Beginnings and a Bike

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I woke up to the sound of cats batting their toys in a new country. Yesterday, after going for lunch with Hajni and Emily, who welcomed me, took me to my preliminary apartment, helped me get set up, and took me grocery shopping, I lost no time in exploring the city and purchasing a bike. I found a little bike shop, stepped inside, and knew immediately which one I wanted. The shop owner tuned it up for me, told me it was a Hungarian bike, and explained many other things I didn’t understand. I rode away into the uncomprehended.

There are more photos from yesterday, but given the slow internet connection, they will have to wait, as will any longer blog pieces. Also, sleep calls again, so brevity comes in handy.

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P.S. This took place in Szolnok, Hungary, where I now live and where I will be teaching as of Monday, November 6. The bike shop is Sprint Kerékpár.

Departure

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I took the photo this morning in Fort Tryon Park, less than two hours before departure. Could it have been more fitting? I have no way of knowing. In any case, it seems right–and it’s a lovely last glimpse of the park (last for the time being, anyway, and probably lasting too).

 

I changed “image” to “glimpse”; “glimpse” is more fitting, as is its etymology.

On Human Harm and “Isms”

poet-robert-frost-in-affable-portrait-axe-slung-over-shoulder
Yesterday a friend reminded me of Robert Frost’s “The Wood-Pile,” which contains these lines:

A small bird flew before me. He was careful
To put a tree between us when he lighted,
And say no word to tell me who he was
Who was so foolish as to think what he thought.
He thought that I was after him for a feather—
The white one in his tail; like one who takes
Everything said as personal to himself.
One flight out sideways would have undeceived him.

 

I have been thinking about the recent string of accusations, outings, confessions, public shamings, around sexual harassment, not a trivial matter. I am in no position to judge others’ situations. In the overall movement, I see both good and harm: good in the increased awareness of the problems, and harm in the lumping together of profoundly disparate situations, the reduction of human relations to “isms.”

Two thoughts come to mind. First, people harm each other in all sorts of ways. Not all can be interpreted as sexism, racism, or any other “ism.” People judge others unfairly, act on these judgments, cut people off, write people off, say unkind things about others, and overall treat their own perspective as correct and righteous. Sometimes this takes the form of a recognizable social injustice (e.g., racism, sexism, classism); sometimes it does not. To address human injustice, one must look beyond the “isms” into a basic cruelty, callousness, or carelessness, which starts with the failure to see another as a person. (I don’t mean that one should ignore the “isms”–but the “isms” are not enough.)

Second–a more difficult point–often the people who hurt us do not mean to do so. That doesn’t excuse their actions, but it requires imagination of us, imagination to see that perhaps there was something more going on, something not to take personally. As in Frost’s poem (which has subtlety upon subtlety and will not be reduced), “one flight out sideways” would be enough to change a view.

This point could easily be misread; I am not condoning any kind of human harm or suggesting that all kinds are alike. Nor am I disparaging calls for justice. I suggest only that in some cases we can expand our understanding and perception of the possible. This takes imagination; we do not know what another person means, wants, or thinks. Our knowledge is incomplete at best. To exercise imagination is to see ourselves more fully; each of us, has hurt someone without wanting to do harm–or even consciously wanting and trying to do good. This isn’t just a matter of “good intentions” gone wrong but of our limited knowledge and vision. Seeing our own unintended wrongs, we can conceive of goodwill in others, and vice versa.

I’ll go even farther: We can do harm when trying our darndest to do good. I think of the sweet little song “Too Much Giving” that I co-wrote with Mahlah Byrd, who died in 1994. Sometimes the very effort can overwhelm and upset others; it can come across as a demand or grand show. Generosity requires a certain lightness. There must be a spirit of forgetting, looking away, continuing into the day.

Frost brings up the bird as a kind of “by the way”–and that “by the way” becomes the subject of the poem, as he marvels that someone could have left the wood-pile behind. Frost’s “by the ways” are full of wit and sadness; it’s in those pauses and deflections that the reader gets to see and hear–not fully, not permanently, but with a short gift of clarity.

 

Image credit: Photo of Robert Frost, courtesy of the blog A Bright, Unequivocal Eye.

I made a few changes to this piece after posting it.

On Confluences

800px-Szolnok,_Nyáry_Lőrinc_híd,_Zagyva1

The photo (not taken by me) shows the Zagyva flowing into the Tisza in Szolnok. As it happens, my flat will be near the bank of the Zagyva, so I will get to know this river well.

There’s strength in knowing one’s rivers: where they come from and where they go, what towns lie on them, what fish live in them, and what their histories are. A river starts on a mountain or in a body of water; it ends in another waterway (sea, river, or lake) or breaks into two or more. No river comes from nowhere; like humans, they all have their origins and endings. (In other ways, they are quite unlike humans, or they put humans to the test; thus the godly but mortal Achilles could not outrace the river Scamander and needed the help of the gods.)

The Zagyva begins near Salgótarján in Nógrád county (a place I hope to visit) and flows south-southeast, ending in Szolnok, where it joins with the Tisza. The Tisza begins near Rakhiv, Ukraine, and courses southwest and then south, ultimately flowing into the Danube near Novi Slankamen, Serbia. The Danube, the second-longest river in Europe (after the Volga), starts out in Donaueschingen, in the Black Forest of Germany, and passes through or along ten countries before emptying into the Black Sea. In Hungary, it flows south, but its overall path is east-southeastward. Here is a river map of Hungary.

This is probably my last blog post in New York City (for a long time, anyway). This afternoon I return the modem; that means my only internet access (until Dallas and then Hungary) will be by phone. I will not blog by phone; I have tried it before and don’t enjoy it. I’ll wait until that little tributary flows into the larger stream of laptop with Wifi connection.

On Monday I led a philosophy roundtable on the subject of human dignity. It marks the end of my leadership of the series, which began in 2012. I hope that others will continue it. I think about the association with Columbia Secondary School and the surprising forms it took; when I began working there, I had no idea that I would be teaching philosophy, starting a roundtable tradition, and helping my students found a journal. Even less did I know about the collegial relations I would build and the things I would learn from others.

But humans are not rivers. In saying this, I’m being partly silly but also serious. A river does not decide its course, moment by moment; to some extent, humans do. Rivers do not react emotionally to events; yes, they respond to forces, but only in accordance with physical laws. That’s why Psalm 114 has such awe and surprise:

מַה-לְּךָ הַיָּם, כִּי תָנוּס; הַיַּרְדֵּן, תִּסֹּב לְאָחוֹר.

“What is with you, sea, that you flee? And you, Jordan, that you turn backward?”

Still, it’s tempting to see a soul in a river: a light soul, a brooding soul, a pained soul, a soul filled with laughter and light and sometimes litter. It’s likewise tempting to think of life as water in motion, water filled with fish of many colors, water that passes through fields and towns and lives, water that breaks and comes together. It’s good to give in to this temptation at times. There are songs in it.

To what extent humans have free will, to what extent they exist and act beyond physical laws, I don’t know; it seems an unanswerable question. But our meetings and partings seem as unpredictable–and as catalytic–as anything in our lives. Who knows who will be around the corner; who knows what junctions lie ahead; who knows how they will shape and influence us. In this light, on a good day, even losses are bearable. Even they leave something with us. We gather up our many streams (sort of like a river, but not really) and take them into the new place, whose real rivers meet with the imagination and then break away again. In my new home, I will get my feet and soul wet.

I leave off with Franz Schubert’s “Auf dem Wasser zu singen,” performed by Elly Ameling and Irwin Gage. (Speaking of confluence, see Benjamin Ivry’s article about Schubert’s setting of Psalm 92.)

 

Image: “The Zagyva meets the Tisza River in Szolnok” (courtesy of Wikipedia).

I changed two words in this piece after posting it. One of my upcoming pieces will be about revision.

The Gift of Criticism

norman-rockwell1A few years ago I edited a student’s piece on Machiavelli; I had recruited it at the last minute for my students’ philosophy journal CONTRARIWISE and found that it needed clearer wording in places. When I presented him with the edits, he said that he accepted some but not all of them: that in a few places he was trying to say something else. We sat down to discuss this. In telling me what he meant, he found the right wording; by the end of our meeting, he had revised the piece to his satisfaction. This happened because he was open to the suggestions but strong enough to make his own decisions. Also, I saw past the particulars of my edits; I wanted to help him find his words, not replace them with mine.

This memory returns as I ponder two recent articles about Amy Cuddy and the power pose: Susan Dominus’s New York Times piece and Daniel Engber’s response in Slate. I find Engber’s article much clearer and more to the point–but he also has the benefit of hindsight, critique, and revision. Dominus may well follow up with some afterthoughts. She tackled a complex and heated topic and (from what I can see) did her best to present it fairly. Yet the article fails to distinguish adequately between personal attack and criticism. I posted a comment, which I am developing a little further here. This piece is not about Cuddy; it’s about criticism itself. (Regarding the power pose study, there are numerous recent comments–from many perspectives–in the article’s comment section and on Andrew Gelman’s blog.)

Here’s the key difference, as I see it, between criticism and personal attack: criticism gives you something concrete to consider, something about the issue at hand, be it your work, your actions, or even your personality. Its aim is to point out areas for improvement. It is not always correct or kind; sometimes critics can be vehement and unsympathetic, and sometimes they make mistakes or show biases. But if it is about the thing itself, if it analyzes strengths and weaknesses in a coherent way, it counts as criticism. By its nature it points toward improvement. It is not necessarily negative; it can recognize strengths and excellence.

Personal attack does not give you a chance to improve. Maybe it comes in the form of vague and veiled hints. Maybe it’s incoherent. Maybe it focuses on your personal life instead of the issue at hand. Maybe it gets said behind your back, without your knowledge. Or maybe it’s about something so fundamental to you that it’s unfair to expect you to change. In any case, when it comes to helpful content, there is no “there” there, at least no “there” that invites you in.

In that light, criticism is a gift, even when the delivery is not ideal. It offers working material. But our culture is not well attuned to criticism; we’re taught to hear the “yay” or “nay,” the “up” or “down,” not the subtler responses. For criticism to achieve its purpose, several conditions must exist.

First, institutions would have to make generous room for error, reexamination, and correction. Universities, schools, scientific organizations, publications should not only acknowledge error openly but treat it as part of intellectual life, not cause for shame or demotion.

Second, the person giving the criticism should do so as frankly and humbly as possible: laying the critique on the table without claiming superiority. There’s some disagreement over whether this should happen in private or public, by in person or online. As I see it, a published work can be criticized anywhere–online or offline, in public or private–but an unpublished work or private act should receive more discreet treatment. Published books get reviewed publicly, after all; there’s no suggestion that a reviewer should contact the author privately before saying something in the New York Review of Books. But if I send someone an unpublished manuscript for comment, I expect this person to reply to me alone (or me and my editor) and not to the world.

Third, the person receiving the criticism should learn to hear it and separate it from the emotion it may stir up. Even thoughtful, carefully worded criticism can be hard to hear. It takes some strength to sort out the upset feelings from the actual content of the words. It takes even more to decide which parts of the criticism to take, which to reject, and which to continue considering. Some criticism incites us to reconsider everything we have done; some draws attention to small (but important) details. To hear and use criticism well is to open oneself to profound improvement.

Just before the final manuscript of Republic of Noise was due, someone who read the manuscript offered me some far-ranging suggestions. I saw her points but didn’t want to apply them rashly, in a rush. To decide whether, how, and where to apply them, I would need much more time than I had. I decided to keep them in mind for the future. I am glad of this decision; the book was the way I wanted it, but her suggestions helped me with subsequent writing.

Why do I say that our culture isn’t set up well for criticism? We aren’t taught how to handle it. As a beginning teacher, I remember being told (at numerous “professional development” sessions) not to use red pen, since it could make a student feel bad; not to write on students’ work, but to use Post-its instead; and to limit the comments to two commendations and two general suggestions for improvement. While some of the gist is good (one should avoid overwhelming students or treat one’s own appraisal as the last word), it assumes students’ extreme fragility in the face of concrete, detailed suggestions. The more we treat criticism as devastating, the more fragile we make ourselves (both the critics and the recipients).

Hearing criticism–actually perceiving and considering its meaning–deserves continual practice. It requires immersion in the subject itself; you can’t practice criticism without practicing the thing criticized. It isn’t always fun, but it can lead to exhilaration: you see, on your own terms, a way of doing things better.

 

Image: Norman Rockwell, Jo and Her Publishor (this title may or may not be correct; I have also seen it as Jo and Her Publisher and Jo and Her Editor). This is one of his several illustrations of Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women. In Chapter 14, Jo publishes two of her stories in a newspaper.

I made a few revisions and additions to this piece after posting it.

“Mama Flan, Mama Flan, free samples!”

mama flan

Along with my most recent walk in Fort Tryon Park, today’s errand-running on Dyckman Street may become a favorite memory of the neighborhood. I was heading home, crossing Dyckman at Sherman, when I heard voices calling “Mama Flan, Mama Flan, free samples!” At first I didn’t believe my ears, since flan is one of my favorite desserts. I don’t think I’ve ever been offered a free flan sample out on the street before. But when I turned my head, I saw two young men sitting behind what looked like a flan stand. I walked up to them, and yes indeed, they were giving away free samples. One taste (or even the preceding hunch), and I knew that wouldn’t be enough, so I got a small flan, pictured above, to be savored and finished within the next two days.

This is the first time that I heard that sweet singsong here in Inwood/Washington Heights, the melody of people selling food and other goods outdoors, usually at a market, but sometimes just out on the street. It brings back memories I’m not sure I have–but sometimes those are the best because of their dreaminess. Whether or not the memories are of real things (and they may well be), the flan is real and delicious, and I may go back for more, if there’s time before I leave the country.

After turning the bend, I took a photo of Arden Street (my street for ten more days, but really six, since I’ll be at the ALSCW Conference for four of them). Fort Tryon Park is ahead, my building to the right, and Sherman Street behind. A little girl was skipping down the sidewalk, but she’s out of sight by now.

arden street

 

Tuesday Evening in Fort Tryon Park

fort tryon park

A poem I wrote this morning.

 

Tuesday Evening in Fort Tryon Park

Evening bends into the leaves.
Breathing falls in with the river;
tablets break over and over.

Rock strains its nerves to endure,
flame lingers over the river,
prophets point over the border.

Song tumbles onto the path—
day is not, day is not over—
gardens stand tall against slumber.

Man, who are you to pass by,
flourishing into the ether,
vapor and structure together?

Teach me that this is not vain,
hasten the rising of favor.
Cedar and heather, start over.

Mystery, hint at your name.
Love, shed a drop of your silver;
chariot, bear me to shelter.

 

Image credit: I took the photo on Tuesday evening in Fort Tryon Park. 

The poem began with eighteen Hebrew words, which appear here in English. It went through a few minor changes and is now in its final form.

 

No Ordinary Hat Rack

hat rack

Moving to another country is not simple, externally or internally. I have been excited and full of thoughts, but sometimes a wave of sadness hits me. That’s to be expected; any big life change, even a joyous one, probably comes with some sadness. I was paddling atop one of those waves when the doorbell rang; upon opening the door, I found a big box waiting. I knew what it was, but when I cut through the tape, pulled back the cardboard, and saw the gleaming green hat rack, my sadness skedaddled, landing me on dry ground. I spent a few minutes turning the rack in the light.

Over the past year I have written a few pieces about my great-granduncle Charles Fischer (the oldest brother of my great-grandfather), his company (the Chas. Fischer Spring Co.), and his inventions. Three people wrote to me in response:

1. Robert Charles Fischer, Charles Fischer’s grandson, with whom I have now met several times in person, to my joy;

2. A person inquiring about the drum magazine (manufactured by the Chas. Fischer Spring Co.) for the Thompson Submachine Gun, which was used in World War II;

3. A person in Ontario (a couple, rather) who owned a hat rack manufactured by the Chas. Fischer Spring Co. and wanted to know whether I would like to have it. Of course I said yes; I was thrilled. Here it is! I’m bringing it with me to Hungary.

Look at this lovely thing. Each hat rests atop a spring, to which a cord is attached. You can mount the rack high up in the closet or hallway and then just pull the cord of the hat you want. The stamp (which is faint) says PATENT APPL’D FOR / THE CHAS FISHER SPRING CO / BRROKLYN, NY. I couldn’t find the patent for this particular rack, but there’s a 1926 patent for an altogether different one. I don’t know which one came first.

It’s easy to take hat racks for granted–I’ve never even had one before–but they help you not only save space  but preserve the hats themselves. Putting them on a stand is much better than heaping them together on a shelf. The hat rack brings to mind a time when clothes were durable and people took good care of them. (That practice hasn’t entirely vanished, but it takes more determination.) Taking care of your clothes allowed you to survive on little money; you didn’t often have to buy new things.

Charles Fischer came to the U.S. from Hungary in 1890, at age 14, with his parents and seven siblings. From what I gather, they had lived in both Budapest and Györke (now Ďurkov, Slovakia). In the U.S., they started out at 346 East 3rd Street in Manhattan; then they moved elsewhere (Brooklyn, other parts of Manhattan, and Queens). Charles began working as a toolmaker before specializing in springs and founding his own company. It seems that he never went to school here; he began working right away. Yet the patent specifications are written in clear and elegant prose; the logic is clearly his, and the words probably are too. Someone may have edited his spelling and grammar, but the descriptions and explanations must have been his own.

I will write more about his inventions in future posts and essays; for now, I am delighting in the rack–not only the rack, but the thoughtfulness of the people who sent it to me. I can’t wait to mount it in Szolnok and put my hats on it. I will take good care of them all.

 

I added a detail to this piece after posting it.

Noah and the End of Endings

Noah's Sacrifice

The following post is not only for those of Jewish faith, or even the religious in general; the Biblical verses on Noah and the flood transcend particular belief.

As I prepare to read three aliyot of Noah* this coming Shabbat, I am moved by the divine shift in these verses. Genesis 6:13 reads,

וַיֹּאמֶר אֱלֹהִים לְנֹחַ, קֵץ כָּל-בָּשָׂר בָּא לְפָנַי–כִּי-מָלְאָה הָאָרֶץ חָמָס, מִפְּנֵיהֶם; וְהִנְנִי מַשְׁחִיתָם, אֶת-הָאָרֶץ.

And God said unto Noah: ‘The end of all flesh is come before Me; for the earth is filled with violence through them; and, behold, I will destroy them with the earth.

God doesn’t destroy them all, though; He saves Noah, his wife, his sons, and his sons’ wives. They must survive and bear the kind of loss that makes a whole life reel. The survival must be its own good.

I think of “Still, Citizen Sparrow” by Richard Wilbur, who died on Saturday at the age of 96. I quote just the last two stanzas (starting with the first full sentence):

…. Forget that he could bear
To see the towns like coral under the keel,
And the fields so dismal deep. Try rather to feel
How high and weary it was, on the waters where

He rocked his only world, and everyone’s.
Forgive the hero, you who would have died
Gladly with all you knew; he rode that tide
To Ararat; all men are Noah’s sons.

“Forgive the hero”: The one who goes through all this cannot possibly be pleasant. People do not want to see what he saw. Because his whole manner reflects what he saw, they find him “unnatural.” But Wilbur hints at something beyond the suffering. Through seeing “the towns like coral under the keel,” through riding that tide where it was so “high and weary,” Noah changes the world.

I have many thoughts on the poem, but I’ll return to Genesis now. Here there’s no hint of Noah’s thoughts, no mention of his suffering. We only get to picture the destruction along with him: the waters rising fifteen cubits high, all flesh dying, all life being blotted out, except the life in the ark.

But when the earth dries, Noah, after stepping out of the ark at God’s command, builds an altar (without being so commanded) and makes burnt offerings. God smells the sweet savor and says (Genesis 8:21-22),

וַיָּרַח יְהוָה, אֶת-רֵיחַ הַנִּיחֹחַ, וַיֹּאמֶר יְהוָה אֶל-לִבּוֹ לֹא-אֹסִף לְקַלֵּל עוֹד אֶת-הָאֲדָמָה בַּעֲבוּר הָאָדָם, כִּי יֵצֶר לֵב הָאָדָם רַע מִנְּעֻרָיו; וְלֹא-אֹסִף עוֹד לְהַכּוֹת אֶת-כָּל-חַי, כַּאֲשֶׁר עָשִׂיתִי.

עֹד, כָּל-יְמֵי הָאָרֶץ: זֶרַע וְקָצִיר וְקֹר וָחֹם וְקַיִץ וָחֹרֶף, וְיוֹם וָלַיְלָה–לֹא יִשְׁבֹּתוּ.

And the LORD smelled the sweet savour; and the LORD said in His heart: ‘I will not again curse the ground any more for man’s sake; for the imagination of man’s heart is evil from his youth; neither will I again smite any more every thing living, as I have done.

While the earth remaineth, seedtime and harvest, and cold and heat, and summer and winter, and day and night shall not cease.’

There is extensive commentary on each word of this; I will focus here on the reversal of “the end of all flesh.” It was really “the end of all flesh with a few worthy exceptions”–but even such an end, according to these verses, will never happen again. The end has ended.

These verses show a permanent shift in the divine. What happened with Noah could happen only once; maybe that is God’s atonement for the toll it took, but in any case, a changed God emerges, one who will never again smite every living being.

But the reason is strange: “for the imagination [purpose, plan] of man’s heart is evil from his youth.” One would think that human goodness, not evil, would dissuade God from acting in this way again. Rashi comments,

from his youth: This is written מִנְּעֻרָיו [i.e., without a “vav,” implying that] from the time that he [the embryo] shakes himself [נִנְעָר] to emerge from his mother’s womb, the evil inclination is placed in him. — [from Gen. Rabbah 34:10]

So one can understand these verses as follows: I, who created humans, must bear responsibility for who they are. Their evil is not just their own doing; it has been with them since their birth. Although I may punish them (and allow them to harm each other), I will never destroy them altogether, because their condition comes not only from them, but from me.

But there’s more happening here. God says  this after smelling the “sweet savour” of Noah’s sacrifice–and it was unprecedented among sacrifices, sweeter, maybe, than any that came before, because Noah performed it after horrific survival–survival at the cost of peace of mind. Noah’s sacrifice, his suffering, has already been enough by any standard, but he adds the formal sacrifice, which moves God to speak “in His heart [or mind, or seat of intention]” (אֶל-לִבּוֹ). So there could be a meaning like this:

Just as I answered evil, so I now answer good; evil will always abound, but good can change even the heart of God. I am changed by Noah’s obedience and piety, and not only by his character and actions, but by his life, this cherished life, this life that was everything all along. Accepting this sacrifice, smelling its sweetness, I cannot be the same God as before; I cannot put an end to all life, even with a few exceptions, ever again.

Whatever one’s religious, agnostic, atheistic or other views of life, one can imagine these verses, and within them, a God profoundly shaken by the goodness of a man.

What does this mean here and now? It doesn’t mean that we should stop worrying about destruction; the threat of destruction is real. Nor does it mean that the good people are rescued and the bad ones destroyed. It means, maybe, that any of us can sit with goodness, take it in, and, as a result, change forever how we deal with others.

So difficult it is to take in goodness; goodness itself is difficult. It isn’t always recognized; sometimes it’s mistaken for something else. Even when recognized, it isn’t easy to accept or fathom. Receiving another person’s goodness, one also receives the loneliness, the singularity. I don’t know exactly what it does, this “sweet savour,” but I think it leaves a person slightly gentler than before.

 

 

*In synagogue services, when Torah is read, the portion is divided into aliyot (honors with blessings). A member of the congregation, or sometimes a guest, is called up for an aliya; this person recites the blessings before and after the reading. In the past, the person receiving the honor would also read the Torah verses; today there is usually a separate reader. The reader chants the text according to cantillation principles. I will be reading at both the children’s service and the main service; hence the span of verses.  (This is my last Shabbat at B’nai Jeshurun before I leave for the ALSCW Conference and then for Hungary.)

The English translations of the Biblical verses are from the JPS 1917 edition (courtesy of the Mechon Mamre website). In two places I added alternate translations in brackets.

I made a few edits to this piece after posting it.

Image: James Jacques Joseph Tissot, Noah’s Sacrifice, Gouache on board, c. 1896-. The Jewish Museum (New York City).

The Not-So-Brief Soul of Wit

chasing the last laughI have not yet read the book pictured to the left (Chasing the Last Laugh: Mark Twain’s Raucous and Redemptive Round-the-World Comedy Tour by Richard Zacks). I learned about it yesterday, early in the morning, when looking lackadaisically into humor and wit. Although I had resolved to buy no more books before leaving for Hungary–no more!–I broke down and ordered this one, because it looks too good to pass up. I didn’t know that Twain was a stand-up comedian or that he went on a world tour–or maybe once upon a time I knew this, “But, being over-full of self-affairs, / My mind did lose it.” (I did know that he was friends with Tesla, but that’s a separate matter.)

Yesterday I was thinking not about comedy in particular but about what makes some people uproariously and endearingly funny. Comedy and funniness are not identical; comedy is not always funny, nor do funny things necessarily constitute comedy. Funniness has many sources: it can come from setting up and breaking logical, semantic, and conversational expectations; taking an idea to an absurd conclusion; bringing a particular rhythm, tone, and timing into your speech; performing an exquisite imitation; and more. Today I will look at one ever-gurgling spring of funniness: the ability to exult in your foibles.

We all have foibles of one kind or another; many of us struggle with them daily. A comedian takes them and makes the most of them. Human fallibility attains splendor while retaining its clumsiness and silliness.

For example, some of us can be a pest at times. I am generally patient and unfazed by things–but when I really want to get something done, and it depends on other people, I will bug them until the thing is accomplished, whatever it may be. Sometimes I feel guilty about this; I type and untype an email, hover over the “send” button, delete the whole mess, start over, and repeat the process several times until I end up just sending the thing. It’s always polite–I don’t “flame” people–but still I may feel like a pest.

So when I listen to James Veitch give one of his talks about replying to spammers, I see that he’s taking this quality–being a pest, or feeling like one–and lifting it to its pinnacle. If you are going to be a pest, whom better to pester than those who are aggressively pestering the world: spammers with spurious business proposals? Veitch managed to get one of them so annoyed that he or she (the spammer) finally replied, “PLEASE STOP EMAILING US.” Now, in daily life, with people I know or even with strangers, I wouldn’t want this to happen–I’d be sad and remorseful if it did–but with a spammer, it seems beautifully fitting.

My one objection to his talk is that, in keeping with the TED worldview, he tells his audience, “do do this at home.” He qualifies this by saying they should use fake email addresses, but still, that’s bad advice. He can do this because he has a flair for it. Others could get themselves into trouble. It wouldn’t be the same. The TED illusion–that everyone can do this, whatever “this”  may be–detracts a little from his act. The best way to share in humor and wit is to laugh along, to recognize oneself in it, while also letting it belong to someone else.  Most of us know the feeling of trying to retell someone else’s joke: sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t, but either way, it’s not the same. Funniness is like a soap bubble. Its air is internal.

Another foible (if one can call it that) is awkwardness. Many of us know the feeling of being a little out of sorts and out of place in a setting–not quite saying the right thing, or saying too much, or not saying enough. Some comedians–such as Ismo Leikola–take their own awkwardness and turn it into a glowing orb. Many performers transcend their awkwardness, but certain comedians actually preserve and exalt it. You see Leikola stuttering and puttering around, flapping his arms, and having a grand old time.

On a different level, and in a different way, this foible-lifting is part of what I love in László Krasznahorkai’s prose. He takes you dancing in the characters’ vanities and exaggerations. When reading The Melancholy of Resistance, I burst out laughing many times; when reading Mrs. Eszter’s funeral oration at the end, I laughed myself to tears. The laughter came from the recognition of mind–not the brooding reminiscence of Philip Roth’s characters, but something inflated, clumsy, profound, absurd, and wondrous.

To make the most of foibles, comedians, humorists, and writers perceive kairos (in the ancient Greek sense of the word, not the Christian sense): the opportune moment, which comes again and again in life. Foibles are not always fun or funny, but each one has its spectacular hour or series of hours. That takes us into comedy itself. If comedy turns a potentially threatening, destructive, or even catastrophic situation into something life-affirming (or, at worst, darkly persistent), then, by playing out a foible at just the right moment, by being both flawed and exquisite at once, one can launch a round-the-world comedy tour, not like Mark Twain, but in and along an unrepeatable way.

 

I made a few edits to this piece after posting it.