Saturday, May 23, 2009

Towel Day

Wildcard reminds you that in addition to Memorial Day observed in the U.S., Monday May 25 is also Towel Day in memoriam to Douglas Adams, writer of The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy.

No geek can truly call themselves a geek, in my book, but for three conditions:

  1. One must provide the correct answer the question, "What is the airspeed velocity of an unladen swallow?"
  2. One must provide the correct question to the answer, "42."
  3. Lastly, one must adequately explain how the answer (as provided in the text of the books or the original radio script) can apply to the question, if at all.

I do not care how many degrees in obscure dead languages you hold, nor how many Microsoft Certifications you're renewing this year, nor even how much time you devote to trying to justify and reconcile every Star Trek story ever written into one continuous "canon," you cannot call yourself a geek unless you can satisfy the above three conditions. Sorry.

I admit this is kind of... ironic, I guess, considering one of the things that has intrigued me about Adams is that as an atheist, he says it's puzzled him that so many "otherwise intelligent people can take (religion) so seriously." Given this paraphrase of a quote of his from The Salmon of Doubt, I genuinely think he would be puzzled and hopefully amused (if there is indeed an after-life, after all) at how his writings have taken on almost scriptural significance to a number of people, just in his lifetime.

I logged onto a number of discussion threads at, checking out a lot of the pre-release buzz over the HHTTG movie before and after it came out, and all the controversy surrounding the choices in casting and... well, everything about it, really. It was staggering to me just how much people asked the question, "But is it canon?"

Canon? You mean, as in some kind of authoritative version of the Hitchhiker's saga? I had to laugh. There is no standard version, not even the five-part "trilogy." Adams wrote I don't know how many iterations and versions of the string of scenarios that comprise the saga, including but not limited to the radio script, the books, the television script, the movie, the text-based computer game... and every one of them is different from the others in some highly noticable way. Canon. As in, like, scripture? Give me strength, I'm sure he's said time and again, not really sure to whom he should address this request.

But that was just an epilogue, compared to the controversy over the number 42. "It was just a funny-sounding number," he said, again and again, yet somehow his words just seemed to drift off into the ether, unheard. He even concocted, or remembered on different occasions, totally different stories as to how he arrived at the number, until I'm sure it became much like his story of how he came up with the idea of a "Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy." That is, he told the story so many times, so often, he says he forgot the actual incident and remembers only the story he keeps telling about it.

The question is even worse. Somewhere along the way some true geeks (myself included), each independently arrived at the realization that if you use a different number base (base13, to be exact), you can make multiplying six by nine equal to 42. This wasn't the point, he insisted, but somehow this did not deter other wags, starving to impose some kind of meaning on existence, who began to believe that if he did not intend for there to be any kind of pattern implied, then it must be the will of (a/the) Supreme Being, kind of like a number of scenarios depicted in the book series.

What could the man do, but maybe try to make something where there was a "hidden message?" Thus came the now famous "42 Puzzle," in which he hid, I don't know, somewhere around 10 different representations of the number 42 in a 6 x 7 grid of balls, and published it on the cover of a later edition of all five books of the "trilogy." The irony to this is nobody got it.

"Towel Day" is, and probably should be, merely a casual observance with no real "meaning" to it. There probably shouldn't be a lot of todo about it, just a bunch of people walking around carrying a towel for no readily apparent reason, although yes, Adams does demonstrate that the towel is a very handy thing to keep with you, especially as you travel. You may never find yourself in any of the exotic locales nor face any of the truly alien situations he lists, but I'm sure you'll agree there are so many occasions in everyday life where it may astound, perplex, and yet ultimately gratify those around you that you just HAPPEN to have a towel with you.

But as far as the "meaning of life," I think all Adams really had to say was that there is none, but not necessarily in a bleak sense (depending on where he was in his cycles of depression when discussing it). "Nothing matters. Look, it's a beautiful day, enjoy it," he said through Ford Prefect in The Restaurant at the End of the Universe. It's strange to me that there don't seem to be a lot of HHTTG fans going around spouting that either, despite that that is probably the most profound truth he'd ever uttered.

Well, that and, "Don't Panic!"

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