Hillary Clinton and I have been having communication problems. As a New York Democrat of her generation, I related to her recent troubles involving 62,320 emails. O.K., I can barely be my own secretary while she was Secretary of State. Still, not growing up with computers, electronic mail storage can be confounding.
Recently rushing to send a group announcement to all my college students, my email froze. No matter what I did, messages wouldn’t dispatch. Panicked, I called my techie brother Eric, in the Midwest. “Take pictures of your laptop with your iPhone to text me,” Eric said. He diagnosed my dilemma: 53,151 old emails from the last twelve years were clogging my outbox. I erased thousands—but they refused to go gently into that virtual night. They popped back up, stopping my outgoing mail. Even my trash wouldn’t delete. Unlike Hillary’s house-cleaning that cancelled all personal emails, I anxiously tried to hold onto everything, a word collector who couldn’t let go of any shard of former communication.
Externally I was stable, married, organized. My worn love letters from ex-boyfriends were stored in a distant drawer; stacks of used spiral notebooks stood on a shelf, disguised as pop art. Yet my sleek silver box concealed my secret hoarding problem. Now the build up was mocking and blocking me. Known for answering tons of students and clients daily, I feared ruining my reputation as a responsive professor and fast freelancer. I needed Eric for an emergency operation. He said: “call your mail server,” adding, “using America Online shows your age,” something I heard often from younger Yahoos, Mac.coms, Hot, G- and me-mailers.
“Bono still uses his AOL address,” I countered.
Obama’s cabinet, the National Archives and press have all been fighting over the complex protocols of my exact problem: What the hell do you do with old email?
Nobody at AOL’s support staff in America–or India–could mend my blockage. A hip chick at Apple’s Genius Bar would nix my previous net-mail—If I left my Mac for a week. I couldn’t let go of my metal lifeline for that long without withdrawal and complete erasure felt scary. Eric insisted my former interchanges were saved on my Time Machine, yet clinging to my digital closet was obstructing my present. I’d get incoming email, but I was miserably muted. I searched for phone numbers to answer queries, shocking students who picked up their cells to hear my actual voice.
“When we did settings, you didn’t want mail automatically expunged after a week or two,” Eric reminded me.
While Hillary had a legal right to raze her personal records, saving correspondence was my favorite feature. With so many former students and clients, I often forgot people. This provided my own mini CIA-like background check. After initial contact, I’d search their name, reading earlier exchanges. Aha! That 2002 headache never paid. This 2007 kid skipped my seminar, then attached his 700-page thriller sci-fi novel in rhyming iambic pentameter. “Sorry, new classes are filled,” I’d fib. During a spat, my friend Kim denied I’d introduced her to an editor. I forwarded the 8-year-old attachment: proof.
Because Hillary and I wrote most of our email on one device, we had another connection: our missing missives were screwing us both. Alas, without my instant fixes, I now overcompensated: Facebook commenting, Linked-In messaging, hyper-tweeting. I reinstated the Gmail account I’d opened during the time of MySpace. A thousand messages awaited, one from an ex-flame I’d unintentionally ignored for a dozen years. Too late to respond? Desperate, I tried a new strategy: Google-mailing on my Air Mac while spying through old letters on my bigger lap book, unable to completely dump AOL and move on.
Finally I located a local cyber-doc who made house calls. A guy in Levi’s, middle-aged like me, appeared. Just as Hillary had duel @state.gov and @clintonmail.com addresses, I was soon answering my Gmail and AOL double-synched harmoniously through my electronic veins. My 53,151 email stash was relocated to a tiny folder discreetly tucked into the briefcase icon “Old AOL mail.”
I was fascinated that Obama’s cabinet, the National Archives and press have all been fighting over the complex protocols of my exact problem: What the hell do you do with old email? It made me feel like less of a Luddite. Turned out, I didn’t have to change, after all. I was updated, unclogged and outgoing again, my messy past and privacy preserved, with the illusion of control. Thankfully I’m only running a freelance business and not a candidacy for president of the United States.
Bestselling author Susan Shapiro is an adjunct professor at the New School. Her new novel What’s Never Said comes out this summer.