EVERY NOW and again in this business, a reader will lurch up to you (often in broad daylight) and say: "I liked your column the other day. Uh, what was it about again?"
"Highway construction delays?" you say, trying to be helpful.
"Nah," he says, "that one was stupid."
"Leaving home on vacation?"
"Oh, geez, no. That one put me to sleep."
"Taste-testing the new McDonald's low-fat burger?"
"Hmmm, might have been that one."
In your best aw-shucks-it-was-nothing manner, you thank the reader. The reader then goes off whistling and feeling enormously pleased with himself for delivering so singular a compliment.
You, on the other hand, are not feeling nearly as buoyed and repair instead to the banks of a small pond, where you listlessly toss pebbles into the water and stare at the widening ripples and wonder where it all went wrong.
This may seem out of line, but many writers feel a compliment such as the following works better: "Your essays are consistently brilliant and entertaining. However, one recently -- don't ask me how -- stood a cut above the rest, although the subject matter escapes now."
There now. Any writer would certainly appreciate the heartfelt sentiment behind those words, and will likely ignore the spittle coating the reader's mouth and the bourbon vapors that envelope him in order to stay and chat a while.
As a humorist (although I suppose that's open for debate), readers will often say to me: "You do sorta what Dave Barry does, right? God, he's funny!"
Heh, heh, heh. Let me say this about Dave Barry. I have not met the man. But I like his stuff. And he is said to be a decent fellow who is good to his family and would not knowingly drive his Rolls-Royce Silver Cloud (or whatever it is he drives after authoring 40 or so best-sellers and copping the Pulitzer Prize) over your dog.
So when people completely ignore what I do to talk about Dave Barry, well sir, that's OK. You won't find me perched on a ledge outside a 15th-floor window, sweating profusely as a policeman holding a Styrofoam coffee cup tries to coax me inside and fire department personnel unfurl a huge net below.
No. Dave Barry does not trigger that sort of overstated reaction in me.
"Yes," I say when his name comes up, "Dave Barry is a very funny fellow."
Then I quietly excuse myself and go home, where I lock the doors and wrap a quilt around my shoulders and take to my rocking chair. There I sit for hours, rocking and rocking and staring out the window and wondering exactly when it was that my life started to unravel.
Perhaps a more considerate approach -- and this is strictly up to the reader -- is to say to the humorist: "You write funny stuff, as does that Dave Barry -- although you, of course, are a good deal poorer."
So much for the praise that is occasionally directed (albeit in very small helpings) at a newspaper writer.
Unfortunately, there are also instances in every writer's life when a damp, feverish-looking stranger detaches himself from the magazine rack at Qwik-Mart to say he hates your column and would not use it even for fishwrap, as it would be an insult to the fish.
The writer's first reaction -- particularly if the reader doesn't appear to be armed -- is to fire off a snappy comeback such as: "Oh, yeah? Well, lots of other people use it for fishwrap!"
Often, though, this will provoke a heated argument during which you discover (among other things) that the reader was recently laid off from his job of 30 years at a munitions plant and now has nine sticks of dynamite strapped to his body underneath that raincoat.
Therefore most writers, upon encountering a reader who takes them to task ("wackos" we call them), will run quickly in the opposite direction, sprinting across the street, ducking into alleys and clambering up and down fire escapes until it's clear he's no longer being followed.
So perhaps the best way for the reader to voice his opinion of a writer is to -- off a polite letter along the lines of:
"Sir, I beg to disagree with your recent column on cats, in which you label them evil, sociopathic creatures who delight in plucking out the eyeballs of small children and severing the major arteries of adults. My best to you and your family. Signed, Disappointed in Duluth."
Certainly, this is the more civilized method of expressing one's dissatisfaction with a column.
Although remember, too: Silence is golden.