Thursday, July 10, 2008

Reading and writing for you and others

YEARS AGO, I made myself some of those print-your-own business cards. They were kind of flimsy and perforated around the edges, but I didn't want to spend real money because I was so rarely asked for a card. Those homemade nameplates languished in my wallet until eventually they were too faded and grubby to hand out so I threw them away. Of course, that very day someone asked for my business card.

That's when I got my in-house information technology staff (a.k.a. Jim, my husband) to create a basic, vanilla sort of website in my name so that the next time someone asked for my contact information I could say, "Just look me up online." And my preferred "title" changed from Ms. to www.

I have friends, acquaintances, and colleagues whose websites are state-of-the art things of beauty, complete with animation, fade-outs, musical accompaniment, and breath-bating opening sequences. I eventually upgraded to nicer fonts and colors, but never opted for more than cheap and simple because, as I saw it, the site was just a pixilated version of that unseen perforated business card; out of sight, out of mind.

But then, about a month ago, my server went out of business. Without notice, warning, or so much as a farewell e-mail, my website disappeared. Poof!
When I typed in my URL, a wan little message appeared: "No results found." I had been erased from cyberspace, my virtual presence amputated. And much to my surprise, I was steamed.

How could my hosting company just leave me high and dry like that? I resided online through a regional mom-and-pop outfit that used to send me personalized notes whenever it was time to renew; I thought we had a relationship!

Then, I felt mortified. Would the people I had told "Go to my website" think I had blown them off? Did they now see me as the kind of person who shares her brownie recipe but leaves out the baking powder?

Thanks to wise and patient counsel (Jim again), within a couple of weeks a new server was located, a transfer was effected, and the relaunch was complete. My virtual flag was flying once more, easy to access 24/7. In the alternative reality of the Internet, I was wwwhole. Hooray!

But again, I was surprised at my reaction. I think of myself as firmly rooted in the real world. I am not a techie. I have no avatar, do not frequent chat rooms, and find Facebook as dull as a box of hammers. And even though I created a Web log for myself (so easy, I didn't even ask Jim for help) I'm a poor excuse for a blogger. I'm too self-conscious for a format that seems to require an unedited stream of consciousness. Whenever I do post an entry, I feel silly; like I'm standing in my backyard in the middle of the night, humming softly into the darkness and waiting for someone to respond. The fact that the only answers I get are from people selling land in Costa Rica suggests that I put my energies elsewhere.

Like into e-mail, a format that I love almost as much as my dog. (That's me in the theater checking the inbox on my cellphone during the coming attractions.)
E-mail is like a wagging tail, the nontheological proof that I am not alone even when I am alone. Which is why it took me years to get up the nerve to change my e-mail provider and address; I was afraid of missing a single message.

But then I did it, and even though it was not the simple carefree experience advertised, it ultimately provided even more evidence that e-mail is the water cooler, post office, back fence, coffee shop, and town meeting of the digital age.

My inbox was filled with "nice to hear from you" messages from folks I hadn't heard from in years. It was like Christmas in springtime, with a paperless pile of good wishes and news about new careers and homes, college acceptances, the birth of grandchildren. Alas, I heard about divorces, declines, and a few deaths, too. I wrote back to everyone, and we all promised to stay in touch from now on. :)

This essay appeared in The Boston Globe (c) on June 2, 2008