I GOT an e-mail love letter the other day from my wife. The subject line read, "I love your puttanesca."
To all you non-Italian food eaters out there with dirty minds -- no, puttanesca is not a naughty nickname -- it's a pasta dish. And at the risk of seeming immodest, I make it quite well. My secret is fresh rosemary.
Still stinging a bit from the disappointment of the last e-mail love letter I received, I hesitated for a moment. Could there be a virus out there that knows my wife's favorite pasta dish? Absurd. This was still the good old days, when there were no viruses that could change their subject line each time they re-sent themselves. So I opened it, and all was well.
But there are bigger issues here than my puttanesca, and I intend to raise them.
Computer geeks have spent the post-Love Bug weeks talking about the weaknesses in our e-mail systems. I'm more concerned with the weaknesses in our psyches. I understand the psychology of opening a single message marked "I love you." We all want confirmation that we are loved. But on that fateful morning, most of us had dozens of messages from different people in our in-boxes all with the subject line, "I love you."
I don't mean to sound cynical, but if five people really love you in your entire life, you're doing well. And yet millions of us hungrily clicked open love letters from relative strangers, connected to us through the address books of other relative strangers. That's the amazing thing about the Love Bug: How fast it spread, an emotional venereal disease for which we had no condoms.
My wife, who is relatively new to e-mail, has been receiving jokes from a good friend of ours. I receive the same jokes at my office along with 50 other people on his list. My wife responds to him each time as if she's the only one receiving his e-mails. I didn't have the heart to tell her.
Then, the other day, she responded to one of Michael's e-mails by inviting him, and unbeknownst to her, his entire distribution list to dinner at our house. The next day, she received some bewildered and bemused RSVPs, more than a few accepting the invitation to a stranger's dinner party.
The truth is, e-mail is seductively personal. You click open a letter from a friend delivered in the privacy of your office or den over your computer, which has become an extension of yourself. Even the least computer-involved of us has to admit that we're on more personal terms with our computers than we ever were with our mailboxes. We listen to the experts caution us about the public nature of e-mail. It's more like a postcard than a letter.
Don't e-mail anything you wouldn't want the world to see. Remember, they warn us, your employer has the right to read your e-mail, which, by the way, you can never fully erase. We listen and then we click SEND, the lure of immediate stamplessness overtaking us. We send our most personal hopes and dreams out to the world unprotected, postcards from our heart.
Humans evolve slowly. But we'll learn. Our innocence will be humiliated out of us. Viruses and embarrassing gaffes will teach us the dangers of global interconnectedness. Our collective memory will kick in and we'll recall how much we once hated chain letters, and we'll see that that's really what most of our e-mails are.
We'll learn that being connected is not the same as being loved. And being in touch is nothing like being touched. All it will take is one big mistake for each of us to realize that the sound the mouse makes when it clicks on an e-mail icon is frighteningly similar to the sound a gun makes when the bullet falls into the chamber.
Jim Sollisch comments on social issues for National Public Radio and newspapers nationwide and lives in the Cleveland area.