The Big Lebowski and Philosophy II

[Editor’s note: This is the second part of a two-part review of the subject matter discussed in The Dude and The Zen Master. Part one can be found here.]

All wars, all conflict, can be resolved, and redefined, through interconnectedness—

“You might think it would be wonderful if we could go in and extract all the evil people out of this world, like we extract cancer out of a body,”  Jeff Bridges says in the collection of philosophical anecdotes The Dude and the Zen Master he made with Zen master Bernie Glassman. “But as Solzhenitsyn says, evil runs through all our hearts, and who wants to cut a piece of her own heart? We are part of nature and nature uses violence and war to make its blade sharper and sharper.”

The-Dude-and-The-Zen-Master-Gear-Patrol-FullBridges expands upon this theme by describing cells and magnification, and how the magnification of a cell reveals that every cell involves two parties fighting for survival, and that those parties are both essential components of the same cell. “They are,” in his words, “an interconnected whole fighting for the same thing.” Bridges states that there is order within the perceived disorder of that cell, and if we were able to disrupt that order to such a degree that we were able to kill all of the germs, viruses, and bacteria in our body, we would cease to live. Germs have a right to live too, he concludes, –which when taken to Bridges’ extended analogy between the internal skirmishes that occur within a cell and the wars of human history– reminds one of Rosie O’Donnell’s line: “Terrorists have children too.”

Bridges then speaks about how the fight that occurs within a cell is equivalent to the fights between good and evil that have occurred throughout human history. Within a cell there is the constant division process that occurs in which the organisms fight, and who is right and who is wrong is less important than the fight for survival. When you alter the magnification even more, he says, you could equate that cell to the Earth, in which humans are fighting in the same manner, and each parties believes he is right, and when you alter the magnification even more, you have Space, where the simplistic differences between right and wrong are negligible in the grand scheme of things.

Taking such a philosophical overview of humanity is a wonderful notion, and if everyone agreed to debate the topic in that forum, planet earth would be a wonderful place to live in. Humans have to live on the sphere we call Earth, as opposed to the theoretical one that is a speck in the universe, and doing so requires that we accept the realities of the place where we live in, and it also requires us to do everything possible to maintain livable conditions.

Bridges states that setting that forum to make planet earth a more wonderful place to live in should be the whole idea. He says that we don’t have to accept the realities of the place we live in, and that we can alter it. “Anyone that questions this,” says Bridges, “should look at how President John F. Kennedy set the course for landing a man on the moon.  He said that at one point in our nation’s history, sending the man to the moon seemed a far-fetched idea, until the president changed the conversation by informing the nation that it would be done. After he did this, the conversation centered around how it was going to be done, not if it was going to happen. ”

Bridges general approach to war, conflict, and his specific approach to the attacks on 9/11/01, is that we should try doing nothing to see how that works. On the subject of 9/11/01, Bridges states that he was all for doing something to those responsible for that act, but that he didn’t agree that that something should involve such a global war on terror. He says that we should’ve spent more time examining our role in 9/11/01, and that we should’ve apologized for our role in making them angry. As anyone that has read the history of terrorism vs. America knows, we did try the tactic of holding those responsible in criminal courts, after the first World Trade Center attack, and al Qaeda saw that as a sign of weakness. They called us a “paper tiger” and decided to explore the idea of doing something more. We have tried apology tours to quell the animosity the world is purported have for America, and humanity has also tried appeasing the evil intentions of those that plan to do us harm. These procedures have not worked. We should, of course, continue to try every method at our disposal for maintaining peace on our planet, and just because one measure did not work, with one lunatic, doesn’t mean that it won’t with another, but there is a point where Albert Einstein’s definition of insanity comes into play, and Bridges fails to incorporate that definition into his line of reason.

A philosophical inconsistency later arises when Bridges begins speaking on the subject of slavery. He states that when we were forming our Constitution, it was a difficult chore for our Founders to find unity on the many subjects before them, but the issue of slavery proved to be so divisive that it threatened to end the proceedings, so they decided to shelve it for a later date. They decided that all of the other aspects of our founding were so important that they couldn’t be derailed.  This, of course, came back to bite the nation in the butt, and Bridges believes that if the Founders had tackled this issue at the time, there may not have been the sense of disenfranchisement among blacks that lives on to this day. By the same token, it could be said that if we initiated a more global war on terror after the first World Trade Center attack, the incident that occurred on 9/11/01, may never have happened. The fact that we followed what Bridges still believes is the desired course of action, after the first World Trade Center attack came back to bite us in the butt.  

If peace could be attained in a manner where all the good guys had to do was view the human characteristics of their opponent as nothing more than an organism that wants to survive, and that that opponent would then appreciate that acknowledgement so much that they sat down at a peace accords table to engage in a serious and genuine discussion of their grievances, the Earth would be a more wonderful place to live on. Everyone wants to live in that world. Viewing this world through that lens, however, neglects the irrational component of evil people. Why would anyone want to set out hurt another person? They do. It’s irrational, but they do. Yet, it appears that ridding the world of evil, in this manner, would be like cutting out a piece of our heart out.

The danger of viewing evil people through such a simplistic lens occurs when we believe those humans, that happen to be evil, are evil. The thoughtful approach suggests that we view these people as people too when they enter into a Munich Agreement. It’s simplistic to view the individual that just wants Poland and Czechoslovakia as evil, and it’s much more thoughtful to pare back our forces and draw down our defenses with the knowledge that peace is the solution. The danger occurs when that evil person leaves that peace accord, and joins their generals at the planning boards with the knowledge that they acted their part so well that we’re now a little more vulnerable to their forceful persuasion. 

In a certain magnification of the historical lens, everything Adolf Hitler did may have been evil, but in another setting, say his, they could be viewed in another manner. Did Hitler wake up in the morning and think, I’m going to do something evil today, or was he eating apple fritters and drinking cocoa with his wife and dog? Hitler was a person too, and he had a quest for survival that was similar to the quest of germs, viruses, and bacteria. They don’t invade our body’s cells with evil intentions. They just do what they do. If we happen to get cancer, as a result of their victory over our white blood cells, we may consider that a bad thing, but if we alter the magnification, and attempt to view it from their perspective, we could view it as their victory.

Modern day evil people may go home at the end of the day to watch Happy Days reruns, and laugh with their kids bouncing on their knees, but that doesn’t change the fact that the actions they engaged in that day left their streets littered with dead people, homeless people, and a greater portion of their population starving than there were the day before. If we view that from a different magnification, an objective view that accounts for their definition of these actions, we could see the mass slaughter of civilians as a victory for their cause.  It’s all relative. 

If you’re one that lives with the relative notion that murdering an estimated eleven million people is a bad thing, or that a leader’s policies led to the mass starvation of his people, then you have to be willing to set a course of actions in motion that will, in a temporary fashion at least, set aside the fact that these evil people are just human, with kids, for at least as long as it takes to either contain their evil, or to set a precedent in the minds of evil men that their evil acts will no longer be tolerated. 

Some peacenik did not abide by the methods of achieving peace that The Dude did. His method alluded to the idea that the best way of achieving peace was through strength, and his record proved to be more successful than The Dude’s, Neville Chamberlain’s, or any other theoretical attempts at achieving peace in our time. We won’t talk about that person though, because he was icky, and his actions portend that there are icky, evil people that require alternative methods.  


The Big Lebowski and Philosophy

Throw the [Damned] Ball

Throw the [damned] Ball is the title of the first chapter of Jeff Bridges and Bernie Glassman’s collection of philosophical anecdotes: The Dude and The Zen Master. This particular chapter details the deliberations that The Honeymooners character, Ed Norton, would go through when preparing to do things that the character Ralph Kramden would instruct him to do. When Kramden would instruct Norton to sign a document, for example, Norton would flail his arms out a number of times, and go through a number of other, hilarious deliberations in a presumed search for that perfect, inner place he had designed for signing a document that Kramden informed him was important. The joke was that it was just the signing of a document, but that the Norton character believed that it warranted a degree of importance he had a difficult time finding. These deliberations would carry on for an extended amount of time that the Ralph Kramden character found so exhausting that he would end up exploding with a “Just sign the thing!” comment.

Bridges brought this scenario to a bowling coach that was hired to inform the cast of The Big Lebowski on the mechanics of bowling in a manner that would appease most bowling aficionados that happened to see the film. The deliberations that the bowling coach went through –pausing to include the necessary notes on the intricacies involved– carried out in a manner that Bridges found reminiscent of Norton’s deliberations, until Bridges said:

Anyone ever tell you to just throw the [damn] ball?!”

The bowling coach’s friends found that response hilarious. The bowling coach, being a bowling guy and a philosophy freak, had, at one point in his life, tried to find the perfect harmony between mind and body before throwing the ball down the lane. This search, he confessed, could take as long as five minutes, until his friends shouted: “Just throw the [damn] ball!”

The import of the tale is that some of the times, we can get so locked up in our search for perfection that we end up forgetting to just do whatever it is we’re trying to do. And, it could be added, the repetition of doing whatever it is we’re trying to do that can prove to be far more instrumental to learning than thinking about it can.

We all fall prey to trying to perfect what we do by doing something different or something more this time out to rectify, or improve upon, what we did in other attempts to make it better, or more. We’ve all written resumes, reports for bosses, and simple emails to friends, and we’ve all tried to do more in the present than we did in the past to make it more … More funny, more interesting, and more educational.

There is this desire, in all of us, to add the perfect cherry atop the pie, or if that particular cherry isn’t perfect enough, we may try adding another cherry, and another cherry, until the pie is so perfect that it’s now overloaded with cherries, and all of the individual cherries have lost that unique, special, and tantalizing quality that one cherry can have when it sits upon a pie.

“There is always more information out there,” Bernie Glassman said. 

Writers often have to fight this urge to add more, when they’re editing an essay, a short story, or a novel. All original drafts are incomplete in some way, but the question every writer struggles with is the idea of whether that incompleteness is as a result of quantity or quality? Most writers want their pieces to be more: more persuasive, more provocative, and more relatable, but as we all know more is not always more.

More characterization can feel necessary when a fiction writer is attempting to make their character more relatable, and it may be in some cases, but in other cases it can be redundant, counterproductive, and superfluous information that ruins the flow of the material.  More is not always more.  Some of the times, it’s too much.

This brings us to the fundamental question of when do we reach a point where completion can be considered established? I’ve often found a unique harmony in three. One piece of information, or one example of a pro or con, doesn’t feel like enough to establish a relationship with the reader; two feels incomplete in ways that are difficult to explain, but you know it when you see it; and four feels like it’s too much more. Three, in most cases, has a harmony that rounds a point out. I’m sure if I discussed this predilection with a therapist, they would inform me that most of the fairy tales my mom read me contained the magical power of three. I don’t know if that’s the answer, but I do think there is some form of subconscious power in three.

“We’re all looking for perfection,” Bridges says to conclude the Just throw the [damn] ball chapter, “but perfection is often a past and future tense that we’re not going to achieve in the present.”  

Bridges speaks about the difference between reading movie scripts in rehearsal and reading lines before the camera. He says that when he reads a chunk of dialogue in rehearsal, he might walk away thinking that he nailed it.  If that happens, he might spend the time between rehearsal, and going before the camera trying to memorize the pitch, the rhythm, and the pauses he used when he nailed it.

“Once that camera clicks on,” he says, “it’s almost impossible to nail-it in the exact same manner you did in rehearsal, because the conditions have all changed, and until you can learn to adapt to the current conditions before you, you’ll never be able to repeat the lines with any proficiency.  I nailed it in rehearsal, why can’t I find that same place?

“Because,” he continues, “That place may have never existed, or it may not have existed in the manner you thought it did. A person can go through all of the deliberations of trying to find that exact same, perfect place again, and they can go crazy with the thought that they never will. Some of the times it’s better to just throw the [damn] ball.”

 Be the man they want you to be

Bridges talks about a fan detailing for Bridges the idea that The Dude’s characteristics, are nothing more than a manifestation of another of The Big Lebowski’s character’s needs. The fan said that at one point in The Dude’s life (a theoretical point that preceded the time span of The Dude’s life that was documented in the movie), the Dude became the Dude in all the ways that this Donald character needed a Dude character in his life. The Dude then liked those characteristics so much that he may have incorporated them into his personae. The fan’s suggestion was that we’re all becoming different people at various points in our lives, based on interactions, events, and time. Some of the times, we don’t like those characteristics, and we discard them soon after we’ve fulfilled someone else’s short term needs, but at other times they fit us like a glove, and we incorporate them into our spectrum of characteristics.

When a momentous occurrence happens in one’s life, such as becoming a parent, few can move forward without that event affecting their character in some manner. If this momentous moment doesn’t affect a 180 degree change on us, it changes us in a gradual way that an infrequent visitor of our life may recognize, but those around us do not. We may have had parental characteristics in us before, but they were never tapped, until someone (the child) needed them.

We can try to revert back to that character that our beer drinking buddies knew, but in the aftermath of tapping into those parental characteristics, the beer drinking buddy characteristics feel false. You may want to become that fella that all of your drinking buddies knew, at least for one night, but you have changed in ways that make that character irretrievable. You may not know how much effort your putting into this, but your drinking buddies may pick up on it.

There are also characteristics that we display for the expressed purpose of impressing others. The popular parlance for this is an ‘A’ game. Our ‘A’ game may be something we reserve for our grandmother, prospective employers, or that incredible blonde that walks by our cubicle every day. Some may say that displaying an ‘A’ game, if we reserve it for these temporary moments, is the very definition of phony, but is that always the case? What if, in the course of this temporary display, we find some nuggets of our personality that appeal to us so much that we incorporate them into our spectrum of characteristics in the way the fan suggested the dude did to please Donald. 

We’re all changing, in other words, and we’re all affected by conditions, circumstances, and the people we run across, that we all  achieve some sort of compilation of reactions to the people around us that informs our personality.

You know what your problem is?  You don’t realize who I think I am—

This particular nugget, led me to delve into the mystique and perceptions we have of others, and how it affects our perceptions of ourselves. The premise of the line also brought me back to a mind-assaulting game I played on some of my co-workers.

Prior to initiating this game, I established a tradition of asking trivia questions of my fellow co-workers when we were off the clock, and we reached something of a lull in our conversation. With this tradition firmly established, I feed one of my friends the answers.

“Before we go out with this group tonight,” I said, “I am going to ask the group this trivia question…at some point in the night, and the answer to that question is this…” 

The subject of this game had a well-established tradition of being goofy and less intelligent than the rest of us. We were all comfortable with our characterization of her, and everyone liked her for all the reasons that people like other people, but they also liked her because she was the ‘dumb girl’. Dumb people have a way of making us feel better about ourselves through comparative analysis. She didn’t help matters much when she made it a habit of concluding her additions to our conversations with: “Of course, I’m dumb, so what do I know.” I found that trait annoying, and I told her so:

“You do realize that when you characterize yourself in such a manner, so often, that’s what people are going to think of you?” I said. “How many times have people called you dumb, even in a harmless, joking manner? It’s because you started it. You give them that by joking that you may be dumb. You have to stop doing that.” I didn’t see this as compassionate, but some may have. I saw it as passing on knowledge that I learned the hard way. 

I set this joke up to increase this girl’s perception, but I also grew tired of people laughing at this girl’s ‘dumb girl’ jokes for what I thought were all the wrong reasons. I also didn’t care for the elevated perceptions these people gained of themselves while laughing at her ‘dumb girl’ antics.  I felt a need to mess with the dynamics of those relationships, so I began feeding her answers.

“When do we tell them?” she asked at the outset of the first joke. “When do we let them in on the joke?”

“We don’t,” I said. “We never tell them. There is no punchline, unless you consider their elevated perception of you a joke.” 

The trivia questions I asked the group were somewhat obscure brain teasers, but they were questions that everyone felt they should’ve known. Once they heard the answer, they all appeared to feel a little dumber in lieu of ‘the dumb girl’ beating them to the answer. The two of us didn’t do this every day, and neither of us played the role of joke tellers. At times, I told her to pop off with the answer, as if that questions was that easy, and at other times I told her to pause, to think, and to intone her answer with a question mark arc at the end of her guess. At times, she missed some questions, and we did this to prevent our listeners from seeing any bread crumbs back to the joke, but she still would’ve achieved an ‘A’ grade if anyone had bothered to chart her answers. We did this often enough to change their perception of her, in my opinion, but not so often that it became obvious what we were doing.

At some point, we forgot to do it, and then we forgot about it over time, as other matters of consequence distracted us, but I now realize that that may have added the cherry atop the pie of the perception of this girl. Had we continued to do it, we may have overdone it, and if we had given the joke up, it would’ve destroyed everything we built. This girl reverted back to her ‘dumb girl’ jokes over time, for it was where she felt most comfortable, but I wonder our jokes that day formed a new impression of this girl that lasted? I also wonder if doing this changed people’s perception of her to such a degree that it cost her some friendships.

The reason I write that latter, somewhat confusing line is that I realized that in some ways I could not grasp this dumb girl relationship she had with various players in our group proved mutually beneficial. They enjoyed hearing her dumb girl stories for all the reasons stipulated above, but she enjoyed them too. Even if they were, in my estimation, laughing at her, they were laughing, and she enjoyed making people laugh. Even if they liked her for reasons I found self-serving, they liked her, and she enjoyed being popular. She played the role of the dumb girl in our sitcom and every sitcom needs a dumb person in their cast to make the audience feel smart. The only person that had a problem with this dynamic in the group, presumably, was me. 

That’s just your opinion

The goal of any writer should be to write a book that causes one to think in ways they would not have if they never picked their book up. If this was the goal of the authors of The Dude and The Zen Master, then I say mission accomplished. One glaring example is the That’s just your opinion section.  We hear this often in our culture, when another disagrees with our opinion. My reply has always been, “Of course that’s my opinion. Where do you think I got it?” Glassman’s twist on this trope is that some of the times a person needs to say this to themselves. If that person has failed to the point that they’re devastated by it, it could be said that the nature of that failure is just one person’s, theirs. Others may see our failures, and they might form an opinion of us based on that failure, but people move on. When the smoke of that opinion clears, there is only one opinion that survives, our opinion of ourselves. That opinion, Bernie Glassman says, is still just an opinion, one person’s opinion. If the subject of that opinion can convince themselves that it’s not a fact that they’re a failure, but an opinion, it might help them move on. While this may sound like a bunch of gobbeldy gook to some of us, if it could be used in a productive manner to lead more people to just throw the [damned] ball again without all of the complications of previous failures involved.

Impressions and Loopholes in the War for More

Have you ever met that person that gets every joke they’ve ever been told and knows the answer to every trivia question put before them?  We’ve all met people that specialize in an area, and we’ve all met those that take that to the extreme and accidentally develop tunnel vision for that specialty.  There are others that appear to know a little something about everything but specialize in nothing.  Then you have those rare individuals that appear to specialize in knowing everything about everything, and no one can trip them up on anything.

3a96c8b34ace31e0321b289d7dcc23ed66edb244_largeThis façade didn’t bother me when it was first erected before me.  I’ve met this type numerous times before, and their ego has never had any effect on me.  Most of these types are usually so focused on creating the impression that they know everything that they avoid those people in the room that they fear might know something.  Another aspect of their psychosis that has usually led to them leaving me alone is that creating an impression in another person’s mind is hard work, and it usually involves a great deal of concentration on convincing yourself.  As a result of this, most of them have already convinced themselves that they’re so much smarter than me that they usually leave those that don’t challenge that impression alone.  When a friend of mine informed me, with a simple, relatively innocuous smile, that his façade was not only created before me, but for me, it got to me, in a competitive sense.

It happened one day when a third-party friend gave the two of us the impression that she thought my friend knew so much more than I did.  It happened, as a result of the small smile that he flashed at me after this impression was made clear.

It all began with a joke that this third-party friend told us.  I made the mistake of telling her that I didn’t get the joke, and when she proceeded to explain it to us, my friend began echoing her explanation to leave the impression that he got the punch line.  He didn’t, but he pretended so well that she was left with the impression that he did. She even went so far as to compliment him on this. She said something along the lines of: “Why can’t ever get you?” There were no specific allusions to the fact that I was any less intelligent, but that was implied, and in that vein, my friend issued me a competitive smile.  The smile began as a general one that one normally issues in the face of such a compliment, and then right before he turned to walk away, he flashed it at me.

I’m not here to tell you that I was completely innocent in the progression that would occur, and that I don’t have my own psychoses that can develop in the face of what could be called a perfectly innocuous smile.  My confidence in my intelligence is such that I can better deal with outright challenges, and I can wave those off with the idea that the need to challenge me in such an overt manner probably says more about the challenger than me, but those relatively innocuous, and I say competitive, smiles get under my skin.

“Don’t you see it?” I asked this third-party person, as my friend walked away with that competitive smile all over his face. “Don’t you see the game he is playing?” The third-party friend confessed that she hadn’t, so I laid it all out for her. The answers I gave her concerned what my friend did, but I would not get to the more fundamental question of why he did it for years.

Jokes. The what he did involved my friend uncovering various loopholes that all humans have in their interactions.  Most of these loopholes are not obvious, and they allow those that locate them to conceal the limits of their abilities. When I write the word ‘limits’ I hope that no one thinks this piece is written specifically for the purpose of exposing the limits of my friend.  We all have limits, after all, and we’re all scurrying about trying to prevent others from seeing them, but some of us are more successful in covering them up than others.  Some of us avoid issues that may reveal our limitations, and others simply learn how to roll with the crowd in such a fashion that their limitations simply aren’t considered.  My friend had managed to turn the latter into an art form by the time I met him, and it would’ve remained our little secret if he hadn’t gotten my juices flowing with that competitive smile.

The loophole that my friend found in leading a joke teller to the belief that he got the joke laid somewhere in the laughter that he provided them when their joke was complete.  It was in the thin “knowing” laugh that he had issued to this third-party joke teller to provide her a glowing compliment that she simply bathed in.  In the midst of this glow, most joke tellers don’t put the brakes on the laughter to find out why the laugher thought the joke was funny.  The joke teller will just join the laugher within the shared glow of appreciation, and they will remain in that glow while giving the explanation of the joke to that unfortunate soul that admitted that they didn’t get it.  During this explanation, the impression seeker will nod knowingly, and everyone will move on with their lives with the impression that he got it, until the joke teller says something along the lines of: “Why can’t I ever get you?”

Trivia.  My friend is smart, and he knows his stuff, but I don’t care how smart anyone is, there is always going to be someone, somewhere that will come up a joke, or a piece of trivia, that they won’t know. My friend found a loophole there too. After hearing a trivia question, my friend will sit back and offer no reaction. “Do you give up?” the trivia asker will ask after a time. “Tell me!” he will say. After they tell him the answer, he says, “That is where I thought you were headed,” and he will say that in a manner that gives the asker the impression that if they had only given him more time he would’ve come up with the answer.  At that point, he will increase their impression of him by showing a general knowledge of the chosen subject that basically provides them breadcrumbs back to the answer of the trivia question.  The breadcrumbs do not have to be specific breadcrumbs, but they’re breadcrumbs, and the asker is left with the idea that he knew the answer. The whole point is that my friend waits until after the answer is given before putting on his show, and this leads him to his impression of himself in the trivia world of being excellent at answering trivia questions.  Others believe this impression too, either because they aren’t so impolite as to suggest that he doesn’t get any of the answers before they give them, or they don’t spend enough time with him to spot the pattern.

I’ve laid out these breadcrumbs myself, I think we all have, but I’ve always prided myself on laying out my breadcrumbs in a specific manner that specifically points to the answer of the question. But, and this is the key distinction, I will always admit if I flat out didn’t know the answer the question, or if it was on the tip of my tongue, or something I feel I should’ve known.  I offer no illusions about my intelligence, in other words, but I’m more confident of my intelligence than my friend. I only get competitive when people point out that he’s more intelligent than I am, because he achieves that plateau in what I believe to be a false manner, and it’s that false manner that I want recognized more than my comparative level of intelligence.

Another loophole my friend has exploited in the human condition is the need most people have to be impressive. My friend initiates this loophole by turning your need to be impressive back on you.  You tell him something to impress him.  He’s not impressed.  Most of us are insecure in this manner, and most of us will then begin to focus our need to be impressive on that one person that isn’t impressed with us.  I fell for this at first. I felt an overwhelming need to leave him impressed. I would show him why I thought I was interesting and impressive, and I would try to show him that I was funny.  He wasn’t impressed.

It wasn’t too long before I realized that I had accidentally become more impressed with him, because he wasn’t all that impressed with me.  I had accidentally foisted upon him the status of being a barometer of what the two of us should deem as impressive, because (and here’s the key) he poked holes in all of my attempts to be perceived as impressive.  The one thing that neither of us had bothered to do was examine if he was, in fact, impressive. Our focus was on me, and by focusing on me, we provided him the status of being one that analyzes another’s attributes from on high. I allowed him this stature, until I figured it all out, and it annoyed me when others proceeded to do the same without putting any effort into studying how he had manipulated their interaction. I wanted this phony to be exposed to the world, and I told everyone we knew what he was doing, until I believed we had all achieved a degree of awareness.

Missing components. What I accidentally tripped on, years later, in the course of studying what he did was why he did it.  I wasn’t looking for an answer, when I interrogated him on an almost daily basis.  Anyone that has made the decision to be my friend can attest to the fact that being subjected to interrogations is the gift/curse of being my friend.  The answer didn’t occur in one “aha!” type of epiphany either.  It just kind of occurred to me over the course of years that my friend had a vital component missing that he concealed within all of the impressions he created for others.  There was a loophole here too, of course, a loophole that when you create your own impression others will either believe it because they don’t necessarily care if they’re wrong, or they are so involved in creating their own impressions that they don’t notice any of those occurring around them.  Sifting through all these impressions, I accidentally uncovered that fact my friend did not care for rebellion in any way, shape or form.  He would laugh when I described the various forms of rebellion I had engaged in, but when those moments came for him to display a little rebellion, he made it quite clear that he simply felt more comfortable within the confines that his authority figures had created for him.

This is not to say that rebellion completely forms a personality, or that a person that won’t rebel is always somehow incomplete.  I’ve seen those that refuse to rebel achieve happiness, and a sense of completion, within authoritarian constraints.  I’ve also seen those that solely define themselves through rebellion end up accomplishing so little in life that rebellion was all they had, and they used it in a competitive sense to define a sense of superiority against those that weren’t as rebellious.  This friend of mine was trapped somewhere in the middle, and it exposed an essential missing ingredient that suggested that the difference between him and those that he sought to deceive by manipulating their impressions of him was not so much whether or not he eventually decided to rebel against something, but why he wouldn’t.

What was the reason my friend hadn’t rebelled against everything he could find, like the rest of us had when we were teenagers?  Why hadn’t he as much to drink as a teenage body could handle?  Why hadn’t he tried to have sex with as many women as humanly possible?  Why hadn’t he tried drugs?  Did it have something to do with the fact that he was simply more responsible than the rest of us?  Was he simply smarter, and he understood the ramifications of such actions at an age when the rest of us were just stupidly going about doing whatever felt good?  Or did he just have a better parent?  And if his parent was better, was my friend’s aversion to rebellion based on the fact that he assumed that his dad provided such a sound case for not indulging that he wanted to follow his dad’s golden rules, to emulate this man that he so revered? Or did he simply not have the fortitude to rebel? Therein lies the essential ingredient that I believe is missing in my friend that most people, that don’t know him, don’t see. He was so scared of disappointing his dad that he failed to indulge in that time-honored, teen rebellion against authority that provides characterization to those of us that believed our parents were wrong about everything.

Those of us that rebelled against anything we could find, thought we were righteous warriors on the road to an ultimate truth that only we could define. We eventually found that we were wrong about most things, of course, and that we didn’t know everything, but something about traveling through that natural course of life defined us in ways that my friend lacked.  We discovered these truths the hard way, and these discoveries incrementally defined us.  Those, like my friend —that never rebelled in any substantial manner when they were young— walk around in their adult worlds with some necessary ingredient missing that they are never able to locate, so they just decide —over the course of failed interactions— to fill the gaps in themselves. They decide that no one is really looking at them with much scrutiny anyway, so no one will ever find out that they had simply created impressions of themselves for others to feed on —with fibs, and façades, and affectations— that gives those around them the idea that they are complete.  They never expect another individual to get so close that they notice.

This missing component was difficult to find too, even with someone scrutinizing him as intensely as I was, because my friend was guarded.  He talked about being guarded too.  He spoke about the fortress that he had created around himself, and how few were admitted entrance.

“You’re lucky I let you in,” he said. “I don’t let most people in.” I felt complimented by this.  Who wouldn’t?  It wasn’t until I sat back and thought about how few were clamoring for entrance that I realized that he said this for impression’s sake. The impression that most “guarded” people want to leave is that thousands are banging at the door, and that if those people don’t act right, they are denied entrance.  Most of us, like my friend here, actually have very few banging on our door, but what if they were?  How would we keep them out?  It is here that I believe my friend came up with the ideal barricade to his inner sanctum: he wasn’t very interesting.  If you don’t want people in your inner sanctum, states the logic of the ideal barrier, be boring, be quiet, and exhibit very few traits that people are interested in. If you can accomplish that, most people won’t notice you, they will not want in, and your inner sanctum will be protected.  If the Chinese had only considered my friend’s idea of displaying wares no one wanted, they would not have had to build that Great Wall thinger diller.

It should be noted here that my friend is a good guy, and I do not believe that he sat down one day and devised a strategy to create false impressions, and fool people into believing he was more than he was by exploiting all of the various loopholes that occur within human interactions.  He is not a dishonest man, and he never set about to mislead people into believing that he had a game show host’s type of charm.  He is simply an insecure man that has learned —through failed interactions that have exposed his weaknesses— how to protect himself from ridicule, scorn, or the idea that he might be inferior or limited in any way.  Other than learning through painful exposures, he probably took note of how others created impressions, until he became a hybrid of all of them.  On that note, some may think me cruel for scrutinizing him to the point of revealing him, and there were occasions when I did feel bad about all this, but any time I let my foot off the gas, my friend saw this as a moment of weakness that he seized upon to attack my character.  My friend was no wilting flower, in other words, and most of the intense scrutiny I directed at him was borne of the competitive exchanges he and I have always engaged in.

These missing elements in my friend became so obvious to me, after a time, that when he tried to turn our friendship back to the stage where I was hell-bent on impressing him, it no longer mattered to me what he thought, because I knew that that sword he used to prod my weaknesses was actually a shield he held out to prevent further investigation.

To B or not to B

Belief in the strict, simple constructs of philosophy can be a guiding force. Having a philosophy can provide one a sense of fulfillment, a discipline, a code, and a foundation for a way to live through the extensive knowledge of the various minds of philosophy. A student of the mind can delve so deeply in a philosopher’s thoughts, or philosophical thought in general, that they can eventually reach a point where they believe they have an answer for everything that plagues them in life. For most of us, however, philosophy simply provides a plan ‘B’ in life.

philosophy“Renowned philosophers have never helped me!” say those that don’t believe philosophers can ever provide a decent plan B. “They are not specific enough.”

But some of the times they get close. Some of the times they get so close it can be frustrating. It would be one thing if they said nothing, but some of the times they get so close to the heart of all that ails us that it almost feels like they’re tantalizing us with their brilliance. They write something that captures our attention, and then they further that original thought with another thought that brings us kicking and screaming to a point of identification. It’s almost as if they read our minds when they wrote that, we think. They’re pouring our heart out. We’re breathless with anticipation. We’re turning the pages of their book so quickly that we’re getting paper cuts.

“Yes!” we scream. “Ohmycreator yes! That’s it! Sing it to me sista!”  

Then, we arrive at the solution, if there ever was one, and we think we somehow got lost in the weeds, somewhere along the line. We retrace our steps, we turn back two of three pages, then twenty to thirty, and we can’t find where we lost the point. “What did he say?” we ask, and we hate ourselves for asking that. We hate it, because it reveals us as one of those that don’t understand. It lowers our ego just a tad, but we know that that philosopher was onto something —in some form of English that we barely understood— that left us hanging off the cliff, because we just didn’t understand their proposed solution. Somehow or another they didn’t do anything but correctly identify the problem without attempting a solution. We didn’t exactly drop off the cliff with disappointment, but the philosopher didn’t quite help us off it either. Not in the manner we thought they would when they swam so close to our Sun. What happened?

A scene from the television series Taxi captures this dilemma perfectly. In the scene, the character Latka is experiences a multiple personality disorder. Latka assumes a number of personalities in the episode, until he assumes another character’s persona. He assumes the Alex Reager characteristics, and he believes he’s Alex Reager in every way, shape, and form. Latka reaches a point, in this disorder, where he’s figured out a solution to all that ails Alex, and he says so in a counseling session. He does so by listing all the flaws with Alex’s character, flaws Alex confirms, until Latka states that he’s found a solution to all that ails this Alex persona. This captures Alex’s attention. “It was so simple!” Latka says with an anticipatory Alex goading him on. “It was staring me in the face the whole time!” To each progression, Alex nears the Latka character saying: “Yes, ohmycreator yes!” until the two are inches away from one another with Alex panting in anticipation. Much to Alex’s disappointment, Latka snaps out of the personality disorder just short of revealing the solution, and he turns back into Latka. At that point, Alex begins griping Latka by the face, screaming at him to go back to being Alex for one more minute when Latka says: “Alex you’re squeezing me!”

The answer to the frustrations most agnostic consumers experience with philosophy, say philosophy students, is that it would be impossible for a philosopher to provide specific solutions to all of your individual problems. The purpose of philosophy, they would say, is to lead their subject into asking questions that they may have never considered before, to give them another viewpoint on their problems, and to provide its adherents an all-encompassing blueprint for life that the reader can use to interpret and relate to their individual problems. The purpose is to get the consumer to thinking different.  The purpose is to get us thinking.

Why do we do the things we do? Why do we make choices and decisions in life? How do we make them? Who is affected by our decisions, and do we factor them into our decision making process? The purpose of philosophy is to get us to ask these questions and other questions of ourselves. Only by asking ourselves questions can we ever arrive at an answer that may suit our individual needs. Philosophy requires extensive participation. It requires active listening, and reading, and most of the solutions one finds in life will not be specifically lined up for the reader. Don’t take it out on philosophers, students of philosophy will say, if you are too lazy to interpret and relate such concepts and propositions to your life.

The problem for most of philosophy’s agnostics is that most philosophical concepts are espoused in such an academic sense. The philosophies of Nietzsche, Kant, Sartre, Plato, Aristotle and Sophocles, and Freud and Jung might apply to the modern day, and they may be the greatest thoughts man has ever had, but getting to the nut of what they’re saying requires too much interpretation for most modern day consumers. Most of the philosophers listed here spoke, and wrote, in a more proper, less relatable form of English, if they spoke in English at all. They also spoke/wrote in a vague manner that would be, and could be, so open to interpretation that it seems they never said anything specific. Some regard this as brilliant in that a reader could interpret the words for their own needs. Others regard it as frustratingly vague for the same reason. If these others, these agnostic types, do attempt to subject a philosopher’s thoughts and ideas to their problems, they get slapped back by strict interpretations provided to them by a Philosophy professor. These strict interpretations may take the vagueness out of the material, but it also takes away the individual’s joy of forming a belief on the philosopher’s concepts that may differ from the professor’s. The professor gives a “correct” interpretation and pulls out a red pen on any student that goes off that trail. “I can see what you’re trying to say here,” the professor writes in red, “but it’s a lot more complicated than that.”

All of the philosophers listed here are much smarter than us, and they’ve developed some theories on the decisions and choices we make that could just blow our minds if we understood them properly. But those who teach and interpret their theories get a little too far into the weeds for most of us. They get too professorial, they talk over our heads, and they fail to relay their concepts to us. Philosophy is viewed by the eager, young minds thirsting for new knowledge, as overly complicated, or so narrow that it doesn’t apply to them, irrelevant in the modern era, and something to be studied for a test … Nothing more and nothing less. Philosophy and psychology doesn’t have to be this way.

Philosophy also doesn’t have to be that which is espoused by an egghead, hippie type that attempts to intimidate the listener with punctuation-less sentences that contain as many multi-syllabic words as the hippie can think up that are backed up by obscure quotes from a similar philosopher that was obscure 400 years ago. These people also get a lot of mileage out of telling a listener what philosophy is not, based on these obscure quotes and references, that exhaust you, until the reader is left with the empty feeling that it’s all too complicated for them to ever understand. We don’t want to admit such a thing though, so we just quietly walk away from philosophy with the idea that we’re just not smart enough to understand it. It shouldn’t be that way.

It should be the goal of all of those that love philosophy to carry the torch to the next generation. It should be their goal to drop the indulgence of proving their intelligence while proving their mastery of the subject matter at the same time. Combining these two appears to be too much for most philosophy lovers. They get so caught up trying to impress their peers that they forget to make the message appealing. They have a gift for draining the elemental gifts these philosophers have provided us right out of their lesson plans, but they don’t appear to care about the subject matter in this way. They appear to prefer the credo: “If no one knows what you’re talking about, no one can refute you.”

The question becomes how does one reach an audience of young computer-game, Google searchers with a limited attention span? Certain individuals in the entertainment milieus have done it in bite-sized morsels. They have used comedy to lubricate what is generally perceived to be the incomprehensible, rougher edges of philosophy, as witnessed in the episode of Taxi provided above. The clever minds of Taxi/Cheers fame, the writers of Seinfeld, and the Philosophy and… series of books have taken the relatively difficult concepts of Nietzsche, Kant, Sartre, Plato, Aristotle and Sophocles, and Freud and Jung and put them out to the mass consumers in comedic form to open the door to greater understanding. It can be done, in other words, and it should be done. A look through the best seller list, and the television ratings, shows that modern consumers are just as hungry for knowledge as they are entertainment, and the richest rewards lie out there for those that are able to do both in a highly skilled juggling act.

When our friends detail the plot line of such a comedy, and we inform them that it’s based on a philosopher’s concept, they’re intrigued. They may not care that it came from a man named Rousseau, and they may never turn around and read a single word of that man’s writings, but the idea that this man’s concept reached them intrigues them to learn more about the concept and the way it might affect their life. They may not have reached that concept in the manner a philosophy professor, or an uppity beatnik, would care for, but they still learned it, and their lives may eventually be all the better for it, and it may provide a window that once opened will be explored by eager young minds thirsting for knowledge.

The alternative to grasping these concepts, and subsequently living without a philosophical sense of life, is nihilism —the belief in nothing. Some nihilists even condemn atheists for their beliefs. Atheists may share the metaphysical belief that God doesn’t exist with nihilists, but where they divert is in the meaning of life. Atheists believe that one doesn’t have to believe in God for life to have meaning. Nihilism maintains that life has absolutely no meaning, purpose, or value, and the godfather of nihilism even went so far to write that Christianity may actually have more in common with atheism than nihilism does, based on the fact that Christians place less value on this life than they do the afterlife.

This absolute belief in nothing, when used in conversation, can be a contrarian tool that a self-proclaimed nihilist can use as a shield against attack. It may allow them to sit back with a smug smile while atheists and Christians attack one another with the mindset being that they may not believe in anything, but at least they’re not foolish enough to believe in something.

Nihilists usually wage a philosophical war on believers, studying up on our beliefs, our philosophy, or our religion, until they reach a point where they can proudly claim to know our belief system better than we do, or at least those that believe the same as us. The latter is an important distinction to make, for most nihilists usually don’t single us out for their criticism. They may actually go so far as to single us out for support by saying that we’re not one of those they’re talking about, because we’re more open-minded, erudite, or one of the few that can speak about such a hot button issue rationally. Whatever guise they use to avoid further confrontation, they do so to complete their life’s mission of knocking everything everyone else believes in, by trying to keep it impersonal. To suggest that all nihilists operate in a nefarious manner with the sole goal of undermining belief, would be as incorrect as the comprehensive labels they attach to believers, but they do seek some sort of validation for their mindset from us the believers.

One of the reasons they need validation, is that when everything goes wrong in their life they know that they will be left with total devastation. The nihilist’s world exists on a precarious plane that there are certain truths that keeps them afloat. Most of their truths can be found in the routines of life: work, marriage, kids, friends, weekend fun, and politics. There is, however, no underlying foundation to nihilism, no meaning of life, no purpose, and no substantial reality in their lives to help them overcome a shakeup of one of these routines. There’s an old saying that there are no atheists in foxholes, and that cliché is based on the idea that in times of total devastation the human mind needs a plan B, a sense of life, a philosophy, a religion, or something to fall back on. Some say this need may actually be biological, or anatomical, but whatever the case is, it’s undeniable that we all need something to believe in, something greater than ourselves, and a plan B to fall back on when things don’t go as planned.

The Quantifiable Lightness of Being

Is one life more important than another? It depends on whom you ask, writes author Douglas Hofstadter. In his book, I am a Strange Loop, Douglas Hofstadter attempts to philosophically solve crisis and conflict by suggesting that all living beings have a soul. Certain beings, of course, have less of a soul than others, less of a recognition of being alive than other beings that he quantifies this through a series of ratings that leads to a scoring of that living being’s soul. For the purpose of quantifying these numbers in a display, he uses the term “light count” to describe an accumulation of a quantification we’ll call Hofstadters. Our term will be the over-arching term he uses to describe the quantifiable power of the soul.

LoopDouglas Hofstadter provides the reader what he calls a personal “consciousness cone” that he believes describes the level of consciousness a being has of its own existence. The adult human has 100 Hofstadters, for example, the dog has 80 Hofstadters, the rabbit has 60, the chicken has 50, the mosquito has 30, and the atom has zero Hofstadters. Hofstadter lists the atom at the bottom, as a result of the fact that the atom has the least sense of its own life, and the least sense of consciousness than any other life form, and at 100, the adult human has the most. He does not explain, however, how he can quantify that the rabbit has more of a sense of its own consciousness than the chicken does, or why he rates the bee over the mosquito. It’s left to the reader to believe that the author has very specific reasons for all the scores of the entries in his “consciousness cone” but it seems arbitrary in places.

The Hostadters given to adult humans are more relative than any other being however, for the adult human has more ability to increase their soul’s light count, and damage it, than any other being. Some humans, Hofstadter writes, can achieve a score higher than 100 Hofstadters, depending on how much meaning they bring to the definition of life, and the manner in which they changed the definition of life for others. Jesus of Nazareth and Mahatma Gandhi could be said to be two people that changed the definition many people have of life for the better, and they would achieve more than 100 on Hofstadter’s scale. Adolf Hitler, Josef Stalin, and Mao Tse Tung, on the other hand, diminished the value of life for many, and in general, through their mass slaughter, which basically means that if there is an afterlife, they would spend it rectifying the damage they did to life on Earth, and as a result they could be given a score less than zero.

If Hofstadter kept his scoring process broad in this manner, we might not have a problem with it in the macro or the micro, but like most modern philosophers he can’t help but bring modern politics into the discussion. He begins by begging the reader to understand that the term “the soul” he will refer to in future passages, is not “the soul” most normally associated with religion. This distinction is made, presumably, to allow Hofstadter to keep that foot in the collegial halls of academe he achieved with his first book. Hofstadter suggests that his version of the soul is more of a sense of consciousness, a lightness of being, a sense of self, and a sense of consciousness about their life. In Hofstadter’s definition of a soul, the dog has a soul, and that soul is more powerful than the mosquito’s, because the dog has more of a sense of its own life than a mosquito does, but it does not have the sense of life, or philosophy, that the adult human does.

Next, Hofstadter suggests that those adult humans that would kill a man, via Capital Punishment, have less of a soul than those that abhor such activity.  This is particularly the case, suggests Hofstadter, if the death row inmate is screaming for his life in the “dead man walking” trip to the gas chamber.  So, if a “dead man walking” goes quietly, with lowered eyebrows, dark lighting, and a scary soundtrack, the people leading him to the gas chamber presumably have less to worry in their accumulation of Hofstadters in their light count.  One would think that Hofstadter would be point blank in his scale that if you take a life, with malice and forethought, you owe something to the general definition of the value of life that cannot be recovered, and you are destined to a less than zero existence, but for Hofstadter emotion, and remorse, appear to assist in giving you a greater “light count” than the unapologetic.  The latter half of this paragraph involves interpretation for Hofstadter makes no specific distinction between the two, except to say that the henchmen involved in the death sentence are the ones that suffer by scale.  The reader is also left to wonder if Hofstadter might be influenced by the theatrical drama some movies bring to the dead man walking scenario.

Hofstadter then suggests that a two-year-old child has less of a light count than a twenty-year-old, since that twenty-year-old has had more time to build the Hofstadters in their light count, but he writes that he does not tread lightly on the life of a two-year-old since we must recognize the potential that the two-year-old has of building Hofstadters throughout the course of their life versus the mosquito’s limited capacity to build them. By doing so, Hofstadter alludes to the suggestion that make the human embryo has no sense of its own life, and by Hofstadter’s unstated rationale it is then okay to abort them. [Editor’s Note: Hofstadter does not write the latter half of that conjunction, but deductive reasoning leads this writer to see that conclusion as obvious. Hofstadter also does not mention the potential for the potential acquisition the embryo may have in accumulating a light count in the manner he did with the two-year-old. The embryo, we can infer, is simply left at zero.]

There is also no mention of the potential diminishment of Hofstadters that the aborting mother may incur as a result of deciding to abort this potential light source.  This is a non-issue in Hofstadter’s narrative. With capital punishment Hofstadter draws disparities between those that would lead a screaming man to his death versus the ones that lead an unrepentant man to his death, but he doesn’t draw any distinctions between the women that would take the potential life that would be screaming if the woman gave it the chance to become a light source outside the womb, and the woman that allows the innocent, potential light source to live.  If his inconsistencies were a mere sin of omission, we would have nothing to write about, but Hofstadter dives right into the fray and develops hypocrisies that require analysis for their hypocritical lack of objectivity.  He fails to draw such lines of distinction along philosophical parallels, in other words, and he loses points in an objectivity count with these inconsistencies.

Hofstadter does have an interesting, and unique, take on the meaning of life.  Most readers will whole-heartedly agree with the general premise he outlines, but when he ventures out into the particulars that support this theory, the reader can’t help but think that Hofstadter’s key is less about teaching how to achieve a sense of philosophical purity and more about political proselytizing about the negligible affects of abortion on one’s soul, the detrimental affects capital punishment can have on the participants, and the detrimental affects eating other animals can have on humans.  (*No such points are deducted for other animals eating other animals with the asterisk notion that these animals are forgiven for not knowing what they do.)

The author informs us that one of the keys to living a life as compassionate as his for lower life forms, a level he imparts is defined by placing spiders one finds in one’s home outside the door, in a gentle, compassionate manner, is to celebrate, honor, and respect the idea that lower forms of life have a soul.  He implicitly states that you’ll know that you’ve achieved his level of heightened awareness if you’re so overcome by the infinite reserves of compassion in your system that you one day pass out as a result of handing a test gerbil to a research scientist for its use.  This revelation informs us, perhaps implicitly, that one of the keys to being wonderful, or accumulating a greater light count, involves not only performing charitable deeds, but publicly declaring them for the publicity one receives for doing so.  What’s the point of performing charitable deeds, in other words, if you cannot toot your own trumpet?

Some readers may find Hofstadter’s writing a breath of fresh air, and others may view it as nakedly transparent, but if Hofstadter’s purpose is to provide an objective view to import a sense of life, or philosophical view on the value of life, few can deny that it is inordinately subjected to his political views.  He informs us that he has found resolution to his own conflicts by being so compassionate that he is overwhelmed beyond his ability to retain consciousness, and that his concern for light counts and souls, both large and small, leads him to being a vegetarian that will not eat those light sources with greater potential for greater placement on his soul scale.  He leads us to believe that he is a man in tune with all political variables for resolving conflict, but in the end it is obvious that all of his philosophical peculiarities line up on one specific side of the philosophical aisle, and that he finds no sense of conflict there.

What’s So Funny?

Why do we laugh? Why do we cry? “Confusion,” suggests author Kurt Vonnegut. “Laughter is similar to crying,” he said, “in that, in some cases, these are the only reactions we can find to react to that which otherwise confuses us greatly.” How many times have we laughed at something without taking the time to figure out the gist of the joke? How many times have we laughed and followed that up with a “Wait … What?” How many times have we gone so far as to ask our joke teller to repeat a joke that we didn’t completely understand?

“What’s black and white, and red all over?” was a joke I found on a Bazooka Joe wrapper. “A newspaper!” I repeated that joke a number of times. I went into the punchline with what I believed to be the perfect pitch, and I hit that punch line perfectly, but I had a little secret: I didn’t get it. I asked those in my inner circle –those that I believed would gracefully illuminate me without attaching the public ridicule I probably deserved– to explain it to me. They couldn’t. They didn’t get it either. One person told me that they thought the ink newspapers use comes from a red-base. It didn’t think that was funny, but I was relieved that I finally had something of a foothold on the joke. It wasn’t until years later that I finally realized that the joke involved the homophone spellings of red and read. Read, as in the in the past participle read, as in while a newspaper may have a white base, and black print, it is read all over, as opposed to the color red. If you got that joke right off the bat, congrats, but I assume that there has to be at least one joke that you retold that you didn’t get. The point is that we may actually laugh harder at jokes we don’t get than those we do, and that laughter may be an instinctual, fallback position to those things that confuse us.

How many of us asked a joke teller to explain a joke? We hate to do it, because we know it reveals us, and we hate to ruin another person’s joke by asking for an explanation, but some of the times, we need explanations. How many times has the explanation confused us more and led to more laughter? Were we using this laughter to cover for the fact that we didn’t get it, or were we –as Vonnegut suggests– laughing more in conjunction with our confusion? Has this progression ever led us to find a joke genuinely hilarious without ever understanding it in the first place?

The relative nature of humor is obvious to anyone that has attempted to crack a joke, but the extremes are noteworthy. There are some universal truths to comedy, but for the most part comedy may be our most subjective art form. Individual experiences lead us to finding relative humor in a subject, but it would be impossible for a comedic artist to try to relate to all of his audience members. Thus, it is incumbent on a qualified comedic artist to create funny.

Falling is funny. There is no confusion about that. Seeing Chevy Chase do what he did in the 70’s was a brand of humor he never had to explain. Stupid is funny. Abbot and Costello, John Ritter, and the Airplane/Naked Gun writers proved that by creating timeless humor with people falling and doing stupid things. Most comedians began their careers by falling, doing stupid things, and imitating famous people, but most of them realized, at some point, that they could only do those things for so long before they started to become a parody of themselves.

I was too young to see Richard Pryor’s gestation cycle in comedy. I didn’t know the middlebrow, Bill Cosby-like Richard Pryor. I only knew the racial and radical comedian that launched himself from the pack to the stratosphere of comedy, but that didn’t mean I understood his brand of humor. I didn’t understand George Carlin or Cheech and Chong either. Knowledge and experience have taught me that Carlin and Pryor are funny, but how did I arrive at that answer? I have to imagine that Pryor and Carlin struggled to reach audiences when they first attempted to stretch their comedy beyond the border. I have to imagine they experienced pratfalls on their road to the hip, cool, dangerous, and edgy titles that their work would eventually assume. There had to be an inclusive group that “got it” that everyone wanted in on. Those people then had to teach other people, until those other people taught my people, and my people taught me that I if I didn’t “get it” too I faced ostracizing.

Cheech and Chong followed Carlin and Pryor through the doors they opened. They introduced some of their own elements to the brand, but for the most part, they owed a deep debt of gratitude to Carlin and Pryor. I learned these comedians were funny by watching my friends and my friend’s parents watch them. I was young and impressionable. I wanted to be hip and cool, and I wanted to understand adult humor. I learned that this material was innovative, and a tour-de-force and I learned that if I wanted to be all that I was hoping to be in life, I would have to laugh to tears at the things Cheech and Chong did.

“Man, you have got to see Up in Smoke,” my friends would say, “That thing is hilarious.” I watched it. I didn’t get it, and I put a lot of effort into getting it, because I didn’t want to be that naïve, little kid that didn’t understand. Later, while watching it with friends, I made sure to laugh in all the right places. I still didn’t get it, but they didn’t have to know that. They didn’t have to know I wasn’t hip or cool. It was my little secret.

I learned that drugs and sex were funny. Cussing was even funny after a while, because cussing was naughty. I became an adult, I had my own individual adventures in life, and I eventually learned that cussing, sex and drugs were funny because they were naughty. Naughty is funny, but it is playground funny. It is base humor, and some are satisfied providing base humor, but an artistic comedian needs to make it situational.

Situational humor is the: “I can’t believe he did this while doing that?” brand of humor that we all have to learn in life if we want to be cool and hip. Sex is funny, especially if you do it wrong and you’re willing to be self-effacing about it in front of a group of people. Farting is funny no matter where it occurs. Most of our most embarrassing biological functions are funny, because we all do them, and we can all relate, but if you can mix in a dash of the “Doing that while doing this?” element to the story, you can achieve hilarity. Stories of drug abuse are funny, as long as the provocateur is not currently doing it. We’ve agreed that it’s sad if someone is currently chasing demons, but if they say they did it in the past “while doing that” the next thing they will have to do is hire a manager to handle their bookings.

The guy under the Darth Vader mask, David Prowse, once admitted that he did more cocaine during the filming of the Star Wars movies than there is snow on Hoth. That’s not great comedy, until you factor in that Darth Vader was a character kids adored, and that Prowse did cocaine while playing the character … that’s funny. Really? Why? Is it because Prowse pulled the ultimate naughty … doing drugs while doing that? If someone says a joke about a mean mama, and your mama was mean, the comedian can reach you on your level, but how many of us have snorted a line of coke, or injected heroin in our veins, and why do we laugh so hard about that? The current strain of “doing that while doing this” involves adult comedians cussing in front of children? We, apparently, love this taboo breaking practice in our movies, judging by the number of times they now do it comedies. We also love to see men make lustful jokes about other men. We love it when our comedies break taboos, but George Carlin once provided a warning about breaking taboos. He basically said that societal standards should always be respected and taboos should be carefully and gradually broken down, for once they’re all obliterated comedians will have nothing left to mock.

“If I fall down a manhole, that’s not funny. If you do, that’s funny,” Mel Brooks once said.

Jay Leno once mused that he didn’t understand why social, highbrow comedians felt a need to shake their audiences’ foundations and breakdown barriers. He said that he didn’t understand comedians bringing high-falootin’ sensibilities to their comedy. He said being a comedian is a wonderful profession that has two basic components: telling jokes and getting paid for it. “Well,” Larry David responded, “You (Leno) can think that, because you were good at it.”

Bob Hope and Jack Benny told jokes and got paid in their day, but theirs were different jokes, safer jokes, that appealed to fathers and sons alike. Benny and Hope did not seek to break boundaries or expose the culture’s sensitive underbelly. There were no sensibilities brought to their brand of humor. One would think that they would probably have a lot of trouble breaking through the ranks today. Hope told some risky jokes about Raquel Welch and Loni Anderson, but they were never so bold that they would offend a parent. Benny’s self-effacing humor would land him gigs in Omaha and Des Moines, but if he wanted in the upper echelon, he probably would’ve have to do some border stretching today. The difference between a Bob Hope and a Sam Kinison, or an Andrew Dice Clay, shows that humor evolves and changes over time.

Richard Pryor started out wanting to be the next Bill Cosby, but he realized there were limits to that, so he carved a niche out for himself. His primary goal was to tell jokes and get paid, but there came a point in his career where he realized that ultimate success could not be achieved through those traditional avenues. George Carlin was also one who could’ve stayed safe doing zany weathermen, but he realized there was other territory out there for him to mine. Jim Carrey was a master impersonator, but he saw an end game to it, so he reinvented himself and his comedy. Andy Kaufman could’ve never made the stage with traditional comedy sets, so he decided not to be funny, and he hoped that we would laugh instinctively at the confusion he created.

These comedians, and others, have broken down barriers in our society. They’ve shaken our sensibilities and made us laugh at ourselves, and they’ve shaped our politics, our views on religion and music, how we treat our children, what we think of our parents, how we define our sexual mores, and if we were going to have a puritanical or a more permissive society. One could say that the power comedians wield in our society dates back to court jesters and beyond. Yet, even those court jesters had a pecking order that divided the talented from the untalented. We can assume that some of those jesters were so talented that they could tell a joke and get paid. Others recognized that they weren’t as talented, and they needed to carve out a niche for the untalented that didn’t rely on imitating and falling, and they most likely had to teach the king a new brand of comedy that relied on the natural human instinct to laugh when confused.

It’s a BOY!!!

My longtime fans can now get some sleep.  The drama is over.  I have never been so excited to see another person’s penis.  He will be Quinn Bryan henceforth.  Katie Couric will not be running a gender revelation segment like she did with Tom Cruise’s baby, because she is no longer at CBS running such crucial segments on national and world affairs.  We will not be contacting the National Enquirer or People magazine to confirm the gender.  We have decided that we want our privacy on this matter.

1) Jerry Seinfeld says that “the reason we have kids is to have something to watch.” It breaks life up, once our lives have reached a point where we feel like we’ve done everything we wanted to do.  Having a kid is a way to break life up when we’ve examined life for all its worth, and the only thing we have left is the transfer of that fascination to the next generation.  “But,” says Jerry, “there will come a point, in everyone’s life where we are laying on our deathbed, and we say okay, that’s enough.”

2) “What do you want people to say about you at your funeral?” a Berkshire Hathaway shareholder asked Warren Buffet.  “Damn, he was old!” Buffet replied.  Is it everyone’s goal to live a long life, or do they decide to live the “Hope I die before I get old!” Pete Townshend, rock and roll lifestyle?  Some of us lived a semblence of that lifestyle, but we’re glad we still have the chance to hear “Damn, he is old!” before we pass on.

3) “Youth is wasted on the young,” –Winston Churchill.  A young person doesn’t appreciate their life, their energy, passion, and the vitality they have, until it’s gone.  Youth is wasted on trivial matters that aren’t revealed as trivial, until one gets old.  Then, once one grows old, they realize that they can’t waste the precious time they have left on trivial matters, and they wish they had only realized that earlier.

4) “80% of life is showing up,” –Woody Allen.  There does come a point, however, where showing up becomes futile.  There does come a point when all you’re doing is showing up.  There does come a point where you’re pursuing nothing and just fulfilling responsibility.  There does come a point where fear keeps a person stagnant.  There does come a point when it’s time to move on.  I don’t know what percentage of life this involves, but there does come a point when showing up is not enough in life.

5) “She would of been a good woman,” The Misfit said of the old woman, “if it had been somebody there to shoot her every minute of her life.” –Flannery O’Connor’s short story A Good man is Hard to Find.  How many times have we lost a loved one, experienced an illness or an injury, or a near-death experience, and loved life a little more in its aftermath?  How many times have we set up agendas for life, premised in disciplines, and given them up when the harrowing experience drifts away from focus? Should we, or can we, live a life based on the fact that we’re going to die tomorrow, or is that so exhausting that we will probably live a happier life in routine?

6) “Those who are going to succeed in life do not have to be told,” an acting teacher told Charlton Heston when he complained that she didn’t compliment him as much as she did the other students in the acting class.  Life is about the inner drive to succeed.  If you do what you do to please others, you’re not living life right.  Compliments are great, and we all love them, but they should not be your sole driving force in life.  The same holds true with money.

7) The older I get, the less selfish I become, the more I recognize the selfishness around me.  I would love to call others out on that, but that can be self-serving.

8) You can hide your nature with a quick wit, a use of “the force”, and other mental Jiu Jitsus, but sooner or later you will be revealed as the character you are.  It’s far better to live an honest life, with honest evaluations and projections put to others, for that will stave off the eventual, crushing revelations that are made by those around you when all of your lies are revealed.

9) “One of the most foolish, and most dangerous, things one can do is to take love for granted, instead of nurturing it and safeguarding it as the prize jewel of one’s life.” –Thomas Sowell.  There are only so many people on the planet that truly care about what happens to you, and they should be appreciated as the priceless commodities that they are.  Most people pretend to care about you, but they’re really only seeking greater definition.  They’re taking joy in your misery—schadenfreude—in a manner that is usually not malicious.  They enjoy hearing about your problems, and they may “Aww!” you, but they’re actually glad it’s not them.  They’ll tell one of their inner circle people about your problem, and the two of them will bask in the glory of comparative analysis.  Loved ones, more often than not, don’t think this way.  They truly want to help you make your life better, and we all accidentally take this for granted.

10) There are good guys and bad guys.  In your youth, you will be obsessed with good guys and bad guys.  How can you tell the difference?  Your cousin Aiden says, “Look at the teeth.”  If a character, on one of your shows, has jagged teeth, chances are that’s a bad guy.  You’ll then learn some grey.  You’ll learn that political proselytizing can define bad guys for political purposes.  Then you’ll hear other people equivocate the differences, and you’ll believe that for a while, until you realize again that there are good guys and bad guys in the world, but they usually can’t be differentiated by teeth.