Anyway, Joyce taught me a lot of stuff. How to type with two fingers. How to wear a hat with the word "PRESS" written on a card in the hatband. And how to swallow hard and let hate-mail writers have their say. The last one was clearly the most difficult. People write in and say the nastiest things and you're just supposed to shrug and say, "Yeah, OK."
Let the readers vent and be glad that you pissed 'em off badly enough to get them to sit down at the computer and blast away. (Lord knows they'll never write in to say something nice.) The only exceptions are when the letter-writer gets nasty/personal or makes a claim that is factually incorrect. (See this week's Mailbag.)
For example, a few weeks ago, I kinda ripped the Beatles album Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band in one of my columns. You woulda thought I had pimp-slapped Mother Teresa live on Dick Clark's New Year's Rockin' Eve. The letters poured in. They pretty much all took the general tone of "Tom, you're an idiot! Tom, you're a moron. The Stones played Altamont. The Stones made albums that sucked even more than Sgt. Pepper's." And so on.
It's all good. For the record, I never said that it was an either/or situation with the Stones and the Beatles. I just liked the Stones a whole lot more. But the Beatles were OK; they were like the Backstreet Boys of my generation.
After all these years, I am occasionally surprised at what gets some people stirred up. Not long ago, I posed a logic problem involving the Pentagon and the probability that a random observer would be able to see three of its sides. I got hate mail from math guys that made the Beatles fans look like ... well, Beatles fans. I mean, they sent charts and graphs and diagrams.
My first reaction was, naturally, defensive. The problem was one of logic, not of strict mathematics. And yes, I do make a distinction between the two. Plus, I had gotten the problem from Martin Gardner, the legendary guy who did the mathematical games in Scientific American magazine for decades. And he also said the answer was one-half.
But the more I read the letters, the more they sounded familiar. They sounded like something I might do. Apparently, it's not that uncommon a phenomenon. Richard Pryor said that his father would read the almanac and then sit around the barbershop, waiting for someone to screw up.
Nineteen-what?! Nineteen-twenty-eight, my ass! It was nineteen-thirty-two! They fought 55 rounds! I got it in the book, Ni--er! I'll show you!
I know that feeling. I'm not on a first-name basis with it, but I know it. Back in the '80s they did a revival of the old Maverick TV series, starring an older and wiser James Garner. In one of the episodes, set in the late 1880s, Maverick meets Billy the Kid. Now, I could have just sent them a postcard letting them know that Billy the Kid died in 1881. But I wrote this big old long letter. You just know they put it in the pile of letters received from people they assumed looked like Phillip Seymour Hoffman.
Anyway, we ran one of the math letters last week. This guy ripped me for having said "several hundred yards" instead of "a few miles." I know that math should be precise, but then again, it wasn't a math problem. While I question one of his parameters as being somewhat arbitrary, his calculations make sense. But then he tried to use his math ability to prove that political independents are smarter than members of political parties. How does that compute?
He even ended his letter with the phrase "in spite of the contumely of Danehy's ilk." And yes, I had to look up the word "contumely." It's a noun that means insult or insolence.
I figured that with his math skills, he would have to know that anyone who used the words "contumely" and "ilk" in the same sentence would only have a 0.04-percent chance of ever having a meaningful relationship with a live woman. For all I know, "contumely" is probably the third most commonly used word in a necrophiliac's vocabulary, behind "don't" and "move." (Or is it "hold" and "still"?)
But then I thought, "Hey, this guy might be really cool. Maybe I'll give him a call and he can explain his logic to me." However, when I contacted our editor to find if we still had the letter-writer's address or phone number, I was informed that they dispose of all the hate mail addressed to me as quickly as possible. Something about the fear that my readers might tend to enclose a ticking bio-hazard with their letter, bringing a real poignancy to the phrase "his words dripped with venom."
So, Mr. Flack, please drop me a line with your e-mail address or a phone number. I'll go out to the garage and dig out my book of Martin Gardner problems; we can make a day of it. Or maybe we could just hang out and goof on Republicans. Now those guys are the real idiots.