I thought I had seen everything in the e-mail universe, that no new combinations existed and I'd have to start recycling old columns and...

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I thought I had seen everything in the e-mail universe, that no new combinations existed and I’d have to start recycling old columns and ideas.

But a pair of long-lost acquaintances showed how the technology could reap great reward, with the application of a small dose of common sense.

I went to high school with Nalini Nadkarni, a professor at The Evergreen State College who has built a huge reputation for her work with forest canopies. Last week, I planned a trip to Olympia — for my dog’s ophthalmologist appointment — and I thought I’d ask her out for coffee, after all these years.

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Since she made a strong impression on me so long ago, I had no doubt that she would remember me.

I didn’t get the answer I expected. Twice. My initial note generated a notice that she was on sabbatical in Costa Rica and would return at the end of June. So much for coffee.

But a few minutes later I heard from her own self, from deep in the (relative to Seattle, anyway) jungle. She was down there with her family and wrote a nice, chatty note — but with a disconcerting coda: “Can you please describe yourself or send a picture? I’m not really sure who you are.”

So much for strong impressions. But just as I was winding up a letter describing myself and attempting to rattle her memory, another note arrived. She e-mailed another person in our class, a labor-union official named Susan Phillips, describing her quandary. Phillips then found the yearbook, scanned in my picture and e-mailed it to Nadkarni in another hemisphere.

Phillips also added her own editorial comment: “He was in the cigarette crowd, but on the edge.” Having never smoked cigarettes I e-mailed Phillips for an explanation. All she meant was she remembered me as rebellious, noting that “by dress and other behavior you wanted to be identified with the cool/hippie crowd as opposed to the ‘straight’ school government-teacher shoe licking-persecutor bunch.”

So at least I made a strong impression on somebody.

Back to Nadkarni. Because she seemed to be a real crackerjack communicator, I asked how e-mail fit into her life “down there.” They were living in a little tiny village called Monteverde, six hours by bus from the capital city.

When she first visited in 1979 as a young graduate student, there was only one external phone in the entire community. Today lots of people have phones and computers, but it is still physically isolated. To get hooked into e-mail, people had to visit the government communications office in the next town, wait in line, pay fees and wait several weeks to get a slow modem.

“It felt agonizingly slow at first,” she wrote me. “But now I am used to it. These long pauses between messages coming up. … I have taken to memorizing poetry while I wait.”

Now, how cool is that? Most of us just twiddle our thumbs, or get mad.

After a few more notes among Nadkarni, Phillips and me, it became clear that I have been corresponding with the wrong people (at least) or even wasting all of my online time.

These two — once the scary-smart members of the Latin Scrabble Club — have grown into people who use e-mail for reflection, observation and intellect. None of this “more than one screen is too much” nonsense for these two. This is not a medium of expediency; it is meant for expression.

Why is this news to me? There must be millions of people who use e-mail to express rather than exploit. I could take this opportunity to pump up the content of my own messages and add depth to my daily communications.

But I probably won’t, as people would probably start calling me up to see if I’m ill.

If you have questions or suggestions for Charles Bermant, you can contact him by e-mail at cbermant@seattletimes.com. Type Inbox in the subject field. More columns at www.seattletimes.com/columnists.