What can go up a chimney down, but not down a chimney up?
Answer: an umbrella.
The first joke I ever “got” was this riddle, told to me by the father of my neighbor and best friend, Karen. I was probably five years old, and the wordplay fascinated me.
It still does.
The images in this riddle fluctuate back and forth, like that optical illusion of a chalice/vase and two silhouetted profiles facing each other, or the one of a young woman with a feathered headdress and babushka-wearing old woman with a large nose.
First there are the words themselves. “Up” and “down” are opposites. Not only do those reverse concepts appear side by side, but they also flip their positions, so that “up down” becomes “down up.” Then, with the introduction of the answer, the words “up” and “down” undergo yet another change, shifting meaning completely. For an umbrella, “up” or “down” is a state of being. An umbrella is up or down, meaning “open” or “shut.” Yet it also can be moved up and down, as in up or down a chimney.
And that’s what makes the riddle work, the surprise of this discovery and realizing with delight that the answer was there all along – like an optical illusion, hidden in plain sight, but not visible until this previously withheld information allows the mind’s eye to reshape the space between those alternating meanings to form a new image.
This is the way I experience the world. Sort of a jumbled gestalt that involves noticing random things, making intuitive connections, and arriving at insights that apply obliquely to different areas of my life.
For better or worse, that’s the path I expect this blog will also take.