Incidental Amusements

Late this summer, I needed gastrointestinal surgery on short notice. Sparing you the appetite-destroying minutiae of the procedure, the important thing to note is that I was not allowed – after making a few unbearably painful attempts – to laugh.

The day after the surgery, I snickered at a squirrel with incredibly inadequate fine motor skills trying to grab a small nut from the sill of my living room window. Almost immediately I felt as if the same squirrel, perhaps in retaliation, was carving out my innards with its little arms now possessed with unparalleled swiftness, dexterity and excavation-related utility.

At the same time, my small and large intestines seemed to house some kind of clandestine and ill-placed Mentos and Diet Coke manufacturing facilities, the cutthroat confectionery competition between which had led to reckless shortcuts in their bottling processes, causing cataclysmic backups and overflows of both plants’ holding tanks, and the cola spillage which, once it reached the heap of Mentos, triggered both facilities to go berserk inside of me. This was from a mere snicker.

A snicker isn’t necessarily a laugh; it requires only a shade of an abdominal muscle contraction to elicit a genuine chuckle – thus I was doomed to be humorless.

My postoperative gait more closely resembled that of a geriatric penguin with a stiletto gouged through its furry tuxedo than it did a 21-year-old human being’s, so I was happily confined to the recliner, which was kind to my situation. I couldn’t possibly come across the potential hilarities of the outside world.

Living without laughter isn’t easy, though. Whenever my friends visited, I made sure to preface the conversation with explicit demands to eschew all humor. Usually, they would gawk at me and crack a joke. If I laughed, it was only for a moment; my infantile whimpers quickly overtook my giggling while I doubled over completely as if strapped to some mortally malfunctioning Ab Lounge. If somehow I stayed composed, I would crane my head toward the jokester and flash a glare one friend said made me look Clint Eastwood-in-Gran-Torino type serious.

But it wasn’t all bad. There are virtues to being a temporary slave to solemnity. It’s like watching a comedy when you’re alone: You fully acknowledge the jokes, but you don’t really laugh, not in the usual way. You sort of go, “Hmph, that’s pretty clever,” and maybe nod your head in reverse and fold back the corner of a grin. You have time to think about it rather than robotically bursting into the strange, apelike hooting that laughter sometimes seems to be.

Surely you wouldn’t want to go on without laughter forever, just as you wouldn’t want to go the rest of your life watching comedies in solitude, but it’s a healthy, revelatory experience, another reminder of the benefits of a shifted perspective.

The next time I hear “Knock, knock,” I’ll be running to open the door.