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Jonesing for a Belly Laugh: Of Rimshots and Resets

31 Dec

What the people need is a way to make ‘em smile.
 ~ The Doobie Brothers

Oh my gosh, it’s been a harrowing year – you, too? How about a little levity to round it out.

So, René Descartes is sitting in a café. A waiter approaches and asks, “More coffee, Mr. Descartes?”

After a moment, the philosopher replies, “I think not.”

*Poof!* (Insert rimshot and cymbal splash here.)

Yeah, it’s a groaner, but it’s a good one – one of my favorites. It’s short, it’s clever, and it pokes fun at philosophy – who wouldn’t love a joke like that? My kids have heard it a million times. In fact, around my house, you can simply say, “I think not – poof” and you’ll probably get at least a snort if not an actual pity-laugh.

Regardless, shared laughter is almost always a good thing. It elevates the spirit, distracts us from our travails, and lightens our mutual loads. It buoys courage and restores hope – and it’s contagious, thank God. Someone giving way to a serious fit of giggles will inevitably create ripples of mirth among those nearby, even if they have no idea what got it started. Like that Descartes joke. My littler kids, who know nothing of philosophy, grew up laughing at it along with the older kids just because they were laughing (the first dozen times at least).

Sure, there are times when laughs are inappropriate, but humorous resets are frequently desired and desirable. St. Francis de Sales alludes to this idea in his Introduction to the Devout Life. He writes of eutrapelia, the Greek virtue of jesting and taking “friendly, virtuous enjoyment in the amusing situations human imperfections provide us.” While warning us off anything that approaches scorn or contempt, De Sales makes it clear that goofiness is not only a good thing, but often preferred to its alternative.

To illustrate, he tells a brief anecdote about King St. Louis of France: “When a religious wanted to speak to St. Louis after dinner about certain lofty subjects, the king told those present: ‘This is not the time to quote texts, but to regale ourselves with jokes and puns.’” Even kings need a break now and then – tell him the one about René Descartes (ba-bum, splash!).

And what’s true for kings is true for the rest of us, a perspective brought to life on the screen by director Preston Sturges in Sullivan’s Travels (1941). It’s a movie about moviemaking, but much more than that. It’s also a movie about why people generally go to movies in the first place: To forget their troubles, to escape and retreat, and, more often than not, to laugh.

I discovered Travels by accident. It’s mentioned in another film, Grand Canyon (1991), which I’ve actually never seen all the way through. But some glorious serendipity brought me in touch with a particular Canyon clip in which Steve Martin’s character, a movie producer, lectures Mack (Kevin Kline) about filmmaking:

Mack, did you ever see a movie called Sullivan’s Travels? That’s part of your problem, you know, you haven’t seen enough movies. All of life’s riddles are answered in the movies. It’s a story about a man who loses his way – he’s a filmmaker like me – and he forgets for a moment just what he was set on earth to do. Fortunately, he finds his way back. It can happen, Mack. Check it out.

All life’s riddles being answered in the movies was a huge stretch, I admit, but I was intrigued by the “finding his way back” theme of Travels. I tracked it down.

What a find.

John L. Sullivan is a successful director of screwball comedies who decides he wants to make a serious film about serious stuff (over the objections of his studio bosses). Accordingly, he chooses a serious book, O Brother Where Art Thou (yes, there’s a Coen brothers connection here) about social justice and the “common man,” and he hits the road as a hobo to get some firsthand experience of the common man’s lot.

The director discovers more than he bargains for, and when his plans to alleviate the misery of the poor by personalist wealth redistribution goes awry, he finds himself among their number – not as an observer, but as a fully vested participant. Injured, jailed, and isolated, Sullivan is indignant, but his dire circumstances lead to a revelation: Yes, suffering demands alleviation and injustice demands redress, but in the meantime, a bit of humor goes a long way. “There’s a lot to be said for making people laugh,” Sullivan says in the end, as he puts aside his plans for a serious movie. “Did you know that that’s all some people have? It isn’t much, but it’s better than nothing in this cockeyed caravan.”

The killer is that our cockeyed caravan is chock full of laugh-bait these days, but so much of it is dead center in the scorn and contempt arena that De Sales cautioned us about. The stuff we gravitate to – in the movies, on the internet and TV – tends to galvanize ill will rather than dissipating it. It accentuates division instead of drawing us together.

No thanks.

For me, I prefer the tried and true when it comes to lighthearted fare – stuff I can count on to make me laugh out loud, over and over again, and without a lot of political or ideological overhead. When I’m overwhelmed or down, I turn to Dave Barry’s writings, like his annual “Year in Review” in the Miami Herald, and archived NPR “Car Talk” gold from Ray and Tom Magliozzi. Plus, there are plenty vintage screwball comedies out there to be enjoyed – the kind that John L. Sullivan would’ve made. Classics like Capra’s You Can’t Take It With You and It Happened One Night, for example, plus anything from the Marx Brothers and the entire Thin Man collection starring Dashiell Hammett’s Nick and Nora Charles – wise-cracking sleuths who mix mayhem with their murder mysteries.

But, let’s face it, the undisputed master when it comes to evoking hilarity is P.G. Wodehouse, and it seems like I end up back on his doorstep round about this time every year. Winter has settled in for a couple months, a new semester of teaching looms, and I’m getting regular email reminders from TurboTax about my annual financial slog. Bleah. That’s the cue to go hunting for a Jeeves and Wooster volume or two to carry  me through to the other side.

Now here’s the beauty of being acclimated to Wodehouse’s whimsical genius is that it simply doesn’t matter where you dip in. You’re practically guaranteed to hit a jackpot of jollity every single time. Here, let’s try an experiment. I just went into our home library and plucked down the first Wodehouse volume I laid eyes on: A tattered paperback of Thank You, Jeeves (1933). Open it up in the middle (p. 81), and here we go:

“Will you keep quiet!”

“Of course, of course.”

“You keep shoving your oar in….”

“Sorry, sorry. Shan’t occur again.”

And so on – already hooks me in, I tell you. Clearly, some kind of ruckus is underway and Bertie Wooster is in the thick of it. It’s like I’m already present in the scene and I can hear the voices and I start to relax. It’s a tonic, almost magic.

It was also a magical tonic to those who read it the first time back in 1933 – right when the Great Depression was in full swing. The world needed lots of laughs back then, and Wodehouse supplied them. It’s noteworthy that the Great Depression was also the incubator for many of those Sullivanesque comedies we keep mentioning. The more challenging the times, it appears, the greater market there is for sweet release in gales of glee.

So happy new yearhopefully a better one than the last. May your troubles be few, but when they come (and they will), brace yourself, have courage, and arm yourself with Wodehouse and companions. No need to go it alone.


Of Memory, Metanoia, and Manslaughter

15 Oct

Oh, of thine only worthy blood
And my tears, make a heavenly Lethean flood,
And drown in it my sins’ black memory.
John Donne

An essay by historian Andrew Bacevich scrolled up in my Facebook feed, and I saw that it had been posted by my friend Shawn Storer of Catholic Peace Fellowship. That was enough to make it a must-read sooner rather than later, so I opened it up.

It was entitled “Autopilot Wars,” and it was Bacevich’s take on our nation’s numb embrace of perpetual armed conflict as a norm. “Like traffic jams or robocalls, war has fallen into the category of things that Americans may not welcome, but have learned to live with,” Bacevich writes. “In twenty-first-century America, war is not that big a deal.”

It was a depressing read, yet hardly a surprising one, for our country long ago inured itself to killing as a way of solving problems. A people who’ve come to tolerate abortion through all nine months of pregnancy is a people primed to mow down entire populations without a second thought. Death has become a way of life, and, in the name of patriotism, we don’t even question the motives or objectives. Heck, we can’t even keep count of how many wars we’re in, let alone why we’re in them.

Bacevich’s article was rattling in mind as I drove to morning Mass. NPR buzzed in the background – it was the TED Radio Hour. I could hear a researcher murmuring about manipulating the memories of lab rats.

I turned up the volume.

The researcher’s name was Steve Ramirez, a professor of neuroscience at Boston University. He and his colleagues developed a technique they call optogenetics that allows them to turn memories on and off by aiming lasers at particular regions of rodent brains. The effects are temporary, but Ramirez indicated that he anticipated further research that will lead to more enduring effects.

It creeped me out. I’d just recently seen the new Blade Runner 2049 which prominently features memory manipulation in cyborg replicants, and here was an actual process for doing the same thing in miniature mammals. However, my creepy feelings turned into alarm when Ramirez and his interviewer, Guy Raz, discussed possible future applications of optogenetics – like altering the memories of those suffering from PTSD; to erase, in effect, the crippling memories of the battlefield. Despite the possibility that such memory manipulation might be abused, Ramirez indicated that the potential for good is much too great to avoid continued research in this area.

I found myself yelling back at the radio, “No! No! Don’t do it! Can’t you see?” Consider what the Pentagon would do such memory altering therapies. We already train our soldiers to suppress their innate resistance to exterminating human life, and we push them forward to the front lines to wipe out as many enemy lives as possible. Then, when they come back to us physically wounded, we patch them up and send them forward to kill some more. Is it really all that hard to imagine that the military would draw on optogenetics to do the same with the psychologically wounded? To take, that is, those suffering from PTSD and re-program their memories to enable them to return to the front?

Even if that appalling development could be avoided – and that’s a huge “if” – the underlying premise of Ramirez’s suggestion is itself flawed. The problem with PTSD isn’t the crippling memories. The problem is what caused the memories in the first place: the dehumanizing horror of war. Isn’t there good reason to remember that horror, painful as it is? It seems to me that such remembering could help undo what Bacevich details as our “collective indifference” to war as part of modernity’s landscape.

Ramirez and Raz were concluding their radio conversation as I arrived at church. I shut off the car, went inside, and settled in for the liturgy. Entrance antiphon, sign of the cross, greeting, and then this:  “My brothers and sisters, to prepare ourselves to celebrate the sacred mysteries, let us call to mind our sins” – and that’s when it hit me. Memory of agonizing reality is central to our faith and essential for real conversion – metanoia in the Greek of the New Testament.

In fact, we use a different Greek word that translates as “memory” (anamnesis) to describe how it is that Christ’s singular sacrifice on the Cross is made present for us at Mass. The Reformers of the past and our Fundamentalist detractors in the present accuse us of re-crucifying Jesus in the course of our “false” worship. Yet the Mass is not a repetition, but rather a re-presentation – a liturgical and sacramental remembering that connects what Christ suffered on Calvary with our recollected transgressions here and now.

I think of that scene in The Mission (1986) when Robert De Niro’s character, Rodrigo Mendoza, a former slave trader and mercenary, is lugging the tools of his inhuman trade up a muddy jungle slope. He repeatedly slips and falls until one of his Jesuit companions cuts the burden free. Mendoza subsequent silent descent back down the hill, his angry reattachment of the bundle to his back, and then his slow ascent back up the hill again is a powerful image of real repentance. Rather than forgetting the past – cutting it away and rolling it out of sight – authentic conversion requires remembering. It requires revisiting our painful histories and our damnable decisions. Mendoza was a murderer, and his redemption requires that he thoroughly avow his murderous past before he can experience the grace of forgiveness.

Our faith is dependent on remembering violence, for all sin is violence – a violent battering if not rending of our relationship with God. Similarly, our entire civilization also depends on such remembering, and the tragedy of our times is that we’re already re-programming our memories to avoid unspeakable realities, even without optogenetics. “Responding to the demands of the Information Age is not, it turns out, conducive to deep reflection,” Bacevich notes with reference to our war-making amnesia. “Our attention span shrinks and with our time horizon.”

This is the point that Nicholas Carr made in his recent WSJ essay on our contemporary smartphone dependencies. “Now that our phones have made it so easy to gather information online, our brains are likely offloading even more of the work of remembering to technology,” he wrote. “No matter how much information swirls around us, the less well-stocked our memory, the less we have to think with.” No wonder we don’t care about how many wars we’re in – or how many babies are being slaughtered in our abortuaries.

Granted, remembering more means suffering more, which is a tall order for a world bent on avoiding suffering – at least for ourselves. Remember more anyway, and then choose to suffer alongside those whose memories of killing cause them the deepest kind of distress – coming alongside them figuratively and prayerfully, at the very least, but in reality as well if given the opportunity. Such compassionate companionship might embolden them to speak out on behalf of peacemaking and nonviolent solutions to our problems. We’ll be wise to listen to what they have to say – and commit it to memory.

Easter Meditation on a Suicide Averted

17 Apr

“The movies are onto the search, but they screw it up. The search always ends in despair.”
~ Walker Percy

Read more…


Of Friendship, Faith, and Death

9 Mar

“Despite the strife of the world and their own flaws and failures, friends enjoy a foretaste of the peace and rest we’ll experience fully in heaven.”
~ Archbishop Charles Chaput

Read more…


Battening Down the Hatches and Waking Up Catholic

6 Nov


“When you expect the world to end at any moment,
you know there is no need to hurry.”
~ Thomas Merton

Read more…


Neither Right Nor Left: Voting as a Catholic

21 Sep


“The least of our acts done in charity
redounds to the profit of all” (CCC 953).

Read more…


Always Something to Read: On the Pleasures of Bibliochaos

5 Jun


There is no book so bad but it has something good in it.
~ Cervantes

When I moved from Oregon to Chicago, I went to my death – or so I supposed. Raised in the burbs and sheltered from anything resembling real urban life, I absorbed gritty city images from movies and TV (especially “Hill Street Blues”) as if they were gospel, and I was sure I wouldn’t survive my first subway ride.

Nonetheless, I still went, intent on finding out what I could, especially about the Catholic Worker – to glimpse first-hand its traditions of hospitality, selfless service, and the corporal works of mercy. Given all that, and in order to travel as light as possible, I decided to divest myself of all “non-essentials.” I gave away my futon and bike, a bunch of clothes and assorted knickknacks, and books – plenty of books.Cavallucci_-_San_Benedetto_Giuseppe_Labre

It wasn’t easy to whittle down the piles, but in the end, I arrived in Chicago with only one suitcase and one box – although the box was, to tell the truth, mainly books. Still, not a bad job paring down the personal library. Plus, I came to find out that none other than Benedict Joseph Labre, the homeless saint, tramped about 18th-century Europe with more than just the rags on his back. “In a small wallet he carried a Testament,” writes Joseph Delaney, “a breviary, which it was his wont to recite daily, a copy of the ‘Imitation of Christ,’ and some other pious books.”

Note: “Non-essential” is a relative term for bibliophiles.

This is all the more pertinent when two bibliophiles marry each other and the process of entwining two lives includes interweaving two libraries. Nancy and I never have come to full agreement on how to do that – which, if any, volumes to jettison; how to organize those remaining – but it little matters any more. Almost a quarter-century of marriage has steadily swelled our holdings beyond any reasonable limit, and with the blessing of seven kids rummaging around those holdings over the years, bookshelf organization is now a forgotten dream.

That happens to be the way I like it anyway: the more messy, the better. The best used bookstores are the same – Smith Family Books in Eugene, for example, and Pandora’s right here in South Bend. Another is Omaha’s Antiquarium – now defunct, unfortunately. It’s a book lover’s mecca, and I used to visit with Tom, my father-in-law, whenever I was in town.

To get an idea of the appeal of these places, recall Woody Allen’s Hannah and Her Sisters, when Michael Caine is stalking Barbara Hershey and they wind up in a Manhattan bookshop. It’s a beguiling scene of seduction that ends with the discovery of an e.e. cummings anthology, but the best part is seeing the wild menagerie of tomes piled willy-nilly throughout the store. You could find anything there, you see, especially something you weren’t looking for – adventures abound!

hannahandhersisters08 Such is the scheme of our own family collection that now sprawls through every level of the house. From basement to bedrooms, most shelves double-stacked, and there are haphazard mountains of volumes leaning in this corner and that. When the kids were younger, we at least attempted to parse out the massive assembly by diverting picture books, board books, and children’s literature to the family room, while the living room was reserved for more serious, grown-up fare – the Catholic Encyclopedia, for instance, along with our uniform G.K. Chesterton Collected Works and a set of the Great Books of the Western World that we inherited from Tom.

These days? Forget it. Pick out any random shelf in the family room – the so-called “kids’ library” – and you’ll find a slapdash muddle of genres and age appropriateness. Just now I went there and glanced at the eye-level shelves next to the fireplace: Allen and Greenough’s New Latin Grammar next to Sherlock Holmes; an Audubon guide (North American Trees: Eastern Region) adjacent to Encyclopedia Brown. There was Sophocles and a life of Edmund Campion, Letters to Malcolm Chiefly on Prayer and the Hardy Boys, and finally (my favorite pairing), Mark Twain’s bleak Letters From the Earth abutting Who Is Coming to Our House, a delightful Christmas board book.

It’s all jumbled, and there are too many (according to my kids), but I enjoy having plenty of books around I haven’t read, and I like encountering books I might not otherwise seek out. Plus, I’m convinced it’s been a good situation for my children as well. Say someone’s looking for a Harry Potter or a Calvin and Hobbes – lo and behold, what’s this? A history of Russia? A novel by Jules Verne or Michael Crichton? How about the Franciscan Omnibus of Sources or Darwin’s Voyage of the Beagle? Even if these are merely picked up, flipped through, and replaced, that’s at least some exposure to ideas and images, writers and writing, they wouldn’t have had otherwise.timemachine

If pressed, I imagine I’d trace my quirky passion for wall-to-wall books to “The Time Machine,” a 1960 film based on the novel by H.G. Wells. I saw the movie with my dad when I was a child, and it haunted me for years – less for the scary parts about subterranean monsters feeding on docile humans than for the concluding scene in Victorian England. The story’s hero, George, stops back in 1900 for a brief stopover after a variety of time-traveling adventures. Then, after certain preparations, he returns to the distant future to help restore humane civilization.

After he’s gone, George’s housekeeper notes that he apparently didn’t take any provisions except for three volumes that appear to be missing from a bookcase. Filby, George’s friend, asks, “Which three books?”

“I don’t know,” replies the housekeeper. “Is it important?”

“I suppose not…only, which three books would you have taken?”

Seriously? Three books? To rebuild a world? Why not five? Fifty? Why not make several trips to establish a futuristic depository? You’ve got a time machine, man!

But that’s beside the point. What really bugged me was trying to figure out George’s “THREE” – the Bible, sure, but what else? And that would still wrangle no matter what the number. I wanted to know what those three books were because I wanted to make sure I read them!

wfbIn the end, I decided it didn’t matter which books were transported, but only that they were transported – the more the better. And as far as selection, I’ve settled on: indiscriminate – grab an armful and run. Think of it as a survivalist literary equivalent of William F. Buckley’s famous dictum, “I would rather be governed by the first 2,000 people in the Boston telephone directory than by the 2,000 people on the faculty of Harvard University.”

After all, the rummaging can be as much an education as the reading, and I’d take a disheveled Antiquarium over three select volumes any day. Wouldn’t you?

A version of this essay appeared on Catholic Exchange.

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