Generally Excellent Dude

I got a great Father’s Day present today. My son, Keith (MySpace, Facebook), called and said that he had completed his GED!

If you’ve been a long time reader of this blog (yeah, you two, there) you might remember a post I wrote a couple of years ago expressing concern about the alarming dropout rate among high school students, and how it affects the way young adults talk about graduation. Little did I know that only about six months after I wrote that, my own son would drop out, just prior to graduation.

It doesn’t have anything to do with intelligence; he is a smart kid — er, young man — although he hasn’t always made wise choices (as is often the case when one is in one’s late teens.) He passed the GED easily, which is no surprise to me. He is faster than I am at solving a standard 3x3x3 Rubik’s cube, and he can solve the harder 4x4x4 Rubik’s Revenge and even the 5x5x5 Professor’s Cube. His musical, spatial, and artistic talents have always been his strengths, but he is no slouch at poetry, abstract thinking, or math, either. (I have no idea how many digits of π he is currently able to recite, but it’s many times further than my mere 3.1415926535.)

And to top things off, he’s decided to enroll in the Art Institute of Colorado, something that thrills both me and Lannette. We’ve always tried to encourage him to expand upon his natural artistic talents, and now he appears to be doing exactly that.

There have been many times when I’ve been proud of Keith: each time he scored a “1” in his fine arts solo competitions, each time he drew fantastic image that simply sprung from somewhere deep in his mind, each time he told a horrible pun, or even out-geeked me on a geek test. But I don’t think I’ve ever been prouder of him than I am right now.

Congratulations, son, on completing your GED and on your choice to continue your schooling. You have grown into a Generally Excellent Dude.

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Out of Context

“I like the architecture of Plum Pudding, but the interior of Apple Blossom.”

Before you think I have a Stawberry Shortcake fetish, I should probably explain; the sentence relates to dollhouses.

My girlfriend wants a dollhouse so bad she can taste it, so it’s probably appropriate that she is looking at dollhouses with cute food names. She pointed me to a website, and told me the Apple Blossom was her favorite. You can see where it went from there, I’m sure, and taken out of context, I think the result is a pretty funny statement.

Context — or lack thereof — is a big part of humor for me. Though I usually don’t have a hard time maintaining a thread of conversation, there’s always a separate thread in my brain processing the conversations, looking for little chinks in context that I can pry open with a pun. As a result, I do spend a lot of CPU time out of context; that’s probably why so many of my jokes fall flat. Recipients (or victims, if you prefer) of my puns are usually not as far out of context as I am, so my humor comes across as frustrating to them.

Does that mean I need to change my style of humor? Mmmm … no, I don’t think so. I much prefer out-of-context puns to humor that takes advantage of others’ misfortune, as most modern humor seems to do. I’m not perfect; I occasionally say things I think are funny and later realize that I’ve yielded to the temptation of humor at someone else’s expense, but I try to keep an eye on myself.

No, I don’t think I’ll change my humor style. I’ll just continue to fish for groans and avoid the sharp objects people throw at me.

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Humor

Recently, a man told me a joke — at least, I think it was a joke. “Why didn’t Superman save Princess Di?” he said. Being a good little drone, I shrugged and said, “I don’t know. Why?” “Because he’s paralyzed!” I walked away, shaking my head wondering why he thought that was funny. The night before, he had told me another Princess Diana joke, but I refuse to contribute to its longevity. I’ve already done enough damage repeating this one.

Why is it part of our nature to laugh at other people’s apparent misfortune? We laugh at Chevy Chase’s pratfalls, Jim Carrey’s weirdness, Urkel’s dorkness, Mr. Creosote’s fateful “wafair-thin mint.” We “ooooh” and make hash marks in the air when someone insults another with particular flair. We tune in religiously to watch real people have silly things happen to them on “America’s Funniest Home Videos,” but it’s okay because the winners are getting paid to have half of the country laugh at them. (That kind of makes me wonder about the others, who are just sending the videos in so they can brag to their friends, “See, Joan? Little Billy hit me right in the crotch! Ain’t that the damnedest thing you ever did see?”)

Often, people make light of a situation in order not to become upset by it. A friend in San Francisco told me shortly after the major earthquake at the end of 1989 that locals were calling it the “Pretty Big One.” In order to deal with the situation, people naturally were drawn to humor. Along the same lines, I suspect (though I have no proof) that racial jokes are created by the need for intolerant people to deal with their own insecurities about people seemingly different from themselves. Shock jokes like the one I used to start this essay are a way for insecure people to fight back at the world; “Here! I want you to feel as uncomfortable as I do!” The greater the insecurity, the more crass the subject matter.

I’m convinced it is a learned behavior rather than a natural reaction. I don’t think we are born with the instinct to laugh at others’ misfortune; I think we are taught that it is okay. Recently, my eight year old was introduced to the concept of formula laughter. He had confused the states of Iowa and Oregon and was laughed at for his mistake. His best friend was present, and rather than defend him, she laughed as well. He went to bed that night upset that she would laugh at his intelligence, thinking she was no longer his friend. I tried to explain to him that she was still his friend and did not intend to hurt him. She was merely laughing because someone else was laughing. It is a learned social behavior to laugh when the rest of the crowd laughs, but he was not used to being on the receiving end of it from this particular friend. I tried pointing out how he laughed at people in the same way, and that he would have to learn how to deal with that to make it in life. He would have to learn how to take a joke, like we all do. It certainly felt sad to be chopping away at his innocence and sensitivity like that, but it is a necessary skill to have in today’s world and he would be in for a lot of pain if he didn’t learn to laugh at himself every once in a while.

The last point demonstrates possibly the most common use of laughter: as a defense mechanism. We laugh at things in order to take the focus off of what we are nervous or anxious about. To avoid the pain of rejection or ridicule, we often learn to laugh at ourselves, even when we don’t really think something is funny inside. There are numerous instances from my childhood that I am embarrassed of, but I laugh when people bring them up so I won’t feel the pain from those experiences flooding back. This may not be the most direct way to deal with the problem, but it gets me through the situations with a minimum of discomfort. For this reason, I taught my son that it is okay to laught at yourself occasionally too. Though I wish I could let him hang on to his innocence forever, he does not live in a protected world where that is feasible.

There are types of humor that are not fueled by the pain of others. Puns are the best examples I can think of. They usually require the use of some intelligence to understand, they are meaning-based, rather than situation-based, and they usually don’t require the misfortune of another. In fact, they are a celebration of another’s intelligence because they often require making a connection between seemingly unrelated concepts. Making that connection requires a little effort, and the reward is a small bit of humor. I try to be a humorous person, constantly looking for pun opportunities. Often, I am met with groans or glares, but I know that a groan is a sign of appreciation when it comes to puns. On those rare occasions when I am asked to leave the room, I know I have done my best. :{D

I know I participate in the various types of humor I decry above. I admit that I laugh as hard as everyone else at various gross, violent, sick and twisted animation festivals. I like an occasional dirty joke, too, though I don’t like the really graphic ones as much as I used to. However, my favorite pieces of humor involve the intellect: philosophical humor, puns, historical humor — things that I have to think to understand, basically. Perhaps if we all were to concentrate on this kind of humor our kids wouldn’t have to lose their innocence and learn social defenses so quickly.

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