Saturday, August 27, 2016

Dancing to the beat of a different accordion

kw: book reviews, nonfiction, essays, humor, autobiographies, commentary

My father said, "Don't put yourself down. The world is full of people who will do that for you." To make this proverb universally applicable, one must add, "…unless you can make a living from it." Think of Rodney Dangerfield ("I get no respect"). Then think of Alexandra Petri as a younger, brasher Rodney Dangerfield, with a greater range.

How great is that range? One could make a useful estimate from the chapter titles of A Field Guide to Awkward Silences. After chapter 1, "How Not to be Awkward", states, in its entirety,

  1. I have no idea.
  2. Well, how about this? Don't do any of the following.

there follow 23 chapters ranging from "Flopper" (2) to "Tuesdays with Hitler" (6) to "How to Join a Cult, by Mistake, on a Tuesday, in Fifty-Seven Easy Steps" (8) and "Under the Dome" (20 - her father was a Congressman) to "Self-Defense Tips for Fairy-Tale Girls" (21). Don't consider these the extrema, as though they were the points on a starfish. NOr is it even a starfish with 23 points; it is more of a 23-dimensional space. And it implies there are a whole lot more dimensions out there!

In today's paper, the Crossword Puzzle's first and last "across" clues were (1) "Parent of 63 across" and (63) "Child of 1 across". They turned out to be "Baby Boomer" and "Millennial". That is not generally true. My wife and I happen to be Boomers, and parents of a Millennial, only because we were in our mid-40's when he was born. My wife went right out of labor into hot flashes. Most children of Boomers are members of the "X Generation", and most Millennials are their children. Ms Petri, being no more than a few months older than our son, is definitely a Millennial, and between us and her there is a double Generation Gap.

Anyone out there remember the Generation Gap? It was the one between the Boomers and our parents, who were the "Great Depression Generation" and also the "Greatest Generation". They had lived through the two most significant eras of the Twentieth Century, but to us it was all "history", as in our classic dismissal, "Oh, that's history, man!" They said, "Waste not, want not," and we said, "But I want it NOW". They said, "An apple doesn't fall far from the tree," but we were apples with legs, and ran half across the planet. They built "The Good Life" and first we trashed it, then turned anti-trashing sentiment into the Enviro-Nazi movement that drives half of Liberal politics; we soft-heartedly (and soft-headedly) tried to "Save the World" (usually from them!), and Liberal politics (the other half) turned this into the Universal Nanny State (look up "Cowboy after OSHA" to see what I mean).

So it's understandable that it took me a while to warm to Ms Petri's style of humor, and to learn to parse when she was actually being serious. I have observed among Millennials, including our son, that "to think is to do." They lack a filter. In the chapter "Internet Bitch", about the time Rush Limbaugh called her a Bitch, she muses on two collections of words: those that cause a gut reaction, such as the F-bomb and the S-bomb, and those that used to, but don't any more, such as "Zounds!", a contraction of "God's Wounds!"—it could get you burned at the stake in the 1500's. There is a coda. to listen to nearly anyone under 35 speak, the "bombs" and a half-dozen other "four letter words" don't seem to give any of them a kick in the gut, the way they seem to affect Boomers. Fortunately, while not averse to the occasional bombing run, Ms Petri is much cleaner of mouth (of pen? of keyboard?) than most of her generation.

As a journalist (the profession she wraps around all her escapades), she gets backstage for events most of us never hear of. She went to the National Pun contest, entered it on a lark, and did so well that the next year she returned, and won! She applied, and appeared, on Jeopardy; was ahead for a while but then lost. She can't return while Alex Trebek is alive, so she awaits his demise: only then can she return to her "tribe", the trivia-obsessed She did pretty well in a whistling contest. These and other adventures hark back to Chapter 2, "Flopper", in which she shows that, if you can become immune to the shame of being a flop, there are a lot of fun things waiting out there for you to try. You might actually be sorta good at a few of them.

Her humor style is varied, but much relies on the sly exaggeration. She could have almost learned that kind of humor from many of the great humorists of the generation before mine, from Red Skelton to Jack Benny. It would be interesting to see her do a stand-up routine à la Jack Benny. He could draw out more laughs with a slow, turning gaze than a whole monologue by Jay Leno; I bet she could come close.

But her book is about awkwardness, after all. The 23 chapters aren't really about the awkward silences themselves, but about what led up to them…a great many of them. And growing up seems to be the most awkward of all. She sums up the notion that she has become, greatly to her surprise, an adult, this way:
"Everyone sees this competent-looking thing walking around, but that is just the tip of the iceberg, while for the purposes of this metaphor under the iceberg is not more ice but instead a crowd of really nervous penguins frantically trying to hold the ice in place and feeling that they aren't quite up to the task."
So really, why else would she have shown up at the airport to pick up a friend, playing a Polka on her accordion?

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