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Essay: Laugh

Michael K Laidlaw About 3 500 words

#406 3524 31st NW

Calgary, Canada T2L 2A5




Michael Kamakana

I laugh at the wrong time, however honest the laugh is, for neither nervous laugh nor superior laugh but truthful expression of astonishment and comedy. I laugh at the wrong time with full-throated gasping not wry or deprecating or wise and reserved in any way, in fact strangers who have never met me and have no idea how unusual it is to name my expressions open and not repressed, would call my laugh in these inappropriate situations actual ‘guffaw’. I do not laugh this way when I am entertained, when, in fact, there is stimulus directly manifest to call forth the comic, to provoke the laugh, stimulus such as comic film or stand-up comedy routine or comic images or satirical parodies, stimulus either professional or amateur, stranger or intimate, planned or spontaneous, novel or familiar, stimulus of these genre rather derive that wry or deprecating or wise and reserved response as seems to most anyone more consistent with my character. I have no sense of humor in such situations, some commentators think, or just see in my expression some sort of mental distress at how pathetic or silly or stupid the attempt at comedy, but those few commentators who have known me longest, have heard even my very rare non-sequitur comic insertions to the most serious discussions, have insisted I do indeed have very dry sense of humor, if not parched, if not absurdly contrary, though these few others always struggle to give any examples before smiling, perhaps at memory, and finally saying well it’s not what but how I says it, or, that old standby, well you had to be there. I myelf evince no authentic anxiety to convince anyone I have sense of humor however dry or absurd, and sometimes, though this is possibly my idea of joking, insists that, like the clown who laugh outside to hide my tears inside, I remains stoic and quiet outside to hide the riotous calamity of my emotions inside. I am laughing so hard on the inside or I could not carry on usual conversations let alone swallow glass of water on the outside. I goes with friends to comedy films and do not laugh, but when asked later says it is the funniest movie I have seen since etc...


I laugh at the wrong time. I am walking with my head high, walking about the neighborhood watching leaves change color, wind rustling and detaching leaves here and there golden and yellow with cracks along veins and curves and tears. I am walking with my head high and am pleased to see fall come in this Friday night as I walk from the bookstore, where I bought something racked outside, and watch the blue evening sky reflected above the window display, window display of some name author whose book I would not buy, the cinema marquee promising the next showing of some art film I have seen years ago, so I feel very old. I am not, though of course with the cane I feel I present that image. My eyes are adjusting to the darkening blue evening and the interiors to cafes and restaurants already glow gold. I am alone. I am wandering. My head is held high because friends have mentioned I always looks down, always look depressed, and my stunned reply is silence and the thought that perhaps they are right, rather than saying I am simply watching where I place my cane. I had decided tonight to deliberately hold my head high, to look up, even if I think such is arrogant, even if there are reasons to be careful where I put my cane, which I decide I can judge by peripheral vision. I have decided I am after all in a city, that natural environment for humans, that I walk on smooth surfaces, so as long as I stay on sidewalks or plazas and watch crossing roads, as long as I act like every other human, I should be fine. I watch moviegoers gathering, bookstore closing, restaurants busying, and decides I will go home, alone as usual, to read. I walk across the street with quick glance down, skip onto the far curb energetically, and walk beside the narrow building, a triangular building that continues for a bit but is passed through by an arched gap up five steps and down five steps on the far side. Without thought I hold my head high and place the cane on this step, climb, this step, climb- but then I am distracted by, of course, a beautiful woman. I look at her and not the stairs ending on top. I see her on one glimpse but this is enough for me to thrust my cane into the emptiness of the downside of the archway stair, puzzling emptiness, and I find myself launched horizontally right at her feet, she stops, she gasps, I flie, somewhere inside me I remember advice for stuntmen, for all situations: roll! And so I do roll, beginning immediately in midflight, rolling to her astonished feet. I have never done this before and will certainly never do this again. I walk by there another day and discover the top step is about a metre-and-a-half high. I should have been hurt. Are you, she gasps this night, are you ok? And I laugh...


I laugh at the wrong time, and though at first this might seem to be connected to my hearing deficit, that is, that I hear only about seventy-percent on the left ear and thirty-percent on the right- and no this do not add up to one-hundred percent hearing, that I hear tones, not words, that it takes some fractions or more seconds to shape sounds into recognizable words, that all this is due to my brain injury, that therefore of course I laugh at the wrong time, because I hear at the wrong time, though this might seem plausible rationale, there is reason to dispute this. Comedy, verbal comedy, is famously dependant on timing, so perhaps the timing is off but then would it not always be equally off and rather than laughing at the wrong time I laugh at the delayed time my hearing deficits cause, would not the pace of the words, the pace, the inflection, the whatever-quality that renders given utterance comic force, still be effective. I know this is an oversimplification of the case, as that sector of my brain so severely injured that receives the aural stimulus must participate in forming those tones into verbal stimulus, after all the joke is in the words and not the tones, and this participation is of varying felicity and pace, according perhaps to puzzling novelty or simple repetition, or, perhaps further along, that the sounds of this word often accompany the sounds of that word because they make common phrase, rousing declaration, desperate exhortation etc I know I am hearing better if I know or suspect the sort of speech I listen to, comic or dramatic, to whom it is addressed or from whom it comes, whether it is question or demand, declaration or plea, but when it is comic there is the added factor of deception fully employed for comic affect, for bathos, for pathos, and you really have no certainty what language game is being employed to what purpose, but then all these details of hearing problems might be entirely beside the point. Maybe I smile because it is expected, but no I never do much laugh or giggle or snort or, ever to most people, actually ‘guffaw’, and if I show no signs of a sense of humor maybe I have no sense of humor, or at least such is conclusion of behaviorists, whom I usually fix with serious stare and say seriously and gesture seriously Of course I have sense of humor, I just do not laugh on command like I do not smile on command. Perhaps commentators from before my injury could say I always had this or that sense of humor, but the best I knows is that my father recognizes essential aspects of my humor when I sighs and dismiss a nurse with Useless, and that my mother is not happy with this etc...


I laugh at the wrong time. I am watching a first-run Hollywood comedy, that is, a popular movie in English, so my expectations are not high, my idea of popular culture being primarily which do not engage critical or intellectual faculties. This is of course not my choice but interesting experiment to see if it is such that even very loud theatre soundtrack fails to communicate, as I have mentioned before the hearing deficit is not resolved by an increase in volume, such as by hearing-aide, but this distinction is not clear to most of my friends. I watch the movie with expressions that vary between disgust and sadness and frustration as comic scenes unfold respectively on the stupid sort, on the predictable or over-familiar, then under roars of general audience laughter at something said that I do not hear. I am aware accompanying friends on occasion glance to me to measure my emotions but the best I can offer is sustained weak smile, puzzled smile, as when I goes with friends to one very loud superhero movie of which I hear close to nothing but the story is all there in images, or when I goes with friends to another very loud giant monster ‘kaiju’ movie, the story again all there in images, except for one point clarified in conversation after the movie, one point of negligible import, as pleasure offered is in spectacle of action and explosions of any sort of comic book brought to screen. I have tried to interest some friends in very old silent comedies but these draw little more than amused confusion from others, amazed that such primitive movies still hold my interest, when in fact I can watch that expressionless railroad engineer and his engine going the wrong way, can watch the love-interest clearing small bits of wood, can watch the cannon counting down swiveling away as the train curves just in time, can watch the engine plunge down the bridge, can watch these scenes over and over. My sense of humor is far off the usual beam, as watching this movie I realize there is some sort of physical slapstick that works for her, more than ever verbal slapstick, and the ‘gurning’ face of this movie star do not, as it apparently do for many others, draw forth the laugh, the ‘guffaw’, any honest expression of appreciation. I am watching a modern silent comedy and is beaming with wonder, for it is exactly how I could say I have a sense of humor, here multiplied by its reference to the very history of movie making, here multiplied by the fact others in the audience, friends and strangers, seem to understand the comedy, the romance, and my smile can join their laughter. I have sense of humor unimpaired by hearing deficits, and this pleases me, though on reflection I wonder how I could have doubted this, how it is perhaps that I have little physical co-ordination to exhibit anything similar but then I never had physical humor, only verbal humor, and this is not the sort necessarily commonly shared. I do not openly laugh, but I come close to it. I laugh at the wrong time, though of course everybody has their own sense of the right time, but I somehow manages to miss it every time...


I laugh at the wrong time, then remember the various laugh I have given, the various circumstances, and am moved to examine certainty of my sense of humor, of comic, which is not the laugh-out-loud sort, not the physical slapstick of renowned white-faced mimes or the more current sort in Hollywood films. My laugh is lightly surprised when elicited, for novelty has a role and I have decided part of the comedy is that it is unexpected, or droll mechanical repetition where the unique organic and living reaction to this or that stimulus, or at least this is the argument I recall from one philosopher who dedicates an entire, short, book on the subject ‘laughter’. His examples unfortunately tend to be in his native French and of an era over one hundred years ago, so I only feel partly confident I understand the argument, which is in fact further evidence that perhaps there is culture and era-specific comedy I will only ever appreciate on an abstract level, which is also one of the reasons parody seems limited. After all, to fully appreciate what is parodied in any detail it is necessary to be familiar with the original, minimally in language, though parodies may encompass broader aspects of invented comic world, references to cultural myths that are easily mocked, references to more contemporary models of accepted behavior, interactions, goals, though these movies do work for me, when behavior sent-up exhibits absurdity and arbitrary nature, comedy known as incongruity, as ‘irony’, though for laugh often not enough. So maybe I have a sense of the comic but not sense of humor, perhaps I see between intent and action any sort of absurd conflict, though what works for me is more ‘satire’ than ‘comedy’, that is, depiction of the gulf between pretension and actual behavior, though some of my friends might not see this mendacity as comic but wrong or tragic or evil, so again wonder if I do have a sense of humor. And of course this too requires some familiarity with culture and era or what is funny then is not so funny now, and this is where physical comedy succeeds best, for possibilities of the human body are similar through all places, it is only the tradition of ‘mugging’ or otherwise to the presumed audience, which is specific, for in some cultural traditions this is broadly expansive and in others if mute to invisible. I prefers the invisible. I laugh in concert with others and this companionship is necessary and reinforces my human qualities and for a moment I feel much better etc...


I laugh at the wrong time. I am walking with my head tilted down, walking about the campus in late afternoon darkness, walking tired and careful after my day out, walking to the university library blocks. I am walking away from early winter sunset. Long shadows from bare trees reach forward across plains of snow, joining branches of shadow, arching over moving wavy shadows of students. Mounds of snow parallel the sidewalk edges and fields of snow broken only by the few snow rabbit passages, lie between the sidewalks. I have been out all day, from exercise in the gym to studies with friends to lunch to return to the library now, though I am not particularly tired, I am stressed on some unseen level I will not mention to anyone else. Students move swiftly, almost dancing it seems to me, as they pass me on the sidewalks, mostly cleared of low drifts of snow but here and there covered under sheets of ice from melted snow that freezes again last night and this morning, sheets around which I must navigate and here my cane is no help. There is of course no help, for when you are young and healthy it is only the rare moment you notice or offer to help the disabled past obstacles you do not notice, and here, on campus, most everyone is young and healthy, so I have become familiar with this and actually prefer to pretend I am also fully able. My cane of course violates such pretension but inside I can ignore it, and now in winter as much as possible I try to remain inside. I am outside now. I watch the sidewalk for patches of snow and sheets of ice and walk determined direction but to the left here and the right there, carefully placing the cane upright only a little ahead of my shortened stride, balancing on it as I passe, raising it behind me smoothly and bringing it forth to place again, repetition altered only when I pause to decide how to pass ice. This choice of how to pass ice is the unspoken stress I faces all day, though I am here on campus and the sidewalks are kept clearer than usual city streets, as well I need cross few streets but around the city edge, and much of the university is accessed through interior walkways linking towers and blocks, it remains stress all the same. I come to one intersection of four paths that is covered in a sheet of ice, an example of exactly how varied the topography of campus is, how this from the left behind slopes down, this other left slopes down and towards, this other right slopes away but not steeply enough to drain water, this last right slopes forward and leads toward the library. I look to the two that lead forward and try to visually measure quality of the ice, but perhaps in failing light, perhaps in my shadow, this judgment is uncertain, only that it is ice, that there are few fractures and it does indeed look very smooth, these factors are apparent. I know ice intimately from the years before needing a cane, when drivers would talk about ‘black ice’, that is, ice the driver will not see reflections of and will multiply the slightest miscue into potentially fatal accident, this sort of ice not much different than what I see here, and here likely only a metre wide but as such prohibitive to leap over and necessary to use the cane and the step once at least. I look at the snow, mounds over which I might clamber with difficulty but bringing me no closer, for I would have to cross the sidewalk eventually, and I wonder if anyone is watching this foolish man stymied by simple ice. After all, ice is ice, try to cross and if you fall, fall, and if you fall get up again. I knows this is an oversimplification of the case, for when I fall I might injure myself, and at any rate it is not simple process to regain my feet. I look to the library not so far away, I look to the snow, the sidewalks, and move to the left edge so that the cane goes into the snowbank, which I think is secure, think rests on grass, and begin to step slowly across the ice. One, two, three, four- and I must restrain my jubilation in having passed the ice etc...


I laugh at the wrong time. I enter the library, finally relaxed, finally on solid ground again. I am warm again and the stress of walking here is easily forgotten, after all I can walk, there are others who must wheel, others who must use two canes, others who are trapped inside when there is snow of much depth. I prefer not to remember when snowfall is so deep that I myself is trapped. I use the catalog on the net usually, but there are times I simply wish to walk the relevant aisles and discover something anew, such as today, when I have decided to take some book out, some reward for having braved and surpassed usual and unusual snow and ice. I am proud, though I will not tell anyone of this accomplishment which is, after all, not so remarkable to anyone able. I look at the philosophy and recall theories of comic I have read, the superiority, the relieving, the incongruity, and wonder where I fit. I turn down one aisle, I slip, I fall. Are you alright, a student says as I lie on my back. No, I say. And laugh.


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