The young woman who works with me raised a question concerning etiquette.
"Would it be permissible for me to phone someone and call him a complete (obscenity)?"
That depends on the circumstances, I said. If it is a personal call to a boyfriend or someone of that ilk, I see nothing wrong with calling him an (obscenity) if it is deserved.
"No," she said, "this would be more along the lines of a professional call."
Ah, you mean you would be calling this person an (obscenity) in your capacity as an employee of this newspaper and an associate of mine?
"Yes, that's it."
Then, no, it would not be appropriate. It is the policy of this newspaper that we, the employees, treat people politely and with respect. And referring to someone as the commonly used version of a human orifice would not be polite or respectful.
"He deserves it," she said. "He's a real (deleted)."
Even if deserved, we cannot talk to people that way. By the way, what did this person do?
"Come on, I'll show you," she said, leading me to her wastebasket.
In the wastebasket was a cardboard box containing what appeared to be old, moldy cowboy boots that seemed to be covered with animal manure. Cow or horse, although I'm not expert at such matters. There appeared to be a considerable amount of the substance in the box.
"I was opening the mail," she said, "and that disgusting stuff was delivered in the box."
Is there any indication as to its source?
"Oh, yes. A letter for you came with it. Here, read it."
The letter was from one Mark Larsen, program and operations manager of radio station KFMB in San Diego.
Mr. Larsen wrote that he had noted my view that the Cubs should not be moved to the Western Division of the National League because -- among other reasons -- Chicago is not a Western city.
In the column, I had said that some Western cities were "cowboy boots" towns, but Chicago wasn't.
Besides being true, it was an innocuous remark. But apparently Larsen and some of his station's listeners took offense.
"One of our listeners parted with his own boots, freshly manured, for your pleasure," Larsen wrote.
So Mr. Larsen packed the manure-flecked boots in a box and shipped them to me.
This wasn't the first time I've received something weird in the mail. Once it was a dead fish. Another time, a few ministicks of dynamite. And a few unmentionables.
But the sources of these objects were usually brain-addled.
This is the first time I received something from someone with so lofty a title as program and operations manager of a radio station.
Of course, if you turn on your radio and listen to the jabber, you might have reason to wonder about the brains in the radio world.
"I'd still like to call him," the young woman said. "I'd like to ask him where he gets off sending something like that. After all, I had to open the lousy thing."
Do you promise to be reasonably polite and not call him a human orifice?
"Yes, I promise," she said.
So she phoned. And when the conversation ended, she said:
"He said it wasn't meant to be offensive. It was kind of a joke."
Sending manure in the mail is a joke?
"Yeah, that's what I said. I told him: 'You send a box of garbage as a joke. Garbage isn't a joke.'
"And he said it was a creatively placed response to your column."
But you were polite and didn't call him names?
"Yes. I was polite and didn't call him anything."
Good. We must act maturely, even when provoked, because not only is a newspaper a business but it is an institution that deals in the free exchange of ideas and points of view. And those manure-flecked boots, in their own way, represent a point of view.
"Yeah," she grumbled, "but I didn't have to open the damn thing."
I was so pleased with her restraint that I phoned Mr. Larsen.
"And how are you?" he asked in one of those jovial radio-announcer voices.
"Fine. I'm calling because my assistant spoke to you a little while ago. And I just wanted you to know that because she was offended by that box you sent, she wanted to call you an (obscenity).
"But it is against this newspaper's policy for employees to call people such as yourself an (obscenity).
"So that's why she didn't tell you that you're a real (obscenity). And that's why I won't call you a complete (obscenity), even though it is obvious that you are one big (deleted, deleted, deleted)."
"Oh," he said.
"And an oh to you and goodbye."
See? It's not all that hard to be polite. Even to an (deleted).