Before I go, I have something to say

Dearest Editor

I love reading letters to the editor. Sometimes I agree, sometimes I disagree, but every time, I feel good that someone has taken it upon herself (or himself) to publicly voice an opinion. I used to do a lot writing to editors. I wrote to the local paper, and to the one I always thought of as Iowa’s paper, the Des Moines Register. I wrote to magazine editors. I even wrote to the editor of the New York Times.

The cool thing is, every one of those letters was published. I have no idea how many people, if any, agreed with me, but I liked to think at least a few did. Nowadays, I know, people write fewer letters and many more “comments” to the web sites of papers and magazines. I find it hilarious when commenters start arguing among themselves. It becomes a kind of online “Sez who?” “Sez me!” punching match, and can be entertaining to witness, even if the original point is completely lost. Posting comments anonymously only dumbs down the discussion.

Over the years, I have peppered the Dubuque Telegraph Herald with my opinion on a number of issues. They fall all over the map, including:

  • The city’s homophobia, which prevented too many good people from living a full and loving life. Thankfully, things are better.
  • The problem that arises when a young person wants to check out a book from the public library but her parent, standing next to her and in front of the bemused library aide, tries to pry the book from her child’s hands.
  • The difference between the National Endowment for the Humanities and the National Endowment for the Arts. When you’re seeking a grant, it’s a big difference, and the paper got it wrong.
  • The outrageous cost of street repair that falls on homeowners’ backs. When it happened to me, I was a single mom of two, barely getting by.
  • My consternation over some school board candidates. Take the guy with two DUIs and one domestic violence arrest – please.
  • Defending a police chief from another letter writer’s ill-advised excoriation
  • Supporting the best candidate for county attorney. I knew him from my days as the poster child for domestic violence prevention, when he was solidly on the side of justice.
  • Misuse of the word “comprise,” which everyone seems certain means “compose.” Take it from me – or any dictionary. It doesn’t.

Some of these letters were so long, I submitted them as “My View” op-eds. Does the TH still print those? I haven’t noticed any lately.

It doesn’t take much to get me going. Back when I lived in Colorado and a story about the U.S. ski team ran in the magazine Outside. My ears steamed when I learned that their official car was a Subaru, which is not an American car. (I no longer have a leg to stand on, since I drive a Toyota and my husband drives, yes, a Subaru.)

My biggest coup was the letter that got into the New York Times Magazine on Sunday, September 11, 2005. They had run a long story a few weeks earlier, all about women who fall in love with men in prison. The writer found the phenomenon fascinating, and struggled to make sense with it. For Pete’s sake, I said out loud. I know why it happens. I sat down and pounded out my letter. It started like this: “It’s obvious what women see in men behind bars: most of the murderers and rapists have one thing in common, and it’s not just that they are convicted perpetrators of hideous crimes. They are – duh – famous.”

There was more, but you get the idea. I was especially disappointed in the article because the writer was Daphne Merkin, whose writing I’ve admired for years. I guess we all have our blind spots. And maybe I should have called those criminals “infamous,” but once it’s in print, revisions can’t be made.

I also wrote a letter to Library Journal, way back in 1991. Someone had written that librarians probably deserved their dowdy image because, after all, it wasn’t like they were out there raking in money as CEOs or saving lives the way doctors do . Those were fighting words, and I sent my letter as soon as I’d finished reading.

Among other things, I pointed out, “Some days a doctor doesn’t save lives. Sometimes a librarian does.” I went on to explain how giving a fifth-grade boy a book on cameras could open up his future, and giving a twelve-year-old girl a book on puberty can ease her anxieties, and maybe prevent a case of anorexia. Of course I also pointed out that a battered woman might find a book at the library that could set her free. Back in the days before Amazon, library books on domestic violence really did help me to leave.

When I wrote my piece about homophobia in Dubuque, I noted that some of my friends had warned me against it, fearing for my well-being. The worst thing that ever happened in response to one of my letters was a postcard calling me a FEMINAZI. I laughed, and pinned it on my bulletin board at work.

Once, a letter I sent apparently riled the editor so much, he wrote a long rebuttal on top of my letter. How childish is that? A clarification, like “Mr. Smith is president of the Flat Earth Society” after a letter may be called for occasionally. But an editor ought to wield his or her bully pulpit with great care. The paper’s (or magazine’s) audience, after all, comprises those letter writers, and those silent readers. Most times, I believe, they deserve the last word.