Who doesn’t like to laugh? The New Yorker magazine thinks we all do. Through cartoons, the magazine has been getting us to laugh since 1925. The December 30th 2019 edition provides a retrospective of its long cartoon and narrative history in sharing humor.
Emma Allen is the cartoon editor. She writes how the magazine “has been described as the best magazine in the world for someone who cannot read.” Many people will tell her that, when their monthly copy arrives, they’ll always ‘read’ the cartoons first. I know I look at them first. It’s always liberating knowing others have the same quirky habits as I do.
Good cartoons are quirky by their nature. When skillfully conceived, they’re invaluable in sustaining our sanity in this insane world.
Those of you who are familiar with the Saint Michaels Road may recall the filling station and restaurant which we knew as Kirkham’s Station. Their sign read: “EAT –– GET GAS.” For years those of us who may have left St. Michaels in a snit, arrived in Easton with a grin. A little levity goes a long way in helping our vulnerable spirits stay balanced.
You may have noticed that during this social distancing era, scatological laced humor has been the rage in social media. It has helped us to get through. The functions and their consequences of one of our less esteemed body parts –– the one we typically refer to with an expletive – is regularly front-page copy. As the world is afflicted with the grim pandemic of unparalleled proportions, toilet paper has been one of the liberating icons to appear everywhere. References to its absence (to a lesser extent, its presence) has brought brightness to our heavy and fearful spirits by, in a manner of speaking, keeping us on a roll.
In an ironic way, this less honorable part of our bodies has brought home in an earthy way just how much alike we are as human beings. In whatever direction in life we may be traveling, at one time or another every one of us will have to stop to go. This earthy awareness of our shared humanity is humbling and the great essayist Montaigne once made this observation about it: “On the loftiest throne in the world, we are still sitting only on our own rump.”
Strangely, in as advanced a civilization such as we inhabit, even this basic function still suffers gender inequities. At concert intermissions, while attending the Meyerhof, in Baltimore, I see that the line outside the men’s room is small, maybe three or four waiting. At the women’s, the line snakes around the corner of the lobby. The accommodations we make for one gender do not seem to be as generous as those offered to the other. Making more room at the inn would not only show respect for the differences between men and women, but would certainly shorten intermissions
The Japanese have more highly refined sensibilities than Westerners. They treat in sublime narratives what we write off as just unpleasant functions. Consider what acclaimed Japanese author Junichiro Tanizaki writes about one’s trips to the bathroom in the morning: “The Japanese toilet truly is a place of spiritual repose …. no words can describe that sensation as one sits in the dim light . . . lost in meditation or gazing out at the garden. Novelist Natsume Soseki counted his morning trips to the toilet with great pleasure, ‘physiological delight’ . . . no better place to savor this pleasure than the Japanese toilet where surrounded by tranquil walls and finally grained wood one looks out upon the blue sky and the green leaves.”
Sure beats sitting there reading fake news.
I don’t know enough about microbes and other microscopic creatures and their peculiar digestive habits, but I do know that all animals, fish and birds share this fundamental need with us. To put it another way, it’s a bottom line that defines one of our fundamental connections with each other and to those creatures with whom we share this global space. The basic connection is rarely lauded in as noble and erudite terms as the Japanese or theologians and poets do when they write about our common humanity. Truth be told, our shared humanity is about basic stuff.
Like The New Yorker, Facebook regales us with gags. In one video clip I saw, a man is standing on a corner. He appears furtive as if he’s up to no good, sinister, like a junkie’s drug connections is pictured. A car drives up and stops near him. The man comes over to the car. The driver opens the window and hands the man money. The man looks around, takes the money and from under his jacket produces a roll of toilet paper and a bottle of hand sanitizer. He hands them to the driver who quickly drives away.
Our lives are built on the Illusions we hold of ourselves. “All is vanity under the sun,” the author is Ecclesiastes laments. No one likes his or her personal pretentions challenged. The beauty of well-conceived humor, like a deft cartoon, is how it cuts through any foppish pretensions we might have about ourselves. It addresses the absurdities, the “airs” we have. Humor goes to the heart of the matter, but not in the moralistic and judgmental ways by which our foibles are often attacked. Instead, deft humor delivers truth with a light touch, but with unerring accuracy
In high places today, I’ve noticed humor is in as short supply as toilet paper. It was not always so.
President Obama had a keen sense of humor, often in self-deprecating ways. “I’m the guy with the big ears,” he might say of himself with an ease that communicated that he knew who he was and was comfortable in his own skin. Obama had an aloof and patrician quality that could put people off. Some thought him snooty. Once when speaking at a dinner he queried, “Some people say I’m arrogant, aloof, condescending.” After pausing for a moment and with a deadpan, he mused, “Some people are so dumb.”
Republicans, too, once exhibited a keen sense of humor, even when under attack.
President Reagan had a quick wit and an easy way, often deflecting contentious issues with humor. When vilified by a political adversary, he’d often cock his head to one side, smile tolerantly and say, “There he goes again.” I also recall a story of how after he had been shot and taken to the hospital, a doctor appeared at his bedside. Regan said to the doctor, “I hope you are a Republican.”
There’s hope. Once upon a time in the annals of the American story, a sense of humor existed on both sides of the aisle.
Columnist George Merrill is an Episcopal Church priest and pastoral psychotherapist. A writer and photographer, he’s authored two books on spirituality: Reflections: Psychological and Spiritual Images of the Heart and The Bay of the Mother of God: A Yankee Discovers the Chesapeake Bay. He is a native New Yorker, previously directing counseling services in Hartford, Connecticut, and in Baltimore. George’s essays, some award winning, have appeared in regional magazines and are broadcast twice monthly on Delmarva Public Radio.