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Thursday, Dec. 29, 2005 11:02 am

E-mails from the perimeter of good taste

Will readers never learn not to trade words with me?

I write stories? Stuff? Sometimes kind folks read the stories and e-mail me. The e-mail is almost always of this nature: “I enjoyed your story. Interesting. Different. Made me laugh [or think, or smile] — but I’m not quite sure what it’s about. What does it mean?”
My almost-always reply is: “Thank you. Glad you enjoyed it. I thought it was about teaching my bulldog, Miss Molly, to play poker, but because I no longer have a dog and poker isn’t mentioned, it must be about something else.”
I learn from the e-mails. For example, until I wrote “Solving Chief Illiniwek,” I had no idea that 96 percent of Illinois Times’ readership is Native American and that the other 96 percent is Irish.
Speaking of the Irish: One of the e-mails after “Solving Chief Illiniwek” was not so kind. John-from-Jacksonville wrote, “You’re an idiot! I’m Irish, proud of it. Where do you get off saying all Irish are drunks? You’re just stupid! What do you say about that? I dare you to answer!”
To be fair to John-from-Jacksonville, he didn’t know that I grew up in an Irish household in which the many aunts and uncles on my sainted mother’s side were only a generation off the immigrant boat — and that by the time I was born, my sainted father had been absorbed: He was all-Irish, total-Irish, Irish of speech, Irish
of soul.
And John did not know that “our” kitchen table was an Algonquin Round Table — only more so. If you came to “our” kitchen table, you had better come well read and well spoken, had better come with Oscar Wilde’s wit and with a hide of iron, for the phrases tossed around this table could puncture thin skin and reduce ego to ash.
The conversational challenge at our table was all the more thorny because it was multidimensional. Whereas Edna Ferber, Dorothy Parker, and George S. Kaufman of Algonquin fame spoke only one thought at a time, I have been at our kitchen table when eight people carried on 15 different conversations at the same time. It would have been 16 different conversations, but Uncle Tommy’s voice was scratched weak by the Hong Kong flu, and he’d announced, “Forgive me, but I shall speak but one dimension — for today.”
I am then, early-life-trained in the game of word contests; you don’t wanna mess words with me! And John-from-Jacksonville wanted to engage “me,” an experienced wordsmith, in debate? In a little give-and-take? OK, John-from-Jacksonville, let’s have at it. And we did. Me: I’m not stupid — you’re stupid! John-from-Jacksonville: You’re the stupid one! Me: Am not — you’re the stupid one! John-from-Jacksonville: Stupid! Me: I know what you are — but what am I? Apparently recognizing that he was out of his linguistic league, John-from-Jacksonville didn’t answer my last clever salvo — I suppose he just limped off, teary-eyed, to find his crushed self-esteem. In a strangely similar exchange (after I wrote in “Red State, Blue State, Comic State” that Ronald Reagan struggled to understand the daily comics page) Sarah-from-Springfield e-mailed: “You ought to be ashamed. Ronald Reagan was our greatest president. He should be on Mount Rushmore. You are an idiot!”
To be fair to Sarah-from-Springfield, she didn’t know that I grew up in Dixon, Ill., Ronald Reagan’s hometown — and that, when I was in high school, working as a soda jerk, during Ronald Reagan’s movie-star days, he returned for a visit and I served him a strawberry sundae. And Sarah didn’t know that my Aunt Helen once dated Ronald Reagan. So, to fill her in, I e-mailed back: “Sarah, I served Ronald Reagan. I knew Ronald Reagan. Ronald Reagan was a friend of my aunt’s. Sarah, you’re no Ronald Reagan.” Sarah-from-Springfield: What? That makes no sense whatsoever. Me: Does too. Sarah-from-Springfield. Does not! Me: Does too. Then Sarah-from-Springfield obviously realized the futility of continued sparring with a language master such as I — and e-mailed back no reply to my last and most calculated zinger. No doubt the banter now divides her life; she will forever more label events as “before” and “after” her sad attempt to outwit “me.”
And finally Miss Molly the Bulldog sent this e-mail from my basement computer to my upstairs computer: “You cheap crook! Filthy thief! Where’s my $206 poker winnings you STOLE FROM ME when I left the table and went outside as I was ‘trained’ to do?”
Me: Let’s not and say we did. Bitch! Will they never learn not to trade words with me? I am, after all, a highly skilled professional.
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