27 November 2011

55. Unread Magazines

Dear unread magazines cluttering my apartment,

I'm trying to get through you as fast as I can, I really am. When I started this letter, more than a year ago, most of you were less than a month old, with the exception of nearly a year's supply of The New York Review of Books. Now I'm just getting through this past April's New Yorkers, May's New Yorks, and I still haven't started in on that stack of NYRBs, sigh.

Last fall I wanted to apologize to you even when I was almost caught up on reading you before I went away that summer. Little did I know how far I could fall behind when I came home to a new 9-to-5-ish job and graduate school classes in the fall, all of which contributed to readings which competed for my attention on the subway between these various destinations... oof. Today I am less pressed for time but I'm sorry to say you now have to compete for attention with a shiny electronic device which sometimes offers me the whole fricken internet by way of distraction.

Still, reading you has its rewards, even six or more months late. Over the summer, this year's annual February "anniversary" issue of The New Yorker inspired me to read Middlemarch, which was pretty fricken great! More recently, the April 18 issue of that magazine presented me with Jonathan Franzen's essay on Robinson Crusoe, isolation, and the late David Foster Wallace. Flawed or not, that was a tough read, but one that nonetheless has helped me keep building up the courage to tackle The Pale King and Although Of Course You End Up Becoming Yourself, both of which are still daunting, to put it mildly.

Anyway, unread magazines, I think I'm catching up on you, reading one or more of the oldest issues around a week, sometimes on top of the week's issue (was I supposed to resist the annual New Yorker food spectacular? Because I didn't.) Next month I'm thinking of turning my attention to the Cook's Illustrateds among you — none of which are truly unread, mind, but too many of which are not yet cooked-from.

For now, however, I'm going to stop letting you guilt me and go to bed early. You'll be good company during this post-holidays head cold, when it's probably best if I don't spend too much time staring at screens...


Started and published on 27 November 2011, last updated 6 June 2014.

26 November 2011

54. Quinces

Dear quinces,

You are such weird, wonderful fruit!

I am really excited to have found you at the farm store down the street from my brother's place in Vermont. It cracks me up that I've looked for you at farmers' markets and in stores all over New York freaking City, only to randomly run across four beautiful examples of you when I was just looking for some high-quality maple syrup as a thank-you gift for our neighbor who checked in on the cats while we were up in the frozen North for Thanksgiving. But whatever! I have three of you now, and that is awesome.

Quinces, I am just fascinated by the way you're almost inedible raw, but sublimely delicious cooked. When I first got a chance to play with you, a little less than a year ago, on a visit to my friends Christine and Kevin in Davis, CA, I accidentally gave Peter a gnarly surprise in the form of a raw piece of you. He was expecting your kinfruit apple, which is what it looked like, but got something whose only taste resemblance was the worst possible: as if an apple had gotten ridiculously mealy-overripe and dried out to the point of tasting flavorless and feeling cottony... he actually spit it out. So yeah, that wasn't good. But I scored a big recovery when I sliced and stewed the rest of you, to serve on toast with broiled Manchego cheese (a traditional pairing in Spain, I'm told).

You undergo a beautiful, almost alchemical transformation in response to heat, quinces, turning anywhere from blush-pink to deep ruby-red, but you knew that and I still wanted to praise it anyway. Yes, I quite look forward to adventure-cooking with you again. And I will! Soon! Yaaaaaay!


Started and published 26 November 2011, last updated 6 June 2014.

20 November 2011

53. Writing

Dear writing,

Thank you for existing. You help me organize my thoughts like nothing else in the world, and for that I am eternally grateful. This November is another National Blog Posting Month, one with the official theme "blogging for blogging's sake," which works remarkably well for me, since it's pretty much exactly why I signed up for the event (after sorting through more than a little bit of technical difficulty, I registered as blogger #2011 on the official November blogroll, which feels very auspicious).

Anyway, over at the official NaBloPoMo site there's official prompts every weekday to inspire people to write, and of course given the month's theme, some of those have jiggled my brain as well. For instance the very first such prompt, for November 1, was "What is your favourite part about writing?" (ooh, British spelling, very fancy!) and that alone would be reason to write you right there (I know, this letter is uncomfortably meta; I don't think there's anything in particular I can do about that, so I'm rolling with it as best I can). The prompt for November 4 was, "When you are writing, do you prefer to use a pen or a computer?" which of course got me thinking as well. Lynda Barry's brilliant What It Is emphasizes the importance of movement, actually physically writing, on paper, by hand, that there's something fundamentally different about work produced in that way, and she's definitely on to something there. Unfortunately I type much faster than I write by hand, and whenever I go to put thoughts down in my paper journal (that's how I think of it these days, my paper journal; I think it's a relic of when I had to distinguish between hand-written books and LiveJournal) I always feel even less like I'm not quite keeping up with myself than I do while typing (which still isn't as fast as I'd like). And that's before my hand starts cramping up all fierce, which is also a problem, to put it mildly.

Along those same lines, I find blank computer screens much less intimidating than blank paper: if I fill a screen with drivel, as I worried about doing to the pages of a Moleskine back when I was writing for Everything2, well, I've just wasted my own energy and electrons. Messing up a real sheet of paper somehow feels worse, more wasteful. It's evidence of my screwing up, which I could throw out, but then there's the waste issue again, or on the other hand it could turn into wasted space in my own ever-cluttered desk and file cabinets if at the same time I want to keep that hand-written whatever just in case there was something useful there that I might be able to rewrite or recycle somehow later (and writing is rewriting for me, no doubt about it; back when I was writing poetry—hey, it was high school—I did compose almost everything by hand, and I used to start over and over again, a new page every time as I copied over the bits I liked and left out others and expanded on the words which had worked... I don't know if I've saved anything I wrote like that, but maybe I kind of miss it? There's a thought there. ANYWAY.)

In my heart of hearts, sure, I prefer writing on paper as an aesthetic and somehow more meaningful experience than typing a keyboard and seeing words appear on a screen. Don't get me started on tap-tap-tapping with my thumbs, which is only good at being a portable way to wrangle ideas I want to cast into the ether without retyping them later from paper. But from a practical, manual-labor, not-art-but-craft perspective, I can't beat using a computer. Especially when I'm freewriting out all the gobbledygook I can find in my head in the hopes of sorting some of it into usefulness or at least coherence later. LaTeX comments for the win forever! (Ok, enough of that nerd rant for the time being now.) But speaking of LaTeX, I have been typesetting these open letters into a book for some time now, and I just got around to updating it with the latest letters from this year, and you know what? 52 letters (53, counting this one) really add up to something that looks substantial. Book-like, even. Like an accomplishment. I'm thinking of learning how to format them so they'll look good in PDF form on an iPhone screen or other e-book reader, and then I might be all set to self-publish, as terrifying as that was to type even into just a blog post draft, let alone post in public (we'll how long it lasts out here). I'm left with all these fun little aesthetic decisions: should I just put them out chronologically? Separate issues organized by theme? But I'm getting sidetracked here.

Back to you, writing.

I haven't even mentioned how you make reading possible, and that's sort of ridiculous, since I love reading so much it needs more than its own letter, more like its whole library of books, my whole life and wishing I could live longer still. When I think about immortality, I know it would be lonely and sad after awhile, but I also get a little swoony with joy at the thought of all the books I could read... and the fact that you make reading possible might indeed be my favorite thing about you, writing, to tie back to a thought from the beginning of this letter. Thank you, writing, for giving me reading.

Last night I started rereading Italo Calvino's If on a winter's night a traveler, and ran across this description of a character who has deliberately forgotten how to read: "You try to picture how the world might appear, this world dense with writing that surrounds us on all sides, to someone who has learned not to read." I can hardly imagine, but it reminded me of a story in Alan Moore's Voice of the Fire, from the perspective of an illiterate character who encounters writing for the first time: it is magic, pure and simple and somewhat sinister. How can making marks put thoughts into the minds of people who look at them? Sometimes those mark-thoughts even make a person do someone else's bidding! Sometimes I almost feel like I'm doing the bidding of those little marks by making more of them, whether on a computer screen or in a more physical medium. Writing for writing's sake, full circle back to the ideas at the beginning of this letter.

And that is as close as I think I'm going to get to a conclusion in this letter, writing. It's hard to force myself to stop rambling here, but the thought of other things I want to write gives me strength. To paraphrase John Steinbeck, I must believe that what I am writing is the most important thing in the world. And I must hold true to this illusion even when I know it is not true (New York Times, 2 June 1969). Writing, whether the next marks I make are important or not, I look forward to sharing them with you.


Started and published 20 November 2011, last updated 6 June 2014.

19 November 2011

52. Soccer

Dear soccer,

I miss you between World Cups. I mean, I know you're still around, like back in 2006 when I saw a bumper sticker with a little icon of the Earth as a soccer ball that said "One World, One Game" and it made me so happy I started drafting this letter. Still, I miss watching you obsessively every day, agonizing on the days when there aren't games, watching stupid soccer news shows on TV, dressing up in team colors, planning meals to celebrate the cuisines of whatever country is playing next, and in short being insane about a sports event as I can only be once every four years or there'd be no living with me.

It was a good World Cup, 2006, despite the fact that it ended with Zinedine Zidane's Head of God and freaking penalty shootouts featuring Fabien "the puncher" Barthez. Hell, it was a good World Cup even though the Dutch team fared miserably. I mean, seriously. We decorated the whole house and yard with orange flags for that? I'd thought the U.S.-Italy game was some of the worst soccer I'd ever seen, but then there was Holland-Portugal. Daaaaaaang. Fortunately, Mexico-Argentina was absolutely gorgeous, as was France-Spain and the first half of France-Brazil, before the latter team went to pieces for reasons I'm sure I'll never understand.

But for me 2006 was worth watching if only for Zizou. "It's Zidane's last World Cup," I would tell people, and they'd either know what I was talking about or shrug and wander away. And yeah, the Head of God was a shocker, but I don't have anything to say about it that hasn't been said before, which is to say in a much more timely manner.

Speaking of not very timely, how about that 2010 World Cup, eh? The Dutch finally found a way to embarrass themselves more than they did in what Wikipedia now seriously refers to as the Battle of Nuremberg — admittedly, the Spanish played the ref like a fracking fiddle, but that's mostly just an excuse for me to be grumpy about the officiating, and the play itself left plenty more to grouse about. "Put Elia in!" I kept yelling, but did they listen? Nooooo. But I'm looking forward to seeing more of that kid — every time he's on the field, interesting things happen. And surely at some point the golden old guys will retire and make room for some of the kids I watched win the under-21 championships in 2007, right? I mean, I miss Eddie van der Sar something fierce, just like anybody, and it's a little shocking that my new favorite keeper is a Yank, but OMG TIM HOWARD IS SO AWESOME. And I haven't given up on Maarten Van Stekelenburg either, it's just he's got big boots to fill. All of which is to say that I'm looking forward to watching the new Dutch team grow, and hope I don't have to choose between them and the Yanks any time soon.

I'm running out of steam here, soccer. I wanted to write about how you're the only sport I enjoy watching more than I enjoyed playing, back when I played organized sports and dinosaurs roamed the Earth. Also I thought I might talk about my friend John who officiates soccer matches sometimes and is the only person I've ever seen cheer for the referee while watching a game... but I guess my brain is too fried for that right now, although maybe I'll get around to adding some actual well-formed thoughts to that effect here someday. For now, I'm just going to end by saying: You're great, soccer. Thanks for being super-fun.


Started 19 July 2006, when I was seriously rocking the soccer withdrawal something fierce, published 19 November 2011, last updated 6 June 2014, when the next World Cup was only days away, woohoo!

13 November 2011

51. Writer's Block

Dear writer's block,

One of the best writing teachers I ever learned from says you don't exist, that when writers say they've got you what they really have are excessively high standards. Tonight I am lowering my standards enough to publish this ridiculous cop-out of a blog entry, because dangit, it's NaBloPoMo and I am not giving up on my goal of posting every day this November. So: neener neener neener neener pttttttbbbt or however it is best to spell giving a big fat silly raspberry. I have no doubt we'll meet again, and you'll likely get the better of me some day in the future, but right now my standards are low enough to write: today is not that day.


12 November 2011

50. Weddings

Dear weddings,

More than six years ago, I started writing you a letter that began, "I hate you, even when I like the people involved." Today, I am amending that to say that now that I'm married, I still think you suck. Now to be completely fair, what really sucks is the wedding-industrial complex, but I know of no good way to separate you out from that godawful mess, weddings, and so I get the howling fantods every time people insist on referring to the way I got married as a wedding because a big part of the whole point for me was that it wasn't. We went down to the New York City Clerk's Office for a $35 license one day, then returned for a $25 ceremony and certificate of marriage registration the next ("It's like buying a gun," said the man I now call Spouse-y McHusbandpants, "there's a waiting period.") Nobody had to spend any money on clothes or jewelry, although we did take our witness out to tea afterwards (nom, and thanks Greg!) My parents, whom I'll mention again later in this letter, were more than a little delighted and amused to hear that they'd already paid for a reception by leaving behind a bottle of champagne we didn't get around to drinking at a different celebration. Pop, boom, done! Yay.

So that was my so-called wedding, an unexpected side benefit of which was that I now look at the aforementioned industrial complex with relief and a little bit of indifference along with the same old pure white-hot loathing, because at least I am off the hook for that stuff, hoo fricken ray. (I mean, we'll get around to rings one of these days — personally I'm hoping to hold out till we can afford to forge our own, because seriously, when the hell else am I going to have an excuse to try amateur goldsmithing? — but I'm in no hurry, especially what with my student loan payments starting next year.) I haven't had a chance to test my post-marriage reactions to wedding invitations, but I'm hoping they'll be a little more "off the hook, woo!" and less fight-or-flighty-y... we'll see. I suspect I will still dread the big ritualized social occasion aspect of them even if and when there are no more laws against same-sex marriage to fill me with rage.

But back to you, weddings, and what I wrote to you more than six years ago, some of which eventually spun off into letters to your invitations and the laws that make it so you're just a symbolic gesture even in the few U.S. states that allow you to be legally binding for all couples (side note: yay for finally living in a state with equal marriage for the first time in my life, and especially for timing things so I only had to feel guilty about being unequal-married for about 40 hours). I'm pretty much still on board with most of what I had to say back then, like: I hate that people take you so personally that there's no good way I can say "I don't want to go to your wedding but I'd love to celebrate your partnership some other time in a non-wedding context," and that the aforementioned statement is all too often taken as a personal insult. I hate how you make people so stupid as to become simultaneously self-centered and excessively concerned with the opinions of others. I hate how people can't seem to get it into their heads that just about everything about you is optional — that for the legal part of marriage they can just go to city hall, for the social part they can do whatever they want from big hot ridiculousness to telling no one to anything in between (posting on Facebook! emails, or cards if you're fancy, inviting loved ones to celebrate whenever the opportunity arises! whatever!), and there's plenty of priesty types who'd be happy to assist with the religious part if they're so inclined, with or without making it into a big stupid production. Dammit. (The part about Facebook is a 2011 addition, I'll admit, but it's pretty much in the same spirit I had when dinosaurs roamed the Earth.)

More than anything, however, I still agree with this line from my original "Dear Weddings" letter:
I guess what I really don't like is listening to people whine about the terrible hardships of privilege.
Seriously, I wrote, if the law is gracious enough to allow you to get married, and your church thinks your relationship is hunky-dory, then bully for you. (Today I would also add congratulations if your family and friends wish you and your partner the best.) I guess I felt guilty about writing: "But if you're going to whine about the pomp and circumstance, then shut up and be glad that you can afford any of it, and think twice about whether that's really what you want to be spending time and money and mental energy on," because I followed it with the low-self-esteem-y line, "God, I am such a bitch." Maybe I'm just a bigger bitch now than ever, but I don't think I'm being too unreasonable here. Instead, I am searching for a polite and loving way to send some extra bonus "shut up" messages to everyone who is somehow offended that I didn't have a wedding, much less that they weren't invited, because seriously, if I had wanted to suffer through party planning to stand around awkwardly for hours while hitting people up for presents and asking for blessings, I could have had a non-legal commitment ceremony any time in the past ten years. I didn't, because — again — that was not the point.

Much closer to the point is that anecdote about my parents which I foreshadowed earlier. They used to jokingly promise that if I skipped having a big wedding and eloped instead, they'd help me put a down payment on a house. I took this message to heart so much that I got things out of order and bought (and later sold) a house with my partner while skipping out on elopement for years. All of which felt really good. So does having health insurance. But that's a privilege that should be a right for another letter.


Started 18 January 2005, published 12 November 2011, last updated 6 June 2014.

06 November 2011

49. Global Climate Change

Dear global climate change,

I believe in you. Really. Kind of a lot. You don't have to keep proving yourself over and over on my account, especially not with freaky disastrous weather, please.

Is Bangkok such a hotbed of climate deniers as to be in any way deserving of the wreckage you've inflicted there recently? It's a lovely city! Not unlike Monterosso, in northern Italy! When did anyone there ever do anything to offend you? Now my former classmate Christine has gone from writing a dreamy story about gastrotouristic entrepreneurship to documenting the damage from storms and mudslides on her new home in the Cinque Terre. Harsh! (And, yes, I am writing you in a public forum in part to circulate Christine's blog, which includes links to ways people can help out her flood-ravaged region, because thinking about it too long gets me all overwhelmed so I don't know what else to do).

I'll grant that it was nice of you to back down Hurricane Irene until she was just a tropical storm by the time she got to New York City on my birthday. For all everybody's whining we still got in a good round of practice on how to be super-prepared for future extreme weather events, so you were practically performing a civil service. On the other hand, did you have to go and shut down large chunks of Vermont? Was that really necessary?

On a more lighthearted note, I'll grant that it's unfortunate how so many people call you "global warming," when that's an oversimplification and "global weirding" is a much better term (more fun, too!) That's still hardly any reason to snow all over the northeast United States in October, when there's still leaves on trees all over the place, so the weight of "wintry mix" (worst precipitation ever!) breaks extra bonus branches which in bring down turn power lines and more. I mean, I hate this rhetorical device as much as anyone, but: think of the children! You pull these shenanigans on the night before Halloween, for monkeys' sake? Just listen to this sob story from a 10-year-old in the suburbs:

When I found out Halloween was canceled, I was so bummed; it was the worst day ever... I went over to my grandparents’ house in New Milford because they were, like, the only people on the planet who had power. But we still didn’t get to go trick-or-treating. There were too many trees and wires all over the place. So I sat there on the couch and did nothing. I said, "I can’t believe it’s Halloween and I’m sitting on a couch!" This is an outrage!

Ok, I mostly couldn't resist quoting that, because it cracked me up, and I needed the laugh after all that other bad news. I hope that little girl believes in you now, but I promise, I know you're real. You kind of scare the crap out of me any time I think about you too hard, and I don't know what else to say except that I know you can't read this but I'm putting these ideas out in the world to share my hope that people will get better at organizing to be resilient to your effects and maybe even prevent future disasters. That's my hope.


Published 6 November 2011, last updated 6 June 2014

05 November 2011

48. Poverty

Dear poverty,

So what's all this I hear about the United States Census Bureau coming up with a new way to define you? Yesterday's New York Times says the new measure erases "as much as half of the reported rise in poverty since 2006" — because, you know, it's not like anything's happened in the past five years that might have increased the number of people struggling to get by! Ha, ha, only horrified.

I mean, I'm glad the new metric takes local cost of living into account, but what am I supposed to make of the idea that tax credits and benefits like unemployment and food assistance are counted as assets that (statistically) bump people out of poverty into what the Times calls "the hard-luck ranks of the near poor, who do not qualify for many benefit programs and lose income to taxes, child care and medical costs"? I'll get back to those benefit programs in a second, but first I've got to go on a little linguistic tear.

You see, that term, "near poor" reminds me of the scene in Why I Hate Saturn, wherein our down-on-her-luck heroine banters bitterly with a street person who asks,

...did you ever wonder who decided to call bums "homeless"? Why did that start? It seems that as "bums", we were individuals, but as "the homeless," we're an institution....

So the word "homeless" was created. It takes the stigma off. Instead of being viewed as lazy, I'm viewed as a victim of society. When society acknowledges you as one of its victims, rather than one of its members, it no longer has any responsibility to help you.

The creation of a nice euphemism (like "homeless" instead of "bum," "Native Americans" instead of "Indians," or "African Americans" instead of "blacks"), he notes, "always signifies a major fucking."

Speaking of major fuckings, eligibility for benefits like unemployment and food assistance is determined in part by income relative to the poverty line — so what does that mean under this new definition of poverty? People who qualify for enough benefits aren't poor anymore, thanks to those benefits, and since they're not poor, clearly they don't need benefits, except without them, they'd be poor again? What? How does that work?

I'm exaggerating a little for effect, here, poverty: as far as I know the new measure isn't being applied to benefits eligibility yet — because holy mother of circular logic nightmare, Batman! — but I am really not looking forward to what this new spin on the data will do to "See, there's not that many poor people after all, we can totally cut entitlements!" arguments. Ugh.

Anyway, I know I'm hardly even beginning to scratch the tip of the iceberg with this little rantlet, poverty. I mean, I've written this far and haven't even until just now mentioned the cognitive load of always being in crisis mode (I didn't mean for that to rhyme, it just did). If I got into time poverty or the social determinants of health, this letter would turn into a book for sure. All of which is to say that this is almost certainly not the last socioeconomic justice-related Open Letter I'll be writing. But for now, this is as good a place as any I've found to stop until I write again.