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A full mailbag, with a critique of the letters.

by Dear Jon
November 25, 2008

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Dear Readers,

Over the past couple of weeks you have become familiar with the "paranoid fringe" personality of Dear Jon in relation to the drift of politics in our society. The problem with this edge is that it really is not all that interesting or funny. So sensing my desperation some of you have actually written letters with questions.

As we get reacquainted with what it means to participate in an advice column through reader mail, I want to show you three letters as good and bad examples of what makes grist for a full-length column.

Here is letter number one:

ACTUAL LETTER TO DEAR JON:

Dear Jon,

In retirement I am moving back to live among people with whom I was familiar 40 years ago. Is it possible to reconnect, when many of our priorities now didn't even exist for any of us then?

Old Guy

My Comment: This is a good letter in that it is actually seeking real advice on an actual life-stage problem. However, the issue in question is boring. For the answer to be interesting I would have to make fun of  senior citizen issues. This can be done with subtlety and art by turning cliche expressions into double entendre, for examples: "this is a gray area" or "that all depends." Out of ten I rate this letter a six. My answer will probably be an 8 on the humor scale and around 3 on the relevance of my answer to "Old Guy."

Here is letter number two:

ACTUAL LETTER TO DEAR JON:

Dear Jon,

When accidentally running into an ex, say at a grocery store or department store, and providing you see them before they see you, is it better to confront them and say hello, or find a way to sneak away before they see you?

A Shopper

My comment: Now THIS is Dear Jon material! The issue so good I'm surprised I didn't have to write it to myself just to keep the column running. That said, the letter itself needs work. It is anticipating the direction of my answer, as though of COURSE Dear Jon is going to provide a list of "Top 10 sneak away strategies". Readers, I don't need that kind of help. Here is a better way to recast this issue:

Dear Jon,

I hate running into old flames in public, like while I'm out shopping. I'm embarrassed, I don't know what to say and I'd rather avoid them, but I don't want to be caught trying to avoid them either because that would be even more embarrassing! What should I do?

I give the first version a seven and the second version a ten. My answer to the second version will be a ten; I probably won't answer the first version since I've improved it.

Here is the third letter:

ACTUAL LETTER TO DEAR JON:

Dear Jon,

do you ever want to get pregnant?

My comment: This letter is unsigned, uses terrible grammar, and is nonsensical. There is no set-up, no place to go, and it does not relate back to the person posing the question nor to any reality. This question rates a zero and would not be published except as an example, right here, of what not to send to Dear Jon.
 
Now back to Old Guy. Next week we will give an answer for Shopper.

Dear Old Guy,

What priorities did you and your friends have in 1968? If you are talking about life-stage priorities, the answer is easy: You will be able to reconnect because you will all have advanced through the same successive stages of life.

So in 1968 you may have had a conversation like this:

"Hello June."

"Good morning, Chuck! What brings you to the IGA today?"

"Oh, I'm picking up a candy bar for Chuckie Junior. He earned a perfect score on his spelling test, but that's par for him, being top of his third grade class."

"You must be very proud."

"Sure. And how is your little Lisa doing?"

"It's the cutest thing. After her third straight quarter on the honor roll she wants to become an engineer like her Daddy."

"It's a changing world, isn't it June? Maybe Lisa will design the rockets that take human explorers to Mars."

"Oh Chuck, ha ha, how you do go on with your liberal wise-cracks! All I want is for her to find a husband who is an engineer so that she can give me brilliant grandchildren."

(They chuckle together and move on to separate aisles.)

Forty years later, the conversation might go more like this:

"Hello June."

"What?"

"Hello June! It's me, Chuck."

"Oh yes. You're back in town after forty years seeing the world."

"What?"

"I said you're back!"

"Yes, I was just here at the Wal*Mart yesterday. I didn't see you though."

"What?"

"I said I didn't see you yesterday!"

"You only came back yesterday?"

"Never mind. How is Lisa?"

"Pizza is over in the grocery section."

"I said how is LISA?"

"Oh yes. Her lousy ex is just as dead-beat as the others. Now there is a lien on her trailer. But she's thinking of going back to college and finally finishing her bachelor's in nursing, and moving up in the world. You know? Maybe meet a doctor along the way. Fourth time's a charm, ha ha.That reminds me! I haven't seen your Chuckie Jr. in just ages. What is he up to these days?"

"Well, you know, he's moved back to town with us. He'll be living in our attic until things come together for him."

"What things?"

"No, he doesn't sing."

"Singing? Well that's nice. These big stores have me so confused. Where do they keep their pharmacy?"

"We're standing in it, June."

"Oh. Well aren't I a goose!"

"The eyes are the first to go, aren't they?"

"What?"

So, "Old Guy," I don't think you'll be at any loss for things to talk about with people you have not seen in forty years.

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