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E-mail ‘sigs’ a window on reality — your own

| 09 April 2003

You’ve got mail. Electronic mail. Queuing up in your virtual inbox, silently demanding to be opened, read, sorted, replied to, copied, printed, posted, forwarded, carbon copied, blind carbon copied — or deleted for all eternity.

Before you trash that electronic missive, however, you might want to check for a “signature” at the end, where colleagues and co-workers — with a snippet of doggerel, riff of Latin, passage from the United Mine Workers’ constitution, or bit of wisdom from Anon. — valiantly assert selfhood, and in the process provide a window onto quirky obsessions, past lives, job frustrations, political convictions, and inner worlds.

One of Berkeley’s most prolific “signature”-wielders is Renaissance man Larry Ruth. Wearing multiple hats at the campus’s Center of Forestry and the UC Wildland Resources Center, Ruth is periodically inundated with e-mail (he’s counted as many as 112 in a day). At particularly frenzied moments, “when things go from merely busy to incredibly so,” he footnotes his messages with a takeoff on the poetry of Rilke: “Life may be this steeply sloping hour in which you see me hurrying….”

On calmer days, from his e-mail address ergo@nature, Ruth showers correspondents with passages from Proust, Brecht, Disraeli, Rilke, or Keats. “Oh Time, Strength, Cash and Patience!” thunders one, from a passage in Moby-Dick. The line refers to preparations for a whaling expedition — and, for Ruth (who wrote his dissertation on the U.S. Forest Service), it captures the essence of the natural-resource-planning process (“like Penelope’s loom,” things appear to be going forward, then “it all seems to unravel”).

In paradiso, knitter’s heaven
Staffer LaVern Lazzereschi likewise counsels patience, though in a foreign tongue. A 25-year employee of the Office of the Registrar, she follows official stats — office phone number, fax number, and e-mail address — with a parting salvo: “Se pazienza non hai, in paradiso non ci vai.” Loosely translated, from the Italian: “If you don’t have patience here, you won’t go to heaven.”

“I thought it fit my particular job situation,” explains Lazzereschi. “I’m in this classroom scheduling office, trying to make faculty and staff happy with the room assignments.” As she says, “Se pazienza non hai ….”
Old-fashioned signatures, scrawled in pen and ink, revealed worlds to handwriting analysts versed in ascenders, descenders, and dotted i’s. Digital-world correspondents, likewise, have come to see the e-mail signature as a way to leave a personal mark. In Eudora, the e-mail software used by campus Macintosh clients, users can create as many as 99 different signatures — using words, keyboard characters arranged to sketch digital pictographs, or even moving images.

Others seize the opportunity to decry waste, urge peace, denounce bigotry, question the reality of “reality,” or celebrate a favorite pastime.

For Center on Aging academic coordinator Diane Driver — a former “typewriter-whiteout” stalwart-turned-e-mail booster, John Irving’s novel The Cider House Rules supplies the text of a favored e-mail signature: “Mrs. Grogan wished that she’d brought her knitting; if this was what a meeting was, she never wanted to attend another.”

“My feeling is when I’m knitting something simple — knit, purl, knit, purl — it’s very like meditation,” says Driver, a knitter for nearly half a century and a one-woman production line for scarves, socks, leg warmers, sweaters, and baby hats (tots model strawberry, pumpkin, and tomato versions at www.well.com/~drive/knit.html).

Co-workers reap the benefits. “Everyone on the fifth floor of University Hall who gets pregnant gets a baby hat,” she says.

Self-quotes to misquotes
Others have unique and complicated relationships to e-mail signatures. Public Affairs administrative specialist Jean Smith, in a nod to protocol, retired a favored sign-off (“Reality is for those who cannot cope with Middle-earth”). A Tolkein fan who’s seen The Fellowship of the Ring 16 times and has the inscription from The One Ring tattooed on her ankle, Smith stopped using that signature once she became assistant to an assistant vice chancellor. “The higher up you go,” she says, “the less humor infuses your e-mail.”

Facilities manager Chana Bailey quotes herself in one of her e-mail signatures (“Trust in God, but tie your camel tight.”), while Robert Wilensky, a computer science professor, claims to be misquoted.

Although he himself ends electronic messages with no-frills contact information (“no vanity plates, either,” he says), others have been known to attach a quote attributed (in error) to Wilensky: “We heard that a million monkeys at a million keyboards could produce the complete works of Shakespeare. Now, thanks to the Internet, we know that is not true.”