Email AI

Everyday the junk mail in my inbox outnumbers the junk mail that goes straight to junk. But I figure that that’s the price I (we?) pay for email filters that err on the side of caution. Worse than getting all that email we don’t want to see is missing the email we care about.

One particular sort of email I care about these days are messages that give health updates for a relative of mine who is suffering from an idiopathic cancer (the kind that something like three people in the entire country have). She’s been on an experimental drug, and we’ve all been on tenterhooks wondering whether it will shrink the metastatic tumors that showed up in her lungs last February.

A couple of weeks ago, J, my autistic son, started talking about her as if he’d heard something. I pressed him a bit, and he admitted that he had received a health update. J has a history of being really annoying around her, so I suspected this wasn’t a personal message she’d sent just to him. I inquired around, and another family member forwarded an email, which, though its “to” field read “undisclosed recipients”, had clearly been sent to many in our extended family. Perhaps it was the distress of the news she was sharing that had distracted her into putting J in her “to” field but not me. Exploratory surgery of her abdomen, which had been in great pain, had just turned up significant new metastasis. The immunotherapy wasn’t working, she’d have to resort to a nasty chemo regimen, and she perhaps had only a few months left. The news couldn’t have been worse.

We all sent our condolences. Even J did.

And later I discovered her email message–in my junk folder. How had someone with whom I’ve been in repeated correspondence over the years been misidentified as a spammer? Yes, the contents of the “to” field could have been a red flag, but then what about all the other emails to “undisclosed recipients” that happily land in my inbox?

Last night I was going through a long, complicated email thread (while there may be upsides to overly cautious email filtering–assuming it is, in fact, overly cautious–I find zero upsides to “threading”). My finger slipped over the surface of my phone and I realized I’d just deleted one of the messages in the thread. So I clicked on my junk folder to retrieve it.

And, lo and behold, there was another message from my relative. It had been sent just a few hours earlier and had gone straight to my junk folder. Its subject line: “Unbelievably good news” (was that what had set off my spam detector?). I immediately clicked it open and scanned through it at the outer limits of my speed of sight. The abdominal growth, much to everyone’s surprise–oncologist and pathologist included–was not cancerous, but rather a mass of inflammatory tissue. It was possibly the result of the immunotherapy, but was not itself malignant.

I want to bed with a smile on my face; woke up with a smile on my face. And, when I reached over to my phone to check my email, I reminded myself that from now on I need to routinely take a quick look at my junk list. Who knows what else I might find there.

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