Today I spent fifteen minutes of my evening commute meditating on twelve seconds of dialogue from Parks & Recreation. The line “Well I doth proclaim to be a stupid fartface” kept presenting itself to my mind, and every time it did, I laughed, as if the joke were a magical orange that replenished itself with each fresh squeezing.
Come to think of it, the same thing happened recently with this story from—I was about to say Reddit, but googling shows that it is one of those stories that was spontaneously generated from everywhere on the internet at once, so no attribution is possible. Anyway, I was making the long walk from my cubicle to the coffee machine when the story flashed upon my inward eye:
“Today in math class I had the urge to fart. I thought that if I dropped my book and farted at the same time, no one would hear it. I dropped my textbook and everyone looked at me. Then I farted. Loudly.”
I thought about this seven times, and every time I thought of it again, I laughed again, like I was being drenched and then dried and then re-drenched by waves from an endless sea. If laughter had a second law of thermodynamics, this story would be violating it. The fifth time I laughed at it, I laughed so hard that I had to lean against a wall. How can the fifth time be funnier than the first? What about the law of diminishing returns, for Pete’s sake?
Was I discovering new, subtle depths of funniness in these two fart-related anecdotes? Were they inexhaustible in their comedic riches? Is it possible that they were in fact not so much stories as fitfully traced portals to a realm of infinite funniness?
I realize that when people ask a series of exaggerated questions like that, they are usually implying that the answer is obviously “no”, but I think the answer is probably “maybe”.
One of the things that people will say about jokes like these (usually when they’re done completely losing it, but sometimes gasping the words out in the throes of their laughter) is “That’s classic,” or sometimes just “Classic!” This expression might seem odd if you consider that the word “classic” usually means something old, formal, and probably difficult.
But what really makes a classic? Italo Calvino says that a classic is “a book that has never finished saying what it has to say”; and again, “a book which with each rereading offers as much of a sense of discovery as the first reading.” This is not because the classic has a very large amount of things to say, like maybe 1,000,000,000, so that every time we hear one of the things, there are still 999,999,999 things to hear.
On the contrary: the classic (whether book or joke) is, by nature, inexhaustible. When we enjoy a classic, no part of it is consumed. This is the case because to enjoy a classic is not to eat and digest it, but to bathe in it, willomy in it; not so much to drink it, as to be drunk by it, or even, if it were possible, to be wholly dissolved in it.
Speaking of Douglas Adams, this whole thing is summed up pretty well by something Grubby said to me about twelve years ago, regarding The Agrajag Joke in the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy series—a joke that is built up to for the first two books, reaches its climax in the third book, and reverberates until the end of the fifth and final(ish) book.
He said: “I don’t just want to laugh at that joke. I want to live in it.”
1. If every sound is potentially the product of some finite number of sine waves, is every barnswallow’s flight potentially the product of some finite number of perfect circles?
2. Which is best: dirt, a beetle, a chipmunk, or a sparrow? Is there a hierarchy implied in the series? If so, in which direction does the hierarchy go, and with respect to what is it arranged? If not, why not?
3. If a finch alights on a branch and bobs his body in such a way that his body moves while his head remains entirely motionless, why is his motionlessness so convincing? Why does the finch seems to be making a legitimate bid to be the only motionless thing in the universe?
4. Given an evergreen shrub whose dark green tips, after a heavy rainfall, acquire a shoot of brighter, more livid green, calculate the taste of the brighter part against your fingers.
5. Why does a jet stream against an azure sky dissolve more slowly the longer you think about death?
6. Given a parabola whose apex is the zenith and whose point of inflection is just out of reach, what would you expect to find at its end? Why is it always brighter at the periphery?
All answers should be given in jewels, Lieder (or, when appropriate, microLieder), inchworms, or Sehnsucht per square minute; whichever you found most of outside your window on the morning that the question first became pressing. You may not use a calculator.
The only options are boredom or exhaustion. Not that you are going to end up permanently bored or permanently exhausted; only that, unless you are committed to constant exhaustion, you will be bored at one point or another. The only way to make sure that boredom never arrives is to occupy yourself from the moment you gasp yourself awake to the moment you slump facefirst into your pillow. That sounds awful!
One solution is having a smartphone with games on it. I don’t recommend it. Dwelling on things unworthy of your attention makes you smaller, even if you do it while you’re pooping. Candy Crush is unworthy of your attention. It would be more worthwhile to focus on the poop exiting your body, to contemplate it the way a man sitting zazen contemplates the breath exiting his nose.
What is worthy of your attention? Nearly everything else. That is why I recommend the following games. Instead of making use of your fingertip on a capacitive touch screen to manipulate pixels, these games make use of your ikonopoeietic and imaginatosensory apparatuses on the universe to manipulate, or possibly to have, experiences.
This is a game that is good to play on walks.
You get points if you are right. You get more points if you are wrong.
This is an extrapolation of “Guess the Feeling.” It involves less confirmation, but is more purely creative.
Rejoice in the accuracy with which you can produce a sensation which no human being has ever had: for example, of plucking a full-grown oak, or gently stroking a mountainside.
This game involves a partner, but your partner is passive and need not be notified that he is playing.
If you forget yourself so completely that you lose control of your bladder, you win the game.
Yesterday in D.C., I met a man who, to protect his privacy and because I don’t know his real name, I will call Elmer. He was a fat man, dressed in green khakis and a polo shirt with small horizontal stripes. He asked for change and I offered cigarettes instead. The following conversation ensued.
E: So, I come from C_____. It’s much nicer there. The hills, everything. Just beautiful. In tourist season it gets a little crowded. Here, it’s crazy, crazy, people all the time.
M: Yeah — I’m not a city kid myself. I’m just getting used to having so many people around all the time.
E: Yeah. You know, it’s too bad though, it’s — you want to know what Big Brother is?
M: I —
E: Big Brother. It’s 1984. All these surveillance cameras everywhere. Traffic lights, everywhere.
M: Yeah, that’s —
E: And not just traffic lights. I mean everywhere. I mean restaurants, my apartment — bathrooms…I’m telling you, these people just — you know what they do? They see you doing something, and then they copy you, I mean they come up to you on the street and they do what you did, to make fun of you! And I don’t know why.
E: Yes, absolutely. They make a page for you on the internet — two days ago, three days ago, I went into a Starbucks, I went into the bathroom and I piddled in the sink —
M: [not interrupting]
E: — and the next day, you know, these two girls are walking down the street across from me, and one of them turns to me, and she says, she yells “Sink pisser!” And you know, these people, they make a page for you on the internet, and anyone can see it, they can see what you’re doing, and they come up to you and they even mimic your gestures. Or —
M: [not interrupting]
E: — the other day I was in my apartment, singing to myself, I was singing “Werewolves of London” and the next day when I was crossing the street this black fellow comes up to me and he looks at me, and smiles, and goes, “Awooooo,” just like that! Can you believe it! I mean this is hard to believe, that people do this, but can you believe it?
M: [stalling for time]
E: I know!
We finished the cigarette, and I am a little ashamed to say that I told Elmer I had an interview to get to, and had to be going. (This was partly true, though the interview was not for two hours.)
Elmer, if you should come across these lines — and in these latter days, who can say what might not happen? — my intent is not to mock. I don’t know why you piddled in the sink, but you must have had your reasons. I don’t know why the black fellow made fun of you — Werewolves of London is a great song. Anyway, you are probably used to this sort of thing by now.
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