I’ll have one existential tailspin to go, please.

About fifteen years ago, I spent about nine days in London. I got a Tube Pass, which requires you to get a little ID card to go with the Pass, just in case you are stopped by the Tube Police. I think Tube Passes are one of the reasons why London is (or at least was) simply littered with photo-booths. Certainly, it seemed you could find a photo-booth in just about any Tube Station. Anyway, the photo-booths had gone all digital since I had last entered one (in 1990 – oy. I am old). It used to be, you got in, you paid your money, you looked like a dork for approximately 30 seconds, you got a four photo assortment of said dorkishness for your Pound Sterling.

With the new digiboxes, you went in, you sat, it took a digiphoto, you checked it out, assessed whether or not it was good enough to make four of, and go on with the process. (They used to take four different shots. Now they only give you four copies of the one shot – it must be hell for those kids who made collages of themselves and their friends all making dorky idiots of themselves in four different ways per trip to the photo booth). Then, a teddibly, teddibly uppah-claaahhs English woman’s voice says, “When you are happy, press the green button.”

I found myself wondering, “Happy? What does happy have to do with it? If I’m feeling slightly blue or mildly irritated, do I have to sit here until I eventually get happy? What do the clinically depressed do? Never get a photo? Are they forced to get daily return fares whenever they take the Tube? What is the matter with this country? If I am never happy again do I now live in this photo booth? What is its address, anyway?”

I suppose it is appropriate that my Tube pass ID bears a photo of me smirking.

“National Sibling Day”

Background: I’m an adult of divorce. My folks split up when I was in law school. Today is “National Sibling Day” apparently. I was lucky enough to get a stepbrother I adore in the divorce and remarriage stakes.  The text below is an edited version of something I wrote in August 2007.

When I was a child, I had a fairly typical child’s view of family. Crayola stick-figure people, proudly standing in front of an improbably-colored house. Mommy, Daddy, Me. There was a vague notion that another small stick-person might come to join us one day. It happened to other people, after all, it might well happen to us. But for the time being, MommyDaddyMe was a fixed constellation, a part of a larger system that also contained star-clusters like GrammyGrampa, and UncleAuntCousin.

I remember one kid in my first grade class whose parents were divorced. It was so outside my six-year experience that it was frightening, an unknown condition that was potentially contagious. As time went on, of course, it happened more and more often as the mid-70’s wound down into the late 70’s and all through the 80’s. Other people’s constellations were more like volatile molecules, whizzing around and bouncing off of one another. MommyDaddyMe, though, we continued. We mostly stood still like one of those time-lapse movies where people flow like a jittery river around a statue or monument. Everything else changes. The monument endures.

I like to joke that my life turned into an after-school special when I was 26, when my parents divorced. It used to be a way to deflect unwanted sympathy – make people laugh so they don’t feel they have to try to figure out how to make it better. Now it’s just something I say: an old, tired laugh-line I have a hard time letting go of. The fact was, the monument was gone, and its component elements entered the shifting, passing flow.

Entering the speedy world of the molecule after spending years in the still, changeless silence of space can bring on some sharp shocks. About 25 years after I had stopped wondering about the possibility of another little stick-figure, I suddenly had a stepbrother, eight years my junior.

This does strange things to the part of your brain that controls definitions. People ask me now if I have any siblings and my automatic answer might be a halting, “No.” And then, “Well, sort of.” After all, it’s pretty silly to call Brian “My father’s second wife’s son” when there’s a perfectly good three-syllable word for his place in my constellation. At the same time, using the  term “stepbrother” seems disingenuous. We didn’t grow up together – I didn’t get to lord it over him until he got bigger than me (I could say he’s my made-to-order big little brother). There’s something strange about calling someone your “brother” when you’ve never lived in the same household. Yet anything else is inefficient and inaccurate.  We have learned that we have an uncanny and yet comforting/comfortable affinity.  We finish each others’ sentences. Our partners have a hard time believing we are not biological siblings.  Bri and I have discovered that we can define our own families.

Speaking as one who never thought she wanted a sibling, my brother is an unearned, unexpected joy.

Happy Sibling Day, Brian.

Reruns and earworms and holidays oh my

Since I have the execrable “Do they Know it’s Christmas?” in my head, I figured I’d post a lightly edited rerun.  You’re welcome.


Back in 2004, John Scalzi posted an invitation to fantasize: if you had the ability to expunge one highly annoying but popular Christmas song from the world, which one would it be? He posited “Feliz Navidad,” which is an honorable entry. It has the requisite parasitic catchiness, yet is definitely awful – it will stay in your head, annoying you quite effectively long past New Year’s. But I would have to say it is not popular enough, and really, not quite awful enough to make my list.

Others in the comments ganged up on “Do they Know it’s Christmas?” which is another effectively awful tune. “Feed the world/Let them know it’s Christmastime.” Er… feed the world, let them know it’s Tuesday, for crying out loud. Feed the world, let them see next week! But I don’t think it has enjoyed enduring popularity past 1984, so it wouldn’t make my list either.  Or… er.  It appears the cast of Glee has remade it.  Joy.  I haven’t listened to it, but I won’t stop you if that sort of pain is your kink.

What would I pick? There is a lot of awfulness to choose from out there amongst the holiday fare, so it is a difficult task to pick just one. As it was, as I plowed through my mental inventory of dogs barking “Jingle Bells,” “Grandma Got Run Over by a Reindeer,” (John’s personal pick for least favorite), Springsteen’s “Santa Claus is Coming to Town,” (Clarence has been waiting for that new saxophone for a very long time now), and “The Twelve Days of Christmas,” which is hateful because it is so repetitive and interminable, I was able to narrow my hatred down to two selections:

1. “I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus” There is so much to hate in this song, it is hard to know where to begin. It is syrupy and swoopy. Its subject matter is disturbing. It tends to be sung by treacly choirs of little kids doing basic choreography in time to the music (I should know – I was in one many years back). It seems exploitative and deeply, deeply wrong. Bleah. *Shudder*

2. “Happy Christmas (War is Over)” I may get some John Lennon-loving backlash here, but I can’t stand this song. It sounds like someone bleakly going through the motions of optimism. It is, in fact, wrong (“War is over now” – hah.  Really? Magical thinking in a holiday pop song.  Cute). But the crowning achievement of awfulness is Yoko Ono’s strangled yowl, aggressively commanding everyone within hearing range to have “A very merry Christmas/And a happy New Year/Let’s hope it’s a good one/Without any fear.”

You better watch out, indeed.

From the rerun file – library edition

Periodically, I post reruns from the old, hard-to-navigate version of WoT.  Today, I was reminded of this post about my experiences as a law school work-study student in our library.  The post dates from from April 2005, and it’s especially appropriate now that I am in library school:


Libraries are where work-study grants go to die, especially at a public university. It seemed that every other student was eligible for a work-study grant at my school, and when you can’t get a job as a research assistant for a professor (or, as in my case, the professor you have your research job with doesn’t have a whole lot of projects for you), you take advantage of your grant working at the library. It’s a pretty good gig – you can drop in for as little as an hour at a time, the work is fairly undemanding, and you can read the papers while you’re attaching them to those long sticks.

The unfortunate thing about the library – at least at Maine – was that random, strange calls tended to land at the circulation desk. Since the circulation desk was generally manned by the shifting mass of students on work-study who were working a 2-hour shift (at the longest), it was a poor choice for those members of the public who might be seeking anyone resembling a clue. On the other hand, since the circ desk students were constantly confounded by the old-fashioned phone (the kind with a row of buttons on the bottom that went “ker-CHUNK” when you pressed them to select a line, put someone on hold, or transfer them to oblivion), it was probably a good way for a harried switchboard operator to get rid of annoying callers.

I was whiling away my time at the circ desk late in my career at U. Maine one spring afternoon when the telephone rang. I answered it, and was greeted by a slow, stentorian voice obviously belonging to an elderly gentleman who was most likely hard of hearing. “I would like to speak to the Law Librarian,” he boomed.

Hmm. There was nobody with that title at the library, to the best of my knowledge, and I had worked there for two years. “Er – sir, do you have a reference question, or would you like to speak to the director of the library? There is nobody with the title of ‘Law Librarian.'”

“I would like to speak to the Law Librarian,” he repeated – as one would with a particularly dim child.

“Sir, as I told you, there is nobody here with that title –”

“I would like to speak to the Law Librarian.”

Fine. It seemed my best choices were a.) the reference librarian, or b.) the director. As I had no more information than that, I selected the director by a semi-random selection method: I liked the reference librarian. He was a very decent chap.  Also, the director had a secretary who was probably better-equipped to handle this than either I or the reference librarian. So I said, “One moment, sir,” and put him into transfer mode, got the secretary on the line, put him through, and went back to replacing pocket-parts or whatever other gripping task the circ desk had for me that day.

About a minute later, the phone rang again and I had a sense of doom. Sure enough, when I answered it, I got, “I WOULD LIKE TO SPEAK TO THE LAW LIBRARIAN.” Either my ancient telephone-fu was weak, or he had gotten confused when he was put on hold and had hung up.

“One moment, sir,” I put him on hold again and called up to the director’s secretary’s office. Now she was not there. Hell.

I took a deep breath and got back on the line with my elderly friend. “Sir, nobody is there at the moment. I would be happy to take a message for you –”

That was when he exploded. He began to yell, ranting about how he needed to speak to the fictitious “law librarian” and how he was retired Maine Supreme Court Justice Hoo-Ha, and on and on. The serials librarian, who had been shelving journals in the open shelves behind the circ desk looked at me as I held the phone’s receiver away from my ear. I felt like one of those cartoons where the noise from the phone actually blows your hair back. Finally, his tirade wound down and he ended by sarcastically asking, “So what do you suggest I do?”

I had a split-second conversation with the angel on one shoulder and the devil on the other, took a deep breath, and said, “Well sir – the way I see it you have two choices. You can leave a message as I suggested at the outset or you can continue to be rude to me. Which will it be?”

The serials librarian in the stacks behind me inhaled audibly and I waited.

“Um. I guess I’ll leave a message then.”

Score one for the work-study student.

Cleanup in aisle 5…

Weekends around here aren’t complete without a typical, American-style visit to the grocery store to stock up on the things we need for the week.  This morning, after a breakfast at a Cajun joint in Bethesda, we stopped at a grocery store outside our usual orbit to do a quick shop.

John was at the deli counter and I was sort of spacing out when I suddenly recognized the body language of a woman who was saying something to John: she was pretty clearly in the early stages of trying to chat him up.  At about the moment I realized this, she happened to look over at me.  Since I have one of those faces that when at rest communicates something akin to severe disapproval, she was a bit taken aback.

I wandered over about 30 seconds later, since I was intrigued.  The woman had a small daughter.  What’s going on here?  Ah – no wedding ring.  John, by the way, wears one.

However, this didn’t stop her from continually throwing herself in John’s way as we continued around the store.  Had I had the foresight, I would have visited the snack aisle for popcorn, because her efforts and John’s obliviousness was grand guignol.  When we finally reached the checkout and I mentioned the woman’s determined efforts in John’s direction, he said, “Oh – is that why she kept getting in my way?”

What a man I have. I could have told this woman what it took to get John to realize I was interested in him all those years ago. It took more than some flirtatious body language, I can tell you.

The episode also reminded me of the last time I wrote about John’s babe-magnetude. The original version of the following ran on November 8, 2004:
I live in a house full of male creatures. My husband: John Smith, International Terrorist, MacIntosh (aka Mac, Toshie, Dogface, Fuzzy, etc.), Simon, and Dash. Simon and Dash are stay-at-home types, enjoying (we hope) the lazy, safe existence we have foisted upon them. The rest of us venture out into the world to suffer its slings and arrows. Or, in the case of MacIntosh, to enjoy the love and adulation that is your rightful due when you are fuzzy and cute and have fur that a guitarist in an 80’s hair band would give his eye teeth for.

When John and I first moved to Maryland, we lived in a temporary apartment and got Mac after we had lived there a scant few weeks. Mac was a babe magnet from the beginning, all lollopy paws, big brown eyes, and snubnose curiosity. Walks around our temporary apartment tended to be extended enterprises, with Mac’s fan club stopping us to chat, pet, and play. John and I have spent the last two and a half years knowing our place: we are the roadies, there to serve. Mac takes all the attention with a blasé attitude – he has always been a babe magnet and he knows no other way to be.

My husband is also a babe magnet of a specific variety. For those of you who like your men flashy and trendy, John is not for you (well, he’s not for you anyway – he’s for me, but that’s getting ahead of ourselves). For those of us who like quiet capability, thoughtful intelligence and good sense, and a certain wild-card sense of humor (not to mention, as I lapse into the New England vernacular, wicked cute big brown eyes), John is terribly appealing.

But we have been together for a long time – about five years in total, and while our familiarity does not breed contempt, it does breed comfort. So I was surprised and amused yesterday as we made a stop into Hudson Trail Outfitters and I suddenly found myself to be invisible.

Being on the brink of leaving the store because we couldn’t find a mechanic in the bike section, a young female employee offered to help us find someone.

I should rephrase: this Siren of the Bohemian Outdoors offered to help John find someone. Depositing some clothing on a rack, she deplored her clumsiness – veering precipitously close to a giggle, and flashing John a sideways glance.

I stood behind him, realization of my sudden invisibility starting to dawn, amusement starting to spread. John replied with a somewhat sharp joke, and she flashed him another glance, saying in an admiring voice (and I kid not), “You are direct, aren’t you?” It was all I could do not to start giggling myself.

The best part of the joke is that when I batted my eyes at John later and teased him for being such a babe magnet, he had no idea what I was talking about. Either that, or he’s even smarter than I thought he was.


I got a call from a friend yesterday, chiding me on my lack of posting.  All I could say was, "Yeah – John’s been riding me about that too."  What can I say?  It’s been hot and humid, I’ve been unwell, and while I’m back pretty close to normal, I’m still not 100%.  The heat, humidity, and unwell-ness have meant 0 running since mid-month, so that’s another reason for glum, cranky, no-writing-ness.

So, what can I do but a rerun?  I was reminded of the post below the other day, which originally ran on March 29, 2004 and was called "Manning the Ramparts."  Enjoy.


I’ve been a bit cranky lately ["A bit?!" I hear my husband cry. Okay, very cranky]. Only this morning do I have a specific, topical and timely excuse (you clean coffee out of an iBook keyboard at seven in the morning and see how cheery you are). The rest of it has been a lingering malaise which I vaguely attribute to the cause: Don’t Have A Job Yet. But an e-mail from my mother about this site gives another possible cause. She writes, "The only thing I find scary about these musings of yours is that it’s a pretty coherent picture of a culture gone mad–or perhaps more accurately, gone stupid." In all modesty I would substitute the word "consistent" for "coherent" in that statement – otherwise, I’m not sure I can argue with it.

I hate it when I do or say something stupid (cf. coffee on the keyboard). But what is really maddening is when our culture allows us to defend our stupidity – letting us love it and hug it and call it George. There are whole sections of the culture who look upon intelligence and erudition with suspicion, and there is a particularly insidious way of manning the Ramparts of Stupidity: the mislabeled "opinion."

Consider this quote from a music-loving woman in a Wal-Mart for a story about the store’s new music download service . Neda Ulaby of All Things Considered asked her if she would use Wal-Mart’s new online music purchasing system, and she replied, "In a way, I think that’s stealing. And I feel that anything that is downloaded off the computer from anywhere is stealing. So if I come here and buy it then I’ve paid for it and I’m getting what I paid for. So. That’s how I feel."

So, in this woman’s mind, purchasing is not defined as an exchange of goods or services for money – it’s all about the delivery method. Ulaby blames this woman’s thinking (or lack thereof) on the music industry’s virulent anti-piracy media campaign. But take a closer look at what the woman actually said. She starts out by saying she "thinks" it is stealing, softening it by prefacing her statement with, "In a way…". But then she goes on to defend her position that it is stealing by saying it’s what she "feels." In other words, it’s what she believes – it’s her opinion. So she stands on a factually indefensible position and mans the ramparts by retreating to the language of belief.

Someone (sorry – I have been unable to find a source) said, "Everyone is entitled to their own opinion, but not everyone is entitled to their own facts." But our society reflexively retreats from arguing with people who use the words believe, feel, opinion, etc. It’s a conversational "home base" from which the factually deficient can say, "Neener, neener, you can’t get me." Opinions are so sacred that they cause us to retreat from argument, even when those "opinions" are really factual inaccuracies in disguise. On second thought, perhaps my mother was right the first time – it is a culture gone mad. And you don’t argue with the clinically insane.

Later on in the segment, the aforementioned music-lover in Wal-Mart does say that she will probably use the download service. If she still believes she’s stealing can she get arrested by the thought police?

More from the rerun file

I’ve had little creativity since the sinusy stuff, so here’s another one from the archives. It originally ran on April 21, 2004 and was titled “I Still Police Commas.”


In my third year of law school, I was required to execute a major project. This “thesis” we were required to turn in halfway through our third and final year was also known as the “Independent Writing Project” or IWP. We called it the “I-whip,” a beleaguered nod to the fact that it was a killer of a project. Professor David Gregory was my advisor for this project. “Advisor” should probably be relabeled “tutor.” The advisor’s role is to guide, discuss and help with the project as much or as little as they deem useful or necessary. Finally, they are to grade it.

Professor David Gregory was the advisor you would choose if you had either serious chutzpah or serious masochism issues. Or, in my case, I chose him because I was already working for him as a researcher and had come to know him the tiniest bit. His intellect was deep, his learning was broad, and his wit left none unscathed. He was especially fond of telling a story at the beginning of class, pausing for dramatic effect as he cast his light blue gaze over the class, and intoning in his rough-voiced New England drawl, “Now I ask you…” That seemingly simple question meant he was about to seriously rewire your world-view. He did it so often that we got used to the feeling of having the world dumped upside down and shaken like a snow globe. Some of us even got to liking it. I don’t remember anyone ever getting the better of him in discussion or argument. But when he sparred verbally with you, you at least thought he might believe you were worthy of the effort.

The time-honored ritual of IWP process included turning in drafts as you went along. In due course, I turned in my first seven pages – the introduction – and got back seven pages of red ink.

Most of these were deleted commas.

Before I went to law school I thought I could write. My first year writing class taught me that yes, maybe I could write, but I couldn’t write like a lawyer yet. I had a lot to learn about building an argument – crafting phrases that carefully built up your own position while refuting the other side’s strongest points until finally there was nothing to do but agree with the writer. Legal writing is a lot like a geometric proof that way. Each step must be explained. Nothing can be left to the reader’s assumption. Leave out a step and you’re finished.

By my third year, I had the structure of legal writing down pat. I wasn’t going to leave out an “if” on my way to the “therefore.” I knew the rules and had become confident of my ability to play the game. Occasionally, I did worry that I was losing whatever flair I might have possessed for writing fun, stylish prose. I hadn’t counted on losing my grip on punctuation. I remember getting that paper back, flipping through it, and feeling a terrible, sinking feeling. Professor Gregory didn’t address a single premise that I had laid out in that introduction. He didn’t challenge my pre-stated conclusions and he didn’t approve of them. He hadn’t engaged me as a lawyer or lawyer-to-be. Instead, he had come at me like an avenging angel from Strunk’s bible and cut me low.

I brought the paper home and stared at it for a while, blurry eyed, not seeing. Finally, knowing I had to get stuck in and get on with it, I started to read what I had written, or to read what I could behind the thicket of red circles and deletions. And I realized something. Somewhere along the line, in a serious-minded attempt to insure that each thought received attention, I had started to carve up my prose with commas. I am a rapid reader. Perhaps I was trying to tell the reader, “Please slow down.” At any rate, the Professor was right. My prose was littered with fidgeting, distracting, unnecessary punctuation.

Over the next few months I handed in other drafts to Professor Gregory. He never handed another one back. They disappeared into the shelves and piles that made his office into a dark labyrinth where the student picked her way through, off balance and unready for the Minotaur with twinkling blue eyes and smoker’s voice. We didn’t discuss the project again until I asked for an extension, which was granted. In retrospect, considering I had chosen this particular project because I was already researching the subject for the Professor, that was kind of him. At long last, after a long night of paging through a near-final draft with my own red pen in hand, I printed off and handed in the completed project. I had worked on it for so long, I had no idea if it was the best work I had ever done or if it was inferior kindling.  Having no outside feedback, I didn’t have so much as a string in the dark to follow towards the light.

Having slid the paper into the Professor’s mailbox, I then commenced about two weeks’ worth of evasive action. I had a class with the Professor, so I came into the room just before class began and bolted the moment it was over. I didn’t walk past his office. Having cast the die, I was afraid of how it would fall. Mostly, I didn’t want to disappoint the Professor. He had been kind to me in his gruff, elusive way. He seemed to think I had potential. I hated to prove him wrong.

He caught me one day. It was inevitable. I was waiting for a friend, and suddenly he was there. I froze like a frightened rabbit. I didn’t hear his words as he spoke, and the extended hand was incomprehensible to me. Pulling what he had said from my short term memory I realized he had said, “Congratulations on an excellent paper.” I took his hand dumbly, and he shook it solemnly.

It was one of the two A grades I ever got in law school.

Conversations with a German-Speaking bot.

Naturally, when I saw this, I had to try it. The results:

me: merry christmas
en2de: Frohe Weihnachten
me: are you going to the christmas market?
en2de: Werden Sie den Weihnachtsmarkt?
me: did you bring the camel?
en2de: Haben Sie bringen das Kamel?

Which reminded me of something else I’ll yank out of the rerun file (originally entitled “Use Your Words” and published on September 22, 2004):


Why is it that the words we remember best in foreign languages are invariably the most useless? Occasionally, I have dreams of polishing the rust off of my French, of expanding my understanding of German beyond it’s current 30-word limit. Sometimes, I even think it would be nice to finally learn Norwegian. Then I contemplate the actual meaning and quantity of the foreign-language words I currently possess. In French, it is conceivable that I could still embarrass myself creditably. After all, I studied the language for about six years (though those six years were many, many eons ago now). I used to brush up my French by reading advanced children’s books like the Le Petit Nicolas series. Then I found the first two Harry Potter books in French translation and thought it would be a good idea to use those to help me refresh my French.

Turns out that wasn’t such a hot idea. It took me ages to get through the first two chapters of the first book, and as a result I now have the perfectly useless word “perceuse” stuck fast in my brain. It means drill. Harry’s nasty uncle is a drill salesman – reading the book in English, I was never aware of the repetition of the word. But in French, oh – I frustrated myself with how often I looked it up. The first time or two I read it and looked it up, my helpfully discriminating brain said, “You won’t need that,” and promptly forgot it. That was a mistake. Having had to look it up a few more times, now I will never forget it. So – if you go to Paris with me, be sure to take me to a hardware store.

I visited Germany in Christmas in 1996. So, if you say, “Fro Weihnachten” to me while offering me gluhwein, we’re good. I can say “please” and “thank you.” I can even say “excuse me.” I can count to ten. I’m like Sesame Street auf Deutsch! While in a train station, I can tell the Eingang (entrance) from the Ausfahrt (exit). (Upon arrival at one of many train stations during that trip, one of my companions said, “I forget – do we gang or fahrt?”) So obviously, I’m a terror in German. Hold me back.

My Norwegian is the most laughable. Thanks to my late Norwegian grandmother, I can tell you I love you. Of far less utility, I can say “bread” and “butter.” I have no verbs with which to ask for the bread and butter, nor can I tell you where to shove the bread and butter. But then again, I can say “thank you very much” after being offered bread and butter. It’s not that useless after all – I can write a little Viking monologue: “Brot! Smur!! Tusen takk.” Applause

Thank you, thank you – you’re beautiful – I’m here all week. Try the bread and butter.

From the Archives – the First of an Occasional Series

It’s that time of year again – people are talking about holiday music – their favorites, least favorites, songs of regret and longing, songs of holiday cheer.  I’m a bit pressed for time, and I have found that searching my own archives from the old site is mostly borked (why?  We may never know), so I have decided to occasionally dip into my past output and re-run it (possibly edited, possibly not).  Therefore, I give you the post which originally ran on February 17, 2004, “The Third Bird Carnival” –


I heard a piece on NPR yesterday in which a Filipino poet explained the premise of his new book. He had apparently misunderstood the lyrics of the Johnny Rivers song, “Secret Agent Man” for years. He thought it was “Secret Asian Man,” and it struck him as particularly apt, even after he learned his mistake.

There is something profoundly human in misunderstanding song lyrics – especially when it comes to rock. It is a universal story – just about everyone seems to have their own reconstruction of some popular song and usually the misunderstood lyrics are ridiculous to the point of absurdity.  Somehow our brains seek to come up with some string of words that fit the sounds you can pick out, and wedge them in there with utterly human hubris, no matter how ludicrous the output.  It’s the kind of universal experience that makes for good standup or sketch comedy (Cf. Wayne and Garth singing “There’s a Bathroom on the Right” to the tune of “Bad Moon on the Rise”).  There is even a book: Marie once gave me this anthology of misunderstood song lyrics, appropriately entitled, “‘Scuse Me While I Kiss This Guy.”  (And oh – there is a sequel as well… even, appropriately enough, a holiday edition.)

In my own story of misunderstood lyrics, I don’t even have the excuse of thumping bass or yowling electric guitars to explain the misunderstanding: instead, I have to blame two factors: youth and context. I was about three years old and it was Christmas time. Those who know me know that I sing – in the car, around the house, to the animals – but those who have known me for a very long time know that I sang long before I could read. My mother couldn’t sing me lullabies – she has a beautiful voice, it wasn’t that I was a baby music critic – the problem was, as soon as she would begin singing, I would join in and delay going to sleep.

So, imagine: Advent, 1972. I was in church with Mom, and I was singing with all my heart along with the rest of the congregation. Suddenly, my mother started laughing. I was worried: had I hit a wrong note? What was so funny? She was finally able to explain to me in soft whispers that the lyrics to the song were, “Rejoice, rejoice, Emmanuel…” My misconstruction made as much sense to me as “Secret Asian Man” did to the Filipino poet (still does, actually – if you think like a three-year-old). I had been singing, “Free toys, free toys, Emmanuel…” I believe I thought Emmanuel might be a different name for Santa Claus.

Later on yesterday, after I had breakfasted with a friend and told her about the Secret Asian Man, we went into a Barnes & Noble. Another friend had reminded me of the existence of an omnibus edition of the works of James Thurber, and I wanted my own copy. Since I didn’t find it right away, I sought out an employee – eager to help, but not familiar with the works of early/middle twentieth-century humorists. I explained what I wanted – I told him the title and added that it was a collection of works by the humorist, James Thurber. I spoke slowly and carefully. There was no musical accompaniment, rock or otherwise. He retreated to his inventory computer and typed swiftly. Perhaps he’s a Secret Asian Man, because his search was for “The Third Bird Carnival.”