What we laugh about when we laugh

Whenever I’ve been asked to describe my sense of humor, I begin answering under the assumption that I absolutely know its definition. “I’m kind of silly and self-deprecating,” I start saying. This is about as far as I get before I start to second guess how to continue. My instinct is to continue, “I think it’s a bit smarter than other people’s sense of humor. Not in a referential sort of way, just in a more sensitive and observational way.”

It’s a good thing that’s not a vague description.

I’ve been seeing someone the last few weeks and he’ll often try jokes on me. When I don’t laugh, he seems surprised. At this point, he probably shouldn’t be shocked anymore. We have fairly different styles of humor. His jokes tend to comment more on mental models of societal groups. That’s my polite way of saying he makes jokes about stereotypes. He’s an equal opportunity commenter – Asians, lesbians, Jews, and feminists are all free game in his book.

I recognize that there’s a group of people who enjoys this vein of comedy. “It’s clever & plays on the peculiarities that we avoid articulating,” they probably argue. Maybe there are some comedians out there who do this exceptionally well. To do it successfully, I imagine you’d have to combine stereotypes, social commentary, & wordplay in a fresh way. These are probably the same kinds of comedians who ridicule the audience members who don’t laugh at the jokes. “Ohhhhhhh. Don’t want to laugh at that and get your liberal panties in a bunch, do ya? Come on, we’re all assholes here.”

Until recently, I haven’t been forced to explain why I’m not a fan of this kind of comedy. I think I’ve got it though. The way I see it, this vein of comedy functions primarily by poking at others. Beyond the obvious (making the audience laugh), I can only assume the goal is to portray the comedian as a witty, superior, and crudely charismatic alpha. I’m either too jaded or I’ve read too many books to not see through this. Whenever I hear this stuff, it’s like the comedian is offering the joke up and expecting the audience to award him for being so clever and ballsy to speak so politically incorrect.

The thing about politically offensive jokes is that if they’re not done well, it backfires and makes the comedian look insecure. These jokes aren’t gutsy. They’re simple commentary whose vehicle is previously established phrases and unevolved assumptions. Instead of uniting people in a shared experience, it divides them between those “gutsy enough” to laugh and the “prudes.” Call me idealistic, but I don’t see the humor in an offensive term or quip that reduces a person (or group of people) to single societally-decided negative characteristic.

We’re complex creatures whose narratives continuously overlap, but so much of our lives are spent focusing on obligations and frustrations to see that our insecurities and quiet humiliations are universal. The jokes I appreciate function on good storytelling and the comedian’s willingness to be vulnerable. It’s wry and sensitively self-deprecating. Instead of simply illustrating their own idiocy, the comedian is telling a personal story that resonates with the audience at an individual level.

Stand up

I’ve said this all without ever having done so much as an open mic, so that might weaken my entire argument. But that standup spotlight and mic has got to be lonely. Nobody wants tell a joke and see offended expressions and obligatory laughter. I’m sure there’s a multitude of reasons a person does standup, but the goal is the same: to feel connected. This isn’t an argument for easy jokes to get the most laughter. But if you’re going to do this at all, what’s the sense in seeking anything other than a genuine connection with the audience?

Coping with Winter 2014

I don’t mean to be crass, but this winter fucking blows. It started out okay – the snow held off till December. We had a white Christmas and the usual single digits that had everyone asking in that midwestern obligatory fashion, “Cold nuff fer ya?”

Then came the Polar Vortex. That was cool. I had taken a vacation (by vacation I really just mean a few days away from my cubicle – I didn’t go anywhere fancy or do anything terribly exciting), and the first day of -50 came the day I was supposed to return. I was terribly disappointed when my car didn’t start. (Dead battery, then eventual flooded engine – a quick and easy fix for my dad when the weather rose to positive single digits later that week.) I spent the day watching Netflix and crocheting.

Then we had a bunch of little snowfalls. Nothing significant, but just enough to grease the roads, flip a few cars, and make me feel guilty when I’m sitting inside while my neighbor shovels. There was a day or two of freezing rain that coated everything in an inch of ice. And now we’re on a second Polar Vortex – we’ll have a little break of this frigid hell tomorrow (a high of 14, with a real feel of -2!) only to return once again to a high whose real feel is -33.

I do not accept this as my reality.

I do not accept this reality.

My main way of coping with this winter has been to surround myself with lots of yarn. I don’t trust any Midwesterner who claims to not suffer from Seasonal Affective Disorder. “I just like the cold,” he claims. YOU’RE A DAMN ROBOT.

Because I loathe wet socks, frozen nostrils, and numb fingers, I’ve never been one for winter activities. I might go sledding once a year, but I’m too busy thinking about how pissed I’ll be if the cocoa in the thermos isn’t hot when we’re done. I survive Wisconsin winters by maintaining a delicate balance of patience, apathy, self-examination, and binge-socializing. Allow me to explain:

1. Patience Lifelong Midwesterners claim that they could never live in a place like San Diego where the weather is perpetually perfect because they like seasons too much. I’m assuming this statement is only made on sunny July afternoons while drinking a cold Spotted Cow. Without rose-tinted glasses, a year in Wisconsin looks like this:

Science.

Science.

As you see, half the year is taken up by winter (see “THE WORST”). During this time we experience bitter cold, disgusting amounts of snow and ice, and asshole winds (technical term). The second largest part (see “Gross”) is closely related to the winter; the environment and climate are reluctant to let go of the winter, showering us with cold rain that yields mud, dirty snow heaps, and a perpetual grayness. This Gross period also occurs directly before THE WORST, giving an encore performance of cold rain and perpetual grayness. June, July and August tend to be quite warm and humid (see “Hot”), we either sweat at music festivals, baseball games, or coolourselves near a lake. During this time we should be constantly hydrating, but we like to chance it by drinking lots of domestic beer. There are a few days sprinkled throughout the year, during which the pictures depicting the glory of our four seasons are taken (see “Not Terrible”).

“Not Terrible” accounts for all of the following: Pristine snowfalls where the temperatures hover pleasantly between 20-35, cool spring mornings that allow coffee to be enjoyed on patios, sunny summer afternoons not requiring perpetual hydration, crisp fall days with maddeningly bright leaves and skies.

To get through THE WORST period, one must have patience to get to the first Not Terrible day in spring. You have to lie to yourself. “The summer is worth this. The summer is worth it. The summer is worth it.”

2. Apathy The winter is terrible. It is. Just don’t think too much about it. But you know what? You’ll get to one of those Not Terrible Days, but it will quickly change to a Gross Day. And just as soon as the Hot Days come, it will quickly become Gross again, and you’ll be forced to go through THE WORST all over. You’ll keep doing this, year after year, and then you know what happens? You die. So really, just stop thinking about it. We’re all going to die, so who cares?

3. Self-Examination I like to use winter as a time to do lots of reading. In between reading sessions, I bake, occasionally go to the gym, journal, and watch TV. Most of these activities inspire me to look within: How do I compare to that character? Should I really be baking cookies for the second time this week? I should go to the gym. I should journal about going to the gym and how good I feel afterwrads – that will inspire me to keep going. Then the self-examination just makes me bitter and I watch TV so I don’t have to think about all the things I’d like to change about myself.

4. Binge-Socializing After spending a significant amount of time on self-examination, I get sick of my own thoughts and reach out to people. I realize I have friends I haven’t talked with in a long time. I start dating again. I resolve to do something nice for someone else once a day. I’m just so sick of being in my head that I can’t bear to be alone with my thoughts any more, so I decide to just surround myself with people constantly. Eventually this becomes too much and I go back to my self-examination period.

It’s not a perfect or complete set of rules to get through the winter, but I’ve done it 25 times now, so I must be doing something right.

This One Time, My Neighbor Told Me My House is Haunted…

You may recall that until a few months ago, I was living by myself. I enjoyed the usual luxuries one does without roommates: drinking from the container, letting the dishes pile up for a week, using the spare bedroom as a giant clean/dirty/smells good enough laundry basket, going entire Saturdays without pants…it was pretty wonderful. Without anyone around to judge me or suggest that maybe I make a meal instead of eat cereal for the fourth night in a row, I turned my focus elsewhere: reading, crocheting, avoiding dishes and writing blog posts. At night, I found I had to learn the sounds of a new neighborhood. Trucks with loose metallic cargo seemed to favor my bumpy road for cruising after 11. Dogs barked. On the early summer evenings, youths held campfires long past my 9pm bedtime.

I wasn’t surprised to hear creaks on windy nights because my house is quite old. My landlord said the bathroom originally had a clawfoot tub. The woodwork is worn and grimey – no amount of orange oil will make it shine like it probably once did. The doorbell doesn’t work. There are about a half dozen phone hookups in the hall and no outlets. Most of the windows are drafty. I can confidently say that this house was built sometime between 1900-1990, assuming ten years of error.

I got used to living on my own. Though at night my ears strained, I didn’t hear strange sounds. While I unpacked, I had passing thoughts like: “I bet more than one person has died in this house. And I bet none of their spirits wants me living here.” I’m a pretty rational person, but sometimes my imagination does sprints. I call them sprints because it’s just a quick idea that is dismissed as quickly as it arose. A loud pop in the middle of the night isn’t the spirit of a widow telling me that she is the only person allowed to crochet within these walls. It’s just the house – its materials expanding and contracting from the temperature and humidity fluctuations. The darkness I saw in the corner of gaze when I directed my attention to the other side of the room isn’t a ghost, it’s just a shadow. Basically, I’m able to tell my imagination to chill out.

For the most part, I really enjoyed living on my own, but eventually I came to a crossroads. When the weather got nicer, I was less inclined to work more than 40 hours. No longer working 50-60 hours each week, I found that I could afford to do one of two things: continue living on my own and maintain a life perfecting the art of isolation OR clean up the giant unorganized laundry basket and find a roommate and enjoy life outside my living room. My best friend had been searching for a place to live, so it didn’t take long to find a roommate.

Andrea arrived on a Sunday evening, and right away we started crocheting and watching Netflix. Because I had moved in alone, I figured my very observabt neighbor downstairs might question a strange girl entering my apartment. That Monday after work, I came home and Emily was sweeping the driveway.

“Hi Emily!” I said. “I just wanted to let you know that I have a friend staying with me for a while. She might be moving in, but it’s not set in stone.”

“Oh okay,” she said. “Thanks for letting me know. The more the merrier!”

“Yeah, she’s filling out an application and we’ll find out soon. But until things are figured out, she’ll be staying here for a while.”

“Was she here last week?”

“No, she just got here last night,” I said.

“Oh okay. Well I was just wondering because sometimes when you’re not home, I hear footsteps upstairs. Do you believe in that sort of thing? I hear things like that all the time here.”

Three things: First, when you said that, my first thought was not “OMG MY APARTMENT IS HAUNTED.” My first thought was “WHO THE HELL IS IN MY APARTMENT WHEN I’M NOT HOME?” Second, why did you jump so quickly from a friend couch-surfing to spirits who stomp around in the middle of the day? Third, why did you not wait for my answer before reporting that you’re constantly hearing weird shit in the house we share?

I sort of stammered. “Oh, I don’t know. I don’t really believe in that stuff. When I hear something at night, I’m usually able to talk myself down from being scared.”

“Well, I’ll tell you,” she said. She got that look in her eyes like she was teaching me something and I ought to listen. “One night, probably about three months after my husband died, I woke up in the middle of the night and there were three white figures standing next to my bed,” she told me. “It was a mother, a father, and a little girl. The were very benevolent and seemed to just want me to know that they were there.”

WHAT THE HELL, EMILY? YOU’RE SUPPOSED TO BE MY SWEET ELDERLY NEIGHBOR WHO LEAVES THE BACK HALL LIGHT ON FOR ME AT NIGHT – NOT THE WOMAN WHO GIVES ME NIGHTMARES.

“You’re giving me goosebumps!”

“Oh, I’m sorry!” she said. “You know, it was probably just a dream or something. It was probably nothing.”

I laughed and rubbed my forearms, despite the warm sun.

“Anyway, thanks for letting me know about your friend. I won’t be worried if I see somebody coming and going during the day then.”

I imagine the ghosts preferred my apartment empty.

I imagine the ghosts preferred my apartment empty.

I told her to have a nice night and went up to my apartment. Andrea was gone, so I couldn’t tell her what happened. To distract myself from visions of white figures and heavy formless footsteps, I turned on some music and read a book on the couch. About an hour later, the album had ended and I was immersed in my book when I heard footsteps. They were in the attic. All those cliches happened: my heart raced, I wanted to scream but couldn’t find the air.

“HEWWOOOOOO!”

No, that wasn’t a toddler ghost’s greeting. It was just Andrea. Somehow, her footsteps on the front porch reverberated to sound like they were directly above me. Or maybe the ghosts were playing aural tricks on me. It’s anybody’s guess, really.

For about a week after Emily told me that story, I was afraid to open my eyes at night. I frequently woke in the middle of the night, confident that three alabaster figures would be on the other side of my eyelids. A few times, I ever reached to turn off my bedside lamp with my eyes closed. Why does my anxious subconscious believe that ghosts flee when I twist the switch of my lamp? Probably because there’s never been any ghosts there when I turn on the light.

It’s strange, isn’t it? I spend the majority of my existence rationalizing the world around me. I appreciate that most things can be explained. Cause and effect creates a beautifully consistent environment. What would life be in a world without consistencies? Houses would be creatures, the pops and cracks in the night just gurgles of their digestive systems. Sweeping a driveway one day made it clean and dirty the next. Sounds wouldn’t travel in waves, but violet clouds of varying density, the volume based on the intensity of the purple. Life wouldn’t be based on things like pumping blood and brain oxygenation, but the mood of people who remember you, and your appearance would vary, a la Dorian Gray’s portrait. And just when you had one of these things figured out, another would change and throw your understanding of everything.

I like my world of reason and not many things fool me. But in the middle of the night my imagination allows stories like Emily’s to make me reconsider everything that has made me feel sane. 

Painting the walls and getting an air conditioner probably pissed the ghosts off too.

Painting the walls and getting an air conditioner probably pissed the ghosts off too.

Later that night, Emily called me to apologize. She told me that she should have kept her mouth shut and that she was probably bothered by grief and lack of sleep. I told her that it wasn’t a problem and that I would be just fine. “I haven’t heard anything strange since I moved in, so I’m sure I won’t hear anything tonight.”

But really, I was like, “OH NO, LADY. There are no takebacksies in this game! You said you hear footsteps when I’m not here. The seed has already been planted. I won’t see pleasant dreams for weeks, thanks to you.”

When my sleeping returned to normal, Andrea told me that supposedly Emily had gotten out of the shower to find DON’T BE AFRAID written in the steam on her bathroom mirror. THANKS, NEIGHBOR. Emily lives alone. The only explanation is ghosts. Or her grandchildren playing jokes on her. Or Emily is a liar.

Throwback Thursday: hey grrrl. wats ur screename?

Every Thursday, I dig out an old diary and share an entry sans editing (in hopes we’ll all see my grammar and apostrophe use improve) with a short commentary. If you like laughing with/at Young Ashley, feel free to use the handy search bar to the left and simply type “Throwback Thursday” and you’ll find the whole archive. Thanks for reading!

Tuesday Jun 5, 2000

Dear Libby, 

I just got off aol. I was talking to, like, 4 people! I talked to my friend, Keri, Benjamin, Tom, and my cousin, Becky. Right when I got on, Benjamin goes “Wassup?!” Then Tom, “Hey Ashley.” and then Keri “Hey!” Then I say hi to Becky. She asked me what I was up to and I said talking to my friend Benjamin. Of course she being my older and annoying, yet cool cuz, she says “Benjamin! Oh you go Ashley!” And I just tell her to shut up. So then there’s 3 other peeps sending me im’s so every other second and a half I hear electronic chimes. And right when I go to type an answer to someone, I’m interupted by another peep. 

Then Becky asked what Benjamin’s screename was. (Boy am I lucky I didn’t mention Tom was on!) I told her that I refused to tell her. She asked me if I wanted to her to ask him out for me! I was like, “NO!!!”

Luckily she signed off after that. Then Benjamin sent me an e-mail, he just said that he wasn’t mad, and that he was practically over Jocelyn dumping him. Then that he’s had a really bad attitude towards his parents, especially when he wakes up in the morning, hello Benjamin! Typical teenager!

Then I had to sign off after chatting with Benjamin and Tom. But Keri, I told her I was talking to three other people – she would not shut up! 

Then my aunt Laurie called and asked if I wanted to stay at her house for a while, so her I am! 10:30 @ night, laying on a yellow flowered quilt in her guest bedroom, writing in you. 

I’m tired, igg.

-Ashley

Yikes. Remember those days? Excitedly flipping between AIM boxes, choosing just the right lyrics for an away message and customizing your profile? I probably used blue comic sans against a yellow background, just to make things bright enough. Or may it was blue with fuschia. Who knows? Whatever it was, I’m sure it was really beautiful.

It’s embarrassing that I used the same program to chat with Brandon as I did with virtually all of my college boyfriends at at least one point in time. It’s probably for the best that I changed my screename constantly – I think it started out as Ashapapple229 (a supposedly clever combination of Ashley and apple, I guess), then to FiddleFreak06 (Yeah, we get it, you play violin and you graduate high school in 2006), SuperConnected 29 (GUESS WHEN MY BIRTHDAY IS!!), and eventually landed on YAYitisAshley (that’s what I assumed people exclaimed when they saw me sign in). My brothers both copied me. And some of their friends. One night as a prank or something, I was bombarded by messages from YAYitisCorey, YAYitisRyan, YAYitisNick, and YAYitisTATE.

The good news is that I didn’t end my conversations with any of my conversations with college boyfriends “igg” (“I gotta go” for those of you who weren’t cool enough for that one. I think around my senior year of high school, I started using correct punctuation and spelling in my instant messages, so that by the time I stopped using AIM, I was speaking like someone who shouldn’t be using AIM.

Good thing we’ve moved on from something as foolish as AIM and we’ve moved onto much more sophisticated technology like SnapChat and that one iphone app where you rate your Facebook connections on appearance to increase your likelihood of casual hookups.

Humans are great, aren’t we?

Nope.

Nope.