My friend Professor Mondo is fond of saying, "Cynicism is my whiskey, and I've had me a few." Ever since I saw that for the first time, I loved it (and I've warned the good Professor that I'm so stealing that line). It's not only awesome in its own right, but I love it because in a way, it describes my own life.
This is on my mind because the subject of how humor helps you deal with life came up in one of the late-night conversations I had last week with my friend up in Alaska. We always know our little summit meetings, be they for a week or just a couple nights, are going to involve some fairly heavy discussions of philosophical matters. This one was no exception, and during the course of those conversations, one door opened another, and so forth, and I ended up discoursing about the cynicism in my own life.
Cynicism isn't something I developed because I wanted it; it's something that happened because of certain things that happened along life's journey, and having to play certain difficult cards dealt me by life, the knowledge that I was never going to be the golden girl in life's little pageant, all the things that happened along the way when I realized I would rather take the roads less traveled, roads that were often beautiful but could be extremely lonesome. My overdeveloped, incredibly sick sense of humor is one way I've dealt with these things. But, as I told my friend, if you strip away all the layers of titanium that have developed over my psyche all these years, you'll find someone who is an incredible romantic, who would really love to believe in the stories that have fairytale endings.
So often, though, life has dealt me circumstances or thrown me curveballs, and I've had a choice: flip out and lose all hope, or find a way to deal with the disappointment, work the problem and do the best I can to put the best possible ending on things. Sometimes part of that coping process is for me to let the dark humor take over, let cynicism and irony do a bit of the driving. The cynicism tells me to expect the worst, and that way anything that doesn't turn out badly means you're one step ahead. The backhanded humor lets me lose some of the angst, and dealing with the dark side of it helps me to eventually see what silver lining that does emerge.
This was on my mind not only because it came up during one of those marathon conversations last week, but with something else that happened a week before my trip. It would take too long (and, honestly, not be all that interesting) to tell you the full set of circumstances, but I'd gone to bed the night before a little bit melancholy about something. The next morning, I was reading in a book called By the Bomb's Early Light, a fantastic book about how American philosophy and culture changed in the first years of the atomic age. The chapter I happened to read that morning began with a section on James Agee's unfinished story "Dedication Day," a story about the dedication of a monument in Washington commemorating the Bomb. It's this completely over-the-top story that, from the description, seems like a particularly grotesque dream. It was Agee's unfinished attempt to parse his complicated feelings about the Bomb and all it implied. But in the mood I was in that morning, somehow it made perfect sense -- because it's how I handle my own complicated feelings about some difficult things, myself. If I didn't deal with these things in a way that let me blow off some steam and make myself laugh, I'd go crazy. My reaction to "Dedication Day" was something like "Holy cow, that sounds like something I'd write."
It's the same with other things. For instance, why it is the first time I started to listen to Warren Zevon's songs, I had a reaction I've had very few times in my life: "He writes songs the way I feel." It's why I can't listen to 98% of modern popular music: it's just not me, but Zevon's twisted tales often nailed how I felt, as did the way he composed and performed so many of them. I just can't get into Sarah MacLachlan singing about angels, but Zevon singing about roguish characters? That's my speed, right there.
Or, for instance, why I often say I feel like my life is a Preston Sturges movie. Would I love to be the Grace Kelly character in some great sweeping epic romantic tale? You have no idea how much I wish that was me. But it isn't. My life story hasn't been that great sweeping epic romantic tale. My life has been a tale Sturges would have had a field day with -- yes, there's a deep emotional center to it, but it's accompanied by a lot of crazy things, screwball characters, things going hilariously awry. That's why I can't really watch romance movies. Part of me would really love to watch those movies and get into them and imagine myself in the fairy tale, that I could be one of those ladies who could put in a DVD and watch it and have the best time bawling my eyes out. But I can't, and you'll find very few romance movies in my collection. I just can't relate to them. I wish I could say they were, but they're not me.
And that's how I deal with life. In the right light, under the right circumstances, the romantic in me feels safe to emerge. Heck, I imagine those of you who read this blog have seen the romantic emerge on here more than a few times. But, most of the time, the gallows humor is how I protect my romantic core. The armor was built up over years of dealing with life's happenings and adversities, and it's helped me to hope for the best while being prepared for the worst. Sometimes the stars do align and the romantic part of me gets to take the stage, and she's beautiful when she does emerge. But, more often than not, you'll find her up in life's skybox, spending the time between romantic moments having a pretty good time helping herself to the buffet table and laughing her head off at the screwy things that happen down on the playing field of life. Otherwise, she'd literally be bored to tears.