Daniel Menaker

Laugh Lines

Friday, November 26, 2010

Don’t read this unless you want your perception of laughter to change in an odd way. I’m sure many social scientists have already written about this subject, but I haven’t, so I will. We laugh at jokes, humorous situations, and for joy (watching a puppy race around a lawn, seeing a beautiful baby, winning the lottery).  But we also laugh at completely neutral and unhumorous moments and situations, especially during greetings, departures, and other transitional circumstances, like entering a business meeting.  And I don’t mean just smiling, I mean actual bursts of laughter, even if they are small.  Someone says, “Let’s get together again soon,” and everyone laughs. Someone asks,  “Why didn’t you go to the movies with the others?” You reply, “I was just too lazy,” and you both laugh. Clearly this laughter serves a social purpose completely different from and absent of mirth or joy. It’s a kind of a social bonding behavior, an expression of connection.

Being aware of this function of laughter and noticing it creates a slight sense of dissociation, because the reaction differs so widely from what we consciously think of laughter as being about. Someone says to you, “Well, it’s good to see you,” and you both laugh, and then you say to yourself, “What’s funny?” This phenomenon resembles other unconscious motives that express themselves in our behavior, in that it surprises us to realize what really lies underneath much of what we do.

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Organ Recitals

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

It is so easy, especially as one gets older, to talk about medical problems–to dwell on them, I mean. This is true for a few reasons. For one thing, we generally have more medical problems as we age. For another, especially for those who have retired and are no longer active in other pursuits, there may not be much else to talk about–the arthritis and the weather.  Finally, there is the psychological fact that talking about illnesses tends to reduce anxiety about them–it’s a form of exerting control and a semblance of rationality over events that are essentially just random bad luck. (The question “Why me?” is a plea for a reason for our illness–a plan or a meaning.   It has no answer. In fact, from my point of view, it is an understandable but poignantly foolish question.)

Generally, “organ recitals” in conversation are boring, and the best thing you can do for someone who is is giving such a recital is to pull them out of it. Get him or her to talk about something closely related but different–their doctors, who has visited them (if they’re in the hospital) and then proceed farther afield, to other matters that interest the patient. In many cases, they will be grateful.

But sometimes–rarely, I suppose–conversation about a medical condition can be interesting in itself. You and the patient may find a way to make the subject of the illness a matter of curiosity and reflection. Not just a recital, not just a plaint.  In such instances, the people involved are asserting their intellect and inquisitiveness–in a way showing each other that illness cannot erase the human mind’s boundless thirst for knowledge and our pleasure in good company.

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Obsession

Tuesday, November 09, 2010

Nothing is more horrible in everyday life than a breakup that turns into a prolonged and bitter series of conversations about blame and anger and vengefulness. When someone throws you over for someone else, or, worse, for no one else, it is a deep narcissistic wound, and it can lead to an obsessive effort on your part to (as you put it to yourself) find out why, and to anatomize the relationship, and to pick apart every word your former partner says and show him or her how illogical he is or why he or she is wrong about you.

I have been there, some long while ago, and I learned, finally, not to give way to this (very natural) reaction. I remember telling myself once, simply, “Don’t.” Don’t call or write or, these days, email. Just don’t. This is why the Brits sent their jilted daughters to the Continent, to recover from the blow by occupying their minds with other matters. Remember, if you’ve been wronged–and I believe that it’s exceptional for anyone to be truly wronged in romantic situations–the best revenge is living well.

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Complimentary Remarks

Monday, November 01, 2010

A decade and a half ago, a wonderful poet named Deborah Garrison wrote a vibrant, funny, and moving collection of poems called “A Working Girl Can’t Win.” I will say that I published that book only in order to explain how the following events happen.  At a book party, a woman who was a colleague of mine at Random House–an excellent young editor with good literary taste–asked me if the person standing in the corner was Deborah Garrison. I said it was, and she said “I’d like to tell her how much I liked her book.” “Go ahead,” I said, to which the young editor responded, “Oh, she doesn’t care what I think.”

Wrong!  It is never a mistake to pay someone a sincere compliment, no matter how much distance you believe there may be between your station and his or hers.  This holds particularly true for performers, writers, artists, etc., because your admiration and praise are to a significant degree what they’re looking for.

If you feel called on to make a remark about a poem or painting you don’t like, there are secretly equivocal adjectives that come in very handy–“compelling,” “astounding,” etc.  Or–as I suggested a couple of weeks ago in a slightly different context– you can steal from Oscar Wilde, who, after seeing a bad performance by an actress which he felt obliged to comment on, went backstage and said to her, “My dear! Marvelous isn’t the word!”

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