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The first time my kids saw our family photo on the back of Parenting Beyond Belief in a bookstore, they were elated. “We’re famous!” Erin squealed.
“Yes,” Laney replied, “but the quiet kind of famous.”
She had once said she wanted to be “one of those famous people on the magazine covers.” Becca replied that it might be fun in some ways, but you also lose your privacy, and everyone watches and talks about everything you do. “I still think that would be fun,” Laney insisted.
So we began narrating her every move: “She’s picking up her spoon. Why is she holding her hand that way? Ooh, she glared at our cameraman. What does she have to be angry about? Do you think Delaney McGowan is losing her mind? Take our online poll!”
“Aaahhh, okay okay okay!! I don’t want to be that kind of famous,” she said. “I want to do something famous, but nobody knows I’m the person who did it.” She searched for the right word. “I want to be the quiet kind of famous.”
My first brush with the quiet kind of famous was in 1977. It was a thrilling year for me. I turned fourteen. I kissed Kathy Myerson on the lips. And I got myself published.
It was a single sentence, but it was published in a no-kidding book that was carried in all the best cheesy paperback bookracks in every checkout line in America. The title was Murphy’s Law, Book 2: more reasons why things go wrong!, with the word “wrong” upside down. Get it?? High-larious!
I’d read the prequel — Murphy’s Law—and Other Reasons Things Go Wrong! stem to stern a dozen times the year before. I loved it:
Work expands to fill the time available for its completion.
The Law of Margarine Attraction
The odds of a piece of buttered bread landing butter-side down are directly proportional to the cost of the carpet.
You always find something in the last place you look.
I can just hear my zitty little self snickering: “Heh heh. Boobs.”
Not until the seventh or eighth time through did I see the invitation on the final page:
Do you have a law that explains why things go wrong? Send it to the following address, and who knows—you might find your idea in the next edition of MURPHY’S LAW!
My head tipped back and drool collected, Homer-like, at the corners of my mouth. Fame, aggghghhhh…
For two solid weeks I read Murphy’s Law again and again, absorbing the basic rhythm and cynical logic of the jokes. Most were in the form conditional, comma, punch. And the punch has the zing of Comic Truth. Got it.
I started looking for Comic Truths everywhere I went. School? No—plenty of comedy, plenty of truth, but never, it seemed, in combination. Home was too familiar. I wasn’t sure what I was looking for, but I watched for that rhythm and logic in Fred Flintstone, Speed Racer, Carol Burnett, the Professor and Mary Ann. Nothing rang the bell.
I was prepared to give it up when my mother dragged me with her to the Sears women’s department. I sat in emasculated agony outside the dressing room as she tried on several hundred skirts and blouses. A sign atop a nearby rack of clothes caught my bored eye. “ALL DRESSES ON THIS RACK UNDER $50,” it said.
“Pfft,” I thought. “If it says ‘under $50,’ you know it isn’t $19.95.”
I sat up with a shock of recognition. It was cynical. It was rhythmic. Conditional, comma, punch! I had my Law!
I tinkered with the name for a week, coming up at last with “McGowan’s Madison Avenue Axiom,” then wordsmithed the phrasing a bit. Finally I typed “If an item is advertised as ‘under $50,’ you can be damn sure it isn’t $19.95” and sent it in. Four to six weeks later, I had my answer.
I was in!
They had discreetly removed the word “damn,” but it was otherwise unchanged. My free copy arrived in the mail later that year, just weeks after I planted one on Kathy. I was published.
Thirty years passed, during which other stuff surely happened—until one afternoon in late 2007 when the words “Murphy’s Law” caught my eye in the corner of a website. I had become 44 years old and a writer of additional sentences, even whole paragraphs, in the interim. And though Kathy Myerson occasionally surfaced in the soup of memory, I hadn’t thought about my one-sentence publishing debut since the Carter Administration.
I decided on a lark to Google the name of my long-ago law. Everything seems to leave a footprint somewhere on line, even if it happened before there was an “online.” Sure enough, there was a footprint—and another, and another. And another. “McGowan’s Madison Avenue Axiom” appeared by name on over 200 sites. The phrase “you can bet it’s not $19.95” is on about 350. It is fortune cookie filler. It’s on websites of one-liners. (I always wondered who came up with those. Turns out it’s me.) People use it as a signature line in advertising discussion forums. It serves as text filler for forum spammers.
It has morphed into “McGowan’s Christmas Shopping Axiom” in, for some reason, Australia, France, and the Netherlands.
The dollar amounts sometimes change (“If an item is advertised as ‘under $40′, you can bet it’s not $9.95″) as do the manners (“If an item is advertised as ‘under $50′, you can bet your ass it’s not $19.95”).
It appears in the 26th (get it??) anniversary edition of the original book.
My favorite of all was seeing it quoted as the opening line in the Washington Post Bridge column just a few months earlier.
Okay then. I’ve mastered the quiet kind of famous. Now to work on the rich kind.