Petri Dishes: Strange dreams, long words, and bad math

May 19, 2020

Humor columnist Alexandra Petri will be online every Tuesday at 11 a.m. Eastern for Petri Dishes, where she'll offer a lighter take on the news of the day. Submit your comments on her columns and any other questions you might have.

Read Alexandra Petri's columns or catch up on past chats.

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Good morning, everyone! Hope your Tuesday is off to a good start! Let's converse!

Last night, it wasn't just that some were wearing masks and some weren't, it's that everyone was waiting in line and impatient, so some customer service guy started telling jokes to break the tension, and then people without masks were laughing, and all I could think was "germ canons!"

Germ Cannons is terrifying! But I also like the term Germ Canons -- it sounds like they are a high form of lay germ clergy, and I do not think they are up to any good either. 

Oh, good, someone else who has been having vivid and alarming dreams! I have been trying to keep tabs on mine; so far, the best was one where I overheard Fran Lebowitz giving a scoop about herself to a reporter and wanted to tell it to all my Fran Lebowitz friends, only to realize in the dream that I did not have any friends who were obsessed with Fran Lebowitz and would appreciate the news. 

I want to share an old family recipe I got from my Scots grandmother. I have been taking this prophylactically to ward off Coronavirus. So far it’s been working. Thanks, M. Eye of newt, and toe of frog, Wool of bat, and tongue of dog, Adder's fork, and blind-worm's sting, Lizard's leg, and howlet's wing,-- For a charm of powerful trouble, Like a hell-broth boil and bubble.

Do I need fillet of a fenny snake, or can I substitute with something else? 

Today my eleven year old ran sobbing from the room because the height of a triangle is measured as the perpendicular distance from the opposite vertex to the base. Therefore the height can sometimes be outside the triangle. And he doesn't like it. He thinks the math should not work that way. I learned this math just for him because the teacher has a lesson about it so I didn't know what else to say besides "blame it on Euclid." Unlike my eleven year old, it has never occurred to me to think 'This math should not be this math."

Boo Euclid! If it makes your eleven year-old feel better, I've just been reading Rousseau's Confessions (they are a TRIP and I highly recommend them; it is my favorite genre of story, where someone is telling a story as though he is the put-upon hero of it but it is clear that he is in fact the villain in almost every other retelling) and all this geometry and calculus and arithmetic are new to him and he is having the MOST difficulty with them. He is doing this at age 26, and to him this is the New Frontier of Difficult Math that was only recently unearthed! He speaks with enormous pride of being able to do addition basically correctly! And now you can learn all this at eleven and just be briefly mad at Euclid. I think Rousseau would agree the math should not be this math. "Solving a geometrical problem by equations seemed to me like playing a tune by turning a handle," Rousseau says. "The first time I found by calculation that the square of a binomial figure was composed of the square of each of its parts added to twice the product of one by the other, despite the fact that my multiplication was right I was unable to trust it until I had drawn the figure on paper." 

Since the “President” reported that “You people keep writing about me saying “When you test, you find something is wrong with people. If we didn’t do any testing, we would have very few cases.” So here is a plan to do “lots of testing” but still have very few cases. The CDC will develop a website that works as follows. You go to There is a waiting Twilight Zone Cone pattern swirling there, called The Covid Cone. There is no need for any kind of webcam, temperature reading, or degree-of-bloodshot-eye detection, because the site has been designed with Apple-y and Google-y technology. Instructions: 1. Click Start. 2. Stare at the Covid Cone on the screen for 30 seconds, while the 1959 original Twilight Zone intro music plays. 3. Click Submit. 4. Watch the countdown timer count from 30 to zero, while Super Mario Brothers music plays. 5. A flashing Results banner pops up and the voice of the HAL-9000 computer says, “I’m afraid you can't stay away from work any more because you’re negative. Go about your business, Dave.” This procedure should work for approximately half of the voting U.S. population and presumably their families. Then, the “Administration” could report that we’ve got the Best Testing and we’ve beaten the Invisible Enemy, because 165 Million Tests have been performed “very quickly” with absolutely ZERO new positive cases, bringing the death rate to 0.0053% (way less than The Flu and Almost ZERO), and because We’re Winners, winning way more than anybody would have thought. What do you think, and do you have suggested enhancements?

It sounds very sophisticated and is, I fear, beyond the capacity of the team Jared has assembled for this purpose! I love all the musical touches and voices, but what about copyright? Then again, if Space Force is just going right ahead with a fair-use parody of the Star Trek logo, maybe it's fine. 

--Was Christopher Hitchens right that women don't need to be funny? See, --If so, what makes you think it's worthwhile to toil in the field for what will probably be many decades eventually to become a superannuated White Floridian man named Dave Barry--who isn't consistently funny but has been around so long he's the default image of newspaper columnist funny? --Is 11:00 AM EDT noon in Kansas, where I'll try to attend your chat? Thanks.

No, Eh?, and yes, I believe it is noon in Kansas!, respectively.

Couldn't you just say "shrewdness"? Did you have to make me go to Google to see what "Perspicacity" meant? But, thanks.

You're welcome! Perspicacity is one of a couple of long words of which I consistently remember the meaning, unlike like "truculent" which I always think means "stubborn" and actually means fierce, I believe. Or is it stubborn? Drat. 

Will your chat be as juvenile and incoherent as your internet article? Go to school.

It will certainly be as incoherent, but I can't promise how juvenile it will be! 

That's original, but.... Donald Duck is a duck. A duck's job is to swim. Therefore it cannot telework, hence, no going pantless. The correct answer therefore, is that Donald Duck wears a webbed speedo under his feathers for ease of working. QED. And now you have that image in your head. No need to thank me.

You're right, that is a visual that will live with me. 

Hi, it's me, the lupid stucker mental health professional from last week. I've thought of something to talk about. Do you like spoonerisms? I certainly do, which is why I bandy them about often. Until recently I thought the word spoonerism was commonly known, but I found out otherwise when none of my colleagues (all health/mental health professionals) didn't know it. Anyway, I thought of a great one a couple weeks ago; I should've written it down, because now I've forgotten it. I did come up with one that's a bit cute the other day: toss your crows. But one I found online is, in my opinion, the greatest: a well-boiled icicle. Your thoughts?

I have always been a big fan of "you are what Dr. Spooner would call a shining wit." 

Though we're not friends, I'm obsessed , please tell me!

...I forget what the scoop was. 

I'm sorry! In my defense, it was a dream! 

It does seem like we are repeating the same melody over and over.

Can this be made gluten free? Someone always asks.

"Hey! What is this novel coronavirus doing here? It's not part of the Germ Canon!"

Though it's probably one of my better typos lately. I once had a dream that I'd missed a flight, and things escalated more and more until by the end I was in front of the original astronauts, was supposed to ask a profound question, asked about reimbursement if you missed a flight, and one of the astronauts replied, "I don't know, I never did anything that stupid."

That is a great dream-punchline! And thank you for the typo, too!

I'm glad I'm not the only one with vivid dreams too. I dreamt my childhood home was a living murder house eating people up and my parents knew about it and decided to have our family reunion there (we don't live in that state anymore). Our whole family of 35+ were all eating in the garage when the door starts to close and my parents are like "it's only been eating other people, not our family."

Wow! "And have you thought about what this symbolism might indicate?" 

My other bizarre dream (as long as we are doing this!) is that I was back in eighth-grade math taking a test, and the first question was a word problem that made no sense. I asked about it, and the teacher explained that the correct answer was "Feed the body into the wood-chipper until none is left" which is why the first part of the word problem had mentioned that the person had no relatives. What? This math, too, was bad. 

I am happy to see that this chat shall now be dedicated to math. English has had a long run, and it's well past time to end it. Now then: Imaginary numbers and complex algebra, amirite?

i, i, captain!

Sunday I thought I saw you in the NY Times until I saw the middle initial E in the name stealer's byline. Who is she?

She's actually had the name for longer than I have, though just for about a year! She's a journalist too and is a lovely human being! Everyone read her article about Teenagers in Love

"eager or quick to argue or fight; aggressively defiant" It is a great word.

I'm pretty sure it's an hour earlier in Kansas, not an hour later. 11:00 on the East Coast is 10:00 in Kansas.

Oh, drat, I was thinking of the wrong noon. In my defense, time is an illusion? But yes, 12 here is 11 there, so if they want to join us here at 11 they must do so at 10, as you point out. 

When I read it, I thought you were calling him "Bob", which in turn made me wonder if they named the Plumb Bob after him as well.

Like perceptive vs. percipient. How do you decide which one to use? (I really only find "perspicuity" in older British novels.)

I have not come across perspicuity in a dog's age, and that dog is pretty old. So... usually not that one!

Okay, Donald Duck may not be comfortable paddling in a bathtub. But I have a duck that is.

Is your duck by any chance rubber?

I have that kind of dream every time I oversleep. I never dream that I'm naked in front of an audience, or that the final exam is over and I missed it, but the frustration dream is there always.

The great Peter Schickele once pointed out that the "Fugue for Tinhorns" of "Guys and Dolls" is actually not a fugue but a canon.

Well, that will give me something to think of as I inevitably lie awake for several hours after going to bed!  

Growing up in the San Francisco Bay Area, one of the standard school field trips was to the Academy of Sciences in Gold Gate Park, including the Aquarium -- where a sunken pool of alligators lolled and cavorted. Viewers could watch them from behind the railing on the upper level. However, throughout my childhood, I had the recurring nightmare of alligators lurking under my bed, and that if I should let one of my legs or arms hang down the side of the bed, CHOMP! It'd be bitten off.

I love your description! "A sunken pool of alligators lolled and cavorted." I can see why if you regularly interacted with a pool of lolling, cavorting alligators, they would appear beneath your bed to menace you in dreams. My only real alligator interaction was with my grandparents, who had retired to Florida, and said that if you ran in a zig-zag the alligators could not catch you, but we seldom saw one very close. 

A few days ago, The Post ran an article where they interviewed "William Petri, a professor of infectious diseases at the University of Virginia School of Medicine." Any relation?

No, but I really hope he's one of the Dish Petris!

"someone is telling a story as though he is the put-upon hero of it but it is clear that he is in fact the villain in almost every other retelling" -- sounds like a Carolyn Hax column

Yes! One of the many reasons I'm a Hax fan! 

I read a lot, so I've seen the word "truculent" but never heard it spoken. I always assumed it was pronounced "truce - yoo -lent" but I just looked it up and apparently it's pronounced with a "K" sound.

is that I never heard it pronounced until I was in high school and by then it had been "TROO-suh-lent" in my head for so many years that TRUCK-you-lent just didn't sound very, well, truculent.

Here in New Mexico, the chat starts at 9 am, which now seems early. I'm a teacher, and our school changed up the schedule so that our earliest classes start at 10 am. Students who used to start class at 7:50 are now showing up to Google Meet obviously having just woken up (or a few minutes late, because they overslept--I may give students permission to miss a few minutes to go grab coffee when they're clearly not awake yet).

The prospect of some comparatively well-rested teens is what a friend calls a 'tin lining' of These Uncertain Times. The trouble is that it will be hard to isolate from all the new bad things the teens are having to experience. I like your thinking re: coffee! 

I recently misspelled 'asymptomatic' as 'asymptotic'. The spell check didn't find it because asymptotic is a math term for "a line that approaches a curve but never touches". Math messes everything up.

"Be asymptotic, even if you're asymptomatic!" could be a fun safety campaign, but it would probably involve a lot of explaining that 'to flatten the curve, approach the curves of others but do not touch them' that might not land. 

I just realized that this coming weekend is Memorial Day weekend and I cannot cope with this fact on any level whatsoever. Time is meaningless and the sun is over the yardarm somewhere, time to drink.

When I was little, I was afraid to put a finger out over the edge of the bed at night. Then I became comfortable sticking a hand or foot straight out but not below the edge. Gradually I was brave enough to let a body part dangle, but only to the bottom of the mattress. I decided I was grown up when I put a leg out and down so that the monster could have gotten it if it had been there.

Your courage is impressive! I don't think I used to fear anything under the bed, but had there been anything under there it could have guarded all the books and diaries and various other Protected Materials that I kept under there. 

I am concerned the chat didn't correct the chat time in time. What if the Kansan read that it started in noon their time and thus closed the page for the next two hours?

I am also concerned! I am sure if he was here he did not let my confident assurances outweigh the evidence of his own eyes. 

Can you recommend some reads? I'm intrigued.

David Copperfield, kind of! This is going to turn quickly into my just recommending novels with strong first-person narrators. The Bell Jar is pretty much the exact opposite of this trope. Lolita?, but I didn't enjoy it very much because I was convinced something was going to happen at the end that did not wind up happening, and my only thought when reading it was "Man, if he wants to Do X, he's only got eight pages in which to do it!" A Moveable Feast, DEFINITELY. Goodbye to All That, kind of?I can't remember if Memoirs of a Fox-Hunting Man fits this or not, but it's a fun read either way. Honestly, The Odyssey. 

because they have words in their working vocabulary that they don't know how to pronounce. They have read the words. They know what the words mean. They just absorbed the words purely from the printed page and not by hearing them used in conversation.

Waterbeds solve this problem. Unless alligators are inside. Whatever happened to waterbeds?

That's a good question! What did happen to them? It seems like they just evaporated. 

When I was four we spent a week at a family church camp in the woods. I must have seen foxes there because after we got back I had a nightmare where I was walking next to a fence and my arm was on the other side being nipped at by a fox. When I woke up that arm was outside my covers and hanging out. I've never gone to sleep since then without having my arms under the covers. That way the fox can't get me.

A wise precaution!

Like the poor Welsh miner's son in "How Green Was My Valley," who got mocked in school for saying "MY-zuld" for "misled," a word he only knew from reading silently.

Who among us? Stop misling me! 

Sounds like social distancing as long as > 6 feet?

Or, as George in Stoppard's "Jumper" puts it, "St. Sebastian died of fear."

Yes! The arrow never got there! Similar process to the tortoise that Achilles keeps trying to chase down in that other famous paradox. 

When I first encountered the word "infrared" in it's written form, in elementary school, it did not even occur to me that there would be another way to pronounce it other than to rhyme it with "prepared", even though I had heard the word before. Had to be a different word.

Infrared! That makes a great deal of sense. Same thing with segue, which I heard out loud many times before conceiving that it could possibly be spelled like that. 

In last week’s chat you asked about me cutting my own hair. Here’s the trick – cut a little at a time as needed, and don’t wait to cut your hair until you would get it cut professionally. The more cuts you have to make the more chances there are to screw it up. Since hair doesn’t grow uniformly, I trim here and there as needed and it has worked out well. Also, get a handheld mirror and hang it on a wall opposite the bathroom mirror. You need to see the back of your head.

This baffles me! Cut a little at a time as needed? But then don't you have... unevenness? I am mystified but impressed! 

I've seen her walking around the West Village every now and then. She still always wears that same outfit of a black blazer with jeans. I wonder if it's the same outfit or if she has multiple identical outfits. Mike Millikan gets credited for starting that look, but I'm pretty sure she was doing it first.

Two novels, "Remains of the Day" and "Disobedience" have strong first-person narrators who turn out to be total weasels as their narrative is revealed to be nothing more than whining self-justification.

Sheets/blankets are fail-safe protection against all monsters- under the bed, in the closet etc. There's a sci-fi story I read years ago where these 2 guys landed on a planet that caused hallucinations of monsters and the guys kept them off with a squirt gun and hiding under their blankets.

The ultimate: Barry Lyndon. “no records could be found of Phaudrig’s marriage to my ancestor, so I am forced to conclude that Lyndon destroyed the contract and murdered the priest and witnesses”

I got dinged hard in a spelling competition because I had no idea that THAT was how you pronounced "macabre"

"Is it... m-i-c-a-w-b-e-r?"

I think the only thing you can "misle" is a toe.


We've had one for almost 50 years. With a few replacement mattresses, obviously.

I'm part of an investment group and an author had written a bullish article about a stock followed a few days later by a bearish article about the same stock. Today someone posted: "Didn't you know about quantum investing where being a bull and a bear at the same time is possible?" This caused me to think (again): "What's the deal with quantum physics anyway?" How can something be in two states, such as "on" and "off" at the same time? And how can a particle "know" something about another particle when they are separated by a huge distance? Huh? Einstein's "spooky action at a distance" (quantum entanglement) should be cleared up in this chat. Thanks.

Oh no, would you look at the time!

I'd better skedaddle! I will see you here next week, on the blog, and on Twitter! Also, compulsory plug: NOTHING IS WRONG AND HERE IS WHY comes out in precisely two weeks, if you would like to nab a copy

In This Chat
Alexandra Petri
Alexandra Petri is a Washington Post columnist offering a lighter take on the news and opinions of the day. She is the author of "A Field Guide to Awkward Silences." She joined The Post as an intern in 2010, after graduating from Harvard College.
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