Category Archives: comic relief

My Ducks Are All in a Row

IMG_7102When I began this post, around 2 pm on 15 April 13, I was going to reminisce about this ironic lyric from James Taylor’s 1992 song, “Sun on the Moon,” which I used to play on repeat as I drove to work @ the “Laughing Academy” [Irish slang for Mental Health treatment center] in the early 2000s, as an actor’s preparation for an Improv scene, in which one’s Intention is so robust that it can withstand the onslaught of the opposing Intentions of all the other players in the scene. Sometimes I would also hum “Clowns to the left of me, jokers to the right…” as I mounted the stairs to my belfry office. Alas, rarely did my Intention prevail; but my belief that I might someday get [and keep] my ducks all in a row for an entire [typically, 10-hour] day never wavered…until the morning of 9/11/01. I did not entirely abandon my striving for Internal Locus of Control; but, like every other sentient being on that day, I reluctantly acknowledged that I was not the Director of my own Improv Scene. Further, I joined the ranks of those who gave up believing that the Director [if present at all] was a Mensch. Nemesis might not be in charge, but his cousin Chaos seemed to be.

I also gave up playing James Taylor’s song, even ironically. Instead, I embraced the [mostly humorless] philosophy of the Stoics, who opined that You are not in charge of your fate, only of your reaction to it. As lamented in “Sun on the Moon,” your pets, your children, and your mortal enemies have Intentions of their own, even though they sometimes impersonate biddable “ducks in a row,” just to lull you into a false sense of command & control.

Around 3 pm my Boston [actually, Cambridge] daughter called, to say that she was “okay, but very freaked out” about the “one-two punch” of explosions near the finish line of the Boston Marathon. She reported that the city was on “virtual lockdown.” All the bridges across the Charles were closed, and public transport had stopped running. She was most concerned about her aunt [Chris’ sister] who had probably gone into work, and whose office was the site of the first blast. As Chaos would have it, there was no reaching her by cellphone to check her status. To spare you the suspense that our family endured all afternoon, we learned that evening that she happened to be in the bathroom during the blast, after which all the occupants of the building were fiercely herded outside [with no opportunity to grab purses, laptops, or cellphones] and ordered to “Clear the area! Go home!” So, without funds or means of communication, she walked the many miles back to her home in suburban Boston, found her “just-in-case” hidden house key, and emailed her most cyber-linked-in brother, who passed the word to the rest of us.

Rather than succumbing to Post-Traumatic Stress, she opted to take her Vizsla dog for a romp in the woods, during which he found a “disgusting smelling” dead creature to roll on, and had to be bustled home for a bath, thus fulfilling his function of providing much-needed Comic Relief. Indeed, that may be one of the most important functions of unbiddable pets & children:  to provide moments of Comic Relief when we are facing the intentional cruelty of our mortal enemies.

Sometimes [often, in my case], a good laugh is as cathartic as a good cry.

 

 

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Filed under catharsis, comic relief, locus of control, post-traumatic stress, Uncategorized

“Oh, What’s Occurring?”

I am indebted to BBC Radio 1’s Scott Mills, for inventing this game, based on Nessa’s catchphrase from the beloved BBC sitcom, Gavin & Stacey.

In Scott’s game, a current event or star-du-jour that ought to be known to most Britons, is formulated as a question, which is then put to a “random sample” of 10 people on “Stupid Street” [a street right outside the London radio studio] by a BBC staffer. Let’s say, for instance, “Who’s Andy Murray?” The point of the game is not to guess the truth [the right answer]; but to guess the most frequent answer given by the 10-person sample on Stupid Street: also known as popular opinion.

Ponder the epistemological implications of this innocent little game for a moment. Since the truth about such objective, scientific matters as the human role in the rapidly melting polar ice caps [or whether Lili’s crippling condition, degenerative myelopathy, can be definitively diagnosed by a DNA test] is still being debated among the researchers themselves, it is tempting to default to the “received wisdom” of vox populi. Except we try to hedge our bets by avoiding the populi on Stupid Street. Our sources [we believe & hope] are reliable. They know whereof they speak. Nar’mean?

Because I’m a curmudgeon, I enjoy trolling the pages of the Science sections of the NYTimes & WaPost, not to mention my favorite discredited source BBC online news, for their uncritical, wildly-extrapolated-beyond-the-data, later retracted, proclamations on [not to put too fine a point on it] How To Avoid Death. Regular readers of this blog will know I prefer the wisdom of Epictetus & Marcus Aurelius on this subject: accept that you are going to die of something, sometime; and live each day as if it were your last on earth. This is not to be confused with fatalism or Nihilism. Nor is it a simple-minded call to Acceptance [an overhyped new form of psychotherapy]. It’s a call to Do Your Best and nil desperandum [pace Horace].

The non-Classical, dog-Latin variant of this last phrase, “nil desperandum illegitimi” [Don’t let the bastards get you down.”] is the take home message of the “Oh, What’s Occurring” game. Are others humiliating you with their ill-informed opinions about what’s wrong with you/your dog? Do they tell you “It’s a Judgement” [handed down by their otherwise loving God]? I have several patients coping with health issues, which their “God-fearing” co-workers blithely attribute to Retribution. I urge them [my patients, not their persecutors] to play “Oh, What’s Occurring?” by assuming their insensitive critics live on Stupid Street. I suggest that on the way to work, they try to predict what prejudiced opinions these quidnuncs are likely to voice. When they guess right, they can award themselves 100 Scott Mills points. Hurrah! It is actually quite an effective cortisol-buster, to predict correctly what slings & arrows will come your way today.

This week on Lili’s walks the denizens of Stupid Street have opined that she has hip dysplasia and needs aspirin [whereas increasing numbness is actually the problem]; that I am over-exerting her [whereas the recommended treatment is a daily long walk]; and that they saw on YouTube that you can fit a paralyzed dog with wheels [oh, Zeus, give me patience]. To which I hum the theme song to “Oh, What’s Occurring?” Right out loud.

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Filed under attribution theory, comic relief, Epictetus said..., stress and cortisol

Hide or Seek?


When you find yourself in times of trouble (you know, terrorist attacks, earthquakes, hurricanes, floods, extended power outages), do you want to hide under the covers until it’s over, or seek out the company of others? One day in 1975, while sitting in the back row of an American Airlines jet out of LaGuardia, I had a great view of the port-side engine exploding on take-off. The laid-back voice of the pilot came on, drawling, “Now, folks, those of you on the lefthand side of the aircraft might have noticed a loud bang and some sparks coming out of the engine just now. We’ve shut it down, and we’ll be circling Long Island Sound for a little while, before returning to LaGuardia Airport. We regret any inconvenience this might cause y’all.”

Naturally, I took this as my cue to begin cracking wise to my fellow back row passengers, in an effort to provide a little comic relief and team-building. Trust me, I was hilarious; but did any one of them make eye contact, smile, or even lift their shoulders in the Phatic, “I know, right?” gesture signifying “I heard you, but I don’t want to get into it right now”? Nary a one. The young man next to me was underlining his textbook so intensely, that his pen tore the page. Others literally pulled their blankets (remember airline blankets?) over their heads for the duration of our half hour flight, back to a foamed runway flanked with a contingent of firetrucks. You know when a stand-up comic is losing the crowd and asks, “Anyone here from out-of-town?” I figured these stiffs were all just visiting from Cincinnati (the flight’s putative destination), since no self-respecting group of New Yorkers could have resisted my schtick. They would have joined my improv and tried to top my gallows humor with their own zingers, ya know?

It’s easy to guess what was up their noses, though, right? Fear of crashing; and, who’d a thunk it, the intrusion of my banter into their silent recitation of the Act of Contrition (or whatever).
I, on the other hand was feeling humiliation, that my attempts to Find the Funny in the situation were Not Well Received; and the pain & suffering of feeling All Alone.

That’s what’s so sad about last week’s contretemps with Billie Joe Armstrong on Southwest. The airline whose best feature had been its cabin crews’ ability to Find the Funny in every situation, and transform nervous strangers into a jolly group of Fellow Travelers, became known as the Uptight Enforcers of a Strict Dress Code (No Saggy Pants Allowed). What a somber little half hour flight from Oakland to Burbank that must have been, after the obstreperous Greenday frontman was frog-marched off the plane. Did any remaining passenger have the moxie to crack wise to his fellow row-mates, I wonder, or did they all just hide themselves away in their paperbacks and iPods?

Good thing the fuselage of that plane didn’t deconstruct like a sardine can, right? (Or a wild goose wasn’t sucked into the left engine, as happened to us, back in 1975.) It would have been every man for himself.

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Filed under comic relief, gets right up my nose, reference group

"Dai-jo-bu!" ["Everbody cut footloose"]


Where would the business based rom-com [from The Pajama Game to MadMen, which, don’t kid yourself, is a comedy, whatever its Emmy category] be, without the office party, or better yet, the off-site office picnic? Nowheresville, that’s where! (Hold that thought.)

How do drug/bomb/corpse-sniffing dogs learn their trade? Through rewards for accurate scent detection, sure; but what’s the most commonly used reward? Why, play time with the “Boss.”

In the Navy, we mice learned at “salute school,” there are 3 basic postures, in the presence of the Boss Cats: “Attention on deck” [stand up straight, “eyes in the boat,” and don’t move]; “At ease” or “Fall out” [you are free to mill about smartly]; and (for me) a useless middle-ground position, because it was less comfortable than standing to attention [hands folded at the small of one’s back, as if handcuffed] “Parade rest.”

Lili’s trainer [a former Marine] taught us to tell her “Zen-zen” [literal translation, “Never”] for the “Don’t move” command, which we were encouraged to extend, for distance and duration, as we left her in the “Down/stay” position in an open space. The release command, “Dai-jo-bu!” [literally, “All right!”] is more festive than merely “At ease,” or “Fall out.” It means “Party time!” It’s an exhortation to “cut footloose,” to do a little dance of joy, to “play with the Boss Cat,” not just to follow orders.

And therein lies the conundrum. In the Navy, a junior officer used to parse a “command performance” [an “invitation” to a social event that one could not refuse, without negative consequences], using a Germanic funny voice, “You will come! You will enjoy it!” So, too, do some reluctant attendees to the company party/picnic mutter to themselves, “Aye, aye, sir. Three bags full, sir. It’s not ‘play’ if it’s required, no matter how much booze is on offer.” The well-meant but ham-fisted proclamation of the Boss Cat(s), “Let the revelries begin!” is experienced as an intrusion into one’s private time off. Worse, if one “befriends Ethyl” [gets drunk] to get through the event, one risks humiliation or even the fear of the Boss Cats’ displeasure.

So, what’s the upside of such jollifications? Well, believe it or not, they work best if the captive merry-makers are divided [randomly] into teams, to compete in a bit of low-stakes zero-sum-gaming [ranging from silly, pseudo-athletic events to charades and Trivial Pursuit]. To promote the “We’re all in this together” spirit, the Boss Cats have to muck in with the mice [at least one per team], thereby showing what Jolly Good Eggs they are, really. To encourage reference group cohesion, each team should devise a clever name for itself [not necessarily by democratic means]. If all goes well, the use of the Poetic Speech function [jokes, plays on words, mimicry, and general Mick-taking] will increase, and laughter will follow. Stress will decrease. Cortisol production will be slowed.

The “play drive” in dogs has long been recognized and used strategically by their Boss Cats, to increase on-duty “productivity.” [“All work and no play makes Jack a burnt-out, distracted dog.”] It is also a powerful motivator in humans, as taught in Management Courses for Boss Cats. No matter how deadly serious the mission we’re on, inside of each of us there is a Party Animal, waiting for a moment of comic relief. Waiting for the release command, “Dai-jo-bu!”

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Filed under comic relief, reference group, stress and cortisol

About a Bird


Readers of this blog might have the impression that my mother was only a featured player in our family variety show. That flamboyant Rosie was the star. Indeed, when he was present, he was usually the Top Banana; but he would be the first to declare that my mother was the Class Act.

In telling her story, I shall try to resist the cognitive distortions of Black & White [all or nothing] and catastrophic [“This is awful!”] thinking. But it will be hard. Myrna [Deal with it. She had to.] was a precocious pianist, who began concertizing in Ohio and Washington, DC, in her early teens. She won a national piano contest, the prize for which was a scholarship to The Juilliard School of Music [whence she graduated with a Bachelor of Science (!) degree in 1943]. You are given a main mentor there, and hers was James Friskin [a Bach maven]; but Alexander Siloti [Rachmaninoff’s cousin] also taught there during her Juilliard years.

Now, Mumsley [a silly name my sister & I gave her, about the time our English cat got saddled with Ying Tong] was an elfin little creature: 5’2″ with very small hands. This is crucial to the absolutely true story I am about to relate [which I have fact-checked with my sister and the Internet]. One day in 1954, when we were living in Tarrytown, NY, our parents piled us into the wallowing Buick for a mystery tour, to a sprawling country house in a not-nearby-enough-for-me town [possibly Mt. Pleasant, near Valhalla, where Rachmaninoff is buried]. Myrna had been invited by “some Cousins of Rachmaninoff” [we figure, Siloti’s family], to “show them how she did it.” See, Rachmaninoff has been retrospectively diagnosed with Marfans. He was 6’6″ with huge paws, and wrote music for big-handed folks like himself. Now, whether they had heard her nifty 15-minute wartime radio show, or read a review of a concert she gave featuring the Russian giant, they wanted to watch her in action.

At 5 years old, and already dreading the drive home, I was morose…until the Cousins let fly the parakeets. Talk about chaos! As Myrna was playing, a bird alighted on the temple of her glasses, and stared her in the eye. Trouper that she was, she just kept on playing. “Open your mouth,” invited a Cousin. “He’ll check your teeth.” Myrna smiled, but kept her jaw clenched. When the command performance was over, a Cousin asked if we had a cat. Rosie piped up, “Yes, but we’ll take another, if you’re offering.” “Actually, we were going to offer you ‘Pretty Bird’ [the avian dentist]; but you have a cat.” “We’ll make it work!” assured Rosie; and home we drove, with a blue parakeet, who withstood the aerobatic maneuvers of Chip-Chip the tabby tom [whom you have yet to meet], and later of Alfred the dog, for 6 years, without mishap.

When Myrna was 35 [and I was 10], she got Multiple Sclerosis. The English still call the most rapidly-progressing type [which the cellist Jacqueline du Pre had] “galloping.” Mumsley had “cantering” MS. She continued to play publicly for another 10 years, although she required a wheelchair by then. She died 3 months before my first child was born, at 61 [my age now].

Because she was a Goody-Two-Shoes, teetotalling, sweet-natured person, it is tempting to reduce her life to an ironic cliche: “Virtue is its own punishment.” My sister’s & my fears for her led us to many impatient [angry] outcries of “Oh, Mums-ley!” As if we could shout her back to health. But she never lost patience with us, and not often with herself. She remained the mistress of the deadpan one-liner. The last time I saw her, my in-laws were visiting and she was listening, as always, to the classical music radio station. “Oh, I just love La Traviata!” enthused my mother-in-law. “How ’bout Il Trovatore?” rejoined Mumsley.

A Class Act.

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Filed under catharsis, comic relief, Epictetus said..., limbic system

Ciotogach (Kithogue)


I’ve promised my daughters that one day we will turn the story of “Kithogue, the War Cat” into a proper book; but until then, she’s going to illustrate Peckham’s point about the value of chaos in uncertain times and situations. Mostly, I’m going to let Rosie’s letters, written from his little ship, the USS Vammen (DE 644), during the Korean War, tell the story, with a bit of mise en scene commentary from me.

Written “At Sea, August 11, 1952,” the first letter describes how he came to bring a cat aboard, on the last day before sailing from Hawaii to join his battle group in the Pacific. While visiting friends, “I made the acquaintance of a small kitten estimated at about 3 months old, and tentatively identified as a girl. What with one thing and another, she is now living in the cabin with me and eating wardroom mess cooking with no apparent harmful effects. She is not entirely housebroken. I have adopted a wait-and-see (and clean up) attitude. When we are in Midway, I will acquire a lot of sand, the island being entirely composed of this stuff, and see if her efforts cannot be localized. She spends a good part of the day playing in this typewriter. When I press the outer keys she bats at the inner ones as they come up and hit her in the nose. This pastime of ours has been observed by a few of the crew and, presumably, reported to the rest. However, I am still treated with all due respect; and cat (who at the moment is nameless) and I shall probably continue to play this damned fool game.”

For awhile he and the crew just called her “Neko-san,” (the Japanese for addressing a cat); but he decided the black marking on her back looked like “a lobster’s left claw,” so named her “Ciotogach” (which is Irish for left-handed). No surprise, I suppose, that this was also one of Rosie’s childhood nicknames, since he was a South-paw. By the way, does she remind you of any other cat who has appeared in this blog? [One whom he acquired, thinking it was female?]

“Sasebo, Japan, 22 Sept., 1952” After a spell of off-shore bombardment along the North Korean coastline, the ship was back in its Japanese homeport, making ready to go back out. “I must tell you about the night the cat fell overboard. One of the officers had brought her back a ping pong ball. She had been playing with it in the wardroom, batting it around like a soccer ball and having the time of her life. About the time the movies started, someone opened the wardroom door and she managed to bat the ball out into the forward passageway, she right after it. From there, it went out on the main deck and forward to the foc’sle. She hopped right after it and got so engrossed in her game that she went right over the side between ourselves and the USS Marsh. The bow sentry heard the splash and then heard her yelling in the water. He ran aft along the side, keeping track of her as she drifted aft. She was yelling bloody murder so loudly that she could be heard over all the din of the movies. One of the men got a flashlight and shone it down in the water between the ships. She was swimming furiously and had the sense to swim into the beam of light if she drifted out of it. Another man got a swab [mop] and lowered himself down between the ships, with another man holding him by the feet. He was able to get the mop end of the swab near the cat. She swam to it and hung on for dear life. The swab was passed back up to the deck with the cat still clutching it, and we pulled the two men up. They decided they would have to give her a bath to wash the oil off her. Eventually, three big officers were able to overpower her and get her clean again. They dried her off and got some warm milk in her. She acted a little more demented than usual for an hour or so, but somebody found another ping pong ball, and she went right back to the game. This experience has given the ship a new sense of unity. Everyone aboard is concerned with the cat’s welfare now. She plays all over the ship and with everybody. If she gets too close to the side someone will grab her and put her in a safe place. If she walks into wet paint and gets stuck, as she did, someone will rescue her.”

“Yellow Sea, 4 Oct., 1952” This time, in the midst of battle, with a typhoon brewing. “Yesterday we nearly lost the cat again. She climbed up some rigging until she was perched in the whaleboat falls near the top of the boat davits, out over the side. About this time we turned into the wind so the carrier could launch planes. She was finally seen clinging to the ropes of the boat falls for dear life, with her fur streaming back in the 35 knot wind and, of course, hollering. One of the stewards climbed up and rescued her. I hope she stays alive until we get back to the States.” [She, and the rest of the ship’s crew, did.]

There are lots of other “Ciotogach” stories, like when the Rear Admiral visited the ship, and ordered that the “f%#king cat” [who was clinging to the seat of the steward’s pants, howling for turkey] be fed first. Talk about the sentimental Muscovites! No one aboard “her” ship, it seems, was able to resist that cat’s agenda. Yes, she was often an intrusion, but also a welcome distraction from the fearful experience of fighting in an underfunded [sound familiar?], unpopular, no-win war.

Although they remain “non-reg[ulation],” I am willing to bet that some cats [and even some dogs] are currently serving aboard our Naval vessels deployed in the Gulf, offering their shipmates the gift of chaos.

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Filed under comic relief, object relations theory, transitional objects

Man’s Rage for Chaos


Morse Peckham’s argument, in his 1969 book by this title, is that artists periodically save [their particular] civilization, by introducing chaos into a culture that has become too rule-bound and brittle to survive. To use my current parlance, every now and then, the Kangaroos [with their iconoclastic, outside-the-box, zigging & zagging] save the lock-stepping Clydesdales from collapsing under the burden of their hide-bound rules.

Peckham traces the progression of stylistic changes in music, poetry, painting & architecture; but [for reasons to be revealed in a future post], I’ll just recap his musical musings. Let’s use J.S. Bach as our exemplar of the Baroque era [1600-1750]. Are ya bored yet? Hang on, there are going to be wild dogs later. Mozart will be our guy from the Classical era [1740-1810]; and Beethoven will represent the Romantic era [1810-1910]. So, Peckham opines that each of these guys broke [some of the] the rules of the preceding era [as did their fellow poets, painters & architects], in ways that helped the people of their era(s) to roll with the changes [brought about by scientific discoveries, political unrest, and such like]. Nar’mean? The melodic line of their tunes got progressively smoother, from Bach, to Mozart, to Beethoven; and the rules of society got progressively looser. [To quote Cole Porter, “In olden days, a glimpse of stocking was looked on as something shocking. Now, heaven knows, anything goes!”]

And now to the subway-riding wild dogs of Moscow. Seriously, you owe it to yourself to look up this story, which appeared in [shock!] the online version of the UK tabloid, The Sun, this week. Under the Soviet system, ownerless dogs sought shelter at factory sites in Moscow, and mooched their food from sentimental Muscovites. After the fall [of the wall, ya know], the factories were relocated to the suburbs; and the dogs trotted after them, for a warm place to sleep. But the food source was still downtown, so the dogs learned to ride the Metro to their old pan-handling spots, like Gorky Park. According to Dr. Andrei Poiarkov, of the Moscow Ecology & Evolution Institute, the dogs travel in packs, and amuse themselves by waiting until the subway doors are just about to close, to jump on. [“Last one in is a sore-tailed mutt.”] Now here is the Peckham part of the story. In the still photos and the video, it is apparent [to me, at least] that the human commuters enjoy their canine fellow travelers. They are standing, smiling indulgently, while the dogs sleep on the seats. In the video an old Russian Wolfhound is walking down the escalator, weaving among the standees on the stairs; and someone whistles to him softly, all on one note. Nothing. Then [as I do, to give Lili the “jump” command], he whistles a 3-note melody; and the dog sits down on the escalator stair. [He gets up again pretty quickly, mind you, and resumes his walking.]

So here’s my point. Many Russians are having a stressful time, post-wall-fall, especially economically. The old rules of “obey & survive” don’t apply anymore, and the new rules are…as yet, unwritten. That’s a source of fear for some. The wild dogs provide comic relief. [That old juxtaposition of an animal in an unexpected venue, gets us every time.] Their presence on the Metro seems random [chaotic], yet they move with the precision of a drill team [order]. In fact, thinking back on all the animals in my past and present, I think what they always bring is the gift of chaos.

Here are our 3 cats, in harmonious repose, not in one of our daughters’ [frequently] disheveled rooms, but in the Master Suite. [Napster, the black cat, is trying to use a dark pillow as camouflage. Don’t be alarmed at his apparent size & shape.] Who cares if it looks like a New Yorker cartoon from the 1920s? It’s not a photo shoot for Architectural Digest. Loosen up, will ya?

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Filed under comic relief, ethology, non-linear thinking, pro bono publico

What are you laughing at?


Tell you what Arthur Koestler thought. In 1964 he wrote a tome on the subject, The Act of Creation, the burden of whose 751 pages, is that all humor, scientific discoveries, and works of art occur when two worlds collide. He put it rather more ponderously, “when two matrices bisociate.” By this he meant, when two frames of reference [each with its own rules of logic] are unexpectedly juxtaposed. Abstract and boring enough for ya, so far?

Consider this visual joke: Penny the Cucamonga cat is “wearing” a [photo-shopped] party hat, looking anything-but-in-a-party-mood, being held by my daughter [most of whose festive facial expression I have discreetly cropped away, to preserve her privacy]. Koestler would say that there are at least two matrices bisociating here. Penny, a cat, is impersonating a human “party animal,” which is also a pun; and the obvious photo-shopping of the party hat is my daughter’s mockery of the shoddy paparazzi “photo-journalism” ubiquitous in LA, where this picture was taken. Not unlike those ancient philosophers, Koestler believed that in all humor there is an element of defensive-aggression, against the butt of the joke. In this case, the joke is metaphorically on Penny [since we know how much pets detest wearing silly human costumes for gag photos]; but it’s actually on the paparazzi. Geddit?

Let’s go back to my fave joke, introduced in the “Funny Bone” post. “Horse walks into a bar. Bartender says, ‘Why the long face?'” One matrix is the well-worn, formulaic [mostly New York-based] genre of “guy-walks-into-a-bar-bartender-says-why-the-long-face?” joke. This collides with a more obscure joke tradition [mostly in Ireland & the UK], of placing horses in unusual settings. Back in the day, there was a series of print ads for whiskey, using the slogan, “You can take a White Horse anywhere.” Near the beginning of the cult Irish flick, Into the West, a [white] horse is taken by lift up to the top floor of a council housing flat in Dublin, and the human passengers on the lift don’t bat an eye. [A nod to the whiskey slogan.] That gets the horse into the bar, in my fave joke. The second matrix is a pun: a play on the words, “long face.”

But where’s the element of defensive-aggression in this oh-so-sophisticated joke? The butt of the joke is the genre of joke, itself. It is what Jon Stewart would call a meta-joke. It is a joke about a type of joke. Probably, it resonates most with those of us who have tried to “be funny,” for a living [or for a grade in acting school].

Those of you who remember Jakobsen’s six Speech Functions will be raising your hands and “chirping” [@ 50 KHz], “Oooh! Oooh! This is Poetic Speech we’re talking about! Designed to Tell the Ugly Truth without Suffering the Ugly Consequences.” That is exactly what we are talking about. The teller of the joke [little David] gets to poke fun at big, bad Goliath; and the laughers at the joke get to expend their adrenaline in a non-combative manner. If they laugh until they cry, they even get to purge themselves of some cortisol. Goliath is mocked, but everybody survives. That’s what Koestler thought; and his most enduring book is Darkness at Noon, a repudiation of the “Goliath” of Communism, with whom he had previously cast his lot in the 1930s.

Now, back to Jaak’s laughing rats and tickling. [I’ll leave the cocaine commentary to the Wallabies among you.] Koestler believed that what rats [and little children] find laughable about tickling is that it is a mock attack. It’s funny because they know they are not really in danger of pain & suffering. The tickler is only impersonating an attacker. If actual pain results, or even the fear of pain, it’s no laughing matter. In fact, Jaak found, if even one cat hair [a signifier of threat from a predator] is in the room where a rat is being tickled, the rat will not “chirp” [@ 50 KHz]; it will bum [@ 22 KHz].

The rough-and-tumble play of all baby mammals produces “chirps” of glee. In developmental psychology, this epitomizes the concept, “This is only pretend.” Sigmund’s daughter, Anna Freud [she of the German Shepherd “Wolf”], called this Regression in the Service of the Ego one of the most important defenses older humans can use, as a respite from the real [not mock] threats in their lives. When we laugh at Jon Stewart poking fun at Kim Jong Il, we are pretending that the threat that little martinet poses to the world is “only pretend.” For that little moment, we are regressing to a childlike belief that Kim is just a joke [and giving our overtaxed limbic system a rest].

So, go ahead and laugh it up, folks. Feels great, doesn’t it?

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Filed under comic relief, limbic system, pragmatics, semiotics

"It would have made a cat laugh…"


“or a dog; I’m bid to crave an audience for a frog!” This first citation of a common British idiom [meaning, “so ridiculous, it would coax a laugh out of an improbable source”], is from The Queen of the Frogs, the last of 176 plays written by James Robinson Planche, in 1879. Besides turning French fairy tales into satirical comedies for the London stage, he was the father of the English costume drama. [Helpful for 19th Century “Kangaroos,” don’t you know.]

Now, back to what makes a rat laugh [according to Jaak Panksepp and his merry pranksters]. Before I tell you what, I’ll tell you how he knows [that a rat is laughing]. He uses the Mini-3 Bat Detector [made by the Ultra Sound Advice company, of London]. Cue the Pied Piper, in historically accurate costume. I’m not making this up. Laughing rats [also cats, dogs, primates, and human children] emit ultrasonic vocalization patterns (USVs) at the frequency of 50 KHz, which Jaak calls “chirping.” [This is in contrast to “long-distress” USVs @ 22 KHz, which express negative emotions, such as fear, “social defeat,” or anticipation of pain & suffering.] So, how do you make a rat laugh? Tickle him [or let him self-administer cocaine]. Seriously. And how do you bum a rat out? Mix cat fur into his cage bedding [or take away his blow]. Whom shall we call first: the Nobel prize committee, or PETA?

While you’re pondering that, you should know that these rats have no personal experience of cats as predators; but even one cat hair in their cage freaks ’em out. Panksepp opines that lab researchers who own cats skew rat-study data all the time, due to this overlooked fear factor on their clothing or person.

But we humans have more degrees of freedom than lab rats, many of us. What other stimuli (besides tickling & coke) might make us laugh? The ancient Greek philosophers, such as Plato, thought they had the definitive answer: a feeling of superiority. According to this cynical lot, all human hilarity arises from Schadenfreude: delight at another’s humiliation. Hmm. Maybe for grown-ups. Not so much for human babies and other young mammals [who are suckers for the tickling]. Heroditus [484 – 425 BC], used historical vignettes to explain how tears of joy can so quickly turn into tears of sorrow. [How the USVs can drop from 50KHz to 22 KHz, in the blink of an eye.] He tells, for instance, of Xerxes, who is kvelling over his fleet at a regatta at Abydos, then suddenly becomes all verklempt; and when his uncle asks him,“Boychick! Was ist los?” Xerxes says, “In 100 years, all these people will be dead, and no one will know how powerful I am!” Solipsistic, much?

In 1979 psychologists Efram & Spangler posited that all tears [whether of sorrow or joy] occur during the recovery phase of limbic arousal. “All tears are tears of relief.” Miss America cries because she was so afraid she would lose. Mourners cry [according to these guys] because they are so glad that the bells are not (pace John Donne) tolling for them.

Back to our putative laureate, Panksepp. He would assume that all tears [whatever the frequency of our USVs] contain cortisol: that the relief we are experiencing [whether we label ourselves “over-the-moon” or “down-in-the-dumps”] is, whatever else, neuro-chemical.

Personally, I’m saving up for a Mini-3 Bat Detector, to find out what makes a dog [like Lili] laugh. And meanwhile, I suggest we all take careful note of what makes us laugh and/or cry. I just know there are more triggers for mirth than tickling, blow & Schadenfreude. Tell you about some of them next time, yah?

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Filed under catharsis, comic relief, confounds, murky research, stress and cortisol

"Nana Window"


I just finished reading the cover story in this week’s NYTimes magazine, which I knew would get my amygdala aroused [and it did]. It’s about people whose amygdala gets aroused “too easily.” Oh, yeah? Says who? Jerome Kagan has been doing a longitudinal [Bad Fairy at the Christening] study at Harvard, starting with babies in 1989, whom he identified as either highly reactive [to novel stimuli], somewhere in the middle, or “low-reactive.” I’m going to let anyone interested look up the article; and instead I shall cut right to the chase. “Mary” was one of his “high-reactive” subjects, and he predicted that she would grow up to be a worrier. And, lo, she did. She’s worrying her way through Harvard as I write this. To which I respond, “Oh, come on! If that’s ”bad outcome,’ whaddaya call ‘good outcome,’ Jerry?”

Many pages into this up-till-then uncritical review of Kagan’s findings, the NYTimes author cites a researcher with a quibble: Dr. Robert Plomin of King’s College, London, wonders if, perhaps, subjecting these kids to the daunting fMRI, itself, might not account for much of their amygdalar arousal. Nar’mean?

Towards the end of the article, other dissenting voices are quoted, wondering why all of the “high-reactives” haven’t developed clinically significant anxiety [as predicted by Dr. Kagan]. Turns out some of the subjects are schmizing themselves into interpreting their racing pulses and dilated pupils as “being jazzed,” which they describe as “vaguely exhilarating or exciting.” Others [T.S. Eliot is mentioned] somehow manage to channel their amygdalar arousal into creating works of art [for the amusement & edification of the more laid-back among you, apparently]. Yet, the Bad Fairy gets the final word: “In the longitudinal studies of anxiety, all you can say with confidence is that the high-reactive infants will not grow up to be exuberant, outgoing, bubbly or bold.”

If that weren’t such an obvious load of old cobblers, I [the Exemplar of “High-Reactive” infants] would find it humiliating. Anyway, for those of you who would like a low-tech coping strategy to deal with anxiety, go to YouTube and look up “Nana Window.” On 23 April 2009 [St. George’s Day in England], the usual gang on the Chris Moyles [BBC Radio 1] show were joking around with Carrie, who had said, “My Nan always puts one in her window on St. George’s day.” [Her grandmother displays the Cross of St. George flag, which is England’s (red-cross-on-a-white-field) part of the United Kingdom’s “Union Jack.”] Chris & Comedy Dave chose to find a double-entendre in her innocent remark, and immediately improvised a Reggae song with the following lyric: “Nana Nana window. Nana window.” If you can’t find it on YouTube and still want to sing it, it’s all on one note, except for the “dow,” which is a 5th higher. Commence singing at the first sign of anxiety and repeat until you feel better.

In scientific point of fact, singing almost any song will reduce most anxiety symptoms, for the following reasons. Singing regulates breathing [thereby countering hyperventilation]. The sillier the lyric, the more likely you are to laugh [thereby relieving muscle tension]. The louder you sing, the more adrenaline you expend [thereby restoring homeostasis to your body]. Cognitively, you are likely to distract yourself from the alarming stimulus for long enough to get some perspective on it. [Is the irritant really awful or just…you know the mantra by now.]

The lyric “Nana Window” is the latest in the long and worthy tradition of non-lexical vocables [such as “Hey nonny nonny” from Shakespeare’s Much Ado About Nothing, and more recently, “Ob-la-di-ob-la-da” from the Beatles’ White Album], which multitask, by fulfilling [at least] two Speech Functions. They are Phatic [imparting no factual information, just keeping the listener listening] and/or Poetic [since they may, indeed, be a secret code for something else[such as “Carrie’s Nan is displaying something in her window.”]; and they often are also Emotive [expressing a particular feeling]. [“Hey nonny nonny,” according to Shakespeare scholars, expresses dismay.]

Here is Lili, displaying herself in the window, while keeping [hypervigilant?] watch for intrusions. The other day, I was upstairs brushing my teeth, when I heard [evidence of] her aroused amygdala: barking. I planned to go down and assert my Pack Leader status over her, by telling her to “Yaka mashie. Asoko.” [“Be quiet. Go down to your room in the basement until you can compose yourself.”] But before I could even rinse my mouth out, there was silence. I discovered that Lili had piped down and taken herself downstairs, all on her own. Now, that’s what I’m talkin’ about! So, okay, our amygdala gets aroused easily; but we humans, too, can learn to tell it to “Yaka mashie. Asoko,” [perhaps by singing the “Nana Window” song], and thus stand ourselves down from our many alarums.

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Filed under comic relief, limbic system, murky research, stress and cortisol