ducks

“Hey, I got quoted in The Atlantic.”

“What?”

“I’m reading an Atlantic article about an AskMe thread, and they quoted me… OH WHOA, they blockquoted me.”

It was a good thread: full of compassion, laughter, and condolences. MeFi member dmd (identified in The Atlantic as Daniel Drucker) posted this question: “My father passed away this morning. I’m going through his file, and I came across JOKES.TXT … which contains only the punchlines. Can the Mind please tell me the jokes?”

He included the list of punchlines, and one by one, community members popped in to offer their sympathy and answer the question. (It’s worth pointing out that MeFi guidelines require AskMe responses to answer the question above all things; a response that doesn’t answer the question is promptly deleted. In a condolence thread, it’s possible that a response offering only condolences miiiight stand, but it’s by no means certain.)

By the time I saw that thread, someone had already explained the punchline about the ducks, but I was able to add a suggestion, and a memory of my own:

O9scar outlines the riddle above, but it’s worth mentioning that this one works best deployed not as a joke but as a casual bit of trivia tossed off when you see a V of birds in formation.

Person 1 [points to birds]: Hey, y’know when you see birds flying in V-formation? And sometimes one side of the V is longer than the other? You know why that is?
Person 2: No, why?
Person 1: More birds on that side.

If you do it casually enough and your friends are sufficiently curious about random subjects, you may even be able to use it on the same person more than once. I caught my own much-missed father with that gag several times. My sorrow for your loss, and thank you for that happy memory.

As MeFi member HotToddy (quoted in the Atlantic‘s closing paragraph) says in the MetaTalk appreciation of that thread, “What an amazing thing, your dad inadvertently arranging for your friends to tell you jokes all day long on the day he dies.”

My own father would have loved to be involved in this discussion — and now he is, through my memories and my story. I love you, Dad.

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A Serious Man

The Coen brothers’ darkly comic A Serious Man uses the uncertainty of quantum mechanics — and especially the unresolvable uncertainty of Schrödinger’s paradox — as a metaphor for the unpredictability of life, and the pains we nonetheless take in futile attempts to impose predictability on the inherently uncertain future.

Physics professor Larry Gopnik (Michael Stuhlbarg) is suddenly a man beleaguered — by fate, by coincidence, by a vengeful God? Who knows?

His marriage is in trouble, his job is in danger, his brother is ill, both mentally and physically (and sleeping, and seeping, on Larry’s couch), his children are sullen and misbehaved. Buffeted by uncertainty, Larry turns to his community, to his rabbis. He’s looking not for advice, but for something more concrete: for answers. [SPOILERS ahead.] Larry assures these studied, somber men that he can grapple with the greatness of God — that he too is a serious man capable of understanding, if only they will tell him why these hardships are befalling him.

If you believe in an omniscient, all-powerful god, surely it’s plain hubris for a layperson to think that he can, through a mere few days of application and inquiry, grasp the unknowable purpose of that deity’s actions. Job finally wailed his way into an audience with God and still didn’t get an answer, but Larry Gopnik thinks he can wrest one out of a few conversations with rabbis. The impossibility, the futility, of his task is emphasized by the very name the rabbis use to refer to the God whom Larry find so approachable: not Adonai, not Yahweh, not any of the names that can be spoken in worship, but HaShem, literally “the name.” Larry Gopnik cannot grasp the ineffable plans of the almighty; he must not even speak His name.

Larry’s field of study has perhaps emboldened him to such audacity. Physicists are able to fathom some of the great secrets of the universe and even represent them through equations, but Larry of all people should know that the ineffable doesn’t yield to cold hard logic and that not everything is knowable: his specialty is quantum mechanics, and the only physics we ever see Larry teach revolve around uncertainty.

In a dream, Larry presents his class with a breathlessly rapid and precise presentation of Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle, concluding as he writes, “It proves we can’t ever really know what’s going on.” The bell rings; class dismissed. As the students bustle out, Prof. Gopnik yells out “But even though you can’t figure anything out, you will be responsible for it on the mid-term!”

[Larry’s dream; audio NSFW]

Compare this with Larry’s comically inept real-life lectures: he tap-taps at the blackboard with his chalk, writing a complex formula and narrating his progress with vague, uninstructive mutters: “You following this?… okay?.. so… this part is exciting…. so, okay. So. So if that’s that, then we can do this, right? Is that right? Isn’t that right? And that’s Schrödinger’s paradox, right? Is the cat dead or is the cat not dead? Okay!”

A failing student comes to Larry’s office to complain about his grade, and especially to complain that Prof. Gopnik’s standards are unjust. He can’t do the mathematics, the student explains, but “I understand the physics. I understand the dead cat.” Larry gently but firmly informs him, “But you can’t really understand the physics without understanding the math. The math tells how it really works. That’s the real thing. The stories I give you in class are just illustrative. They’re like… fables, say, to help give you the picture. I mean… even I don’t understand the dead cat.”

And it’s true, he doesn’t understand the dead cat or the fables. And neither do we. The Coens have already reminded us of this in the opening scene: a period piece, a haunting little story about a dybbuk (or is it?) performed in Yiddish. The first 7 minutes of the film are spent with characters we never see again, speaking a language most of the audience doesn’t understand, grappling with a mystery that will never be solved.

Larry Gopnik is in search of a certainty that doesn’t exist. He wants some tangible proof, a measure by which to decipher the future. He’s a serious man who expects his intelligence and diligence to render the confusing, unpredictable world into something logical, legible, verifiable. Larry is not so different from his poor lost brother, the unstable wanderer with a dog-eared notebook scrawled through with an elaborate “probability map of the universe.” Though the larger secrets of the universe can be revealed by study and science, the smaller mysteries — the ones that matter most to us, our lives and our loves — are not susceptible to our tiny writings and equations, however hard we try. Our futures cannot be predicted with mathematical accuracy, and often they cannot even be understood as they unfold.

So, if the meaningful, fateful events of our little lives cannot be predicted or controlled or even fully understood, how are we to extract any meaning from this existence? I think A Serious Man answers that question in its 20th-century opening: from the 19th century shtetl, the camera hurtles us down a dark passage outlined in blushing light and thrumming with intense music… which turns out to be the ear canal of Danny, Larry’s adolescent son, who sits in class with a transistor earpiece illicitly jammed into his ear so he can listen to Jefferson Airplane’s “Somebody to Love” instead of his Hebrew lesson.

The song recurs as a chorus throughout the film. When Larry is at his most distraught — after his fruitless meetings with rabbis and lawyers, as he is crushed under the weight of accumulating troubles, when he despairs of ever finding the answer he sought — the song blasts out as the soundtrack to an erotic dream. And again, after Danny’s bar mitzvah (where he becomes, like his father, “a serious man”), the elusive Rabbi Marshak finally appears, intoning these heavily-accented words of wisdom to the stuporously stoned boy-become-man: “When the truth turns out to be lies and all the joy within you dies. Then what?”

As trite as it may sound, Jefferson Airplane delivers the answer: “You better find somebody to love.” This is the last message of A Serious Man: in the film’s very last moments, as the literal whirlwind (echoing the whirlwind from which God spoke to Job) bears down on a crowd of children milling around a parking lot, we hear it again through Danny’s earpiece: “You better find somebody to love.” And if that person leaves you or betrays you or dies or vanishes, you must find another, and another, and another: a spouse, a parent, a sibling, a child, a neighbor, a student, a rival, a friend. No matter what befalls you in this unpredictable, sometimes cruel world, you better find somebody to love, because love — giving love, creating kindness and passion and selflessness where there was nothing — is a powerful act of affirmation against uncertainty, an act of creation in a void. Maybe even a divine act: to find somebody to love.

widow’s weeds

This morning, Maggie of Mighty Girl transcribed a harmless-seeming (or harmless, depending on your mindset) chat between friends, spurred by a typo: widow for window.

In the comments there, I responded to her joke, a response that was half thoughtful and half visceral. Since a handful of people have clicked over to Macbebekin by way of that comment, I felt it was worth addressing here as well.

As a sort-of-widow myself*, with a sister recently widowed, and many friends and loved ones who have seen their partners die, I felt gutted by that joke, by the ease with which it consigns widows to a pile of anachronistic things.

That is not to say that Maggie shouldn’t have made the joke, or shared it.

Continue reading

fellow passenger

Almost twenty years ago, I sat in a half-full subway car on the O’Hare line, big sunglasses over my eyes, staring out the window and ruminating on some terrible news. I didn’t even know I was crying until the man sitting across the aisle from me gently, quietly, discreetly said, “I’m worried about you, miss.”

I smiled a little, shook my head, and told him I was fine. He nodded gravely. At my stop, we nodded and smiled again, both a little ruefully.

I wasn’t fine, but he couldn’t help me. No one could help me, because life sometimes brings sorrow and that’s just how it is.

Except that fellow passenger did help, just by reminding me that even strangers sometimes care about each other, and that the sorrow is outweighed by the caring. We are all traveling this road — at different paces and to different destinations, but we’re all on the same road, more or less.

I’ve never forgotten him. Thank you, fellow passenger.

maelstrom

Grief follows hard on the heels of joy. Our family has gained a member and lost one, in quick succession. It’s a maelstrom of emotion, mixing up love and loss and celebration and sorrow — and that’s just this week. Who knows what next week will bring? Whatever it is, we’ll face it together. That’s what counts.

We cannot escape grief, nor should we wish to, because grief gives gravity to our happiness; it shows us the depth of our love by showing us how we would (and how we will) cry for our loved ones when they pass out of our ken.

But for the moment, I am not interested in philosophy or rationalizations or the graceful balance of grief and joy: I only want to love my family, old and new, and offer love and support, to take comfort in our shared laughter and tears and stories and remembrances, to supply gelato cones and handkerchiefs and hugs and a soft shoulder, should anyone need it.

mailbox: a shameful secret

Having memorialized my late father, I must confess the dread, sorry truth that I kept from him as he lay on his deathbed. It was too horrible for him to face.

The dark secret is revealed at last: the door to their mailbox had come ever so slightly off its hinge, leaving the mail just barely exposed to the elements. When I walked down the long driveway and out the private road to the mailbox to collect Mom and Dad’s mail, I brushed a faint dusting of snow (or, sometimes — oh, god! — droplets of rain!) from the pile of envelopes and magazines before carrying them back to the house.

I never told Dad that the mail sometimes got damp. Knowing that would have been too great a strain on his mind.*

Shortly after Dad’s death, my brother-in-law J, a cheerful, practical fellow, rolled up his sleeves, yanked the old mailbox out of place, and screwed into place the shiny new mailbox from the hardware store! Yay!

Yay!

Hey… yay, right?

Not, as it turns out, yay. At least, not according to my mother, whose disapproval of the new mailbox came out in sighs and gusts of faint dismay. The new mailbox, you see, was a bit larger than the old one, and it somehow violated the, I dunno, dimensional balance of the previous arrangement. And this was bad.

How bad?

In my mother’s words, “Thank God your father’s dead. He would have hated to see that.”

My mother, whose words were in earnest, was understandably puzzled when sister Gaoo and I dissolved into (equally understandable) frantic hoots of laughter. For months after (and still occasionally, three years later), our conversations were laced with the phrase “Thank God your father’s dead!”

*And if you think I’m kidding about that, you never knew Dad, never saw him get agitated about a scratch on a tableleg, or coasterless glasses, or spots on a book jacket. A mailbox door hanging ajar, and his infuriating inability to do anything about it, would have made him wring his hands in futile worry.

memorial

My father died three years ago today.

Oddly enough, Elli is the one who reminded me of the date’s significance earlier this week, with a loving email from the other side of the world. But, of course, it was creeping in around the corners of my consciousness even before I read her email.

While the sunny-side of my brain was busy writing about John Donne and researching colonial foodways, renewing library books and organizing bills, thinking up dinners and planning Christmas lists, it was also fielding quiet messages from my mind’s shadowy side… messages that seemed to be obscure and insignificant memories… but when I look closer, I see that they all point to one day.

I miss you, Dad. I always will. I’m still finding jokes I want to tell you, goofy Christmas presents to make you laugh, people I want you to meet, stories I hope would make you proud.

I wish you’d met The Fella. He and I had planned to visit on that day, this day three years ago, bringing a Christmas tree for Mom… because he’d asked if he could do something, anything, to help her, to help you. I wish you could have known him, his fierce quiet intelligence, his wit, his impossibly good heart. I wish you could have seen how happy he makes me.

I wish… I wish a lot of things. But really, there’s not so much to wish for as there might be. You had a good life, even at the end of it. And you’re remembered with love and (never underestimate this) with laughter. I haven’t had a BLT since this one, but I think it’s time.

Fill our hearts with thankfulness;
Fill our hearts with grace,
Smile on our celebrations
And then bless us on our way.
HDS, November 24th, 2005