What’s So Funny?

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The other day I saw an unusual theater piece by Jos Houben, a Belgian performer and teacher, entitled “The Art of Laughter.” It was actually a kind of master class in slapstick during which Houben explained his theory of why we laugh at certain physical shtick. His main idea was that because we are, according to one of our collective labels, Homo Erectus—vertical beings—and being upright is essential to our sense of dignity. When we veer from the vertical—trip or fall for example—we momentarily lose our dignity. On stage, the exaggerated portrayal of that loss—and the awkward attempt to cover it up—is where the funny is. When the comedy act is a duo (Abbott and Costello come immediately to mind), one person is often the foil for the other’s antics. He or she, Houben noted, is known as the straight man.

I found Houben’s “class” delightful as he acted out, in addition to falls, the polar opposite body postures of Italians and the British when greeting a friend; a clumsy waiter; the crescendo of laughter from amused smile to rolling around on the floor in hysterics; and, then, somewhat incongruously, a fish, a cow, a chicken in an art gallery and an assortment of cheeses. But the entire time, even while I was enjoying his performance, I was waiting for him to talk about the non-vertical, or not-so-vertical body: the ill body, the disabled body, the aging body.

Of course I realize Houben was discussing the “norm,” the “in general,” the “most people.” And that it’s rather petty to call out a talented, well-meaning, thoughtful artist who works hard to entertain. But it struck me as a huge oversight that someone who obviously knows a lot about physicality and who is an extremely astute observer, should not even mention that, for many of us, standing tall is difficult or impossible. That our “lapses” in what he defines as dignity are sometimes daily occurrences. We may not be able to stand, or we do not stand straight, or we have trouble staying upright, or we are beginning to give in to gravity. But that does not mean we are undignified.

Houben has given his talk all over the world. I can’t imagine there have not been other people who wanted to interrupt him and ask, ”What would you say about humor in relation to those of us who do not quite live up to the Homo Erectus title? How would you define humor when verticality is not the standard? Why do filmmakers and comedians, among others, not think twice about playing disability for laughs? And why do audiences find it funny?

I think he is someone who would have interesting, useful, answers to these questions about comedy. I would love to know what he thinks. In all seriousness, I would.

 

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Nisht Ahin, Nisht Aher: Thoughts on Racial Identity

weddingleaving1-2Last week I went with my daughter to a conference on Transracial Adoptee Identity. She is adopted from China and is planning to develop, for her college senior thesis next year, an identity model for transracial adoptees (TRAs). The two presenters at the conference, both transracially adopted themselves, have created their own models for TRA identity, on which my daughter will build.

Because of her life story and her research—in which she had been engaged since high school—we have talked a lot about the complexities of transracial adoption. They include the dilemma, common to many TRAs, of feeling one way about oneself but being perceived by others as being something else.

In my child’s case, this means identifying with white culture (at least, how it is represented in our household) but being expected to fulfill the stereotypes of Asians by those who don’t know her. Of being nisht ahin, nisht aher, as my grandmother would have put it—neither here nor there—racially, ethnically, culturally. Of enduring continual microaggressions: Being asked where she is from really, who her real parents are, being told she speaks English so well. Being told she is good at math because she’s Chinese. Being mistaken for the other Asian girl in her nursery school class or on her soccer team.

Those of us who, for example, are seen as, and identify as, black, Asian, Latinx or white (let’s not forget, by the way, that Jews, Italians and the Irish were not initially considered white by Americans) and were raised in same-race families, no matter what other issues we may have, don’t live with this dissonance. How exhausting it must be to always have to explain yourself. How invalidating and hurtful.

I can’t have direct experience of what my daughter goes through, but I believe I can, to some extent, not only understand it, but feel it. That is why, at the conference, I was particularly struck by something one of the presenters—black, Native American, Jewish, raised by a white Jewish family—described: a remark that had been made by one of her biologically white sisters: “I don’t feel white.” Growing up with a sister she loved who faced discrimination because she was seen as black, she had internalized some of that sister’s experiences.

It put me in mind of several things: James McBride’s white mother, whom he writes about in The Color of Water, who thoroughly embraced living in a black community; Rachel Dolezal, who, like McBride’s mother, says she feels more connected to black people than white, although Dolezal has been excoriated because she actually claimed to be black; and the recent controversial article by the philosopher Rachel Tuvel about transracialism, in which she refutes objections to the idea of people changing races and argues that people should be able to change their race just as people can change their gender.

The presenter’s white sister, who married a black man, was not claiming to be black, only that she didn’t feel as if she belonged to the race she was perceived to be. This is how the presenter, and many TRAs, feel, because they were not raised in the culture that traditionally coincides with their outward appearance. My daughter knows she is not white, but she feels more white than Chinese. I am not Chinese, but because of my relationship with my daughter I feel a little less white. My guess is that something similar to this occurs to many people in mixed race families.

There have been studies that show how contact between people of different races can reduce prejudice. But what I’m talking about goes deeper than that. It is not merely increased acceptance of others and heightened awareness of discrimination of any kind. It is about how one comes to understand oneself in the context of race. While it may be that people cannot change their race, (and what is the definition of race, anyway?) it is clear that the intimate experience of loving someone of another race can profoundly influence how one thinks about one’s own racial identity. I find that fascinating and extremely hopeful.

Played for Laughs

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After reading a positive review, I watched the first two episodes of Patriot, a new web series streaming on Amazon about a reluctant American spy. I was sort of enjoying it until I was struck by how many “humorous” references the program made to disability. Apparently Steve Conrad, who created and wrote Patriot, still thinks mental and physical disabilities are good for a couple of yuks.

In the first episode, John Tavner, the “hero” of the series, pushes a job rival in front of a bus in order to secure an engineering gig he needs for his cover. The result is that the rival (who also happens to be Asian—more laughs there) suffers brain damage. What a riot when, in episode two, he is asked back to the company because he can still do complex computations, but has lost his memory, speaks like a young child and is unable to perform simple tasks, such as opening his computer.

Then there is the hilarious scene in which John is ordered by the janitor at his workplace, who is blackmailing him, to steal some things from a group of Vietnam vets. Cut to the scene of the vets in a swimming pool during an exercise class. When they all duck under the water, John grabs their lower limb prostheses that are lined up against a wall and runs away down the street awkwardly clutching them. Artificial legs are just funny—don‘t you get it?

But there’s an even better payoff when our hero, again at the janitor’s command, sneaks into a police station. First, having been told that one of the cops on duty has PTSD, John startles him with a loud noise, causing him to collapse in tears in a corner. Before you can catch your breath from laughing at that bit, John then encounters a very short officer who tries to stop him—but John just picks him up because, hey, he’s so little. In the final shot, as John extracts something from an evidence box, another cop starts to chase him, but he can only hop because…wait for it…he has only one leg. He was one of the vets!!!! End scene.

So here is this admittedly rather clever program probing the conscience of a spy who, working for his country and directly reporting to his father, must murder in order to fulfill his mission. A program that raises questions about the usefulness and morality of espionage, that explores relationships between a father and his sons (John’s brother is also in the game) and between brothers. Maybe it does a lot more but I’ll never know. I stopped watching because it is also a program that blithely plays mental and physical disabilities for laughs, and no one involved, from the producers, directors, actors, folks at Amazon and the reviewer who recommended it, saw anything wrong with that.

This is a societal problem. When millions of people vote for Trump after he mocked a reporter with arthrogryposis, it’s clear we have not come very far in our acceptance or understanding of people in the disabled community. At times like these it’s more important than ever to point it out and call it out.

A Classmate’s Death

Forced into this life on February 13, 1949. Left on purpose on August 22, 2013.
–Obituary in the New York Timesclass-photo

Reading the New York Times this morning I came across a review of a documentary, Left on Purpose, about Mayer Vishner, a former Yippie who committed suicide in 2013. And the name leapt out at me because how many Mayer Vishners can there be? And when I read he grew up in New York City and then Googled him and saw his photo, it was clear this man had been my classmate at P.S. 94 in the Bronx. We were in elementary school together.

Had I heard of his death almost four years ago? I can’t even remember. And if I had, why did it strike me so much harder now?

I was not aware of how he had worked all his life for freedom—for all of us, for himself. I didn’t know about his illnesses, loneliness and addictions. But I do recall a thin, intense child with big, dark eyes and lank hair. I liked him. He was smart and different somehow. I was a kid, too, but I found him interesting.

I am making no claim to him. Of course I had thoughts of “if I only knew,” and “I should have kept up with him” and wished I could have told him I have experienced depression, too, and that I share his fear of becoming increasingly frail and dependent.

But, as sad as I am about the death of someone I think of as the little boy he once was, I am really writing about getting older and realizing how far away my childhood is. I guess I’ve aged a lot these last four years and that’s why Mayer’s death has a new resonance for me. It also has made me more convinced that we are who we are from the get go and there’s no changing it. That what made me remember Mayer from almost 60 years ago is what made him deeply unhappy despite all he accomplished as an activist and journalist, his creativity, his lifelong commitment to peace and equality, his humor—and is what led him ultimately to kill himself.

I am writing about wanting to go back, anyway, back to Miss Lucille’s and Mrs. Graux’s classrooms, and have a do-over. About missed opportunities, missed connections. About recognizing that sometimes we can’t save people. About the fact that, like Mayer, I often focus on the doors that are closing instead of the ones that are still open, and that I can understand why he felt he needed to plan an escape route. That his death reminds me of how quickly our lives go by, how little time is left.

Dom and Dumber

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We are back in Utrecht, a city my husband and I have grown to love after several visits. Our younger son now lives in a nearby town and we are visiting for his 30th birthday. Today we went on the Dom Under tour. The Dom is the 14th Century church tower, the tallest in the country, that is the symbol of Utrecht.  It survived the tornado of 1674 that destroyed the nave. Under the Dom is evidence of earlier churches and the Roman fortification that was built nearly 2,000 years ago. We knew this history (you can’t avoid being bombarded with Dom information in Utrecht), but after seeing the somewhat cheesy film reenactment of the storm, it struck me for the first time that the destruction of the church in a sudden, violent act was like the felling of the Twin Towers. Both traumatized their cities. Here in Utrecht, the rubble of the nave was not even cleared away for 150 years.

And, of course, it put me in mind of the second trauma we are now experiencing—the election of Trump. In fact, the young woman who sold us our tour tickets asked us about the mood in America. As if we needed proof, last Saturday’s marches around the globe made it clear this horrible event is affecting people worldwide. And, of course, the wonderful video from Dutch TV and the action taken by the government concerning accessibility to abortion demonstrate that The Netherlands, in particular, is very aware of the consequences of having someone with neo-Fascist, anti-scientific tendencies ascend to the presidency by questionable means. Let’s just say rising ocean levels are of concern to a nation that is one-third to-one half below sea level and whose name means the low countries.

We have been impressed over and over by the humane social policies of this nation. We would love our son and his wife to move back to the United States, but what kind of argument can we make for that now? The bad news for The Netherlands is that Geert Wilders’s rightist party is gaining in popularity.

A Dutch friend assures us Wilders won’t be able to form a majority government. Let’s hope so. We thought it couldn’t happen here –– didn’t we?

Giraffe Power

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Recently, people from my neighborhood organized a Kids March as part of a growing, if piecemeal, movement aimed at resisting the policies and prejudices of the T… (let’s just say “new”) administration. One of the children’s signs declared “Giraffe Power.” Despite recognizing that kid logic and adult logic are, shall we say, two different animals, I was puzzled by the choice. Until I read that giraffes are now considered an endangered species. Apparently some giraffe species have been on the endangered list for several years. (Another example of how the world is heading in the wrong direction.) So, I’m interpreting the sign to mean democracy is in trouble, but we can still protect it. We shall overcome. No tree too tall. Something like that.

Anyway, we all know the bad news. The good news is that folks are getting together to try to figure out how to survive the coming onslaught and, more importantly, how to protect the most vulnerable. Clearly immigrants, LGBTQ people, Muslims, people of color, people with disabilities, are, in the words of an organizer I heard, the “front-line” communities. But Jews are right up there, too. It always amazes me that one needs to barely scratch the surface to find the anti-Semitism roiling beneath.

The weirdest example in my own experience occurred on our family’s trip to China, of all places. At dinner one night in Beijing our guide, William, asked us about our plans for the rest of our time in the PRC. When we told him we were going to Shanghai he warned us to be careful: “The people there will cheat you just like the Jews.” What the? We sat in stunned silence until our oldest son said, “Uh, William. We’re Jewish.” He thought my son was joking, Clearly this man had some vision of what a Jew was, but it wasn’t us. Where had he gotten this idea about Jews? In the ether (or smog, this being Beijing). Anti-Semitism is entrenched globally. Considering how we’ve supposedly controlled the world forever you’d think we would have done something about it by now.

Anti-immigrant fervor is nothing new either, of course. Just take a look at the political cartoons of the Irish, Italians, Jews and Chinese from the turn of the 20th century. The Chinese Exclusion Act was in effect from 1882 to 1943. How many people who voted for what’s-his-name can trace their American roots further back than their grandparents? Great-grandparents, tops. And those ancestors left their home countries because..? Maybe the exact same reasons immigrants come to the U.S. today.

At the meetings in my neighborhood there has been a lot of talk about being upstanders, allies for people being harassed or otherwise needing protection or support. Last night we spoke about creating hate-free zones. So the silver (okay, silver-plated) lining is that we are thinking, and talking, and trying to figure out what to do, about social injustice in a deeper and more committed way than many of us have ever done before. I know people are organizing, donating, resisting all across the country. It will be exhausting. But we’re up for the challenge. We don’t want to live in a world without giraffes. What will we tell our children if we let that happen? So let’s get ready to stick our necks out.

The Yellow Brick Road to November

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Today in the New York Times, Charles Blow had this to say about people who support Trump: “They know he’s lying, but they so want to believe the lies that they have pushed themselves into a universe of irrationality that is devoid of logic.”

And that’s the real problem. No matter what Trump says or does, they are still behind him. He expresses something they’re feeling and that’s all they care about.

It’s great that several news sources have finally started to tell the truth about Trump, although I seriously doubt they’re ones his supporters read, listen to or watch. And even if they do, they don’t lend them credence. It’s possible they get all their news from Fox. And, as another op-ed in today’s paper, written by a Republican who worked for both Reagan and W, explained: “After the terrorist attacks on Sept. 11, 2001, Fox began shifting to the right of center, creating, along with talk radio and conservative websites, an ideological cocoon for viewers. One result is that crazy ideas and conspiracy theories can circulate without any correction or resistance.”

So while some media outlets can now try to acquit themselves by revealing how Trump used government tax breaks to make millions while probably never paying taxes; or that he is no business genius but was born with a silver spoon in his mouth (on second thought, make that a gold spoon); or that, in fact, his businesses went into bankruptcy multiple times; or that he is being sued for fraud over Trump University (among other things); or that he hired undocumented construction workers and then didn’t pay them, and then sued them when they tried to collect; or that he literally incites violence against protesters and against Hillary by innuendo (while representing himself as a law and order candidate); or that he welcomes the support of white supremacists; or that he demonizes immigrants and Muslims; or that he doubles down on his lies about Obama—oh, it’s exhausting. The point is, the evidence is out there and it doesn’t matter. Trump himself famously said he could shoot someone in the middle of Fifth Avenue and still not lose any votes. The example is telling. And, for once, he seemed to be saying something true.

I suppose people who plan to vote for him will say I get all my information from the so-called liberal media. They just plain hate Hillary. They exaggerate her missteps and believe all the lies they’ve heard about her and refuse to hear the ones Trump is telling. As my grandmother used to say—although in Yiddish—you can see an ant on others but you can’t see a bear on yourself.

I felt ill when Nixon was elected. I was appalled by Reagan and W. But, as deceitful and damaging and dangerous as some of their policies were, I never feared they would bring the country down in flames. And maybe bring the rest of the world down with it. I don’t think I’m being hyperbolic when I say this guy could.

Trump’s supporters seem to forget that, for many of them, their own parents or grandparents were despised immigrants. That fears similar to those today about Muslims were held about Catholics in the 19th and early 20th centuries: The Pope was going to destroy our American way of life. That, just as Mexicans are denigrated now, earlier political cartoons depicted Germans, the Irish, Jews, Italians and the Chinese as less than human.

So it doesn’t matter that facts about Trump that should have been published during the primaries are at long last being revealed. Some people don’t want to see them. They want Oz, the great and terrible. They are paying no attention to that man behind the curtain.