"Well, for starters, computers have ruined poker," I complained. "All these geeks I see playing poker on TV say they learned the game on their computers. In the old days, they would have been afraid to go into the places where poker was played."
My cousin insisted the computer had value and challenged me to come up with a topic, any topic, and the machine would astonish me before I could find the Page Down key.
Now, it just so happened that I had been thinking terribly much lately of the "open letter" type of column. You know, the kind which begins "Open Letter to ... ." Then the columnist goes on to pick a subject (Chuck Colson, Michael Moore) and lambaste/instruct that subject till space runs out. I have done more than a thousand columns of various lengths and on various topics, but I don't think I have ever done an open letter. (I may have done one once addressed to Edwin Edwards, but maybe I only read one addressed to Edwin Edwards and planned to "recycle" it later when people forgot they'd already read it.)
"See what they have under 'open letter,'" I instructed. After a fair amount of tap-tap-tapping and existential choices, my cousin leaned back in the captain's chair, breathed contentedly and gestured at the screen.
The first one to snag my attention was an open letter to George Bush. It really and truly despised each and every economic decision he had ever made and took some time to say so. The letter was signed by Francis Aguilar, Michael Beer, John E. Bishop and Abraham Zalenzik, professors emeritus (or is it "emeriti"?) of the Harvard Business School. Plus 8,719 other professors, living or dead.
Mildly interested now, I read on. There were plenty of open letters aimed at President Bush, and none were even lightly complimentary, not even the one claiming to be from a "blind air-traffic controller." But other political ears were being bent or burned: Ralph Nader, Ayn Rand, the Kansas Board of Education.
The Poynter Institute, a journalism think tank, addressed all newspaper readers, especially those who may have noticed that newspapers are frequently full of waste matter: "You can trust us. We promise," they assured openly, ignoring my grandpa's counsel never to trust anyone who asked for it.
Open letters everywhere. Public missives ostensibly earmarked to Prince Charles, Ann Coulter and Paul Krugman. One to Ward Churchill from a reporter at the Boulder (Co.) Daily Camera and another from Dennis Kucinich to Howard Dean. One to Ani DiFranco from God-knows-who.
But more interesting to me were the ones addressed not to individuals, but to groups. Here, in ascending order of group size, are the ones I remember: Metallica, Alberta Racquetball Association, CBS, Jehovah's Witnesses, the Christian Nobility of the German Nation (from Martin Luther), hobbyists (from Bill Gates), Frenchmen everywhere (from Antoine de Saint-Exupery) and citizens of the USA (from Pravda).
By now, you have doubtless stumbled on the true computer flaw: Too much information can be as bad as none. Did I mention that my cousin reported there were 5.7 million entries under the heading of "open letter"? At my age, I probably couldn't get to, say, 4.3 million of those entries before my eyesight quietly went away.
Nonetheless, the computer has helped spark a renewed interest in columns which employ the open-letter format. The limits of available space, however, will only permit a modified version of this form, one I will call the "open-note format." This is like the open letter, only briefer. These are examples of open notes:
To railroad authorities: In the interest of preserving rural life in the state of Louisiana, we ask that you refrain from travel in the state except between the hours of 1 a.m. and 5 a.m.
To Cub fans: As a Red Sox fan, I can sincerely say to you, "Stop whining. It's not attractive."
To Saints fans: We need more tax revenues to keep the Saints. Mark Gov. Kathleen Blanco's $1-a-pack cigarette tax. Tom Benson needs that money. Buy a carton or two today. Smoke if you love the Saints! (Only not in the Superdome ...)
To Jane Fonda: Congratulations. You are the first person ever out-acted by J Lo.
To Adam Sandler: OK, you just might be a better quarterback in The Longest Yard than Warren Beatty was in Heaven Can Wait. But he has played other roles; have you?
To Mike Tyson: You can't hang any more with the current heavyweight champion ... whoever that is.
To the Department of Permits, City of New Orleans: The other morning I saw a tour bus parked on the steps of St. Louis Cathedral. The tour bus was 97 feet long and was resting on the body of a noted French Quarter chef. Has anyone complained about this?