Dec 16 2014

Merry Christmas from the Stevensons: Building the Holiday Prank

Published by under Comedy,Crafts,Personal

Kara and I have a fairly longstanding tradition of sending bizarre holiday cards to our friends and family. This year, I wanted to do something a little different.

About a week ago, many of our family and friends (well, those for whom we had accurate addresses at the time) received an envelope like this in the mail:

The outer envelope.

The outer envelope.

Inside this envelope was a piece of lost mail that looked like it might have been addressed to them, or at least to their house:

The lost mailpiece.

The lost mailpiece.

The lost mail turned out to be a saccharine Christmas newsletter from the Stevenson family of Sandusky, Ohio, finally delivered after presumably floating through the postal system for the past 21 years:

Merry Christmas from the Stevensons!

Merry Christmas from the Stevensons!

Of course, it turns out that the Stevensons never really existed at all. For our “Christmas cards” this year, we set out to make the most believable piece of fake lost mail possible, and overall I’d say it was a success. Here’s how we did it.

The whole undertaking took an embarrassing amount of time and research. Kara and I put the newsletter together in late November using our Amiga 3000 and the incomparable PageStream desktop publishing software (which is still available for purchase). The anachronistic pieces of the newsletter–lists of toys and “hottest hunks”, exhibits at the Shedd aquarium that are no longer there, and so on–were the product of many hours spent reading catalogs and magazines of the time. The fonts used in the newsletter are all default fonts that shipped with PageStream; I borrowed the clip art from Aminet’s encyclopedic clip art archives. Moving the clip art from the internet to the Amiga was relatively easy since we have a CD-RW drive connected to the Amiga. Finally, the picture of the Stevenson family was converted from a photo that I shamelessly stole from a blogger family who happened to be about the right ages for our backstory. I’ve blurred them out in the image above to protect the innocent.

Thanks to PageStream’s native support for PostScript, once the newsletter was assembled, it was easy to print copies on our laser printer. But we knew that this wasn’t good enough, since laser printers were fabulously expensive in 1993. We were going to need a dot matrix printer to make the newsletter believable. I settled on an Epson ActionPrinter 3000, which is compatible with pretty much any application that can use a 24-pin printer, and which I was able to pick up on eBay for a song. After some hassles getting it set up (and digging the tractor paper out of the garage), we were ready to go.

The PrankStation.

The PrankStation.

Printing the 26 copies of the newsletter that we sent out took a total of about 3 hours, which served as a reminder of just how good we have it with printing today. The cat was terrified of the noise — she loves the sound the laser printer makes, so her fear was probably compounded by the psychological strain of being abandoned by her beloved printer. Once the newsletters were printed, we stacked and folded them, and I sanded the creases with carbide sandpaper to simulate aging so that some of the copies would crack along the folds when opened. I’d previously done an embarrassing amount of research on standard methods for simulated aging of paper, thinking that we would need to yellow the paper for it to be believable. In the process, I found out that most paper made in the past few decades is so low in lignin and acid that it doesn’t really yellow much at all on the scale of a few decades. So we ended up skipping that part entirely.

The inner white envelopes started as cheap #10 envelopes from Costco — we were careful to pick up envelopes with gummed flaps rather than self-sealing ones, since self-sealing envelopes were uncommon enough in the early ’90s that it would be something of an anachronism to use them. We addressed the envelopes properly, using the Stevenson family’s fake address in Sandusky, and then pretty much destroyed the parts of the envelope containing the addresses (and a few other spots) by rubbing them with wet fingers.

The stamp on the white envelope seemed to be the most convincing part of the hoax for most of our family, though it was also one of the easiest parts to pull off. I chose the Elvis stamp instead of a holiday issue because it was the best-selling stamp of 1993, and one of the most famous stamps of the last 30 years, so we were assured that nearly everyone who was alive in 1993 would recognize it. Thanks to being mercilessly hoarded by collectors, the value of this particular stamp is in the toilet, and I was able to purchase a pristine sheet of 40 stamps for $7.99, or about 30% less than face value. The postmark on the envelope is fake, of course, produced by a realistic-enough craft stamp that I inked by hand with an alcohol marker so that the cancellation lines would be imperfect.

Once the envelopes were stamped, they were creased and sanded, the latter mostly to wear the color off of the stamp in the spots where it had been creased.

The problem that remained unresolved for the longest was how to get these envelopes to our friends and family in a believable way. Obviously we couldn’t just drop illegible mail with cancelled stamps into a mailbox. One of my coworkers ended up solving this for me, by suggesting that we put the envelope inside another, properly addressed, envelope. We played around with several different sizes of envelope before settling on #11 envelopes, which are just larger than a standard envelope and are the size usually used to hold things like bills that come with reply envelopes. They’re pretty much impossible to buy in small quantities, but Amazon came to the rescue. We laser printed the addresses on the envelopes in a way that I hoped would look just non-spammy enough for people to open. I chose “Lost Item Recovery” for the return address for two reasons: first, because I thought most people would assume that the envelope had been recovered and forwarded on by the post office, and second, because it is different enough from the name of the office that actually does this (“Mail Recovery Center”) that I was unlikely to be indicted for mail fraud. The PO Box in Chicago is fictitious; I checked the address ranges for the ZIP code to make sure that it did not actually exist.

Lastly, Kara and I drove 3 hours away from home, applied metered postage to the outer envelopes, and posted the letters from an adjacent state — hey, if you commit this far to a prank, you have to see it all the way through. Then we waited for the mail to start arriving.

In the end, the reactions to the hoax were fantastic. We are likely enough suspects for this sort of thing that a few family members pretty much immediately texted or emailed us to say “hah hah, very funny.” Most of them believed that the letters were genuine, at least until they started talking to other family members, which is exactly what we were hoping for. Some of our friends embarked on ambitious searches to find the Stevensons, so I think I probably owe an apology to a few people named Stevenson for nuisance emails.

The best story came from one of Kara’s aunts, who took the letter to her local post office, where a staffer determined that it was genuine and even claimed that our fictitious Chicago return address was some kind of official postal facility. Never underestimate the bullshitting power of even a small-time local bureaucrat, I guess.

As far as we know, only Kara’s younger sister actually found the attribution we had put in the newsletter, hidden in Rascal’s Word Search:

It's not like we didn't try to tell people.

It’s not like we didn’t try to tell people.

Here you can download a PDF of the newsletter, but for best results download the original PageStream document and print on a dot matrix printer. :-)

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Dec 15 2014

Holiday Bleatings

Published by under Personal,Philosophy

There’s a desperation in the air before the inevitable collapse that is Christmas. A desperate, longing energy.

It feels like every year, I go through this. Maybe everyone does. Around Thanksgiving, a button clicks in my head and I find myself flitting haphazardly through the mess of my life like a hummingbird. Useless energy – unfocused but sharp. It’s not a negative thing, not in and of itself. Just an agitation, just a leg bumping up and down on the floor constantly, just a girl who can’t sleep through the night but doesn’t really dream, either.

For years, I blamed that energy on a number of things: Seasonal Affective Disorder, being away from home, growing older, the fact that my father died so soon after Christmas, the rampant commercialism that is warm and comforting but also empty – like so much of the food I partake of. The agitation I feel, the restless energy: it is about all of those things and none of those things all at once. It is about surviving another Winter. It is about a sun that is fading from my life.  It is about my own mortality. It is about the rituals that are comforting but suffocating. It is about missing the people I love, and reaching out with gifts and notes and jokes to hold on to that love, to try to prove to myself that it doesn’t fade like the sun.

This weekend, we went to finish our shopping and the parking lot was like a hive of activity, constantly streaming traffic. I told Michael I love holiday shopping because we all become little scurrying animals, squirrels foraging for acorns, chickens scratching the ground for worms. We stood in line to check out for maybe fifteen minutes at one store and the woman behind us spent most of that time audibly sighing. Meanwhile, I talked about the report on CIA torture. It is interesting how willing we are to strip humanity from others, from ourselves.

We came home and we each had a low carb cider and I wrapped the remaining presents and sealed some packages and fidgeted constantly. I couldn’t read. I couldn’t watch Poirot. I tried to do yoga and failed. So I went for a walk. There are Christmas lights and inflatables and garlands everywhere in our neighborhood. Constantly whirring, blinking, blinding madness. I picked up the pace. I walked past a couple arguing as they left the car “You can say whatever you want.” “Oh, thank you!”. I walked past a kid running to his mother’s car to help her bring in dinner. I eventually walked past the bright hum of lights at the community pool and then stepped onto the bridge to the lake path. And all of a sudden, the only noise was my footsteps and the only light was the dim moonlight that reflected through the thick clouds. I slowed down. I turned to the lake, and realized there were geese silhouetted there. Rolling gently, silently with the movement of the water. I stopped and watched them. Only for a few minutes, but that was all it took. I headed back towards home.

Over this year, throughout my study of “pagan” religious practices (what little records we have) and my daily yoga practice, I have found myself coming back again and again to my own mortality. I know, what a drag. But my research and yoga have given me a space to allow that focus to take over, to accept it’s definitive absolute-ness, to train myself to face it but allow it to pass. But what is the holiday season but a raging against all of our own eventual mortality? We will not go gentle into that long Winter. We will rage and party and drink and kill and eat and fuck until the sun comes up again. The desperate energy is the energy we keep inside most of the year, while we focus on the practicalities of life, on preparing for the future. All of a sudden, it has the chance to come out and it comes out in excesses everywhere. It is both beautiful and terrifying… and I find myself both heartened and disgusted by various aspects of humanity; by various aspects of my own humanity.

But I will be a merry participant: I will make low carb cookies and candies and I will pig out. I will buy the necessary gifts to participate in ritual offerings to our loved ones. I will decorate an evergreen with twinkling lights to remind myself that the sun will rise again. I will buy, buy, buy. I will give, give, give. I will get drunk on 15 year Scotch and dry Gin. I will wrap everything in either bacon or tinsel. I will put up my stocking by the fireplace. I will ring all the damn bells I can find, and sing Christmas carols loudly, and reminisce about all the Christmases I had before, with people who I am far from (and people I may never see again). I will start a fire and I will lay in front of it with a snuggly cat. I will curl ribbons and light candles. I will have the merriest fucking holiday season ever.

And when I need to, I will go for a walk or I will meditate and I will know that all of the raucous joy is for naught, except for its own joyful mess and I am okay with that. I am happy with that.

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Nov 12 2014

Injustice

Published by under Philosophy,Politics

I found an old journal I have, and found an old note I had written many years ago. It was an uber simple note, two words.

Anger <- Injustice

It’s interesting to me, looking back now, to realize how angry I always was, and how little I was cognizant of it. I wasn’t angry: I was outraged. I felt wronged by the world and by my circumstances. I was angry about what I perceived to be injustice in the world. I was angry when people didn’t follow the rules of society or were rude. I was angry when people were inconsiderate and unappreciative. I was angry that life wasn’t fair.

That anger is a waste of time. Part of my recovery was to expose myself to things that made me angry: comment sections on the internet, waiting in line at Starbucks, driving in the car during rush hour and to choose not to be angry. To choose not to be affected. The truth is the same truth I’ve known my whole life: the world isn’t fair and injustice is often a normal result of the chaos of life. That is not a comforting truth, but there is a freedom in being able to release your anger along with your expectations of “fair” or “just”.

That being said, there’s an important distinction to be made. Some things should make us angry. Some injustices are too large to ignore – and no, that doesn’t mean the guy shouting on his phone in line, or the teenaged kid who just cut you off in traffic. Those situations may not be just, but they’re also just irritating.

It reminds me of the serenity prayer – the courage to change the things I can and the wisdom to know the difference. The issue comes when you can see a problem, an injustice which desperately needs to be amended but the change that’s needed – it is greater than you. This problem looms so large that you can’t see the edges and you can’t see a solution. It is our duty, in those circumstances, to work towards correcting that injustice, but the movement to do so often requires big thinkers: thinkers with the ability to fix a wide angle lens on the injustice and the historical context. Those thinkers; those leaders: they can lead a conversation; illuminate the issues and help everyone start to work towards a solution.

The problem with injustice, especially systemic injustice, is that it breeds distrust on all sides. Conversations can never happen in that environment. And so, any possible progress stalls. Injustice and anger become status quo. Then we have to disentangle anger to get at the heart of the problem, to actually begin to work towards solutions. How many of us are inclined to disentangle anger and to try to communicate in an environment where we don’t feel respected or valued? Then we have a situation where that original injustice breeds an anger that is unseen and unheard, an anger that is ignored while it builds and eventually that anger has to explode. The ignition isn’t the most important part of the equation: the fuel that’s been built up is the key.

Do we disperse the anger by correcting the injustice? Can an injustice be corrected before we are able to work through the anger we feel? Is there even a possible solution, in all of this chaos and mess?
I don’t know. But I have an overwhelming sense that there is courageous work to be done.

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Oct 20 2014

Hiking – Dogwood Trail

Published by under Outings,Personal

In the spirit of getting back to talking about other things on the blog, this weekend Michael and I took some time to visit a local park and take a hike. I spent a few hours on Friday researching parks and hikes we could do, trying to find a sweet spot between interesting, strenuous enough but also not likely to kill us.

I settled on a trail at Babler Memorial State Park – which is a huge park near Chesterfield, Missouri. There are quite a few trails, tons of picnic areas, camping and etc. It’s free to get in and use the trails  – camping costs (as is pretty standard). We didn’t really get a chance to explore the whole park since I was so eager to get hiking.

Dogwood Trail Head 2

We ended up on the Dogwood Trail – a relatively short trail (2 miles) but listed as strenuous due to changes in elevation. We had difficulty locating the main trailhead, but were able to locate the second trailhead (which is located on a spur near a cave). Parking was plentiful at this trailhead and it was also accessible to restrooms which were open, well stocked and clean.

The trail itself was actually far more challenging than I had thought it would be (I thought 2 miles might be *too* easy for us). It was a dirt trail which was still damp in parts from rain a few nights before, and given the season there were plenty of fallen leaves on the path. The trail on the spur was a bit of a difficult climb due to soil erosion – lots of big steps up (and down on the way back – killed my adductor muscles). The main trail was in nicer condition.

Dogwood Trail

I found this trail very exciting: leaves and acorns showering us every time the wind blew, small  stream crossings to navigate and as we moved down in elevation, the path got significantly rockier. We passed a few other couples hiking, some with dogs, but overall the trail was pretty deserted, which surprised me for a beautiful fall afternoon. All in all, it was a good hike – not too long, the changes in elevation were relatively frequent and got me sweating and I felt like an adventurer crossing the little streams.

Biggest surprise for me after the hike: lack of knee pain. I hurt the adductors in my left hip by stepping down the large steps on the trail spur (I had to turn sideways to step down because of my short legs and I didn’t alternate sides, which was a rookie mistake). But my knees felt fine and I know I have yoga to thank for that. I used to believe that squatting and crouching would always be painful; that I had permanently screwed up those joints by being so fat for so long, but I’ve been able to build up my thigh muscles and the muscles around my knees enough that I can squat without pain. Daily yoga pays off!

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Oct 17 2014

Moving On Up

Published by under Food,Personal

I’ve decided to move most of my food blogging to a separate blog — keto.4d2.org. I hate the fact that this blog: home of political screeds, technological nerdiness, and rants about modern life has also become, overwhelmingly, a diet and food blog (largely at my behest). But more than that: I’m spending a majority of time now planning out meals; trying new recipes and making up my own that it seemed reasonable for me to have a space to explore that and that alone. A space to talk about food without stepping on this blog’s toes.

So, if you’re interested in what sort of low-carb deliciousness I’m making, or you just want to laugh at me with a mouth stuffed full of cherry pie and a stout beer in your hand, you can find me there.

And I’m sure I’ll find other things to talk about on this blog: politics or movies or rants about human nature. It will be a return to the days of yore.

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