LAUGH IT OFF

This is one of those times when our life preserver in a sea of sadness can be our sense of humor. As one anonymous philosopher described it , “It’s the icing on a very crumby reality cake.”

When choosing friends and especially a lifetime mate, make sure they’ve been blessed with this heaven-sent gift. You can manage to live in harmony with someone who doesn’t share your views on politics, religion, art and maybe even major league baseball, but if they lack a sense of humor, there’s going to be trouble.

Most people seem willing and able to be amused, to laugh or at least smile at something “funny”. The gloomy minority often finds this jocular attitude strange and even irrational. Sometimes I have great difficulty telling one of my favorite jokes. I usually can’t help laughing during the recitation and right after I’ve delivered the socko punchline and I’m sitting there, helpless, slapping my knee and out of breath, someone will ask, “So that was the joke?”

What people consider funny may depend on what country they live in, their age, social level, intelligence and even their occupation. Their sense of humor can be wry, witty and even of the gallows type, being courageously able to laugh when beset by serious trouble. However, if your date at the movies begins to giggle and guffaw during the torture scene of a slasher film, that could be a bad sign.

The subject has been studied by scientists. Some claim proper therapy can help those born without funny bones by exposing them to stand-up comedians and comedy movies and TV shows. Just being in an audience that’s roaring with laughter may trigger your herd instinct and you’ll begin to join in. Someone can explain the jokes to you later.

Mark Twain disagreed with the scientists. “Studying humor,” he said, “is like dissecting a frog. You may or may not learn something, but you end up with a dead frog.” (That was a test. Did you laugh at Twain’s little joke or did you just feel bad for the frog?)

We’ve been advised by W.C.Fields to “start off each day with a smile and get it over with.” Of course, this popular sourpuss just said that because he wanted to make us laugh.


THE SOUNDNESS OF MUSIC

Families don’t sing together like they used to and they’re missing out on all the benefits. Perhaps during this COVID-19 national lockdown we can revive that old tradition of do-it-yourself home entertainment and reap its rewards.

There are reports and video clips of Italian families singing joyful songs at their windows, raising the morale in their homes and neighborhoods as over 25,000 Corona cases have so far been reported in Italy.

A Psychology Today report says when a group sings together, the rhythm of the song will automatically synchronize the breathing and the heartbeats of the singers. Their immune systems will become stronger and their stress levels will be reduced. Even their posture and mental alertness will improve as they perform as one throbbing, singing unit.

We didn’t know all this way back when in my youth. We just enjoyed belting out a favorite song with our parents and siblings and even with our pals on the playground. It was a feel good thing That was before rock and roll and the wide generational gap that it brought on.

Before that, Dad taught us the lyrics of his favorites and on a long car trip the family would sing a few choruses of “Danny Boy” or “Down by the Old Mill Stream” and we kids would teach the parents the words and music of “The Jersey Bounce”. If there was a little one in the back seat, we’d teach him “Old McDonald Had a Farm” and let him do the oinks and the moos. However, anyone trying to start “99 Bottles of Beer on the Wall” was declared out of order.

I can’t imagine a family today, off on a long drive in their SUV, putting down their cell phones and game gadgets to start singing rock or rap pieces. I guess they just sit there, doing their own things, with unsynchronized breathing and heart beats. What a shame!

Another thing I like about group singing is that my raucous voice can be lost in the crowd. I have a musical heart but not a musical ear and no one has ever asked me to sing a solo. I have been asked on occasion to stop singing a solo. When I mentioned to a friend that there are special times when I just feel like breaking into song, he said, “I can understand that. You have to break in because you never have the key.”

OUR OVERHEAD PROBLEM

The most important reason we haven’t moved in over 50 years is because my wife and I love living near Lake Parsippany. We’ve looked at more modern houses but always, instead of a beautiful lake at the end of the street, there was just another row of look-alike modern houses.

The other reason is that there is a higher presence that holds me here. No, it’s not a heavenly mandate, it’s just my attic, my jammed full, heavily loaded attic. If we ever try to sell the house, I’m sure the incoming family will insist we get rid of the overhead tonnage. They’ll need the space to store their useless stuff.

Our attic was almost inaccessible when we first moved in. To store anything I had to stand on a wobbly stepladder, reach up, push aside a small trap door in the hall ceiling and then hurl the item into the dark abyss, rendering it almost irretrievable. Therefore not much got sucked into that little black hole. The garbage can was handier and safer.

I should have left it that way instead of installing one of those pull-down attic ladders with a much larger entrance opening. It was a difficult and scary operation. At one point during the installation, 75 percent of me was in the attic while the other 25 percent, my right leg, had penetrated the hall ceiling and must have looked like a weird chandelier.

The new easy route to the attic was just too much of a temptation for a family of hoarders, used to keeping things that should be dumps-bound. “Well, just for now” was the usual false promise before lugging a chipped bowling ball or an expired hi-fi into the upper reaches. Eventually our four children, all reckless collectors and savers like me, moved out, leaving their many boxes of miscellany behind and above. They’ll never retrieve them. I’m sure their own attics are now filled to the brim.

I’ll have to hire a disinterested, unsentimental professional to remove the junk. This never works as a family project. Every item would have to be studied, its history recited and its disposition debated. “Oh, look, my cheerleader jacket! I wonder if it still fits.” and “Wow! Here’s one of my old skis. The other one is up here someplace. I’ll look in back of those filing cabinets or Grandma’s chifferobe.” And so it would go for hours, reading dusty diaries, passing around the two-string ukulele and hugging battered Teddy Bears and Raggedy Anns.

I’ll just let it be and hope the bowling ball, the hi-fi and the overloaded chifferobe don’t come crashing down into the bedroom some night. On a (hopefully) far distant day, the family will be sitting around the living room talking about the good old days when someone will ask, “So what are we going to do with Dad’s ashes?” Then someone else will make a suggestion and they’ll all agree, “Well, just for now.”

SEEDS OF FRUSTRATION

Johnny Appleseed was not a fictional folk hero like Paul Bunyan, the king-sized lumberjack. His real name was John Chapman (1774-1845). He was from Massachusetts and wandered through the early American frontier, preaching religion and planting apple tree seeds for most of his adult life.

Cider mills along his route were eager to give him their residue seeds since they wanted more apple orchards nearby for their soft and hard cider brews. Johnny also planted nurseries and sold or bartered young apple trees. He’s been credited with introducing the modern apple to Ohio, Indiana and Illinois. In his own quiet way Johnny was a true hero and a life-saver if the old adage is accurate: “An apple a day keeps the doctor away.”

I have no lineage records or DNA evidence to back my theory, but I suspect Johnny has a great, great, great grandson with a similar mission and if he’s ever identified, should be captured and institutionalized. The media would probably give him the nickname of “Johnny Dandelionseed”.

Johnny D visits my neighborhood every spring, probably around midnight and sprinkles all the lawns with dandelion seeds or maybe he has a sack of those little white puff balls that he blows on from an upwind location. He makes several follow-up calls during the summer to maintain and increase the crop of pretty little yellow flowers with ugly leaves that smother our expensive Kentucky Blue blades and perennial ryes.

The botanists’ name for the dandelion is Taraxacum Officinale. I have several other names, but I’m not allowed to print them. To be fair, if he’s apprehended and charged with first degree lawnslaughter, Johnny D’s defense lawyer should be able to convince a jury that he’s a misunderstood benefactor of mankind deserving of praise, rather than confinement.

The little edible weed with the unyielding root and grass-smothering leaves is a rich source of vitamins A, C and K as well as iron, calcium, magnesium and potassium. It’s been used for centuries to treat cancer, acne, liver disease and digestive disorders and may help lower blood pressure and cholesterol. You can make a tasty wine from the flowers and tea from the roots. Google sources are full of praise for this pesky plant’s medicinal and nutritional values.

After you read up on its benefits, you might decide to go out to your infested lawn and munch on a few dandelions and even pick some for your medicine cabinet or to brew tea and make wine. But then, if you live in my neighborhood, please apply the herbicide.

YESTERYEAR ME

We found a box of old photos in the attic last week. It was like peering into a time machine. There was one of me as a wary kindergardener. I have a vivid memory of the day it was taken four score years ago. An intinerant photographer carrying a large long-legged camera rang our doorbell one afternoon and talked Mom and Dad into spending a dollar on my portrait.

It was a scary experience for a little kid. It looked to me like the man was hiding behind the camera inside a black tent with one arm stuck out waving a stuffed canary in the air. Back then photographers said, “Watch the birdie” instead of “Say cheese”. I managed a nervous smile long enough for him to get focused inside the tent and make a quick snap.

I was looking at this old photo when a friend dropped in and asked, “Who’s that?” I was surprised by the question. “Can’t you see the unmistakable resemblence?” I asked.

“Are you trying to tell me this cute little boy is you?” he replied.

“Well, I admit I’m much taller and heavier now, but I’ve got the same smile, the same dimples and the same hair.”

“The height and weight gains are obvious,” he said. “but did you have caps on your teeth back then and I don’t see any dimples now unless they’re under your wrinkles. And what do you mean by ‘the same hair’? Are you including all those gray wisps coming out of your ears and nose? (I really have to get some new friends.)

“Okay, I’ll admit the little tyke in the old photo and I are not complete lookalikes, but I also find it hard to believe I resemble the old guy in the pictures taken at last month’s family get-together . Cell phone photos can be a little distorted, you know. I was sure I’d been electronically aged in the process.

I was brought back to reality yesterday while on an elevator in a medical building. The car stopped, the door slid open, and an old man was out there just peering in and not moving. “Make up your mind, you old coot,” I thought. “Are you coming in or not?” I raised a hand motioning him in and he also raised a hand , inviting me out. I was trying to figure if the old geezer wanted to duke it out with me when I realized I was looking into a full length mirror.

DISEASES AKA

I’ve been mistakenly giving credit to medical science for conquering a multitude of illnesses that were once common and now seem to be completely obliterated. For instance, I had friends in the last century who suffered from carbuncles, a painful affliction that I never hear about anymore, so I thought it had been eliminated.

But then I realized there had never been news of a National Carbuncle Institute with fund-raising events like Carbuncle Walks and 5K runs and there was no dramatic announcement of the discovery of a carbuncle cure or immunization.

So I did a little checking and found that carbuncles are still painfully out there. They haven’t been eliminated, they’ve been renamed. We call them “boils” now. The same goes for old-fashioned afflictions like the croup which is today’s laryngitis or strep throat. Lumbago is now just lower back pain and Quincy is severe tonsillitis. The grippe has become the flu which is under control to some extent, especially for those getting their annual shots.

No one gets hay fever anymore since they found hay isn’t the only vegetation causing the allergic reaction of sneezing and wheezing. Instead, a wide variety of pollens are irritating our nostrils and eyelids. The technical name is now pollinosis.

Pneumonia is still around without a name change and there are innoculations available to protect us, but what about double pneumonia which my mother warned me about so often?

“You can’t go out dressed like that on a snowy day! You’ll catch double pneumonia!” she’d say, and then make me put on a scarf and a heavy sweater under my mackinaw. I was the only kid out in the blizzard who was sweating profusely. I hope now they have a double shot for double pneumonia.

I’m sure the renaming of diseases was not part of a conspiracy, but just an attempt to update the terminology and make it more precise. Most young people, unless they’re history buffs, have never heard the melodramatic old affliction names like falling sickness (epilepsy), lockjaw (tetanus), and consumption (tuberculosis).

However, we must avoid being duped by scammers asking for contributions to fight ficticious diseases, some of which were invented by novelists and screenwriters. “We’re asking for your help in combatting the deadly Montaba Fever,” one caller said. I recognized that as the ficticious fatal disease in the move “Outbreak” and I was quite sure Dustin Hoffman had found a remedy. I said I would be happy to donate $50 and, after a slight pause, the scammer said, “Sir, the credit card name you gave me doesn’t exit.”

“Yes, I know,” I replied. “And I’d like to donate another $50 to the Saint Mungo’s Hospital for Magical Maladies and Injuries as recommended by Doctor Harry Potter.”

1

A SOUND INVENTION

Thomas Edison accidentally invented the phonograph in 1877 when he was working on another project and was surprised to hear faint voices coming from the spinning telegraphic disc he was testing. Edison was fortunate to have heard the recorded words of his nearby helpers since he was quite hard of hearing.

Recognizing the importance of his discovery he quickly turned out a prototype model, recorded an assistant’s recitation of the “Mary Had a Little Lamb” poem and took the demo device to a Wall Street broker to ask for financial backing. Workers in the building, hearing about Edison’s latest “miracle”, rushed into the broker’s office to hear the world’s very first recording. There was fear of a floor collapse and the crowd was dispersed, but the broker, sensing the potential popularity of the invention agreed to help finance development. “Mary Had a Little Lamb” topped the charts in 1877

Nature had already provided a couple of ways for humans to capture and repeat their speech, but they were limited and unreliable. There was the echo which required a trip to the mountains and usually resulted in only a few repetitions of long “Hellooos!” One could also train a parrot to mimic and repeat what he said, but who would ever dictate a letter to a parrot expecting the bird would repeat it accurately to a typist and without interjected profanity and requests for crackers?

Since no other inventor had even conceived the possibility of recording sound, and if Edison’s deafness had been a little more profound, the phonograph and subsequent sound recording devices might never have been invented. What would the world be like today?

For one thing we would still be watching silent movies accompanied by live theme music on theater organs. Blockbuster musicals like “My Fair Lady” and “White Christmas” would not have been produced. TV shows would all be live, since reruns would require hard-to-read subtitles. Repeated live commercials would be expensive so there would be fewer of them. (What a shame!). Those intrusive, illegal telemarketer calls would all be live and we would be able to swear at real people instead of at obtuse robots before slamming down the phone and returning to our dinners.

We wouldn’t have voice mail or answering machines and when we called corporate headquarters to complain about mishandled accounts, we wouldn’t be told by a mellow-voiced female robot that our call is very important and then be subjected to ten minutes of brassy music and commercials while we waited.

If store owners still wanted to irritate shoppers with raucously loud bad music they would have to hire raucously loud bad singers and musicians. Sometimes I wish Thomas Alva had been a little more deaf that day.