This past Saturday night, my roommates all had homework to do, so (out of boredom) I decided to go out and do one of my favorite time-killing pastimes: take myself out to dinner, and then sit at a Barnes and Noble and drink coffee by myself. Did I look kind of pathetic sitting alone at an Irish pub eating cheesecake? Maybe. Most definitely, actually; a man at the table next to me—on his second Guinness of the night, I counted—asked me if I’d been stood up, and then offered to find me a date, and then (to my mortification) asked the waiter to scope out the boys at the bar for me. “What you need,” he told me, “is an engineer. They can fix everything around the house, and all your friends will be calling you up asking him to come over and fix their heating and stuff.” He did also imply I was a communist for drinking water at an Irish pub, however—in my defense, they didn’t serve iced tea—so I don’t know how sound his advice was.
That was the real reason I liked going places by myself in quiet for a while: you run into so many interesting people. I keep a notebook in my purse at all times just to write down descriptions of my favorites. For example: the aforementioned man and his companions at the table next to me made it into the notebook. There were other interesting people at Barnes and Noble afterwards when I got my coffee, too, and I kept a running tally of my favorites. There was an unlikely duo of a man in a leather Harley Davidson jacket who looked like he stepped right out of The Wild One and a man who looked like one of my dad’s various uncles (i.e., short, mustachioed, and very Greek). I amused myself trying to imagine how they met, and what was in their Starbucks cups; for the biker, I thought a chai latte or something with vanilla would be hilariously inappropriate. There was an older man in a chic suit jacket and pocket square combo and jeans who had a stack of beginner’s screenwriting books (everything from Screenwriting for Dummies to what looked like 101 Ways to Stage A Scene, or something to that effect). I, of course, vowed to see his first film. My favorite, though, was an elderly man and an equally elderly woman sitting together. I described the look of the man to my friend over text as “someone who owns a doomsday shelter and also a sword”—I don’t think I was far off. The man spent the entire conversation talking (or, lecturing) to the woman about all of his bizarre political conspiracy theories, everything from stuff about the Clintons to Nixon to JFK. She was totally into it, too—she was obviously intrigued, and kept asking him questions. I decided, from their dynamic, that they must be on a blind date, and wondered how she would describe it to her friends. (“How was the date, Lucinda?” “The Lewinsky/Clinton scandal was faked.”)
That’s one of the reasons I enjoyed The Principles of Uncertainty so much. Maira Kalman’s fascination with niche things and interesting strangers stood out as being incredibly relatable to me. While I write down things I like, Kalman draws them—she draws intriguing people, and couches on the side of the road in Paris, cool beds and colorful dinners. She loves the way old people walk, and how a woman in her nineties can still live on a fifth floor only accessible by stairs. She finds beauty in every single aspect of life. I think this is especially poignant considering how bleak she gets; Kalman often remarks on how fleeting life is, and how this might be all she’s got, and how there’s still war and death in the world. And yet, that’s not a soul-crushing thing to her, or something that sends her spiraling into existential dread. She’s also barely even depressingly negative. It’s also not glaringly optimistic by any means: we live and we die, and Kalman isn’t flinching away from it. But she is finding a light in it—she’s finding joy in little things, like cake and hats, or becoming fond of strangers, or fascinating historical figures. As she says: “Because you cannot postpone weddings in DARK times—especially in dark times. Who knows when the Light will come on again” (69). Ultimately, Kalman seems to look for joy in little things, and enjoy life for what it is: brief, sad, amazing, and beautiful. And I agree with her.
This is how Kalman’s sense of humor seems to be working too. Principles of Uncertainty wasn’t outright hysterical by any means—it was more sobering and thought-inducing to me (and I loved it). Yet there were occasions where I found myself smiling out of amusement instead of affection for how she views the world, like her descriptions of “sensational” hats, and the semi-self-deprecating way she describes her malaise after a bad dream, and the often incongruent way she would introduce a historical figure she was interested in and then never revisit it. We’ve talked about humor being a way of easing the pain of life, or “laughing to forget the pain”, and I think if there’s any form of humor to be found in The Principles of Uncertainty, it would be this. Just as joy is a light in the darkness, so is humor, and the two are oftentimes quite tied together. Humor can be something as small as finding amusement in an outrageous hat or a stranger on a date in a coffee shop, but that doesn’t discredit it at all. If anything, that makes it even better—in true Kalman style, you’re taking in every aspect of life and enjoying it, not overlooking the small things or getting too lost in the big picture instead.