Caught in a Viscous Cycle

by Jason Peters on March 5, 2013 · 15 comments <span>Print this article</span> Print this article

in Culture, High & Low


Rock Island, IL

Now that FPR has launched a serious book-publishing venture, someone should state the obvious: there’s a book out there waiting to be made of student bloopers, grad-school yarns, and academic gaffes (there being hardly anything but gaffes in the academy).

We don’t lack for bloopers—that’s for sure—and we certainly wouldn’t want to take them for granite in this doggy-dog world. After reading recently about someone “caught in a viscous cycle,” I went in search, after a long absence, of Richard Lederer’s “History of the World According to Student Bloopers,” that legendary account from Anguished English in which we learn:

* that “the mother of Achilles dipped him in the River Stynx until he became intolerable”;

* that “Penelope was the last hardship that Ulysses endured on his journey”;

* that “Socrates died from an overdose of wedlock”;

* that “Julius Caesar extinguished himself on the battlefields of Gaul” and, “dying, he gasped out the words “Tee hee, Brutus”;

* that “King Alfred conquered the Dames”;

* that “the Magna Carta provided that no free man should be hanged twice for the same offense”;

* that it “was the painter Donatello’s interest in the female nude that made him the father of the Renaissance”;

* that “the government of England was a limited mockery”;

* that “Sir Francis Drake circumcised the world with a 100-foot clipper”;

* that the Constitution of the United States was adopted to secure domestic hostility”;

* that “Johann Bach wrote a great many musical compositions and had a large number of children. In between, he practiced on an old spinster which he kept up in his attic”;

* that “Cyrus McCormick invented the McCormick raper, which did the work of a hundred men”;

* and that “Louis Pasteur discovered a cure for rabbis.”

I have never kept a record of bloopers, all intensive purposes notwithstanding, though at grading time these bloopers make the rounds so often that I’m well-provided with more matter and less art than I could ever hope to use. And auto-correct has defiantly increased their number.

But they’re not new, these bloopers. For example, I find in a very old file—a paper file—a collection of church bulletin bloopers:

“Thursday at 5:00 PM there will be a meeting of the Little Mothers Club. All wishing to become little mothers, please see the minister in his study.”

“The service will close with ‘Little Drops of Water.’ One of the ladies will start quietly and the rest of the congregation will join in.”

And a list of poorly-worded advertisements:

“Wanted: Unmarried girls to pick fresh fruit and produce at night.”

“For Sale: Antique desk suitable for lady with thick legs and large drawers.”

And accident reports:

“I pulled away from the side of the road, glanced at my mother-in-law’s face, and headed over the embankment.”

“I was on my way to the doctor with rear-end trouble when my universal joint gave way, causing me to have an accident.”

And welfare applications:

“My husband got his project cut off two weeks ago and I haven’t had any relief since.”

And medical reports:

“This 54-year-old female is complaining of abdominal cramps with BMs on the one hand and constipation on the other.”

“This GU patient says he urinates around the clock every two hours.”

“This eight-year-old came to the GU clinic with his mother who has an absent right testicle since birth.”

And excuses sent to grammar school teachers:

“Please excuse Diane from being absent yesterday. She was in bed with gramps.”

“Please ackuse John been absent on January 28, 29, 30, 32, and 33.”

But of course we could go straight to Mrs. Malaprop if we wanted to:

“Sure, if I reprehend anything in this world it is the use of my oracular tongue, and a nice derangement of epitaphs!”

Or to Dogberry:

“O villain! Thou wilt be condemned into everlasting redemption for this.”

Now I warrant bloopers will tie you over, to be sure, but grad-school stories are sometimes more gooder. A colleague once told the story about a fellow-grad student who complained of literary critics too eager to “find a phallus behind every bush,” and that put me to thinking about the time I actually got punched in a PhD seminar. We were told by the fool convening this seminar that in our next session the men would be required to sit in an outer circle and be quiet; only the women, who would be seated in the inner circle, would be allowed to speak. This was so that the men could “experience what it is like to be silenced.” The convener asked if there were anything else we could do to “make the women more comfortable.” Restraint failed me. I said maybe we could set up a little toy kitchen inside the inner circle.

Wham! Right in the bicep!

(Suits of abuse and sexual harassment did not ensue.)

I once heard two graduate students, one a pretty competent scholar and the other a great buffoon of a poet, arguing in the hallway of my graduate building. At the end of the argument the one threw up his hands and said, “why don’t you go home and write a poem about this,” whereupon the poet-buffoon, in his best eighth-grade chess-club-president voice, said, “I will! I will go home and write a poem about it! So there!”

The grad-school story has done almost as much in my circles to enliven the cocktail party as the martini has, but for some reason I just can’t seem to remember all the good tales the next morning, else I would relate more. It’s as if some malicious academic god has made a bargain with Mnemosyne and seen to it that we not appear any more ridiculous than we already do in the normal course of things.

But the gaffes keep coming: the portly colleague who stood up from a conference table but whose pants did not rise with him—this fellow sticks out in my memory, as does the one who thought Don Quixote was translated into Spanish from the original English (and who thought Langston Hughes was a woman). After about five minutes on the job you understand why campus novels are mostly send-ups.

Still, I’m not sure I’d trade this life for all the bagels in Jerusalem. It is often frustrating and not infrequently soul-sucking, this life. But in the maim, in the grand steam of things, in the lawn run, when all is sudden done, when all’s been recorded in the anals of history, this life is still pretty entertaining. It’s like Quantum Mechanics: the dreams stuff is made of.

Even when the chips are down, all that means is that the buffalo is empty.

{ 13 comments… read them below or add one }

avatar Joel Tom Tate March 6, 2013 at 7:01 am

Being a pastor I supply amusing gaffes to my congregation and subsist on those supplied to me for my amusement by church consultants. One particular consultant is fond of announcing to the pastors he is lecturing that he is about to “wax elephant.” On one occasion we were sitting around a conference table and he was describing some young pastor’s self-defeating behavior and said about the poor fool that he needed to “cyst and decease.” Thankfully, an act of God prevented me from guffawing and thus spared my career – but it was a near thing.

avatar Josh Bishop March 6, 2013 at 9:07 am

A professor of systematic theology at Grand Rapids Theological Seminary, just up the road from me, keeps a running list of student bloopers on his blog. Here are a couple of my favorites:

“ ‘It seems obvious to Luther that Pope Leo has been told quite negative things about his message and the manor in which that message is delivered.’ (Luther, not only does the pope disagree with what you’re saying, but also he thinks your house is the ugliest building in Germany.)”

“Barth didn’t believe ‘in original sin, which was transmitted by Adam and Eve to their posterior.’ ”

More here:

avatar bubba March 6, 2013 at 9:14 am

This post illustrates the impotence of higher education.

avatar Matt Stewart March 6, 2013 at 11:20 am

Thoughts on The Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin from college students:

“Even though this did happen he still went forward with his dream and in time his dream did come true along with many other dreams Benjamin had. Benjamin eventually got his dream.”

“He was a natural leader amongst his piers.”

“The fact that Mr. Franklin believes his life to be noteworthy is in itself a contribution to society.”

“My sentiments exactly as I plowed through the endless fields of sociopolitical and religious controversy, characterized by his provident, innovative contributions vis-à-vis uncanny foreknowledge. Benevolently isolated in humility, he sufficed in felicity and embraced servitude as naturally conducive to brotherly prosperity.”

avatar James Kabala March 6, 2013 at 7:21 pm

Some of these have been circulating for so long in so many different allegedly eyewitness accounts that they are surely apocryphal. The Drake one in particular clearly has the ring of too-good-to-be-true fabrication about it.

avatar David Walbert March 6, 2013 at 8:00 pm

While microwaving my lunch today I noted an anti-harrassment poster on the bulletin board warning against “quip pro quo” situations. Which I assume to be when you threaten somebody with cracking one-liners if they don’t do what you want. Annoying, I’m sure, but I don’t know that we need a policy against it…

avatar Chris Travers March 7, 2013 at 4:11 am

As a brief historical note, it was Alfred’s daughter, a dame if you want to call her that, who conquered the Danes in England. Alfred only began the process. His daughter finished it.

avatar D.W. Sabin March 8, 2013 at 7:50 pm

Only certain ears can detect the high notes of the comedy you just dispensed. It damned well disrupted my dyspepsia and I don’t like it when my belly laughs disrupt my peptic ulcers.

avatar Jason Peters March 8, 2013 at 8:25 pm

Sabin: I’ll try to take your health into consideration. My main intention when I write isn’t to kill kindred spirits.

avatar Robert March 8, 2013 at 11:47 pm

My Sergeant, in our law enforcement agency roll call prior to the start of our shift, advised my fellow officers and me to be on the lookout for a suspected rapist. The victims were all raped annually….

avatar Tony Esolen March 8, 2013 at 11:49 pm

From an old colleague of mine, Donald Rohr, late professor of history at Brown, with whom I taught for a couple of semesters at Providence College — quoting an eloquent student’s exam: “Dante had one foot in the Middle Ages, and with the other he saluted the rising sun of the Renaissance.”

My favorite Mrs. Malaprop: “She’s as headstrong as an allegory on the banks of Nile!”

My favorite faculty-stupidity story: a long time ago, before my time, some secular fool at my college was arguing at lunch that Christianity was derivative, because after all Islam came first. At which Rene Fortin of happy memory stood up and shouted, “You g–damned idiot! Mohammed died in the seventh century!”

When I was young and full of vinegar, I took for a while to sending mail back to my colleagues on the faculty, with grammar and style corrected. Anonymously, of course, since I didn’t yet have all my promotions. It was a stupid thing to do, but the writing hasn’t improved since then — or, I should say, there has been “with respect to clarity and accepted style insufficient faculty writing improvement.”

avatar James Matthew Wilson March 9, 2013 at 11:10 am

Tony, I had no idea you were no longer full of vinegar. You have enough, in any case, to dress down our present salad days.

avatar Scot F. Martin April 2, 2013 at 1:07 pm

My favorite from a high school student was on an exam about Shakespeare. The question was something like “How did the the people of London know a play was to be presented at the theatre.” This student answered “A plane would fly over London with a white flag announcing a play was going to be performed.”

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