Gorillas and Lions and Wolves, Oh My


Yesterday, I watched a gorilla at the zoo have what appeared to be a brain-tingling moment when he removed some dung from the anus of another gorilla. I might be assigning human emotions to the gorilla when I write this, but soon after eating the concoction, the gorilla closed his eyes. There is a variety of reasons why a gorilla might close his eyes, and most of them are most of the reasons we close our eyes, but I thought he was taking a moment out of his day to savor whatever that other gorilla ate and whatever flavor that other gorilla’s digestive system added to it. The elongated, almost spiritual closing of the eyes might have been a coincidence, but I thought the gorilla enjoyed the concoction so much that he wanted to savor it for a moment before going back to the dispenser. There was a full tray of food awaiting the gorilla, in the southeast corner of his enclosure, but he preferred going to the dispenser before him. Watching that gorilla go back for more, I realized that individual tastes are so relative to the flavors we create that it’s pointless to try to fashion our work in such a way that it pleases everyone. We can only create whatever our nervous system produces and we flavor it with the dispensaries we have at our disposal in the hope that someone somewhere might enjoy it for what it is.  

Yesterday, I realized the roles those two gorillas played in this display defined for me what proved to be one of the most unusual and successful pairings in music history: Ben Folds and William Shatner. I enjoy the music of Ben Folds, and I’ve been a fan for a long time, but there is something missing in his music. He has some fantastic singles, but I’ve never been so attracted to his oeuvre that I would list him as one of “my guys”. If I informed Folds how frustrated I am that he comes so close to reaching me, I’m sure he wouldn’t care. Not only would he not care, he shouldn’t care. If I met him and told him that most of his music misses the mark for me, he should say, “That’s on you. I can only do what I do. I can’t worry about pleasing you, offending you, or infinitely pleasing you. If it pleases enough people that I can make a living at this game, that’s great, but I’m not going to change what I do to please you or Betty Beatle from Idaho.”  

William Shatner is not one of “my guys” either, but he’s always around. He’s the green bean casserole of the entertainment world. I doubt anyone who has yet to try green bean casserole would look at it and think, “Yum!” but it’s at so many family get togethers and potluck dinners that we eventually “what the hell” it, until we discover it’s not so bad. As long as we don’t overdo it, repetition can even lead to a level of fondness for it, until we look forward to the next get together or potluck dinner that has a tray of it.

No one should confuse the term “my guys” with a description of talent. I’ll drop the typical line people drop to explain the discrepancy. “I respect the heck out of what Folds and Shatner do, but it just doesn’t reach me on a personal level.” I know people who love John Lennon so much that they suggest Paul McCartney was not talented. I understand that we all take sides in any rivalry, but to suggest that a talent on par with Paul McCartney has no talent is ludicrous. The Silly Love Songs vs. Important Songs debate rages on in some quarters, as Lennon fans suggest Lennon was not only more important he was more creative. These people relate more with Lennon, and because of that Lennon was “their guy”, but to prove that point, some try to so by belittling McCartney’s Silly Love Songs talent.

I missed Folds and Shatner’s collaboration for years, because they weren’t “my guys”. When I eventually heard the album Has Been, however, I was blown away. It reminded me of one of my favorite concoctions: cranberry granola and banana flavored yogurt. On its own, this yogurt flavor is too sweet for me, and while this flavor of granola is tasty, I probably wouldn’t eat it as a standalone. When I put the two together, however, I enjoy it so much that I’ve considered submitting it to the overlords as my reward for living a decent, moral life. When I pass on, I want to meet my long-deceased relatives of course, and I wouldn’t mind it if someone played me a Brahams Sonata on the harp, but if your’re wondering how best to reward me for a life well lived, might I suggest that the floors and walls of my reward taste like the banana-flavored yogurt and cranberry granola concoction I created.

When we eat concoctions like these, we spoon too much of one flavor most of the times. Some of the times, we spoon too much yogurt, and some of the times, we spoon too much granola, but there are occasions, at least once a container, when we hit a Goldilocks spoonful. The album Has Been is the Goldilocks concoction of talent for me, and when I listen to it, I close my eyes to savor the moment. I’ve listened to that album so often that I’ve tried listening to the other concoctions they’ve made together, but they rarely hit the mark in the same manner. On their own, Shatner and Folds create interesting, quality material that doesn’t quite hit that brilliant, Holy Crud! mark, but together they created what I consider their Goldilocks moment. I would think that such moments are so fleeting in any artist’s career that when they hit one, they would immediately run back into the studio to dispense another collaboration, but perhaps they don’t think they can create another Goldilocks moment. I know they did singles together before and after Has Been, but that album was so good that I would think it would drive them right back into the studio to do another collaboration. We know that Folds affinity for Shatner brought them together, but we don’t know why they don’t make another album together. They might also think that fate and whatnot permit but one Goldilocks moment a life.

Carnivores in Cartoons

Yesterday, I thought carnivores were the mean, bad guys of the wild. Today I realized that the cartoons we watched conditioned us to believe that when a lion, shark, alligator, or any animal at the top of the food chain eats one at the bottom, they do so with some evil intent. We can find a definition of this in Aesop’s fable in which a mouse removes a thorn from a lion’s paw. The lion, in turn, agrees not to eat the mouse. The mouse does something nice for the lion, and the lion, in turn, agrees to do something nice for the mouse. The inference is that if the lion betrays this agreement, and instinctually eats the mouse, that means the lion is mean.    

Think about all the cartoons we watched and books we read in our youth. They depicted carnivores with jagged teeth and menacing growls. As we often do, we confused being scary with being mean or bad. Today I learned that they’re not mean, or bad, they’re just hungry, and like all other animals, they eat when they’re hungry. Regardless what it does to their reputation as a beautiful animal, wolves enjoy eating fluffy bunny wabbits. They do awful things to bunnies if they’re able to catch them, but that does not mean they’re mean or evil in the manner we define such terms. By teaching young humans lessons, using animals as main characters, some of us anthropomorphize these characters to such a degree that we assign them human characteristics. Lions, tigers, and bears aren’t nice, they aren’t mean, and they don’t make decisions on what to eat based on how other animals interact with them.   

Yesterday I learned that even if the animals at the top of the food chain are not the meanies we thought they were when we were kids, we should still consider doing everything we can to avoid one in the wild. After watching videos that focus on animals biting humans, nature lovers qualify the instinctual actions of these wild animals by saying, “We are not on their diet.” The nature lovers then provide a number of theories regarding how these incidents often involve nothing more than a case of mistaken identity. These theories are true, of course, as most animals in the wild, and in the ocean, have never seen a human, and self-preservation is more important to animals than eating in most cases. Animals often take a pass on anything unfamiliar if they think they could get hurt in the process. Sometimes, however, they’re so hungry that they’re willing to eat anything that moves, especially if it moves slower than other prey.

Most animals don’t know what a human is, and that’s why they fear us, but we are also a point of curiosity for them. Thus, when they see us walking around in their domain, or floating on the surface, they’re curious, and that curiosity is almost exclusive to considering whether they should consider adding us to their diet. Yet, seeing, hearing, and smelling us might not be enough to satisfy their curiosity, and they obviously cannot communicate with us, so their last resort is to taste us to try to figure out what we are to determine if they might want to start adding us to their diet.

The nature lovers further their argument by opening up the belly of a bull shark. “When we open up the belly of a bull shark, we find everything from license plates to cans of paint to packs of cigarettes. The bull shark, unlike other sharks, is not very discerning. They’ll eat anything they see floating on the surface of the water, even if it happens to be a human on a surfboard.” Translation: They do not intend to devour us. They’re just curious. They just want to taste us to see what we are. I see the nature lovers working here. I know they’re trying to relieve our fears about sharks, and in turn preserve the shark population, and I know wild animals are not bad or mean in the context humans define the terms, but it does not comfort me to know that all they want to do is taste me. If I happen upon one of these carnivorous beasts, and it’s clear that all they want to do is taste me, I’m still going to do whatever I can to get away. If I fail to escape, I’m probably going to shoot it, because I have to imagine that even though they’re just tasting me, it’s still going to hurt like the dickens.

Sprinting and Age


Yesterday, I realized we’re all sprinting to old age. Today, I realized that those who are lucky enough to make it to old age should refrain from sprinting. The aging process is a relative state of mind, of course, as we’ve all witnessed young sixty-year-olds and old forty-year-olds, but no matter how old we are, we occasionally receive reminders that we’ve aged. The aging process rarely hits us in an “Oh, my God I’m (fill in the age here)!” one day in the mirror. Aging is more of a gradual process that hits us in tiny, little, and seemingly insignificant hits, every day. We fell on a Tuesday doing something we’ve done our whole lives. We tripped trying to skip a stair on a Wednesday, and we’ve skipped a stair since our legs grew long enough (Mental note, skipping stairs is no longer in our repertoire.) On Thursday, we caught ourselves making old man sounds when we sat, but we can’t even remember when we started doing that. We admired a beautiful person on Friday, and someone informed us that we’re probably too old to continue doing that. “It’s just odd,” they said, “considering the age gap.” It’s considered inappropriate years later, and then it morphs into “Absolutely disgusting” that we should admire the beauty of a 20-year-old, “because you’re old enough to be her grandpa!” We all know we’re aging on a physical, superficial level, but mentally we’re not so far removed from that energetic, wildly enthusiastic 20-year-old who was afraid to talk to girls, until someone informs us that we should know better. We do know better on one level, but their scorn is a painful reminder of how much we’ve aged. We do the calculations in our head, and we realize they’re right, we are, in fact, that old now. The realizations that we’re that old now are not about any of one of those little things. It’s about all of them. It’s about that big old snowball that’s been accumulating over the years without notice.

“You know you’re old when you fall and no one laughs,” a comedian once said. You know you’re old when they’re surrounding you after a fall, and they’re not there to point and laugh. They’re there, because they’re concerned. You know you’re old when you feel them ask you to refrain from such activities in the future. You know you’re old when no one laughs about it later, even behind your back. People didn’t laugh when we fell when we were very young, and it’s now come full circle back on us. People aren’t laughing. They’re concerned. It’s humiliating. The science of their silence involves a calculation of our age and the impact of your fall. It’s no longer funny. It’s so disturbing that some consider it alarming. What happened? He was sprinting. “Ok, well, he probably shouldn’t be sprinting at his age,” they instructed one another.

You know you’re old when you’ve become the subject of group concern, and the group addresses the subject of their concern in the third person, as if to suggest that they’ll take care of this going forward, because it’s obvious that we can’t anymore. They addressed us in the third person when we were young, implying that some authority figure in our life should’ve seen to it that that didn’t happen. Everything in between involved laughter, directed at us in the first person, because they knew we were old enough to know better but young enough to sustain the damage of our stupidity. We might feel some warmth when we realize how much these people care about us, but that fades when we realize their resolutions mirror those family members make when our loved ones reached a point when they were no longer capable of caring for themselves. They have no problem telling us when we’re too old to oggle, but no one tells us when we’ve reach a point where it’s considered ill advised to sprint.

This game of ‘keep away’ developed organically. My nephew was in the middle, laughing as hard as the two adults were on the sides. Another kid ran into help him, then three, then four, then so much more. It wasn’t young versus old, but it evolved into it. It started out friendly, but it evolved into a competitive definition of whatever remained of our athletic ability.

I started out tossing the ball from a stationary position. I was laughing and failing on purpose, giving the kids a chance, until one of them said something that I considered a provocative definition of my athletic ability. When it came time to catch the ball, I followed the same pattern. I went from light-hearted attempts to get open to employing quick, ankle spraining jukes. When I realized I couldn’t shake my nephew, those quick movements evolved into some running. I ran every single day at one point in my life, so it was not a concern to me. I don’t know if I started losing, or if I sensed that the others were further questioning my ability, but I began sprinting to open spots to capitalize on the holes in their coverage. It dawned on me, while doing it that I haven’t done this in years. No one gave this a second thought for most of my life. Some people run, some people sprint. I didn’t see the spectators watching, but I could feel it. I even saw a couple stand with some concern. Did they see the game for what it was, or were they wondering if they should begin sprinting too? Did they stand to source the emergency that sparked my progression? I looked over to verify that they were watching me, but in that casual glance, I almost tumbled. I couldn’t look back at them. I had to be mindful of my feet. (Mental Note II, running now requires more focus.) Running was not my greatest concern. Stopping was. I had a myriad of little feet under mine, and I had to focus to avoid them.

I know I’m not as athletically inclined as I once was, but who is? I am smarter now. I know how to use my faculties much better than I did when I was younger. In the midst of these throws, my competitive juices got the best of me. I overdid it. I knew my best presentation could be had sitting on the lawn furniture with the other old people, talking about what old people talk about with lemonade in hand on a sunny day, but I didn’t decide to play this game. An impromptu game broke out and evolved into a character-defining match of my ability against theirs. I could not just quit. “Why did you quit?” I imagined one of them asking me. “Because I’m old and I can’t handle the physical requirements of such a game anymore.” Yeah, that’s not in my nature.

The nephew I once held as an infant was shutting me down in coverage at one point. I encouraged it verbally, but I also wanted to discourage it physically. I wanted to prove to be so dominant that he left our little game demoralized. To do so, I employed some of the know how I picked up along the way, using the bag of tricks I developed in the years I spent playing intramural football. Michael Jordan developed a fade away when his skills started to decline. I developed a few moves of my own over the years. “Youth is wasted on the young,” Winston Churchill said. What if I had this wide array of jukes when I was younger, I asked myself, would I have been better? I sprinted to the right, juked, and went further right. In doing so, my fellow old man led me well with a pass. My ability to stop on a dime and juke surprised my nephew. He went left to cover the traditional juke, and he did so right under me. To avoid taking him out, I had to adjust. (Mental note III, my ability to adjust on the fly has receded.) I tripped over his feet. (Mental Note IV: Studies show that the chances of tripping increase exponentially when we sprint.) Been there, done that. (Mental note V, watch out for the ground, it hurts. Parked cars can hurt too when approached at top speed. Try to avoid them as much as possible, because they can be unforgiving.) Hitting the ground was humiliating, and I thought the people surrounding me with looks of concern was the peak of my humiliation, until my nephew called me to apologize for getting me so worked that I almost ended up impaled on a car.

When Fish Look Back


We don’t know why we enjoy looking at fish in a fish tank, but we enjoy seeing them in friend’s homes, at pet stores, and zoos. Some of us enjoy looking at fish so much that we decide to purchase some of our own, so we can look at them every day in the comfy confines of our own home. Some of us enjoy looking at fish, because it gives us a sense of superiority that can be difficult to explain. We might enjoy seeing another being trapped by glass, because it makes us feel freer by comparison. Both parties know we are the superior being, but some fish look back, and some of those looks evolve into stares, challenging stares.

We don’t expect fish to look back, but some of the times they do, and some of the times it’s cute. Sometimes, we tap on the glass to try to get one fish to give us one quick look to acknowledge us in some quick, meaningless way. They usually swim away in quick, jetting motions, but some of the times they look back. “Look at this, Myrtle, he’s looking back at me!” we say to their casual, happenstance glance they offer us. When that casual glance holds, and that cute, little look back becomes a stare, it can feel unnatural. Even though it feels a little odd at the outset, we stare back. We don’t have any reason for continuing to stare back, but we do, until we achieve some inexplicable and unnerving connection. If this odd connection continues, we think that they’re testing the boundaries and borders nature inflicted upon them, regarding our respective roles in the food chain. We know it’s foolish to assign human characteristics to such a brainless creature, but the otherwise enjoyable stare leads us to question that which we’ve never considered before.

Our first instinct is to believe the fish just happens to be looking in the general direction we’re standing in, and that it’s nothing more than a happenstance glance. Something about this particular stare unnerves us though. We remind ourselves that they have no eyelids. They might have a membrane to protect their eyes from water, but they have no eyelids, so they cannot blink. They have pupil, and they can move their eyes, but this particular fish doesn’t even move his pupil. It’s staring right at us and through us. What does it think it’s seeing? Is it really looking at us, or toward us? We make a jutting motion toward the fish to establish the fact, in our minds, that it is indeed staring at us. Another, relatively embarrassing component of that motion involves our need to establish dominance, so the fish doesn’t forget what we can do to them if driven to act. The fish will react to our jutting motion, but what happens in our interiority if after the fish flinches, it resumes staring? Do we complain to the management of the pet store? What if the fish stopped staring the moment we brought the manager over to the tank and it resumed staring after the manager left? It looks at us, as if it thinks it knows us, and it’s unafraid. There are times when it’s okay to remind other creatures that we’re their superiors, and there are times when we consider this necessary. What if we reached into their tank, grabbed it, and did awful things to it, we think its way. It’s unmoved by that threat. We know we can’t do either of those things, no matter how long this thing looks at us. We know those looks other patrons of the pet store might give us. We also know what we would go through at home, in bed, staring up at the ceiling, remembering what a fish drove us to do.

People wouldn’t understand, and something about that fish’s stare suggests that it knows that. At some point in this staring contest, it strikes us that the hundreds of thousands of years of our respective conditioning that have informed both parties who is superior mean nothing to this fish. Its stare suggests that it is challenging that conditioning, because it knows there’s nothing we can do about it.   

We’re accustomed to animals we encounter knowing these principles and acquiescing to our superiority on most matters, and most of them don’t even bother challenging us. Pet psychologists tell us that if we own a dog who is particularly disorderly and disobedient that one of the ways to reestablish dominance is to engage it in a staring contest. If confronted by a wild animal, they tell us, the worst thing we can do is look that animal in the eye, because both parties know, on some primal level, that we’re challenging their nature, and any hint of this challenge enrages such beasts.

If we try to engage in a staring contest with a lion, in the lion’s den at the zoo, most lions won’t even bother looking back at us. They have hundreds of people confidently challenging them in this way every day. What happens when they look back? What happens to us when we look at a fish, and it looks back? What happens when that fish stares at us? Is it happenstance, or is the fish challenging our nature? Are we so confident in our stature that we stare back? How long do we participate in this staring contest, to establish our superiority, and what happens if we lose?

What happens the next time we near a fish tank after such a devastating loss? More often than not, we don’t invest ourselves into moments like these, but there are days when we’re feeling particularly vulnerable. There are days that affect us so much that the next time a friend invites us to look at their fish in the fish tank they have in their home, we hesitate. We know that if we begin shrieking, the fish wins. Our reputation would not only suffer at the hands of our host, but the ten people interested in her retelling of the story. Offering our host, a simple, “No thank you,” might open a big bag of questions that we don’t want to answer. Yet, acquiescing to their request might bring us right back to that day at the pet store when a fish’s stare served to undermine our confidence. When we glance over at our friend’s tank, considering her proposal, we see those probing eyes, and we remember the day when we thought we knew our place in the animal kingdom. We remember how confident we were in our respective roles in the animal kingdom before that staring contest, and though we know we can’t put all the blame for our insecurities at the fins of that fish in the pet store, its rebellious stare unearthed something in us that we never confronted before. We know how revealing it is to have a staring fish lead us to such existential questions, but it shook our confidence down to its foundation, and we politely refused our host’s request, fearing what another loss might do to our confidence.   

Yesterday I Learned …


Yesterday, I learned that TIL is an abbreviation for “Today I learned …” Today I learned that in the era of texting and Tweeting, we are abbreviating far too often. I knew that yesterday, but it’s annoying me today.

1) Yesterday, I considered myself intelligent. Today, I learned that I’m not half as smart as I thought I was yesterday. We curious types ask questions and questions can lead to questions, such as, “How is it that you did not know that?” They ask this with that strained smile that suggests they have a haymaker awaiting us. Curious types often wipe the slate clean to learn different perspective, new angles, and nuanced approaches to known procedures. There are also times when we just don’t know. Decades of cultural and societal conditioning train us to avoid asking such questions, for we know the abuse that’s coming from those who know and those who quietly pretend to know so they’re not the subject of such abuse.

2) Yesterday, I learned that kids hate cotton candy as much as I do. Today, I learned that no matter how great it looks, cotton candy is pretty awful. Cotton candy, fairy floss, candy floss, tooth floss, or whatever we call it around the world looks so good on a stick or in a bag. It looks so beautiful in other mouths, but how many of us, kids or adults, make it past the third bite? After watching others tongue their way through the confection and appear to be having one heck of a good time doing it, my son pleaded with me to purchase some for him. “You’re going to hate it,” I told him. “No, I won’t,” he said. Amid the back and forth that ensued, one that mirrored the many arguments I had with my dad, I conceded. I remembered how alluring the confection was for me. My son took one bite. He wouldn’t admit that he hated it, he wouldn’t give me that satisfaction, but he gave it back to me saying, “I can’t eat it.” I was frustrated with him, but as I said, I remember going through all of that myself.  

3) Yesterday, I learned that the Astros cheated by stealing signs, the Patriots cheated by filming the other teams’ practices, and the New Orleans Saints cheated. Today, I found out that no one has accused my favorite teams of cheating. If the other team has such obvious signals that my team can steal them, why aren’t they doing it? If the other team is giving away their game plan in any way, and you’re not taking advantage of any opportunity you can to win, why, the hell, am I still cheering you on?  

4) Yesterday, I learned that some of the times we accidentally buy junk for a kid’s birthday gift. Is it our fault that the toy was a piece of junk? Today, I learned that it depends how long it works. The reveal is the most vital moment for any birthday present. If that kid wants to play with it moments after opening it, and it works for that first hour, we’re in the clear.

5) Yesterday, I learned the need to teach our kids to appreciate gifts they receive. “That isn’t what I wanted,” my kid said after opening a Christmas gift. Most of us learned gift etiquette from our mom when we were young. “You pretend that you love that gift, no matter what,” my mom told me, as her mom probably told her. Today I learned to phrase this in such a way that the child’s rationale might view it as more honest. “You don’t have to talk about whether you like the gift or not. You just say, ‘Oh, thank you so much’ with a bright, shiny smile on your face, and everyone moves on in life.”

6) Yesterday, I learned that there’s nothing more compelling than a well-placed, succinct disclaimer. If I were the owner of a fireworks company, I would test the limits of that theory by placing disclaimers listed all over my creations. I would warn my potential customers that this might be the most dangerous firework ever created. One part of the reason we think we need disclaimers is to protect the consumer, another is to protect the company from lawsuits, but they also serve to generate hype and excitement to those who seek dangerous fireworks. Today, I learned that this principle applies to music, movies, and anything that might lead a parent to warn a child. The more we warn, the more exciting the subject of our warnings will appear to the warned.  

7) Yesterday, I heard someone say, “You’re whole life in anecdotal!” I had no idea what that discussion concerned, but I couldn’t help but think about how that quote could apply in context. Today, I realized that we’re all anecdotal.

8) Yesterday, I learned that some of the times I move out of another person’s way without complaint, regardless if I have the right of way or not. Most people cede space in an open area for another to pass. Some do not. Some walk straight for us, expecting us to cede the space necessary for them to get through, and we can read those signposts as they head our way. When we see them coming, we know it’s better to move out of their way. Some form of compassion often motivates this decision.

9) Yesterday, I learned that, “One of the key components to having an open mind is admitting that you’re wrong,” says the person with whom we disagree.

“That’s probably true in some personal instances,” I argue today, “but you’ll need to show me the person who was richly rewarded for admitting they were wrong, and I’ll take a look at it.”

The first thing a person who wants to have an open mind will do is listen, read, and gather all of the information they can attain to formulate a philosophy. After selecting a philosophical train of thought that aligns with ours, we should continue to gather as many dissenting opinions as we can to challenge that logic. Some people say that an open mind often contains some conflicting opinions. We all have some conflicting opinions, but the best way to limit it is to listen to, and read, as many conflicting opinions as we can find, as often as we can, so that we can philosophically defeat dissenting opinions in our own mind. If we can’t defeat their rationale, we adjust accordingly. If we can, dissenting opinions often strengthen our own. We should also compare our ability to have an open mind versus the person who requires us to have an open mind so that we might agree with them. Their mind is often as closed to dissenting opinions as those they accuse.

10) Yesterday, I learned that too many say that they are so honest that others can’t take their brand of “brutal honesty”. Today, I learned that too few of us use such brutal honesty on ourselves.

11) Yesterday, I learned that there are two types of people in this world. Those who prepare an order before they reach the drive-thru window and those who put their family of eight in park and turn to them, “Now, what does everybody want?” Today, I realized that there is a third type, the person often trapped behind that family of eight.

12) Yesterday, I learned that I think we can tell a lot about a person by the way they drive. I sat behind a person who would not turn until they had a “clear” opening. Today, I realized that I could never be friends with such a person, in part because the man who raised me would not turn unless he could see Wyoming unobstructed.

13) Yesterday, I learned that too many of the most horrific things that ever occurred to us often take less than a minute of our lives. Today, I learned that Americans, on average, live 41,942,880 minutes. Those of us who spent too much time in our life grieving know that it doesn’t help to hear others say that we should just move on, but there is a point when we begin to obsess over it so much that we ruin too many moments in our own lives. No matter what happens in the moments before our death, I can’t help but think that we’ll regret wasting so much time obsessing over death.

Falling Down Manholes


“When you fall down a manhole, that’s funny. When I do, that’s a tragedy.” –Mel Brooks

Is it funny when a healthy adult falls down a manhole? It’s a little humorous when a faceless entity on the local news, or someone with whom we have no association, but what if we have some sort of attachment to the victim? Does familiarity affect how we view such an incident? If it does, how much familiarity do we have to have before the incident becomes tragic, and is there a middle ground that reveals the unusual relationship these comedy and tragedy have? If we find a tragic incident like that funny, what is funny, what’s tragedy, and what’s the difference?

Laughing at other people’s pain is just kind of what we do. We can call those who laugh heartless, but we also need to recognize how prevalent this reaction is in our society. We can also say that such laughter represents a dark side of humanity, but we should also recognize it as part of human nature. I’ve found few exceptions to this rule, but those who don’t laugh tend to be in professions that experience other people’s pain on a daily basis. Do they develop an emotional immunity to such moments, because they hear about them so often? If that’s the case, is our laughter an impulsive reaction to something we find shocking? We’ve all heard the phrase, I didn’t know whether to laugh or cry. If we worked with other people in pain on a daily basis, would we develop something of an immunity to these moments that might lead us to deal with them in a more compassionate manner?

Most people who fall down manholes don’t fall straight down the manhole clean, like Yosemite Sam, and most of them aren’t mumbling comedic swear words to themselves as they fall. They will likely damage something precious upon entry, and depending on the depth of their fall, they’re probably going to be screaming. They might not have enough time to fear death, but anyone who has fallen from a decent height knows that it’s such a scary experience that it’s not funny to them.

If our friend walks away from the fall with some superficial bumps and bruises, that might be funny, but what if he chipped a tooth? What if he took a nasty knock on the head, or broke an ankle? What if his injuries were so severe that he required Emergency Medical Technicians to free him? Does the severity of the injury make the incident more tragic or more humorous? Before you answer, think about how you might tell the story of the incident. Any time we tell a story, we want a punctuation mark at the end. What better punctuation would there be than a prolonged hospital stay that involves tubes and machines keeping the victim alive? “They’re saying that the nasty knock on the head could leave him mentally impaired for the rest of his life?” We might be using an extreme here, as few would find that funny, but where is the line or the lines of demarcation that define comedy and tragedy in this matter?

The initial sight of Jed lying in the sewer might be funny, unless he’s screaming. What if he’s hurt? How can he not be? We laugh. We don’t mean to laugh. We don’t find this funny, but we can’t stop. Some of us might wait to find out if Jed’s okay before we laugh, and some of us might wait until he’s not around, so when we can retell the story of his fall and laugh with others. Most of us will laugh at some point. It’s often our reaction to something tragic.

Laughing, or otherwise enjoying, another person’s pain is so common, that the Germans, developed a term for it: schadenfreude. Is our laughter fueled by the relief that it’s not happening to us, or is it the result of comedies and comedians molding our definition of what’s humorous by twisting dark, tragic themes into something funny? Whatever the case is, incidents such as these reveal the relative nature of humor, the fuzzy line between tragedy and comedy, and how we find comedy in others’ tragedies. The purposeful melding of the two even has its own genre now: tragicomedy.

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My personal experience with the fuzzy line between comedy and tragedy, didn’t involve falling into a manhole, but licking a pole. I was in the fifth or sixth grade, old enough and smart enough to know better, but young enough and dumb enough to do it anyway on one of the coldest days in February. I didn’t know the philosophical details of the symbiotic relationship between comedy and tragedy, but I knew people would laugh if they saw me stuck there. I knew there would not be a “Well, at least you’re okay” sentiment among my classmates. I knew this wasn’t one of those types of mistakes. I didn’t know a whole lot about human nature, but I knew that certain people live for stories of pain and humiliation. We all know those types, and we know they never forget. We could win the Pulitzer Prize, or become a world-renowned adventure seeker, and they will say, “Wasn’t he the kid who got his tongue stuck on a pole in fifth or sixth grade?”

I didn’t stand there and think about all this while stuck in the moment of course. The only things I thought about were how am I going to rip myself free and how much is this going to hurt? When I thought about the pain, though, I knew it would be worth it to prevent anyone from finding out about this. The idea that one person might see me stuck on this pole compelled me to pull my tongue off as quickly as possible. The pain involved in ripping several layers of my tongue off led me to believe I should’ve given it more consideration, but I still didn’t regret it. I still considered the physical pain secondary to the mental and emotional pain I would’ve endured if I hadn’t ripped my tongue off the pole.

I’ve read stories since of others suffering a similar embarrassment, calling in civil servants to help them get free. The first question I have for these people I’ll never meet is, what were you thinking?

These unfortunate victims had to know that the chance of someone seeing them in that embarrassing position increased exponentially with each second they remained stuck to the pole. They had to know that calling someone over would lead them to call another over, until they all gave up and called in a rescue squad. The very idea that that many people might know about it, still makes me so uncomfortable that I cringe when I think about it. With that many people involved, the chances of this information making it to their peers is so great that it’s not even worth considering.

I have to imagine that this victim was either younger than I was at the time, or that the severity of their incident was much worse than mine. For if all of the circumstances were even somewhat similar, then I have to ask them why they didn’t just rip themselves free? My empathy goes out to them if they feared how painful that would be, but they had to consider all the ridicule, teasing, and bullying they would endure in the aftermath. Even if they feared the pain so much that they wanted an adult to come along and find a less painful solution for them, I would ask them if it was worth it. Even if that adult went inside and retrieved a cup of hot water for them and prevented the kid from knowing the pain I did, I would wager that the physical pain I endured paled in comparison to the emotional abuse this kid endured from his peers.

Even when I was still stuck on that pole, I knew my bully would be waiting for the details on my tragedy with baited breath. I also knew that his audience wouldn’t be able to restrain themselves from laughing at his displays of cruel and clever creativity. I didn’t know what nicknames or limericks he would develop, but I knew he would develop something. He was our class clown, and he was always developing material on someone. All of the pain I experienced in the aftermath of the toe curling rip of my tongue was worth it, because at least he wouldn’t have this material on me.

We’ve all heard talk show guests say that they were the class clown in school. We all smile knowingly, picturing them as children dancing with a lampshade on their head and coming up with the perfect response to the teacher that even the teacher considered hilarious. Those of us who knew a class clown saw some of that, but we also saw what happened when they ran out of good-natured and fun material. I knew the minute our class clown ran out of material he would begin looking around for victims, and I was always one of his favorite targets.

We all enjoy making people laugh, but some have a deep psychological need to make people laugh, and they don’t care who has to get hurt in the process. Based on my experiences with class clowns, I can only guess that those who would fashion a career out of it, such that they were so successful that they ended up in a late night talk show chair talking about it, probably learned early on that no matter how you slice it, if someone falls down a manhole, or gets their tongue stuck to a pole, there’s comedy gold there waiting to be excavated. They may be too young to know anything about the complexities inherent in the symbiotic relationship between comedy and tragedy at the time, but at some point they realized that anyone can get a laugh. To separate themselves from that pack, former class clowns-turned-successful standup comedians would have to spend decades learning the intricacies and complexities of their craft, as everyone from the Ancient Greeks to Mel Brooks did. They would also learn that for all of the complexities involved in comedy, one simple truth they learned in fifth to sixth grade remains, if one wants to achieve side-splitting laughter from the broadest possible audience, someone has to get hurt.