Deleting, Cover Letters, and Ice

What would Elizabeth Hackett wear to her mother's funeral? Where have we heard that fart sound before?

In the park, the ornamental lake is frozen over. So much so that, you can walk on it. Although people aren’t standing on it. They don’t trust it’ll take their weight. Instead, they are pressing it, tapping it, pointing at it. Buried deep in the ice are frost lightning cracks from it thawing and freezing, over and over.

Groups of people have gathered at the edge. Some are heaving stones and chunks of ice onto the lake. Another group are using their shoe heels, like ungainly leg-mounted pickaxes, to hack at the ice. The ice resists their attempts, both the hurled projectiles and the leg swipes. It is inches thick. So thick you can’t work out how far down it goes. It could be ice all the way down.

Watching people, all caught by the same drive to break the ice, it’s not clear whether they’re testing their own strength or the strength of the ice. I, too, push at the ice: I want to see how thick it is. I press with my hand, and then my foot to see whether I can exert enough force to break it. No one else has been able to with their projectiles and attacks, but I want to see for myself. I, too, want to marvel at the solid nature has made from what was liquid only yesterday.

Some of this, I think, is that we can’t quite believe it. We can’t believe that the natural world has overnight made something so strong we can’t break it. Surely, if we heft a big enough chunk of rock onto the lake, the ice will crack. Perhaps we are in awe: quite literally witnessing the awesome power of nature. It’s rare to encounter a natural phenomenon we can’t repel.

The ninth circle of Hell in Dante’s Divine Comedy, the deepest, darkest point, where Lucifer resides, is not, as popular culture would have it, alight with flames and heat, but dark and silent and cold. Lucifer is trapped within ice, his punishment for betraying God. In other myths, the ruler of the underworld is Pluto. The tiny, frozen dwarf planet, furthest away from the Sun, shares this icy name. The end of the universe will not be a blazing inferno, but cold, silence. The heat death of the universe. It ends not with a bang but with a shiver.

Humanity could crack the ice on this lake, of course. We have the equipment: pneumatic drills and JCBs, TNT, and nukes. But, at this moment, the crowd of park-goers is powerless. After tiring of throwing and chopping, people take it in turns to turn away in defeat. We are disappointed by our failure to crack the ice. Humbled by weakness. I find myself thinking of climate change. Many things lead me to think about climate change these days. My mind worries at it as my tongue would an ulcer on the side of my mouth: something is wrong, but I don’t know what action to take other than bother at it.

Climate change is, of course, the ultimate freezing of the lake. A change so great that we can’t stand against it even with pneumatic drills. Even with nukes. Watching people throw a few pieces of ice and then turn around, instantly forgetting their powerlessness I can’t help seeing it as a metaphor of sorts. Perhaps I am in an (un)usually thoughtful mood. My boiler has been on the blink and the cold is getting to me. Back home, I turn on the lights, boil the kettle, and put it out of my mind. On the lake, the ice remains.


In happier news, on Medium, two new pieces from me. Firstly, in praise of the delete key:

Getting rid of things once they’re out there is hard. You can’t put the Genie back in the bottle, the toothpaste back into the tube, the coronavirus back into the bat. The ship has sailed, the die is cast, the bridges are burned, the bird has flown. The cat only gets out of the bag. Pandora’s Box opens but doesn’t close. The beans get spilled. Eve can’t un-eat the apple. It’s remarkable how many different myths and metaphors pick at this idea. We’ve been trying to undo things since stories began.

This, too, could be about putting carbon into the atmosphere. So much easier to dig the oil up, than deal with it once it’s burnt.

And, another piece, on the obsessive reality of writing code:

When I go to bed, I still see the code. I dream of code. Of functions and classes and control structures. Sometimes, in the morning I wake with the solution to a gnarly problem pre-solved in my head. I’m coding even when I’m asleep.


Elsewhere

A fun piece at Defector, about someone recognizing the fart sound in a viral video. Patrick posts a video of a dog farting into a microphone and his colleague Samer immediately points out the sound is from a different viral video of someone farting into a microphone at Costco.

Giri: like proust with the madeleine

David Roth: Like a sommelier

Samer: it was like six months ago though, it’s not that impressive

Barry Petchesky: look me in the eye and tell me that you think the amazing thing here is that EVERYONE ELSE wouldn’t recognize it, not that you did

Giri: It’s Unimpressive That I Recognized An Online Fart As I Would The Voice Of My Grandmother

The piece is funny, partly because the people writing in it are witty, but I couldn’t help feeling that the format, a transcript from a Slack conversation, took away from the wit. Even in that quote above, I’ve rearranged the quotes to make it easier to follow. Instant messaging transcripts, with people talking out of order and out of turn, at cross purposes, are surprisingly difficult to read in hindsight. It’s a format we encounter a lot in our working lives, but on the static page, my mind doesn’t seem to adapt to the flow. It seems you need to be in the moment to follow them. Waiting as each line pops up onto the page.

Showing this article to a friend of mine, she pointed out, if anything, Samer isn’t enough of a fart sound sommelier. Apparently, the origin isn’t the Costco video. Its appearance there is sampled from somewhere else.


In The Paris Review, a fun article on the history of cover letters by AJ Aronestein:

At worst, cover letters strain one’s faith that words convey meaning at all, let alone that sentences can shimmer, steal breath, or gird spines. I spend each day climbing mountains of junky paragraphs, scavenging for hunks of usable scrap—like so much copper wire—my senses deadened by the incessant clang of multipart adjectives.

“I am detail-oriented,” they write.

“My skills are well-suited,” they aver.

“I am a team player,” they fart onto the page.

[…]

Every cover letter dribbles onto the page a few syllables about self-worth in language that reduces human value to sets of marketable skills, attempting to fit a person to a particular labor slot. The best letters, given the rules of job applications, succeed in rendering entirely secret the full truth of the writer’s selfhood.

Later, it contains the best summary of business etiquette I’ve ever seen, something I notice those new to business environments struggle with. The third one is the real kicker.

(a) expressing authentic-seeming interest in an organization’s mission and culture, (b) demonstrating adequate proof of having mobilized pertinent skills in previous contexts, and (c) communicating with sufficient obeisance to norms of professional décor.

It’s also a beautifully written piece (as pieces often are in The Paris Review). There’s a lovely bit of wordplay at the heart:

To read Brown and Stein literally suggests that the first cover letter in the New World had nothing to do with job applications at all. When Brown and Stein refer to Thompson’s espionage as an act of cover letter authorship, they potentially expand the universe of what it means to perform that act. Perhaps a cover letter always implies a cover-up, a cover story, an omission, a disguise, a lie.


By Elizabeth Hackett, What I Would Have Worn To My Mother’s Funeral, a thoughtful piece about loss and grieving, semi-disguised as a tribute to her mother.

My mother loved occasions. Weddings. Birthdays. Funerals. She’d stock her sensible purse with Kleenex and show up like a seasoned pro. I’m furious she won’t get her occasion. The one she’d earned. It’s Covid. No memorial. No gathering. No awkward luncheon or feeling grateful you chose not to wear mascara that day. When she retired, her thank you notes from former patients filled two scrapbooks. The place would have been packed. She’d always come home from work with a plate of brownies or cookies someone had brought when they came in for their annual physical. She treated three generations of families. Her staff got annoyed because she was routinely running late for appointments after taking extra time to talk with the patient before. She was chatty. “Be folksy,” she always told us. She knew the name of every grocery checker she’d ever met. “Learn their names,” she’d say. “Why?” I’d respond, most likely rolling my eyes. “Liz,” she’d say, “people like to be remembered.”

It feels almost like it’s missing the point to look at the structure of a piece so charged with emotion, but it’s neatly put together, a series of anecdotes about her mother, structured as answers to the question from the title: “The black jumpsuit probably”, “Maybe that brown dress. You were going to return it because it cost the shocking amount of $80, but she saw it and said, Oh, no. I like that. You keep that one. I’ll give you the $80.”


As ever, I hope you all have great weeks, and until next time,

Yours,

Simon