WickedEye's Quotient

12/29/2009 at 12:57

Epistolarian (& Eavesdropping)

Letters are outdated.

Or so I'm told. Every time I mail someone a letter or card (other than a postcard), the response I get is delighted surprise. But the sensuousness (as in “of, concerning, perceived by, or appealing to the senses”) of paper and pen continues to please me. The smell of good paper, the way an ink pen scratches over it, the way stationery takes the ink...it's a physical record of my thoughts of, and attachment to, the person to whom it's sent.

Email is now my primary form of communication, though I swore when I started using it that that would never happen. Most of my letters now take electronic form—they're written and mailed as epistles, narratives of my stream of consciousness and salient events (and not mere communications of quotidian fact) in the same style as my physically written communications.

I think about letter-writing every time I do it—especially when it happens on paper, as in my now-15-year correspondence with Maria—because it's a dying art. And it is an art: the art of conveying your thoughts with an immediacy that reminds the person reading the letter of conversations with you, while maintaining a style and narrative structure that allows the reader to enjoy the story the writer's thoughts tell. There are many, many classic examples of the letter-writer's art: from the Biblical Epistles to Napoleon to Beethoven to Dr. Samuel Johnson, from Benjamin Franklin to Jane Austen to Isaac Asimov...

But I hadn't really ever thought of my letters as a consumable art form.

That's been changing in the past few months.

Friends with whom I've corresponded for a long time have pointed out to me that my essays follow the structure of my letters (and not the other way about; I've been an epistolarian for far longer than I've been an essayist), which are more personal (and funnier, though honestly given my brand of humor and the scarcity of response to it, I don't think that's saying much). By what is no doubt an odd chain of coincidences, within the last 3 months I've had 3 different people urge me to publish (the publicly-consumable) parts of my emails.

Part of that urging is that I've very little time for essay-writing now. I've given up my outside reading entirely (and I honestly never thought that could happen); and my writing time—what precious little I can salvage over long weekends and holidays—must be spent on high-priority academic projects and fiction. Publishing one's letters requires editing, of course, but the amount of time spent rereading and editing is much smaller than that spent writing, rereading, and editing.

So I've been rereading a few of my emails, and have come to the conclusion that some of the things they say might entertain people other than those to whom I originally wrote.

Anything I publish will be a missive I've written. If it contains quotes from the person to whom I'm writing, rest assured I've gotten that person's permission to publish it. (And in any case, chances are that if you see and recognize something you've read from me before, I've already discussed this project with you.) Because the privacy of current correspondence is something I value, no correspondence less than 2 years old will be edited or published; and so far as it's possible, I'll be removing any reference which would allow anyone but the person who's already read the epistle to identify the recipient of it.

I send some of my longest emails when I travel, so the ones with which I've decided to start are from the time of my trip to Europe 3 years ago. These will, no doubt, be the most chronologically coherent set—the rest will move forward and backward at random.

They'll be published in fits and starts, of course. And though most of them contain some useful information, most of what you'll be reading is a conversation with a friend. Eavesdropping, really.

But with my permission.

On form: These are to different people, at different times, though they're in (rough) chronological order...Munich, Innsbruck, Salzburg, Florence, Venice, Vienna. A row of asterisks indicates a separate email.

You may begin in Munich, then, if you wish...


In from Das Alte and Neue Pinoktheken—won't have a chance at the science museum today. Not enough time for me to sail on the ships and walk through the coal mines plus see all my geek-pilgrimage goodies. Oh well. Munich is only 2 hours from Innsbruck.

Off to the Schatzkammer shortly. Gold and jewels from 800 AD on. Yum.

What are your favorite periods in terms of European art? The Alte Pinokthek is outstanding in terms of everything from Ren on up; the Neue Pinokthek likewise from 1850 on up. Not a big fan of modern, so I didn't hit the Moderne Pinokthek.

Yes, of course I'm having a great time. I'm in a new and beautiful place with a bunch of kind and interesting people—how could I not be?... Know what you mean about the museum time—I'm about to be surfeited with it, but that takes quite a bit of doing. Two months in Europe should just about do it, though.

Then again, maybe not...


Wandered around the Schatzkammer, got a few decent photos and a lot of crappy ones, totally need a nap and am going to crash.

...Nifty new roommate in the dorm—Aussie named Ben who works in geology. We swapped stories—he asked initially if I was a geologist too—and I explained I was able to ask intelligent questions because I retained my childhood interest in dinosaurs long enough to take a paleontology class in college. Whereupon he said he was interested in paleontology too, but had ditched it for more lucrative commercial work.

Also said, as soon as I explained what I was studying, that he would have "pegged me for a doc" even if I hadn't said anything. When I asked why, he shrugged and said I looked and talked like a very intelligent person. Which didn't answer my question, as I pointed out. He just grinned and said he'd a friend who was gonna be a doc and I "had the look". With which unsatisfactory reply I had to be content.

He's an avid surfer, and there's apparently a place here where people surf inland, so he asked if I wanted to go with him—he was heading out at the same time as I. I said no way in hell am I setting a toe in the Isar when the AIR here makes me cold. Which made him laugh and inform me that he knew my Yank-ness (i.e. inherent delicacy) had to come out sometime.

I told him that yes, an aversion to hypothermia was a quality inherent in all Americans other than those from Minnesota, and was one of our more admirable traits, and that Aussies should consider emulating it. Which made him laugh more. Rather off-putting when you're trying to insult someone back.

Anway, the upshot is that I'm promised a dino tutorial before we both leave tomorrow. F***ing WICKED.


Oh yes, the backpack.

The coat-check women at the Schatzkammer didn't believe I actually carried my backpack—asked where my 'boyfriend' was. Shrugged, said, 'no boyfriend, it's mine', picked it up, put it on, and tightened the straps as they—and one of the two Schatzkammer guards, the one with the automatic weapon (the whole museum is a steel-lined vault)—made disbelieving 'Ooooo' noises and flexed their biceps. I flushed red, smiled, said thank you, and managed to make my way out without tripping.

Not one of my more graceful exits, but honestly, how am I supposed to respond to that?


The band playing in the Winter Garden totally stole this bassline from 'My Sharona'. Bet they didn't credit it either. Wankers.

Yes, Osterreich beckons, and I leave tomorrow. The trip is by train, so hopefully it should be worry-free, and classes begin on Monday. The good time is optional, but I hope for it too.


I stayed in Munich for one more day. Had a message from Heather this morning that the Karwendel "may not be able" to be open for reception this afternoon, so rather than take the chance of getting down there and having to pony up 70-100€ for a room in Innsbruck I chose to stay in Munich for another day. So I extended my stay at Wombats, switched my ticket, and took off for the Deutsches Museum.

Ah, the Deutsches Museum.... *gibbers incoherently* Been to the Smithsonian, the National Gallery, the Art Institute, the Field Museum, the Monterey Aquarium... you get the idea. But this is the first museum I've ever found that I could literally spend two weeks in, still not see everything that was there, and still not want to leave.

The things they had in that place.

Original laboratory equipment from Joule to Coulomb to Watt to Kelvin to Faraday.

The lab bench on which the first atom was split.

The first steam engine.

An enormous 3-masted sailing ship, space shuttles, airplanes, a Foucault pendulum, salt and coal mines so realistic that my claustrophobia started kicking in, materials physics... I think I actually nearly fainted several times. (Though that could have been low blood sugar. Who can be arsed about food when the giants of science are looming around you?)

Oh, I'll be back to Munich. Someday, sometime. I could have told you that before, but this afternoon confirmed it. What a wonderful introduction to Europe this place is. Even the natives are friendly—my stilted and mispronouced mishmash of a few German words seems to produce nothing but amusement, but genuine courtesy seems to surprise and please these folks. Not a soul in this entire place has been less then kind to me in my time here.


...There was a woman on the subway who was staring at me today, and I wondered why. Her face looked as though it'd been through a shredder, and it took all my presence of mind to maintain a pleasant, neutral expression as I met her eyes—I wanted so badly to flinch. But I didn't—I smiled at her, and she looked very surprised, then smiled back.

Odd, the things that make a deep impression on one—as much as anything else I'll remember from Munich I'll remember the surprise and pleasure on her face, showing even through the bloody scrapes, as she smiled back at me.

S4, from Ostbanhof.


Glad you like reading what I write. We've always discussed my prolixity, both orally and in writing—I'll probably have to cut back once I start class...

Being chatted up by a 19-year-old who is too drunk to talk or walk straight and who I've been trying to tell—politely—to go away as I type and who just offered to let me slap him for bothering me. (!?!! Original, though daft.) Poor lad. 19 if he's a day, actually. No, kiddo, I ain't going to the bar and I wasn't at Bonnaroo just because I'm from Nashville. Sorry.

Most of the police and guards here don't carry submachine guns. And I don't agree that more heavily-armed gendarmes lead to a more pacific police force... Like I said, the Schatzkammer is a museum entirely located in a locked, metal-walled vault. The guards there carry submachines because there are more diamonds in there than in the f***ing Antwerp exchange. No kidding.

Just interrupted my typing to check scores on the Met game for a guy who was desperate to see them—poor fellow, he reminded me so much of Bill in the throes of his mania that I couldn't ignore him. He was ridiculously grateful, which was nice, but I don't know why guys have to touch you to say thanks. I'm not deaf—don't really need physical signs. Words'll do just fine, thanks.

I really do want Joe here. In addition to the joy of his company, his presence itself—large and THERE—could be useful. I usually give off the 'go away' vibe pretty successfully—it just seems to be short-circuited here for some reason. Hrm. I'll have to work that one out.


...I think I figured out why my 'go away' beacon isn't working as well—in an unfamiliar milieu, people seem to tend to overinterpret friendliness, especially when feeling insecure or unsteady. A lot of these guys have never been out of their home country; add to that the appalling fact that a lot of women seem to come here and utterly forget all commitments at home...

(Yesterday I was sitting and typing an email when the girl beside me said calmly to her companion, "Yeah, if I stay here I'm gonna cheat on him. It's more or less inevitable"; why this sort of thing still disgusts me, after all this time, confuses me, but I find it so revolting that it was all I could do not to give the girl some sharp words—restrained only by the thought that if such things are acceptable enough to her to be a topic of casual public conversation then no words from a stranger would make a dent anyway—and my goodness, another parenthetical longer than the original sentence; I have a talent for these.)

...and the entire phenomenon becomes easier to understand, though not less repulsive.

Whew. Inadvertent rant on fidelity while inside foreign borders over. We now return you to your regularly scheduled stream of consciousness.


...I would have said "of course" but for something that had happened earlier—I mean, based on my assumption of Ben's lack of interest in the manner which you seemed to be positing. I was blithely assuming it was limited to semi-informed paleontological discussion.

That was the story I said I'd tell you later... and given the time constraints I'm under at the moment (to check out, buy my tickets, etc.) it won't be in this email.

Brazen, huh? Yes, there seems to be a lot of that going around here... I have to confess that in the case of Ben I found it surprising. He didn't seem the type—and I have types pegged pretty well. *shrugs* Chalk another one up to the specimens displayed under 'experience'.


Leaving for Osterreich in a little less than an hour and a half. Getting myself plus bags down to the station and onto the train should be fun. The people who said, "putting your books in your bags should be no problem" were big fat liars.


Okay, got myself checked out, luggage sorted (for now), train doesn't leave for 3 1/2 hours—I'll tell you this story before I leave to wander about the English Garden/Karlsplatz one last time.

Yeah, okay, so. Ben. (And save the admonitions as to my cluelessness, please. You and Joanna—and Joe, and Vicki, and Becky—can have a great time belaboring me later.)

Went up to nap after beating myself to shreds in the Munich museums yesterday, and woke to Ben coming in the room. (VERY light sleeper. I'm sure you remember.) He was moving around, so I closed my eyes and waited for him to stop.

After a minute he stopped and I started falling asleep again, but it sounded like he'd stopped close to my bunk (upper bunk) so I turned my head—and found him looking at me from about 2 feet away. After which I was, of course, wide awake. I quirked a brow and didn't say anything and he looked at me for almost another minute. When he kept looking at me without saying anything I said, "G'night", turned my head, closed my eyes, and waited for him to go away.

Which, eventually, he did.

That was enough for me to go, "Hey, wait a minute,"—I'm not completely clueless, just a bit slow on the uptake—but when I got up and was pondering climbing down from the bunk and checking my email Ben was in the room again, lying on his bunk and reading "Slaughterhouse 5". I got up, climbed down, grabbed my bag and was about to leave when he asked me to hold up a minute. So I waited.

He then asked me if I was a one-night stand kind of girl.

This made my eyebrows soar, not only because it is or should be patently obvious that I'm NOT, but it had also seemed that he wasn't either. Shrugged off my evidently faulty judgment and said, "No", to which he said, "Well, I'm not either."

This left me puzzled and utterly lacking any sort of response, so I said nothing.

He then asked me if I had a boyfriend. This—curse my compulsive honesty—left me sort of searching for a response. So after a second I said, "No, but there's someone I'm attracted to and I'm really not interested in anyone else." (Okay, so it wasn't totally true. But it has been, until recently. And yes—yes, I know. But the 'terminally monogamous' discussion goes well with the 'terminally clueless' one—and a bunch of red wine—so you can just bite your tongue for now on that one too. Sigh.)

And he said, "But he's not your boyfriend." And I lost my temper just a little at his persistence (and the somewhat bizarre bunk thing) and snapped, "It doesn't matter." To which Ben said, "Tell him I said he's a lucky guy." To which I glared and said, "I won't," and left.

*winces* Except, of course, that I did...


That's it for Munich. On to Austria, at some point...if anyone is interested.

12/05/2009 at 06:56

Grown-up Gift Lists: e-Cards, Body Balm, Heifers and Chocolate

With the advent of Black Friday and the mad stampede of those who nurse a secret passion for melee warfare (please don't kid me that the feeding frenzy spurred by the chum of Black Friday deals is anything else), those of us less inclined to physical battle go online for our gifts.

This also, not coincidentally, marks the beginning of the “season of giving”—a time when many pay far more attention to the marginalized and less fortunate than they do during the rest of the year. So this is also a great time for paying attention to organizations who do wonderful work, desperately need money, and offer either products or tokens of remembrance which make wonderful gifts. Everyone wins—you, your gift recipient, and others in need of help.

Thusly, I present for your delectation a list of organizations (in no particular order) which do extremely valuable work, and which offer appealing merchandise and/or commemorations. Please consider them as possibilities for your gift-giving this holiday season.

1. Magdalene House.
This is an organization which provides a 2-year, residential rehabilitation program for prostitutes. I've written about Magdalene before; it is extraordinary. The women it serves usually start life with every possible disadvantage, and their stories—told without an ounce of self-pity—are literally enough to make rooms full of upper-middle-class, rather self-satisfied, people weep.

Its success rate is remarkable, both because it is run with intelligence and discipline and because the program (unlike other 2- and 4-monthers of its kind) relies not on religious or other indoctrination but on a 2-year long program of education, therapy and job training. The program is dedicated to giving these women the tools with which to realize that they have something worth giving to a world which has treated them as worthless—and the skills with which to give it.

Their shop is called Thistle Farms, and its products—candles, bath oils, lotions, and other such products—are handmade by the residents of Magdalene House, out of the highest-quality ingredients. I both use them and give them as gifts (their Citrus Vanilla scent is a particular favorite). They're a wonderful value, the equal of anything I've ever purchased at The Body Shop, and a great deal better than Bath and Body Works products, both of which retail for the same prices.
Indulge your (or your recipients') senses and soul here: http://www.thistlefarms.org/inventory

On the off chance that you don't know what the United Nations' Children's Fund does, it is the biggest financial source for help—whether nutritional, educational, residential or medical—to children in every country in the world. Founded after World War II to help children in regions devastated by the War, dedicated to the welfare of the children it serves and to an avoidance of political affiliation, it has continued its work for more than 50 years.

I personally buy the Christmas/holiday cards almost every year, and generally send them to my favorite people (forget Hallmark; for greeting cards, UNICEF is the very best). Many of the cards' designs are based on art created by children whom the fund has helped; the gifts are a lovely selection of items from jewelry to calendars, all based on designs by people who have benefited from the program (both child and adult). It is an exotic collection, lovely and vivid, and when one considers prices for similar items in specialty boutiques and even department stores, the items in it represent a wonderful value.
Send the very best from here: http://www.shopcardsandgifts.unicefusa.org/

3. Médicins Sans Frontières (Doctors Without Borders)
As the wording of the name implies, Doctors Without Borders was founded by a group of French doctors with the goal of providing medical care to persons without access, regardless of race, sex, religion, or political boundaries. The organization of the group is a model of associative decision-making, and their funding is without governmental or political influence (80% of their funding comes from private donors, much of it in the form of volunteer work by medical professionals).

MSF's accomplishments are legion; they rehabilitate infrastructure and train personnel as well as staffing clinics and providing emergency care. It also works with local authorities to provide clean water and sanitation; indeed, in many regions of Africa they remain the only source of medical care, food, and water. These and other accomplishments were acknowledged by 1999's Nobel Peace Prize.

Because of their adamant refusal to ally with any commercial or governmental entity, they do not offer products in commemoration of donation, but acknowledge donations on behalf of others with both e-cards and letters.
Make more borders vanish here: http://www.doctorswithoutborders.org/donate/

4. Adopt-A-Classroom.
This organization is very nearly unique in my experience; its time and expertise are all donated, and it sends 100% of your gift to the teacher of your choice. It is aptly named; you may choose a classroom on the basis of personal knowledge of need (fill in the name of the school and teacher to whom you'd like your donation sent), or look at classrooms in various areas (including your place of residence—I picked a classroom in the population-of-2,000 village of DeSoto, IL this year), or allow Adopt-a-Classroom to choose for you. Given the fact that education in America is desperately (and I do mean desperately) underfunded, and that (horribly underpaid) teachers spend an average of $1,200 of their own money on classroom materials every year, this is one of the best ideas I've heard in ages.

Though the organization itself recognizes donors only, the teachers who receive donations have their classes send cards or letters or drawings to the donors and their gift recipients, who are welcome to visit the classrooms if they choose. Any amount you send will be welcome—and used for classroom supplies.
Books, crayons, and posters ahoy! The voyage starts here: http://www.adoptaclassroom.com/adoption/

5. Modest Needs.
This (aptly named) organization is a small charity which helps low-income but self-sufficient families and individuals, and non-profit organizations, with one-time grants of financial assistance—sums of less than $200. They use the funds to help families defray sudden, unexpected expenses—unusually high heating bills, trips to the doctor, auto repair—which might otherwise cause them to fall below the poverty line financially or through loss of work. They also offer payment to the creditors of community organizations whose programs can be broadened because of the lessened financial burden.

The micro-loan concept (a misnomer, since often the funds are not meant to be repaid), first applied in Third World countries, finds a well-run and compassionately administered home here. Though the organization runs on only $24,000 a year, they were able to fund only 7% of the grant applications they received last year; they need funds, and yours will be very well-used. The founder said that his main goal is “providing a vehicle for human kindness”. This one runs soundly, and with your help, can go further. The site allows you to create “gift certificates” to send to those in whose name you're donating.
Modest Needs' vehicle for human kindness fuels up here: http://www.modestneeds.org/donation/

6. Southern Poverty Law Center.
This organization was started as a small civil rights firm in Birmingham, AL in 1971, by one of my personal heroes, Morris Dees. It offers free legal services to victims of discrimination and hate crimes (largely the latter), and monitors the activity of more than 200 extremist groups (including Aryan Nation and the Klu Klux Klan). Its Intelligence Project offers training for law enforcement officials, including an online course on hate crimes; its Teaching Tolerance program provides free classroom kits to teachers, both for childrens' and teachers' use (the latter primarily with its Teaching Diverse Populations toolkit).

One can judge the Center's success at shutting down and calling attention to the activities of hate groups by the number of times hate group members have been convicted for plans to firebomb or destroy the Center's buildings—or to assassinate Dees and his associates (30 different people; firebombing succeeded once, as did an assassination).

The SPLC does not receive any portion of its clients' judgments, but instead is funded by private donations. You can send e-cards to those in whose name you're donating.
Fund a source of tolerance and justice here: https://secure.splcenter.org/donate/online/

7. The Heifer Project.
This is a simple and elegant concept, and like so many others of its type, a very effective one. Only a farmer, I think, could have realized the amount of difference that owning a single (livestock) animal can make in terms of sustenance for a family; only a person who'd volunteered in relief work and dealt with the frustration of allocating scarce food could have realized what that difference could mean for poor, rural families. Dan West, the farmer who founded the program in the 1930s, was both.

Heifer International provides region-appropriate livestock as well as tree seedlings and training in sustainable farming. Its program requires that recipients donate some female offspring of their livestock to other families they know who are in need, who will then undergo training and donate other animals, and so on. In this way, entire communities can become self-sustaining. It is a beautifully simple concept, one that has been effective in over 125 countries for more than 75 years.

The site allows you to send e-cards and print gift notice cards: there is also an option of personalizing your Christmas cards with special Heifer International themes on Shutterfly, or to order gift cards to be mailed directly to you as you donate.
Give a community llamas (or geese, or cows, or...) here: http://www.heifer.org/site/

8. Human Rights Watch.
The first step in addressing a problem is realizing that one exists; and it's there that HRW comes in. Founded in order to monitor the Soviet Union's compliance with the Helsinki accords, it's stuck with its highly effective policy of “name and shame” ever since.

HRW's mandate is research into human rights violations, including identification of root causes, means of perpetuation both domestic and foreign, and aggravating factors both internal and external. The same set of criteria is brought to bear on every country and every possible rights violation: unlawful imprisonment, torture, genocide, persecution.

Their reports are published and disseminated to governments, treaty organizations, major NGOs... in other words, any entity with possible power over or an interest in rights violations. Their reports are lengthy and detailed, including analyses of political, economic, social, and historical backgrounds of conflicts and abuses—scholarly and thoroughly documented research, which is often published in academic journals. They are the free press of human rights organizations: the ones who recognize, analyze, document, and report problems.

Your recipients can be informed via e-card of gifts made in their honor.
Fund recognition of rights gone wrong here: https://www.kintera.org/site/c.nlIWIgN2JwE/b.4546833/k.471F/Give_a_Gift_in_Someones_Honor

9. Habitat for Humanity.
This organization has built more than 300,000 houses in its 33 years of operation (the 300,000th was in Collier County, FL and the 300,001st was in Zacapa, Guatemala). Volunteers and future homeowners construct the houses Habitat builds; the homeowners repay mortgages for the cost of construction, with no interest—and their payments are used to build other Habitat houses. As with many wonderfully simple ideas, this one works beautifully.

Habitat is one of the highest-profile nonprofits in the US; it has an enormous amount of support from corporations, celebrities, and the general populace. I'm not recommending it because it's desperately in need of money; I'm recommending it because human beings need places to live, and as fast as Habitat builds, there are never enough homes to meet the demand. I'm recommending it because the simple dignity of owning the place in which you sleep—in having a stake in the place in which you live and a specific part in the lives of your neighbors—is one of the best, and least accessible, ways of building families and communities. Habitat builds houses, yes. And lives, for the people who build them, live in them, and surround them.

HFH's site has a store with merchandise from soup cups to stationery to stepstools; all profits go to Habitat.
Build and bestow here: http://www.habitatstoreonline.com/

10. Big Brothers/Big Sisters of America.
Begun by an NYC court clerk in 1904, this is one of the oldest continually-operated charities in America. It is also one of the most highly rated and successful—and, in my view, unique. Many programs are able to give a great deal of help, much of it invaluable—as witness the rest of this list. But this is the oldest of very few organizations that support the establishment of one-to-one relationships between people who need help and people who give it—in the most potent form possible, that of sharing parts their lives and selves.

This is the most direct response to human need, the currency in which we deal with other human beings on the most basic level. We are social animals, and we learn by watching and by doing. Big Brothers Big Sisters knows that, and that the best and most lasting way to learn a lesson is to have a teacher focused on giving a single student whatever s/he most needs—whether that's arithmetic, or valuing oneself and others enough to make good choices. The organization works in every one of the 50 states, offers its services upon request and free of any charge, and thoroughly vets its volunteers. It is the first mentoring program, and it is also a model of its kind.

'Tribute' donations are acknowledged by a card sent from the organization to your gift recipient.
Contribute to the socialization of young humans here: 

Note: All of these organizations' 'vital stats' can be checked on Charity Navigator at http://www.charitynavigator.org/ .

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