The other night Uncle Al went to a play at the Guthrie, and for the occasion he put on a sport coat he hadn’t worn recently. When he started to put his keys into one of the pockets, he found that there was already something there.
This is, of course, a common experience for many folks when the seasons change: The other coat comes out of the closet and the pockets are found to contain such items as candy wrappers, scrunched-up napkins and several of the bags for dog cleanup that are now one of the principal reasons to subscribe to the newspaper.
Once in a while, coat pockets contain something a little more peculiar. A quick check just now, for example, in the pockets of Uncle Al’s dress-up winter coat, which he seldom wears, produced a book of matches from a restaurant in Milwaukee that Uncle Al has not visited — nor even heard of. And Uncle Al doesn’t smoke.
Although that’s a little strange, if Uncle Al works at it he can imagine circumstances in which he might have an odd book of matches. He is having a lot more trouble explaining to himself why he had what he found in that sport coat the other night: Two white yarmulkes and a nose flute.
It’s been years…
For the uninitiated, the nose flute is a small plastic musical instrument, which is cupped around the nose and mouth and sounds like an ocarina or a slide whistle. Many long years ago, Uncle Al used to liven up parties with his nose-flute renditions of such standards as “Whispering” and “Smoke Gets in Your Eyes.” He hasn’t played the nose flute in years — partly because he isn’t invited to all that many parties where he might play it — possibly because he used to play the nose flute at them.
Uncle Al can tell that the sport coat must be of considerably more recent vintage than what he will refer to here as “The Nose Flute Years.” That’s because it fits him — or almost fits him. (In that respect, if no other, the ages have been kind to Uncle Al, as he has consistently been able to afford his preferred diet of chocolate, butter, cream and egg yolks, a blessing that has in turn led to a gradual but persistent circumferential enhancement.)
Finding the nose flute in the sport coat was puzzling enough: The presence of the two yarmulkes takes the mystery to a considerably higher level of peculiarity.
Uncle Al is Jewish, and he has attended any number of religious services and funerals, at which the skullcaps called yarmulkes (usually black) are worn. White yarmulkes are more associated with celebrations — weddings, for example. Uncle Al has attended a few of those, but he can’t think of any at which he would have needed two yarmulkes.
And even Uncle Al recognizes that it is a highly unlikely wedding indeed at which he both would need multiple yarmulkes and would have brought along a nose flute, on the off chance that the bride, for example, might request him to contribute to the festivity of the occasion by rendering “Whispering” or “Smoke Gets in Your Eyes.”
On the other hand, unlikely events do occur, a fact of which Uncle Al was reminded a week ago, when he read a news story about how much better computer translation between human languages has become recently. That brought to what Uncle Al likes to call his mind two examples of unlikely events that someone, somewhere believed were worth being able to complain about, when traveling in a foreign country, in the language spoken there.
He stumbled upon the most recent one just a few months ago, when he discovered a $9.95 six-language pocket electronic translator. Thinking that, although for $9.95 it probably wouldn’t be very good, it might be at least a bit handy for the woman who had become his second ex-wife (and his best friend), who travels a great deal.
In fact it seems to be pretty good at its main function: When you enter a word in one language, it offers that word in the five other languages at its command.
It also has a list of about 100 sentences in the same six languages: Push the button repeatedly until the sentence you want comes up (“Do you have a larger one?” “My luggage has not arrived;” “We are in a hurry”), then see it in any of the other five languages. That’s a little clumsy, but again, for $10, pretty good, and it covers quite a range of things one might need to say.
But really, friends, how many of us think that a list of the only 100 thoughts you will be able to convey in some foreign land should include “The bidet leaks”?
The other example presented itself in the 1960s, not to Uncle Al, but to that same woman, who was to become his second ex-wife in the distant future, but who was then not even his second wife. She was in college, preparing to go to Lebanon on a student project, and was enrolled in the project’s class in Arabic for travelers.
Among the phrases on a mimeographed sheet the students were encouraged to memorize, she found one that gave her pause. Surely it wouldn’t be needed frequently, but apparently it wasn’t so unlikely as to keep it off this list of useful remarks:
“Look! The floor is on fire!”
If the floor caught fire while Uncle Al was on a visit to Lebanon, and if he didn’t know how to point that out in Arabic, he might have played “Smoke Gets in Your Eyes” on the nose flute. But he wouldn’t have worn even one yarmulke.