Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Blog Part 2 - SANTA'S NOT REAL!!!

Anyway, I had to add my own little story of silent reconciliation. I moved to my current home in suburban Philadelphia in first grade. It was November at the time, so a lot of kids in class were talking about what they wanted for Christmas. Naturally, social butterfly that I am, I joined in, talking about what I wanted from Santa. Now if you don't know anything about Blue Bell's religious makeup, it can basically be summed up as being a 50/50 split of Jews and Catholics with a few Hindus, Jehova's Witnesses and Irish Buddhists sprinkled in (I kid you not, Kyle O'Hara was a Buddhist). Anyway, so me and my good little Catholic friends sat in a circle talking about our deepest desires from St. Nick. All of a sudden, a little Jewish boy (who will remain nameless) comes over and yells at us, "SANTA ISN'T REAL!" Now, when you're in first grade, you don't take such sacrilegious threats against the core of your faith lightly. Of course, I responded, "HE JUST DOESN'T GIVE GIFTS TO YOU BECAUSE YOU'RE JEWISH AND YOU DON'T BELIEVE IN HIM!!" Of course now the teacher is hustling over to the corner because I said the J-Word. I got a talking to about not making fun of people and I just sat there grumpily for a while. This wasn't my fault, clearly this kid was mistaken. I mean how else could one possibly explain the fact that I got mountains of toys in the same wrapping paper each year with my name written on them in the same color sharpie marker? Clearly it wasn't my parents faking it because they used different paper and they used gift tags, not sharpie. Using my powers of deductive reasoning, the only reason this kid didn't think there was a Santa was because he was Jewish and Santa didn't come to his house. The little Jewish boy and I stopped talking to each other.

I found out the truth about Santa two years later when my great aunt brought a bag of gifts to the house a few days before Christmas and left them outside of her room. The top gift had a gift label that said "To: Matt, From: Santa." It took me a while to internalize all of this. Santa doesn't use gift labels! Santa would never use that wrapping paper! How did my great aunt get advance gifts from Santa? Were his reindeer injured? Yeah, that was it, he needed help delivering's nose needed a new bulb...or something. The truth was staring me in the face, and I just didn't want to accept it.

My fears were confirmed on Christmas morning when I opened the package and it was a red turtleneck that was far too small. Santa doesn't give you clothes that don't fit. In fact, Santa doesn't give you clothes, period. Great aunts give you red turtlenecks that don't fit because they only see you every few years. After a while I was actually thankful that it didn't fit because it gave me an excuse not to wear a stupid, choky, scratchy red turtleneck.

I tried to forget about the Santa issue for a while, and as Christmas faded into the background, so did Santa. I didn't talk to anyone about it until the next Christmas Eve, when I told my mom I had known about it for a year. She tried to tell me that everything was alright and that Christmas was still a magical time, but it was worthless, Santa was dead.

I moved up to the middle school in sixth grade. I figured this was a good time to try to restart a friendship with the Santa Killer. Really I didn't have much of a choice, as he was the only kid that I knew in my class. Nevertheless, we just sort of pretended like nothing had ever happened and went about our business. We played a lot of basketball together, and I think the fact that we used to hate each other made liking each other a lot easier because the expectations were set so low. I really can't fault the kid either. I mean, who doesn't want a jolly fat man in a red suit giving them tons of presents? It's SO MUCH more fun than getting one present a day from your parents. I can just imagine that he asked his parents why Santa came to the other kids' houses but not his. I can see his mom nonchalantly responding that Santa wasn't real. I can see him in class jealous of the joy that talking about Santa was bringing the other kids. He wanted it, and he couldn't have it. Because Santa wasn't real. The only way to stop his jealousy was to take away the other kids' joy. So, he got up, sauntered over to the circle and yelled out the three words that can destroy any kid's childhood...


wrap up

I think that the most important thing I’ve learned in this class is the ability to have a more open mind about what constitutes humor. I didn’t really think about it but I guess I’ve always had a really limited view of what I considered funny, and forcing myself to think about a lot of different examples of humor, and asking myself to think about why they are funny, has made me reconsider what comedy I am able to appreciate. I never would have thought for a second that I would ever say that anything written by Tyler Perry, for instance, was legitimately funny, because I was always adamantly believed his humor not to be my taste. I never in a million years would have picked up Principles of Uncertainty, because I probably would have dismissed it as dumb and artsy; but that ended up being one of my favorite books we read, and funny in a very strange sort of way that I never would have experienced if I never had to force myself to read it. Talking about humor in everyday onversation, it’s easy to dismiss what other people say or reference as not funny. The people in our class all have extremely different senses of humor. I remember one of the first classes within five minutes of each other I raised my hand and said “I think that if something is funny, it can’t be mean,” and Sara raised her hand and said something to the extent of “I don’t think any humor that degrades anyone is funny.” Those are two really different perspectives on humor, and I am sure that during our respective 20 years on the planet me and Sara (and everyone else in the class) responded extremely differently to the different types of comedy we encountered in the world. Talking about examples of humor with about 30 people all with similarly differing perspectives has made me realize something about how jokes work; jokes don’t exist in a vaccum. You can’t look at a joke and immediately judge how it works (and in some ways, I think, even how funny it is) because there is so much more a part of it that makes that joke different in each specific situation it exists in. What the person thinks the intentions behind the joke are, the existing relationships between the speaker, the listener, and the target, or the various different perceptions of any of these things: all of these are part of the joke. When I hear a joke, even if it’s derogatory towards myself and pointing out something pretty “mean,” so long as the joke is funny, I always just assume the person thought of a funny observation, and shared it to make people laugh. This doesn’t really offend me. Sara though, for instance, may hear the very same joke, and think someone is trying to put someone else down, to make themselves better than their target, basically to be a jerk. Understanding that there are hundreds of different, equally legitimate, reactions to every type of comedy, has helped me to appreciate the many different types of humor we have read this semester that I otherwise wouldn’t. I think this ties in really well as I read Diary of a Wimpy Kid, a book that I had my mom send me from my little brother’s book shelf. While I was borrowing from my 10 year-old brother’s canon of literature for my college class was my mom’s go-to source for a joke at our family easter party whenever a relative asked how my last semester was going, I also kind of thought of Kinney’s book condescendingly. Reading “children’s humor” was a good last book for me to read this semester, because I was able to think about it in a way I probably couldn’t have if it had been one of the first books we read. I could read about Greg’s attempts to impress girls avoid movies, and climb his middle school’s social ladder despite the best friend that is so beneath him with an open mind, and appreciate Kinney’s humor more authentically. I think I used to limit myself too much with what kinds of humor I liked, so the fact that I now could laugh so hard at a book that has a primary audience in elementary school I like to think shows a somewhat beneficial change in my approach to humor.

Just Laugh

I think that it is very interesting to see a satire where the subject is life in middles school. As far as satire goes this is an intriguing move by Kinney. From most critiques of lifestyle we are able to extract a remedy for our imperfections and highlight the problem areas that are pointed out in the work. When Kinney produces a satire that centers around the lives of middle-schoolers it is interesting to ponder what inferences we are to draw.

Like many people said in class it is interesting to observe that we may, in fact, see our present trials and difficulties as trivial when we reach a new stage of enlightenment, just as most of us saw the difficulties that Gregg faced in Diary of a Wimpy Kid. At the same time, perhaps we may draw the importance of things that we’ve forgotten, like being true to ourselves and occasionally writing down our thoughts in a secret diary—though I am sure many of us still do.

People often say that we can see the world in its truest form through the eyes of a child. Children seem to make the most sense out of the world, and as we grow we tend to complicate things unnecessarily. Perhaps by selecting the turmoil and pandemonium of a middle school, Kinney is attempting to take us back to a less complicated—though just as trying—world.

Throughout the semester, there has been this constant movement toward a seemingly generally held idea that humor in itself is quite indefinable. Yes, it has its different models, devices, and the like, but when you really try to tie it down there isn’t much that you can define. Something is always left out or goes unseen. The definition changes from person to person and place to place. What really matters is that we each have our own definitions of humor and that we always accept those of others, but most importantly that we always find something to laugh at.

The Three Stooges are hilarious!

And now for something completely relevant.
Alright, I’ll be honest and come clean: I did not enjoy the ending of Diary of a Wimpy Kid. While I was able to laugh and find a great deal of humor throughout the entire novel, a feeling in the back of my head was growing and growing: I was too much like this kid in middle school. Instead of using this space to rant about just how similar we were (I never had to eat cheese of the blacktop, after all), I will instead use this as a springboard for what I found to be most surprising about what I learned in my studies of humor.
No matter how people laugh and find funny the same things, the finer points of an individual’s sense of humor are so unique that it is extremely difficult to find two individuals who will laugh at the exact same things and fail to find humor in everything else (like the Three Stooges). From discussions about laughing at funerals to the applicability of the Superiority model of humor to friends and the belief that if something is funny it can’t be harmful, everyone seems to have their own little quirk about what tickles their funny bone.
I find this observation hilarious. Personally, I think (with very few important exceptions) that having a sense of humor at all is critically important to a good life, long or otherwise. Being able to laugh at the world and yourself goes a long way towards creating a better life for yourself and those around you. Leading this point forward, it makes sense that a sense of humor can define you as a person. If everyone’s sense of humor really is unique, then despite all the similarities everyone can bring a new and different perspective to how something is humorous. In that sense, I question the existence of a “Unified Field Theory of Humor.” Just as no human being is exactly the same, as long as everyone has their own outlook on humor the definition of what is funny will always be evolving, aiming for completeness but never really getting there.
In the immortal words of Fred Astaire:
“Make ‘em laugh!”

Zoo-Wee Mama!

Diary of a Wimpy Kid was a really fun book to end the semester with, especially because it was definitely one of the most relatable. While it was fun to reminisce about my years in middle school and laugh at the silly cartoon drawings, I was surprised at how complex the book actually is. Greg Kinney mastered the perspective of a middle schooler and honored that voice throughout, which made me think a lot about the intended audience versus my perspective, a hindsight that induced a feeling of superiority. The reasons a 6th grader would laugh at this book and the reasons I did are probably vastly different. What I found refreshing was the honesty of Greg’s voice and the realistic approach that Kinney employed. As a protagonist, Greg is more than fallible. For most of the book he is condescending to his best friend, tries to manipulate his way through the power chain of middle school, and think solely about himself until a shining moment at the end when he takes the Cheese Touch from Rowley. And although I found myself thinking that Greg is kind of a jerk, I appreciated Kinney’s realism, which is ultimately what makes the book so appealing. I realized that through Greg, Kinney is actually targeting all of us, whether we are fellow 6th graders, college students, or parents, because everyone has had a self centered moment in their lives, and who didn’t think the world revolved around them at age 11? With the supplemental drawings that literally draw you into the cartoon world and back to your pre-teen years, there’s a little Greg Heffley in all of us.

Just the fact that the reading list for a college level English course included a favorite of the twin 9 years olds I baby-sit for just sums up the most surprising part of the class for me. The incredibly wide variety of literature we read over the semester seemed arbitrary to me as I was purchasing them from the bookstore, but I now see that each story we read is not only complex but has a unique value that speaks to our overall investigation of the facets of humor. I found myself questioning and analyzing the previously unexplainable instinct of laughter that I had never examined in the past. My eyes were opened to the power of humor and even to aspects of myself that I didn’t know were there. What was so amazing to me was not only the understanding that you really can find humor in anything, but also that a group of 30 students with different backgrounds, interests, and senses of humor can come together seamlessly through the exploration of laughter and humor.

With Humor Comes Life Lessons

Jeff Kinney's Diary of a Wimpy Kid brings me back to my extremely awkward stage in life, middle school. I remember always tugging at my clothes and touching my hair and thinking how uncomfortable I felt. Kinney’s novel allows the reader to travel straight back into that stage of discomfort, and depending on the age group, Kinney’s voice portrays the humor within the transition into self confidence.

Greg Heffley’s experiences in middle school may seem serious and stressful to him, but for the reader, these experiences don't seem to even come close to their idea of stressful, and this is where the humor presents itself. In order for this novel to be considered funny, the reader must have some idea that their stress is more important or worthy. This concept of stress demonstrates that we as a culture take a lot for granted. Although ‘judging the book by its cover’ a person may think that Kinney’s novel is only read by middle schoolers, as a college student I found that Greg’s story held some insightful advice, don’t stress the little things.

Not only did Diary of a Wimpy Kid bring advice that I was not expecting, but most of the novels we read over the semester have brought surprising life lessons. I have come to terms that humor travels with deep insight and that if you have the ability to laugh at a topic, you have some sort of understanding or inside knowledge. Humor allows us to test how aware we are, and forces us to be more alert and conscious of our surroundings. Humor serves a wide range of purposes, and it allows us to feel alive, by forcing us to wake up, and really think. After reading and discussing our selected readings, I have noticed how apparent humor is in society, and also really take into account the purpose of humor in each situation, and humor is so complex, yet simple in its own way. Humor is a useful tool in education, and it allows for a deep reflection, providing further examination.

As time goes by, I wonder if the definition of humor will just continue to be a never ending collaboration of experiences but one thing I do know is that humor will always be present and continually changing.

Hyper-Masculinity within Diary of a Wimpy Kid

I never quite know what to make of satire. I know the purpose is to point out flaws, but, in some cases, I wonder if the audience is able to pick up on such subtlety. Parts of Kinney’s Diary of a Wimpy Kid bothered me, but I brushed it off, thinking that Kinney’s purpose was to call into question certain aspects of Middle School and pre-teen culture. Then Chelsea said during class that in her experience with sixth graders, she didn’t think that they would understand the satire, but would understand and sympathize with Greg and all of the situations he finds himself in. Chelsea’s comment really made me rethink how I felt about the book and maybe revert back to my gut reaction, which was one of annoyance or even anger.

Being the gender-sensitive person I am, I immediately noticed while reading Kinney’s work that gender roles and stereotypes were not only narrated, but possibly encouraged. As much as I realize and appreciate Greg’s humanity, I wonder if by narrating Greg’s diary in this way perpetuates a culture of hyper-masculinity and even homophobia. For example, when Greg faces a wrestling unit in P.E. class, he writes, “I spent my seventh period getting WAY more familiar with Fregley than I ever wanted to be” (83). Greg rejects the wrestling unit, not because he is “wimpy,” but because he is touched by another male and may be perceived as “more familiar with Fregley than [he] ever wanted to be.” He doesn’t want to be called “gay” because that would call into question his masculinity (and therefore value) among other pre-teen boys. If the eleven-year-old boys reading this don’t understand that this association is problematic, as I suspect they don’t, isn’t Kinney encouraging homophobia among Middle School boys?

Furthermore, Greg rejects femininity. Defending his Christmas wish for a “Barbie Dream House,” Greg fervently transforms anything that could be associated with femininity into hyper-masculinity. He writes,

When I was seven, the only thing I really wanted for Christmas was a Barbie Dream House. And NOT because I like girls’ toys, like Rodrick said. I just thought it would be a really awesome fort for my toy soldiers. When Mom and Dad saw my wish list that year, they got in a big fight over it. Dad said there was no way he was getting me a dollhouse, but Mom said it was healthy for me to ‘experiment’ with whatever kind of toys I wanted to play with (117).

He immediate rejects, not the Barbie Dream House, but the desire for “girls’ toys,” or in other words, femininity. Then Greg turns a “dollhouse” into a “fort for toy soldiers,” demanding his masculinity by referencing the ultimate “boys’ toy,” soldiers, little, plastic, unnaturally muscular men who kill each other for no reason—how cute. Kinney then narrates a fight between Greg’s parents, in which the parents, too, fill their gendered stereotypes perfectly. Dad wants his son to be a little man, and Mom wants to accept him as he is—I say again, how cute. We, as readers, can call this satire all day long, but looking through the eyes of the target audience makes me rethink our assumptions. Is Kinney planting moral seeds by means of satire or is he perpetuating gendered stereotypes that encourage homophobia as the way to express one’s masculinity?

The most important thing I learned this semester was the universal aspect of humor. Whether or not our senses of humor align, humor is something that we all experience. We’ve all had uncontrollable fits of laughter, we’ve all bonded with someone over an inside joke and we’ve all healed by means of humor and time. Our authenticity as individuals define humor for each of us, but within each person’s “ness” lies a universal propensity for laughter.