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Archive for the ‘Humour’ Category

Americans have always had a strange devotion to the idea of assisted ease. It is an interesting fact that nearly all the everyday inventions that take the struggle out of life-escalators, automatic doors, elevators, refrigerators, washing machines, frozen food, fast food, microwaves, fax machines-were invented here or at least first widely embraced here. Americans grew so used to a steady stream of labor-saving advances, in fact, that by the 1960s they had come to expect machines to do pretty much everything for them.

The moment I first realized that this was not necessarily a good idea was at Christmas of 1961 or ’62 when my father was given an electric carving knife. It was an early model and, like most prototypes, was both bulky and rather formidable. Perhaps my memory is playing tricks on me, but I have a clear impression of him donning goggles and heavy rubber gloves before plugging it in. What is certainly true is that when he sank it into the turkey, it didn’t so much carve the bird as send pieces of it flying everywhere in a kind of fleshy white spray, before the blade struck the plate with a shower of blue sparks, and the whole thing flew out of his hands, and skittered across the table and out of the room, like a creature from a Gremlins movie. We never saw it again, though we used to sometimes hear it thumping against table legs late at night.

Like most patriotic Americans, my father was forever buying gizmos that proved to be disastrous-clothes steamers that failed to take the wrinkles out of suits but had wallpaper falling off the walls in whole sheets, an electric pencil sharpener that could consume an entire pencil (including the metal ferrule and the tips of your fingers if you weren’t real quick) in less than a second, a water pick that was so lively it required two people to hold and left the bathroom looking like the inside of a car wash, and much else.

But all of this was nothing compared with the situation today. We are now surrounded with items that do things for us to an almost absurd degree-automatic cat food dispensers, electric juicers and can openers, refrigerators that make their own ice cubes, automatic car windows, disposable toothbrushes that come with the toothpaste already loaded. People are so addicted to convenience that they have become trapped in a vicious circle: The more labor-saving appliances they acquire, the harder they need to work; the harder they work, the more labor-saving appliances they feel they need to acquire.

There is almost nothing, no matter how ridiculous, that won’t find a receptive audience so long as it promises to provide some kind of relief from effort. I recently saw advertised, for $39.95, a “lighted, revolving tie rack.” You push a button and it parades each of your ties before you, saving you the exhausting ordeal of making your selection by hand.

— Bill Bryson, I’m a Stranger Here Myself

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Now, a snowmobile, as far as I am concerned, is a rocket ship designed by Satan to run on snow. It travels at speeds up to seventy miles an hour, which-call me chicken, I don’t care-seems to me a trifle fleet on narrow, winding paths through boulder-strewn woods.

For weeks Danny pestered me to join him in a bout of this al fresco madness. I tried to explain that I had certain problems with outdoor activities vis-a-vis the snowy season, and that somehow I didn’t think a powerful, dangerous machine was likely to provide my salvation.

“Nonsense!” he cried. Well, to make a long story short, the next thing I knew I was on the edge of the New Hampshire woods, wearing a snug, heavy helmet that robbed me of all my senses except terror, sitting nervously astride a sleek, beast-like conveyance, its engine throbbing in anticipation of all the trees against which it might soon dash me. Danny gave me a rundown on the machine’s operation, which for all I understood might have been a passage from one of his books, and jumped onto his own machine.

“Ready?” he shouted over the roar of his engine.

“No.”

“Great!” he called and took off with a flare of afterburners. Within two seconds he was a noisy dot in the distance.

Sighing, I gently engaged the throttle and, with a startled cry and a brief wheelie, took off with a velocity seldom seen outside a Tom and Jerry cartoon. Shrieking hysterically and jettisoning weight via my bladder with every lively bump, I flew through the woods as if on an Exocet missile. Branches slapped my helmet. Moose reared and fled. The landscape flashed past as if in some hallucinogen-induced delirium.

Eventually, Danny stopped at a crossroad, beaming all over, engine purring. “So what do you think?”

I moved my lips but no sound emerged. Danny took this as assent.

“Well, now that you’ve got the hang of it, shall we bang up the pace a bit?”

I formed the words “Please, Danny, I want to go home. I want to see my mom,” but again no sound emerged.

And off he went.

— Bill Bryson, I’m a Stranger Here Myself

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I do know how to skate, honestly. It’s just that my legs, after years of inactivity, got a little overexcited to be confronted with so much slipperiness. As soon as I stepped onto the ice, they decided they wanted to visit every corner of Occum Pond at once, from lots of different directions. They went this way and that, scissoring and splaying, sometimes getting as much as twelve feet apart, but constantly gathering momentum, until at last they flew out from under me and I landed on my butt with such a wallop that my coccyx hit the roof of my mouth and I had to push my esophagus back in with my fingers.

“Wow!” said my startled butt as I clambered heavily back to my feet. “That ice is hard.”

“Hey, let ME see,” cried my head and instantly down I went again.

And so it went for the next thirty minutes, with various extremities of my body–shoulders, chin, nose, one or two of the more adventurous internal organs–hurling themselves at the ice in a spirit of investigation. From a distance I suppose I must have looked like someone being worked over by an invisible gladiator.

— Bill Bryson, I’m a Stranger Here Myself

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My mother was not a great cook, you see.

Now please don’t misunderstand me. My mother is a wonderful person–kindly, saintly, ever cheerful–and when she dies she will go straight to heaven. But believe me, no one is ever going to say, “Oh, thank goodness you’re here, Mrs. Bryson. Can you fix us a little something to eat?”

To be perfectly fair to her, my mother had several strikes against her in the kitchen department. To begin with, she couldn’t have been a great cook even if she had wanted to. She had a career, you see-she worked for the local newspaper, which meant that she was always flying in the door two minutes before it was time to put dinner on the table.

On top of this, she was a trifle absentminded. Her particular specialty was to cook things while they were still in the packaging. I was almost full-grown before I realized that Saran Wrap wasn’t a sort of chewy glaze. A combination of haste, forgetfulness, and a charming incompetence where household appliances were concerned meant that most of her cooking experiences were punctuated with billows of smoke and occasional small explosions. In our house, as a rule of thumb, you knew it was time to eat when the firemen departed.

Strangely, all this suited my father, who had what might charitably be called rudimentary tastes in food. His palate really only responded to three flavors–salt, ketchup, and burnt. His idea of a truly outstanding meal was a plate that contained something brown and unidentifiable, something green and unidentifiable, and something charred. I am quite sure that if you slow-baked, say, an oven glove and covered it sufficiently with ketchup, he would have declared, after a ruminative moment’s chewing, “Hey, this is very tasty.” Good food, in short, was something that was wasted on him, and my mother labored diligently for years to see that he was never disappointed.

— Bill Bryson, I’m a Stranger Here Myself

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Perspiration incontinence

Best of all, the [summer] weather [in New England] stays at a generally congenial level, unlike Iowa, where I grew up and where the temperature and humidity climb steadily with every passing day of summer until by mid-August it is so hot and airless that even the flies lie down on their backs and just quietly gasp.

It’s the mugginess that gets you. Step outside in Iowa in August and within twenty seconds you will experience a condition that might be called perspiration incontinence. It gets so hot that you see department store mannequins with sweat circles under their arms. I have particularly vivid memories of Iowa summers because my father was the last person in the Midwest to buy an air conditioner. He thought they were unnatural. (He thought anything that cost more than $30 was unnatural.)

— Bill Bryson, I’m a Stranger Here Myself

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I came across something in our bathroom the other day that has occupied my thoughts off and on ever since. It was a little dispenser of dental floss.

It isn’t the floss itself that is of interest to me but that the container has a toll-free number printed on it. You can call the company’s Floss Hotline twenty-four hours a day. But here is the question: Why would you need to? I keep imagining some guy calling up and saying in an anxious voice, “OK, I’ve got the floss. Now what?”

As a rule of thumb, I would submit that if you need to call your floss provider, for any reason, you are probably not ready for this level of oral hygiene.

My curiosity aroused, I had a look through all our cupboards and discovered with interest that nearly all household products these days carry a hotline number. You can, it appears, call up for guidance on how to use soap and shampoo, gain helpful tips on where to store ice cream so that it doesn’t melt and run out of the bottom of the container, and receive professional advice on parts of your body to which you can most successfully and stylishly apply nail polish. (“So let me get this straight. You’re saying not on my forehead?”)

— Bill Bryson, I’m a Stranger Here Myself

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Always having a party

I have very happy hair. No matter how serene and composed the rest of me is, no matter how grave and formal the situation, my hair is always having a party. In any group photograph you can spot me at once because I am the person at the back whose hair seems to be listening, in some private way, to a disco album called “Dance Graze ’97.”

— Bill Bryson, I’m a Stranger Here Myself

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