Weekend of Bernies

With a Sanders-stuffed world exploding into life online, I suddenly heard my brain echoing the rhythms of Dr. Seuss:

I’ve seen him in the Muppet box,

I’ve seen him painted by Bob Ross,

I’ve seen him in a Broadway show,

And galaxies ‘long time ago,’

I’ve seen those mittens here and there,

That Bernie’s nearly EVERYWHERE!

If you have no idea what I’m talking about , you probably haven’t been on social media much since the inauguration. In the hours after Joe Biden took the presidential oath and Amanda Gorman seared her verses into our imaginations, Sen. Bernie Sanders abruptly took over. Or at least his photo did.

The image of Sanders bundled tightly against the cold on a folding chair, wearing mask and mittens and an irascible expression, has suddenly become the latest internet meme, photoshopped into a zillion settings. The bridge of the Enterprise. The Iron Throne. The diner of Edward Hopper’s “Nighthawks.” A box of Sleepytime tea. On and on it goes, the sillier the better.

Some of my friends are reveling in finding new ones, while others are imitating “The Scream” as Bernie takes over their Facebook feeds. It’s a little like the ever-multiplying brooms in “The Sorcerer’s Apprentice,” only without the theme music.

Wait. Do you think someone’s put Bernie in “The Sorcerer’s Apprentice” yet? Hmmm …

For a punster like me, it’s been kind of fun to watch the silliness. The very definition of a meme, after all is a contagious thought, one that keeps finding new ways to evolve and spread. There’s a reason it’s called “going viral” – although, in this day and age, that’s probably not the most welcome image to evoke. (Apologies.)

It’ll subside eventually. They always do (even if they never quite die). But why is it catching on so hard right NOW?

Two reasons, I suspect.

The first is the simple one: it’s silly. And after weeks of tension in the national news, a lot of us needed something silly. Have you ever had that moment where life has been hitting so hard for so long … and then all of a sudden a stupid joke breaks through the walls like Kool-Aid Man at a birthday party, and you just can’t stop laughing?

But the real power, the one that gives it legs, is the mismatch of the original image.

Our brains latch on to incongruity – to things that don’t quite fit. And at a formal event, where everyone is focused on trying to be oh-so-elegant, it’s the ordinary sight that leaps out – the well-known face looking like Grandpa who’s just checked in from his daily errands, waiting for the school band concert to finish up already so everyone can go inside and get warm.

That sort of mismatch  is a powerful hook for any story.

It’s why the original Star Wars begins, not with a mighty hero, but with a robot butler and his mechanic friend who suddenly acquire the information that could save the galaxy.

It’s why The Lord of the Rings puts the world’s future in the hands of an obscure hobbit.

It’s why comedies, tragedies and horror stories across the ages have reveled in bringing together the two people who must NOT meet. It creates tension and opens up possibilities.

What’s more, that’s true in the real world as well.

When we break up old patterns and jar ourselves out of ruts, we let ourselves see the world again. We take a fresh look at things that have become familiar. It lets us invent, create, experience. It even helps us hold others accountable as we look at a situation and ask “Why doesn’t this fit?”

So yes, it’s a silly meme. But the power that makes it work is something quite real. Even wonderful.

So go on. Enjoy (or endure) it while it lasts.

Bern, baby, Bern.

Spaced Out

I don’t dare show Missy the latest Internet sensation. Not yet, anyway.

Not if I want to preserve the speakers on my computer.

By now, I think most of you know Missy, the developmentally disabled young lady who’s become both our ward and our dear friend. When it comes to music, she’s never seen a volume knob she didn’t like, blasting out rock anthems and Christmas carols alike as though they were the closing act of Spinal Tap. Cool video? Even better – and possibly even louder.

So once Missy makes the acquaintance of Canadian astronaut Chris Hadfield and his unique, zero-gravity take on David Bowie’s “Space Oddity” … well, all bets are off.

If you’ve not run across Hadfield yet, you have my dearest wish that your Internet connection gets repaired soon. Recently returned from five months in orbit, the International Space Station commander capped off his tour – a tour already marked by frequent, and often witty, comments to the folks back home –  by recording an outer-space music video, with the aid of a three-person production team and a handy Larrivee guitar.

“This is a marvelous, marvelous experience,” Hadfield said when he first assumed command. “The only thing that gets me mad is I have to sleep.”

How do you beat something like that?

Now, I’m a long-time space lover. So are many of my friends. There’s a lot of solid, sober reasons ranging from economics to psychology to the value of the numerous spin-off devices. But in making the case, it’s easy to overlook one of the most basic reasons of all.

It’s fun.

Almost sounds childish to say it, doesn’t it? In a way, it is. After all, that’s what gets a lot of kids hooked on space to begin with – not the dollars and cents, or the need for a new frontier, but the fact that space is so cool. A world where you float into your clothes, where Earth turns into a marble, where your music video comes with its own special effects; really, what’s not to like?

That kind of joy is important.

It’s OK to do fun things. In an often grim and cynical world, it may even be important to do them, for our own survival. We’re a playful species by nature, and something about that play – the art we create, the songs we write, the things we build purely for the pleasure of building – gives us the spark to not just keep going, but to make the going worthwhile.

In a recent column, I mentioned the importance of doing what you love. This is part of that. If you have to put it into pragmatic terms, the fun now can open the door to the passion later. A teacher once commented that “I open their mouths with laughter, and while they remain open, I feed them a point.”

That’s not to say that the road to any skill or career is going to be bedecked with Muppets, rainbows and space guitars. Anything worth doing requires work, sometimes very tedious work. But it starts with the joy. And if it doesn’t turn into a career – well, you’ve still found something that makes your mouth smile and your heart glad.

What’s wrong with that?

“Decide in your heart what really excites and challenges you, and start moving your life in that direction,” Hadfield once said to a student online. “Every decision you make, from what you eat to what you do with your time tonight, turns you into who you are tomorrow and the day after that.”

And if that direction happens to include a space guitar – well, I suppose you just have to live with that.

I just hope my speakers can.