I don’t laugh at jokes. Not usually. Hence my enduring non-presence at comedy clubs the nation over. I don’t dislike actual comedians deliberately doing comedy — lord knows I enjoy ‘em on podcasts — but the expectations their contexts set up make me horrifically tense and squirrely. In the presence of a performing stand-up comic, my entire body petrifies into a semi-smiley rictus as I laboriously, mechanically grunt out “laughs,” even if I actually find the comedian funny. Despite often enjoying great yuks at authors’ readings or more “storytelling”-centric events (such as a RISK! taping or a Mike Daisey monologue, although the latter remains theoretical since you need, like, San Francisco money to see a Mike Daisey monologue), I just can’t laugh in situations which, explicitly or implicitly, tell me I’m about to laugh.
How to put into words what does make me... not just laugh, but, in net parlance, ROFL IRL? Sometimes I get nailed not by jokes, per se, but “humor” in a broader, more tonal sense. David Sedaris’ turns of phrase score a high hit-to-miss ratio here, but I don’t know that I can trot one out meaningfully — though I’ve got more than a few memorized — without propping up more context than you’re going to want to read. (For fellow Sedarites: I think a lot about the way he describes Dupont Charles’ “hopeless State of the Union address delivered from an overturned bucket.”) That’s the more obvious type of thing I laugh at. As for the less obvious type of thing I laugh at, perhaps I can best explain by examples — specifically, by the two funniest things I’ve read this year.
One of the funniest things I’ve read this year came in the form of a tweet from Karl Haley, a.k.a Asymmetricon:
After leaving Andersen's Pea Soup this morning, my mom expressed what we've all felt for the last 40 years: "The food is shit."
God, just picture it: a guy and his mom emerge from Andersen’s Pea Soup — in the morning, and somehow picturing it in the still-getting-light haze of the early A.M. makes it better — then the mom suddenly turns and says only, “The food is shit.” And it bursts the floodgates on four decades of society’s pent-up frustration with Andersen’s Pea Soup. Andersen’s Pea Soup. For a couple weeks now, I’ve been cracking myself up on the daily with nothing more than a muttered “the food is shit.” I actually lobbied Karl to stop locking his tweets — to actively endanger his privacy — so that I could retweet this one.
I’ve also kept the phrase “killed in a bar when he was only three” in high comedionanistic rotation. Why? Because of one particular response to my staggeringly popular Ask MetaFilter thread about things we’ve misunderstood all along:
Since he was "killed in a bar when he was only three," I had no idea why there was a whole show about an adult Davy Crockett. Why was a three-year-old in a bar, anyway?
That question — what could a three-year-old have been doing in a bar? — gets right at what I find so funny about bits like these: they raise so many unanswered (or unanswerable) questions. Oh YHWH I’m chuckling too hard to even type this. How could Davy Crockett have become such a beloved character in American legend if all he did was die? At three? In a bar? Why would the modern television industry go so far as to base an entire long-running series around a dead toddler? Did they stage the storyline in some alternate universe of the Davy Crockett mythos where he... just doesn’t die in that bar at three, and then goes on to have a rousing, rough-and-tumble frontier life? Above all, why would they want to do that?
(A simple but yet infinitely complex “Why?” ends up being the main question about everything I find hilarious.)
Adam Cadre posted a resonant example of this sort of “humor” — that, at least to my mind, works much better than the genuinely crafted stuff — a few years back:
At the Berkeley Bowl I overheard a mother tell her little daughter that she could get a seaweed snack. The daughter asked, "Can I get two?" and the mother said, no, just one. The little girl replied, sadly, "But I love dem." I don't think a day has gone by since that I have not ended up using that phrase in one context or another. It's all in the delivery.
Soon, “The food is shit,” “Killed in a bar at the age of three,” and “But I love dem” will all settle into place in my verbal repertoire, to be dispensed in every possible situation despite their lack of obvious jokiness and difficulty to explain on the internet. I’ve also been getting a lot of mileage lately out of Vera-Ellen’s lament from On the Town that she’s turned out to be nothing more than a “cooch dancer,” but that one’s all too easily explained.
This may be one of the strangest post requests ever requested, but shoot: I’d like to see you write about your proclivity to close your eyes while talking. For some reason, that stood out to me while watching the video.
There are a number of subquestions that interest me:
Why do you do it?
What causes you to do it and what does it do for you?
How aware are you of doing it?
What do you think others think of it?
I don’t mean to imply that this is in any way a strange behavior, and I hope you are not insecure about it. If anything is strange, it is my interest in these questions.
This didn’t seem at first like it would open a can of worms, but hoo boy does it. Years of practice have geared me to explain this in terms of the sheer degree of focus and reflection I feel everything anyone says to me deserves — and even the interviewer who conducted the interview to which Justin refers asked directly about this habit of mine and framed it in just those terms — but I can equally and oppositely explain it by admitting that my social skills are teh suck.
Okay, maybe I just fear that my social skills are teh suck, but flip open a textbook on autism-spectrum disorders and see if it doesn’t call out a habitual failure to make and maintain eye contact as one of the redder, wavier flags. I hold up a little better at age 26, but as a kid I couldn’t talk or listen to somebody while looking straight at them without chanting the internal equivalent of “oh shit, oh shit, oh shit” and thereby losing my train of thought and ability to respond coherently. I do genuinely want to give peoples’ questions due attention and consideration, but figuring out I could exaggerate the physical element of that and not have to look at people made for a useful trick indeed. For a while.
But that only covers one artifact of the childhood I inexplicably spent hammering “IF OTHER PERSON, THEN AVOID” into my personality’s source code. If I burnt vast swathes of my sixth year of life hiding in my bedroom with Parsec, I burnt vast swathes of my first year of college hiding in my dorm room with DVDs of Paul Thomas Anderson movies. Because that, my friends, is what you move 1200 miles to UC Santa Barbara to do: close the door and hope desperately that nobody invites you to something that might interrupt your Boogie Nights commentary track, while at the same time hoping desperately that somebody invites you to something that might interrupt your Boogie Nights commentary track.
I don’t know who to blame for this, but oh man, am I pointing my finger wildly. The habit of swerving wildly around possible human contact has a way of persisting on a deep, reptilian neurological level, even though I haven’t actually wanted to avoid people for a long time, where “wanted” refers to a function somewhere in the part of my higher consciousness that, I don’t know, reads a lot of László Krasznahorkai. Or seriously intends to. By myself. Alone. In a room. O LORD MAKE IT STOP
Bizarrely, and unlike a great many young people with hundreds of read books logged to my name, I didn’t endure a childhood filled with savage mockery. I can’t even recall a single instance of mild, garden-variety, they’re-just-doing-it-because-they-want-a-rise-out-of-you taunting, despite my habit of — shockingly — carrying both tabletop role-playing game rulebooks and photobooks of the world’s various domestic cat breeds. To school. There I sat in the dining commons, practically demanding an atomic wedgie, and nothing — although this policy of voluntary autism might’ve prevented me from noticing if day ever came.
“I’m afraid your child is deeply autistic,” says a grown-up’s voice bubble from off the panel in one of Matt Groening’s Life is Hell comics, compendia of which I liked to shove in my backpack alongside Ninjas & Superspies and The Ultimate Encyclopedia of Cats. “Me,” thinks the surreptitiously listening youngster in the panel’s center, “artistic?” This has since become my go-to term for those who display the same residual behaviors I so despise and futilely seek to eradicate in myself. “Man, was that artistic,” I’ll think to myself after spending half an hour instinctively spending forty minutes looking for an answer to a question on blessedly unjudging Google that I could’ve settled in a simple thirty-second phone call to a living being. Madelaine favors a certain kind of paper called Artistico, long logo-emblazoned boxes of which stand in the corner of our apartment. “Ugh, what an artistico,” I’ll hatefully mutter to myself after my more flamboyant acts of social self-sabotage.
Anyway, to answer Justin’s questions, I’ll clamp my peepers tight (just kidding! This is the internet, where it’s safe) and say:
Why do you do it? Impulse
What causes you to do it and what does it do for you? The atavistic impulse to hide, and it delays an immediate freakout now while bolstering the greater, more existential freakout going on even now
How aware are you of doing it? I know it’s an impulse, but I do feel myself doing it every time, which adds another tricky loop of meta-ness to deal with while I’m trying to talk
What do you think others think of it? “I definitely shouldn’t give this guy any money”
Instead of writing about my personal history, I should have just posted Socially Awkward Penguins:
“Is there a word,” I Asked MetaFilter “for the fear that you're doing something wrong but don't know what it is? Though my searches reveal nothing, I believe there simply must be a name for the fear that you're doing something wrong that prevents you from succeeding (broadly defined), but don't or cannot know what that wrong thing is. Someone suffering from this condition might strongly suspect that they constantly commit and have always committed some social faux pas but also feel unable to identify that faux pas.”
This line of thinking probably doesn’t come only from my recent re-reading of Errol Morris’ “The Anosognosic’s Dilemma: Something’s Wrong but You’ll Never Know What It Is”, though that did its part. I don’t fear the Dunning-Kruger Effect, when “our incompetence masks our ability to recognize our incompetence.” (Though, by definition, how would I know to fear it?) I don’t fear that the world has secretly turned against me, since I most often hear that sort of grumbling from people too powerless in the first place for a world to consider entities at all. I fear being held back, and knowing I’m being held back, by my own mistakes, mistakes I can’t identify.
In the world of Leonard “Stinky” Brown from Hate, “Could it be that I’m a total asshole and never realized it?” Now, I can’t point to any particularly harmful tics, critical knowledge gaps, routine oversights, or bad social behaviors on my part — but therein lies the whole problem! If I knew what I was doing wrong, I wouldn’t do it, but as it stands my only identifiable evidence remains my total lack of success. I don’t need anything more to stoke the worst suspicions about myself.
The MeFites came up with these possible banners:
These all sound interesting, but don’t quite capture it. Suggestions? Try to let me know before my MacArthur Fellowship comes in, since that will probably make the condition go away.
Anthony comments on my push for 10,000 Marketplace of Ideas subscribers or bust:
Why do you need 10,000 subscribers to continue it? I realize you want to spread ideas, and that's not a bad thing, but you seem so intent on ending it without reaching a larger subscriber base.
Do you need that many people to justify its existence? Is this a self-imposed decision or was it forced upon you? I understand you're probably a freelance journalist and are busy and broke, but if you enjoy it, and your listeners enjoy it, there's no reason to push the boundaries of that relationship. If it becomes a burden then you can scale it back or pander for donations, or even end it. But begging for subscribers has always gotten on my nerves, regardless of the cause.
The only justification I can see for this is that in order to get more high-profile guests, you need an established reputation, and for a podcast, subscriber statistics are the best way to show that.
Strongly encouraging listeners to "recommend" and "share" turns me away. Nevertheless, I wish you success. I just hope you can attain it without succumbing to tired tactics that I've seen too often.
The long and short of it: because I expected to reach 10,000 subscribers years ago. At the current rate of growth, I'll die of liver spots before I can make a sustainable career out of this.
Interestingly, I haven’t had trouble getting guests of any profile; nobody’s even come close to asking for listenership figures. But while I seem able to invite any guest I want, there remain a few things I can’t do, the most urgent priority of which is to make the show without having to burn a huge chunk of my day on a job that has nothing to do with anything. To achieve that state, I reckon I’ll need at least the following:
Much soul-searching tells me that, content-wise, I have already done enough to achieve this, so the sticking point must lay elsewhere. (As Principal Skinner once said, “No, it’s the children who are wrong.”) I choose to heed the golden words of wisdom Conan O’Brien uttered during his interview on WTF (a podcast that, coincidentally, recently hit it big on public radio): “Get into situations where you don't have a choice. I believe that's the definition of accomplishing things in this life.” Hence the decision to rip myself off of whatever teat now holds me back and move to L.A., with nothing lined up, in exactly two months.
I’ve heard the question before, in various forms: “Why can’t The Marketplace of Ideas continue as a hobby?” Because nothing can. Maybe my own personal psychological weirdness causes this, but, broadcasting, filmmaking, or writing, I can’t keep any pursuit rolling viably as a hobby. But nor can I convert them into “jobs,” traditionally defined and separate from “life.” There comes a point when they must integrate with my existence itself or begone — and the clock’s ticking.
Given my long-standing love of film, my new but flaming interest in boredom (stoked by reading David Foster Wallace’s The Pale King and interviewing Lee Rourke about his boredom-centric novel The Canal), and my admiration for Manohla Dargis, I think I have a constitutional mandate to blog about "In Defense of the Slow and Boring”:
“Of course, what I think is boring,” [Warhol wrote in his memoir “Popism,” “must not be the same as what other people think is, since I could never stand to watch all the most popular action shows on TV, because they’re essentially the same plots and the same shots and the same cuts over and over again. Apparently, most people love watching the same basic thing, as long as the details are different.”
Warhol’s own films are almost always called boring, usually by people who have never seen or sampled one, including minimalist epics like “Empire,” eight hours of the Empire State Building that subverts the definition of what a film is (entertaining, for one). Long movies — among my favorites is Béla Tarr’s seven-hour “Sátántangó” — take time away even as they restore a sense of duration, of time and life passing, that most movies try to obscure through continuity editing. Faced with duration not distraction, your mind may wander, but there’s no need for panic: it will come back. In wandering there can be revelation as you meditate, trance out, bliss out, luxuriate in your thoughts, think.
Forgive me for invoking the same old quote from favorite director Abbas Kiarostami that I drop every dozen posts or so:
I absolutely don’t like the films in which the filmmakers take their viewers hostage and provoke them. I prefer the films that put their audience to sleep in the theater. I think those films are kind enough to allow you a nice nap and not leave you disturbed when you leave the theater.
Some films have made me doze off in the theater, but the same films have made me stay up at night, wake me up thinking about them in the morning, and keep on thinking about them for weeks. Those are the kinds of films I like.
As little as I want to approach an argument about the merits and demerits of “boring” movies — or, worse, “eating your cultural vegetables,” the subject of the opinion piece that originally sparked this dialogue — this talk does illustrate something I’ve observed in myself and maybe you’ve observed in yourself: I live in constant fear of boredom, yet I never actually experience anything that feels like boredom. Half the reason I don’t work as much on what I probably should comes down to a terror that the work won’t provide enough stimulation to keep me going. But everything always does provide enough stimulation to keep me going! But is it ever just a matter of the task, the experience, or the work at hand? Isn’t it more to do with my own mind?
Most of the time, I’ve accidentally upped my “baseline” stimulation level too much by, say, opening twelve browser tabs of terribly compelling audiovisual information and rapidly flipping between them, wallowing in a veritable orgy of meaningless auto-distraction. Get up that high and it seems, if falsely, like the labor of Hercules to quiet down the buzz. Only one way to avoid that hassle: keep the distractions flowing. Some forms of entertainment, such as the movies I don’t really like, do this with particularly freakish effectiveness.
Dargis offers this explanation as to why:
If you’re entertained, or so the logic seems to be, you won’t have the time and head space to think about how crummy, inane and familiar the movie looks, and how badly written, shoddily directed and indifferently acted it is. And so the images keep zipping, the sounds keep clanging and the actors keep shouting as if to reassure you that, yes, the money you spent for your ticket was well worth all this clamor, a din that started months, years, earlier when the entertainment companies first fired up the public-relations machine and the entertainment media chimed in to sell the buzz until it rang in your ears.
This explains a lot, for me, about why people meditate. Meditation — or any kind of voluntary deprivation of sensory input — lowers that stimulation baseline like nothing else. I groan a little whenever I hear a film critic call a picture “meditative,” and I groan louder still when I realize that they apply the word to so many of my personal favorites, but I don’t quite consider it coincidental anymore. These films, call them “slow” or call them “boring” or fall asleep during them if you will, both lower my stimulation baseline and yield their riches to the viewer in direct proportion to the lowness of their stimulation baseline. I find that one of the more rewarding positive feedback loops around.
Your mileage may vary, but the lower my stimulation baseline, the more interesting I find any given thing in the world. And could I go to far in arguing that the more interesting you find any given thing in the world, the richer life you lead? I don’t subscribe to the level of asceticism that dictates total severance from the need for stimulation, but I do expect good things from he who eliminates his dependency on any one particular source of stimulation — any kind of stimulation. The world is his, isn’t it?
I don't understand why you insist on forswearing the familial side of "grown-upitude" in so vehement and public a way. Of course, there's nothing wrong with not having a wife and kids, and if you wish to renounce them, that's your choice. But to announce that you are doing so on the back of "cultural responsibilities" seems a bit presumptuous and insulting.
There's also a major paradox at play here: you are frequently ebullient and effusive in your appreciation of art, and perhaps crave to find fellows "for whom any given work of Andrei Tarkovsky trumps even the most deluxe package of holy matrimony and reproduction". But what, about your favourite works of art, do you find moving? I'd hazard a guess that you aren't merely on some death-and-erasure trip, that your favourite works also push some of the buttons that reflect your metaphysical entanglement with love, yearning, fear, community etc., in short, the things that relate to your being a human being LIVING in the world, and the things (along with death) that give art its power.
And yet, you seem to imply that your ideal peer group would comprise people who renounce the same things that you do on the back of a "cultural responsibility". But to what culture, can I ask, would you all duty-bound? Would it be the a culture bound up with the world, or merely one bound up with art? Would you recommend that all serious artists be as martyrs - make these sacrifices so that others could enjoy their efforts? It seems that if all artists thought the same as you do then the only ones fully equipped to enjoy art would be those who had made similar sacrifices. And unless you're thinking in terms of posterity, even this would surely be untenable after a while, because all these serious artists and art appreciators would eventually die out.
I really think it's unhealthy to decide, as a twenty-something, that "cultural responsibility" betokens the renunciation of all the things you mentioned, as it is to wonder where you might find a group of Tarkovsky acolytes who would place even his most minor work above their wife and kids (whom, according to you, they probably shouldn't have anyway). It's not either/or; just look at James Joyce. Not everything is black and white, not all thirty-something dads are semi-bearded Spiderman fans, not all abnegators are artists.
That seems all in order. I don’t know if I find anything particularly “moving” in art, Tarkovskian or otherwise, but certain creators definitely impress the hell out of me on the regular. I shy away from making anything resembling a recommendation to “all serious artists,” or even a recommendation to “artists,” or even a recommendation to “people other than me.” (None of this applies to non-Colin Marshalls — er, non-this-Colin Marshalls.)
Colin’s observation that “it’s not either/or” checks out, though that he makes it tells me that I failed to get across in the original post that I meant to talk about two ends of a spectrum. On the one end, you’ve got the beardo dads (i.e., who take familial responsibilities seriously) who limit the bulk of their cultural experience to those directly descended from Marvel comics (i.e., who cast off cultural responsibilities). But why, in my generation, have I seen so little of the other end?
Of course I would want to read Geoff Dyer’s writing: operating free of career shackles to any particular subject (+1), he fills his books with formally distinctive (+1) essays (+1) about geographical self-displacement (+1); about culturally synesthetic experiences of visual, cinematic, and musical art (+1); and about avoiding real jobs (+1). He came up an only child (+1) and now enjoys ECM records (+1), cappuccinos (+1), Andrei Tarkovsky’s Stalker (+1), and not having children of his own (+1). So of course I would also want to interview him.
We met up to record a conversation on the balcony of a Sunset Boulevard café. As serious Marketplace of Ideas-philes know — boldly assuming such -philes exist — I refuse to summon the will to write questions in advance. Instead, I lazily spend weeks cramming my unconscious mind with material by my guest and, even more importantly, material around my guest. Then, come conversation time, que será será. But, sitting down with Geoff Dyer, I broke my own habit-as-rule, compelled to know one thing above all: how do you make friends?
However you interpret that question, you interpret it correctly. How does Geoff Dyer, specifically, make friends? I want to know that. How, generally, does one make friends? Yeah — that too. If you haven’t read his more personal or travel-oriented essays, I assure you they offer the impression of a man who collects pals like some collect those flattened pennies stamped with images of national monuments. In certain moments, he acknowledges the slight oddity in this: "I've got used to making new friends at an age when many people are living off the diminishing stockpile amassed at university," he writes.
But I stumble over the age less than that other cluster of attributes, the ones I share. I’ve met other only children who like their Tarkovsky films, their albums from ECM, their Thomas Bernhard novels, and their artisanal beverages. As a rule, we don’t make friends easily. In less sober moments, I sing the praises of my favorite elements of culture as tools to bring humanity together, to warm the pockets of frost between us all, but in more sober moments I wonder if these works of art don’t disconnect me from my fellow man even more often than they connect me to him. We endure the worst of this in middle and high school, a barren time that forces us to fashion identities out of our fleeting yet tribal likes and dislikes, but I don’t feel I’ve completely shaken that taint (to inadvertently evoke a disgusting mental image).
Another essayist, centuries older but still a friend-maker in his way, may point to the escape route. A couple weeks ago, I interviewed Sarah Bakewell, Michel de Montaigne’s latest biographer. I admire many things about Montaigne, not least having invented the modern essay form, but his lack of strong opinions really wins me over. In his work — point out the staggering oversimplification in this if you must — I see a man struggling so hard to be honest about himself that, in the process, he strips himself of his opinions. I’ve come to think of honesty as a solution that, poured on one’s own opinions, dissolves them. When we dig down to bedrock, claims like “I love Andrei Tarkovsky’s movies” and “I hate Andrei Tarkovsky’s movies” amount to little more than — well, grunts, right? We can’t credibly call them honest or dishonest, since their vagueness and rootedness in impulse takes them out of territory where that sort of truth and falsity applies.
Which isn’t to say that we should stop talking about the cultural products that attract or repel us. I just wonder if we should talk about them from richer angles than liking and disliking. In the best critics’ vocabularies, do words like good, bad, and any synonyms thereof have any place at all? In our interview, Geoff Dyer mentioned his current work on a book entirely about Stalker, in which — and only my own conjecture follows — he will not say “Stalker is good,” or even “Stalker is great.” I wager he’ll say something more interesting like, oh, “It's not enough to say that Stalker is a great film — it is the reason cinema was invented.” Hence, I suppose, the fact that I showed up to interview him, not the other way around.