Tag Archives: James Thurber

What a Hoot!

Owls are everywhere these days. I can think of at least four series of commercials that use owls as pitch-birds: ones for travel, eyeglasses, higher education, and decongestant. I almost understand the eyeglasses one, since owls have those big eyes, and I figure the university one is on pretty safe ground, given that owls are associated with wisdom. Geico even had an ad featuring an owl, but given that company’s other commercials, it scarcely fazed me. At least it wasn’t as nerve-shattering as the little piggy one.

But the travel advice bird and the one hawking allergy pills baffle me. Owls are not known for migrating, at least not like swallows and buzzards are. And I’ve never heard an owl sneeze, though I think it would be hilarious, except for the owl snot. As far as noncommercial representatives go, owls are also not well known as team mascots, except for the Temple University Owls. I’m told owls are the 17th most popular team mascot in the U.S., but I didn’t actually do the research. I certainly admire whoever did.

But I digress. At least the sinus relief commercial featuring not an owl but a bee with the voice of Antonio Banderas sort of made sense, since bees are associated with flowers, which can trigger allergies.  Although Banderas may not have been the wisest choice. I associate Spanish accents with deadly killer bees. And while I would never accuse Antonio B. of such a thing, the subtle note of aggression makes me twitchy.

But I digress again. The subject was owls. Owls have lately been making a comeback of sorts since they became the de facto messenger pigeons of the wizarding set. But in real life, owls are hardly the noble birds that CGI Hedwig portrays on film. While most owls are represented as giving a calm but inquisitive “whoo,” there are also screech owls, which didn’t get that name by being melodious singers. Encounter one of those at night on a camping trip and you’re more than likely to drop your s’mores.

And owls’ eating habits are not, shall we say, dainty. Not devotées of the backyard bird feeder, they like their meat and they like it still kicking. They don’t chew their food, either, like their mama owls should have taught them. Watching an owl chow down on a mouse, snake, or even a rabbit, is stomach-turning. For the owl too, apparently. Because they don’t have crops or gizzards like civilized birds such as chickens, owls pay the price for their gluttony by spitting up (to put it politely) the unpalatable bits – bones, fur, feathers, scales, and such – before they can eat again. Scientists find these “owl pellets” interesting, but they’re really just disgusting. And so are the owl pellets. Apparently, you can buy the repellent pellets on the internet for science classes or some other use I don’t care to contemplate.

Hedwig aside, owls tend to the creepy rather than the cuddly. They have that whole Exorcist thing going on where they can turn their heads backward, a consequence of their having more vertebrae than anyone except a giraffe deserves. Ohio humorist and professional curmudgeon James Thurber had it right when he said, “you could send an owl into my room, dressed only in the feathers it was born with, and no monkey business, and I would pull the covers over my head and scream.”

(He was discussing Gertrude Stein and her literarily famous pigeons on the grass. Evidently, owls had a profound effect on Thurber. He had a book titled The Owl in the Attic and also wrote a fable titled “The Owl Who Was God.” The moral was: You can fool too many of the people too much of the time. I recommend it to your attention. But I digress. You could probably tell by the parentheses.)

The only literary owl that I can view with any sort of affection is the one in Winnie-the-Pooh, who spells his own name Wol and can also spell HIPY PAPY BTHUTHDTH THUTHDA BTHUTHDY, which (in case you can’t tell) means “A very happy birthday with love from Pooh.”

When it comes to real-life owls, though, I prefer to keep my distance. And when it comes to TV commercials, I haven’t been able to stand talking animals ever since that damned gecko with the ambiguous accent. Even that picture of the owl with this post makes me feel like it knows just a little too much about my past and is particularly judgy about it. 

Good thing I have enough self-confidence to look that bird in the headlamps and say, “Who, me?”

What’s So Funny About Ohio?

If you’re a 3rd grader the funny thing about Ohio is that it’s the state that’s round on both ends and high in the middle.

If you’re near Columbus the funny thing about Ohio is the field of concrete corn that stands majestically by the roadside.

"CornhengeDublinOhio". Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikipedia - https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:CornhengeDublinOhio.jpg#/media/File:CornhengeDublinOhio.jpg
“CornhengeDublinOhio”. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikipedia

If you’re in Cincinnati the funny thing about Ohio is the Flying Pig statues, marathon, and assorted paraphernalia.

If you’re near Hamilton, Ohio, the funny thing about Ohio is the statue formerly known as Big Butter Jesus. (1)

King of Kings (aka Big Butter Jesus)

King of Kings (aka Big Butter Jesus)
Photo by Cindy Funk

There are undoubtedly other oddities and roadside attractions in Ohio that can be found in various books and websites about the peculiar and amusing sites to be found in various states.

The really funny thing about Ohio, however, is that the state has produced some of the best humor writers ever.

The one that all Ohioans study in school is James Thurber. I was surprised to learn that outside of Ohio he is not as well known. At the very least, Ohio students read “The Night the Bed Fell” and “The Catbird Seat.” (2) His loopy, scrawling cartoons of men, women, and dogs are classics not so much for their artistic merit but for the captions. My favorite is a man and woman in a lobby and the man says, “You wait here and I’ll bring the etchings down.” For some reason that always slays me.

Thurber managed to be funny despite his failing eyesight and rampant misanthropy.(3) He also wrote a series of essays on grammar – a parody of H.W. Fowler’s Modern English Usage – that is enormously amusing to those of us who are amused by that kind of thing. In particular his piece on the subjunctive and sex is worth the price of admission. (4)

The high points of Thurber’s work have been collected in an anthology called The Thurber Carnival. I highly recommend it.

The other native Ohioan who has made her mark in humorous writing is Erma Bombeck.(5) Beginning as a writer for the Dayton Daily News, Bombeck turned her suburban trials and tribulations into comic fodder for such national bestsellers as If Life Is a Bowl of Cherries, What Am I Doing in the Pits?

She is much more widely known than Thurber because of the near-universal appeal of her books and the fact that nobody makes schoolchildren read her.

Every two years there is an Erma Bombeck Writing Workshop held in her memory at the University of Dayton. Attendees work on humor writing, memoirs, and other forms of expression. There are events called “Pitchapalooza” and “Speed Dating for Writers,”(6) a writing contest, and even a showcase for stand-up comedians.

This year the faculty includes Jenny Lawson, the Bloggess; Kathy Kinney, “Mimi” from The Drew Carey Show; multi-talented writer Sharon Short; as well as other authors, speakers, agents, and literary mavens.

I will be there too, as an attendee.(7)  I hope that after this experience, which occurs at the beginning of April, I can use the knowledge, practice, and advice I receive to improve this blog.

Erma Bombeck and James Thurber set a high standard, but those of us who aspire to write need people of outstanding talent to inspire and instruct us. As well as flying pigs and rows of concrete corn to entertain us.

 

(1) Also known as “Touchdown Jesus.” I always called it “Kris Kristofferson Jesus.” Unfortunately that statue was hit by lightning and replaced by another statue of Jesus made from exactly the same materials. And that’s pretty funny too. I call it “Jesus-Needs-a-Hug Jesus.”

"Lux Mundi"
“Lux Mundi”

(2)”The Secret Life of Walter Mitty” is another well-known work. But the Danny Kaye movie of it has too much Kaye and not enough Thurber.

(3) Often mistaken for misogyny. But by the end of his life, he couldn’t stand anyone.

(4) You can find it online at http://grammar.about.com/od/classicessays/a/whichthurber.htm, but hardly anywhere else.

(5) After whom my armadillo purse, Erma (duh), is named.

(6) Not actually a venue for making dates, this consists of time-limited one-on-ones for aspiring authors to ask questions of pros.

(7) I was lucky to register in time – the workshop sold out in under six hours from the time registration opened. There is a FB page and the website is humorwriters.org.