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Volume 17, Issue 5: Recipio


Ben Merkle

Snow is a great joke. Why else would we all laugh when we first see it? Every winter, the first snowflakes begin to float to the ground and our first reaction is a huge gut chuckle. Little lacy chunks of ice dropping from the sky in quantities that could suffocate entire nations. What a joke. I saw a book recently, a coffee table book, devoted to beautiful close up photos of single snow flakes. Each photo revealed their complex and delicate intricacies. Intricate enough to make Euclid's head spin. Countless billions of these works of art are strewn across the road and packed down icy smooth so that my car does 360s at every corner. What a joke. Why else would my kids scream and laugh whenever we spin off the road? My wife just screams.

When I was a wee lad, my mom used to babysit a crowd of kids. I remember a winter when we had enough snow to begin the ambitious project of constructing a snowman. We aimed for a colossal snow man, perhaps the abominable snowman himself. It would have been worthy of the front page of our local paper had it ever been finished. However, by the time we had rolled and packed the bottom ball, we had consumed all of the snow that our front yard had to offer. It was time to switch to plan B. We didn't want our work to go to waste so we began searching for another way to make use of our snow boulder. Eventually, we came up with a brilliant plan. We wrapped the loose end of the cord hanging from the flag pole around the snow ball several times and then began hoisting. It took all the strength of the three preschoolers who had constructed what was slowly becoming a snowball of death. After raising the snowball of death a good five or six feet off the ground, we spent the rest of the day trying to talk another boy (named "Chrissie") to stand under the ball. "We won't drop it. We promise." Oddly enough, he never believed us and refused to step onto the X that marked the spot. However, we were convinced that it would have been a good joke. In retrospect, it might have been the end of my mother's babysitting career.
But snow in the face is always a good joke. Perhaps even better than the pie. I remember standing in the restroom during my elementary school days. A boy stood next to me licking his snowball. He explained that he was constructing an iceball. As he licked the compressed snow, the outer layer would melt and then re-freeze, forming a deadly layer of ice around the outside of the ball. The iceball would also be smoother than the standard snowball and therefore fly faster and hit harder. Why did he have this in the restroom? I don't know. It's a memory from grade school and therefore coherence is a lot to ask of it. But I remember that I was terrified by the magnificent overflow of lawless testosterone displayed by the boy who could craft such a missile of death with such cavalier nonchalance. He had all the swagger of a junior-high boy showing off with a butterfly knife. I was terrified, but it was a pleasant sort of terror to be on familiar terms with the dangerous crowd. I don't remember the ice ball ever being thrown, or whether it actually hit its target. But if it did, I'm sure someone laughed. Probably on the way to the principal's office.
But how can we laugh when someone gets injured? This objection is not entirely honest with what we know to be true. How can we not laugh when someone gets hurt? Some of our best jokes are born of our worst injuries. Why is it that our best stories are frequently the chronicles of our worst injuries? Once I was skiing. I went off a cliff and hit a tree. When I tried to get up my arm wouldn't work quite right. Every time I tried to raise it, the lower half of my sleeve, as well as my glove, would lie still, while the upper portion of my sleeve would flop. However, if I just tried to move my hand, my glove would flop. It was a perplexing riddle. It was a joke that I couldn't quite get. Then I got the punch line. My arm had snapped. The humerus was now humeri. (That's a joke for the Latin nerds.) I finally got the joke and began shrieking for my friends to get the ski patrol. They all took off on a race for the ski patrol and I just lay there. I lay there in jeans and a denim jacket and soaked in the chilling snow. I had been skiing out of bounds, and it took forever for the ski patrol to get their sled over to me, so I lay there an hour. I shook all over. Even my shattered arm shook and by the time they reached me I had slipped into hypothermia. What a joke. I didn't laugh about it then. But when I tell the story now, everyone, including myself, howls.
You're sitting in your car and a man in the crosswalk slips on the ice, does a Scooby-Doo run in mid-air for several seconds, does several flips while hovering three feet above the pavement and then lands flat on his back. Isn't that a joke? If it isn't then why are you laughing? Admit it. You do laugh. A snowball flies across the parking lot, cracks someone square in the face. Don't you chuckle? Of course you do. But perhaps you feel a little bit bad about it when you discover that the face that received the snowball also received a broken nose along with it. Everyone feels guilty for laughing at blood. I think this is because we assume that comedy and tragedy are opposites.
But they aren't. Every comedy begins with some little tragedy. A little idol is toppled. Our pride, our feelings, our expectations, something is wounded. Something is thrown to the ground dashed. And as that little idol slips from our clutches, we weep and mourn. Blood begins to drip from the nose and tears well up in the eyes. But then we look past that idol and see a bigger picture, and the very loss of that idol becomes a delight.
Have you ever noticed how close laughter and tears are to one another in little children? They can shift straight from one to the other without any transition. Rather than living on opposite ends of the spectrum, comedy and tragedy are close neighbors. Comedy is just tragedy in perspective.
In my family, the summer before my ninth grade year is known as the summer of the lawn mower. I lost several finger tips on my left hand that July. I was treated for shock and rode in an ambulance, two highlights in any boy's life. They sewed my fingertips all back on and then I slammed them in the door and one of them popped back off. So I threw it away.
Whenever I tell the story everyone is horrified for me and then their horror turns to laughter. Are these people sadistic sickos? Or is the loss of my idolatrous little finger tip a great joke? It's a real drawback in snowball fights. Whenever it gets cold, the fingers on my left hand go numb first. Scar tissue, I am told, doesn't circulate blood as well. I think that is hilarious.
Perhaps this seems a bit coarse. Is everything just a joke? Are we supposed to laugh at every tragedy? Won't we become awkward company at funerals? I would submit that ultimately everything is a joke of some sort. Even death. But just because something is a joke doesn't mean we are quite ready to laugh. I tell my children that they ought not to laugh at someone's misfortunes until that person can laugh at it himself. Don't laugh at the man who has splatted on the ice in the crosswalk until he is rolling on the ground laughing himself. Then have at it. And sometimes we are not yet big enough ourselves to laugh. Sometimes we can't see past our tragedy, and so everyone needs to hold their chuckles for the moment. But that is why a resurrection is promised to us in the future.
This is how death loses its sting, by turning into laughter. The resurrection turns death into a joke because it gives us the bigger picture. It puts everything in perspective. Yes, we will all die, some of us even in tragic ways. But, in the end, we get over it. We get better. Right now we mourn deaths. They are still tragedies, because the resurrection is still in the future. The snowball has only just smacked us in the face, the sting is still there and the warm, salty taste of blood has just begun to trickle into our mouth and the tears are welling up in our eyes. But in a while we will be bigger. And there we will be in the resurrection, telling the stories of our deaths, slapping our knees and howling as if all that happened was someone stepped on a rake, tines up.
I tell my children not to laugh until the victim has started to laugh. That is just good manners. But the moral that I want them to learn is that it is important to find the laughter when you are the victim. Don't sit and mope about your wounds when everyone else is stifling their snickers in order to be polite to you. Small people are stuck in the tragic world. Small people lie wallowing in the cross walk, nursing their little bruises along. Small people show up to school the next day with crutches or a knee brace. Big people get past it and laugh.
That is the great thing about snow. It is a countless multitude of little tragedies piling up in the driveway to be shoveled. Each one testing our ability to laugh. It is a thousand lawless snowball fights invoking the censorious tisk-tisking of those responsible for the safety of the playground. It is 360s in the parking lot. It is frozen pipes, bursting radiators, mice in the basement, countless trips to the ER, fender-benders, wet socks, phone lines down, wiping out on the stairs in front of crowds of howling junior-high girls, white-washed faces, runny noses, frostbite, late to work because of the roads, studded snow tires on the credit card, and countless other little tragedies, which, when we grow up just a little bit, turn into earthshaking laughter.

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