Towel Day 2011

Today, May 25, is Towel Day, an annual celebration of the life and creative work of Douglas Adams.

I first became aware of the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy when I was in junior high, somewhere around 1981. A couple of my friends asked if I had read the book, and when I said I hadn’t, they pretty much left it at that and didn’t tell me any more about it. Sometime later I was at the library looking for something new to read and happened upon the familiar title. I was an avid reader, but didn’t quite know what to make of this; it seemed unlike anything I’d read before. Since the book wasn’t overly long, I didn’t hesitate to pick it up.

What I found was indeed was unlike anything I’d read before. By this time, I’d been watching Doctor Who and Monty Python’s Flying Circus on the local PBS station, but I hadn’t come across anything like this in print. Of course, later on I would find that Douglas Adams had worked on Doctor Who, and that the BBC had made a short TV series of the first book. But still, there wasn’t anything quite as intimate as having Douglas’s words filling my head, the narrator’s asides and the entries from that most remarkable book, the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, seeming to reveal to me another layer to the world that I hadn’t suspected was there before.

Through H2G2 and the books that followed, I came to see the world differently and not as threatening as I had before. From watching Monty Python, I had some notion of satire and how humor could be used to deflate the powerful. However, H2G2 seemed to do so without the cynicism that I had seen in satire up to that point. Seemingly, if one could keep one’s sense of humor about the stupid ways humanity finds to victimize one another, that was enough; one didn’t have to look for ways to make them look bad or somehow exact justice from the wrongdoers, which only made one more like those victimizers. It’s been a lesson that I’ve needed to be reminded of at various points in my life.

It was also while reading Douglas Adams’s writings that I first had the idea that I could be a writer myself. As I mentioned earlier, I was an avid reader, thanks to my mother having been a former school teacher. But up to that point, the reading that I’d done at home and the books assigned in school all seemed to have been heavy, important and significant works that were written by people that seemed to form a kind of elite that was elevated above those who would be reading their works. Here, in Douglas Adams, was a “He’s just this guy, you know” who was writing about the mundane aspects of humanity and our world. And he managed to do it in a framework of silly made-up incidents and wordplay that masked some really profound observations. For an awkward kid growing up in a rural area, for whom everything seemed a potential source of anxiety and unhappiness, this was a very fine thing indeed.

I remember how I started filling 3-subject notebooks with highly derivative imitations of Douglas’s writing, trying to understand what there was about a particular turn of phrase that made it work. I remember how a newspaper article or review of one of his books had featured a recipe for a Pan Galactic Gargle Blaster that involved clear gelatin and Scope mouthwash, and how I tried making it in secret. I remember thinking that I had somehow found a fount of knowledge that my parents and grandparents weren’t privy to, the first intimation that there would be parts of my life that they wouldn’t be involved in and that I might have a life of my own separate from their expectations. I remember admiring Douglas’s commitment to endangered species, and thinking it marvelous that one could have a creative life that allowed one to make a larger contribution to the world.

It only remains for me to say Thank You, Douglas Adams, for your life and for your works. You left us too young and too early, and I think our world is poorer for it. Many times I’ve wondered what you would have made of reality TV, recent politics, the wonderful advances of science and communication, or what it would be like reading your blog, because I’m certain you would have had one. You are missed.

About John Marte

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