Dear Jon Stewart,
Mock all you want, but Senator Claire McCaskill is right.
While, as the Jewish mother of a 13-year-old girl, I applaud McCaskill’s public calling out of her daughters, I defend her today as an advocate for good English and the preservation of delight. Yes, both at the same time.
You can chuckle at that, like you chuckled at McCaskill’s idea of a marketing campaign. But sometimes the positive result of money spent is not merely money gained.
When I stopped teaching college English in 2007 to write a book (published by Simon & Schuster in 2009—shameless plug), students were already losing their memories to Google and their spelling and punctuation skills to texting and emailing. I considered it my job, especially as an instructor of “ideas in writing,” my course title, to teach students how to get noticed by writing fucking brilliant letters—letters of introduction, of complaint, of thanks, and, most important, of compliment.
People—strangers, even—tell you they love you every day. (By the way, Jon, I love you.) But imagine how wonderful it is for a customer service representative to open a letter—even an email—that says, “You are doing a great job! I love my [Page Nibs from Levenger]! And they were delivered the next day! I don’t know how I lived without these little metal miracles. And you. Thank you.”
The rep who received a letter similar to that one sent me a reply, saying that the CSRs passed it around the office as a reminder that they do things right sometimes, because all they ever hear are complaints. It made them happy! The owner of the company sent me a copy of his book, signed, as thanks for my thanks!
With well-written letters, I’ve gotten free Ray Bans and coupons for favorite foods. I’ve gotten replies from rock stars. Imagine being a fifteen-year-old girl (yeah, go ahead and imagine that!) and exchanging letters with Cheap Trick’s Rick Nielsen! Or getting a letter in the mail from Patti Smith’s bassist, Ivan Kral, or from actress Melissa Leo, or from Jane Siberry—or anyone you admire.
Perhaps even better: imagine getting a card for every holiday, occasion, or mental breakdown you celebrate. (My friend Derek does that.) My friend Lysandra sends me chocolates from Hawaii when I’m feeling down, and Monica sends thoughtful goodies to say she’s thinking of me. When I had back surgery, I received cards, letters, and packages from all over the world. I might have died without those letters. They meant more to me than blog replies and emails because people had to make extra effort to get in touch.
Last year, my husband went camping by himself and wrote me and our daughter several letters from Utah. Those letters were bouquets of words, jewels. We anticipated them and went to the mailbox, hopefully1, every day. I wrote about it on my blog, and it inspired others to send letters.
A marketing campaign to encourage people to write more letters is like a marketing campaign to keep people from smoking. It’s a public service. Letters—writing them, receiving them—make you healthy. They improve your vocabulary, your attention to detail, your memory, and your appreciation. They slow you down. They teach you how important your words can be and how to choose them wisely. And, unlike an essay you write in high school or college, the outcome is personal. (And you can get free stuff.)
Even if you send the letter as an email, without buying a stamp from the post office, the very act of writing a letter, as opposed to emailing someone, has improved our current state of grammatical affairs.
Letters of thanks and appreciation, annual New Years catch-up letters sent to the whole slue of family and friends, love letters—those are worth the wait. It’s too easy when you’re angry to pop off a nasty email; Send is commanding and irreversible. But an angry letter? By the time you print it, reread it, address an envelope, and stamp it, you’ve cooled down. That letter on the counter, waiting to be mailed, could be insignificant by morning. In the end, you get to keep your friend.
That’s just a little of what a marketing campaign could do. It can teach us that letters are more than IDK, OMG, and WTF. It can help us regain our thoughtfulness and our intelligence and our beauty. Forget about saving the job of the nasty pink-haired biddy at your neighborhood post office. The mail is not about her. It is in spite of her.
One week after September 11, the anthrax attacks began. People took potholders and oven mitts with them to retrieve the mail. Companies stopped accepting letters, and employees in mail rooms and post offices had to wear protective gear before opening letters. Our refusal to send or receive mail is partially responsible for the post office’s collapse; it’s another way the terrorists win—and the government continues to erode our freedoms.
Our mailboxes should be shrines—full of thanks and love letters and beautiful magazines and the occasional flyer from the local Chinese joint, all misspelled for laughs. I’d say that bills, jury duty notices, work, and things that require immediate attention should come by email, but what about those who don’t have computers or email access? These things are still a luxury for so many Americans. But mail comes to everyone.
So, while this letter, which took nearly an hour to compose on a Sunday morning (even longer to proofread and edit), will appear on my blog (with pictures and links), it will also get a 44-cent stamp and come to you in the mail.
It will also say: Thank you, Jon Stewart, for your common sense and decency and wicked humor and honesty.
With admiration and affection,
1 Note the correct use of hopefully.