As I reflect on the past year and look toward the new one with perennial resolve . . . to resolve, one of Nick Carraway’s lines from F. Scott Fitzgerald’s “The Great Gatsby” comes to mind “. . . tomorrow we will run faster, stretch out our arms farther . . .”
It was seventy-four years ago this week (December 29th, 1937) that one of Fitzgerald’s literary contemporaries passed away.
Don Marquis was a celebrated columnist, author, playwright, poet and oft-quoted wit. Like Fitzgerald, he was a product of the mid-west and his work was rich with incisive, American social commentary.
I think this anthropomorphistic poem has a certain relevance to those fresh pages on which we’re poised to write the coming year.
Wishing you a thoughtful and meaningful 2012.
the lesson of the moth
i was talking to a moth
the other evening
he was trying to break into
an electric light bulb
and fry himself on the wires
why do you fellows
pull this stunt i asked him
because it is the conventional
thing for moths or why
if that had been an uncovered
candle instead of an electric
light bulb you would
now be a small unsightly cinder
have you no sense
plenty of it he answered
but at times we get tired
of using it
we get bored with the routine
and crave beauty
fire is beautiful
and we know that if we get
too close it will kill us
but what does that matter
it is better to be happy
for a moment
and be burned up with beauty
than to live a long time
and be bored all the while
so we wad all our life up
into one little roll
and then we shoot the roll
that is what life is for
it is better to be a part of beauty
for one instant and then cease to
exist than to exist forever
and never be a part of beauty
our attitude toward life
is come easy go easy
we are like human beings
used to be before they became
too civilized to enjoy themselves
and before i could argue him
out of his philosophy
he went and immolated himself
on a patent cigar lighter
i do not agree with him
myself i would rather have
half the happiness and twice
but at the same time i wish
there was something i wanted
as badly as he wanted to fry himself
— Don Marquis —
Originally from 2011, but Christmas comes every year, so welcome. You might want to check out these holiday-themed pieces:
by Matt Powell
by Caroline Sposto
by Matt Powell
by David Olsen
by Steve Brykman
by Michael Giles Purgason
One of my favorite Christmas tales, from David Sedaris, on traditions of other places, including Santa in the Netherlands:
Also, hear him read from his Santaland Diaries.
And see below for some Christmas themed political cartoons (updated for 2013!):
The holiday season is, of course, upon us. A time when brothers and sisters come together to divvy up the sober driver duties for their many mandatory family parties. (You and your loved ones may have other traditions.) A time when the unlikeliest of music becomes unavoidable. No, I am not talking about Susan Boyle’s inspirational (?) versions of Lou Reed’s “Perfect Day” and Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah” on her Christmas album The Gift. (Although she should have called it The Re-Gift, because let’s be honest…)
I am thinking instead of the perennial “Santa Claus Is Coming to Town.” As I’m sure that you, too, have felt with a kind of shiver completely unrelated to winter weather, the lyrics to this holiday favorite make Santa seem almost tyrannical in his tireless vigilance. “You better watch out,” it begins. But for what?! At least the next lines – “You better not pout / You better not cry” – offer a very specific rebuke to whiners and brats, but the fact that Santa is not something to eagerly await and watch for but to “what out for” makes him less a benefactor than a dictator. Less Tomie dePaola, more Brian De Palma. I guess the implication is that you better watch out for Santa watching you, at which point we may as well be in a Pynchon novel or a Police song.
In other words, Santa is like a heftier, jollier version of a spy drone. He flies around in his sleigh undetected – um, we’ve even got NORAD working on it – and although you never see him, he sees you when you’re both sleeping and awake (i.e. always) and knows when you’ve been both bad and good (i.e. everything). In this light, getting a wood-burning kit or a Kindle Fire hardly seems to make up for another year’s worth of despotic surveillance, to say nothing of the attendant paranoia that this song all but recommends.
I’m not the first to make this connection between Santa and a spy drone, however, as the following recent cartoons attest:
Also, did you know that there’s a war on?
This year, I finally did it. I caved. I welcomed Christmas into my home. Despite that I am Jewish and my wife claims to be “opposed to all forms of organized religion,” our house is now also home to a 1/4-sized Xmas tree — illuminated, ornamented, and tinseled to the hilt. Two enormous stockings, appropriately stuffed and festooned, hang from our gas-fireplace mantle, atop which sit boughs of holly and fake hemlock, intertwined with more twinkling lights. Lastly, an elf-on-the-shelf sits (where else?) on the bookshelf beside the TV, just below the Buddha, a gift from my adorable sister-in-law.
Now, before you go congratulating me on a successful assimilation, consider this. I had to do it. I had no choice in the matter. The reason? You guessed it. The kids, of course. Because let’s face it, when it comes to winter-solstice holidays, us pathetic meddling Jews got nothing on you kitschy, ubiquitous Christians.
Sure, you guys got the Son of God and the whole Wise Men spiel and the beatific Virgin Mother but as you and I well know that’s not what sells it. It’s all about the fat guy with the hippie beard who breaks into your house, eats your cookies, and leaves behind everything you ever wanted, all your hopes and dreams.
For Christ’s sake, your holiday literally boosts the entire US economy! Anti-Christmas is anti-American! It’s no wonder everyone got so pissed when Walmart decided to start going with “Happy Holidays.” They had every right to be upset. I mean, those fat-cats put the entire country in jeopardy! The ruination of Christmas is one of every sensible American’s greatest fears, right up there with public speaking and public nudity. Christmas goes down, the almighty dollar goes down with it. Thank God Walmart recognized the error of its ways. Thank God it overcame its “fear” (Walmart’s word, not mine) of the rest of us and rescued the economy from certain collapse by definitively going back to their former, more correct, “Merry Christmas” greeting!
Now, if they could only stop killing babies with their Chinese formula, we’d really be onto something.
Just imagine what might have happened had they kept on with their left-wing “Happy Holidays” nonsense and all of us all of a sudden started forgetting about Christmas and just figured there was some unidentifiable holiday that happened about this time each year. Maybe it was meant for us, maybe not, nobody could really remember. Thanks a lot, Walmart!! Thanks for almost screwing it up for everybody!
Maybe you think I’m talking out of turn, this idea that we could all somehow forget about Christmas. Well, chew on this. The atheists are poised to strike! And Glory be to Fox News for keeping us abreast of the Godless menace that walks among us. For, just this year, in Los Angeles, we experienced a major “Christmas Controversy,” when atheist displays forced Nativity scenes out of Palisades Park. Santa Monica had allocated the spots via lottery. The Christians put in one bid and got two spots, the atheists, with 11 bids, got 18. And what did the atheists do with all that sacred space? Why, just what you’d expect them to do—nothing! In all of their 18 spots, the atheists have erected three potted plants, two paltry signs, and not a single partridge in a pear tree. As a result, well, let’s just say there’s not a lot of Santa in Santa Monica this year! Christmas-related purchasing in the city is down a full 75% and overall Church attendance has dropped by a depressing 98%. The local economy is in shambles. There is talk of shutting down the town entirely.
But I digress.
Jews and their Chanukah shopping, meanwhile, provide only the merest bump to the economy: specifically in the beeswax sector, along with an almost imperceptible rise in jelly donut profits. Our holidays, as a national budgetary concern, are inconsequential. Because what do we get on our beloved winter solstice celebration? If we’re lucky, we get 8 presents. Your people get about a thousand. I know how it works. I’ve seen what happens: gifts come in from all over the country and by the time Christmas Day rolls around it’s like the season finale of Hoarders.
And while you irradiate the cold night skies with the glow of countless twinkling lights, we strain our backs pulling out the family’s old cast iron candleholder, all just to celebrate the fact that four thousand years ago some guy scored a week’s-worth of free oil. And, lo, what a bargain it was! And to make matters worse, we don’t have twelve kinds of dessert, either! Figgy pudding? We got chocolate money and a four-sided top—a gambling toy. Why? So you can win more chocolate money!
What I’m saying is this: given a choice, what kid in his right mind would choose it?
Choosing to be Jewish?? Why, it’s unheard of! That’s like choosing to be gay!
But don’t get me wrong. My beef is not with Jews adopting Christmas. The best among us have done it. My Christmas Spotify playlist is composed entirely of songs by Irving Berlin, Paul Simon, Neil Diamond, Barbra Streisand, the Beastie Boys, Barry Manilow, Bob Dylan, and one of the Ramones. I’m not a monster. I like to make my kids happy. I don’t want them to run around all day wondering why our house isn’t lit up all crazy like the neighbors..or why Santa doesn’t like to give presents to the Hebrews..or why we haven’t gone out and killed a tree for Jesus like everyone else.
I got nothing against Christmas. Hell, I don’t even mind the month-long pummeling of well-wishes and good-cheer tidings. My problem is simply that Christians haven’t met us half-way on this one. They haven’t co-opted any of our Chanukah stuff. Because if what my wife tells me is true—that the Christmas Tree and all its accoutrements are originally Pagan traditions—then what’s the big deal with stealing one more?
So I appeal to you now, Ye Merry Christians of America!! Please. Why not celebrate our common roots, this year, and incorporate a little Judaica into your Christmas Season? This year, why not go ahead and spin a dreidel? Eat a latka. Put on an old Woody Allen record.
What could it hurt, right?
Chappy Cholidays, everyone!!!
PLEASE NOTE: This is a call for papers that is long past. Up-to-date information about the activities of the American Humor Studies Association can be found on its new webpage. Please visit us by clicking on the bold red link.
Yours in laughter,
DEADLINE: January 15
CALL FOR PAPERS
American Literature Association
23rd Annual Conference
May 24-27, 2012
San Francisco, CA
American Humor Studies Association
The AHSA hopes to sponsor two sessions at the 2012 national meeting. We seek cogent, provocative, well-researched papers on the following subjects:
1. “Humor, comedy, wit: what can these words mean now?” Abstracts (300 words max.) are encouraged which seek to refresh and clarify fundamental terminology in humor studies, or to shed light on the recent history of those terms.
2. “Humor as American Cultural Practice.” Abstracts (300 words max.) are encouraged on how the history of comic discourses can and should figure into broader constructions of literary, political, and cultural history.
Please e-mail abstracts no later than January 15, 2012 to Bruce Michelson (firstname.lastname@example.org<mailto:email@example.com> ) with the subject line: “AHSA session, 2012 ALA.” Notifications will go out no later than January 20, 2012.
A journalist once asked actress Sophia Loren to explain the secret to her long, happy marriage. She reflected for a moment. “I have no explanation,” she finally said. “If you want to dissect something, you have to kill it first.” In that same spirit, I bring you this “only in America” holiday video with no analysis. (Thanks to my surname, I can post it without blinking.) Of course, if you have any pointed insights you wish to share, your comments are welcome.
Joy to the world. God Bless us everyone. . . . fa-la-la-la-la, let’s lighten up . . .
. . . For better or worse, songs are poems.
“Dominick the Donkey” was written by Richard Allen, Sam Saltzberg and Lou Monte, an Italian-American singer best know for novelty records. It charted at number 14 in the Billboard Hot 100 in December of 1960. The story has no specific connection to folklore, though the donkey is a well known symbol of Christmas in Italy.
Let me begin with a word of warning to those of you whose shiksa wives have just given birth at home, in a tub, to a beautiful baby boy, whose penis you now want to ritually scarify in order to satisfy a supposed covenant with God. Don’t wait until the last minute to spring the news! And don’t do this either: don’t act like it’s all taken for granted, like it’s all been decided upon. Don’t play dumb, is what I’m saying.
I can’t explain why I hadn’t mentioned it. I guess I had either assumed everything would be cool when it came to circumcising our boy Guthrie (Gus for short), or else I was in denial and knew all along she’d have a kanipshin, which ironically is a Yiddish word, as far as I’m aware. It sounds like one anyway, so I’m going to go ahead and say it is.
I never understood why us Jews are so all about getting rid of the foreskins in the first place. We must’ve thought it was a pretty big deal at some point since we went and came up with this whole Covenant spiel. I’m assuming there was some sort of a growth involved.
To put it bluntly, I’m guessing the guy that invented circumcision must’ve had one nasty, stinky, irritating crotch. I mean, to even think of cutting off a piece! Imagine, being the first one to think of it. There must have been an assload of bullshit going on with this guy’s dick. The thing must have been literally dripping with a disgusting, fetid mold. Lichen may have played a part. Or maybe it was fuzzy like those poisonous caterpillars, like an old loaf of bread. With hyphae shooting out all over the place.
Had to be, right? Because you’d think most people—back then especially—would look at a penis and go, Hey, nice looking penis. Let’s not fuck with it! I mean, consider this: back then, even if you got a little cut on your hand or whatever there was a petty decent chance you were going to die. That you would just get an infection and die. They didn’t have Neosporins back then. They couldn’t just go to CVS.
Okay. Now I’m starting to see a theory forming. I’m beginning to feel my way around the makings of a theory. So here’s what happened: so this one guy gets infected with this crazy fungus, like maybe at some point he gets real horny and he fucks a mushroom or whatever and wham. And then the guy goes home and screws his wife and then she goes and screws some other guy and now he’s got the fungus-dick! Or else maybe it wasn’t even that. I hate to pin this one on the ladies. So let’s say maybe the guy just jerked-off and then shook the other guy’s hand and then the other guy jerked-off, and there you go. Or maybe the first guy jerked-off the second guy. Maybe the first guy was secretly in the closet. Maybe he’d been stuck in an unhappy marriage all these years and his only remaining pleasure in life was to go out and jerk dudes off in a mushroom patch. Fine by me. Who am I to judge?
Anyway, what I’m saying is it spread. That’s the main thing. Like something out of a horror movie. Until before you know it everybody’s going around scratching his balls all the time and it’s literally driving them crazy. They don’t know what to do.
CUT IT OFF!!!!
I remember watching DVDs of Margaret Cho and Eddie Izzard perform stand up as a baby-gay in Birmingham, AL, surrounded by other baby-gays in a friend’s apartment. That experience, laughing with others who were “in” at someone else who was not only “in” but was a fully functional, successful, openly queer adult, led me to where I am today. (For those who don’t know, I’m an openly queer doctoral student who makes a living studying humor in American culture!) As a result I’m not only a firm believer in the unique role of humor in queer culture, but in the unique power that it yields for queers as a tool for the movement towards equality.
Just as I’m starting to doubt if my own bias is tainting my research, Rick Perry comes along with some fresh, hot air to inflate my confidence balloon. I could almost kiss him for that. Rick Perry’s presidential campaign ad entitled simply, “Strong,” is the most homophobic piece of… well, just watch it.
See what I mean?
Memes parodying or undermining Perry’s sentiments have exploded within the last few days. Many of them have addressed the flagrant use of religion to advance a political agenda, and many more have directly addressed his heterosexism. I’d like to share several of them not only in order to revel in the glories of queer humor, but also to highlight some of the specifically “queer” ways humor is used to subvert Perry’s hyper masculine performance. I shall informally deem these tropes, “camp,” “cooties,” and “acerbity” (if you can think of a synonym that begins with a “C,” please contact me).
For reasons that are uninteresting and irrelevant, I recently had my photograph taken. I was kind of joking when I asked the photographer “Should I be causal or regular?” and only later realized that the question was much less funny than it was accurate: “casual” is not my default setting, but is something that I have learned to relentlessly effect in order to appear fit for human interaction. Which is to say that I worry a lot, and about everything. I am literally worrying now, because as the newest contributing editor to Humor in America – Visual Humor, check it – I would love to be writing a really stellar and memorable and job-keeping first post.
In lieu of a lengthy biography, then, let’s just say that the joke with which I most resonate is Woody Allen’s quip about his boyhood stint on a all-neurotic softball team: “I used to steal second base, and then feel guilty and go back.” (As a legendarily dreadful athlete in my youth, I should note that I’m lucky not to have had this particular problem, but you get the idea.)
I have decided, therefore, that instead of attempting to be causal here and not worry about it, I will try to funnel my constant companion into something useful for once: a kind of critical/confessional analysis of a rare moment when worriers of the world are afforded a little relief. I am referring to unlikely humor of phony “Lost Dog” and “Missing Person” fliers, which – while occasionally pretty funny – operate by exploiting our capacity for random and disinterested compassion.
Because when these signs are for real, it is hard for me to feel anything but hopelessness and defeat; I know that I will never heroically spot this cat/bird/daughter, and probably neither will whoever put up the sign. But when these fliers are a joke – which, as we’ll see, they sometimes are – I am torn between feeling relieved and riled, thankful and furious. Because at a distance, the phony lost/missing flier is no different from the real thing: a picture, a description, a local number to call with what I assume is a devastated child or graduate student on the other end. (I should note that at present I have two kittens, to whom I am still devoted despite their best efforts to forfeit the deposit on my apartment.) So to see, then, that this stapled and wind-warped flier is just a joke is to know that whatever helpless creature I thought was in peril is not, but that whoever took the time and effort to put up this flier has elicited a smile only at the expense of my initial sympathy.