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Sunday, Jan. 27, 2002

WHEN EAST MARRIES WEST

You've got mail


It was one of those sharp, pithy statements that raise the hair on the back of your neck. Similar perhaps to "Godzilla Lives!" or "The Creature Walks Among Us!" or "Quayle for President!"

Only in my case, the words prickled not only the hair on my neck, but also the hair on my head. All 25 of them.

The statement? In a brief note from the United States, one of my sisters wrote: "Mom has e-mail."

A statement that proved to be false. My mom did not "have" e-mail. She wielded it. The way John Rambo wielded a machinegun . . .

Just as every party needs a pooper, every tragedy requires a hero with a fatal flaw. That my mom is now unleashed in cyberspace is perhaps no tragedy, and perhaps I am no hero. But my fatal flaw is that I am a crummy correspondent.

Since I write for a living (Note: My wife just read this phrase and laughed so hard I had to turn on the hose to calm her down), I do not write for fun. When I'm after fun, I usually talk about how swell my career's going and then watch my wife burst into giggles.

Anyhow, my mother is not a crummy correspondent. She is persistent, in the same way death is persistent. You can ignore her, but she's not going away. She staunchly pursues friends and family with missives that never, ever miss.

As a boy, I never noticed this. I grew up in a small town with a different relative living on almost every street. Most of these people my mother met at length each day.

It wasn't exactly a World Wide Web, but this constant churn of information worked well, mainly because my mother made it work. With her at the hub, everyone knew everything about everybody.

Then I moved away. Far away. To a cozy neighborhood in Kumamoto where I didn't know anyone. I found this anonymity refreshing. At the same time, I found my mother's letters easy to leave unanswered.

Oh, I telephoned home at the appropriate times . . . like when I needed money. But as my mother had an aversion to international phone rates, most calls came from my end only.

Then . . . my mother entered the "Information Society."

The brother-in-law who set up my mother's PC, describes her settling down before the computer in the same way that a wolf settles down on a sheep. In no time, the fur was flying -- and so was the electronic mail.

"Call me Goddess," her first mail read, her omniscient choice of user-handle symbolizing her new throne in cyberspace.

From that point on, the letters poured in. She clickety-clicked about family, neighbors, pets and local weather in a hometown commentary that was also spiced with questions.

Sample: "I read Tokyo had an earthquake yesterday, almost 2.5 on the Richter scale. Why didn't you tell me?! Is your house still standing? Are you alive?"

"Grandma writes a lot," said my younger son, who has his own e-mail account.

E-mails that frequent demanded a response. A la: "Mother, what do you mean the neighbors think I'm a crappy son for not having answered in two whole days?! And what do the neighbors know? Aren't they computer-illiterate morons?"

Or: "Mother, I am sorry if I hurt the neighbor's feelings. For morons, they sure are sensitive."

I suppose I should be pleased that my mother has so gracefully leapt into the computer age. She might just as well be knitting doilies in front of the television, watching reruns of "Bonanza."

"We could only wish!" say both my sons.

Words that I will not let pass without rebuke. For children should always respect their grandparents. Especially a grandparent who never fails to ask what they want for their birthday -- at a frequency of about three times a week.

"What are you doing?" asks my wife.

I sit busily before my computer. "I'm writing to my mother, and she demands to know what you want for your birthday."

"Well . . . tell her the same thing as always: I haven't decided."

"Her moron neighbors think that a truly thoughtful daughter-in-law would have made up her mind by now. They say I must have married a social misfit."

My wife blinks, then shoves me aside. "Give me that keyboard."

So it goes. I -- and indeed my whole family -- are crummy correspondents no more (at least where my mother is concerned).



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