The Uses of Rubber Bands, or "Var Är Min Paraply"
The Uses of
Rubber Bands, or
"Var Är Min Paraply"
Dr. Phage


s my mother progressed into old age, she took more and more to referring to things as stupid! Of course, everything connected with physicians or medicine was stupid! and that had been her view since well before old age. But in time lots of other things became stupid! including much of the inanimate world.

For example, there was the stupid! telephone, in which she found it more and more difficult to understand spoken words. And her stupid! car, which she found more and more difficult to control. (At one point, she insisted that the car had started on its own volition at a gas station, shifted into gear, and driven through the plate glass door into the repair shop, which cost her a pretty penny. She continuted to drive for two years after that, stopping only after one of her expeditions ended up in the middle of a stupid tennis court 25 miles in the opposite direction from where she thought she was going.)

At the time, I found this turn of phrase irritating, but I am beginning to understand it now. I don't actually say it aloud, but I think exactly the same thing to myself. For example, there is the stupid! telephone directory, in which the numbers are not quite readable except with the aid of a magnifying glass. (I have stationed magnifying glasses all around the house, near the telephone, on the dining room table, in my study, etc. etc. Magnifying glasses everywhere, and a lumbar support of some kind on every chair.) Then, there is the stupid! soap dish in the shower-bath, where you have to double over and fumble blindly to reach the soap, and the stupid! soap itself, which invariably slips out of one's fingers and skitters off into an unreachable corner.

The clear winner for stupid! amongst inanimate objects, though, is the cuff-buttons on certain of my shirts. I could spend hours, perhaps whole days, struggling to button them. I generally give up after ten minutes or so of fumbling, and just slip rubber bands over my cuffs. My house-mate makes fun of my rubber band drawer in the dining room, next to the magnifying glass drawer, where I store a vast collection of rubber bands of every conceivable size. But she visits the drawer surreptitiously herself and makes use of them. In fact, we both have taken to carrying a selection of rubber bands about with us wherever we go. You never can tell when you will need one. At least they're not stupid!

§     §     §

was thinking the other day, when I was briefly away from my computer, that being without E-mail must feel like Napoleon felt on Elba. Actually in his first exile, on St. Helena, they left him his PC and modem, which is how he managed to start all that trouble. So they learned, and after Waterloo they locked him away on Elba without even a cellphone or a GameBoy.

Speaking of memory, I have begun to notice a problem with the ultra-short term memory used in making telephone calls. I look up a telephone number, immediately turn to the telephone and begin dialing; by the third digit, I've forgotten the next digit; I turn back to the telephone book, in which I have by now lost my place; I fumble through it, and finally find the number; by the time I get back to the telephone to continue dialling, it has disconnected me, and the female robot voice is chirping please hang up and dial again. Have you noticed this problem too?

Even my computer seems to have this same problem, doubtless picked up by contagion from me. One time, the modem repeatedly failed to get through to my server at the University. After the usual series of clicks and hisses, it just failed to connect and each time I heard a faint voice issuing from inside the microprocessor. I was not entirely surprised, as I had long suspected that a tiny, animate being lived inside the computer and made it work. So, The third time it happened, I put my ear to the microprocessor to hear what the tiny being had to say. What I was able to make out was that little telephone robot voice chirping from somewhere inside the computer, saying please hang up and dial again.

As for E-addresses or website URLs, forget it (as the phrase goes), which is just what I do. The longer URLs, which go on for three lines, are simply beyond my ability to keep in mind long enough to enter in a keyboard, even if I have them before my eyes. I forget where I am in the entering process in the eyeblink between looking up at the URL and looking down at the keyboard to continue entering it. I think experienced techies can have their mice do all these things for them. (If, mice, indeed, is the right plural form of the computer mouse.) It's a brave new world, all right, but not mine. I have to settle for The Senility Prayer: God, grant me the senility to forget all the things that I used to think just had to be changed --- and, come to think of it, what were they?

These days, I'm struggling to learn a smattering of Swedish, in anticipation of a mini-sabbatical in the land of social democracy and the world's best herring. Alas, during the past 30 years a large contingent of my little grey cells have gone off-line. (I can tell when each one goes: it announces "this is grey cell #6,956,590,483, signing off," then it plays the national anthem, followed by dead air.) The few remaining grey cells are badly overloaded by the project of learning even a little of a new language. So far, all I can remember is: var är min paraply (= where is my umbrella?); jag will inte ha någonting fett (= I don't want anything greasy); någon håller på att drunkna (= someone is drowning); and är det bra utsikt (= is there a good view?). A little more of this, and my Svensk conversational skills will surely knock their sockor off.

Perhaps I shall admit defeat and give up learning the meaning of anything in Swedish, to concentrate instead on simple mimicry. I call this system of language acquisition the Phonetic Phakery Method, or PPM, and I have used it with some success in other languages. I just listen to the sound of Swedish carefully, and learn to imitate it. For example, I would say things like: hewr deh fiskberller ingenting po vegen stawr ee skol! It doesn't mean anything at all, but it sounds pretty much like Swedish, no?

Speaking of which, here is a real computer curiousity. The system my University server uses for Email is called PINE, and it has never been known to handle European symbols correctly. For example, when you send me a phrase in Spanish, PINE replaces the by a k, and an accented with a q, and so on. Nobody here, not even the most expert computer mavens, knows how to send European symbols in PINE messages.

Now, I am in E-correspondence with a couple of people who know Sweden, and a few days ago, I received an E-mail from one correspondent containing a phrase in perfect Swedish, with the umlauts and the little circles over all the right vowels. I was amazed to see this breakthrough for PINE, and redoubled my efforts to discover how to do it myself. I never found out, although I did learn how to turn everything I typed into an incomprehensible set of symbols called wingdings. That took quite a while to cure.

After a couple of hours of these experiments, I looked at my correspondent's message again, and the Swedish vowels had disappeared. They had all been converted into k's and q's. I rubbed my eyes. Could it be that I had simply imagined that the umlauts and little circles were there the first time I read the message? Is my mind going that rapidly? No, I have a better explanation. The little animate being inside my computer, realizing that I was trying to learn its secret, deliberately erased the Swedish vowels from the message while it sat in my In-box, so that I would begin to doubt my own sanity. And I do, I do.

Continuing to gear up for my Autumn visit to Sweden, I am reading up on the History. It turns out that they never had the Renaissance up there, but instead enjoyed an endless series of wars between Sweden and Denmark. (This didn't leave any great works of art, but the North wasn't run by the Medicis. The nobility up there were generally louts, and the worst of them were umlouts.)

In one of the many wars, King Gustavus the Lutefisk conducted a Winter campaign and marched his whole army, horses and cannon and all, across the frozen Öresund to Denmark and laid siege to Copenhagen. When his forces ran low on herring, they gave up the siege and marched back. It went on like that for hundreds of years, until finally King Karl the Potato founded the University of Lund in what is now Southern Sweden (but was then a province of Denmark), and they replaced the wars with faculty meetings.


like to read about these North European Winter campaigns during spells of hot weather. It is bad enough up here in the Northern tier of the US. Ye Gods, how do people in Texas survive? They say if you go outdoors down there, you can fry an egg on your forehead, boil the coffee by sweating into it, and do the hash-browns in your crotch. (That does sound like one of those tall Texas tales, doesn't it?) Global warming --- Hot Dog! here we come!

That's how it is going to be, and there won't be any pills for it. The climate of Scandinavia will become temperate, and the climate of most of the US will become quite uninhabitable --- except the Americans will continue to inhabit it, driving their SUVs in vast traffic jams in the 110 degree heat, while jabbering on their cellphones, firing their handguns at each other, and getting steadily, inexorably buggier.

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