December 19, 2012 § 1 Comment
I was crammed into the bitch seat of a Ford Festiva, the closest I ever got to perfection.
It was the winter of my senior year of high school, and I was pretty sure I had it all figured out: I’d read a bunch of Kerouac the previous summer.
Kerouac made me want to be a writer. He made me want to be an intellectual rebel. He made me want to be a spiritual searcher. He made me want to be a Buddhist. He made me want to be a weeping angel of hangdog grace.
And since I was still in high school, I could be all those things just by saying so.
So what if you’re on the football team? I’m a writer. No, I don’t have a book published—I’m only 18—but I’ll show you my moleskine if you promise not to read it.
And I’ve got to say, I find your suburban Lutheranism dogmatic. I prefer the spiritual freedom of Buddhism. No, I guess I don’t pray, or meditate, or go to temple, or whatever—but I assure you, I am a Buddhist: notice, please, the Alan Watts paperback that has accidentally slipped out of my backpack beside your foot.
I hope it is clear that I’m poking fun at myself here—not those beliefs. While I consider myself a Christian now, I still feel there is a wealth of beauty and wisdom to be found studying Buddhism, and I truly have no idea who I would be if I hadn’t read On the Road and Dharma Bums when I was 17. But in a comfortable suburban life without too many opportunities to test and prove my beliefs to others or even myself, I spent a lot of time on symbolic gestures I hoped wouldn’t just communicate, but also cement and validate, the changes I felt going on inside me.
And for some reason, there was a week during that February when I thought tying a karaoke microphone to my belt-loop and wearing it like a fashion accessory was the perfect representation of everything I wanted to believe about myself.
I had a tight group of friends growing up, 5 or 6 guys who all hung together every weekend of high school, playing videogames and listening to music we were sure everyone else at our school was too stupid to like. We certainly weren’t cool—there were no girls anywhere near us—but we weren’t such big losers that we couldn’t fool ourselves into thinking we were actually cooler than everyone: that the pop squad in our school didn’t actually know what cool was, that once we got to college, we’d already have all the right indie rock and avant garde electronica CD’s and it would be clear who was actually cool all along.
R was one of the first of us to get a car, and we’d all cram into that tiny, wheezing Ford Festiva like pubescent clowns: blotchy faces, awkward physiques, and big smiles all around. I don’t think I’ve ever felt as simply happy as I did in the back of that car as we all traded off making fun of each other and the dolts we went to school with, always rehashing and adding to our history of inside jokes. As integral as the seemed to my life at the time, I’ve forgotten most of these little witties—and like most wit, they aren’t as funny when removed from the elements that inspired them—but here’s one example to give you an idea of where our heads were at at the time: one of the most famous and re-referenced of our jokes had to do with the time B made a point of vowing to all of us that he would lose his virginity on his upcoming trip to Steamboat Springs; it only took K a few seconds to come up with the term Fornication Proclamation, which took years and years for B to live down.
It was with this feeling in mind that I picked a karaoke microphone out of the back of R’s closet and wore it out to Cheapo Records, Blockbuster Video, and Granny’s Donuts that night. I mostly kept it tucked into my pocket, but would pull it out at moments when I felt seized by wit, raising it to highlight how important the pun or that’s what she said waiting on my lips was, then turning it on my friend for his reaction.
At times, I’d wondered if it wasn’t wrong to be mean to each other all the time, but I’d extrapolated a nearly religious reverence for wit from what I understood of Kerouac’s spontaneous writing process: if some force beyond my control and consciousness plopped a funny into my head, it was my duty to say it out loud; wit was worth so much more than the sort of contrived statements most people made when they thought before speaking. Taking the microphone around with me was my way of showing the world this deeply held belief: this shared experience between my friends was something of holy import. Like Jack and his crew of Desolation Angels, our lives were a matter of precious record.
I wanted to start my posts on the dichotomy between wit and prepared humor with this anecdote, firstly, to remind myself that there is no bigger fool that someone trying to take humor too seriously. I think the me back then would be happy to be called a fool, and I must not mind much either, because I keep groping around for something profound to say on this blog despite never getting hold of anything better to show than my own ass. Being a fool is unavoidable, but I hope that by grounding the discussion in proof of my follies, I won’t be tempted to many quick, sweeping judgements.
As I mentioned last week, my original impetus for these posts was a quick, sweeping judgement; within moments of pondering the question, I wanted to prove that wit was always the superior form of humor. My main reason for beginning with the above real world example of humor in use, then, was to use it’s details to complicate that simple thesis while enriching our understanding of the issue.
As you can see in the example, wit can’t exist without relatively tight connections between the speaker and the listener. We were like a gang back then, with little life to speak of but the life we shared at school and on the weekends; I couldn’t see it at the time, but the other kids didn’t laugh at the same jokes we did, not because they were stupid or because we were the chosen witty few, but simply because they didn’t spend as much time in R’s basement laying the groundwork for all those connections as we did.
Further, it requires a relatively strong sense of comfort to be receptive to a witty idea—they come to us less often in unfamiliar or threatening situations—and an even stronger sense of confidence to share it. It was these benefits the group afforded us, I see now, and not any holy calling, that made us such exceptional jokesters.
I had good intentions, I think, in espousing a philosophy that was open to anyone, but in practice, I was just drawing thicker lines around our group: we needed the microphone because it set us apart in a way that proved we were more important than the jocks or the freaks or the band nerds or the pop squad. One of the few specific instances I can remember using the microphone was to mock A for hanging out with the popular kids in pursuit of a girl who hung around with them; as with the Fornication Proclamation, I think we were really just trying to keep anyone from leaving the gang, trying to protect that sense of comfortable confidence we’d built together.
We couldn’t all stay in that Festiva for ever, though, and it was probably my anxiety about high school ending and us all moving on to different colleges that had me trying to hold on to what we had with a fundamentalist fervor. Thankfully, I only wore the microphone to school once or twice the next week and then half-heartedly again the next weekend before letting go of the phase. It wasn’t going to keep A from falling in love and it wasn’t going to keep time from passing. Nothing could keep our group together forever, especially since none of them seemed to want to chase after the wild literary life with me in college: as close as we were, I couldn’t get any of them to want to be the Ginsburg to my Kerouac. I couldn’t even get them to read Kerouac.
I’m happy to say I’m still close friends with almost all of the guys, but I don’t think we’ve ever been as close as we were when crammed into that Festiva. How could we be while trying to grow and explore the larger world, building adult lives for ourselves? As we all moved into the larger world, we had to turn our backs on our inside jokes, and I learned the value of a good prepped joke in an unfamiliar, high-pressure situation—which we’ll discuss in the next post in this series.