Sunday, November 11, 2001

You Meet The Strangest People

In "John Adams," David McCullough's biography of the second president, much of the story is told through excerpts from letters sent to and from the sage of Braintree. In an era when there was no phone or email, the only way to communicate was to take quill in hand and set down every detail, nuance and thought, summon a post rider, and dispatch the missive to its reader. Depending on the distance it needed to travel, it could take days, weeks or even months before the letter reached its destination, and at least an equal amount of time for the reader to respond. The bad news was that often the contents in question were rendered irrelevant by the time the letter arrived. The good news, however, is that if the letters survived, we have an exquisite written record of the events of the day that transpired.

Contrast that, if you will, with the way we communicate today. The postal system, once the pride and joy of the country, has been reduced to carrying credit card offers, bills and birthday cards. Far more data is transmitted... almost instantaneously... by voice, by fax and by email. And while it sure is quick, it's not always of the "When in the course of human events" quality. Additionally, the very nature of instantaneous communication with unseen parties creates the possibility of misunderstandings... and worse... as the following might illustrate.

A word of caution, however, is in order. To paraphrase that old police show, while the facts are true, the names have bee changed to protect the innocent from my stupidity.

Over a year ago we were having dinner with a group of friends in a noisy restaurant. One person wanted to send an article of interest to another, and email was deemed the fastest, most appropriate means available. Over the din, internet handles were swapped. I took note, as I'm always looking to keep my address book up to date, as well as find other innocent souls upon whom I can inflict this column (which I distribute weekly via email as well as publish in the paper).

Now, I know I had had a glass or two of wine, and wasn't paying complete attention. But I was sure I heard Betty say her email address was "CookBetty." And since Betty is a professional cook, this made perfect sense. I had some more sangria, some more tapas, and enjoyed the rest of the evening.

When I went to my office on Monday morning, I sent Betty a note that, with her permission, I was adding her name to my distribution list. And I dutifully did so, regaling her weekly as I do to all you other hapless victims who are regular readers of this space. No communication was heard from her end... but this was not unusual, and so I thought nothing of it.

As the calendar turned, we saw Betty and her husband on and off, and I would occasionally fire off an email to her, commenting on something she said over drinks or at dinner. She never responded, but again, this wasn't too unusual... after all, some folks are writers and some are not. Then Betty came and borrowed a bunch of books to take on vacation. A month of so later, I was looking for one volume, remembered she had taken it, and jotted a quick missive to the effect of "are you finished?" She wrote back: "What books?" Now Betty is known to be droll, but this was breaking new ground. I puzzled over it and let it ride, not wanting to endanger a friendship over something so trivial. When next we saw her, I mentioned the books. She apologized for the delay, and readily returned them. No mention was made of any of the electronic exchanges.

Occasionally, over the course of the year, I got an unprompted response to a column from Betty. While they were always short, they were also always just a little "off" considering the Betty I knew. Regardless, as I try to do with all comments, I quickly wrote back, referencing the comments she made, and making some personal aside about her husband or kids or life, all of which I knew fairly well. She never wrote back, but once again, this never stuck me as the least unusual.

Recently, I tagged a column with a line about my admiration for the TV show "MASH." Betty jotted a quick note back, saying how she too enjoyed it, "watching it with her husband in the morning when they got up." Now, I know Betty's husband by first name... and I know that Betty is not an early riser unless she has to, certainly not to get up to watch TV reruns. The proverbial straw was just about breaking the camel's back.

After thinking about it, I idly punched up the profile registered to "CookBetty." And lo and behold, the person described was not my pal, who lives 5 minutes from us, has two kids and is a professional chef. Rather, it was a newlywed from the Midwest, who cooks as a hobby. A quick call down the road confirmed it: my friend was "BettyCook" and not "CookBetty." For 15 months I had been engaged in a running dialogue with a woman 1800 miles away I had never seen nor met, who didn't know me nor I her, who chanced across my path through a dyslexic typing event. She had been receiving weekly missives she never thought to question, and we both swapped witty asides that more often than not didn't seem so witty. I'm lucky she didn't call the cops.

I laid this all out in a note that I promptly sent to CookBetty. Her response: "Now it all makes sense!" BettyCook had the same reaction. Luckily, no harm was done; I didn't alienate an old friend, I made a new one... and added two more sets of eyeballs to my mailing list.

The lesson? Check your spelling? Know your audience? If you don't have something good to say, don't say it? All true. But I prefer to keep in mind a simpler view courtesy of Eugene O'Neil in "Anna Christie:" "We're all poor nuts and things happen, and we just get mixed up wrong, that's all."


Marc Wollin of Bedford loves to meet people... as long as he doesn't have to actually talk with them. His column appears regularly in The Record-Review and The Scarsdale Inquirer.

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