EDITOR'S COLUMN: E-mail provokes many responses

Kids today travel all over the world and never write a letter home. Parents don’t walk expectantly to the mailbox, hoping to find a rumpled envelop to which an exotic stamp is affixed. There is no moment of excitement as the enclosed letter is opened, and there is no comfort in seeing the familiar handwriting you helped develop by forcing the writer to practice all those loops and whirls as a child.

What we get instead is e-mail. It doesn’t have nearly the character of a hand-written letter, but in its own business-like way it’s a direct link to loved ones traveling the world. It’s comforting to look on your computer and see a message is waiting to be read, even if individual handwriting has been replaced by some nondescript computerized font. At least you know they’re alive, or they were when they pushed the “send” button.

I always thought telephone calls would replace letter writing, but that was before e-mail came along. It’s faster and cheaper than a telephone call, but that doesn’t explain why young people prefer e-mails by a margin of roughly 2,000,000 to 1. Phone calls have one dramatic drawback, even if made with only 2 minutes left on a cheap phone card: parents can ask questions. There is no such problem with e-mails. Parents can only read them and wonder.

My wife and I have received e-mails from many places in the world, such as Rome, Florence, Athens, Amsterdam, Stuttgart, Mexico City and Guadalajara. Kids today think nothing of hopping a plane to the farthest reaches of the world. Personally, I always wanted to see Alaska, but haven’t managed it yet. But our kids have seen Alaska on their way to someplace else.

The typical young person e-mail contains tantalizing phrases more notable for what they don’t say than what they say. “I went with some friends to a disco and danced all night. It was fun.” End of statement. Well, let’s examine exactly what isn’t included in this statement: Who were the friends, where was the disco, do they really still call them discos in Europe, do they sell alcoholic beverages at the disco, did you drink any, did your “friends,” what kind of people are these “friends,” were they boys, or girls, or some of both, and how did you get there and get home, and, and, and.... Well, there is literally no end to the questions that a parent comes up with when reading an e-mail from an offspring.

Of course, you can send an e-mail right back asking all the pertinent questions, but don’t expect an immediate reply. No, their e-mail was sent from an Internet cafe, which they can afford to visit only infrequently. When they do, they’ve conveniently forgotten all your questions, or they ignore them completely. So you get an entirely new messages, such as “we’re going to the disco and then we’re climbing the Matterhorn, after which we’re all going to spend the night on the beach.” How many questions does this prompt in a parent’s mind? How many stars are there in the universe?

Despite its shortcomings, e-mail is better than no-mail, or the phone call that is never made. Thanks to the wonders of modern technology, parents now know where their children are in the world. It’s just that we still don’t know what they’re doing there.

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