Tuesday, March 28, 2017

Living in "The Great Indoors"

               Whenever it rains, my father looks up to the sky and says “I love the rain; it washes the bird shit off my car.”  Praising the typical inconvenience of rain for its usefulness must give him a certain sense of power. It’s a way of saying to the universe “you thought I would be annoyed by this, but this isn’t bothering me at all.” I was reminded of this when Bryson says “thank you” in response to a bird dropping on his shoe. Bird droppings are typically met with repulsion, but this event reminds Bill of what is supposed to happen outside and he is grateful for his “outdoor experience.”  This atypical response mirrors other comedic literature that relies on the subversion of expectations.
            This chapter intrigued me, because I have often thought about the amount of time we spend indoors as Americans since watching an episode of Black Mirror called “Fifteen Million Merits.” In this episode, everything takes place in an indoor, self-contained society, but the episode ends with a glimpse of the outdoors through the window of a luxury apartment. The overall effect is to emphasize that the people in this fictional society have chosen to live this way. After watching this episode, I went about my life and noticed the truly disproportionate amount of time I spend indoors. Even leisure or exercise time spent outdoors a few times a week and walking in between places is completely insignificant to the amount of time we spend indoors. The idea of people completely losing the value of being outside didn’t seem so far off.

            When Bryson describes Opryland, I immediately think of the Crystal Gateway Marriott in Arlington, Virginia, the site of the Ignatian Family Teach-In for Justice. It is a hotel and conference center connected to a shopping mall and DC metro station. I went the entire weekend without seeing sunlight and was blinded after emerging from underground at Union Station in DC. While I will certainly shriek the next time a bird poops on me, Bryson’s gratitude for the natural world we are so disconnected from doesn’t seem all too ridiculous.

From "Can' to "How"

Meghan already insightfully addressed the question so often grappled with in this class: “Is humor present in everything.” Bryson notes the little, every day sort of things, Sedaris in complicated family drama and Hau’ofa in massive, problematic cultural norms and institutions as a means of answering the question with a resounding yes. One might now shift the question from “Can” to “How” because, as far as I can tell, most of the authors employ similar means to render humor in any situation. Certainly Bryson (to an irritating extent), Sedaris and Hau’ofa seem to minimize things in order to find their humor. This has been addressed, on some level, with every author studied thus far in this class but I think that Bryson might take it to an extreme. An e.g., consider his complaint that in “fancy restaurants” the food tends to be incomprehensible. There’s something more than a little condescending about smugly laughing off one’s own ignorance and lack of self awareness (at least you get to eat in a “fancy” restaurant) but that’s kind of beside the point. What’s relevant to the discussion of humor is Bryson’s establishment of something deemed benevolent but intimidating (fancy dining) and reveling in what is deemed its absurd self importance (one is just eating dinner after all).

Moreover, he contrasts these minimizations with hyperbole as a means of making them even smaller. The waitress reals off sixteen salad dressings, the specials at fancy restaurants go on for upwards of half an hour. None of this is true but what is true is that the process can be intimidating for somebody just trying to get a steak. What better way to make it less intimidating and more humorous by taking it to its absurdist extreme. He does this throughout the work, for instance he claims to believe double parking punishable by death. In doing so he draws attention to the lack of consequence so many of these small things have and that which seems to impossible, can be laughed at, if only it’s made small.

Bry on Bryson

            Any kind of culture is funny, really, when you take into account the absurdity of community. The driving force for civilization, the idea of culture and community is a human invention. Aside from the prides of lions or the flock of gulls, society is largely non-existent in the natural world. It is unexpected for a group of organisms to suddenly develop the grounds for a society such as we observe in the modern day. We don’t find it particularly funny because it is our reality: society is what allows us the lives we lead. Taking a step back, though, once may come to realize the humor in the miniscule details of everyday life.

            Bill Bryson offers us this perspective in his I’m a Stranger Here Myself as he relishes in the small absurdities that constitute daily life here in the United States of America. I argue that this book could be written about anywhere so long as it adheres to the native audience. The power behind Bryson’s prose is that he peels away the veil of normalcy in things in order to examine its nature and, ultimately, have fun with it. The part where he seats himself at a restaurant reminds me of Larry David in Curb Your Enthusiasm: by appealing to common sense rather than societal standards, Bryson has inadvertently become a nuisance to the restaurateurs. He uses this as an opportunity to examine the unspoken American customs that we have all but forgotten were there in the first place. By prying us from our comfort zones of culture, Bryson shows us what our culture really looks like, and it’s hilarious.

Bryson's Perspectives

     Bryson really is a stranger by himself as he looks at modern American life from two perspectives - that of a foreigner coming to America and that of an older American reminiscing on the good old days. Many people can say they’ve experienced culture shock visiting or living in a different country, just as many people can think about America’s past and see how complex and involved life has gotten here. But very few can see modern America from both perspectives. This is what makes Bryson’s humor so universal and relatable. Anyone who has ever set foot in America can understand our complicated system of doing things and the humor surrounding the absurdity of American ways.

     Anyone just visiting or recently moving to America would laugh out loud and find Bryson’s book to be extremely relatable. What other country sells millions of ridiculous, useless items like Do the Macarena Totally Nude, calls random strangers to convince them to buy a time share, and stores open 24 hours? Through humor, Bryson points out how ridiculous and wasteful some aspects of American life are. This both comforts visitors and enlightens natives about just how crazy our culture appears to outsiders.

     On the other hand, Bryson is able to talk about how America has changed over time. I found this point particularly present in the part about motels. He reminded me of my granddad when he talks about the good old days. I appreciated the humorous way in which Bryson talks about how when he was growing up each motel “had its own character”, giving “highway travel a kind of exhilarating unpredictability”. This idealized version of the past seems even more idealized when Bryson talks about how today’s motels are all the same or disgusting and torn down. My favorite part, however, of this chapter is when Bryson admits how these opinions make him dated when he tells his child, who is not named Jimmy, “We don’t want a Comfort Inn, Jimmy. We want a real motel”. This story really brings to attention how commercialized America has become and the humor that can be found in things with character.

It’s the Little Things

The question, “can you find humor in anything?” seems to keep resurfacing throughout the semester. With Sedaris this question was posed as we discussed how humor can be used as a coping device. Sedaris found humor in all the shortcoming and problems in his life no matter how tragic they appeared. But for Bill Bryson this question means something completely different. Instead of asking if humor can be found in anything even tragedy, we should ask can humor be found in anything, even a tube of toothpaste? Or in other words, can you find humor in the minutia of everyday life? Bill Bryson seems to say yes.

Bryson’s attention to detail is allows him to point out the small absurdities in our life that we normally gloss over. For instance, in his column “Rule Number One: Follow all Rules” Bryson points out how extreme American devotion to rules is. He begins the chapter by saying “I did a foolish thing the other afternoon” then proceeds to tell a story of how he sat himself at a restaurant without permission and how irritated it made the waitress. To someone who does not live or has never lived in the United States, it would sound utterly absurd that Americans are such intense rule followers that a restaurant will shun you if you disobey a sign that says “please wait to be seated.” But to Americans these rules and the unspoken consequences are well known, but we don’t contemplate how strange these small things are until they are blown up. I mostly found myself laughing when I noticed how stupid the little things we do are, but obviously, someone who is British (who these columns were written for) would not laugh for the same reasons I do because they don’t share the same little things that I do. In other words, I may not understand the little absurdities that surround them, but that’s okay because we define ourselves by what we encounter and what we do each day. It's little things in I'm a stranger to my self that show us how much the things we find funny are reflections of ourselves and our surrounding.

Monday, March 27, 2017

Hyperbole and Bryson

In a lot of our class discussions, we’ve talked about absurdity as a form of humor, particularly in regard to the incongruity model of humor. Some of the most notable examples of this include, of course, Madea in Don’t Make a Black Woman Take Off Her Earrings as well as the reality of Candide. I would argue that Bryson’s I’m A Stranger Here Myself fits into this as well, but the humor he utilizes is a little bit different than outright absurdity. It is outright absurd on occasion, of course (examples being the Wayne Newton haircut scene, cupholders in cars, and Nude Housewives of America), but rather than discussing murdering husbands for money via sweet potato pie, Bryson instead relies on overstatements and hyperbole to create humor and reveal some truths about the world.
Hyperbole is a driving force of humor from nearly the beginning of I’m A Stranger Here Myself, present primarily in Bryson’s long lists and exaggerated dialogue. The lists factor in the most in Bryson’s little “how to” segments, for example, his descriptions of how to set up a new computer. The steps in the procedures often become increasingly bizarre and painstaking, going from “try unplugging it” to “drive around to various sources of power before ultimately calling the hotline”, or laying out the process of trying to find the Christmas decorations in the attic despite the fact you know they’re not there, or there being many, many, many different levels of insurance for your rental car. All of his how-tos usually end in one way: you should probably just quit. Dialogue works in a similar way. Oftentimes, Bryson will exaggerate what he or another person he encounters is saying into something that is by no means actually true. His wife, for example, most likely did not propose a trip to the beach by listing all the problems one would most likely have with a trip to the beach, nor does a waiter at a fancy restaurant use such bizarre and overblown language to describe a steak. The humor is present in these two things on two levels here, the first being through hyperbole. There are no actual sets of rules like that for setting up a computer or buying a car—that’d be extremely unhelpful—and you do not really have to jump through that many hoops to rent a car (or hunt for it on your own), and waiters do not typically talk in such a pretentious way. It’s absurd in that regard. At the same time, however, it’s also incredibly true; these types of processes and situations can be incredibly frustrating, and even seem impossible. Bryson exaggerates to communicate these universal truths, whether it’s something as simple as confusion over setting up a computer or a menu. It's effective in the same way absurd humor in general is effective: we notice it because it's so far out of the ordinary or out of our reality, and yet it is still based on a grain of truth, so we laugh.

Negativity and Humor

Bill Bryson uses humor in a way we have not yet seen this semester. His self-deprecation and overall negativity are apt ways of catching the reader’s attention in short bursts, such as a newspaper column that is a few pages long at most. However, this method of employing humor leaves something to be desired when the short chapters are collected in a longer novel. The negativity based humor becomes increasingly annoying the longer one reads. It no longer resembles a funny quip coming from an outsider experiencing another culture for the first time in twenty years. Instead, it reads as a series of increasingly ridiculous complaints.

Elizabeth Gilbert’s Eat, Pray, Love provides an excellent comparison to Bryson’s I’m a Stranger Here Myself. The two authors employ seemingly opposite approaches to books written in similar styles that fall under the same genre, Travel. While both books feature many short chapters that serve to keep the reader engaged and reading at a fast pace, the authors use different methods of humor to relate to their readers. Gilbert chooses to gloss over the negative aspects of her travels, only focusing on the positive and inspiring points in her journey. This use of humor makes her more relatable to her readership—people going through hard times and looking for hope. Bryson revels in the negative experiences that befall him. He devotes entire chapters to travel mishaps and technology nightmares. While this might alienate him from the modern American readership who think he should know better than to make these silly mistakes, they are not his intended audience. Bryson’s novel was originally written as a series of newspaper columns in a British newspaper.  His negativity was only meant to be taken in small doses, once a week, and by people who could appreciate someone poking fun at a country which is not their own. Therefore, taking his intended audience into account makes Bryson’s form of humor much more palatable and understandable to the modern American reader.

Taxes are Hilarious

Bryson stands out from the other authors we have read in class because he is the first person that is writing about his life as it is unfolding.  Previously, we have read Kasaipwalova, who did write about one instance where he dealt with some problems with cops at an airport, but this was only one moment in his life.  Sedaris, too, wrote about his personal experiences, but he did not generally have an overall theme for his book besides the comedy of growing up in his circumstances.  He did not progress through time in a linear manner, and his stories have been criticized for having too much exaggeration to be autobiographical. Sedaris also had a very distinct voice, sprinkled with self-deprecation.  Bryson examines his life through a different lens.  He is specifically writing for a British audience, but he addresses his life in a way that he is able to show a childlike wonder for the life he is returning to in America.  A fantastic example is his fascination with hotlines.  He writes, “You can call the company’s Floss Hotline twenty-four hours a day.  But here is the question: Why would you need to? I keep imagining some guy calling up and saying in an anxious voice, ‘OK, I’ve got the floss. Now what?’” (Bryson 35).  This is something that could only be thought of by someone with a very active imagination, but imagination is essential for Bryson’s form of comedy.  He adds interesting and unexpected comments to things that he personally finds interesting so that others will find them funny.
            The manner in which Bryson views the world also has an impact on his humor.  He is able to find a lot of entertaining aspects of the American experience because he maintains a somewhat whimsical outlook on his life.  In even the most mundane aspects of daily life, such as doing taxes, Bryson is able to find a way to inject humor into the situation.  In the case of doing taxes, he inserts small comments amidst a sea of pseudo-technical jargon.  For example, he says “Type all answers in ink with a number two lead pencil” (Bryson 172).  This is as completely contradictory statement that is written in the direct manner that official forms often utilize.  It is funny because it goes against the expectations that a reader would have for reading an official document.  However, it also plays on some of the existing expectations that people have for the activity.  Paying taxes is never fun, and it is often very confusing because of all of the densely worded directions.  Bryson makes small adjustments to make the directions funny while still maintaining the overall tone.  His humor focuses on the mundane and interjecting his own comical elements. 

The Joys of British Humor

            Bill Bryson’s I’m a Stranger Here Myself: Notes on Returning to America After Twenty Years Away is, from start to finish, quite hilarious, though in a subdued manner. Bryson’s commentary on American life is quite unique, given that he was born here in the United States, but has, as the subtitle suggests, spent two decades living in England, has an English wife, and children who were raised there as well. His commentaries are coming from the point of someone who knows exactly why something is happening, but at the same time has absolutely no idea why. While this view is something that people only very rarely get to experience, it is hilarious nonetheless because plenty of Americans have, in fact, sat back and wondered why exactly some part of our culture is the way it is, or if certain things are done differently in other countries, and if so, how differently. Bryson allows his readers to not only explore this question in greater depth, but also allows them to get answers. What may be the best part about this book, however, is Bryson’s sense of humor, which has so obviously been influenced by his time in England. A review from the Wall Street Journal plastered on the back cover of the book calls his sense of humor “wonderfully droll” a characterization almost always applied to British humor, but very rarely to American humor. The reader can almost imagine Bryson saying various things throughout his book, that are clearly intended to be humorous, but never once cracking more than a wry smile, which almost makes the entire thing that much funnier. His humor is characterized by scathing sarcasm, rather histrionic expressions of disbelief, and just generally incongruous comments throughout his whole book.

            The humor employed can be easy to miss at times, as Bryson states things in such a matter of fact manner that readers are wondering what exactly the joke is, only realizing later that he was actually intentionally being funny. Arguably the funniest moment in the book comes after Bryson details his rather harrowing experience at the barbershop, that left him with what can only be assumed was a horrendous haircut. The moment comes after Bryson explains to his wife that he simply wished “to look like a banker” (Bryson, 34) and though one may not be entirely sure what a banker’s typical haircut looks like, it seems safe to assume it did not share any similarities to what was on top of his head. His wife responds in a way that only someone who loves another person really can. Bryson says that “she gives one of those sighs that come to all wives eventually” (Bryson, 34) which one can only assume is a mixture of defeat, love, and laughter, and finally says to him “well, at least you rhyme” (Bryson, 34). This joke honestly took me a few times before I finally realized what exactly had happened. At first I was confused and thought perhaps his wife had, had a stroke and was simply speaking gibberish, there was nothing in the entire paragraph that rhymed with “banker”. I realized that the reason I was missing the joke was because I had forgotten the fact that his wife was British, and at that very moment she was jokingly insulting her husband with arguably the most classically British insult one can use, and the second that I realized that the joke instantly became my favorite moment in the entire book. Someone without the outside influence would have likely just said outright what they were thinking, telling him exactly what he looked like, but the wit and dryness of his wife’s sense of humor was conveyed rather perfectly through Bryson’s writing. The entire exchange is rather incongruous as well. Initially with how bad the haircut sounded, the reader would expect some sort of outpouring of sympathy from the wife, but at the same time the exact opposite was possible as well, and given the context of the book, probably more likely. His wife’s responses were so wonderfully sarcastic and blunt, and somehow entirely unexpected that it gave the entire interaction an entire different level of humor.