Posts Tagged ‘laughter’

Funny thing, isn’t it?  When you’re young you have all of the time in the world, so nothing seems all that important.  You go out with your friends, have some pizza, run around the city all night and sleep until noon or late afternoon.  Life is good, despite the fact that you have just a few dollars to your name.  You have a roof over your head and there’s food on the table.

It’s only later on, when you get older that you begin thinking “you know, I should be doing something with my life.  I should be ‘here’ by now.”  “Here” meaning “owning a house” or “advanced in my career”.

If you’re not careful, you can go your whole life thinking that you’re constantly in a race to play catch-up.

I have to confess: my stance on life has always been like a car on a hill.  I didn’t need to do much, just let off the brakes and just coast.  Didn’t even have to turn the key. In some instances, I’ve allowed too much to happen without my consent, with the mistaken assumption that stuff was being “done to me”.  The horrible and stark fact is: I made the choice – even by doing nothing – to accept the circumstances life threw at me.

Photo is entitled "Chevys".  Photography by Noel Kerns. Visit his website at http://www.noelkernsphotography.com

Maybe this is why I still believe in God, though not religion.  The stuff that’s been thrown at me has been pretty good, with a few exceptions.  I’ve always had good-paying jobs, for example.  And when life in a factory got to be too stressful, I took a small buyout and quit (despite the fact that I had a family to support), and within a few months had another job in an office that paid almost as well.

I remember my wonderful boss at that job gathering us together for a regular meeting. (Man I loved that woman.  She was bright, articulate, generous and helpful, not just to her employees but to our clients.  But I digress).

At the start of the meeting, she asked us all to talk about what we were thankful for.  I recall one young woman sharing a look with another one, and then rolling their eyes.  Both participated though, and gave the usual responses.

“I’m thankful for my family.”

“I’m thankful for the new motorcycle I’m getting next week.”

Then it was my turn.

“I know you’re not going to believe this but I’m thankful for my job.”

That got a derisive laugh – mostly from the two women.  I was serious though.

“Honestly, you don’t know what it was like for me before I got this job.  I worked in a place that was hell for me before coming here.  One time the stress was so bad they called in an ambulance.  I couldn’t wait to leave that place.”

The room got quiet.

“And then I got the call to come in here, and was tasked with helping people.  People who would otherwise end up on the street.  I’m being paid to guide them to a better life.  How awesome is that?”

The two women were silent, and watching.

“Plus” I added, “I get to play with computers.  And I get paid to do it!”  I smiled.  “And I get to work with you guys, in the best work environment ever.  Yeah, I’ve got lots to be thankful for.”

I wasn’t that comfortable expressing emotions openly so I stopped right there.  My boss noticed my discomfort, smiled and then called on the next person.

Another “coasting” experience involved kids.  Specifically, I didn’t want us to have any.  When my then-wife went in to the doctor’s office to get tested, the girls at the front desk got the news first.  One of them called me over.  “Do you want to have kids?” she asked, smiling.

“Sure” I said.  “I guess so”

Then my wife came out and gave me the news and we hugged.  Inwardly, I was aghast. I didn’t know myself all that well back then, but inside I was all like “back up, back up, BACK UP”.  The problem was that I wasn’t into my marriage at all, and was unconsciously looking for a way out.  (That’s a story for another day, but long story short: we got married way too young and for the wrong reasons.).  The bottom line was that anything permanent at all, like kids, pretty much put the nail in the coffin.  I felt trapped.  It was a scary place, the inside of my brain, back then.

A couple of days ago, I saw a YouTube video interview featuring Emma Watson, Daniel Radcliffe and Rupert Grint.  In it, she discussed her favourite Disney character – Ariel, from “The Little Mermaid”.  She said “my dad would kill me for saying this, but for my fifth birthday he dressed up as King Titan..” and here she started laughing “…which is so cool.”  She then went on to explain that her little brother was dressed as Sebastian.

As I drove to work the next day, I thought about that interview and about what her relationship with her dad must be like, and concluded that it had to be pretty amazing.  And that brought back some memories of my relationship with my daughter.

FLASH: I’m in the hospital, in the hallway waiting area. (I wasn’t allowed in to see the birth, as the baby was being delivered via C-section).  The doors open and out comes a nurse, pushing an incubator.  I can see through the window of the machine, and notice there’s a skin-coloured oblong thing in there.  “Sir?” she says, looking at me. “This is your baby.”  I walk over while she opens the top.  The thing has some hair on its head.  I look at the nurse.  She smiles “it’s a girl.  This is your daughter.” I look down at her, laying there.  She’s not moving, though she is breathing. I look back at the nurse.  “You can touch her”, she says. “Go ahead.”  The universe holds its breath, waiting.

I look down and reach my hand in and feet her arm.  It’s warm. And like that, my entire world rocked on its edge.  The change in me was imperceptible but strong.  As articulate a writer as I might be, I have no words for this.  I didn’t then and I still don’t now.  It’s like my brain turned itself inside out, shook out the crumbs of depression and angst and re-asserted itself.  I love this child. That’s the truth. It’s also an understatement.

Like I said.  No words.  The power of that moment has stayed with me, all of these years.  And I find I still can’t tell the story without feeling emotion.

FLASH: I’m in my living room, and my little girl is now five, maybe six.  I’m not sure. The TV is on and she’s standing there in front of it, looking at a commercial.  She seems completely unaware of anything except the TV, and she begins to mimic the announcer.  She does it perfectly and I suddenly burst out laughing.  My little princess has character!  And she’s hilarious.  Wow.

FLASH: Both of my kids are in trouble, and I’m angry.  They’ve done something wrong (I forget what it was, which shows you how important it is), and I need to bring the hammer down.  “YOU GUYS SHOULD NOT HAVE DONE THAT. I, UH…” I’m so angry I can’t speak properly. “THAT IS, IF YOU…IF I…”  My mistake was in chastising them both at the same time.  My son is laughter personified, looking for any excuse to let loose.  Put them together and they’re like gasoline and a struck match.

As I struggle to get the words out, my daughter suddenly bites her lip, then looks at her brother and they both start giggling then quickly dissolve into helpless laughter.  “THIS ISN’T FUNNY” – but it’s no use.  They’re too far gone.  And then, despite my damnedest, I can’t help joining in.  Hopeless.

FLASH: it’s about ten or eleven years later.  We’re in the new apartment and my daughter’s just come home from school.  She’s smiling (it’s kind of her thing: she smiles an awful lot, all the time).  she says “hey dad.  I went to the store and saw something.  I bought it right away because I just have to give it to you.”

I’m smiling in response. “Really?”  She grins.  “Yeah.  Let me get it out of my pocket”.  She reaches in and seems to struggle to get whatever it is out, and then she finally gets her hand out and flips me the bird, laughing hysterically.  I can’t help it – I start laughing too.

All of these memories flash through my consciousness on my ride to work, I get a small glimpse of what life would have been like had I not married and had kids.  Sort of a “It’s a Wonderful Life” moment, if you will.  I imagine a life of utter boredom, a life of greyness.  An okay life perhaps, but missing such a golden seam of bright and blinking joy.  It hits me hard, this revelation. and I realize what is for me a grand truth: even if I’m not precisely where I want to be in my life, I feel such an overwhelming sense of gratitude.

I’ve no real complaints.  Not really.

Attention

When I was a little boy, I used to watch a couple of my dad’s brothers with curiosity.   They were so outgoing and carefree.  And drunk too most of the time.  The beers just enhanced who they were though – something I believe is true for all drunks.

They were huge men and they truly didn’t care about how they appeared to others and didn’t try to hide much of what they thought.  They were irreverent and loud and loved to laugh – unlike my dad who, though he was just as large as them,  was the polar opposite in character:  angry and belligerent and always spoiling for a fight.

As I grew up, I could never picture myself being as free as my uncles.

While riding your bike up and down the street as a child, the idea of inhibiting yourself in any way doesn’t even cross your mind.  You have fights with your friends, you make up, you play “flying saucers” with them (always you get to be the captain, and they are your underlings, if you have any say about it) and together you go through a full range of emotions every day.  And the next day you forget what the previous day was about.  It doesn’t matter.  You are in the now.

Kids don’t seem to have a sense of nostalgia, even for a moment.

Flashes of memory:

Scene:  teenaged me on a stepladder, applying paint to the eavestrough of our house.  I don’t even recall the colour.  Though lost in ADD-addled thought, I was intent on ensuring the paint went where it was supposed to go.  The sun was shining in the west, and my dad was out on the front lawn scowling as he watched me work, an ever-present bottle of beer in his hand.  I was a little unfocused while my brain processed yet another shiny ball piece of inspiration.  He could tell, because he would say something and I would provide one-note replies.  In exasperation he bellowed “you’re always in your head.  You never talk.”  He barked “so what the hell are you thinking about?”

That was a surprise.  I knew he was right but it was the first time I remember being forced to be a little self-aware.  I probably turned red – I didn’t like being in the spotlight.  Not his, anyway.  As I struggled to reply, he huffed again and walked away in disgust.   A more mature me would have been able to analyze it:  I didn’t think I mattered to him.  At least, he didn’t show it, in amongst all of the anger and shouting and drinking and swearing and hitting people.  So why would it would occur to me to talk with him?  I was afraid of him.   I was slowly building a belief in his hatred of me.   Hindsight reveals so much.

Not being mature, I had no sense of all of this at the time though.  I just knew I had somehow angered him, and I was afraid of what that might mean.  I had no idea what the consequences would entail.  Would I be beaten up?  Was he going to use this as an excuse to come at me?   God knew.   I kept painting, fearful and shaking inside.

(Nothing happened)

Scene:  a dark night, my best friend and I were in a camping trailer in his parents’ front yard, talking about something.  This was probably within the same year as the painting scene above.    I thought Joe was a genius: his marks in school were excellent and we both kind of knew he would end up becoming some sort of an academic.   The guy was linear and logical, and we talked about a great many things.  This night, however, it was me doing most of the talking. I remember really enjoying the time, until I realized that he wasn’t saying much at all.

“Joe, what’s wrong?”

He looked at me.  Shrugged.  Put his head down, staring at the floor.  “Nothing”.

Being around a drunk father for most of your life, and being taught how to read him in order to survive, I had developed somewhat of a sense about people, even then.  I landed right on the problem.   “You think I talk too much don’t you?”

He hesitated.  Then nodded.

Shock.  Teenage immature revelation.

I shut up.

And then, like many teens, I made a point of fitting in by keeping quiet, and making sure my image was intact.  There was no way anyone would ever have to become disgruntled about my saying too much ever again.  I had learned my lesson well.

Such behaviour, once learned, becomes hard to unlearn.  It becomes your new “normal”.  You get used to it.  You think this is what you’re supposed to do.  This for you is social conditioning, and though marginally disappointing, you’re happy to have learned it.  Now you can fit in, and not stand out or become the focus of anyone’s attention.  It doesn’t occur to you that “focus of attention” can be a positive thing – you’re only used to seeing it as a negative, ranging from the disdain of your friends to the red-eyed drunken and raging stare of violence.

Scene:  I’m an adult, sitting in the basement of a building in the heart of the downtown Toronto entertainment district.  A bunch of people – maybe fifteen or so, all different ages and backgrounds – are assembled.  All are paying attention to the teacher.  Only, it’s not a lecture.  He’s giving instructions.

“Never say no”.  He starts.  “You may think you have a better idea, and maybe you do.  But if someone gives you an offer, take it, and leave your ‘better idea’ in your back pocket.  You may get a chance to use it later.  It’s more important to follow the lead of the other guy.   Think instead of how you can help build his idea.”  He smiled.  “Or hers”.

It was a comedy improv class.  The objective was to tap into our “inner child” and play pretend with each other.   It was entirely positive, and it involved taking the focus, and becoming the center of attention, if only for a few moments.

It was exhilarating.  I was the guy on a fishing trip with a friend, and we were discussing my getting a job at his company.  And all the while we were sitting in an imaginary boat, casting our lines and winding the reel back in.   He built on my idea by presenting an offer:  if he could have a date with my wife, he’d see that my job application was approved.  My instinct was to immediately say “no” but then I remembered the teacher’s instructions.    “You know – that might work.  I’m going to need more than a job though. ”  I thought for a moment, while casting the line once again.   “Maybe stock options.  And your cool new car.   That would be my price.”  We dickered back and forth, adding conditions and treasures, until we finally ended it by reaching an agreement.

So odd, playing that scene.  We had became oblivious to the fact we were both the center of attention – except for the brief moments when the class laughed.

In another improv exercise, we were learning about adding dimensions to our invisible props; to be aware of them.   The teacher said “very often you’ll see some actors on stage, sitting in a car.  One of them will get out and walk to the other side – RIGHT THROUGH THE IMAGINARY ENGINE.  It irks me every time.  It destroys the scene.  I want you to be aware of your scene, and everything in it, and respect it completely.  Make it real.”   He looked at us, intently.  “If you can make yourself believe everything in your scene is real, your audience will follow you and they’ll believe it too.  Every time.”

To illustrate that point, the teacher chose an imaginary thick heavy door that didn’t open too well.  One by one, classmates went up to the door, used big heavy keys to unlock it, and then struggled to get it open.  Then they would struggle just as hard to pull it closed behind them.  Then they would sit down, or go to an imaginary fridge, grab an invisible drink and open it.   Or read a newspaper.  About four or five of them went up.   Then I had an idea:  I walked up, struggled with that same door, got inside and closed it.   Then, with my back ramrod straight, I looked around at them in disgust.    “One, two, three….” I counted them all.   “All five of you are in here… ”  I raised my voice in anger.  “….and there are 1,500 prisoners out there, all unsupervised.”   Their eyes all widened and they got up in a rush and scrambled to get out the door.

The class laughed.   That did it.  The seed was planted.   Attention.  Positive attention.  Instant addiction.

Scene:  a sports bar in a small town.  Noon hour.   About seven colleagues and I sitting around a table, having lunch.   A TV set was situated on a shelf  that was close to the ceiling, and it was tuned to a music video station.  The theme was 90’s music, and we were enjoying it, and discussing the songs as they came on.

Then the Divinyls’ song “I Touch Myself” came on.   Anyone who’s ever heard it knows the lyrics fairly well.  It features a woman singing to her lover about how she masturbates when she thinks of him.

The conversation around the table stopped abruptly.  Most of us were guys, and we couldn’t even look at each other.   For some reason I found this hilarious.   My improv-enhanced mind whirled with possibility.

I cleared my throat, turned and looked at the guy next to me (who, aware of my gaze, elected to stare with apparent focused and fascinated attention at his plate of fries).   In the deepest voice I could muster I growled “kind of embarrassing isn’t it?”

The table exploded with laughter.

—————–

I didn’t know it then, but I was reprogramming myself.   Detoxing from a lifetime of self-repression.  Learning that embarrassment should be reserved for honest mistakes, not for honest behaviour. Not for speaking out.  Not for truth-telling, no matter how ridiculous or outrageous the truth, or even whether it was couched in humour or bold straight talk.

I brought that dynamic to my workplace, often blurting out wild-eyed stuff to the disbelief and laughter of my friends and co-workers.   Safety doesn’t seem that much of a factor anymore.   And even when there is the possibility of violence – like on a crowded subway or busy mall – it’s better to face it head-on, with truth.   People truly don’t expect that.  They expect fear, and hiding.

I was learning that you get a lot more done, accomplish more, find more satisfaction in throwing off the safety of quiet, and replacing it with risk, and attitude and laughter.

To this day, I still have to coach myself though.   What about you?  Do you find yourself, as I do, having to repeat “what’s the worst that can happen” to yourself?   Do you find what that is, and then say to yourself “to hell with it – I’m doing or saying this, and if they don’t like it, or me, that’s too bad”?