The Weekly Essay

It’s Another Story.

Ten Things Only I Think Are Funny, With Unnecessary Explanations, Annotations, And Footnotes.

Source: fromoldbooks.org

I have a rare album: Rex Harrison[1] Sings Billy Idol[2].

Explanation: There’s at least one other person who finds this funny, although I texted this to him one night with no other explanation after I’d had a couple of beers and, since it was a Friday night, I’m sure he’d had a few too and at that point just about anything is funny, and I still kind of wonder why I didn’t say I had an album of Brian Blessed singing Cyndi Lauper which, let’s face it, would have been almost as funny.

Annotation: Rex Harrison was hopeless as a singer but regularly cast in musicals, most famously the 1967 film version of Doctor Dolittle. He developed a style of “speech singing”, essentially talking his way through songs. Billy Idol, on the other hand,  has both a broad vocal range and a much cooler haircut.

Medieval European polearms [3]

Explanation: This one is a you-had-to-be-there kind of joke although I bet there are a lot of historians who get why this is funny. There are literally dozens of different designs for what’s basically a blade and some pointy things on the end of a stick, each with their own specific name and it just makes me laugh to imagine a knight saying to his squire, “Hey, I asked for a bec de corbin and you brought me a ranseur!”

I put a quarter in a Wurlitzer[4] and pita bread stuffed with thin-sliced roasted and seasoned lamb[5] popped out.

Explanation: This came to me one night when I was on my way to get some Greek takeout food and I was kind of embarrassed because I couldn’t tell the guy behind the counter why I was laughing so hard without sounding like a lunatic.

Annotation: Foreigner’s album 4, first released in 1981, has proven to be one of their longest lasting, with the second track, an ode to a young boy who is unable to buy a concert ticket but, hearing a guitar, becomes a musician himself, is considered by critics to be the best song in their entire catalog.

Aardvarks[6].

Explanation: I was watching a nature documentary and an aardvark came on and started digging into a termite mound and I couldn’t stop laughing because I’d never realized before that they’re basically giant long-tailed pigs with bunny ears.

Annotation: Aardvarks share a common ancestor with elephants, manatees, and hyraxes, none of which any rational person finds funny.

Hansel and Gretel[7] kill their parents.

Explanation: This is a bit dark but my lifelong love of fairy tales has prompted me to write alternate versions of several, including Hansel and Gretel, and I think it would be weirdly funny is the kids figured out their parents were planning to abandon them and took matters into their own hands and maybe got adopted by the witch.

Cans of mixed nuts.

Explanation: It’s not so much the nuts as the conversations I imagine them having. Hazelnuts[8] would call each other “Phil” and “Bert”, pecans[9] would speak with a Southern accent, and Brazil nuts[10] would speak German.

Annotation: Most commercially available nut mixes also include peanuts, almonds, and cashews, none of which are funny.

Excel spreadsheets[11].

Explanation: Actually not funny at all, not even to me, and I think I’ve established that I’ve got a really weird sense of humor, but at this point I’m just trying to pad out the list.

Annotation: In high school I knew guys taking computer classes who’d get really excited about making spreadsheets. This was the ‘80’s and it just goes to show how much of a novelty computers were that something accounting-related could actually seem exciting.

Padding lists[12]

Explanation: It’s always funny to me when someone throws something weird and seemingly random into a list.

The word “swab”

Explanation: There are plenty of weird words that just sound funny to me but “swab” is my go-to when someone asks for an example. Maybe it’s because I think of pirates swabbing the decks but it could just as easily be because cotton swabs tickle the insides of my ears.

Annotation: The origins of the word “swab” date to at least the mid-17th century when it originally meant a mop made of rope yarn, ultimately derived from the Swedish “svabba”, meaning “a dirty person”, and why the Swedish needed a specific word for a dirty person is a mystery.

Ridiculously long titles.

Explanation: None needed.

Annotation: See above.

Footnotes follow.

1-An English stage and screen actor (b.1908-d.1990)

2-An English musician, singer, and songwriter (b.1955, d. probably several times because, you know, rock stars)

3-A weapon consisting of a blade attached to a long wooden staff

4-A brand name of jukebox.

5-A sandwich commonly known as a “gyro”, sold as Greek or Middle Eastern cuisine.

6-Scientific name Orycteropus afer, an insectivorous mammal whose range extends across much of Africa.

7-The child protagonists of a German fairy tale of medieval origin first published by the Brothers Grimm in 1812.

8-Nuts produced by the hazel tree (scientific name Corylus avellana), hazelnuts are also known as “filberts” and now we’re just over-explaining the joke.

9-Nuts produced by a subspecies of hickory (scientific name Carya illinoinensis)

10-Not technically a nut but rather a seed from a South American tree (scientific name Bertholletia excelsa)

11-A computer application used for storing, sorting, organizing, and analyzing data in the form of a table.

12-Made you look.

 

Let Me X-Plain.

X is the twenty-third letter in the alphabet. It’s one of the oldest letters, having come from ancient Greek where it was pronounced like the sound you make when you clear your throat because the ancient Greeks liked to give really long speeches and they would cut off interruptions by pretending to interrupt themselves, or maybe they stayed hydrated by drinking heavy cream while making their speeches because skim milk hadn’t been discovered yet. Some people think X is a redundant letter but really X is a very hardworking letter. X can mark the spot, it’s what you put on moonshine bottles and unrated films before they invented the NC-17 rating as a way of telling people, “This film is pretentions and awful and doesn’t have nearly as much nudity as you’d think.” Without the letter X there’d be no X-Games, X-Men, or X-Files. And in regular words it’s very hard working. The letter X allows you to have experiences and it’s why Billy Joel can go to extremes. It’s part of excess, excellence, exceed, excelsior! Without X your axe would be an ae which isn’t nearly as exciting or exceptional, and would barely make an excerpt where an excision was needed. X works by itself too, in X-rays and X-Mas, and xanthan gum and Xanadu where Khubla Khan built a stately pleasure dome and then Charles Foster Kane renovated it so Olivia Newton John could build a roller rink there some time later. It’s why we have xanthan gum and no one knows what that is but it’s in everything. Without X your xeriscaped lawn would be all wet, your xylophone wouldn’t be nearly as xippy, and Xerxes The Great would just be Eres The Whatever. X also starts cool obscure words you only find in really big dictionaries, words like “xenium”, which means “a present, usually food, offered to a guest or stranger,” which is a really nice word that’s so much better than xenophobia.

X is also the Roman numeral ten which raises the question, when Romans said “ex”, which was a preposition that meant “out of” did they pronounce it “e-ten”? And did that make people say, “Oh, I get it, you’ve had your xenium so now you’re leaving”? Except “ten” in Latin is “decem” so I guess really they’d say “e-decem” on their way out.

All this shows what a really powerful and important letter X is, and why it’s a total badass of the alphabet. You do not want to meet X in a dark alley, and despite what you may have heard not all Xes live in Texas. X is useful and strong, it can work with others or stand on its own, not like, say, K, which other letters will tell you is a total dickweed, frequently standing there silently doing nothing in letters like known and knife, and making C look weak even though C can crunch it or be a stand-in for S.

I’m getting away from X though so this is a good point to make an exit or, as some people say, an ex-scape.

And actually it’s the twenty-fourth letter in the alphabet. I was just seeing if you were paying attention.

This was my response on an algebra test to the question “Define X”. My math teacher Mr. Stengell wrote a note in red at the bottom of my paper that said, “See me after class!” It turned out I was in trouble and did not get what I hoped for which was extra credit.

It’s Really Something.

So I’ve decided to become an expert on nothing. Admittedly I think I may already be an expert on nothing—it seems like it would be pretty easy to have absolute mastery of nothing, but the more I think about it the more I think maybe I’ve just skimmed the surface of nothing and that there’s a lot more to it that I could really look into. There’s already a long history of nothing that goes back much further than the sixties when kids were told to tune in, turn off, drop out, drop in, switch off, switch on, and explode, although the most famous event in the history of nothing might be the 31st of September, 1873, a day when absolutely nothing happened, and the people who experienced it have no idea how lucky they were. Or maybe they did and didn’t make a note of it.

More recent developments in the field of nothing include sensory deprivation tanks which I’ve heard described as being sort of like what Hamlet called the undiscovered country, except you get to come back, which makes me think there must be something to nothing. Admittedly I’ve never tried the sensory deprivation experience and that description makes me even more afraid of it than I was before. Whenever I’m surrounded by nothing my brain tends to fill it up with something and sometimes that something can be pretty terrifying. When I was a kid I was afraid of the dark because when all the lights were out all I could see was nothing and the dark is a pretty good place for something to hide, which reminds me of the joke about the guy who wants to talk to the burglar who broke into his house. “You’ll get your chance in court,” the police tell him, but the guy says, “He got in without waking up my wife and I need to know how because I’ve been trying to do that for years!”

I also think caves are really cool and have a fun time going to them but every time I’ve ever been in a cave there’s been a point where the tour guide has said, “Now we’re going to turn off all the lights so you can see just how dark it is inside a cave.” And I never want to see that. In fact I never do see it, or anything else, and most of the time it freaks me out so much I close my eyes but somehow that makes it even worse.

It seems like the deeper I get into nothingness the more there is to it. There are whole days when, no matter how much I work, I get nothing done. Lots and lots of nothing. Not that it’s anything new. Everything was once nothing. Between the blissful nothingness of Buddhism, reached through meditative enlightenment and the unnerving nothingness of the existential void and chaos what is there? And it occurs to me that at least half of Jean Paul Sartre’s philosophical magnum opus L’Être et le néant is about nothing, or at least I think it is–I haven’t read any of it.

Always Something There To Remind Me.

It’s surprising how quickly people forget once the season is over. Not that I mind. In fact it’s a good thing. It’s why I don’t feel so bad about taking most of January off. I let the whole crew take the time off too. They’ve worked hard, especially  at the end of the year, and I feel like everyone deserves a break once we’re past the crunch.

The first few days I stretch out on the Barcalounger and watch TV the first few days. Mostly I catch up on movies or watch the news. Anything except the weather. You know I spend most of December watching the weather and by January it’s the last thing I want to hear about. Anyway this far north what’s it gonna be? Cold! Cold and dark. The missus will sometimes go someplace warm and sunny for the winter and, well, I’m happy to let her go, but I just don’t feel right doing that myself. Anyway I’ve already done so much traveling in December I really don’t feel like going anywhere. I like having my down time at home. I sit and go through the mail. This time of year it’s almost all junk mail, which is okay with me. I kind of get a kick out of the ads and catalogs and things, mostly addressed to “Resident”. Once we got a seed catalog and there was a typo so it was address to “Resideer”. Well, I had to share that with the Transportation Department, and we all had a good laugh about it. Not a big belly laugh, but a good heh-heh-heh. Then they ate it.

Toward the end of January I get kind of fidgety, though, and ready to get back to work. That’s when I start making my list. Sure, that seems early, but it’s a long list and I want to have time to double-check it, and December will be here before you know it. I don’t really watch my clients, you know. Even back in 1934 I thought saying I know when they’re sleeping made me sound like a big creep.

I’m not ready to put the production crew back to work yet, though, so I try to find other ways to occupy myself. Like the year I took up snowboarding. Well, I heard a lot from the missus about that. “At your age?” she said. I guess she had a point, but while I may not look it I’m pretty fit for seventeen hundred and fifty.

Oh, sure, I’ve done some stupid things too, like back in the ‘80’s when I lost a lot of weight, shaved the beard, and traded in the sleigh for a Lamborghini. Yeah, that was a mistake. Not like in 1947, though, when I took that side gig working at Macy’s.

Yep. Then it’s back to work. There’s just no rest when you’re Santa Claus.

That Special Feeling.

What if you could drink a lot without having to worry about a hangover? Well, you can, if you stick to drinking water or milk or even coffee or basically anything non-alcoholic—heck, even if you drink windshield cleaning fluid you probably won’t have a hangover, although you’re also unlikely to still be around the next day to report on the effects. The thirty-eight months of 2020 have also left all of us pretty hung over even before we could start the New Year’s celebrations. I’ve also heard it said that a twenty dollar bottle of vodka and an eighty dollar bottle of vodka will taste the same; the difference is how you feel the next morning. One way or another you’re gonna pay for it. Anyway a British scientist has been working on a synthetic alternative to alcohol that not only promises no hangover but also that you can’t get drunk—it promises a relaxing effect, making people more sociable and chatty but it’s designed so the effect is supposed to be limited: drinking more isn’t going to make you any more intoxicated.

It sounds like science fiction, maybe because it has been: on Star Trek synthehol was—or is, I guess, since technically it happens in the future—supposed to be an alternative to real alcohol that provides a warm buzz without excessive drunkenness or hangovers and less time required to sober up. And it’s supposed to be so much like the real thing only certain very discerning starship engineers, who also happen to be Scottish, can tell the difference. Still I think there’s another question that’s not being answered: what about other species? That’s a question not even Star Trek bothers with but is one answered in Larry Niven’s Tales of The Draco Tavern, a collection of stories set in a fictional spaceport bar in Siberia, and it’s hard to imagine a place that needs a bar more than a spaceport. A hangover is nothing compared to the jet lag of a few trillion miles. Niven uses the casual encounters between aliens and humans as a way to delve into pithy philosophical issues but what I find intellectually intoxicating is the detail that various species from around the galaxy all have their own ways of getting hammered. Humans have alcohol, some aliens get a buzz from beef consommé, some imbibe radioactive rocks, however that works, and some enjoy a low voltage electrical charge. That last one, actually, doesn’t sound that unusual. There was a kid in one of my high school shop classes who got a charge out of hooking up with a small generator, and I guess that’s one way to keep the spark in your relationship.

To get back to the original subject, though, I’m not sure an alternative to alcohol is such a good idea. For one thing no matter how harmless it seems there’s someone out there who’ll find a way to abuse it—probably that kid from my high school shop class. And I’ve found that it’s possible to have a drink without the hangover. It’s called moderation. Yes, I’ve also said that everything taken to excess is bad for you, including moderation, but if you have a hangover that’s your body’s way of telling you not to have so much next time. And it’s a good reminder that excess should be reserved for special occasions. For instance one late December morning several years ago I was in a liquor store picking up something to ring out the old year and see in the new one with a hangover when I heard a young man ask, “Do you have any Moet & Chandon?” I was feeling pretty sociable and chatty because I’d had a few more cups of coffee than usual and I couldn’t resist blurting out, “Yes! She keeps it in a little pretty cabinet. Let them eat cake she says, just like Marie Antoinette.”

Everybody in the place looked at me like I’d been drinking windshield cleaning fluid. And since it was a special occasion I invited them to come to my house so I could yell at them to get off my lawn.

 

Swan Dive.

Why don’t we eat swans? I thought I’d jump right in with that question since it’s been on my mind lately. The holidays have become a time for turkey although in Britain at least the goose used to be traditional, and in fact one year for Christmas my mother cooked a goose, which was different from the time my father’s goose was cooked because he forgot their anniversary, but you know what they say: what’s good for the gander is good for making a silk purse out of a sheep’s clothing if you have your cake too, but that’s another story. The main thing I remember about the goose my mother cooked is when it was served it was literally swimming in its own fat so it went from being waterfowl to being fatterfowl, which like the most insulting thing that can happen to a goose aside from being turned into foie gras.

The other thing I remember about the goose is it tasted pretty much like chicken, which got me thinking about the birds we eat. Some are off-limits for obvious reasons. Vultures, condors, and ravens are carrion eaters which is why we carry on whenever we see a group of them hanging around, although some of us have been known to eat crow—if, for instance, we forget a spouse’s anniversary. Hawks and falcons have traditionally been used for hunting so they’ve been useful in getting food rather than being it. Most small birds aren’t eaten because, well, they’re small, although the French eat ortolans, and somewhere there’s a recipe for two dozen blackbirds baked in a pie and, based on what I’ve heard, they’re served still alive. The dodo didn’t go extinct because it was stupid. It was wiped out because sailors who stopped off at the isle of Mauritius ate so many of them and their eggs.

We also eat ducks, and even eat chickens stuffed inside of ducks stuffed inside of turkeys, a pretty tasty combination although I’m a little wary of eating anything that starts with the word “turd”.

So what is it that makes swans special? Yes, they look pretty, but so do Canada geese and, well, as far as I know no one eats those either. Anyway it is probably their looks that saved them. For a long time they were favored by royalty and therefore protected—or at least it was only royalty who could eat them, although at least one Victorian cookbook has a recipe for roasted swans, although they reportedly have a fishy flavor and most people prefer their fish to taste like fish and their fowl to taste like chicken.

Then there’s the mythology. There was Zeus who seduced Leda in the form of a swan, eventually leading to the Trojan War, which makes it sound like Leda would have been better off grilling the swan than sleeping with it. And then there’s Hans Christian Andersen’s The Ugly Duckling which is kind of like a swan itself: beautiful from a distance but it gets worse the closer you get. It’s a nice idea that for the “duckling” things get better but he doesn’t really do anything except get older. If life were that easy we could all just spend those awkward teenage years in isolation which, now that I think about it, doesn’t sound so bad.

There’s also E.B. White’s The Trumpet Of The Swan, which I think I got for Christmas the same year my mother cooked the goose. It was his last novel—sort of a swan song, although he’d live another fifteen years after it was published, and follows a trumpeter swan named Louis who’s born mute so his father steals him an actual trumpet which, like his namesake the great Satchmo, he learns to play. And he goes to school, works at a summer camp where he saves a kid from drowning, composes his own music, does a pretty good cover of “Old Man River”, and tips a waiter who brings him watercress sandwiches.

Now there’s a swan I’d hesitate to eat even though he has good taste.

Food For Thought.

Dog’s breakfast-Disorderly, messy. This British slang term originated in the late Sixteenth or early Seventeenth century with fox hunting and the hastily thrown together breakfast dogs were served before setting out.

 

Couch potato-A person who sits around watching TV. American in origin, apparently from the early 1970’s, the term may derive from the appearance of slothful individuals but also from the growing consumption of potato chips during the Watergate hearings.

 

Piece of cake-Extremely easy. The exact origins are unclear but use became more widespread with the development and distribution of commercially manufactured cakes in the 1920s that led most people to binge on whole cakes.

 

Tough nut to crack-A very difficult problem or undertaking, or a difficult person. Probably derived from nature and the difficulty of cracking certain types of nuts. The first known appearance in print is from A.F. Doni’s Morall Philosophy, published 1570, but came into wider use during World War II when German Enigma machines used Brazil nut code.

 

Selling like hot cakes-Extremely popular, in high demand but with limited quantities. Of North American origin the earliest recorded use is from 1839, but why hot cakes specifically is unclear.

 

Fruit Basket turnover-Complete disruption of the established order. This term derives from the children’s game of the same name and is primarily used by spinster history teachers from Poughkeepsie.

 

Cream of the crop-The very best of a particular group. Presumably derived from the fact that cream rises to the top of unhomogenized milk it reached urban areas in the mid-19th century with the rising popularity of creamed corn, creamed spinach, the less successful creamed eggplant, and the disastrous creamed cotton.

 

Icing on the cake-An added bonus to something that it already good. The origins are obscure since cake without icing is just chocolate bread.

 

In a pickle-A dilemma or difficulty. Derived from the use of empty pickle barrels to hold local lotteries with unpicked tickets left “in the pickles”.

 

Gravy train-A means of making a great deal of money with very little effort. Derived from actual trains that carried gravy West to feed Mack Sennet’s insatiable appetite for pork drippings.

 

Spill the beans-To reveal a secret. This is derived from a 19th century practice of storing prophylactics in containers of dried beans but since it was the Victorian era no one admitted to ever having sex.

 

Going cold turkey-To quit a bad habit (usually smoking, drinking, or drugs) immediately rather than gradually stepping down. Possibly derived from a term in a satirical British magazine from 1877 it may also refer to a belief that tryptophan causes unconsciousness making it impossible to indulge, unless your bad habit is oversleeping.

 

Putting money in a Wurlitzer and getting a pita bread sandwich of rotisserie-cooked meat—self explanatory, derived from going to Greek restaurants on Thursday when the musicians took the night off.

 

%d bloggers like this: