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Is e-mail really discourse? Some events need paper and pen.

Byline: Chris SINACOLA


What is the news? At break of day we put on coffee, check our e-mail, catch weather and traffic reports. The "TODAY" show is as insipid as ever, as expected. We watch anyway. Must make sure no nukes are on the loose, that coups are limited to small African nations or Pacific islands, and will not affect markets or our commute. Take a moment to note any celebrity breakups for water cooler talk.

Is this an obsession or an illness? Neither, really. It is a sanctuary, one to which millions scurry morning and night, and a few afflicted souls feel compelled to seek out each hour of the day. If pressed, we would admit much of the news isn't news, and much that is doesn't affect us, but we have been conditioned to fear being the last to know anything. Conversely, we relish the thought of breaking the breaking news to even one co-worker or e-mail correspondent.

But it is a contingent sanctuary, contingent upon our daily finding reasons to postpone the important work of our lives. Cable and power outages happen, but are infrequent and of short duration. We have little idea what we would do if faced with just ourselves and one another for any extended period.

Google Earth can take you over many a mile of fuzzy wilderness, but like airport layovers, it's not the same as being somewhere. Social networking sites can connect you to friends and save gas in the bargain, but they are not reality. We have come to think of computers as sanctuaries from life; pleasure domes they can be, but they do not rival the dome of the sky.

Drive modern man and woman from their electronic Eden, strip them of cellphones, uninvent their telegraphs, blot Edison from history and give them paper and pen. What happens? It is akin to the unfolding of an English novel on PBS. They wait for the mail. Calling cards are exchanged. Sunday afternoon tea is served. A game of chess begins. Conversation is raised to an art form.

But time accelerates. The coming generations rise on a titillating tower of texting and a cacophony of clicking. That connections are made in the silicon interstices of the modern world is proven, but do we want to live by incessant reassurances that we are OK, or laughing out loud, or rolling on the floor with laughter, or will be right back to attend to an e-mail forward?

Perhaps, if they had had our technology, previous generations would have chosen the same sanctuaries we do. But they did not and could not.

Thus, I can still read the letters of grandparents, great-grandparents, distant cousins and complete strangers. An uncle's thoughts from Europe during World War II. My grandfather's cryptic diary entries from France in 1918. A distant great-aunt who visited the Columbian World Exposition in Chicago in 1893. A Vermont surgeon posted in Maryland who heard guns along the Potomac in 1862. And there are postcards, a microcosm of U.S. history, and postal rate increases from McKinley to McCain. (Hey, I can dream.)

"Wish you were here." But time has reversed their polarity. It is they who are present with me now, crossing the Grand Canyon, emerging from Howe Caverns, delightfully touting a night's stay in a concrete teepee motel in Kentucky.

Even if the Servers in their endless storage wisdom are auto-saving our lives - e-mail jokes and shopping lists, intemperate screeds and those infelicitous choices of adjectives - our grandchildren are unlikely to hit the print button. If they do, it could be days before they find the wheat hidden among all that chaff.

Against all that, a few continue to write letters or keep diaries. Some of these scraps will hide themselves in a desk drawer, or slip from view behind a cupboard to wait out this impatient age. Most say nothing very deep, but have power to carry us back to a fall of rain at dusk, the summer we fixed the roof, or the uncertainty of an illness now long and happily past, but marking a moment when life seemed more precious for the threat of being lost.

For such moments, a few are willing to leave their media sanctuary, abandon all contingencies and, against the looming oblivion of time, scratch away, pen on paper, long and late into the night.

Contact Chris Sinacola by e-mail at
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Title Annotation:LOCAL NEWS
Publication:Telegram & Gazette (Worcester, MA)
Date:Aug 8, 2008
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