Sunday, November 29, 2009

The School of Ted Kennedy Humor

In the film "When Harry Met Sally," one of my favorite jokes occurs when Billy Crystal's character tells Bruno Kirby's character (we miss you, Bruno Kirby) about the new woman he is dating. He illustrates her relative youth by saying, "When I asked her where she was when Kennedy was shot she said, 'Ted Kennedy was shot?'"

But ever since Ted Kennedy's death on August 25th of this year, I have been thinking about that joke differently. True, Senator Kennedy did not die because of gun violence. But the joke also worked because he was alive - and more than just alive, a stalwart, dependable in his endurance.

I think there should be a name for when events cause the fundamental humor behind a joke to transform overnight.

December? That's Far Away!

It's the 29th of November, but December, with its intimations of holidays and school breaks, might still seem like a long way off. What happens to our brains when contemplating calendar changes? Why does December sound farther away than Tuesday?

Monday, June 22, 2009

Voting vs. Making Babies

A few years ago, I think in 2004 for that presidential election, Paul Krugman wrote an editorial about voting. If we all think that our individual vote will make a difference in the results, he wrote (I paraphrase), then it will. Projected collective?

But what about the opposite mindset, the one that says, I know this issue is a problem and that, by my actions, I'm contributing to the problem. But I'm only one person. So my impact isn't that great.
We can justify a lot through that perspective: polluting the environment through travel, using products that will end up in landfills, eating meat when the process consumes tremendous amounts of the earth's energy and resources, even giving birth when there are already children alive, in need of care.

The mix of freedom, rationalization, and emotional distance is a powerful one.

Thursday, May 14, 2009

It Makes All the Difference (With Apologies to Al Gore)

Metro, the Seattle city bus service, started running a series of ads last summer that are deceptively simple. They each feature one person, smiling out at the world, with the words, "I do make a difference by riding the bus," printed in large type. At the bottom of the rectangular ads, posted on the outside of buses, are the words, "Travel Green. Get On Board."

Simple, right? Appeal to people's desire to help the environment AND feel good about the same time!

But do environmental concerns lead to greater ridership, and can they account for the motivations of current riders?

In Transit, the newsletter for King County Metro Transit employees, did not address these questions in its July/August 2008 article about the new ads. "We all benefit from cleaner air and healthier living conditions when people choose to use Metro services," the unattributed article states. (In Transit is edited by Anna Clemenger). True. But, ideally, riders can also save on car expenses, Metro can bring in more revenue, and transit operators can have greater job security when people choose Metro.

I want a name for focusing on one motivation for a decision to the exclusion of a far likelier motivation. Why doesn't Metro run a series of ads with smiling people proclaiming, "I do make a difference by riding the bus - I save money"?

Friday, March 20, 2009

The Terry O'Quinn Phenomenon

What do you think of when you hear or see the words "John Locke"? Do you think of ideas like the social contract or the time of the Enlightenment? Do you think of a dead guy sometimes depicted as having white hair? Or do you think of a tall, muscular, bald actor on a hit TV show?

In my last post I talked about the phenomenon of knowing a derivative before an original. What happens when large portions of society have this experience?

A friend once quoted the movie "My Best Friend's Wedding" as being the source of "This too shall pass." I never went to church as a child, and even I knew that this phrase was older than Julia Roberts' career.

But does it really matter if we don't credit the Bible where credit is due? What harm is done, especially if it's an honest mistake? Besides, the Bible, like any old work, has been the inspiration for countless other works. Those can be enjoyed without knowing their source.

But from Kurt Vonnegut and his Paul Proteus to J.K. Rowling and her Dolores Umbridge, creators are winking at us knowingly when they name their characters, when they make allusions, and they're trying to say something larger about the universe they've constructed. What happens when we don't get the reference?

Tuesday, March 10, 2009

When The Cover Song is The First One You Hear

A few years ago, my brother made me a mix CD of people performing covers - Billy Corgan singing "Landslide," K.D. Lang singing "Joker," etc. My favorite was Toots and the Maytals doing "Country Roads." West Jamaica!

Another song I loved off of this album was Social Distortion's version of "Ring of Fire." I'd never heard Johnny Cash sing it, and when I did, out of a jukebox at a bar, I thought it was too slow and, well, kind of boring. The fact that I had made it to my mid-twenties without becoming familiar with Johnny Cash was seen by some friends as blasphemous in and of itself. But to not like "Ring of Fire"?

I know I'm not alone. My mother knew the Fifth Dimension's version of "Wedding Bell Blues" before she knew that Laura Nyro had done it first.

We all have first loves. But sometimes your first love isn't technically first.

Thursday, March 5, 2009

The Sound of One Mouth Yapping

Yesterday on the bus I overheard a young man on his cell phone telling someone that he had agreed to let a stranger shave his head and that he was going to get $150 for it. Intrigued, I actively tried to listen, to learn more.

Why was this one-sided conversation not annoying or grating? Was it merely a matter of volume and content - he spoke at a normal level and had unusual things to say - or was he just a fluke exception to my hypothesis: a pair of people talking on the bus is never as annoying as the sound of one person on his cell phone?

I would like to see a study wherein participants must ride a bus and listen to two people talk in the next seat and then listen to one person talk on her cell phone. It would be the same conversation topic, with some identical words or phrases, and then the participants would rate their level of annoyance. I would like to see if my theory holds up.

And then there's the otherwise-charming kid who emitted the sound "Ahhh" continuously for 3 minutes on the # 5 yesterday. You win, kid.

Tuesday, March 3, 2009

The Near Mistake

When I get ready to send a text message, sometimes I notice that the person to whom I want to send it is immediately preceded or followed in my phone book by someone who I would absolutely NOT want to receive that message. This same danger lurks in many filing systems and of course in the common "reply" and "reply all" email option.

The way I see it, there are two terms here waiting to be named:

-The incongruities provided by some items in proximity. Even the national weather listings in the newspaper can provide this feeling. Miami and Milwaukee, anyone?

-The fear, before, during or after the fact, that your action will be done to the nearby thing and not the intended recipient. Shivers!


Many times over the years I have turned to a friend and said, "There should be a name for -" followed by a description of a situation, combination of emotions or event that I couldn't think of the name for. Of course, in any given moment I may just be ignorant of the relevant terminology. Feel free to submit the vocabulary I'm missing - or the word you think would make the best label, or your own ideas for Things that Need Names. Thanks!