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93-year-old Phyllis Carlson is learning how to email, and can't stop smiling

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Most of us hate email. The ads are annoying, if not creepy. Work-related response chains seem like a chore just to read. Meaningful, individualized messages are few and far between.

Now imagine you'd gone your whole life, 93 years of it, without even seeing one. That's the case for Phyllis Carlson, a Twin Cities-area woman who had never spent time online until earlier this year. Now, Carlson's using the web to research what interests her, and exchanging emails with family. She's loving it.

At the urging of her daughter, Carlson started coming to the Ramsey County Library in White Bear Lake earlier this year. When she first came in, nothing felt natural, according to library manager Therese Sonnek, who recalls watching Carlson cast a curious eye on the computer mouse, or poke at the screen in front of her, to no avail. 

But the nonagenarian was a quick learner, and a dedicated one. 

"She's been coming in almost every day for close to a month," Sonnek said. 

On Thursdays, Carlson can get one-on-one help from a dedicated library aide. Other days, Sonnek knows she will see the pleasant but driven Carlson curling her finger to summon her for help. When she learns a new computer trick, Carlson writes it down in her notebook, becoming less and less dependent with each visit. 

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Sonnek says Carlson comes in with "very specific" things she wants looked up, and seems to know a lot about them. After the librarian teaches the customer how to find something, Carlson is instantly prepared to teach Sonnek about the information she's finding. 

A few weeks ago, Carlson sent her first-ever email to her brother. A couple days later, she came back to the library and found that he'd written her back. 

"She opened up the email, his reply, and her eyes just started welling up," Sonnek says. "It was amazing to her, that this could happen."

Now the messages are coming faster — this week, she had five in her inbox — and Carlson's only getting better. When Sonnek asked if she could take a photo to illustrate her learning, she thought the 93-year-old might turn down the invitation. Instead Phyllis sat up straight, looked right into the camera, and smiled. 

Later, Sonnek showed Carlson that the photo had been posted online, along with a caption that said she "couldn't stop smiling." This, too, made her happy, as did the news that someone from City Pages had inquired about the woman in the picture. Maybe she'll see it today. Phyllis almost never misses a Thursday, when the two part-time trainers will be on hand.

Says Sonnek: "There's a good bet Phyllis will be here."