Hey, did you just say something?
November 19, 2006
So this is me, a few minutes ago, in the early stages of writing this very column – I’m leaning in close to the computer screen, desperate for inspiration. I’m squinting, furrowing my brow, and checking my e-mail. My internal thought process (usually internal, though when my caffeine level is high it tends to leak out a bit) sounds something like this: “OK, what should I write about? Hmmm … I wonder if I’ve gotten any e-mail? Maybe I’ll open up the folder with column ideas in it. But first, let’s check the e-mail. Or maybe I should look in my notebook. E-mail. Man, my ear really itches. Better check my e-mail. Itching is weird, isn’t it? I wonder what causes things to itch? I should Google that and maybe write a column about it. And check my e-mail.” This is what I call “The Creative Process.” Those who busy themselves with diagnosing behavioral abnormalities probably have a much fancier name for it, but whatever …When I’m at my computer, I find myself clicking the “check for mail” button with the regularity of a laboratory rat hitting the little metal give-me-a-rat-treat bar. In fact, when the day finally comes that the roof of my office suddenly lifts off, revealing gigantic creatures with clipboards and lab coats looking down on me, and one of them reaches in, grabs me by the back of my shirt, lifts me from my “office” and puts me in a cage with the words “E-mail test subject #32836” printed on the door, well … I won’t really be very surprised at all. So, yeah … e-mail. I just checked it again after feeling pleased with that last paragraph. I felt I’d done enough actual writing to justify it. And then I immediately checked it again, just because. I’ve kicked a few habits in my day. I’m now down to about one cigarette every two months. I generally don’t enjoy it, but I persevere. I’m currently off coffee, but that’ll change any day, then change back again. I freed myself from a religious cult. I’m no stranger to addictions, and to conquering them, but e-mail has me by the e-throat.It’s like a slot machine that you get to play for free. You don’t win money, you win some bit of correspondence from the outside world. When I click the “check for mail” button and I see that status bar start to slide across the window – the bar that means I have some e-mail and it’s now downloading to my computer – it’s like the thrill of watching identical clumps of fruit come up in the slot machine window. Then the e-mail finally pops up and I see, “Get rid of unwanted spam” or “Cool Camera & Photo Deals” or “Time is running out to earn bonus miles” or “Please take me off your Irrelativity mailing list if all you’re gonna write about is e-mail.” Sure, the fact that it’s usually not quite the e-mail I was expecting is a letdown. But that just inspires me to keep clicking over and over again. And again. Like I just did, in real life, just now. Again. If you were to think of my computer as a person (something I do far more often than I’d like to have just admitted), then this constant checking of e-mail is the equivalent of having the following conversation, all day long: “Did you just say something?” “No” “Did you just say something?” “No.” “Did you just say something?” “Start earning the salary you deserve!” “Oh. OK. Did you say something?” Back in the days of dial-up it was easy to keep things under control, as checking e-mail was a laborious and noisy process, taking up precious minutes of my life. I’d have to ask others in the house if they were online, and if so, I’d have to wait. Now I’m always online, wirelessly, anywhere in the house, and, well – you guessed it – I just checked my e-mail. Again. Nothing. Dammit. The first stage to getting well is admitting you’re sick. So, OK … I have a problem, and I am asking for help. If you’ve found any ways of dealing with this addiction, I’d love to hear about them, because I’m stuck. Please e-mail me some suggestions. Hey, maybe you have already! I’d better check. Nope. Dammit. Barry Smith’s column appears on Mondays. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.The Aspen Times, Aspen, Colo.
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