.’ Nobody says, “I’ll just knock out these e-mails, but after dinner I’ll sit down with a glass of wine and write a couple of letters.”

Actually, I do.

I don’t do it to score some holier-than-thou cred, or to make a point. I don’t do it because I dream of single-handedly ushering in the Renaissance of the Personal Letter, though that would be nice.

I do it because I enjoy it.

I do it because I love the way my father’s old Parker fountain pen fits in my hand, or the way my Underwood portable, when I open its case, smells of steel and ink. I like the way that writing a letter forces me to slow down, to pause, to think, and I like that while I’m thinking I can’t open a new tab to check out the latest provocation to fly out of The Donald’s mouth.

I like that whenever I write a letter, I’m in a private space with the person I’m writing to.

I even like the whole business of folding the letter, addressing the envelope, putting on the stamp. What can I say?

Is it slower? Of course it’s fucking slower – that’s the point.

At times, because that’s how the culture wants me to think, writing a letter feels like a snotty affectation – “These brussels sprouts were slow-roasted on an open fire of aged apple tree boughs, hand-harvested by blind poets” – but for me it’s mostly about the fact that, because it doesn’t involve staring at a screen, it doesn’t feel like work. I can pause and listen to music, or talk to my wife, who likes to draw or read while I write, and when I’m done I feel like I’ve actually done something. I can see it there on the shelf by the phone, waiting to be mailed.

When I get a letter back from somebody – which isn’t often, admittedly - I save it like a treat until after dinner.

Reclaiming the things we’ve lost hurts. It doesn’t come easy.

When I decided to start writing letters again, I was surprised to see that my handwriting, which had never been much, had gone completely to hell. The muscles in my wrist and forearm had atrophied; I had to keep stopping every few minutes to work out a cramp. The writing on the page looked pathetic – the lines descended as if pulled down by gravity, sliding from barely legible to doctor’s scrawl. More importantly – this is what pissed me off and kept me going – I found that my attention had atrophied as well. I was jumpy, impatient, irritable. I had a hard time holding on to a thought long enough for my handwriting to catch up, or roughing out a sentence in my head in advance to keep from having to scratch out half of what I wrote.

It hadn’t always been that way. I used to write letters all the time, easily. And I didn’t like this sense of having lost something – an ability, a strength - I once took for granted.

I kept at it – once a week, twice a week – and what began in frustration slowly grew into pleasure.

If I force myself to articulate what it is that I love about the physical letter, I find myself coming back again and again to the word, ‘humanity.’ I can’t seem to find a better one.

To read Henry Adams’ letters, or Flaubert’s, or Hemingway’s, or Elizabeth Bishop’s, or Lincoln’s, or Frederick Douglass’s, is to get a pointillist portrait of a human being, a soul. To read Thomas Carlyle’s letters to his brother, or Robert Frost’s to Louis Untermeyer, is to experience an extraordinary, decades-long friendship. To read E.B. White’s letters to basically anybody is to revel in the whimsy, the humor, the precision and intelligence and occasional combativeness of a wonderful, humane man; it’s an experience that warms you like good brandy.

Are anyone’s e-mails going to be worth collecting? Or reading? Will they reveal us the way our letters did?

How many of us can find our last fifteen years-worth of emails? How many of us would want to? And if, over those fifteen years, we didn’t say anything worth saving and had nothing interesting said to us, what does that say?

Maybe it all comes down to the airiness of e-mail, the immateriality of it. The leaching away of personality, of warmth. Like so much else in our world now, it’s so swift, so friction-free, it removes some part of us from the equation. There are no quirks of penmanship or typeface, no food accidents. The first letter I received from my wife-to-be had a small tuna fish stain in the upper right hand corner, which she’d circled and identified for what it was. The small smile behind that gesture – which suited me perfectly – brought me home to her.

My father’s handwriting is something I’ll recognize the rest of my life. His letters are more important to me than his ashes.

If someone was crying when they wrote you that e-mail, you’d never know.

No one ever held their laptop or phone to their face and imagined they could smell the person they missed.

It’s not a small thing.

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