A box inside a box inside a box inside a box inside a … stops being funny after a few boxes. Or does it? (More)

Gifts that Keep Giving, Part II: Laughter

This week Morning Feature chases the holiday spirit with a look at memorable gifts. Yesterday we considered gifts of wonder. Today we recall gifts of laughter. Saturday we conclude with gifts of love.

A box inside a box inside….

Most families’ holiday memories include some form of the nested boxes joke. The recipient unwraps and opens a big box and finds another wrapped box. Inside that is another. And so on. It’s only funny once, and then only for the first couple of boxes. In creative writing and other such classes, most professors teach that repetition is the simplest kind of structure. It’s also the most transparent, and thus quickly becomes boring. Have you ever finished singing “Ninety-Nine Bottles of Beer on the Wall?” Has anyone you know? I rest my case.

Or I would, except there’s another case inside it. And another. And another.

Relativity and Time:

One of the most fascinating and counter-intuitive elements of Einstein’s theory of relativity is that time is not uniform throughout the universe. If I perceive you as moving relative to me, I will also perceive time passing more slowly for you. Einstein probably developed that theory while opening nested boxes at a holiday party. Oh sure, the person opening the boxes is having fun, at least for a while. But time passes increasingly slowly for everyone else as they have to sit and watch, knowing some of their presents are still waiting under the tree … because of one witty relative.

Another curious effect of relativity is that, under specific circumstances, time could theoretically move backward. Again, Einstein probably reached that insight while opening yet another box inside a box. The witty giver wrapped the boxes from smallest to largest. The laughing recipient unwraps them in reverse order. From the giver’s perspective, the joke was funniest when he began wrapping that smallest box, and had become boring by the time he got to the largest box. For the recipient, the experience is reversed. The recipient laughs while opening the first box or two, while the giver waits impatiently for the peals of laughter at the last few boxes. By the last few boxes, the giver is the only one laughing; the receiver has long adopted that teeth-gritted smile we worked on yesterday in the “How … Interesting!” exercise.

Relativistically, their experiences cross somewhere in the middle: the receiver half-laughing at the half-witty giver.

This concludes the science portion of today’s reading assignment.

Better than average?

But you’re smarter than that. You decided to break up the monotony by changing the color of wrapping paper for each box, hoping the recipient and onlookers will try to figure out your devious pattern. Red with green leaves. Green with gold leaves. Gold with red leaves. All three of those came from that three-roll pack of wrapping paper. Next will be the silver with blue stripes and the blue with silver stripes. After that….

Still, you’re especially clever. You stuffed one of the boxes with decorative tissue. “The real present must be in this one!” you imagined the recipient thinking, while the family looks on in gleeful fascination.

“I guess the next smaller box was too small, so he had to stuff it with all this tissue,” the recipient actually thinks, while junior digs around on the floor for the instructions on his new video game and daughter asks if it’s time to start the ham.

Duct tape fixes anything?

Children, please cover your ears for a few moments.

Hope, reborn!

Of course, the recipient and others – those who are still paying attention: junior, the instructions are here on the coffee table; no, the ham doesn’t go in for another half-hour – begin to rule out gift possibilities as the boxes get smaller. Not a big-screen TV. Not the Wii Fitness board. Not a new coffee maker. Not a soccer ball. Not a fruitcake (thank god). Not a snow globe (thank every deity that might listen).

At some point, the recipient begins to imagine something truly special. Jewelry, for example. Now the recipient actually hopes this box will contain another box, because it’s too large for the imagined gift. And …

… yes! Another box! Still too big but, there could be another box inside it. Could it be?

Finally down to what must be the last box, small enough to fit in the palm of one’s hand. This one even has ribbon, tied in a bow. The now-laughing-again recipient looks over at the okay-not-really-a-halfwit giver. Carefully unties the bow. Carefully unwraps the paper.

A box like you’d use for a ring. Ooh. The recipient opens it and finds …

… a walnut.

With a note:

“One nut to another.”

Time to put that ham in the oven.


Happy Friday!