Alex Blumberg and the Womp Womp Box

There’s a certain level of self awareness required to enjoy sloppy fast-food ice cream in the company of another man. Generally, for those of my ilk, it’s a devious and perverse little slice of life—sitting alone in a quiet room and absorbing every calorie, savoring each granule of processed sugar, the promise to yourself that you’ll eat just a little washing right into your ever expanding body issues, along with that new belt and a few extra poses in the mirror tomorrow morning. Allen and I would jaunt off to the Dairy Queen on occasion, two Blizzards acquired, then we’d sit and consume them like the world was to be overcome with plague in roughly three minutes. I noticed a look of grimaced pain on Allen’s face, tight and angry brow-furrowing after each scoop into his maw, and each one after that, only sharpening the frown. “What’s the story?” I’d asked, “Ice cream headache?” “Yeah,” he’d replied, “it happens every time I eat the stuff.” It washed over me all at once. It was in that moment I’d realized the man had never learned to properly enjoy this dessert—he was swallowing each bite as soon as it was taken, some terrible masochistic relationship he’d formed with one of the planet’s most honest treats.

When my face slackened, his did the same. He knew something was turning in the ol’ brainpan, and he knew I was about to tell him something he didn’t want to hear. When I revealed that he’d just spent the first thirty years of his life without ever properly eating iced cream—that is, not swallowing frozen lumps of it until your brain seizes up with a cold pain—he laughed and accepted it in a way that told me that later in the evening he’d be sobbing in a dirty shower filled with beer cans and low expectations. Allen made his way to adulthood without ever knowing that the vile pain associated with an ice cream headache can be avoided if you simply let the tasty stuff work around in your mouth a bit, then let it head on down the tubes. He still has trouble with it, but the slow road to understanding has now begun with a single Oreo swallow.

I’m not sure what the name for this phenomenon is, the one where a tiny bit of ignorance or misunderstanding whips and weaves through childhood, sneaking past adolescence, then deftly avoiding higher education and adulthood. It’s dashed every book and television show you’ve ever absorbed, common conversation and all flavors of small talk have come in and out of your mind, yet this little factoid never catches you slipping. It’s a poisoned rash in your brain, some little sore spot that’s never been attacked with the light, so you wind up in the grocery store at forty-seven years old, trying to pay for a can of Dinty Moore with two wooden nickels and a three dollar bill. It happens to everyone, there’s no social status or financial degree that’ll signal you out as someone who’s immune. “Wait, so, a ‘Rhodes Scholar’ doesn’t travel the world doing… smart things? Oh… oh no.” Life has betrayed you, and now you’ve got a bone to pick with your second grade teacher.

It’s become a self-aware sort of game for my me, my wife, and a few close friends. It’s like tiny therapy, letting it all out, because even if you’ve stumbled upon your own ignorance in private, your brain is going to zip through every archived memory looking for embarrassment and make you re-live each one. Confess to the thought-crimes in a group, so goes our logic, and it’ll all go a little easier when you tell everyone you thought that hot water was created by the faucet, heating it for you on-tap, as opposed to that big jug in your basement they were screwing with on Mythbusters.

In an episode of the radio show This American Life (ep. 293 “A Little Bit of Knowledge”), Alex Blumberg tackled this very concept. He digs up a few similar instances of adult humiliation, from a woman who thought crossing signs (painted with a large letter X and an “ing”) were pronounced “zing,” to Blumberg’s own admission that he thought the television rating system, the Neilsen families, all coincidentally had the last name, “Neilsen.” His other examples skew a bit from the idea I’m trying to describe, mainly when your mis-information was purposefully given to you. For instance, if you spent most of your youth eating chicken for dinner (another example from Blumberg’s segment), you might look a little weird when you’re building an alter to cheesesteak in your dorm closet, unaware of the myriad of flavors your college dinner-pass held in store.

The This American Life episode referred to the phenomenon as “Modern Jackass,” but perhaps the concept could be described with more of a sound. I imagine the sorry tune that plays on the Price is Right when a contestant loses, or the womp womp drone of a tuba from the SNL sketches of “Debbie Downer.” You’re sitting there with a friend, driving in the car alone, or waiting in line for a hotdog, and some horrible thought pelts you in the chest. Suddenly, you realize that you’ve been referring to your underwear as a “sack baggie,” and make a pact with yourself to never again visit the Target in your home town. It happens in stages: Your eyes glass over, then the world is drowned out as you put on a thousand yard stare. You’re instantly embarrassed by everything you’ve ever done. Every scenario in which you’ve told people how neat it is that they grow such tiny trees to make toothpicks from, they all splash around in your guts. The sad tuba plays the womp womp sound, and you commit to cramming these feelings in a grimy little box, never to be thought of again, and never to be admitted.

It doesn’t always have to be a giant revelation, it can be a smaller correction that starts with a quick lightbulb right after you’ve said the stuff out loud. It’s “for all intents and purposes,” not, “for all intensive purposes.” Not quite a baseball bat to the skull that the womp womp effect can have, but these small things must be respected and corrected, whether it’s mispronunciations or, even worse, accidental racism.

Greg, the marketer:

“We were in a Circle K, and we were buying something, and the check-out guy was African American, but I didn’t pay attention to it, you know. I was saying something, like, ‘Yeah, I haven’t seen that in a coon’s age.’ My friend’s like, ‘Uh… you shouldn’t say that.’ Apparently I’d do that a lot, because then the second follow-up story is that, I think one of my first jobs in high school… we were working a lot, it was like a new store—we were just shelving things. I went to my other buddy who was working in the same mall, and I wound up telling him, ‘Yeah, we’ve been working all day like slaves.’ And, I looked over, and there was another African American—right by him, and he’s working there—and I’m like, ohhh…

I never thought about… that, those were racist things that you shouldn’t say. But it’s funny when people don’t realize it, because, I’m half Jewish, my dad’s Jewish and then my mom, so, we grew up Chrismukkah, we would do Christmas and Hanukkah. My aunt, my mom’s sister lives on a farm in South Dakota, and she was throwing the term around ‘Jewed.’ ‘We would Jew them down, get a better price.’ I don’t think she realized that it was like, potentially offensive to Jewish people or just in general, and it was just like, a common saying. I don’t think she realized what it meant.

Wordplay is a common thematic to the womp womp, so I’ve found. My mother’s been a nurse since the beginning of time, and growing up she’d always come home with dozens of little note pads, ink pens, and other office miscellany—stuff the drug reps like to pass out when schmoozing doctor’s offices into stocking up on this drug, or that. Every now and again she’d confiscate one of the supplies from my brother or I. After I’d named one of my super hero’s after some suggestive-sounding medicine used to treat yeast infections—a name printed in purple letters on a tri-corner highlighter—a strange conversation about things I wouldn’t understand for the next twenty years had to take place.
Granted, I was younger when this happened, so it doesn’t technically count as a womp womp. When you’re a child, things are still new, and this is precisely when you’re apt to make confounding mistakes in trying to understand how the world works. It’s the ongoing atavistic buffoonery that you get away with as an adult that turns the whole game sour in your mind. Weirding yourself out, thinking about what you’ve just said for just a moment too long, it too sits on some weepy branch in the womp womp tree. Attaching imagery to something you’d always assumed was common lexicon can twist up in your head, making it even worse when you heard it from someone else in causal conversation.

Spencer, the attorney:

“Well yeah, this is like, like an open-secret one, I feel like, because a lot of people say this but nobody thinks about it… I was talking to my ex-girlfriend a few years ago, who—you know that person—and for whatever reason we were talking about some situation where, you know, she had messed up some thing, or maybe I messed something up and I said, ‘Boy you really screwed the pooch on that one.’ And, we both had this sort of momentary pause where we looked at each other… and we’re like… wait. Really? That’s what people… say? That one, I think it’s a good—I mean, people say that, right? ‘You screwed the pooch.’ But seriously, that’s a bizarre visual. The actual act and the imagery is so far removed from the level of culpability that it’s applied to. It’s like a horrific, very intentional, and just… bestial thing to do. It’s used to describe just a… ‘whoops.’ Just a mistake, ‘You tripped on something.’”

Jeremy, the marketing director:

Jeremy: “It starts in an email conversation with the entire staff at the time, and we were shooting ideas back and forth for a name, a URL, for the new Sharepoint server, which was ‘collaboration,’ so we were all brainstorming ideas of what meant ‘connecting.’ ‘Sharepoint’ is pretty clear, but, it wasn’t going anywhere and I think I used a thesaurus… [and searched]

based on ‘connection’ or something like that, and that’s where I came up with the word… ‘coitus.’ Yeah I had never heard that word, like, ‘Oh, coitus, that doesn’t… no one knows what that means, it’s a unique server so…’ I think this was a a time when Google and all these web 2.0 companies were coming out, that didn’t mean anything with some Greek term, and I think that’s how I came across it. I’m like, ‘Oh we should call it something that doesn’t really mean anything, and I Googled it, and it meant ‘connection.’ I sent it out to everybody, very excited, and someone sent me a private email letting me know that I should probably ‘look that up,’ and that ‘we’re not going to use that name.’

Matthew: “There’s actually two levels to that, because first of all, you didn’t know the word, what it was, but you assumed it didn’t mean anything after you looked it up in a thesaurus, which is what is designed to tell you what words mean.”

Jeremy: “Yeah, and it didn’t refer to the sexual meaning, it just said ‘connected, connecting people, people being connected.’ It was like a literal description. I was like, ‘That’s perfect! That’s what Sharepoint means! Connecting people!’ Nevertheless, we didn’t go with that, even though… technically… it was an accurate term.”

I’m hoping Jeremy’s ordeal occurred prior to the Coen cult hit, The Big Lebowski, since I just typed “coitus” into my thesaurus and it comes up:

technical see SEX

These are light dances in the womp womp disco. To really feel the humiliation and understand the difficulty of the thing, we need to delve into the loud ones, the ones that draw those terrible stares. You mutter something about rabbits and how cute they must be right after they hatch, and then you’re shot a look from a loved one that you can only hope is them not-backtracking their respect for you.

Mikayla, the massage therapist: (Also, my wife.)

Mikayla: “So, remember that time that we were in the grocery store, in the produce department, and the ‘thunder’ sound came on, like it does just before it starts to water the vegetables? And, I said, ‘Isn’t it interesting that they play that thunder sound. Do you really think that helps to keep the vegetables fresher? Like, noises that they’re accustomed to hearing when they’re out in the wild?’ You paused for a second, and I know it’s because you were trying not to laugh, and you said, ‘Or, it’s to warn you, so you don’t get wet.’ Of course, that’s why it is, it’s so you don’t get wet, but I assumed that it was much like you played music for vegetables so that they grow better. It was… for the vegetables’ sake, and not for the people buying the vegetables.”

Matthew: “The point was, you hadn’t said it to anybody out loud before, but, did you think back on any times that you’d thought that privately, and then were embarrassed for yourself?”

Mikayla: “Oh, millions, millions, yes. I felt like an absolute complete idiot. I felt like all of the blond jokes that everyone has ever said in my presence became true in that moment… even if they hadn’t been before.”

It’s only fair that we drum up one of my womp womps, and this one is a particular favorite. Somehow I’d made it to my twenty-sixth year on this planet before I’d made a solid connection between Washington state, and Washington D.C. For years, I’d known of the two geographies, but never spent a single moment arranging what they meant—this is the core of the womp womp effect, you aren’t overtly stupid, you just hadn’t spent a moment’s consideration. D.C. was this anomalous fuzzy spot somewhere on the map, while Washington state was where George Washington and his golden fifty foot horse lived. I just assumed that our nation’s capital and all those old white guys who keep screwing everything up, were up in the north-west, right there with Kurt Cobain and rainy weather. To make matters worse, when I’d talk about “The White House,” or anything government related, I’d point to the north-west in my own head, but with my dummy mouth, I’d say things like, “Over in the east.” What makes this especially damning is that as a midwesterner, D.C. is east of us, so everything I’m thinking is wrong, but I’m saying it right, which is still wrong based on what I believed, which means I’m not getting properly called out on it. Do you see?

It’s simply got more than one level of stupidity, it’s layered, like a special kind of stupid-carmel rolled in rotten nougat, then carefully dipped in a layer of chocolate infused with disappointed glances. It’s an Inception thing, somehow getting dumber and dumber before it’s revelation, when the room just empties, leaving me in my baby chair with a messy face and a pile of smashed bananas. In my fevered imagination, any sitting president could just mosey across the street for a cup of sumatra and watch a drum circle. No, damn you, wrong side of the map.

While on a car trip, my wife and I were listening to John Hodgman’s book The Areas of My Expertise, when he and musician Jonathan Coulton worked into a diddy about the fifty states. There’s a line about the Washington(s), and after it passed, the womp womp came over me. As it does, the womp womp went to work: eyes glassed over, thousand yard stare, embarrassment, guts go splashing. I look through the windshield and point both index fingers in the air to an invisible map directly in front of me. Slack jawed, I trace my left hand to the north-west, and my right hand to the lower east. My wife, who’s driving, looks over to me and puts it all together. “Washington?” she asks. Red faced, I nod, and she simply turns to look out from the driver side window, likely wondering what her ex-boyfriends are up to these days.

This American Life, Episode 293: A Little Bit of Knowledge



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