Fill in the Blank

Source: The New Yorker

It’s a long story, but for various reasons — inhering in punishment and perfectability, alike — I am working with my son on his brain. Well, he has a considerable one, so there is not much heavy-lifting involved, but nonetheless, there are still — to paraphrase Robert Frost — miles to go before we sleep.

In the process we are both able to learn a little more about this strange land that we find ourselves co-travelers in.

The way we’re working on it is variable and varigated, depending on mood and available tools. It can take the form of playing guitars together, writing stories, reading newspapers and summarizing them, commenting on world events. And yesterday, I had him writing captions for cartoons from The New Yorker. This turned out to be the equivalent of pulling toenails with one’s teeth, but they say “the journey to the Realm of 1000 Wisdoms always begins with the first step” — or maybe that’s “by putting on the first sandal” — well, either way, what else can one do when one is adrift on a rudderless journey but put the paddle in the water and take the first stroke.

Not to mix metaphors, (but it is always good to keep all your “i”s dotted and cross all your “t”s).

So, there we are, me boy and me, sitting at the kitchen table at 10:30 p.m. Sunday night, MacBooks open, pecking out text on own keyboards, trying to fill in all the blanks. And what we came up with was . . . well . . . you’d better decide for yourselves.

Humor is not something that comes naturally to just anyone. Especially if I am any measure.

But I do think it is a skill that can be developed. Or, at least, improved. And to do so, I thought, perhaps we could break it down into its components, start by defining the elements we have to work with. You know, like opening up the refrig and deciding what it is we might cook for dinner. As in:

”ah, carrots, onions, potatos, celery. Well . . . stew it could be. Assuming we have some chicken stock, And water.

Or else, perhaps we could go with a garnish for roast chicken. That is . . . assuming we had a chicken.”

So, anyway, operating on the specifying the ingredients angle, my aim was to: (1) work on establishing the properties, then (2) hopefully work up to thinking in terms of combination and possibility, then, (3) visualizing various outcomes and hopefully, finally, (4) internalizing for future application.

(Not that I am not a tad ambitious for the first or second or third exercise in perfectability. But then, that’s just me).

“So. . . ” I asked my boy, regarding the cartoon above, “what is it we have here?”

And in his frustration (because he had absolutely NO interest in enduring this utter waste of his gaming time), he said:

“nothing! I mean, I don’t see a damn thing here.”

“But surely there are things in the picture.”

“Yeah, of course.”

“Like?. . . “

“Well, other than the angels — nothing.”

“Well, you got angels. That’s good. Great!”

“Well, the angels are obvious.”

“Oh, are they?”


“How do you know that they are angels?”

“They have wings. They have halos. They are sitting on a cloud. You know?: they aren’t salamanders.”

Saying it like I was a moron. But a part of all of this was just to get him thinking, so I was willing to take some abuse, let him vent. And then I could hit him with this one, from left field (hey!: angels in the outfield!):

“So, do you believe that angels exist?”

“No!” (like I was daft and anyone who did was even dafter)

“So, what about heaven? And God?”

“No chance. Those are just stories.”

“So, if you don’t believe in angels . . . , in heaven, or God, then this whole scenario would simply be nonsense. It would be a situation that you couldn’t accept.”

“That’s right . . .” (with that condescending tone that says “hey, now you’re catching on to the pointlessness of the entire exercise”.)

“So, I guess then that, if that is how you feel, it might be hard to really get inside the concept enought to write captions.”

“Well, duh. So then, maybe we should stop right here.” (like he can’t believe I could be so stupid as to fall into that one).

“Unless . . . you believe that one doesn’t have to believe in something in order to adopt a position about it.”

Ha! Got you there, my obstructive friend.

Another thinking point, to his utter consternation.

After all, now I have him interrogating how relevant belief must be in order to think. To Analyze. To take a position.

A question less pertinent to a lawyer or logician, perhaps, than to a physician, a scientist, or a priest, but one that gets his logical mind (which he respects) in conflict with his “let’s get this rigmarole over with already” disposition. Which is going to win out?

My boy, it turns out, may not believe in a higher consciousness, a higher state of being, a world beyond ours, but he does believe — fervently so — in what can be verified. He subscribes to provable “truth”, as he calls it, and always will sit through ordeals in its defense. So, that is going to be the line of attack; that is where I will have to begin. I start jotting down notes from the picture based on our conversation thus far, coming up with:

  • Two angels

  • They have halos and wings

  • They are wearing sandals and white gowns/robes

  • This is absurd, because angels don’t exist

  • They are sitting on stone? Eggs? that are sitting on clouds.

  • In the distance are two other guys who are sitting on their own clouds, alone

  • The one guy seems to be talking to the other and the other guy seems to be looking down and not responding

And then I say:

“Now let’s take what we know — or think we now know — about this picture and turn it into jokes.”

“Dad!” (exasperated) “I can’t write jokes. Not in English anyway.”

“Well, then, not jokes. Let’s just take the facts we’ve written down and write the first thing that comes to mind.”

“Nothing comes to mind!” (discouraged)

“Sure it does! Look at this — you like the Stones, right? So how about this . . .

And I bang out a line in my WordFile and then turn the screen so that he can read it. He takes his time with it. Reads it again. Can’t believe he is reading a line from a song.

I said, Hey! You! Get off of my cloud . . . Don’t hang around ’cause two’s a crowd

Then smirks a bit, lets the smile crease the corners of his mouth. “Cool” you can see he is thinking. But he says, instead:

“You can’t write that.”

“Sure you can. There are no rules. No can’ts. Just do. Write what comes to mind.”

He is stuck for a while so I write this one for him. Turn the screen toward him again, he reads:

“How come your halo glows brighter than mine?”

My boy is not sure that he much fancies that one. I tell him he’s a fool. “Come on,” I plead, “this one is deeeeeeep!” And then I explain why: “People in heaven, you see, are not supposed to covet. Show jealousy or see others in terms of inequality. But this guy — you know — looking at the halo? Well, he’s showing that coveting instinct. He’s breaking the heavenly code.”

The kid nods, like: “oh, okay.” Still, he isn’t turning somersaults on the floor over my quality intellect. And explaining a joke always takes a little luster off it. Still, this is mainly about education, not impressing an audience. (Right?)

In any case, I have my son’s attention now. I can see his shoulders relax. There is none of the resistence or skeptism of before. He’s less surly, and certainly no longer frustrated. It’s not like before where he seemed to think this was an intelligence test in some foreign language he had never had a chance to master.

Still, he needs a little more encouragement, a few more prods down the path. So I pound out a few more words, turn the sceen his way, and offer up:

“I know it’s cold up here, but if you want to get warmer you have to do something really bad!”

Now the kid is ready. He says, a bit timorously: “I don’t know about this one . . . I mean, it probably isn’t very good but . . .”

“Just let go, man . . .”

“Well how about — okay, here goes. He types out some letters, hitting the keys like they are cockroaches that might scurry away, then turns his screen in my direction:

“So …. Am I supposed to be the mother or the father?”

There you go. And now we are off and running. Each taking turns touching keys, turning MacScreens this way and that, smiling, smirking, shrieking, hissing, groaning.

  • “I know you were wondering … the reason that these eggs don’t fall through the clouds is that the whites have been whipped already.”

  • “At least you died before you started going bald!”

  • “The good thing is that now that we are in Heaven, we don’t have to cut our toenails.”

  • “One good thing about dying and coming up here . . . at least we know we aren’t idiots.”

Which, although I want to encourage the boy makes absolutely no sense to me. Until he explains that in Japan it is often said that one cannot go to heaven unless one is smart.

Proving again (if one required any convincing) the cultural-relativity of humor.

One of us — probably me — becomes too giddy with the entire enterprise — since now it is going so swell — and says something foolish like: “hey, we could do this all night.” And then I go off and loose a string of non sequitur-i-ous duds, like . . .

“Hey, it could have been worse: you could have gotten stuck with a heterosexual woman.”

“Well, we’ve got wings, the cloud looks like a nest, we’re sitting on eggs – I guess whoever said it was right: that dying was for the birds.”

“Just imagine what the meat-eaters got stuck having to do.”

And then we knew we were done for the day.

When I woke up this morning and started finalizing this entry I Googled the words “cartoon” and “caption” and came up with a multitude of hits. It turns out that there are a number of sites that present pictures — mostly cartoons, but others trade in (generally edgy) photographs — and ask for audience participation. Occasionally, they offer prize rewards for the winning entry. Some of the (sore)losers post on the message boards that the final decisions are incredibly subjective.

Well, duh.

Exposed to these sites liberated the thought: “what a strange country Americans live in. At this moment in some places in the world, folks are scurrying around ducking from bullets wildly flying overhead; in other places, people are trying to find enough water to irrigate the soil. Still other locales find people who work 20 hour days to scape together enough money so that they can secure four walls, a roof, and some scraps of food . . . for how long, they have no guarantee. And here? In America?. A lot of citizens in these parts are busy fitting strings of words beneath pen and ink pictures. And then complaining about the inherent bias of an anonymous judge’s decision.


You think?

Anyway, based on my limited, 7 minute research, I deduced that the caption site with the most frequent traffic is called The Funny Pages. But, I also ran across this one; something created in 2005 called The New Yorker Anti-Caption Contest. According to its mission statement, its aim is: “to submit the worst possible caption for the new uncaptioned cartoon in that week’s New Yorker.”

Which got me curious; and so I checked out what the competition was up to this past week. And when I trolled the entry for the New Yorker cartoon my son and I had worked on last night, here were that contest’s results.

And damned if the Rolling Stones song didn’t end up coming out of someone else’s noggin.

Which goes to show: exercising a brain is one thing. But managing to manufacture original thinking – well, that turns out to belong to a whole ‘nother realm of consciousness.

The kind of stuff that can only be found, say, on some cloud, far up in the heavens.