On the pursuit of an authentic life off-line
The cartoon goes something like this: a woman peers into a computer screen, and the message flashing back at her reads, “Congratulations. You are the last person on Earth to sign up for an e-mail account.” I think, “That will be me.”
Yes, it's true—I am one of those people who has never had Internet or an e-mail account, yet has still managed to live and work in the world for the past decade. “But it's as essential as electricity!” someone recently protested. “How do you survive?” As more and more people spend their mornings deleting dozens of unwanted e-mails, complaining about endless back-and-forth communications that could be resolved by a single phone call, I keep hoping others will get off the e-mail treadmill and join me.
Of course, I never got on in the first place. It's part of a lifelong aversion to technology—I don't own a car, in part because I never learned how to drive. No cellphone, camera, or voice mail either. No DVD player, and my VCR was a gift I used mainly as a clock, never bothering to learn how to record and then watch a program, until the frustration of resetting the clock after every power outage caused it to morph into its final incarnation, a plant stand. The last time I bought a piece of technology was 13 years ago, and that was a fax machine, which people insisted would be necessary for work. I wept attempting to set it up and, like Scarlett O'Hara shaking her fist at the sky, vowed to the heavens that this was it, as God is my witness, never again.
The necessity I resisted for years was a computer. Most of my books were written on a typewriter, and I loved the sturdy Selectric, with its ribbon of correcting tape, which seemed to me the ultimate in technological advancement. I could set it to correcting and type a sentence or a paragraph backward on the white tape and the letters would magically lift and disappear. The end seemed near when even the Polson's typewriter-repair guy, a dapper little man named Ivan, suggested that it might be time to get a computer. He was nearing retirement and would not be replaced. In addition, publishers added a clause to their contracts mandating that manuscripts be delivered on disk; the day of the rubber-banded typewritten tome, bristling with Post-it notes and circled with coffee stains, was gone.
Still, I would likely never have bought a computer myself. The thought of entering a store populated by electronics makes my skin prickle with anxiety and revulsion. Whenever I take the escalator up to Winners, I hurry past Future Shop, giving it a wide berth as if a kind of malevolent energy emanated from all that sleek silver technology. A friend eventually gave me his outdated laptop, and I used it sporadically for years. One day, I glanced at my boyfriend's computer screen and exclaimed, “You have colour! When did computers start coming in colour?” Mine was black-and-white, and only in the last couple of weeks have I finally taught myself how to cut and paste on it. Previously I had just retyped whole passages during the editing process, as if it were a typewriter. I never minded the extra work—it was part of the revision process, similar to reading drafts aloud in search of the awkward phrase, the misplaced metaphor. In the past, when I made errors on the Selectric, I would retype entire stories, fingers flying over the keyboard, typewriter keys clanking loudly—one of the loveliest sounds in the world, a sound of creation and satisfaction—and invariably would find other things to change, an image to tweak, a word to reconsider.
These days, though, I feel an encroaching dread. I'm hoping that if someone has made it this long without e-mail or Internet, she can continue without it forever. But one of the few people I know without e-mail is my 75-year-old gym partner, and as I am 40 years his junior, it's possible that eventually I will be the only one left. So many people have forgotten there are other ways of communicating. Recently, speaking to a travel agent who was ready to send me a plane ticket, there was a bewildered silence when I confessed to the lack of an e-mail address.
“You mean your e-mail is down?”
That's what I'll have to say next time. “Uh, no. I don't have it.”
“You mean it isn't working?”
“No, sorry, I don't have e-mail.”
With a world-weary sigh and much irritation in her voice, she said she would have to send the ticket by courier. The date of the flight was two months away, and it took some arguing to convince her that if she put the ticket in an envelope, licked a stamp, and dropped it in the mail, it would arrive with plenty of time to spare.
Maybe I will be the last person on Earth to get an e-mail account, but that won't be a bad thing. Sometimes, when I'm walking down the street thinking about a poem I'm working on, I close my eyes for a minute or two. It lets me sense the world differently—the brush and sway of people parting around me, the sea of busy humanity with their jangling cellphones and iPods and fragments of meaningless conversation, their clamouring footsteps, onward and onward. I find myself in a still space, an inner moment of silence, a blissful place of disconnection.