Tuesday, February 15, 2011


So, Michelle Obama says that “laughter” is the key to her relationship. I imagine the Obamas would have to laugh a great deal; given the pressure of his job, the alternative would not be so pleasant.

We laugh because we encounter things that are funny. But “funny” isn’t always light and humorous; sometimes it’s downright terrifying. Or, to put it another way, we face things that are so absurd, we are so overwhelmed, that if we don’t laugh we might find ourselves crushed.

I can think of a time more than 10 years ago that was like this. I was getting ready to schedule the oral defense for my Master’s thesis. I had worked on it for 9 months, turned in drafts to my primary advisor, and she assured me things were great. Then, at the beginning of April—5 days before the defense deadline—I received a call from her. “I’ve finally read your thesis. I think you need to start over again.” Note the word finally. She had never read it to begin with; she had simply decided that it would be fine because I knew how to write. Yes, I know how to write, but whether I was going in the right direction was another matter. I was shattered when I hung up the phone—I could not imagine starting all over again. I don’t cry often, but I cried then. My very helpful husband saw me, and said, “You disgust me. I hate you,” and walked out. (Are any of you who knew my ex still wondering why we ended up divorced?)

Ten minutes later my advisor called back and asked if I was all right. “Of course I’m not all right,” I told her. “You waited until 4 days before the department deadline to tell me this?” “Oh, is that all you have? Oh, but you know how to write—I’ll get you another week, and you can get it fixed.” I thought, a week? This woman is either incredibly naïve or has an unwarranted amount of faith in me.

The next day, I got a call from my friend Liz—her father just died suddenly at the age of 52. That was followed by a call from another friend, whose house was destroyed in a flood. Between that and the bickering with my husband, who thought I was a horrible person for showing any sign of weakness or breakdown, I had hit that threshold. Things were just so badly out of hand that I no longer cried about it. It was funny—I had to laugh. And I laughed telling people the story. They probably thought I was crazy. But I was beyond that—things were just terrifyingly absurd.

In the end, my husband and I muddled through another 2 years, and I managed to re-write my thesis 3 times in 3 weeks, and still graduated, even though I am thoroughly uncomfortable with the thesis I wrote. My friend managed to get insurance to pay for rebuilding her home, and as for Liz—well, I went to the funeral, and tried to be supportive. I’m not sure that sort of thing ever gets better. Nonetheless, life went on, even though it appeared to go up in flames.

I think this is why I’ve lost all sense of expectation of anything. It’s like buying a house in Centralia, PA—you never know when the ground underneath you will suddenly catch fire. If I take it all too seriously, my life will be very grim indeed. It does come back to the issue of control; when things spiral out of control, the only thing to do is let go and let whatever is happening actually happen. Hanging on is worse.

This, I think, is the appeal of satire and dark humor. When we see such light reactions to dark events, it reminds us of this very thing. One doesn’t laugh because it’s “funny”; one laughs because there isn’t any other choice, except maybe going crazy or driving off a cliff.

Speaking of satire, I will leave you with this wonderful article from the Onion:

Nation Somehow Shocked by Human Nature Again

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