Douglas Adams, a tall, creative, sometimes depressive writer of science fiction humor, died in 2001 after working out in Montecito, Calif. So great was his following that, two weeks after his death, on May 25, his fans organized a tribute called Towel Day that’s celebrated every year all around the world, but not to my knowledge here. We need to change that.
Adams’ most well known work is “The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy.” He got the idea while lying drunk in a field in Austria, looking up at the stars and holding a copy of “A Hitchhiker’s Guide to Europe,” and turned it into a radio series for BBC Radio 4 that ran in 1978.
The book, the first of five in Adams’ “trilogy,” begins with the destruction of the Earth by Vogons, an officious, unpleasant, sluglike race who serve as the galaxy’s bureaucrats, for an intergalactic highway construction project. Vogons write terrible poetry, the third worst in the galaxy. As the Guide says: “On no account should you allow a Vogon to read poetry at you.”
The Guide itself is described thus: “In many of the more relaxed civilizations on the Outer Eastern Rim of the Galaxy, the Hitch Hiker’s Guide has already supplanted the great Encyclopedia Galactica as the standard repository of all knowledge and wisdom … it scores over the older, more pedestrian work in two important respects. First, it is slightly cheaper; and secondly it has the words Don’t Panic inscribed in large friendly letters on its cover.”
So why Towel Day? Well, the Guide says: “A towel is about the most massively useful thing an interstellar hitchhiker can have.” Included in the list of its many uses is to “avoid the gaze of the Ravenous Bugblatter Beast of Traal (such a mind-bogglingly stupid animal, it assumes that if you can’t see it, it can’t see you).”
“More importantly, a towel has immense psychological value.” What every non-hitchhiker “will think is that any man who can hitch the length and breadth of the galaxy, rough it, slum it, struggle against terrible odds … and still knows where his towel is, is clearly a man to be reckoned with.”
Adams was a brilliant humorist who said he got his best ideas sitting in the bathtub. He had to be pressed, sometimes exceedingly, to finish work.
“I love deadlines,” he said. “I like the whooshing sound they make as they fly by.”
He was also a technology geek, an ardent environmentalist, and a champion of endangered species.
If you haven’t read his books, you’re in for a treat. And if you haven’t heard of Towel Day, just log on to towelday.org to see the rather breathtaking list of the celebrations all around the world, many of which include Vogon poetry slams. In Bali, Indonesia, for example, carrying a towel will get you a free Pan Galactic Gargle Blaster drink. In Finland there is the Most Evil Laughter competition. In France there is the Towel Olympics.
If you’re a novice, it helps to know that a Babel fish fits in your ear and translates what you hear, 42 was the answer given by the computer Deep Thought when asked what the ultimate meaning of life is, and Ford Prefect was both a character in the book and a model of car you could buy in England and Australia. My cousin in Brisbane still has one.
So, next Sunday I’ll be carrying my towel with Don’t Panic written on it and will be eager to hear what ideas you might have for a recurring local celebration. Maybe you’ll get some ideas from what others are doing, although Adams did say, “Human beings, who are almost unique in having the ability to learn from the experience of others, are also remarkable for their apparent disinclination to do so.”Tags: Bill Mego, Douglas Adams, Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, Towel Day