Today, an actual e-mail from an actual reader, along with my actual response.
Sir, I must congratulate you on your piece in today’s Post about your sloppy desk [March 18]. It was, without a doubt, one of the dumbest things I have seen in print in a nationally renowned newspaper. I am genuinely surprised that your editor would allow you to squander nearly half a page on such twaddle.
You both should be ashamed.
— W.R.F., Timonium, Md.
I’m never sure how to respond to e-mails such as yours. When I got this job, my editor said, “It’s important that readers like you,” something I can’t imagine, say, Charles Krauthammer’s editor saying to him. And so I try to be likable in all my interactions. Telling you to jump in a lake would obviously not be in keeping with that.
Of course, you can’t please everyone, and I obviously didn’t please you. I write five columns a week for about 50 weeks a year. It is inevitable that some will be clunkers. It will not matter to you that yours was the only e-mail I received critical of that particular column and that the rest were either (a) laudatory or (b) offers from professional organizers hoping to help me with my problem.
You could argue, rightly, that other people who thought the column was stupid didn’t bother to write me. They just crumpled the paper in disgust or kicked the dog or walked to their liquor cabinet and grimly reached for a bottle of gin hoping to erase the memory of my column. And yet you obviously read the entire piece and then took the trouble to compose an e-mail telling me how much you disliked it. “One of the dumbest things” you have ever seen in print “in a nationally renowned newspaper,” you wrote. I guess that’s some sort of achievement on my part, though obviously not one that I aspire to.
When I think about your anger at me, I imagine a man who repeatedly slams his head against a wall and then e-mails the wall to tell it how hard and painful it is. I want to tell that man: “Stop slamming your head against the wall! I mean, after the first time you did it you should have realized that it hurt. Why keep doing it?”
But that man seems deaf to my suggestion.
Sometimes in cases such as these — a disgruntled reader who shares his (or her; though rarely her, for some reason) disgruntlement — I offer to reimburse them. I can’t reimburse them the time they’ve lost, of course, but I suggest that they send a self-addressed stamped envelope to me here at The Post and I will personally send them a refund for the cost of the newspaper.
Often, they’ve read my column free online, so they don’t really qualify. But it seems as if you did read the actual paper. I say “seems” because you write that my column took up “nearly half a page.” I measured, and that particular column took up 22 percent of Page B3. You may want to read the column again, twice (measure twice, cut once), then get out a ruler and do your own calculations. If I am wrong, please let me know.
Also, it might be helpful for me to know what your favorite story in yesterday’s Washington Post was. And not just in The Post, but in some of the other nationally renowned newspapers you read. That way I could model my future columns on it, or try to. Or would it just be better for me not to write any more columns about my sloppy desk?
So, in closing, I am sorry you found my column lacking. I am also sorry to tell you that I will not be able to follow your suggestion and be ashamed of it. I have a very high shame threshold, as anyone who has ever seen me dance knows. Finally, I compliment you on your use of the word “twaddle.” It’s a great word, meaning “empty silly talk; idle chatter.” Often — too often, you might think — that is exactly what my column is. You have been warned.
Thanks for reading.
Speaking of messy offices, Rick Landers of Reston sent me a great aphorism: “Those who insist on keeping a clean desk never experience the euphoria of finding something they thought was irretrievably lost.”
Wrote Rick: “I don’t know who said that, but it’s a quote I’ve clung to for nearly 40 years, much like some of the stuff on my desk.”
For previous columns, visit washingtonpost.com/johnkelly.