Wednesday, August 8, 2012

Periodic Table of Elephants

Sometimes, when you're married, you remember to do what you're told.

SO, there I was, sitting at the dining room table, minding my own business, thoroughly entertaining myself by making silly jokes inside my head, and giggling right out loud – which turned out to be inappropriate, I was told, and rude, besides, since apparently I had forgotten that I was not alone at the table, and in fact I was in the middle of dinner with my wife and kids, to whom I apparently should have been paying far more attention. The kids were ignoring me. They were used to this sort of behavior, frankly, from their dad as much as their middle school friends. No harm done there.

Not so with the Missus. Though she would much rather have been allowed to eat her chicken and broccoli in peace, or maybe participate in some light adult conversation during her meal, experience had taught her long before to expect a great deal less from a dinner spent with a giddy child, with or without his two young sons.

“Okay, out with it.”

Well, she asked, I thought, considering a development that carried with it both positive and negative potential, more on the positive, I believed, since the particular pun bouncing around inside my head was truly awful, of the sort that begged to be shared with an audience; negative in that the particular pun was truly awful, and should probably best be kept bouncing around inside my head. Still giggling, I decided to bank on the positive, and share my silliness with everyone present, whether they deserved it or not.

“Wouldn’t it be funny,” I began, halting, giggling, having to clear my throat and start again. “Wouldn't it be funny,” I said, “if someone came up with a Periodic Table of Elephants?”

A long moment passed in total silence, broken only by my periodic snickers.

I almost collapsed in unabashed levity, holding myself up from the table with one hand, the other holding a napkin to my eyes, which were glistening now from the crystal clarity of the joke, and the depth of my wife’s husband’s mastery of humor. Oh, but she did marry a clever man. Just ask him.

“Elephants!” I repeated, certain that she hadn't heard me clearly enough. “Isn't that a riot! You know, little cartoons of actual elephants, acting out each of the chemical elements. I mean, Elephants – Elements, that’s the pun. Get it?”

She got it. She had it on the first pass. It was a geek joke, meant for a limited audience, but one of which she was a member. She almost smiled, nearly. The joke was that good.

The kids looked up, wondering what was wrong with me, realizing after a moment that it was nothing out of the ordinary, meaning nothing very interesting, either. Dad was being funny. Best to keep your head down and act like nothing was going on at all. It would be over in a minute or two. For God’s sake don't encourage the man.

There was a longer pause, then, while I collected myself, while my wife tapped quietly into her apparently limitless wellspring of patience, and the kids went back to pushing their vegetables around on their plates until they could be excused, which hopefully wouldn't be much longer. One of them, I couldn’t tell which one, actually sighed out loud.

“Elephants,” I said.

“Hmmm….” she said, and paused again. “I think that’s a great idea,” she declared, finally, matter-of-factly. “I think you should do it.”

Hey, wait a minute. I’d heard that tone before.

All of a sudden the atmosphere at the dinner table changed perceptibly, almost tangibly, pulling me needlessly out of my self-indulgent reverie. Somehow, things had gone in a short straight line from silly to serious. This wasn’t going to end well, I could tell. Not well at all.

There’s a reason a man chooses to share such monumental breakthroughs with his spouse. One reason alone. He tells his wife ideas such as this so that she will be utterly confirmed in the knowledge that she married the cleverest man on Earth, and will stop at nothing to communicate to him her happiness and good fortune upon electing to say “I do.”

“My goodness!” she is supposed to say. “That’s the funniest thing I’ve heard all day!” she’s supposed to continue. “Why, I married the cleverest man on Earth! Just wait till I get you alone this evening, Dearest, and commence to smother you with kisses and such, just to show you how lucky I know I am!” Her shimmering eyes would be unable to hide her sincerity.

Well, that’s why we do it, anyway, we husbands, which is remarkable, not so much for the fact that things seldom (okay, never), turn out the way we imagine they will, but more for our inexplicable persistence in believing that they will.

It didn't happen this time, for this husband, either. What I got was,  “Yeah, that’s funny. You should do it.”

In other words, “Get Busy.”

No accolades. No overt displays of affection. Just one more item on the Honey-Do list.

How did this happen? I started to wonder, then stopped myself, mid-thought. There was no time to consider the whys or wherefores. I had no choice but to try and beat a hasty and subtle retreat.

Quick study that I am, I thought I could still see a way out of this debacle. My dream of unbridled attention had collapsed, but that didn't mean I had to let this episode end in additional work for me. If I laid low and refused to bring the subject up again, the idea might die a natural death, and I ‘d be none the worse for having spilled my silly idea onto the dinner table.

In the face of this impending threat, instinct kicked in. Like a chameleon, a flounder, a shape-shifting tide-pool octopus, I put my head down and quietly assumed the prevailing background pattern in the room, pushing my vegetables around on my plate, waiting to be excused.

After a couple of weeks I had almost forgotten my mammoth comic breakthrough, and the unthinkable consequences that had so nearly ensued after sharing it with my beloved.

Each night at dinner, I knew better than allow myself to be distracted again by anything funny. We talked about things like schoolwork, and family, deliberately avoiding any subject that could be considered remotely humorous.

“By the way,” my wife said one evening, passing a large bowl of mashed potatoes. “How’s that Elephant project of yours coming along?”

Crap. I wasn’t out of the woods yet. This woman has the memory of an… elephant.

“Elephant project, Dear?”

“You know, the Periodic Table thing you were working on?”

“Oh, that. Why, I’d forgotten all about it,” I lied. Clearly, if it wasn’t important enough for me to remember, it probably didn't need to be pursued any further. Whew. Dodged that one, however close it had come to inflicting real damage. After all, I want to be funny. The last thing I want is to have to work at being funny.

I mean, we’re not talking about a little cartoon project here. This idea, if allowed to propgate, threatened to involve something in the range of 110-120 separate drawings, all elephant jokes, each one illustrating some aspect of a unique chemical element, each placed in its proper spot on a bon fide, working periodic table. Humor and science. What good could come of that?

Besides, who had time for that kind of endeavor? Not me. I was busy being funny.

“Well, start thinking about it again, won’t you?” my better half continued. “I told my sister about it – you know, the chemist? She would love to have one of the prints for Christmas.”

I started to think about the short list of things I wanted for Christmas, then realized that that was precisely the line of thinking that had gotten me into this mess. I decided to close ranks, and deploy my last, best line of defense – the strategy that always worked for me in these dire situations. I steeled myself for the consequences, and let fly:

“Yes Dear,” I said. “I’ll get right on it.”

The next day I hit the books, and began scouring the web, familiarizing myself for the nth time with the periods, families and characteristics of atoms arranged along the elemental periodic table. Long lists were made of individual elements and their particulars, these paired with dozens of tiny elephant sketches, filling page after page with every variation of style and inference from pachyderm to mastodon to howdah to tusk. A mammoth sheet of illustration board was laid out on the biggest drawing board in the studio, ruled in 118 squares, and filled with the best ideas from hundreds of rough ballpoint sketches.

Four months later it was over, the Periodic Table of Elephants was born, and my wife was happy.

Me, too.


  1. How is it that there are no comments about this? Not only is the idea both clever and funny, but your story about how it came about is great. AND I think the table itself is terrific. I'm not a fan of chemistry or elephants, but I appreciate a clever idea well executed and a good story well told.

  2. Thanks! I'll try do do more clever and funny stuff. Or listen to my wife. Or both. Glad you liked this'un.

  3. Hey.. do you realize that the official american chemical society got the pun too and actually made a whole statue out of it (and display it infront of their office for awhile)?
    check this out.. their pictures are different but the idea is similar..

  4. Funny story about that. Before starting this project, i did a web search to see what kind of competition I'd find. To my delight, no one else had thought of it. While I was drawing this one, though, the ACS were creating and promoting their own. By the time I was finished and started promoting it, they were already ahead of me. Suddenly the folks I thought would be all happy to see my clever take on the Periodic Table were not at all pleased to embrace what to them was an immediate and intentional knock-off. (*Sigh*)

    1. Do you have a profile on each element (elephant) to go with it... I find some quite puzzling and my students ask..
      Great poster!

  5. Hello, Lisa: here's the link to the answer key: