Petri Dishes: Death-feigning beetles

Jul 07, 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.

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Good morning, all! I hope you had a pleasant week! Let’s converse! 

I have never seen myself as a pet person. Now, in addition to my three kids (9, 11, 13), I have a chicken, a miniature schnauzer puppy, and a tarantula. The blue death-feigning beetles have all died (natural causes).

Can you be sure? Their name makes me inherently suspicious! 

I want to appear masculine, but I'm also afraid of contracting coronavirus and spreading it to others. Is it okay to wear a mask that appears to be dripping with human blood that ACTUALLY adheres to my face and serves as an effective mask, or does the desire to protect myself and others condemn me as weak and feminine?

A conundrum! Just to be safe, I would go the first way, but the desire to do anything just to be safe sounds dangerously un-macho. 

I learned this one many, many years ago and it's stuck with me: Don't go forth with a fifth on the fourth or you might not come forth on the fifth. One I made up, which is cute but less humorous: The day we celebrate ornaments made to hang from your neck by people not affiliated with any organization - Indy Pendants Day!

A noble holiday! Not to be confused with the day we display small triangular flags with a cherished archaeologist on them, Indy Pennants Day! 

I don't know if you've been looking at the "classic" strips that Gary Larson has been displaying on his website ( ) every day since late last year, but today he also has three NEW ones (click on the ENTER IF YOU DARE near the top of the page, and then on the ENTER on the next page where he has written an explanation). True to form, I found one of the new panels to be a humorous play on words, one to be quite funny, and I think I'm missing the joke on the other one. But regardless, it's always a good day with The Far Side.

Oh my goodness! I shall rush there right now! 

I did not know about these books before you wrote of them. Thank you. I am listening to the first in Audible format. I’m sorry I cannot read it, but my eyes don’t focus anymore.

I am glad you are enjoying! I have a book-identifying question— I spend all of yesterday (well, at intervals; not exclusively!) trying to recollect a book I had read in the middle grades about two children, an older sister and a younger brother, who have dreams that continue in serialized manner each night and that start having painful real consequences — you fall in the dream, you wake up with a broken arm, say. I think there was a sequence with bubbles? The younger brother had an alter ego named Trebor Nostrebor and for him the climax of the book was walking through some dream doors that would show him his adult future self. As you can see, I remember Way Too Much, but not the title. 

I was going to say I've never had one, but recalled that I've had a number of Peeves over the years. The best part about a pet Peeve is you don't miss it if it passes away.

RIP People Who Make Smacking Sounds When They Chew, 2006-2011. 

Upon his death, world-renowned biologist William Hamilton's last wish was that the "great Coprophanaeus beetle will bury me. They will enter, will bury, will live on my flesh; and in the shape of their children and mine, I will escape death." I found his desire to "buzz in the dusk like a huge bumble bee", to "be many, buzz even as a swarm of motorbikes, be borne, body by flying body out into the Brazilian wilderness beneath the stars, lofted under those beautiful and un-fused elytra which we will all hold over our backs. So finally I too will shine like a violet ground beetle under a stone." - rather confusing. So did his ex-partner - who refused to send his corpse to Brazil. But now my grandfather wants a proper viking funeral with all the trimmings, and I feel like I've reached an understanding. Should I grant his wish?

I love everything about that beetle biologist’s request, and I am sore he was not able to soar with his unfused elytra. If you can figure out the logistics for the Viking Funeral in safety in These Times, I say go for it. To misquote Abraham Lincoln, for those who want that sort of thing, that is exactly the sort of thing that they want. 

We commented on this topic some weeks ago. In the meantime my 14-year-old daughter gave me the Father's Day gift of several coupons to "Chew a door."


When you pick them up they pretend to be dead by putting their legs up in the air in a hilariously unconvincing way. When they're actually dead they stop moving and turn from blue to black. One of them had arrived missing a leg and we named him/her Captain Bluebeard the pirate. Later I realized the literary reference was not what I was intending. I didn't tell the kids about the namesake's wife-murdering legend.

Ha, good thinking! “No, no, this is the other Captain Bluebeard, who married once and let his wife go into every room of the house.” “As opposed to... what?” Though, like most fairy tales, it is an interesting thing to know about, if a terrifying model for relationships. 

Is this the book you were describing? I think you slightly misspelled the name of the alter ego. It's Trebor Nosnibor. At least that's what came up in Google when I searched the name you had mentioned.

THAT’S WHAT IT IS!!!! No wonder all my Googles were fruitless! 

Yes, I hurried right over to the web site and agree with OP. First is good play on words and the second cartoon is hilarious. If any one understands the third cartoon please post explanation here. I must be dense.

I also am at a loss when it comes to the third! Maybe I don’t know enough about the Cub Scouts!

The highlight (and that’s sad) of one of my daily conference calls is my bet with myself on ‘what will wreck the call today.’ This morning it was an open mic with someone unwrapping a breakfast encased in cellophane. Crackly cellophane. The offender opened at least three of these items-what could they possibly be? I was sure we were out of the woods when the audible typing began. This day gets a red star!

What is the star system? There is a sort of miserable satisfaction in correctly identifying things that are going to go wrong, and adding stars to it seems likely to make it even better. Is red the peak, or can you attain an orange-star day if someone on the call also farts audibly?

It’s a good thing they aren’t micro-chipped, or you would never get rid of them.

I once came home late at night to a possum playing itself in the middle of my DC street, ignoring any cars. Nudged it with my foot and it still didn't move. In the morning it was gone.

Maybe the possum was strong in the Force. 

Sounds like The Diamond in the Window by Jane Langton.

Yup! As you and another poster point out, I misremembered Nosnibor.

You might want to research modern marine salvage law before trying this.

While reading about Gary Larson and The Far Side just now, I learned that the name wasn't his idea, but he didn't mind. "They could have called it Revenge of the Zucchini People, for all I cared," according to Wikipedia, which probably needs another footnote for this quote, but I digress. The important thing is that I'm quite certain there's some cartoonist of that era who died some years ago and it wasn't Gary Larson and when I say this is bothering me, I don't mean I am not happy to see that Gary is doing well, because I am. But who was it? And was he a Zucchini Person?

I am not sure whom you’re referring to! Any ideas, chat? 

Your remark that it probably needs another footnote for the quote makes me wonder— is there some sort of Twitter or Tumblr account dedicated to “Best Citation-Needed’s of Wikipedia”? I would very much enjoy such a thing. 

I finally got around to watching this. Pee-Yoo! Why is this so bad? I've watched better written and thematically coherent episodes of The Love Boat.

Hear, hear! And I haven’t even watched The Love Boat! Gaah, I had such a pleasant run not remembering that Zombie Palpatine existed, and now I am remembering again. 


Or should the beetles have the patent on it? Are possums playing beetle?

If you belong to Goodreads (or are willing to join), it has a "What's the name of that book" site ( ) for just such problems. It's found every one of my "lost" books but one, and I've helped a few people out myself. Just be sure you abide by the rules of posting a request (genre and plot details, but no spoilers, in header; and approximate year read) or the moderators tend to get snarky. To which I'm extremely sympathetic, since otherwise every thread would be "Help! I can't remember the title of this book!"

A great resource, thank you!

See how I'm tying two subjects together? I was participating in a Zoom class yesterday, and one of the students had her pet rabbit on her lap and was continuously petting it (You could see the top of the rabbit's head). My cat was laying on my paperwork, being a pest, but he was not visible to the others.

I see what you did hare! What were the student and the rabbit learning? 

What is your opinion of Robert E. Lee - Star Wars crossover fiction? P.S, just finished your book in England. We have lots of books here - yours will remain memorable.

Firefly is pretty good! 

And thank you! 

I don't always do this, but occasionally with weird letter combinations, I think words make more sense if they were spelled in reverse. Like your Trebor Nosnibor. I immediately saw this as Robert Robinson (well, at first it was Robert Robertson). Also, there's a street in Rockville named Rothbeg and man, it really just looks backward.

Gebhtor! No, that also looks backward. I wonder if there’s a term for words that always look backwards, but aren’t?

Or perhaps Jim Unger who drew Herman, but he passed away in 2012.

I've looked on several book website but still cant; get anysanswer; maybe this is the place! anyone remember a children's book about a girl who was horrible but if you went over abridge you became tiny and she was worshiped or the queen or something of little land? it had three names as something like Lavinia Blah Blah

Hmm, I am no help here! 

There's a great bookstore website called Loganberry Books and they have a children's book search forum called Stump the Bookseller. It costs something like $4.00 for you to submit your inquiry and they will post it for you.

but I bet I could manage a pet peeve without too much sneezing. Using "nauseous" (best definition - causing nausea in others) instead of "nauseated" (feeling nausea yourself) is a favorite, but I feel like it is just a little disgusting for everyday use.

My freshman roommate brought that pet peeve with her to college, and I’ve been taking care of it ever since! 

Don't know if you're a Neil Gaiman/Sandman fan but the new audio versions of his first few Sandman stories sound really great. James McCavoy as Morpheus, Gaiman as Narrator, and a stellar cast for the rest. Maybe this will take the "stink" off comic books for some people and get them to try.

I find it hard to imagine the Sandman books without the illustrations, which feel so integral to the storytelling, but this is a symptom of being susceptible to comics in the first place. I suppose audio is a medium all its own and will possess its own advantages! 

Go to the entry on "List of cetaceans" ( ) and scroll through the pictures until you get to an empty one. The first one is a little ovr halfway down the list. Worth it though.

Can confirm this is worth it! 

I’ve been trying for years to find the title of the first “chapter” book I read as a child (probably in or before 1964.) It took place in an apartment building in a city and the riveting plot point I recall was a fire in a closet in one of the apartments caused by leaving on a bare light bulb. I gave the book to my grand- niece (now > 30 years old) and she found this riveting also, but cannot recall the title either. This chat seems to have people with light bulb expertise and children’s book titleexpertise. Please help! Thank you! Great book! I couldn’t put it down and read it in one sitting.

Shoe survives thanks to Gary Brookins and Susie MacNelly (Jeff MacNelly's widow). But it is hard to surpass the original which featured Prof. Cosmo Fishhawk (a.k.a The Perfessor), whose specialty was blimpology at Rutgers.

Ursula K. Le Guin did. Her intro to "The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas" describes how she gets her ideas for stories: "From forgetting Dostoyevsky and reading road signs backwards, naturally. Where else?"

That’s great! I had not read that before!


I'm probably just remembering wrong, or was misinformed at the time. Maybe I'm thinking of Douglas Adams and somehow got my art fields crossed.

I like In Mismemoriam a lot, though!

Could it be The Saturdays by Elizabeth Enright?

Not to correct anyone's grammar or anything...

Look, everyone knows that rabbits lay; if not, Easter would be impossible. 

Richard Thompson of Cul de Sac fame?

Oh, I loved Cul de Sac! Such a lovely and sadly brief addition to the comics canon. 

I am ashamed to say i did not recognize one of my favorite books growing up from your description of it. Gonna have to take another look. Also I always thought the Executive office building looked just like the doll house in that book. I think it was that book.

I am only remembering certain peninsulas of information and boldly declaring that the elephant of the entire book looks only like the snake that I remember, so I don’t know that it is how someone who wanted to describe the book well would describe it. I vaguely also remember a doll house.

This growing list of recently dead comic creators is becoming quite depressing. It made me check to see if my current fave is still alive: Dave Kellett. I'm also happy to report that Bill Watterson is alive and kicking as well.

Made me think of this. (And also the word "Webelos". What a fun, euphonious word!) These are the saddest of possible words: "Tinker to Evers to Chance." Trio of bear cubs, and fleeter than birds, Tinker and Evers and Chance. Ruthlessly pricking our gonfalon bubble, Making a Giant hit into a double – Words that are heavy with nothing but trouble: "Tinker to Evers to Chance."

Ah, Baseball’s Sad Lament! It’s funny, I have seen the word “gonfalon” multiple times this week after spending years never seeing it at all! 

Definitely not The Saturdays by Elizabeth Enright which I still to this day remember very fondly. Four children who pool their allowance so each kid could go on a big adventure every four weeks. One girl got her nails done--big time stuff at the time.

B. Kliban who died about 30 years ago. Larson lists him as an inspiration. He's mainly now remembered for his cartoons of cats, which you can find anywhere, but one of his collections was entitled Whack Your Porcupine. Also drew comics for Playboy.

just what your chat audience looks like when you have folks who can recall long ago children's books, without the title or author, and recite a whole raft of dead cartoonists?

Clearly they are folks of some distinction, and we should all try to get onto a game show that demands this sort of oddly specific recall together. 

This made me think of the Burma Shave signs I saw in my distant youth as we were riding through the rural South. And that sent me to Wikipedia where I learned they were introduced in 1926 and could eventually be found in 46 of the US states until 1963 (Nevada and Massachusetts were exceptions). The poetry of the highway began with this verse: "Cheer up, face – the war is over! Burma-Shave."

were incapable of saving their allowances so they got together and each one took it in turn to get all of their allowances so they could actually do something interesting with the money instead of frittering it away on junk. Except the littlest kid who only got part of his older siblings larger allowances on his week (and still managed to take himself to the circus alone). I don't think there was any dreaming or really any magic realism at all.

No, I think this is an answer to a different book!

We were in an art gallery in northern California and noticed the name Kliban on some works, and began conversing audibly about the cat guy. His daughter walked up and introduced herself as the artist being exhibited. We practically genuflected. We have all his books plus a few ragged T-shirts.

Oh, that’s cool! 

Can you imagine the chaos if we did this chat on Zoom?

At least we would finally find out what the cat or rabbit was laying! 

I think the taxidermist one would be funnier if he had a dead animal under his arm. Maybe a possum? Or a blue death-feigning beetle?

That was oddly satisfying! You know the person who came up with it was so pleased with themselves; I would be.

As would I!

Thank you! I love this chat! Not an apartment, but there is the light bulb fire! “Besides that, there were also a couple of truly frightening moments--one when the house fills with coal gas in the middle of the night and they all nearly suffocate and another when Randy leaves a dress hanging over a bare light bulb and the house starts on fire.” quote from


In other, less chat-applicable book-finding news, I know I have a copy of The Haunting of Hill House in the house somewhere, but I can’t find it! I guess this vanishing is kind of spooky but I’d prefer the spooky experience of actually reading it. 

The Far Side Cartoon "Bears Eating Cub Scouts" doesn't make sense to me either. Yes, a "cub" is a young bear, but Cub Scouts don't eat bears. And the Cub Scout logo is a wolf, not a bear.

Great name for a metal Beatles cover band.

And on that note, I am off! Have a grand week, all, and in the interim between now and next week, see you on the blog and twitter

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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