Archive for category Humor

On Nothing Particular

At a recent G20 meeting

Today’s blog entry is about nothing particular, just some snippets and thoughts.   First, I love the above picture making the rounds on facebook.   The North Americans (Canadian Prime Minister Harper and President Obama) ignore or avert their eyes from the woman bending down to get some fallen documents, while Berlusconi and especially Sarkozy unabashedly enjoy the view.

I showed my class this after finishing a power point.   I also added this joke on cultural differences:  The difference between heaven and hell: in heaven the Italians are the cooks, the French are the lovers, the Germans are the mechanics, the Swiss are the administrators and the British are the police. In hell the Italians are the administrators, the French are the mechanics, the British are the cooks, the Swiss are the lovers and the Germans are the police.

Another oft shared facebook graphic.   Unfortunately they don’t cite the source of the stats, but I’ve encountered these kind of numbers before so I am convinced they are accurate:

More Stats...

It occurs to me that what Occupy Wall Street has done is bring the real and undeniable shift of relative wealth from the middle class to the wealthiest Americans and has made it mainstream and well known.   In the past most Americans assumed wealth was more evenly distributed then it is, that class mobility was greater than it really is, and that the wealthy got to where they are by working hard and having good ideas.

It was probably true before the massive de-regulation starting in the 80s; wealth and income equality were greatest in the mid-seventies, and there was a thriving middle class.    De-regulation and lower tax rates are not the cause of the swing — globalization’s dynamic contributed to it as well.   But the public pretty much went on believing things were cool as consumerism raged and people simply stopped saving and went into debt to maintain their lifestyles.

Now people are waking up to what’s happened, and recognize that the ideal of hard work and initiative being the key to success is losing validity.  Even people not necessarily sympathetic to OWS are starting to absorb the data and recognize there is a problem.  We live in interesting times.

Geothermal working well!

In another front, so far our geothermal system is doing well.   We enjoyed AC all summer for the first time (Maine doesn’t need air conditioning, but it’s nice to have!), and it’s been effective and efficient.  The one problem is that it hasn’t done much to heat our water, meaning the boiler still turns on a lot for that.   That’s not a huge expense, but we want to figure out if we can use the hot water generated here to better connect to our domestic hot water supply.   The cost of running this system seems to be about $30 a month, though the coldest summer months have yet to arrive (though we were running dehumidifiers in the basement in the summer so they may have been part of the cost increase).

And it looks like this May I’ll lead a travel course to Germany!

The course will focus on East and West Germany 20 years after unification — how has the country changed, what differences remain — likely with a week based in Munich and a week in East Berlin.   It won’t be a large class like the Italy trips in recent years have been, and I’ll be the only faculty member (rather than the team of four for Italy).   But it’s in my area of specialty, and we’ll get a chance for some day trips to places like the Alps, Ludwig’s castles, Dachau, perhaps Weimar and Buchenwald, Wittenberg where Luther started the reformation, and Leipzig where the protests in the East really took off.   Berlin is always an amazing city to visit.

Finally, kudos to all the Mallett school families (K-3) who attended and participated in the Harvest dinner Wednesday.  I baked some European brown bread and buttery pan rolls, but the variety and quality of the food was unbelievable!  Turkey, potatoes, pasta, salads, deserts…and despite well over 100 people in attendance, we didn’t run out of food!   Being involved in the PTA this year (I’m chair of the fundraising committee) is fun, especially since we have a new school — the old 80 year Mallett closed and the new one opened this fall.

The new Mallett school!

The school is superb — big classrooms, nice common areas, a good library and modern equipment.    It was built beside where the old one stood so construction could be underway even while the kids were still attending the old one.   That made last year a bit messy in terms of drop offs, pick ups, noise and the like.   But it was worth it!  Having kids in third grade and Kindergarten there, it’s fun to be active in that community!

So no particular theme today, just some end of the week odds and ends!

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World of Class Warfare

This is perhaps the best Jon Stewart segment ever — or at least in a long time:

http://www.thedailyshow.com/watch/thu-august-18-2011/world-of-class-warfare—warren-buffett-vs–wealthy-conservatives

and especially part 2: http://www.thedailyshow.com/watch/thu-august-18-2011/world-of-class-warfare—the-poor-s-free-ride-is-over

It demolishes the argument that slightly increasing the tax on the wealthy is class warfare, or the whining that “half the population” doesn’t pay any taxes.   (As Stewart points out, the bottom 50% of the population control only 2.5% of the wealth in the country).    This is classic, and it has punch.   It amazes me how many people are fooled by the argument that somehow the wealthy are being demonized (the Fox line on what asking for slightly higher tax rates is doing).   Middle and working class people are being manipulated into defending the wealthy.

I think that’s going to change.   The one quibble I have with Stewart is that he uses pre-tax and transfer GINI index numbers.  The post-tax and transfer numbers are even more powerful.   Enjoy the clip!   (And take it seriously — small tax increases on the wealthy are not in contradiction to true conservative principles).

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And Now For Something Completely Different

As a long time Monty Python fan, I have been looking forward to the fourth and final musical in this summer’s series from the Maine State Music Theater.   We buy season tickets every year and are never disappointed by the great shows put on in Brunswick, Maine.  Sunday we saw Spamalot, and it was fantastic.

They captured the essence of what made Monty Python humor so great, which of course is no surprise since Eric Idle wrote the ‘book and lyrics.’  Still, they executed it perfectly.  Daniella Dalli was a standout as “the lady of the lake,” and the rest of the cast donned Python personas and appearances almost to perfection.   It  wasn’t forced, it was a fun and when you left the theater, you couldn’t help but feel a bit happier, less worried, and a bit uplifted by a dose of silliness, music and humor.

All this got me to thinking about what made Monty Python such a great comedy troop.   Part of it was simple talent: Eric Idle, John Cleese, Michael Palin, Graham Chapman, Terry Jones and Terry Gilliam were all consummate performers and comedians.    They also had the benefit of timing.  Their totally irreverent mix of intellectual word play, slap stick physical humor, and social commentary infused with silliness could not have aired any time before the late sixties when they came to the BBC.   As such they were ground breaking, quickly capturing a large audience in the US and Europe.

The also turned their TV sketches into well thought out films, cementing their popularity.   In Search of the Holy Grail is an all time classic upon which Spamalot was based.   My favorite is The Life of Brian which is a brilliant yet silly satirical look at both religion and skepticism.   It’s still my favorite film of all time.   The Meaning of Life is also classic.

I think what stands out to me is that like all great humorists, Python made silly what society takes serious.   In so doing, they helped people see our own social norms, rules and traditions from the outside — they exposed the arbitrary silliness of what seems “normal” and got us to look beyond the perspective we grow up believing.    There were no sacred cows.

Moreover their humor was on multiple overlapping levels.   They’d be making puns about Marxian political economy while doing slapstick bits and mocking the Prime Minister.   Some of their most brilliant bits were easy to miss.   In Life of Brian Brian is standing before a crowd of people who think he is the messiah.   “No, you don’t need to follow me,” he tells them.  In unison they respond, “we don’t need to follow you.”  Irritated he continues, “You don’t need to follow anyone, you’re all individuals.”   They respond in unison: “We’re all individuals.”   Then one voice quietly asserts “I’m not.”

Yet while their mocking of all things sacred to society was biting and uncompromising, they were never mean spirited or nasty.   They didn’t get laughs by swearing or crude sex.   Yes, they did enjoy physical humor built around farts, vomit, and nose picking.   And, of course,  sexual references were numerous.   But they were built into the humor, like John Cleese and his supposed wife performing sex at a boys’ school to teach the boys how to satisfy a woman.  The boys, of course, were bored and acting as if it were math class.     And soldiers, clergy, judges and cops suddenly going from stern to very “gay” was a staple.  It was silly fun, but if you thought about it, it was exposing how silly and arbitrary those rules are that seem to define how we should behave.  In that sense, it was revolutionary.

To be sure, their thirty minute BBC show was of mixed quality.   Some of their sketches were much better than others, the task of putting together a show every week is intense.  But their films, and the musical Spamalot, really brings out the essence of one of the best humor acts of the 20th century.

Only George Carlin stands out in my mind above Python — and that’s not really a fair comparison because he’s an individual and they were a troop.  But Carlin did the same thing, using language.   He tore apart the weird conventions we have about words we say and use — as well as behaviors and social rules — by making fun of them.

And, when you think about it, given the ability we have to make serious arguments to defend any point, it’s hard to really convince people to think critically about what they hold as “natural” and “normal” through reasoned argumentation.   People tune that out.   Humor may be the most effective form of social commentary, and perhaps the most revolutionary way to change the way people view themselves and their society.

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Ideal Communication

In my last blog entry I started writing about the physical characteristics of humans, and got into a tangent about an ideal of truly honest communication.   I’ve had a fascination with human communication for some time.  Back in the University of Minnesota I saw a German film Homo Faber, wherein a man falls in love with his daughter, not knowing it’s his daughter.  To make a long story short, everyone’s lives get ruined because the characters don’t communicate.  Whether due to shame, concern for the other, or fear, they keep their real thoughts secret and the film ends in tragedy.

We humans have this great form of communication called language, but we could use it better.  Sure, we give instructions well, we can think through problems, and can try to get things we want.  We engage in lots of small talk.  But when it comes to really connecting with other humans and sharing what we feel and believe, we lock up more than we show.   How many families have drifted apart due to bad communication?   How many friendships fail (or never develop), how many lovers never connect, how much tragedy comes about simply because we are afraid to communicate?

I thought about this more today as I worked on my research.   New media is having a side effect of dramatically increasing the amount of print communication between young people.   In print there might be a bit more honesty.  Not only can one take the time to contemplate how to say something (not fearing it’ll come out wrong, or that the other person will interpret and not allow a full statement to be made), but there isn’t the pressure of having the other person looking at you while you communicate.  With print, you are in control of the message, it’s timing, length and delivery.   You can also decide when to read a response, and how long to contemplate it.

Yet while that may enhance honest communication, there is some reason why we fear being completely honest with each other.  Some of it is simple cultural baggage.   Issues involving sex, inner fantasies and personal habits often are areas people wall off.   We all need private psychological space, and freedom to explore our own minds without having to share it with others.   I think, though, we fence off far too much territory, and keep far more to ourselves than need be the case.  The reason is that people are both too quick to judge, and they are fearful of others judging them.

We self-censor constantly.  We self-censor communicating thoughts that involve violence or hate, often feigning collegiality when we want to kick someone in the shins.   If a racist or sexist thought pops up, we self-censor.  If we were an honest society, we could state our anger, frustrations and even bigoted reactions and work through them.  Now anything politically incorrect is considered offensive.   People are expected to be of such low self-esteem that they cannot handle a comment that may be honest, but offensive.   Self-censorship becomes a social and often a legal necessity.

Even outside those examples,  we self censor communication with others because we worry what they will think of us, or how they will judge us.   It’s easier to be safe than to open up.  In so doing we give up the most powerful aspect of being human, the ability to deeply connect and communicate with others.

This one reason why humor and satire are so important to our culture.   In humor the taboos are lifted.   Comedians can joke that they’ve not had a girl friend for so long that they’ve developed some interesting masturbation techniques.   People enjoy this not because it’s crude,  because it’s a part of life that we don’t talk about — it’s liberating to have someone talk openly about things normally not mentioned.   I saw a film where a couple are chatting over a meal, but a voice over showed what they were really thinking.  It was fun to watch, in part because we know that happens a lot.

In day to day life people learn to repress what they think and who they are, putting on a show to fit expectations of cultural norms.   Often those feelings and thoughts aren’t released and thus build up, coming out later in real aggression, anger, hostility or self-loathing.  What we fear becomes what we experience.  Humor is an important antidote to this, if we joke about things we can be more honest, and expand the boundaries of social acceptability.

It’s not humor that does this alone, it’s the fact that with humor we suspend judgment.  If an acquaintance started to talk about masturbation, one might get nervous, leave the room and say “that guy’s weird.”  But we don’t judge a comedian.   I saw a male comedian make jokes about a woman’s breast size — try doing that in polite company!   George Carlin’s entire comic career was built on poking holes in the ridiculous nature of our judgmental society.  That was key to his genius.

If we are to move to really improving human communication at all levels, we have to learn not to be judgmental.   I don’t mean in cases where people are being physically harmed, defrauded, or abused, I mean in terms of how we react to other people talking about things that might go outside social norms.   People want to open up more, but don’t if they fear that doing so will cause another to shut down, judge them, or talk poorly about themselves to others.    As someone who is extremely non-judgmental (that even shows on the Myers-Briggs test where I score to the radical side of “P” on the perceive-judge axis), I get frustrated by the way people get hyper-critical of others, often over petty things.   That just makes it harder to connect and accept others.

Key to this is not judging oneself — and some of the most judgmental folk are also harsh on themselves.  If one can accept oneself with all ones’ own faults and idiosyncrasies and say, “hey, I’m human but I love myself and understand my own imperfections,” then it’s easier not to judge others.  If one is harsh on oneself, it’s almost necessary to be harsh on others or else risk self-hatred.    Yet not judging others is not itself enough.   There are always areas where we need help.   We aren’t satisfied with life as it is, with a relationship, or with our ability to handle various life situations.  We may need help overcoming a bad habit, or dealing with bad decisions of the past.   The goal of communication has to help others and oneself — to connect with others, overcome difficulties and improve the quality of life.

Not judging is only the first step, it allows communication to open up.   The next step is to connect and communicate about how things can be better.     You could say there is an implicit judgment there — that a situation can be improved — but that’s a judgment of the situation not of the individual.     So to me, in my life, I’ll focus on doing my part to work towards better communication:  try to use humor as often as possible, avoid judging others or myself, and then try to understand and help others and myself improve situations.   Connection with others is important because no one can handle this life completely on their own.

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