Wednesday, December 05, 2007

White Out

For Thanksgiving, Dave and I went to Madison, where we spent perhaps the most relaxing few days I have had in a long time - despite the fact that his skittish dog has not yet learned to love me (my own personal tragedy). For the sake of this story, however, all you really need to know is that one day we went downtown with Dave's friend Alex and knocked around some bookstores.

The first one we went to was one of those peculiar mixes of pleasant dust motes and very poor selection. We couldn't find anything particularly good, save for one old copy of Gargantua and Pantagruel which looked like its pages had been cut open with a hacksaw. However, Alex was the one looking for that gem, and he decided that it had too much commentary.

I spent a fair amount of time shuffling through a shelf of old humor compilations, replete with every Crazy/Naive Wife and Witchy Mother-in-Law joke you could imagine, plus some several Good Old Boys in the Wilds of Africa numbers. In-law jokes represent to me a particular style of humor, meant more to elicit a groan than an actual belly laugh. Today it's snowing, and it reminds me of a story my sixth-grade teacher once told us, which carried with it almost the same flavor.

One winter, she said, her town was hit with a deep overnight snowfall. Everyone woke up and started stamping around, throwing snowballs, and generally having a good time. One of her friends however, seemed somewhat perturbed, and so my teacher asked her why.

"I was just surprised to see it had snowed this morning," she said.

"Why?" asked my teacher.

"Well, because I didn't hear it!"

At the time, as I recall, everyone in the class found the joke hilarious. It was one of those stories that makes you laugh mindlessly, if skeptically. The thing is, however, as sixth-grade kids I believe that if we taken the time to think anything at all, we probably would have found the joke funny for all the wrong reasons. Most likely, we would have considered the surprised woman a fool, just plain wrong about the properties of snowfall. That is, after all, the principle that makes a mother-in-law joke so hit-you-while-you're-down hilarious: the mother-in-law is always stupid.

But I don't think that's the way my teacher meant the joke to come across. The way I think about it now is that it had simply never occurred to anyone in my class that snow would make a sound. Whereas, to this one woman, that belief was completely natural and fully ingrained. That's what we found so funny, and so unlikely: a mind unlike our own.

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