The Legend of Nicky Poot

Each year at the Automattic Grand Meetup, everyone gives a four-minute “flash talk” on any subject. Here’s the talk I gave this year.

nbradbury-flash-talk-2016
Yours truly delivering this talk.

I’m sure we’ve all had this experience: you’re sitting around with a group of people when suddenly there’s a lull in the conversation. Everyone ran out of things to say, and now you’re all just sitting there awkwardly.

When this happens to me, I break the lull by suggesting we share embarrassing moments. Everyone tells a story about something embarrassing that happened to them. It’s a great ice breaker, and it’s especially good when the people don’t know each other very well. You all admit to something stupid you did, and suddenly you’re the best of friends.

This is exactly what I did a few years back at a mobile meetup when a bunch of us were sitting at a table staring at our phones to avoid eye contact. To break the lull, I said we should each share an embarrassing story, and I volunteered to go first.

The story I told was from age 16. Despite being an atheist, I was a member of a Presbyterian church youth group. Because there were girls there.

There was one girl in particular I had my eyes on, and one night at the youth group I was able to sit on the floor next to her while the pastor talked about something. I really wanted to impress her, so I leaned over to cooly whisper something in her ear.

And suddenly let out an enormous, completely unexpected fart.

I was shocked – I had no idea that was in there!

I hoped that nobody knew it was me, but that plan was foiled by the pastor. Right before my outburst the pastor said something like, “And Jesus said…,” and then when he heard my outburst he pointed at me and said, “But not like that!”

So everyone knew I was the guilty party.

From that point on, the girl I wanted to impress started calling me “Nicky Poot.” Twenty-five years later, I ran into her on Facebook. One of the first things she said was, “Hey, do you remember Nicky Poot?”

Who knew a single fart would have such a long shelf life.

So, there you have an example of an embarrassing story. If you’re with a group of people and there’s an awkward lull, just ask everyone to share something like that, and suddenly everyone is having a good time.

But take my advice: when you tell your story, don’t lean over. You never know what might come out.

Monty Python and the Holy Roller

french-taunterIt’s only Sunday, but I can honestly claim to have had the highlight of my week already.

There’s a local rock radio station whose weak signal sometimes gets overlapped with that of a religious station. This has led to delightful moments such as a Primus song morphing into a hellfire-and-brimstone sermon.

This morning, for some reason the rock station was broadcasting parts of Monty Python and the Holy Grail. As I drove out of my neighborhood the scene with the French taunters was playing. I heard John Cleese utter, “You tiny-brained wipers of other people’s bottoms!” and then it suddenly changed into a hymnal.

Maybe it was a “you had to be there” moment – but I was there, and I found it so hysterical I almost had to pull over.

Fake Gifts for Christmas

Speaking of Christmas and practical jokes, something all three of the Bradbury boys enjoy is giving fake gifts.

One year there was a present under the tree from one of my brothers to my parents. My mother unwrapped it and was speechless to discover a DVD containing exotic dancing lessons.

My brother was also speechless, because he didn’t know anything about the gift. That’s because I had bought it and labeled it as coming from him.

Every year since then there has been a similar fake gift under the tree. It has become part of our family tradition, and I look forward to handing it down to my children.

Another Hairy Practical Joke

Some time after the first incident, my now-beardless oldest brother decided to host Christmas. My other brother would be there, and I had long given him grief about his unkempt nostril hair (what are brothers for?), so I bought him a nose hair trimmer as a gift.

I thought he’d love it, so I was disappointed when he left it behind. That’s when I decided it was his turn for a practical joke.

I bought a second trimmer and arranged for the first one to be given to him a few weeks later. In the meantime, I took the second trimmer with me on a Carribean vacation.

After my brother had been using the first trimmer for a month or two, I showed him pictures of my vacation – which featured the second trimmer.

In one, the nose hair trimmer was lounging by the pool. In another it was dancing with my wife by the beach. The final picture showed it taking a swim – in the hotel restroom. Yes, I took a picture of a nose hair trimmer floating in a toilet.

My brother, of course, was disgusted by that last picture since he thought it was the nose hair trimmer he’d been using for several weeks. I enjoyed his reaction so much that I waited several days before telling him the truth.

A Hairy Practical Joke

Many years ago my oldest brother lived in an apartment complex that had tiny mailboxes. Any mail that wouldn’t fit would be left out in the open – for everyone to see.

So I thought it’d be funny to mail him a package labeled “Infectious Disease Center: Test Results Enclosed” when he was out of town for a few days.

He got me back for that in a big way.

It was around that time that I developed a hernia. The surgery required being shaved “down there,” which my brother thought was pretty funny.

A few days after surgery I received a letter from him. Thinking it was a get-well card, I opened it without concern for its contents – and suddenly found myself covered in hair.

There was a note inside. It said, “I’m sorry they had to shave your naughty bits. I shaved my beard this morning and figured you could put it to good use.”

He wasn’t kidding. He actually shaved off his beard and mailed it to me.

Fade to Black (A Ramble)

Throughout my life I’ve been strangely attracted to dark humor.

Before I wrote software I was a cartoonist, and back then I’d wonder what humor was and why people laugh.

I decided it was madness escaping.

We’re all a little bit insane, doing and believing whatever it takes to avoid the horrible truth that one day we’ll die of old age unless something bad happens first, and when we’re gone the universe will quite clearly continue on just fine without us. Laughter is the sound of that pressure escaping. In a group, it enables us to shed our differences and admit we’re all fucked.

Given that rather bleak perspective, it’s perhaps no surprise that I lean towards dark humor. Not the mean-spirited kind, but instead the kind based on hope.

This is where I start to ramble.

There’s a thing called “middle age settling,” where as you approach middle age you realize you’re not going to change the world as much as you thought you would when you were younger. So you settle on changing a smaller part of the world instead.

In order to do that, you still need hope. Hope that the world is still worth changing, hope that you can at least make things better for the people you love (and maybe even the people you don’t love).

Hope, unfortunately, can be hard to hold onto the more you learn about the world. That seems to have been a problem for some of the dark humorists I’ve enjoyed. As they got older they stopped sounding like disappointed idealists and started sounding like cranky cynics. They faded to black.

That’s something I may struggle with, but so far I haven’t given in to cynicism (of course, I’m a spry young 47, so there’s still time). I continue to laugh at the unpleasant things that bind us, like the universal truth that nothing is funnier than an improperly stifled fart in the middle of a church service. The fact that others laugh with me despite our differences gives me hope.