On Things You Can Touch Or Punch


I was with a friend at the local hipster bar. I mean my local hipster bar. We weren’t anywhere near his. I know I talk about it a lot as the local hipster bar, but please understand. Their new logo is a rendition of their raccoon puppet, holding a couple of fireworks and a can of beer that’s labelled “Ham”. It’s a fine place and they’ve started having glazed-pottery nights.

My friend got to mentioning something or other coming up, and how he hoped it would go, knock wood. And he knocked on the bar. To this extent all seems well. I’m pretty sure the bar is wood and his knocking was in fine mid-season form. He carried off the knocking with no injuries and no dryads left stranded on base.

It got me thinking about the custom of knocking wood. It’s a good-luck gesture. It’s supposed to work by getting the attention of the wood-spirits who overheard you. You can see why that would work. Gumans drawing the attention of supernatural spirits has worked out well for the human according to every legend ever. “Well,” say many humans in these legends, “drawing the attention of that naiad or whatever it was sure has cured my problem of not being turned into a grasshopper!” Or else, “I used to think there was no way I would wake up chained every morning to be torn apart by hyenas. Then I stumbled into that pooka drinking party!” “I didn’t ever used to have a ferocious lightning-beast living in my belly button. But then thank goodness I fell through the wall of that Shinto shrine!”

Still, apparently the knocking of wood does help, if we can take any guidance from how rarely people at hipster bars get their eyes dipped in magic nectar so they can see the fairy creatures and then have their eyes gouged out so they can’t see the fairy creatures anymore. It did get me to thinking about one of those little cross-cultural differences. The English, I understand, merely touch wood, tapping the nearest piece lightly, rather than rapping sharply on it.

Full disclosure: I’ve never been a dryad. And I couldn’t find any to interview before deadline. I have to think if I were one, though, I’d be more inclined to do favors for someone who tapped me rather than knocked on me. It’s got me wondering about the cultural differences. Why should Americans figure the best way to get a magic spirit to do what you want, or at least leave you alone, involves punching it?

Well, because Americans are good at punching, I admit. Look at the great legendary figures of 20th Century American Culture: Popeye, Superman, Dwight Eisenhower, Muhammad Ali, Mary Richards. They’re all people who punch through problems. Even Captain Kirk only used his phasers when he couldn’t punch for some reason. And they’re all pretty successful so maybe they have something with their punch-based plans.

At least they look successful. But, like, if you watch the cartoons Popeye gets shipwrecked a lot. Probably that’s because he has more chances at shipwreck than the average person. Someone in, say, Havre, Montana, who never enters a body of water bigger than a coin fountain might expect to be shipwrecked only eight times in her life. Popeye must run a higher risk. Still, you have to wonder about if he shouldn’t pass up on sailing in favor of a punching-based lifestyle.

But punching is a cherished part of American culture. One of the leading myths of the early 19th Century Mississippi River valley was of Mike Fink, a bombastic, tough-talking, hyperactive bully who spent his time punching, shooting, or punch-shooting (punching with a gun) everything he could find, especially if it wasn’t a white male. His friends explained he was really a great guy, just you had to understand his point of view, before he punch-shot you. But that’s what friends of sociopaths always say so that they don’t get punch-shot-punched next.

I can’t draw any big conclusions about British touching and Americans knocking wood, though. Most of the differences between British and American cultures were invented by the Tourism Boards in 1958, so that people could share stories of how different things were on their vacations. I’ll bet any number of British people who don’t care about tourists knock wood whenever they feel like.

It still seems risky. I’d stick with touching, or if it wouldn’t be redundant buying the wood-spirits a round. Culture is a complicated thing.

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Author: Joseph Nebus

I was born 198 years to the day after Johnny Appleseed. The differences between us do not end there.

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