Skippy’s List:

The 213 things Skippy is no longer allowed to do in the U.S. Army

(Or, the magic of context and previous experiences)

Brief history

A few years ago Jonathan "Skippy" Schwartz, one of many faces of the US Army stationed in Bosnia, started to append to his emails the things he wasn't allowed to do in the army, just to keep family and friends amused. One of said friends started to collect these quips and assembled the "101 things Skippy can't do" list (albeit only with 30 items). Mr. Schwartz thought nothing of it and kept sending items until he left the Army, some six years later. He then made a website to host it and took it down a few years later because he felt it had had a good run and wasn't worth the money to keep it online. Fast forward a few more years, a journalist contacted Schwarz, looking for the original author of the list. After a quick Google search, Schwartz saw that the internet loved the list and said "Let there be another website". And the site was reborn.

What the list actually is

As the subtitle explains, this is a collection of things that are not allowed in the U.S. Army. However, these specifications are not always the same, as they have different origins:

  1. The things Schwartz did himself and got himself in trouble (with one notable exception)
  2. The things Schwartz witnessed
  3. Things that were spontaneously explained by a superior
  4. Things that resulted from a clarification from the above point
  5. Things that happened when Schwartz "was just minding my own business, when something happened. (“Schwarz…what is that?” said the Sgt, as he pointed to the back of my car? “Um….a rubber sheep…I can explain why that’s there….”)

Selected items from the list

Even though the list has been in circulation for several years now, the author explicitly asks to not copy the list in its entirety, so I'll put only some of the ones I like best. You can visit the aforementioned site to read the list in its entirety, as well as some other items sent by other military readers.

3. Not allowed to threaten anyone with black magic.

33. Not allowed to chew gum at formation, unless I brought enough for everybody.

34. (Next day) Not allowed to chew gum at formation even if I *did* bring enough for everybody.

70. I am not authorized to prescribe any form of medication.

102. Rodents are not entitled to burial with full military honors, even if they are “casualties of war”.

124. Two drink limit does not mean first and last.

125. Two drink limit does not mean two kinds of drinks.

126. Two drink limit does not mean the drinks can be as large as I like.

The magic of context and previous experiences

Context is the frame that gives meaning to any particular piece of media. Whenever we tell a story, context is of particular importance, as it lets the audience understand the world as the protagonist does. Without context, the audience can easily dismiss the story and its values and replace them with their own. For example, what is so important about a kid having new shoes? (Hint, or look it up on Google)

Our species has a very interesting brain that lets us think about possible scenarios and act them out (see Prefrontal cortex and Mirror neuron). In a way, it's the most pure form of simulators and it's one of the things that helped us survive 200,000 years ago when everything was larger, faster and stronger. Thus, with enough context we can understand a situation that we have never experienced and react to it1 as if it had happened to us.

But there's a caveat: giving out too much context might sound, at the very least, very preachy. Some authors make the mistake of explaining absolutely everything inside a story, from the scratches in the doorknob to the exact feelings of everyone and everything. At this point the story ceases to feel like a discovery and feels like a guided tour.

That's when a clever author resorts to the audience's previous experiences.

Pretty much every human able to enjoy a particular piece of media has some previous experiences he or she can recall. A good author will direct the audience to the general feeling and let them enjoy for themselves. I love a particular example of this: In The Pit and the Pendulum, Edgar Allan Poe writes about the horror that sits at the bottom of the pit but never tells us exactly what it is. What he does is to convey the general feeling of terror that pins the protagonist in his place. He exploits the general experience of fear that the audience already has and lets everyone build a fearsome image in their heads. Sounds easy, but pulling it off successfully is incredibly difficult.

A good author should be able to give enough context to let the audience know what he's talking about, but not so much that it feels like it's being recited to them. With the right information, it's possible for an author to state the non obvious and the audience's intelligence and imagination fills the rest. As the quote (often attributed to Marilyn Monroe) says:

The best three things in life are a whisky before and a cigarette after.


And so Skippy's List is a phenomenal example of using context and previous experiences (in the form of imagination) for maximum impact with only a minimum of resources. From a single phrase we can imagine a whole scene and, depending on your taste in humor, how it actually unfolds. The genius is that such ending is left as an exercise to the reader.


1 That is, in general. There are many other things that enable us to judge something different than our sensorial experience and we all have different levels of empathy; but that is beyond the scope of this writeup

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