Helpful Hints

If you’re like me, Sunday mornings consist of sitting down to a nice hot breakfast and reading a newspaper or two. Of course, I am always the one who cooks said breakfast, but the Jarhead does his part by feeding the cats, making the coffee, and retrieving the papers from the box outside. And while I’m serving up the flax jacks and bacon, he’ll set the table and divide the papers into two piles: One for him, and one for me.

His pile is always bigger but includes only this: Two complete sets of circulars and two complete sets of comics. Fortunately the papers are from two different publishers and represent two different cities, so there is little overlap in the contents of the funnies, and almost no duplicates within the stack of store advertisements. The smaller pile—my pile—may be where the meat is, but like a Subway sandwich, that portion is dwarfed in both weight and volume by the bread and filler in the Jarhead’s pile.

Among my favorite features of the papers are the advice columns, including Dear Abby and Hints from Heloise, which are currently run by the daughters of the women who originally started them. Now I don’t know if Tom and Ray Magliozzi—the Massachusetts brothers, also known as Click and Clack, who offer fun but factual advice on car care—had a mother who wrote about auto mechanics in her day, but I can’t help but feel disadvantaged as a writer since my mom passed away before she could set me up with a sweet gig as a syndicated columnist.

Despite my love for advice columns—which feature heavily in the plot of my novel, Unmatched, if you’ll forgive the shameless plug—I find the title Hints from Heloise a bit misleading. A hint, according to different sources, is a subtle, slight, or indirect indication; an insinuation, or a small trace of something. Thus, if Heloise is actually offering hints, her advice would be far less specific and much more like the clues offered by Alex Trebek on Jeopardy!

For example, instead of instructing readers to “lay a placemat over your keyboard to protect it from dust, dirt, and pet hair,” she might say, “to protect your keyboard from dust, dirt, and pet hair, you can place this everyday item over your keyboard.” Such a sentence would not only better suit the definition of a hint; it would also make for a more interesting column as readers wrote in with feedback pertaining to the success or failure of their answers, such as “What are mashed potatoes” or “What is a shower curtain.”

Alternatively, she might say, “Use this clear, odorless liquid to moisten your plants or rinse your dishes,” followed by either five boxes, five underlined spaces, or even a five-letter anagram, such as R W E T A. This would increase my enjoyment of her column by combining it with one of my other favorite features of the newspaper: the crossword puzzle.

I don’t just look to the newspaper for helpful tips—as I think Heloise’s advice should be called. I get them from books and TV as well. For example, I recently received a very helpful idea from the AMC series—and Diersen family obsession—Breaking Bad. Specifically, I learned that you can dispose of a body by dissolving it in hydrofluoric acid.

This notion, if you will, has since been debunked by the wonderful folks at Myth Busters, and by a handful of chemistry experts online—one of whom offered perchloric acid as a more effective alternative. This advice, were it to be expressed as a hint, might be phrased as, “To dispose of a dead body, place the deceased in a large plastic bin, and cover with this superacid, which is can also be used to etch chrome, and to produce rocket fuel.”

Not that I have any need to dispose of a dead body; but neither do I have any plans to lay a placemat over my keyboard.


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