Wednesday, October 1, 2014

The Word Limit

Dear Friends,

If you believe in the old adage about the relative value of pictures and words, this month's wordy Hard Taco song, "Pick Two," is worth over 0.8 pictures. The chorus of this song is a reference to a metaphor I read about in a David Sedaris essay. To paraphrase, your life is spent cooking at a symbolic stovetop. The four burners represent your family, friends, health, and work.  To provide enough heat to two of them (and thus, to be successful at them), you have to turn the other burners off.

Most of us find other places to waste time besides the big four. I'm sure you've got your own auxiliary heat sources, but for me there's the music recording burner, the fort-building burner, and the stupid digest-writing burner (the one I would most like to turn off.) With all of these going, there is certainly no gas for the reading anything other than one book of David Sedaris essays burner. 

In a parallel universe, I bet I'm a great reader. In this one, I make it through one or two novels in a good year. Aside from a fluky Kurt Vonnegut phase in 1999, I haven't really been an avid reader since 9th grade, when I finally outgrew the only favorite author I ever had. Any guesses who it was?

Piers Anthony.

Anyone? No smoldering Piers Anthony fans out there? Not anymore, but in the 80s, he was the reigning colossus of fantasy cheese. For years, it seemed like every time I stepped into Waldenbooks, there was a new Piers Anthony novel on the shelves. All 100 or so of his books were about people who unintentionally traveled between magic and non-magic worlds, a trope which has since been adapted more successfully in countless books and movies.  One factor that was crucial to his limited success was that Anthony was also a pervert, but not so much that they couldn't stock his books in middle school libraries.

From 4th grade on, I carried a Piers Anthony paperback with me at all times. My Grandpa Arnold would see me reading and mumble, "Pierce Rabinowitz." I never knew why changing the last name from Anthony to Rabinowitz was funny. The only similarity between the two names was the long o sound, but it's hard to argue that was enough to qualify as wordplay.

One day, we were running some errands in my grandpa's truck, and he noticed that I was holding a copy of, "On a Pale Horse."

"Pierce Rabinowitz," he mumbled. Whatever joy he got from this clever pun melted away quickly, because I took this as an invitation to summarize the plot of the book. This guy Zane is about to kill himself because he's really sad, but then he sees Death, the actual guy-version of Death, the grim reaper guy with the scythe. So Zane flips out and shoots Death instead of himself! And then here's the cool part...  he has to take over Death's job! He has to drive around the world in a limo, which can turn into a boat sometimes, and collect people's souls.

After about fifteen minutes, I paused to take a breath, and my grandfather said, "Every person is born with a word limit. Once you say all of your allotted words, you die."

So I stopped talking. Not because I understood his point (that I should shut up), but because I thought he was commenting on the book (he wasn't.)

But then I started thinking about what he had said. What if he was right? Could I achieve immortality by taking a Benedictine vow of silence? Were the world's orphanages filled with the children of auctioneers?

It didn't end up holding true for my grandfather. He didn't talk much, but he also didn't live to be particularly old. Still, I think his theory may hold water if we were to examine populations instead of individuals. The average life expectancy in the United States is 78.1 years. In Germany, it's 79.8 years. Why the discrepancy? Contrasting health care systems? Perhaps, but I would argue that they main difference is that Germans can say almost anything in one word. Examples:

Sitzpinkler = A man who sits to pee.
Shmutzfangmattenserive = The act of cleaning doormats
Torschlusspanik = The fear of diminishing opportunities as one ages
Fussbodenschleifmaschinenverleih = Floor sander rentals
Schwartzwalderkirschtortenlieferantenhut = The hat of the black forest cake delivery person

Spanish, on the other hand, uses extra words to express simple concepts. If you want to fundraise, for example, you have to say, "estamos tratando de recaudar fondos." And guess what? The average Guatemalan only makes it to 71.5 years. (And most of them go to their graves without ever understanding what Girl Scouts are doing with all those cookies, because no one has time to explain it to them.)

All of this comes back around to my original point, which is that this month's Hard Taco song, "Pick Two," is extraordinarily wordy. That means I'm going to end up on the wrong end of the actuarial bell curve if I don't make up some ground. So please, if you see me this month, please shut me up when I try to give you a summary of the first 37 Xanth novels.

With warmest regards,