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'90s FAMILY : Reach Out and Fax Someone : Letter-writing is a dead art. Plane tickets are expensive. Get ready to introduce Aunt Ethel to the joys of e-mail.


Have you noticed that lately people ask for your fax number? It's assumed that you have one. Or they want to know what on-line service you use--another assumption. Well, I happen to have both, which impresses my daughter in Northern California, and provides me with immediate access to grandchildren.

Electronic communications have become a way of life for the '90s family. E-mail is electronic mail that comes across your computer screen if you have signed on to one of the on-line services such as America Online, Prodigy or CompuServe. They are fairly easy to navigate, and before you know it you're sending messages and getting answers quicker than it takes to lick a postage stamp. Faxes are even simpler. Place the message between the guides, punch in the destination phone number and hit the "start" button. A real no-brainer.

And what about pagers and cellular phones? Convenience or intrusion? My mother, who lived more than 60 miles away when my children were small, would have been ecstatic. Her favorite litany today would be, "You never fax me anymore." If I'd had a cellular phone in those days, I would have gotten calls while crossing four lanes of traffic on the Ventura Freeway to let me know that bare feet cause colds.

Al, a law enforcement officer in Los Angeles, comes home after a stressful workday and zones out in front of his computer, checking out what's happening on-line. He finds it quite addictive.

"Ten years ago, when I came home all I had to do was check the mailbox. Now when I come home, it's the mailbox, the telephone answering machine and the computer e-mail. If the messages require my immediate response, it's 30 minutes or longer before I can sit down and have a glass of wine to wash away the day," Al said.

Fax machines may not be addictive but they do invite strange, cryptic and off-the-wall messages. My husband's boyhood chum Lloyd fires off corny jokes and, more recently, sent a graphic diagram of his five blocked arteries before his bypass operation.

Maybe electronic chitchat doesn't measure up to sipping herbal tea at a sidewalk cafe with a good friend, but we are connected in a form of communication vastly different from and more immediate and intimate than the phone or the U.S. Postal Service.

Immediacy hit home in September. Returning from a trip, my husband, Des, and I dumped our suitcases at the door, cuddled our love-starved cats, and did a cursory flip through piled-high mail. Then I went to check the e-mail. Not a wise move. There was a desperate plea from my granddaughter Beth, 10, who needed to know when and why certain family members immigrated to this country. After an 11-hour flight from London, I could barely remember where I came from, but Beth's assignment was due in two days, so I came through. A '90s grandmother does that sort of thing if she is electronically hip.

Rising to the occasion has included editing Beth's faxed short story and helping 7-year-old Matthew compose sentences 20 minutes before the school bus arrived.


Some of my friends are using the new technology to keep track of scattered offspring. Take Port Hueneme author Kathleen Sublette, whose daughter Julie is teaching belly-dancing to children in a kibbutz in Israel and planning a trip to Turkey soon. Mother and daughter correspond by e-mail every couple of days. Why the trip to Turkey?

"I think she's trying to scare me," Sublette said. Another advantage of e-mail: No one can hear a mother's groans when children send news that buckles the knees.

Iva Grant of Ventura heads her own public relations and advertising agency, has two young children at home and a husband who commutes to work in Los Angeles. She trades fax notes, humor and articles about child-rearing with her sister who lives 50 miles away. She also stays in touch by e-mail with her best friend, who moved to New Mexico last year.

"We rarely talk on the phone anymore. It's all e-mail," Grant said. She makes most of her lunch dates that way too. Away from home her pager is her constant companion. It's the first line of communication with baby-sitters.

And how about doing an end run around Hallmark?

"Of the last five baby birth announcements we've received, four were sent by e-mail, including one from missionary friends in Croatia," said Judith Weber, of Weber & Associates, a marketing research firm in Portola Valley. "In fact, for my daughter's last birthday party, some moms e-mailed their RSVPs."

On Friday nights, Weber and her husband, Joe, proofread the church bulletin. "The secretary faxes it over to us, we proof it as we partake of our Friday night ritual of wine, cheese and crackers, then fax it back without ever leaving home," Weber said.

She prefers e-mail over any other form of communication. Leaving messages on an answering machine, she said, doesn't guarantee a reply when needed while e-mail usually does.

"Hit the reply box and the answer is on its way," she said. She rates faxes second in guaranteeing a quick response.

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