On the Art of Goofiness
Excerpt of letter to my grandchildren
Goofiness as part of a way of life was really important to me and to my relationship with my children. Now, goofiness takes lots of different forms: there’s many ways to be goofy. A closely related term is silly. It means having, as part of your way of life, something to counter the dead seriousness of our human condition, to make life fun and funny and not to take everything so seriously. And, for me, the idea of being silly as one of the ways you live in the world has always been an important way of expressing that need. I do take the world very seriously, I’ve devoted my career to social justice research and to mentoring my students and to being a loving and active father. That’s serious business. That’s taking the way of life as something important, and you have to devote attention to it. But there’s so much that’s hard in the world and difficult, and as you get older you get more aware of the difficulties, if you’re in our particular privilege condition where children can be shielded from some of the difficulties. So goofiness for me has always been a way of lightening things up. It doesn’t mean “don’t be so serious,” it means, “in addition to being serious, have a lighthearted view of life as well as a serious one.”
So one way I express my goofiness is by telling goofy stories, but there were other ways. I think one that was sort of close to telling stories is that I would drive the kids to school through a wonderful little drive called the Edgewood Pleasure Drive, kind of a wooded drive on the way to Wingra School, and we would drive along this road which was canopied with trees, probably about a half a mile all together, and I would pretend that there were dinosaurs leaping out at us. I would drive at about 10-15 miles an hour and when a dinosaur would leap out, I would slam on the breaks, just abrupt stop, so everyone would jerk forward. I did it in a way that was safe--the kids were all buckled up--and clearly not at a pace that would cause neck problems or anything like that (at least I hope my judgment was good enough.) It would make the drive to school hilarious; I could get everyone in the car just completely cracked up with the fun of imagining there were dinosaurs leaping out at us. And it became very participatory, the kids would yell, “Oh, there’s a dinosaur!” and I would slam on the breaks.
Or if we were having a dinner party, I would slip the lid of some pan under my shirt and take a wooden spoon and give myself a whack in the tummy and make a resounding noise and get the kids to just crack up. And I’d do that unexpectedly, it wouldn’t be part of a game, I could get myself set up and just whack. That was goofiness.
But I would say that one of the most important goofinesses was telling stories. They would be fun to listen to, and as the kids got older, they’d become more participatory and hilarious because of their contribution to the goofiness. Well, people would often marvel at how well I tell stories--I don’t plan them out, I can just tell them--but the key to my way of telling stories that makes it easy to tell a funny story is to have a kind of gimmick, a basic idea about some device that generates the goofiness of the story. The story doesn’t actually go anywhere--there are almost no plots to any of my stories, things happen, but they’re just kind of random and the kids just throw in their own randomness--but if you’ve got a good gimmick, the stories just kind of tell themselves. So I had several of these. The earliest were stories that came to be known as the Josie and Jessica stories. And the basic gimmick was that these two kids were buddies, and that Josie could turn himself into any animal he wanted, but it would only last a half hour and then he would turn back to Josie; and he couldn’t turn himself into the same animal twice in a row, and if he did it too many times in a day, he would get stuck for 24 hours. Which would create problems. If you’re playing as a gorilla and you get stuck as a gorilla, and then you have to figure out how to live as a gorilla for a day. So they would have various adventures, always around getting stuck, that is where the adventure would start.
When I had a good gimmick, I could basically tell a good story in my sleep. So we would be on a long road trip, I’d be driving and I could basically tell a good Josie and Jessica story, I didn’t have to plan it out. Or another gimmick was the search in the high sierras for the McMurtry Mine. Or our endless treks through the jungle on the Road to Mandalay, where Sam was always relegated to a donkey named Slow Poke and everybody else got to announce what animal they were riding. Sam was just enough older than the other kids that I could tease him, he would be the butt of jokes, and he would realize it was part of the fun. If you have a ten-year-old and a five-year-old and you’re telling a story to both of them, you can have the adventure be that they’re riding through a jungle and the little kids get to announce their animals and Sam would always be on Slow Poke; and Sam would take the tease and be fully part of the fun of it, just enough older to realize that this made the whole thing sillier and it wasn’t that he was relegated to some lesser role.
Sometimes I would record these stories. The full set of Josie and Jessica stories and many of the Blizzard Epics and the search for the McMurtry Mines, they’re recorded and you can listen to them, and you can hear your moms yelling out things because I would say something would happen and Becky or Jenny would say, “No, no it didn’t happen like that.” Becky especially at a certain age had a very shrill voice when interrupting my stories. It would just be a kind of shriek. Well, we have recordings of this and you can transport yourself back 30 or 40 years, all of this recorded in the mid 1980s, so a long time ago, and you can see what it was like for me to tell these stories with participation from your moms. One set of these stories, the first set, I actually recorded when we lived with another family in Berkeley, in the early 1970s, the Zuckers. Now here’s a very sweet thing from that set of recorded stories: I recorded those stories, especially Josie and Jessica and the Gorilla. Jonathan Zucker, who was not born when these stories were recorded, he was born in 1974 and I told them to his sister in 1972. Well, Jonathan Zucker had a lot of trouble falling asleep when he was about 6, and his mom and dad thought my recorded story would help him sleep, and it did, it was kind of a magic bullet. He listened to that story, Josie and Jessica and the Gorilla, from around 6 til around 13, so for quite a long time, and he would fall asleep listening to the story. Then when he was a little older, 15 or 16, he became a counselor at a summer camp in Berkeley called Camp Kee Tov. And kids would be sitting around a campfire and Jonathan would tell this story, word for word, exactly how I told it, because he’d listened to it hundreds and hundreds of times, including one part in the recording where I sneezed--and when he got to that part in the story, he would sneeze as well. And to me this is this marvelous human phenomenon. Storytelling around the campfire goes back to ancient times, it’s the way religious stories and myths and parables started, it’s what’s called an oral tradition, not written down, you couldn’t put a sneeze in a written down story in the same way, but these stories affirmed the value and sometimes the goofiness of life. Jonathan Zucker would tell the story to the camp Kee Tov kids, and he would sneeze at exactly the place I sneezed twenty years earlier. To me that’s a wonderful and deep illustration of the continuity over time of what it means to be human and live together in community and transmit these cultural phenomenon.
Now to really have a story, a child must of course have language. And language kicks in for children at different times; of course, children can understand things before they can speak, but to really tell a story I’d say a child has to be at least 3 years old, and then it really kicks off around four, four and a half, and that’s in my experience when a child really gets into the story itself. But I’ve been thinking about what gimmick I wanted for you. I didn’t just want to retell the Josie and Jessica stories to Vernon and Safira, and then Ida when she came along. And I had this basic idea of a world in which everyone is a witch, and they just don’t know it. And a witch in this world is someone who has a special power to realize this potential, something they’ve dreamed about.
So here’s the first episode of Safira, Vernon, and Ida: the World’s First Tripulo.
Now, you may not know it, but we live in a world where everybody, or at least almost everybody, turns out to be a witch. Now, what’s a witch? Witches aren’t bad things, they aren’t evil, they’re just ordinary people who have a special witchly power. They have some sort of power which they might not even know they have. Everyone has a special power, but they might not know they have it, they have to discover their special power. Well, this is how it happens: you have to, at some point, say out loud, “oh I wish I could do x” I wish I had the power to do this, to solve this problem, had this skill. Well, if you say this and it’s not your special power, nothing happens. If you want to be a great dancer and you’re in ballet class at age 10 and you’re stumbling about you can’t do anything and you say I wish I could be a great dancer and it’s not your witchly power, nothing happens. But if you happen to say—outloud or in your head—let’s say you’re having a music lesson and you’re stumbling on your violin over a difficult passage and you say, “I wish I could play the violin beautifully, like Itzhak Perlman” and that power happens to be your witchly power, suddenly you have it. Now it turns out that all of the great musicians of the world and all of the great architects and ballerinas and authors, they all had that as their witchly power and at some point longed for it and said it out loud in their heads. And that triggered getting over the hump and activating the power. They still had to put in the effort, to go from a person with witchly power be a fabulous musician to actually being a fabulous musician, but that’s how it started off. And that’s how witchly powers work for a singulo, a singulo is someone who has the power all on their own. So most people are singulos. And there can be powers that aren’t about being a world famous musician, a power could be being a fantastic breadmaker—someone loves making bread, they do it a lot, but it comes out kind of tough, and one day they said, “I wish I could make beautiful bread,” and suddenly you can make beautiful bread like a professional baker.
Mostly the powers that singulos have are good, life-enhancing powers, but they can occasionally be dangerous. You could have a person who says, “god, I really wish I could see through walls,” and that turned out to be their singulo power. Well, that could be used for all sorts of nasty purposes. Or, “I wish I could be super strong and lift up cars.” Well, lifting up cars could be good if someone is trapped under one, but you also could do a lot of damage. But anyway, singulos have isolated individual powers.
Duplos have an added complexity: you can only activate your power if you’re touching another duplo who has the same power and you say it at the same time. Well, how likely is that? You could have two duplos who both want to fly, but how likely is it that they’re going to bump into each other, be touching and at the same time say, “I wish we could fly.” So there are duplos, but very rarely do they discover their powers. And there has never been a tripulo, which would be three people who would get together and have the same tripulo power and say it out loud at the same time.
Well, this is a story about three little witches. Fantastic people. Cousins and siblings. The eldest of these witches is a little girl named Safira. She was born in Australia, but comes back to the United States when she’s three and a half years old. A live wire, buzzing about in the world, filled with energy and good cheer and fun. She has a cousin named Vernon, five months younger. And then along two years later, two and a half years later, comes the baby of the three named Ida. They don’t live in the same town, but they live close enough that they see each other from time to time. Well, the story begins when Safira is about five years old or so and Vernon is four and a half and little Ida is two. One day, visiting in Philadelphia where Vernon lives, Safira and Vernon are playing in the big open living room space in that house. And Safira runs to Vernon and tackles him and they go tumbling to the floor and Safira yells out, “Oh, Vernon! Wouldn’t it be fun if we could fly?” and Vernon thinks, “Yeah, that would be really fun,” and they’re holding onto each other because Safira had tackled Vernon, and they suddenly lift off the floor together. Whoa. “Whoa, look what happened!” Safira says. They let go of each other, they’re at the ceiling of the house, and when you break the connection, the power disappears; you don’t get into free fall, it’s a gentle dissent and you can guide yourself down. So it’s not particularly dangerous, but you have to be holding onto each other, touching—you could be holding hands, holding feet, entangled in some way, but you have to have physical contact for the power to work. So Safira and Vernon are zooming around the house, learning how to do it: it’s a skill. They’ve got the power now, but they have to learn how to accelerate, how to avoid objects, how to move a foot for some directionality, and so forth. They go into the kitchen where their moms are making dinner, and their moms see their children on top of the ceiling and they say, “Whoa, whoa come on down.” They’ve never seen this before, they’ve never seen two kids zooming around in the air. So Vernon and Safira let go and drift down to the floor.
Well, you can imagine the moms are pretty concerned. This looks like great fun, but what would happen if you were outside? Would you just go up and up? You could get lost. They had to understand what was going on. So they went down to the public library in Philadelphia to see if they had any information about people who could fly. And they did find in the corner of the library a little book that said if you wanted to learn about people with special powers you had to go to a library in Edinburgh. So Jenny and Becky went off. Adriano and Mark looked after the children in Philadelphia, and Jenny and Becky got on a plane and flew off to Edinburgh. And they found the book that gave all the information about singulos and duplos. There wasn’t much information on duplos, because they’re very rare, but they got the basic picture. They went back to Philadelphia and sat the kids down and said, “Look. It turns out that you are a very special kind of person called a duplo. You’re young. We don’t know how this is going to develop, but let’s just set some rules about this. First of all, if you’re going to do it, you have to tell us--just don’t go willy nilly flying off into the sky, let’s just take it slow and always tell us about it. Secondly, we’re a little concerned that if you’re holding hands and flying high in the sky you might let go without meaning to, and even though it’s not dangerous because you don’t go into free fall, you could get lost. So we’re going to design a set of garments in which you’re attached through the garment--so it’s by one foot maybe, sweaters or a pair of pants attached at the cuff, but you need to have these special garments if you’re going to fly, and let’s see if that works, if that’s enough of a connection to make sure your powers are activated; it’s just a little safer.” And they all had a very good discussion. The kids were excited, of course. It was tremendous fun. And then Jenny and Becky said, “The last thing is, we want to go to a safe place where we can practice these skills, where we can really see how these develop and you can figure out how to do it.”
Well, time went on, they were five and then they turned six and then they turned seven. And all this time, Ida would tag along but without any special power, she wasn’t part of the game. And one day when they were outside at a state park, little Ida came up and said, “Do I have any special powers? You have so much fun, and I get to watch and tag along, but can I play too?” And it occurred to Safira and Vernon that, well, they had never tested it out. They hadn’t held on to Ida and said, “Okay, Ida, say outloud, ‘I wish I could fly,’ and we’ll all say it together, maybe she has the same special power.” So, they didn’t tell their moms and dads that they were going to try this out. They were in a big field. They were wearing a garment where they were attached at the ankles, loose and comfortable, didn’t interfere with the fun. They got together, all touching, and Ida said, “Oh, I wish I could fly.” And Vernon and Safira said the same thing, “we love that we can fly and wish that Ida could fly with us.” And they shot up into the sky like they were rockets. They were turbocharged. They were like airplanes, they could zoom incredibly fast. Vernon and Safira could control their own powers enough as duplos that they immediately put the breaks on. But there they were: the world’s first tripulo. Flying around in the sky together was exhilarating. But Ida had no skill yet, she didn’t know the rules, and at one point she just let go.
Now remember, letting go isn’t dangerous, but in this case it just turned off Ida’s power without turning off Safira and Vernon’s, because they were still attached to each other. Vernon and Safira could still fly and guide their flight; all that Ida could do was just drift down without any power, like a glider would. Safira and Vernon chased after her, now with diminished power. They wanted to rescue her, but it was a windy day and they lost track of her at one point. Ida drifted down to the side of a kind of cliff, they were in a sort of hilly area, where there was a big tree protruding from the cliff, in which there was a large eagle’s nest. And she landed, kerplunk, in the eagles’ nest which happened to have three large baby eagles in it. Well, the mama eagle soon arrived and saw this strange bird in her nest. Now you might think the mama eagle would get upset about this and might be aggressive, but no, she was a very sweet mama eagle, bringing back bits of meat for her babies, and she thought, as a gracious host, that she’d feed the new odd eagle with no feathers first. And she tried to stuff this raw meat down Ida’s throat, which Ida really didn’t like. So Ida was fussing with this eagle—“Get away from me, stop doing that, no, yuck, I don’t want that, ugh”—and finally Vernon and Safira, flying around looking for Ida, spotted her in the eagles nest and they swooped down and rescued her, and continued on their way. They held on to Ida they told Ida, “You can’t let go of us.” They were going down to the field, next to Lake Michigan where their parents were waiting. “Just stay calm, hold onto us, and we’ll make this dissent without any further problems.” So they swooped down and ended up back with their moms and dads.
It was a very warm summer day and all the sharks of Lake Michigan were gathered in a big party. This was shark day in Lake Michigan, and it turned out they were gathered right next to where Becky and Jenny and Adriano and Mark were waiting for the threesome to come back. So the threesome lands, and Jenny and Becky especially were very relieved. They were kind of excited to learn that Ida had the same powers that her cousin and sibling have, so that they can be a tripulo, and thought of all the fun things they can do together. Well Ida, when they landed, they were hot, and immediately she jumped into Lake Michigan for a swim, not realizing the lake was full of sharks at that point and the sharks happened to be gathered right where they were. She was a pretty good swimmer for a five-year-old and suddenly she bumped into a shark. These weren’t aggressive sharks, they weren’t particularly dangerous, but they started playing and flapping around and bumping into each other, and nobody on land knew they were friendly sharks. So Vernon and Safira said, “We’ve got to get Ida out of there,” and they said “To the rescue!” and they jumped into the water as well to rescue Ida from the sharks that she was playing with.
They were in the water, a bit away from shore, and they grabbed Ida, but Ida didn’t want to go out. And Ida said to herself, “Wouldn’t it be great if I could swim like the sharks.” And it just so happened that Vernon and Safira were kind of thinking the same thing, “Wouldn’t it be great if we could swim like sharks.” They were all holding onto each other and they said it at the same time and whammo! They could swim like sharks. My god, they could swim way better than sharks. They just discovered that their special power was not specifically flying, their special power was that they could do in a supercharged way any form of mobility. They could run like a rabbit. They could hop like kangaroos, they could swim like sharks, they could fly like eagles. They had the super power of mobility. Fancy, exciting mobility. And this opened up a world of play and adventure that would keep them having adventures for years and years to come.
And that’s the end of the first episode.
You can see how that’s a story generating machine. There’ll be different occasions for different problems to arise. The foundation is laid. So I won’t be there on a road trip or around a camp fire or at the cottage to pursue this, but maybe the template will survive and other stories will get generated by it.
So that's the excerpt.
Mini Medical Update
Mostly I'm feeling fine. No dramatic new developments on the official health front. The only new symptoms are that I had a couple of episodes of gasping for breath, where I simply could not fill my lungs. The episodes lasted maybe 15-20 seconds and were pretty scary. They were triggered by almost no effort, standing up and pivoting, basically. But this is to be expected it. It's one of the things that happens in late stage AML. And I'm okay. I'm okay.
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