Mallory Ortberg isn’t just the cofounder of The Toast and the exceptional advice columnist behind Slate’s “Dear Prudence.” They (Ortberg recently announced their transition to Daniel) are also an author. Their new book The Merry Spinster is a collection of disconcerting updates on classic children’s stories—stories updated, fractured, re-spun, turned inside out. (We have never felt quite so bad for The Wind in the Willows’ Toad.)
Given the fairy-tale bent of Ortberg’s new book, and their knack for advice that we want to read even when we’ve got nothing in common with the asker, we thought it was time to combine the two. So we collected a few questions from characters you may or may not recognize (all querents retain full anonymity, obviously) and asked Ortberg for their fantastical—and just plain fantastic—advice.
Why hasn’t my Hogwarts letter arrived yet?
Access to education is a birthright you can neither earn nor lose. Letters of acceptance, magical or otherwise, are inherently classist. The people who best understand and value your inherent worth have been intercepting every owl flown in your direction for the last twelve years. They are acting in your best interests, even if you cannot presently see this as the gift that it is. Stop checking the mail, stop watching the skies, stop trying to notice things just outside of the corners of your vision. Birds will never tell you the truth about yourself.
Hand to god, this week I saw a crow making for a telephone wire with a yellow receipt in its mouth. All it was missing was a little hat and briefcase and a meeting to run late for. Everyone wants to tell you how smart crows are, like it’s good news. It’s not good news. “They remember names. They make trades. They solve puzzles.” I’ll bet they do, but hell. The other thing everyone wants to tell you is the difference between a crow and a raven. There is no difference. If it’s by itself, it’s a crow. If there’s more than one, ravens. A crow becomes a raven with a friend. A raven turns back into a crow when it’s alone. Plural of crow, ravens. They’ve all got the same problem: they’re too damn big. A crow is always bigger than you think it will be, bigger than you remember. It’s not the right size for a bird to be. It’s disrespectful. It’s shameless. It’s insubordinate to taxonomy. It’s daring you to say it’s not bird-sized. A crow is the size of an enchanted dog stuffed in a bag, or a cursed man. Something trying to fit into less space than it thinks it merits. Something buried in feathers. Crows don’t respect the order of operations.
If we are honest with ourselves, we will have to admit what our eyes have already told us: over the last year, maybe eighteen months, every crow has trebled in size and started returning eye contact. You can’t count them anymore, either. I mean when you see a group of them. Try it. Start counting, and you’ll never get past nine. You’ll lose your place. You won’t know why. Something’s happening, or about to.
Here is something I know to be true: there is a crow hiding underneath your car 100% of the time. He’s always there, shuffling his little crow-feet from left to right and fanning out his wings. His mouth clacks soft against itself when he breathes. But whenever you bend down to look for him, he hooks his beak into the undercarriage and flattens himself against the bed of the car so you can never quite see him.
Believe this: in every vending machine there is a crow, hiding behind the potato chips in the last slot, hunched and waiting, glittering in the dark.
WON’T SOMEONE TAKE THE SKY FROM ME?
Later this year kids born after the premiere of Firefly will be able to get their driver’s license. How do I begin the process of letting this show go?
Do you know how to drive stick shift? If not, consider learning. It will give you something to do with your hands, focus your attention, and help you develop solidarity and empathy with all the children in the process of getting their learner’s permits. Failing that, you might watch Ken Burns’ The Civil War and Solaris on two side-by-side television sets, while revolving very slowly in a circle and trying to teach yourself no more than two phrases in Mandarin until the urge passes.
THE TROUBLE WITH WIBBLES
How do I take things with J to the next level … logically?
Allow me to quote you back to yourself: After a time, you may find that having is not so pleasing a thing after all as wanting. It is not logical, but it is often true. If that does not suit, try another of your own sayings: Logic is the beginning of wisdom, Valeris, not the end.
IF YOU DON’T CLEAN UP THIS SKIN THIS INSTANT I SWEAR
BF [37M Possibly ??M?] won’t tell me where he goes at night, comes in super late and smelling like the ocean. Is the fact that it’s always up to ME to clean his seal skins an unfair division of labor?
—Mer Money, Mer Problems
Trying to clean seal skins is your first problem. Seal skin doesn’t wash. You burn it, like you would the skin of the donkey your husband disappears into at night, or the skin of the hedgehog your husband Hans-My-Hedgehog turns into every night, or the skin of the frog your beautiful young wife disappears into every night. Are you sure you’ve got your Aarne-Thompson type right? You ought to be following AT-430, The Donkey Bridegroom, or at the very least AT-449, The Tsar’s Bride. Burn the skin, and your husband will either appear before you in robust and glowing good looks, restored to his princely form, or he’ll run shrieking off into the night, exclaiming, “You should not have done that! Wife, you should not have done that! Oh woe, woe; had you endured but a single night more I should have been restored to my princely form, and brought you in ermine and in glory back to my homeland!” Either way, you’ll have solved your skin problem. Or at least one of your skin problems. I don’t know your life.
Mallory Ortberg is the co-creator of The Toast and the author of the New York Times bestseller Texts from Jane Eyre. The Merry Spinster: Tales of Everyday Horror is now available from Henry Holt and Company.