You Had to Be There

An occasional journal of sorts, by a Jonathan Caws-Elwitt of sorts.


Introductory Note:

In inaugurating this page in 2005, I stacked the deck by assembling material I’d written in old e-mails and mailing-list/newsgroup posts that I thought would fit in here. Dates are approximate in some cases; and in preparing entries for this Web presence, I have sometimes reedited a bit for improved style and augmented wit (in either the narrative voice or the quoted dialogue), as well as for out-of-context relevance and clarity—and also to serve my judgments as to which parts of the original text are not interesting enough to appear even here. Those entries that are anecdotes sometimes show poetic license not only in terms of the exact wording of the dialogue but also in terms of the exact sequence of events. The incidents are, however, substantially real.

But enough disclaimers. I hereby disclaim any further disclaimers.

Jump to most recent entries


May 1995
We drove by an establishment called Herring Run Service Station. "Humans welcome," I inferred.


November 1995
Postmodern fiction gimmick #835: I envision a novel, set in an office, which is printed on loose sheets of 8 1/2 x 11 "memo" paper, with each chapter in a separate manila folder. Footnotes could be on Post-Its. The whole thing is (not) bound in a big green Pendaflex hanging file folder.


Undated, ca. 1996
Why someone inevitably makes every overly-obvious joke in the workplace:
Let's say that Employee A hears a straight line which immediately suggests a corny reply. Employee B is also in the office and thinks of the same corny reply. The optimal outcome for all concerned would be if no one made the corny joke. But Employee A is afraid that if she doesn't make the joke, then Employee B will make it, which is Employee A's least ideal outcome—i.e. to go to the effort of exercising her self-restraint, only to hear someone else make the joke she's resisted. Likewise, Employee B is afraid that if he doesn't make the joke, then Employee A will. So the inevitable outcome is that one or both of them makes the joke as quickly as possible.


January 1996
Woke up with a nauseating vision: Somewhere in the first moments of morning consciousness, I had imagined a new chain of middlebrow cappuccino bars called "Cappucci-YES!"


May 1996
Oohs and Ahhs and ...
Ever thought about how "ooh" and "aah" are ubiquitous backing vocal phonemes, but "ayy" and "eee" and short "a" (as in "hat") are rarely if ever heard? If you want to entertain yourself during a commute, try imagining '50s or '60s pop songs with some of these "alternate vowel sound" backing vocals. One particularly appealing image for me is a chorus of Fonzies singing "ayyy"s behind "Don't Worry Baby."


September 1996
Just a thought on the common observation that doing somebody else's chores is more fun than doing your own. My brainstorm is that all we have to do, in order to maintain an enthusiastic motivation for keeping on top of our chores, is constantly shuffle the distribution of these chores so that we're never doing our own. E.g. I'm supposed to do the dishes and Hilary is supposed to take out the garbage, so instead I cheerfully do H's chore by taking out the garbage when I'm "really supposed to be" doing the dishes. And vice versa. We do it this way a couple of times, until the garbage is now clearly my job, and the dishes hers, at which point we reverse it all again, with me doing "Hilary's" chore (the dishes) while escaping from doing "my" job with the garbage, which she is happily doing.

Postscript, 2005:
Similarly, a good way to motivate yourself to do the dishes is by identifying something you want to do even less—such as cleaning the bathroom—and then doing chore #1 (the dishes) as a way of avoiding chore #2 (the bathroom).


April 1997
Hilary is eating a breakfast cereal entitled "Figs & Filberts." That would make a good expression, don't you think? E.g:
"Let's get down to figs and filberts."
"I don't know my figs from my filberts."
"It's time to separate the figs from the filberts."
"Don't make a fig out of a filbert."


April 1997
I dreamt that I was entertaining some friends by demonstrating "struedel yodelling." I had a supply of small, cookie-sized apple struedels. I would pick each one up and deliver a yodel that corresponded to the shape of the struedel—i.e. an abbreviated, straight yodel for a short, straight struedel; a more elaborate, embellished yodel for a struedel with a curl in the middle; etc. It was a realistic dream in the sense that this is something I could easily have done in waking life, had I stumbled upon the idea (and the struedels)—it's just a question of my subconscious having discovered it first.


April 1997
There's a strange clerk at the bank I use named Next Teller Please. He or she is always, it seems, away on break when I come in; all I see is the nameplate in front of her/his window. And what an unusual name! "Teller" is fairly pedestrian—a middle name that is presumably a family surname—but "Please" is new to me. As for the given name: one can only suppose that (s)he was called thus because of being the "next" child, or else by way of being named after some Next of kin.


July 1997
To entertain a co-worker at the bookstore, I claimed fictitiously to have just received a new book into stock called The Kama Sutra for Cats. "Are you serious?" she said. "Well, no, actually, I just made it up," I answered. "At least, as far as I know I made it up," I qualified, and I dashed to the microfiche machine—which informed me that an actual The Kama Sutra for Cats had been published in 1993.


August 1997
At work we saw an ad in the paper for an "Open House" at a naturist (i.e. "nudist") camp in this area. One of my co-workers, scanning the items on the program, remarked "Oh, it includes a pancake breakfast."

"Things could get sticky," I quipped.


September 1997
At the bookstore where I work, a customer raised a question about whether the CD that comes with her French textbook is any different from the version that comes on cassette.

The real answer was "presumably not." But what I really wanted to say was that the CD has a "bonus track," to wit an "alternate mix" of the dialogue between "Jean" and "Maman" (about Jean asking permission to play with "Marie" after school), in which there's an extra paragraph spoken by Maman—which does not appear in the standard version—during which Maman explains the necessity of Jean stopping by the patisserie on his way home from Marie's house. I further wished to claim that there is more stereo separation in this version, with Jean's voice in one speaker and Maman's in the other. And that the CD was entirely remixed by the original Parisian producer of the cassette, and has a superior sound quality (you can really hear the tickets tearing during the "Marguerite et Gilles au cinéma" conversation).


November 1997
At work, we were trying to track down a supplier for a particularly capable type of stapler. Alas, Bostich no longer makes it, but they told us there's a very similar model now available. "The only thing it won't do is tacking," they cautioned.

When the manager relayed this information to me, I gave my best Yiddish shrug. "So listen," I said. "Who needs to tack? What am I, some kind of bigshot now, I should be tacking all the time?"


Undated, ca. 1998
According to Brewer's 20th Century Phrase and Fable, melba toast is, "according to tradition ... named after the Australian opera singer Dame Nellie Melba. While staying at the Savoy Hotel in London she was served dried-up fragile slices of toast that had been left too long in the oven. When the maitre d'hotel apologized she cut him short, protesting how delicious it was."

I was ready to believe this. But then, I stumbled upon the entry for "peach melba" in the same reference book:

"A dessert consisting of half a cooked peach containing vanilla ice cream with a clear raspberry sauce (Melba sauce) poured over it. It is named after the Australian soprano Dame Nellie Melba."

Oh, really? And I suppose the chef had accidentally poured the raspberry sauce over the ice cream, which had in turn been accidentally spilled on the peach half?


January 1998
I have learned that some parts of the English-speaking world call second-hand merchandise stores "opportunity shops." So now I wonder if there are also "opportunity lost-and-founds" for missed opportunities.


April 1998
Someone at our local bank (I think it was Next Teller Please) told our staff that now that U.S. $100 bills have a much bigger picture of Benjamin Franklin's face than they used to, the consumer can no longer draw spectacles on Franklin without making a bank obligated to take the bill out of circulation when it comes across their counter. Previously, since the picture was smaller, the retro-fitted after-market specs favored by some currency handlers were usually small enough to qualify as "acceptable" stray markings in the far-sighted eyes of the bank (unless of course one had given old Ben oversized "Elton John" glasses).


April 1998
I was at a convenience store along an interstate highway, within which was a large hand-painted (and well-executed) "Goofy" on an otherwise -empty wall. Goofy has a speech balloon, which reads:

WHAT'S UP DOC?

Postscript, 2005:
I subsequently observed them to offer mustard out of a huge receptacle labelled "Heinz Ketchup."


May 1998
The quote on the blackboard at the bookstore coffee bar currently reads:

A book should be a ball of light in your hand.

Needing new glasses, I initially thought it said "A book should be a ball of lint in your mind."


May 1998
At the bookstore where I work, I was looking at the returns policy of a particular publisher. The guidebook stated that this publisher's merchandise is basically sold on a non-returnable basis. "Returns are accepted only in unusual cases," the book added. I smiled as I imagined the hat-boxes, valises, cello cases and other "unusual cases" in which one could package books for return to this company, which evidently eschews the standard corrugated cardboard box.


June 1998
I saw a sign outside a jeweler's that read "Watch Batteries While You Wait." I thought it was nice of them to offer this diversion to customers waiting for service, but I was a little puzzled as to the attraction of watching batteries.


June 1998
In Arizona, there is a place called Grand Canyon University. Hilary and I were discussing it, and we concluded that this venerable institution must accept only a very, very small number of degree candidates, as there is such a limited number of positions out there for qualified Grand Canyons—among other reasons, because incumbent G.C.'s are usually reluctant to retire, holding their posts for many, many years.


September 1998
I've heard of dressing on a sandwich ... but dressing as a sandwich?

I was walking through a shopping center, and I heard what I thought were two teenage girls behind me saying something about a Big Mac. From what I caught filtering through the ambient noise, it sort of sounded like one of them was planning to be a Big Mac, but I figured I couldn't be hearing that correctly.

Then they passed me, and I got a clear view of them. They were younger than I'd thought, no older than 12. I also now heard a snippet of their conversation loudly and clearly. I should at this point add the relevant details that the owner of the voice I'd primarily been hearing was a skinny blonde girl; her companion had dark hair and was physically more substantial.

What Girl #1 was actually saying to Girl #2 was:

"Are you serious, you wanna be a Big Mac for Halloween? Are you serious, you want me to be the french fries?"

The girl with the "french-fry" physique, who was clearly excited about the whole thing, then did a little impromptu impression of herself in the role of a carton of fries as she continued to walk along the mall with her friend.


Undated 1998
Since I live in Pennsylvania and work across the border in New York State, I have "automatic direct deposit with drawl." The way this works is that when I leave work, the N.Y. accent I've been using all day is deposited at the border, where it is automatically converted to a PA drawl at the current daily rate of exchange. Sometimes I lose a few vowels in the transaction, sometimes I gain.


March 1999
Culinary Missed Conception
When a friend remarked over lunch that a piece of bean sprout she noticed floating in her hot-and-sour soup especially resembled a sperm, what could I do but answer that this particular sprout had presumably been added to the wrong pot—as it was obviously intended for the egg drop soup.


April 1999
Unintentional Wit Dept: A furniture store salesperson told us that her store doesn't stock settees because when they do they tend to "just sit there." In other news, someone recently explained that she opts not to take the "early train" because it's often late.

Afterthought, 2005:
It is of course possible that any particular example of "unintentional wit" of this kind is actually the result of intentional wit by the speaker's subconscious, in which case hats off.


June 1999
As I wheeled a cart of textbooks across the sales floor, I noticed that the casters on my book cart were coming loose. I mentioned this to my co-worker. "I'll take care of that," she said. She walked briskly behind the counter and, with an air of great efficiency, she fished out some supplies. A few moments later, she joined me at the spot where I had parked my load of books. I stood aside, and she ... taped a hand-lettered sign to the cart that read, "WHEELS FALL OFF."


December 1999
Type Talk
HILARY: Did you know that Mark Twain was among the first authors to write on the typewriter?
JONATHAN: You mean, "History of the Typewriter, by Mark Twain"?
HILARY: No, I mean he was among the first to write with a typewriter.
JONATHAN: Oh! You mean, "History of the Typewriter, by Mark Twain and Olive Etti."


January 2000
My co-worker looked out the window at a maintenance vehicle and said, "I wonder what they're doing with that cherry-picker across the street."

Unable to resist the obvious reply, I said "Picking cherries?"

"Unlikely," my friend said, "Since there are no trees of any kind on this block."

"Well, they could be pretending," I stubbornly suggested.

"You mean like mime?" another employee chimed in.

"But there's not even anybody in the basket," said Co-Worker #1.

"Well, if they're picking imaginary cherries from a nonexistent tree, then they don't really need anyone in the basket," I reasoned.

We realized at this point that we had hit upon a new concept: "Mimeless Mime," in which the very presence of the mime is being mimed.


January 2000
A co-worker and I were grumbling about some irritating office phenomenon that wastes a little bit of our time every day. I estimated that it wasted an average of 5 seconds of my workday. Laughing at this tiny figure, we proceeded to explore, via a series of calculations, how this wasted time would accrue over a week, a year, a career ... Unfortunately, somewhere in the middle of all the multiplying and dividing, we lost track of exactly what "x" we were solving for and what our answer—28,571—actually represented. It sure seemed like a good answer, though. When another co-worker walked into the room, I promptly informed her that we had just determined that it would take 28,571 undefined units to describe a forgotten scenario. "That sounds about right," she said without missing a beat.


January 2000
I was phoning in a book order at work. The person taking the order had that annoying "sales culture" habit of using my given name frequently:

"How are you today, Jonathan?"

"Fine thanks, and you?"

"Doing great. What's your account number, Jonathan?"

"XXXXX-XXX."

"And what would you like to order today, Jonathan?"

"Quantity 2 of X-XXX-XXXXX-X, please."

"That's available. Anything else, Jonathan?"

"No thanks, that's it."

"Okay. [Reading the screen.] Your order number is XXXXX. I need your phone number, Jonathan."

"It's (XXX) XXX-XXXX."

"Thanks, Jonathan. [Tabbing down to fill in the required fields.] And I just need your name."


March 2000
In our area there is a locally-owned restaurant called Freschott Pizza. Their motto reads "Freschott Pizza is fresh, hot pizza!" Is it any wonder that they've succeeded where their rivals, the Coltsdale family, have not?


May 2000
A former co-worker is about to have a baby, and a current co-worker has been asked for the loan of a bassinet.

"That's nice of you," I commented. "But what do they want with a soprano-range bassoon at a time like this?"

"That's not what a bassinet is," I was informed.

"Oh! Of course," I said. "How silly of me. But isn't this sort of an odd moment for them to decide to entertain a basset hound puppy?"


May 2000
"Ice Cream is Open," reads the sign outside a country shop/restaurant I recently passed. Good thing, too, since that closed ice cream is rather difficult to eat.

Upon reflection, I think it was a rather elaborate attempt by one of the family members who run the shop to remind another family member to re-seal the ice cream and put it back in the freezer. You know how people are—sometimes they'd rather run outside and change the letters on the big, public sign than just speak directly to one another.


July 2000
I've coined a term for a nickname-upon-a-nickname. (E.g. "Johnnycakes" is a nickname for "Johnny," which is in itself a nickname for John.) I call it the "double sobriquet."


July 2000
At the bookstore, a customer phoned in to order a book that teaches one all about how to be a taxi driver. He emphasized that he needed the book in a hurry. I couldn't help wondering if he had a fare waiting.


August 2000
Someone in a newsgroup mentioned a periodical called The Cross Stitcher. Is this a magazine for men who sew women's clothes, and vice versa? Or a publication devoted to vexed sailmakers?


November 2000
I attempted to entertain a co-worker by manipulating the lid of our coffee carafe to make it look like the coffee pot was talking to her. Unfortunately, this particular piece of equipment did not cooperate satisfactorily with the attempted maneuver. I would have thought that all coffee makers on the market today would be "ventriloquist compliant"!


November 2000
"How are you on this Monday morning?" my friend the bank teller asked me.

"Oh, I'm hanging in there," I replied predictably.

"Hanging in there?" she responded, feigning confusion.

"I'm sorry—I meant to say that I'm hanging out here," I explained. "I'm not very good with words on Monday mornings."

"You're not?"

"No," I admitted. "I find myself distinctly inarticulate, lacking in the customary facility and flexibility of expression that more typically characterize my discourse."


December 2000
A friend at work has been promoted to "Buyer" status. This means that she can now tell customers "I don't have that in stock" instead of "We don't have that in stock."


March 2001
My co-worker had a customer on hold while she looked up some information. But when she went back to the phone, there was no one there.

"I lost her," my friend commented.

"Did you look under the sofa cushions?" I asked helpfully. I quickly explained, though, that I knew that really when one "loses" a party on the phone, it actually has to do with complicated, remote telecommunications connections, and that it's not just as simple as looking under the sofa cushions.

"So what you really need to do," I acknowledged, "is call the phone company ... and ask them to look under their sofa cushions."


March 2001
Tip of the day: While interacting with a friend, co-worker, or family member, pretend to chew gum when you're not actually chewing gum.


September 2001
Hilary and I were looking at a catalog of kitchen furnishings. One series of interiors featured "Victoria" cabinets. This was explained by means of the following caption:

All photos: Victoria in chocolate glaze finish

"She must have found it difficult to operate the shutter," Hilary commented.


January 2002
I happened to hear one of my co-workers on the phone, asking her husband if the delivery person who had dropped off such and such parcel was their usual UPS driver. "Was it a man about my height who looks like Mickey Mouse?" she prompted, with no hint of levity in her voice.

I find it is far too easy to envision, not Mickey Mouse, but Goofy in a UPS uniform, and I entertained my co-workers by acting out my conceptualization of one of those animated Goofy films written on this theme. The climax was the bit about Goofy, unheedful of the narrator's advice, stacking up one package too many:

"Ahyup, don't worry, I got it, ahyuh-huh?wha?whoops-whoa! ..."


March 2002
I'm All Set, You're All Set
In the retail world, if a clerk approaches a customer on the sales floor and asks if she needs help finding something, she may reply that she is "all set," meaning that she does not require assistance. But when a customer approaches the check-out counter and the clerk asks him if he is "all set," an answer in the affirmative now means he is ready to be waited on (i.e. rung out). But let's suppose now that this customer lingers by the counter after the transaction has been completed (looking at bookmarks or something), and the clerk walks away to tend to other business. If a different clerk now approaches, wondering whether or not the customer's purchase has been rung through yet, the customer may be asked if he is waiting to be checked out, or if (the contrasting possibility) he is "all set" (i.e. business already completed). In other words, the overextended expression here flips back to indicating a state of not requiring a retail clerk's attention.


May 2002
We recently acquired an outdoor banner for our bookstore, to advertise the fact that we wish to purchase used college coursebooks from our student customer base. We chose to compose the banner as "We Buy Used Texts," because this was less likely to result in our being deluged with community members and their cartons full of old encyclopedias, Grandma's Reader's Digest condensed book collections, etc., than would "We Buy Used Books." I designed the sign in all-caps Impact, adjusting the font's proportions to make it slightly more "tall and thin" than it already is, in order to optimize my use of the available space without abandoning legibility. Or so I thought.

A few days later, an older gentleman walked in. "I see someone's got a sign out there saying they buy used tents ... " he began. I don't know if he had the tent with him.


June 2002
In the course of playing Dictionary, we've learned that "kompology" is braggadocio, and that "malar" is an adjective that means "pertaining to the cheek." I can't help wondering how much malar discourse the average person could be capable of ... I mean, how much is there really to say about the cheek, without getting technical? Meanwhile, though I claimed "fubsy" to be a nickname for a fictitious cousin Fubswell, it is in fact an adjective meaning "short and stout" (which describes Fubswell perfectly).


July 2002
Someone told me that the new Vanilla Coke is "smoother" than ordinary Coke, and he elaborated by saying that it has a "nice edge" to it. He did not seem aware of the paradoxical relationship between these twin claims.


August 2002
The latest memo from corporate headquarters appears to have been composed by a Faulkner imitator:

"As of now all of the stores when ordering need to set up a new ship to address unless they tell you that your ship to address links to the corporate account make sure to double check that it links to the corporate account."


August 2002
I declined to join my relatives in their visit to the Joseph Priestley house in Northumberland, PA. Though I like oxygen and use it daily, I don't feel the need to tour the home of its discoverer.


September 2002
Amazingly, I cannot locate for purchase any hard-plastic business-card carrying cases in translucent "iMac" colors. I can't help but feel that I am being unreasonably denied something to which I am entitled as a modern consumer.


October 2002
I walked into a ladies' pajama shop on the Mall at Cape May because their sign advertised "P.J.'s and Jammies," and I wanted to know what, technically, was the difference. They were not particularly helpful in satisfying my layperson's curiosity in this regard. I hesitate to say it, but I suspect that they themselves, despite their insider experience, may have been unclear on the precise nuances of this terminology. They certainly seemed very eager to change the subject to things more along the lines of "Is there anything we can help you find today?" Call it the decline of America's oldest seaside resort, but I think there was a day when a pajama insider knew a thing or two.


October 2002
We spent my fortieth birthday at a resort. When I mentioned to the desk staff that it was my birthday, they offered me an "amenity" by way of congratulations—it was, specifically, a complimentary bottle of wine. But can one have just one "amenity"? The wine seemed all right, so maybe so. (The congratulations were definitely plural.)


October 2002
I heard about a plagiarism case regarding silence "composed" by John Cage. But I have to assume that Cage's classical silence was probably adapted from centuries-old, public-domain folkloric silence.


October 2002
I am trying to catch up on my electronic correspondence. But it keeps outrunning me, as it has no mass and thus no coefficient of friction.


November 2002
A political action newsletter informs me that, due to the recent deaths of two legislators known for their advocacy of progressive causes, "We will have to speak out even louder to fill their shoes ..."

If the goal is to fill the shoes of the deceased with carbon dioxide, it seems that this could be accomplished quite easily. The greater challenge, I'd say, would be to gauge when the shoes were actually full. Also, I am not sure that science would recognize the presumed correlation between volume (i.e. decibel level) and volume (i.e. space occupied by a gas).


December 2002
Someone I know expressed regret that he had to attend a couple of out-of-town meetings during the holiday season. He was glad, at least, that one of them was in Philadelphia, which is close to his home. He said it would have been substantially more inconvenient if, for example, "the Philadelphia meeting were in Boston." I assured him that the contingency of a Philadelphia meeting taking place in Boston was a remote one.


December 2002
I've just noticed, on a piece of letterhead, that a certain leading vendor of library-related services augments it logo with the following string:

Books * Supplies * Furniture * Automation

You know ... maybe I'm too fussy, but I would tend to shy away from automation retailers who place "automation" behind "furniture" in their list of specialties.

And why have they neglected to mention "Sundries"? If they're intent on doing things this way, I think they should follow through and revise as follows:

Books * Supplies * Furniture * Crushed Ice * Expired Film * Party Supplies * Pokemon Cards * Day-Old Bread * Passport Photos * Temporary Tattoos * Money Orders * Notions * Sundries * Automation
FALL BLOWOUT! UP TO 50% OFF ALL LAWN ORNAMENTS AND SUMMER DATABASES!!!


December 2002
A friend complains that, at a conference he recently attended, none of his session broke up into small groups, while a colleague of his told him that all of her sessions broke up into small groups. This makes me wonder if I've been wrong in assuming that someone organizing such meetings actually controls whether or not a given session will break up into small groups. Perhaps it's just a spontaneous, natural occurrence, which will happen or not happen depending on atmospheric conditions and so forth.


December 2002
Neil Simon's million-dollar formula:
Neurosis = Comedy

Woody Allen's million-dollar formula:
My Neurosis = Comedy


Undated, ca. 2003
We can't find our bottle of "Rust Be Gone." I guess someone must have opened a bottle of "Rust Be Gone Be Gone."


March 2003
I never before realized that one could substitute other terms for "man" in the expression "You're the man!" But today, in reply to a sardonic remark, I was told that "You're the wiseass." Not that it isn't true.


May 2003
The textbook store that employs me is part of a chain that works with a marketing company every semester. This company contracts with us to provide "giveaway" items during our rush times (start and end of semester). Usually it's a "sample pack" of health/beauty products—gender-specific, so that the guys get a box with guy stuff and the women get girly products. This semester, though, things have taken an odd turn. Instead of ceiling-high stacks of fat little male and female sample kits, we've been sent a slim carton of ... soap. "Anti-stress" aromatherapy soap envelopes, to be specific. And they're just for women—we were literally asked to sign an affidavit attesting that we would give these single-use soap bags to female college students.

So we're giving soap to young women, and that's it. No baseball cards or motor oil for the boys. The word "fetishistic" gets tossed around a lot these days, but I can't help feeling like our company's marketing-partner firm has been taken over by a Woody Allen character.


May 2003
Another Life Goal has been met! I made an entire road crew laugh.

When I saw an orange diamond sign that said "TREE WORK," I knew what I had to do. So I slowed down my car to pass the maintenance truck and made eye contact with the worker assigned to wave vehicles through. I rolled down my window.

"You know," I said, "the sign says 'Tree Work,' but it looks to me like you guys are doing all the work, and the trees aren't helping at all."


May 2003
Poker Face
Some of the textbooks we buy from students at the end of the semester have stray pieces of notepaper, syllabi, etc. between their pages—or occasionally something more interesting. Usually I find such an item as I flip through the book to check its condition before purchasing it, and I always offer it back to its owner.

This semester, while flipping through one book, I came upon a nine of clubs from a child's deck of cards. It was illustrated with some sort of generic cartoon pig. The card looked pretty silly, but I kept a straight face as I offered it, face up, to my customer. She accepted it back without comment.

I continued scanning her books into my computer, giving only a brief shake of the head to indicate mild chagrin. "I could've used that card last night," I remarked wistfully.


May 2003
I'm thinking of taking tap dance lessons. A friend who works as a part-time dance teacher recommends a school run by a "Miss Nancy."

"Hmm," I said. "I'm not sure I want to take dance lessons from someone whose first name is 'Miss'."

"I know what you mean," said my friend, "but it's sort of a dance thing."

I wasn't sure this was any consolation, but then I brightened. "Unless, of course, Miss Nancy is a puppet," I suggested. "That would be different."


May 2003
Inspired by that old expression "Let's get some light on the subject," used jocularly and in some cases habitually to mean "Let's switch on a light fixture," I have begun saying things like "Let's get some bread on the subject" (i.e. slice up the loaf that's just come out of the bread machine), "Let's get some wine on the subject" (i.e. uncork a bottle), etc. Since I find "Let's get some light on the subject" to be an overused, overly-facile attempt at cleverness, I'm not sure how to explain my unnecessary extrapolations.


June 2003
I have a decent command of basic French and know perfectly well that the word for pocket change is "de la monnaie." However, while trying to pay for a light lunch with a 50-Euro bill in Brussels, I got flustered and explained to the cashier, in French, that "If you can't take this large note then my wife has corners ['des coins']."


July 2003
At the bookstore, a contractor required a managerial signature to authorize some forthcoming work.

"Just put your John Henry right there," he malapropped.

So I grabbed a hammer from the tool chest and chiseled in my name.


July 2003
You Heard It Here First Dept: I hereby predict that some time in the next 10 years—thanks to technological advances and the youth culture's indisputable need to evolve—it will become fashionable for teenagers to dye their teeth fluorescent colors.


August 2003
A peculiarly-defective copy of Brave New World recently arrived from our distributor. The whole book (covers and pages) was cut at a drastically non-plumb angle, so that the book was a rhomboid solid, if you will, instead of a rectangular solid. It looked kind of cool, actually.

So I did what anybody would do—I slapped a sticker on it that said "Limited Edition—HARPERCOLLINS MODERNIST PAPERBOOKS." A similar sticker went on the back cover, where I also wrote in a price that was two dollars higher than the normal retail for this item. We put it on display.

A few days later, the manager asked me to remove it from display, because ... two different people had attempted to buy it! He had felt obliged to tell them that it was "just a joke"—and when they learned that it was a truly unique marketing presentation and not an officially sponsored "limited edition" of a couple thousand, they apparently lost interest. Personally, I would have just let the first customer make the purchase without tipping her/him off-- maybe I would have been "generous" and given a discount to bring it back to the real price. Ah, well. Some days it can be quite a thankless job being a crackpot genius, Diary!


September 2003
I heard about a menu that describes itself as "breakfast meets lunch." So, when breakfast meets lunch, what do they order? And, more importantly, who picks up the tab?


September 2003
A representative from a sticker company solicited us at work. His name? John Peel.

Postscript 2005:
Around that same time, I also spoke to a Ms. Moon who sold Earthlink service, and a Ms. Quail or Peacock or other avian who represented RoadRunner.


October 2003
A company memo states that our new gift cards are packaged in such a way as to be presented "in an attractive manor to the end consumer." Sounds expensive, doesn't it.


January 2004
At one end of the seesaw, we have certain "literary criticism" scholars who seem to teach classes in which no actual literature is read or discussed, the emphasis instead being on exploring a breed of metaphysics known as "literary theory." Meanwhile, we have an increasing number of published writers whose only writing seems to be about how they write, what it's like to be a writer, how to live the "writing life," etc. I think the bottom's going to fall out of this market.


January 2004
I have trouble keeping track of where "Generation X" ends and "Generation Y" begins, and it's only going to get worse. I wish they would start putting them on placemats, like they do with Year of the Monkey et al.


February 2004
During a bout of laryngitis, I had to transact some business at the bank. When the teller noticed that I was voice-impaired, she mentioned that "There's a lot of that going around."

"Yeah," I rasped. "But it's funny—nobody's talking about it."


February 2004
I think the National Weather Service has been farming their forecasts out to sportswriters:

"A fast moving ... and strengthening cold front will dive out of the Great Lakes tonight ... cross central New York and northeast Pennsylvania on Sunday ... and turn into a powerful storm system in the Canadian Maritimes by Monday Evening ...

"Snow will be hard pressed to accumulate during the day Sunday due to warm ground temperatures and marginally cold air temperatures."


February 2004
A sign in front of a house near here reads:

HORSE
555-5555

Hilary theorizes that the residents must have grown tired of constantly taking calls from the horse's friends on the family phone, and so they finally gave in and got the horse a separate line.


April 2004
You know it's 2004 when you stumble across a blog featuring the alleged conversation of two teddy bears speaking baby talk, and the page header reminds you that the content is somebody's "intellectual property."


May 2004
A customer wants us to order her a book entitled Remembering Jack. I was disappointed to learn that it's about JFK; I had taken it for a self-help tome for people with poor memories.


May 2004
From a menu:

"SEASON MENU—You can order this anytime but served by cold noodles."

Now that I'd like to see.


May 2004
You Heard It Here First Dept: I hereby predict that young people, at some future time, will begin wearing obvious toupees over their shaved heads. Can't you just taste the irony? Can't you just smell the kitsch?


July 2004
I'm placing a textbook order:

JC-E: That doesn't sound right to me. This is the Introductory Chemistry?
REP: That's correct.
JC-E: And it comes with a medical item?
REP: That's what it says—"Introductory Chemistry with CD and Pediatric Tables."
JC-E: Well, anyway ...
REP: But it looks like the Periodic Table is out of stock.
JC-E: Oh! Periodic Table. That makes more sense.
REP: [Dead air]
JC-E: You said "Pediatric Tables." That's why I was confused.
REP: [D]uh ...
JC-E: The Periodic Table is a chemistry reference. "Pediatric Tables" sounded like something for a doctor who treats children.
REP: I'm sorry. I have a cold.


August 2004
An artist friend of ours has some work in a "Rude and Bold Women" event, but she won't tell us whether she's "rude" or "bold" or both. (I assume by "rude" they mean sexually frank, and not just women who push ahead of you in line at the movies or comment loudly on someone else's ugly hat.)


November 2004
Headline for 2019: "Confusion Reigns at Nation's Colleges Due to Influx of Young Men Who Answer to Childhood Family Nickname of 'Buddy'."


December 2004
Hilary is turning 40, right on schedule after running a marathon and drafting a novel-length work. I remember my personal preparation for that big transition, when it was my turn: I methodically went bald, and I encouraged incoming undergraduates at the local university to begin looking young enough to be my children. And it worked!!!!


December 2004
Someone online comments about Garfield having lost its "edge." She must be referring to the edge on the lasagna.


December 2004
During my long telephone order with Random House, the rep informed me that a particular edition/translation of the Iliad was no longer available through them—that RH had lost the rights.

JC-E: Do you happen to know who acquired them?
REP: No. They may have reverted to the author.
JC-E: Ha! I doubt it—he's been dead for over 2500 years.
REP: Well, I mean it may have gone back to his agent.

Nice work if you can get it.


December 2004
A customer bought three phials of Liquid Paper (our entire stock, I believe), along with a couple of best-sellers.

"With all that Liquid Paper, I would have thought you'd be buying The Corrections," I quipped as I briskly took his money and ushered him out the door.


December 2004
A customer—so I thought—kept muttering something about Astoria at the ends of her sentences:

"If you had a 'small' in this sweatshirt, I would just buy that, and Astoria."

"This one will probably fit her just fine, and Astoria."

I finally caught on that she was saying "end of story."

Postscript 2005:
As a result of the above incident, I have acquired a habit of saying "and Astoria" myself to mean "end of story." This is particularly perverse because I never used to say "end of story" at all.


January 2005
Please note that all Lyotard books must be returned in postmodern condition.


January 2005
"No, sir, I'm quite certain that we don't have any books on vinegar."


January 2005
Swap Jobs Day?
On the way to work, I was listening to a dance hits radio station, and along came a cut by Paris Hilton (as identified by the visual interface on my satellite radio). I didn't know that she had "branched out" into music, and I was not expecting to like the track. Well, call me a sucker, but I actually did like it quite a bit, as a piece of pop music. Then, after it faded out, the DJ came on and disparaged it. How backwards is that!


February 2005
A student was shopping for a calendar. She was used to visiting our store only during the bustle of "textbook rush" at the beginning of the semester, and so she commented that "It's so weird to be in this place when there's nobody here." I duly explained that "There's nobody here most of the time. But most people are never here when there's nobody here—otherwise there wouldn't be 'nobody here'."


March 2005
A customer had just thrown a minor, unjustified tantrum, thereby engaging me in a pointless argument. As he walked back to his car with a hitherto-silent pre-teen daughter, I heard her pass judgment on the incident via a classic, disapproving "Daaaaaaaaaad!" I am definitely scoring that in my column.


April 2005
Seen in Toronto and environs:

1. A menu item entitled "Ancienne Mustard." (So would this be old mustard or former mustard, I wonder. Either way, I'm not ordering it.)
2. A helpful sign in an antique shop that read "Basement Downstairs."
3. A handmade sign by an eatery pointing to the "Pizza Entrance." (I imagine the pies rolling in through a special, narrow door.)
4. A warning sign alerting traffic to an "Unassumed Road." (This is what happens when mathematicians branch out into urban planning, I suppose.)
5. Okay ... there's this street in Toronto called Jane Street which has, presumably, been rendered sporadically difficult to get to lately because of construction. Which explains the message board we saw that proclaimed "ACCESS TO JANE OPEN TONIGHT."


April 2005
CUSTOMER: Do you have a book that will help me catch up on everything?


May 2005
Hilary brought to my attention a Beatrix Potter story in which it is revealed that a Mr. John Dormouse, proprietor of a candle business, responds to customer complaints by remaining under the covers and saying nothing but "very snug." Though I've never been very interested in Beatrix Potter, I am, as a bookstore employee, intrigued by the possibilities suggested by this particular scenario. Potter herself opines that this is "no way to carry on a retail business;" but I suspect that she hasn't actually tried it.


May 2005
One of the books we frequently stock at the textbook store is Dressing in Feathers by Bird. And recently, an instructor requisitioned Keeping Time by Walser.


May 2005
A co-worker and I were discussing the Food "Pyramid," which of course is really just a two-dimensional triangle. I said I supposed that one is to assume that the food groups represented by each two-dimensional band extend all the way through the three-dimensional pyramid that the illustration represents. But then I wondered if, in fact, there are other food groups around the back of the pyramid that we never see, as with the dark side of the moon. Finally, I speculated that there might be blocks of styrofoam in some slots back there, serving as placeholders until new food groups are discovered.


May 2005
Seen in guidelines for performers' publicity photos:

"All actors should include a resume with their headshot, some even do it on the very backside ..."

That would certainly get attention.


June 2005
A friend wrote us on Father's Day week with a good description of gift-giving culture gone over the edge. Though golf was a big theme, the nadir appeared to be entire sections of greetings cards "from" the household cat.

So I wondered if they now also make cards "from" familiar garden creatures, with whom Dad might engage in an ongoing cartoonish struggle regarding the protection of delicious vegetables. I think a thoughtful card from Mr. Mole or Mr. Groundhog might be appreciated. In my opinion, a friendly rivalry with a small furry animal over who gets the veggies resembles a sport more than golf does.


June 2005
Seen in the index of a catalog labelled "Office Product Essentials":
Shortbread Cookies


June 2005
Form Over Function Dept: A trucking company gave me a promotional deck of playing cards when they delivered a parcel. Hilary notices that the deck is designed with the firm's ever-so-handsome logo centered on the face of each card, with the result that on any card superior to a "4," the logo obscures some of the pips. E.g. there are only four hearts visible on the 6 of Hearts.


June 2005
At work, the little box we use as our "lost and found" is currently lost.


July 2005
I've noticed a chain of stores in Canada called "Prix Plus," i.e. "price plus." Somehow this does not evoke low or even fair pricing, and it's reminiscent of a sticker I once found on some piece of merchandise that proclaimed "Extra Price." Perhaps the implied claim of Prix Plus is simply that each of their goods has a price, as well as additional, unspecified attributes (e.g. size, color, weight).


July 2005
As a change of pace from all the prevalent red wines from Australia, Chile, and Argentina, I ordered a glass of wine from France with dinner. It wasn't bad, actually. I think French wines might catch on one of these days.


July 2005
At breakfast one weekend morning, a houseguest asked if I might have a necktie he could borrow for an event he was attending—preferably something relatively subdued. I led him to our clothes closet and showed him the hanger on which my dozen or so ties reside. The first tie I drew his attention to was a 1980's-era navy blue one with a quiet red paisley pattern. He said that would be perfect, and I followed him back out to the living room so that he could show it to his wife. She not only agreed with his choice; she pointed out that the necktie exactly matched the dressing-gown he was wearing! Hilary had noticed this at the same moment, but those of us on the tie selection committee had somehow completely missed this.


July 2005
A co-worker who had been burning the candle at both ends elected to use his lunch break for a nap in our back office, leaving the sandwich he'd brought from home untouched. "He had a nap for lunch," was the observation that went 'round the office. I couldn't help imagining the sandwich responding, indignantly: "A nap? For lunch?? So what am I, chopped liver?"


August 2005
Hilary was understandably at sea while trying to follow a recipe (from the back of an envelope of bean curd seasoning mix) that instructed her to cook something "quite a while," and then specified the cooking time for a subsequent step as "about 5 minutes or 8 minutes."


August 2005
I've Told You Once to Get Down from There!
I subscribe to a lot of "progressive action" mailing lists, one of which is the Humane Society. One of their campaigns is to prevent the slaughter of horses for food consumption. I understand why they consider this an important issue. However ...

I had to laugh when the latest email arrived, with a subject line reading "Keep America's horses off dinner tables."


August 2005
The Gentleman's Monster?
I was looking through some childhood memorabilia, and I was sort of surprised by the number of references to vampires in my juvenilia. I guess that although I wasn't as "into" monsters as a lot of my peers, I gave them a certain amount of obligatory attention. But I seem to have been fascinated by vampires specifically. And, with a little thought, I think I can guess why. Vampires are suave and well-groomed, with well-tailored clothing, distinguished foreign accents and nifty hair. You can keep your sloppy, inarticulate Frankensteins, impossibly uncouth werewolves, and hopelessly-disheveled mummies!


August 2005
Charity Begins at Home
Following up on a story someone had told me about Eddie Murphy, I googled on the string "Eddie Murphy""Fresh Air Fund." Now I do realize that the ellipses in the following hit indicate two separate pieces of the page found by the search engine; but reading it as if were all one story made me laugh:

"Findnews.org > News Categories > Entertainment
Eddie Murphy's wife Nicole has filed for divorce after 12 years of marriage, ... an event that benefits the Fresh Air Fund [ ...]"

Wow! A "benefit" divorce ceremony. What will those celebs think of next!


September 2005
I don't write lengthy prose fiction, but I had an idea that I would use if I did: Early in the book, introduce a minor character who will appear sporadically throughout the work, and call him Mr. Carey. Next time he appears, refer to him as Mr. Carney. The next time, he's Mr. Carnsey; then he's Carnsby, and finally he's Carnaby. By then, your reader will probably have noticed what you're doing and wonder if it's intentional. An afterword can reveal that you've done this deliberately, just to amuse.


September 2005
At work the other day, I had to request some copies of certain invoices from a publisher. The representative who was helping me attempted to fax me a batch of these documents, but a couple of them didn't come through. I told her this, and she emailed back that she had re-sent the missing ones—only she used an unhyphenated spelling of the word that I spell "re-sent." Consequently, her email read "I resent the ones you were missing." I told her that I resented them, too, for not having transmitted the first time.


October 2005
A co-worker was describing an architectural attraction on a university campus, noting that the building in question is "stuck in a small quadrangle."

"Aren't we all," I quipped.


October 2005
I intended to grab a Starbucks coffee en route to a "gala" event, but the half-baked mini-Starbucks was closed, and the only other coffee on the way was at Dunkin' Donuts. As we approached the party venue, I reflected on the stupid but unmistakable fact that to arrive anywhere with a Starbucks coffee these days is socially acceptable, but an old-school coffee might risk raised eyebrows at evening gatherings of urban sophisticates. Not that this stopped me.


October 2005
Yes, It Was a Monday
Around noon one day at work, I was planning my afternoon errands. I had to make two stops on store business; and I realized that I should pick up some ground coffee on the same trip, since we were completely out. I mentally mapped out my itinerary—including the coffee purchase—as I went about my office business. What, you ask, was I specifically doing as I thought about how I'd be buying more coffee today (since we were completely out)? Well, I was trying to make coffee. Yep—as I casually reflected on the fact that we had no coffee, I was filling the reservoir of the coffee machine, inserting a filter ... Then, finally, it clicked that since we were out of coffee, this meant that we had no coffee. If only I'd had my coffee, then perhaps my brain would have been functioning better!


November 2005
At the bookstore, we sell carbonless duplicating notebooks for laboratory use. One day recently, a customer asked if we had any; but she referred to them as "carbonated notebooks." My co-worker, with typical effervescence, observed that they had been sitting on the shelf for several months and were therefore likely to be quite flat. (A trip to that aisle served to verify that these books were indeed lying perfectly flat on the shelf.)


November 2005
While listening to the radio, I may have heard the most redundant independent clause ever, as measured by percentage of tautological words. The DJ was imparting information about the singer in a group he was touting. He began by saying "She's a female girl ..." (The word "female" was slightly emphasized, like the word "older" in the clause "He's an older guy ..." or the word "local" in the clause "They're a local firm ...")


December 2005
New Year's Day is approaching, and I hope they don't send a defective one. I'm thinking of the time that the incoming year had a malformed plastic tab and wouldn't hook up properly to the old year. Hilary had to file it down and force it into place while our guests (and I) stood by uselessly. Oh, the WD-40 we consumed!


February 2006
Wedding Music
I was surprised to spot the phrase "FRENCH - FUNK" in a headline in one of the weekly newspapers around here—a region that is not known for either Francophilic or urban-beat culture. It turned out to be an engagement announcement.


February 2006
Leave it to Beavers!
So, I hear that scientists are excited about the discovery of a beaver-like mammal from the Jurassic era. It just confirms that old cliché about beavers being industrious—evidently they took the initiative to get an early start on the hard work of developing mammalian sophistication.

I wonder if the birdlike animals that evolved earliest found a particularly plentiful selection of ancient wormlike invertebrates.


March 2006
I recently had to compose a letter of resignation. After another revision or two, I'm thinking of submitting it to the editors of Best American Resignation Letters 2006. I'm encouraged by the rumors that this is an easier series to get accepted into than some—due to the fact that heavy-hitting writers like Updike, Morrison, Sedaris et. al. don't often have the sorts of jobs from which one can really resign.


March 2006
Maybe everyone knew this already ... but I just realized that by manipulating the typical dried fig, you can make it look like a beret.


April 2006
While waiting to have my teeth cleaned, I overheard the office receptionist's attempt to wind up an appointment-reminder phone call ... But she did not succeed in doing so without first being told by her interlocutor that she sounded like she was speaking from "inside a fishbowl." I gathered this information "Bob Newhart-style," as the receptionist repeated the comment back over the phone in a slightly-surprised voice. For my part, I could readily believe that the phone connection might produce such an effect; but I was impressed with the unidentified client who took the trouble to articulate the concept.


June 2006
Exception That Proves the Rule
Normally, I treat exhortations like "Stay dry!" (spoken on a rainy day to one about to venture out of doors) as expressions of strong social instincts, whose literal content can safely be categorized as useless. However, the advice to "Stay dry" was recently given to me by someone whose building I was in the process of leaving, and in whose building I was about to leave my umbrella --unintentionally, and without my interlocutor noticing. For one brief moment, I experienced an unprecedented appreciation for phatic communication.


June 2006
Yes, But Do You Think It's Going to Rain?
From the National Weather Service: "Periods of rain and possibly a thunderstorm before 1pm, then periods of rain and thunderstorms after 1pm. Some of the storms could produce heavy rainfall ... Chance of precipitation is 100%."


July 2006
When I walked into the break room, I was a little surprised to see someone wrangling an ice-cube tray--with the lights off.

"Making ice cubes in the dark?" I said.

"I guess I am," she replied.

So I began to sing "Ice cubes in the dark, exchanging glahnces" to the tune of "Strangers in the Night." This earned a protest.

I had to concede that such a song was not hit material, since it was lacking in emotionally-evocative words, like "home" and "mother" and "Chattanooga."

Accordingly, the next musical phrase out of my mouth (to the tune of "Strangers in the Night") was "Mother in the home, in Chahttanooga."


July 2006
During play rehearsal, I noticed that the actor who plays the waiter was having trouble handling his tray and dishes.

"Don't quit your night job," I advised.


July 2006
Off the Scent
I Googled on the word "pheromones" to make sure I was using it correctly in something I was writing. This caused my accidental discovery of a consumer product that would appear to be nothing short of an oxymoronic olfactory miracle:

"Scent of Eros UNSCENTED"


October 2006
Seen in an ad listing items to be auctioned:

EARLY GRANDFATHERS CLOCK

No wonder grandpa always showed up too soon for dinner!


December 2006
Vitamin "C" for Coward
Online research on the subject of Noel Coward has yielded a reference to his "ascorbic wit."


December 2006
You Heard It Here First Dept: I anticipate a generation of hipster babies with names like Napster, Blogger, Google, Nano, Wiki, and Amazon on their birth certificates. Talk about cute overload!


January 2007
Seen in a car dealership ad: "2004 Toyota Camry, like new! [my emphasis] Air conditioning [etc.], 184,000 miles."


January 2007
Hello, Folks!
A co-worker asked if anyone in the office had "good bifocals," because she was having trouble reading some fine print.

"I have 'hello-focals,'" I replied.


January 2007
And Speaking of Bifocals ...
Within a week of the above conversation, my eye doctor told me that I should, in fact, get bifocals. I commemorated this event by affecting a stock "old codger" voice (and attitude) for the benefit of Hilary and her co-workers, while insisting that the bifocals would not affect my personality in the slightest. One co-worker mentioned that she had 20/20 vision. "When I was your age," I snapped, forefinger a-waggling, "We didn't even have 20/20 vision. It only went up to 10/10, and we all had to share it."


February 2007
Points for Precision?
I was in a public building, and a stranger asked if I knew what time it was. "I think it's about 2:00," I said, "but I can give you a better answer in a second." I fished my watch out of my pocket, and then informed her that "it's 2:00."


March 2007
I wanted to read the weather forecast, but I didn't make it past the headline:

COLD FRONT BRINGS RAIN, WARM AIR TO ATLANTIC COAST


March 2007
I noticed a newspaper ad in which an exhortation to "Come relax" was followed by three exclamation points.

I feel relaxed already.


April 2007
At lunchtime, a coworker offered me the house copy of People magazine, which she had finished reading.

"No thanks," I said. "I'm not a People person."


May 2007
While staying with friends, we discovered the origin of a hard-working cliché, right in their very house!

Hilary was boiling water. Since someone else was concurrently using the stove to prepare dinner, the kettle was relegated to the back burner. This burner evidently had something wrong with it—it would heat things up, but much more slowly than it ought to, even on the highest setting.

So this was it—THE back burner we've heard so much about!


June 2007
I came across a reference to an "amusement tax." I wondered if it gets waived if whatever it is fails to amuse.


June 2007
A real-estate ad boasted that a property featured a "plush kitchen." All I know is I wouldn't want to be the one to have to clean it.


July 2007
I've learned that there's a fair trade organization called "Trade As One." I heartily endorse fair trade, but trading "as one" seems a little silly. Wouldn't you just end up with the same stuff?


August 2007
While one bank teller waited on me, her neighbor—an old friend of mine—was busy reading over some sort of bound ledger.

When she finally looked up and saw me, she explained that she hadn't noticed me earlier because she'd been "reading a book."

"Let me know how it comes out," I said.

"Unfortunately, it's not that kind of book," she replied.

"Oh. Then let me know how it comes in."


August 2007
An advertisement informs me that Restaurant X is open daily "from 1 p.m. till close."


August 2007
We were playing Boggle, and someone wondered if ney could be an acceptable variant of neigh. Reaching for the dictionary, I said we would soon have an answer "straight from the horse's mouth."


October 2007
In a bowling alley, I was impressed by the superfluous signage that said "Welcome Bowlers." I suppose that's more polite than coming right out and saying "Golfers Go Elsewhere."


October 2007
Giving Credit Where Credit's Not Due
I made an offhand, jocular reference to Emily Dickinson as "Em Dash Dickinson." Hilary thought this very witty; she assumed I was alluding to Dickinson's propensity for using em dashes. But I actually had no memory (probably not even an unconscious one) of that feature of Dickinson's work. It seems I just got lucky!


October 2007
I note this reckless drift into emotional subjectivity on the part of the usually level-headed Chicago Manual of Style:

"In an endnote, however, the author (or at least the author's last name) and title should be repeated, since at least some readers may have forgotten whether the note number was 93 or 94 by the time they find it at the back of the work. It is particularly annoying to arrive at the right place in the endnotes only to find another 'ibid.'"

Every time I read this passage I flinch, feeling that the Manual has snapped at me; and I feel like I ought to try to soothe the Manual's ruffled feathers by apologizing—even though I'm not the one who said "ibid" in the first place.


December 2007
A local theater group announced auditions for Six Degrees of Separation. How odd! You'd think they'd already know someone who would know someone who was perfect for each part.


December 2007
"Are those trick candles?" asked Hilary, as we watched somebody receive a birthday cake.

We had noticed, back in the 80's, that those candles were de rigeur for a while. Now, however, I noted that "trick candles finally went out."


December 2007
A Trivial Pursuit geography question asked in what place monkeys live free. I never realized that most countries were charging them rent!


December 2007
I've noticed that meteorologists have begun to refer to combinations of snow, sleet, and freezing rain as "wintry mix." It's interesting to observe that even weather is evidently now in the hands of marketing people—in this case, altruistic, nonprofit marketers who, though they can't change the weather, can at least make it sound more like a snack food.


January 2008
My new travel guide for dental hygienists will be called Brush in Brussels, Floss in Florence. And the inevitable sequel, you ask? Why Rinse in Rio, Spit in Spokane, of course.


February 2008
There were eight of us dining at a restaurant, and the over-the-top server was pushing the prime rib. "We have enough to go around," he boasted (unaware that there were a number of vegetarians at the table).

"The Fed must have lowered the rate," I said.


April 2008
I hereby envision a four-color, four-cheese pizza:

C = cheddar
M = mozzarella
Y = Jarlsberg
K = jack


May 2008
Lumping It
Merriam-Webster tells me that the transitive verb lump can mean "to group indiscriminately," or "to move noisily and clumsily." Now, the imperative phrase lump it, of course, is usually heard as part of "like it or lump it." But my problem is that I'm not sure how to lump it, if called upon. Am I supposed to group things indiscriminately, if I don't like whatever "it" is? Or move something noisily and clumsily? (Chances are, I'm already doing that, without being asked.)

And why all this mutual exclusivity? Cannot one like it and lump it?


October 2008
I have made the following useful discovery: Any ZIP code can be comfortably sung to the tune of "Strangers in the Night" (those first five syllables of the song, naturally)--provided there's no 7 (or 0 articulated as "zero" rather than "oh").

If you want to take the phrase all the way through "exchanging glances," you can use your nine-digit ZIP, provided a 7 or zero appears at the very end, and nowhere else.


October 2008
I read the following in Wikipedia:

The Dead Sea is a salt lake between Israel and the West Bank to the west, and Jordan to the east. It is 420 metres (1,378 ft) below sea level ..."

Now, that's what I call low sodium!


October 2008
My understanding of the business world made a quantum leap today when it dawned on me that ASAP, as in "I'll take care of that ASAP," does not mean "as soon as possible," as I'd hitherto believed, but rather stands for "after significant additional procrastination."


October 2008
Chronic Inflation Renders Another Metaphor Obsolete
It has come to my attention that--presumably because of attempts to sneak de facto price increases by the consumer--sardines are no longer "packed like sardines." Is nothing sacred?


March 2009
I've just learned that Robert Fripp composed the start-up chord for MS Vista. I found this quite humorous once I remembered that Vista users are generally not supposed to shut down their systems. And now it all makes sense:

PROJECT MGR: Man, that startup sound suuuuuuuucks.
ASST. PROJECT MGR: I know. But we can't tell the composer that—it's Robert Freakin' Fripp!
MGR: So what's the work-around?
ASST: Well ... we could make it so you never hear the chord.
MGR: Do it.


September 2009
I saw a reference to "the New England tradition of ordering Chinese food on New Year's Eve."

So do they eat it, or merely order it?


December 2009
Hilary inadvertently introduced me to the word string "put screws in your shoes"—a literal suggestion she was making to a friend who wants to jog along wintry country roads. No metaphorical hits for the phrase come up at Google (at least on the first screen), but I think it would make a great motivational slogan.


December 2009
I've learned that there's a Kater Street in Philadelphia. Just think—an entire street of Kater corners!


February 2010
It has occurred to me that repertory companies offering table service might consider doing wine/show pairings—suggesting, for example, that patrons order a wine with a promising nose but a weak finish to accompany a comedy that starts strong but peters out.


May 2010
A typo-heavy menu boasted "mayple syrup." This, I assume, is something that one obtains from a tree whilst dancing around it, clutching ribbons.


May 2010
I've been walking around in what signs keep telling me is Philadelphia's "historic district." As opposed to—what?—districts that exist in a historyless limbo? (Cf. "Office for the Aging.")


May 2010
I understand a manuscript by Mark Twain that he stipulated could not be made public until a century after his demise is now legally publishable. I note, however, that this hinges on an assumption that reports of his death have not been exaggerated this time around.


June 2010
I've invented Chateau Lafizzle: The flat champagne that's perfect for celebrating any anticlimactic occasion!


June 2010
"Premier Parker"
That's what it says on the VIP card that the offsite airport-parking facility in Philadelphia recently sent us. I'm so glad to finally be upgraded from "nosey"!


June 2010
Hyde and Seek
Search results seem to suggest that "semiformaldehyde" is an actual chemical substance. There are no hits, however, for "businesscasualdehyde."


July 2010
It has always amused me that Keats’s title is “Ode on,” and not to, the urn. I’m not knocking nonapostrophic nonanthropomorphism, to be sure; but I can’t help picturing the poet declaiming while perched on the rim of the objet. (Then again, Sartre said existentialism could be explained while standing on one foot—but who has time for that!)


August 2010
The packaging for the kayak carrier that Hilary bought (to transport a kayak) boasts that the device "Provides Safe and Confident Transport for One Canoe."

Safety, of course, is paramount—but I think they should have stopped there. After all, how can the canoe's confidence be guaranteed?

"I bet I look real dorky on top of this car ... That canoe over there is on a much nicer-looking vehicle ... Does this bungee cord make my stern look fat?"


November 2010
I’ve long admired “cease and desist” as one of those inseparable word pairs wherein it may be unclear how exactly the two elements differ from each other (cf. “vim and vigor,” “Seals and Crofts”).


January 2011
“I like my morning cappuccino,” Hilary was saying, “but I’m not the kind of coffee drinker who’s going to drink anyone under the table.”

“This is coffee we're talking about,” I said. “So I think you mean over the table.” And, as an homage to Dorothy Parker (or whoever really said or reworked whatever she really did or didn't say), I penned the following lines:

I love to drink my coffee—
The stuff sure makes things pop!
Two cups, I’m over the table;
Three, and I’m over-the-top.


August 2011
Hilary and I were discussing how the Philadelphia Museum of Art has a very small gift shop for a museum of its size and importance. “Yes,” I tsk-tsked, “they’re really letting the dog wag the tail.”


Copyright © 1995–2011 Jonathan Caws-Elwitt.