The Last Laugh

I can’t say I expected to wear my life like an unwashed shirt, or laugh so hard I’d wake the dead and startle babies in their cribs; I didn’t wish for endless sunny days, or nights so full of stars I could barely breathe. I am as content to live with rain, and wind that bends the forest trees; they all surprise me like the dawn each day –that they are each and always different is the delight. The wonder.

I am old now, and that, too, amazes me as much as finding laughter still waiting where I least expect it… ‘With mirth and laughter, let old wrinkles come.’ But who am I kidding? I’ve always chortled at the slightest mischievous glance and roared with glee with the roll of an eye. We all do, really… We think we only laugh at intentional humour, and yet most of us giggle or laugh spontaneously -incongruously even- to diffuse a situation, or to foster social bonding, perhaps… that you needn’t worry, there is no threat; it’s all just play:

There may be no rhyme or reason for it, so should we always call it laughter? Or something else? It is clearly not a form of speech –the tongue is quiet; the jaw is still- and yet there is a message in it. A purpose. It is a primitive, not a rational response; it was not snuffed out in the mutational race for adaptation. Evolution saw fit to keep it. Even rats can laugh –but quietly, I think; they have a lot at stake…

And yet, the thought that ‘One study found that people laugh seven times for every 10 minutes of conversation’ got me wondering. What, exactly, were they counting? Criteria are important here. When does a smile become a laugh? When does a sudden exhalation count? Or an unexpected expression? Do you always need the same pattern each time? I couldn’t find the original study –was it a joke? An attempt at creating yet another urban myth?

I decided to do a pilot project of my own to see if there was enough evidence to pursue it further. But, rather than exposing my clipboard in malls across the city, I figured I’d start with Brien on his porch. And my criteria would be strict: a laugh would have to involve a kind of dance –either of the face, or the body; it would have to be non-threatening; and it would have to make me want to follow suit. Not leave.

But then I also decided there should be some eye action because you can tell a lot from the eyes. I added a few additional columns to my chart to include extra stuff that might crop up. I knew I didn’t have to worry about counting random smiles with Brien –they were not part of his social vocabulary- but shrugs were. In fact, he proffered shrugs like most of us extend our hands in greeting. So I added a thin little column for shrugs at the edge of the page. He was probably not the best person to enlist for a laugh study, but you have to start somewhere. And in science, you’re not supposed to pick subjects just because they will support your hypothesis. The fact that I didn’t actually have a hypothesis yet, was a bit of a worry, but I decided to create one if Brien went well.

“Hey Brien,” I yelled from the sidewalk in front of his little house. He was, of course, sitting on his porch staring at Sheda, his favourite tree. Usually, it is alive in the wind, and he likes to watch the waving motion of the branches and bob his head in time to the rhythm. I’m sure the neighbours think he will need to be moved to a Home in the foreseeable future; in fact, Brien is just easily amused. And harmless. But I could see a worried face inspecting me through an upstairs window in the house next door. I decided to leave the clipboard in my backpack.

He looked up as I approached and his eyes twinkled before his face spoke. “Why are you wearing the knapsack? Not trying to get me to go for a walk again are you?” But I barely heard the words –I was trying to decide whether the twinkle could be counted as a subspecies of laugh. It occurred in a jesting situation… Well, for Brien anyway. And he had kind of snortled when he said it.

I laughed in response. “No,” I said, a little too defensively, when I recognized my own laugh and glanced at my watch.

“You don’t usually wear one of those,” he said, this time shaking his head as if he knew something was afoot. “And there isn’t usually a clipboard sticking out of it when you do…” His face crinkled merrily and he would have reached for my pack if I hadn’t quickly moved it out of his reach with a short giggle. That unleashed a short “Ha!” on his part that caught me unprepared for his second and successful lunge for the offending board.

“Want to mark that one down, Brien?” I said as he examined the columns I had drawn and labelled. “I figure the ‘Ha’ probably counts…”

He chuckled. “What time do I put?” He wasn’t wearing a watch.

“And there’s another one, while you’re at it…”

He smiled and chortled softly to himself as he extracted the pen from under the clip. “This is almost as much fun as the tree.” He glanced at me. “Whoops, there goes another one.”

I had to join the giggle when our eyes met.

He handed the clipboard back to me with a little flourish, his eyes, positively dancing with delight. “Here, it’s your study,” he said. “Laughter Frequency Study?” He rolled his eyes and then shrugged. “Couldn’t you have come up with a more… clever title…?” He stared at his tree to see if maybe it could help.

I sighed stertorously, but with a smile on my face –a laugh…? “Like?”

Another shrug and an impish, mobile movement of his chest.

This was getting too complicated; there weren’t enough columns, I realized. Not enough criteria…

“Oh, I don’t know… How about…uhmm, ‘Titter-Totter’? Or…” But I could tell from his expression that he was more curious about why than what. He stared at me for a moment or two –examined me, really. “Why did you want to count laughs?” he finally asked, after an involuntary snuffle through his nose that was instantly defused with a toothy smile and a friendly shake of his head. “Thinking of doing Retirement standup comedy?” he said, looking at me suspiciously out of the corner of his eye.

I shook my head, embarrassed.

“Good,” he continued. “Never work, you know.”

“Why?” I said, suddenly defensive, as if he was trying to deny my sense of humour.

He shrugged again, but this time shaking his head and pointing at the clipboard as if he were confused. “You’ll never know if they’re laughing…” And then he actually laughed, and his whole body shook.

Sometimes, I think you can tell…







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