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February 3, 2006

Who is Verlyn Klinkenborg and why should we care?


Besides having a sensational name, he's a member of the New York Times editorial board who occupies arguably the most valuable real world journalistic space on the planet.

Every now and then one of his essays appears in the New York Times — on the editorial page, directly below the editorials, rather than on the op–ed page where such lesser lights as Maureen Dowd, Thomas J. Friedman, William Safire, David Brooks and their ilk do their dog–and–pony shows every week.

So you know there's something special about this guy (above).

One of his very best "Editorial Observer" pieces appeared in last Sunday's paper; it follows.

    'No Messages on This Server,' and Other Lessons of Our Time

    I do not own a BlackBerry or a pager.

    I don't chat or instant-message or text-message.

    My cellphone could connect to the Web if I let it, but I don't.

    I don't gamble on the Internet nor do I game on it (or on any other electronic device).

    And yet I'm starting to twitch.

    I have three everyday telephone numbers, not counting Skype and a calling card, and two fax numbers.

    I have six working e-mail addresses, as well as a few no longer in use.

    A couple of weeks ago I started writing a blog for The Times.

    Part of my job, as a blogger, is to read and approve the publication of readers' comments.

    That is the equivalent of another form of e-mail.

    There are probably half a dozen Really Simple Syndication tools on my computer, and one or another of them is always unfurling the latest ribbon of news in the background.

    It is astonishing how old the morning's headlines seem by evening.

    Back in the dial-up days, computer users made brief forays onto a bulletin board or some outpost of the primitive Internet, all the while clocking connection time in order to keep costs down.

    Going online was like driving a Stanley Steamer — better for scaring horses and wowing the youth than for long-distance hauling.

    There was always a slightly neurotic edge to it.

    You could feel the seconds ticking away while nothing happened.

    But nowadays turning on the computer is synonymous with being online.

    Who turns the computer off?

    It's rarely worth severing that digital link.
    For some of us, the computer has become less and less a place to work and more and more a place to await messages from the ether, like hopeful spiritualists.

    I thought I was a fairly temperate user of computers.

    But in the past year or so I have become addicted to e-mail.

    I confess it.

    You probably know the signs.

    Do you tell your e-mail program to check for messages automatically every two minutes — and then disbelieve it when it comes up empty?

    Have you learned to hesitate before answering a new message so it doesn't look as though you were hunched over the keyboard, waiting?

    Do you secretly think of lunch as a time for your inbox to fill up?

    But the clearest sign of e-mail addiction is simply to ask yourself, what is the longest you've gone without checking your e-mail in the past two months?

    Anything longer than a broken night's sleep is good.

    I blame my e-mail addiction, in part, on the United States Postal Service.

    Seeing the mail lady pull up to our rural mailbox in her red station wagon with the flashing amber light on top is one of the high points of my day, whether there is anything "good" in the mail or not. (The "goodness" of mail is another question entirely.)

    When you think about it, the postal system is a remarkable thing, even in this new universe of instant-delivery systems.

    Its genius is this: The mail comes only once a day.

    All that expectation gathered into a single visit!

    And once-a-day-ness is built right into the system.

    I try to imagine the mail lady bringing every piece of mail to our mailbox as she gets it.

    In fact, that's exactly what she does, because the mail shows up only once a day at the local post office.

    I suppose I could tell my e-mail program to check for mail on a postal schedule — once a day — although minutes are the only intervals the software understands.

    But that would defeat the logic of e-mail, which is meant to arrive seriatim — hence, its addictive punch.

    The principle of snail mail is infrequency; the principle of e-mail is frequency.

    The real question is, what is the frequency for?

    I think of e-mail as a continuing psychology experiment that studies the effect on humans of abrupt, frequently repeated stimuli — often pleasurable, sometimes not, but always with the positive charge that comes from seeing new mail in the inbox.

    So far, the experiment has revealed, in me, the synaptic responses of a squirrel.

    It is a truism of our time that we now have shorter attention spans than ever before.

    I don't think that is true.

    What we have now are electronic media that can pulse at the actual rate of human thought.

    We have the distinct discomfort of seeing our neural pace reflected in the electronic world around us.

    Amid all that is wasteful, distracting, irrelevant and downright evil about e-mail, there is also this.

    We carry dozens of people, sometimes hundreds, around with us in our heads.

    They pass in and out of our thoughts as quickly as thought itself.

    E-mail is a way to gather these people — so many of them scattered across the globe — into the immediacy of our lives in a way that makes even a phone call feel highly formalized.

    It is the nearness of e-mail, the conversations it creates, that is addicting as much as the minute-by-minute stimuli.

    I try to remember that when I am getting twitchy, when I start wondering whether the mail server is down again.

    I tell myself that I'm just listening for a chorus of voices, a chorus of friends.


If you liked the above then you're in luck: Klinkenborg recently started blogging for the Times.

February 3, 2006 at 01:01 PM | Permalink


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I have been reading your writing for years and wanted you to know that I like it. A lot.
I just wrote a piece about wine berries in Beacon, which made me happy, happier than the weekly sermons I write at Judson Memorial Church or the last of my 29 books, Grassroots Gardening: RItuals to Sustain Activists. I'd like to send you a copy of the book and ask you for a review of it. WOuld you be willing to look at it? You can check me out on the Huffinton Post or on my site Donnaschaper.org. Thanks in advance.

Posted by: Donna Schaper | Oct 20, 2009 8:06:12 AM

Only writer to ever give an hnest (fishing) book review.

Posted by: Bob Coombs | Jun 21, 2009 12:41:16 PM

Kindly submit this message to Verlyn Klinkenborg - Personally - please!
All That Our Whole World Has Ever Needed - And Still Presently Needs Foremost , And Now More Than Ever – Is An Incorrupt National Reevaluation!
Our Mock-America’s Satanic Corporatist Global Politico-Religionism!
THE ALMIGHTY GOD’S TRUE NUCLEAR WORLD DEMOCRACY (THE UNIVERSAL INDIVIDUAL EQUAL OPPORTUNITY TO REACH GOD’S BEST HUMAN GIFTS) shall never exist for us in our “America”, and in our “Free” “Nuclear” World, until GOD’S DEMOCRACY VITAL KEYS – UNIVERSAL FUNCTIONAL LITERACY and UNIVERSAL GOOD-SAMARITAN HEALTH INSURANCE – are Legislatively Enforced (CONSTITUTIONALLY) AS A Fully Punishing Criminal Humanitarian Law; that is, until Our Insatiable Ultra-Filthy-Wealthy Corporative “American” Government so give The True Example, OF SUCH A SACRED UNIVERSAL HUMAN EQUAL OPPORTUNITY, for Our Whole Totally Exploited Suffering Illiterate and Health-Helpless “American” World!
THE ALMIGHTY did not Inspire to write HIS BIBLE just for The Implacable “Sacrosanct” Religionist Corporations of the World to use IT as toilet paper; that is, to use IT as such a Globalized, Religionist, Super-Materialist, MUM-PIOUS=EQUALLY TERRORIST, NUCLEAR, SUICIDAL, SUBLIMINAL INHUMAN EXPLOITATION!

Posted by: Octavio Saenz MD Sr | Dec 10, 2007 12:28:46 PM

Well, his latest one sure is a stinker. He evidently doesn't have the sense to look up facts before writing about a topic. He bemoans the fact that Minnesota is going back to honoring the Constitution...yet he doesn't seem to be aware that CCW laws have proven effective in state after state. He also gets his terminology wrong, saying “shall require” in place of "shall-issue"...sheesh, where did good columnists go?

Posted by: DaVis | Sep 5, 2006 7:02:51 AM

I really am angry to be shut out by the times from this delightful writing...bless you for posting it....

Posted by: ellen | May 15, 2006 8:05:01 PM

What a wonderful article. On behalf of all those who have opted out of Times Select, thank you. Meanwhile they can blog in their bubble with never a discouraging word.

Posted by: JIll | Feb 3, 2006 3:01:07 PM

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