If your band sounds like another band, break up your band.
— Nolen Strals, Double Dagger
In Defense of Our Letter Writing
I have a lot technology panic. I think all of us do. Surely this is familiar. I’m at work, waiting for the elevator. A few seconds tick by. I’m just standing there- why not look at Instagram? I take out my phone, scroll through the photos, see what my friends/acquaintances/celebrity crushes are up to. The elevator door dings and I look up- a co-worker came along and I didn’t even notice them. But wait! They are also on their phone, scrolling through Instagram! Then the panic spiral starts. “No one talks to each other anymore.” “We don’t know how to interact in person.” “All of our relationships will be relegated to Tweets and Faves!” “Society is dying!”
In a very Franzian way, I expend a lot of mental energy worrying about technology. I’ve had an epiphany, though. I now take an extraordinary amount of comfort in something I didn’t even realize I’ve been doing. Writing letters.
You’ve definitely heard an older relative say, “It’s such a shame no one writes letters anymore.” And I agree! I love an epistolary novel, or cleaning out the basement and finding bundles of letters a grandparent wrote. What drama! What romance! Imagine living far away from your loved ones, your only communications long, hand-written letters. The expense and difficulty make travel nearly impossible, you don’t even have a phone to call on, so you wait for a beautifully written letter from someone you love, imbued with their personality- their brain, their whole being spilled right there on the page. That’s the power of good personal writing, and it seems that has been totally, completely lost. Right?
I was about four hundred words into an email to my friend Mairin last week when I realized how misplaced my ludditism is. I spend at least a few hours every week writing long, meandering emails. So many of my best friends live far away. The expense of airline travel is prohibitive. Picking up the phone? Well, that’s not really something we do. Sound familiar? Instead, we email each other letters. Whenever I see one pop up in my inbox, my heart expands about four sizes. I do the electronic equivalent of tearing open the envelope, and I read the words as quickly as I can. Then, once that initial voracious excitement has worn off, I re-read the letter, making sure I pick up on all the details. Then I look for subtext- is my friend happy, or sad? Restless? Contented? What else can I learn about them from the way they’ve written?
And the content! We write about everything. The emails usually start off with a brief summary of what’s been going on. Any new job developments, family developments, romance developments. Then, to tell the truth, we usually dwell for a good long time on those romantic developments. There’s usually some sort of existential musing about life and the books we’ve been reading or shows we’ve been watching, or maybe we ask questions of each other about what we ought to be doing with ourselves. I have a few friends in New York who I don’t get to see as much as I’d like, and even we write each other very long, detailed emails. This doesn’t mean we have less to say to each other when we do get together, but instead we have a deeper understanding of what’s going on inside each other’s heads.
And while we all probably romanticize letter writing of old, I feel someone might counter me by saying that our emails aren’t as well-written or thoughtful as some of those old letters. Well, here’s some recent excerpts from emails by my friends Mairin and Meredith that I find particularly lovely:
“It has felt like I am on a treadmill that is getting progressively faster and I’m like, ‘Okay, that feels challenging, great’ and then someone comes along and just leans over and pushes the button another four or five notches faster… Then I turned around, repacked bags, and went to England. Oxford was lovely and my room at the college looked out, not kidding, onto the lawns of the Oxford City and County Bowls Club. So I got to watch old men in their whites playing bowls. It was perfect…And now I am on a 6:30 train from Harrisburg to Philly, and there is fog coming off the cornfields outside of Lancaster as the sun rises.”
“I am back in SF this afternoon after a two very pleasant weeks on the East Coast. I think I am officially missing it all for the first time, properly - seeing you and so much family and my friend’s absolutely spectacular wedding (in the truest sense of the word - it was a spectacle - but also very genuine and delightful). It was really lovely. And I feel like I’ve had the space I needed to set myself up both internally and externally as an artist - and am wondering if returning is in the cards.”
And actually, the technological aspects make this even more beautiful. I can go back in an instant and read everything that my friends and I have written to each other since I started using Gmail in college. And this stuff is juicy and exciting and a wonderful narrative of our lives, all right there, something we’ve been working on, together, for almost ten years. And it’s not in Facebook likes and tossed-off photos. It’s a well-written, thoughtful narrative.
Sure, we don’t hand-write letters anymore. And yes, sometimes I check my phone when I could be making eye contact with people. But honestly, we all still love each other and communicate meaningfully just as much as, if not more than, humans have in the past. We’re going to be okay.
Of what is lost, irretrievably lost, all I wish to recover is the daily availability of my writing, lines capable of grasping me by the hair and lifting me up when I’m at the end of my strength. (Significant, said the foreigner.) Odes to the human and the divine. Let my writing be like the verses by Leopardi that Daniel Biga recited on a Nordic bridge to gird himself with courage. Barcelona 1980
— Roberto Bolano, from Antwerp
I Answer Your Questions for Pete Wells
Last week in the New York Times, restaurant critic Pete Wells answered reader questions. As I read it, I thought, “I want to answer people’s questions!” So I did. I, a twenty-seven year old secretary from New Jersey, have some pretty important insights on fine dining.
Q. How do you choose which restaurants get reviewed? Do they lobby you for your attention? It seems that it would be impossible to choose in any way that could be considered “fair,” given the numbers involved.– Jessica Charlotte, NC
A. Um, I don’t review restaurants? However, there are several restaurants that lobby for my attention, so maybe I should start. I mean, I’ve thrown away a lot of paper menus that have been slid under my door in the last five years, and lots of times men stand outside the Indian restaurants on my street and say, “Pretty lady, would you like to eat dinner here?” I like those guys. Seems fair to me.
Q. How does one get the privilege of being a dinner guest? I think you should run a contest for readers to become the guest of a critic.– WBBrooklyn
A. Honestly, you could just ask me; I’m not that busy. And that sounds like a nice contest idea, but sorry, I’m not going to do that. I don’t know any restaurant critics so that would probably be pretty weird.
Q. Do you have a list of hip new terms (“YOLO”) that you have secretly pledged to work into your reviews?– Lois Berkeley, CA
A. Ew, definitely not.
Q. What value do you place around a restaurant that can make a good cocktail, either a classic or their own creation? I hear some people say that alcohol throws off one’s taste buds but if you’re reviewing for the consumer, many are going to be dining with a drink or glass of wine.
Similarly, how important is a solid wine list and how knowledgeable are you/do you have to be with wine?– MZ New York
A. First of all, are you insane? Even I, a secretary from New Jersey, know that wine makes food taste great, and also cocktails make you have a good time and makes everyone at the table have a really good conversation. Also, I don’t know what a solid wine list is, so I think it wouldn’t be that important. All the wines I’ve ever tried have been liquids, but what do I know about fancy stuff like that?
Q. What do you think is the most overrated food trend happening at the moment?– Larissa Syracuse
A. I’d have to say it’s eating a spoonful of peanut butter out of the jar when I get home from work. I’ve been doing that a lot lately, but it’s not THAT great of a snack and I bet I get tired of it real soon.
Q. Why aren’t more of the places people eat at daily reviewed?– peter c Central Texas
A. Well Peter from Central Texas, I don’t know what kind of TIME and MONEY people from Central Texas have, but I certainly don’t have the time to walk around to all the places people eat at and review them daily. That’s um, impossible? Idiot.
Q. In your experience what has changed for the better and what has changed for the worse in terms of the overall dining experience over the last decade or so? Technique, originality, service, ingredients, restaurant decor, self-proclaimed foodie-ness, etc.– AWJSan Diego, CA
A. Finally! An easy question I have a lot of opinions on. I would say in the last ten years dining has gone from great to good to ok. In 2003, my mom made me really good food every day and I barely had to clean up after myself. This was great. Then, from 2004-2008 I ate really mediocre food, but a college dining hall made it for me and cleaned it up for me, so that was a good situation. Now I make my own food, and it’s pretty decent, but I also have to clean it up, so it’s kind of a lose-win-lose? But dining trends are always going up and down- it’s a crazy world out there!
Q. It always seemed a bit strange to me that clearly most restaurants (especially the high end ones) must recognize you. Doesn’t that clearly skew the service/quality of the food you receive, and thus the review? Aside from the inconsistency of not having a single critic, why not have more of a “mystery diner” type reviewing? As a minority diner with a minority partner, I noticed that I have definitely received terrible service (bad seats, waiter neglect, etc.) at certain NYC 4-star restaurants to which I’m pretty sure you would not be subject.– Serena New York, NY
A. Woah, first of all, that shit is so racist! I’m really sorry you have to go through that! Fuck those restaurants! Seriously, they should go fuck themselves! As for the first part of your question, I’m actually not that recognizable of a person? I’m a short white woman with brown hair, so I think I probably receive average service most almost always. In theory, I would love to do a “mystery diner” kind of thing where a mystery person takes me out to dinner once a week, but OkCupid just didn’t work that well for me in practice.
Q. Clearly, a great or bad review from the NYT can help or hurt a restaurant. What’s your thoughts on sites like Yelp that crowdsource places? A good thing? Or irrelevant if good/bad because it’s here to stay? Or something else entirely?– Dan S.Hartford
A. Now, as I’ve mentioned twice already, I’m from New Jersey. So I’m allowed to say this. It seems like most of the people reviewing fancy New York restaurants on Yelp come in from New Jersey for a birthday, so….yeah, I’d say they’re pretty irrelevant.
Q. How different would your reviews be if you had to pay for the meals yourself rather than having a huge expense account? I recall previous reviewers waxing rhapsodic over the genius of the chef who made foie gras soup — and yes, a $32 bowl of soup may taste very good, but the chef who can make an outstanding bowl of soup for $6 - $10 is far more talented.– ScottNY
A. Whaaaat???? Listen, Scott, if you’re in a position to eat an amazing $32 bowl of soup, DO IT! That shit is insane!!!!
Q. Why is it that only certain types of cuisine seem to qualify for three or four-star ratings: mostly French, Italian and Japanese? I’m a devotee of Indian cuisine and don’t believe that an Indian restaurant has received more than two stars from the NYT in years and years. Are you under the impression that provenance of cuisine somehow dictates quality?– Stu Freeman Brooklyn, NY
A. Come on Scott. What you’re really trying to get at here is the very complicated way America values, disseminates, and profits from other cultures. If you want to ask about that, why not man up and really ask about it, instead of vaguely implying the New York Times just doesn’t like Indian food for some reason?
Q. What’s your opinion on servers clearing dishes before all guest meals are completed? Faux Pas or acceptable?– Glamcat NYC
A. I hate it! It sucks! I always finish first, and it makes me feel like a fat, greedy pig.
Q. What do you think of the idea that were the Times to truly be the paper of record, a restaurant would not be reviewed by them until after its first year of being open. The final word. As opposed to the culture of “scoop” and being first to review the newest and hottest?– Sparkitus Brooklyn
A. What kind of user name is Sparkitus? Well, Sparkitus, congrats, you’ve won the award for stupidest question (Answer: Jesus, who cares?!?) AND stupidest username. Also, for the record, most people like their food to be new and hot, so I don’t even see what the problem is.
Thanks for all the questions guys! That was a lot of fun!