by Paul Niquette
Copyright ©1996 Resource Books All rights reserved.

    literally adv. 

    1. In a literal or strict sense. 
    2. Really; actually.
About once a year, I don my nineteenth century garments, haul my bicycle collection off to a school, and present an assembly program.  My subject is the history of bicycles.  The high point occurs when I bring out the Largest Bicycle in the World -- and ride the thing.

Upon returning to their classrooms, the children write me letters, illustrated in crayon.  In a few days another box of treasures arrives to be added to my collection.  My favorite letter follows.  It starts out conventionally enough.

"Dear Mr. Niquette:  I like your bicycles with the big wheel.  I like your clothes and when you rode the Ordinary.  The best part was your trick..."
Parenthesis: During my wobbly demonstration, I always ask if the children would like to see me perform my one and only trick.  "Yes!" they exclaim.  I solemnly reach up and tilt my hat.
"The best part was your trick," continues my favorite letter.  "It was not a very good trick.  But you didn't say it would be a very good trick, so I wasn't disappointed.   Your friend, Danny."
That children speak frankly serves as a reminder to adults: The start-up process in the human brain demands years of utmost concentration to extract and classify knowledge from surrounding events.  The effort will tolerate few distractions.  Subtlety has a low priority.  Speaking figuratively to a child only wastes mental effort.  Children don't indulge in it much.
"How much does that bicycle cost?" asked a third grader in the front row.
The question makes me uncomfortable.  When grown-ups ask it, I always reply with a question of my own.  "Would you like to see the most expensive thing in my whole collection?"  Whatever the age of the audience, the answer is always the same, a chorus of yeses.  I hold up an unremarkable carbide lantern from a "safety bicycle."  Though a hundred years old, it is shiny brass.  A spring-loaded "pantograph" protected the lantern from road shocks, which I demonstrate.  Adults and children enter into a state of awe.  "The lady who owned the lantern did not want to sell it to me," I say with a straight face.  "So I married her."  Grown-ups always laugh.
Out of habit that day in the school assembly, I asked the same question ("Would you like to see the most expensive thing in my whole collection?") and gave the same answer, ending with, " I married her."

There was total silence.  Flushing crimson, I blurted on to the next subject.  One hand shot up and waved frantically.

I tried to smile at a little girl in the back row.  "Do you have a question?"

"Is that really the only reason you married her?"

Adult humor relies on a sense of the absurd, which obviously requires knowledge of what is not absurd plus a measure of self-confidence.  And something else.  I have not figured out what that is.  Don't say intelligence.  Once I commented at a Mensa meeting that I did not want money, only what money can buy: health, happiness, and friends.  A woman sitting across the table did not even smile.
 "What kind of friends do you have!" she exclaimed.
Most people I know unthinkingly hyperbolize the word "literally" to replace "figuratively" or "virtually."   They have literally destroyed the meaning of a much needed word (see unbelievable).
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Favorite Letter  The Niquette Bicycle Collection, which is now consigned to the Bicycle Pavilion in Western Massachusetts, includes an expanding archive of students' letters.  The one cited here is especially significant, since it came from Northwood Elementary in Irvine, which features the high-wheel bicycle as its school logo.  Perhaps I am entitled to think I had something to do with that. {Return}