May 25th is a day that holds significance to me for two reasons. First, it is International Towel Day.

You may recall the effectiveness of towels from the Hitchhikers Guide To The Galaxy:

“A towel, it says, is about the most massively useful thing an interstellar hitch hiker can have. Partly it has great practical
value – you can wrap it around you for warmth as you bound across the cold moons of Jaglan Beta; you can lie on it on the brilliant marble-sanded beaches of Santraginus V, inhaling the heady sea vapours; you can sleep under it beneath the stars which shine so redly on the desert world of Kakrafoon; use it to sail a mini raft down the slow heavy river Moth; wet it for use in hand-to-hand-combat; wrap it round your head to ward off noxious fumes or to avoid the gaze of the Ravenous Bugblatter Beast of Traal (a mindboggingly stupid animal, it assumes that if you can’t see it, it can’t see you – daft as a bush, but very ravenous); you can wave your towel in emergencies as a distress signal, and of course dry yourself off with it if it still seems to be clean enough.

 

More importantly, a towel has immense psychological value. For some reason, if a strag (strag: non-hitch hiker) discovers that a hitch hiker has his towel with him, he will automatically assume that he is also in possession of a toothbrush, face flannel, soap, tin of biscuits, flask, compass, map, ball of string, gnat spray, wet weather gear, space suit etc., etc. Furthermore, the strag will then happily lend the hitch hiker any of these or a dozen other items that the hitch hiker might accidentally have “lost”. What the strag will think is that any man who can hitch the length and breadth of the galaxy, rough it, slum it, struggle against terrible odds, win through, and still knows where his towel is is clearly a man to be reckoned with.”

International Towel Day was instituted in 2001, just after the May 11 death of Douglas Adams. I had thought it was a one-time event, and didn’t learn until 2005 that is was annual, meaning that for three years I was an unhoopy non-frood who did not know where his towel was.

I was first exposed to The Hitchhikers Guide To The Galaxy when I was ten, when I tuned into the local NPR station expecting an episode of the Star Wars radio series and instead got the first episode of Hitchhikers. At the time it was too much for me, all these weird voices and sound effects, with no frame of reference for me. But even at that tender age I was drawn to weirdness (and it seemed similar to Monty Python, which was becoming an addiction for me) so when the TV adaptation showed up on the local PBS station, I checked it out.

Adams writing quickly became an obsession for me, with turns of phrase like the Vogon ships being described as hanging in the air, “the same way that bricks don’t.” The absurdity of 42 being the “answer to the ultimate question of life, the universe, and everything” appealed to my budding sense that we were all the victims of a cosmic joke. I devoured the books (only two at the time; the increasingly tedious “book five of the trilogy” jokes hadn’t started yet), savoring the language and the ideas, even as the plots completely failed to make any sort of sense to me. To this day, words and quotes from his books still pepper my conversations; why say “what the fuck” when “what the hemorrhaging fuck” sounds so much more descriptive?

As I grew up, I continued to consume anything I could get my hands on, though in the end, thanks to the man’s legendary procrastination (“I love deadlines – I love the whooshing sounds they make as they go by”), that wasn’t much. I loved the first Dirk Gently novel, especially after I had the crucial plot point – that Coleridge never wrote the second part of his poem – explained to me. Through Douglas Adams, I have a better (though still woefully incomplete) understanding of quantum theory, physics, and mythology. He was an atheist, which I’m not, but he made a better reasoned argument for it than anyone else I’ve seen.

My favorite work remains his 1991 nonfiction book Last Chance To See, a chronicle of his travels with nature photographer Mark Carwardine to witness various endangered species before it was too late. His descriptions of the flightless Kakapo parrot of New Zealand are priceless:

“Sadly, however, it seems that not only has the Kakapo forgotten how to fly, but it has also forgotten that it has forgotten how to fly.”

This is followed by a description of the Kakapo’s nearly self-defeating mating cycle, which is absurd enough not only to make one believe that there is a Creator, but that that Creator seriously has it in for the Kakapo:

“…the mating rituals of the Kakapo are incredibly long and drawn-out, fantastically complicated, and almost totally ineffective. The male Kakapo…finds himself a rocky promontory, overlooking a vast, wonderful valley, and it hollows out this bowl in the ground…it puffs out these two enormous airsacs in its chest…(the mating call) is so deep and so reverberant…it carries vast distances, the long, slow big wavelengths fill the valleys…that you can’t tell where it’s coming from. So just imagine, supposing there are some female Kakapos out there, which there probably aren’t. And supposing they like the sound of this booming, which they probably don’t. Supposing that they can then find where this is coming from, which they probably can’t. If they overcome all those obstacles, and actually find the male Kakapo…the female Kakapo will lay one single egg every two years, which promptly gets eaten by a stoat or a rat, and you think, how the HELL has this stupid creature lasted this long?”

Last Chance To See is at its most hilarious when tinged with sadness, for the plight of the animals, for the absurdity of the situations they found themselves in, for a human race that allowed things to get to this point. The expeditions (undertaken between 1985 and 1988) had a profound effect on Adams, leading in his later years to a deeper interest in natural history. You can read updates on the animals at Another Chance To See.

I feel bad about not having my towel with me for the last few Towel Days, but I do have this anecdote from Neil Gaiman to assuage my guilt:

“My favorite memory of Douglas was when I was doing a Hitchhiker’s Guide companion. When I was in his office, going through his filing cabinets and looking at BBC scripts and so on and so forth—all the Hitchhiker material. His mother had come to stay. She’d gone off and had a bath. And all of a sudden there was a banging on the door. And she was shouting, “Douglas, Douglas, I can’t find a towel.” Douglas was walking around the house, looking for a towel. I said to him, “There’s a Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy moment for you.” And he said, “Don’t you dare put that into the book.” I loved the idea, that Douglas Adams was walking around unable to find his towel.”

Here’s a rare clip of an episode of the British Cartoon Dr. Snuggles written by Adams and John Lloyd.

Next: Gee, what else happened on May 25th?

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One Response to “”

  1. ‘Any word that embiggens the vocabulary is cromulent with me’ « Junque! Says:

    […] ‘Any word that embiggens the vocabulary is cromulent with me’ I’ve had to tell people for a long time now: if I say something that sounds like a quote, but you don’t immediately recognize it, it’s probably from The Simpsons.  Or Douglas Adams, but we’ve already covered that. […]

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