It's long been known in psychological circles that people who are beside themselves with anger need, more than anything else, advice. So in the spirit of this season of giving, I've decided to reach out to these people -- with an advice column.
I tucked into the fat holiday letter bag in my usual fashion (i.e., picking funniest names first) and found a brief missive from a New Jersey publicist named Noni Bookbinder Bell. Befitting this most religious of seasons, Noni begins her extremely brief missive (titled "You are truly sick" ) by invoking the name of the omniscient creator of heaven and Earth:
God you make me ill.
Noni Bookbinder Bell
Green Party of N.J. Liaison
Nader Campaign 2000
I feel your pain. If anyone knows what it's like to feel ill during the cold and flu season, it's me. At the Matt Smith household, shorter days mean larger portions of leafy, green vegetables, lots of warm liquids, and plenty of sleep. I also make sure to take extra care dusting around the bedrooms and living room. Remember, our bodies are constantly making war against an army of germs, and the more we trim their ranks, the likelier victory becomes.
Our next and second-most-funnily-named correspondent calls himself Aaron M. Kromash, and he says that he served as county coordinator of the Green Party of Burlington County, N.J. To be sure, Mr. Kromash's name isn't extremely funny, but it makes the cut by being mildly funny, in a gently-amusing-anecdote-without-an-identifiable-punch-line kind of way.
Mr. Kromash titles his letter "Warning!" and advises me that he or someone else may sue me for writing columns he objects to:
Retract your unwise and genuinely muleheaded cant. Your despicable (and profane) article is truly the portrait of an ugly and hateful frame of mind. If you choose not to seek help yourself, you would do well at least to exercise a modicum of professional self-preservation and simply keep quiet.
Aaron M. Kromash
Dear Mr. Kromash,
Yuletide is, indeed, a time of contradictions. The season commemorates the birth of Jesus of Nazareth, who said in Matthew 6:24, "You cannot serve God and wealth."(2) Yet Christmas is the year's peak shopping season. Similarly, the adult Christ is always depicted in iconic art as extremely slender. Yet Christmas is a gluttonous time.
Your letter likewise poses yuletide quandaries, Mr. Kromash. You offer "Regards," yet provide no real warmth. You suggest I either "seek help," or "simply keep quiet." Yet if I "sought help," my therapist would surely tell me not to "simply keep quiet." That's just the way therapists are.
Despair not. Sometimes it's perfectly fine to have doubts about our needs. These dissonant moments offer an opportunity to seek better understanding of exactly what we want -- whether from others, or from ourselves. This yuletide, why not take time for quiet introspection? It could prove your greatest holiday blessing ever!
Our next letter arrives from San Francisco's Antonio Roman Alcala, who says he's young, and, indeed, I have some thoughts about Alcala's understanding of basic sex education.
Smith's articles bring me genuine frustration. I find myself wondering, after reading another of his free-market-praising, knee-jerk anti-left-wing columns: Who is this man? Is he the love child of Milton Friedman and Satan?
Antonio Roman Alcala
I'm really anxious to learn where you got your ideas about love children, Antonio, because those ideas are wrong. Children are what happen when a man is feeling very in love with his wife, a woman is feeling very in love with her husband, and, well, you see, they're both feeling veeeery in love, and, um, so, they go ahead and, well, what they do is make a child. Satan and Mr. Friedman are not married, they do not love each other, and they can't make a child. Is this clear?
Our next missive arrives from a Mr. Jim Musselman, who I'm guessing is a pretty strong hombre, judging from his strong words.
So you'd favor a little pogrom on Nader voters? They did something like that in Germany on 11/9/1938. It wasn't against Naderites; I don't know the exact spelling, but it's remembered as "Kristalknacht."(3) Know what I'm talking about, Matt? Do you have a shaved head and wear a swastika armband?
Dear Mr. Musselman,
Thank you very much for asking.
No. Yes. No.
At first glance, our next correspondent, Pat Lares of San Mateo, seems to suffer an easily diagnosable, and thus easily advised-upon, condition.
Maybe Smith should also blame himself for not getting his man elected. Smith had SF Weekly at his disposal. Not many people have a paper in which to spread their viewpoints.
Dear Mr. Lares,
I was thinking I could diagnose you as having narcissistic personality disorder characterized by episodic delusions of grandeur. But then I realized that if you are suffering delusions, they involve my grandeur. So I turned to Mark Dombeck, an Ohio-based psychologist with a mildly funny name who has assembled an online glossary of emotional disorders, including projection, which describes "an unacceptable feeling or thought ... experienced as though someone else had been thinking or feeling it."(4) It's entirely natural for people to project their feelings onto anonymous newsweekly columnists. But before we can get to the root of those feelings, I'll need some clinical information:
Do you believe chance events such as thunderstorms carry important messages? Do you feel others are plotting against you? Do you think I have a shaved head? Do you imagine lovemaking between prominent economists and the Angel of Darkness? Do you threaten to sue people for expressing opinions you disagree with? Do you often lace these notions with invective, and then send them off to alternative newsweeklies?
And perhaps most important: Do you really think I can personally will people to national office?
Once I have your answers to my questions, I'm certain I can help.
(1) The column in question ("What's Green and Black and Blue All Over," Nov. 15) facetiously suggested that I supported spousal abuse of the type being visited upon Nader voters by Democrats. The facetious nature of this suggestion was highlighted by recommendations that said abuse be meted out in the form of tomato aspic served to Green Party members at Thanksgiving. Clearly, in writing facetiously, I fell afoul of the San Francisco Irony-Free Zone Act (IFZA).
The quantity and vitriol of the response to the column -- representing about a year's worth of letters on other topics -- is significant for a reason that reaches far beyond IFZA violations: It vividly illustrates how a single incendiary cheap shot, dashed out in haste, can, and usually does, provoke more reader response than significant, research-based journalism.
I'm reminded of our May 1998 story "Building a Better Bomb," David Pasztor's three-month, novella-length investigative project, which examined the U.S. government's policy of paying lip service to disarmament, while actually advancing nuclear weapons research via computer models not available to other signatories of nuclear proliferation treaties. The story was honored by Northwestern University's Medill School of Journalism as one of America's three best pieces of public-interest magazine journalism that year. It exposed appalling behavior by the U.S. government, carried out right in the Bay Area. By all measures, it was a significant story -- and it generated a total of two letters to the editor, both from anti-nuclear activists.
If one works in this business long enough, one comes to accept that a single story promulgating the view that, say, blues music sucks, the 49ers are a bunch of whiny losers, or Ralph Nader bears blame for the Democrats' Florida troubles, will always -- always -- generate more reader response than reportage-based pieces about financial globalization, the death penalty, electricity restructuring, state water policy, forensic genetics, or real estate development.
Not that this is a bad thing. It makes life vastly easier for folks like me. In fact, I was thinking about writing next week's column as an attack on abortion rights, and following that with, what the heck, a defense of the right of toxic-waste generators to pour effluent into playgrounds. During this holiday season of giving, SF Weekly Enterprises' readers shall receive no less.
(2) The National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America New Revised Standard Version Bible (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Zondervan Corp., 1990), Page 1097.