Dear Umbra,

When I was a kid we were allowed to lick our plates at the dinner table, except when guests were present. We were told that starving children in other countries would never leave a scrap on their plates, and my mother also took it as a compliment to her cooking. I still lick my plate in the privacy of my home, but today there are environmental reasons: licking prevents a small amount of waste from being transported and dumped in a landfill.

More important is the satisfaction of considering the environment in every possible way, with very little effort, and with pleasure if it is a tasty meal. Should we seek to change socially acceptable table manners for the sake of the environment? Imagine everyone licking their plate in your favorite restaurant — the chef would be delighted, and after all, if you paid a ransom for a meal you deserve every bit of it.

San Francisco, Calif.

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Dearest Graeme,

By all means, start a national movement. But I can’t help — I’ve signed a non-competition agreement with Miss Manners.

Hey, why not?

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Photo: iStockphoto.

Still, just as this week’s condom question gave me a chance to celebrate my 2005 avoidance of recyclables, your question gives me a chance to celebrate the 2005 bounty of deliciously silly letters to Umbra.

Rarely published but always cherished, such letters remind us all of the ease the internet has brought to our lives, and the simplicity of sending a letter to a person you’ve never met. I wish the environment were not degrading at an alarming rate and I had the leisure to answer all these questions, for you know my love of the absurd. But for now, the simple review herewith will need to suffice.

One batch of letters pondered the relationship between personal exercise and the environment: if one needs more calories due to vigorous workouts, does the increased food production required have a deleterious effect on the planet? And what of the vigorous workouts themselves? Couldn’t we use the Stairmaster or spin machines to power our cities, or at least charge our iPod? I honestly don’t know, but there’s a chance you could get rich trying.

In related concerns, nose-blowing and soiled tissues keep many of us awake nights — should we flush them, toss them, or use a cloth hanky substitute? Umbra says: if we follow the 3 R’s, the obvious choice is to collect our boogers in little cups and reuse them as household adhesive.

You all astound me with heretofore un-thought-of environmental problems such as: the aluminum linings of cigarette boxes; the effects of coffee disposal into our sewage system; hula hoops; cleaning rubber sandals in the dishwasher; making your own toothpaste; paper clips versus staples; and the evils of multi-ply toilet paper. I couldn’t invent this stuff. My readers are brilliant.

And finally, Helen wrote from Australia this year asking, “Does it drive you crazy when supposedly intelligent people spend their time pondering the safety of cycling in the ‘burbs or whether to run your hot water on full or not, when there are so many larger issues at stake? Or do you manage to keep your sanity along with your sense of humor?”

The obvious answer is that I was already mentally unhinged when I started this job. I’ve also learned that it’s far easier to think (and write letters) about small problems right in front of our eyes. It’s natural, it’s human, and, luckily for me, it’s often hilarious.

I comfort myself that part of my job is to keep us all in a contorted grimace, half-laugh, half-agony. Keep the letters coming, just don’t expect me to answer them all!


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