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Fictional Eavesdropping

What they talk about when they talk in Hebrew

In meetings and at the lunch table, the conversation often switches to Hebrew. To pass the time, I watch my coworkers' faces, listen to their words, and imagine what they're discussing. Some examples:

Today I overheard a young man talking on the phone about how he liked oil paintings of kittens, the bigger the canvas the better, and the kittens had to be wearing “pretty” clothes, maybe even tight clothes. He was ordering three dozen paintings, and he wouldn't explain to the person on the phone why he needed so many.

Soon after, a woman speaking to another said her teeth hurt whenever she received email. The other woman nodded. A man called out from the IT room that they were out of “network milk,” and could someone run to get some.

At lunch a woman in her 20s and a man in his 30s argued over a new product being brought to market next month. “I think these banana-flavored calculators will get huge!” he said. “My friend is marketing them.”

She cocked her head and opened her eyes wide. “Who will chew a calculator? That's idiotic.”

He was avid. “They started in England. A huge fad! Kids love bananas and calculators. But adults like them too. They make them so they can store phone numbers. Banana-peel-shaped. Off the shelves, whoosh.”

I listened to a conversation in which one person told a complex joke about an Englishman, a Hindu, and the 1943 Colossus Computer, all on a large airplane that was about to crash. At the end of the joke it was revealed that everyone was actually inside a flight simulator, but when they left the flight simulator they were inside another flight simulator. The Hindu said something about colonialism and the computer mentioned an apple soaked in cyanide, and the British man took the blame for both, before the computer and the Hindu left him and departed from that simulator for parts unknown. Everyone listening to the joke laughed and nodded, but I didn't get it. I don't really enjoy conceptual humor.

“I wish my new motorcycle was entirely made of flannel,” I heard a programmer say as I walked past the office, “then I could ride it around my bed.” Who knows why? On Arabic TV, I watched an old Muslim cleric debate another Muslim cleric over cricket as a means of keeping down the impulse to self-abuse in teenage boys. After a while it became clear that I misunderstood the plural noun and they were referring to the insect, not the British game. I shut off the television in cultural confusion and some fear. Finally, moments before I came in to write this I watched Ariel Sharon give a speech in Hebrew, translated as follows:

Sharon: People of Earth. My name is Ariel Sharon. You might know me from such films as Long Nights on Sycamore Ranch and So Sorry, Sabra, Shatilla! (Pause.) I wish to announce that Israel has, in the past five years, developed a new weapon of extreme power which can be targeted with exactness of one meter against those who threaten our security. This weapon was developed at Operation Enoch at the National Genetic Engineering Complex in Haifa. It is called the Damascus Woodchuck.

Anchor: The Damascus Woodchuck? But--

Sharon: (Holds up thrashing woodchuck with 30-inch jagged platinum teeth.) Yes. Unless we can soon reach a state of non-belligerency, thousands like this fellow - who eats only acorns and can chew through 200 inches of compressed concrete in an hour, and is impervious to mortar fire - thousands are going to be released at strategic points near the occupied territories.

Anchor: And then?

Sharon: (Lowers voice and woodchuck.) It's better not to say.

Anchor: Prime Minister Sharon, there is word of [name of some major Likud figure] receiving a a major share in a Bat Yam corporation which will manufacture banana-flavored calculators--

Anchor: The Damascus Woodchuck? But--

Sharon: (Holds up thrashing woodchuck with 30-inch jagged platinum teeth.) Yes. Unless we can soon reach a state of non-belligerency, thousands like this fellow - who eats only acorns and can chew through 200 inches of compressed concrete in an hour, and is impervious to mortar fire - thousands are going to be released at strategic points near the occupied territories.

Anchor: And then?

Sharon: (Lowers voice and woodchuck.) It's better not to say.

Anchor: Prime Minister Sharon, there is word of [name of some major Likud figure] receiving a a major share in a Bat Yam corporation which will manufacture banana-flavored calculators--

Before any more was said I cut off the 3-meter projection screen in the bomb shelter/meeting-room and went upstairs, through the empty mansion, to bed.


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About the author: I've been running this website from 1997. For a living I write stories and essays, program computers, edit things, and help people launch online publications. (LinkedIn). I wrote a novel. I was an editor at Harper's Magazine for five years; then I was a Contributing Editor; now I am a free agent. I was also on NPR's All Things Considered for a while. I still write for The Morning News, and some other places.

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