Missing the Helraisers

I freely admit that I am lazy, but the pandemic has definitely made me lazier. In March 2020, when COVID-19 closed down all my weekly activities—ballet classes, Rotary meetings, library book review, and working out at “the gym” (the exercise room of a local church), I wasn’t too dismayed. It was the first real vacation I’d had in years. As my arthritic knees and hips had increasingly constrained my movements and my balance had become precarious, ballet classes had become discouraging; as executive secretary and bulletin editor of my Rotary club, I had to attend every meeting and take notes and then produce the bulletin, in addition to keeping track of attendance and numerous other chores; as program chairman of the book review program, I had to attend and introduce the speakers, all of whom I had previously recruited. Now, suddenly, I had no “formations”—no activities at any set time. I had no responsibilities outside the home and could spend all the time I wanted reading and online. I had already been walking two miles a day on the days I didn’t have ballet or the gym was closed; now I was walking every day—but on my own schedule, earlier on hot days, later on cold ones. It was heaven!

Over the past two years, some of those activities have crept back in. Rotary gradually progressed from Zoom meetings to in-person ones, and all my usual duties resumed (albeit without the usual compensation, as our club is still teetering on the brink of bankruptcy). The book review program was finally able to resume last fall, though recruiting speakers has been even harder than usual because of COVID concerns. I have been to “the gym” a few times but am now more reluctant with the surge of Omicron.

I have always had a certain “morning routine” that I used to be able to get through in time to make it to a 9:00 ballet class. Now it has grown to consume a disproportionate portion of the morning. It starts with recording the events of the previous day in my Day-Timer (the closest thing I have to a diary or journal), then proceeds to 20 minutes or so of trawling through the Microsoft Word forums at the Microsoft Community website, looking for questions to answer. These are fewer and fewer these days as my Word skills become increasingly out-of-date, but, as a forum moderator, I read almost every post in order to mark “Helpful” replies and occasionally to mark one as an answer.

When I feel I have done justice to the forums, I turn to the New York Times Spelling Bee. This is a new activity—something I learned about a year or so ago—and it sometimes take me all day, off and on, to reach the ultimate Queen Bee status. In the past week I have also, along with all the rest of the country, apparently, discovered Wordle, but fortunately that doesn’t take much time!

When I have run out of gas on the Spelling Bee, I have breakfast. I then bring my coffee upstairs and turn to my comic strips. I subscribe to both Comics Kingdom and GoComics and also read “Dilbert” and “The Far Side” on their own sites, along with the “Strip Fix” page at the “For Better or Worse” site, in hopes that Lynn Johnston will have added a comment.

After the comics, I read advice columns in The Washington Post:
Miss Manners, Ask Amy, and Carolyn Hax. I read this primarily for emotional uplift, to make me feel grateful that, whatever problems I may have (mostly medical and technological), they pale in comparison to the issues reported to these “agony aunts.” I am so fortunate to have had a happy home life, congenial in-laws, amazing children and grandchildren, etc. What I feel is too mild to be described as schadenfreude, but it is certainly relief! When I have finished reading the columns, I turn to an online jigsaw puzzle.

Out of all the columns I read, the one I most looked forward to used to be “Hints from Heloise,” from which I got my daily dose of snark. Not from the column itself, I hasten to add, which was depressingly earnest, but from the comments of other WaPo readers. We were a judgmental bunch altogether, with the result that one of the commenters dubbed us “Helraisers,” and the term stuck. Here are just a few of the features we routinely decried:

  • Bizarre and unappealing recipes such as “Chinese Beets” (what makes them Chinese?). We derided the readers (fictional, we came to believe) who wrote in asking that a given recipe be repeated because the writer had lost her copy. Since all the recipes could easily be found with a Google search (many of them published just weeks earlier), we had to assume these were readers who still relied on print newspapers and snail mail.
  • Constant recommendation of microfiber cloths despite the environmental hazard posed by microplastics.
  • Frequent hints relying on baking soda or vinegar—and shilling for pamphlets providing more of the same.
  • Lists of possible uses for bits and bobs that one might otherwise throw away, such as toilet paper cores. This often involved improbable efforts at decoration.
  • Irrelevant questions: We could never understand why anyone would write to a household hints columnist for financial or medical or legal advice, but people did, and Heloise cheerfully provided it—often outdated or just plain wrong.
  • Advice that seemed to assume people were still living in the ’50s (this included the recipes and a general tendency to ignore the Internet).
  • Humorous typos. After a number of comments about poor editing and wrong answers, we began to see editorial comments inserted in the columns occasionally, as it seems WaPo began to take note of our complaints and feel some responsibility for the column.

Newcomers to the column/comments were often baffled by both the mean-spiritedness of the comments and the insider jargon. Examples of the latter were the abbreviations ILA and ESD, along with frequent reference to pool noodles. I think pool noodles were just intrinsically funny, especially when we kept learning so many possible uses for them. “ILA” stood for “I live alone.” I’m not quite sure why that became hilarious, but it originated with some reader question that began, “I live alone, and I need to know…” I have no idea what the original question was, but the phrase “I live alone” started to crop up in the comments, later abbreviated to ILA. ESD was a relatively recent addition that originated with this post:

DEAR READERS: Need a soap dish on the spur of the moment? Here are a few ideas:

  • A small saucer.
  • A seashell.
  • A plastic lid.
  • A flat rock.

That somehow struck us as hilarious, and the “emergency soap dish,” later abbreviated ESD, entered the Helraiser vocabulary.

But now all this, aside from the archives, has mysteriously disappeared. The last Heloise column listed on the WaPo site is the one for December 31, 2021. For the next several days, Helraisers assumed the column was just late. The column never ran on Sunday, and one Helraiser speculated that perhaps Heloise had taken New Year’s Day off as well, adding, “What shall we snark about?” Helraiser rybyteme replied:

How about what the hell am I to do with all these pool noodles when it’s 20°F out and winter storming? Or how I lost my cookbook and have nothing to make an ESD with.

Ask Why2 replied:

It seems like with a surplus of pool noodles and a shortage of ESD’S the answer would be apparent. I think you need a sharp knife.

Well, here we are 20 days later with no new columns and no explanation; worse still, the comments are closed, preventing further speculation. The WaPo landing page remains the same, there is no change at Heloise’s website (the last Pet of the Week—a Saturday feature—was posted on October 30), and Google doesn’t find any news to suggest that the column has been discontinued, and in fact apparently current columns are running elsewhere. I no longer have access to the print or e-edition of our local paper or any other, but the columns seem to be available at https://www.nwitimes.com/.

Even if I could read the columns elsewhere, that would not be a substitute for the comments section in The Washington Post. So here’s my tribute and fond farewell to these Helraisers and many others: chemteacher, Maharinchess of Franistan, Ask Why2, FiveOClockSomewhere, StuckInLodiAgain, MPLS Mama, NewBlueTexan, Mrs Mangelwurzel, NoFunAtParties, Tuba lady, MiamiReader, LittleIggy, PR San Francisco, and SuFuSoDak (I was essentially the only poster who didn’t use a funky screen name). I will miss your daily conviviality and snark!

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2 Responses to Missing the Helraisers

  1. Luc Sanders says:

    Hi Suzanne, remember my previous response (february 2021). I know, where was I all these months. Well, your perseverance in cleaning up the library yard pushed me to keep picking up masks. I passed the two thousand peak some weeks ago. I started doing walks to different parts of my neighborhood and picking up masks. In the process I discovered some nice nature spots, but unfortunately that doesn’t stop people from leaving trash there. Luckily Covid measures where cut back almost completely, so the masks numbers are starting to dwindle. Hope you are doing well and staying healthy.

  2. It’s unfortunate that such cleanup is left to volunteers. I often wonder if the City isn’t a bit embarrassed by having a 77-year-old woman attempting to do their work! Congratulations to you on your efforts, though. Several years ago, a fellow Rotarian in Mobile publicized his litter-pickup work on his daily walks and encouraged others to follow suit. Whether they did or not, litter is still a huge problem in Mobile, frequently addressed by the administration but never solved. We’re fortunate to have less of a problem here in Fairhope, though Nature certainly fills the gap: we’ve had several violent windstorms recently that have brought down a lot of dead wood, and it requires a lot of self-restraint to keep me from picking up every stick and limb I see when walking (I have to keep telling myself “Not my yard. Not my responsibility.” And it’s very hard for me to bend over, anyway. But I still end up pausing to pick up a lot of limbs!

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