Sense of Humor

November 20, 2014

by Mark Dunning

“Humour has a special stress-protective importance by helping to master the difficulties of life, to reduce the stress and anxiety and to strengthen mental health.” Högner, 2014

Let’s laugh for a little while. I want to laugh. I have clinical depression and laughing is hard. It feels like gargling glass. I used to have a great sense of humor. I want it back. 

I’ve spent the last three weeks travelling with my kids. That usually isn’t conducive to maintaining my sense of humor but they were both excellent, probably because they were separated from each other. I took Jack to Louisiana, land of Usher 1C, LSU football, and the pigsickle. Bella spent a week with me in Ireland, the land of Guinness, horses, and, uh, Guinness. 

Picture with the text, "The ability to laugh at yourself and your own mishaps can distract from the threat of one's own vision loss"

While in Ireland, I listened to a German dissect and define humor. It was hard not to smile. The German was Dr. Nadja Högner and her presentation on “The Role of Humour in People with Usher Syndrome” was as entertaining as it was inspiring. It reminded me that I had a sense of humor once, that I had been adept at protecting myself with laughter. It was like that feeling you get when you find a photo of a joyous time you were sure you’d never forget but somehow did.

“Humour works as an important distancing ability.” Högner, 2014

Bella is growing in to a wonderful young woman. She is sixteen but mature beyond her years. We travelled through Ireland more peers than father and daughter. It’s hard not to marvel at what she has accomplished and at what she might become. 

From certain angles it is easy to be thankful for and to celebrate that growth. But my wife, Julia, finds it incredibly painful. Everything Bella gains is another thing she can lose. Julia can’t bear the thought of it all crashing down upon Bella, of her lying in the rubble of a promising life, and Julia is certain that is exactly what Usher has in store. It is like two trains running at full speed on the same track, the good and the bad, the beautiful and the ugly, the celebrated and the damned on a collision course. And Julia is trapped between them.

Everything in my life fell apart around the holidays last year. The trains crashed for Julia. Our marriage shuttered and rumbled off the tracks. I was a kid for forty-five years. I loved the holidays. I bubbled from mid-October when the leaves exploded in color and the air turned crisp until the ornaments of Christmas were packed away. But I’ve been dreading the holidays this year. I can’t find the good memories among the bad.

Wait, aren’t we supposed to be laughing?

 “A good sense of humour allows people to minimize negative thoughts, to avoid negative reactions to a stressful event, and to reduce focusing on the negative elements of an event.” Högner, 2014

Julia has been in charge of my wardrobe since before we were married. It was necessary. She knows fashion. She studies it. She breathes it. She picks clothing by sight, touch, even sound. I pick clothes by smell. 

“Sniff, sniff. These pants are alright. Sniff…phew. This shirt’s gotta go.”

With fashion, as with most things, I would be lost without Julia. She has never steered me wrong, but there was once a time my faith was shaken. Bella was around three years old, I think, and as a Christmas present my wife bought me a winter coat. It was light and comfortable, waterproof and warm. It had a removable hood for the snow and the rain and lots of pocket space. It was the height of fashion.

It was also orange. 

Orange! Besides hunters and prisoners and the Cleveland Browns, who wears orange? And this coat was not just orange. It was screaming electric, cover your eyes, what’s that glow on the horizon, dear God hide the children it’s coming orange. Highway pylons wolf whistled when I walked past. I was hit on by traffic barrels. It was that orange.

“From Helvik, Jacobsen, Svebak and Hallberg (2007): A good sense of humour may decrease…social withdrawal.” Hölger, 2014

This coat was more conversation piece than clothing. Everyone who saw it had a comment. The first day I wore it, I was waiting for the train. This huge tattooed, pierced, and beaded man clad in black leather and chains was standing next to me. Normally guys like that ignore guys like me, but not when guys like me are wearing bright orange. That’s when guys like that stuff guys like me in a garbage can. I could feel his eyes painting me and with each minute I found myself wishing more and more for the arrival of the train. I figured that if he killed me, at least they’d have no trouble finding my body dressed in that bright orange coat. 

Finally he leaned over and said, “Nice coat. I have one just like it.”

Shocked, I stammered, “Really?”

“Yeah,” he said, “Came with a $500 dollar fine and 100 hours of community service.”

That was just the beginning. Snickers followed me wherever I went. The nicest thing anyone ever said about the coat was, “Well, at least you won’t have to worry about getting shot.”

That’s not to say people didn’t attempt to compliment me on it. “Nice coat,” they’d say, “Very bright.” Usually the conversation would turn to dust right there, dying in the glare of the coat. But some people tried to fill the uncomfortable silence that followed. “Yes,” they’d continue, “VERY bright. It’s like the sun, kind of. You know, orange. Big. Round…ish.” That’s when the conversation would finally limp, mortally wounded, back into silence.

I was greeted with “Holy Beacon, Batman!” and “Excuse me, Officer.” I was called the Great Pumpkin, Tang, and Mr. Sun. I was asked if I was going hunting. I was told that, whoa, that jacket makes a statement. It says, walk this way kids, I’ll stop the traffic. Once someone saw me in the coat and asked me if I was playing basketball that night, since it was a frequent hobby of mine. When I said yes, they told me to watch out because it was mating season for Spauldings. 

When I say it was everyone, I mean it was everyone. The coat not only looked like the sun, it apparently had the same gravitational pull. Nuns and bums and scumbags and cops and train conductors, any relative, friend, acquaintance or stranger, no matter how mousy, how shy, was willing to pipe up when the big orange coat walked past.

The best part about this story is that Julia bought then three year old Bella a jacket in the same color. It’s OK when you’re three. You wear princess underwear and Minnie Mouse hats when you’re three. You like Elmo sweaters and Santa Claus mittens that light up when you’re three. But when you’re thirty-three, you’d rather not have people drawn to your clothing like moths to a porch light and unlike my daughter, I wouldn’t be outgrowing my coat any time soon.

Bella, of course, loved the fact that we had the same color coat. I think that was part of Julia’s plan. She knew I’d never disappoint my daughter by wearing another jacket. So I suffered the Big Pumpkin, Little Pumpkin comments. I smiled at “look, it’s Mr. Basketball and the Sunkist Kid.” I heard so many “Oh, aren’t you two cute” comments I wanted to vomit but I didn’t out of fear that that, too, would be bright orange.

“Most of all, keep your sense of humour. No disability or person can take that away from you.” Högner, 2014

So why did I do it? Why did I continue to subject myself to public humiliation? It’s simple. I love Julia. I’d be lost without her. I trust her opinion on anything and everything. Well, except finance. She doesn’t get finance. But everything else, I trust her above all others. She even picks the winners in the office football pool for me, based strictly on fashion, of course (ooo, the Buccaneers will never win. Pewter is so out.)

If Julia said that hideous coat was fashionable, then it was. She’s never steered me wrong. Without her, I’d be wearing parachute pants and a mullet. Or maybe a pastel alligator shirt with the collar turned up and penny loafers with pennies in them. Actually I’m more of a flannel and blue jean kind of guy, but that gets a little hot in the summer. The point is, it would have been bad, but with Julia, it’s all good.

So I wore the coat and wore it proudly. I kept it for years, long after grotesquely orange puffy coats were out of style. I may have felt like society’s big orange clown nose, but I knew that those that mocked me were wrong. Julia gave me that coat. It was warm and soft, bright and practical, light on my shoulders, and easy to pick out in a crowd. It might have been funny and a little self-conscious, but it drew people to it and left them smiling. It was, to be succinct, just like my Julia, and nothing could be better than that.

“The ability to laugh at yourself and your own mishaps can distract from the threat of one’s own vision loss.” Högner, 2014

We’re still together, Julia and me. We plan to stay that way. We’re fighting the demons together. The kids help. Nobody has a better attitude than Bella and no one makes Julia laugh more than Jack. The dogs help, too, even if that is not their intention. The other day we came home to find one of Julia’s favorite pairs of shoes spread in little soggy pieces across my side of the bed. The culprit was clear and I glared at our yellow lab. He just shrugged. Julia sighed. Then she smiled at me, smiled that beautiful smile that makes my soul jump, and said, “You just have to laugh.”

Yes. Yes you do.

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