the writing and photography of Neil Kramer

Tag: reading

Veronica’s Letters


Most people don’t know they are crazy until they sit down for an intervention with themselves.

My friend, Veronica is a artsy-craftsy woman. She creates gorgeous birthday cards using ink and collage. On Facebook, she is a member of a group named, “Save the Post Office,” which advocates for old-school letter writing by hand. For those who might not know what that means, it includes licking stamps, sticking them on store-bought envelopes, then sending the letter, non-electronically, person to person, like Ben Franklin might have once done, through the United States Post Office, something many of us haven’t done since 1992.

Veronica and I met in 2005, during the early days of personal blogging. She stopped writing her blog a few years ago, but recently she said that she missed sharing her personal stories. Social media just didn’t do it for her. She had an idea. She would write personal letters to her friends, scribed by hand, as if she was sent back in a time machine to her teenage years. One of those friends turned out to be me.

I did not know Veronica had included me in this experiment, but I certainly wasn’t surprised when I received her letter in the mail. She enjoys pushing herself creatively, someone who will take the time to write you a personal letter rather than take the easy route of pushing a button on Facebook Messenger.

I opened the mailbox that day at noon. Inside the box were the usual suspects — bills, a New Yorker magazine, and a coupon from Bed, Bath, and Beyond. Stuck in between the pages of the magazine was Veronica’s letter, my name hand-written on the envelope in a non-perfect cursive; it made me smile. I had a phone call to make, so I decided to open the letter in the evening, when I could give it my attention.

At 8PM I went to my desk and picked up the letter. It was time to read it. But when I tried to open it, I froze. Something was preventing me from opening the envelope, by why? What was there to fear? To avoid the discomfort, I opened Facebook on my laptop, but when I saw the glowing green light of Veronica in Messenger, I worried that she would ask me about the letter, so I shut off the computer. I grabbed the envelope and took it with me to bed, but when I started to tear it open, my mind filled with movie images from the past.

There was the Army messenger handing over the grim letter to the young woman, now a widow, at her front door. The lover awakening to a goodbye letter on the bed, signifying the end of a relationship. The suburban man’s suicide letter left after being fired from the company, being too ashamed to face his family.

Why did these melodramatic scenes pop into my head? Did I know they bore no connection to Veronica’s letter? Of course I did.

I waited until the next morning to open the envelope, when I had a renewed sense of reality. Veronica’s letter was personal, but contained nothing she couldn’t write publicly about on Facebook. She said her kids were growing up, getting married and going to college, and this was creating changes in her life as well. Nothing scandalous or scary.

That day, another letter arrived. Veronica’s letter-writing experiment was going to continue all week.

I found it easier to open the second handwritten letter. When I unfolded it, I immediately noticed that Veronica did some editing, crossing out a sentence with her pen, then scribbling her new thought sideways, in the margin. This raised the stakes in her letter-writing. The imperfections of the second letter was reminiscent of the notes you might pass in homeroom during elementary school. And again, I froze, for a different reason that the day before. Seeing Veronica’s edits, and touching the same paper that she once held in her hand was too visceral, like I could feel her pen still vibrating on the page. It felt too intimate, like I had walked into the bathroom while she was there, and I froze in a combination of curiosity and shame.

Yes. I know what you are thinking. Crazy. I was beginning to think so myself.

My letter reading improved as the week went on, until I received the seventh and last letter, which I couldn’t open for another four days.

Let me make sure you understand all this. None of these letters were intense or extremely personal. These letter were not sent to torment me, but as a creative exercise for herself. I know this because after reading the last letter, I finally called her on the phone.

“Veronica, I want to talk to you. It’s a little weird and personal….” I said, telling her my tale of the five handwritten letters. And as I proceeded, I gained the ability to step away and analyze my craziness. Maybe this is the true power of storytelling. You begin to understand yourself.

My hangup was about intimacy. Intimacy and anxiety in the digital age. For eleven years, a large bulk of my socializing has been mediated through electronic means — laptops, tablets, and phones, blogging, Facebook, instagram — to the point where I never hold a hand-written letter in my hands or speak to a friend on the telephone. My conversations are on IM or email, outlets without physical contact. Even Skype is a two-dimensional representation of reality. Since my divorce, I’ve had two romantic relationships, both based online, but the major background to our romantic tales doesn’t primarily take place in romantic cities like New York or Paris, but behind the lighted screens of our laptops, hundreds and thousands of miles apart.

Yes, I meet friends and lovers in person, but I wonder if my online existence has become so habitual that I have grown uncomfortable with the intimacy of something as innocent as a handwritten letter. I have grown so comfortable chatting with a thousand people at a time on social media, that sitting with a personal letter written just for me freaks me out. That is crazy. The truth is I felt myself unable to handle the intimacy of reading the letters, the lack of control. Would I have to write back? What if I connect too deeply? What if I don’t know what to say, or she says something that makes me cry? What if she is telling me that she is getting a divorce or has some mysterious disease? Can I just press the like button? Have I forgotten what it’s like to have a real friend? And what does this say about my relationships with others? Romantic ones.

“Maybe I shouldn’t write you again,” she said at the end of our conversation, laughing. “I didn’t realize it would affect you so much!”

But I hope she does. Or even better — maybe I should write back.

My Media Diet: What I Read

One of my guilty pleasures on the web is The Atlantic Magazine’s online “Media Diet.” This is not the typical online venue where someone goes to”goof off.”  There are no songs about “Friday” here.   The column views itself as a respectable destination to help others overcome the information overload of modern times., with responses from such media heavy-hitters ranging such as Joseph Epstein and Peggy Noonan.

How do other people deal with the torrent of information that pours down on us all? Do they have some secret? Perhaps. We are asking various people who seem well-informed to describe their media diets.

This is the stated mission of the column, but I’m sure most readers come to see what media bigwigs do online, so they can flagellate themselves for being losers laughing at LOL Cats rather than reading the latest update from the New York Review of Books.

If a tech-savvy statistician created a graph analyzing the data from this site, he would conclude that what separates a media industry success story from the common man is his better daily reading list.

Is it my imagination, but does everyone who contributes to this “Media Diet” column only read the other contributors?  I’m sad to announce this, but I did not see one mention from any of these columnists about them reading a personal blogger!  Although it makes me sad that the editors of Mother Jones and Vanity Fair are not regular readers of Citizen of the Month, I understand that these are busy people.  They look for information that matters to them, which doesn’t include caring about my mother returning from Boca Raton.

But don’t any of these media bigwigs HAVE a mother, or at least family members or online friends who don’t work in the media?  Doesn’t the editor of Harper’s Magazine ever receive corny email jokes from his Aunt Mildred about “this rabbi from Cleveland who was having an affair with his secretary?”  These are part of my media diet.  Unfortunately.   And as much as I find these emails annoying, I might even respond to one.  “That cracked me up, Aunt Mildred!  I love being on your “joke list” so much, please unsubscribe me from this email account and send it to my main, more important “hotmail account” instead,!  Love you.”

Does David Brooks of the New York Times consume anything other than “the Weekly Standard, The New Republic, The Atlantic, The New Yorker, The New York Review of Books, The Claremont Review, Foreign Affairs, Foreign Policy, and National Affairs?”

For another example, here is a section of Media Diet:  What I Read by Emily Yoffe, a Slate contributor who writes their “Human Guinea Pig” and “Dear Prudence” features.  She is a writer I really like.

I look at Real Clear Politics, Politico, The Atlantic (Goldblog first), Politics Daily, Romenesko. I mostly see stuff on The Daily Beast or Huffington Post because someone sent it to me. The columnists I always read are Ruth Marcus, Bret Stephens, David Brooks, Charles Krauthammer, Mark Steyn, Michael Kinsley. (I owe my career to Mike – although please don’t pin the blame on him.) I appreciate the reporting and analysis of Claudia Rosett at Pajamas Media, and Anne Bayefsky at National Review Online.

Should I feel ashamed of my own media diet — which consists of mommybloggers, Facebook updates from overly depressed writers, vicious Twitter fights over whether or not “raisins are disgusting,” and blogs about women accidentally coloring their pubic hair to the color blue?

Are we what we eat, both in what we put into our mouths AND into our minds?

Have you seen the commercial for Pediasure “Sidekicks” for children?  Two soccer moms are watching their daughters playing in a soccer game.  One of the daughters drinks Pediasure before the game.  You know this because she is the superstar scoring goal after goal.  The other girls, who don’t drink Pediasure, are sluggish and poor athletes.  They are “what they eat.”  You know this because the advertisers portray these girls as mutant children shaped like French Fries and frosted donuts.

You ARE what you eat.  At least in our consumer society where the aim is to make you insecure about who you are, and what you read (or the music you listen to).

The Atlantic Magazine Media Diet column has made me think about my own daily online diet.  I’m not being judgmental about myself (OK, I am a little), but analyzing myself, and maybe prompting myself to adjust how I spend my time online.   Currently, I am trying to write more AND read more books, giving me less time to read YOU.  And I like YOU.  I really do.   But you don’t pay the bills.

So, how do I juggle all of this?  Does it really matter who I read?   During my years online, my struggles with knowing what to do with YOU has bothered me more than how you felt about ME.  Am I talking about “branding” again?  Perhaps the editors of The Economist also read the personal blogs of their friends, but just don’t say so publicly, wanting to keep a professional image?  Perhaps they are on LOL Cats every day and then fake a list for the Atlantic?!  Does anyone judge me on what I read, or am I judging myself?

The following is my current “media diet.”  It is a typical online day in April 2011.  I tried to be honest about my day.   Believe me, I am the first to notice that I spend too time online, and not always in the most productive way.

Feel free to write about your “media diet” on your own blog.  I bet it will be eye-opening.

Media Diet
by Neil Kramer
writer of the blog Citizen of the Month

Once upon a time, the first thing I did upon waking up, was to drag myself to the bathroom, eyes still half sleepily shut, and pee, frequently missing the bowl itself.

Those days are long gone, almost quaint in my mind.

Today, the first action of the day is to grab my iphone, which is usually sitting on the pillow next to me, like a loyal lover, or a eager pet puppy, and going online.

The mornings before breakfast, are all about ME.  I check my email.  I go to my blog to see if I received any more comments, and delete the spam uncaught by Akismet.  I go on Facebook to see if there were any responses to my updates or comments. And lastly, I go on Twitter, to see if I got any mentions or DMs.

My only focus on the outside world is that I wish happy birthday to my friends on Facebook!  It is almost a habit.

I don’t check the news before breakfast, so if World War III had started, I would be unaware of it.  I might make a joke on Facebook to a blogger in St. Louis while I was still in bed, not even realizing that St. Louis had been destroyed the evening before.

It is not until breakfast that I focus on the “real world.”  I juice up my laptop and turn to Google News.  I find this site ugly in design, but it is still the best place to get a quick glance of what is going on in the world.

I used to be a news junkie, but blogging has changed me.  I now feel — and I say this in all seriousness — that I learn more about the human condition and life from reading personal blogs.  This might change soon, as my life — and the blogging world — changes.

Breakfast is over.  It is now the “work day.”  I struggle with an internet habit.  I have not been shy about mentioning this on my blog.  I am tempted to stay online, particularly on Twitter, and I succumb often.  I have tried many different methods to battle this, from using alarms to pulling the plug out of the router.  The best thing for my work is to avoid Twitter during the day.  Or set an alarm which promptly sends electrical jolts to my testicles if I don’t get offline immediately.

I follow over 3000 people on Twitter.  One solution that works well for me in cutting out some of the chaos is the use of Twitter lists.  I have two lists, ALWAYS READ and SOMETIMES READ.  I try to keep the ALWAYS READ column very short, 150 people, the number associated with Dunbar’s Number.

If I do go on Twitter during the morning, it is usually to scan the ALWAYS READ column, those who I consider closest in friendship.  I also respond to those who send messages to me.  Sometimes.

The morning is all Twitter, which is dangerous to my work.  At some point, I finally get offline to do something constructive.  Like I said, I am working on this.

It is not until lunchtime that I read any blog posts.  My days of reading hundreds of blogs a day are long gone.  I can’t handle it.   I usually go onto my Google Reader (or Feedly, which I love), where I have another ALWAYS READ column.  As a creature of habit, this column also contains Dunbar’s number of 150.  I rarely get through more than five blog posts during lunch, particularly if they are emotional or well-written. After you read something that touches you or makes you laugh, who wants to skip to another piece?  I like to let the writing sit with me as I eat my turkey sandwich.

Who do I read every day?  It’s not a big secret, although I feel uncomfortable posting it on a blogroll.  It is mostly a collection of people I have connected with throughout the years for one reason or another.  Danny and Schmutzie and V-grrrl and Tanis and Jane, and others who you see me talking about more than others.  Relationships change and sometimes I stop reading one of these people for a month or so.   You can grow apart.  You can get too close.  It’s all rather personal to me.

I catch up on most of my blog reading at night or on weekends.  In complete honesty, there are about ten of you who I read every single post you write, fifty of you who I read once a week, and others who I catch when I can, usually following a link from Twitter or Facebook.

During the afternoons, I find it much easier to concentrate on my work.  Although there are countless examples of me doing the opposite, I try not to go on Twitter.  If I do take a break during the afternoon, I tend to reach for Facebook.  I am not a Facebook addict, so I find it safer.  Some of my closest online friends are on Facebook rather than Twitter.  Twitter attracts the loud mouths and those who like to be the center of attention.  Twitter is like the cafeteria at NBC in Rockefeller Center, where clever people like to show off to each other.  Facebook is taking a trip to small-town USA, where people know everything about you.  I find Twitter relaxing.  I know that this isn’t the typical view, but this is how I perceive things, based on who I follow.  I look at your funny photos and learn about your new jobs and child’s birthday party.  I’ve accepted commerce and pimping as an essential part of Twitter.  I do not ALLOW it on my Facebook stream.

Each day, around 6PM – 7:30PM, a synapse clicks in my brain telling me that it is “serious news time.”  This probably has something to do with me being born before CNN, when the nightly news was an important TV event.  When I was a child, one of my daily joys was watching the local daily news with my father.  My family was a CBS news family, formed during the era of Walter Cronkite.  It is around this time that I indulge in my serious online time.  I have four major news/opinion sources in my Google Reader:  The New York Times, Slate, Salon, and the Atlantic.  If I am not in the mood to read at the moment, I use Read it Later to bookmark the article.

At night, if I am not going out, the internet has replaced television as my main source of “entertainment.”  If I am not writing my own blog post, I usually return to my blog reading.  I use Commentluv on my blogposts, so I can see the titles of the posts of those who recently commented.  I like to go through YOUR posts, one by one, curious what you are saying, or learning about the newcomers to my blog.  I don’t always comment back, but it is a ritual I enjoy.

After 8PM, I have no specific online routine.   I like to talk to people on IM, especially Juli, Jennifer, Marinka, or Schmutzie.   We sometimes gossip about some online drama of the day.  I then go back to Google Reader to continue with my ALWAYS READ group of 150.   I often return to Twitter until I get burned out or start ranting about some issue.   I’m sometimes online, reading Lifehacker, which gives me a geek thrill, or screenwriting blogs such as that of John August, until I fall asleep, which is why my phone is sitting on my pillow the next morning, where I start all over again.

I have no problem with my early morning Twitter/Facebook/blog rituals, my lunch-time blog reading, or my dinner-time news update.  It is the rest of the day that I would like to change.   I want to eliminate a good deal of my time wasting during the work day.  I would like to drastically reduce my nighttime online life so I can read more books, or socialize.  I’m sure these are issues that all of you deal with on a daily basis, including those media bigshots who write these “Media Diet” columns for the Atlantic.  People are people.

Would I be a better person if I consumed more of the quality media diet that these well-known media personalities do?  I doubt it.  It might help me career wise, but is knowing who got fired at Conde Nast today really more important than which personal blogger bought a new house?  The one big difference that is essential to remember is that those who contribute to the Atlantic “Media Diet” column never let their media consumption take over their lives.   They use it to enhance their own product.  They are producers before being consumers.  They do not read personal blogs or acknowledge Aunt Mildred’s joke emails because it is not related to their work.

Or else they just don’t talk about it online.

Reader’s Digest


I love all my blogger-friends.  I really do.  But there’s no way I’m going to sit here all day and read your dopey blogs on my mother’s dial-up here in Flushing — while I fall asleep during the page loads.   Did we once all used dial-up?  It’s like still using morse code.


But I hate not keeping up with the lives of other people.  What if someone gets engaged or finds a new job or has sex with a midget — and I miss the post?  It just won’t be the same reading the post a week from now, when everyone else has moved on and I’m the only one at the party.

So, I have a favor to ask.   Could you write a one sentence synopsis of what’s going on in your current life so I can feel like I’m still “plugged in” to the blogosphere — sort of a “Reader’s Digest” of my usual blog reading. 

Please ONE SENTENCE only.  After all, I’m on vacation.  And seriously, how interesting is your life anyway that it deserves more than one sentence?

We’ll be in the Berskshires next week if anyone wants to come visit.

A Year Ago in Citizen of the Month:  Judging a Man by His Shoes

Social media & sharing icons powered by UltimatelySocial