|March 20, 2001
I love e-mail.
I love everything about it. I love the ease and the convenience. I love the speed and the versatility. I love the global immediacy of e-mail ... the fact that with a mere touch of a button, I can instantly transmit messages to groovy far-off exotic places, like Perth and Paris and Wichita. I love the happy/busy *clackety-clackety* sound my fingers make on the keyboard as I'm composing a message to someone.
And I love love LOVE getting new e-mail. I've loved opening up my cyber mailbox for instance, these past few days, and finding another big buttload of supportive, life-affirming messages from my readers. ("Trying to Fob the Decision Off On Us?" ... "Tacky! Tacky! Tacky!" ... "Pick Your OWN Damn Invitations!")
But e-mail is not my first love. Long before I'd ever heard of Outlook Express or string-mail lists or stoopid AOL emoticons ... decades before I'd ever set hands on a computer keyboard for the first time ... I was in love with letter-writing.
Remember letter-writing? Pens and postage stamps and stationery and stickers and writer's cramp and waiting all afternoon for the sound of the mailman's truck? That kind of letter-writing?
That was my first love.
Letter-writing was one of those slightly-dorky, sweetly-old-fashioned pastimes -- like handkerchief socials, or piano recitals, or writing in a diary before bedtime every night -- that Grandma insisted I cultivate as a little girl. Even before I was old enough to read, I was sitting at the kitchen table clutching a pencil, laboriously squeezing out words and sentences as Grandma transcribed them to me, letter by letter, syllable by syllable. Twice-monthly missives to my crabby great-grandmother in Eugene. "I-Miss-You" letters to Mama and Daddy. Thank-you notes to young birthday party hostesses and their mothers. Get well notes to elderly relatives.
Before too long ... people started writing back.
Grandma liked to encourage my efforts by reminding me that"You have to write mail in order to receive mail." But that wasn't the incentive for me at all. I loved getting mail, but that wasn't what drove Young Secra to write letters. For me, it was all about the letter-writing process itself: the committing to paper a little piece of my life, to be read and enjoyed by another person, someplace far away.
That was the magic for me.
Then, sometime in the middle of the elementary school years, I discovered penpals ... and my *audience* went global.
What started out as a merit badge requirement -- corresponding with fellow Girl Scouts/Girl Guides in foreign countries -- swiftly became an all-consuming passion. By the time I was in high school, I had a couple hundred penpals. Some of them were friends I'd made at summer camp, or distant relatives in neighboring states, or former classmates who had moved away. (If you so much as sat next to me on a church bus, basically, you could expect a Christmas letter.) But the majority of my penpals were acquired through various "penfriend" clubs and associations. I would place my name and address in a national penpal publication, along with an enticing *Hey! Write-To-ME!* blurb -- "Interested in Exchanging Morning-Coffee-Letters? Drop Me a Line!" -- and four weeks later a fresh new deluge of replies would start arriving on my doorstep. One year I received almost five hundred Christmas cards.
(Our mailman must have hated my guts.)
I kept up my penpal hobby during college and young adulthood ... through marriage and the birth of the Tots and most of the Momhood Years ... right up until that moment in 1995, when I flipped the coin between Prodigy and AOL and everything changed forever.
And my favorite penpal, through all those years, was Miranda.
I don't remember exactly when Miranda and I began writing to each other. During the last years of high school, maybe? Or the first years of college? I know that we were at that gawky in-between place, when our friendship began ... that uncomfortable point somewhere between childhood and womanhood. Marriage/children/careers were a few years down the road yet. Our earliest letters to each other were filled with the sort of innocently-dopey self-exploration we all indulge in at that age: Am I pretty enough? Am I smart enough? Am I talented enough? What should I do with my life/my hair/my parents/my brain-dead boyfriend?
As we grew up, of course, so did the tenor of our correspondence. (What should I do with my life/my hair/my leftover meatloaf/my brain-dead husband?)
Our letters were Library-of-Congress-worthy epics. She wrote all of her letters with the same blue-black fountain pen, for as long as I knew her ... her tiny vertical handwriting filling page after page with the amusing details of her life. I preferred to type my letters -- whenever I had a working typewriter, anyway -- in order to cram as much information onto each page as possible. Whenever I found myself tragically typewriterless, I made do with a Flair fine-point and forty or fifty sheets of college-ruled notebook paper.
What was most interesting about our friendship -- what helped sustain it for so many years, I think, even when all of the other penfriendships eventually fell by the wayside -- was how much like a *real* friendship it felt. We couldn't have been more different -- she this wry, reserved Jewish girl living on the East Coast, me this boy-crazy, born-again West Coast nutcase -- and yet the commonality of our love for the art of letter-writing bound us. There were times when we adored each other ... and other times when we loathed each other. Sometimes I felt closer to her than to any other person on the planet, practically ... and other times the mere sight of her tidy handwriting on an envelope flap made me want to scream. There were arguments and misunderstandings, apologies and reconciliations ... just like any face-to-face friendship. More than once we stopped writing to each other altogether -- sometimes for months or years -- before resuming our correspondence.
Miranda and I met each other in person only once. During the summer of 1985, she and her new husband Bill travelled from New Jersey to Seattle to visit. It was a disaster of Richter Scale proportions. As comfortable as I felt with her in our letters to each other -- as easy and relaxed and fun as our friendship was on paper -- that's how UNcomfortable I was with the idea of meeting her face-to-face. (Sort of a precursor to the *meeting-my-Boom-Room-friends-F2F* panic disorder I would feel, ten years or so down the road.) I started drinking cheap chablis at noon, the day they were due to come to our house for dinner, just to "calm my nerves." By the time Miranda and Bill knocked on our door that evening, I was wild-eyed/shidt-faced/eleven-sheets-to-the-wind drunk. I fell over in my chair during dinner, dropped the shrimp salad all over the kitchen floor, and lit the wrong end of my cigarette twice. Both Miranda and Bill were clearly shocked by my behavior. Bill wouldn't even look at me for the next three days. I spent the remainder of our weekend together painfully hungover ... and embarrassed as hell.
Somehow, though, we managed to survive the disastrous Face-to-Face Meeting (I told her that I'd been drinking because I was "nervous" about meeting her, and she forgave me), and we continued writing to each other for a couple more years ... at least until after my son was born. But just as I can't pinpoint exactly when our correspondence began, neither do I recall exactly when -- or why -- it ended. I can guess, though. Once I plugged into the online world, during the summer of 1995, ALL of my old hobbies and interests -- reading, writing, Must-See TV, recipe-collecting, parenting, penpals -- sort of *poofed* into thin air for a while.
The truth is that I haven't thought about Miranda in years. Until last week, anyway.
Last week I was killing a little time over at Classmates.com -- idly popping names into the search engine, looking for old boyfriends and new in-laws-to-be -- when it suddenly occurred to me to try searching for Miranda. I don't know why I'd never thought of it before. In retrospect, it seems like a perfectly logical thing to do. After all, if *I* had made the transition from letter-writing to e-mail ... wouldn't it stand to reason that some of my former penpals had made the same leap?
I typed in her maiden name first. Nothing. Then I typed in her married name -- trusting that she would still be married to the erstwhile Bill, after all these years -- and voila! There she was.
I sat there looking at her name on my computer monitor for a minute or two, feeling absurdly pleased and weirdly nostalgic and utterly terrified, all at once. And then I clicked on the "send e-mail to" link, posted next to her name. I didn't even stop to think about it.
"Hi Miranda!" I typed."Remember me?" And I hit 'send' before I had a chance to change my mind.
It wasn't until after I'd sent the e-mail that the panic began to set in. What was I doing? What if she doesn't remember me? What if we parted in less-than-amicable fashion (but I've conveniently blacked-out the memory)? What if I still owe her money?
What if she isn't exactly thrilled to hear from me?
I shouldn't have worried. Her warm and friendly response landed in my mailbox within hours:
" ... What a surprise! Of course I remember you. How have you been? Fill me in on all your news! How are your children? I remember two girls and a son but I only remember one name - Kacie. Are you still with Ray? I was just thinking of you the other day after a long, long time. Maybe you got my brain waves or something! So much has changed and yet I am still with the utility company and still married to Bill. So e-mail me back and I'll fill you in! It's great to know you are still alive and kicking!"
Rather than reassuring me, though ... her e-mail merely set off a new chain reaction of self doubt and blind, gibbering panic.
How the hell do I summarize/describe/explain the last fifteen years of my life?
This isn't exactly a unique situation. Every week or so I receive another out-of-the-blue e-mail from someone from my past: a former junior high school classmate, an old Prom date, a one-time playground rival, my bunkmate from Camp Firwood. It's ridiculously easy to find me. I'm listed in broad daylight at Classmates.com, among other places, plus I maintain a very-public daily display of my life. Anyone with even a rudimentary grasp of the Internet (and a molecule or two of curiousity) can type my name into a search engine, and boom ... there I am, in all of my goofy, self-absorbed Recovering Alcoholic/Noncustodial Mother/*Internet Fiancee* glory. I don't mind being found. I wouldn't be letting it all hang out here, the way I do, if that bothered me. But each time I hear from a long-lost best friend or an old high school English teacher or a Sunday School choirmate, politely asking What's new?, I am faced with the same dilemma:
How much do I tell?
If they've been reading the website, obviously, the problem is solved. (Except then I'm left answering the Why in the world do you put your journal on the Internet? question.) But if they've never been to the website ... AND if it's someone whose opinion actually matters to me ... then forming my response is a little more complicated.
Or, in the case of Miranda, it's a LOT more complicated. Because Miranda was special. And because Miranda and I shared a lot of growing-up time together, albeit from opposite coasts. And because the last time Miranda heard from me, I was this simple housewife/mother of three, living in her tidy little house in Kirkland, WA ... not-so-happily-married, prone to drinking a little too much once in a while, whose biggest worry was the Kool-Aid stains on her living room carpet (and whose biggest dream was to own a used Selectric II someday, so she could type her memoirs for her children).
Things have changed just a hair since then.
After three days of procrastination and nailbiting, I finally sat down in front of the computer on Sunday morning and composed a quick, purposely vague overview of my life today.
"You mention that 'so much has changed' for you," begins my timid response. "That goes double here. Actually, that goes double, triple and quadruple here. I don't want to overwhelm you with too much information in one brief e-mail, so let me just hit on some of the highlights (and lowlights):
And once again I closed my eyes and hit *send* before I had a chance to talk myself out of it.
It's been a couple of days. I haven't heard back from Miranda yet ... but something tells me I probably will eventually. I figure that when I do, one of two things will happen: we will either exchange a handful of polite, awkward e-mails, all about our jobs and our health and our families and the weather, until we finally run out of stuff to say to each other and the correspondence withers and dies one final (permanent-this-time) death ...
... or else a lifelong friendship will find itself rekindled once again, thanks to the *miracle* of the Internet. And if our friendship does renew itself, and we eventually find that e-mail is too confining and inelegant a medium for our special brand of correspondence ...
... we can always go back to writing LETTERS again!
I'm pretty sure I've still got a Flair pen around here somewhere.