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Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery—and copyright infringement
I had a revelation this morning.
I was eating cereal, looking out the window at the puddles left by last night’s thunderstorms, and listening to a full choir in my mind singing “drip, drip, drop, little April shower!”
I realized that I was sporting slippers and a ponytail, pushing my spoon around the bowl trying to find the last of the blueberries and having a full-on Bambi montage going through my mind at seven o’clock in the morning. “Is that healthy?” I wondered.
Before I had time to answer my own question, my friend Laura arrived at my apartment to join me for my first 10K—Boulder’s family-friendly “Bolder Boulder”. Neither of us is stellar at running, truth be told, but we couldn’t pass up the opportunity to make t-shirts. (I wish I could tell you that I was kidding, but looking back on the situation, I think that having an occasion for witty t-shirts was our top priority when we spontaneously signed up last week).
Laura and I have been friends since middle school, when I was obsessed with the movie Speed, and Laura was obsessed with The Wizard of Oz. We shared a locker, and used to spend passing periods between classes arguing over whether or not my Keanu Reeves picture was more or less noticeable in the locker than her Ruby Slippers magnet was. We passed notes during class to each other that were folded more intricately than an origami football stadium, and marked with a tiny tab at the top that always said (oh, the logic of 12 year old girls,) pull here.
I still have some of our notes. They mostly look like this:
“I can’t believe you moved my magnet down to the bottom of the locker! I’ll get you, my pretty... ooh, the war is ON! (‘Randy, why are you crying?’ ‘Daddy’s gonna kill Ralphie!’ ‘No, daddy’s not going to kill Ralphie. Do you want a glass of milk?’) Come over to my house after school, and we can braid hair and watch t.v. (‘Patty, you’re the Mayonnaise for me, ooh-ooh-ooh’). My mom can take you home later. (‘Miss, can you handle this bus?’ ‘Oh yeah, it’s like driving a really big Pinto’). See you at lunch. Destroy this note. –Jane K.”
Here’s the Rosetta Stone translation— in one note, that’s a reference to The Wizard of Oz, an obscure quote from A Christmas Story, one old-school reference to the cartoon Doug, and a really unfortunate quote from Speed. And that’s one of our shortest notes... I’m sure if I looked harder, I could find a note that has a longer bibliography than my college thesis.
Like anyone with a genuine addiction, I find that I’m spending more time with people like myself who have a quotation or obscure reference problem. On the flip side, I’m also getting increasingly annoyed with folks who overuse the quotation addiction to the point that they can’t charm me with their original dialogue (which will later be quoted, by me, to excess).
My friends are definitely to blame for being enablers. Laura (my dealer) is perhaps the worst—she showed up to go to the 10K wearing a “Waldorf” t-shirt, and the back of mine said “Statler”. Both shirts had iron-on photos of Statler & Waldorf, the old man Muppets who sit in the balcony cracking corny jokes and repeating everything the performers say. It’s really with minimal sarcasm that we wore these shirts to an event with 50,000 people... the first step to overcoming an addiction is to acknowledge your problem.
My family isn’t any better. My dad and I have quoted one particular line from Father of the Bride so many times, I think Steve Martin’s soul has begun to hurt. (Dad always starts it—“The good news, however, is that this overreacting tends to get proportionately less by generation” ... and then I chime in: “So my kids could be normal?”)
Maybe I shouldn’t indulge that last one. The image of the Author, capital A, is of someone who’s serious and pensive, sitting in a leather club chair, smoking cigars and eating oysters for dinner as he or she reads war stories and listens to depressing music on the stereo. Maybe bringing Father of the Bride into this might be one of those author’s-kids-secrets I should keep to myself. (So I won’t tell you that when I accidentally close the door on my jacket or a seatbelt, we do what any normal people would do and quote You’ve Got Mail—“good thing it wasn’t the fish!”)
My opinion is that Quotationitis (swelling of the original quotation) isn’t something that you have to eliminate from your life, as long as you can smoothly integrate it into your routine without causing anyone else to be ill. Whenever I find myself quoting movies or books a lot in a given day, I just go to the gym the next morning and work extra hard to come up with original one-liners for the rest of the day. And it’s a great game to sneak some of the really obscure references in when very few people will catch on that you’re quoting something, but they also won’t applaud your comments for originality. This is where my bizarre film history comes in handy... no one says, “Oh! Mr. Blandings Builds His Dreamhouse!” out of recognition when I whisper “just four little pieces of flagstone,” and people just assume I’m really weird when I quote Joan Cusack from Working Girl when taking a customer into my manager’s office: “let’s give her a shout, shall we? (knocks) You decent?”
If I really want to be sure that no one will get the reference, I’ll just shyly quote Proust on my way out of a party with the excuse: “for a long time, I would go to bed early.” (*sidenote: just for kicks, I paused this essay-writing to Google that quote, and saw this on someone’s website: “For a long time, stately, plump Buck Mulligan used to go to bed early”. Someone stuck a Joyce quote in a Proust quote for fun. See?! We’re closet freaks, but there are more of us out there than the government is comfortable with.)
My friends who are good at witty quotations are some of the funniest, most original people I know, so it’s also tempting to quote these fine people when I’m not around them. My alma mater (Hamilton College) was such a stickler about plagiarism that I have a panic ingrained in me about accidentally taking credit for something, so here’s how I remedy the situation. Whenever possible, I’ll quote a friend and then mumble: “trademarked John Doe, all rights reserved” as a verbal footnote. It really helps if you’ve had a beer or two at happy hour to successfully pull this one off.
If you’re in a more awkward situation, such as a six mile race that you have no business running, I suggest trying to work it in more conversationally. Example: “Did you see that guy’s Jay Leno costume ahead of us?” one sweaty runner asked me. “Yeah, he could really use some chin-der-wear,” I gasped, struggling for enough breath to add “which Tom Servo from that low-budget cable show Mystery Science Theater would say”. Ok. So it doesn’t work too well, and people will generally be confused and/or give you credit for someone else’s genius when you’re playing the quote game. “Life’s short, so just enjoy your witty comebacks,” I always say— or someone else has said, and I agreed with it.
So there we were, Laura and I, jogging along in the rain with 50,000 other happy, jogging people, slogging through all six miles with obscure references and quotes that only very old friends will wheeze from laughter when repeating (for the ten thousandth time).
“You know what would be good right now?”
“Um, cake please.”
“Tea and Cake, or Death!”
“We’re going to run out of cake at this rate. I only had two bits, and I didn’t expect such a rush!”
The lady next to us hasn’t seen much Eddie Izzard, apparently, because she asked us why we kept talking about FOOD when we hadn’t even hit mile THREE yet, thank you very much.
Somewhere around mile five, we were starting to really lose steam. The cheerleaders and belly dancers were far behind us, the stadium was still out of sight, and the rain was starting to sting a little bit when it hit our bare arms and the Statler and Waldorf photos on our shirts. It was then that something amazing happened—the sounds of a band playing “The Final Countdown” a block ahead of us. (Do-do-do-doooo, do-do-doot-doot-doooo, it’s the final countdown!”)
To most, this song is funny just on its own. But for anyone who worships the show Arrested Development (rest in peace), it was a moment of true glory.
We looked at each other.
“Gob! And his Segway!” I shrieked.
“And his magic show! And the dead dove!” She yelled, wiping rain out of her eyelashes.
Next to us, runners lost their focus to turn and stare at us. The same people who were un-phased by the joggers who had kicked off their shoes and were running in bare feet in the middle of the street; the nice young man running at full speed in an unpeeled banana costume; the woman standing on the curb with a hand-painted “Free Hugs!” sign. They were staring at us. Two winded girls with Muppet t-shirts, getting their last burst of inspiration at the last leg of the race, screaming with delight and singing “the final countdown, oohhhh, the final countdown!”
I can truly say that this little moment is what got me up the hill, into the stadium, and around the track to the finish line.
On a completely unrelated note, I would also like to make a brief pitch for originality before I go.
Recently, I did something very small that has made a very big difference in my life, and I would highly recommend it to anyone.
I decided that my life could use a little infusion of joy in the simplest way possible—by actually writing down the things that I want to do in the near future and doing my best to complete them. Everyone who knows me knows that I love two things—1. movie quotes, and 2. making lists.
I began to compose a list of the things that often make me think, “Oh, I’d love to do that!”, but never really take seriously, or remember to do. I made it a rule to leave out anything that was preceded by “should” (i.e. I should pay my bills more quickly; I should get better at jogging) and included everything that was preceded by “I would love to” or “I wonder if I could”.
Here’s a brief excerpt:
#22: Do something every week that scares me
#38: Run the Bolder Boulder for the first time
#5: Participate in a police ride-along program and request the late-night beat
#11: Learn the dance to Thriller in its entirety
#31: Spend time in Denver during the Democratic convention and have a beer with at least one politician
#4: Audition for a band that needs a female vocalist and a cellist
#27: Read up about fraternal and identical twins (yes, the list can be odd at times, but I’m fascinated by twins, so onto the list it goes)
I wrote the list on a whim, and it’s already improved my life.
I also ran the Bolder Boulder on a whim, and it’s already brought extraordinary pain and muscle soreness to my legs.
If there’s anything I can fully endorse, it’s being impulsive. Write down your secret joys, and follow-through on them when you least expect yourself to. Forget about the filter between your brain and your mouth and just tell your passenger “I’m...I’m gonna speed it up!” in your best Keanu voice when driving them to a fancy first date. (Quick trivia for you—did you know that “Keanu” is Hawaiian for “a cool breeze that comes from the mountains?” Did I mention that my middle school obsession will haunt me for the rest of my life?)
Years of improv training taught me to talk first; think later, and for better or for worse, it’s become a big part of my personality.
Write your own list, and share your current adventure with others (and me!). It’s deliciously addictive. But in the immortal words of my hero LeVar Burton, “You don’t have to take my word for it.”
I’ll see you next time,