Creative Nonfiction


On Unlooked-for Humor

Is unlooked-for humor the best humor? I said it was the other night on Twitter when I was surprised by Revanche’s random quote from Galaxy Quest: “By Grabthar’s hammer, what a savings” (seriously, I can just see the annoyance and disdain on Alan Rickman’s face as his character is forced to say his catchphrase). I was amid a sea of depressing news and thoughts, and this hilarious line from out of left field made me laugh out loud (not that “LOL” thing, which often only means you found something amusing).

While things are almost always funny because they surprise us,* that’s not quite the way I meant it when responding to Revanche. We often experience humor when we’re looking for it: comedic movies, sitcoms, late night shows, you name it. But to my mind, the best humor is unlooked for humor, the type that arrives when you are otherwise preoccupied, sitting on the couch with serious thoughts, perhaps with darkness on the horizon.

This conviction has been quite settled in my mind for some time, made particularly concrete by the large amount of time I spent in hospital waiting and recovery rooms about thirteen years ago, when my father’s cancer was being treated. Aside from the memory I’m about to share, the thing I remember most from that time is the smell: the hospital stink. More than the remembrances of my dad in his hospital bed or the people from our church that were wonderful enough to visit is that god-awful smell of the hospital. I can summon it to mind even now, that antiseptic, artificial, non-living stench.

I suppose some could attach it to cleanliness or something at least a bit more positive, but I cannot. While the doctors were quite hopeful for being able to deal with my dad’s cancer and his recovery, lingering in the back of my mind was the knowledge that this was cancer, those damn rebellious, screwed up, abnormally growing parts of your own body that can kill you. The thoughts were there, just like the smell, refusing to be ignored or to go away.

They were worst the evening of the operation, when we sat in the waiting room with them just hanging about. I eventually had to get up and take a walk—I couldn’t sit there for one more minute—and I inevitably found the cafeteria, which was completely deserted, all the places to buy food closed up. Some kindly or lazy person (I prefer the former) had left a copy of the Minneapolis Star-Tribune lying on a table, and I riffled through for the comics section.

I’ve been a funnies man my whole life and will continue to be, but I wasn’t particularly expecting or wanting to laugh—I just wanted to think about something else, anything else. To forget that hospital stink in my nose, even in the cafeteria. I perused my usual favorites and didn’t crack a smile. Then I found the Boondocks strip for the day, and I broke into laughter. It was just so incongruous to my situation, so illogical, so everything I needed at that moment and didn’t even know it. I was immediately fond of that strip and tore it out, keeping it in my wallet for years until it started to disintegrate (as you can see above).

And that is why unlooked for humor is the best humor.

*The only exception I can think of is when a loved one tells that one story you’ve heard a million times but you still get a kick out of hearing it. And there’s maybe equal parts fondness and love to this as much as humor. 


On What Absence Makes

Lake Superior from Grand Marais, photo by the author

While they do have a frustrating amount of truth to them, the main reason platitudes and clichés are so annoying is that they are downright obvious. More, they’re generally said when that obviousness is staring you directly in the face. So when I tell you what I’m missing in the following paragraph, know that the phrase “absence makes the heart grow fonder,” is making its presence known, and that I am wanting to punch that presence in its clichéd white teeth.

I miss water—open water. Water you can sit and stare at and feel small next to, something in the expanse speaking all the words ever written in literature right inside you, without the words ever needing to be said.

I had an embarrassment of riches in open water when I lived in Duluth. The city sprawls along a hillside overlooking southwestern Lake Superior, so pretty much anywhere you go you’ll see at least a smidgen of one of the largest freshwater lakes in the world (so large it’s often called an inland sea).

That’s not to say I’m in an area without water: this year is the 20th anniversary of a major flood here in Grand Forks (I’ve driven across the bridge shown in the Wikipedia entry!). I like the Red River of the North where it is in its greenbelt and don’t need it to become an expanse again. But even though the Red River is a presence in the region that should not be ignored, it’s not a presence in the same way as Lake Superior is in Duluth. You can’t avoid noticing the lake in Duluth, but unless you’re right on the river here in Grand Forks, you’d be hard pressed to notice it.

Driving pretty much anywhere in northern Minnesota or down in the Twin Cities, you’re going to trip over a lake without much effort. Despite its slogan of having 10,000 lakes, Minnesota actually has almost 12,000 that are 10 acres or more, and if you count ones smaller than that, the number just goes up and up. If some of the info I’m finding is correct, North Dakota has… 35? And some of those are reservoirs or larger portions of rivers!

Some of this, I know, is the stir craziness of winter. I’ve been inside too much, I haven’t even been able to walk by the Red River much… and that’s enough to make me miss water right there. There’s a little English Coulee on the University of North Dakota’s campus, and it is a simple joy to stop and watch it tumble over a little rock dam with Jessica during her lunch break. Some of the underwater rocks have beards of algae, and one in particular sports a fu manchu look: not common among rock algae formations, in my experience.

Still, it’s not the same as being able to drive over any number of hillsides in Duluth and have the sudden and overwhelming vision of Superior fill your eyes. Nor is it the same as crouching at the edge of the water at Kitchi Gammi Park, feeling yourself as small as can be while waves wash against the shoreline.

Lester River enters Lake Superior on the edge of Kitchi Gammi Park, and it becomes a raging torrent in the springmelt. I can see its rapids in my mind even now, and I can see the surfing fanatics in their cold water gear, riding the crests caused by the river’s entrance. The lake has so many shades of blue: I can’t describe them all, but I can see them.

I’ve sometimes wished I didn’t have such a strong connection to Duluth, as it would make this move easier and less full of longing. But if one needs to move, maybe it is a good thing to have such deep roots to your old home, if it means being able to find its waters when you need them. Albeit with mind’s imperfect memory.


On the Importance of Learning of Tokyo’s Destruction by Godzilla 2 comments

*A small memoir from a trip this fall*

It’s been a long week of teaching classes: you wake up, you do your class prep, you do your teaching, you do your grading, and you go home. At home is nothing in particular. Your wife is living four and a half hours away for her new job; you’ve moved the majority of your things with her. The apartment is strangely empty and strangely full of far too many things you need to pack before you can join her in a couple months.

The wind likes to whistle lonely in the evening.

Today you’re driving home after another day of teaching, but it’s a little different in that you will be picking up your suitcase so you can drive those four and a half hours to see your wife. The first hour is alright as you drive through the forests of northern Minnesota and the setting sun is turning everything golden. Then the trees go stark and two dimensional against the still glowing horizon; the only things with depth are the clouds in the sky. Then there is nothing but the tunnel your headlights carve along the route, a tunnel that is hours and hours long.

Even the waters of Cass Lake offer no comfort when you stop to stretch your legs: the wind blows too cold in your face for you to watch the lights in the water.

About an hour from your destination, still tired, your searching radio finds it, the song that will take you the rest of the way. “Oh, no! There goes Tokyo! Go, go, Godzilla!” Before your mind can think about how improbably wonderful it is to find this song out of nowhere (though is it even a favorite song of yours?), you’re singing, shouting along with the words.

You’re halfway around the earth from Tokyo, you’re in the middle of the flat beginnings of the Great Plains and the tallest thing around here are grain elevators, but what else would Godzilla have left to stomp once Tokyo and the other great cities with skyscrapers are nothing but rubble?

You’re on your way, you’re almost there.