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Issue Date:  August 26, 2005

NCR Letters: You don't know the half of it


Ever since I started as Letters editor here, I’ve had to get used to reading some of the extreme sentiments that readers express toward our newspaper. Among many thoughtful reader comments are interspersed messages accusing the entire NCR staff of being heretics (“As a Catholic News Paper and assuming you are loyal to the Church of Rome, how can you support the feminists arguments in opposition to the John Paul II correspondence …”) or of being papal sycophants (“It would seem that one can no longer open the National Catholic Reporter without tripping over Neo-Con refuse. If it’s not John Allen’s genuflections to John Paul II …”). Benedict XVI has inspired plenty of letters along those lines, too.

I’m a quiet person. I don’t like conflict. So as I go through the Letters e-mail page, it’s actually a relief to see the unpolarizing words: “subject: kumquat -- Your friend has set you up on a surprise date. Come quick!”

It’s nice to know that NCR Letters still has some friends out there. Especially friends like “Jennifer” and “Amber,” who are always “looking for someone to talk to” and inviting Letters to check out their Web sites, where they can chat and look at pictures. Isn’t that nice?

Judging from some of the other messages that Letters gets on a daily basis, Letters has done more than just visit Amber’s Web site. Other messages ask, “Letters are you married?” or “how is your hsuabnd?” (sic) or “Help your husband with his problem.” They better ask. As a good Catholic, Letters would have to be married before it could respond to the e-mails for Zenextend Enlargement Pills, guaranteed to “offer the best Male Augmentation on the Web,” or to any one of the other personalized endorsements that promise to give Letters satisfaction in its wedded state (“Letters it doesn’t get any better.” “Letters yes it’s true.” “Letters you don’t know the half of it.” “subject: Mr. Absolute”). Patty McCarty, the poetry editor, was once discussing an invitation NCR Poetry had received to go on a cruise. When I told her about the kinds of offers NCR Letters has to fend off, she remarked, “Letters gets around.”

It seems that Letters did find a love connection on the Internet, maybe Amber, because it looks to be settling down and trying to get on with its life. Right under our noses, Letters is apparently applying for a mortgage loan (“Letters receipt of payment”), putting on a few pounds (“Permanently L0se We1ght”) and might even be dealing with some of those little aches that come from growing older (“Letters best pain reliever ever”).

In its quest to be more responsible, Letters also wants to finish its education and get a better job with an easy “no-study college degree,” for which it has many possible choices. Opening “subject: Do you remember me?” gives Letters the rundown on what it can expect, whether it is seeking a bachelor’s, master’s or Ph.D. “Get your own degree in 30 days! There are no classes to attend and there are no books to read.” A message from Maritza.Queen explains that she is prepared to send Letters “A real University Degree Awarded from your qualified life experience. We honor the age-old tradition of Apprenticeship learning. Learning on the job are the way people learned for thousands of years. Our institution honors this tradition and values the experience of our students.”

But even if it doesn’t take Maritza.Queen up on her offer, Letters has already gotten quite an education just by hanging around in NCR editorial e-mail. In linguistics, first of all. It takes a lot of creativity to come up with eye-catching subject lines like “francisco glandular” or “re: depressible gyroscope” or “re: wigwam moor.” Letters can practice its scansion exercises on iambic subject lines (“now her friends are pulse forbade”) and grapple with mind-bending concepts such as this one from “subject: turkey 3 bonbons”: “When defined by labyrinth is imaginative, cough syrup related to bride derive perverse satisfaction from abstraction inside dilettante.”

And after its education in the written word, Letters gets an education in the classics. Messages for medications like Soma (“Letters get more energy”) include quotes from Einstein, Saki and e.e. cummings, as well as “Moral indignation is jealousy with a halo” (H.G. Wells) and “Give me chastity and continence, but not yet” (St. Augustine).

There’s even theology. One message proposed: “Imagine being like god.”

And then there are the letters themselves. They offer a wealth of insight into human nature. The same article can provoke completely opposite reactions from the people who write in to express their opinions about it. They classify themselves as “liberal,” “orthodox,” “conservative,” “progressive” or nothing at all; they range from the doubters to the devout to those who are both at the same time. Clearly, Letters sees, our church and our country encompass a multitude of views. People are infinitely complex.

Maybe Letters will get its degree in psychology.

Benedictine Sr. Antonia Ryan is an NCR staff writer. Her e-mail address is

National Catholic Reporter, August 26, 2005

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