It's not about the house.

Sunday, August 16, 2009

An Impression of Pleasure

I've been taking myself a sort of mental vacation lately, in case you haven't noticed. It’s not something I planned on, but I seem to have got myself caught in the eye of a mediocre storm: an unexpected slight downturn in family crises, coinciding with an opportunity to take a brief break from writing (although I really ought to have been soldiering on); while a lack of funds for actual, physical escapism led me to noodling around on the web – until I stumbled upon Cecil Adams’s The Straight Dope on line.

For those of you who don't know The Straight Dope, you should. Cecil has been answering questions for the masses for 36 years – his motto is “Fighting ignorance since 1973 (it's taking longer than we thought).” People from all over write in to ask him about everything, and he and his crack team of assistants and accomplices do actual research (you remember research, right? With books and libraries, articles and phone calls, sometimes even actual experiments and everything?) and then they write up in-depth, thoughtful answers that are always a little snarky, often a wee bit arrogant, and never dull.

Well. Not never. Even Cecil can't make the concept of dew point interesting. But he makes up for it with an exhaustive list of things that have been retrieved from people's bungholes.

Questions tackled range from the urban mythic (can you really blow out your eyeball when you sneeze?*) to the secretly mystic (what's up with the Rosicrucians?), from the historical (was Boston really once buried in molasses?) to the insane (can playing the bongos make you piss blood?). He tackles the minute (what’s up with the God particle?), the mundane (does toast really land butter side down?), the seemingly easy (are there really jackalopes?), and the Really Big Ones (who killed Jesus? who's richer, Bill Gates or Scrooge McDuck?).

So although I’ve spent the last week or so determined to finally finish those last 1500 words of My Big Project, or to write a blog post – one that is, I promise, not about the dog – or to do something, anything, around this freaking house (seriously, if I showed you the state of my bathroom right now you'd throw up), I have instead slid into my office chair, grazed my eyes across a column titled “Will masturbation shrink the penis?,” and surfaced four hours later to eat peanut butter straight out of the jar.

Sometimes, to be honest, I already know the answer (why do we mount horses on the left?**) sometimes I don’t know but I can guess (I haven't read the penis column yet, but I'm betting that if masturbation shrank it there wouldn't be any left), and sometimes I don't care (“25 or 6 to 4” could be the long-sought alchemical ratio and still I wouldn’t give a golden shit. Chicago sucks), but I read them anyway. Hundreds of them. For a week, now.

The sad part is Johnny actually thinks I’m working. There are no sidebars or ads on the Cecil pages once you scroll down past the headline, so to a person who does not use a computer – which is Johnny – it looks pretty much like any other screen filled up with words. Like, say, those 1500 I’m supposed to be perfecting. Which, coincidentally enough, happen to be a sort of happily-ever-after about him. So he’s been tiptoeing around me all this week, saying excuse me, not interrupting, making me meals and offering me cups of tea, while I sit slack-jawed reading about whether there was a real Typhoid Mary, chupacabras, or subliminal erotica in Walt Disney cartoons.***

I keep telling myself I’ll get to the end and quit, which is how I’ve managed to convince myself it’s not a problem. I mean, try telling a junkie he’ll be all set just as soon as he’s junked up all the junk. He can’t, and he might even die trying, so he’s screwed. Me? I’ve just got a temporary jones – with the added benefit that there will never really be an end, because Cecil and his minions are still cranking columns out. But once I’ve finished bingeing on the past there’ll be just one tiny little new one doled out to me each morning, no matter how desperately I might beg. Perhaps they’ll even serve it in a little Dixie cup…

The problem with this theory is that the finish line keeps moving. The first page of archives said there were 20 pages of past columns, but when I got to page 19 there were suddenly 20 more. Thinking about it rationally, I suppose makes sense. I don’t, after all, have to go ask Unca Cecil to figure out that a column a week for thirty-six years equals a heck of a lot. But I just looked it up, so as to know what I’m up against. There are 57 pages of column titles – 50 titles to a page. And at that point, like I said, I’d read 19.

My name is Erin, and apparently I have a problem.

Jolted from my stupor by this horse of a revelation, I took a dazed walk around the proverbial block and found myself staring in the windows at Slate magazine, where I saw a frantic-looking cartoon man running on a cartoon hamster wheel, typing desperately into his cartoon blackberry above the headline “Why You Can’t Stop Googling.”

Ha, I thought. Google, schmoogle (a Yiddishism, according to Cecil). I look up what I need to look up, and then I walk away. Not only can I stop Googling, but I do stop Googling, several if not dozens of times a day. Feeling smug, I didn’t bother to read the article before I wandered back over to Cecil and tied off another vein.

Three days later, I surfaced again. This time I was in search of a globe-map because I had to see for myself that Mecca in fact lies Northeast from New York like Cecil says (huh. Northeast from my house, too. Whaddaya know?). Since that blew my mind a little bit, and I was out and about anyway, I decided to wander back over to Slate and see what all those teeming millions found so gosh-dang irresistible about Google, after all.

The article turned out to be about some old rat experiments. I’m sure you’ve heard of them. We all have. The ones where they put an electrode in the wee rodent’s hypothalamic pleasure center and he keeps pressing the lever to shock himself over and over and over and over at the expense of everything else till he keels over? Well, if I’m understanding it correctly – and, after all this Cecil work, I damn well better be – it says the researchers recently discovered that all those years ago they accidentally stuck the electrode probes not in the pleasure center of Nicodemus’s poor brain, but in his learning center. Those rats were not depraved Dionysian hedonists, they were frustrated Apollonian scholars!

And I’m a rat-brained junkie.

Who invented Hell? Do fish fart? How did dinosaurs have sex? According to Unca Cecil, Jesuits believe that one can never learn too much. I don’t know if Ignatius Loyola had the internet in mind (or an electrode in his brain) when he decided that, but he was right. After all, if I’d quit The Straight Dope yesterday like I was going to, I'd never have learned that “realistically, the average number of spiders swallowed at night per person per lifetime is probably less than one.”

I think Brother Loyola would join me in saying: Phew. 

Now if you’ll excuse me, I need to go find out if tin foil helmets really do provide adequate protection against mind control rays…

*The answers to the questions quoted in this paragraph are, in order, as follows: Um, no. Not a hell of a lot, apparently. Yes, mostly. Surprisingly, yes. I don’t know; it has to do with quantum physics, so I skipped it. Yes, but not for the reasons that you think. Yes! Blame everybody you can think of, but it doesn’t matter. Scrooge McDuck.

** Just so there’s a standard. Of course not; der. It’s telling time – 3:34 or 3:45 – which is even dumber than all the theories because nobody would ever say that.

***Yes. No. Yes!


Janice said...

Oh, I so know that state! I've been reading blogs in google reader for weeks now instead of working - but no-one knows.... and now you've added The Straight Dope to my addiction!

Anonymous said...

I am SO not going to that site, it sounds like my kind of crack.

My other half is so computer illiterate that I spent 4 hours reading blogs in Google Reader the other day and he thought I was working so made me a special dinner. Ha. I'm not going to tell him.

Sparkle Plenty said...

1,500 words? Just 1,500 words (sorry, I know there's no "just" about it)?

Guess what? I'm going to ignore this very funny and well-written post and focus on the words yet to be written.

GO, ERIN, GO! You can do it, baby! Get in there! Faster pussycat, kill kill! Batter up! Gentlemen, start your engines! You got what it takes, missy! Betty is smilin' upon you. Soldier on.

Eat some chocolate ice cream and write that mo fo.

(Am sending extremely good vibes your way re: family stuff. Enjoy the eye of the storm while it lasts and may it turn into a sunny horizon.)

atlanticmo said...

Nice Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of NIMH reference.

EGE said...

Janice (Nana!) -- So sorry, but I hope you enjoy it as much as I do (or maybe I hope you don't? Whichever's better...)

12 -- How do we find these men? (By the way, for you and Nana: it is freaking HOT here now, and I am jealous of you both.)

Sparkle -- I'm trying! I'm trying! I'm at the "it's all written in my head" stage. Which means, as any writer knows, it's a piece of cake from here (NOT!). Chocolate ice cream, you say?

Mo -- Thanks for getting it! I thought I might be going a bit too '80s wee-child with that one...

Unknown said...

I am truly disappointed. You skipped the Quantum Physics. That is truly heartbreaking.

I shall be in my study reading a book. With no sidebar advertising at all.

Jen said...

I think I may need to google this google reader.
( I already opened the other links in new windows)