Personal Communication

Note to Mother, Oct. 7, 1974.

My trips to Europe took place before mobile telephones were adopted. There was no email either. Relying on postal service was dependable — only if one had a lot of time.

Changes in communications technology are in the background of much of my life.

When I took a 12-week trip to Europe after college, mail was the only accessible way to communicate. It caused me to think more about my activities and required advance planning. It caused one of my friends to keep all my letters until I returned home, “just in case something happened.” He pitched them the first time we got together after the trip.

The company I worked for in transportation, CRST, was hesitant to adopt new communications technologies when I rejoined them in 1991. They had a mainframe-based computer system yet wanted no part of email until it had been litigated by others. Of course they ended up adopting email like every other large company because customers demanded it and it created efficiencies.

I had worked in the Chicago Loop for Amoco Oil Company and carried a pager the operations group shared. I remember pulling over during my commute to find a pay phone to return a page. Once the person at an adjacent phone was closing a drug deal. Pagers worked but were not optimal. There was an email service at Amoco and it improved efficiencies within the organization. Those were the days before Microsoft introduced its 3.0 operating system (1990) with graphical user interface. Unlike CRST, Amoco was one of the first adopters of GUI, a process which began as I left the company.

On April 21, 1996 our family bought the first home computer. I recall the three of us gathering at the desk in the kitchen to log on to the internet via modem for the first time. We heard the characteristic modem squawk. Having a home computer would revolutionize how we lived at home. Eventually each of us had our own personal computer, with our daughter getting one in 1999.

My father in law died in December 1996 and Jacque used his mobile phone while traveling back and forth to settle the estate. We discussed it and can’t recall the type of phone it was, a bag phone she believes. After a while she got her own account and a Motorola flip phone. Motorola introduced the flip phone in 1996.

Eventually CRST did adopt mobile phones and issued them to people who were on call or had to travel. I had a company Blackberry and remember calling and sending messages from the 2006 Oracle Open World in San Francisco. The functions available were pretty limited. For email access I used a laptop with a modem in the hotel room where I stayed in Chinatown. The baud rate was very slow. No one talks about baud rates anymore.

Eventually CRST eliminated company mobile phones, expecting us to use our own account for business calls. I joined Jacque on her account and got an inexpensive flip phone. I still have some of the photos I took with it, including one of Barack Obama in the Harkin Steak Fry rope line in 2006. Flip phones were a useful tool. Many days I wish I still had one.

In 2012 I accepted a position as campaign manager for Iowa House candidate Dick Schwab and got my first smart phone. The accessibility to email and phone calls from anywhere in the district made staying in touch easier and proved to be important to the campaign. It changed my life by releasing the tether to a computer cable connection. At the same time, I became addicted to my smart phone. If asked, I would deny it.

A good portion of my creative life presumed a lack of communication with others. Isolation to create — writing, gardening, cooking, reading, garage-based projects — remains important to the creative process.

I maintain a mobile device and turn off all notifications except for the ringer when there is an incoming phone call. I don’t get many phone calls. When I do, I look at caller ID and screen them.

Personal communication has become complicated. I maintain ongoing conversations with friends and acquaintances through diverse media: text message, Instagram, Twitter, Twitch, Facebook, email, WordPress, phone calls, Zoom, Google, chat, and postal mail. I might start a discussion on one platform and finish it on another. I’m okay with how it evolved.

As I write an autobiography it seems important to keep this technology talk lurking in the background. It is an important consideration nonetheless.