Politics & Policy

Dearest Reader…

N ew Year’s Eve has always struck me as a pleasant combination of sentimentality and brute practicality. On what other day of the year do as many people whip themselves into lachrymose nostalgia while at the same time making a mental list of the character flaws they plan to fix, starting tomorrow, possibly including their own?

For the last four hours I have been rereading many hundreds of e-mails from my most excellent Swamp readers and it has reduced me to, not to put too fine a point on things, a jellied state of weepy and nostalgic gratitude.

You, dear Readers, are the kindest, funniest, and most encouraging people. If it were possible for me to dash over to each of your houses, right now, and wring your hands, I would do it. Alas, since I can’t say it in person–not even in personal replies, though heaven knows I try–let me thank you all here and now for making the past year and a half of Swamp-writing such a joy.

After coffee, the best part of Friday mornings is getting the first reactions from readers to that week’s Swamp. You’ve made me burst out laughing at your anecdotes, you have overwhelmed me with affection and support; in short, I have walked around with the 1812 Overture playing in my heart after hearing from you.

–Er, mostly. David Frum has a funny line about how it is “always a pleasure to hear from intelligent, well-informed readers, and then there are readers like–”

Hmm… let’s scroll through the loathe-mail. My very first came last summer from a Mr. Bifarelli, who felt it necessary to relieve his feelings in a note to me after the appearance of the first Swamp column, from the cottage in Maine: Candidly, I can not recall ingesting anything in print that contains less imagination, style and cultural significance than your self-indulgent, inane essay. Unless of course, we’re addressing your future projects.

Thank you, Mr. Bifarelli! And may I say candidly, sir, that you sound like a jet engine that has ingested a goose! More recently I received this helpful note from someone styling himself “Mark Caywood, Journalist:”

You are the worst writer on earth. Do the planet a favor






Sorry, Mark Caywood, Journalist! No can do!

I bear the Bifarellis and Caywood, Journalists no malice (though amazingly they seem to bear it towards me), but I do hope that they, along with the other anti-Swampers, realized they could click on something else to read.

Any writer will tell you that it is no fun to get rude notes. But it is also true that no amount of sneering can detract from the honor and pleasure of hearing from appreciative readers such as this man:

Thank you. I am a divorced man of 50. Reading your writings has made me remember and cherish my own children, ages 30 and 26. It helps to relive the years of their youth.

Or this one:

I am always, always in a better mood after reading your columns than I am before reading them.

Or this:

You are… me.

Or, if possible even more gratifying, this:

My wife loves The Fever Swamp, even if she is shocked and a bit dismayed that she would, as she put it, “enjoy anything associated with National Review.”

And the stories! The Fever Swamp last fall about the ghastliness of children’s birthday parties brought in dozens of aargh-me-too responses. James Rudolph wondered how I could have forgotten pinatas.

On more than one occasion, I saw fathers bashing pinatas repeatedly with a baseball bat. Once, we were at a party held at the beach. The kids were unsuccessfully trying to break the pinata with a broomstick. Finally, the birthday boy’s father took the broomstick and started beating the pinata with all his strength. The pinata held firm, but the broomstick broke, and a large piece of the stick when flying across the beach and hit a small girl in the mouth.

Tolstoy famously observed that all happy families are alike. Probably this is why so many of your stories sound like ours. Read, for example, John Novak’s account of his son’s sixth birthday party.

I rented a jumping machine for the kids. You know the type, the big air mattress ones with the netting. †After watching for about half an hour, I decided to join in.

I crawled through the flap and yelled, “Who thinks they can take me?” Bad question, for as they proved, they could all take me. I was a water buffalo brought down by a pride of hungry lions. They pinned me and would not let me up. One or two would take turns leaving the pile to jack-knife or cannon-ball on my head and neck. The shrieks of joy from the “children” were primal, and I prayed for a swift end. The big thing I noticed: There is a lot of difference between the size of five-year-olds and sixes. Last year, I could take these kids. This year, after bulking up on bags of Hot-Cheetos and 7-layer Taco Bell burritos, they were too much. To clarify, they were bulking up–not me.

Finally, an arm reached through the flap, and a hand thrust forth promising salvation. I recognized it as my brother’s. As I was catching my breath, my brother, older and wiser with two kids of his own, counseled me, “What did you do that for? Did you see any other parents trying that? No. Didn’t you think there was a reason for that?”

My account of being perpetually behind-hand in getting theatre tickets, or trying to buy a bikini when it is hot outside as opposed to in February when the things are actually available in the shops, reminded Rachel Balducci of herself, in reverse:

My problem is that I imagine at times that the things of importance to me are also driving hordes of others. When a recent flick came out that I had been waiting to rent, I rushed to the video store that Tuesday morning, on the way home from pre-school drop-off, thoroughly expecting to see throngs of fellow movie renters. I had hauled butt down the highway, rushed my good-byes with the boys and raced to the store. Nary a soul. I had my pick of the forty copies available.

Trying to calm my bad self down.

And Linda Boden sent this painful account of the annual September tragedy:

I was the only mommy blubbing on my way out of nursery school on my son’s first day. He started first grade last week, and so I had to pack him his first big kid lunch for his first full day of school. I was a wreck, tucking the little packages of fruit snacks and a juice box in to his Nightmare Before Christmas lunch box, cutting the crust off the sandwich, folding up a little napkin, tucking in a little note… My husband was no help. He was standing there going, “Aww, look at his little lunch box! And his little fruit snacks! Doesn’t it seem like he was just a baby?” I told him to get out of my kitchen.

The boy didn’t use the napkin or read the note.

In the past year-and-a-half, I’ve replaced our fried doorbell by following the advice of Don McCorvey, Space Shuttle Flight Controls specialist at Boeing, laughed at reader Ralph Campbell’s account of handling a chest freezer full of rotting food (“being an Environmental and Chemical Engineer I donned a level B chemical hazard suit with an air purifying respirator,” he wrote), and baked innumerable almond pound cakes according to Harry Rimmer’s recipe. I’ve passed off the wisdom of Jeannine Stergios as my own (“Instant gratification does not build character!”), gotten unnatural satisfaction from Sarah Peacock’s comment, “You make me feel normal,” and have been routinely tormented by the incorrigible Dave Barnhart, who lives in, apparently, Eden (“70 degrees and sunshine today. I drove with the windows AND SUNROOF open.”).

God bless you, every one!

That takes care of my attack of sentimentality this New Year’s Eve–now for the brute practicality. Forgive me, dear reader, if yours was among the e-mails that didn’t get answered in 2003 or 2004.

Scrolling through my Augean e-mail file for the past four hours, I did something brave and terrible. I have rasa-ed my tabula and dumped all correspondence, both replied-to and un-replied-to, into a distant folder. One of the character flaws I intend to fix in 2005 is a tendency to procrastinate in responding to e-mails. If I’ve wiped out the old ones, why, I’ve automatically caught up!

Happy New Year.


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