You Could Die Laughing

ARE YOU TERMINALLY AMIABLE?

 

by Bob August

If you are, as I am, slouching past 80, ask yourself a question.

Are you smiling a lot?

Say you totter on arthritic knees to answer a telephone call interrupting your dinner. The greeting is from somebody wanting you to change your long-distance service. Do you offer a polite "No thanks" before hanging up, grin at your wife and say, "Nice of him to ask"?

What if a youthful motorist has been threatening to go into cardiac arrest for the last 10 minutes trying to get by you on a two-lane country road while youāre driving a perfectly reasonable 35-mph in a 55-mph zone? And what if, finally passing, he reaches over to lower the passenger-side window and shout something providentially lost in the wind currents but presumably appropriate to accompany his single-digit salute? Do you respond with a friendly wave and say to your wife, "Boys will be boys"?

If the answer is yes, ask yourself another question. Itís the one Iíve been asking myself: Are you becoming terminally amiable? Has the mellowing process ripened into perpetual silliness, an affliction so serious that normal people will avoid you? Is the smile pasted on your face getting on othersā nerves?

And if so, should you be discussing this with a psychologist? Might he advise you the time has come for sequestration in a quiet place that offers jigsaw puzzles, soothing music and soft walls?

Some urge us to rage, rage against the failing of the light, but for many old guys it doesnít work that way. We donít even complain about the light bills.

Most of my enemies are dead. As for the ones who arenít, I usually canít remember what I was sore about, even if I remember their names. My personality, never vivid, is dissolving into a paler shade of beige.

I never thought it would work this way.

Once I asked an admired friend, 91, how heíd handled aging so gracefully. "What you have to do," he said, looking depressed, "is keep your sense of humor."

I didnít plan to. At approximately 75, I decided my sense of humor was among the baggage that had to go. It was at a time we were getting rid of things, cleaning out the basement.

Nothing much seemed funny anymore. This can happen when your feet hurt. The last time I remembered laughing out loud, a real guffaw, was when George Bush, at a ceremonial banquet in Japan, threw up on the table. And actually I liked George Bush even before he came out against broccoli.

Before long my feet started feeling better. I decided to keep the sense of humor, at least for a while, along with a name tag from the 50th reunion of 1939 class at Collinwood High School and a Harris tweed jacket Iíd bought for $32 at Richmanís in 1968. The jacket is in better shape than I am.

But how, if reluctant to accept softening of the brain as an explanation, do I justify this autumnal cheeriness in one once inclined to dark moods? Why the frequent smiles, the good humor?

I struggled to find a reason. None was obvious. While my feet are better, my legs are worse. No Wilt Chamberlain in my best years, Iím getting shorter. If I make it to 85, Iíll have to wear a hat so dogs donít mistake me for a fire hydrant. Without adding depth, Iím increasing in width. My earlier pleasure in cashing a monthly Social Security check has abated since the cost-of-living increases donít meet the cost-of-pills problem.

What, implausibly, has gone right? Why do I welcome each dawn?

Then it hit me.

Itís the promise of new adventure, an unfolding of hours pregnant with untapped potential.

And the reason must be, after 57 years of marriage, whatís going on between my wife and me.

Weíd never talked to each other the way we do now. Never taken such delight at unexpected twists and turns in the conversation, at the surprises and mysteries in what drops as pearls from each otherís lips. Never laughed so much together.

At this point, youāre seeking the appropriate word and will find it in "Yuck!" Not, youíre thinking, another old codger testifying to the therapy of joyous sharing.

Not at all. In fact, what Iām thinking of is more like the warden (Strother Martin) saying to Cool Hand Luke (Paul Newman), "What we have here is a failure to communicate."

Thatís what we have. As the boy Bush might say, major league.

At certain points each day, the lines of communication become hopelessly crossed. We move into a bizarre world, a place appropriate for the exploration of incoherence in a play by Beckett, a place where messages are sent and not received. Legitimate questions are offered (such as my wife asking, "What do you want for lunch?") and stunning answers are returned (such as my replying, "I think it was Millard Fillmore"). As you can see, this takes some sorting out.

Only two kinds of people are left when closing in on 80. There are those whoíve suffered some hearing loss. They stand in stark contrast to those who wouldnít hear Tony Bennett rehearsing "New York, New York" in the next hotel room.

My wife has a hearing aid. It represents no technological breakthrough.

I donít have a hearing aid, but it may be only because when somebody was trying to sell me one over the telephone I couldnít understand what he was saying and hung up. I think my hearing isnít too bad. Itís just that people mumble more these days. As for a movie such as "The Full Monty," with all those Brits who canít speak English, I didnít understand a word in the first 30 minutes.

My normal conversations with my wife probably grade out at about 88 percent. The remaining 12 percent make conversation ... interesting.

Do people with good hearing have any idea how many words in English sound alike? Or how much difference, when placed in a blurred context, it can make if your wife thinks youíve said "indicted" when youíve said "inducted"? Or how surprised you can be later when overhearing the information your wife is passing along over the telephone?

Certainly "prostate" ó a word, incidentally, that comes up frequently in our social group - sounds like "prostrate".

How could you blame somebody for confusing "honorarium" with "sanitarium"? But these small mistakes can produce considerable confusion, some times raising the possibility of legal action or a punch in the mouth.

Still, they are not what most enliven our late years. Weíve come to cherish what appear to be the uncharted flights into lunacy, projecting us beyond the gravitational pull of sanity.

This doesnít occur often when weíre face-to-face in a quiet room, although it can. Mostly itís when weíre calling to each other from another room or in the car when weíre getting road noise. Or, frequently, in a restaurant with music blaring.

Then she may answer, "Iím sure it was Beethoven," and she knows about these things, but what Iíd asked was whether sheíd put gas in the car. Or I might say, "Letís wait until next week" when sheís inquired about whether Iíve noticed itís raining.

As you can imagine, we were disturbed when this started. Then we decided that if we had to live with it ó and each other ó weíd better learn to laugh at it. Now we eagerly await what will come next.

We have achieved what might be called a state of accommodating bliss. You might label it something else, but Iíd prefer you not do so to me. And I probably wouldnít hear you anyway.

The other day, my wife called from the next room to ask what I was doing. I told her I was writing something about our communications.

She replied, "Wasnít she the one who made all those movies with Nelson Eddy?"

 

From The Wiser Side of 60. Copyright © 2002 Moonlight Publishing. Excerpted by arrangement with Moonlight Publishing. $15.95. Available in local bookstores or call 800-BOOKLOG or click here.