Double down on doubling down

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It’s everywhere. Our language is polluted.

On this week’s The Daily Show and The Colbert Report I heard more mentions of the term “double down“. Not only did Jon Stewart refer to the KFC pseudo-sandwich, The Double Down, he included a clip from another news program in which someone’s political idea was “doubled down” on.

And then on The Colbert Report, his guest, documentary filmmaker Ken Burns, on the show to discuss his new doc, The Address (about Abraham Lincoln‘s famous Gettysburg Address), said Lincoln was “doubling down on the Declaration of Independence“. Learn the Address! (The next night, in discussing green energy, Colbert also used the term “double down”! I swear, it’s everywhere, and I wish it would stop.)

Colbert also discussed the new USPS Harvey Milk postage stamp, exclaiming, “A gay man on a stamp!” I love mainstream coverage of stamps! “Make no mistake folks – if it’s mail, I’m licking something.

USPS Harvey Milk postage stamp

USPS Harvey Milk postage stamp

The winding trajectory of letter writing

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Please Read the Letter”  Robert Plant and Alison Krauss

Having written almost prolifically about postage and the controversies of postage stamp motifs, it occurs to me to write about the corollary of postage stamps – letters. We need letters to mail if we are going to get excited about postage stamps. Sure, a lot of people do not mail anything any more – and in fact, many young people apparently don’t even know how to mail things — but if you are going to “go postal” (in the literal sense, not in the violent figurative sense), you might as well do it in a visually appealing way, with fine, varied stamps (after all, someone has gone to the trouble of designing and producing them!). And while you’re at it, you can revive a nearly lost art – letter writing. Don’t use stamps to mail bills (yeah, yeah, I know most of us are paying bills the virtual way these days): fill mailboxes with lovely cards, postcards and handwritten letters. “The letter is dead; long live the letter.

“…newly shaken with the power of so seemingly simple a thing as a letter — a medium that’s always held enormous allure for me, a humble page that blossoms into a grand stage onto which great romances are played out, great wisdom dispensed, and great genius manifested. But what exactly is it about a letter that reaches such depths, and what ineffable, immutable piece of humanity are we losing as the golden age of writing letters sets into the digital horizon?

That’s precisely what Simon Garfield, who has previously explored how our modern obsession with maps was born, seeks to illuminate in To the Letter: A Celebration of the Lost Art of Letter Writing — a quest to understand what we have lost by replacing letter-writing with email-typing and relinquishing “the post, the envelope, a pen, a slower cerebral whirring, the use of the whole of our hands and not just the tips of our fingers,” considering “the value we place on literacy, good thinking and thinking ahead.” (from “The letter is dead, long live the letter.“)

The beauty of the art of letter writing – the anticipation and the intimacy – is captured both in the article I cite and the book the article writes about. But it’s not something one really understands fully unless s/he has been immersed in this “otherworld” of letter writing. It’s still appealing in some way, but the magic it used to hold over me has faded. I don’t know whether this is because of the ease and immediacy of digital communication (against which I fought tooth and nail for such a long time, which one would never guess now) or because of age (that is, life and priorities shift to such a degree that sitting down to devote time to letter writing – which used to be a large chunk of many an artist or writer’s day – seems wasteful).

I don’t know if it is a byproduct of becoming more “worldly” myself – as letter writing was one of the major ways in which I felt I could reach out into a wider world and experience new languages, new cultures, new countries. I could get a glimpse of Communist-era Eastern European countries, just on the cusp of a democratic shift. I could admire the philatelic sensibilities of the French. I could note the similar curves and twists familiar to a country’s handwriting – as though everyone in that one country had been taught to write and form letters and numbers on a page in exactly the same way (a letter could arrive, and even without seeing the stamp, I could usually identify whether it came from Germany or Italy or Japan – how similar the graphology).

There is still something very intoxicating about the idea of having to really want to communicate with someone else so badly that you will make the effort of putting pen to paper and go through the motions of packaging and posting a letter to some other place in the world. It is not really a massive effort – but it is becoming a less and less likely occurrence all the time. When I mail my quarterly CD mixes and sometimes even handmade cards, many people (non-pen pal people) who make it onto the mailing list often express such shock that they received a real, genuine piece of mail. “I haven’t received a personal letter since the 1980s!” they exclaim.

And frankly, I don’t think most people have much experience receiving personal letters. Maybe people’s grandparents are still clinging to the postal service, along with outliers like myself. Everyone seems to enjoy receiving, but like a lot of things in life, people are too lazy or disinclined to reciprocate.

But there are those among us who keep this hobby – passion, even – alive. I can’t say I have been particularly good at it in recent years, having said goodbye to a number of my longtime pen pals because my global bounding and bouncing around has not been conducive to keeping regular contact. There are a few people I will never say goodbye to – and it is funny to imagine ever saying goodbye to anyone, given how protective and “into it” I was in the old days. In the heyday of my pen pal life, I had more penfriends than I could count, all over the world, and counted them among my best friends (despite a few horror stories – which is entirely another story). They were my window to the world, and the daily visit from the postman (whose name was “Maynard” haha) was a lifeline for me throughout my adolescent and teen years. It seems so strange to me that I was checking the mail every ten minutes back then, wondering why the mailman was late, whether my letters were lost, etc. – when now I could go days without checking. And to imagine that the biggest problem in my whole life back then was managing to get enough stamps. I never had enough stamps or money for stamps. And any stamps I was given were gone as soon as I had them in hand. Now I have piles of stamps (that I, perhaps ironically, order online and have shipped directly to me!).

There were “pen pal migrations” over the years. I found that when high school and/or college ended, a lot of pen pals disappeared because they “got on with their lives”, so to speak. Careers, marriage, children, just not being interested in writing or maybe just not wanting to write to me. Fine and dandy. And then there was a mass migration to online communication – many people, citing convenience and expense (envelopes and stamps, once again), shifted entirely to email, and for me, that pretty much ended a lot of friendships because there is nothing about instant email that rivals that sense of excitement one feels when receiving an envelope from somewhere across the world, savoring the reading of every word, setting aside some huge chunk of time to write back and sending off a response, not knowing when you’d get a reply.

It is, it’s worth saying, also intoxicating to think that you might have to wait to get an answer. You might ask a really burning question – and at best, you could expect an answer in two weeks. And at worst – well, who knows? Months? We’ve sort of lost the charm of anticipation – we expect to have everything immediately and instantly, and that instant gratification culture has perhaps spoiled us and made us far less patient, treating others as disposable and thinking of ourselves as much more entitled than we actually are. Letters manage somehow to humanize and slow things down.

The whole thing about letters and parcels – it is just a wholly different feeling, a wholly different world. I will never completely stop with my postal entanglements; it will just continue on this meandering, winding road.

For the Philatelically Inclined: Homoerotic Finnish Postage Stamps

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Just hours before I saw that Finland had introduced these unusual and rather groundbreaking postage stamps featuring homoerotic images, I had a playful debate with someone about “the best stamps ever”.

Homoerotic philately in Finland

Homoerotic philately in Finland

Now, sure, I write and talk about stamps a lot – but I am no philatelist. I have never collected or thought about the value of stamps (other than when the price goes up and my postal costs – as a lifelong pen pal type – go up). I have always sought to get the most interesting or visually stimulating stamps because I assume that is the kind of stamps my pen pals (and anyone receiving mail from me) would want to see. Not patriotic row on row of American flags! No. Give me the Johnny Cash or the March on Washington! Or Harvey Milk or… Jimi Hendrix! Give me the Imagine Peace Tower or Eyjafjallajökull! Give me the cutest depictions of animals ever on Swedish Christmas stamps – or even Swedish luminaries (albeit from totally opposite ends of the cultural spectrum – Nobel laureate Tomas Tranströmer and footballer Zlatan Ibrahimovic!). Give me heart-shaped French designer Valentine stamps! Just not something boring. So the playful argument ended up with a UK resident telling me he was going to outstamp my stamp prowess (I argued that my Swedish wildlife Christmas motif was the best ever, hands down). He claimed he could outdo it.

But before that could happen, I saw the breaking news – Finland had unleashed these stamps by influential artist Tom of Finland. Well, announced them, anyway. The real release, according to the Finnish post website, is in September.

Not that Finland has bored us too much with stamp design before (quite unlike Scandinavian nation, Norway – almost the world’s most boring stamps in my humble opinion. Bore-wegian stamps!) – they’ve given us Angry Birds, police cars, a whole lot of postal representations of Finnish design (and when it comes to design, is there any better?), an homage to their world-leading education system, Tove Jansson, teddy bears for Valentine’s Day (Teddy feels honored of course), Moomin, ice hockey, loads of nature – and that is just in the current lineup.

Postcards from Paradise” – Flesh for Lulu… “I fell under your spell…

My political platform: Bringing back capes, gloves, postage stamps, anti-hypocrisy and flexible work options!

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It’s another one of those random days where random thoughts are weaseling their way into my brain too fast to keep track of them.

I’m not sorry we loved, but I hope I didn’t keep you too long.

First of all, I overthink. All the time. All weekend in between working and then taking breaks from that work to do other work, I was beating myself up over the realization that it is always just when you ease into a comfort level, feeling like you can let your guard down, that you are at your most vulnerable, a victim to be gutted. You know, gutted and chopped into pieces, not unlike a poor, hapless young giraffe minding his own business in a Copenhagen zoo (and see below). Trust me.

In other news (or non-news), what the hell is wrong with Fox News and other conservative talking heads? I cannot come up with words – nothing that has not already been said. They have started blabbing about how free healthcare disincentivizes working. Who says it best? Why, Jon Stewart, of course!

http://www.thedailyshow.com/watch/thu-february-6-2014/terror-on-bulls–t-mountain

Writing (oh so seamless the segue) about disincentives to work and purported laziness, I was heartened to see a series of articles from Virgin on the future of flexwork (Richard Branson is a big supporter of flexible work solutions). Three cheers! It’s one thing for me to bang my own pots and pans on the subject of flexible, remote and virtual work (only I hear the ceaseless clanging – and maybe a handful of other folks who happen upon this blog). It is another thing entirely when someone as respected and well-known as Richard Branson puts his weight behind this flexibility.

The website covers different aspects of flexible work – which can include remote work, shared locations, next-gen workspaces and enabling “intrapreneurship”. Be still my heart.

Of course, another aspect of flexible work, as I have learned since the dawn of my professional life, is doing the most flexible kind of work there is (and that means you will get a lot of flexibility but you are going to have to be equally flexible in kind – and sometimes to your own detriment): freelancing. I find these days that when I apply for jobs that are not ideal for me but my skill set matches some other need a company has, I get calls on occasion offering me freelance projects, and I cannot complain.

On a slightly tangential note, I will never get used to how potential employers in Scandinavia, in formal interview settings, often use the word “shit” in interview conversation. This must be a failure to understand that “shit” is not quite the casual profanity that they imagine it to be. (It makes me laugh.)

As for the music and magic of hypocrisy, who embodies it better than my favorite punching bag, Marissa Mayer of Yahoo! disaster fame? The Virgin remote work segment highlights the hypocrisy and head-scratching quality of Mayer’s decision to end distance-work options for her employees (“How odd that the head of a tech company that provides online communication tools doesn’t see the irony in that statement?”). Mayer has become the lightning rod for this issue, really. One article I read questioned the fairness of piling all the blame on Mayer when other large corporations scaled back or eliminated their distance work options at the same time (e.g. Best Buy). The hypocrisy of it – the real rub – is precisely what the Virgin article on supporting remote work points out – a tech company supposedly at the forefront (or wanting to believe it is still at the forefront) of innovation and online communication is taking the workplace back to horse-and-buggy days when most of the tech world is, I don’t know, driving a Tesla or taking a high-speed train.

Another nod to hypocrisy, even if not an entirely matching overlap, is the recent decision of a zoo in Copenhagen, Denmark to kill a perfectly healthy young giraffe in its care and feed it to the zoo’s lions. I posted something about this on my Facebook wall, which sparked an immediate argument between two people who are strangers across the world from each other. One argued that those of us who were lamenting the giraffe’s senseless death were hypocrites who cannot handle how nature works when it’s shown to us with transparency. While I can appreciate the argument on its surface, the bottom line is – this happened in a ZOO, not the wild. This took place, apparently, in front of zoo visitors (the killing and the feeding pieces to lions). Yeah, if a family went on safari somewhere or were out in the wild, maybe “nature” and its transparency would be expected. In the zoo? Not so much. The zoo has defended its decision and now is paying an unfortunate price (I saw on the news that the zoo’s employees are receiving death threats now).

Back to the flexwork thing – all the articles come down to one thing: trust. Flexwork is possible when you have trust and no need to micromanage. You would also think we could trust a zoo not to kill a juvenile giraffe, and maybe once upon a time, people would have thought Marissa Mayer would not take a giant tech company back to Little House on the Prairie.

Baking progress and other randomness

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My overly ambitious baking plan for the weekend seemed best suited as a long list of the recipes, printed out for ease of access – and it’s 21 pages long. I made some progress today but have barely made a dent in the list.

At the same time, I am trying to burn a bunch of CDs and get them ready to mail out as year-end music mixes. I sent out my normal Halloween mixes but had used an unfamiliar CD burner… so most of them only work on PCs. I always make MP3 mixes so they don’t work on older “standard” CD players in any case, but generally modern CD players, assuming people did not jump to iPods and the like, do play them (and of course if one skipped the MP3-compatible CD players, they can upload the MP3s to their computers and put songs they like on their MP3 player. Or they could use their DVD/Blu-Ray player or something). But yeah, I collected enough songs between September and now that I made a year-end mix to accompany the Halloween one (which I am adding to the year-end mix just so that everyone gets the chance to actually hear it if they want to). I HAVE TO – after all, when I saw this year’s Swedish holiday stamps, I was so madly in love and felt like everyone needed to see them, so I bought a truckload of them and must mail things.

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It’s my duty – mail things out that are not bills. It generally, I think, brightens someone’s day a little bit. Non-junk mail (sort of, anyway) and physical proof that someone genuinely thought of them and took the time to post something to them.

Suddenly addicted to Robyn Hitchcock & The Venus 3’s Goodnight Oslo album. I have been loving Hitchcock since I was a kid. On that night – goodnight Oslo and all the other places who might be reading this.