Humor and metaphor often lost in communication

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Every so often, you get a piece of hate mail that’s so gloriously awful, it must be shared. Such was the case this week, as I began the new year with the following communication:

“Dear Ms. DeAngelo,

“I have tolerated your articles in spite of their poor English, superlatives and comparisons. Sorry to say that writers like you should retire.

“But this time I question your logic, knowledge, and accuracy. Having a doctorate in engineering and mathematics, I was upset to read your article. can you please tell me what is your knowledge of Mathematics? You are dead wrong on several accounts, besides Fibonacci series. Did the Mayans invent the Zero? Do some research on the web. Why talk about a subject that you are not sure of Qualified to (if I am not mistaken).

“Sorry to spoil your day at the start of the new year, but you had it coming.

“However, no personal dislike. Happy New Year.”

Because I am essentially kind and gentle (until provoked), I won’t include this person’s name. That would be dirty pool. However, I will note that he included “Ph.D, P. Eng.” after his name, as a nice flourish for ending his “Jane, you ignorant slut” correspondence.

You will also note that, unless the Enterprise editors have had a burst of OCD or outright defiance, that this email is printed as written. Any typos or grammatical errors were not of my own doing.

If you’re like me, the first thing you’ll do after reading something like this is share it with someone who will really appreciate it. I forwarded it to my husbie, who also has engineering credentials tacked onto his name, with the note, “Engineers. :P” which of course is the emoticon for sticking out one’s tongue.

His response, also verbatim: “Bzzz BZZzz bzzz Bzzzz. You slighted his people, who of course, invented everything” with the automatic postscript, “Sent from my Verizon Wireless BlackBerry.”

(Because only engineers would still be using BlackBerrys instead of iPhones, due to their perverse affection for All Things Complicated.)

He was referring to the writer’s name, which indicated that his forebears did not arrive in this country on the Mayflower, and possibly he comes from a country that prides itself on its technical accomplishments. In other words, “How dare the Mayans make claim on our zero!” (“Whaddya mean the Chinese invented spaghetti,” Luigi shouted.)

Anyway, I won’t indulge in the delicious irony of criticism of my “poor English” from one clearly still trying to master it. At least he’s trying. I also won’t dwell upon the fact that including superlatives and comparisons in one’s writing is typically thought to be a positive thing, nor the obvious curiosity of why this person felt it necessary to “tolerate” anything he didn’t like or found distasteful or unpleasant when it wasn’t required.

Oh wait. He’s an engineer.

My fascination with this exchange focuses more on perception and comprehension.

I responded to Mr. Ph.D, P. Eng. that no, my area of expertise is certainly not mathematics or engineering. That said, despite his credentials in these areas, it seems his reading comprehension skills were a bit lacking, as evidenced by his total misunderstanding of the point of the column, which was: “Go forth in this year as if it is your last, and make the most of every precious moment.” However, it’s hard to communicate an overarching message to someone who’s over-focused on minutiae. (Read: engineers.)

Imagine Mr. Ph.D, P. Eng. and I are admiring Dali’s “The Persistence of Memory.” Should I comment on the flaccidity of memory or the juxtaposition of reality and abstraction, Mr. Ph.D, P. Eng. would retort that if the heat was high enough to melt the watches, it would also therefore have evaporated the water. This would be followed by a tirade about Dali’s utter lack of knowledge about the Kelvin to Celsius temperature conversion, concluding with the obvious fact that Dali had no business painting things he hadn’t studied, and should therefore stick to vases of flowers.

You ignorant slut.

Said the engineer.

You see, commentary is a lot like abstract art. It has its own rules. Punctuation and white space are used for effect, sentences drift off into ellipses. Voice matters most of all. You should be able to hear my voice. If you can’t, I’ve failed.

Columnists often use metaphors and similes, which can confuse ESL folks. “The apple of my eye,” or “My heart took wing” or “The world is my oyster” require detailed explanation to someone who didn’t grow up hearing these phrases. Add on top of that an engineer’s compulsion to split hairs, and you can see why my metaphor of a Möbius strip for the end of times didn’t sit well with Mr. Ph.D, P. Eng. He was having kittens because I am totally ignorant about quantum physics. He doesn’t get that it doesn’t matter if the metaphor is a Möbius strip or a ferris wheel or a magical flying pony.

(By the way, Mr. Ph.D, P. Eng., I know you can’t really have kittens. Don’t get bogged down in the difficulty of interspecies genetics. Just go with it.)

Sadly, when I pointed out to Mr. Ph.D, P. Eng. that he needed some remedial English comprehension, he replied, “Good way to escape from a critisism by deflecting from my points. I have written fiction and articles, and do not need a PhD in English to undrestand articles. Ask yourself what Fibonacci series has to do with doomsday prediction. Just because some TV channel says something does not mean the logic is irrefutable. Have you researched into my point about the concept of Zero?

“On the matter of English, I can select several sentences in your article and point out the immaturity in them. But, I shall not do so now. Suffice it to end by saying that I wish the Enterprise had better judgement in selecting writers. It is pointless to continue this tirade when one cannot look into a mirror pointed at them.

“Good luck in your writing endevours.”

You ignorant slut.

— Email Debra at; read more of her work at, and

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