The human brain, that incessant maker of meaning and perceiver of patterns, is wont to seek engagement rather than endure monotony. Even when there is little at hand to provide mental stimulation, the mind will resourcefully make do with whatever it finds. I am reminded of a particular instance of this phenomenon that occurred, of all places, high in the balcony seating of a sold-out pop concert.
We had been enjoying an entertaining set by Elton John, who was touring to promote his 2004 release, Peachtree Road. It was a great and engrossing performance until we heard the opening lyric, “She packed my bags last night, pre-flight.” The audience responded predictably, greeting Rocket Man with a resounding ovation, but we were less than thrilled. Having seen Sir Elton a few times before, we knew that he had just embarked on a journey that would, indeed, last “a long, long time.”
Not that there’s anything wrong with Rocket Man, a nicely crafted hit when it clocks in at its originally recorded length of 4:45. I will also acknowledge that it can be great fun to hear a band stretch out and improvise a few variations on a familiar theme, even if that results in a song lasting several times longer than it otherwise would. However, in the case of Elton John’s titanic concert renditions of Rocket Man, this is a bit of shtick he’s rested on for so many years that it must be inconceivably pleasurable for him to execute, as any less enjoyment would surely drive a man mad after so many years.
Not to belabor the point, but the Economy-Size Rocket Man includes several peaks and valleys, a few frustratingly false codas, and in its moment of grossest excess, a four-bar, letter-by-letter spelling of its title. It’s great the first time you hear it, interesting the second time, tedious the third time, and generally intolerable after that. You sit there and start thinking about two or three other Elton John songs that you might have heard but won’t thanks to this interminable exhibition. You wonder if there’s time to make your way to the restroom and return before the next song, then you kick yourself when the end finally arrives, and you realize you would have had enough time to leave the arena for a quick repast, all without missing anything of interest.
The routine is inevitably a hit, which is apparently why Sir Elton keeps doing it. This places me solidly in the minority, but I know that I am not alone. Sitting next to me was my brother Brian, who sighed and looked at me with a weary gaze as though we were colleagues asked to break out the Post-It notes and chart paper for a team building exercise. I tried to make some enjoyment out of the varying stage light display, and when that failed to occupy my attention, I passed a few minutes following the tangled paths of catwalks along the arena ceiling. When I glanced at Brian, I saw that he was not looking at the stage. Instead, his expressionless gaze appeared to be fixed at some point above us, where there was nothing except the reverse side of several sponsor logo signs. He appeared as vacant as Seinfeld’s David Puddy on an intercontinental flight.
“Do you realize,” he said to me at length, “that you can rearrange the letters in Giant Eagle to make eating a leg?” And there it was. My brother’s brain, its functioning threatened by the mind molasses that is fifteen minutes of unrelenting Rocket Man, clung to survival by anagramming the first words it found. It was a moment of salvation for me, too, for although I was ultimately unsuccessful, I spent the rest of the song trying to come up with an even better anagram. Agile gnat left me with a stranded e, and elegant IGA wasn’t as funny. Still, it was a lot better than that cursed R-O-C-K-E-T-M-A-N.
Brian is a formidable Scrabble player, at least within our amateur circle, so generating anagrams comes naturally to him. I find it somewhat difficult to do without having tangible letters to move around, which frees my mind from having to keep track of what letters I have and have not used. When I think I’ve come up with a brilliant anagram solely through mental effort, I usually find that I’ve left out a letter or added a duplicate.
Nevertheless, what better testament to the playful eagerness of our brains to simply think is there than the mind’s capacity and thirst for anagrams? Other than achieving one’s own amusement, it’s a pointless exercise. As amusing, pointless exercises go, however, it’s a great time filler.
During a lull one weekend afternoon, I picked out my name in Scrabble tiles and started moving them around, looking for credible aliases. My favorite anagram for Robert Gerard Hunt is Arthur T. Rodenberg, which sounds like the namesake of a liberal arts grant benefiting NPR. (Funding for “Morning Edition” is provided by the Arthur T. Rodenberg Foundation, a tax shelter with an attractive veneer of philanthropy.) I also found the mysterious Garrett Durrebohn (a German spy, perhaps?), Darren R. Butterhog (whom I envision as the wealthy founder of a pork rind franchise), and Brother Andergurt (a menacing monk). Plus, my name can also be rearranged to form the phrase darn hotter burger, though I’m hard-pressed to explain why anyone might utter such words.
Of course, one man’s anagram is another man’s complete waste of time. I received Brian’s brilliant eating a leg with admiration, whereas many would respond with a flat “Big deal” (which, by the way, can be rearranged to make I Be Glad or GI Blade). Those of us who enjoy the odd anagram now and then have come to recognize stony silence (Tony’s license or Let’s ice Sonny) as the universal signal of anagrammatic discouragement. So in the interest of risking no further alienation from valued readers, I shall anagram no further.
Except to note that the letters in Elton John can be rearranged to make a cautionary message regarding the handling of poultry (Jolt no hen.)
Okay, I’m done. (Nook may die.)