Dear Sir or Madam:
Recently, my quality of life took a rather abrupt downswing when I was unexpectedly required to accompany my mother on one of her weekly visits to the chiropractor. Some undoubtedly banal meeting at the State Department of Environmental Conservation, mother’s place of employ, had run late, and she picked me up from orchestra practice nearly an hour past the designated time. There I sat, alone and forlorn on the windswept steps of Van Buren Middle School, penciling away at my algebra homework and chewing on the ends of my hair as I sometimes do when anxious, and when mother finally fetched me from school there was no time to drop me off at home before her chiropractic appointment, so I was forced to trundle along with her. Off we rode to one of the charmant suburbs of Albany (as you can imagine, the only thing worse than living in Albany is living in a suburb of Albany), during which I responded as tersely as humanly possible to my mother’s various and sundry questions about my day at school and focused instead on staring out of the window and imagining I was a Willa Cather heroine being dragged against my will to meet the Scandavian farmboy two towns over to whom I would soon be betrothed in exchange for a herd of Holstein cows or some such. Too soon we arrived at the dismal strip mall where this chiropractor shall watch his life unspool before him in a grim and windowless room kneading the backfat of so many office drones. (However, because the strip mall is bordered on one side by the interstate and on the other by another strip mall, I might consider “windowless” in this context to be a blessing.) In we went, mother depositing me in the waiting room like a sack of donations being dropped off at the Goodwill—I do suspect my surly in-car attitude had something to do with this—and I was left to my own defenses with only a television tuned to Fox News bleating the latest political scandales and a coffee table stacked high with magazines, including a number of issues of the publication in question, Star magazine.
I cracked open my English homework, which for this week is the unfortunate saccharine drivel that is Romeo and Juliet. I for one am convinced that this play is part of our seventh grade English syllabus because the powers that be at the Department of Education have decided that tempestuous romance and gang rivalries are the only topics able to keep us seventh graders occupied by Shakespeare for more than three minutes at a time, which I daresay implies an appalling lack of faith on the DOE’s part in our collective intellect. Not that I myself have much faith in the mental capacities of my fellow peers at Van Buren. Surely, however, we could handle the intrigues and seductions of Hamlet? Or at least the blood-lust of Macbeth? God forbid we ever read any piece of literature that doesn’t have an accompanying “hip” film adaptation that translates the material for “tweens,” as Baz Lurhman attempted to do with his 1996 blasphemy, “Romeo + Juliet”. The gunplay, the Hawaiian shirts, the nausea-inducing cinematography, even the digitized ampersand in the title are all utter perversions of literature and send an existential shiver down my vertebrae (as does the term “tween”). And why—why, why? I want to beg of Mrs. Dilfer, she-bastion of mediocrity and pleated slacks posing as our teacher—must we screen the film before we read the work? It is as if the thing Mrs. Dilfer most wants to avoid is any sort of exertion on the part of the student. I am sure even my nemesis, Madison Lauren, and her twittering clique of sheeplet followers could dust off the limited collection of their neurons not being used to think about boys and objects sold at the mall and, by rubbing said neurons together not unlike cavemen making the first fire by twisting rudimentary stick against stick, in due course understand the antiquated cadences of Shakespearean English—if only they were required by our teacher to do so. If only someone asked us to read Hamlet, then perhaps we could. Whatever happened to the age-old carrot and stick? Whatever happened to metrics and standards and goals? At the age of twelve I somehow already feel a semblance of world-weariness beginning to creep around my shoulders and eyes. I know life, as well as seventh-grade English, and will proceed apace, and the Madison Laurens of this world will continue to text under their desks and swoon over Leonardo DiCaprio’s impassioned yet still strangely robotic delivery, and I will continue to fire off these missives into the stratosphere with little to no hope of their ever making an impact anywhere, not unlike the weepy mothers of so many mediocre coeds being dropped off at university for the first time.
Naturally, I have digressed. Returning to the mise en scene: I settled into the grim polyblend upholstery of my waiting-room chair and attempted—truly I did—to keep my eyes trained on the text of Romeo and Juliet. But, I must now admit to you, dear sir or madam, that the bright colors and loud text arrangements of your publication kept drawing my eye hither and thither, ’til at last I could resist temptation no longer. I put down Shakespeare and I picked up Star magazine, which I am definitely not allowed to read, if it has in fact ever even entered my mother’s latent hippie consciousness that Star magazine exists.
I am ashamed almost to the point of tears to confess that I was quickly and totally absorbed by the cultural black hole that is your publication. Is this what heroin is like? I turned one page, then another, then another, rubbing the soft glossy paper betwixt my fingers, my eyes roving over photographs of celebrities in various angles of repose (enjoying a luncheon of salade at a sidewalk cafe, palming frocks on boutique racks, dragging children through city streets), images framed by neon borders (pinks and blues and yellows clearly appropriated from the Pantone™ spectrum of childrens’ cereal boxes) and idiotic captions of dubious grammatical quality—images which by any measure of reason or logic should be considered stupefyingly banal and literally (a word I do not use lightly) pointless, but which somehow became more and more fascinating the longer I read. I was utterly bewitched. I could not get enough. I devoured every single terrible article printed in that issue of Star magazine (and particularly enjoyed the cover story, “Best and Worst Beach Bodies”), even the worst drivel in the back pages (horoscopes, makeup advice). All this despite the fact that I recognize maybe a third of the celebrities included in your publication (it seems one of your higher-ups is quite taken with Dancing With The Stars, which I am only permitted to view when Mee-Maw comes over to watch us, not because mother thinks it is “too adult” but because father says that it is “vile dreck,” a point on which I am not disinclined to agree with him). All this despite the fact that the quality of copy in your publication is beyond abysmal, studded through as it is with typographical errors and pathetic grabs at punnery and cleverness, its content completely devoid of insight, its only purpose to deliver stinking heaps of gossip, the veracity of which is at best questionable, in the eye-winking, exclamatory style of my chain-smoking Aunt Marlene who lives in Schenectady. The syntax and vocabulary of the writing in your magazine is so rudimentary a six-year-old could read it—not only read it, but be offended by its total lack of literary charm. Yes, despite all this, in the hour and ten minutes my mother visited with the chiropractor, I read three and a half issues of Star magazine. I was right in the middle of a delightfully jejune little piece about someone named Brooke Hogan, who from what can be intimated via the accompanying picture, has truly appalling taste in denim apparel, when I heard the waiting room door creak open and my mother’s duck-booted footstep on the industrially carpeted floor. I looked up, my visage undoubtedly flushing a telling crimson. At that moment I realized I had long ago let Romeo and Juliet fall to the floor underneath my chair, binding open, its pages folded and crumpled. I hurriedly closed Star’s slim sheaf and shoved the issue under some parenting magazine on the coffee tableau before me whilst my mother busied herself at the glass checkout window by searching her wallet for her insurance card.
I felt diseased. I felt empty, mawkish, slightly dizzy, my mouth dry, my temples damp. I rescued Romeo and Juliet from its place of ignominy beneath my seat and attempted to de-crease the damaged pages with no small amount of love and regret, my hand caressing the book not unlike the palm one would imagine Juliet lay on poor dead Romeo’s still-warm cheek. I suppose, now that I have come to the conclusion of my letter, that I do not have any advice to offer you, Star magazine, other than the aforementioned arguments I have with the minimal capabilities of your reporting staff. I suppose you ought to fire everyone and start over by hiring a cache of recent graduates from some of the more prestigious journalism schools around the country; such persons will undoubtedly, in this economy, be so in need of a job that the resounding humiliation of working for a publication such as yours would be outweighed by the financial considerations of student loan debt. Perhaps then, and only then, your copy might improve, though its superficial content is doomed ever to remain the same. I suppose that this is the real reason I write to you: I must ask how does your editorial staff sleep at night, knowing that the salacious fairy-stories broadcast by your magazine can colonize even the minds of innocent children such as myself? If I, I who pride myself on my literary taste and (I flatter myself) precociously intellectual leanings in general, can fritter away a whole hour on such unrefined nonsense, then surely the general populace is in great danger of flushing their whole lives away reading the same? It is no wonder no one reads anything half as challenging as Shakespeare, when simple pleasures are so readily available. It is no wonder Mrs. Dilfer is always in such a rush to pop in the film adaptation of whatever it is we are reading; perhaps she, too, has fallen victim to an attention-span-shortening, brain-dulling tabloid addiction. Perhaps she even covertly reads your publication at her desk while the in-class movie drones on. A life spent addicted to such slosh rags—a road already well traveled by Madison Lauren, who I know for a fact stashes Teen Beat inside her binder—is a life at the very least devoid of the real emotion and empathy engendered by true absorption in a first-class literary masterpiece. To sum: Marx needs updating. ’Tis gossip, not religion, that is now the opiate of the masses.
Repent, and be saved,
Liz lives and writes in Baton Rouge, Louisiana.