Saturday, October 25, 2008

Email Thinking

This morning, my email included four consecutive emails from a local friend, followed by four consecutive emails from a friend I've never meet. Continuations, all of them, of previous conversations--eight subjects, all addressed in the space of twenty or thirty minutes.

It got me thinking about the way that email changes our communications. I don't mean because it's in writing (though we do often express ourselves differently in writing) or because of the delay in response or any of the other things that are obvious to the format. No, the thing that caught my attention this morning was the changing of gears, the quicksilver slipping from a response about the stress I'm under at work or someone else's problem with a friend to a funny comment in a forum or a cute story about my daughter's friends.

In real life--or, I should say, in the flesh--that slippage would never take place. I'd never look at someone who had just expressed grave medical concerns to me and say, "I heard the best joke this morning." I'd be taken aback if I said to someone, "You know, I'm under so much pressure at work that I actually think I'm going to quit without another job" and she said, "What do you think of this color for my kitchen curtains?"

But we do that all the time in email, shifting from religious philosophy to political debate to dinner plans to pictures of our kids to anecdotes to financial problems and back again every time we click "send" and move on to the next. There's a big advantage to this format, and one I've always valued--it allows time for reflection, to digress and return to the core point, to expand a conversation in different directions without losing the original thread. That doesn't happen when we sit down to talk--if we branch off in a particular direction chances are that the original thread is lost, or that it has evolved significantly enough that we never return to follow any of the other possible offshoots and sideroads it could have invited. Not so with email; I can go back in a day or two or even two weeks later and answer again with a new thought or a different side-route. I can digress and easily refocus just by going back to the original email.

This morning, though, I started to wonder whether that very thing that allows us to dig deeper somehow keeps us shallower, if revisiting something in small bites over and over again just isn't the same as immersing in it. When a friend tells me that she's worried about her marriage and I respond with the best thoughts I have, but then immediately respond to another comment about her horseback riding lessons, am I really giving her issue my full attention, really feeling it instead of just thinking about it? When I intersperse theological analysis with plans to meet up for lunch and the frustrations of chaperoning a high school football game, am I really opening myself up to as much insight as I otherwise might?

I think not. And maybe it's not all about the format--maybe it's just as much about the way the world is moving so fast that everything happens on the fly these days. But whether it's a cause or an effect, it suddenly seems to me to have the same effect on conversation that hyperlinks had on our ability to read and digest longer, more in-depth writing, and it's a little alarming to me.

Friday, October 3, 2008

An Interesting Thing about High School Football Games

I know what you're thinking. I know. But there is something interesting about high school football games, something of which you may not be aware if you haven't been to one in a while.

They've expanded.

When I was in high school, I went to a football game nearly every Friday night. Some nights I worked at the concession stand, and others I sat in the stands inhaling the fresh fall air and the smell of burning leaves in the distance and drinking syrupy Coke from a styrofoam cup. They said those games were about three hours long, but they weren't. Not really. There was just barely time for a candy bar, a whisper to a friend, a shy smile at a cute guy, a couple of laps around the bleachers with gravel crunching underfoot, and then we were in the car, my head on the shoulder of a man who wasn't yet a man, headed for Pizza Hut.

An hour and a half, tops. Sometimes less.

You can imagine my surprise, then, when I went to a high school football game twenty-four years after graduation.

Again, they suggested that it would be about three hours long.

Evening came, and morning followed. The first day.

I didn't like to keep checking the time, but by my best estimate we came in just under 17 hours.

The poms were cute.

The marching band was earnest.

The pizza was okay.

The game was your usual mix of kids crashing into one another and time outs.

Pause.

Reorganize.

Repeat.

About the time I was hoping it was almost halftime, I realized that they were just scrimaging and the game hadn't actually started yet.

I overheard some interesting things at the game, though.

I heard that our team wasn't very good this year.

I heard that we had about twelve guys and "most of them go both ways". I choose to assume that has something to do with football, probably playing both offense and defense.

I heard that the gym teacher from my school days who married a student wasn't the only one from that era to do so--but that they're still married.

I learned that you can't run the ball out if it's kicked into the end zone (not sure how I missed that during those four years of Friday night football games).

And I learned that if the weather is nice when you leave your house at 6:30 p.m., it will probably be LESS nice hour later when you're sitting in the top row of the bleachers.

It seems to be important to my daughter and her friends, though. They're apparently big football fans. After the last game, I explained to her what a "down" was. This week, I think we're going to try to figure out what team we played this evening.