Wednesday, March 28, 2012

`And So, in Effect, We Laugh All the Time'

My oldest friend, a guy I’ve known for almost half a century, whom I envied when young and came to resent for his confidence and flair, and now think of, thanks to a cache of shared memories, as a brother in all but the biological sense, has cancer. He told me on Sunday when I called him at home in Denver, where he’s a high-school German teacher. Mike’s father was Slovak, his mother was Austrian, and they came to the U.S. after the war. Mike grew up tri-lingual and later added Spanish. Starting in the nineteen-sixties we read Thomas Pynchon’s novels and swapped pet theories about them. Both of us were the first in our families to go to college, and we roomed together freshman year. I remember lying on my bed in the dormitory reading Winesburg, Ohio. Mike’s comment mingled, I think, impatience and admiration: “You’re so American.”

It’s true. My family had been in the country a generation longer, in contrast to Mike’s semi-European household. Their accents were broad. They set the table for dinner with cloth napkins and candlesticks. His father told dirty jokes and handed me a bottle of beer as I entered the kitchen, but his parents retained a non-American-seeming formality in manners. Their working-class graces, quaintly foreign at the time, now seem quintessentially American and very true to Cleveland, our home town.

Mike used to be a financial analyst but switched to teaching about fifteen years ago. In high school and college he had been an actor, so the transition was simple. He laughs almost as much as I do. He’s a practicing Buddhist, for whom giving not taking is a way of life. Each summer, Mike chaperones a group of his German-language students on a tour of Austria, Slovakia and the Czech Republic, and during the school year he hosts students visiting from Europe. On Sunday, as usual, he sang the praises of Prague, his favorite city, the birthplace of Kafka and Rilke. Miroslav Holub (1923-1998) was a Czech clinical pathologist and immunologist who was born in Plzeň and died in Prague. He was also a whimsical fabulist of a poet. "Brief Reflection on Laughter" dates from the late nineteen-seventies, when the Communists were still in power, and is collected in Poems Before & After (Bloodaxe Books, 2006). The poem concludes with these lines:

"In special instances we laugh
when we don't feel like laughing at all,
we laugh because laughter is prescribed or
we laugh because it isn't prescribed.

And so, in effect, we laugh all the time, if only
to conceal the fact that all the time someone
is laughing at us."

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