Regulars and Shorts

Outside the Box: Towel Day

By Alice Toler

In honor of Douglas Adams.

One of the best books I read as a teenager had the advice “DON’T PANIC!” printed on its cover in large friendly letters. The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy’s signature blend of science fiction and comedy changed my life.

You are shocked by your own laughter. Planet Earth is destroyed by the end of chapter three, and the main character, Arthur Dent, is left to wander the Universe as a species orphan, surrounded and befuddled by aliens who are all much cooler and way more self-possessed than he is.

The book and its sequels are a hilarious paean to anxiety; their genius lies in their ability to acknowledge the crippling stress that Arthur Dent is experiencing, and to make light of it without seeming cruel. Dent may be hapless, but the hip and self-deluded aliens around him are patently ridiculous.

Based on a radio series first aired by the BBC in 1978, the Hitchhiker’s Guide channeled a lot of Cold War anxieties through its pages. The UK at the time had a public alert system called the Four Minute Warning, intended to advise the populace of incoming Soviet missiles (the average time expected between liftoff of an ICBM from the Soviet bloc and atomic detonation in the UK was four minutes). The system operated from 1953 till the fall of the USSR in 1992. I lived in the UK in the mid 1980s during my junior high years, and I vividly remember discussing the four minute warning with my classmates. We all knew that theoretically, we were four minutes from a fiery death at any given time. The fact that our continued existence relied upon the diplomatic and governance skills of a group of politicians that nobody seemed to trust very much did not alleviate our anxiety. The only remedy was to joke about it.

The Cold War ended 20 years ago, but as a species we are still struggling with anxiety, replacing the great ideological dichotomy between the USA and the USSR with the more diffuse and hard-to-track threat of attacks by terrorist organizations. I have also spent my share of time in the hell-bardo of uncontrollable anxiety. After a while you become philosophical about being high-strung, and you get to know and understand your reaction to stress like you would a grumpy neighbor over your back fence. You might not like him very much, but you still have to get along.

In 2001, Douglas Adams, the author of the Hitchhiker’s Guide series, met his untimely death on a gym treadmill of a heart attack, presumably while intending to manage some of his own stress. Two weeks later, his legion of fans founded Towel Day, an annual memorial celebrated on May 25 of each year. Adams had extolled the virtues of the towel as “the most massively useful thing an interstellar hitchhiker can have.” This rectangle of absorbent cloth is more than just a security blanket—it is a multi-purpose tool to deal with anxiety-producing situations of all kinds. As the book says, you can wrap it around you for warmth, sleep under it, use it as a sail, wet it for use in hand-to-hand combat, wrap it around your head to ward off noxious fumes (or to avoid the gaze of the Ravenous Bugblatter Beast of Traal), wave it as a distress signal in emergencies, and, of course, dry yourself off with it, if it’s still clean enough.

A towel carries immense psychological value as well: “Any man who can hitch the length and breadth of the galaxy, rough it, slum it, struggle against terrible odds, win through, and still knows where his towel is, is clearly a man to be reckoned with.” Adams confides that a man carrying his towel is also presumed to be equipped with “a toothbrush, face flannel, soap, tin of biscuits, flask, compass, map, ball of string, gnat spray, wet weather gear, space suit etc., etc.”—clearly one to associate with in tough times.

An important thing we can do when faced with stress is to remember to try not to panic, and to trust in our towels if things get too much. Seriously, they expect me to worry about that? That’s ridiculous! Consistency in a sense of humor may be impossible to maintain, but the effort is vital. 

Always Know Where Your Towel Is

On May 25, you’ll recognize hardcore Douglas Adams fans by their proudly carried towels. International events include: a competition inviting creatives to animate a 1993 audio recording of Douglas Adams; the Towel Day Ambassador Contest; the release of Gbanga, a game combining a virtual world with reality that allows you to explore a hidden dimension using just your mobile phone (and a towel). The library at St Cuthbert’s Catholic High School (United Kingdom) is counting down to Towel Day, with a quote every day. Details and more:

This article was originally published on April 25, 2012.