Ever since writer Norman Cousins laughed his way through heart disease and wrote a book about it in the late 1970’s, “Anatomy of an Illness,” we’ve all known that the physiological and psychological effects of humor are profound. There is now even an entire field of study devoted to laughter called “gelotology.” If you work hard and make good grades, you too can get a PhD with a thesis entitled “The ‘I Get No Respect’ Humor of Rodney Dangerfield And The American Male Ego In Decline.” Or, “Groundhog Day And the Epistemology of Time.” In other words, you can now go to Stanford and study The Three Stooges. Go figure.
But it’s the measurable physical benefits of humor that might have slipped your attention, especially if you are a wheelchair user who doesn’t think of his or her condition as anything to laugh about. A good sustained bout of hilarity can, among other things, a) lower your blood pressure, b) lower the levels of cortisol and adrenaline, two prominent stress hormones, c) increase blood flow to the brain, and d) increase memory and learning. This is serious, life-enhancing stuff. Louis C.K. isn’t just there to amuse you. He is there, believe it or not, to heal you.
And nothing is more serious or life-enhancing than the humor of someone who is in your situation or worse. As a T-10 complete para, I’ve had plenty to laugh about, like the time a zonked-out street person tried to push me to the front of the line at Starbucks because of “what I did for him in Vietnam.” But my own material is scant alongside that of a dark, cynical wit who is twice as disabled as I am. For the right kind of perverse brain, the equation seems to be: more disabled = funnier. The late, great cartoonist John Callahan was that kind of genius of extreme disability. His stuff ranged from brutal to more brutal. And simple, too, as in his classic cartoon of a spinal cord injury center with the sign “Standing Room Only.” You probably have heard of Callahan, but probably not heard of the late Hollywood humorist/quad, Jim Troesh, who once wrote a scene where he’s trying to sell a TV show and the executive in the room, completely distracted, starts pitching grapes in Jim’s mouth.
One of the reigning champs in this field of dark, often disturbing disability comedy is Mike Ervin. Mike has advanced muscular dystrophy and along with his equally disabled sister, was once one of Jerry Lewis’s poster children and even went to the Jerry Lewis MD summer camp as a teenager. He lives in Chicago, is a well-known activist with groups like ADAPT, and writes about his life, past and present, under the label of “Smart #### Cripple.” You might know him from a regular column he writes for New Mobility. Or you might have seen the documentary, “The Kids Are All Right,” where he and other of “Jerry’s Orphans” try to storm the telethon and set Jerry straight.
If you have no idea who I’m talking about, then go to Amazon and order up his book, “Smart #### Cripple’s Little Red Book.” It’s neither red – the cover is blue -- nor a Communist manifesto, but it could well serve as a cripple’s manifesto. As he says in the introduction, his mission is to make “polite society feel deeply conflicted and uncomfortable.”
The book is a collection of sketches about Life As Mike. He opens one, typically, with the line…”Emmanuel was washing my arm pits. We were talking about death.” Emmanuel is one of his personal assistants, whom he refuses to call an “attendant.” “(Attendants) sounds too zoological. Monkeys have attendants. I don’t need someone to watch over me or flip me a treat when I complete a task.” Mike tells Emmanuel that when he dies, as he told his wife, “stuff me in the trunk of the van, drive out to a boat ramp (on Lake Michigan), open the hatch, and boot me out.” It’s cheap and they won’t “spackle you with makeup and put you on display.” Or dress me up in a gorilla suit. It’ll give the guys down at the crematorium a good laugh.
Having embraced death, Mike later reveals his rank fear of it. He’s wheeling home one night and spots a raccoon, which scares the bejesus out of him. This leads him to remember the reports of other wild beasts – like a cougar -- roaming the streets of Chicago for which he “might make a quick and easy lunch.” But he won’t learn how to stave off a cougar “for the same reason I don’t bother to listen to flight attendants when they give emergency evacuation instructions.”
“It’s all moot because if I’m on a plane and the pilot announces, “Ladies and gentlemen, we’re having some trouble with..”, as soon as I hear that I’ll freak out and die of a heart attack right there on the spot. Even if the sentence turns out to be, “Ladies and gentlemen, we’re having some trouble with the latrine,” it’ll be too late. I’ll already be dead.”
I’m not a quad, but after reading this hilariously impolite book, I feel like one. I too now have a dark aversion to a Sippy cup with “My Little G-d Pony” on it or to plaid blankets, because “plaid blankets are invalid blankets.” I too fear the day a three year old grabs my joy stick, I zoom off out of control, and that kid becomes a statistic. I too loath the aisle chair they use to strap you down to get you on a plane, what one of Mike’s buds calls “the Hannibal Lecter chair.”
And you know what? After spending time with Mike and his fears, aversions, and everyday indignities, my blood pressure drops like a rock, as does my cortisol level, my brain fills with blood, my diaphragm expands, and my disease-fighting Gamma-interferon cells, whatever they are, are much more active. And I feel better a lot better about dying in a gorilla suit.
© 2012 Allen Rucker |