Petri Dishes: Close the Lights

Jun 30, 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. Read the transcript of her latest live chat below.

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

Follow Alexandra Petri on Twitter here.

Good morning! 

Dear Alexandra, “Are you an enormous wheel of cheese?”, shall be the response I will use for a very long time, when hereafter encountering Medicare recipients objecting to public health care in my presence. They’ll not soon forget that rejoinder! Thank you! And speaking of cheese, I recall one of my final city budget discussions, where I explained to The People, the proposal our little team put together that would solve their ongoing basement flooding problem with a storm sewer project that would cost them, as households, the equivalent of two or three C-store take-out pizzas per year, over fifteen years. Decades of cloroxing out the basement, foregone, for not having pizza three times a year! Some were amazed and thrilled! The idea of public good, for minor financial sacrifice! (and major cholesterol improvement!) got some political traction! We were going to make a difference! But; then, the pro- C-store pizza party conspired to drive the project into the ditch, and they’re all back to carping about how their basements didn’t flood before Obama. My question is: How many pizzas would we all need to give up, for Senator Tom Cotton to please go home?

What I wonder is whether you might not have been better off selecting some other comestible (or even, I suppose, a non-comestible) as your example to sacrifice. There might not have been such full-throated support for it if you had said “it’s the same cost as three [very tiny wheels of Roquefort cheese/loads of pet-store crickets/Hawaiian pizzas] annually!”

Could your next column be entitled, "It's not a chin-warmer, stupid!"? What is the deal with people wearing their masks on their chins or only on their mouths? Is American science instruction that bad that people don't know that we breathe through our mouths AND noses? Wow. Just wow.

I wonder if the Venn Diagram of People Extremely Fed Up With Masks and People Who Seem To Think They Are A Sort of Mandatory Decorative Chin Covering has some overlap. I’d be fed up too, if I thought I was being asked to wear something festive on my chin to no purpose.

Is it a live chat if I ask now? Maybe I should just wait till June 30. Submitting now has the melancholy feel of the customer service 800 numbers that declare COVID has resulted in unexpectedly high call volume and they cannot be of help after all and you should call back in a day or two or select a call-back time that is so far in the future you will have a penalty. Will covid paralyze chat functions?

No, but my accidental failure to hit the “Live” button will, at least temporarily! We are happening now, though 

I can personally attest to the existence of less than favorable fortunes in some cookies. I once received a fortune saying "Things are not always what they seem" printed in a different color ink than the rest of the cookies passedout to my table. Blank on the reverse side in a further creepy difference. I still have the fortune because I have to assume it's cursed. On a related note, I remember that one of my first favorite web pages was called "Bad Cookie" and you clicked on an image of a large fortune cookie to read a digital fortune that was snarky at best. I'm drawing a blank other than "Your mediocrity is surpassed only by your ignorance ". I don't know who created Bad Cookie but it should come back. It was like hearing what Oscar Wilde thought about your wit, except more fun thsn you'd think.

Good, I’m glad you kept the cursed fortune! The altered color and lack of back text really do sound creepy. 

Aw man, remember web pages?

RIP Carl Reiner, 98.

A legend. On top of his comedic legacy, I loved every story about his decades-long friendship with Mel Brooks. 

I’ve heard the expression "The light bulb went off" used recently and it’s been bothering me because the light bulb goes on not off. Like in the old cartoons when a light bulb above the character’s head turns on. Why do people say it goes off? I can’t think of any other time the word off is used to describe what happens when a light bulb is illuminated, can you? Can we please retire this expression, or at least edit it? And don’t get me started on “closing” the light. Aargh! - not angry, just a pirate.

Buzzers and timers go off, and people occasionally go off, but you’re right that the idiom sounds strange applied to lights, which usually turn off when they go off. Maybe it wasn’t a very good idea? 

Ok, so I wear a mask at work (animal hospital) - all day long - covering my mouth and nose. I wear it the proper way in stores. But, when I'm out walking my dogs and wearing sunglasses I cannot wear it over my nose because my sunglasses fog up. So, that's my story. And, I'm doing better than 80% of people I see who don't wear masks at all when walking around the neighborhood. At least people are protected from my mouth breathing.

I think also, doing this outdoors, where the air is plentiful and it is possible to keep your distance, is a more sympathetic situation than indoors. If I see someone on an isolated heath without a mask, I don’t respond the same way as when I see someone in line to go indoors without one. But also, here are tips for preventing fogging, in case they help! 

“No matter how cynical you get, it is impossible to keep up.” For some reason I'm reminded of this daily.

I was an early initiate to the browser use of World Wide Web and can still remember a website with a name like New Sites of the Day, which provided links to "all" the new sites that came on line the previous day. Might only be a handful each day. Naively I wondered where would all the content come from that would be necessary to populate the web.

That's what fortune cookies should be called because they certainly don't provide fortune telling services any more. They used to say things like "You will soon travel to a foreign land." Now, they say things like "A faithful friend is a strong defense." That’s nothing but a non-sequitur. It might as well say something like “wooden spoons don’t transfer heat.”

Of course lights go off. They only keep that fresh taste for a few weeks before they go off.

Ha! See, this is what you learn if you cook! 

The old saying used to be "It's amazing what they are doing with plastic these days". Now it's light bulbs. Of course now they don't even make the old kind, only LEDs. I even saw one that was a bluetooth speaker. Surely they can add a "Goes Off" feature now. Soon there will be a little computer inside.

What makes you think there isn’t?

"Closing the light" is a regionalism, like standing "on" instead of "in" line. Language changes. I still say "immune to" although "immune from" popped up some years ago and appears to have taken over.

On line continues to baffle me, but I accept the fact that it is a thing people in places say. I didn’t know about closing the light — is that when they go off? 

Are they gone? Really? How else can you read Hints from Heloise without a web page?!

In the print Style section, on certain days!

Chin warmer? Maybe people would wear masks if they had some positive reinforcement. Maybe if was also a feed bag?

I don’t know that this will not irreparably undermine the mask’s intended function, but I am willing to look at diagrams of any mask that would also permit me to snack.

Every time I look inside, it is On.

I guess this is the one light you actually can close!

Also, when did we stop setting things on fire and start lighting them on fire?

I didn’t start! It sounds like there is a pyromaniac here. 

Same thing as Shut the Lights.

Ah yes, shutting the lights, that familiar expression I also instantly recognize. 

when the picture was taken. It is a reference to camera flashes, from back in the day when we watched radio by candlelight.

Hey, this makes sense! If the implied bulb is a flash bulb, that really solves it. 

It's amazing what they are doing with glasses these days. When ordering new glasses just check the non-fogging box. The reason glasses fog is that they are colder than your breath. Non-fogging glasses have a battery that warm the glasses to 98.6. Just don't touch them.

Makes sense! And you can also use them to melt snow and almost but not quite cause water to evaporate! 

What region says that? I think it's a generational thing. My Dad says it and he grew up in Brooklyn where I now live. I don't know if I've ever heard anyone say it here, though I don't think the opportunity arises often. But what I don't understand is why the people who say "close the light" don't say "open the light" to mean turning it on. They'll ask you to turn on the light, and then close it. It's inconsistent.

“But, like, isn’t time the ultimate region, man?” Have you ever asked? That framing does make it feel as though the light is still on/was never opened. 

Maybe it would help if we started calling them "Freedom Cloths"?

I wonder why we still say "Get on the plane." As George Carlin wonderfully pointed out: "Let the daredevils get on the plane. I'm getting IN!"

Here in Maryland, born-&-bred ones say, when an appliance or car develops trouble, "My washing machine went up." Confusing to outsiders.

I had hopeful visions of a state where sufficiently good washing machines just spontaneously ascend after years of above-average service. “My washing machine went up” “How honored the whole family must feel.” I am sorry to hear that this is not what it means after all. 

When I lived in the UK a friend explained in a patient voice that Americans should understand perfectly when she says 'close the light', because when you want a light to illuminate, the switch is closing the circuit so that the electricity can flow and therefore illuminate the room.

So close the light means turn it ON? This is the twist I did not see coming. 

It would be nice if light bulbs had an internet connection and a computer inside. Then when it heard you having a good idea, it could turn on.

I worry that any technology like that would also steal the idea somehow! But it would be very nice and validating!

The light bulb for my porch fixture has a photo-sensor. Goes off when it gets light out.

These mean different things to me. You light a fire in a fireplace; you set a fire during a riot. I never understood, therefore, why people thought John Lennon burned some poor girl's house down in "This Bird Has Flown." He sang "So, I lit a fire," meaning he lit a fire in a fireplace; if he was torching the room, he'd have sung "So, I set a fire . . ."

Hmm, to answer only half of this, I also thought it was in the fireplace, but that it was some of her Norwegian Wood furnishings being lit out of spite. 

I'm guessing that the phrase "shut the light" emerged from theatrical spotlight operators, who actually threw a lever that closed "doors" and prevented light from emitting, while leaving the arc light behinds those doors illuminated. Prior to LEDs.

Yes, unless it means, as prior OP’s friend suggested, closing the circuit and turning the light on! 

In Rhode Island, what most would call a water fountain is known as a bubbler. But then in Little Rhody, what most would call a milk shake is known as a cabinet-- supposedly because the syrup was kept in a wooden cabinet.

Bubblers always sound so much more fun than water fountains, although, to be fair, water fountains also sound much more fun than they in fact are, as though they will have Poseidon in them blowing a conch. 

We also say get "on" the train but get "in" a car. So I bet it has to do with the size of the conveyance. If George was flying his own two-seater, we'd say he was "in" his plane, not "on." I'm in a rowboat, but on a cruise ship.

Unless either capsizes; then you are “on” the rowboat or “in” the ocean. 

This doesn't explain "shut the lights" which is the same as close the lights.

I'm not buying that one. I think the OP's patient friend was messing with them. I used to live in the UK too and don't remember this being said.

Can someone ask Boz Skaggs what it means to "calm the light" after you close the window?

I think that’s when you reassure the light that it will not be “going up” any time soon. 

Dear Alexandra, All of us involved with the annual LP3ST along the upper Mississippi near Red Wing*, are entirely taken with your deft insights, inspired writing style, and excellent sentence structure, leading to the whimsical re- interpretation and visceral pole-axing of full-of-themselves bloatedness, passing as governance. We, the evening entertainment commissioners (which is Noel and me), wish to perform a readers' theater dramatic reading of your now forever famous "An Oral History of Trump's Very Necessary and Real Bunker Inspection", making room in the program by dropping the singalong of G & S' tune, "A Modern Major General". The event* is one of whimsical re-interpretation of enjoyment, unburdened by - well, it's in part publicized with: "...hop aboard your £5 Thrift Store Raleigh and come with. Leave your lycra and Johnny-Rebel competitive spirit at home and instead, bring your sense of adventure." In any case, I have an appropriately kitted out Raleigh, or Rudge-Whitworth in your size, fees would be waived, transportation provided from any nearby major airport, and you would be forever endeared to some 90 like-minded folks. And then there's the pie and ice cream at the Pelican Bakeshop pretty little Maiden Rock. We (Noel and I, and even the STO, John) would be thrilled at your reply. *You can actually look it up on the Google PS: We're going to do the dramatic reading. even if your '21 schedule's masters can't let you get away for a long weekend in May. What personality type should be portrayed for the role of "The Bunker"? Yours, Tim, the old 3-speed guy, just up the hill from Lock & Dam 15. PPS: We're not dropping the "Modern Major General" from the program, after all. It's just so fitting for the times. Again.

This sounds like a lot of fun and I am encouraged by the belief that there will be travel in the future! Would you mind also dropping me an email? Mr. Google is not delivering as well as I would hope! 

Nonsense. It's a usage that popped up some years ago and has taken over comp;letely. Any differences are after-the-fact, like the dressing-vs.-stuffing terminology at Thanksgiving.

I don't think it has to do as much with the size of conveyance as it does with the fact that, at least with commercial flights, we have to climb stairs or walk across an elevated jetway to get onto the plane. (Same goes for a boat.) With a car, you just open the door and put yourself in it.

Your chat opens at eleven but closes at different times like stoppage time added by the referee to the end of a soccer game. Do you have a referee who is the only one who knows when your chat will end?

It is always, theoretically, an hour, but every week it majestically fails to be an hour. The degree of failure alters weekly! Speaking of which, I should skedaddle shortly! 

Now I want french fries.

Me too! 

I'm really looking forward to winter when I can be glad that I have a mask! I'm actually looking at masks in holiday fabric. And for some reason I can't discern, I keep putting on lip balm just before putting my mask on, and then my lips stick to my mask. But if that's the worst thing to happen today, I'm good.

I hope that is the worst thing to happen to anyone today! And on that note, I will attempt to close this week’s on-line chat. I think that means it will go off, but after this week’s discussion, I am not so sure. Have a grand week, stay safe, and see you on the blog and twitter when I am back from my week off (or, er, on?)!

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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