Monday, April 14, 2008

License to E-Mail?

I read an interesting piece last year on the debate about licensing requirements for senior drivers. Okay, I really didn't read it last year, and just Googled to find something to fit the lead-in for this piece. But anybody who's ever been to Florida knows what I'm talking about: that moment you're stuck behind a 2001 Continental doing 46 mph on I-95, and all you can see is a fedora over the steering wheel. You know to keep your distance and prepare for their reverse lights to come on after they miss their exit.

But a car is nothing in the hands of seniors struggling to maintain a sense of independence in the world today. Yesterday, I began lobbying my Congressman for legislation to require licensing before seniors are allowed to send and receive e-mail.

My proposal first requires identifying the target audience with a simple test:

1) Ask them for their e-mail address. If they give you their AOL screenname with no "," they're subject to the licensing requirement.

2) Give them your own e-mail address. If they ask "is that with a capital 'C'?," they're subject to the licensing requirement.

As further evidence, I provided my Congressman with examples of the unlicensed senior e-mailers currently cluttering my inbox.

The Western Union e-mailer. My Dad doesn't always have a lot to say, but when he says something, it's short and to the point.

Dad grew up poor through the Great Depression, and treats e-mail like we're living in 1940 and he's writing a telegram, being charged by the word. Also, he never really learned to type, so fewer typed words are easier while longer treatises are still delivered in his illegible retired physician's longhand.

The few messages I get from him via e-mail are usually all caps, with all the charm of World War II-era death notices. But in Dad's inimitable style, they're short and to the point.


The Telephone Confirmer. These are the seniors who have no trust in the reliability of electronic communications, but nevertheless use them so they can be viewed as being in touch with the times. But they find the need to followup with more conventional communications immediately after hitting the "send" button.

I work with a guy like this. My in-box dings, I read his e-mail. Within minutes, either the phone rings or he'll appears personally at my office door to confirm receipt.

Telephone Confirmer: "I just sent you the latest data for the Pinsky file."

Me: "And if you didn't have such shpilkes, you'd see my response back in your inbox."

Then there's the variant to this, the Jewish Senior Telephone Confirmer. If you've been contemplating the purchase of a Blackberry, iPhone or similar device to have instant access to your e-mail, you've just saved yourself a few hundred dollars if your only contacts are JSTCs.

At 11:42, the JSTC sends the e-mail. At 11:44, your phone rings.

JSTC: Did you get the e-mail I just sent?

You want to choose your yes-or-no answer very carefully with this one.

Answer "Yes," and immediately enter into a full-blown discussion on the topic at hand for which you're not adequately prepared.

Answer "No," and you'll get a word-for-word reading of what was just e-mailed to you, immediately followed by a full-blown discussion on the topic at hand for which you're not adequately prepared.
My mom is sort of the Reverse Jewish Senior Telephone Confirmer. Mom freely gives out her e-mail address to others in an effort to appear hip, but--unless prompted to do so--checks her mail about once a month, and then only after you explain how to do it. So I wind up in the role of confirmer/explainer after sending the e-mail.

Me: "Mom, I sent you something Thursday about Uncle Hesh. Did you get it?"

Mom: "I haven't checked. He was going in for bypass or something?"

Me: "Uh...did you want to kick in $25 for a shiva platter?"

The Serial E-Mail Forwarder. This is the senior in whom the Internet has created a newfound sense of humor or cause celebre they feel compelled to share with you. This demonstrates their mastery of not only the "forward" function in their e-mail, but the ability to indiscriminately include all 300 names in their address book; coincidentally, the number of remaining dial-up AOL customers nationwide.

My aunt is the queen of pro-Israel sentiment and virus warnings that are no more valid today than when they first circulated. Yesterday I got one warning me, "If you get an e-mail marked 'Click here for a special surprise from Izzy,' don't click on it!"

From my wife's uncle, we get every misleading illegal immigration argument and "America, Love It or Leave It" tidbit misattributed to Andy Rooney. Battered women and homeless animals from my cousin. And from numerous relatives old enough to personally remember the Borscht Belt-era of comedy, plenty of Borscht Belt one-liners along with things George Carlin never wrote. And lots of sentimental "Remember when...getting stoned was when David slew Goliath?" routines.

I've always gotten along well with seniors, sharing my interests in old movies and early 20th century history that pre-date me by decades, but are still quite fresh in their memories. I think that's why so many of them feel this kinship and comfort in including me in their e-mailings. Seeing myself included in the listing of recipients sandwiched between "Sadie & Manny Feldbloom" and "Sol Lefkowitz" is a mark of honor. And a reminder that my own license to e-mail isn't that far off.

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