Absurdity Lives!

My apologies for bringing up the Russian Spy Caper again, but I can’t seem to get it off my mind.

There is one person who has impressed me more than anyone else in this whole sorry tale, and that’s a fifteen year old neighbor of espionage suspect Cynthia Murphy, a person identified in the New York Times as Jessie Gugig. Ms Gugig was interviewed for an early online version of the Times story and was quoted saying she could not believe the charges against her neighbors, Ms. Murphy especially.

“They couldn’t have been spies. Look what she did with the hydrangeas.”

These two sentences perfectly capture the absurdity of this situation. There is nothing to add. I believe Ms. Gugig’s quote will be repeated whenever this story is mentioned, today, in the next weeks and months, and one hundred years from now. It will live forever, and when you are fifteen years old this is a great accomplishment. Most people lack the skill and the opportunity to create such a verbal landmark. Jessie Gugig made the most of her moment.

Some will point to the quote as an illustration of the simple minded cluelessness of the Average American Suburban Russian Spy Neighbor. But here’s an interesting detail … the Times edited later editions of the story to present the quote this way …

“They couldn’t have been spies,” she said jokingly. “Look what she did with the hydrangeas.”

Here the Newspaper of Record is going out of its way to tell us that Jessie Gugig is no simpleton. She didn’t just say the thing about the hydrangeas. She said it “jokingly“. She saw the craziness and packaged it up for us – on purpose. I’m impressed with Ms. Gugig’s powers of observation, her summarizing skill and her humorous boldness.

I expect great things from her.

For some inexplicable reason, the hydrangea quote made me want to express the same thought less gracefully, using the least elegant of all poetical forms – the limerick.

A gardener arrested for spying
Missed detection without even trying.
Every flower she grew
Blossomed red, white or blue.
Her heroic Hydrangeas flying!

Please feel free to add your own limerick, or your favorite inspirationally absurd quote. Or you could talk about beautiful hydrangeas, and what they can tell us about their gardener.

Have You Met the Neighbors?

Since we’re all friends here, I’ll share an official letter I’m sending out today!

Dear Director Mueller,

First of all, congratulations to the FBI for catching that ring of Russian spies masquerading as ordinary Americans in ordinary American places like Yonkers and Montclair. It was a real shot in the arm for all of us here in suburbia to learn that the FBI is watching the neighbors to determine, once and for all, what they’re up to.

I’m impressed that you figured out these spies were sending messages with shortwave burst transmissions and invisible ink and by switching identical orange bags on the train. That’s amazing. The thing with information encoded into ordinary photographs on the internet – who knew? You did! You guys rock. We probably have some of that same high tech chatter going on out here in my neck of the woods, but I think the bulk of the secret communication is being done in more mundane ways.

At the first and second houses to the west of me, for example. These guys are out mowing their lawns a LOT, and often at the very same time, which is highly unusual. I’ve noticed that my immediate neighbor, B.M., will wave with his right hand to M.F., who lives at the second house down. And M.F. responds with a nod. But last week B.M. waved with his LEFT hand and M.F. nodded TWICE and winked. Was it some kind of a joke or top-secret choreography? And the tone of the mowers was different somehow. One sounded like a small airplane and the other was more like a vuvuzela. Can you send coded information that way? All I know is, the very next day Medvedev showed up in D.C. Coincidence? Doubtful.

The women are involved too, of course. C.F. spends a lot of time gardening in planting beds in front of her house. I’ve noticed she sometimes leaves the rake leaning up against the tree, and at other times it lies flat on the ground. Clearly it’s a signal. After she messes around in the dirt for a while, she’ll wipe her brow and head inside like she’s thirsty or tired but that’s just a cover for what happens next. The moment she’s in the door a “rabbit” comes out from under a nearby shrub and “visits” the work area. Microchips, anyone? I believe they are delivered inside “pellets”.

And C.M. next door is always driving the minivan somewhere. Children of various shapes and sizes appear seated at different windows during all these “trips”, many of which last only a few minutes. If they were pixels instead of 8 year olds and you could back up far enough to see the different journeys all at once, these tousled heads in their alternating configurations would no doubt spell out a message, probably in Cyrillic characters. I have pictures, but I haven’t been able to arrange them properly as of yet.

Perhaps you have a lady spy in a tight fitting trench coat who could assist me? We could do our work on the front porch. I wouldn’t want the neighbors to get the wrong idea.


Special Agent D.C.
Minnesota Subdivision

Which of YOUR neighbors is a secret agent?

Your Life on TV

Along with donuts and rubber poultry, the topic of “classic” TV came up over the weekend. That’s a flexibly defined thing. Regardless of when you were born, “classic” TV is the first TV you ever watched. For my generation it also turns out to include some of the first TV ever produced.

For no sane reason, I titled Saturday’s entry “Joanie Loves Chachi”, which drew this response from Lisa:

I LOATHED Joanie Loves Chachi. As spinoffs go, my vote goes to Maude, I think. I remember well that, as a child, I was utterly baffled by the relationship between characters on “Green Acres” and “Petticoat Junction.” How did they sometimes end up on each others’ shows? HOw could that BEEEEE?

Lisa, I know you are aware that the people who appear on TV shows live and love and work under different rules than the ones that govern our daily lives. They are more interesting in every way, and less complex. It took me years to come to grips with the realization that TV pacing didn’t translate to real life, and my clever remarks didn’t automatically end the scene. I’d offer up my best at the dinner table thinking if I got a laugh we could break for commercial, and then it would be the next day and I wouldn’t have to finish that pile of green peas on my plate. Fat chance.

Modern “reality” TV has no more truth in it than “Petticoat Junction,” which, you correctly point out, left thoughtful children baffled. I found the show extremely troubling.

I was 8 when that “Petticoat Junction” went on the air. I liked the train in the opening credits but I couldn’t get over the idea of people swimming in the water tank. I was learning to swim at the time and already had some very serious reservations about deep water. Those vertical sides with no pool deck and no sign of a lifeguard heightened my anxiety. And of course the suggestion that the sisters were nude was extremely disturbing. I assumed that the tank held drinking water for The Shady Rest and the health inspector would issue a citation for it, I was certain. When my brother told me the water in the tank was for the steam train, I felt better about it, but only a little. Why would you want to risk messing up a really neat engine with hairy water?

Some brainy commentators say our TV watching is merely a search for self. If so, that would explain my disappointment with Petticoat Junction, Green Acres and The Beverly Hillbillies. The show where I did see myself is one that was just written up in the New York Times for the release of its entire oeuvre on DVD – Leave it To Beaver.

For me, there were surprising parallels. Like any young boy with dark hair and freckles, I was accused of looking like the Beav. Also, I had an older brother, (Wa)Lee.


Which is which?

Hint: I’m the one who does NOT have a TV star haircut.

This imagined connection heightened my interest in the show, which is described by critics as one of the first TV programs to take a kids eye view of things. The older brother / younger brother dynamic was the greatest attraction and the most profound similarity to what was actually going on. My brother was wise to the world – I was a goofy obnoxious pest. This relationship is timeless.

And then there were coincidences:

One of the co-creators of the show was a guy from New York named Joe Connelly – that’s where we were from, and Joe Connelly is my father’s name!

And the first episode of Leave It To Beaver was broadcast on October 4th, 1957 – my birthday!

Clearly, Leave It To Beaver was my reality TV. Here’s a famous clip:

My friends and I climbed like this on the slippery, craggy rocks along the Hudson River, which was a much dumber choice than scaling a billboard. It also had less comedic potential.

Have you ever seen a TV show that mirrored your actual life?
If you had to invent such a show, what would it be called?

Be Careful What You Wish For

Yesterday’s topics were book clubs and donuts, but in spite of the sophisticated tone of the conversation, Clyde wound up asking for a rubber chicken.

There should be one of these in every rubber pot.

I have a rubber chicken. Doesn’t everyone? This has got to be one of the greatest achievements of our civilization. How did this come about?

And why don’t chickens have rubber humans?

Joanie Loves Chachi

In case you missed its genesis in the comments over the past few days, a book group is forming with some Trail Baboon readers leading the way. Thanks to Anna for setting up Blevins’ Book Club. Ground rules and selecting a first book are the topics under discussion. Take a look!

I’m proud to say a new blog has been opened up by people who met here for the first time. We are expanding our digital real estate – before long the virtual world may be covered with Trail Baboon spinoffs and the sun will never set on a fresh conversation. This is what it must have felt like for the creators of “Happy Days” when major characters started to get their own series.

I mentioned this to marketing expert and idea man Spin Williams, and he was ecstatic.

“It’s exactly this sort of thing that led to the creation of our own research and development technique several decades ago, before the Internet even got started. We call it ‘The Meeting That Never Ends’. At our L.A. offices, we have a conference room open 24/7. Our gathering is always in session so we can respond immediately to newest opportunities in a changing world. There is a sharpened pencil and a clean notepad at every seat. The coffee is on indefinitely. And I’ve arranged for an endless supply of donuts to be delivered, much in the way Joe DiMaggio sent roses to Marilyn Monroe’s crypt three times a week for 20 years! We never adjourn!”

I love Spin for his enthusiasm, but I can only imagine what coffee that is on “indefinitely” must taste like. And if the purpose of the ‘Meeting That Never Ends’ is to ‘respond immediately to the newest opportunities’, how come it remains stuck in a physical conference room? Did they miss social networking websites completely?

Spin talks a good game about being nimble and embracing change, but he is very much set in his ways and wedded to ritual. It must be the donuts. Once you’ve had a few thousand Bismarcks, it becomes difficult to push away from the table and virtually impossible to get out the door. No wonder the conference room is always open.

Name your favorite donut.

A Little Talk

In an empty conference room at the Crimes Against Gullible Persons Unit, Inspector Goatlock closed the door and locked it.

“Lupine,” said Goatlock, “I’ve called us both together here in this private setting for one reason only. “

“You believe the culprit is in this room?” asked Lupine, looking nervously at the empty chairs.

“Of course not,” Goatlock replied. “But what I am about to tell you is mostly conjecture. Not up to the usual standards, I’m afraid. My reasoning may not stand the light of day.”

“But of course! How could it be otherwise? This case makes no sense to me whatsoever.”

“And yet,” said Goatlock, chewing on his pipe once again, “I believe that it all comes back to Marnie.”

“That surly child,” muttered Lupine. “Never underestimate the abilities of a twelve year old girl! They’re craftier than most humans, and twice as smart as the rest.”

“And yet, I’m afraid Marnie suffers from BS disease.”

“I knew it,” Lupine shouted. “She’s a congenital liar!”

“Not THAT BS, dear Lupine. It’s Brittle Skeleton Disease,” said Goatlock gently. “Her bones … they’re quite delicate. Didn’t you notice the child sized crutches and the mini-wheelchair?”

“Escaped my attention entirely, I’m afraid,” Lupine mused.

“Mine as well,” said Goatlock. “I only remembered them later – once I sat down to piece together this scenario.”

“Damn clever,” Lupine exclaimed. “It’s the sort of detail one would naturally overlook in a home where both parents are in the business of bones and joints and such.”

“Yes, and what kind of child winds up with an orthopedic surgeon AND a chiropractor for parents?” Goatlock posed. “Clearly they were an ordinary married couple at first, but then went in completely different directions in their frantic efforts to develop a workable treatment for her. The afflictions of a loved one can become a full time job before long, so why not get a degree and certification?”

“So when the Doctors Prettyman mentioned that Marnie ‘likes breaking things’, it wasn’t about the eggs. “ said Lupine. “It was her bones they were talking about!”

“Yes,” said Goatlock. “that’s why she described her day as ‘tenuous’. For someone with Brittle Skeleton Disease, every day is like that. And what sort of animal companion do you give a child who can break a bone simply by brushing against a wall or falling down?”

“A turtle!” Lupine realized. “No running!”

“No running and no leaping on to her lap. But no ordinary turtle,” Goatlock concluded. “It would have to be a turtle with the ability to go for help should Marnie … WHEN Marnie gets hurt!”

“Like dear old Timmy and the incredible canine Lassie!” Lupine exclaimed.

“ Just as Timmy knew he could count on Lassie to get past any obstacle when running for help,” Goatlock surmised, “so Sarge needs to be almost magical in his ability to transcend barriers.”

“Amazing creature!” said Lupine.

“And expensive,” added Goatlock. “They needed money desperately. So desperately they scammed a relative for cash.”

“But both were medical professionals!” Lupine noted.

“Medical professionals fussing and arguing over the same patient all day every day. I doubt they had paying jobs. No wonder the poor child liked to be outside.”

“So,” Lupine surmised, “the Prettymans placed a call to Beverly with that made-up the story about Alex and the Canadians. Why didn’t Beverly see through it?”

“Because Alex doesn’t exist, my dear Lupine.”

“You’ll have to explain that one, Inspector. How can a grandmother not recognize the sudden invention of a grandchild?”

“Quite simply because Beverly is a Moose Sweat addict, and she is too open to suggestion to challenge any proposition placed before her. She had all the signs of aphrodisiac intoxication. A nympho grandma so severe, even a first grade teacher from South Dakota could recognize her illness at a hundred paces.”

“What clued you to it? Was it the way she was eyeing you?”

No, dear Lupine. I’m used to that sort of reaction from creatures of all species and sexes. It was the way she was eyeing YOU. Only someone hopped up on a potent mood altering drug would cast such a wanton gaze in your direction. No offense.”

“No offense taken, dear Goatlock,” assured Lupine. “But how …?”

“I suspect the doctors Prettyman got Beverly hooked on the drug as a ready source of money to finance Marnie’s care. Moose Sweat, in addition to its well known enhancement of the libido, is widely used as a pain killing lubricant in shoulders, elbows, knees and toes, so they would have easy access to vast amounts.”

“I hope it also soothes the chafing of tortured logic,” Lupine said. “Otherwise, how could you possibly prove that Alex doesn’t exist?”

“Simply put – his story is flawed. Nobody teaches ethics of any kind in Moscow. I checked. The Russians are too fatalistic to waste time with that kind of nonsense,” Goatlock mused. “… therefore none of it is true. Even Tanya, who I desperately wanted to be real.”

“Astonishing!” Lupine blinked. “Case closed?”

“I hope so,” said Goatlock, “… but I know there are people waiting to poke holes and add details. I think we’ll have to wait to see if this story holds up.”

Are We There Yet?

“I’m baffled by this ridiculous case,” muttered Lupine as he and Goatlock approached the Behavior, Learning, Education and Teaching (B.L.E.A.T.) Center on the campus of Companion Animal College. “All we’ve got is a collection of mildly interesting bits. Nothing connects or makes any sense at all. It gives me a headache and I wish we’d never started.”

“The world isn’t arranged very neatly,” agreed Goatlock.
“If you must find a logical explanation for everything, I would say you’re afflicted with a serious handicap. Anyone suffering under such a compulsion is bound to go mad.”

“But that’s exactly what you do,” answered Lupine. “Every single time you struggle with randomly scattered facts and against impossible odds you find an explanation that is not only logical, but novel.”

“Just so,” Goatlock whispered.

Moments later, Goatlock and Lupine watched with great interest as a raccoon with one stubby leg and a misshapen mask carefully threaded its way through an obstacle course populated by garbage cans and random bits of debris.

“Why doesn’t the animal stop to eat some of that trash,” asked Lupine.
“It is a REAL raccoon, isn’t it?”

“Of course,” said Director Horace Carstairs of the B.L.E.A.T. Center. “All our creatures are real and completely wild when we acquire them. But we alter their behavior to suit the environment they’ll enter when they leave. This raccoon will be a companion animal for a landfill superintendant who has lost his sense of smell, so we had to train the beast to pass up garbage and only go for fresh food. That way, he’ll show his human what is good to eat, and what isn’t. And he’ll model good hygiene since he washes everything first, regardless.”

Lupine blinked in disbelief at the thought of a raccoon as a taste tester and food guide. “What does it cost,” he asked, “to train such a creature?”

“Not too much,” Carstairs casually replied, “compared to the GDP of a small country.”

“Director Carstairs,” asked Goatlock, “ have you ever trained a turtle to squeeze through small openings?”

“Sorry,” Carstairs replied, “but our confidentiality policy prevents me from discussing any of our cases in detail.”

“I’ll take that as a ‘yes’” said Goatlock. “But why would such a thing be necessary?”

“Turtles get hung up on things,” Carstairs said. “It can take them hours to get free. But if the animal had a knack for slipping past obstacles that would delay a normal turtle … why … that would be advantageous.
Under certain circumstances.”

“Out with it, man.” Lupine blurted. “What circumstances?”

“I’m unwilling to discuss it. You’ll have to go somewhere else for your answer.”

“ There’s no need,” said Goatlock. “I’ll wrap this all up with a tidy little speech tomorrow.”

Or you could write the speech (or a part of it) right now, if you wish.