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An ode to the days before e-mail replaced the phone and the letter

Several months ago, I e-mailed friends in Tucson who have succumbed to the technological pox that is electronic mail. I told them I was no longer accepting messages and encouraged them to call if they wanted to reach me.

The results of this decidedly unscientific experiment are in, and they aren't encouraging.

Within a few days of my no-more-e-mails e-mail, I got a call from a longtime friend who told me he knew exactly what I was doing. He was right. Though I hadn't made it explicit in my message, I wanted to find out how many people would go to the effort of dialing a phone number. The final answer: not many.

A week or two after issuing my cease-and-desist request, two more friends called. Whether this is a reflection on me, my pals or the sorry state of affairs we find ourselves in as a consequence of coming to depend on computers for communication, remains unknown.

For the most part, people respected my wishes and stopped e-mailing. One woman stopped for a few weeks, then, with no notice, resumed sending those profoundly annoying, widely distributed missives purporting to contain all sorts of wisdom about (your pick here) aging, women, men, women and their relationship with men, motherhood, etc., ad nauseum.

Another woman decided to whine to my husband (via e-mail) about how difficult it was to reach me, blah, blah, blah. This ticked me off. A phone takes seconds to dial, and when the connection is made, it is immediate. A call is composed of voices, inflection and an immediate exchange of ideas enabling both parties, within a couple of minutes, to solve the great dilemma of where to go to lunch.

The alternative is an e-mail volley taking several encounters with a keyboard to complete. Yes, let's get together. When? Where? And the beat goes on. There is not a shred of doubt that what could have been accomplished telephonically in less than three minutes takes much longer by e-mail.

I do not buy into the "everyone's so busy, and it's so much faster by e-mail" argument. The reason people are "so busy" is because they are wasting enormous amounts of time sitting at their infernal computers distracting themselves from life and piddling away their time on nonessentials such as lousy jokes (not to be confused with good jokes, which are essential), more news than any sane person needs or wants, garbage that involves forwarding some nonsense to 3,000 people in four minutes in order to ward off a calamity or earn oodles of money, surfing eBay, being sucked into link after link in what started out as a simple search and, well, you get the idea.

If you get the impression that I intensely dislike e-mail, you are almost correct: I detest it. While I could make an argument that it's kind of nice to be able to communicate with out-of-town friends quickly and efficiently, friends one might otherwise not hear from as often, the other side of the coin is the possibility--remote as it seems in the 21st century--you might actually correspond from time to time.

I figure I must have lived one of my former lives in the 19th century. I long for correspondence. Everything about sending and receiving mail (real mail is what it is, not snail mail, though computer geeks would have us believe so) is wonderful. The pleasure of getting a handwritten letter from a friend or relative cannot and will never be equaled by some blips on a screen.

First comes the simple joy of seeing someone's script, no matter how messy or difficult to read. (Though I'd reluctantly settle for typewritten text.) This is followed by the tactile pleasure of paper, of opening an envelope, either with your fingers or a letter opener (not electric or battery-powered, rather the kind you can't bring on airplanes).

Once the letter is read, it's possible to toss, crumple, press to one's bosom, sniff, kiss, put away for posterity or answer in whatever time it takes. Responding to correspondence requires effort worthy of communication: time and contemplation. No quick, off-the-cuff, multi-tasked, half-assed, grammatically butchered reply.

On the other hand, e-mail has provided readers who want to share either their vitriol or their agreement an easy way to do so. As a result, I've been able to engage in something resembling dialogue with folks who want to do more than simply vent their spleen. And I've been able to directly respond to people who, while they may want to let me know what they think, don't necessarily want a letter published.

E-mail may have its place, but it is no substitute for the real thing. And it certainly fails as a way to communicate among friends.

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