Old Daily Shows--November 2002

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Wednesday December 10, 2003 Bagpipes and bad sex writing

This isn't the sort of thing that I'd normally post in the Daily Show, but I think it's completely within my Watson purview to comment on this particular bit of novelistic horror.

You see, someone showed me the Bad Sex Award finalists page. Now, before you go fleeing in terror, it's not a page of photos or p0rN or anything like that. It's a discussion of sex passages in various novels, and the evidently displeasing nature of their descriptions.

Most of them are bad in fairly straightforward ways, but I must take issue with the award's donors for choosing Bunker 13 as the worst sex writing. To me, there was a far stronger choice: The Sucker's Kiss, by Alan Parker, published by Sceptre. The excerpt they posted is included here:

"Honey couldn't get my pants over my boots, so she pulled her hair up on top of her head, readjusted the tortoiseshell hair comb, took off her glasses and went straight to work with that long tongue of hers licking my bat and balls... Maybe it was because I was tight as a goat, but it sure was a great afternoon. I'm not much of a muff diver, but I can strongly recommend that Kentucky cocktail of Sneaky Pete and strawberry juice. Further down my body, Honey Mackintosh bobbed up and down between my legs, her big soft lips locked around my hootchee and, true to her Scottish roots, she sucked away like she was the last person left on earth to play the bagpipes on Robbie Burns' birthday."

I don't even know where to begin. I certainly hope the rest of the book wasn't as bad as this passage, which fairly drowns in metaphor and run-on sentences. Evidently the author favors strict use of slang when naming genitalia--if it weren't for the references to "head" (as in the thing atop your shoulders), "tongue", "legs", and "lips", one might think the author didn't know these parts had names of their own.

"Bat and balls" is certainly a common enough expression, but "hootchee"? Every time I've heard that expression used, it has been in reference to a woman, not a man. "Muff diver" is frequently used, but its use in that sentence implies a connection to "Kentucky cocktail of Sneaky Pete and strawberry juice" that seems unwarranted by the narrative of the afternoon's events. "Strawberry juice" is fairly obvious, but "Sneaky Pete"? A quick Google search turns up a Sneaky Pete who's a pedal steel guitar player, and another who's into tractor pulls. Only further down do you find a definition: "having sex with someone you, for whatever reason, have a strange attraction to, but wouldn't want anyone else you know to ever find out about." This seems odd in the context of the passage, given that the woman seems a willing participant.

"Tight as a goat"? What the heck? Tight generally has one of three meanings: (a) spatially constricted, (b) miserly, (c) drunk off one's donkey. (c) is the easiest to rule out--if the narrator were that drunk, how much would he enjoy the experience? On the other hand, he might still think it fun, so maybe that's our likely choice. (b) makes little sense. The only possible interpretation is that the narrator is paying for sex, i.e. prostitution. This word sense is incompatible with the sentence's meaning, which implies that the goat-esque tightness is responsible for the afternoon's splendor. This leaves sense (a), spatial constriction. I read it that way the first time, and had to go and check the gender of the narrator. But unless activities not mentioned are occurring, there are no relevant body parts that could possibly be tight. In any case, those body parts seem unlikely to belong to the narrator, who might be a cricket player (what with his bat and balls).

As an aside, are goats normally tight, whatever word sense one considers? This seems the sort of accusation that I hear Scots hurling at each other in jest ("aye, he comes frae Stirling, where men are men and sheep are nervous"), but hardly something one would use to describe oneself. Goats are noted for neither drunkenness nor miserly behavior, which lends further credence to the spatial constriction hypothesis.

That was all just a load of academic ranting. Now I get to the part that's relevant to my Watson year. Bagpipes suffer, rather more than many musical instruments, from a strong association with kitsch. Picture a professional cellist for a moment. Think about that. What pictures come to your mind?

If you're like me, you probably think of the way a cello looks, the timbre and pitch range of their sound, and perhaps you also call to mind some music that features cellos prominently. Jacqueline du Pré might flash before your eyes.

Now picture a professional bagpipe player. Think about that. What pictures come to your mind?

First off, what gender is your mental bagpipe player? I bet he's male. Was your cellist? Lots of women play bagpipes. Now, what is your professional bagpipe player wearing? Is he in a kilt? Red tartan, wearing a funny hat and a sporran? Did your cellist have any specific attire when you pictured him?

Bagpipes are fighting with the accretion of kitschy images that stifles their growth and acceptance as a legitimate musical instrument. There are more bagpipers outside Scotland than in, but I bet if you asked your hypothetical piper to say something, he'd be more likely to say "Ach, weel, how about a braw fish and chips for tea" than "Anybody feel like a burger tonight?" It's never just the instrument with pipers--always there are these other things tagged on that have little to do with the instrument, the music, or their particular culture.

The problem with all that kitsch--and I'll leave it to Art History 1 classes to discuss whether kitsch is a good thing--is that it allows people to speak in ignorance without seeming to do so. Everybody knows about bagpipers... they drink a lot, wear kilts, tend not to be predisposed toward underwear, play loud and out-of-tune instruments, and are commonly associated with Amazing Grace, Scotland The Brave, and Highland Cathedral. Pipers, particularly kilted ones, are also open targets for harassment: I can't tell you how many times I've seen people walk up to pipers and lift their kilts to see what lies beneath. As if you didn't know! But that sort of behavior gets you a visit from Officer Friendly if you do it to normal citizens. With pipers, people think it's okay.

Everyone knows about pipers--which means most people never bother to think at all. People ask you to do all sorts of things that are physically impossible on the instrument, because they haven't bothered to learn anything about it. Most people don't even know it's a woodwind--I certainly didn't before I started learning about it.

Where is this long-winded diatribe going? Right here. Alan Parker clearly didn't do any homework at all in writing this particularly savory bit of salacious prose. First off, at Burns' Nights (aka Robbie Burns' birthday), generally one piper plays. It's not a group thing. So even if it were his birthday, the chances of one particular Scot playing bagpipes would be pretty low.

But worst of all is Parker's egregious misunderstanding of the instrument. Ironically, slang usage--so prevalent in his earlier writing--would have helped him here. You see, he writes "she sucked away like she was the last person left on earth to play the bagpipes". I guarantee that sucking away on a bagpipe will do nothing more than make your head and lungs implode.

I challenge you to think of a wind instrument whose predominant method of play involves inhalation rather than exhalation. Instruments like the launeddas and didgeridoo don't count, because they're using circular breathing to fake exhalation. Even Tenacious D's Inward Singing is only applying circular breathing to an exhalation-based technique.

Parker's protagonist describes Miss Honey as being quite engaged in the act of sucking on his bat and balls. However, his facts are wrong. Sucking is not the correct activity for bagpipes; a blowjob would be. As our high school wind ensemble once proclaimed (as a singularly amusing, inappropriate, and quite untrue motto), "We don't suck; we blow."

Parker's failure to recognize this basic fact of wind instrument technique takes his prose to a new level of execrable tripe, and I feel it is a travesty of justice that his piece was not awarded the Bad Sex Awards win it so richly deserved.

I am a huge dork.

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