Does it look like I#039;m laughing to you?

Published 12:00 am Wednesday, April 30, 2003

There is a great power in laughing. Someone recently sent me an email explaining the actual physical benefits of laughter, proving what I've known all along - you just feel better after a good belly laugh.

The problem with humor is it varies so wildly and widely between cultures, communities, even family members. For some reason, I remember luring skunks into our campground to sleep under my brother's bunk as being very funny. Oddly enough, he doesn't. But he enjoys the laughing about the girl who screamed blue bloody murder when a bear cub got into the camper - conveniently forgetting it was me.

I remember when Roseanne first came out on television, and one of the critics was panning it, saying what a horrible family it represented and that no one should grow up in a family that treated each other like that.

Excuse me? Have we booked a return flight from Pleasantville yet, Mr. Cleaver? More people than not grew up in households very similar. They may not have been quite so blue-collar or crass, but filled with more teasing than hugs. Heavens knows I did. A brief explanation for the benefit of Dr. Freud - my dad was raised in an orphanage and my mother had the Ice Nazi for a role model - neither was very good at saying "I love you" because they hadn't heard it nearly often enough. But they were very good at showing it.

Sometimes, those displays of affection took the shape of gentle teasing - or wicked tricks. I was babysitting at a neighbor's one night when I heard something tapping on the window. It was, you guessed it, a dark and stormy night. When I looked out the window, a pale face popped up and screamed.

So did I. In fact, I kept screaming until I could hear my dad cackling like the Vincent Price on speed, galloping back down the driveway. Sometimes, he went too far - we all do. For some people, the only way to know the limits is to test them - how far can we go before somebody slaps us back and says "That isn't funny."

Again, it's up to each person to determine her own humor-threshold. I think one reason I never got deeply involved into the feminist movement, despite my firm beliefs about equal rights, was because, to be perfectly honest, most of those I met in the "movement" had zero sense of humor. Zilch, nada, nothing. If I can't laugh at it, even if it means I'm laughing at myself, then it's not for me. Ask me why I married Terry and I'll tell you it was because he made me laugh within five minutes of meeting him. (There are myriad other reasons, but I won't go into them here - he gets enough ego-boosting as it is!)

But sometimes, even an easy-going, laugh-at-herself- kind of person like me can be pushed too far. Someone once said - deliberately and within my hearing something unbelievably cruel and violent in nature. It wasn't directed at me, but at a group I am known defend. If I had called him on his comment, his reply would probably have been "it was only a joke."

If it was intended as a joke, it failed - the "humor" was hurtful, not healing.

It made me think again about the teasing rapport I have with my sons. Are there times when I think it is in good fun and they don't? Are some of my jokes more hurtful than healing? Instead of testing the limits by teasing them until they rebel, I decided to take the obvious (and usually ignored) path and simply ask them.

"Do I hurt your feelings when I call you Sloth-Boy?"

"Ummm, no."

"Does I bother you that I threatened to tell your future girlfriends about the flying diaper incident?"

"Moooooom. Well, no, actually, it was kinda funny."

I've decided that after a decade or so, the guys are pretty used to the teasing. If I change styles now, they'll think something's wrong and I've either had a Stepford personality transplant or I'm plotting their next trip to the dentist and don't want them to suspect.

I have assured them, however that if I do cross the line from "teasing" into "mean," they should let me know.

Meanness may seem funny, for those who are fans of the Three Stooges and that sort of thing, but in real life, it is only a thin disguise for pettiness and cruelty.