In the meantime, the best way to avoid having the time drag was to carry on as normal. But now that he knew the situation, he found himself in something of a quandary. Part of his nature--probably to do with his Irishness--rebelled from the prospect of obligingly continuing to act out his role as if nothing had happened, like a rat in a laboratory maze. The system had fooled him, and it couldn't be allowed to get away with it. On the other hand, he was a scientist involved with an experiment that was to a large degree of his own making, and his new awareness gave him a unique opportunity to function as a privileged observer on the inside. So he satisfied his instincts by teasing the system gently to its limits. This not only provided valuable practical data on where the limits were, but also, like playing word games with Horace and Sarah, he found it perversely and gratifyingly amusing.
"I've got a joke for you," he told Sherri. It was the middle of the afternoon, and the Galahad Lounge was quiet. "What do you call an insomniac, agnostic, dyslexic?"
"I don't know. What?"
"Somebody who lies awake all night, wondering `Is there a dog?'"
Sherri laughed obligingly, stared through him at the tariff list on the wall, and went away to clear some tables while she thought it over.
It all seemed so obvious, now that Lilly had forced him to see it. Strange, how the obvious was always the last thing you thought of. Or maybe not so strange, Corrigan reflected as he replaced glasses on the shelf below the bar. When you finally see the obvious, then obviously you stop wondering. It was the same as when people were always asking why everything they lost was always in the last place they looked: Who was going to carry on looking after they'd found it?
Sherri came back to the bar and looked at him curiously. "So could an anemic, myopic, skeptic be somebody with a pale face who doesn't believe he's short-sighted?" she asked.
"Could be," Corrigan agreed nonchalantly.
"So, is that funny too?"
"I'm supposed to be odd," he reminded her. "Why would you care what I think?"
She corrected herself. "Would they have thought it was funny back in Ireland years ago? I'm just curious."
Corrigan made a show of subjecting the proposition to profound analysis. "Ingenious, yes. Funny, not really," he told her finally.
"Okay," she invited. "Now tell me why not."
Normally, Corrigan would have known better than to try, and therefore wouldn't have raised the subject in the first place. Now, however, he was aware that he was really talking to a trio of TMC 11s and a SuperCray on the fifth floor of Xylog's main building. It was about time that they began really exercising their circuits to earn their keep.
"Imagine an insomniac, and imagine an anemic," he replied. "How do you picture them?"
Sherri frowned. "I guess one of them looks whiter."
Corrigan had to make an effort not to laugh--this was pure Horace and Sarah, leaping clear over the point. "Okay, that's the anemic," he agreed. "What does the other one look like?"
"How could I possibly know?"
"All right, let's try it another way. Why can't insomniacs sleep?"
That was easy. The system almost fell over, reciting from its lookup tables. "Well, it could be from any of a number of possible causes. Metabolic malfunction, hormonal imbalance, chemical stimulation by any of . . ." Sherri broke off when she saw that Corrigan was shaking his head.
"They worry too much," he said.
"Maybe that too. But not all of them, necessarily," she answered.
"Never mind the others. The one we're talking about does."
"Ah, now, you're accepting the fact, but you don't see the `why.' What is it that he worries about?" Corrigan pressed. Sherri was looking bewildered. Never before had a simple question of hers led them into anything like this. Corrigan made a tossing-away motion. "His boss is an arsehole, and his genius isn't being recognized at work; the car he just got fixed is making expensive noises again; his bank balance is printed in blood; and his wife, his girlfriend, and his mortgage are all a month overdue at the same time. His life is a mess. Subconsciously we feel fortunate and superior by comparison, and that makes us smile. So he's funny. The anemic isn't. See?"
"Was I supposed to have thought all that?" Sherri asked, looking aghast.
"No. You're supposed to have felt it. It's the same someone-else- is-getting-it-and-I'm-not feeling that makes us laugh at banana peels and custard pies."
From the look on Sherri's face, Corrigan could have been revealing the secret of the philosopher's stone. At the same time, he might as well have been expressing it in Swahili.
"And that's it?" she said.
"Of course not. That's only the start. You want more?" Corrigan tossed out a hand carelessly. "Myopic is means short-sighted, which in many contexts has connotations of stupidity and ineptness. Not funny, see? Being dyslexic might not be funny if you're dyslexic, but to the rest of us it conjures up pictures of getting everything the wrong way around: typical Irish."
"So we're superior again? Is that the idea?"
"Right. It reinforces the implication that we had before, and the way the two themes interweave is satisfying." Corrigan couldn't resist adding, "Of course, the unstated allusion to musical counterpoint is obvious, which makes the metaphor doubly satisfying."
"Yeah. . . . Right."
He went on, "Your making him a skeptic doesn't really work-- skeptics are much too logical and sensible to be funny. The agnostic is funny because he doesn't know which way he thinks, which maintains the symmetry by casting him as a psychological dyslexic. And lastly, juxtaposing God with dog is delightfully irreverent, which a lot of people won't admit to being outwardly--but inside they find it hilarious. . . . So there you are. That's why it's funny. You did ask."
Sherri seemed to have so many questions jostling for attention at once that her eyes just glazed. Her eyebrows knitted, and her lips writhed. Finally she said, "I don't believe that you had to piece together all those connections. The number of permutations is too great. You'd never get through them." In its eagerness to know, the system was forgetting what was and was not an appropriate comment for a cocktail waitress.
"Not if you were a computer," Corrigan agreed. He winked. "But for people, like you and me, it's easy. Right?"
"How do we know which connections to pick?"
"From the experience of life. When the person that you tell it to picks the same ones, and they don't know how, either, you realize that despite your differences, there's something deep and mysterious that you both share in common."
Sherri was wearing the expression of a first-semester algebra student who had just glimpsed a textbook on tensor calculus. "You mean one joke says all that?" she managed in a strangled voice.
"Sure. In other words, you're not alone in the universe. That's a good feeling to have, and you laugh. That's the other part of what makes funny things funny. Maybe it's the biggest part."