Despite my wacky and ribald personality, my go-to style of writing often lists into the maudlin and the serious. I do wry quite well, but not necessarily funny; I’m the Aimee Mann of the personal essay. When properly motivated, I’ve got the sarcastic/absurdist Shouts and Murmurs style down pat, but much like writing fiction, ha-ha and tee-hee humor remains elusive to me.
This summer, I’m taking a writing-and-reading class at Hugo House called “Being Funny” in the hopes of stimulating density in my humorous bone (bad?) After our first session, I can tell my cheese will be moved, if not in a helpful way. Yesterday’s missive from Michael, our instructor, asked that we come prepared with a particular piece of writing for this Thursday’s class.
“Write about a time where something happened to you that involved physical humor/slapstick. My favorite is the time I walked into a screen door. …Then there was the time I tripped and fell into a full picnic table and sent the whole thing to the ground. Remember to use sensory details and active verbs and take time stretching it out.”
I could bullshit my way through his prompt, I suppose—embellish heavily on a small event that I barely remember and try to make it funny—but I got nothing, as Jon Stewart would say. I got nothing because I’m so uncoordinated that I’ve learned not to do things that would give me material for an assignment like this, such as lean back on two legs of a chair, go to step aerobics class or walk downtown while texting on my phone.
My past is scattered with a series of near misses and full-on tragedies that I can’t imagine are titter-worthy: slipping down the hidden staircase at my high school library and landing on my feet (no one saw that), hitting my airbnb host’s car last year in Nashville on the first day of my stay (awkward!) or the full-on garage sale that I had at Crystal Mountain when my then-boyfriend encouraged me to graduate from the bunny slope. Those two excruciating hours we spent coming down—Tom skiing backwards as my prop the entire way—seem laborious rather than droll.
What does seem amusing, if not wholly embarrassing, is my widespread means of avoiding any physical activities that might lampoon me. To pull off physical humor via mishap, one actually must be quite coordinated—or mentally deluded of being so, of which I am neither.
How many times did Cosmo Kramer fall in Seinfeld? Each time was a full-on guffaw ballet: a splaying of arms akimbo, the rhythmic slippage of feet and legs as if on invisible banana peels, which actually takes a delicate balance of trust and daring in the embodied self. Like writing humor, learning to fall is a hard-won skill.
The closest I come is random klutziness. If there is a glass of liquid near me, I’m likely to spill it (and, if contained in porcelain or glass, break it), thanks to my Italian genes, which drive me to gesticulate wildly while speaking. This is not funny.
Also not funny is my inexplicable attraction to athletic men. From the gymnast and the mountain biker to the personal trainer and the Ironman, everyone I’ve dated has brought a new sport to my life that I’ve had to scheme to avoid in terms of my participation. And don’t think that each of them doesn’t endlessly cajole and hassle me into accompanying them as they ride, glide, free-fall, clamber and rappel across the West Coast. If I had a nickel for every time I’ve heard, “Oh, come on, try it just this once….for me. You might like it,” I could retire.
One could say that dating athletic men simply means that I prefer lean, active body types, or self-motivated people whose drive matches my own. But isn’t it odd that I’m drawn to manly men whom I simply cannot match physically?
“I’m going hiking/skiing/surfing/biking/climbing/running/rollerblading, etc.” each of them has said to me on a given weekend, to which I’ve responded, “Sorry, I have writing homework/blogging/grant applications/trip to Italy/work/asthma, otherwise that sounds great.” I don’t necessarily postpone my involvement as much as I vaguely defer it, hoping that they will never suspect me of being fearful or physically incapable so much as busy and fabulously successful with other pursuits.
Yet, since I mostly dig smart jocks (okay, not the personal trainer), they catch on almost immediately. “How come you never want to bike/snowboard/climb/belay/ski/skate with me?” they inquire gently at first. “It would be great to get you on a board/kayak/bike/mountain/trail – that way, we can share this experience together.”
“Isn’t sex enough?” I ask cheerfully in response. For some reason, this doesn’t strike them as funny.
Part of it is that I don’t dig roughing it in nature with all its sticky, sappy, spiny hazards, most of which end in lacerations, rashes, hypothermia, bites and helicopter mountain rescues. Why go through all that when you can grab a latte and take two laps around Green Lake without needing to be hosed down like an elephant afterward? There’s plenty of greenery there, at least enough for my taste, and most importantly, a paved path and restrooms that don’t require squatting over a hole you just dug. Of course, there are also bikers and skaters, which means that, if I go with someone other than a fellow walker, I open myself up to the dreaded suggestion of renting bicycles at Gregg’s.
That’s another thing: I don’t own a bike and haven’t since high school. (The story of me going over the handlebars of my ten-speed thanks to a corpulent bully named Tom Asimou isn’t very funny, either. Neither are the scars still evident on my knees today.) I’ve learned that, if you don’t own a bike, it’s easier to get out of invitations to go riding. “Oh, sorry, I don’t have a bike or any gear, including a helmet. How about we grab a cocktail at Bathtub Gin instead?”
See how that works?
Thus, I spend my year avoiding mountains (fear of heights), snow (fear of falling downhill and breaking every bone in my body), trails (snakes, poison oak, blisters) and organized sports like golf and soccer that require equipment (don’t have it!) Aquatic activities are more difficult to avoid, since I actually love the ocean and am easily goaded into water trips.
On the plus side, it’s pretty hard to commit a pratfall in water. On the other hand, there’s drowning (tragic rather than funny), which is why I’ve only been kayaking, white water rafting and snorkeling just a single time each. No need to press my luck. I swim occasionally and play in the surf often, happy enough to squish sand between my toes and collect pocketfuls of shells rather than paddle board or scuba dive as many friends are wont to do.
After being pulled down by the undertow in LA as a teen, I’ve learned that it’s much safer on shore although not as hilarious. (My aunt, who was dive-bombed in the head by a seagull that same summer, would heartily disagree.)
Ultimately, I’m athletic in a controlled sense –yoga, weight lifting and walking to stay in shape (I was serious about asthma)– dreading each day that I have to evade invitations from my outdoorsy co-workers and friends who want to camp halfway up Rainier, bike the Burke-Gilman Trail to Red Hook Brewery or go for a weekend ski vacation at Whistler, though I’m not adverse to snow shoeing some day.
Looking back through this post, it seems I’ve deferred writing about my pratfalls in favor of writing about how I can’t write about my pratfalls. As much as I avoid opportunities for physical errancy, I am apparently as phobic (and crafty) about exploring them in writing as well.
It’s really too bad because this sounded like a great assignment. Unfortunately, I have a million things to finish this weekend, including this blog post. Like many men before him, Michael will have to accept my heartfelt mea culpa and a raincheck on his assignment this week.