Sometimes I think the world is getting fundamentally goofier, at an
ever-increasing pace. On the other hand, I've only been here a brief
while (in geologic terms, at least), and can't help believing that
the world has always been pretty doggone goofy.
Sputnik and I happened to arrive the same year, 1957, though
Sputnik made a much bigger splash in the press. Here is a testament
to the magnitude of orbital velocity: a 183-pound device, accelerated
into Earth orbit, can drag an entire surprised world right along with
it. F=ma, indeed.
At the time a key parameter in the acceleration of global
goofiness was surely the simultaneous acceleration of the space race.
We learned to count backwards - "T-minus" one second at a time - most
of us blissfully unaware of the meaning of "T". One of the first
things I vividly remember is watching an Atlas-6 rocket lift John
Glenn into Earth orbit. My equilibrium had been forever punctuated.
(I'd never seen a color TV before.)
There was a lot happening during those goofy years, and not
all the voices were counting down in synchronized unity. While it's
true that conformity was king, the muzzles of McCarthyism were
loosening. Diverse voices once again posed probing questions, flatly
eschewing pat answers. Of course, as soon as someone uses the word
"eschew," half their audience is history. How, then, to make people
It seems that if you make people laugh, they will listen to
you. After all, laughing is fun; it feels good. So, if you happen to
have a particularly outrageous - or even subversive - point to make,
why not make it with humor?
It was a Saturday afternoon when buoyant humor rescued me
from what had, so far, been a pretty mainstream float through
childhood. Flipping through the channels (I think we got five or
six), I happened upon a starkly rendered warning:
It is the stated position of the U.S. Air Force that their
safeguards would prevent the occurrence of such events as are
depicted in this film...
And so began Stanley Kubrick's dark comedy, Dr. Strangelove,
or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb.
On the surface, it's an unsettlingly scary premise: a
plausible scenario, in which human frailty leads to nuclear
Armageddon. (I am reminded of that "Buffy" episode, in which Giles
says, "It's the end of the world. Everyone dies. It's rather
important, really.") So why was it so outrageously funny? One
possible explanation springs to mind: "goofiness."
Some years later, during that brief and shining time when I
knew it all, my taste in music was singularly insular. Music, of all
things, certainly wasn't funny. Rather, music was a profoundly
ponderous accompaniment to the equally grave business of unbridled
teenage lust: an ear-pounding backdrop to the perpetual pursuit of
Then, a great friend of the family introduced me to the
musical genius of Tom Lehrer. I had found the contrapuntal companion
to Strangelove, poking furtive fun at soberly spooky specters like
irreverent Boy Scouts ("Be Prepared"), Dahmer-esque dismemberment ("I
Hold Your Hand in Mine"), and nuclear conflagration ("We'll All Go
Together When We Go"). That familiar melody, with a new lyric - "Down
by the old maelstrom..." - inevitably evokes an irrepressible grin.
So, dear reader, I implore you: don't fear goofiness, embrace
it. After all, it has been with you your whole life and always will
be, so laugh at it when you can. In the words of Mary H. Waldrip, "A
laugh is a smile that bursts."
Blair Wyman is a software engineer working for IBM in Rochester,
Minnesota, home of the IBM iSeries.