By Y. Euny Hong
A FULL-CONTACT WORLD
In Tess of The d'Urbervilles, the heroine slips a note under her fiance's door just days before they are to be married. The note tells of her loss of virtue and illegitimate baby, now dead. But her fiance never sees the note: It disappears under the carpet behind the door -- a communication failure that ultimately results in abandonment, adultery, and murder.
It's hard to imagine this occurrence in the modern era: With e-mail, cell phones, and voice mail, such an important message couldn't go unreceived for long. But there are many merits to old fashioned communication: the romance of a handwritten note, the giddiness that comes with awaiting a reply, what one's choice of stationery reveals--particularly if it's scented.
Being an epistolary snob, I assume that I'll have no problem swearing off technology for one week: no e-mail, no voice mail, no ATMs -- in short, no communication via a recent invention whose purpose is to reduce human contact. (Although I can still receive messages this way, I can only respond by old-fashioned means.)
This challenge comes at an odd time in my life. After a big blow-up a month ago, my husband marched out the door. Since then, he has been sleeping on the sofa of his friend's eternal bachelor pad. Our communication has been reduced to juvenile e-mails and voicemail messages (I can't get him on the phone; he screens me out).
So, in my determinedly low-tech mode, one of the first things I do is write my husband a two-page letter of apology, in longhand, with my beloved Montblanc fountain pen. I tape it to the inside of the front door of our apartment, hoping he will see it when he comes by to get his mail. I pour my soul into the letter; when I show it to my sister, she says sincerely, "That's really sad." I start over a few times -- something you can bypass with a computer -- which gives me time to really weigh my emotions. I write things like, "You have been an ideal husband, and I wish I could have been a better wife"; things that I would never send in an e-mail, for fear it would be forwarded around the world.
I notice that ceasing the frequent e-mails and voice mails has had a magically calming effect on me. Writing a letter allows me to avoid the jumpiness that often sets in seconds after transmitting a controversial or drunken e-mail -- i.e., clicking the "refresh" button on my Outlook Express every 30 seconds to see if he has replied yet. It also keeps me from firing off a succession of angry one-liners (which, in the past, has led to a flaming war of 30 e-mails exchanged in the space of half an hour).
To go without e-mail cold turkey, I severely limit my overall computer use. I exclusively use my laptop, which has no Internet access, and find that I am actually able to write for more than 10 minutes without interruption. The deafening silence quickly gets to me, though. Whom can I call?
Initially, I assume that if I'm limited to personal visits and speaking with someone on the phone (as opposed to leaving a message), my social life will hearken back to simpler, more intimate times. But what I learn instead is somewhat distressing: I have hardly any friends.
I discover that making live telephone calls requires deep knowledge of people's personal habits. Do they observe the Sabbath? Do their children require an early bedtime? Do they even have children at all? There are very few people about whom I can answer these questions. Consequently, I shut down communication with almost everyone except those with whom I am very comfortable. All three of them.
My separation from my husband has made me withdraw even more. I am embarrassed by people continually calling to check up on me, and prior to this week, I had stopped answering my phone, relying on e-mail to pretend I was OK. Now, this is not an option. I watch a lot of television.
Taking solace in the idea that I would help my local small businesses by shopping in the neighborhood rather than online, I head out to spend some cash. Unfortunately, I realize rather quickly that there are no small businesses in my town. The only nearby bookstores are superchains; most of their staff don't know anything about books, and whenever I need help finding something, they look it up on the computer anyway, so there is no advantage over my turning to Amazon.com. And the idea of the friendly baker giving me a free torte is a fiction. I know because I went there, too.
I return from my disappointing outing still in search of satisfying human interaction. I flip the switch to my computer, promising myself I will simply read my e-mail and refrain from hitting the "reply" button. I receive an E-vite to a friend's baby shower, sent out by relatives of the parents-to-be. I hate, hate, hate E-vite: I particularly despise the feature that displays the entire list of invitees, which should be no one's business but the hostess's. Those who can't make it always give unnecessarily elaborate excuses; no one ever responds with the delightfully vague "With regret, I must decline." This week's experiment, however, gives me an excuse to avoid "e-RSVPing." But the hostesses have not posted their contact information, so I end up calling the mother-to-be herself, praying that the shower isn't meant to be a surprise. It isn't, but I can tell she thinks I am weird.
Buying a gift also presents a problem: The parents are registered at BabiesRUs.com. The nearest physical store is in another state, and I can't drive--a long-standing phobia I have dealt with by Internet shopping. But even if I could drive, I wouldn't want to go to Babies "R" Us. Childless people who are fighting with their husbands are usually not in the mood to be surrounded by baby stuff. I switch gears and set my emotions aside for now. I concentrate on other matters, such as withdrawing the money to buy said baby-shower gift. It's time for live bank-teller contact.
While waiting in line at my bank, I suddenly notice how ugly the interior of the place is, with its filthy carpeting and tatty furniture. Banks were once grand places, like churches. This one, however, is a bit of a sacrilege. Furthermore, the plastic between the teller and me requires us to shout at each other: "HOW'S SEVEN 20s AND ONE 10? DID YOU KNOW YOU'RE NOW ELIGIBLE FOR A CREDIT CARD WITH A $1500 LIMIT?!" Am I going to get held up at gunpoint the minute I leave? I clutch my purse and walk briskly out of the building and eventually to a branch in a, uh, better neighborhood. Even mild bigotry is a problem in this full-contact world. My husband finally calls to inform me that he saw the letter I taped to our door. He says he found it "moving" -- but apparently not moving enough to move himself back home.
Even worse, by the week's end, I'm feeling less quaintly Victorian than isolated, much like the Unabomber. I am all too happy to go back to my tech crutches, which allow me to get credit for staying in touch while actually being a really bad friend, and to communicate with male acquaintances without agitating their wives. I can inquire into the status of someone's father's health without having to hear the lengthy, gruesome details or feel bad about cutting the conversation short because I want to watch Lost. It lets me send yet another e-mail to my husband and feel like we are actually in some semblance of a relationship. Hurrah for electronic communication, and the false sense of intimacy that it provides. "Good fences make good neighbors," wrote Robert Frost--even electronic ones.