Everything you need to know to understand me as a writer

Me, reading something snarky I wrote years ago: Oh. Oh, gosh, that’s unfortunate and not really pleasant at all. Ouch. I hope nobody’s still reading that.

Me, writing something snarky just today: But this will be great!

How to Shake Hands

I write this for some future reader. I suppose I always have to, but this is more specific. Particularly it’s for readers who, after the Covid-19 pandemic wraps up, don’t remember how to shake hands anymore.

You may laugh. I hope you do. But you think that shaking hands is like riding a bicycle, you never really forget. Ah, but have you tried bicycle-riding after a long time away? You start with a sensible helmet, judging the wacky helmet in poor taste for these times. Then you try putting both feet on the pedals, but the kickstand is in the way. You put a foot on the ground and try pushing the kickstand back. But you have to push it in and press backward while letting it slide out and before you know it you topple over. You fall into the bag of leaves the city isn’t collecting yet so it doesn’t hurt. But you’re making no bicycle-riding progress.

It’s like this with handshakes too. Try it now, by yourself. Reach your right hand to your left and shake. Ah! You see, right? You can’t shake a left hand and a right hand! What you have done there, my friend, is applaud. This is why you need my guidance.

I’ll get to specific instructions in a moment. But you need to know a long-range goal. A handshake done well will be both good and firm. It’s obvious why you want a handshake to be good. We all strive for the good through the limitations of our understanding and perceptions. Plato’s students wrote three false Socratic dialogues about the nature of a good handshake. (That was because they needed publication credits, though.)

But why firm? I don’t know. I think it’s to be sure we understand what it’s like being handled by an adjustable crescent wrench. It may not be comfortable but it’s better than an unadjustable crescent wrench. It also could be just that guys set the standards, and the guy standard for everything is that it should be done until someone weeps.

So that’s the long-term goal. Now to practical steps. First, with your handshakes, check that you have at least one hand. No one, however much they want a handshake from you, will fault you if you haven’t got hands. This is an out, by the way. If for some reason you can’t bear handshakes, then “accidentally” leave them back home when you go out. I don’t know how you’ll lock your door, sorry. Maybe you live in a good neighborhood.

Ready for a handshake, though? With the help of at least one other person — remember the lesson about applauding — get ready. First, hold up your handshaking hand. Spread your fingers out and then close them back until you feel comfortable. You feel comfortable when you can hold your fingers at that separation for at least 120 seconds without feeling strain. (Practice this before your actual handshaking! You want it to look automatic.) Reach your thumb out perpendicular to your hand, then touch your palm, at least two but not more than three times.

Reach your hand towards your handshake-partner’s, starting with your palm held vertical. Turn it slowly horizontal. Your model here is the Space Pan-Am spaceship space-docking in the Space Hilton from 2001: A Space Odyssey. With your space hand — sorry, hand — accidentally slipped into your partner’s sleeve, apologize. Tap your forehead and say you don’t know where your thoughts are today. You are “spaced out”, as they say. Smile with a glint in your eye. After a hearty chuckle go on about your post-handshake business.

Does it seem like the handshake’s gone wrong? You have good insights, my friend. The handshake has gone wrong, but this is what you want. By sharing in a “blunder” you’ve shared a very mild embarrassment with someone. They now see you as the partner in a special little moment of common humanity. They’ll like you more even though they have no actual reason to. And that is the secret true goal of shaking hands.

[ Me, thinking I’ve closed the essay file. ] Ha-ha! Got them all now, didn’t I? Now I can reveal my intrigue! They have forgotten that I am incompetently germ-phobic! I have always hated handshakes! I am using this as a chance to quash the habit for once and all! They have no choice now but to try hugging or just nodding nervously!

How to Fix Walking

Walking is a pretty good way to get around. I mean, if you’re able and up for it. It compares favorably to tossing yourself on the ground and rolling to your destination, for example, by being faster and getting less sidewalk debris in your clothing. It provides exercise. And it puts you in touch with your neighborhood in a way you don’t otherwise have. Like, if you didn’t walk, would you pay attention to that empty shopping cart on your street? The one that’s got no identifiable store markings? The one that’s over a mile from any store that could support a shopping cart that capacious? The one that keeps migrating north and south, as if driven by some inscrutable mating drive? Can you stop noticing it, once you’ve started? And yet without walking all you’d do is acknowledge that a street exists. Where’s the fun in that?

Given its advantages, why isn’t walking a more popular way of people getting to places they’d rather have stayed home from? Some problems are obvious. There’s the vulnerability to rain. The poor reliability of air conditioning. That one block of sidewalk square that got dug up, and is marked off with tape, that’s been standing there non-existent for months. It, too, is compelling. If you were still eight years old you’d know that jumping into that square is an hours-long plummet into a strange world of dinosaurs and robots and robot dinosaurs and a great adventure to save the interworld. The only thing stopping you back then was how you had a spelling quiz to get to and you were feeling pretty darned confident about ‘ukulele’. It’s still a pretty compelling problem to get to, especially when you consider the shape the interworld’s in now. But, you know, I understand if you have to hurry on. That $50 rebate check the power company gave you for turning in that broken dehumidifier isn’t going to deposit itself. And who even knows if they have convenience stores in the interworld? They have, but you have to recognize that they’re marked by the giant pillbugs and like nobody ever thinks to explain that. Plus, you find a missing square of sidewalk there and you end up plummeting into the metainterworld and that’s all sorts of new issues.

I say one problem keeping walking from catching on better is the risk of collision. I mean with other pedestrians. It’s no less bad to accidentally collide with, say, a mailbox. That might even be worse, given the level of embarrassment. Colliding with the mailbox isn’t too bad but then you reflexively say “sorry” to it and feel like a right fool for days. It won’t be until like the next Wednesday you think of the witty comeback you should have said to the mailbox, and by then nobody cares if they hear it.

But it’s collisions with people that I’m worrying about, since I have so few mailbox readers. I have few people readers too, but I’m all right with that, since I feel pretty bad when I draw attention anyway. To collide with someone you need another person to collide with. You’d figure it would usually be pretty easy not to collide. You’d see the person walking towards you, and the person sees you walking towards them, and you both move a little to the side so as not to collide. Somehow this doesn’t work, though. If you move to your right, they move to your right. If you move to their right, they move to their right too. If you stop dead still, they stop dead still and grin, embarrassed. Then you and they try moving again and it’s the same problem. You leap off the sidewalk, hoping the First Speaker of the Interworld Partnership of Communards is checking the magic picture-book at that moment and will portal you out of this world. No luck; the First Speaker needs both you and your walking opponent, and you end up bonking together inside the Chamber of the Trustworthy.

So that’s why I think we need to swipe a gimmick from the car industry (don’t tell them) and set up people with directional signals. Either that or have people go out wearing conical rubber walking-gowns, so that if people do collide it’s slower and the shock is absorbed. Plus, we’d look much more like game pieces from Sorry!. So maybe the directional signals idea is a bad one and we should go with the cones instead. Anyway, once we do that I’m sure people will like walking dozens of times better than they did before. You’re all welcome.

A Greeting

Oh, hello there, intrusive thought about that time in US History 1945 – Present (512:335) back in 1993 when I fumbled trying to make my point and came out sounding fantastically and even fanatically naive. How long has it been since you took over all my cognitive skills? Has it been four — no, no, you’re right, it’s only been three and a half hours. Good to see you again. Thanks. You’re going to be visiting through next Thursday? Great, great, really glad for that. Thanks.

Gasoline Alley is trying to make a fool of me

So yes, I do enjoy the couple hours I spend each week perusing the story comics so that I can write a plot summary. And even the writing of the plot summary. If I am doing a public service, good. It’s fun, and it seems to help people out.

So I would have written this past Sunday’s recap of Gasoline Alley in any case. But I feel a little disheartened that Jim Scancarelli posted this on Wednesday, and it goes and does the whole plot recap thing in three panels.

Melba: 'How did you meet this Willow woman?' Rufus: 'Her little dog scared off a wolf that was chasin' me and she hadn't eaten in days an' passed out in my place an' never left!' Melba: 'Sounds like *you* passed out in the vineyard an' never left!'
Jim Scancarelli’s Gasoline Alley for the 26th of June, 2019. By the way, this is a nice use of a continuous background with only implicit panels. I enjoy that sort of composition.

Anyway I’m just hoping that this was coincidence. I’d hate to think Jim Scancarelli was trying to undercut me. I thought it was clear that jokes like saying he was trying to get installed as an exhibit at the Museum of Old-Time-Radio were affectionate. I mean, I’d love to be at the Museum of Old-Time-Radio myself.

Well. At this rate I’m wondering what James Allen is planning to do to me come Tuesday.

Everything There Is To Say About Mnemonics

Remembering things used to be a great pastime. It’s obsolete these days. We only need to remember things anymore while we’re recording special “live” episodes of our podcasts. And that just if we feel rude checking our phones in front of the audience except to check our notes. For the rest of us it’s an affectation, like learning how long division works or how to spell “carburetor”. But it can be a fun one. Please remember I think there’s a swell video game to be made out of drawing time zone boundaries. I’m not trustworthy in judgements of “fun”. I could be coaxed into stopping at a roadside attraction promising the state’s third-most-average ball of twine. That even before finding out whether they have miniature golf.

There is only one sure way to remember a thing. That’s for it to be the lyrics you’re pretty sure you heard wrong from a song you can’t get out of your head. And you’re not sure you have the melody right either. It’s great and reliable but there’s almost no way to pick what you remember. It’ll never help you remember, like, what model your car’s engine is long enough to get something from the auto parts store. It’ll just leave you asking your musically inclined friends, “what’s that song I heard in the 80s or early 90s that’s like, `dahdah dah dah dah, chipmunks and kangaroos dahdah’?” while they back away, through the wall if need be. You can try hooking some phrase you want to remember up to a song you like, but that just ruins the song for you. You’ll be in the middle of humming this book title about the French and Indian War you wanted from the library and realize that you’re Ray Davies and you’ve gone way off script performing “Waterloo Sunset” on live TV. It’s humiliating.

Which comes to the next great way to remember a thing: feel humiliated by it. You can have many things to ponder in life, but the last will be that weird, involuntary, somehow squeaking-bark laugh that your second-grade teacher emitted when you said “molecule” like that. Again, great reliability, lousy selection. Who needs to remember wrong ways to say words, anyway? Again, only podcasters doing the part of the show where they respond defensively to their e-mails. Many of us got to be this many years old without ever having to say “unguent” out loud and that’s not evidence of a mis-spent life, all right?

Next to humiliation is stories, though. The average person can remember over twelve stories, which gives us plenty to talk about again while on a long car ride. We can make up stories about stuff we want to remember and then we’ll never get it out of our heads again, so make sure you get this right. Here, it helps if the stories are dumb. This way every time it works you feel humiliated something that stupid helped you, strengthening the memory.

For example, the highway near me is flanked by a one-way northbound service road and a one-way southbound service road. One of these is Homer. One of these is Hosmer. This is a mistake. Hosmer is a road several blocks away from all this. The other of the service roads is Howard. Which one goes north and which one goes south? It would be great if Hosmer went south, since it’s got that ‘s’ in there, but Hosmer has no part in this. Stop remembering Hosmer already.

But then I had a great idea: that prominent ‘m’ in Homer is the clue. If I can just remember “it’s called Homer because it runs morth” I would never get that stupid idea out of my head. And now good luck you getting it out either. There’s only two problems. One is, isn’t Morth the name of Jonathan Winters’s character on the last season of Mork and Mindy? Second, why am I trying to remember which one is Homer and which is Hosmer anyway? What problem in my life will that ever solve?

So if anyone has an idea how I can remember that I’m not responsible for Homer or Hosmer streets and don’t need to know which one runs which way, please write in care of this address. Thank you.

On Reflection

Maybe the reason the guy sitting opposite me at the Christmas party was rubbing his chin so much isn’t that I was completely failing to brush something out of my beard. Maybe he was thinking that my brushing my cheek was an attempt to warn him that he had something in his beard. Well, the only way out of this would be for either of us to say something to the other, or to ask another person if we had anything in our beards. So, I’m sorry, but this is my life now. I bequeath my blogs to whoever first correctly identifies the best Sparks song ever. Be fair to the story comics.

How To Remember A Fact

Remembering things used to be an essential skill. But these days it’s only really needed by podcasters who are recording in front of a convention audience a live episode where they discuss whether Star Trek V was a bad movie or not. Everyone else can mostly just look stuff up or decide that they don’t need to remember a thing after all. In the old days, you needed a certain kind of person who could tell you, oh, what the code words were to trigger Shipwreck’s hypnotically suppressed memory of a formula to make water explode in that one episode of G.I.Joe where he wakes up seven years in the future. Today, we have Google to tell us whether water ought to be exploding. It ought not.

But it remains a fun hobby, among a certain kind of person, to have things that they just remember. And there are different kinds of things to remember. There are things that you are expected to do or to not do. I don’t mean to talk about that, even though it seems like that covers everything possible. That breaks down quickly when I ask if you’ve ever written a note to yourself so that you potholder. I repeat the admonition to your confused face. Then we get into a debate about whether ‘to pothold’ is a verb and, if it isn’t, then is ‘potholdest’ a comparative? In the confusion I can sneak out undetected.

But I don’t. I want to discuss remembering facts. Any literate, well-informed person could encounter nearly 96 facts worth remembering by their age and decaying range of knee mobility. But how to keep them available? How to keep them from turning into this, a typical remembered fact:

By the time he was 42(? 44? 32?) years old, Ludwig von (van? van der?) Beethoven had been part of over (nearly? under?) 120 (20? 220?) without once [ something ] except for the ~one time(s?) in [ Bonn / Vienna / ^W with E T A Hoffman ].

Reference: Harpo Speaks!, Harpo Marx and Rowland Barber.

There are two good ways to ensure you will never forget a fact. The first we know from that time you were in fourth grade, and were prepared to give the most thoroughly awesome presentation on “water” that your science class had ever seen. And you even had real actual cubes of ice stored in the thermos bottle to show off alongside some water you got from the one water fountain in school that didn’t just dribble a tiny trickle of warm, indistinctly smelly water down the spout. And how you began by declaring how aitch-two-oh was the technical name that scientists gave the water “molly-cah-loo-la-lee”. And how since that day you have known the generally agreed-upon pronunciation of “molecule” with the thoroughness that somehow everyone else in your class knew because why would they laugh so much? And you know it with such thoroughness that you feel jabs of embarrassment whenever you see the word “molecule” in print, or hear someone talking about molecules, or you make use of a molecule of something.

So tying a fact to embarrassment lets you remember it easily. Indeed, oppressively, to the point that you cannot possibly forget even facts you wish to. This is what makes mnemonics work. Bind a fact you wish to know to something too dumb to let anyone know you know. Once you’ve composed:

Roses are red
Violets are blue
Sulfuric acid is
Formula aitch-two-ess-oh-four

The terror that someone will learn about the meter of that last line will ensure you’ll never mistakenly put roses in your heap of “things which are blue”.

You don’t need to use embarrassment to commit facts to memory, no. But the second way to sear a fact into your eternally-present memory is to tie it to shame. And, you know, look around your country. Whichever country you’re in right now. There’s enough you’re ashamed of as is. We don’t need to add to that heap of shame by trying to use it to remember which chemical element is abbreviated Ci. It is cinnamon. You’re looking at a “periodic table” of spices. Stick to embarrassment.

Shipwreck’s hypnotic activation phrase was “frogs in winter”. I’m not going to try to convince you Star Trek V was good, but I will insist William Shatner’s directing was solid. If you find your water starting to explode try smothering the blast with the good, stern look your fourth-grade science teacher gave the class after she finished smirking. That’ll help.

The Embarrassment

Looked out the window before going to bed last night and realized we had left the porch light on. We’d turned it because we were getting food delivered and it’s nice to give the delivery person a fighting chance at finding our house. And then, you know, we just kept forgetting to turn it off. And yes, over multiple days. You know, you approach the house, think, “I have to turn the light off soon as I get in”, and then you get in and all memory of planning to do anything is forgotten. And the light stays on. We’re not sure just how long it was on, but I’m pretty sure it’s connected to the “Is Detroit-Style Pizza Even A Real Thing?” dispute, so we would’ve turned it on sometime in August of 2015. We’re still not sure “Detroit-Style Pizza” is a thing. I mean, they make it square, yes, but that’s just … square.

Statistics Saturday: Eight Embarrassing Things Of My Past

  • Oh, all right, it was “Chi-Chi-mangas” shut up I wasn’t even ten years old.
  • Mmm. No.
  • Nah.
  • You don’t need to know this one either.
  • “Bisement” but understand I had this weird kind of half-burp while I was trying to talk about the basement and that’s just how it turned out.
  • Yeah no I’m not telling you that either.
  • Confidently telling a friend that — hold up, you know what? You don’t need to hear this one either.
  • No.

Reference: Harpo Speaks!, Harpo Marx and Rowland Barber.

Me, In Two Memories, One Of Which Does Not Exist

Me: vividly remembers precisely the way the then-younger he mispronounced “chimichangas” for like three weeks after first being introduced to them at Chi-Chi’s, which obviously must have invented this wonder food of tomorrow of 1982 and no you may not ask what it was and expect an answer.

Also me: could not convince myself, either by memory or appeal to reason, that I had washed my hair in the shower, a mere thirty minutes after taking it this morning and so there was nothing to do but repeat the whole process. Spoiler: it turns out I had washed my hair, as I had for every shower since 1982.

What You Missed At Open-Mike Night

  • The announcements on the event board that it was going to be open-mike night until someone went up on stage and said, “check, check one, check one” and then left, ninety minutes before the event started.
  • Someone who thought he was signing up for karaoke night. But who was game for this and did his best by pulling up The Bangles’ Walk Like An Egyptian on his phone and singing along to it until two-thirds of the way through when the phone crashed.
  • An excessively long anecdote that might be personal. But the central premise is that it’s a very funny thing to suppose that grandmothers might be on Facebook, and even moreso that it would be hilarious that they might get snarky at one another when talking about their grandkids over what seems like a minor misunderstanding to start with.
  • A singer who’s really working hard on getting this “I say”/“You say” call-and-response going, even though the audience somehow doesn’t seem able to quite get what they’re supposed to say back. It’s hard to pin down blame except that he seems to be rallying pride for the vaguely-defined neighborhood that ends about two blocks over from the bar and that the audience has only vague impressions of. “Isn’t that where they have all the hot tub showrooms?” asks someone leaning over from the nearly functional Getaway pinball machine. Did you even notice there was a second hot tub showroom? Be honest.
  • Oh, Lord, someone workshopping a bit for their comedy troupe and they’re interviewing a Folkmanis raccoon puppet about Donald Trump’s tax returns. Cute voice on the raccoon. Good puppet work.
  • Another fellow who figured to make this into karaoke night since that worked nearly right for the first person. So he pulls up the theme to Transformers on his phone and after the very long intro discovers he’s somehow got the Spanish-language version, which is a thing that it turns out exists? He laughs and retreats, head under his arms, into the corner until he comes back and just pantomimes like he’s Tom Jones to this whole thing.
  • Guy straddling the line between a rant and a comedy bit about how the promise of genetic engineering was how it was going to let us turn into werewolves and dinosaurs and cool stuff like that. But now it’s here and what is it about? Doing stuff to Progresso Lentils-with-Vegetable soup that’s so boring they can’t even bring themselves to specify what it is on the labels. He’s got something there.
  • Progreso Lentil with Roasted Vegetables soup. Partially Produced with Genetic Engineering.
    Yes, the label says now that its exchanges are good for 1 Starch and 1 Vegetable, but analysts expect it’ll rise to 1.15 Starch and 1.05 Vegetable after the quarterly earnings report comes out so rebalance your portfolio appropriately. Also: Raisin Juice Concentrate? This is a thing?
  • They’re going to take a twenty-minute break now which turns out to be thirteen minutes long.
  • Quickly-delivered beat poem that’s doing very well at sounding like what you hope for out of an open-mike night. It’s way too dense to actually parse but there seems to be something going on with nation-duration-obliteration and fence-dense-Pence-offense that suggests they know what they’re doing. Probably the highlight of the night even if the audience is going to spend the whole next day trying to work out what fit between nation and duration and obliteration and whether there’s a fourth word that could fit the rhyme scheme. Abomination, sure, but right-wingers wrecked that word when they mashed it up with Obama’s name to denounce stuff like non-binary people being allowed to pee.
  • Guy who can’t be heard even though he’s standing so close to the microphone it may actually be inside his mouth. He apologizes for not “speaking up” and “louder” four times over the course of his two-minute set.
  • They take the other seven minutes of break now. It takes twelve minutes.
  • Some guy staring close at his iPhone and reading They Might Be Giants’ Birdhouse In Your Soul with all the words in alphabetical order until he gets dizzy.
  • Fellow who wanted to read the classifieds from the free weekly in a funny voice. In a courageous act he didn’t vet the classifieds beforehand, and apparently didn’t realize how much they change week to week, so he’s trying to build something out of Dave’s offer for snow removal.
  • Someone telling a comic anecdote and who’s just assumed that of course we’re on her side in this encounter with a Kmart cashier whom she’s decided was asking stupid questions. The saving grace is supposing that the storyteller is making all this up after deciding that she should’ve been a worse person after leaving the store, but then, oh yeah, remember working retail?
  • Thanks everyone for coming out to another great open-mike night, it’s the great audiences we get here that make it possible for everyone to come out and …
  • Sorry, we missed this woman who signed up to tell about just how crazy her phone call to her Congressman turned out but you’ll give her a listen now, won’t you? Thank you. Thanks for coming out and supporting creativity in the neighborhood.

Another Blog, Meanwhile Index

The trading index rose six points over the course of the day with everybody being in really good spirits after finding out that paczki are back and someone brought a 24-pack box in from the Quality Dairy and now everybody’s kind of sleeping off a paczki coma.


In Which I Explain The Nathan-Nebus Conversation

Singapore’s Former President S R Nathan died this week. So this is a fitting time to record for posterity my understanding of our relationship. It’s also the last time I can share this story without my being inhumanly dull. That’s all right. I’ve been using this story to be a bit dull for twelve years and that’s not bad for a standard-grade anecdote. It doesn’t measure up to the styrofoam peanut computer monitor incident of 1999, but not everything is.

Back in the day (2004) I was working at the National University of Singapore, in the Department of Computational Science. This was a department that did physics, chemistry, biology, and mathematics from a computer science perspective. “Wait,” you ask, “how is that different from ordinary physics, chemistry, biology, mathematics, and computer science, what with it being literally the 21st Century and everything being done on computers?” Our department would say that LOOK THERE’S A BIG DISTRACTING THING OVER THERE and run out to the Science Canteen to regroup. We were disbanded the next year.

It was the start of the school year. It was time for the Commencement ceremonies. Last year’s graduates officially received their diplomas and I realized all the time I had spent in United States academia had been a lie. “Commencement”! The word is right there in the name of the thing. WHY DO WE PUT IT AT THE END OF THE YEAR? WHY? WHY? WHY? WHY? This was enough to send me to the Science Canteen and drown my sorrow in tuna buns. These are a Singaporean food thing where you take a bun and put tuna in it. Well, they put tuna in it. You just eat it. Someday this is going to hit the United States big. Corn buns ought to too, but that’s probably not enough meat for the typical American. Chocolate buns may be just a little too weird. Too bad.

The department needed someone to be on stage for Commencement, one of those professory types in dignified robes watching the proceedings without nodding off. I’d volunteered for one of the school Commencements. The University ran two or three commencements for the various schools over the course of like two weeks because maybe they had too many subdivisions. He thought, from the doomed department. That led to the whole “Dubiously Wanted Pants” Affair but that’s another story. Then I got an invite to attend the main commencement, if I responded before the actual letter was sent to me. I checked and they told me that sure, they’d have a chair for me if I got there for 9:20 am. That’s like my third-best 9:20 of the day, but all right. I wore the pair of dubiously wanted pants and everything.

My participation got me marked for VIP treatment. This ran hard against my general level of self-esteem. I won’t brag about my low self-esteem because I couldn’t possibly bring myself to do it. But to have actually well-dressed ushers ushing me off past velvet barriers and stuff encourages the feeling of accidentally stumbling into a Nikolai Gogol play I never actually read or saw or anything. Also somehow all us faculty misunderstood something the first time we went out on stage so they had to call us back and send us out again. That’s just reinforcing so many stereotypes.

The ceremony was different from United States university commencements in that they only played like eight bars of Pomp and Circumstance at the start. They had to save time at some point. There were like twelve more school commencement ceremonies later that day. At this one they just blasted through the doctoral and master-degree candidates and presented them all to the University Chancellor, President Nathan. (Remember him?)

At the reception afterwards they still wanted me around and among the VIP section even though honestly. And our department didn’t have any doctoral or masters-degree candidates. So all I had to do was wander around the packed hallway, filling my plate with kueh (any of hundreds of desserts made by compressing sugar into Singaporean Hyper-Sugar) and bee hoon (the tastiest part of the bee) and then emptying it. And then I sneezed. I wasn’t yet skilled at sneezing into my elbow and I just managed to sneeze into my right hand instead. Not too messy but still, sneeze.

I saw a little clearing of people, off in the general direction of the bathroom, and I charged directly into it. It was a little open gap of people in front of President Nathan. He smiled at this fat, tall person who had just sneezed into his hand in front of him. I had always assumed President of Singapore to be a pretty easy gig. The country’s got a Westminster parliament scheme but with only one really organized political party. So there’s not even the occasional bit of choosing to approve a coalition government or proroguing parliament or anything for the Head of State to do. But he proved me wrong about the job’s easiness. He reached out and shook my booger-laden hand. I could never do something like that.

And then we had a conversation that, to the best of my recollection, was exactly this majestic:

“Good day,” he said.

“Good day … I’m honoured to meet you, sir.” (I would do my best to approach the Singaporean accent without sounding like I’m making fun of myself.)

“Where do you come from?”

“New Jersey. Um. The United States.”

“Ah. Are you a graduate?”

“Faculty, actually. I’m a teaching fellow.”

“Ah.” And he nodded and moved on to people not threatening to smear nasal goop over him.

This would prove to be our final conversation, for which I don’t blame him.

Dream World Advice Accepted

OK, OK, dream that seemed like it went on for two hours or more. I will take your advice. Never again will I try to sneak out naked to the mall’s movie theater with a bunch of archeologists. While there’s probably someplace I could get some respectable cover there, I wouldn’t have any place to keep my wallet so I’d have to watch the movie from the changing room. Also there’s so many venues for embarrassment with the archeologists, especially when people challenge their key findings and they have to fly, cross-country, to Seattle by way of Los Angeles, which just makes for two hecks of long trips. I don’t even know why the movie was controversial to the archeologists. Maybe something in it presented the Nuditarians in a light not generally accepted by current research.

Improved Supervillainy

Live everyone in my generational cohort I got to thinking about that supervillains do wrong. I mean besides doing evil. It’s struck me the ransom scheme, threatening to blow up the world or some beloved piece of it such as the area where the filmmakers live, is fundamentally flawed. People will fight back against the threat of death.

What supervillains should do for ransom schemes is come up with a plausible threat by which they would embarrass the population. They could demand thousands of billions of dollars a day and get it. And even if a superhero stepped up offering to save the day, municipal authorities would hold him back because think of the consequences if he fails.

And then I wonder what I’m doing that I work out the flaws in supervillain ransom schemes. Well, that’s just the world we live in anymore, I guess. So, should it be “supervillainy” or “supervillainwry”?


I want to talk a little about playing pinball lately, and I know not everybody is even aware you can play pinball lately, what with it not being 1978 anymore, so let me bring folks up to speed. In the old days pinball machines were relatively sedate affairs: the backglass and playfield art would be a picture of, oh, whatever, wizards in space, or boaters being tormented by Neptune, or the background characters of Mary Worth singing. On the table there’d be a bunch of bumpers, which are the mushroom-shaped things you’d think would be called kickers that kick the ball around; and a pair of kickers, which are the triangular things above the flippers that you’d think would be called bumpers; and the flippers, which are just flippers; and a bunch of drop targets, which are the things you aim the ball at and that fall down when you hit them. And the rule set was pretty straightforward: the targets would be themed to either sets of playing cards or else pool balls, and you would try to knock them all down, and if you managed that, they popped back up and you try to knock them down again.

Then someone went and invented computers, and put them in pinball machines, and they also added ramps just too late for the people who made the Evel Kneivel pinball machine, and it all got complicated because the rules could change, giving you, like, eight seconds to shoot the world’s steepest, most inaccessible ramp ever, in exchange for 2.25 billion points. With scores that enormous being thrown around, of course, they had to get corporate sponsorship for their themes and so wizards playing 9-ball in a baseball park wouldn’t cut it anymore. These days a pinball machine is themed to a popular movie/TV show franchise, a comic book superhero, or a band, which is why pinball magnate Gary Stern has been polishing his Kiss Meets The Phantom Of The Park reboot script for years.

I should say that while pinball scores got kind of out of control back there in the 90s there’ve been efforts to rein them back in, so that a normal good score is only like tens of millions anymore. Some machines have been pretty serious about reducing the score, though: the current world record for The Wizard of Oz pinball is 4, although a guy playing in the Kentucky state championships this year has a new strategy he hypothesizes will let him score 6 or, if the table is generous about giving extra balls, maybe even 7. He’s daft.

Anyway, a couple weeks ago, I had a really good game of The Walking Dead, a pinball machine of such fantastic complexity that nobody knows what all the rules are. The leading theory is that there’s actually just a seed program inside that develops new rules on the fly, so that every time someone works out “OK, if I shoot the ramp three times something good happens”, it’ll suddenly change to, say, “you have to shoot the ramp four times after hitting the Creepy Zombie in the middle twice and identify which presidents George Clinton was vice-president for and maybe slip an extra quarter in the coin slot if you know what’s good for you”. But that one time, good grief, but I was hitting everything and starting modes that nobody even knew existed. I put together a score that was about what I would expect if you added together all my Walking Dead games for an eight-month period and put it together into one game.

So. The next league night, when we play for actual competitive points, I knew I was going to flop badly and yes, it happened. On the table Tales of the Arabian Nights I put up a score of 289,180, and trust me, your pinball friends are torn between laughing and thinking with horror of what if it happened to them. Arabian Nights dates to when scores were just starting to get out of hand, so it could have a theme as uncommercial as legends that have enchanted people for centuries, but still. People who walk past it without stopping to play routinely score 600,000, and people who put coins into other machines at the pinball venue — including the change machine or the machine selling gumballs — will often get a million points from Arabian Nights.

I didn’t just flop; I flopped epochally, like if the “Agony of Defeat” guy didn’t just stumble, but also burst into flames and smashed into Evel Kneivel’s rocket-sled on its way to draining. I honestly feel accomplished, and all set for the state championships this weekend.

On Catching A Few Moments Of An ‘America’s Funniest Home Videos’ Rerun

I didn’t even know Comedy Central Or Somebody was even showing America’s Funniest Home Videos anymore, or if the show is still going on, but it was revealing just how low our standards for “funny video” were back then. We’ve clearly allowed us to develop videos of “people colliding with stuff” and “animals losing dignity” to such a high grade that now I know humanity will never develop time travel, because anyone who did would have been able to take absolutely anything that went even a little bit viral, go back to 1993 or whenever and win the funniest-video contest, thus raising the money needed to develop time travel, and in that case the old reruns would show those of the modern weapons-grade comic videos of today — or even the super, thermo-gigglier ones sure to come in the future — and they don’t, and therefore we won’t, and the card in your hand is the four of clubs. Am I not correct?

In Which I Don’t Understand My Wardrobe

It’s about time for the change of seasons. You probably know which seasons and if you don’t you can pick the ones you like. But for me the big change is that I start wearing this thing over my shirts. I’m not sure what it is, exactly. I call it a hoodie, but it’s more complicated than that, because I’m the kind of person who can make a hoodie complicated somehow. I think I might be overthinking it, but that just feeds the problem.

It reappeared a little over a week ago. I don’t know where the hoodie goes in the summer, but I can’t find it at all during the warmer months, the months I spend wondering if I should find more ways to open windows around the house besides chipping out the painted-shut frames. There were a couple times this summer I could have used it, because we forgot to pay our sun bill and the temperature never rose above 73 degrees Fahrenheit, and that in our toaster oven. I looked all over the house and even tried the mating call of hoodies and other wrap-like garments but nothing doing. It must migrate, though Wikipedia tells me most garments on their own power are able to move no more than about three miles per day at best.

Like I say, I call it a hoodie because I don’t know the names of clothes. I get underwear, T-shirts, regular shirts, sweaters, pants, socks, and hats, and then I freeze up and panic when somebody asks me what you call a T-shirt that hasn’t got any sleeves. It’s a dark gray, because somehow pretty much everything I wear turns out to be dark gray, even the brightly colored stuff. That’s for the best. I’ve tried buying clothes in interesting colors before and you can see the results by looking at any picture of any group of people from the 1970s or 1980s.

You see the outfit that makes you wince and maybe accidentally bite your lip? I used to wear that, and I probably would still except it wore a nontrivial hole in a structurally important place. You know how in life you come to do things you regret and feel shame for? For multiple years in the 1990s and in both New Jersey and New York, I wore orange sweatpants in public. I believe my friends tried to warn me about this, but on approaching me they were overcome with the compulsion to go off in the corner and weep. They were correct.

Anyway, the hoodie or whatever reappeared just as I needed it, as the temperature stays perfectly the same inside the house and every place I go, but somehow it feels colder because it’s colder outside, where I am not. As a child I didn’t understand why the house felt colder when it was winter outside, even though the point of houses is to not be outside, but as an adult I now understand: the world is fundamentally irrational and cannot be understood. Still I can’t see how this thing can be a hoodie, given how it doesn’t have a hood. It doesn’t even have the zipper or something where a removable hood might have gone before the removable hood was taken, or to put it another way, became gone.

Also it zips up, up front, when I’m not sure is proper hoodie behavior, but it’s awfully useful because I can leave it unzipped so as to show off how nicely grey-ish my blue or red or yellow shirt is. I’m looking forward to how in future decades I’ll see pictures of this and wonder why nobody told me how I looked. They have, but see if I listen. Also it’s got pockets. I like pockets. My favorite jacket ever had a little pocket on the inside just the right size for a paperback book. Its lining wore out and it grew holes in it but I liked that pocket so much I’d still be wearing it if not for all my friends tackling me, stripping it from my body, and pitching it into an Icelandic volcano, which devoured the garment in molten flames and blushed, mortified, at having this in it.

I’m not even sure where it came from, but it must have been from somewhere, because at the grocery store I saw another guy wearing what’s clearly the same model non-hoodie. Only on him, it didn’t look like something I’d wear. I have to study this more.