Wednesday, July 23, 2008

Laughing Out Loud

“Children and aspies have no sense of irony…” – Madeleine L’Engle

“…whoever gloats over disaster will not go unpunished.” – Proverbs 17:5

"Thank God, the joke's on me." - Born, Over the Rhine

I remember the times I felt dirty because I was laughing. I don’t suppose that I could specifically recall them all, but I certainly remember the feeling. I was like having a bad taste in my mouth that I couldn’t wash out. That feeling like bile, that grubbiness that would not go away, it made me quite tired of myself. There were a few kids at my high school, in my years there, who God had granted the blessing and the curse of being retarded. It occurs to me that any mental defect was only a curse because all of us less-obviously defective people were there to remind them of it.

There was a particular brand of Mnemonic device that we used, like showmen with dolphins, to make a bit of a spectacle. I cringe at saying “we,” but my half-hearted laughter at such things, in order to ‘fit in,’ is proof that I was as cruel a youth as those whose actions my conscience judged to be wrong. I remember vividly a group of kids talking in their loud, vulgar tones to these other kids who took “special education” and worked in the cafeteria as part of their schooling. The subject matter might have been anything: what they were doing at the time, how the morning had been, what they wanted to be when they grew up. It didn’t matter, because there was a spirit of laughter at the answers that were given to these questions. “I want to be a fireman, because my daddy’s a fireman,” was greeted with snickers and sideways looks, because we knew it to be true that none of them would ever be firemen. The tones of their voices had different timbres and pitches. Their consonants weren’t percussive enough to sound like ours, and their vowels were drawn in the wrong places. They spoke like odd music from the Eastern Hemisphere. These exchanges were usually looked upon with the vapid sense of justice that teachers often possess, having to choose their battles and leave the lesser evils be. I remember though, that, even as I laughed, I felt like a villain about it, every bit of the title “Rapscallion.” The retarded kids weren’t quite aware of all the social implications of the conversation, and usually, they were glad for the attention, being mostly scooted along beneath the radar of most of the school.

The Dark Knight presents a character in the form of the Joker who brought up those old unpleasant feelings again. I found myself laughing along with him. Laughter is sometimes quite contagious, even when it should not be. I laughed along with the Joker when he blew up buildings and killed people. I remember a video from a conference at which Rich Mullins and Beaker were teaching, when Rich talked about going to see Die Hard, and Die Hard 2, and recalled how he laughed when Bruce Willis would kill someone and then say something cutely ironic.

I’m not proud of my laughter in moments of cute irony. I don’t think that the God who champions the cause of the poor is laughing when a man staggers because his legs don’t work right. Or maybe he does, but maybe God’s is the laughter that allows the man to be alright with himself. Maybe God’s is the chuckle that keeps me staggering, even with my cripples. There were moments, though, when the laughter culminated in victory.

Kenny was a boy who worked in the cafeteria taking trays and throwing the leftovers in the garbage. When you took your tray, you wouldn’t throw away the scraps yourself, you would hand it to Kenny. I don’t know if he did it because he was told to, or if he did it simply because he thought it would be kindly to do so. I like to think it was the second reason. He wasn’t the most attractive character, with a “figure less than Greek” as the song goes. He had short, curly blond hair and a heavy brow. He was a stocky fellow, and had a wide face that smiled easily. When he mounted the stage my senior year during an in-school awards ceremony at the end of the year, and the principle handed him his diploma, the entire senior class erupted in an unbidden standing ovation. The teachers and the whole student body as well, clambered to their feet in a song of applause. Kenny held the paper above high above his head and shook it in triumph. And God laughed.

Wednesday, July 09, 2008

Different Cathedrals

My parents are in Britannia, and the American earth tugs sardonically at my shoes. I would trade places at the drop of a blue hat. I’ve never really seen my native soil, so I don’t suppose that the particular patch of ground I’m planted upon has any claim on me. My roots tend toward the sky. Especially the sky above Atlanta where mom and dad disappeared into the hazy blue in the iron belly of a 747. And the Lord commanded the 747, and it spat them upon dry land, much to my mother’s exhausted relief. My parents went to the United Kingdom because my dad is on tour with The Centurymen, singing first tenor and drawing shallow wistful breaths at the graves of William Cowper, John Newton, and other misfit musical saints. I can see mom and dad having lox and eggs at hotels in the morning, and gallons of tea. At least, that’s how I imagine it. I couldn’t see myself doing any less.

I thought of the span across which my dad and I are flung, now – us two musical pilgrims. It’s really the sort of instance you laugh at over breakfast, because, while he lofts his voice into the stone rotundas of England’s medieval cathedrals, I wander, accordion-clad, down to Sassy Ann’s to play jam band style at an open mic in an old Victorian mansion. While sweet consonance rings in the narthex of some consecrated granite monastery, I politely decline the offer from the nice guitar player smoking something illicit next to me. The truth is, though my head is ringing a little, I had a good time. I’ve never thought of an accordion as a hard rock, jam band instrument before. Strangely enough, neither had anyone else until I showed up with one. I was invited back, though, so that’s a good sign. I was told that the nightcap of the evening is a small acoustic set. Count me in.