Life and Limbs

An old philosophical friend of mine was grown, from experience, very cautious in this particular, and carefully avoided any intimacy with [captious, overcritical] people. He had, like other philosophers, a thermometer to show him the heat of the weather, and a barometer to mark when it was likely to prove good or bad; but there being no instrument invented to discover, at first sight, this unpleasing disposition in a person, he, for that purpose, made use of his legs; one of which was remarkably handsome, the other, by some accident, crooked and deformed. If a stranger, at first interview, regarded his ugly leg more than his handsome one, he doubted him — if he spoke of it, and took no notice of the handsome leg, that was sufficient to determine my philosopher to have no farther acquaintance with him. Every body has not this two-legged instrument; but every one, with a little attention, may observe signs of that carping, fault-finding disposition, and take the same resolution of avoiding the acquaintance of those infected with it. I therefore advise those critical, querulous, discontented, unhappy people — if they wish to be respected and beloved by others, and happy in themselves, they should leave off looking at the ugly leg.

— Benjamin Franklin, 1780

Royal Jelly

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“Last night Mr. Creston Clarke played King Lear at the Tabor Grand. All through the five acts of that Shakespearean tragedy he played the King as though under momentary apprehension that someone else was about to play the Ace.” — Eugene Field, Denver Tribune, c. 1880

Upstairs Downstairs

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When Richard Feynman won the Nobel Prize in 1965, CERN director Victor Weisskopf worried that he would be driven out of physics and into administration. He goaded Feynman into signing a wager before witnesses:

Mr. FEYNMAN will pay the sum of TEN DOLLARS to Mr. WEISSKOPF if at any time during the next TEN YEARS (i.e. before the THIRTY FIRST DAY OF DECEMBER of the YEAR ONE THOUSAND NINE HUNDRED AND SEVENTY FIVE), the said MR. FEYNMAN has held a ‘responsible position.’

The two agreed: “For the purpose of the aforementioned WAGER, the term ‘responsible position’ shall be taken to signify a position which, by reason of its nature, compels the holder to issue instructions to other persons to carry out certain acts, notwithstanding the fact that the holder has no understanding whatsoever of that which he is instructing the aforesaid persons to accomplish.”

Feynman, who once called administration an “occupational disease,” collected the $10 in 1976.

Worldly Wise

Proverbs from around the world:

  • A shroud has no pockets. (Scotland)
  • No one is a blacksmith at birth. (Namibia)
  • The absent always bears the blame. (Netherlands)
  • One cannot make soup out of beauty. (Estonia)
  • Bad is called good when worse happens. (Norway)
  • When the mouse laughs at the cat, there is a hole. (Gambia)
  • Under trees it rains twice. (Switzerland)
  • Everyone is foolish until they buy land. (Ireland)
  • Every head is a world. (Cuba)
  • The only victory over love is flight. (France)
  • Don’t look where you fell, but where you slipped. (Liberia)
  • Many lose when they win, and others win when they lose. (Germany)

And “It is not economical to go to bed early to save the candles if the result is twins.” (China)

Presumption Rewarded

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Sinclair Lewis received this letter from a lawyer in a Midwestern city:

Dear Lewis:

Have read a few of your works and would like to ask a few favors. Please send me a list of your stories, your autograph, picture, and a letter describing your life. How many children have you and their names.

Thanking you, I am

Yours very truly,

J.J. Jones, Esq.

He responded:

My Dear Jim:

There was only one thing about your nice letter that I didn’t like. It was so sort of formal. True, we have never met, and somehow I feel we aren’t likely to, but, isn’t this a democratic country? So let me call you Jim, and you call me Fatty, or any other friendly name.

Now Jim, I haven’t got a photograph of me here, but I’ll go right down to the junction and have one taken. I’m preparing a letter about my life, but it’s been a pretty long one and a bad one, and that will take me several weeks.

But in the meantime, Jim, I’m awfully interested in lawyers. Kindly send me your picture, picture of your home and office, a list of your assets and liabilities, average income per month, list of the books you have read since 1914, if any. Kindly inform me whether you have ever defended a bootlegger and why. Should be glad to have any other interesting personal information for use in a story. How do you get along with your wife? Kindly explain this in detail.

Thanking you in advance, I remain,

Yours affectionately,

Sinclair Lewis

Tough Love

Irritating sayings of parents, compiled by students ages 12 and 13 at Toot Hill Comprehensive School, Bingham, Nottinghamshire, England, in 1978:

Isn’t it time you thought about bed?
It must be somewhere
You speak to him, Harold, he won’t listen to me.
Who do you think I am?
You’d better ask your father
It’s late enough as it is
Don’t eat with your mouth open
In this day and age
Did anybody ask your opinion
I remember when I was a boy
And after all we do for you
You’re not talking to your school friends now you know
Why don’t you do it the proper way
I’m only trying to tell you
What did I just say
Now, wrap up warm
B.E.D. spells bed
Sit up straight and don’t gobble your food
For the five hundredth time
Don’t let me ever see you do that again.
Have you made your bed?
Can’t you look further than your nose?
No more lip
Have you done your homework?
Because I say so.
Don’t come those fancy ways here
Any more and you’ll be in bed
My, haven’t you grown
Some day I won’t be here, then you’ll see
A chair’s for sitting on
You shouldn’t need telling at your age.
Want, want, want, that’s all you ever say

“I don’t think my parents liked me,” wrote Woody Allen. “They put a live teddy bear in my crib.”

The Whistle

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When Benjamin Franklin was 7 years old he was charmed by the sound of a whistle owned by another boy, so he went to a toy shop and volunteered all his money for one. He played it all over the house, annoying his family, until they told him that he had paid four times its price. At that he cried with vexation, and “the reflection gave me more chagrin than the whistle gave me pleasure.”

For the rest of his life, Franklin recalled this episode as a warning to reckon the cost of every attainment:

When I saw one too ambitious of court favor, sacrificing his time in attendance on levees, his repose, his liberty, his virtue, and perhaps his friends, to attain it, I have said to myself, this man gives too much for his whistle.

When I saw another fond of popularity, constantly employing himself in political bustles, neglecting his own affairs, and ruining them by that neglect, ‘He pays, indeed,’ said I, ‘too much for his whistle.’

If I knew a miser, who gave up every kind of comfortable living, all the pleasure of doing good to others, all the esteem of his fellow-citizens, and the joys of benevolent friendship, for the sake of accumulating wealth, ‘Poor man,’ said I, ‘you pay too much for your whistle.’

When I met with a man of pleasure, sacrificing every laudable improvement of the mind, or of his fortune, to mere corporeal sensations, and ruining his health in their pursuit, ‘Mistaken man,’ said I, ‘you are providing pain for yourself, instead of pleasure; you give too much for your whistle.’

If I see one fond of appearance, or fine clothes, fine houses, fine furniture, fine equipages, all above his fortune, for which he contracts debts, and ends his career in a prison, ‘Alas!’ say I, ‘he has paid dear, very dear, for his whistle.’

When I see a beautiful sweet-tempered girl married to an ill-natured brute of a husband, ‘What a pity,’ say I, ‘that she should pay so much for a whistle!’

“In short,” he wrote, “I conceive that great part of the miseries of mankind are brought upon them by the false estimates they have made of the value of things, and by their giving too much for their whistles.”

Court Card

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I must tell you a nice little story which is quite true and will amuse you. The King has taken lately to writing verse. Messieurs de Saint-Aignan and Dangeau are teaching him how to set about it. The other day he wrote a little madrigal, which he himself did not think much of. One morning he said to Maréchale de Gramont, ‘Monsieur le Maréchale, will you kindly read this little madrigal and see whether you have ever seen anything so pointless? Just because it is known that I have recently taken to liking verses, people bring me all kinds.’ Having read it the Marshal said, ‘Sire, your Majesty is an inspired judge of everything, and it is true that this is the silliest and most ridiculous madrigal I have ever read.’ The King burst out laughing and said, ‘Isn’t it true that whoever wrote this is a conceited puppy?’ ‘Sire, he cannot be called anything else.’ ‘That’s excellent,’ said the King. ‘I am delighted that you have spoken so candidly; I wrote it myself.’ ‘Oh, Sire, what treachery! Will your Majesty please give it back to me, I only glanced through it rapidly.’ ‘No, Monsieur le Maréchale, first impressions are always the most natural.’ The King laughed very much at this trick, but everyone thinks it is the most cruel thing one can do to an old courtier. Personally I always like reflecting about things, and I wish the King would think about this example and conclude how far he is from ever learning the truth.

— Madame de Sévigné to Simon Arnauld, Dec. 1, 1664

Social Graces

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Instructions on proper comportment on meeting Queen Charlotte, from a letter from Fanny Burney to her sister Esther, Dec. 17, 1785:

In the first place, you must not cough. If you find a cough tickling in your throat, you must arrest it from making any sound; if you find yourself choking with the forbearance, you must choke — but not cough.

In the second place, you must not sneeze. If you have a vehement cold, you must take no notice of it; if your nose-membranes feel a great irritation, you must hold your breath; if a sneeze still insists upon making its way, you must oppose it, by keeping your teeth grinding together; if the violence of the repulse breaks some blood-vessel, you must break the blood-vessel — but not sneeze.

In the third place, you must not, upon any account, stir either hand or foot. If, by chance, a black pin runs into your head, you must not take it out. If the pain is very great, you must be sure to bear it without wincing; if it brings the tears into your eyes, you must not wipe them off; if they give you a tingling by running down your cheeks, you must look as if nothing was the matter. If the blood should gush from your head by means of the black pin, you must let it gush; if you are uneasy to think of making such a blurred appearance, you must be uneasy, but you must say nothing about it. If, however, the agony is very great, you may, privately, bite the inside of your cheek, or of your lips, for a little relief; taking care, meanwhile, to do it so cautiously as to make no apparent dent outwardly. And, with that precaution, if you even gnaw a piece out, it will not be minded, only be sure either to swallow it, or commit it to a corner of the inside of your mouth till they are gone — for you must not spit.

“You would never believe — you, who, distant from courts and courtiers, know nothing of their ways — the many things to be studied, for appearing with a proper propriety before crowned heads,” she wrote. “Heads without crowns are quite other sort of rotundas.”

Complaint

Sir,

A little light might be shed, with advantage, upon the high-handed methods of the Passport Department at the Foreign Office. On the form provided for the purpose, I described my face as ‘intelligent’. Instead of finding this characterization entered, I have received a passport on which some official utterly unknown to me has taken it upon himself to call my face ‘oval’.

Yours very truly,

Bassett Digby

— Letter to the Times, February 17, 1915