You Know What I Meme

By now, we all know the advice: Wear your masks. Get your shots. And remember your daily dose of memes.

Wait, what was that last one?

Yes, according to a recent piece by National Public Radio, internet memes – the contagious jokey or cute images that pop up on Facebook and elsewhere, usually with a pop-culture slant – may have been a key piece of psychological survival during the pandemic. NPR cited a study that found people who viewed memes had higher levels of humor, more positive feelings and less stress than those who didn’t. The effect was even stronger If the meme was directly about COVID-19.

Short version: if you’re that guy who’s been sharing dad jokes and cartoons, your work has not been in vain.

This might sound a little odd. After all, it seems to fly in the face of several “common sense” assumptions, like our mistrust of social media and an urge to keep from stressing out over too much pandemic news. And for heaven’s sake, isn’t serious stuff supposed to be taken … well, seriously?

Well. Maybe not.

Maybe, in fact, a little silliness is just what the doctor ordered.

It’s at moments like this that I like to invoke one of the most profound philosophers of our times, Roger Rabbit. On its surface, “Who Framed Roger Rabbit?” is sheer goofy slapstick, the sort of chaos you can only get when an army of wild-eyed cartoon characters has to battle the plots of an extremely hammy Christopher Lloyd. But in a quieter moment – relatively speaking – the cartoon Roger takes a moment to convince his cynical human friend Eddie of the value of comedy.

“A laugh can be a very powerful thing,” Roger insists. “Sometimes in life, it’s the only weapon we have.”

Let me be clear: there’s laughter and then there’s laughter. We’ve all become a little too familiar with the cruel kind, the sort that mocks victims and makes light of tragedy. That’s a weapon turned on the weak, and it’s not the sort of thing we need now or ever.

But there’s a different sort of laughter.

There’s the kind that pulls people together through a shared crisis, like the World War II-era English in the midst of the Blitz. One shopkeeper, after an air raid, put a sign on his damaged business reading “More Open Than Usual.”

There’s the kind that gives a moment of relief and distraction in the midst of too much pain. I’ve written many times about my wife Heather’s chronic illnesses … and about the silliness that gets us through, whether it’s bad Bob Dylan imitations or setting the names of her conditions to music. (No, we haven’t yet tried setting her conditions to Bob Dylan music, but give us time.)

There’s the laughter that hits back at the cruel. Or that exposes absurdity. Or that opens minds as well as mouths. (I’ve lose track of how many times I’ve posted the punchline “I sent you two boats and a helicopter!” to make a point). The sort that can make people aware of the world in a way that makes it more bearable – and maybe even helps them think about it in a new way.

So maybe memes aren’t such a bizarre tool after all. Maybe, in a time when so much is off-kilter, they’re just cockeyed enough to make sense.

The more I think about it, the more I like it.

After all, in these challenging times, we must live within our memes.

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.

That is The Question

Every so often, the human race finds itself dealing with the Big Questions. “What is the greatest good?” “Paper or plastic?” “Does your chewing gum lose its flavor on the bedpost overnight?”

Now, it looks like we get to add another one to the list: “Yanny or Laurel?”

Umm – can we get back to the chewing gum?

If you’ve missed the latest minor craze on social media, welcome back to Earth and I hope you’ll take me with you when you leave again. Yanny or Laurel is a brief sound clip that dares to ask “How long will you listen to a bad recording that didn’t hit No. 1 on Billboard?” You push Play to hear a garbled word, decide if the speaker is saying “Laurel” or “Yanny” and then share your findings online to begin a calm, reasoned discussion of the matter.

OK, just kidding. You pop online to join the cheering section for your word of choice, often with an enthusiasm for the “obvious” choice that could get you on nine out of 10 American game shows. (Come back to “Jeopardy!” when you’ve calmed down a bit.)

The thing is, it’s actually not that hard to find the answer. Besides the fact that “Yanny” isn’t even a word (unless you’re misspelling Greek New Age musicians), it only takes a little hunting on the Web to read an account from the teens who started all this. It began when they played an online vocabulary page for the word “laurel,” realized each of them were hearing different tones, and sent it out to the world.

But that would be too easy. Like the “blue dress/gold dress” Facebook photo before this, Yanny or Laurel isn’t about learning the right answer. It’s about knowing what you heard and insisting on its rightness to the world.

Sounds familiar, doesn’t it?

A lot of politics – heck, a lot of what passes for online discussion these days – seems to be a longer game of Yanny or Laurel. It doesn’t matter if facts can be found and myths can be busted in less time than it takes to ruin the Colorado Rockies’ pennant chances. What matters is picking your team, shouting your slogan, and remaining impervious to any attempts at reason or compromise.

Sure, it’s annoying – but only when those guys do it. It’s easy to fall into the same trap. Studies suggest that the wiring of our brains makes us want to fit in rather than break with the crowd – it’s easier and more satisfying to simply join the crowd of people who believe the same things we want to believe, than it is to examine those beliefs and see if they hold up.

It’s not inevitable. But like running marathons instead of watching six hours of YouTube, changing the habit takes work that’s usually uncomfortable and sometimes acutely painful. It takes curiosity and a willingness to ask the next question. Even with something that seems obvious. Especially then.

More than once, I’ve quoted the distinguished philosophers Paul Simon and Art Garfunkel: “Still a man hears what he wants to hear and disregards the rest.” When we can beat that reflex, any question can become interesting. Even “Yanny or Laurel?” can start a long discussion on why some people hear certain tones, or whether we all experience the same reality.

It’s worthwhile. But it takes effort.

You can’t just rest on your Laurels.

A Time To Think

There’s a fire racing through Facebook.

This time, the spark came from talk of Syrian refugees. Before that, it was gun control. Before that, some other broad and powerful issue of the day, building an audience faster than the rumor of free Bronco tickets.

By itself, that’s not so bad. Big and important issues should be discussed by a free people, after all. I’ve seen some approach the impromptu debate with thought and care, and I’ve done my best to take part in the same manner.

All the while, I know we’re in the minority.

Most of what happens isn’t a discussion or debate. You know it. I know it. Most of it is a shouting match at best, the verbal equivalent of Mark Twain’s duel with axes at two paces – swing hard and fast, with no particular care for accuracy so long as blood is drawn.

“Behold the power of my inflammatory photograph!”

“Hah-hah! Your photograph is impotent in the face of my video of dubious origin!”

“Oh, yeah? Well have at thee with an unsourced blog post!”

“Pah! Now you shall see the might of my snarky cartoon!”

Sometimes the borrowed memes and images open a new line of thought. More often, they’re an opportunity to raise the voice, plug the ears and carry on, invincible. No listening. No learning. No need for the other person to even be in the (virtual) room.

And thus, a wildfire. Plenty of heat. Plenty of damage. Precious little in the way of useful light.

Please understand: I’m glad that people care. In the face of an issue like this, apathy would be an indictment of us all. I want this to be on our minds and hearts and I know others feel the same.

But how it’s done matters.

If you are one of the people involved, please. Take a moment, or several, before hitting Enter. Take the time to think.

Think about the image, or the video, or the report that you’re about to put out there. Have you checked its accuracy? Does it have identifiable, verifiable sources? This is especially true if it seems to agree with your feelings and beliefs in every particular – these are the items we are least likely to check, because they seem so obvious. (Reporter’s Rule No. 1: “If your mother says she loves you, check it out.”) If it is true, does it add anything new and useful to the discussion?

Think about what you’re for, not just what you’re reacting to. What can you offer as a next step? If you favor sealing the borders, how do you propose helping those who need help, without putting them at risk of being radicalized? If you favor welcoming the stranger, what do we as a society and as individuals need to stand ready to do, to make sure our aid is more than an empty ‘welcome’ banner and an isolation within a new society?

Think about what the other person is saying and examine where you stand. Have you put yourself in a place that you’ll regret when the passion of the moment has died down? Our history books are full of people who earnestly argued positions that have since been exposed to wrath and ridicule. (One of those, the internment of Japanese-Americans during World War II, is even now the subject of a Broadway production.) Are you so sure that you want to be so sure? Even the unbending Oliver Cromwell himself once implored “I beseech you, in the bowels of Christ, think it possible you may be mistaken.”

Sure, I want to win people to my side of the argument. I’m human and the subject is important to me. But I think calm consideration is more likely to do that than angry sloganeering. If it can’t, then maybe I have a few things to examine of my own.

I’ll take that risk. This is too important to be decided purely by gut impulse. This is the time to think of who we are as a community and a nation, and what we want to be. A “Thinksgiving” season, if you will.

Some fires bring warmth, and light, and inspiration. Please help this be one of them.

Haven’t we all been burned enough?