From The Washington Post, my favorite map of the U.S.
From The Washington Post, my favorite map of the U.S.
From The Washington Post, my favorite map of the U.S.
“Hey, I got quoted in The Atlantic.”
“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.
My brother-in-law J. had, among his collection of tin toys and keepsakes, a can of… peanut brittle. Uh-huh. A faded, peeling, scratched-up old can, smelling strongly of basement mildew, promisingly labelled peanut brittle.
But when you opened it, did you find delicious peanut brittle, as the label indicated? You did not! When you twisted and pried the stubborn lid from the tarnished old can, HORRIBLE SNAKES would fly forth!
And I mean HORRIBLE SNAKES: musty old fabric, worn away with time, here and there the sharp spikes of the spring ends poking through. Even if they didn’t scratch you when they sprang out, trying to cram them back into the can was a tetanus-tempting chore.
So one Christmas, I bought J. a new set of Snakes in a Can. (Note: I couldn’t find peanut brittle, but apparently the Snake Nut Can company is still doing booming business; I was able to find one immediately at the toy shop across the street from my apartment.)
When I wrapped my Christmas gifts at Grandma & Grandpa’s house, J.’s daughter A., then not quite six, wandered in to help. I showed her my gift for her dad and asked her advice: should I leave the can in its packaging so J. would know it was a joke can?
Or… should I remove the wrapping so he would think it was a can of fancy nuts?
A.’s little mouth twisted in delight. Unwrap it! Take it out of its packaging! Let him open it all unawares! FANCY SALTED MIXED NUTS! He’ll never know! Y’know why? Because it doesn’t say peanut brittle!
She even helped me take off the cardboard-and-plastic packaging and wrap up the tin of FANCY SALTED MIXED NUTS prettily in tissue and ribbon. When we exchanged gifts the next day, I said “Oh, J., I have something for you,” and asked A. to fetch it from under the tree and deliver it, which she did, snickering and flicking thrilled, guilty looks at me the entire time.
J. put on his best poker face, accepting the present and unwrapping it nonchalantly, taking his sweet time and sparing me only one keen glance as he unwound the ribbon.
A. stood by, hopping from foot to foot, choking back her guffaws. Once, she almost fell over.
And then: “Oh! FANCY SALTED MIXED NUTS. Mmm. I love these, thanks. I think I’ll open them… right now.” J. leaned in toward his little daughter.
She took a huuuuuuge step back.
J. and I both almost burst out laughing. But we managed to hold it in…
… unlike the snakes, which sprang out into the room as A. and J. and everyone else started laughing. “Oh, snakes! YOU GOT ME!”
It was a good Christmas.
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.
Things I learned to appreciate later in life:
– sour cream
– Mexican food of all kinds. Now consider that I spent my formative years in Texas and only discovered Mexican food after I moved away from it. Awwwww, so sad.
– a sponge to wash the dishes. I still prefer a brush for most things, but The Fella introduced me to dishwashing with sponges and I have to admit, they’re better for some items.
– flip flops. I was a Dr. Scholl’s kid all the way.
– Matt Damon. I only started reeeeeally appreciating him during the first act of The Informant!.
– Barkeepers Friend. Boy howdy, everyone who told me this stuff was miraculously perfect? They were understating it.
– the gust of wind that sometimes blows, puffing out the curtains and stirring the air, in the seconds before the rainfall starts.
– making a balanced, delicious dinner seemingly out of nothing when the cupboard seems bare.
– when the season changes from sandals to boots, or vice versa. (But honestly, mostly sandals-to-boots.)
– cocktail glasses.
– wooden matches, the bigger the better.
– the heel off a loaf of homemade bread, still warm from the oven.
– the mute button.
– ginger jam.