I Might Have the World's Most Invasive Hobby
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My letter-writing hobby might be more for me than for the people to whom I send my missives, but hopefully there’s at least a little of the satisfaction I get in sending them attached, aura-like, to the process.
I was freshly 30 years old when I started college. Like many people, I realized that if I wanted to improve my employment prospects I needed a college degree. Naturally, I decided to take a degree in philosophy because it was a growth industry.
It’s weird the things we worry about when we’re starting a new endeavor. Normal people, who might have taken a course load that was actually tied to a promising industry, might have worried about how they would manage with classmates more than a decade their juniors or whether they still had the kind of energy it took to go to college and work full time.
I mostly worried about taking notes.
Not only hadn’t I written class notes in 12 or so years, I had never taken a class note in my life. Throughout my first 12 years of education, I found paying attention the first time a lot more effective. Also, if we’re honest, they teach the same two dozen facts in 12 different ways when you’re in school: Concord, Battle of Hastings, variations on adding and subtracting, prepositions, etc. I wrote notes when the teachers graded notebooks and then only if I needed the points.
College, I supposed, would be different, more rigorous. Plus, it was the turn of the century and I couldn’t remember the last time I had written more than a short paragraph longhand. The solution seemed obvious: I needed to practice my penmanship and the only way to do that was to take up letter-writing.
Sometimes the depth of my selfishness surprises even me, though I didn’t think of it like that at the time. Instead, I thought, “Hey! People like getting letters and I need to practice my handwriting.”
Sure people like to get letters, but a less self-centered person might have wondered whether they wanted letters that were essentially penmanship homework. I don’t have the time, and you don’t have the interest for me to explain what a terrible idea this was. My penmanship hasn’t improved since I was in the third grade.
I write too fast and my letters are more like tonal marks than anything else. I still write in cursive and, when I was a reporter, sometimes people would ask me if I was taking shorthand. That’s what my cursive looks like, expertly taken shorthand.
I kept the letter writing up for a few years and then it faded away, mostly because of my realization that people weren’t dying to randomly get indecipherable missives on the nature of being or the Bush Administration’s ill-considered foreign policy.
Still, whether anyone missed getting them aside, I missed writing letters. I took it up again in the pre-apocalyptic summer of 2019, following a wonderful family vacation. My mother rented a big house for my five brothers and me as well as our spouses, children, and grandchildren. There are, like, nearly 30 of us all told.
My idea was that I would write my children, nieces and nephews birthday letters as a way of keeping in touch throughout the year. Once Covid took vacation, Thanksgiving, and Christmas off the table I added my brothers and then their spouses. My thinking was that it is a little less obnoxious to send someone a letter on their birthday as opposed to sending them at random. Plus, I could relate family lore unchallenged and uninterrupted (my two favorite ways to communicate).
I send the kids money. It’s kind of like paying a reading fee, which is funny because I don’t pay them in my professional life. The grownups don’t get anything except freedom from having to respond, which is only a marginally better gift than not getting a long chicken-scratch missive at all.
What I’ve discovered over the last three years is that every household has the equivalent of a town reader, someone who can decipher my hand and read it to the intended recipient. In addition to my tendency to scrawl, it turns out people don’t read a lot of cursive. Or any, really. And why would they?
From early on, I got a wax seal and good paper, so at least there’s something a little special about it. No one is going to confuse it with a bill. Plus, I’m sure it impresses the mail carrier who must think they get invited to a lot of fancy parties at lunatic asylums.
Increasingly, though, I’m struggling with this idea that I force people to participate in my hobby. Not force, really, but kinda bully. Letter writing is among the most invasive hobbies, second only to religious door-knocking. To be clear, this isn’t a pen pal situation where people agree to correspond. This is me sending what amounts to a keyless cipher for people to deal with in whichever ways they see fit.
I don’t have an excuse. The best thing I can come up with is that it is at worst a harmless intrusion, like calling around dinnertime to make sure you reach your party. At best, it is a way for me to say, “Hi! I’m thinking about you and I care,” in 500 words or more.
Anyway, I’m expanding into postcards. Reply with your address if you want one. I’ve got a whole stack here I want to write absurd things on and send along.
Also, let me know where you stand on the letter-writing thing. Do you send many letters (Xmas cards excluded)? I know there was a letter-writing boom during the first year of the pandemic, I wonder who participated and who kept it up. You can reply to this email or just comment below.
Keep the Faith,
There’s this weird bridge between “normal” religion and the cadre of professional liars, kooks, and cranks I tend to interest myself in. I’ve written here and elsewhere that as a person outside of faith, all religious belief looks the same to me.
Claiming that someone isn’t a “real” Christian, for example, is something pretty much every Christian says, whether they’re a fringe kook or a well-respected pastor.
I’m less interested in what people believe their god wants them to do and more interested in whether that god wants them to be vicious while doing it.
In this most recent story, I wondered what this whole pandemic response will look like in 3,000 years or so.
I have to admit that I am willing to be wrong about the real threat conspiracy thinking poses to us as a culture as well as a species. Nothing would make me happier in another five years or so than to take a little ribbing about my monomania when it came to QAnon thinkers.
I don’t know how likely that is. Some people are moving to stop vaccination altogether on religious grounds. Half of the states in the U.S. already allow people not to vaccinate on religious grounds, and a third of the states expand “religious” to philosophical. This is a problem that gets worse, not one that gets better. My concern is that cranks like me don’t make much of a dent.
Religious people are going to have to give up the right to ignore laws they don’t like, and I don’t see them doing that anytime soon. In the meanwhile, new beliefs are getting added all the time.
Speaking of scammers, I’m working on another book review about the history of the American con artist. While I’m not shocked about how gullible people are, I’m always sickened by how easily they’re preyed upon, and how vehemently they fight for their god-given right to be conned out of their life savings if they want.
If you haven’t picked up a copy of Dragged Into the Light: Truthers, Reptilians, Super Soldiers and Death Inside an Online Cult, you can get it here. If you have read it and liked it, please review it.