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Positive Sinking

Return of the Rhubarb

By Akshay Patil

columnist

Dear Akshay (or Positive Sinking or pseudonym of your preference),

Your last several columns have left me terribly concerned. First, the stated dearth of insightful letters, or indeed of any letters, coming your way is in itself cause for alarm. But I must confess that it was your lack of knowledge about rhubarb that ultimately prompted this letter. At first I thought of sending you a rhubarb pie for your culinary edification, but upon reconsideration, I realized that pies do not survive e-mail transition very effectively.

Moreover, if I’m going to take the trouble to bake a pie, I am certainly not going to send it to mysterious Tech columnists, no matter how few letters they receive.

Thus, you will have to content yourself with the following tidbits of rhubarb lore, gleaned from the Oxford English Dictionary (OED), online edition:

In addition to being the stalk of a plant used as “a substitute for fruit,” a different plant, also known as rhubarb, is a sort of medicinal root. In theater, the word “rhubarb” was frequently muttered by extras milling around to create the impression of hubbub in crowd scenes. This gives rise to the verb “to rhubarb,” meaning to mutter nonsense in such a fashion, and also the nouns “rhubarb” for such mutterings and “rhubarber” for the actor who does the muttering. What’s more, in U.S. slang from the mid-20th century, a rhubarb was a “low-level flight for opportune strafing.” Imagine a fighter pilot telling you, “Oh, I’m just off on a rhubarb run.” And finally in the 1960s and 1970s, “rhubarb” appeared as slang for “nonsense, worthless stuff.”

So there you go. Even if I have not added any rhubarb to you diet, you at least have the opportunity to add it to your daily vocabulary. A terribly useful addition, I think. Especially the bit about strafing, as I’m sure you tend to do a lot of it. Fly over to occupied France and just take potshots at trains, cars, what have you. I’m quite convinced you must spend every weekend on such missions. Leads to good column fodder, you know?

But then again, it’s all just rhubarb...

-- A devoted fan and rhubarb connoisseur

Holy mackerel. This must be the longest and most informative e-mail I have ever received. Except for that “Ghetto Party” e-mail. That one was longer. I’m not sure if it was more informative though... I don’t think I ever got around to reading that one. Sad, really.

First of all, thank you so very much for your e-mail. It is like a ray of sunlight cutting through the dark wilderness of the Internet. Note, that’s “Internet” with a capital “I.” Because I’m literate like that.

Actually, you’ll be happy to know that, due to the rigorous standards here at Positive Sinking, I did, in fact, look up the word “rhubarb” when writing my column. Tragically, I used m-w.com rather than the venerated OED since I’m quite lazy, really, and m-w.com has shorter definitions. I do, however, use OED when writing poetry essays... you know, for the thrill of it.

I would have rather enjoyed an e-mail pie -- regardless of type. I’m so sick of the canned meat that almost any change in e-mail diet would be welcome. Sigh.

Speaking of pie, am I really that mysterious? One would think that I’ve been pounding these things out for long enough (columns in general, that is, not just Positive Sinkings) that I should now be like a wonderful friend. Crikey, most of you regular readers out there have accumulated a disturbingly large amount of personal information out there. The problem with dropping strange little anecdotes or quirks into a public forum such as this is that inevitably I’ll start talking to someone and they’ll mention some incredibly personal characteristic of mine and utterly freak me out. It’s scary! I mean, it’s startling having a random person come up to you and allude to a fact that should really stay between you, your psychiatrist, and your cat. The only thing to do is to stop mentioning things like my favorite color being ... and how I always ... when I ...

In fact, you probably know a great deal more about me than I know about you, “a devoted fan?” And what kind of name is that? Who names their child “a,” anyways? Is it your first initial? What’s it stand for, hunh? I’ve never seen the middle name “devoted” before either... yes, you’ve certainly got a lot of explaining to do. And I’m not so keen on your friend Mr. Connoisseur. As lame a first name as “a” is, being named after a fruit-substitute isn’t really what we like to call “a stepping stone to success.” But, as usual, I digress.

You are indeed quite astute Mr./Ms. Fan. I have done much strafing in my time. And by “my time,” I mean freshmen year. And by “strafing,” I mean “walking sideways in Quake III.” Ah yes, those were the days. When I try to tell these freshmen about what it was like back in the days of Quake, they just don’t believe. Damn kids these days. What, with their Halo, and their Embassy toilet paper, and their hip-hop music. When I was their age we had to play games in binary, and we were damn happy about it! MIT gave us crappy single-ply and we said “Thank you sir! Can I please have another roll?” None of this sissy stuff you see nowadays.

Pah... Hey, who stole my cane?

Ah yes, so many thanks for the lengthy e-mail. Certainly makes my job of filling space easier. And just between you, me, and my fictional cat, isn’t “dearth” a great word?

This column was brought to you arcane allusion-free thanks to the e-mail support of viewers like you. Please help us continue to give you quality ramblings like this by sending a small donation of maybe 5, 10, or even 20 words to sinking@mit.edu. E-mail now and we’ll send you this complimentary tote-bag as a token of our thanks.