In Loving Memory of the Joke

I recently posted a question on a social media platform that went like this: What do you miss the most from the pre-Internet days? The answers ranged from obscure pieces of technology, such as corded telephones and tube televisions, to less favored physical activities, such as biking and walking. I read all the comments in that thread searching for a response that reflected my own sentiments but nowhere did I find the joke. You see, what I miss the most from the pre-Internet times are the jokes.

Some say that the joke has been dying a slow death since the 50s, but I remember hearing and repeating narrative jokes in the early 2000s. In the same vein as myths and legends, these jokes were passed through oral tradition from friend to friend, generation to generation. These jokes required commitment to the memorization of actual stories ending with punchlines and demanded full performances with tones and facial expressions when shared.

The earliest joke I remember hearing and repeating myself is this question-and-answer that only appeals to six-year-olds as I was at the time: One maeko plus one maeko? Never mind that the word “maeko” does not exist in both the English and the Filipino lexicon. Approaching this logically, treating the maeko as a variable in an algebraic expression, which is something that good reason should warn you not to do especially when dealing with toddlers, should lead you to “two maeko.” Of course, to anyone who understands Filipino, “two maeko sounds like “tumae ‘ko (I pooped).” And for six-year-olds, nothing could be funnier than poop.

After the age of six, I remember encountering jokes in book compilations and in magazines. I’d go over them all, searching for jokes I could reserve for a better time. Almost everyone then had a favorite joke and this had been mine for a long time:

Three men were stranded in an island after their ship capsized. Unfortunately, the island was populated by cannibals who managed to catch all of them for supper. Terrified at the prospect of death, the men began to cry.

When the chief of the cannibals saw this, he took pity and said, “We won’t eat you if you pass our requirements. First, head to the forest and come back with the first fruit you’d see.” The men leapt and ran into the forest.

After three minutes, one of the men came back with a single blueberry. The chief then said, “Insert this fruit into your asshole. If you laugh, we will kill you.” When the man did this, he laughed and was immediately put to death.

A few minutes later, the second man returned with a cherry. The chief said, “Insert this fruit into your asshole. If you laugh, we will kill you.” The man did so and kept his composure for a considerable amount of time until he, too, was put to death.

In heaven, the first man met with the second man and said, “What happened? I saw you and you looked like you were never going to laugh.”

The man replied, “Everything was going well until the third guy came carrying a jackfruit.”

We are the jokes of our generation

A joke can only be a joke if it is made by someone and shared with someone else who would consequently declare it hilarious. That which was made and shared with the intention of being laughed at but garnered no applause is therefore not a joke but a sad statement until someone else validates it. In this regard, jokes can only be shared within a group of people sharing certain beliefs and perspectives. Every culture and subculture has a unique joke pattern or theme.

In the Philippines, for example, a popular joke features the character of Inday, the stereotypical maid from the Visayas islands characterized by her stupidity and inability to mimic the Tagalog pronunciation. One of her many domestic adventures saw her crying after the doctor told her that he would have to remove her butlig (rash), mistakenly thinking that the doctor said “both leg(s).”

It is important to note that Inday as a hilarious character found popularity only in Metro Manila and some parts of Luzon at a time when Tagalogs would look down at the Bisaya (people from the Visayas islands). Considering that Tagalogs dominated the capital, the government, and the commercial realm, Tagalog became the prevalent culture dictating what is correct and even what is Filipino. Many Bisaya at the time found employment as maids in the richer Tagalog households; their interchanging vowels when speaking the language of their employers was deemed incorrect and hilarious.

When the general attitude towards Bisaya changed, the jokes featured a different Inday, one who spoke perfect English and was too smart for the average Filipino to follow. Every time she opened her mouth, she caused “nasal hemorrhage” for the people within her immediate vicinity. No one understood her but she did not care for the lowly scum.

Comparable to the many jokes made and being made at the expense of the cultural minority, the hilarity of which remain subjective, the Inday joke is a product of its setting. Nowadays, most young Filipinos do not subscribe to these types of humor out of political correctness and cultural sensitivity. This fear of offending or being considered offensive may have partly resulted to the demise of the joke, the punchlines of which almost always poke fun at specific human attributes that are frowned upon by the dominant culture.

In 2013, popular Filipino comedian Vice Ganda made a joke about Filipino journalist Jessica Soho being raped. The joke was really about Soho being fat but it drew flak because it involved an award-wining and respected journalist in the same sentence as the word rape. Vice Ganda had to issue a public apology when the issue began making headlines. 

I do not write this to make claims about what jokes are acceptable or not as I do believe that jokes are a matter of taste. Instead, I would like to throw my hat in and say that a favorite joke of mine is the ngongo joke, made at the expense of persons born with cleft palettes and consequently, speech impediment. I know I am not perfect and you, too, are not perfect, but tell me what jokes you laugh at and I may be able to tell you if we can ever be friends.

Wherein we became the memes we love

The joke in itself may not be completely dead and maybe how we share it is actually what changed. As more of our friends relocate to virtual reality and as we spend more of our lives on social media, narrative jokes turned into memes. Short one-liners became images with text and anti-jokes became shitposts. Like the old narrative joke, memes are also unique per culture or subculture and are only funny for people in the know. Unlike the narratives though, these memes do not require an introduction and are as quick as they appear and leave on our social feeds.

This is not to say that the loss of narrative jokes in terms of popularity is a result of a cultural decline. I also do not have any desire of proclaiming one type of humor superior over another. What I lament is how I no longer meet anyone with a ready joke and a rehearsed performance. The oral tradition of joke-sharing has boiled down to one simple line of “Have you seen this meme?” For the joker, the performance is gone, and for the listener, the anticipation of a laugh is lost.

In a 2005 article for The New York Times, Warren St. John mentions that jokes were abandoned because the younger generation was insecure. Compared to the quick observational humor, the failure of which can go by unnoticed, jokes can turn a situation awkward if they do not lead to the desired effect. And while the same can be said for online jokes with zero likes and shares, it can be argued that an unnoticed original meme is much preferable to an oral joke no one laughed at. The former can even be deleted, unlike the memory of embarrassment from a failed joke.

What this phenomenon tells me is how much we’ve changed and not changed over the years. The reputed oldest joke dating back to 1900 BCE is all about women and farts. Thousands of years later, many people are still embarrassed or laughed at for poop, meaning that we still find the same shit funny. But we have changed a lot in terms of how we deliver humor, learning to protect ourselves from embarrassment and the loathing of others.

In case I haven’t bored you yet with how seriously the joke is taken in this little essay, I will share another favorite joke as a reward for making it to the end. This particular joke was shared to me by a classmate when I was around 15. It goes: What’s red and goes up and down? The answer, he told me, was a tomato in an elevator.

Now, I’ve never met another person who laughed when I shared this but I always thought the absurdity of a lone tomato finding itself in an elevator enough to merit a chuckle. For my friend and I, however, the real punchline came years later when, as a young professional, I carried a tomato in my handbag going up the elevator at work. Before leaving the red thing to go on its journey down, I took the photo below and sent it to him via Facebook.

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I didn’t hear him over the Internet but I know a laugh was shared that day.

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5 Online Articles that Influenced My Notions on Writing

Today, as a working young adult, most of the words I consume are in the form of pixels on a screen. The articles I read are no longer printed with ink, and the stories I share with friends are no longer on paper. The Internet has become my library and I find that its contents have influenced my writing the same way that the books I love had.

The fact that most readers today keep to the Internet for its convenience and leave behind the physical book is not something to be lamented. If one is open-minded enough, he’s bound to encounter a few online gems that will make a lasting impression. Here are five online articles that changed my perceptions and challenged my earlier notions on writing:

“Why You Shouldn’t Be A Writer”

Susannah Breslin, Forbes

Skip this if you’re looking for inspiration. Go ahead. Go to the second link. The article delivers exactly what the title promises and nothing more.

Even when I started getting paid for writing articles, I was very hesitant to call myself a writer. I felt like the W-word was reserved only for the great masters. Shakespeare, Jane Austen, George Orwell—these are writers; I didn’t and I don’t deserve to be called one.

You see, the problem with writing, as with all art, is that it’s impossible to arrive at a conclusive statement on whether a work is good or not. It’s not like being a salesman wherein you base your skill on the amount of money you earn. It’s not like working as a teacher which enables you to measure the effectivity of your delivery by looking at the performance of your students.

“Writing is thankless work. It is like housework. It is like laundry. It is like a soap opera. It is never finished. There is always more to do. People may tell you that you are good, but you won’t believe them, or you will believe them too much, or you will not know who to believe, least of all yourself and this thing you created that is nothing more than a mess of letters trying to make sense of things that don’t: life, death, what happens in between.”

Writing is not as easy as speaking English on paper. This is my take-away from the article, and has been a sort of reserved comeback every time someone in my immediate vicinity has the audacity to belittle the craft. And given the subjectivity of its brilliance, making a profession out of writing is almost a matter of calling, the execution for which is best left to the brave.

“50 Years of Stupid Grammar Advice”

Geoffrey K. Pullum, The Chronicle of Higher Education

I was in college when I first encountered William Strunk’s and EB White’s The Elements of Style, but it wasn’t until I was working as a staff writer for a kids’ magazine when I realized just how much influence that little book enjoyed.

To the uninitiated, The Elements of Style is the grammar bible most of what we were taught in school about English and writing were based on—”don’t join independent clauses with a comma,” “write with nouns and verbs,” “avoid the passive voice at all times.” The rules that make up this little book so determine our notion of good writing that some of them even found their way to the house style at my first job.

“Avoid the passive voice at all times.” Sure enough, every time I wrote a sentence where action precedes the actor, I would find my editor’s note glaring red: “Revise!” It did not matter that my passive sentences were merely placed as welcome breaks to the monotony of a five-sentence paragraph going doer-does, doer-does, doer-does. I was left with no choice but to change my sentences, costing me the “music” I worked so hard to incorporate in my words.

What I found in this article by University of Edinburgh’s George Pullum was an ally. He goes on to explain why some of the rules in The Elements of Style were not only groundless but stupid.

“It’s sad. Several generations of college students learned their grammar from the uninformed bossiness of Strunk and White, and the result is a nation of educated people who know they feel vaguely anxious and insecure whenever they write “however” or “than me” or “was” or “which,” but can’t tell you why. The land of the free in the grip of The Elements of Style.”

At the end of the day, writing for me remains a matter of the ear. And as much as our conversational language changes and evolves, so must our written language.

“What Great Artists Need: Solitude”

Joe Fassler, The Atlantic

I’ve always been the kind who’s dark and gloomy. You know the type: dark hair, glasses, eyeliner, with a face that never smiles to match. At 15, I started having mood swings. Years later, I’ve learned to romanticize depression and began thinking of the perpetual state of sorrow as a consequence or a prerequisite of being a writer or an artist.

I loved my sorrow. There were times when I would even trigger myself to be depressed just so I’d be able to put myself in an “artistic mindset.” I didn’t care that I was becoming self-destructive. I was a Creative.

“You know the cliché: You’re out on the town, you’re doing drugs, you’re drinking, you’re running on the walls, you’re pissing on the fireplace. It’s a cliché. Often you run into artists who live that life—and at one point, you find out that they’re not actually producing that much art. They’re living the life of the artist without the work.”

Ultimately, one learns that sorrow does not an artist make. And most dangerous for any writer or artist is to drown in alcohol, affairs, or feelings that he fails to create anything but a ruin of himself. Emotions, deep or shallow, do not string together words or paint figures. Discipline does.

“What is a Poem?”

Mark Yakich, The Atlantic

What is a poem? The closest answer I got from a professor back in college was “that thing that is not prose.” The definition of poetry, especially to its pursuer, always remains elusive.

Likewise, the matter of why people write poetry is a mystery. Especially today, bombarded as we are by mass and social media. The enjoyment of poetry became exclusive to the dowdy English teacher and the emo teenager. Even the discussion of poetry in school is almost always portrayed in films and TV as obligatory and tedious.

So why do we read and write poetry? It’s not something people nowadays admire. It doesn’t earn us money. And unpublished works just take up space in our computers.

Enter Professor Mark Yakich of Loyola University New Orleans:

““Poem” comes from the Greek poíēma, meaning a “thing made,” and a poet is defined in ancient terms as “a maker of things …” Like no other book, a book of poems presents itself not as a thing for the marketplace, but as a thing for its own sake.”

“It’s Not Plagiarism. In the Digital Age, It’s Repurposing.”

Kenneth Goldsmith, The Chronicle of Higher Education

Reading an article published by The New Yorker on Kenneth Goldsmith opened my mind to a world of possibilities. It was like going back to uni and listening to a much-admired professor deliver a passionate lecture and then going home to hear his words still ringing in your ear. I thought Goldsmith was controversial, daring, and a true intellectual if there ever was one. So much so that I scoured the Internet for more of his words and for people like him right after reading that introductory article.

In “It’s Not Plagiarism. In the Digital Age, It’s Repurposing,” I saw the evolution of poetry. Carefully tiptoeing past the clutter of emotional baggage writers have been throwing around since the birth of letters, modern poets who take the conceptual road play with ideas and not words.

What would a nonexpressive poetry look like? A poetry of intellect rather than emotion? One in which the substitutions at the heart of metaphor and image were replaced by the direct presentation of language itself, with “spontaneous overflow” supplanted by meticulous procedure and exhaustively logical process? In which the self-regard of the poet’s ego were turned back onto the self-reflexive language of the poem itself? So that the test of poetry were no longer whether it could have been done better (the question of the workshop), but whether it could conceivably have been done otherwise.”

It may sound crazy, but this is how my faith in art, in literature, in words, in people, in the possibilities of the future got restored. For I felt that as long as art and literature are changing, the possibilities in our short lives remain inexhaustible.

 

BONUS: Don’t Try

 

That Which We Call a Vagina

Today, I learned that the word “vagina” came from the Latin word for “sheath.” The term was first recorded in 1682, while its counterpart, the mighty “penis” was first used in 1668. But before you imagine that penis came from the Latin word for “sword,” let me assure you that it did not. It came from the Latin word for “tail.”

I cannot say why this is so. I do not know why the vagina was named in relation to the penis, while the penis stands on its own (pun very much intended). All I can tell you is that to me, it sounded unfair that the mother of the universe was named as an afterthought to the cock. Sheaths are, after all, consequences of the blade, suggesting that vaginas were thought of then as mere scabbards to the all-conquering penises. And what does that say about me as a woman?

No, I have not the least intention of turning this discussion into a feminist rant. All I want to share with you is the power that names, ultimately words, hold over our thinking. You can tell a lot about a person’s background once you ask him the story of his name. You can learn more about a culture should you study its language. Names and words, basically anything you can spell, communicate more than they are generally thought to. The beauty of language is in its being the most effective tool for expression.

Consequently, my love affair with words leads me to the thinking that who I am is a matter of words. I am a name, a gender, an animal species. I am a combination of overlapping nouns and contrasting adjectives. I use words to present myself and other people use words to deal with and relate to me. Sometimes, I feel like words define my actual existence, that I do not exist if there are no words for me. It is during these times that I have to stop and remind myself that I am more than the names I call myself. After all, words aren’t everything, right?

In a class that dealt with language and culture back in college, the professor asked the question of which came first, language or culture? It was a chicken-egg question of whether perception came first or the word for it. Some people believe in the theory of linguistic determinism, meaning that how we see the world depends entirely on our vocabulary. In the same way, my initial thought when I learned that my vagina was named after a slot that holds a sword was that to be a woman is to be man’s plaything.

But stop, I tell myself. This is just me paying more attention to etymology than I should. Words aren’t everything and all languages are just metaphors for reality. In the end, this is a battle between linguistic determinism and human determination. In the same way that we can easily dismiss the etymologies of words as things of the past, so can we easily wave away society’s preconceived notions of what it is to be a woman.

It is said that when Shakespeare found that the words of the English language were no longer enough to convey what he wanted to mean, he made new sets to better express himself. Similarly, when the names and words you’re stuck with are bothering and even hindering you from advancing, you can always make new ones. We name territories, typhoons, pets, children, and even private parts for the purpose of establishing authority. I hate the history of the word “vagina” and what it implies so I’m taking control and naming my little girl something else. Everyone, meet my sword.

On Smoking

The first time I smoked, I was in Los Banos, partying with college friends. I was 22 and felt like I was no longer doing anything new with my life, and I wanted new, I craved new. So I went to the biggest, baddest smoker in the group and asked to be taught.

That night, I had seven cigarettes.

The habit didn’t kick in until a month later. I was living alone in a room for rent that smelled of cat piss, overlooking the damp, gray city that was QC. With melancholia seeping through my brain, and with loose change in my pocket to burn, of course I found myself knocking at the window of the nearby sari-sari store. It was sixty pesos for a pack of Marlboro blue.

And for the first time ever, all alone, I lit one up.

And I puffed.

And blew.

And puffed.

The smoke was icy air going down my lungs.

I blew.

I held the cigarette between my stubby fingers the way any 1950s femme fatale film character would. I was not wearing makeup but I had red lips and a cat eye. I was not trim, but goddamnit, I was gorgeous.

Today, some 20 months later after I lit my first one, I am tentative about quitting smoking. For a few days now, I’ve been having difficulty breathing and the doctor had already asked me to get an ECG and a chest x-ray. It’s a bitch to be sure, not being able to breathe and all that, but I am hesitant about drawing the line between my pack of Marlboro blue and me because I don’t want to give up something that made me feel—

Beautiful.

I remember creating a character who talked about why actors smoked in scenes during dialogues in movies. I got the idea from a professor in playwriting back in college, who hated characters who smoked. I gave the script to a friend and he said it reminded him of Ayn Rand, whose female characters all smoked because it was empowering.

Empowering.

Fashionable.

Those were the words he used.

Pair that with the stereotypical image of the Western European artist, with deep-set eyes, full lips, and a cigarette between his bony fingers. It must be my fault for watching too many French films, that I’ve held in high romance for so long the image of the smoke-inhaling, crisis-plagued, self-destructive, madly creative and yet constantly misunderstood artist. But in my mind, it was everything I wanted to be.

I want to be.

I want to look.

Feel.

Like art.

On Writing: Why not and why do it

“…let me, a 21st century struggling (if not starving) poet, convince you that there is no future in this field.”

I remember writing my first poem when I was nine. It was a half-plagiarized, sentimental ode to friendship inspired by a similar poem I came across in a youth magazine. But the idea of me being a writer, and consequently writing as a profession, only came to me when I was in high school*.

At 12, I began constructing metaphors based on “visions” induced, or so I believed, by too much caffeine. I began writing rhyming verses about my self, my family, and my feelings. After that, it was only a short matter of time before I became a staff member of the campus paper, believed I had writing in me, and pursued the study of writing came college.

Today, at 24, I call myself a writer-slash-editor. I’ve been working for a company that produces educational reading materials for three years now, earning just enough to keep myself in a one-bedroom apartment, eat two to three times a day, support a lover, and keep a cat. It’s far from a luxurious life, seeing friends on Facebook go on vacations, while I content myself with having an Internet connection.

Now, I know you’re here because you think you’re a writer. You want to be convinced that this career is fulfilling and you seek support in taking this road despite the words of caution you get from parents, friends, and significant others. If so, then let me, a 21st century struggling (if not starving) poet, convince you that there is no future in this field. Back away now, and take a different route if you still have the chance. Why?

You’re not good at it.

Sure, you get praises from friends and family for your writing. Perhaps, you’ve even been commended by a handful of professors back in college. But the world is full of people who’ve been told by inadequate critics that they are “good.”

Besides, do you really think you’re good? Do you think that you’re this generation’s Whitman or Neruda? Do you think you have what it takes to stand out from the millions of writers living today? I know I don’t.

Writing is an undervalued skill.

I don’t know about you, but from where I’m sitting, I’m of the impression that people don’t look at writing as a special skill. They think that having a good command of the English language is all it takes to write well. Hell, I even came across an online article sometime ago discouraging students from pursuing Creative Writing, Literature, and Communication degrees because it’s easy enough to get published in Wattpad. Now, if people do not have respect for the craft, why would you want to push through with this?

There’s no money here.

Take it from me, your chances of making a buttload of money through writing is as high as my chances of having an estranged grandmother who’s queen of Genovia. Unless you’re JK Rowling or George RR Martin, which you’re not, you’re never going to get published and you’re never going to earn a cent for the best verses or fiction that you will produce in this lifetime. And while you can always reduce your metaphors to Google search words and succumb to the trend of writing for marketing, that still won’t be anywhere near what your IT and licensed friends make.

So why write?

Why write?

In the end, you write because you can’t help it. It’s almost a predetermined inclination, a calling if you will. You write because stringing words and phrases is an automatic activity. You write because you unconsciously scribble. You write, not just because you want to, you write because you do.

In an article for The Atlantic, Mark Yakich says that a book of poems is a thing that exists for its own sake. A poem is “a thing made” and a poet is “a maker of things.” That is as writers, we do not write because there is money here or fame or what-have-you. We write because we feel that writing is a part of who we are or of who we want to be. And when you’ve found yourself fallen for words, there is no alternative path or future.

And in this regard, you write because you’re brave.

*High school in the Philippines before the implementation of the K-12 program in 2011 began at the age of 12. There used to be no distinction between junior high and senior high. Under the old system, I entered high school as a freshman at 12 years old and entered university four years later.