I got another chain letter last week. I seem to get them about once a year. Chain letters are one of those things that you never think about until you encounter one, then they're all you can think about. I hadn't seen this one before. It was titled "MAGIC" and it looked as if some conscientious person had redone the usual faded copy of a copy of a copy on their computer.
Chain letters really are one of the most annoying of modern inventions. Well, I really don't know how modern they are. So, to be safe, lets define "modern" as "Sometime after the invention of writing but before the phrase 'post-modern' came into vogue." Actually, I don't know anything at all about chain letters. And I'm not likely to drag myself off of my porch where I'm writing this in the lovely autumnal weather and bury myself in some dank library just to provide you with the history of chain letters, which I'm sure is fascinating and everything, but forget it already. Research is for journalists; I rather just make stuff up . . .
According to the prestigious Stamphammer's Obscure History of American Arcana, the chain letter was invented by Benjamin Franklin while he was deputy postmaster of the Colonies in order to annoy people whilst raising extra revenue. It further claims that Franklin came up with the idea after smokingsome of George Washington's hemp, something the two of them supposedly did quite often after they became friends during the French and Indian War.
The story goes that Martha found them both rolling around on the floor of George's study, giggling uncontrollably about "good luck coming in the post." Interesting sidelight: Stamphammer's also says that Franklin was pretty much in the same condition when he hit upon the idea of breaking away from England. No word on whether George said "You gotta be high, dude."
Well, maybe. After all, history is written by the Winners and it just wouldn't do to portray the Founding Fathers as raving potheads out to annoy people. Of course I'd rather be annoyed by a piece of written communication than terrified. So I'd certainly prefer a chain letter to, say, a supoena, or a summons for jury duty or anything with "Internal Revenue Service" stamped as the return address. Or how about this telegram from the Hades Western Union:
HI JIM STOP LUCIFER HERE STOP JUST WANTED TO LET YOU KNOW THAT THE TV PREACHERS WERE RIGHT STOP SEE YA SOON STOP L
(Note: experts such as copy editors, English professors, and the death-metal guys featured in the last issue may doubt that Lucifer -- a noted stickler for details and the finer points of the law -- would ever use the familar "ya" as opposed to the more formal "you," especially in written communication. They are, of course, wrong. Besides, that's what the damn thing said.)
I think what is really silly and annoying chain letters is that they style themselves as harbingers of that most nebulous concept of all: luck. If I mail out twenty copies, it says, I will receive GOOD LUCK; if I don't, well, something terrible will happen. So what, something terrible always happens.
Besides, money is the hook. Every single good luck story in the chain letter is about unexpected money. The equation seems to be good luck equals money equals happiness. I think not. Good luck doesn't always involve money, and I know that money can't by happiness. (Although as my friend Mark pointed out, it can buy happierness.) And why only good luck? Aren't there more desirible things to send away for?
I think I'd be more apt to follow the instructions if they said "Send twenty copies and within four days you will find true love," or Mail this to people you hate and within a week you will have spiritual peace." And if I ever got a chain letter that said "Send copies of this letter and a photo of yourself wearing nothing but a goofy grin and flashing a peace sign to all of the major news organizations and you will never ever have writer's block and play the drums like Keith Moon," I'd jump on it faster than the Republicans are distancing themselves from the Bush presidency -- assuming I could find someon to take the photo.
You see, those are all concepts I could get behind. But good luck? Ack. I mean, what exactly is luck? Branch Ricky, the force behind integrating Baseball, used to say "Luck is the residue of design." While I'm not exactly sure what that means, I've always thought it sounded cool. Actually, I think it means that you create your own luck, good and bad, and the best way to have good luck is to break the color barrier in Baseball so as to have a deeper talent pool to draw from. Makes sense to me. Of course, it doesn't explain why they always lost to the Yankees in the Series.
Maybe my problem is that I ain't superstitious. I walk under ladders; I've broken mirrors; I've had black cats; and I have a tres difficult believing that the time of year I was born determines my personality. ("Which is exactly a Scorpio would say," someone mutters.) So there.
Of course, there is always a possibility that someone who really believes sent me that chain letter. And I'm certainly not discounting the possibility that they are correct. I suppose that there could be a secret society that constantly circulates and recirculates chain letters and are rich and powerful beyond my wildest imaginings, but, somehow I doubt it. If so, why would they want to share it with me? They don't, because the point of chain letters for those who believe isn't sharing the wealth, it's getting more for yourself while paying lip service to helping others. Boy, talk about voodoo economics.
So, thanks whomever for the chain letter, but I know that you aren't doing it for me, your doing it for you, for the good luck and money. That's OK, and more power to you, but I'd just rather you took me to lunch.
Somebody actually offered to take that photo of me. I chickened out, naturally.
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This document last modified 20 June 1995