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I Went To College!


Earlier this week someone asked me, “What did you major in?” I had just dropped one of the esoteric facts I’ve spent my entire life collecting and I expected it to, as usual, lie on the floor a minute or two before scuttling up my leg, over my midsection to my neck, and finally back into my ear, a metaphor that should make me a lot more uncomfortable, but which I’m actually enjoying so much I plan to use it every chance I get, which won’t ever happen again. Anyway it was kind of weird to have someone close to my age ask, “What did you major in that you know Ptah was the Egyptian god of sculpture?” Almost as weird as having an Egyptian deity come up in a work-related training session, although I work in a library so I have esoteric facts crawling into my eyes and out of  my mouth all the time. The funny thing is I majored in English and didn’t learn anything about Egyptian deities in any of the assigned reading, but the weird thing is I haven’t been asked what I majored in since, well, since I graduated. For students in the United States it’s a pretty common question, the tertiary education equivalent of “What’s your sign?” although it’s not usually a pickup line. It’s shorthand for, “What kind of person are you, what are you interested in, what are your hopes and dreams?” or in some cases it’s “What are your parents’ hopes and dreams that they’re paying for you to fulfill while you’d rather be taking improv classes?” It was a question I heard a lot when I was in college. With other students it was a nice icebreaker to start conversations, or to stop them. “I’m majoring in English. Oh, you’re majoring in accounting?” would be followed by a long, uncomfortable silence. From adults it was sometimes an expression of interest and sometimes when I told them I was majoring in English it led to expressions of befuddlement—“What are you going to do with that?” to cheap jokes about my future career in burger-flipping. Sometimes I turned it around on them. “Oh, you majored in psychology? How’s that helping you in your job as assistant office manager at a small midstate office supply company?” This strategy didn’t always work out so well, of course. “Oh, you majored in communications engineering and business and now you’re manager of a radio station?” And then I’d nod thoughtfully and say, “Well done,” but that’s another story.

In other countries, of course, higher education is structured very differently. In the United States we have some trade schools and also universities and colleges. Universities take a more unified view of education while colleges take little scraps of data, slap glue on them, and stick them to your brain, and if you’ve studied you should know that data are plural, the singular is datum, first isolated in 1986 when scientists put a Trivial Pursuit card under a microscope, and that Brent Spiner and Jonathan Luke Ke Huy Quan are Data. The “major” is a specific field of study that can range from architecture to zoology, both of which are very popular with people who don’t know what they want to do so pick either the first or last thing listed in the school catalog. In Britain, on the other hand, they have two universities, Oxford and Cambridge, where students spend four years reading before they venture out into the world to either become coal miners or write novels about coal miners, and in Canada young people who’ve finished the secondary phase of their education build a chrysalis out of cheese and Tim Horton’s coffee cups and spend four years pupating before they emerge fully-fledged ski shop owners. In Australia education is a lifelong process of just trying to stay alive in a place where everything is out to kill you, and don’t get me started on higher education in other parts of the world because I know absolutely nothing about it.

So anyway it kind of threw me to be asked by another adult, “What did you major in?” after all these years and then later in the conversation I mentioned They Might Be Giants, and she asked, “Is that a musical group?” And now it was my turn to ask, “Are you sure you went to college?”

Smith’s Forge.

Source: Goodreads

If coming out is easier now than it used to be–and for some people I understand it is, although it can still be a difficult experience–it’s because of people like Bob Smith. He was the first openly gay comic to appear on The Tonight Show and get his own HBO special, making his debut in 1994, nine years before the Supreme Court’s Lawrence v. Texas decision would sweep away the remaining anti-sodomy laws that existed solely to punish gay men.
He was more than just a standup comedian. Bob Smith was a prolific, and funny, author, of both novels and personal essays. His 1997 book Openly Bob, has witty wisdom on every page:

I know on a rational level I shouldn’t feel responsible for the behavior of every gay man, but having been raised Roman Catholic, I’m capable of producing guilt from nothing.
The opponents of sex education believe that if we keep our teenagers ignorant about a topic then they won’t become interested; a theory that has proven itself by the lack of interest shown by teenagers in other subjects missing from the curriculum, such as playing loud music, eating French fries, and the use of pimple creams.
At twenty-three I still lived at home and had reached the age when that admission is not a statement of address but of arrested development.
Being a personal assistant is the most thankless job since food tasting for the pharaohs…It’s tragic that people in both careers think the job is going to be a stepping-stone and end up discovering it can be a tombstone.
Coffee in the morning is my religion. We true believers drink two cups to lead us not into temptation to go back to bed.
Anthropologists have propagated a theory that over millions of years the size of our brains expanded as our ancestors began to use tools. Isn’t it more probable that our mental capacity developed to avoid using tools? It takes more ingenuity to get out of doing something than to do it. Call it the Tom Sawyer Theory of Evolution.
Supermarkets are on the cutting edge of social change. Anyone can buy family-size packages, whether your family is nuclear, dysfunctional, or chosen. At the cash register, all relationships are treated with the same respect. Your right to purchase a family valu-pack of paper towels is never disputed–your family is always valid even if your coupons aren’t.

A few years ago Bob Smith had to have another sort of coming out when he revealed he had ALS. The disease affected his mouth first, dulling his tongue but not the wit that drove it. Born December 24th, 1958, he came out both as a gay man and a comedian in the 1980’s, a great time to be one of those things but not the other. And yet he was always proud, a founding member of the group Funny Gay Males. He was strong too, up until the end. He wrote final book, Treehab: Tales From My Natural Wild Life, on an iPad with only one hand.
Singlehandedly he made the world a better place.
Hail and farewell Bob Smith.


Routing The Routine.

Snow completely disrupts routines, at least here in the South where even a prediction of snow throws everyone into a panic and causes them to rush to the store to buy eggs, bread, milk, and toilet paper. There’s even a running conspiracy theory that the stores are in cahoots with the local meteorologists and will sometimes throw out a false warning when they’re overstocked on those items which would explain the occasional July forecast, but that’s another story.
I understand that other parts of the country are better equipped to deal with snow and Yankees and other aliens have asked me so many times, “Why does snow cause so much trouble around here?” that I’ve developed a standard answer. I say, it doesn’t happen often enough and when snow starts falling there are still some people who run out into the street screaming, “What is this stuff? It looks like chicken feathers but it’s cold!” Nashville has ice trucks and snow plows, although not very many, and one year they couldn’t get out because the door of the garage where they kept froze shut. There was no backup plan because it never occurred to anyone that such a thing might happen. I told a bus driver who’d moved here from Michigan that and she laughed so hard I was afraid she’d go off the road, but I’m pretty sure Michigan does have snow in July.
I know I’m making it sound worse than it is. Most winters Nashvillians will see snow at least once or twice, and on rare occasions the Aurora Borealis can be seen, a faint smudge of neon on the horizon. The snow just never lasts long enough for anyone to get used to it, which may be why I’ve never ridden a bus that was on a snow route. Or maybe I have and I didn’t know it because the snow route for my regular bus isn’t that different from its regular route. And yet the other day when I was waiting for the bus this came zipping up:

At first I hesitated to get on, but the door opened and the driver motioned to a seat. I don’t know what circumstances led to a shortbus being sent out to pick up regular riders, but it was a nice break in the routine.

Being There.

Some friends and I were walking through Gorky Park, the actual park, not the 1983 film, although it is interesting to me that one of my favorite comedians, Alexei Sayle, has a small role in the film. He gets shot in the head and because the special effects technicians got a little overzealous when they shot the shooting he was left temporarily deaf. While he was sitting around the set recovering Lee Marvin sat down and talked to him for about half an hour and all Sayle, who was understandably starstruck, could do was smile and nod politely.

My friends and I had just been to a Marc Chagall exhibit at a Moscow museum which, at the time, was a pretty big deal. This was 1991, the Soviet Union had collapsed less than a week earlier, and Chagall’s paintings were being shown in his native Russia for the first time since he left in 1923. It was striking to me that even though Chagall himself wouldn’t live to see it his paintings had outlasted the Soviet Union. And even though I really loved the Chagall  paintings I’d seen in books this was the first time I’d ever seen his pictures in person. No matter how good a reproduction may be it can never capture the feeling of being in front of an original painting, seeing its size, the brushstrokes, and the colors unfiltered.

Because it was snowing and because we were in a park we decided to build a snowman, although we didn’t pretend he was Parson Brown, but if we had and he’d asked, “Are you married?” we would have said, “Holy crap, it’s a talking snowman!” but that’s another story. Since we didn’t have coal or carrots we used kopecks for the eyes and nose and mouth. Some Russian kids gave us weird looks. As we walked away I looked back and saw them examining the snowman. I figured they’d take the kopecks but they didn’t touch it.

On the metro going back to the hotel we sat across from a boy who might have been seven or eight.

“Would you like a piece of candy?” one of my friends asked. He gave her a blank look. She held out a lollipop from her candy stash. He took it and politely muttered “Спасибо.” He then took out a red plastic pencil case and put the lollipop in it, keeping his head down. The rest of the trip he kept moving around the lollipop and his pencils, a smile pushing out at the corners of his mouth.

Every once in a while I think about that kid and how he must be grown now, and I wonder if any memory of us has melted away, like the lollipop and the snowman, or if he remembers that, if he feels lucky to have been there.

Keep It On Ice.

While it’s a myth that no two snowflakes are alike snowflakes still come in a dazzling array of forms.

Ice is just ice. It’s solid water. It’s not going out of its way to be special.


If you fall in snow it gently cushions you.

If you fall on ice it will do as much as it can to break every one of your bones.


Snow floats and gently coats the world as it falls.

Ice just falls. It sticks, seeps into nooks and crannies, and pushes everything aside. Ice lets you know it’s arrived.


Most snowflakes form around dust particles.

Ice doesn’t need help from anyone.


A typical snowflake has roughly 180 billion molecules of water.

Ice consumes all. It has no limits. Do not mock ice.


Snow forms drifts that you can see.

Ice forms invisible patches. Ice doesn’t need to be seen and wants you to know that.


Lie down in snow and move your arms and legs out from your body. You’ll form a snow angel.

Lie down on ice. It will make you cold. Ice is going to do its own thing and doesn’t care what you want.


Snow is ideal for skiing, snowboarding, and sledding.

Ice is ideal for skating and hockey. Blades and bloodshed are how ice rolls.

The largest recorded snowfall in the United States in a twenty-four hour period was in April 1921 in Silver Lake, Colorado. It snowed 75.8 inches.

Ice is a really big fan of Ethel Merman.


Light snow is often called “powder”.

Ice doesn’t need any silly nicknames except in drinks consumed by grim men in dark bars, and even then it’s only known as “the rocks”.


All snowflakes are six-sided.

Ice only has one side: ice.


Snow is a good insulator and can be used to build shelters.

Ice wants you to die.


Some people have chionophobia which means “fear of snow”.

Everyone fears ice. Ice wants it that way and ice gets what it wants.


There are records of snowflakes as big as fifteen inches.

Ice will cover a whole lake if it wants to. You got a problem with that? Ice wants you to come out here and jump up and down and say that.


Snowball fights are a fun way to enjoy the winter outdoors with your friends.

Ice ball fights are how wars get started.


Snow only forms under very special atmospheric conditions.

Ice is just cold. If you need this explained to you again ice will cut you.


Winter snowfall provides more than three-fourths of the water that supports the climate of western North America.

Ice has been implicated in international money laundering.


Large accumulations of snow on mountains can result in avalanches.

Ice is directly responsible for avalanches. It taunts the snow into just giving up.


Scientists have found layers of snow at the polar regions that go back thousands of years.

Ice advises you to just keep moving and don’t ask what happened here unless you want to end up like Sonny Corleone.


Frosty The Snowman is a magical character brought to life by children and forced to leave town after an altercation with the police.

Ice runs this town. You cross ice and ice will put you in a woodchipper.


When snow melts it turns into fluffy kittens.

When ice melts it makes everything around it cold. Ice wants you to know that you will pay.

It’s Always Brillig Somewhere.

So my wife gave me a literary tea collection because, well, I’m a bit of a reader, and by “bit of a reader” I mean I always have at least five or six books stacked up on my bedside table and a long list of books I wish I could get to, but that’s another story. Anyway I noticed a theme running through the collection.

This one might make me go blind.

This one might make me go bald.

This one might make me go bearded.

This one I can only drink when it’s brillig.

You may have noticed something else they all have in common, something which reminds me of Henry Ford’s statement, “You can have it in any color you like as long as it’s black.” He was referring, of course, to the Model Tea.

Little Things Get Big.

Source: Village Voice

Sometimes all it takes is one little thing. Back in 2012 comedian Josh Gondelman, whose birthday is today, co-created the Twitter account @SeinfeldToday which has spawned dozens of imitators. This is not to say that he stopped there, of course. He performs regularly. One of his life performances was featured on the Bullseye With Jesse Thorn podcast as part of the End of Year 2017 Comedy Special. He has a story about how he had what may be the most memorable wedding reception ever, and that’s all I’m gonna say.
And these are only steps in a career that’s been steadily rising. He’s had articles published in McSweeney’s and other publications,  and since 2014 he’s been a writer for John Oliver Tonight.
Yeah, I guess now that I think about it that’s a lot of little things adding up to a lot.

Ich Bin Kein Berliner.

I wear sneakers most of the time. They’re comfortable, they go with almost everything, and while I used to only wear plain white sneakers in the past few years I’ve started branching out into more striking grays and browns.

Yeah, fashion may not exactly be my thing, although I do have the snazzy red pair for when I want to dance the blues, and I also tend to go for what I can find on sale because I walk a lot and a pair is going to last me six months at the most.
Still I’m kind of tempted by a new Adidas sneaker made in collaboration with Berlin’s transit authority BVG, or at least I would be if they were available anywhere near me. They’re being sold exclusively in only two Berlin stores, they’re limited to a run of 500 pairs, only two shops in Berlin will be selling them, and, while I dig the design that’s based on the Berlin transit upholstery even though it’s meant to discourage graffiti–actually it looks more like a “we can’t beat ‘em so let’s join ‘em” design to me, but that’s another story, I couldn’t take advantage of the footwear’s primary feature.

The sneaker’s tongue will include a feature that’s arguably more striking—a fabric version of the annual BVG season ticket. That means the wearer gets free travel on subways, trams, buses, and ferries anywhere within Berlin public transit zones A and B— which cover almost all of the city—from January 31st to the end of the year.

That’s financially a pretty cool deal and it’s fantastic that Berlin is encouraging the use of public transit, even if only five-hundred people will get the golden ticket. I’m jealous, and also jealous that Berliners don’t just have buses but also subways, trams, and ferries, proving that sneakers really do go with everything.

Pardon My French.

When I was young one of the most popularly quoted lines among my peers was “Hell is other people” from Sarte’s No Exit. In college it was posted on the door of every dorm room, or at least every third dorm room, or maybe it was just a few on every floor and it just seemed like it was everywhere.

The problem is it was almost always misquoted, or rather misunderstood. Sure, Sarte wrote in French, and the play was originally called Huis Clos, so, yeah, anyone who said “Hell is other people” was, strictly speaking, quoting a translation of the original, but the important thing is that Sarte was one of the major figures of the Existentialist movement, and even though one of his characters says, “Hell is other people,” or something like it, the author of Being And Nothingness believed that it is our perceptions that shape the world. If Sarte knew how many kids were going around saying “Hell is other people” it would probably make him say, “Merde.”

A character from the TV show Justified put it much more succinctly: “If you run into an asshole in the morning, you ran into an asshole. If you run into assholes all day, you’re the asshole.”

I Came, I Thaw, I Conquered.

So far this winter I haven’t had a cold, or at least nothing more significant than the sniffles that come from being out in the cold and stepping into a warm building which always seems to cause my nose to run. I’m not sure why this is. Even when it’s been really cold outside it hasn’t, as far as I know, been cold enough to freeze my sinuses, and even if it were I don’t think the temperature change is enough to cause such immediate thawing. If it takes the microwave at least five minutes just to get the frost off a small chicken breast I have no idea why the linings of my nasal passages, which should be a pretty stable ninety-eight and a half degrees Fahrenheit most of the time, can go from solid to liquid before I even have a chance to shut the door that divides the indoors from the outdoors. Some might think I’m inviting disaster by bragging that I haven’t been afflicted by the rhinovirus, or even the elephantvirus, the zebravirus, or the aardvarkvirus. That last one combines sniffling and sneezing with uncontrollable laughing because it’s the only known virus that has bunny ears, a pig’s nose, and a big floppy tail, but that’s another story. I’m not worried that talking about it will cause me to fall under the influenza, mostly because I’ve never been really superstitious, knock on wood, but also because I got a flu shot at the start of the season and I think my odds are pretty good even though the flu vaccine isn’t always one-hundred percent effective. It’s like the fall TV lineup: even with the best possible combination of what’s expected to work a few people are still going to get sick, but that’s another story. And I realize I’ve slipped from the common cold to the common flu even though they’re two entirely different beasts and could easily be distinguished at a distance if you could see them without a microscope. The common cold worries me even less because I have this completely unscientific idea that the reason I get at least one every year is because it’s always mutating and therefore one step ahead of my immune system, but this year maybe it’s gone into reruns and I’ve been able to head it off with some nasal streaming. And also at any sign of a cold I’ve started taking vitamin C even though I’ve never been superstitious, and I’m not sure why vitamin C, which is supposed to prevent the common scurvy, is always the treatment for a cold, although I think it has something to do with helping your nose thaw faster.

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