A friend on Facebook posted a picture of a steel girder, with no apparent function, jutting into space from the side of a building. Stenciled on it in red letters were the words “do not use.” This was sufficiently absurd to motivate me to write the following: “Do not use” is an anagram for “desu noto,” or “death note” in Japanese. It logically follows that the words mean “Use the girder and you die.”
Valerie Peep, prolific novelist, essayist, poet, philosopher, and herpetologist, is best known for her series of impassioned essays on the futility of looking for amphibians on the moon. “There is no water on the moon,” she points out succinctly, “nor is there an atmosphere.” In each of her fifteen essays she notes another of the moon’s distinct failings, all told a compelling argument to fortify her thesis. To read these essays is to look into the mind of a stylist on the level of a Nabokov or a Joyce. And one is taken aback by her depth of feeling for lunar geology and ectothermic, tetrapod vertebrates.
Now I myself have always had a tender spot in my heart for amphibians and for the moon so you can imagine my pleasure (if you put your mind to it), when my lovely editor, Sanfrisca Khalifornia, asked me to review Valerie Peep’s gripping new novel, Dancing With Frogs, the, by turns, sweet and sour story of a timid young girl who follows a frog into a treacherous tropical rain forest wearing only a pair of men’s slacks and a white dress shirt, leaving behind her persnickety parents, the Reverend John and the spiritualist, Marsha Wantinghorse.
He glanced around at the motley collection of thugs, pimps, and record company executives that skulked on the edges of the dim pools of light with which the dark shadows of the bar's inner recesses were pitted. ( 1984).
from So Long and Thanks for All the Fish
Anybody who happened to be a buffalo last year (or was supporting during his taxable year one or more buffalos closely dependent upon him) is going to have a pretty hollow feeling in the pit of his stomach when he gets a hinge at the July issue of The Field. In that excellent British sporting magazine, one "Old Harrow Boy" attacks the custom of shouting and waving the arms and hat to break up stampeding buffalos, and actually suggests whistling as a better means of dispersing un lawful assemblages of bison.
I hold no buff for the briefalo— I beg pardon, I should have said "I hold no brief for the buffalo," but I am too choked with rage about this matter to be very coherent. I have never taken money from any pro-bison organization and outside of a fatty deposit between the shoulder blades I am no more buffalo than you are. But of all the appalling, repellent, revolting and insupportable bits of Schrecklichkeit ever fobbed off on a lethargic public under the guise of sportsmanship, this is the absolute pay-off.
ME: Forgive me, Professor, but are you not stretching things a bit to make your point. Perhaps the egg was left on the wall by mistake. Perhaps no one planned its demise by situating it where it would fall. This is possible, isn’t it?
MUCHOGUSTO: I will give you the benefit of the doubt, dear fellow, and not lump you in with the insensitives. Do you have children?
ME: I’d rather we stayed on subject.
MUCHOGUSTO: Very well, then. You appear to insinuate that perhaps I exaggerate the cruelty in Humpty Dumpty. Let us then look at another nursery rhyme, whose cruelty it is impossible to deny. The was an old woman who lived in a shoe. Putting aside for a moment the question of relative sizes—a giant’s shoe or a Lilliputian old woman—think of how the inside of a shoe must smell. Unless it is brand new, the shoe will have the aroma of a foot, possibly a foot infected with fungus. (This is no wealthy old woman, so the shoe is likely quite worn and aromatic, if I may be permitted the use of the euphemism. How revolting a living situation! But let us continue.
She had so many children she didn’t know what to do. To this reader, at least, it appears that the old woman did not necessarily choose to have so many children. We may well imagine the poor woman’s situation, how this state of affairs occurred, but in deference to those who shy away from graphic depictions of violence—and I am one of them—I will say no more.
She gave them some broth without any bread. It takes no great effort to visualize how runny this broth must be.
Then whipped them all soundly and put them to bed.
ME: You’ve certainly made your point with this one, Professor.
This is a continuation of the interview I had with Professor Enrique Muchogusto, a controversial musicologist and folklorist from Spain, whose mission—or one of whose missions—is to demonstrate the harm that well-meaning but ignorant parents inflict on their helpless children
ME: Professor, it seems that you are particular sensitive to these matters.
MUCHOGUSTO: The pity it is that so few of you Americans are. I know what you are thinking—something along the lines of “well, Rock-A-Bye Baby is famously cruel, but surely it’s one of the very few like this.” No, not at all. There are many others.
But we need not confine ourselves to lullabies. Let us look at nursery rhymes, for example. Note what should be a clear directive to be gentle—the word “nursery”. Small children are to hear these rhymes, are they not? How then can one justify such a one as Humpty Dumpty?
Humpty Dumpty, as the illustration in any collection of these “nursery rhymes” shows, is an egg. Let us begin. Humpty Dumpty sat on a wall. Leaving aside entirely the question of whether or not an egg can sit, let us examine the hidden implications of this image. I think you will agree with me that the egg did not climb the wall by itself. I think you will further agree that if you give an egg rope, pitons, croutons, carabiners, packs, boots, belays, climbing harnesses, helmets, crampons, slings, runners, webbing, lack lines, ice axes, and six months of training by Sir Edmund Hillary brought back from the great beyond precisely for this purpose, the egg—any egg— will remain entirely unable to climb a wall—any wall. We are forced to conclude—alarming as the conclusion is—that someone put that poor egg on a wall. Someone took helpless Humpty Dumpty and put him—he is usually portrayed as a male egg—on a wall!
As if this were not callous enough, this sadist—possibly the same monster who carried the baby up into the tree top—placed Humpty in a precarious location at the edge of the wall, the outcome of which is traumatic, not merely for the hapless egg, but for the child who must hear of this trauma: Humpty Dumpty had a great fall. No ordinary garden wall this. No. It was a wall such that a fall from it must be considered great. Let us not even speculate as to the height of this monstrous wall.
All the king’s horses—Let us pause here for a moment. Horses have no call whatsoever to be at this scene, whether the king’s or the police department’s or the little girl’s with the pigtail who lives on a farm just outside of town. Common sense suggests that horses could become skittish at the scene of the accident and might even paw the ground, or worse carelessly step on pieces of eggshell.
Permit me an aside. This being America, why bring a king into this? It will only baffle the child.
And all the King’s men couldn’t put Humpty Dumpty together again. On hearing this, any child of near normal intelligence must think, “So there must be someone who can put a broken egg together again otherwise the king’s men wouldn’t have tried. I’m going to break some eggs until I learn to put them together again. I’ll surprise Mommy.” The sad outcome of this line of thinking will be, at a minimum, a scolding, and one can imagine some ignorant parents actually spanking the poor child on seeing the kitchen floor slathered in broken eggs, if they don’t have a nervous breakdown first.
“What in heaven’s name have you been doing, child!”
“Don’t cry, Mommy. I’m trying to put them together again like the king’s men tried to do.”
And yet the average American parent has no qualms about reading this so-called “nursery rhyme” to small children. Is it any wonder that there is so much violence in this country?
Though he has a busy speaking schedule, Professor Muchogusto was kind enough to take a break from his tour so that I could interview him. I met him in a coffee shop
ME: For those who have not yet heard of your work, please introduce yourself.
MUCHOGUSTO: I am a musicologist and folklorist with a special interest not only in explaining folk songs to the American public but also in exploring the ways that certain lullabies and nursery rhymes do harm to American children. As you know I am from Spain and, as an outsider, can free myself from American prejudices and inclinations when it comes to such folk phenomena.
ME: Your work is quite controversial in this country. Why is that?
MUCHOGUSTO: It is because these harmful child rearing practices are so widespread.
ME: Can you give us an example.
MUCHOGUSTO: Take for example the lullaby Rock-A-Bye Baby. Why is it not shocking for Americans that they sing this song to babies and young children. To me it is incomprehensible. On needs merely to listen to the lyrics.
Rock-a-bye baby in the tree top. In the tree top! Someone has put a baby high up in a tree. I assure you the baby did not climb up there by itself. When the wind blows, the cradle---the cradle!—this sadist, whoever he or she is—not only climbed the tree with the baby but also with the cradle, suggesting this was not the first time. Such a feat requires practice. Most people cannot even climb trees properly, not to mention weighted down like this. When the wind blows the cradle will rock. We begin to see the horror of it. The wind must be quite forceful to rock a cradle, and as we will hear, it is perhaps even of hurricane strength. When the bow bends . . . This is what I am talking about. It is a fierce wind that bends a tree’s bow. So some son-of-a-bitch climbed a tree in a hurricane with a baby in a cradle. What derangement! What savagery! And then left it there. . . . the cradle will fall. I should probably stop here, don’t you think.
ME: No. Please, professor, continue.
MUCHOGUSTO: You’re not enjoying his are you?
ME: Of course not.
MUCHOGUSTO: When the bow bends the cradle will fall and down will come baby cradle and all. And all? What else has this monster put up in the tree. The baby’s rattle? Its bottle? This song is being sung to a baby or young child. Surely at a certain age the child understands what is being said, how dangerous the world must be. This is what you Americans sing to your children.
ME: I really never thought about it this way.
MUCHOGUSTO: And if we think further there are copycats out there who may find it amusing to see if they, too, can carry a baby and a cradle into a tree as in the song, thinking, “ Oh, I won’t leave it there. It’s just to see if I can do it.” But some of them may get a text message while up in the tree and put the cradle down for a minute and some may lose track of what they’re doing. Some of these babies do, in fact, fall, suffering head injuries that make the concussions of the NFL look like scrapes on the knee.
To be continued.
Manos’ (Lucifer’s Revenge, 2012) silly, irreverent book covers a lot of weird ground, including implants in teenagers' heads, gurus and magic berries.
Advice columnists will enjoy this book, as will many aspiring genre-fiction writers, cat lovers (and fearers), extraterrestrials, evil geniuses and their nemeses, poets, preteen veterinarians and molluscophiles. In short, there’s something here for everyone.
The book consists entirely of letters written to and or by “Babalu,” who dispenses advice in an undefined but apparently at least partially public forum, like a column of sorts. Babalu has a faithful audience of readers who come to him repeatedly for advice on issues large and small. Some even reach out to text Babalu when a call
to 911 might have been in order.
Manos’ quirky, deadpan style—reminiscent of Douglas Adams and A Prairie Home Companion as well as Monty Python—uncovers a community full of overlapping absurdities and dysfunction, from the family of aliens (“Not you know, undocumented aliens, but like from outer space”) that just wants to blend in to the man who can communicate only through poetry to the out-of-work whaler who wants a job screening Babalu’s mail.
The book is pure fantasy, but one suspects it has roots in real life: Care of the Difficult Patient: A Nurse’s Guide (2005), another previous title by Manos, presumably also addresses the notion of recurrent questions and how to handle them with humor.
Manos’ writing is terribly clever, and turns of phrase—“One exorcism is almost always sufficient if you put enough meat into it”—interweave with plotlines and a seemingly solid base of knowledge about quantum physics to make the book a treat even for readers who may think they’re above such follies. Black-and-white, Edward Gorey–like illustrations by Liebowitz add to the weird fun. A witty, enjoyable distraction.
Kirkus Indie, Kirkus Media LLC, 6411 Burleson Rd., Austin, TX 78744
From the Best of S. J. Perelman. (The Modern Library Edition, published by Random House (1947) excerpted from Beauty and the Bee
Perelman gives advice on how to remove a swarm of bees from the dead space inside the wall of a house:
“Take a small boy smeared with honey and lower him between the walls. The bees will fasten themselves to him by the hundreds and can be scraped off when he is pulled up, after which the the boy can be thrown away. If no small boy smeared with honey can be found, it may be necessary to take an ordinary small boy and smear him, which should give pleasure.”
William Shawn, who edited the New Yorker from 1952 to 1987, said of S. J. Perelman, "Along with being funny, his allusions and wordplay could be as recondite as Joyce’s, Pound’s, or Nabokov’s."
From the March 8, 2010 New Yorker, here is a fictional correspondence between a French laundry owner and Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru’s father, who reportedly sent his laundry to Paris to be done. (the link to this source is below)
July 18, 1903
Pandit Motilal Nehru
Allahabad, U.P., India
DEAR PANDIT MOTILAL:
I am desolated beyond words at the pique I sense between the lines in your recent letter, and I affirm to you on my wife’s honor that in the six generations the family has conducted this business, yours is the first complaint we have ever received… Only yesterday, Marcel Proust, an author you will hear more of one of these days, called at our établissement (establishment) to felicitate us in person. The work we do for him is peculiarly exacting; due to his penchant for making notes on his cuffs, we must observe the greatest discretion in selecting which to launder. In fine, our function is as much editorial as sanitary, and he stated unreservedly that he holds our literary judgment in the highest esteem….
And here are a few samples of his writing I took from The Best of S, J. Perelman:
(of his first cook) But if her behavior was erratic, there was no lack of consistency in Philomene's cuisine. Meat loaf and cold fried chicken succeeded each other with the deadly precision of tracer bullets.
(of his second cook) It was William's opinion, freely given, that cooked food was dead food and that I would triple my energy by living on fronds.
The traditional Stanford University welcome is a night of mass kissing. Appealing? Appalling? Read the article linked to. (I went to Cal, Stanford's main rival, loved it, but this morning I'm thinking, why didn't we do hat? )
Today I mailed Dear Babalu: Letters to an Advice Columnist to over twenty celebrities, though none were movie actors, opera singers, politicians, high wire artists, contortionists, ballet dancers, or rock stars. Who is left over you ask. Late night TV talk show hosts, of course, who are as likely to actually look at the book as I am to win the Booker prize. Also radio talk show hosts, newspaper columnists, and the government agent who listens in on my phone conversations--Hello, Mr. Smith. My reasoning is that if one of these influential people also enjoy humor of the absurd perhaps . . . No, never mind. You know.
Now to the cynical mind it will appear that I am paradoxically bragging about my modesty when I say self-promotion makes me uncomfortable. It feels like "hey, look at me." Not that I don't like showing off at times. I do, but weather conditions, including the intensity of the the gamma radiation from nearby (relatively speaking) supernovas must be just right. Oh, well.
The humorous story
is told gravely; the teller does his best to conceal the fact that he even dimly
suspects that there is anything funny about it; but the teller of the comic
story tells you beforehand that it is one of the funniest things he has ever
heard, then tells it with eager delight, and is the first person to laugh when
he gets through. (Later Twain says that it is "a pathetic thing to see.")
-Mark Twain a.k.a. Samuel Clemens (1835-1910) in How to Tell a Story
Twain was describing the verbal telling of the story, but what is the distinction between the humorous and the comic story if they are told in writing rather than in speech? Is there a distinction? Or can one write the humorous story gravely and chuckle in the written comic story?
You have to enjoy humorous writing while you're doing it. Anybody who says he doesn't is lying (he may, of course, not like to start). You've got to be enjoying it. You can't be mad, or bitter, or irate. If you are it will be no good . . .
-from Collecting Himself: James Thurber on Writing and Writers, Humor and Himself, edited by Michael J. Rosen.
This is true for me and I know that I'm writing something good when I laugh out loud in the split second when the thought occurs but before I have time to write it down.
Here is a little experiment I wish to perform. First the hypothesis: The robots that search the web for items of commercial interest—the only reason robots search the web in the first place—are extremely fond of cats because some people are extremely fond of cats and willing to spend money on cats. Indeed, the robots have no real sympathy for cats or, more bluntly, couldn’t care less about cats. What robots are interested in is money. The experiment: Now let us suppose a blogger such as myself, interested in promoting his or her book (Dear Babalu: Letters to an Advice Columnist), posts a few insipid sentences containing the word cat in them. Do you suppose those tireless, nosey robots will be intrigued? Will they visit my website? That is the question. So let me tell you about my cat Findus. (I can’t believe I’m going to do this.)
Handsome cat Findus has subtle waves of grey and black fur. When I sit at the piano to begin practice, he jumps onto the bench next to me, pushes his head under my arm, and forces me to pet him. As my playing is far from melodious, I don’t blame him. He is, after all, a cat. Got that? Findus is a cat. Yes, that’s what I said, a cat. C A T. Yep, heard me right. A cat. Not a dog. Not a frog. Not a pumpkin. Not a deodorant spray. Not a tube of glue or a guitar pick, or a Western Red Cedar, or a blue flame, or an inhabitant of the planet Sathatha, or a speech therapist (get the connection?), but a cat. Hear that, robot? Findus is a cat. A cat and that’s that. But just for the heck of it, let me say that if there were more than one of him, then he’d be cats, lots and lots of cats. Okay, I await your visits, robots.
Because writing Dear Babalu was easy, and because one of my most thoughtful readers said it was truer to the real me than was Lucifer’s Revenge, I began to wonder if I were a short story writer, not a novelist. So I wrote a couple of short stories and submitted them to magazines. (Already have one rejection.) Then I started another short story and got stuck. Today, after a walk along the waterfront trail, I realized that I wanted to write a novel, a literary novel, the only provisos being that it was readable and that it was funny. So after I got home from my walk, I renewed writing The Aliens of Prickly Pear, the novel I had put aside. I am posting chapter 1, under Folder.
I now have a Facebook page and even a video, but Dear Babalu won’t be published for at least a month. Thought that my numerous followers—a figure in the two digits—would like to know.
There’s a bolus in my colon and
It’s feeling very swollen.
I’m losing my control and
I don’t know what to do.
What malady am I facing?
Oh, this letter I must hasten.
In a moment I’ll be racing
To the loo.
South of my Mason Dixon,
This thing is playing tricks on me.
She grips me like a vixen and
It’s coming out like goo.
If discretion must constrain us,
Let’s use Latin to explain this.
There’s a pain in my anus,
In fact, quite a phew.
I’ve been the private son,
But these runs become quite public.
Public Enema number one.
(How I long for number two.)
Please favor with an answer;
Just let it not be cancer.
I’ll forever be your fan, sir.
Can I rely on you?
Feeling Empty, R. W.
Dear Feeling Empty,
If there’s full evacuation,
And a slowing micturation,
You’re not only quite empty,
You’re also very dry.
Post haste to rehydration,
Your only real salvation,
Or you’ll shrivel like a dew drop
And that's no way to die.
A pinch of sugar and a pinch of salt
In a glass of water (or in a chocolate malt)
Before each bathroom run,
And soon you'll feel quite spry.
And you and all your friends,
Your hands please always cleanse,
Or you’ll pass on the bends.
I swear I would not lie.
If you can’t keep fluids down,
I’m afraid it’s off to town
To see the doctor frown
And place an IV line.
I do hope that my writing
Has not been overly frightening
And that when the running slows,
You will return to prose.