Saturday, January 21, 2012

Summoning a Squirrel

The fence enclosing the association swimming pool area runs along the sidewalk in front of my townhouse. This morning, as I was starting my usual Saturday walk to the library, I noticed a squirrel walking along the top rails of the fence.

I made a quiet clucking noise. The squirrel, a young female, stopped short and looked back at me. I clucked again. The squirrel turned about and walked back along the fence until she was a foot away from my face, looking at me eye to eye. She was a lovely creature, sleek with her winter fat. Her grooming needed a bit of attention, however. A small black seed was caught in the fine hairs at the front of her cheek. I pretended not to notice.

From the inquisitive look in her soft brown eyes, I concluded that she had interpreted the clucking as a squirrel come-hither signal and then assumed that a prospective suitor was hidden somewhere on my person, under my jacket perhaps or beneath my brown fedora.

Feeling like a cad for having trifled with her affections, I left her and went on my way.

Lost in Aurora

My old Volvo was ailing earlier this week. When the engine was cold, it would hesitate or misfire in second gear, causing the car to repeatedly jerk like it had a bad case of hiccups.

Before work I dropped off the Volvo at the car repair shop. The mechanic called me at midday and said he was having trouble diagnosing the misfire problem and needed to keep the car for another day. My car is twenty-five years old, and by now every engine part falls short of its specifications. It's not easy for a mechanic to distinguish between parts that are truly faulty and parts that are merely old and degraded.

At the end of my work day I logged on to the Regional Transportation District website and determined the schedule for the bus to the nearest light rail station. From there I could take the light rail to within a mile of my house. It was a simple itinerary.

I walked to my bus stop. The sun was going down and snow was falling. As I watched for the south-bound bus, a biting north wind picked up and blew snow in my eyes. I pulled the hood of my jacket tight around my face and faced the other way. Before long I heard the bus pull up to the bus stop. I turned, hopped up the stairs into the bus's warm interior, put my money in the collection machine, got a transfer to use on the light rail, and found myself a seat in the middle of the bus. About a dozen riders were scattered throughout the bus.

According to the website, the bus ride would take 28 minutes and end at the light rail station -- plenty of time for a short nap. I closed my eyes and sank into a state of cozy semi-consciousness, only dimly sensing the intermittent light from passing suburban strip malls. My body lazily rocked in the seat in response to the bus's stops, starts, and slow rumbling turns.

Suddenly, I was roused by the bus driver yelling: "Everybody off the bus. End of the line." I looked out the window. It was a dark residential street. There was no sign of the light rail station. A Hispanic man, now hurrying out the door, and I were the only passengers left on the bus. The bus driver leaned out from his seat, looked back at me, and sharply repeated, "End of the line." Apparently he had sized me up as a bum wanting a warm, dry place to ride out the snowstorm. I left the bus. It roared away.

I had no idea where I was. Through the falling snow I saw the lights of a large strip mall about a half mile away. I headed toward it. As I approached, I saw the usual strip mall stores and restaurants: McDonald's, Home Depot, Chili's, and so forth. However, the mall layout for these stores and restaurants seemed all wrong. It was like a bad dream: familiar things were assembled in an unfamiliar pattern. I had the chilling thought that I could be anywhere in the Consumer States of America.

Fortunately, I maintained my presence of mind. My watch showed that I had only been traveling for twenty minutes. I couldn't be badly lost. I walked past the strip mall and kept walking until I recognized a major east-west street. Then it was a simple matter to find a bus stop and catch a bus toward home. Forty-five minutes later I was safe and sound in my humble townhouse.

Missing your bus is bad. Catching the wrong bus by mistake is worse.

Monday, January 16, 2012

Celebrating Dawn Powell

I am reading short stories by Dawn Powell (1896-1965).

I came across glowing references to Dawn Powell's comedic gifts during my holiday time spent researching twentieth-century comic essays and short stories. I reacted in my characteristic way: I bolted to my local library's catalog in search of Dawn Powell short stories, struck out, and then logged into my trusty Interlibrary Loan to request her out-of-print collection of short stories Sunday, Monday, and Always from any library, college, or university in the nation willing to loan it out. A week later a worn copy of the collection, the edges of its cover boards reinforced with heavy-duty black tape, arrived from the public library of Tulsa, Oklahoma.

The collection contains eighteen stories, dating from 1933 to 1952, and not a dud in the bunch.

Dawn Powell was coming on the scene just as Ring Lardner was exiting it (dying of complications of tuberculosis in September 1933). I can only guess how much Dawn Powell was influenced by Lardner. Many of her stories share Lardner's satirical perspective. And in her stories that poke fun at her Ohio upbringing (e.g., the delightful You Should Have Brought Your Mink), the crisp prose and snappy idiomatic dialogue rival Lardner's own.

Here is an excerpt of her New Yorker story Blue Hyacinths from July 15, 1933. To my ear, this particular story seems borrow a bit of Robert Benchley's lively style.

Mrs. Delcart, as was her custom, had spent the first few hours on deck examining the passengers, chatting with the purser and various ships officials who knew her well as a restless widow who swooped from continent to continent, sometimes with a dachshund, sometimes with an adopted Turkish orphan, sometimes with a great bunch of Easter lilies and occasionally with the merest volume of verse, all depending on where she had been. She had sent cables to the friends who had so gladly seen her off, and had sat for a while in the lounge with a fixed sociable smile which fooled nobody.

It was invariably at this point, as the lost shore was drifting away softly into the distance like a vagabond glacier and the ship definitely committed to some opposite goal, that Mrs. Delcart has a momentary crise. Why had she left the West, why was she traveling east (or vice versa) -- and why Mallorca or Mexico or the Bahamas of all places? Never could she honestly say it was because she like to travel for she'd never had time between trips to think out exactly what she did like; certainly she hated all the countries which had ever served as her destination as much as she'd ever disliked her homeland. It was more than probable that Mrs. Delcart was one of those people who travel out of sheer nervousness when it would be far better for all concerned if they just stayed home and twitched.

Saturday, January 14, 2012

Computer Programmer Quote

I saw the following snappy quote posted in the hallway at work. No author was listed. Today, after spending roughly three minutes on the Internet searching dozens of websites to determine attribution, I have failed to find the author and have given up.

The quote:

"Theory is when you know something, but it doesn't work. Practice is when something works, but you don't know why. Programmers combine theory and practice: Nothing works and they don't know why."

Tuesday, January 10, 2012

Early S. J. Perelman

I am reading a 1929 second edition of S.J. Perelman's Dawn Ginsbergh's Revenge, published when he was an exuberant 25-year-old. The book, long out of print and obtainable today only by shelling out $179 bucks for a used copy on Amazon, was delivered to me last week by Interlibrary Loan, a network of libraries that is a godsend to those of us enamored with hard-to-find American literature.

The book has a somewhat garish silver cover, decorated with two hearts, rows of butterflies, and a scattering of curious oval lozenges (jewel boxes? cough drops?). Interior markings reveal that the book was originally the property of a Mr. Ernest Torrington. Then the book appears to have been sold for $45 by Universal Bookfinders of Beverly Hills, CA to a branch of the St. Louis Mercantile Library Association, thence making its way to the library of the University of Missouri at St. Louis. The first stamp in the checkout history dates from 1967.

Few, if any, of my readers have had the opportunity to read this early Perelmania. For their benefit, I will push the boundaries of "fair use" and provide some representative samples of these stories and sketches, first published in Judge magazine in the late twenties. Perelman's characteristic satire, wordplay, and flights of fancy are already evident, although you may notice that he sometimes strains to include a wise crack at the expense of the flow of his narrative.

From the lead-off story, Puppets of Passion - A Throbbing Story of Youth's Hot Revolt Against the Conventions:

Dawn Ginsbergh lay in her enormous sixteenth-century four-poster bed and played tag with her blood pressure.

Oh, it was so good to be alive on this glorious May morning instead of being dead or something. Dawn, you must know, was very fond of being alive. In fact, as she used to remark to Nicky Nussbaum, the most devoted of her lovers:

"I would rather be alive than be Alderman."

Such was Dawn Ginsbergh, impetuous dashing Dawn of the flame-taunted hair and scarlet lips beestung like violet pools and so on at ten cents a word for a page and a half.

. . .

She looked around at the immense room that was her bedroom. It was, she reflected, large enough for the whole Sixty-ninth Regiment. To tell the truth, the Sixty-ninth Regiment was in the room, in undress uniform. Dawn was like that, unconventional.

A knock on the door aroused Dawn from her lethargy. She hastily slipped it off and donned an abstraction. This was Dawn, flitting lightly from lethargy to abstraction and back to precipice again. Or from Beethoven to Bach and Bach to Bach again.

It was her mother, Mrs. Wharton Ginsbergh-Margolies, a slim nervous woman, nervous like a manatee or Firpo. She wore her hair piled high on her head, an odd place one must agree. But then the Ginsberghs were all iconoclasts. They never gave a whoop. When Dawn, at five, had come down with the whooping-cough, not a whoop did she give. Perversely, she broke out with the yellow jack. But she lived.

From the story Those Charming People - The Latest Report on the Weinbloom Reptile Expedition:

Eighteen months ago, when Lieut. Buster Weinbloom left with his expedition into the lower ramp of Grand Central to add fresh reptiles to his collection, many wiseacres dubbed his project "ramp foolishness." "Fresh reptiles, indeed!" said they, "as if the reptiles he has now aren't fresh enough! We dub his project ramp foolishness!" But this criticism only succeeded in irritating Lieut. Weinbloom and he soon began to chafe under restraint. The chafing had been barely finished and saltines spread with butter when the Dean appeared with the college whip to flay the offenders. Lieut. Weinbloom was overcome with impatience. "You people make me tired," he said; '"if you must vex somebody, why don't you go home and vex the floors?"

From My Escape from the Harem - The Amazing Narrative of the Adventures of the Beautiful Half-Caste Armenian Princess Abou Ben Perelman in the Stronghold of the the Sultans

With the spring, life grew more exciting; there was always a brisk walk in the fields or a smelt-drive if we grew bored. I recall vividly the flushed cheeks and shrill cries of the bewildered smelts as our smelt-beater treed them in a young sapling and the excitement of the kill when one of them would wave aloft the smelt's brush with loud shouts of "Tally-ho!" Then the evenings spent lounging before the fire puffing lazily on my old clay while Alice cleaned and fried the now thoroughly exhausted albeit juicy smelts. And the stories told under the haunting magic of the stars! Stories of life on the great African veldt, stories so realistic and thrilling that I veldt hot and cold all over when I heard them. There was one story that Alice never tired of telling, about the time she took a sleeper from Pittsburgh to Wheeling and there was this traveling man. . . but why attempt to relate an incident which relies wholly on its Turkish idiom for flavor?

From Over Niagara in a Rotary Washer: (Note: "halma" is a game similar to Chinese checkers)

Ever since I announced in the columns of the Parthenon last July that I was going to take the trip over Niagara Falls in a rotary washing-machine on Mothers' day next year, there has been a flood of two letters a month pouring in demanding details of all sorts. As this is eating up all the overhead in the office and wearing three stenographers to the nub opening and answering these missiles, I have decided to quench the stream of curiosity and explain my position.

So many people have gone over "Lover's Leap" (Niagara Falls) in barrels and canoes that the thing has almost become a platitude and you might just as well be lying at home in bed playing halma for all the excitement you get. Last year Major Weathercock even made the journey in a gravy boat to prove how easy it was. My plan, however, is to put back a little sport into the old ride, and I figure that if I am whirling in a rotary motion, at the same time descending a four-hundred-foot falls, why perhaps there will be a few moments when I am not bored.

And finally here is the opening to Perelman's ten-part series How to Make Love:

What is that Mysterious Force which hastens the breathing, makes the heart tender, the spirit brave, the impulses generous, and the will strong? Yes, children, you are right – Scotch. But there is still another Force which does not retail in four-fifths quart bottles and is infinitely more expensive. This Force is called LOVE. In this series of articles we shall discuss various kinds of LOVE and the proper methods, grips, holds, and punches connected with this fascinating pastime.

I will return this copy of Dawn Ginsbergh's Revenge to Interlibrary Loan in another ten days. Then it will be available for my readers to check out.

Monday, January 2, 2012

Comic Writing of the Shorter Kind

I have spent my Christmas break researching 20th-century comic writing, giving especial attention to the shorter forms: the sportive essay, the comic short story, and the humorous fairy tale. My goal was to become familiar with a wider range of comic techniques with which to grace my blog observations, anecdotes, and tales.

I chose to begin with F. Anstey, nom de plume of Thomas Anstey Guthrie (1856 – 1934), a Victorian writer who published comic novels and short stories from 1882 to the early years of the 20th century. The choice should not be perceived as a slight to Mark Twain or other 19th-century comic masters. (I am aware that Twain lived until 1910, but his most significant literary creations were published before 1895.) Twain's humor seems to me to be a culmination of American frontier humor; and though Twain exerted a broad influence on later American writers, he left no disciples capable of wielding his satiric pen, unless you wish to rope in H. L. Mencken. By contrast, in F. Anstey's writings I see the beginning of a comic thread that continues to the present day. Elements of P. G. Wodehouse's style have been traced to Anstey's comic use of Babu English, that is, the bombastic English spoken by Indians who have learned the language from books (cf. Richard Usborne's book Plum Sauce).

Anstey's earliest and most influential works featured the intrusion of a fantastical element into normal life. (I myself am fond of this device and used it frequently in my Kindle collection, Comic Tales & Fantasies.) In Anstey's The Tinted Venus, a Victorian barber accidentally summons the goddess Aphrodite when he places a ring on a statue's finger. Here is a sample of Anstey's elegant prose:

He had retired step by step before her to the hearth-rug, where he now stood shivering, with the fire hot at his back, and his kettle still singing on undismayed. He made no attempt to account for her presence there on any rationalising theory. A statue had suddenly come to life, and chosen to pay him a nocturnal visit; he knew no more than that, except that he would have given worlds for courage to show it the door.

The spectral eyes were bent upon him, as if in expectation that he would begin the conversation, and at last, with a very unmanageable tongue, he managed to observe, "Did you want to see me on – on business, mum?" But the statue only relaxed her lips in a haughty smile.

Early in the 20th century P. G. Wodehouse (1881 – 1975) made British humor light, peppy, and playful. Here is a representative sample from the story Jeeves and the Hard-Boiled Egg:

Sometimes of a morning, as I've sat in bed sucking down the early cup of tea and watched my man Jeeves flitting about the room and putting out the raiment for the day, I've wondered what the deuce I should do if the fellow ever took it into his head to leave me. It's not so bad now I'm in New York, but in London the anxiety was frightful. There used to be all sorts of attempts on the part of low blighters to sneak him away from me. Young Reggie Foljambe to my certain knowledge offered him double what I was giving him, and Alistair Bingham-Reeves, who's got a valet who had been known to press his trousers sideways, used to look at him, when he came to see me, with a kind of glittering hungry eye which disturbed me deucedly. Bally pirates!

Canada's Stephen Leacock (1869 – 1944), born before Wodehouse but gaining notoriety as a comic writer at roughly the same time, mixed the stately prose of the Victorians with his own brand of cheerful nonsense. He directly influenced and encouraged a young Robert Benchley. Here is a sample of Leacock's writing from his early collection Literary Lapses:

Next, take the question of germs and bacilli. Don't be scared of them. That's all. That's the whole thing, and if you once get on to that you never need to worry again.

If you see a bacilli, walk right up to it, and look it in the eye. If one flies into your room, strike at it with your hat or with a towel. Hit it as hard as you can between the neck and the thorax. It will soon get sick of that.

But as a matter of fact, a bacilli is perfectly quiet and harmless if you are not afraid of it. Speak to it. Call out to it to "lie down." It will understand. I had a bacilli once, called Fido, that would come and lie at my feet while I was working. I never knew a more affectionate companion, and when it was run over by an automobile, I buried it in the garden with genuine sorrow.

(I admit this is an exaggeration. I don't really remember its name; it may have been Robert.)

Understand that it is only a fad of modern medicine to say that cholera and typhoid and diphtheria are caused by bacilli and germs; nonsense. Cholera is caused by a frightful pain in the stomach, and diphtheria is caused by trying to cure a sore throat.

Robert Benchley (1889 – 1945) mined the same vein of comedy as Stephen Leacock but gave greater emphasis to the technique of comic perspective, humor arising from viewing life from a particular persona. Benchley would often adopt the persona of a harried little man struggling to cope with modern life. S. J. Perelman was greatly influenced by this use of comic perspective and in the 1930s would further develop the comic possibilities of the persona of a hapless schlemiel. Then, much later in the century, Benchley's disciple Dave Barry would make a pretty penny recycling the comic stylings of his master. Here is a sample of Benchley's use of comic self-deprecation from his collection Love Conquers All:

As a rule, I try not to look into mirrors any more than is absolutely necessary. Things are depressing enough as they are without my going out of my way to make myself miserable.

But every once in a while it is unavoidable. There are certain mirrors in town with which I am brought face to face on occasion and there is nothing to do but make the best of it. I have come to classify them according to the harshness with which they fling the truth into my face.

I am unquestionably at my worst in the mirror before which I try on hats. I may have been going along all winter thinking of other things, dwelling on what people tell me is really a splendid spiritual side to my nature, thinking of myself as rather a fine sort of person, not dashing perhaps, but one from whose countenance shines a great light of honesty and courage which is even more to be desired than physical beauty. I rather imagine that little children on the street and grizzled Supreme Court justices out for a walk turn as I pass and say "A fine face. Plain, but fine."

S. J. Perelman concocted his comic style from a mixture of influences. He adopted Robert Benchley's use of a comic persona, added some slangy wordplay from George Ade (1866 – 1944), borrowed a dollop of nonsense from Stephen Leacock and a touch of high-toned language from F. Anstey, and then cribbed liberal doses of snappy prose from Ring Lardner (1885 – 1933). This heady stew of influences was spiced by Perelman's showy vocabulary and gift for free association. But before dealing with Perelman, let's look at his predecessors George Ade and Ring Lardner. Here is a bouncy sample from George Ade's Fables in Slang:

Once upon a Time there was a slim Girl with a Forehead which was Shiny and Protuberant, like a Bartlett Pear. When asked to put Something in an Autograph Album she invariably wrote the Following, in a tall, dislocated Back-Hand:

"Life is Real; Life is Earnest,
And the Grave is not its Goal."

That's the kind of a Girl she was.

In her own Town she had the Name of being a Cold Proposition, but that was because the Primitive Yokels of a One-Night Stand could not Attune Themselves to the Views of one who was troubled with Ideals. Her Soul Panted for the Higher Life.

Alas, the Rube Town in which she Hung Forth was given over to Croquet, Mush and Milk Sociables, a lodge of Elks and two married Preachers who doctored for the Tonsilitis. So what could the Poor Girl do?

In all the Country around there was not a Man who came up to her Plans and Specifications for a Husband. Neither was there any Man who had any time for Her. So she led a lonely Life, dreaming of the One--the Ideal. He was a big and pensive Literary Man, wearing a Prince Albert coat, a neat Derby Hat and godlike Whiskers. When He came he would enfold Her in his Arms and whisper Emerson's Essays to her.

Here is a sample from Ring Lardner, taken from the start of his short story Ex Parte:

Most always when a man leaves his wife, there's no excuse in the world for him. She may have made whoop-whoop-whoopee with the whole ten commandments, but if he shows his disapproval to the extent of walking out on her, he will thereafter be a total stranger to all his friends excepting the two or three bums who will tour the night clubs with him so long as he sticks to his habits of paying for everything.

When a woman leaves her husband, she must have good and sufficient reasons. He drinks all the time, or he runs around, or he doesn't give her any money, or he uses her as the heavy bag in his home gymnasium work. No more is he invited to his former playmates' houses for dinner and bridge. He is an outcast just the same as if he had done the deserting. Whichever way it happens, it's his fault. He can state his side of the case if he wants to, but there is nobody around listening.

S. J. Perelman's short comic pieces were the highest expression of literary American humor from the 1930s through the 1950s. Many others did excellent work during this golden age of humor (e.g., James Thurber, E. B. White, Frank Sullivan), but none were as inventive and reliably funny as Perelman. Here is a sample from Perelman's 1938 piece Down with the Restoration, written when Perelman was entering his prime. The self-deprecating persona and the characteristic collision between high-toned references and jazzy patter are in full display.

Does anybody here mind if I make a prediction? I haven't made a prediction since the opening night of The Women some years ago, when I rose at the end of the third act and announced to my escort, a Miss Chicken-Licken, "The public will never take this to its bosom" Since the public has practically worn its bosom to a nubbin niggling up to The Women, I feel that my predictions may be a straw to show the direction the wind is blowing away from. I may very well open up a cave and do business as a sort of Cumaean Sibyl in reverse. You can't tell me people would rather climb up that Aventine Hill and have a man mess around with the entrails of a lot of sacred chickens when they can come down into my nice cool cave and get a good hygienic prediction for a few cents. So just to stimulate trade and start the ball rolling, here goes my first prediction: One of these days two young people are going to stumble across a ruined farmhouse and leave it along....Well, what are you sitting there gaping at? You heard what I said. That's my prediction.

And so, the comic lineage that I have begun to explore for my own writing education starts with F. Anstey and ends with S. J. Perelman. This lineage establishes the comic path I wish to follow.

You may ask, what about other humor writers? Let's review them by category.

Older humorists Woody Allen, Garrison Keillor, and Brian O'Nolan (1911 – 1966): While there is much to admire in the early comic pieces of Woody Allen and Garrison Keillor, both of them strongly influenced by S. J. Perelman as they were breaking into the field of humorous prose, neither Allen nor Keillor is currently doing interesting short pieces. Brian O'Nolan, writing in the Irish Times as Myles na Gopaleen, was in a class with S. J. Perelman for dazzling use of language. I intend to delve into O'Nolan's comic pieces and may well add him to the Anstey-Leacock-Benchley-Perelman lineage.

Newer humorists Dave Barry, Bill Bryson, and David Sedaris: Dave Barry's work is fun to read, but it's more efficient for me to go back to the wellspring and study the work of his idol Robert Benchley. Bryson and Sedaris have made notable contributions to recent American humor, but I don't feel drawn to emulate either of their perspectives.

Newspaper columnists Art Buchwald (1925 – 2007), Russell Baker, and Donald Kaul: Their columns required them to strike a balance between journalistic concerns and flights of fancy. They follow a different comic path.

New Yorker writers Veronica Geng (1941 – 1997) and Ian Frazier: Their work reflects some of the older New Yorker comic tradition but does not generally advance that tradition. I'll stick with Perelman.

Commentators P. J. O'Rourke and Stanley Bing: P. J. O'Rourke is a funny guy when he's not trying to be The Pundit, but studying his prose won't help me get to where I want to go. Gil Schwartz, writing as Stanley Bing, is doing some wonderful comic pieces about business. In general he is following a different comic path , but once in a while he strays onto the Anstey-Leacock-Benchley-Perelman path and does an amazing job.

I have enjoyed the work of many other worthy writers of comic pieces (e.g., H. Allen Smith, Erma Bombeck, Max Shulman, etc.); however, they aren't on the path I wish to follow.


Onward down the path!

A New Year's Resolution

Every New Year's Day I take stock of my deficiencies and resolve to improve myself during the coming year. While many areas of my life cry out for improvement, I limit my resolutions to areas that are amenable to incremental progress. I want to be able to measure my improvement month by month. Admittedly, this program of mine is not suitable for deficiencies of character or spirit – lack of wisdom, lack of compassion, lack of backbone, lack of perspective, to name a few – but it serves me well for the deficiencies given top priority in modern American life: lack of fitness, money, possessions, and amusements.

For 2012 I choose to repeat my resolution from 2009: to lose thirty pounds. I felt this was a crucial resolution in 2009, as I needed to look my best for my 40th high school reunion. Happy to say, I kept the resolution and lost the weight. (The fact that nobody at the reunion remarked on my slimness – many weren't even sure who I was – should in no way discredit the resolution itself.) After the reunion I gradually went to seed again and regained the thirty pounds. In 2012 I have firmly resolved to lose this surplusage.

Nonetheless, I have some legitimate qualms about my New Year's resolution. According to my theory of Adipose Psychology Retention, there are potential psychological dangers in losing weight. The theory, reduced to its essentials, states that a person's psychological state is reflected in the kinds and quantities of chemicals released into the bloodstream from the brain and ductless glands. The chemicals – think of them as nuggets of molecular emotion – are captured in deposits of body fat. Then, when the fat is broken down during weight loss, these chemicals are liberated, triggering a psychological reaction within the brain. To be specific, the brain relives the past psychological state that had been chemically stored in the fat, but now it is a psychological state divorced from its previous context. The brain will attempt to impose this chemically-induced psychological state (contentment, dread, giddiness, melancholy, or whatever) on its perceptions of the current environment. This is where the danger lies. Imagine that you and your friends were dining at a nice Italian restaurant. As you are enjoying a plate of linguini, suddenly your fat releases emotive chemicals into your bloodstream and your brain experiences the psychological terror of a downtown mugging from six months ago. Your brain could impute this past terror to the linguini, causing you to fling your plate across the room.

As the year 2011 was a trying year for me, with more disagreeable psychological states than agreeable ones, I am justified in having qualms about losing weight. Clearly, in 2012 I will need to be prepared for some psychological flareups, echoes of past unhappiness, such as aggravations incurred while working proposals last year or disappointment with my last salary increase.

Now if I had enjoyed the psychological boost of a marvelous love affair last year, I would cheerfully begin a starvation diet at once.