Detonating those blasts from the past


Since 'The Irish Times' went free online a whole new world of readers has opened up . . . but what's the etiquette when the guy you first held hands with at 13 gets in touch?

WHEN THE IRISH TIMESwent free online a few weeks ago, I wasn't prepared for getting e-mails from old friends. It's wonderful - I love it! After 22 years writing for the print version of this newspaper in the bubble of this island, there's a whole new world out there of readers, but it's still a little strange.

Having left America, I landed in this country at the age of 19 creating a whole new life. I haven't been back to Baltimore, where I grew up. Yet Baltimore is still a part of me, I'm reminded, when people e-mail to say, "Surprise! Remember me?"

Here's my dilemma: when the guy you first held hands with at the age of 13 e-mails you having read your column, what's the etiquette? When you're read online in your newspaper or poked on Facebook, you can't send back a polite 'thank you, all the best' because that's cold. I'm an honest sort, too honest probably, but if I write, "I remember you! You were going to paint my name on the wing of your new Camaro and do you still love Tom Jones?" that may be interpreted as flirtatious. How do you convey the warmth of memory in an e-mail without appearing like you're on the (psychiatrist's) couch? The way I look at it, your first love and your loves thereafter take on an almost mythological significance in your head. You never forget your first love. Early experiences (and rejections) lead to later experiences (and rejections) and build upon each other until eventually you figure out the pattern that was making you miserable (or happy, if you're lucky). When these first loves are gone out of your life, you can dredge them up in analysis, or else delete to allow them to become faint specks of memory.

Being a child of the print world, who grew up without text messaging and e-mail, I'm flummoxed by the etiquette of communicating with ghosts from my past. They're other-worldly voices from deep in my subconscious where I've buried them for decades. But then, just seeing the name on an e-mail brings the person and everything you experience with him rushing back.

My husband can walk up or down Grafton Street and meet people he's known since he was a nipper. But I, being a global girl, have never had that experience of meeting people I knew when I was a child. I come from the American culture of reinvention. Leave home, move countries, do a geographic and recreate yourself with new friends and new family in a new place. This recreation of self has been the subject of the great American novel for a century.

But with the internet, you can't run away from yourself anymore. Wherever you are, people will find you - even if you think you can fake your own drowning in a canoe. It's so ironic - the very medium (the internet) that we feared would make everything so impersonal has done the opposite and made global contact personal in ways none of us expected.

I have a couple of friends who are expecting visits from old boyfriends and girlfriends in Ireland this summer. Totally on the up-and-up, you understand. There's no question of people betraying their spouses by having lunch/dinner with the person who sent their heart whirling 20 years ago. So while there may be an international flight involved, basically this is just people running into old friends in a sort of global Grafton Street.

Is it a good thing? I have a friend who became reacquainted with an old boyfriend via e-mail and left her husband for him. It didn't work out and her husband, wise man, took her back. I think he realised that she was chasing a fantasy.

That's an extreme, though. There must be a healthier way to deal with the old beaux and memories that come through your inbox. Because I do think that it's reassuring to know that the guy you first held hands with remembers you, so isn't it proper to e-mail him back and tell him you remember him too? We all need the validation of knowing that the people we loved, and were loved by, still care about us in some corner of their souls. As years pass, we may forget the painful details of who dumped who and just remember that reassuring feeling of having made some sort of meaningful contact with another human being at whatever point we happened to be at that point in our lives and loves.

So what's the etiquette? Maybe it's "I remember you loving me. And I remember loving you too. Keep on having a good life."

When the point comes that e-mails start divulging intimate details of disappointment in all of their subsequent mates, perhaps it's time to change your e-mail address. Internet stalking is definitely out. Should you make a detour on a foreign trip to meet your ex-lover in the interest of celebrating a particular time in your life? If you do, this could be interpreted as a sign of dissatisfaction with your current relationship, even if you don't mean it to be.

Oh, so much easier to run in to people on Grafton Street. Even a quick coffee with an ex doesn't hold the risky significance of e-mails passing between one remembered life and another in the part-real/part-fantasy world of the internet. As Thomas Wolfe wrote, "you can't go home again".