Tag Archives: humor

525. Highland Laddie Gone

This is one of the fifteen that hit the sweet spot.

Of all the books on my best list, this is the weirdest, hands down. It sings, but its song belongs on a Ray Stevens album. Highland Laddie Gone by Sharyn McCrumb is the funniest book in history, or an incomprehensible mess, depending on how well you understand the backstory.

Which brings me to my backstory. I am not a Scot, but my wife is. Her mother, a Swede, became more Scottish than the Scots in pursuit of her husband’s culture. I learned to love bagpipe music and appreciate tartans from her. I also got into the habit of going to the local Scottish Games every year, where I found this book in a Scottish book stall.

The Scottish Games are an odd mixture of athletic events, genuine Scottish history, and romantic historical claptrap, with the last being the strongest element. I love them, but I am not fooled about how silly the whole concept is. I like the games like some people like Benny Hill.

The Highland Games are about as realistic as a bunch of modern Virginia women shucking their skinny jeans for hoop skirts and sitting around sipping mint juleps while their husbands reenact the Civil War — and that happens in this book, too.

There is also a Scottish marine biologist who has come over for the summer on a grant to study the ecology of the Chesapeake Bay, only to find out that the man paying the bills really wants him to study Chessie. If you don’t know, Chessie is the Chesapeake Bay equivalent of the Loch Ness Monster.

Our heroine, Elizabeth MacPherson is attending the Glencoe Games, one of the bigger venues. She is naive, slightly overweight, and in love with glamor but can’t quite pull it off. She solves mysteries, although the reader is left wondering how, and she has a wicked tongue for countering catty remarks.

The more I describe Highland Laddie Gone, the more I can’t believe it is one of my favorites. But it is jammed full of the humor of juxtaposition, both linguistic and cultural. There are at least five one-liners per page. Example:

When Elizabeth falls for the visiting biologist’s Scottish accent, she tells him, “I love your rrr’s.”

Taken aback, he replies, “Yes, your arse is rather nice, as well.”

Elizabeth knows the fake Scottishness of the games, but little about historical Scotland, and absolutely nothing about modern Scotland. Cameron, the visiting biologist, has never seen a Game and finds them incomprehensible; he has no interest in history, and all he want to talk about are modern Scottish sports teams. He and Elizabeth spend the entire book talking past each other, with hilarious results.

Then Lachlan, the dealer in fake genealogies and associated trinkets, is killed with a skian dubh, a ceremonial dagger. The call goes out, and the local sheriff is just over the hill at a Civil War reenactment. He tells his troops to stop being dead until he gets back, and heads toward the Game at a gallop in the full dress of a Southern cavalry officer. He sees the death weapon and says, “This will be easy. How many of these things can there be?” The attendees have to tell him that every one of the thousand kilted pseudo-Scotsmen has a skian dubh in his sock.

Elizabeth decides to solve the mystery, and all her friends push her this way and that, hoping she will find the clues they are directing her toward. Eventually, she does find the killer, but she never has a clue of what has actually been going on.

The  joy of this book is all in the one-liners. I’ve given you a few; there are hundreds more in HLG, but you might miss many of them if you don’t know the Games or the Reenactments.

If this sounds like fun, but you are only into science fiction, you might try Bimbos of the Death Sun or Zombies of the Gene Pool in which McCrumb takes on science fiction conventions.

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515. Immortal Hunger

Magic requires an agile mind and a good memory.

Immortal Hunger
by Syd Logsdon

Abbit perault desegené . . .

An old man tried to speak the words
That his fading mind could not compel;
Began again, and once again,
Could not complete the vital spell.

Outside his walls a storm was coming
Snow had just begun to fall,
Within his chest there beat the ragged,
Slowing pulse of death’s own song.

Abbit perault divalté  . . . Damn!

The formula locked in his skull,
He could not force them free —
Those words that he had labored long
To etch in stones of memory.

Four thousand years ago he spoke them,
At Marduk’s feet in Babylon.
The old God said that death was conquered,
But warned him, never wait too long.

A hundred years ago he spoke them,
With shortened breath he sang their song,
And rose to live another century —
Remember, never wait too long.

A man grows tired, a brain grows weary
Childhood memories fade away.
Three hundred wives, so many children;
Still clinging at end of day.

Not satisfied, not done with dreaming,
Not ready for his final lay,
Desire unquenched, immortal hunger
Not to simply slip away.

But hunger isn’t all he needs
If memory fades with every breath.
Abbit . . . my God what was that spell?
The one that puts an end to death.

507. Sita as Symbol

Be warned: this post is about symbols, double entendre, hidden meanings, fecundity, and has a few references to the religions of India.

Over in Serial today, Marquart is engaged in a symbolic exchange. He gives three gifts, and a young man and his wife give a pledge of lifelong loyalty. When the ceremony is over . . .

. . . the boy, who as son of a serf had been nobody, gained status and lost freedom. And the girl, who had been of the village, lost freedom and gained a husband.

That insert is the first sentence in tomorrow’s post. Things don’t always come out even when you serialize something that was written as a whole.

All this is nothing new to fiction, or life. It closely resembles a young man becoming a squire, or a successful warrior being knighted. There is an exchange — fealty for security in the master’s service — and there is both a gain and a loss as someone passes from one status to another.

The thing that makes Marquart’s exchange a bit different is that the young actors in the drama are lowly. You might call them peasants or serfs, which are technically not the same thing, but which share being low on the scale of status.

I go low all the time. I grew up on a farm, wading through cow manure. At school I used a slide rule (google it) but at home I used a shovel. I feel comfortable with lowly folks; with working folks. Even though Tidac is a god, he doesn’t know it and ends up being raised . . . Oops, I nearly let a spoiler slip there!

The girl receives an iron pot, and Marquart says:

May your hearth be always warm, and the pot and your belly always full.

The audience laughs. Marquart could have said that differently — more coarsely — but that would have been offensive. As it is, “the girl blushed and the villagers giggled”. Unmarried, in a culture like this one, the girl was a danger and was in danger. Once married, pregnancy becomes appropriate, and even desired. The “full belly” refers to hunger satisfied and pregnancy.

Marquart says the right words at the right time. The moment is ritualized, and ritual makes the unsayable, sayable.

The iron post was given to the wife from the hands of a female servant. No man touches it.

The plow shear is given to the man. The girl touches the package, but the man opens it. More symbolism. Later, when the man receives the axe, she does not touch it at all.

After giving the plow shear, Marquart says:

Urel, plow deep and often, so that your seed may be sewn, and your harvest may be bountiful.

“The villagers and serf alike howled with laughter.” Double entendre rears its lovely head. Yes, Marquart is telling the serf to be a farmer, but he is also commending him to the marriage bed. And everyone present knows it.

If he had said the same thing baldly, everyone would have been offended at his lack of tact. They would also have missed a chance to be in on this great joke that they all got to share.

It resembles the rules of cussing. Every time I hear someone casually saying f**k, I think, “What a waste.” A good cuss word has to be saved for the appropriate occasion, and delivered with perfect timing. Throwing it around like an ordinary word wastes it. If you say f**k every time you bump your knee, what is left to say when you drop an anvil on your foot?

Double entendre is fun. Sometimes kids don’t get that. They think their elders are afraid to use plain language, but it’s all a game. If you don’t follow the rules, the game is no fun.

By the way, I didn’t think up that bit with the plow shear. In some South Asian languages, the word for the act of plowing is the same word used for the act of intercourse. A professor in one of my anthropology classes told us that, but then he added, “Just because the word is the same, doesn’t mean that when a farmer says, ‘I’m going out to plow my field,’ he is really saying ‘I’m going out to commit ritual intercourse with the earth’. He just means that he is going out to plow.”

I don’t think my prof was being entirely honest. I think he was wanting to keep a class full of post-adolescents under control. In fact, that farmer would be saying both, simultaneously, and enjoying the double entendre.

One last note. In the Ramayana, the god Ram’s wife is the goddess Sita, and the word sita also means furrow.

346. Science, just for fun

rat-hereTeaching should be fun for teacher and student alike. That’s my perspective, but I have to admit that I had it easy on that front because I taught science. Science is full of falling things, and flying things, and squishy things, and stinky things. If I had to teach English, or social studies, or math, I would certainly have a different view of how much fun teaching is.

Here is an example. CH4 is the formula for methane gas. Teaching chemical formulas could get a little obscure and uninteresting if you let it, but there are always “interesting facts” that you can throw in to help keep things rolling. For instance, methane is what comes out of the gas pipes that you cook with if you live in a city. It’s also what comes out of cows and ends up in the news as a bovine generated greenhouse gas. If you leave a stove on without lighting it, you smell it, but methane is odorless. How does this happen? The gas company puts a chemical in with the methane that stinks when fresh, but burns up without stinking if a fire is lit.

This is the point when some wiseacre will say, “If methane is odorless, why do farts stink?”

And you can answer with a straight face, “Well, if you consider where they come from, and what the gasses have to push their way through, and the little particles they are carrying with them . . .”

If you can’t make science fun, you probably shouldn’t be teaching it.

One of the things that come up in middle school science is the conservation of matter. Matter is neither created nor destroyed, except in nuclear reactions; it just changes form. Methane gas combines with oxygen to create carbon dioxide and water. You know the equation, and you’ve probably had to balance it. My students had to do it, too. You have to do the work if you are going to learn.

But there is nothing wrong with spicing things up occasionally with an illustrative story. Even Jesus used parables.

Consider the story of Billy, who never believed what he was told.

I would begin this story with a drawing on the board like the one at the top of this post, except that there would be a cartoon of a dead rat, on its back, where the word “rat” is.

The story begins — When Billy came into science class one day, his teacher had put a dead rat on a scale and covered it with a bell jar. The scale read 7262.5 grams, the weight of the bell jar plus the rat. Billy’s teacher said, “This is part of a two week long experiment. Don’t touch the setup.” Then he taught something else.

The next day, things didn’t change. After the third day, the rat had started to swell up. (I didn’t take two weeks for this. The whole story took about fifteen minutes. At this point I erased and redrew the rat with a distended belly.)

By Friday, the rat was huge, and it was all Billy could do to keep from lifting the bell jar and poking it. But he didn’t. Even though the rat was huge, the scale still said 7262.5 grams.

Over the weekend, the rat blew up. When Billy came in on Monday, there was nothing left but a skeleton wrapped in a busted skin, with a few oozing guts. The air around the rat was kind of brown and the scale still said 7262.5 grams

(At this point I had redrawn the rat to match the description. This was also the point when I elicited from my students just what was happening and why the scale still read the same.)

Billy just didn’t get it. He couldn’t understand why the scale stayed the same when the rat was reduced to almost nothing. His teacher had explained that the rat’s mass had been converted to gasses which were trapped in the bell jar. Since the gasses could not escape, the scale had no reason to change.

Billy didn’t believe it. It had to be a trick. While his teacher was across the room, helping one of his fellow students, Billy slipped up to the teacher’s desk, took hold of the bell jar, tipped it back . . .

There was a pop and a hiss as the bell jar came unstuck. The scale dropped to 6571.3 grams. The students in the room screamed, leaped up holding their noses and yelling at Billy, and ran for the back of the room . . .

You get the point. They got the point. And we had a lot of fun besides.

308. All I Really Need to Know

dscn4338All I Really Need to Know I Learned in Kindergarten

All I Really Need to Know I Learned from my Dogs

Please don’t throw rocks at me, but that kind of prissy, perfect, and pretentious tag line activates my gag reflex. Let me suggest a different, more realistic take on life.

Everything I need to know, I learned in the dairy barn.

I’m not talking about a modern milk factory, but a real, old fashioned 1950s kind of dairy. To find one today, you’d have to go to a third world country.

You’ve all seen milk and yoghurt ads showing perfectly clean, starkly black and white Holsteins standing knee deep in green, green grass. Erase that picture from your mind. It never happened.

Holstein calves come out of the womb clean, but from three days after birth they will never be black and white again. They are brown to the knees from the dust and dirt – and other things – that boil up when they walk. Their tails become a black club of matted cockle burs – and that other thing.

The grass in the ads looks so perfect because no creature is allowed to graze there before the ad is shot. Turn a herd of cattle out and in four days it will be matted, scarred, pockmarked with hoofprints, and covered with steaming piles of the fertilizer which completes the circle of life.

No complaints, you understand. A herd of cattle on a green meadow is beautiful, but the grass will be eaten down, and the ground itself will look like a billion angry golfers have been making divots. It will be nothing like pristine.

It all comes down, finally, to this. Cows produce three things. One is a clear, yellow, somewhat odorous liquid, which they produce in copious volumes. One is a brown to green semi-solid, and they produce mountains of this. One is the thick, white liquid that feeds the nation.

You can’t get the one you want, until you figure out how to handle the other two.

Just like life.

249. The Presidency That Wasn’t

Greetings, my fellow Americans. This is the first time in my life that America has gone to the polls with so little to hope for and so much to fear.

On February 29 of this year I wrote a silly story about a child born on Leap Day. I repeated it, in longer form, on July 6. As the Presidential campaign degenerated, the story haunted me with a view of a lighter and better version of things. I had written the end of the story first; now I felt impelled to go back and fill in the beginning and the middle over a number of posts spaced out through the summer and autumn. If you want to see them, check out the tag cloud for Leap.

Today is the big day, the day of Leap’s fate and unwanted triumph. I can’t leave him hanging. I have to tell the ending again, somewhat abbreviated, this time. I owe him that much, after all I’ve put him through in his alternate America.

********

In 1952 a boy was born on Leap Day. His Dad was named Alan Hed, and he wanted to give his son the same name, but his wife had a quirky sense of humor. She named him Leap Alan Hed, and all his childhood acquaintances called him Leap A. Hed.

The teasing drove him to a foolish act. Leap began to count his age by Leap-day-birthdays. When he was sixteen, he started putting his age down as four. He spent a lot of time talking to the principal about that, until the school finally got tired of the whole business.

The draft board wasn’t amused when he turned eighteen and still claimed to be four, but when the 1969 draft lottery gave him draft number 285, they stopped worrying.

Leap never married (he claimed he was too young) and the IRS was indulgent. They figured he would regret his claims when he wasn’t eligible for Social Security until he was 260 years old.

Leap eventually put that nonsense behind him, but not soon enough. Billy Joe Barker, a newspaper columnist, heard about him and touted him as a write-in candidate for President in 2016. It started as a joke, but it caught fire. If you’ve read any recent posts, you know the details.

Donald Trump denounced him. Nothing new there. Donald denounces everybody.

********

Unfortunately, some jokes get out of hand.

When the polls opened, well over a hundred million people wrote in Leap Alan Hed, each thinking he was the only person in America who would do so. It brought a landslide in both the popular vote and the electoral college.

Weren’t the voters surprised? And wasn’t Leap terrified? He headed for Canada – he had camped near the border the night before just in case – and sought asylum. The Canadians didn’t want any part of the controversy. They wouldn’t let him in.

Leap thought about moving to another country, but there wasn’t anywhere else he wanted to live. And there probably wasn’t any country that would take him. Except Russia, and he was no Snowden. Or Manafort.

He decided to just disappear, and he did. I don’t know where he went; he didn’t tell me. Geraldo claimed to know, but that turned out to be a bluff. Somebody said that he crossed the Canadian border and was heading north, following a compass, but everybody knows you can’t walk to the North Pole now that the ice caps have melted. Probably looking for a Fortress of Solitude, and you can’t blame him.

All those people who voted for Leap are now wringing their hands and wondering what is going to happen next. They never thought he would win. They never thought he would run to Canada like a modern day Draft Dodger. Which, essentially, is what he is — drafted to be President, and scared out of his wits.

Hillary has been very quiet about it all. She hopes to win in the House if they can find Leap, and get him to resign. But it’s problematical. Only fourteen Democrats and eleven Republicans were elected to the new Congress. Aside from a few Libs and Greenies, the rest are all newly elected Independents, sent by a disgusted America.

Bernie is smiling.

Donald claims he will still win, and when he does, he plans to invade Canada.

Hillary is biding her time.

********

Okay, folks, it’s been a long time since February, and Leap’s story is now over. But wouldn’t the wait for tonight’s election results be less dreary if you had written him in?

248. The Last Leap

For the rest of Leap Alan Hed’s story, check out the tag cloud for Leap.

It was late. The sun had already set and with its passing, the chill of a November evening had set in hard. Leap Alan Hed – calling himself Joe and hoping that none of his homeless companions around the fire would recognize him – pulled his coat closer around his shoulders and stretched his hands out to the fire.

It was a vain hope. The press had hounded him out of his home in Dannebrog, and hounded him half way across America and back again. His picture had been spread across the country in countless newspapers and television broadcasts.

One of his companions said, “Joe,” and his tone said that he knew the real name behind the nom de flight, “tomorrow is the big day. What do you think will happen?”

Leap said, “I don’t know. They won’t vote for me. They aren’t that stupid, no matter how frustrated they have become. They will vote for Hillary and God knows what that will mean. Or maybe even He doesn’t know. Or they will vote for Donald, and everybody knows what that will mean.

“In a few days, or maybe a few weeks, I’ll be able to surface again and get back something like a life of my own. I just hope there’s a country for me to go back to.”

His companion shrugged, and said, “I don’t have a life to go back to. I haven’t had anything like a life in years. I can’t vote for you, or anybody else. You have to have an address to register to vote and I haven’t had an address in years. But I would vote for you.”

“Why, for God’s sake? Why?”

“Because you aren’t him and you aren’t her, and anybody else is better. Somebody has to do the job. At least you don’t want it, and that means something.”

“If nominated, I won’t run. If elected, I won’t serve.”

“I don’t think so. I think you would come out of hiding and do your duty.”

Leap shook his head, and just said, “No.”

“Its going to be Donald or Hillary or you,” the other said.

Leap sighed. He said, “No good can come of this.”

***************

GOOD LUCK, AMERICA.