Caught in a Viscous Cycle


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.

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