Wednesday, November 23, 2005

I'll take "Things I never knew about the US Postal Service" for 200, Alex

Along with my Friends of the Library newsletter, my mail the other day also included a letter from my Congressional Representative, the esteemed Martin Olav Sabo. I get mail from Marty fairly regularly, because he hears from me fairly regularly. Most of the letters I send are automated messages e-mailed via MoveOn and True Majority*, but on occasion, I'll write a letter in my own words as well. Norm (or, Mayor Quimby, as I like to call him) typically answers my e-mail within a week with a pleasant thank you for contacting him followed by an unfortunate list of all the reasons he disagrees with me. I would expect nothing less from Bush's lap dog, of course. Dayton, I'm sad to say, rarely responds, but when he does, the message (again, via e-mail) is a clear "I'm with you, sister. I'll do what I can."

Marty is more old school. It takes a little longer to get a reply from him, but that's because his mail comes the old fashioned way: on a crisp sheet of paper bearing the official United States seal, folded into an envelope and delivered physically to my home, rather than traveling through cyberspace to arrive near-instantaneously in my Inbox. The environmentalist in me thinks he could save the paper and switch to electronic replies. The Emily Post in me appreciates the gesture of the proper letter.

Whenever I pull an envelope from Marty out of my mailbox, I smile, partly because of the quaintness of receiving what could almost be considered "real mail," but mostly because I know the letter will contain some spunky and bold comment that fully mirrors my own sentiments, and it heartens me to know that at least one of my representatives truly represents me.

It was fun, for example, to read the following statement printed on official Congressional letterhead, bearing the same seal that hangs above the President during his periodic pep talks to the nation. Sabo wrote: "It is very frustrating to hear false optimism and 'stay the course' rhetoric from President Bush when it is so clear that our open presence in Iraq inflames the violent insurgency." Amen, Marty. Way to speak your mind and tell it like it is.

So I read Marty's letters, just as I imagine (foolishly, of course), that he personally reads mine. What I never noticed on these letters before, however, is that they bear absolutely no postage (neither in stamp form nor any printed box indicating "bulk postage paid"). Where the stamp would be is Martin's personal signature, and opposite that are the words "Public Document - Official Business." A quick search on Google taught me that members of Congress can legally send "Official mail" without payment of postage by drawing from an allotted expense account. I didn't know that. (Did you?) I suppose it makes sense... taxpayers are going to foot the bill for the postage one way or another; might as well just cut out the middle step and avoid paying someone to also affix a stamp or run the mail through a postage meter.

The postal privileges detailed in the special eligibility standards for official mail go further than current members of Congress, however. If you're a former Speaker of the House, you can continue to send public documents, agricultural reports, and seeds (yes! seeds!) for "as long as the former Speaker deems necessary." And former Presidents (and the surviving spouse of a former President) can apparently send any old thing they want via these same privileges as well. The mail doesn't even have to be political or official in nature.

I get a strange mix of amusement and disgust imagining a retired George W. years from now signing his name in the corner of his electric bill to avoid buying a stamp. It will happen, I imagine. I wouldn't be remotely surprised.

* I don't feel particularly bad about this lazy woman's mode of activism, as I'm fairly certain none of my representatives read nor respond to my messages themselves either. As long as some staffer puts a checkmark in the "For" or "Against" column on the constituent feedback record for the particular issue I'm fake-writing about (and then sends me the approved multi-purpose response on that issue), my impersonal letter has done its job.

Monday, November 21, 2005

Speaking volumes

A few weeks ago, I responded to a request from the Friends of the Minneapolis Public Library to "Be Part of the Story." Really that's just a cloying marketing tag line for their capital campaign to raise more funds for the new Central Library. If we believe all the hype, this new library will be so architecturally astounding that people will look back at the Guggenheim and wonder what all the fuss was about. The garden on the roof will grow exotic fruits year-round. The computers will be lightning-fast, and we'll all have instant access to them with no waiting whatsoever. Each floor will have cushy sofas and leather bean bag chairs, and at the push of a button, you'll be able to call a friendly server to bring you a vanilla latte. No charge. And the books? Ah, the books. The collection will be so complete that the Library of Congress will call our reference librarians to ask, "Hey, could you look something up for me?"

It wasn't so much my faith in the wonder of this new library that made me mark "yes" on the form and send in a check. It was more a sense of civic responsibility and a feeling of appreciation for everything libraries represent. Libraries represent literacy and culture and the democratic ideal of all citizens having equal access to resources, information, and opportunities. Libraries are, as Barbara Kingsolver (through her character Hallie) wrote, "the one government institution you shouldn't rip off." Libraries represent learning and growth. These are all things I can easily get behind.

I realize these are lofty words considering how often my librarian friend has had to eject local perverts from the public access computers for inappropriate behavior, but it's an ideal I want to believe in. That's why it bothered me so much that such a prominent symbol of knowledge and intellect included the following statement in the bimonthly "Speaking Volumes" mailing I received today:

The Friends Bookstore will be closing the downtown location in February 2006. The store will be continuing it's 50% off sale until then, with a bag sale in February.

It's 50% off sale? It's? This publication came to me from an organization with Masters- and Doctorate-level scholars behind it, and they can't find someone to edit the newsletter who knows the difference between it's and its?

I may, of course, be overreacting. I'm fully aware that I'm a grammar geek and I have probably an unusually low tolerance for the errors in punctuation that I find most egregious. Misuse of the apostrophe is one of them. Once an English major, always an English major, I suppose. Still, I'd like to think my expectations could be a bit higher considering the source. On a hand-lettered sign at the Middle Eastern deli (where I'm fairly certain the majority of the staff do not speak English as their first language), I can overlook quaint errors like "Gyro's Daily Special." But in an otherwise well-designed, professional-looking document on glossy 11x17 paper? It's just wrong.

The same newsletter lists the "Gifts to the Friends" made between 8/2/04 and 10/8/04. Either the Friends are really a year behind on their bookkeeping or the same editor made a slip-up there as well. The way my faith in the library is momentarily shattered, I suppose either is possible.

Sunday, November 20, 2005

True colors

I cut the tag off my new sweater this morning and decided that the people whose job it is to name the various shades of paint and nail polish and, yes, sweaters sold at Kohl's, have in fact gone too far.

Don't get me wrong. I often appreciate the designers' and marketeers' creative efforts in describing a particular color. I think “I’m not really a waitress” is a clever description for a saucy shade of red, and I’ll admit that, when painting the exterior of my house, I chose “Blustery Day” over “Dusty Blue” mainly because it reminded me of Winnie the Pooh stories.

But I'm really not sure what to make of the hue assigned to my new green sweater. In the spot on the tag where the name is printed, it does not say "Green." It does not even say "Grass" or "Pesto" or "Shamrock" or "Fern." No, instead of any of those, it says "Jen's Pants."

I imagine the conversation in the marketing department that day went something like this...

"Hey, what you do you think we should call this one? I'm totally drawing a blank today."

"I don't know. What are you thinking this time... Plants? We could call that one 'Cactus' and the tan one over there 'Tumbleweed'... Or cities? Have we done cities lately? We could call it 'Dublin'...

"Hmmm. You know, it's kind of the same shade as those capris you're wearing."

"Yeah, I guess you're right."

"That's it. Jen's pants. We're totally going with that."

"Cool. I saw a jacket on the designer's rack that we could definitely name after your shoes."

I have to admit that I did actually laugh when I saw "Jen's Pants" printed on the tag, but I still can't help thinking it was a decision made just due to laziness. Then again, as I'm frequently aware of my own laziness, I'm really in no position to judge. At least they didn't go with influenza.

Tuesday, November 15, 2005


Every now and then, a friend will make some comment that triggers something in me, or I'll hear something come out of my own mouth that I never thought I'd say, and I'll have this sudden, unexpected, "Woah. Yep. Definitely a grown-up now." moment.

Sometimes it's as simple as being out of touch with certain segments of pop culture that I choose not to keep up with. "Who the hell is Chingy"? and "I really can't name a single Alicia Keys song" are two sentences I've uttered that quickly come to mind. On Monday morning, I saw a headline on CNN's home page announcing that a mob of teenage girls had stormed the stage and caused a performance to be canceled at a mall less than ten miles from my house. I clicked through to the article and announced to a nearby co-worker, "I have never heard of this band. I have no idea who they are, but they look about 12."

On other occasions, the "Adulthood is obvious" moment comes when I recognize emerging disparities between my friends' lives and my own. Post-college, we all started on essentially equal ground. We all had crappy generic apartments, drove used cars, made adequate but not exciting incomes, and mocked our parents. As we get older, the gap in certain areas grows wider. We all now have houses (and, in most cases, better cars), but some of us* have become financially secure enough to jet off on a transcontinental vacation with little advance planning or budgeting. When did that happen? I don't generally mock my parents anymore (well, not much, anyway), but I don't hang out with them, either. My more-grown-up-than-me** friends do. Why? These are the things that I don't understand, but that I'm coming to realize are apparently the norm.

Recently a friend of mine told me that she and her husband have been seeing a fertility specialist to try to determine why they've been unable to conceive. I know it's the wrong reaction, but all I could think was, "Wow. And all that money wasted on years of unnecessary birth control." Wasn't it just last week that all my girlfriends were freaking out about what they'd do if they got pregnant? Now they're worried about why they aren't?

It's like suddenly my friends are living in an episode of Thirtysomething, but I'm still on Sex & the City. (Minus the sex. And the Manolo Blahniks. And in a slightly less fabulous city.)

* Not me.
** i.e., married

Sunday, November 13, 2005

One more

Dear Los Lonely Boys,

Shut up already. Shut up shut up shut up with the whiny, entirely overplayed "How far is heaven?" business. Shut up.

Here's a tip. To avoid becoming a one-hit wonder, it's a good idea to release another, entirely different song before every person who may have even remotely liked your first song is thoroughly sick to death of it.* I'm sure that I cannot be the only one with the instantaneous, automatic reflex action of hitting an alternate preset position or jamming down my snooze button the very second I hear those first strummy notes of that damn song. Can it really be just me??

I do realize that my blame in this situation may be misplaced. It's entirely possible that you're just as sick to death of "Heaven" as I am at this point. I remember a They Might Be Giants show once, when poor John Linnell introed what is perhaps their most popular work ("Particle Man") with a diatribe about how if someone cut off his head, the arteries at the top of his severed neck would still be pumping out blood to the beat of that famous tune. Is that how you feel about "Heaven"? Has it come to that for you yet? If so, perhaps you'll remember this the next time you consider selling your soul to Clear Channel.

In the mean time, all I have to say is thank God for MPR and The Current.

* I'm giving you the benefit of the doubt here that there are actually some people who remotely liked this song initially. Personally, it's annoyed me from the start, but hey, that's just me.

Thursday, November 10, 2005

A few completely inconsequential things I'd like to get off my chest today

Dear Grocery Store Managers of Minnesota,

Do me a favor. Decide amongst yourselves where you want to stock the pita bread, and then put it in that same place consistently in each of your stores. Because really, I don’t buy the stuff all that often, but I’m rather sick of criss-crossing around the store to every logical location I can think of whenever I want to find it, wondering if yours is the store that puts it by the bread, or if you're the one who thinks it should be in the refrigerator case by the tortillas, or (logically enough, in my opinion) conveniently alongside the hummus (which is really the main reason for pita bread in the first place, isn’t it?) or if you've hidden it at the far end of the deli, facing the back wall of the store, where no one will ever, ever find it on their own, which could have something to do with why the stock of pita bread in your store is always stiff and near-moldy when a customer looks for it.

A little consistency; that’s all I’m asking for. Could you do that? Please? It would save me a lot of time.

Consider crackers, for example. Does anyone ever have to wonder where the crackers are? No. Because they’re always next to the cookies. On the off chance they’re not, then they’re by the chips and such. Oatmeal? Pop Tarts? Granola bars? Always in the cereal aisle. The same kind of predictability and reliability for the pita bread would be much appreciated. Thanks.


Dear Ethan Hawke,

I wanted to like your first novel. Really I did. You’re just so... pretty. Slightly scruffy, yes--you do like to walk that fine line between ruggedly sexy and "I’d touch him if he took a shower first" skeevy, but still. Damn fine looking, for the most part. And deep. OK, maybe I just want to think that you're deep. And you seem like a decent person. Like in that GQ interview, sometime after your breakup with Uma, when you could have been all proud and assish, but instead you said all sorts of nice things about her, and you were entirely mature about it, saying that you still care about each other and she's such an amazing woman, but sometimes people just can't make things work? Classy, really. And despite a few missteps here and there, your acting work's been generally good. From the very beginning. Well, maybe not the very beginning, as I'm sorry to say I actually don't think I’ve ever really even seen Explorers (or whatever that movie was with you and River and the spaceship in your backyard). But after that... That scene in Dead Poet's Society? When you, the shy, quiet, reserved guy who'd been skulking in the edge of every frame for the entire movie suddenly burst into tears and let loose about how it was really Neil's father who made him blow his own brains out? How it was all his parents' fault for not appreciating the creative, wonderful spirit of Neil? Brilliant. My teenage self fell in love with you just a little bit, right there. O Captain my Captain indeed.

I don't get particularly gushy over a lot of famous people. I never hung a Kirk Cameron poster over my bed and kissed it goodnight at the end of each day. I didn't plaster the insides of my locker with cutouts from Bop! or Tiger Beat, memorizing what each of the Coreys' favorite foods were or what kind of girl Mackenzie Astin liked. No, the closest I came was cutting a small photo of you out of my Sassy magazine and taping it alongside the desk of my dorm room. It was subtle, really. It was my friends, not me, who made a dozen photocopies of that picture and plastered them all over the halls for me to find after class, wishing me Happy Birthday by writing captions above your face all over Towers Hall. "Can I kiss the birthday girl?" and "Guess who’s 19 today?" It was cute, really. You should have seen it.

But I digress. I wanted to like your book. Really I did. Unfortunately, however, the best I can do for my one-word review is an unenthusiastic and noncommittal "Eh."

Don't get me wrong; it didn't totally suck. I've definitely read worse. But the characters, the story, everything about it was just so utterly forgettable. And your protagonist? What was his name... Jesse? No, sorry; that's not it. That was your character in Before Sunrise. Forgive my confusion, but it must be because the unjustified pretension and delusions of interesting-ness were the same in both scenarios. I know you were an angst-ridden, probably intensely emotional 24-year-old yourself when you wrote this, and for that I can forgive some of the self-importance of this work. But really, you're not making me want to pick up Ash Wednesday with this.

You're still sexy, though. Totally. So good job on that.


Dear lady who subbed for the cardio circuit class this week,

You know how when you're at the dentist, and the hygienist is scraping around on your teeth with the pointy metal thing, and despite the fact that she's holding your jaw and sticking the spit sucker in your mouth, she still thinks it's a good time to start asking if you saw Nanny 911 last night, or what your thoughts on the weather are today? You know how, even though you realize it's all just small talk and your answers really aren't important, you're still annoyed because she's asked you a question and you can't answer, and you don’t want to be rude, so you sort of grunt something probably indiscernible and just hope for the best? You know what I'm talking about? Well, you asking us about Oprah or telling us about your kid's karate test when you have the advantage of a microphone but we're being drowned out by the ceiling fans and the thumping bass and the voice of J-Lo or Kelis is kind of the same thing. You really don't need to make small talk while we're doing our lat rows. I’m just saying.


Dear girl in the white Corolla in front of me on the way home tonight,

I used to think pretty much all bumper stickers were just stupid. I never really understood how or why one restaurant or campground was so special and meaningful that you needed to advertise it on your vehicle, and I never thought there was a message important enough that you needed everyone adjacent to you to see it every day. But then we somehow elected a drunken frat boy president, and suddenly there were all sorts of clever taglines surrounding me on the highways, and I started to forget why I had such an issue with bumper stickers in the first place.

But then I saw your car, with the sticker proudly bearing the inexplicably stupid message, "I’m so happy I could shit." And then it all came back to me. So thank you for that; I remember now.

Could you please just tell me what it was about that phrase that you so identified with that you felt compelled, nay, excited to adhere it to your car? Is shitting something you generally like to do whenever you feel happy? Is it sarcasm, and you are, in fact, not happy, and the unhappiness is what makes you want to defecate? 'Cause either way, I don't get it.

I'm just guessing you're also one of those people who uses the word "Hell" in entirely puzzling statements, such as "It's colder than Hell out there!" (to which my response, naturally, is, "Well, I should certainly HOPE so..."). You probably also attach the phrase "...that it's not even funny" behind statements that were never inherently amusing, such as "I'm so tired it's not even funny" or "That's so sad it's not even funny."

I don't understand you, and I really don't understand your bumper sticker. That's all I'm saying.

Tuesday, November 08, 2005

Yet more proof that real life isn't anything like the movies

I don't know what my fascination with pirates is, but for some reason, despite the obvious turmoil for those traumatized by this whole Somalian cruise ship attack thing, I'm thrilled and amused to learn that pirates are still storming the seas, presumably strolling about their decks with a parrot on their shoulder, waving their hook arms and peg legs and singing "Yo ho, yo ho, a pirate's life for me."

So you can imagine my disappointment when I learned that modern pirates do not fire cannons or swing swords or leap from massive wooden ships equipped with planks and high-flying skull-and-crossbone flags. No, modern pirates fire machine guns and toss grenades and make their getaway in a far more practical motorized speedboat.

It makes sense, obviously, as I can't imagine a successful escape from today's Coast Guard if you're gliding along no faster than One-Eyed Willie's ship passed into the sunset at the end of Goonies. Still, these Somalian pirates could have kept up the illusion, just for tradition's sake.

Thursday, November 03, 2005

The importance of reading the fine print

I don't pay particular attention to what I'm handing out as I reach into the bowl for the trick or treaters. I don't make any effort to save the best stuff for myself, because there really is no "best stuff." Never knowing how many trick or treaters I'm going to get and therefore how much candy to buy, I buy only the good stuff, the stuff I like, in order to ensure the quality of the leftovers. No trick or treater is going to get a cheapo packet of Smarties or a handful of gritty and inaptly named Peanut Butter Kisses from me. No way. None of that. Because if I bought the cheap and boring candy, I'd be forced to pawn the leftovers off on my friends and co-workers, and frankly, they don't want that stuff any more than I do. So instead, I buy the good stuff, and I hoard the excess in much the same way the kids I initially distribute it to probably do.

That said, I really wish I would have paid a bit closer attention to the selections I made when I picked out this year's candy. Because if I'd seen that between the word "Hershey's" and the word "Ghost" was the dreaded phrase "white chocolate" (in tiny, tiny print), I most certainly never would have purchased the Hershey's Ghosts/Reese's Pumpkins combo bag that I did. At the very least, I would have been picking out all those purple foil-wrapped blocks and getting them out of my house first, rather than handing out the Take 5s and the Almond Joys and the peanut M&Ms and leaving those ghosts in the bowl.

White chocolate is not real chocolate, and the only reason it even needs to exist is to enhance an occasional latte and to make TCBY's white chocolate mousse. Any other incarnation of this affront to proper candy I truly want nothing to do with.