A Fluid Dialogue


“You know the convenient thing about the 32-ounce size?”

“It’s not so intimidating as the 40-ounce size?”

“And you aren’t paying one penny more for the freedom from intimidation.”

“It seems to me that it also has the advantage of being twelve ounces more than the 20-ounce size.”

“I wouldn’t go that far. What if we didn’t make a 20-ounce size?”

“Then you wouldn’t have any way of getting the 40-ounce size except buying the 40 ounces.”

“You haven’t anyway: there is no 40-ounce size. If you want 40 ounces you’ll just have to make do.”

“Maybe for now I can avoid wanting 40 ounces.”

“The other grand thing about the 32-ounce size is that it’s over 32 ounces more than the zero-ounce size.”

“That’s a size you can’t really have too much of.”

“And at zero ounces they fly off the shelves. We need to ballast them against even slight breezes. We tried surrounding them with a fine mesh, but that created a fine mesh — that should be fine mess — that even got into the News of the Mildly Interesting Yet Not Excessively Weird. Too many people mistook them for a bee enclosure.”

“Apiary.”

“No, more Reuters-ish.”

“What would I make do if I wanted 40 ounces?”

“Use two 32-ounces and an empty seven-ounce bottle. It’s a traditional puzzle. It dates back to the Mayans, who never figured it out because they didn’t know what an ounce was.”

“You can’t get to 40 ounces from two 32-ounces and taking away seven ounces at a time. You get to 50 ounces instead.”

“How can you get 50 ounces if you don’t have 40 ounces first?”

“You come from the other direction.”

“It’s a six-ounce bottle you need.”

“Just curious but what is it 32 ounces of?”

“Are you wondering what comes out of it or what goes into it?”

“Let’s start with what goes in and see where that get us.”

“It gets us into the 32-ounce size.”

“Only if we’re ingredients. We’re not unless it turns out the bottles are inside-out and we don’t suspect it because it’s only revealed in the last minute.”

“No, if we were ingredients we’d have heard something along the lines of `let us out’ or maybe `we’re not ingredients’.”

“So we’re not ingredients?”

“Now that you’ve said that, it could turn out we were all along. Thanks for messing up a good bit of confusion.”

“I’m sorry.”

“I’d hope so.”

“What got the Mayan worried about forty ounces?”

“They liked things in twenties. In retrospect, the 20-ounce size could have been a great seller to Mayans of the seventh century. Have you ever felt better for knowing what the ingredients of something were?”

“There are times I’ve felt growing appreciation for whatever is meant by ‘sorbitol’.”

“And have you ever liked what you knew about what went into something?”

“No, but it’s left me awake all night, steadily unsettled.”

“That sort of feeling you can’t put a price on, unless you count student loans.”

“You can do it with seven ounces. Start with three 32-ounces and take seven ounces out eight times over.”

“You get there faster with eight ounces seven times over.”

“Yes, it’s so much more scenic taking the local roads.”

“It’s mature to restrain yourself from wanting the 40-ounce size.”

“We all have our difficulties to overcome.”

“The 32-ounce size would be a 40-ounce size, if it came with eight ounces free.”

“If the eight ounces were free they wouldn’t come with anything. They’d have to be bottled and rigidly constrained relative to the 32 ounces.”

“They might associate of their own free will.”

“Is the 32-ounce size larger than a breadbox? If not, is it bigger than a bread loaf?”

“No, but I realize I don’t know what a loaf of bread weighs. I just thought of it as weighing one loaf, slightly less for denser loaves.”

“Then we’ve expanded the boundaries of your ignorance?”

“Yes, but marginally.”

“Delighted to be of service. Don’t worry. This is covered your normal monthly charge.”

“Thank you; please come again.”

Everything There Is To Say About Grinding Coffee Beans


Before I get warmed up you might ask how I know anything about grinding coffee beans. I’m glad you don’t ask the equivalent about every one of these essays. That would hurt my feelings. I affect a quiet, almost stoic pose. But I do have, and use, six feelings. I admit one of them is that feeling of nuisance that my sock is not quite wet enough to justify changing.

But it does not hurt my feelings if you doubt my knowledge of grinding coffee beans. I’m not a coffee drinker. I don’t much like it. I usually get coffee because I’ve misunderstood the question. I prefer tea, which could also use some work but which I’ve been kind of used to for longer. The only time I get coffee on purpose is when I go vegetable-shopping at the farmer’s market on the westside of town. They have this complementary coffee bar with a rotation of eight different flavors. And then what am I going to do, not get coffee because I don’t like it? It’s complementary.

And yes, I could get a complementary tea instead, but they use the same tea bags we already have at home. I’ve paid for those already, out of the household budget. This is a real chain of logic I really follow in reality, for real. Also they always have flavored coffees. And coffee might not be anything much, but coffee-cake flavor coffee? That’s great. I should get something to eat with my cup of coffee-cake flavor coffee, but what?

Nevertheless I do make coffee at home for my love, and for guests we have. And people agree I make good coffee. So I have standing.

Coffee comes in the form of beans. This is great because they make this satisfying rattle when you accidentally spill them on the kitchen floor. It’s a noise like pouring some particularly sugar-glazed cereal into an empty bowl and a good reminder to clean the kitchen floor more often. But to turn this into coffee you need to grind the beans. This creates “grounds”. The name comes from when the Coffee Makers Association heard the naming session was right now, not next week like their calendars said. You can get the coffee ground for you by somebody … somewhere … and buy it like that. But then people who are really, really, really into coffee will stare at you. Again, I only drink coffee when I’m feeling proud for snagging a good-looking bunch of turnips for our pet rabbit. But I know if I were making a cup first thing in the morning, I wouldn’t want the dolorous gaze of coffee enthusiasts coming through the kitchen window.

Anywhere you can buy coffee beans has a machine to ground then on the spot. It’s this terrifying machine with at least four hand-written signs warning about settings you must not used taped to it. There’s a layer of coffee dust on it deep enough to grow half-caff bananas. Best to hide from that scene. You can get a coffee blender for home from any shop that sells coffee-making supplies, or “coffeterium” as they say in the trades. (“Coffeteria” is the plural, for if you need more than one blender.) These are great, though. You take the lid off, pour beans in, plug the machine in, press the button, get a spray of beans in your face, and learn to put the lid back on again next time. It makes a fun sound on the kitchen floor.

If blending fails you can go try other ways. One good way is to set a cupful of beans in a strong plastic bag, tape it to the outside wall, and then summon the Kool-Aid Man. He not only crushes the beans into a fine powder but gets you something you like drinking right away while you’re waiting for coffee. That’s all great, but you can only do it up to four times, plus the landlord gets all tense.

So you have to stop using the Kool-Aid man. But that might not be a bad thing. Grinding beans is when they start to lose flavor, and we didn’t spend years getting kind of used to the flavor of coffee to have less flavorful coffee. But the logical conclusion is there: don’t grind the beans before drinking the coffee. Give in to the sound and eat the beans, like cereal, in a bowl full of chocolate milk instead. You can swallow a modest number of gizzard stones, like birds do, to crush the beans inside your crop and enjoy the perfect coffee experience.

It is possible guests are just being nice when they say I make coffee well.

Robert Benchley: The Rope Trick Explained


There is no such thing as the Indian Rope Trick, the stunt where a rope gets tossed up in the air, and an assistant climbs up it and vanishes. There never was. The entire stunt was a creation of 19th-century western magicians. I know, I was shocked to learn it too. Peter Lamont’s The Rise Of The Indian Rope Trick: How A Spectacular Hoax Became History describes much of the trick’s cultural history. Lamont mentions how the humorist Robert Benchley was an early and fervent skeptic that there was ever such a thing as the Indian Rope Trick.

In this piece, collected in My Ten Years In A Quandry And How They Grew, shows off some of Benchley’s skepticism about the trick, although it isn’t one of the pieces Lamont quotes, for fair reason.

The Rope Trick Explained

In explaining this trick, I need hardly say that it is known as “the Indian rope trick.” That is the only trick that everyone explains, as well as the only trick that no one has ever seen. (Now don’t write in and say that you have a friend who has seen it. I know your friend and he drinks.)

For readers under the age of three (of whom, judging from several letters at hand, I have several) I will explain that “the Indian rope trick” consists in throwing a rope into the air, where it remains, apparently unfastened to anything, while a boy climbs up to the top. Don’t ask me what he does then.

This trick is very easy to explain. The point is that the boy gets up into the air somehow and drops the rope down to the ground, making it look as if the reverse were true. This is only one way to do it, however. There are millions of ways.


While in India, a friend of mine, a Mr MacGregor, assisted me in confusing the natives, in more ways than one. We dressed up in Indian costume, for one thing. This confused even us, but we took it good-naturedly.

Then I announced to a group of natives, who were standing open-mouthed (ready to bite us, possibly) that Mr MacGregor and I would perform the famous Indian Rope Trick under their very noses. This was like stealing thunder from a child.

Stationing myself at the foot of a rope which extended upward into the air with no apparent support at the other end, I suggested to Mr MacGregor that he climb it.

“Who—me?” he asked, hitching his tunic around his torso.

This took up some time, during which part of our audience left. The remainder were frankly incredulous, as was Mr MacGregor. I, however, stuck to my guns.

“Up you go, MacGregor!” I said. “You used to be in the Navy!”


So, like a true yeoman, Mr MacGregor laid hands on the rope and, in a trice, was at its top. It wasn’t a very good trice, especially when viewed from below, but it served to bring a gasp of astonishment from the little group, many of whom walked away.

“Come on in—the water’s fine!” called Mr MacGregor, waving from his pinnacle (one waves from one’s pinnacle sideways in India).

“Is everything fast?” I called up at him.

“Everything fast and burning brightly, sir!” answered Mr MacGregor, like a good sailor.

“Then—let ‘ergo!” I commanded, sounding Taps on a little horn I had just found in my hand.

And, mirabile dictu, Mr MacGregor disappeared into thin air and drew the rope up after him! Even I had to look twice. It was a stupendous victory for the occult.


“Are there any questions?” I asked the mob.

“What is Clark Gable like?” someone said.

“He’s a very nice fellow,” I answered. “Modest and unassuming. I see quite a lot of him when I am in Hollywood.”

There was a scramble for my autograph at this, and the party moved on, insisting that I go with them for a drink and tell them more about their favorite movie stars. There is a native drink in India called “straite-ri” which is very cooling.


It wasn’t until I got back to our New York office that I saw Mr MacGregor again, and I forgot to ask him how he ever got down.