The importance of being silly

Since joining OT, retiring from chess (temporarily?) and beginning my new career among this merry band of bloggers, I have been searching for my identity. First, I often feel way out of my element—after all, until recently (embarrassingly, very recently), I hadn’t a clue what was out there/here on the web-o-sphere. Nature Network and the “Blogfather” were like words in a foreign language to me. I am slowly filling in some of the gaps.

But I still have an identity crisis. Some people collect stamps or coins, I collect passports: Canada, US, Israel—whatever. Am I a Canadian-American-Israeli-Jewish atheist-liberal-scientist? Or am I an American-Canadian-Israeli-scientist-secular-Jewish atheist with liberal leanings? And so on…

As my identity should be reflected in what I write, the luxury of having such a wonderful and uninhibited choice of topics is always a tricky thing. A quick analysis shows that I am already leaning towards the heavy side, the professorial and serious side. But am I always in my pompous-preaching monolog-mode? I hope not!

I have been known in my time to play some tremendous (my blog, my choice of adjective!) practical jokes. A couple years ago, when a certain Alaskan politician suddenly came into a high level of media exposure, I walked into my lab with my serious-earnest face, and nonchalantly announced that I’d accepted an offer for a great position in Juno, Alaska, and the lab would be moving in 3 months time. But alas, it seems that there’s not much support for basic research in that state: 

Basic research on fruit flies

At some other point in time I’ll be more than happy to elaborate on some of my other mischievous endeavors throughout my career in the lab!

My point is that I can hold my own with the silliest of sillies (watch out, Cath!). Or at least I like to think so. So now it’s time to discuss identities and silliness. Through much hard work, I attained the status of being truly bilingual—learning Hebrew well enough to study in university and understand the news when read rapidly on the radio. Fortunately, I did not have to go to classes like these to learn Hebrew (or Italian).

Italian evening class- Monty Python

On the other hand, my lucky children were given Hebrew as a gift, because that is the language we all speak at home. Actually, when we first came to the US, with thoughts of returning to Israel, I spoke English to my daughter. But when we altered our plans, I moved to Hebrew so that she would pick it up more easily, while picking up English at school.

Well, you might wonder, where is the silliness? Patience, patience….

As you may already have guessed, my sense of humor has been severely impacted by Monty Python (at my son’s recent birthday party I actually held a “silly walks” competition for the kids–a big hit!), and another sketch that has always been a favorite, is the old Hungarian-English phrase book sketch.

Hungarian phrase book sketch- Monty Python

I have always been fascinated by that “lowest form of humor”, the pun, and other cute plays on words. For those who are unfamiliar with this word-play competition, have a read.

So imagine what a treasure it is to be able to make bad puns that cross over between two languages! The fun is exponential, and Hebrew-English crossover puns are delightfully funny—but necessitate a select few who are truly bilingual enough (and sometimes cross-cultural enough) to appreciate them. Hebrew may be a “lumpy language”, but it’s great for puns.

One unintentional example. Picture me 9 years ago, a postdoctoral fellow carting my chatty and bilingual 3 year old daughter through the Safeway grocery store in Rockville, Maryland. A very liberal, democratic state with one of the highest ratios of Ph.D.s in the US, thanks to the NIH. Despite being bilingual, there were a host of words that my daughter would use in Hebrew, out of habit and simplicity. One pair was/is “Abba” and “Ima”, Hebrew for father and mother, respectively. Another was “gahn”, Hebrew for garden, but also the word for ‘daycare’ (as in kindergarten).

As I bent over trying to determine which toilet paper was actually cheaper, I found my 3-year old deep in conversation with a nice little gray-haired lady. My daughter was very proud that she had recently advanced from the infant-to-3 year old daycare facility to the larger 3-5 year old one located right at the NIH.

Suddenly, I heard my daughter tell the lady: “I have a new ‘gahn’”. The woman was staring at me, eyes ready to tear me apart. My daughter went on seamlessly: “It’s much bigger than my older ‘gahn’”. I couldn’t get a word out. “You should be ashamed of yourself, buying weapons for her at that age”, and she stomped away.

And since they were in the process of building a new daycare center at NIH, I was disappointed that I didn’t even get a chance to tell her about the great new “gahn”-site…

post-script: apologies to Oscar Wilde and Stephen Curry!

About Steve Caplan

I am a Professor of Biochemistry and Molecular Biology at the University of Nebraska Medical Center in Omaha, Nebraska where I mentor a group of students, postdoctoral fellows and researchers working on endocytic protein trafficking. My first lablit novel, "Matter Over Mind," is about a biomedical researcher seeking tenure and struggling to overcome the consequences of growing up with a parent suffering from bipolar disorder. Lablit novel #2, "Welcome Home, Sir," published by Anaphora Literary Press, deals with a hypochondriac principal investigator whose service in the army and post-traumatic stress disorder actually prepare him well for academic, but not personal success. Novel #3, "A Degree of Betrayal," is an academic murder mystery. "Saving One" is my most recent novel set at the National Institutes of Health. Now IN PRESS: Today's Curiosity is Tomorrow's Cure: The Case for Basic Biomedical Research (CRC PRESS, 2021). All views expressed are my own, of course--after all, I hate advertising.
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12 Responses to The importance of being silly

  1. Tideliar says:

    HAHAHA that’s fantastic! I love shows like “Kids say the funniest things”, great to see a multi-cultural version!

    And shame on the ‘old lady’ for not asking WTF was going on!

  2. Stephen says:

    Odd that the old lady should have been shocked at the purchase of a gun for a 3 year old. Isn’t that par for the course in the US…? 😉

    • Steve Caplan says:

      Yes, usually when they start to walk at about 12-15 months is the ideal time to arm them–I guess that’s why she was upset with…

      Seriously, MD seemed to be a pretty tame place compared to other areas in the US…

  3. cromercrox says:

    * likes *

  4. Cath@VWXYNot? says:

    Very cute story!

    Oh, and I love lab pranks! People contributed some good ones to an April Fools post I wrote a few years ago. There are some very creative people out there.

  5. MGG says:

    In my town in India, there was this pothole in the middle of the road, on a dimly-lit patch that created a lot of problem to motorists. Many people complianed about it but no action was taken by the government. Finally, a creative citizen planted a banana tree ( a moderately large one) in the pot hole. So there it was, a banana tree right in the middle of the street. A picture of it in the local newspaper immediately got the attention of the Public Works Department and in a day the pot-hole was filled!
    It is important to be silly just for being silly, but being silly can sometimes find solutions when everything else fails.

    • Steve Caplan says:

      Which reminds me of a recent eco-tourist vacation to Belize–formerly British Honduras. Lots of potholes on the the roads (some would more accurately be called ‘craters’). A guide picked us up from the airport to take us to the small family-run lodge that we stayed at, and I asked him which side of the road do people drive on (being a former British colony, I had my suspicions). He looked at me in puzzlement, like the silly fool that I am, and said, “on whatever side has the least potholes”.

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