Robert Benchley Society Announces 2013 Writing Contest


It’s conceivable I’ll be making life harder for myself by spreading the word, but, I still think it’s worth spreading. The Robert Benchley Society, which celebrates the writing and other works of you-know-who, has started its 2013 Humor Writing Contest. The deadline for submissions (up to 500 words) is the 30th of August, and the final judging is to be done by Dr Gina Barreca, author of They Used To Call Me Snow White But I Drifted and a good number of other works.

I’d entered the 2008 contest (final judge that year, Bob Newhart, to my delight — whatever else might happen in my life, Bob Newhart read something I wrote with the intention of being funny), but only reached the finalist stage. I’ve meant to enter in years since, but kept missing the announcements of the contest, and I don’t want that sort of disappointment to happen to other folks if I can help it.

Forms of New Jersey Local Government (3)


The 1895 Bunker Act specifies a municipal government form to ease specifically the transition and merger of two municipalities into one. In this form, on the last January 1st or July 1st at least six months before the nominal date of the township merger, both municipalities begin holding their town council meetings in conjunction. These “junction” meetings are to continue for no more than eighteen months after the nominal merger date, or until the last person who remembers the communities being separate has died, by which time the new town council is to be in normal operation or will have to answer why not. The seats are occupied by the highest-ranking conjoined or Siamese twins from the respective municipalities’ Departments of Parks, Housing, Safety, Water, and War (the act’s terminology having never been updated since the National Security Act of 1947). In the event there is no qualified Siamese twin in the department then the highest-ranking available persons in each department will serve together having first strapped themselves together in the classic three-legged-race fashion. All meetings are to open with a song, but not the same song.

The Big Idea


There are many ways that you can become a giant, here defined as a person fifty or more feet tall, or long while lying down. The easiest is to be born as one, of course, although many mothers protest this for the obvious reason, that it’s harder to fit the giant toddler into preschool programs. Next is to fall through a portal into an alternate universe in which the general scale of things is different, but this has its hazards as the flow of time might be different and you might be stuck in a dopey cartoon of some kind. Being the subject of an experimental gigantification ray is a convenient approach for people who are looking to work with their local mad scientist, or if they prefer the equivalent there’s magic spells that are poorly understood. Surely the most exciting method of becoming a giant is to take a job as a self-trained scientific detective, find one can’t use the magnifying glass to find clues correctly, and go stumbling into gigantism thusly. The important thing isn’t how you become a giant, it’s that you try.

What To Do With Abandoned Ideas


We all come up with ideas we can’t really use, because there’s only so many things we can do any given day and clearly the inspiration “sponge or brain” isn’t going to help most of them. But just because you don’t have any use for an idea right now doesn’t mean you’re never going to have one. Things might open up.

What you need is to have some kind of depository for your abandoned ideas, where your abandoned ideas can settle and compost and go about making long-distance calls to one another. In fact, having such a depository is such an obviously good idea that you have had it, but you were too busy to make one. So the abandoned-ideas depository idea was itself abandoned, which is great because it fit right into the depository once you thought of it, only now, there’s no way to get it out, because right outside the abandoned-ideas depository is still inside the abandoned-ideas depository; ask any topologist for an explanation. I’m afraid even this note won’t help. By the time you’re done reading this, you’ll have no idea what I was going on about. I had one but I don’t know what it was.

Robert Benchley: Are You Between the Ages of 7 and 94 ?


[ If I haven’t burned you out on Robert Benchley’s Of All Things, please accept this offering. It is addressed to those who can say “yes” to the question, “Are You Between The Ages of 7 and 94?” ]

If so, what this eminent growth specialist says here applies directly to you and to your family

EVERY man, woman and child between the ages of 7 and 94 is going through a process of growth or metamorphosis, whether they know it or not. Are you making the most of this opportunity which is coming to you (if your age falls within the magic circle given above) every day of your life? Do you realize that, during this crucial period, you have it in your power to make what you will of yourself, provided only that you know how to go about it and make no false steps? As you grow from day to day, either mentally, morally or physically, you can say to yourself, on awakening in the morning:

“To-day I will develop. I will grow bigger, either mentally, morally or physically. Maybe, if it is a nice, warm day, I will grow in all three ways at once.”

And, sure enough, when evening finds you returning home from the work of the day, it will also find you in some way changed from the person you were in the morning, either through the shedding of the dry epidermis from the backs of your hands (which, according to one of Nature’s most wonderful processes, is replaced by new epidermis as soon as the old is gone), or through the addition of a fraction of an inch to your height or girth, or through some other of the inscrutable alchemies of Nature.

Think this over as you go to work, to-day, and see if it doesn’t tell you something about your problem.

Brainy Thinking


I bet you haven’t gone thinking about neuroscience in ages, possibly longer, which is fine, but it’d be pretty caddish of you neuroscientists out there to take me up on the bet. You should have better things to do than pick quarrels over my rhetorical tricks anyway. That’s something for the advance team of offensive forensics experts to be doing. Let them have their glory.

Anyway, the neat thing about neuroscience is that most of what anyone knows about it is wrong, and what they know that isn’t wrong is so misleading it would be easier if it were just wrong instead. For example, everyone has heard about how we only use ten percent of our brain. What’s misleading about this point is that we don’t say what it is we use that ten percent of our brains for. Some use it for thinking, some use it for light crafts, some use it as a place to keep the spatulas. It’s the other ninety percent that ought to interest us, because that’s the part the brain is using for its own purposes, and it’ll tell us what those are only when it’s good and ready.

One of the greatest breakthroughs in understanding the workings of the brain came about in a horrible railroad construction accident on September 13, 1848, a mere 145 years to the day before the debut of Late Night With Conan O’Brien, which hasn’t got anything to do with this. But in 1848 one Phineas Gage was doing some railroad construction thing of the kind they did in 1848 when it exploded and sent a long metal bar through his head. Amazingly, Gage lived, but his personality was radically changed. Whereas before he was comfortable holding his head high and looking around at people, suddenly he did a lot more staring down at his shoes. And according to reports, while he had in the past walked into rooms of all sorts the way anyone does, afterward he could only enter by turning his head or, better, his whole body to the side and sneaking in. “Clearly,” thought doctors, “the metal bar in his head has altered his mental state. He seems to now believe he’s in California,” which was correct. Thus metal bars clearly don’t diminish one’s ability to tell whether one has moved from Vermont to San Francisco, but neuroscientists hope to find something which will. “We’re not sure,” they said recently at a conference in Rutland, California, “But we think fiddling with Google Maps will do it.” It’s worth nothing that Gage also grew a lot angrier around people with magnets, which is one of the reasons he stopped hanging around refrigerator doors.

More recent and important breakthroughs came in the 1950s and 1960s when the corpus callosum, the connections between the hemispheres, in brains of certain epileptic patients was experimentally severed. If one then showed a picture of, say, a paper clip to the right eye, controlled by the left hemisphere, then the nations of the Western hemisphere would think they were seeing a paper clip, while the nations of the Eastern hemisphere would just get all tense from the idea that someone was trying to clip their papers but not know why. While these were startling results, the resulting increase in world tension was judged not to be worth it, especially after science fiction writers began publishing satires of how the world would get blown up over a tragic clip-related misunderstanding, and we bought everybody staples under the Great Stapling program. The inability of the world’s markets to produce enough staplers would result in a crisis in 1974, but nobody noticed because there was too much else going on.

The newest approach to understanding the brain’s functioning is to measure how much oxygen different parts consume while the brain does work, because we got some great brain-part-oxygen-consumption machines in the mail and since we didn’t order them, we get to keep them for free, because we remember those public service announcements where the Eskimo gets an electric fan in the mail. It turns out the brain uses oxygen the most rapidly when it has to haul a wheelbarrow full of pebbles out to the garden, then slightly less rapidly when it’s using a block-and-tackle system to pull an engine mount out of a car, and the least oxygen of all when the brain is trying to blow a fly off the table by blowing at it. These results have surprised nearly everybody except the flies.

Further Warnings From The Dream World


So, my first warning of practical consequence based on my dreams is this: apparently the student union from grad school days is being used as the center point for some stunt where throwing wrapped-up flags on their poles to the second-storey balcony is being done, and some of these are going to be fired right off as firecrackers. However, the real story is that the Math Dorm, the three-connected bedrooms where all the math students are able to gather and hang out, doesn’t have anyone officially listed as being in it, and nobody seems to be going into or out of it, but it shows signs of recent occupation — warm coffee cups or doughnuts and the like — while all of the dated materials, including calendars and notepads, show no dates more recent than October of 2011. This is a mystery and I don’t know how to begin solving it.

The second warning comes from this tightly-packed little conference room, which I have to get ready for a high-level meeting of multinational multimedia conglomerate heads who are late and are apparently going to be late as long as this little problem doesn’t get worked out, and the difficulty in getting the tight-fitting overstuffed late-60s style tan vinyl cushions packed into the little oval space for them (it kind of looks like the center pit from Dangermouse‘s stately postal box, if that helps) seems unbeatable. This would be less challenging if the room didn’t keep going up to even-numbered floors only to drop back to odd-numbered ones. I believe the takeaway from this is a reinforcement of the old cliche, “too many elevators, not enough Walt Disneys”.

Comic Strip Celebrities Named


The new survey of the top comic strip artists is out. According to the American Newspaper Standards Institute and its top survey-response team the most popular creators of comic strips this year are:

  1. Charles Schulz
  2. The Guy Who Draws Calvin and Hobbes
  3. Garfield
  4. The Guy Who Draws Far Side
  5. The Guy Who Draws Cathy
  6. Walt Disney
  7. Snoopy
  8. The Cryptoquote feature
  9. Grant Snider
  10. Bambi

How To Keep In Touch


It’s hard staying in touch with all the people you want to these days. There’s just so much Internet out there, and people will go off to all sorts of corners of it, and you might never see them again and worse, realize you don’t know when it was you stopped seeing them. What you need is a way to get back in touch with them.

There’s only one really effective way. You need to get them to eat a large plate full of iron filings, and then turn on your giant electromagnet. Obviously the tricky part of this is not getting people to eat iron filings — what else are they going to do with them, start a smelting operation? — but rather coordinating with other people who are also trying to get back in touch with people, since you don’t want your people paths to get crossed and accidentally pick up people you didn’t have any interest in seeing again. There is no solution to this problem.

Robert Benchley: The Editor’s Drawer


[ I offer here another piece from Robert Benchley’s Of All Things, as I’m embarrassed to admit I didn’t have the time to prepare something wholly my own. Please don’t tell Mr Benchley. But this offers a neat send-up of the sorts of cute little kid anecdotes that I assume still line the pages of magazines I don’t read because I think they carry items like what this parodies. ]

LITTLE Bobby, aged five, saying his prayers, had come to that most critical of diplomatic crises : the naming of relatives to be blessed.

“Why don’t I ask God to bless Aunt Mabel?” he queried, looking up with a roguish twinkle in his blue eyes.

“But you do, Bobby,” answered his mother.

“So I do,” was his prompt reply.


LITTLE Willy, aged seven, was asked by his teacher to define the word “confuse.”

“ ` Confuse’ is what my daddy says when he looks at his watch,” said Willy. The teacher never asked that question again. At least, not of Willy.


LITTLE Gertrude, aged three, was saying her prayers. “Is God everywhere ?” she asked.

“Yes, dear, everywhere,” answered her mother.

“Everywhere?” she persisted.

“Yes, dear, everywhere,” repeated her mother, all unsuspecting.

“Then He must be like Uncle Ned,” said the
little tot.

“Why, Gertrude, what makes you say that?”

“Because I heard Daddy say that Uncle Ned was everywhere,” was the astounding reply.

A True Story From The Star Trek Depths


I saw someone on Usenet, which I am still on thank you, make a comment about the opening credits of Star Trek: Generations, the 1994 film in which Next Generation finally overcame all the stuff that made it a popular TV show, and I just knew they were wrong. But I had to find the opening credits to prove it, and it turns out YouTube is filled with videos that have taken the soundtrack to the opening credits of Generations and put that to new videos, which messes up the point I wanted to prove, or have taken the opening and re-cut it to make some abstract point about the movie being something else entirely, or that are just the credits for the TV show since Google has better things to do than search for what I actually tell it to search for. I thought about where to find my DVD of Generations and was getting ready to write a snarky tweet about the difficulty of finding online sources of the Generations opening credits.

Then in one horrible moment I thought, do you realize what you’re doing? And I did, and so I stopped doing it.

Robert Benchley: Highways and By-Ways in Old Fall River


This is another slice from Robert Benchley’s Of All Things, from among a set of very short pieces gathered under the general heading of “Tabloid Editions”, little things which ran in The Saturday Evening Post, or Harper’s Magazine or The American Magazine, and which strike me as representative of routine Benchley. This is an example of what feels to me like Benchley proving he could write as much of his kind of stuff as needed, even if the subject didn’t inspire lines that’d be quoted decades hence.

The chance visitor to Fall River may be said, like the old fisherman in Bartholomew Fair, to have “seen half the world, without tasting its savour.” Wandering down the Main Street, with its clanging trolley-cars and noisy drays, one wonders (as, indeed, one may well wonder) if all this is a manifestation so much of Fall River as it is of that for which Fall River stands.

Frankly, I do not know.

But there is something in the air, something ineffable in the swirl of the smoke from the towering stacks, which sings, to the rhythm of the clashing shuttles and humming looms, of a day when old gentlemen in belted raglans and cloth-topped boots strolled through these streets, bearing with them the legend of mutability. Perhaps “mutability” is too strong a word. Fall Riverians would think so.

And the old Fall River Line! What memories does that name not awaken in the minds of globetrotters? Or, rather, what memories does it awaken? William Lloyd Garrison is said to have remarked upon one occasion to Benjamin Butler that one of the most grateful features of Fall River was the night-boat for New York. To which Butler is reported to have replied : “But, my dear Lloyd, there is no night-boat to New York, and there won’t be until along about 1875 or even later. So your funny crack, in its essential detail, falls flat.”

But, regardless of all this, the fact remains that Fall River is Fall River, and that it is within easy motoring distance of Newport, which offers our art department countless opportunities for charming illustrations.

That’s Interesting: How To Tell


Are you interesting? Well, everyone is interesting to themselves, except for one Arthrop P Canticle of Springfield, Massachusetts, who realized that he was so uninteresting — despite what would seem a promising name inherited from a pranking great-uncle — that he couldn’t be bothered to keep reminding himself to breathe. He went on to spend three years under continuous observation at the bottom of Billy Rose’s famous Aquacade without once taking a breath, without anyone paying him any attention. We should probably check if he’s still there. That would be interesting, except, you know Arthrop.

Still, you may gather evidence that you’re not actually interesting to other people, which is the trick. People might stop asking you how you’re doing once they catch on that you tell them, for example, or folks who think of you in passing stretch and go upstairs to bed, even when they’re the ones visiting your home.

But you can be more interesting if you really want to, and are willing to make some effort. For example, you might try taking in a lecture series on “How To Be Interesting”, as offered by many web sites that fully hope to be accredited by other web sites someday. Shop around with these. Take advantage of any free lectures you might be able to cadge. Don’t take courses from that one professor who keeps yawning. He’s just using the course to sell his textbooks, and they’re not even the ones he wrote. He just needs to clean out some stuff from grad school.

The key to being interesting is that you have to be not too surprising. That you have to be surprising at all is obvious because, here, try being interested in this completely unsurprising conversation:

NEIL: How’re you doing?

MICHEAL: Fine, you?

NEIL: Can’t complain.

MICHEAL: I would if I could.

NEIL: Aren’t you spelling your name wrong?

MICHEAL: Does it matter?

NEIL: What does?

See? So uninteresting I couldn’t even get where I meant to go with that, which I think was something about observing the existence of Fridays and/or the nearness of one. I couldn’t even bother fixing the typo and tried to cover for it instead. That second speaker’s name should be ‘NEAL’.

Once you know you have to be surprising the easy mistake to make is trying to be too surprising. This doesn’t make you interesting; it makes you that tedious kind-of-friend who’s got problems that are too much to bother with. Trying again:

NEIL: How’re you doing?

NEAL: Well! I haven’t had a chance of keeping guacamole in the house since the documentarians have been crowded all over because of that abandoned subway they found from that failed Olympic bid, remember from the time I had those burglars who were tunnelling into the convenience store the wrong way, because they’re hungry naturally and we have all those avocados from the farm the land bank put up where the garage that melted used to be when they made that surveying error and that doesn’t begin to count the times robots from the contra-terrene world have popped in to grab precious supplies of mica which apparently I’ve got now. You?

NEIL: [ Has already left. ]

The ideal is to keep having stuff that’s going on that’s a little surprising, but not so surprising as to be tiresome. This is particularly important for you shapeshifters out there. I know you want to show off by popping in on some new form every time someone sees you for the first time, but, bluntly, after about four different shapes they all just blend together and we accuse you of being cheap CGI. I’m sorry to be the one to tell you this. You should pick on two, maybe three shapes, and do them really well. When you want to put on a new one, chop up the surprise into digestible pieces by telling us, first, that you’re thinking of trying something new, like maybe collecting vinyl records or turning into a goat, and then say you’re working on that goat-record thing, and finally get all ungulate. This way you’re not just yet another friend with complicated problems but a goat we don’t have to find tiresome.

Five Astounding Facts About Turbo, That Movie About A Snail in The Indianapolis 500


  1. Thanks to the pioneering work of this film next year’s Indianapolis 500 is going to have the question “is there a rule saying a snail can’t race?” in its FAQ.
  2. The current lack of rule specifying the inability of a snail to race in the Indianapolis 500 also fails to prohibit the racing of sponges, beams of light, the abstract concept of “justice”, pepper shakers, nuclear ibexes, or photosynthesis, so next year’s race looks to be wide-open.
  3. Turbo is a movie that exists, somehow.
  4. Someone will grow up with sweet memories of how this is the first movie they ever remember seeing, and when they try to tell their friends about their happy thoughts of being with their folks and watching this on the big screen, they’re going to be laughed at mercilessly, for their whole lives.
  5. Film was actually written and directed by a snail, whose dream was to someday make people bolt upright in bed asking if there really was a movie about a snail racing the Indianapolis 500, and who failed to give it up even after a high-speed collision with a lesser noddy who dreamed of being the guy in accounting who shuts down movie projects.

Plus Our Rabbit Scolded Me For Letting it Get This Way


It’s a trifle warm out, which you can tell because it’s not safe to pick your trifles up by your bare hands anymore. You need at least two layers of oven mitts and then to just leave them where they are. It’s hot enough that I just got a letter from Discover offering me $7,500 more in credit if I put the card in the freezer already please. The garage has melted, and I just saw a cumulus cloud burst into flame. It’s hot enough that I phoned myself from back in January and found it’s actually warmed up three degrees back then, so now (back then) I’ll be able to have skipped buying the long underwear I needed last winter. So as you gather, it’s been warm enough to leave logic itself half-baked.

Something For The Water


Long-term readers might remember I was having problems back at the end of winter with our pond sneaking out of the backyard and making a mess all over the neighborhood. The obvious thing to do was get some fish, since that way the pond would be too busy to go sneaking off, right?

Sure. Well, the fish-getting and putting-in went well and we haven’t caught it sneaking off. But it turns out we’ve somehow got a ticklish pond and every time one of them flicks a fin, it starts giggling. And no, don’t go suggesting we trade it in on a babbling brook, since we know better than to get into that kind of a fix.

Forms of New Jersey Local Government (2)


Continuing on the review of kinds of New Jersey municipal government:

New Jersey municipalities organized by the McCormick Quiet-Mayor System were formed between 1880 and 1900 as the “Boroughitis Epidemic” was finally brought under control by new public health measure including “washing”, previously confined to the Shore towns around Big Sea Day. In these municipalities the Mayor is elected separately from the Town Council, and may not be in the same meeting room during the conduction of official business, thus the name. The name appears paradoxical as in practice the Mayor shouts all her or his opinions from just outside the meeting room, but the phrase survives from the days before the invention of shouting in 1934. While the Mayor has no official veto power in this organization, she or he has an effective one as to enact any resolution the Mayor and the Town Clerk must run to the county’s Board of Chosen Freeholders and show them the proposed resolution, only to be told by the Chosen Freeholders that “we have no idea who you are”. By identifying themselves to the Chosen Freeholders, the resolution is thus quashed.

Basic Dishwasher Repair


Is your dishwasher not draining properly? By properly we just mean is it taking all the water which gets put into it, and sending it back out again, with reasonable speed. We aren’t concerned with how stylishly it does the draining, or even whether it’s complying with all relevant state and local regulations, although that might be important in the long term. By the long term we mean after the subpoenas have been issued. By issued we mean to you. By you we mean not necessarily you; it could be someone much like you, such as a friend or sibling.

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Railroad Track Villainy Updates


The blog Movies, Silently addressed recently one of those questions you never realize you always wondered about until after you hear it asked: in silent movies, who was the villain who was always tying women to train tracks? Basically, who was Snidely Whiplash a parody of? The answer’s surprising and I don’t wish to spoil it, so I’ll not say.

In another article on the same topic, Movies, Silently points out a curious phenomenon: the “heroine tied to the railroad track” gimmick is much more evident in parody — Mack Sennett films particularly, or in homages or tributes or just jokes about how they used to do things — than in the original record. (Admittedly there’s a problem studying the original record in that so much of it has been lost.) That is, the heroine gets tied to the railroad track because people think they’re riffing on the cliche of heroines getting tied to the railroad track, when the actual source is a lot less … well, visible, at least.

There seems to me a conceptual parallel in something that sounds unrelated: impersonations of Elvis Presley and (since Elvis has faded some, at least in my social circles) William Shatner. You know how they sound in parody; what’s shocking is to go back and listen to an actual Elvis record, or the original Star Trek, and compare to the source. At some point impersonations started doing comic exaggerations of one another, with any reference to the original forgotten, and now there’s this thing that is “a William Shatner impersonation” that hasn’t got anything to do with the source. Of course, since it communicates, and entertains, and amuses, it’s serving some purpose, but it’s still, really, a weird phenomenon.

Flight Checks


From: flightnews@upperairlines.com
Subject: UPA8100 Flight updates now available.

Thank you for signing up to receive e-mail updates on any changes to your forthcoming flight UPA8100 from Salisbury, North Carolina to Plattsburgh, New York. We send our smuggest condolences to you on the occasion of whatever life choices have forced you to fly from Salisbury, North Carolina to Plattsburgh, New York, this Friday departing at 5:42 am and hope you enjoy leaning your forehead on our new comfort-rated windows just cool enough to make lifting your head feel like too much work.


From: flightnews@upperairlines.com
Subject: Flight Delay – UPA8100 departing at 5:56 am

Due to delayed crew arrivals at our Hartford, Connecticut, branch facility flight UPA8100 will now be scheduled to take off at 5:56 am. Please be at the airport before it takes off as this simplifies boarding procedures.


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