I finally have found a use for stupid e-mail. With just a little effort, I recently earned a few hundred dollars on it.
Second are bogus alerts about viruses that will cause planet Earth to wobble uncontrollably if you open an e-mail titled "Help a poor dog win a free vacation!"
Third are warm, fuzzy inspirational vignettes. These are the worst, and surely originate in the very pits of hell, where Bill Gates -- numerologically identified as the Antichrist in several e-mails I have received and on many Web sites I have visited -- has assigned a mail-daemon, third class, to fill the Internet with inane messages about God, the meaning of life and e-mail tracking giveaway offers.
These pieces of inspiration typically go something like this: A boy is walking down the street, when he is crushed flat by a falling piano dropped out of the cargo hold of a Boeing 747.
It's very sad of course, and the boy can't figure out why no one else notices the bright shining "birdies" who keep flying around him and playing Don McLean's "American Pie" on their harps.
Anyway, as the boy stands there, listening to the "birdies" sing about Bob Dylan and the Scopes Monkey trial, a dog comes by and licks the face of the boy, who comes back to life and begins his divinely appointed task of telling everyone all about those beautiful "birdies."
After this heartwarming tale comes the kicker. We discover at the end of the story that the dog was actually God, who was walking backward for some reason, thus reversing the spelling of his name and effecting a disguise.
We're also asked to forward the letter to everyone we know. (If you've been deeply moved by this tale, I won't mind if you dry your tears before you read on.)
These e-mails usually are preceded by personal messages from 23 people you never heard of before, all of whom claim to be deeply touched by the inspirational message. "I hat [sic] to send frowards [sic], but this was so beautifull [sic] I just cried and had to pass it on to you!" is one common motif.
Another is, "I never liked dogs before, but after I read this e-mail, I bought a black Lab. The next day, I went to the hospital for a checkup and my tumor was gone!"
I'm sure these people have been touched by something, but I don't think it was the story.
I tried to stop getting these forwards, and sent several messages telling the senders how much I really didn't want to get them. "Mom," I wrote, "I've seen these things a million times before and they annoy me. Please stop sending them to me." It never worked, though.
So a while ago, I decided I had had enough. It was time to fight back. If I couldn't stop them, I was going to perpetuate them, but I was going to do it my way. I took these pieces of inspiration and began to rewrite them, making what I think of as "improvements."
One of the first I personally hit was a touching (there's that word again) vignette called "The Cracked Pot," a title I probably should use for this column.
In this story, a water-bearer has two pots, one of which miraculously has developed intelligence through a trip to Rhode Island in the trunk of a 1992 Buick Century with a rubber band and a can of mushroom soup. The pot feels guilty because it spills water through a huge crack in its side.
In the original, the servant uses that leak to water flowers along the path, and then the writer goes into a touching (there's that word again) homily that God uses our imperfections just like that blah blah blah blah and so everyone should be a crackpot.
In my version, among other things the servant smashes the pot for its impertinence, and then slips in the spilled water and breaks his neck. It's much more satisfying than the original.
Something clicked deep inside when I finished this rewrite. I had found a voice. In the months since then, my best friend and I have rewritten literally dozens of forwarded e-mails, including urban legends, poetry and more than a few inspirational stories.
Some people find them hilarious, but others are concerned they aren't entirely appropriate.
"Aw, you can't make fun of 'Footprints!'" a friend of mine objected. I suspect he is the inspiration for that particular story since he frequently dreams about walking along the beach with God.
"No I will not send you any more devotionals," my brother Ward wrote me when I asked for more fodder. "To be honest, I find some of your 'spoofs' quite blasphemous and anti-God." (Ward backed down from that stance once I explained my satirical intent, and now just says I have no social skills. Well, duh.)
I found the perfect vehicle for expression in "The Door," a magazine of religious-themed satire I subscribe to. A few months ago, I mailed "The Door" my renditions of three classic pieces of inspiration, including the ubiquitous "Footprints" poem.
Last week, my copy of the magazine came, vignettes on the center pages, along with a check for $300.
It's a nice feeling, especially since most of the writing already had been done for me. Now I just need to find a way to cash in on those stupid petitions and virus alerts.