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My former co-Llama Steve-O reminds me that today is Towel Day, the annual celebration of the life and twisted imagination of author Douglas Adams.  First, here’s the quote from The Hitchhiker’s Guide To The Galaxy that got the whole thing started:

A towel, [the Guide] says, is about the most massively useful thing an interstellar hitchhiker can have. Partly it has great practical value. You can wrap it around you for warmth as you bound across the cold moons of Jaglan Beta; you can lie on it on the brilliant marble-sanded beaches of Santraginus V, inhaling the heady sea vapors; you can sleep under it beneath the stars which shine so redly on the desert world of Kakrafoon; use it to sail a miniraft down the slow heavy River Moth; wet it for use in hand-to-hand-combat; wrap it round your head to ward off noxious fumes or avoid the gaze of the Ravenous Bugblatter Beast of Traal (such a mind-bogglingly stupid animal, it assumes that if you can’t see it, it can’t see you); you can wave your towel in emergencies as a distress signal, and of course dry yourself off with it if it still seems to be clean enough.

More importantly, a towel has immense psychological value. For some reason, if a strag (strag: non-hitch hiker) discovers that a hitch hiker has his towel with him, he will automatically assume that he is also in possession of a toothbrush, face flannel, soap, tin of biscuits, flask, compass, map, ball of string, gnat spray, wet weather gear, space suit etc., etc. Furthermore, the strag will then happily lend the hitch hiker any of these or a dozen other items that the hitch hiker might accidentally have “lost”. What the strag will think is that any man who can hitch the length and breadth of the galaxy, rough it, slum it, struggle against terrible odds, win through, and still knows where his towel is, is clearly a man to be reckoned with.

Hence a phrase that has passed into hitchhiking slang, as in “Hey, you sass that hoopy Ford Prefect? There’s a frood who really knows where his towel is.” (Sass: know, be aware of, meet, have sex with; hoopy: really together guy; frood: really amazingly together guy.)

I first read THHGTTG when I was in high school.  The paroxysms of gut-shaking, tear-streaking, helpless laughter to which it reduced me firmly cemented my reputation with my classmates as a first-class weirdo. (The same thing happened when I read the Harvard Lampoon’s Bored of the Rings.  I had a serious reputation as a weirdo.)  And while I have read it far too often now to reach the same heights of mirth, it still makes me smile.

Since it is Towel Day, I thought I would offer a few gratuitous observations about Adams and his works:

First, Adams’ work is funny not just because of the ideas he wrote about, but because of the way in which he wrote about them.  If I may be allowed to pull a favorite hobby-horse out of the barn here, I will point out that this makes his writing very, very difficult to successfully translate to another medium.  When the latter source of humor is eliminated, the adapter has no choice but to either over-emphasize the former source or else to import in something else entirely, thereby upsetting the balance of the original.  This, I believe, is what happened with the 2005 movie version of the Guide, which I refuse to see on principle but have read enough about to be pretty confident in my suspicions.  The early 80’s Beeb mini-series was pretty awful, too.  However, there is a peculiarly endearing quality to Beeb sci-fi awfulness, so I actually enjoyed that effort.

Second, although I am obviously a Guide fan, I’m also a realist:  The series never should have extended beyond the third book.  So Long And Thanks For All The Fish was a real stinker, and Mostly Harmless wasn’t much better.  I don’t really blame Adams for this.  From what I understand, his publishers locked him in a room and threatened to sic a rabid badger on him if he didn’t crank them out, but the forced, leaden quality of these books is perfectly obvious, and is a real let-down from the fresh, manic inspiration of the original trilogy.

This, by the way, is a pattern that I have seen elsewhere in Adams’ work, particularly in the Dirk Gently novels.  Dirk Gently’s Holistic Detective Agency is, in my opinion, the best book he ever wrote.  Its sequel, The Long, Dark, Tea-Time of the Soul, is distinctly less inspired.  Probably just as well that there were no more Dirk novels.  I believe this is because Adams was a kind of fly-and-die Ideas guy.  His brilliance lay in his bursts of creative imagination, but I think he had too snipe-like an attention span to really follow up on them effectively.

The other thing about Adams that I find infuriating, and which is best expressed in his essays in The Salmon of Doubt, is the fact that although he was a celebrated atheist, he nonetheless had a particular talent for spotting God’s thumbprints all over the Universe.  How he could see so many patterns while doggedly refusing to credit the idea of a directing Mind behind them is quite beyond me.

But don’t panic.  For all that, I still think Adams is one hoopy frood.

Today we’re getting the first taste of the nasties that Ma Nature has in store for our neck of the woods over the next few months, and I must say that I am looking forward to the heat, humidity, stench and ozone about as much as Osama was looking forward to that house call by SEAL Team 6.  While I can never decide whether spring or fall is my favorite season, I am at least crystal clear on what is my least favorite.

The worst part of it is the commute home.  First, I have about a fifteen minute sun-ward walk to the metro station.¹  Then I have about a 25 minute ride, usually in a sardine-packed car with minimal air-conditioning.²  Then I have a 25 minute drive in my completely air-conditionless Wrangler.³   By the time I get home, I’m usually a dank, rumpled, smelly, discombobulated wreck, and I frequently make directly for the showers without stopping to say good evening to anyone first.

(I know, I know – Wah! Wah! Wah!  But it’s my bloggie and I’ll cry if I want to.)

Fortunately, Memorial Day is nearly upon us, so I can start thinking of glasses full of ice with gin or Pimm’s.

¹ Usually through shoals of maddeningly dim tourons.

² Often capped off by a forced march up a broken escalator.  I think the metro people turn them off out of pure malice.

³ Okay, this one is my doing, since I hold as a matter of principle that A/C in a rag-top convertible is preposterous on its face.  It’s really not so bad, so long as you can keep moving.

I swear I’m not making this up: Friskies has developed video games for cats.

This is how it starts, of course.  The next thing you know, they’ll be wasting all their time on Feline Facebook and downloading kitty pron.

Just out of curiosity, how long do you suppose an iPad or tablet screen lasts with little Fluffy scratching at it?

UPDATE: Okay, I kind of like the fishy one.

Last evening, the eldest gel came home with an assignment from social studies to read and answer some questions about Palsgraf v. Long Island Railroad Co. 248 N.Y. 339, 162 N.E. 99 (N.Y. 1928).  This was a state appellate decision written by Benjamin Cardozo before he went to the Supremes about a freak, Rube Goldbergian railroad accident in which a guard, trying to help a passenger aboard a departing train, caused the passenger to drop a package wrapped in newspaper.  Unbeknownst to the guard, the package was full of fireworks, and when it hit the rail, it exploded.  The shock of the explosion apparently knocked over some scales at the other end of the platform, which in turn injured the plaintiff, Mrs. Palsgraf.

The case is a first-year torts standard, used as a vehicle to discuss the concept of proximate cause and foreseeability in negligence.  (Cardozo basically ruled that the LIRR wasn’t negligent because the guard couldn’t possibly have known that the package would go boom when he hustled the passenger on to the train.)   I was both startled and, frankly, pleased that when the gel started telling me about it, I actually remembered l’affaire Palsgraf, even though I read it 23 years ago.  (This isn’t to boast about my own legal expertise, but instead to give credit to my torts professor, Jim “Phembo” Phemister.)

Anyhoo, part of the assignment was to write what one thought of the opinion.

“Oh, I agree with the judge,” said the gel. Little Miss Law and Order.

“Why?” I asked.  The gel explained that it just seemed like common sense.  Knowing that common sense and the law are often far from synonymous, I proceeded to dabble in some Socratic questioning about her assumptions and reasoning, playing a little plaintiff’s advocate until she cut me off with an exasperated, “DA-aaad!”

“Well,” I said, “If you’re going to do legal analysis, you have to learn to think that way.”

After all, the gel speaks of going to law school some day, so why not start early?  (I think, btw, that this career plan is mostly a nod to the pater at the moment, but I also think that if she ever does go, she’d make a terrifying district attorney.)

In my latest effort to read something I haven’t read before (I have a bad habit of spending too much time amongst Old Favorites), my hand fell upon Confederates Downeast:  Confederate Operations In And Around Maine by Mason Phillip Smith.   I stumbled across the book, which details a number of small coastal raids and cross-border guerrilla actions, about a year ago and have been meaning to delve into it since then.  (Regular port-swillers might think that ol’ Robbo had hit something of a trifecta here.  “The Civil War, Maine and uselessly obscure trivia? That’s right up our boy’s alley!”)

However, having read the introduction and the first chapter, I find myself facing a dilemma.  Although I find the topic interesting, I also find that the writing is, for lack of a better word, terrible.  It’s jerky, disorganized and without any over-arching narrative sense.  Furthermore, the facts seem to be served up without any thought to balance or proportion.

So, what should I do?  Hold my nose and plow through the remaining 190-odd pages?  Or chuck it and move on to something better crafted?

I suppose I’ll at least try one more chapter before deciding, but really, I hate this.  On the one hand, I feel almost duty-bound to finish the book simply for the sake of being exposed to the knowledge contained therein.  On the other, I can’t help feeling that I’m wasting my time.

Herbert James Draper, "Ulysses and the Sirens" (1909)

I’m told that the “Soccer Mom” is becoming very last week and that the rapidly-rising new thing to be seen cruising the ‘burbs in the minivan is “Coach Dad”.  Think I can get this kind of reaction if I start taking ours to the softball fields?

Saturday evening found Self and Mrs. R sitting in the local Honda dealership as we went through all the bumf associated with leasing a new car.

I do believe there is no commercial transaction I detest more than this kind of thing.  I hate everything about it; the haggling, the wondering whether I’m being rooked, the exposure to financial examination.  All of it.

Fortunately, Mrs. R really rayther enjoys the bargaining part.  So we have a system:  She gets the deal and then I come in and sign things.  And I’m happy to say that it worked out very well this time.  Originally, we had been lured in by a lease offer on the Odyssey LX, which is the basic model.  Only when Mrs. R appeared at the dealership, they didn’t have any.  (Nobody does.  Apparently the tsunami in Japan has played Old Harry with the supply line.)  So somehow or other, she talked them into giving her the EX-L, which is the souped-up model, for the same price.  Not only that, she had them find one in the color she wanted, a process that involved going about fifty miles out of town to track one down.  I never would have had the nerve to do anything like that.

So here we are.  And my fellow port-swillers, I must tell you: This is an almost ridiculous neat-o piece of machinery.

For one thing, the design is seriously impressive.  (I understand it is new this year.)  It certainly doesn’t look much like a minivan, but instead more like a crossover SUV.  (At least, that’s what we’re telling ourselves.)  And more to the point, the thing has about it the curious illusion of seeming larger inside than out.  I have yet to figure out how this can be, but there it is.   It fits into the garage better than the ol’ Cherokee did (although it is longer), yet I don’t feel half so cramped sitting inside with Mrs. R and the gels.

For another, Luddite that I am, I simply am in awe at the technology this thing carries.  Por ejemplo, it’s got what they call an “Eco” function whereby at cruising speeds it will automatically cut from firing all six cylinders to two or three.  For another, the oil filter has a sensor that tells you when the oil’s viscosity has broken down to the level at which it needs to be changed.  And then there are the whistles and bells: XM radio, Bluetooth, a freakin’ refrigerator up front, a radio gizmo that will take over your garage door opener, a rear camera to seek what you’re backing into.  And the doors.  The sliding doors.  The glorious push-button sliding doors.  My poor old Wrangler has a whole string of chips and dents down the driver’s side from years of the gels banging it with the Cherokee’s doors.  No more.

I’m sure that when Skynet sends the signal, this thing will automatically lock us in, steer us to a remote location and kill us all with carbon-monoxide poisoning, but in the meantime, I think riding around in her – especially on our extended jaunts – is going to be a real pleasure.

Eldest Gel:  You’re really old-fashioned, aren’t you, Dad?

Self:  Eh?

E.G.: I mean, you really think it’s important to follow the rules.

Self: Well, yes, actually.  I am old-fashioned.

As is often the case, the same text was the basis of both the rector’s sermon at RFEC and the padre’s homily at Mass yesterday.  It’s that one from John (14:6) wherein Jesus says,“I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.”  The rector used it to serve up a great big helping of unitarianism, arguing that whatever we love bestest in the world is the way for us to be closer to God.  The padre, on the other hand, went off on a tear about the evils of moral relativism.

You bet I’m old-fashioned.

Sorry – couldn’t resist.

In fact, today was a day of surpassing beauty in my neck of the woods.

O-kay, then. 

So.  Everyone has had their little snicker at the dire and incorrect prediction that the End Times would set in today (self admittedly included).  And I suppose that, in the eyes of the secular world, another “kick me” sign has been hung on the backside of Christianity.

But I will confess that over the last couple days, as news of this prediction flashed out over the intertubes, I found myself thinking, “Self, what if all this really did turn out to be true? What if Judgement Day was upon us? Where would you be?”

The answer, I’m afraid, was a fervent hope that the prediction of the world’s end really was bogus.

If you pause to take the idea – and by that I mean not so much that somebody has cracked a Biblical code, but that Judgement Day really is coming, and it could be five centuries from now or five minutes – seriously, it is not at all comforting.  Indeed, I will confess that during the latter part of the week, I actually found myself fretting about whether I ought to go to have gone to confession on Wednesday, instead of waiting until Saturday afternoon.

I suppose the bottom line is my uncomfortableness at the thought that none of us can hold our souls at presentation, ready for inspection by the Almighty Admiral, constantly.  I certainly can’t.  At the same time, this whole episode also serves as a useful reminder that when said Admiral appears, He will do so as, if I may quote, a thief in the night, so we are at least under an obligation to be constantly mindfull of the possibility and to do our best.

Thus endeth the lesson.

I can’t believe it actually might be coming to this.

Mrs. Robbo currently drives a 2004 Jeep Cherokee.  It’s got better than 100K miles on it now and has begun to develop suspension and brake ailments that, I’m sure, will require boffo dosh to repair, and that right eftsoons.  Furthermore, the three gels were considerably smaller seven years ago when we bought it.  These days, when they’re all crammed into the back seat together, bitter hand-to-hand combat almost inevitably ensues, usually when either Mrs. R or I are attempting to deal with traffic.

In short, I don’t think it unreasonable to say that we’ve pretty much driven La Cherokee into the ground.  That part I am perfectly willing to accept.  Indeed, it has been casually drifting in and out of my thoughts since the beginning of the year.

No, here’s the tough part:  Mrs. R just forwarded me a link to a  lease deal on a 2011 Honda Odyssey, and rayther than recoiling in horror, I find myself……enthusiastic at the prospect of three rows of seats, slidey doors and Mr. & Mrs. Suburbia creature comforts.

Resistance is futile.

UPDATE:  Perhaps I can put these on the rear window:

(Yes, I know I’m mixing references here.  Just roll with it.)


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May 2011