(Editor’s Note: This post is part of a monthly feature in which Ryan takes an actual letter written to “Dear Abby” and answers it himself. For further background see the introductory post here, or maybe also here. Do not read Dear Abby is Off Today if you take nitrates, often prescribed for chest pain, as this may cause a sudden, unsafe drop in blood pressure. If you experience chest pain, nausea, or any other discomforts related to this advice column, seek immediate medical help. In the rare event of an erection lasting more than 4 hours after reading this post, seek immediate medical help to avoid long-term injury. If it’s just 3 hours and 59 minutes though, you’re probably fine.)
The famed Irish playwright, George Bernard Shaw, once wrote in a correspondence with his friend, “I’m sorry this letter is so long. I didn’t have time to make it shorter.”1
I write this to draw attention to one of my (few) shortcomings: specifically, that I am, in the words of my trusted and over-worked editor, an unabashed “word-hoarder.”
Normally I’d brush off this criticism, fight any “trimming” suggestions tooth and nail, and offer some misquote as justification for my wordiness. For example, it was the great Shakespeare himself who wrote in Hamlet, “brevity is the abomination of wit.” So think of that, mine editor, next time you try to override my proofreading notes with your interminable “out, damn’d stet!”2
But in this rare case I’ll table my preference for long-form wisdom in order to one-up my arch nemesis, Dear Abby. As you no doubt know from previous columns, in this series I take an actual letter written by a reader and answer it myself. Yet each day, in her column Dear/Terse Abby answers upwards of 3 letters from her readers. Sadly, that means the advice columnist scoreboard reads: Dear Abby 3, Ryan 1. Unacceptable. To remedy this I hereby present you with four rapid fire answers to readers’ letters. And since I’ve already taken 400 words to write an introduction, let’s begin.
Letter #1, dated August 12, 2012
DEAR ABBY: What is proper when you’re talking with someone and you notice the person has food stuck in his or her teeth? What if the person is part of a group and someone you don’t know very well?
– TOOTHFUL IN FLORIDA
DEAR TOOTHFUL IN FLORIDA: First off, before I answer your question I just want to politely let you know you have a piece of lettuce stuck in your keyboard. No, not there. Right between the Shift and Caps Lock key. See? Got it! As this example illustrates, when you’re amongst friends–or pseudonymous acquaintances–you can tell them directly. Though if you’re out to dinner in mixed company you may want to opt for some sort of non-verbal signal that allows them to save face. For example, my friends and I have an agreed upon system: if I clear my throat 74 consecutive times it means they have something stuck in their teeth. 75 consecutive times means their fly is down. And 76 consecutive times means I need to go to the hospital. Of course, if it’s a stranger you won’t share this common code, so you’ll need to signal to them directly without embarrassing them.
My preferred tactic is to one-up the food that is stuck in their teeth. To do this I first clear my throat–just once, mind you, twice and any friend at the table may mistake this for our agreed-upon signal that their food has been poisoned by a power-hungry Danish uncle–and then loudly proclaim to the table something along the lines of, “oops, I didn’t realize I had that shank bone lodged between my front teeth! What a silly ass am I!” Then everyone will laugh as I dislodge the bone with the help of the maitre d’ and the jaws of life, and like an involuntary muscle reflex, will check their own teeth for remnants of food. Problem solved. And send your dental bill to the original food-in-teeth perpetrator. They’ll understand. If not, call your friend’s power-hungry Danish uncle.
Letter #2, dated August 25, 2012:
DEAR ABBY: I am an 11-year-old boy who lives in San Francisco. I read your column in the San Francisco Chronicle every day. I love your thinking and wish I could be as sensible as you. I just wanted to ask: How old do you think someone should be to read your column? I know your column can be possibly inappropriate, but love reading it anyway. –T.P. IN S.F.
DEAR T.P. IN S.F.: Thank you for your kind letter. I love my thinking and wish I could be as
sensual sensible as me too. As far as I’m concerned, you’re never too young to read my column. Only too old. After all, it was George Bernard Shaw who wrote “Every man over forty is a scoundrel.” Did I mention he lived to be 94? Scoreboard update: Ryan 2, George Bernard Shaw 0.
But to answer your question, young reader, did you know that America’s children rank #42 in the world in measures of advice literacy? That’s simply unacceptable, and is what motivates me to get out of bed once every four Thursdays to write this column. I encourage pre-school teachers to include my works in the “storytime” canon, advise expecting mothers to read my columns aloud to their future advice consumers as a cool-down exercise following their lamaze classes, and am working on a series of CDs similar to the Baby Einstein series to
brainwash boost your infant’s AIQ (Advice Intelligence Quotient). Early intervention is the best way to remedy this blight on our nation.
Letter #3, Dated August 31, 2012
DEAR ABBY: I’m going into junior high. I’m a straight-A student and get my homework and projects done. But I’m not that organized. I always put my assignments away, but when I need them, they’re never there! My mom complains to me about it and calls me a troll. My room isn’t so hot, either. What can I do?
– THE TROLL IN ST. PETE
DEAR TROLL IN ST. PETE: Fear not, my disorganized brethren! You’re in good company here. I’m as organized as I am terse, but like you, I get the job done. Some of my most sage advice was written in habitats that are unsanitary and/or hazardous waste sites. In fact, I’m writing this now in a little place I like to call my Fortress of Inspiration: deep inside an enchanted forest, huddled in a dank and musty corner beneath a bridge, surrounded by feral dogs and the occasional wayward goblin. Here I can refine my plot to kill my uncle/stepfather, find refuge from the judging eyes of strangers who find my unkempt, 2-foot high neon hair unsettling, and as a bonus, earn side money collecting tolls from the occasional bridge traveler–providing they successfully “answer me these questions three.” So give your mom an ultimatum. Ask her if she wants a straight A, troll-like son, or a mediocre, organized human-like son. If she opts for the latter, find your own damn bridge.
Letter #4, dated June 1, 2012
DEAR ABBY: I am a single mother with three children. Several years ago we bought a puppy. When we got her, we were told if she ever gets lost, she could be located through the chip that had been placed in her. (The breeder said it was just a “shot.”) You can also buy a car these days with a global positioning device installed so the car can be located if it is stolen.The cost for the police to find a missing child has got to be astronomical. Wouldn’t it be much cheaper to come up with global positioning chips for our children? They do it for dogs and cats. When will we make our children safer than we do our pets and our cars? — JUST THINKING IN FLORIDA
DEAR JUST THINKING IN FLORIDA: Please see the clip below for an artistic rendering of my response:
Final Score: Ryan 4, Dear Abby 3. Oh, and George Bernard Shaw 0 (sorry George, whatever points you may have gained expired when you did).
1 OK, so this quote has been attributed to a bunch of writers, including Shaw, Pascal, Benjamin Franklin, Mark Twain, and Voltaire. From my exhaustive 5 minutes of internet research, it looks like it was originally from Pascal. But I’m pleading artistic license in pinning this on Shaw.
2 Yes, I know this isn’t Hamlet, but I can’t write the name of the “Scottish Play” for fear of being cursed.