Is email dead, or am I?

I told Diane the other day that I felt like Bruce Willis at the end of Sixth Sense, when he realizes he’s dead, and all the people he’s been talking to have actually been talking to themselves, except the little kid who famously says, “I see dead people.”

The reason I might be dead: I sent four emails over the course of a couple days and received a grand total of zero responses.

To be clear, these were not obnoxious emails. In each case, the receiver seemingly would have been motivated to reply by self-interest, or at least obligated by basic social norms.

#1: I wrote an administrator at my son’s school to express my support of him for disciplining my son. Just to be extra friendly, I threw in a “thanks for all you do for the kids of our town” at the end.

#2: I wrote a recruiter at a college my son and I visited to give him some thoughts that might help him recruit my son, and also to expressly ask for information about an event on campus we’re thinking of attending.

#3: I wrote two classmates in a course I’m taking who are working with me on a project. I specifically said, “Please reply so I know I have the right email.” A week later I saw them both in class and asked if they got my email, assuming they didn’t. Both said they had received it.

It’s now been more than a week, and still crickets.

I’m thinking I missed the memo (or the email) informing the world that email is dead.

Or maybe it’s just me.

You didn’t ask for my list of books, but here it is anyway

I’m not very popular on social media. I know this for three reasons: (1.) Some of my Facebook friends will get 80 or 100 or more likes on a post. If I get 20, I consider it historic. (2.) Nobody challenged me to dump ice on my head, which is a good thing, because I wouldn’t have done it anyway, or donated the money (which may help to explain why I’m not popular on social media), and (3.) No one asked me to list 10 books that have stuck with me. So here it is anyway, and thanks for not caring. Most of these are books I read in my teens and 20s, which tells you something about formative, life-changing experiences. If I chose my favorite movies or albums, they’d probably also date from those years. I’m listing them some of them by author rather than title because that’s how I remember them (The summer I read Tolstoy, the spring I read Walker Percy, etc.). I’m also choosing the real life-changers, rather than the great entertainers. Sorry they’re all by men. In order of discovery. 1. The Bible. It’s the book that defined a few generations of my family, and my wife’s family, and the first 25 years of my life. I read it a lot of it as a kid then read the whole thing one year as a young adult. It’s a fascinating book. For the record, I don’t believe much of it (see number 10). 2. Peanuts Treasury and Peanuts Classics. These collections of comic strips from Charles Schulz’s best years influenced the way I thought about myself and the world. I felt like a cross between Charlie Brown and Linus growing up. Much of it was above my head, but I read them every night during grade school. They were church kids like me, they didn’t fit in, and they thought too much. 3. David Copperfield. This was the first classic I ever read, in seventh grade, an ancient copy that belonged to my dad. It taught me that great literature could hold my interest. 4. Something by Steinbeck, probably East of Eden, which was the first book to really make me think about literature and life and who I was going to be, back in high school. I read most of his other books after that. I probably loved Cannery Row and Sweet Thursday the best, but I’m not sure I’d like them anymore. 5. Something short by Tolstoy, maybe “Master and Man” or “Strider.” “Strider” was performed as a play at the Mixed Blood Theater in Minneapolis when I was a senior in high school, and it’s what made me want to read Tolstoy, so maybe that’s the best choice. I loved Anna Karenina, probably more than War and Peace, at least the second time, and I also loved the the folk tales. “Great Short Works of Leo Tolstoy” might be a better pick. 6. Brother to a Dragonfly by Will Campbell. I was in a bad way when I read this, and it helped me get my head together. 7. Something by Walker Percy. This guy just made me and my friends laugh and think about our predicament over and over again. Somehow everything made sense for a while in my 20s because of him, though his worldview doesn’t interest me like it once did. “Love in the Ruins” is probably my favorite. The best post-apocalyptic novel out there, if that’s what it actually is. Still just as funny, but not just as true as they once were. 8. The Immense Journey by Loren Eiseley. Beautiful writing about the natural world, which I discovered at the same time I was discovering birds and wilderness. 9. Everything by Edward Abbey. If there’s one person whose perspective on today’s events I’d most like to hear, it’s him. Funny, irreverent, insightful. There’s no one like him. 10. The Selfish Gene, by Richard Dawkins. I actually never finished this book, but I discussed it a lot with my wife while she was reading it for a graduate course. The arguments, even second hand, changed my life and the way I see the world and my place in it. Also rans: Shakespeare (Macbeth is my fave), Thoreau, Flannery O’Connor’s short stories, Jack Kerouac (more because of what reading the books signified), Graham Greene, Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee, Portnoy’s Complaint by Philip Roth, John Irving, Franny and Zooey. The Brothers Karamazov. (I really wanted to include this one because it was part of a formative educational experience in southern Oregon, and I’ve read it a couple times since. Think I’ll read it again. Definitely above Crime and Punishment or The Idiot, or other stuff by FD I’ve read. Not even sure I understand it, but somehow all of humanity is captured in a father and four sons, and all of life in an unsolved murder mystery. But to be honest, it was less influential than Peanuts.) Definitely not: Faulkner, Hemingway, Fitzgerald, Hawthorne, Melville, Cormac McCarthy. I tried! I really did! The great entertainers: Harry Potter series (one of the best works of imagination ever, IMO), Lord of the Rings (another incredibly imaginative accomplishment), Game of Thrones (not as interesting of a fantasy world, but really good characters and dialogue and page-turner plot), Raymond Chandler (and any other detective novel or series), anything by Carl Hiaasen. Recent books that have stuck with me: The Tiger and The Golden Spruce by John Vaillant, Into the Wild and Into Thin Air by Jon Krakauer, Unbroken by Lauren Hillenbrand, Devil in the White City, Freedom and The Corrections by Franzen, James Howard Kunstler, Pilgrim’s Wilderness, Guns, Germs and Steel by Jared Diamond. Now I’m gonna go dump a bucket of ice on my head.

Type “BANG” — An early trip on the Oregon Trail

From what I’ve heard, a video game called “The Oregon Trail” has been an enduring staple in education for the several decades. I was privileged to be among the first students who ever played the game — in its pre-video form — but I have not seen the more modern versions.

I was a fifth grade student, so that makes the year approximately 1974. I was part of a small group of high-achieving math students who were able to work on independent projects. One of the perks of being a brainiac was using the “computer” in the back room of the library — normally off limits to students.

I say “computer” because it was actually just a typewriter (we also called it a “teletype”) connected by modem (phone receiver with cord) to a mainframe computer in St. Paul.

We were able to play two games on the device, using the keyboard to communicate with the computer. The first was a game that involved guessing a three- or four-digit number. I don’t remember the name of the game or the specifics, but there were clues the computer would send that meant you had one or two digits correct, and which ones there were.

The second game we played was The Oregon Trail. This version of the game had no graphics, of course. That was several years away. It involved simply sending and receiving text messages through the teletype. The computer would explain the rules of the game, then ask how we wanted to spend our money to prepare for the trip: how much food, how many guns, how much ammunition, how many wagons, etc.

Once we had our supplies, we would set off, with the computer narrating the journey.

I don’t remember any details except one: Every now and again, out of the blue, the narrative would be interrupted by the words: “Indian attack! Type ‘BANG.'”

The faster we typed, the fewer the casualties.

I looked it up on Wikipedia, and it turns out the game was invented in 1971 by some Minnesotans, including a student teacher from Carleton. The Minnesota Educational Computing Consortium — a state organization — released the version I played in 1974, so I guess I was among the first to travel on the virtual Oregon Trail. They released an Apple II version in 1978, and by 1995, it was a $10 million per year product.

It turns out the game, the company that developed it, and the state of Minnesota, were instrumental in the integration of computers in education and also the success of Apple because Apple got the initial bid to provide computers to public schools, beating out Radio Shack.

For more interesting history on the game, and computers in education: