Friday, June 13, 2008

In which the author is NOT amused.

I like to think I have a decent sense of humor. I mean, I know everyone THINKS they have a good sense of humor but I (like everyone) am fairly confident that mine is a cut above. Generally speaking I find myself on the guiltily snickering side of the line rather than the staring down disapprovingly side. I don't understand people who DON'T like to laugh.

Despite all of this, I found myself unsmiling today as a classmate whispered what he thought were jokes to a few other students in Spanish 321. Admittedly, there's no end of material in that class. It's smaller size and apparently dry subject matter belie the comic potential of our tiny professor and the absurdity of anything written in Spanish. Our largely inarticulate instructor is defined by her obvious disdain for white people trying to speak Spanish, her blind insistence that ALL of Latin America (and Spain) adhere strictly to the conventions of the Academia Real and that ONLY twenty something American males speak improperly in any language, for which I love her with a kind of paternal affection. She's clueless, well meaning, and cute in a hapless middle aged lady kind of way. I like her. Most of us do.

The kid sitting behind me does NOT. I don't know his name. I don't WANT to know his name. This would only give me something to hate, wheras right now, I got nothing. I hardly see the kid's face.

The words coming out of his mouth formed sentences, but not jokes. Not quips. Not banter. If we read an article about Argentina and the Malvinas, then he belittles the intelligence, military prowess, and judgment of the Argentinians. If our professor is reviewing a basic point of grammar, he ridicules her low opinion of us. If she teaches a more difficult to understand concept, he berates her teaching ability. He thinks it is funny, because a few people laugh. It is NOT. These people aren't laughing because it's funny, because he's not making jokes. He's making a statement.

Any form of 'comedy' that relies on the superiority of the comedian over his subject to achieve humor is not a joke- it is a statement. His criticisms of our instructor don't point out the absurdity of life or the ridiculous in a situation. He is merely insinuating- no, stating outright- that he is better than she is. Almost ALL partisan political humor works this way. It's not a joke, it's an indirect insult. There are few things in life more devoid of mirth, insight, or good fun than this kind of drivel.

So why do people laugh?

The laughter also loses it's normal meaning and abandons its function. The statement, when given to an audience perceived as supportive, changes from "I am better than she is" to "Aren't we better than her?" The laughter is an affirmation: yes we are. The quality of the laughter, ranging from nervous and reluctant to
scornful and derisive, dictates the exact wording of the response. For example, an "ain't that the truth!" belly laugh indicates that the laugher is entirely comfortable with the distinction being made one that has most likely been accepted quickly and without thought. These people like to be better, and generally assume they ARE. A more tentative, half-hearted chuckle might escape the lips of someone whose is not so much interested in looking down on a person as to escape being looked down upon. They want to be part of the club more than deny others entrance. NONE of these parties overtly grasp the significance of this call and response ceremony, nor (frequently) does the teller of the joke.

But it's there. The implication of superiority inspires the desire to be 'superior with' instead of 'inferior than'. Just because it's not explicit doesn't make it any less real.

It's NOT funny. It's not humor. It's a line being drawn by someone who needs to be better than others and can satisfy more of that need by taking others there with him. It is a sneer, not a smile. A demarcation, not an observation.

Mostly, it's hateful.

Or maybe I just have no sense of humor.

Wednesday, May 28, 2008

In which a chance encounter ends in tacos and enlightenment.

I had never seen anyone look all at once so out of place and so entirely comfortable. She wheeled into the library making little enough noise. The plastic bags tied to her wheelchair rustled and crinkled against one another, their unlikely shapes revealing nothing of the mysterious odds and end they contained. Her clothes followed suit, masking almost entirely the underlying form of their owner in layer upon layer of incongruous and improbable fabrics. The chair came to a stop at the table behind mine.

It started coming off, then, in jackets and scarves, sweaters and kerchiefs. Except for one knotty hand bracing itself against the chair, there was no indication that a human body hid under all that laundry. Each new article came off to reveal a whole new animal which would in turn, surrender its hide to the hand and having shed its skin, disappear.

When all of the necessary pelts had been slung over the back of the chair, it wheeled off again into the stacks, and I pretended to resume my work. But it was too late. My interest was piqued. Everything I had meant to do with my layouts and page compositions had been buried under that impossible wardrobe. It suggested a story that I NEEDED to hear.

But how was I going to hear it? 

I thought of a few great openers.

"So, I notice that you're homeless." 

"Loiter much around here?"

"Nice shawl."

Nothing was working. She wheeled back to the table and commenced to pore over WIRED magazine and the classifieds. I didn't think it could get weirder. Then it came to me. I was hungry. She MUST be hungry. People talk when they eat, don't they? It was 11:15 in the AM. The time was right. I packed up my laptop and made the advance.

I believe my line was "What're you reading?" I was prepared for almost anything. Having been a sort of street person earlier in life, I was ready for her to demand that I take a dictation of her free-form poetry, begin earnestly pleading with me to intervene in the lives of people that don't exist, or shout outrageous insults at me while insisting that my name is Paquito. I was not prepared for Cee. The first shocker came when she explained to me that she was digging through the paper to solve her housing problem, commenting on the difficulty entailed in finding an affordable place with wheelchair access. Further small talk revealed her to be a rather well-read entirely lucid provider of entertaining conversation.

I believe in people as people, and I like to think of myself as a person relatively free of preconceptions. I have conversed and broken bread with a fair amount of the less fortunate from London to San Francisco to Santo Domingo. I try to keep an open mind, I do. And I was a little ashamed when I was surprised at the fact that Cee was not only cogent and cheery, but very intelligent, extremely friendly and socially adept.

I had expectations, I realized, and they were embarrassingly low.

I met Cee half an hour later on the library steps. She was quick to talk about ANYTHING but herself. She wanted to know what I was studying, what was my wife like, what did I like to read. Every answer brought news. Cee knew about the BYU animation program, our latest film, and what Ed Catmull had said on his last visit. She brought up comic books on her own, and confessed that she was often tempted to spend what little she had on them in the same shop that I frequent. 

She revealed little bits of information about herself throughout conversation. Cee had grown up in the Midwest, traveled quite a bit, and always loved to read. After being hit by a truck in Montana, Cee almost died in 1993. Since that time she's been trying to find ways to support herself. She has a hard time finding enough documentation to get government aid (people without addresses often find it difficult to receive disability checks) and has been more or less roughing it since the accident. Her injuries left her with intestinal problems as well-she doesn't have all the necessary plumbing to process certain foods. She did not dwell on these subjects, and only mentioned them with a smile to explain why she couldn't eat part of the lunch or why she was stuck in a wheelchair.

She thanked me for the meal and headed out to an appointment that she hoped would bring her closer to finding a home. My visit with Cee left me full of questions. Was it within the bounds of propriety to pry into her living situation by trying to help? Would I offend her with further questions or assumptions? How many of the nation's homeless are like Cee-good people with bad luck who are humbly trying to make their way? How had she come to be so nonchalant about such a poor standard of living? Was it my place to ask that question? Was she really as cheerful and happy as she seemed? Why had I assumed so much based on her appearance? 

Maybe Cee can explain it all to me the next time we have lunch.

Saturday, May 24, 2008

In which an experience is shared.

Is it really just blood? I had known him for all eighteen years of his life, and I had never been able to really connect with my cousin Nathaniel. Despite being my only biological cousin on my Mother's side, and the closest to me in physical proximity, he has always been the most distant. It's not his fault or mine. It's inevitable and, in some ways, natural.

Nathaniel, you see, is autistic.

He doesn't care too much for my attention, conversation, or affection, and so there has been very little that we could do with or for one another to forge a familial bond. What little fate has allowed us to share has taken the form genetic code and the occasional meal.

On May 22nd, 2008, we were granted a chance to be family.

It started, I believe, with the outfit.

Kitty and I drove down to my Aunt's house in Spanish Fork. We arrived at seven. Over the last year and a half, Nathaniel had been preparing with mounting impatience for this very day, hour, and second. Our conversations had centered around this moment, and the secrets it would uncover, on its possibilities, its promises, and the hopes we had in them. 

He emerged from the house in a battered fedora and leather jacket (acquired over several years as a faithful patron of Walt Disney World) and asked, flatly "Are you ready?"

I had known for a few weeks that we would be taking Nathaniel to see the latest Indiana Jones flick, but until that very moment I hadn't been truly excited about it. Seeing my cousin's naked enthusiasm for what he hoped would be the cinematic experience of his life was too much for even the willful cynicism of a jaded movie-goer like myself. I was moved. I was excited.

"Oh, we're ready."

We swapped Indy trivia as we waited in line for our seats. Our tickets grew damp in the grip of our anxious, perspiring fists. After we took our seats, popcorn was procured, drinks were doled out, candy was distributed. We were ready. Each new trailer that spilled across the screen to herald the feature was met with a question, "When is the MOVIE gonna start?!?"
"Just a few more minutes, Nathaniel."

Then it started. It didn't take us immediately. It seemed, at first, insubstantial, like a revenant from my childhood, a blurry moment not quite remembered. Did his shirt used to fall on him like that? Is his voice different? Bit by bit, it came together, and we were back there, kids in my parents living room again, going around the world with Indy and a bag of popcorn. He moved with the same sort of torpid ferocity, a kind of clumsy grace that makes him more human, more real than the artfully choreographed, artificial, acrobatic action stars of contemporary cinema. This was no dancer. He was a man, and he smiled like an old friend making a private joke.

We had been floating suspended in nostalgic ecstasy for some time when Nathaniel leaned towards me and whispered with absolute reverence, 

"This is the first time I've seen Indiana Jones in a theater." 

"Me, too."

So we sat in the dark and soaked up the magic of it. We didn't pay attention to the filmmaking. We didn't think about the shots or the editing or even the acting, really. Nathaniel and I just enjoyed the novelty and the charm of it, of two very young adults finally sharing a childhood together, feeling connected, enjoying on the same level and for the same reasons a joint experience which made them, in a way that their blood could not, family.

Later I would think about the craft that went into it, the structure of the story, the use of visual effects, the consistency of this film with its earlier iterations. Later I would talk with my friends about the unpolished physicality of the Indiana Jones fight sequence, the believability of Ford's performance, and the marketing of nostalgia. I would talk about, think about those things at a later time, with other people. In the moment, however, it was only the ride, Nathaniel, and me, sitting in the dark. Friends. Cousins. Family.

Monday, May 19, 2008

In which we explore the dress code of lawn care.

What's a story, anyway? In the summer, when I walk home from school or work, I often pass a middle-aged hispanic gentleman as he mows his lawn. He's a nice guy, I think a second-generation American, and speaks absolutely no Spanish. Lives about a block from me. He has a tiny front lawn populated by attractive but modest adornments-the standard shrubs and flowers. This man would be utterly forgettable were it not that he chooses to cut his grass in pressed khaki slacks, loafers, and a collared shirt. He even keeps his designer watch on.

Being me, I spend the last steps towards my house mulling over possible motives for this aberrant behavior. It could be that no one ever taught him that the proper attire for such a task is cut-offs, sneakers, and t-shirts emblazoned with the names of bands your are now embarrassed to have seen live. It could be that grass-stained dockers are coming into style. Or it could be that he's keenly aware of the prevailing stereotypes assigned to hispanics here in the States, and he wants to make it clear that he is not mowing his lawn in a professional capacity. Honestly, how many hopelessly ignorant white people do you know who assume that all Spanish speakers are Mexican and that they all cut grass? (It's okay for me to say that, I'm white) 

This is, of course, speculative. It could be that he likes to dress well, that his desire for a kept and immaculate public appearance has nothing to do with the politics and demographics of Provo, Utah, and stems from childhood humiliation at the hands of a fashion faux-pas. It could be that my insecurities, contemplation of of how I'm perceived and subsequent over-compensations have led me to stated conclusion. It could be the product my own awareness of stereotypes and the mental gymnastics I perform to acknowledge, avoid, and overcome them in my thinking (this concept, I believe, deserves its own 'ism'). 

Anyway, the point is that everyone is a person, and a person is a character, and a character is a story. A man mowing his front lawn in dress clothes is quirky and odd, but not a story. The reason for a man mowing his lawn in dress clothes, that's a story. It can be a story about a man's fight to control the way he is perceived, it can be the story of how he believes others perceive him, or the story of an ignorant kid walking by and projecting his own ideas onto an innocent lawn-care buff. It can be the story of the latin diaspora or, unfolding from that one split second of observation, it can grow into the history of a struggle between peoples, of wars fought, prejudices nursed.

It can be the story of America, that turbulent and earthy melting pot and the tale of irreconcilable cultures combining, fighting for both identity and integration, to form a wholly new beast, a confusing, hearty, overpowering dish that repels, delights, and defies explanation.

It is the story of colonialism, of invasion, of conquest and violence and the ominous rattle of the conquistador's armor.

It could be the post-modern epiphanal story of a man realizing, as he beats back the grass that he pays to cultivate, water, and maintain, the cyclical futility of it all. The man may sell his home, quit his job, and become a park ranger to be at harmony with nature. He may leave his wife and kids in hopes of escaping cotidian monotony only to realize that what he has lost is irreplaceable. Or he may not miss them at all. Depends on who's writing it.

It could be the story of a heart attack. Paternal devotion. Unrequited love. Masculine duty. Fashion statements. Noble defiance. Tragic dignity. Lawn care.

I just have to care about why that man tends to his lawn in clothes that cost more than his mower. I don't want to KNOW why. I want to make it up. And that, I think, is the bare essence of a story- the why. Grass will grow and men will mow. Why do they do it? Now that's a story.

Saturday, May 17, 2008

In which we are introduced to a new blog and one of the unsung hazards of democracy.

Literacy, of course, is to blame for all this. We are taught as children to understand and to form words and sentences, which gives us the tragic misconception that we can write. It follows naturally that those among us who enjoy novels, poems, essays and the like will, due to the irresponsible distribution of literacy, someday try our own unworthy and misguided hand at the craft.

From the overflowing landfill of literate America crawl forth half-baked abominations, given a cruel semblance of life at the hands of their authors they limp into bookstores and browsers everywhere on legs of ill-conceived prose and thesaurus-doctored metaphors, spilling into the hands and minds of our innocent young, perverting our libraries and thriving in airport newsstands.



For Whom the Bell Tolls.

All because Public Education, that swaggering Prometheus of federal institutions, insists on carrying the burning brand of letters down the mountain for the good of mankind. How grand. Now O.J. Simpson can read. But he can also pen that stimulating masterwork If I Did It. Is Mr. Simpson to blame for his insurpassibly poor taste in subject matter? Well, him... yes. But those responsible for inducting him into the world of written expression share in his blame, as do the foul tutors of Stephanie Meyer, Dan Brown, and numberless celebrity starlets whose so-named autobiographies fall neatly into the handbags of their pubescent and doomed fangirls. Ernest Hemingway, too. I hate that guy.

So if you don't like what I write, how I write it, or the fact that I'm stupid enough to scatter my shoddy essays into the virtual ether, don't blame me. Blame literacy.Blame Public Education. Blame my grade-school teachers. And by all means, blame America.

DISCLAIMER: This post was a joke. I've gotten a few responses indicating that I was attacking Public Education. I am not. Just havin' a laugh. I'm so down with teaching people to read. I even work as part of an adult literacy program. PLEASE don't take me seriously. Ever. Thanks.