[Image: schematic of a "Rube Goldberg" solution to the challenge of waking up a laptop, by a fifth-grade physical science project team. For details, see the note at the bottom of this post.]
When I was a kid, one of the things which could — without fail! — get all of us laughing was for somebody to go all suddenly and unintentionally tongue-tied. Mung-tongued, we called it. In a little one of his stand-up bits, Steve Martin asked the audience rhetorically something like this: Are you ever talking along and all of a sudden your tongue gets away from you and ywannguhmelizzorwhat? (I laughed at that, too.)
But you know what? The tongue finds lots of company among the other muscles.
Like most people who read, even most casual readers, I like to read things which make me laugh. I have two sorts of laughing responses to books, stories, magazine articles and interviews, and blog posts:
- Get-a-load-of-this laughter: something will strike me funny and I might do one of those spit-take things, or maybe just chuckle. And if someone is sitting beside me, I might say something like, Got a second? I have to share this with you…
- Rolling, unstoppable laughter: much rarer, hence purer, this laughter is more likely to cause someone nearby to ask me, What the heck are you reading, anyhow?!
The second kind doesn’t hit me much anymore, but when I was younger a handful of writers could induce it in me almost without even trying (or so I imagined: what a maroon) — James Thurber, Ian Frazier, Fran Lebowitz, and Roy Blount Jr., among them.
One of Blount’s pieces I have never forgotten. It first appeared in Esquire under the title, “Sticking With Your Local Merchant,” and was reprinted in his 1998 anthology Crackers as “Things in the Wrong Hands”: an essay on the evil wonders of modern technology. In it, Blount (famously a Deep South native) says that he came across an “old boy in New York City” who proceeded to go off on a rant, a portion of which goes like this:
This Wonder Glue they got out now. One drop of it holding the cowboy hat to this like overhanging tree limb, on the commercial, you’ve seen it, another drop the hat to the cowboy, you haven’t seen it? Yeah, another drop cowboy the saddle, another drop saddle the horse, horse is up off the ground! It’s outrageous man. And is the horse pissed! You know, trying to buck, kicking, catching just a little dirt with his hooves when he reaches way down, hey, this commercial is out there. This is not this little sentimental, you know, group of close friends at the beach enjoying a certain prestige brand of brew together — this is, you have to admit, it’s some hairy television. I mean — and the cowboy, he’s feeling pressure, you know. Waving his arms, whoopeeing for a while, but yeah, and then you see his lips going, Hey, Awright, How Much Longer, you know…
I mean, so sue this glue. It could care less! It just happens to be very good at its job.
So — and what I can’t figure, how do they make this glue? I mean guys at the plant must be stuck to the walls, you know, and there’s shoes stuck all over the floor people had to abandon them, gloves stuck to handles and then other gloves stuck to those gloves, guys are running along behind the delivery trucks yelling Stop! Slow down! glued to the tailgate…
(And so on. Thanks to the Internets, you can read the whole essay on Google Books.)
I don’t know what exactly sent me over the edge in that passage. Part of my response, no doubt, came from the lunatic run-on and sentence-fragmented rhythm — a wonderful example of dialogue, dialect, voice and hence personality, y’know? I could almost see myself in Blount’s position, cornered and practically steam-rollered by this guy’s one-sided, semi-outraged awe. And part of my response originated in the extremes which the guy imagines: it’s not so much a reductio ad absurdum as an expansio ad absurdum — a hyper-inflation of a crazy little bead of incongruity.
On reflection, though, I think my response came mainly from recognition. I’d not just seen the hapless people in this passage; I’d been one of them. Not with Wonder Glue, thank the gods, but oh yeah — I knew their pain and embarrassment, all right.
The Missus and I, equally alert to the prospect of calamity, are nonetheless alert to two very different types of calamity. Consider, for example, the respective scenarios we imagined when a two-and-a-half-pound dog first entered our lives:
For her part, The Missus went around the house removing all the heavy bookends from all the bookshelves. (Given their function, as you can imagine, this pretty much meant all bookends.) Why? Because she just knew that at some point, one of the granite or solid-metal objects would fall onto The Pooch — rendering us instantly Pooch-less.
As for me: at night, when the lights were low, I took to shuffling about from room to room without lifting my socked feet. Why? Well, I wasn’t exactly worried about stepping on The Pooch (although this is how I continue to present it to The Missus). More likely, it seemed (seems) to me, I’d step on something innocuous. A nickel, say. Not quite consciously, I’d shift my foot ever so slightly. The faint redistribution of my weight would be just enough to send me slipping off the small area rug on the tiled floor six inches above our sunken living room. My not-yet-altogether-aware sense of balance would panic, thinking it was actually slipping off the edge of the tiled floor. It would overcompensate, whereupon I would indeed slip off the edge of the tiled floor. I’d land on the side of that foot, instead of the sole, and I’d turn my ankle, and I’d more than likely say something like owowowshitohgoddammitOW and take two or three short one-footed hops before falling against the back of The Missus’s armchair. She of course would be only vaguely aware of the chaos burgeoning behind her; startled, she’d say something like jeezuschristjohn! (we swear a lot when we’re by ourselves), and the Pinot-Grigio-full wineglass in her left hand would just slightly miss the coaster on the end table. Because I pride myself on noticing such things, I’d see the impendingness of the wine spill, and would lunge over The Missus’s head to grab the stem of the glass. To be precise, I’d over-lunge, and as I righted myself the rim of the glass would strike the underside of the lampshade, and the lamp would fall over, and because the lamp is plugged into an extension cord which it shares with another lamp down at the far end of the sofa, that lamp, too, would start to fall. But it would not fall on The Pooch, oh no. Nothing that simple. Instead, it would fall onto a small glass dish on its own end table — a dish in which collect odd bits and pieces of life like pennies, and breath mints, and keys to doors which we no longer have. The dish, too, would not fall onto The Pooch. No: sleeping at the foot of that end table, she would instead be startled awake from a hailstorm of small hard man-made objects. She’d jump to her feet, her mouth would fly open, and into her startled maw would bounce some damned thing or another — a button, a coin, a wingnut, a hardened ball of chewing gum in a foil wrapper which I’d been meaning to throw out since 2010 — and she would begin to cough, violently. She wouldn’t suffer any lasting damage, of course (although it would take a frightening late-night high-speed drive to the emergency veterinary clinic to convince us). But we’d still have to clean up the two broken lamps, the broken wineglass, the red wine, the shattered odds-n-ends dish, the laptop mouse which jumped out of The Missus’s other hand when I startled her, and yes, that goddam nickel.
See? Mung-bodied. I know this.
About the image: I found this charming drawing at a Web site used in 2012 by fifth-grade students of a physical science class, who’d apparently been given an assignment to “wake up a laptop” using some Rube Goldberg-type construction which demonstrated the conversion of potential energy to kinetic energy and back again. According to the caption which accompanied it, here are the steps involved (sic throughout, not that it’s important):
A: you hit the switch that knocks a domino down to start the track potential-kinetic
B: the dominoes go up the stairs then back down the stairs potential to kinetic
C: the dominoes curve around goes up the stairs and back down kinetic to greater kinetic to lower kinetic to higher kinetic
D: the dominoes curve around kinetic to lower kinetic
E: the dominoes go straight then up the stairs and stops kinetic to potential
F: the ball is hit by the dominoes the ball [rolls d?]own a ramp and hits more dominoes and then the ball stops potential to kinetic to potential
G: the dominoes hit the circle which makes the dominoes stop the circle then trigger the other dominoes kinetic to potential to kinetic
H: the dominoes then go and hit a trigger to trigger the marble kinetic to potential to kinetic
I: the rocket is then shot off by a marble hitting a trigger on the bottom of the station to make the rocket fly potential to kinetic
J: the rocket hits the computer that is a sleep and turns it on kinetic to potential to kinetic
I love about this solution the sudden emergence of steps I and J, after a yadda-yadda-yadda, almost sleep-inducing series of domino-tumblings and ball-rollings. The latter elements appeared in all project teams’ solutions, but this team tied the whole thing off with a nice explosive damn-the-laptop bang. I sort of hope but do not know if they ever actually built it.