The Beanstalk


by David N. Townsend


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February 28, 1999
:00 PM

Over the hill and far away

I have the humble honor of reporting to you from the far side of my 40th birthday, which occurred a week ago, and was celebrated last night in grand and magnificent fashion by a horde of my family and friends.  Given the significance of the occasion, I feel I should deviate from my usual harangues and diatribes on esoterica and pause to reflect on some of the more solemn and profound questions of the human spirit.

For example:

What the heck is wrong with people who don't flush public toilets?

What message are these people sending to the anonymous public? "I have so little respect for my fellow human beings that it's not worth the effort of flexing my arm muscle long enough to push down on that metal handle to prevent some stranger from confronting a disgusting, smelly, unhealthful sight when he follows me into this booth.  Why should I exert a milligram of energy for somebody I don't know?"

Graffiti is different. Bathroom stall graffiti is entertaining. It gives an uncounted audience something to read when they'd otherwise be bored. I even gives them a chance to participate in the discussion.  Even insulting, sexist, gay bashing graffiti serves a certain intellectual purpose, by stimulating thought and even counter argument in readers.   I once wrote the following message on a bathroom stall: "Proliferate Nuclear War!"  It doesn't even make sense, which was the idea.  I pictured guys like me coming into the stall, reading this, and thinking what a complete idiot must have written that, not only trying to advocate nuclear war in some childishly anarchistic sense, but lacking even a basic grasp of the relevent terminology.  I'd be messing with the head of somebody as he messed with the toilet.  But jeez, at least I flushed. 

Cellular phones are becoming the new cigarettes

Tobacco junkies have been pushed out of restaurants and offices onto the streets.   They congregate around the doorways of smoke-free buildings, getting their nicotine fixes, in clouds of toxic smoke, creating a health hazard for anyone trying to enter the building, but at least they're out of the way of the occupants. Lately, cellular addicts are joining them. 

In many buildings, cellular signals can be weak, or else talking on the phone can be rude or disruptive, so in cities worldwide the growing army of mobile phone users can often be found congregating in the same doorways as the cigarette smokers, checking in with the office, retrieving voice-mail, calling the wife or girlfriend (or both), calling the stockbroker, the parole officer.  They sometimes mingle directly with the smokers, and if the rumors about cancerous effects of overexposure to concentrated radiowaves are true, there could be one heck of an epidemic bubbling up on the front steps of the world's high rises.

Have you ever wondered how vampires hold dinner parties?  I think it would be totally impossible.

Think about it.  When a bunch of vampires chomp into the neck of some human captives who've been chained to the floor to serve as appetizers or main course, those humans are now going to turn into vampires themselves, right?  Well now the hostess has that many more guests to feed, see?  And if they bring in a new flock of human sacrifices to serve the expanded attendance, well, soon after that group's been drained, they're going to come back as ravenous party guests once again.  What a nightmare for the caterer, huh?

Where in the world did we come up with the word "Napkin"?

Say it a few times: "Nap-kin".  What kind of a word is that?  It seems more strange each time you repeat it.  It's not derived from Latin or anything.   The French say "Serviette", which sounds so much more appropriate, a little cloth that helps serve you.  They use the same word for "towel," too, which also makes a great deal of sense.  If anything, maybe the English word should be "Lap-kin", because at least it rests on your lap.   "Napkin" sounds more like a euphemism for incest among hillbillies: "Yeah, las' night Ah took a nap wit ma kin, if ya know ma meanin'!"

Well, anyway.

Have you noticed how those two words have somehow become the universal code for terminating a conversation or a gathering?  If you're sitting around with a group of friends, at lunch, at a meeting, or even talking on the telephone, pay attention as the encounter is reaching its end.  Everyone knows that the conversation is over, but it's up to somebody to take the official step of closing the discussion and moving on.   Invariably, that person will begin this process with the word "Well . . ."

"Well, I've got to be getting back to work . . ."
"Well, it's been great seeing you again . . ."
"Well, I hope you work things out with Tom . . ."

When I first became aware of this strange little quirk of communication years ago, I consciously tried to stay away from the habit, and it's really not easy.  I would be sitting in a friend's dorm room or in the cafeteria, having a casual conversation, and when it came time to wrap things up, I would simply stand up and say with a smile, "I'm leaving now."  It just doesn't feel right.

Then there's "Anyway".  Anyway is sort of Well's protege.  It's purpose isn't necessarily to end an entire conversation, but to move on from one subject to the next.  It sort of brings the current subject to a conclusion, in a dismissive kind of way:

"Anyway, that's what I thought of the proposal . . ."
"Anyway, we should definitely make plans for week . . ."
"Anyway, I'm glad to hear the kids are doing well . . ."

Once Anyway has been launched into the conversation, it is extremely inconsiderate to continue speaking about the same topic thereafter.  Saying Anyway is like saying "I've had all I can take of this particular line of discussion.  No matter what else you may have to say (any way you might try to elaborate), this is my final word, so let's drop it, okay?"

Then there's the all encompassing "Anyway," which is stated without specific referential clauses.  You come to a pause in the conversation, and someone simply says "Anyway . . ." with a heavy sigh.  That's a more powerful signal, directly akin to "Well . . ." which means: "Stop talking.  Let me go now.  Shut up you endless windbag."

So okay, I get the hint already.


  1999 David N. Townsend

Recent ramblings:         

The Spirit of the Season (2/15/99) The New Idiot Box (2/6/99) Sermon (1/31/99)
So this is Presidents' Day, somebody's irreverent idea for honoring Lincoln and Washington both at once I've been spending a lot of time watching computer lately. . . . Let's change the subject and talk about something non-controversial: Religion.

(Click Elsewhen for the complete list)

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