Tuesday, January 18, 2011


How many laughs have we got left?

The elderly narrator of Marilynne Robinson's novel Gilead casually notes at the start that he takes a laugh when he can get it, never knowing how many chuckles he might have remaining. (Or words to that effect; she makes the point better than I do.)

This observation kind of startled me.

What a scary, wondrous notion -- that our laughs are limited, as fragile and finite as eggs in a carton. At some point, of course, we all end, but to think of laughter itself as doomed to extinction evokes in my heart a strange picture of loss. I imagine a boatload of laughs, small but still tangible, pulling away from a dock and heading far off to sea. Their close cousins -- the sigh and the sniffle -- waving goodbye from the pier as their kin take their last voyage alone. An absurd observation, to be sure, but I sometimes see my own thoughts as physical forces, so why can't I extend the same courtesy to a guffaw or two?

Nobody remembers their first laugh, and I doubt that few remember their last, but all the ones in between! Most laughs must linger. Kids must chortle their small asses right off at least a hundred times in one day. (In between their equally abundant shrieks of pure sorrow at life's unfair course.) Multiply that number each day long into adolescence; tone it down quite a bit as the decades pass by; then look at that number and marvel indeed at how long and how often we laugh through the years. To even consider this notion of laughter as something that might end with our death is more troubling than death by itself, at least in my mind. Laughter should stay, is all that I'm saying.

For is anything more curious than where and just why our laughter arises? A goofy picture or joke that one finds amusing may enthrall no one else. What is it, inside us, that needs this small burp of pure of joy that takes us out of ourselves? Perhaps a laugh is an organ that must arise when it can. A bubble of joy; the soul's own orgasm of levity. Something that levitates, a laugh is. We feel it rising like puke, but what a difference in taste! I could suck on a laugh like a candy for hours upon hours, like grape bubble gum whose flavor refuses to slacken or rust.

I've long been fond of a little game that nobody around me seems to find all that funny, namely: If you had the chance to find out what the last words that emerged from your mouth before dying would be, would you actually choose to know what they were? What happens if you say yes? Some celestial procter might look at his book, find your name on the list, and spout out a sentence that sounds something like this: "Ah, right. Mr.Spencer. Here you are. Your last words before dying will be: '"Is that orange for me?'" And I would be horrified for the rest of my days, wondering, each time that I held an orange in my hand: "Is this the end?" Or what if your last words were: "Sure." How often do we say 'sure' on a weekly basis? Surely hundreds. (See?) Every time you uttered that sound your breath would escape. Or what if your final sentence said: "I don't quite care for brownies." But you love brownies! What situation would arise where those words would be spoken? To know one's own preference and foibles is how we somehow manage to move through life with a modest amount of false hope. Knowing our last words might convince us, instead, that life is a joke where we are the butt.

Which brings me back to the laughter.

It's my newly built theory that laughs can't be lost. They come from somewhere within, and are released into the world from our mouths like smoke from a cigarette, smoothly and swiftly and soon without form. No laugh truly dies. It is transformed into motion and invited to roam through the world's endless sky. All those laughs up above, immersed in the clouds, transformed into rain, pouring down on the world even after we're gone.