Open Letters to People or Entities Who Are Unlikely to Respond
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An Open Letter to John Hennessy, President of Stanford University.
Dear President Hennessy,
Forgive me! You have sent me so many thoughtful letters over the years, and I have never written back, never answered your one big question. I hope I didn’t seem sullen or ungrateful; if I didn’t write, it was only because I felt shy, or generally overwhelmed. Yesterday, however, I got a letter from you that shook me from my shyness; and since I am unemployed, I can no longer claim to be generally overwhelmed.
Well, the letter wasn’t actually from you, it was from the Stanford Bookstore. And it wasn’t actually a letter; it was a catalog. But may I tell you about this Stanford Bookstore Catalog? May I tell you about its “fine apparel and gifts”?
After all, a good catalog is nothing more or less than an inventory of the worldly goods that would be owned by that catalog’s model customer—so the Stanford Bookstore Catalog provides a portrait of the material life of the model Stanford alum.
They are clean athletes, the model alumni. They golf.
They use Stanford golf balls, Stanford golf tees, Stanford golf gloves and Stanford golf towels (ITEMS #6700919-J AND -K, $54.00). They protect their golf clubs using the Stanford “head cover,” which is a green velveteen sock puppet in shape of the Stanford redwood tree—complete with the googly eyes and the cartoon grin (#6700919-G, $32.00).
These model alumni use one kind of official Stanford frame (HIGH-GLOSS CHERRY FINISH WITH A GOLD INNER BEVEL, #6700920-A2, $160.00) to display their diplomas, and another kind of official Stanford frame (HEAVY CHROME ON SOLID BRASS #6700981-C2, $42.00) to display their automobile license plates. At home they drink wine from Stanford wine glasses (#6700918-F, $12.00), and then change into slim-fit cotton/poly Victoria’s Secret Stanford pajama pants (#6700913-B, $44.50), or slim-fit cotton/poly College Concepts Stanford boxer shorts (#6700914-H, $24.00). Drunk and snugly, they bed down in an official Stanford blanket (#6700917-H, $34.00). Does the catalog reveal the sex lives of model alumni? It does. They are fecund, and they dress their progeny in Stanford bibs (#6700916-E, $10.00), Stanford onesies (#6700916-C, $18.00), Stanford booties (#6700916-F, $8.00), and Stanford infant warming caps (#6700916-D,$10.00).
One thing that model Stanford alumni have no time for is reading; the Stanford Bookstore Catalog contains no books.
Instead, the model alum’s leisure time is consumed in exercising exquisite discrimination about shirts. If there is one principle on which no Stanford alum will ever compromise, it is this: A shirt for every occasion. The catalog offers shirts in red, printed with white letters that read …
… and it offer shirts in white, printed with red letters that read …
… and it offers shirts, both red-on-white and red-on-red, that simply bear the letter …
… albeit with a silhouette of the aforementioned redwood tree dividing the curves of the S like the vertical stroke of a dollar sign.
There are short-sleeve Stanford tee-shirts, there are long-sleeve Stanford tee-shirts, and there is also something called the “Nike Long Sleeve Cross-Campus Tee,” which looks like a short-sleeve Stanford T-shirt pulled over a long-sleeve Stanford tee-shirt, but which is, in fact, a one-piece top. There are Stanford tanks and Stanford hoodies, there are Stanford polo shirts and Stanford singlets. There is a Stanford jacket called the “Fumblerooskie.” There are quarter-zip Stanford jackets, and half-zip Stanford vests, and full-zip Stanford sweatshirts.
President Hennessy, these shirts are available in a variety of fabrics and fabric blends, including: cotton, polyester, cotton/polyester, cotton/spandex, polyester/spandex, polyester/cotton/rayon, fleece, microfleece and twill.
Need I list the Stanford hats, pants and mugs, the Stanford hair accessories, the Stanford furniture? It seems that Stanford’s model alumni broadly prefer, above all over kinds of goods, goods with highly visible labels. There are even Stanford teddy bears wearing their own Stanford gear. Bizarrely, there is only one style of shirt available for the bears—men’s short-sleeve 100% cotton Stanford T-shirts in red—but the bears themselves are available in two ethnicities, “Light Brown” or “Dark Brown.”
The question is not: Who needs this stuff? Apparently who needs this stuff is the Stanford alumni population. The question is rather: What is the nature of that need?
Will you permit me an analogy, President Hennessy? It is an amphibian analogy.
For years and years Stanford undergraduates built bonfires to celebrate their annual football game against Berkeley, but in 1993, when I was a freshman, the bonfires were forever canceled out of concern that the heat and the crowds were endangering the California tiger salamanders that breed on Stanford’s campus. Well, no doubt you have heard about the latest threat to California tiger salamanders? Chytridiomycosis? It is a fungal disease, it is contributing to the global death of the amphibians, and apparently the underlying fungus was spread from continent to continent by the international trade in African clawed frogs.
African clawed frogs are popular with frog collectors, President Hennessy. They are featured in frog catalogs. So let us consider these frog enthusiasts: Some of these enthusiasts may operate laboratories that do top frog science. Some of these enthusiasts may run philanthropic petting zoos that offer fantasy safaris to children with leukemia. But no doubt most frog enthusiasts are uninspired post-docs stuck in dead-end departments, or wannabe Dr. Doolittles practicing telepathy on amphibians, or teens who divide their free time between terrariums and onanism. What a trivial amount of human pleasure these enthusiasts must get from their African clawed frogs! The marginal increase in total human joy that comes from permitting one frog enthusiast to fondle not just any frog, but an African clawed frog is small—it is trivially small—it is as trivially small as the marginal increase in total human joy that comes from permitting one Stanford grad to fondle not just any 12-oz. neoprene beer cozy, but a 12-oz. neoprene Stanford beer cozy (#6700917-D, $5.95).
And now my analogy comes to adulthood, President Hennessy; now, like a tadpole, my analogy metabolizes its tail: We would never have permitted frog enthusiasts to gratify themselves with African clawed frogs if we knew that the cost might be the extinction of entire orders, indeed an entire class of vertebrate life. So why do we permit Stanford alumni to gratify themselves with beer cozies? Just because I cannot name the fungus that is spread across the earth by the global trade in Stanford paraphernalia does not mean that such a fungus may not exist. And what if that fungus affected an entire vertebrate order? Say, the mammalian order Carnivora? Dr. Hennessy, depending on how bad this Stanford fungus is, we are talking about the disappearance of the cats, the dogs, the civets, the mongooses, the hyenas, the bears, the raccoons, the skunks, the badgers, the minks, the otters, the seals and the walruses—all at once! Just to placate the arrogance and nostalgia of human jackasses eager to bray about their alma mater!
We need more amphibians; we need more carnivores. What we do not need any more of are proud humans. So, the question is: Should we apes—we stadium-going, bottle-sucking, beer-fisting apes—we dissipated and incontinent apes—should we model Stanford alumni—should we be made fleetingly happier, micrometrically happier—should the planet bend over backwards to provide for our smallest material whim—or is enough at long last enough—may dollars finally be damned—will someone finally tell us, as model Stanford grads, ‘Your taste is despicable; your needs are unworthy; if this is what you want, you boors, then henceforth live in misery!’
You seem like a reasonable man, President Hennessy.
You seem like a man of enterprise and of intelligence.
Stanford University is not responsible for this fixation that Americans have, this determination to boast—and in particular to boast by purchasing and displaying logo-emblazoned brick-a-brack. But Stanford University is directly responsible for the deplorable desires that result from Stanford Pride. And given the risks of catering to such desires, I pray that you will act to cease the manufacture, immediately, of all Stanford tchotchkes—or at least to start selling some Stanford condoms to keep the population down.
Anyway, President Hennessy, here I am at the end of my letter, and I still have not responded to your one big question: Will I send you some money for Stanford?
Yes, President Hennessy, yes, I am happy to send you some money for Stanford. As I said, I am unemployed, but I have $108 in my wallet. How much do you need? And, if it isn’t rude to ask, when do you think you’ll be able to pay me back?
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