Winners of the 2003 Mona Schreiber Prize
for Humorous Fiction and Nonfiction:
“Hooray for Our Modern Age” © Mark Hawthorne,
Rohnert Park, California (2003, 1st place)
Recently, British scientists announced that a craft
designed to explore Mars for intelligent life will land on December 25. “Life”
on the red planet might be carbon-based or silicon-based, but by what yardstick
do we measure extraterrestrial “intelligence”? Can we even use a yardstick?
Maybe, but it has to be one of those folding ones with lots of little lines on
Contact with extraterrestrials would likely solve many
riddles, like where do crop circles come from and who keeps shining bright
lights into my room when I’m trying to sleep. Yet I do not believe we would
like aliens to establish permanent lodgings on Earth. After all, once we’ve
exchanged greetings and dessert recipes, what’s left? Pretty soon, we’re
criticizing them for not speaking the language, and then we’ll start to worry
that they are going to compete with us for all the good jobs. No, I say give us
the secret of your ray guns and then move on.
We have indeed come a long way since Copernicus, using a telescope he had
fabricated from marbles and an assortment of napkin rings, showed that the Earth
revolved around the Sun and not vice versa. This caused an outcry from the
Church and made Styrofoam models of the solar system much easier to carry to
science fairs. Science also gave us the Industrial Revolution, leading to
powerful machines and the invention of noise, which was promptly patented by the
A.J. Llewelyn Company of London. Llewelyn kept the patent in his hat. One
morning, a gust of wind blew the hat off his head and noise became available to
everyone at a fraction of its original cost.
Since then, each decade has seen some new achievement,
wondrous scientific invention that prompts remarks like “How did we ever live
without it?” and “What will they think of next?” and “Why does it keep
Science was born in Greece about 600 B.C. and prospered
until 146 B.C., when Greek civilization gave way to the Romans, who weren’t
interested in anything but land acquisition and performance art, like seeing how
many people they could stuff into a lion. Revived during the Renaissance,
however, science was soon helping us forge a better future.
We currently live in the age of modern science, which most experts agree
began about the time the paper clip was invented, thus allowing major scientific
blunders to be easily organized into a single, class-action lawsuit. The advent
of electricity, however, truly ushered in the modern age. Now, scientists could
work from home, annoying their neighbors with loud music and reanimating the
dead, beginning with sponge cake and gradually working up to condemned
While modern science is by definition new, it has roots in the classic
academic pursuits. Our modern age, for example, owes a great debt to
mathematics, which is the basis of the hard sciences and was once considered one
of the black arts, like alchemy and vegetarianism.
Pythagoras, one of the earliest mathematicians,
believed that all facts could be reduced to numbers. For instance, if a student
were to ask, “Master, why does the value of a new chariot plummet after you
drive it off the lot?” Pythagoras might thoughtfully scratch his chin and
reply, “Eight.” “Ah, eight,” the student would reply, as if he
understood, “of course. It’s axiomatic.” Math ranks among our greatest
mysteries. Is it any wonder Euclid and Archimedes are regarded as gods among
certain residents of the Ozarks?
Our knowledge of physics has led to remarkable
discoveries in medicine and other sciences. The poster boy of modern physics is
Albert Einstein, who believed that nothing in the universe is faster than the
speed of light in a vacuum, provided the vacuum isn’t clogged with dust
bunnies. Thanks to Einstein, we understand the mighty atom and can send rockets
deep into space. Medical advances mean we can guard ourselves against the plague
and its dreaded cousin, cooties. We can even harness the power of the Sun to
work on our tans.
Science cannot answer all of life’s mysteries, of
course. It doesn’t tell us why a body in motion will continue moving, for
example, or why, if the universe is expanding, I can never get a seat on the
subway. But I for one cannot imagine a world without a perpetual motion machine
to power my phrenology appliance or the nerve tonic that invigorates my liver
and curbs the vapors. And one of those ray guns would be pretty cool.
“My Date with Neanderthal Woman” © David Galef,
Oxford, Mississippi (2003, 2nd place)
I didn’t know whether to bring flowers, which don’t
say much to someone from a basic subsistence culture. But a raw beefsteak might
come across as too suggestive and anyway, I’d read somewhere that Neanderthals
were supposed to be vegetarians. So I opted for the middle road, a box of
I arrived just as the sun was sinking below the tree
line. Glena lived in a cave by the edge of the forest and had, I’d heard, a
more natural sense of time than those of us dominated by Rolexes and cell
phones. Still, she wasn’t there when I hurt my hand knocking on the cave
I tried twice, the second time with my foot. Then, I
called out, emphasizing the glottal g I’d heard when her name was pronounced
by the TransWorld Dating Agency. She appeared as if suddenly planted in front of
me. There she stood, barrel-chested and bandy-legged, not much taller than a
stack of tree stumps. Her furry, brown hair was matted with sweat, but she
smiled at me in a flat-faced way as I held out the chocolate.
Grabbing the box from my hands, she ripped it open and
crowed in delight. She stuffed several candies with their wrappers in her mouth
and chewed vigorously. The agency had told me not to waste time with complicated
verbal behavior, so I just pointed at her and myself and said, “Glena, Robert.”
She nodded, then pointed to the chocolate and rubbed
her belly. Such a primal response! Frankly, I’d grown tired of modern women
and their endless language games. She offered me one of the remaining chocolates
from the box and I was touched: pure reciprocity, though she looked disappointed
that I didn’t eat the wrappers, as well. When she began to polish off the box
itself, I shook my head, smiling. I mimed eating and pointed away from the
forest. I would take her out to dinner. Neanderthals, I recalled, were often on
the cusp of starvation. At any rate, she seemed to understand and followed me
obediently as I led her to Chez Asperge, a small, French-fusion-vegan restaurant
not too far from the woods.
I didn’t know that the place had a dress code. In
fact, the little loincloth Glena wore made me feel overdressed. Anyway, the
situation was fixed with a borrowed jacket, which Glena chose to wear in a
charmingly asymmetric fashion.
God, I hate all the introductory explanations of a
first date, which is why I was so happy none of that mattered to Glena. With an
easy familiarity, as if she’d known me for years, she spread her arms on the
table and scooped up half the mashed lentil dip. It’s true: a woman who enjoys
her food is sexy. Of course, she offered me some and I showed her how to spread
it on pita. But knives seemed to frighten her, and I’m sorry about that scar
on the table. Still, we had a lovely meal. She particularly enjoyed the raw
After dinner, I walked her home along the forest path.
Movies and clubs would come later, if at all. I didn’t want to overstimulate
her. Even electric lights made her twitch a bit. But along the path the moon was
out, illuminating Glena’s short but powerful body in a way that was weirdly
beautiful. When I reached for her hand, at first she jerked back–different
cultures have different rites, the agency guy said–so I took pains to explain
that my intentions were honorable. Maybe she couldn’t understand the words,
yet I think she got the gist. Any anyway, there’s a limit to what I can
achieve by gestures.
We paused at the entrance to her cave. She smiled, the
gaps in her teeth drawing me in. Her earthy aroma was vaguely aphrodisiacal.
What came next was sort of a kiss, followed by a rib-cracking embrace that the
osteopath says is healing nicely. Soon after, she retreated to her cave. Still,
whenever I think about it, I feel twinges. What a woman! I’d like to invite
her out this weekend, but I can’t e-mail her. Maybe I’ll just drop by her
cave accidentally on purpose with a bouquet of broccoli.
Yes, yes, I know all the objections. Some couples are
separated by decades, but we’re separated by millennia. I like rock music and
she likes the music of rocks. I’m the modern type and she’s Neanderthal, but
I think we can work out our differences if we try.
“Fear of Flyers” © Sachin Waikar, Naperville,
Illinois (2003, 3rd place)
“Now, what’s this for?” asks the blue-uniformed
guard. His expression suggests I just asked him to cup his hands for me to
urinate in them. I haven’t. Not this time. I’m at the front desk of a
community college in Chicago’s western suburbs. The guard leans forward to
examine the flyer on the desktop. He holds his breath, as if he recognizes the
Kinko’s paper as a micro-thin explosive.
“We’re hiring test-prep teachers and thought some
of the students here might be interested,” I explain, again. “Just wanted to
post this.” I tap the flyer.
“Test prep?” He leans back in his chair, fingers
laced behind his neck. I glance at the ceiling. No interrogation lightbulb.
Nonetheless, our deadly game of cat-and-mouse has begun.
“Yeah, we help people get ready for the MCAT, GMAT,
His smile, the slightly amused kind, stops me. He has
the upper hand now, because he knows these are made-up words, sinister codes.
Except maybe “sat.” I consider using Charades, but I’m unsure of the
gesture for “aspiring attorney.” Or “future scandalized CEO.” I’m
ready to throw my hands up. In Charades, that would signify “ex-clinical-psychologist-management-consultant-who’s-now-an-unpaid-writer-living-off-his-wife.”
“Let me, uh, make a call,” the guard says. He
reaches for a phone beside him. His eyes–he hasn’t blinked once–stay on
me. I want to grab a mint from my pocket, but that would raise my odds of taking
a bullet in this lobby. The rubber kind, I hope.
“Hi,” he says into the receiver. “There’s a,
uh, gentleman here. Wants to post something.” A long pause. It occurs to me
there’s no one on the other end. “Yeah, uh-huh.” He looks past me, down
the hall. Probably where the orderlies wait; they’ll be sliding on their white
gloves, hoping this one resists. “Okay.” The guard hangs up, gives me a long
look. “Resources,” he says.
“Gazpacho,” I reply with a thick accent. I figure
we’ve entered the Zen portion of our program.
Okay, what I really say is, “Sorry?” With a slight
“Resources Department.” He points down the hall at
a door with a window. “See them.” The problem is, I don’t. The room behind
the window is dark.
“They open right now?”
“Do you know when they will be?”
I wonder if he means this as one word or two. Either
way, it’s not enough. “What are their hours?” His eyes go blank. He
reaches for the phone. I hold up my hand. “I’ll just come back.” Only at
In the parking lot, I examine the flyer to ensure it’s
not for a Skinhead Piercing Brunch and Singalong. Those can be fun, unless some
bad apples show up.
The next stop, a library, has a bulletin board full of
flyers in the entry. “Oh, sure,” says the lady at the reference desk.
Without the lipstick, she could pass for one of those Afghan dogs. Okay, even
with the lipstick.
“Great.” I head for the board.
“Wait!” she yelps. “Everything must be approved
I hold out the flyer, waiting for some kind of stamp.
She leans across the desk, her fist on the paper. “Downtown,”
she whispers. I picture the flyer in a the back of a squad car, a cigarette in
its sneering mouth. As I leave, I glare at the white sheets pinned to the board
with shiny tacks. “You’ll get yours, chosen ones!” I’m not sure what I
mean, but it makes me feel better.
Several stops–only one successful post–later, it’s
lunchtime. The morning has been a blur of blank looks, paranoia and NSYNC tunes
sung in falsetto. And that was before I even left the house. My nemeses have
fallen into two camps: (1) Well-Meaning but Overwhelmed by the Rigors of Daily
Life; (2) Deeply Suspicious Because of Genetics and/or Upbringing. Both groups
use the same handbook: “Taking Your Job More Seriously Than It Ever Should Be.”
Granted, our post-2001 world merits a more cautious
approach. But it should be easier to advertise high-paying part-time work.
Speaking of which, I think I need a raise.
I walk back to my car, buoyed by one thought: today has just been a trial run
for tomorrow. When I come back with another flyer. Skinhead Piercing Brunch and