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CHRIS ERSKINE / The Guy Chronicles

To Them, All E-Mail Is First Class

July 29, 1998|CHRIS ERSKINE

She lives the way the Greeks once lived, sleeping late, then taking it easy the rest of the day, often accomplishing little except maybe one great thought or observation--just like the Greeks--some little insight into the human condition that makes her leisurely summer day worthwhile.

"Only in California," my lovely and patient older daughter observes after a swim party, "could you fall asleep while floating in the pool, then wake up to find somebody else's mother feeding you fruit."

"That's very philosophical," I say.

"You think so?" she asks.

"Yes," I say.

"I'm going to go tell Marie," she says, scampering off to her bedroom.

Marie doesn't live in her bedroom. Marie lives in her computer. Every hour for the entire summer, she has e-mailed her friend Marie.

On the half-hour, my lovely and patient older daughter e-mails her friend Mo. Who, in turn, e-mails her friend Beth. Who e-mails Allison. Who e-mails my lovely and patient older daughter, who starts this e-mail cycle all over again.

"Do you know what Marie said?" my daughter tells me five minutes later.

"No."

"She says I'm deep," my daughter says.

"She probably meant it in a nice way," I say.

"I hope so," she says.

Like the Greeks, my teenage daughter and her friends value the written word. And never before has the written word been this fast. Never before has there been an e-mail summer like this.

"Yoooooou've . . . got mail!" that computer voice rings out from her bedroom at least 20 times a day.

"I've got mail!" my daughter answers, hurrying to her desk.

And when they don't have mail, she and her friends huddle together in some electronic chat room, where they have the kind of running dialogues Socrates used to have.

What do they talk about for six or eight hours a day? Mostly, each other.

"Is Mo mad at me?" my daughter writes.

"Why?" Marie writes back.

"I don't know," my daughter writes. "She hasn't e-mailed me in, like, an hour."

"That's so mean," Marie writes.

"I know," my daughter writes.

Sometimes, they will grab the phone, just to make sure an especially important e-mail got through.

"Did you get my e-mail?" she asks Allison over the phone.

And then she and Allison will talk on the phone and exchange e-mail at the same time, creating some sort of electronic hyper-loop, the phone lines nearly humming from all the work.

For hours, this goes on. If my daughter has to leave the room for some emergency--say, to eat--she will hire her younger brother to sit at her desk to keep the computer conversations going.

"What do you want to tell Mo?" he yells to her in the kitchen.

"Ask her if she wants to go to a movie," my daughter yells back.

"OK," the boy says, typing the message a finger at a time, his face three inches from the keyboard.

Before long, it dawns on the boy that he is impersonating his sister with his sister's permission, which is the kind of opportunity a lot of brothers live for.

"I think . . . I'm growing a mustache," the boy writes, still pretending to be his sister, who returns from the kitchen and spots the message.

"Get out!" she yells at her brother.

"It's just a joke," the boy says, laughing on his way out of the bedroom.

"It was just a joke, Dad," he says as we pass in the hallway.

"You're a funny guy," I say.

"Thanks," he says proudly, heading off to spread more mirth and cheer across the land, a court jester in search of a court. Any court. A tennis court. Maybe the Supreme Court.

"I think I'll go tease Mom," he says.

"Good luck with that," I say.

"Thanks," he says.

In her room, my daughter is back at the keyboard, a sandwich at her side, trying to keep her strength up for the long night ahead. A thousand little messages. A million little keystrokes.

"Know what's nice?" I say, peeking over her shoulder.

"What, Daddy?" she says.

"A personal letter," I say.

"Huh?" she says.

"You know, a handwritten letter," I say. "When I get a handwritten letter these days, it's like a special treat."

"Like, on paper?" she asks, grimacing at the thought.

"Yeah, paper," I say.

I tell her that I think e-mail is terrific, that it is a great innovation. But e-mail has made a handwritten letter seem extra special.

"You can buy a cake, or you can bake a cake," I tell her. "A handwritten letter is like someone personally baked you a cake."

She takes a bite of her sandwich and thinks about this a moment. The way her dad says this, it sounds sort of philosophical. Like something a Greek might have said.

"So you want me to bake you a cake," she finally says.

"A cake would be nice," I say.

"Yoooooou've . . . got mail!" her computer says.

* Chris Erskine's column is published on Wednesdays. His e-mail address is chris.erskine@latimes.com. He welcomes letters.

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