Freds, Fishbowls, and Commas

Sept. 2 - One thing I meant to talk about earlier in the week, but didn't, was last Friday's visit to Assistens Kirkegård ("Assistens Churchyard"), where my Studieskolen classmates and I visited the graves of such celebrated Danish stiffs as Hans Christian Andersen, Dan Turell, and Søren Kierkegaard.

(But let me digress a moment before I get any further into that. You've probably noticed by now that I'm a partisan of the serial comma. That is, I believe that in a list of three or more items, the penultimate item should be followed by a comma and the word "and." The last sentence of the preceding paragraph and the title of this briefing are both examples of this usage. I've recently learned that the so-called "serial comma" is forbudt by Danish grammatical statute. In English it is a style choice: in Danish it is flat wrong. For hardcore serial-comma partisans like myself, it ought not to be a style choice but a requirement in English. I'm appalled by Denmark's outright rejection of the serial-comma and will began evangelizing its use among the natives immediately. And I do mean immediately—excuse me while I summon my wife for a homily on commas....)

* * *

I don't actually have a lot to say about Assistens, which is probably one of the reasons I've postponed writing about it. One of the things I found most striking, for example, was the surprising number of Danish corpses named Fred. You couldn't walk ten feet without passing a monument or cross engraved with the name. At one point I'd seen about three such tombstones in a row and actually began giggling. I mean, what were the odds?


A classmate sidled up alongside and asked what I found so amusing in a graveyard on a rainy day.

"Half the people buried here are named Fred," I said.

"What are you talking about?"

"Look," I said, pointing out a couple of markers emblazoned with the name.

My classmate stared back at me without blinking.

"Fred means 'peace' in Danish," she said.

And so it does.

* * *

Another reason it's taken me so long to get around to writing about our graveyard tour is that our life has been turned completely upside down by a real estate transaction: our landlord sold her apartment—our home—and removed all of her furniture and furnishings on Monday.

We rented the place furnished, and we used to describe our apartment as "furnished to within an inch of its life." The landlord hadn't just rented us an apartment with the basic furniture staples, but a much-lived-in, overcrowded, overcluttered, baroque monstrosity of a place in which there wasn't even an empty drawer to be found. There were used bus passes lying around. There was a drawer full of nothing but old candle stubs. It was as though someone had lived there for twenty years and one day said, "I've had enough!" and walked out into the Danish night. We'd therefore been looking forward to the removal of all this furniture—we had other stuff lined up to take its place and anticipated nothing but relief and a surge of Feng Shui goodness.

But we hadn't anticipated our landlord's thoroughness. She didn't just remove everything that wasn't nailed down: she took stuff that was nailed down. And then the nails. She removed light fixtures, coathooks, even crappy little shelves that weren't much more than lengths of plywood nailed awkwardly to the walls.

So there's been a little more to replace than we'd originally anticipated. Not a terrible crisis, but enough to diminish these electric pages as any kind of a priority. And enough to incite an introspective bloodbath of reflection. After all, when you're a partially unemployed, mostly illiterate immigrant with a newborn child and an apartment so empty it echoes, it's a pretty good time to reflect on what the hell you're doing with your life. "Relishing the adventure!" shouts the optimist within you—until your inner pragmatist kicks the living shit out of him.

Anyway, we're adjusting, and the apartment is coming together nicely, largely due to a lot of help from my in-laws. The traumatic little episode is already far enough behind us that we're able to appreciate the wide-open spaces of our home just as we'd originally expected to. We're almost giddy about it—to the point that if this were an MGM musical, I'd break into song.

This isn't, thanks be to God and international trademark laws, an MGM musical, but I've described Danish culture as the national equivalent of an MGM musical often enough that the latent Dane within me has become suddenly irrepressible. So before my inner pragmatist starts kicking his ass, I'll share a poem I wrote on a related subject in January 1989, which poem seems to encapsulate my feelings pretty nicely. Not only that, but there's a serial comma in the title. (Disclaimer: I am not now, nor have I ever been, an actual poet.)

Cleanliness, Godliness, and Strangled Cats

This morning I awoke to discover
that my loft had been ravaged
by a delirious pack of Men's Fragrance distributors
from Tulsa

they had torn the stuffing out of the sofa
shattered my television
drawn crude hieroglyphics on my walls
strangled my cats
and boiled four goldfish in the microwave
these, among other monstrosities

Days like this
I want to be a fish
in a bowl
with a plastic sea-diver
and multi-colored pebbles

I want to be a fish
and feel my universe swirl and churl about me
as the water in the bowl is changed

like that

my universe is clean.

I don't suppose I'll ever see it anthologized, and I'm fully prepared for the spate of ridicule it so richly deserves, but, as I said, it does a pretty good job of nailing down the way I felt on Monday.

And today I'm one happy fish.

* * *

Lydia Kamekeha Liliuokalani was born on this date in 1838. Upon the death of her brother in 1891, she became sovereign Queen of Hawaii. This was considered posing by the American colonials of Hawaii, who reminded her that monarchy was unconstitutional in the United States.

She reminded them that Hawaii was not part of the United States.

This was more than unconstitutional: it was cheeky. She was immediately deposed, then wrote wrote "Aloha Oe" and retired.

On this date in 1666, Thomass Farrinor forgot to put out his oven at the end of his shift. Unfortunately, the resulting fire cost him his job as official baker to King Charles II of England. On the plus side, it burned out of control and destroyed four-fifths of London, thereby ending the Black Plague.

Verdun, France surrendered to the Prussian army on September 2, 1792. Exactly seventy-eight years later, Napoleon III surrendered to the Prussians at Sedan. Prussia got so excited she decided to become Germany. Surrendering to the Germans eventually became a French institution, like soft cheese and adultery. It was surely with a nostalgic eye, therefore, that Parisiens watched on September 5, 1944, as the first of Germany's V-2 missiles rained down upon them.

Today is Republic Day in Vietnam, and the birthday of Salma Hayek (1966), Keanu Reeves (1964), Jimmy Connors (1952), Christa McAuliffe (1948), and the aforementioned Lydia Kamekeha Liliuokalani (1838).

Happy Thursday!

© 2004, The Moron's Almanac™

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