Thursday, February 22, 2007

On Email

I promised I'd write. I think everyone in the yearbook signing frenzy does. And it wasn't just in true good friends’ books that I pledged to communicate faithfully, but it also happened to those strange connections like "shared a good laugh backstage during a musical," or "sat next to in AP Bio," and most often "had a crush but really didn't do much about it" people’s yearbooks that my ink touched. Graduations (and their lesser photocopied cousins, Reunions) are the wakes of adolescence complete with eulogies for the victims, a few tunes of nostalgia for the audience, and snacks afterwards for everyone. Though it is a time to say goodbye, most are unwilling in the way that we chant encore at the end of a concert in the hope that just maybe there could be one more song, one last chord. And so we promise we will write.

The letting go of this notion happens weeks or months later when perhaps new friends push out old memories or the hobgoblins of everyday life catch up with us. We get too busy to send a simple note. I didn’t write much for years after high school. This wasn’t entirely unexpected. I have at best an improvisational sense of grammar and am medically certified at skipping words. To write was to be afraid of exposing these inadequacies. As a math and computer science major most of my words were variable names.

At the fifth reunion I promised I write though I was unaware of how hard grad school was going to be. The conversations at fifth reunions are about how you can’t believe you are drinking with the faculty on the Mesa (the ones for the tenth are about marriage, and the fifteenth are about kids). Writing was a drunken promise, and these are seldom kept.

It was in the after moments of the tenth reunion when a small group of us were at a diner in Carpentaria, and as we lingered over pancakes and that the concept that one of our classmates came back with a sex change I promised once again that I would write. Technology had changed to the point that most of us were excited by having email accounts (it was early enough that we didn’t know that we would spend a good portion of our careers going through our in-boxes). Instead of hand stamping envelopes we could to string a few names together separated by semicolons and click send. The effort level to correspond had been lowered; it was possible to be a lazy writer.

And the writing became lazier too. Full sentences became optional as did capitalization and spelling. Exclamation points grew like weeds. In this grammatical haze, I felt that my own insufficiencies weren’t that much different than everyone else’s, and I did something quite unprecedented.

I wrote.

The first few emails about an improv class were clumsy and my most recent about my water heater still missed words, but over the last ten years I have sent every few months to a handful of friends and other assorted random people from Cate pieces about life. I believe that everyone should have an adventure every couple of months. Each of us has a good story about what happened last week. Looking back at mine there were probably a little too many about exercise and not enough pieces about how exactly I did something about the crushes, but a past can’t be edited. It can be forgotten though.

Writing is our civilization’s memory. It is our notes to our future selves. It fills the need to share what we feel is important.


Be mindful of the gatekeepers to the written world. I don’t want to minimize the importance of grammar. Our current president has shown the danger that comes from opaque syntax (I wonder if he accidentally spellchecked Iraq into Iran). Clarity matters. Bad grammar deflects the reader from the piece’s trail of logic and minimizes the acceptance of an argument.

But I also believe that sometimes you need to chuck whatever poorly constructed ideas you have out into the world. Writing is about hitting the send key and then dealing with the consequences. (Blogging is about hitting the save key and hoping someone browses). Sometimes these half formed thoughts collide with someone else half formed ideas, and they fuse together briefly before decaying like uranium in a reactor or the Police getting back together for a reunion tour. Sometimes people are actually helpful with giving you grammar suggestions, though sometimes you get comments back that you should use fewer metaphors in business communications.


It might be only ever so often. It might be only about a field near your house (this worked well for Robert Frost). It might offend (and if counter argument seems reasonable then write it again). It might be ignored. But write and hit send anyway.

Society has always had a class of professional writers. They used be called scribes, then later monks, and finally communication specialists. Steal their techniques but graft on your own thoughts. There will always be the need for the professionals because they are so much more fun to read, but in the last decade the internet has created a world where amateurs can contribute. Take advantage of this but play nicely.


I promise I will.

Tuesday, February 06, 2007

From the Department of the Interior

I have trust issues with my water heater. We had many good years together sharing my apartment in the Fillmore district of San Francisco. Its grumblings and hissing were the purring of a pet I never had. Its warmth comforted me on foggy summer mornings.

But all relationships have their struggles. I came home one day and discovered that it had burped a small lake in my kitchen. Perhaps it wanted more independence, that it felt tied down as just being an appliance, or that it wasn’t getting enough attention for taking care of the homestead. The plumbers said it was an issue with the vents. I knew something brewed deeper.

I caught it again a week later in an angry hissy fit. The plumbers came back and replaced the pressure gauge and assured me that everything would be fine. But after you are twice soaked how do you back to the happier times? How do you not hear a grumble and wonder if there is a tantrum coming soon? As Al Green would ask: How do you mend a broken valve?

I don’t believe that we are the sum of our possessions, but I do believe that we carry their weight. Whatever interior decorating style I have can be described as "bachelor cluttered." For me a remodel is installing the new version of Microsoft Vista (the Paris Hilton of operating systems – attractive through serious cosmetics, but fundamentally neurotic underneath). My living room is a snake pit of cords, unread magazines, and clothes; all of which do not mix well with water.

A television dominates the far wall, and last week I stumbled into a new program called "Top Design" that is about interior decorators battling for a $100,000. Though I have a certain love for the Bravo shows where talented people compete (Project Runway, Top Chef), interior decorating isn’t exactly something I know quite much about. I started watching the program and saw several of the usual personality types – a couple of bitchy artists, a few theorists who lacked the hands-on-skills, a few blowhards, and some general exceedingly creative people who let their work speak for itself. What I didn’t expect was seeing was someone I knew.

Andrea Keller, one of the contestants, had the same "Ally Sheedy in Breakfast Club" bangs that she had in high school. With her eyes half covered she is just as mysterious now as she was then. As opposed to my very much on the surface ramblings, you always got the sense with her that there were deep wheels turning. Her website bio ( ) says that she now speaks twice the number of languages than she has sons, and I do believe that if she were a verb tense she would be the subjunctive with its way of dealing of possible worlds and tricky conjugation.

She needs this sense of possibilities to deal with the program's challenges. For the first contest they gave the designers five objects from a mystery client, and in teams of two they had to turn a blank three-walled space into a sanctuary.

As I cheered deeply for Andrea, I learned how to root for home designers. The first tip was that they were given a $50,000 dollar budget that I really think would have helped with my living room cord problem. Her electronics were putting lights underneath a bed, which I think would make me find a few socks that have been missing for years.

As to picking colors, the secret is to use schemes that no football team would ever use. Andrea had this shade of green that looked like healthy kelp. She used red shelves and a chair to bring contrast and guide your eyes in a circle around the room. It balanced the bed on the left, and the white edges she painted along the edges of the room framed the whole thing like the picture in the television she was given as an inspiration.

The judges thought of it more as a field goal than a touchdown, but it was good enough for her to move on to the next round. I breathed a sigh of relief and was quite content to have something to root for now that football season is over.

I don’t know what the next challenges will bring – are they going to do a dorm room or a taco stand, a dot com space or a post office? Will the new clients be supportive or demanding? But I do know I will be watching on Wednesday nights on Bravo just to see the bravery of someone from high school making it in the world creatively. And if they happen to have a show that helps in dealing with temperamental plumbing I will be cheering hard for a dry tranquility.