Just Checking In

By Virginia Heffernan and Paul Ford

Virginia Heffernan and Paul Ford have never met, but have often crossed paths—we live in New York City; were editors at Harper’s Magazine; write about technology; and write for The Message on Medium. For no particular reason we’ve started sending emails to see who can make the other person experience the most profound sense of dread and panic.
It started January 9th, 2015, during an email chat about bots:
From: Virginia Heffernan
To: Paul Ford
Subject: can you give me a quick call by EOD?
Haha just kidding. That’s my private horror anxiety message that I need a bot for.

From: Virginia Heffernan
To: Paul Ford
Subject: call-in codes for recurring conference call
haha just kidding

From: Virginia Heffernan
To: Paul Ford
Subject: Aetna enrollment period ended noon today
Mark calendars: next period is in 2020. Optional lecture in the Alfred Hitchcock conference room about the dim chance of getting Obamacare, petitioning BOL to revive the unions and/or managing cancer conditions with probiotics. Bring bag lunch. We ordered Snapple and Smartfood!

Paul took the bait.
From: Paul Ford
To: Virginia Heffernan
Subject: Signup sheet for 2015 office massage circle

Two-week pause. Then a snowstorm…

From: Paul Ford
To: Virginia Heffernan
Subject: HUGE FAVOR—storm messed up our close so can you get it in by Friday morning

From: Virginia Heffernan
To: Paul Ford
Subject: Re: Re: sunset Ford?
Paul, it’s been SOOOO great to have you on the payroll! But we’re sort of asking for “shared sacrifice” now, after #jesuischarlie, and we’re gonna have to ask you and maybe one other person but probably just you to not get a paycheck anymore. ☹ PS you owe us 5500 more words by Friday morn and don’t read down. Cheers!!!

From: Paul Ford
To: Virginia Heffernan
Subject: opinion writer with social media focus
know anyone? i think this is basically a younger version of you but with at least 28,000 twitter followers

From: Virginia Heffernan
To: Paul Ford
Subject: Just checking in
I feel like there are some similarities between your last three pieces for The Message and Martin Amis’s 2003 novel Yellow Dog. I usually wouldn’t bring this up but I was soooo fooled by Jonah Lehrer back in the day and your work just doesn’t pass the smell test. I reached out to Andrew Wylie and Martin Garbus and they should be in touch with you soon. Oh and omg I know there’s someone who could take your case pro bono. Damn there’s an app that Jonah used — I’ll let you know when I find it

From: Paul Ford
To: Virginia Heffernan
Subject: wanted you to know
i had nothing to do with that article in gawker. yes your piece had problems, but you deserved better and it was wrong of them to bring your past into it.

From: Virginia Heffernan
To: Paul Ford
Subject: You’d be great running Sullivan’s blog now

From: Paul Ford
To: Virginia Heffernan
Subject: Hey Virginia/NPR
I am Ellie, the new publicist assigned to your book since the other Ellie went on maternity leave. Pleased to e-meet you! Weird request but could you be on a show out of Tulsa Public Radio called Shame on Me to discuss your worst online romantic transgressions? You’ll be on with some writers from BuzzFeed and Vox, and Michael and Sean both think it would help get the word out. It’s tomorrow at 4:45PM for two hours on 93rd St., so let me know.

From: Virginia Heffernan
To: Paul Ford
Subject: Paul heads up re: your snapchat use
Just a major OTR note: There’s actually an AQ (attractiveness quotient) (I know so stupid — leave it to millennials) on Snapchat use, EVEN with the new Discover news functionality. I guess there’s been some concern about you overusing it for more “exhibitionistic” purposes or whatever lurid sexting called with Snapchat? I guess just “snapchatting” lol! So much for that annoying ghost — our server DOES hold onto all the stuff produced by people in your AQ bracket which is just actually you. Cheers!

Paul to Virginia:

Subject: greenwald called


Virginia to Paul:

Subject: xojane “It Happened to Me” called


Paul to Virginia:

Subject: working mothers vertical at bustle


From: Virginia Heffernan
To: Paul Ford
Subject: being honest
I noticed you don’t follow me on Twitter. You know I’m a straight shooter. Frankly, not following someone of my stature on Twitter is not cool. I have to come right out and say more generally I (and tbh most of us at The Message) find your conduct in social media self-serving, incoherent and tone-deaf. Maybe you can help me understand. Tics and oversights like this matter, Paul. I’m not telling you what you should or shouldn’t do about following me but you should know that we’ve noticed certain questionable choices you make along these lines. All best, @page88

From: Paul Ford
To: Virginia Heffernan
Subject: mentorship?
v i am
recently graduated mfa
poetry
yearning for
wisdom
opportunity
honesty
will u come to
coffee
and explain
writing for magazines
to me
in bushwick

From: Virginia Heffernan
To: Paul Ford
Subject: Red Bull men on “is rape exaggerated?” — series for Virgin America seatback + Roku distrib
We think this is really gonna be a fun one
​Kiley Angelino
@HOTtimesPOP

From: Paul Ford
To: Virginia Heffernan
Subject: PLEASE HELP!!!! Five gray kittens with FIV and lungworm need generous, loving homes [pics attached]

From: Virginia Heffernan
To: Paul Ford
Subject: COMPOSTING NON-COMPLIANCE
Dear neighbor, TENANTS XI.40.iiv states that any sewage or garbage not composted with 2015 regulation enzymes distributed on 1/4 9:15 AM will be found in violation of the 1/29 24:00 legacy-disposal sunset in KINGS COUNTY. Please find all 2015 inadequately mulched kitchen and bathroom waste (in excess of 1 liter) returned via hosing equipment to front rooms of all units. NB: CLEANING SERVICES CANNOT OPERATE IN BUILDING UNTIL NECESSARY 4-DECADE ASBESTOS REMOVAL FINISHED. Contact: Kim Philby, telex 78248 KIM P

Paul to Virginia:

Subject: your recent piece in the times misidentified me as male


Virginia to Paul:

Subject: wtf Paul?!??????


From: Paul Ford
To: Virginia Heffernan
Subject: waited at cafe grumpy until 9:30 then went home ☹
i think i got the right day/time since it’s on the shared calendar invite. hope everything is okay—let me know if you want to reschedule, maybe for april.

From: Virginia Heffernan
To: Paul Ford
Subject: Study: even fleeting irritation with children causes “micro tears” in their brain fiber, early onset Lou Gehrig’s

From: Paul Ford
To: Virginia Heffernan
Subject: don’t know who to ask
hey v im in cambodia on assignment for eight weeks. great uncle viktor (u met him at my last reading at housing works) is in hospital with heart problems and will be there for at least two weeks. he has a 98 y old african grey parrot that needs regular hand-feedings and stress medication and he is v worried about it, panicked and doesn’t want to stay in hospital until it’s found a home and since you are basically always home i truly need a favor which i guess now you can guess. the thing is they actually die of loneliness at that age so its urgent to go down to his apartment asap (doorman knows you are coming). i guess full disclosure i should tell you he got it in south africa and its incredibly racist (+ sexist [+ homophobic]) but it learned its racism in 1930s johannesburg so it’s prettttttttttty intense ☹☹☹☹☹ i can’t even type its name but you can guess) so you want to be very careful who comes over. if u need you can get its meds at a special bird place in staten island. will make a great story, though, right?

From: Virginia Heffernan
To: Paul Ford
Subject: Bang this out?
We need a press release for your aunt’s silk-acrylic mittens Etsy store and need someone with good grammar….Listen to me with…“well grammar”? See I don’t even know the basics. I talk real good lol…But you do mr writer man! I bet you could bang this out. We are faxing over materials and fedexing a box of “product” for you to describe in magic words before the launch of auntie mitts on Friday thank you so much Shakespeare!!!!

From: Paul Ford
To: Virginia Heffernan
Subject: Appear on BEA panel: “Midlife, Midlist, Middlebrow”

From: Virginia Heffernan
To: Paul Ford
Subject: Wieseltier AND Robinson!
Starring in Leon’s “The Shoah of the Glib” AND Marilynne Robinson’s “Sick at Heart: Four Writers Who Are as Tapeworm” in one day!!! Day-um. Some low shots at you but in all fair; and who cares what those school marms think anyway? Does anyone read that yawner NYRB stuff anymore? You’re writing for Twitter and having fun! Good for you!

From: Paul Ford
To: Virginia Heffernan
Subject: Was that you at the NMAs?
Guess not — couldn’t see you spending that much on a dress — but you have a doppelgänger who works for Vanity Fair. Coffee? I free up in June.

From: Virginia Heffernan
To: Paul Ford
Subject: oh jesus don’t look at reddit
time for that tech shabbat you keep talking about

From: Paul Ford
To: Virginia Heffernan
Subject: apologies for the email mixup
so embarassing. so i guess you know now we ARE thinking about who can replace lepore on book leave which i ask you to keep confidential for obvious reasons. and i am genuinely sorry about you seeing that thread; it wasn’t intended for anyone’s consumption outside of the office. please know that those were offhand comments made casually and know also that i have the highest respect for some of your work. awkward way to ask, but I would love to get some blog pitches!

From: Virginia Heffernan
To: Paul Ford
Subject: 92Y panel
We have Lena Dunham, Kirstie Alley and Brian Stelter for a March panel on obesity. It promises to be an amazing and emotional night. But we’re looking for someone not famous who hasn’t given in to the pressure to lose the weight or otherwise practice self-care and who is frankly more relatable to the flyover states (this is for broadcast). Someone here who saw you stocking your cart at KeyFood, and having trouble in the narrow aisle, thought you’d be great to talk about weight challenges. How should we ID you? Are you working these days?

From: Paul Ford
To: Virginia Heffernan
Subject: weird
Got the galley but your author photo is Steven Johnson. Maybe check with the publisher?

Virginia to Paul:

Subject: bedbugs


Paul to Virginia:

Subject: forgiveness


Virginia to Paul:

Subject: olive branch


Paul to Virginia:

Subject: Safewords for February


Virginia to Paul:

Subject: insomnia — thoughts


From: Paul Ford
To: Virginia Heffernan
Subject: Need 2003 W9 and routing info ASAP
Hey Virginia, Apparently we overpaid you $26,980 in 2003–4 fiscal for your reviews so we need to make an effort to reclaim the funds. I know this is unwelcome news but legally you were required to catch it. We are working directly with our writers to avoid any credit implications though. Can you send me a copy of your 2003 W9 (has to be an actual W9 from that era, signed before 2003 and NOT backdated) and your bank and routing information from 2003, along with your current routing. Also, while I have you, any interest in writing 1,200 words about Lifetime Biopics?

From: Virginia Heffernan
To: Paul Ford
Subject: Grab coffee?
From: Virginia Heffernan
To: Paul Ford
Subject: Grab coffee?
From: Virginia Heffernan
To: Paul Ford
Subject: Grab coffee?
From: Virginia Heffernan
To: Paul Ford
Subject: Grab coffee?
From: Virginia Heffernan
To: Paul Ford
Subject: following up: grab coffee?

From: Paul Ford
To: Virginia Heffernan
Subject: Music essay?
We are doing a 20-year retrospective on pop and are having writers we love do pieces on songs they love from 1995. Everyone agreed you would be amazing doing a short essay on “Let Her Cry” by Hootie and the Blowfish. What is your schedule in the next three weeks?

From: Virginia Heffernan
To: Paul Ford
Subject: Your twin toddlers’ IQ/ERB scores
We usually send them out but let’s make a time for you both to come in.
Questlabs in partnership with IntelligenceNow

From: Paul Ford
To: Virginia Heffernan
Subject: Interested in being part of a Salon “Mothers who think” reboot?

Virginia replied:
Kind of, actually.

Paul answered:
Cool! Its called Mothers Who Tweet and its a cobrand with Maytag. No more than two tweets a week will be branded retweets and the rest will be original. If you are curious I’ll intro you to the people in our brand newsroom, would love to have you!


From: Virginia Heffernan
To: Paul Ford
Subject: can you watch my kids tonight?
I know it’s short notice but you’d really be saving us. I’ve got a pre-Oscars bookmaking pow-wow at Candace Bushnell’s (eyeroll!) and they just need dinner, baths and for you to kind of lie with them in their loft beds while they go to sleep. The sleep part takes an hour, tops. I usually fall asleep then! But no then just clean up dinner stuff and quickly rub down the tub, and you’re free to have burritos, whatever’s in the freezer. YOU ARE A GODSEND ROCKSTAR. See you in 20 mins?

From: Paul Ford
To: Virginia Heffernan
Subject: Dentistry fetishists?
Jake thinks it is worth a look. Apparently its a scene, they get together and grind each other’s teeth and chip their own teeth with hammers. There’s a meetup on the 23rd actually on Park Ave. and a tooth chipping demonstration plus unanaesthetized drilling competition, some dentists are doing it as a sideline. Everyone has to wear goggles to watch because of tooth shards. Maybe also ear-guards? Could be an amazing piece and I doubt you will ever forget it. Know I owe you an edit on the internet fridge piece.

From: Virginia Heffernan
To: Paul Ford
Subject: Some thoughts
You have broken me
all the way down
down upon my knees
you have broken me
all the way down
you’ll be the last, you’ll see

From: Paul Ford
To: Virginia Heffernan
Subject: Nielsen BookScan numbers. Not pretty. Give me a call.

From: Virginia Heffernan
To: Paul Ford
Subject: Junior Laureates
Mr. Ford,
We in Oslo are pleased to invite you, Junot Diaz and Kenzaburo Oe to a round of toasts in recognition of what we have deemed your pre-Nobel status. Orhan Pamuk will preside. Expect a gilded invitation by courier this afternoon.
Looking forward to meeting you, Richard (if I may).
Know me to be,
Thorbjørn Jagland

We called a truce. There was just one question of editing.

Virginia to Paul:

I don’t want to be an asshole but it seems like I’d naturally go first with byline order. I mean, I know you get that. But just to clarify.

Paul to Virginia:

Sure, reverse chronological is normal for blogs.

[Long pause]

Virginia to Paul:

ETA on your story?