If one thing can be said about human nature that's almost universal in Western society (and recently in Eastern society due to the influential tentacles of modern high-speed telecommunications), it is that we're curious. So curious that many of us are downright nosy and snoopy, especially when it comes to other people's business.
However, nowhere in the world can one vicariously enjoy the private and public exposes of perfectly average citizenry than here in the U. S. of A. If I didn't know better about such things, I'd almost say that it's a national pastime to be on one side of the peephole or the other, depending on your outlook.
And nowhere is it more evident than in the ubiquitous "Letters to the Editor" section of any publication, large or small. I can write with some authority on this subject, having both written and read many letters to whomever.
My personal habit forces me to turn first to the letters page of every publication I get. That's because I'm snoopy and curious. I'm also checking to see if MY letter got printed. Only after the "letters" section do I get down to serious reading, as the second place I turn to is the "personals" section of the classified advertising. That's because I'm also a voyeur and I want to find out who wants what from whom. This is fertile ground for potential writers of letters to editors, believe me.
For instance, my first introduction to this art was when I noticed an ad in The Stanford Daily, almost 25 years ago, that stated simply: "For Sale: Used English Girl's Bike." Harmless on the face of it, don't you think? Oh, no, not at conservative old Stanford. Uh-uh. The next day saw the lead letter to the editor question the wisdom of the Daily for accepting an ad that seemed to be from some poor English waif who was selling her last means of transportation around the campus. He went on to proclaim how important it was for universities, especially one so cosmopolitan as Stanford, to do the best job in taking care of foreign students, and especially in preventing them from being used. He further stated that he, for one, would be willing to help any girl, English or otherwise, used or not, if the need required it.
The very next day (predictable, no?) we were treated to an ad in the "personals" that sought help. It stated, "Dear (writer of the letter), have sold last means of transportation. Willing to take you up on offer.
I also have done my fair share of letter writing. Oh, not about critical earth-shaking events, mind you. When I write to the local newspaper it's usually protestations against the litter delivered to my fence every election. I also write about inconsiderate people who let their dogs do their business on my front yard (so what else is new?). I have enough to do cleaning up after my own dog. I also have written in defense of other letter writers who share my view that the letters page is a national treasure, no matter what your personal opinions are. I occasionally snipe at city fathers who spend too much time debating whether or not to ban overnight parking on residential streets rather than worry about rising costs of running the city.
Additionally I write a couple dozen letters a year to various nationally circulated magazines and special interest publications. These are usually to voice my choice of favorite contributors, or to point out incorrect facts (also called mistakes in reporting) in articles about which I feel that I have some special knowledge.
Now, you ask, how often do these snippets of average Americana get published? I shall now let you in on a big secret of mine: there must be a national conspiracy against printing any of my letters. For example, I wrote a 500 word letter to a popular science fiction magazine to the effect that I felt that science fiction and fantasy writing were two distinct genres, and fantasy had no place in the world of science fiction. I personally hate to wade through titles like Lord Dork's Mystical Magical Paperclip: Another Adventure in the 'Alternate Earth of Crapover' Series while looking for good sci-fi. It never saw the light of day, even in a recent issue that addressed that very subject.
However, the most outrageous example of selective letter printing manifested itself in the last year when I sought in vain to correct a blatant technical error of no small magnitude in a personal computer magazine's "Questions and Answers" column. Last November, Personal Computing ran a reasonable question from a person who wanted to know the frequencies used between modems. He also wanted to know if the use of different frequencies would make a difference in the transmission of data.
Now, I realize that most people don't know what a modem is. Let me enlighten you. Modems are electronic gadgets that plug into computers. They also plug into circuits. They allow two computer operators to send computer data over the telephone lines from one to another. Examples of the use of modems include home-banking services and airline reservation bookings from different travel agencies.
The person who answered the letter was identified as a product manager at a large manufacturer of personal computer modems. His answer would automatically carry the weight of his company, no matter what. As it happened, he totally dropped the ball and never even addressed the question. The whole issue was sidestepped. I wrote to the columnist and to the editor. I addressed the question and answered it without a bunch of fake hype and bogus ballyhoo. I also illustrated my correction with photocopied pages from several technical books on the subject.
Now, in spite of the above horror tales, I have had a good many letters printed. I'd like to relate one last anecdote regarding this topic. Late last year I dashed off a 150-word note to the editor of the Mensa Bulletin. It turns out that this magazine is so spread out that there is a separate "Letters to the Editor" editor! So I sent it to her address.
My letter was finally published in the April issue. My letter, which defended the rights of members to low-cost personal ads in the classified section (and particularly the rights of one individual), was actually printed. Now what, you say? Well, there are definite repercussions to having your full name and address printed under your letter. My street was somehow misspelled, so I have the advantage of tracking advertising lists made up of writers of letters.
Thus far I have received a nice "thank you" from the person I defended, a copy of a letter sent to the publications officer of Mensa charging "mismanagement of Classified Advertising" in the Bulletin, and a note from someone who works in a US Embassy abroad. She thanked me for writing, and related her own analysis of the "personals." I also received some literature from a conservation group and an envelope that fairly begged to be opened by proclaiming that the contents were "explicitly sexual" and might be offensive. Naturally I opened it. I told you at the beginning that I'm very curious. What did the envelope contain? Well, maybe I'll write another Letter to the Editor about it.
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