No emails in the college of life

There is a temptation as we grow old to condemn everything new as a sign of anti-progress. In wise maturity, perhaps we should guard against this tendency — but that would spoil the fun.

It is natural for those of us of a certain age to feel superior to the younger generation and all its works. How could it be otherwise? We earned our sense of well being the old-fashioned way: with the help of exaggerated memories.

It seems like only yesterday that we walked through snowstorms in our bare feet to get to school, which would never be canceled except when polar bears were in the forecast. Those of us who were brought up in the tropics (that would be me) had our own challenges, carrying our satchels in 90-degree heat and fearing an ambush by wild wombats.

Yes, those were the good old days, when you could buy a loaf of bread for a few pennies and milk came in actual bottles delivered by actual milkmen who knew the cows personally.

As for cell phones, we managed to do without them. If we wanted to speak to distant friends we climbed a hill and used a megaphone or else kept carrier pigeons in our satchels.

I know, I know: Distance lends enchantment and perhaps things aren’t so bad now after all. For example, is the music of the present generation really so terrible? It would be wrong to condemn all of the fine talents performing today, so let me answer that question with an unambiguous maybe.

Something else that is sometimes loathsome to the well-seasoned brain is the casualness of human communications in the modern era. I refer specifically to e-mail, which encourages an instant-message mentality when life itself often demands something more fitting, something that is the product of a formal and considered moment.

Thank goodness I am not a young romantic fellow in this era. Back in the less wired day, someone breaking up with you had the decency to say you were a loser to your face or else sent you a card decorated with bunnies and flowers and bearing a sympathetic message: “I hope we can remain friends while we never speak to each other ever again.”

Now I suppose the breakup is apt to be more informal, like everything else including relationships themselves — so the end of the affair becomes merely a hang-up to a hookup. I suspect you are boyfriend/girlfriend one minute, toast the next — and the news comes on your BlackBerry in the form of a message written in code by your loved one’s thumbs. Even if you acted like a crumb, it is not right that you become toast via e-mail.

The rot has extended to some of the nation’s institutions of higher learning, which once were keepers of the flame in matters of protocol and proper practice but now have gone over to the dark side when it comes to personal communication. Faux ivy could be next.

As it happens, the nation is now at the peak of the dreaded college acceptance (or rejection) season. But something is different. Many young people are searching their e-mail to find out if they have been accepted/rejected for college. My colleague Anya Sostek reported on the remarkable phenomenon of e-mail notifications in Tuesday’s Post-Gazette.

Although not every college does it, I read the report with mounting sorrow for the declining glories of yesteryear. It used to be that kids could find out if they got into college by the size of the envelopes the mailman delivered — large being good news; small, bad news.

This is civilized. The business of picking a college is like a courtship for both parties — one that could possibly lead to a lifetime relationship. Like a courtship, it should not be begun/ended with a curt electronic communication. It requires envelopes of appropriate size.

Many things in life require envelopes of appropriate size, or at least proper notes on paper or parchment befitting the gravity of the occasion.

If I should be fired, for example, I want the traditional pink slip, not an e-mail from Corporate Communications sent after lunch. If I should die, I want my survivors to receive a genuine death certificate, not a printout from a hand-held device. If I should go to heaven, I do not want to find the Book of Life is really a blog kept by St. Peter.

I realize that I am just a man with a megaphone on top of a hill shouting hopelessly to his aging friends, and that below so-called progress heedlessly marches on to the discordant beat of the age. But surely there is no point in growing older and wiser if one can’t complain.

(Reg Henry is a columnist for the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. E-mail


  1. CheckerboardStrangler

    I printed this column out for my fifteen year-old daughter, who is advancing toward college at a faster than normal rate.
    I’m wondering if she will find it amusing or if she will give me that stare which is usually accompanied by the eye-rolling sigh that dismisses me as the clueless fop that I surely am in the eyes of today’s generation.
    Her first teenage crush was a boy who lives nextdoor.
    At first he was grateful that any girl knew he was even alive, and we watched as they took furtive steps into the world of dating, a chaperoned dance, a night at the movies with friends, a trip to the mall…
    Then the little emo moppet sent her the news of their breakup by text message.
    As this happened “eons ago”, when she was the tender age of fourteen she is now past it, and he is “so over”.
    But I wonder if her reaction would be any different had he sent her one of those “small envelopes”, and I wonder if she will regard college acceptance or rejection as just another instant message in her wired world.
    Will a rejection by an esteemed institution of higher learning simply be dismissed the way she dismissed the boy nextdoor?
    If she gets turned down on a job interview, will she simply say “they’re toast” or will it mean something to her on a deeper level?

    JeffH in Occupied TX