It’s All Relative

A Pencil. Because a vest has no sleeves.
October 30, 2008, 7:08 pm
Filed under: 1

The joke that I regard as my favorite is one that routinely predicts – with considerable accuracy – whether or not I will enjoy the receiver’s sense of humor.

The joke is an exercise in incomprehensibility and typically elicits one of two reactions: laughter or embarrassment. Laughter, at first hearing this joke, requires an ability to recast how we listen and interpret jokes as well as a flexible enough sense of self to see humor in our own limitations. The other reaction comes from a sense of having missed something and the absence of intelligence or humor sharp enough to enjoy that.

I was interested to figure out a bit more about why I keep telling this joke and so I deconstructed it in such a way as to ensure that it will never actually be funny again. However, this work does have the advantage of the fact that when you don’t laugh, I can explain why you should have.

This, of course, will not create laughter. Though we can perhaps hope for some guilt.

The Joke:

Q: What is the difference between an orange?

A: A pencil. Because a vest has no sleeves.

A Hypothesis of Humor:

The concept of humor that I would like to suggest and then use to analyze this joke can best be pictured graphically as an “L.” It is an idea continuing in a certain direction and then taking an unexpected turn. This turn must be surprising or unexpected, and yet it also must be, in some way, connected to the interrogative. The joke-teller must be able to link two ideas in such a way that is surprising but comprehensible to the joke-receiver. Surprise cannot appear in the face of incomprehensibility, the link between interrogative and response cannot be non-existent: it should be non-typical.

Knock, Knock jokes take a culturally familiar interrogatory and change the direction of it at the end, even as they rely on the unity of the convention to create the expectation that is denied. The appropriate response to “Who’s there?” is an identification of yourself and so responses that fail to do this deny or surprise expectation. They change the direction of the idea at the end.

So, any type of convention (the longer line of the “L”) that engenders expectation has the possibility of creating humor (the 90 degree turn at the end). However, jokes themselves have become a convention capable of creating expectations.

Some jokes use the idea of joke-telling in a backwards manner to create humor (though the poignancy of some of that humor has eroded from long use).

“Why did the chicken cross the road?” is a demonstrably obvious set up for a joke by asking a mundane and truly inconsequential question. Because the answer to the question seems impossibly unimportant, the answer’s relevance must exist entirely in its humor.

“To get to the other side.”

This answer is nothing more than an explicit description of the action previously questioned. Though posing as an answer, it can be mostly read as a simple restating of the interrogative. The answer provides no new information and therefore, no surprise.

The answer itself is as mundane as the question and so the expectation of humor – the convention of the joke – is denied and therefore, fulfilled.

Of course, this joke has become a convention in itself. It is its own parody and therefore lacks the reality of humor that it exhibits in structure. Still, it is an excellent example of turning the convention of joke structure back on itself, a concept that is vital to continue with analysis of the joke I have offered above.

To summarize: humor is the space between expectation and result and therefore is available wherever expectation exists. When expectation is denied or tweaked in a comprehensible manner – a second point in space that, upon reflection, is connected – then humor occurs.

We are now ready to examine the “Difference between an orange” joke.


First, let’s examine the joke piece by piece.

Q: What is the difference between an orange?

This is an obviously incomplete statement. ‘Difference’ as in contrasting two things with the preposition of ‘between’ creates an expectation of a secondary object to be compared. Such an object does not appear and therefore creates and denies expectations before the setup has even been completed. (Indeed, no setup is completed)

A: A pencil. Because a vest has no sleeves.

The answer ‘A pencil’ masquerades as a simple statement, intrinsically sensical by virtue of its brevity and confident tone as expressed in the period. The secondary explanation of “Because a vest has no sleeves,” again uses a preposition whose presence would normally indicate a relation between the two statements it links. Instead, the two statements are fundamentally unrelated. So, again, convention and denial.


Taken as a whole, the joke uses and denies conventions of structure in joke-telling and in the power dynamic between joke-teller and joke-receiver.

Denial of structure:

Separate from actual content, the structure of a joke is one that promises to relate two statements. In essence, a joke teller suggests: “I will denote two points and surprise you in how they are connected.” In this case, the two points are not connected. The assumed convention of two related statements is denied.

This is distinct from a joke without a punchline – which would seemingly also be denying the convention of related statements – because of the overall unity that is present in both the interrogative and the answer. The incomplete setup creates an expectation of an equally non-sensical answer which is also present. The incomprehensibility of the interrogative promises just as much nonsense in the reply and carries through with it in a surprising way.

The convention of a joke suggests related statements, but the setup for this joke suggests a convention of incompleteness that is completed.

Denial of power dynamic:

This convention of linked points also operates in a personal sense in the form of an informal power dynamic between the joke-teller and joke-receiver. The joke also denies this convention.

A joke-teller is someone who has an implicit contract with the receiver to pose something and follow it with a second that is related. Jokes can be poorly told or badly articulated and the reply may not be surprising, but the power dynamic is one that promises to provide two points that are – at the very least – connected in the mind of the joke-teller. Whether the joke is successful or not in creating humor, the promise of two ideas related in the mind of the teller is a basic underlying premise.

In this case, the unrelatedness of the two points is distinctly clear to the joke-teller and is a denial of the conventional power dynamic of joke-teller, joke-receiver relationship. Instead of a receiver being guided by the teller in the linking of two points, the receiver is revealed to have always stood on the same ground as the teller. They are equally in the dark about how these statements relate.

So, flowing from the denial of related statements, there is both a surface level of denial through the unlinked points, as well as a personal level through the denial of the typical power dynamic that would serve to link them.

Grasping the Humor:

So enjoyment of the joke can occur through several routes.

–         A recognition of the pattern of incomprehensibility present in the setup and punchline (it’s funny that each part of the joke is incomplete)

–         A recognition of the rejection of a joke’s implicit structure (it’s funny that a format that promises to link two statements has failed to do so)

–         A recognition of the reversal of the traditional joke teller, joke receiver relationship (it’s funny that –since there is nothing to understand – the teller doesn’t understand the joke either)

At the most basic level, the expected convention that is being taken in a different direction is the format, relationship and structure of telling a joke. Appreciating the joke requires the intelligence to recognize incomprehensibility and an ability to recast the terms in which we typically digest the cultural experience of joke-telling and the object of jokes themselves.

It is for this reason that I find this joke such an accurate barometer of a sense of humor. This joke works with expectations on numerous levels and therefore offers numerous routes to grasping its humor.

The joke denies intelligence or cleverness on first hearing. No amount of intellectual effort will link these points, instead finding the humor demands being able to laugh at your desire to do so in the face of clear evidence that you cannot.

The simplest humor in this joke is laughing at yourself, enjoying your total inability to connect the two points. Doing that requires being able to dissect the way that you listen to and process a joke, a skill that produces humor in many spaces where most people fail to find it.

In more detailed examination – like this one – the joke also reveals itself as possessing a high level of elegant and simple unity, denying conventions in all directions, even as it creates some of its own and meets them in a surprising way.

At some point in the future, I will ruin my other favorite joke about penguins in tuxedos. So there’s that to look forward to.


The Politics of Possibility
October 16, 2008, 4:01 pm
Filed under: Political Opinion | Tags: , , , , ,

In Sunday’s New York Times Week in Review there was a short piece about the Ellis Island Immigration Museum in New York Harbor. The museum has been tasked to expand the focus of its’ history beyond the years of 1892 to 1954 in an effort to tell the full story of how this nation was founded and peopled.

Efforts like this one demonstrate that our understanding of history is not static. Like all meaning, it is created in the moment by our view of the present; from where we stand today, yesterday changes shape and tone. American politics has long advocated a return to the past, a re-grasping of the essentials that made this country great. The GOP, in particular, has drawn fervent and committed support by evoking a set of imaginary values that produced greatness and now stand threatened. Fear of loss has ever been a stronger and more emotional motivator than progress towards uncertain rewards (the current decline of the stock market is evidence of that) and so this imaginary narrative of declining greatness has dominated American politics and led its’ favored beneficiaries to dominate the political spectrum.

The white conservative privilege that has dominated in one form or another since the 1950s values tradition, unity, and duty. These values have often functioned as another way of saying: “what’s ‘necessary’ over what’s right or wrong,” with no discussion of how necessity be determined. But these are not the values that have made America great. They are rather what has led to the very privilege that white conservatives have enjoyed and what constitutes the defense against its’ erosion.

Consolidation cannot grow power, it can only protect it (even as the attitude itself suggests that its’ decline is eminent and in progress). The central advantage of this politics of restoration is that it fosters an image of decline and engenders the fear that comes from a need to defend. Democrats have looked clueless and slow through decades of Republican dominance because of this biological tendency to overvalue fear. Better to fear mistakenly than to risk losing what you possess.

And so it is perhaps not so strange, considering America’s dominance in this century, that politicians should be successful in fostering the belief that closing up, conforming or returning to any past is what ensures the continuation of such preeminence. Fear of loss over future rewards is an instinctive calculus.

Yet, America’s dynamic economic power and its’ decades of dominance in innovating business, technology and entertainment (among other things) have come always from our ceaseless jettisoning of the past. It has come from our welcoming of new ideas and the embracing of possibility. It has come from the people that an attitude of possibility attracts.

Our nation has been redefined and reborn over and over from the minds and hands of people who believe that they can do and be whatever they want. And from the idea that somehow continues to thrive: that America is a place to do just that. And so it is also understandable that this dialogue of restoration has for decades failed to motivate the majority of American voters to the polls. The present requires passionate defense mostly from those enjoying its’ sweetest fruits.

In the meantime people the world over have voted with their feet. They have crashed in waves upon these shores in hopes of freeing themselves from circumstances and structures in whose construction and operation they had no stake and at every turn they have shaped America’s power and image on the world stage. Athletes, artists, and scientists have come here for the singular opportunity our nation provides: to define yourself in your own terms, to create your own existence.

And yet politics has continued to function as though it was composed of an electorate from the very subsection of history that the Ellis Island Immigration Museum has, up to this point, focused on. A post-Civil War, pre-Civil Rights set of values. America as the Marshall Plan: the world’s savior and protector; the sole power able to introduce a moral order. A personality so clearly and concretely defined internally that its’ only logical role in the world was to push its’ imprint on its’ neighbors. And yet the Civil Rights movement and the Vietnam War demonstrated how clearly in flux the composition and self-image of this country has been.

9/11 sharpened the anxieties of Americans struggling to cast off the idea of scarcity as hand in hand with plurality. America was under attack, just as the politics of fear had always said. The backlash and terror that carried us into Afghanistan and Iraq has been a final flash of that logic. We have once more taken our easy and confident, self-righteous, self-aggrandizing self-interest onto the international stage and really seen – perhaps for the first time – how inadequate it is to the circumstances of today’s world.

A focus on unified message and loyalty to a party line created a government of rubberstamp cronyism that has led us into unnecessary war and a financial crisis of historic proportions. Today, even the most privileged beneficiaries of this system find their livelihood at risk. The policies that flowed from this system have finally done as much harm to us as they have always done to others.

The fear that has dominated politics in America for so long has finally backfired, by creating an even greater one: that such politics will continue.

The distinctions in policy between John McCain and Barack Obama are real, but not drastic. In the full spectrum of political values from Anarchy to Autocratic Socialism, Democrats and Republicans have never been more than consecutive steps without even enough space between them for a comprehensible third party. It is the incredible stability of such non-variation that has allowed our economy and currency to be one of the most stable in the world. Even as world markets tumble and the word ‘depression’ is being bandied about with casual regularity, the world continue to hold its’ money in American currency.

The real difference between the two is the base of their message and direction of their gaze. McCain’s “tinny echo of the 20th century” remains backward looking. Of late, his rallies are devolving into historical caricatures of themselves: all-white mobs boiling over with violent and desperate anger. Obama’s platform is that we have failed only because we haven’t included everyone. Our ideals are sound, but our practices have soured as we have allowed fear to divide us. We can come together and in so doing, be better. Obama’s vision suggests that he stands for the honest source of America’s strength: the idea that we can be whoever we want to be; at this moment, the idea that we can be better than we have been.

It is seldom in life that someone asks us to do and be more without intending to instruct us in how useless and worthless we already are. As Obama’s personal biography testifies, the best parts of America are alive and well. What remains is to show that face to the world; to finally match our actions with our most enduring and inspirational ideal.

We stand for possibility, for doing all the things that must be done to ensure that people have their own right to choose and the opportunity and strength to do so. This is our nation’s essential and most basic hope. This is the backbone that has held us together through the petty and greedy power plays of the last 50 years. For a long time, no matter how disconnected politics got from the people that composed and joined this nation, the circumstances that made possibility a reality were never fundamentally threatened. They are now and we have less of an election to vote in and more of a national character to be tested.

We can choose to hold these faltering and decomposing artifacts of what we’ve had – of who we have been told we were – or we can reach for something bigger. We can try for something that tests us on more than an encyclopedic dogmatism rooted in an imagined past.

Whatever the result, it’s no less than we deserve. In fact, it’s exactly that.

Our status in the world as viewed by others and as manifest by our wealth, by our power – these rise or fall on this moment and this choice. We can choose a future of embraced possibility or a past whose shadow is shrinking as the bright light of the present bears down. We can reinvent ourselves in the face of these new challenges or we can aspire again to a failure of imagination.

This reference to a fictional and perfect past is what fuels the idea of back to basics. “We can return to glory,” they say. But it was not glory for all. It was only glory for some. And the gradual degradation of the privilege that characterized that “Golden Age” has driven white conservatives to the polls with an insistency that has ruled American politics for decades. Against this historically entrenched force, the rest of us have summoned only tepid enthusiasm for contesting them and the mechanism that they have put in place. Using the system against itself seemed an unlikely action when those who might wish to do it were already significantly disenfranchised from that system’s day-to-day construction and operation. In our private lives, the safe space carved out by patriots and martyrs has always seemed tenuous; better to be happy with your lot than contest and lose the little we hold. It’s a scarcity built of fear.

The odds are no better today; the structure built by decades of focused special interest stands untouched. The difference this time is the challenges that we face and their fundamental and frightening newness. But in the life-shaking momentousness of these challenges there stands an opportunity to regain our own integrity. We have a chance to truly stand by our own mistakes and to celebrate our own successes. We have a chance to regain ownership of whom and how we are in the world. We have a chance to choose courageously and honorably, to choose a new future rather than yet another version of some past. In so doing, we may be able to begin to earn the possibility that life as an American provides, possibility that we have for so long neglected to acknowledge, treasure and defend.

Growing Up
October 13, 2008, 9:08 am
Filed under: 1

I don’t know what to say.

I feel overwhelmed with my own absence of certainty. These few small things that make sense like tiny lights floating in the distance and the land between shrouded in darkness. And I’m either really exceptional or really fucked up. The only space between being what I do with who and how I am. And what I’ve done so far doesn’t seem like enough.

I feel like I do all this busy work, this time-on-task to convince myself that progress is being made, but it’s not.

All these hours don’t lead to anything concrete except the sense that maybe what I’m really good at is deluding myself. That I don’t really want anything as badly as I want to stay safe from these things that I fear.

It’s hard for me to countenance how terrified I am of people. It seems to show the false weight of my own sense of self. If I truly like myself and have the confidence that seems at times to flow out of me on its own accord, then what could possibly be worrisome about this world full of people? They are themselves and I am me and we meet in the middle (it’s actually the only place to meet).

I disengaged from an argument with my roommate tonight. I couldn’t see a way through the contrary opinions we had. I didn’t want to get angry or caught up in it, so I simply cut it off. He continued to antagonize. Perhaps not in the nicest or most useful way, but he refused to back down. And in the end we found the space between us and both came to places dwelling closer to a center. In the meantime, we shared a bit and cemented a slightly greater trust.

But I’m afraid this is my whole life. Perceiving difference, I cut myself off. Afraid to risk the loss of control that heaves inside of me, I isolate and quiet down. Better to stay out of the conflict and not offer up anything too real.

I believe in these things I want. It’s a boon to have perceived these things that I love so deeply. I believe without a doubt that writing and improvising are a fundamental part of the rest of my life.

But the steps I take to pursue them seem so pondering, slow and cowardly. And the progress I observe or imply or create in others is so staggeringly momentous.

Each small success for them another light shining on my own failure and dishonest effort.

There are also all these smaller pieces missing a space for themselves. And without a reason or output, their primary function seems to be sharpening the hurt I feel in moving through the world.

My ability to argue and zero in on inconsistency in reasoning is never so deftly and consistently applied than to my own statements of aspiration. My ability to articulate these inner processes that flow through us as we merge experience and emotions and affections into one fluid being in the world only raises more and more unanswerable questions about how and who I am and how and who I should or could or would like to be. My ability to sense authenticity in others leads me to fear their disapproval and live with this burning desire to connect firmly chained to a sanitized self.
I have this deep sense of gratitude for my life that only makes me feel more guilty for being dissatisfied with its progress and station.

I feel all of this so intensely. There’s a voice that says these are all small things. It scolds me for my inability to enjoy the amazing bounty of my daily existence, but the hurt – the sense of not-enough – continues. I hurt for what I don’t feel I have and for what I do.

The task of constructing all these things I need to accomplish seems endless. And my focus wanders, it yearns for easier prey. For being satisfied with time on task, regardless of real results.

I don’t know yet how to be happy with my effort, but genuinely focused on the goal. Or maybe I equate ‘genuine’ effort too much with success in narrow and imaginary terms.

I don’t know who to be friends with or how to be that friend. I yearn to care for people but allow my habitual fear of being opened up to quiet it.

Alone is perfect. Self-righteousness and confidence rolled into one. Why deal with people on any terms but your own? There’s no touching a sense of completed self. No losing, no winning. Just you inside your head.

The problem is that I am me literally every second of the day. And at times like this, I can hardly stand it in here.

I have to sit down and get it out. Put it in concrete words and sentences. It helps me feel – at least briefly – that I can get this self that I have out into the world. That I can get it seen and that out in the light of day the parts of it that are sickly and repetitively imagined will burn away.

My life is great. And I am proud of who I am. I am proud of the things I have done. And this is hard right now. I can’t remember anything harder. But if things got easier, what would be the point of continuing?

If I didn’t hurt sometimes, then I’d always stay the same. And being up here in my skull would be fine. So, there’s something out of sync right now. There is some space between the world as it exists in my mind and how it feels out here on the ground. And the best I can do is to keep pulling things out like this. Try to see them in a clearer light and pick out what’s to keep, figure out how to make this life what I want it to be.

A daily effort and a genuine goal.