Penny Wisdom

Samuel Foote on “the advantages of not paying our debts”:

It is the art of living without money. It saves the trouble and expense of keeping accounts; and makes other people work, in order to give ourselves repose. It prevents the cares and embarrassments of riches. It checks avarice, and encourages generosity; as people are commonly more liberal of others’ goods than of their own: while it possesses that genuine spark of primitive Christianity, which would live in a constant communion of all property. In short, it draws the inquiries and attention of the world on us while we live, and makes us sincerely regretted when we die.

Rules of Thumb

“If an elderly but distinguished scientist says that something is possible he is almost certainly right, but if he says that it is impossible he is very probably wrong.” — Arthur C. Clarke

“When, however, the lay public rallies around an idea that is denounced by distinguished but elderly scientists and supports that idea with great fervor and emotion — the distinguished but elderly scientists are then, after all, probably right.” — Isaac Asimov

Clearing the Air

With the “smoker’s hat,” patented by Walter Netschert in 1989, you can finally interact with nonsmokers without giving offense. A visor will intercept your smoke and direct it to a filter, and you can add a clip to hold the cigarette and a cup to catch ashes so that there are no waste products. The exhaust can even be scented.

This seems like a lot of trouble, but for some it’s worth it. “When I don’t smoke I scarcely feel as if I’m living,” wrote Russell Hoban in Turtle Diary. “I don’t feel as if I’m living unless I’m killing myself.”

Hello Goodbye

In 1902, disgusted with the “characteristic American custom of promiscuous, unsought and unauthorized introductions,” Ambrose Bierce proposed a new social convention — disintroductions:

Mr. White–Mr. Black, knowing the low esteem in which you hold each other, I have the honor to disintroduce you from Mr. Green.

Mr. Black (bowing)–Sir, I have long desired the advantage of your unacquaintance.

Mr. Green (bowing)–Charmed to unmeet you, sir. Our acquaintance (the work of a most inconsiderate and unworthy person) has distressed me beyond expression. We are greatly indebted to our good friend here for his tact in repairing the mischance.

Mr. White–Thank you. I’m sure you will become very good strangers.

“This is only the ghost of a suggestion,” Bierce wrote. “Of course the plan is capable of an infinite elaboration. Its capital defect is that the persons who are now so liberal with their unwelcome introductions, will be equally lavish with their disintroductions, and will estrange the best of friends with as little ceremony as they now observe in their more fiendish work.”

Yankee Panky

The New York Yankees saw an unusual trade in 1972: Pitchers Mike Kekich and Fritz Peterson traded families. Kekich traded his wife, Susan, two children, and a Bedlington terrier for Marilyn Peterson, the two Peterson children, and a poodle. “We didn’t trade wives, we traded lives,” Kekich said.

“They were really close, and their families were close,” remembered Yankees catcher Jake Gibbs, who had played with both men. “I guess we just didn’t know how close. Of course, they were both left-handers. You can never tell about lefties.”

The storm of attention that accompanied the trade began to erode the players’ friendship — Yankees executive Dan Topping quipped, “We may have to call off Family Day this season” — and Kekich was traded to the Indians later that year.

Marilyn Peterson and Mike Kekich eventually ended their relationship, but Fritz Peterson married Susanne Kekich in 1974 and raised four children with her.

The two friends were never close again. “All four of us had agreed in the beginning that if anyone wasn’t happy, the thing would be called off,” Kekich said. “But when Marilyn and I decided to call it off, the other couple already had gone off with each other.”

Target Practice

From Henry Fowler’s immortal 1906 Modern English Usage, a table of commonly confused terms:

fowler table

“So much has been written upon the nature of some of these words, and upon the distinctions between pairs or trios among them, that it would be both presumptuous and unnecessary to attempt a further disquisition,” Fowler wrote. “But a sort of tabular statement may be of service against some popular misconceptions.”

Last Lesson

Multiplication is mie vexation,
And Division is quite as bad,
The Golden Rule is mie stumbling stule,
And Practice drives me mad.

So wrote an anonymous English student in 1570. Matters had not progressed far in 1809, when 6-year-old Marjorie Fleming wrote in her diary: “I am now going to tell you about the horible and wretched plaege my multiplication gives me you cant concieve it — the most Devilish thing is 8 times 8 & 7 times 7 it is what nature itselfe cant endure.”

Alas, the feeling is sometimes shared. After serving four years as a teacher, D.H. Lawrence wrote:

When will the bell ring, and end this weariness?
How long have they tugged the leash, and strained apart
My pack of unruly hounds: I cannot start
Them again on a quarry of knowledge they hate to hunt,
I can haul them and urge them no more.
No more can I endure to bear the brunt
Of the books that lie out on the desks: a full three score
Of several insults of blotted pages and scrawl
Of slovenly work that they have offered me.
I am sick, and tired more than any thrall
Upon the woodstacks working weariedly.

And shall I take
The last dear fuel and heap it on my soul
Till I rouse my will like a fire to consume
Their dross of indifference, and burn the scroll
Of their insults in punishment? — I will not!
I will not waste myself to embers for them,
Not all for them shall the fires of my life be hot,
For myself a heap of ashes of weariness, till sleep
Shall have raked the embers clear: I will keep
Some of my strength for myself, for if I should sell
It all for them, I should hate them —
— I will sit and wait for the bell.

See Such, Such Were the Joys.

Payment in Kind

When I was about seven years old I witnessed, for the first time, the sale of a human being. We were living at Prince Edward, in Virginia, and master had just purchased his hogs for the winter, for which he was unable to pay in full. To escape from his embarrassment it was necessary to sell one of the slaves. Little Joe, the son of the cook, was selected as the victim. His mother was ordered to dress him up in his Sunday clothes, and send him to the house. He came in with a bright face, was placed in the scales, and was sold, like the hogs, at so much per pound. His mother was kept in ignorance of the transaction, but her suspicions were aroused. When her son started for Petersburgh in the wagon, the truth began to dawn upon her mind, and she pleaded piteously that her boy should not be taken from her; but master quieted her by telling her that he was simply going to town with the wagon, and would be back in the morning. Morning came, but little Joe did not return to his mother. Morning after morning passed, and the mother went down to the grave without ever seeing her child again. One day she was whipped for grieving for her lost boy. Colonel Burwell never liked to see one of his slaves wear a sorrowful face, and those who offended in this particular way were always punished. Alas! the sunny face of the slave is not always an indication of sunshine in the heart.

— Elizabeth Keckley, Behind the Scenes; or, Thirty Years a Slave, and Four Years in the White House, 1868

The Elizabeth Whitman Mystery

In May 1788, an expectant mother arrived in Danvers, Mass., and took a room at the Bell Tavern. Friendless and a stranger to the area, she said that her husband would join her shortly, but she would not give her family name. Evidently from a genteel family, she kept to her room, reading, writing, and sitting anxiously at her window. A woman who saw her during evening walks described her as handsome, with a sad face.

June passed into July, no husband appeared, and she became the subject of local gossip. At length she gave birth to a stillborn child, and she herself died two weeks later, of puerperal fever. Among her effects was found a letter:

Must I die alone? Shall I never see you more? I know that you will come, but you will come too late. This is, I fear, my last ability. Tears fall so, I know not how to write. Why did you leave me in so much distress? But I will not reproach you. All that was dear I left for you; but I do not regret it. May God forgive in both what was amiss. When I go from hence, I will leave you some way to find me; if I die, will you come and drop a tear over my grave?

With it was a poem:

With fond impatience all the tedious day
I sigh’d, and wish’d the lingering hours away;
For when bright Hesper led the starry train,
My shepherd swore to meet me on the plain;
With eager haste to that dear spot I flew,
And linger’d long, and then with tears withdrew:
Alone, abandon’d to love’s tenderest woes,
Down my pale cheeks the tide of sorrow flows;
Dead to all joys that fortune can bestow,
In vain for me her useless bounties flow;
Take back each envied gift, ye pow’rs divine,
And only let me call FIDELIO mine.

A newspaper appeal eventually confirmed that she was Elizabeth Whitman, a minister’s daughter from Hartford, but the identity of her lover has never been discovered. Her epitaph reads:

“This humble stone, in memory of Elizabeth Whitman, is inscribed by her weeping friends, to whom she endeared herself by uncommon tenderness and affection. Endowed with superior genius and acquirements, she was still more endeared by humility and benevolence. Let candor throw a veil over her frailties, for great was her charity to others. She sustained the last painful scene far from every friend, and exhibited an example of calm resignation. Her departure was on the 25th of July, A.D. 1788,in the 37th year of her age, and the tears of strangers watered her grave.”