Tragedy, and humor, brings us together

I don’t watch basketball and had no idea who Kobe Bryant was, but when his name popped up on a Ugandan newspaper that I read online, I knew this was a person of some prominence. I do know other people that might not be renowned slam-dunkers, people like Paul Tillich or Pablo Casals, but we all inhabit the worlds we carve out for ourselves. Yet tragedy, as Shakespeare knew, has the ability to bring us together, to unite humanity, as do stories and jokes. A well-tuned witticism is like a glass of cool, clear water, unless you are in the desert in which case water is better, and misplaced witticisms might upset fellow fatamorganists.

I was a middle child and, as any middle child will tell you, it’s a role suited only for individuals of utmost intelligence, grace, and modesty. The first child is arrogant, the last child is spoiled, we all know that, whereas the middle child is the glue that keeps the family, indeed society, together, even when faced with trial & tribulation (who, like Simon & Garfunkel, work best together). I told jokes in class when I was eight or ten, I continued in the Royal Life Guards, at the factory where I worked after school, welding plastic, breathing styrene and benzene vapors, like all healthy boys did, and the jokes continued at the university – Genghis Khan, but Immanuel Kant – and I never knew why or gave it much thought. It was just something that happened, like breathing, like jumping into a British racing green Triumph TR6 that someone had left idling at a gas station by a sign that said, “NO IDLING”. Someone had to do it, right?

The quipster is like a sheep-herding dog, keeping the flock together in times of peril and poor visibility, and when shepherds are mentioned more than 500 times in Scripture, it’s not because we should all invest in the Sheep Index and don sandals, but because they keep the flock together despite being exposed to the extremes of cold and heat, despite attacks of wild beasts, the equivalent of modern-day cable tv.

Tragedy is something we share, and any thirteen-year-old girl perishing is heartbreaking. The loss of a young life is a collective loss, as children are part of the global herd, even if you’ve never met them. One could argue, of course, that aging is a curse, too – unless you don’t experience it, then it’s a blessing. I state this to sum up a minuscule fragment of the complexities of life, and you’re welcome, don’t mention it. Aging happens incrementally, like air seeping out of a tire, like a crack in the windshield of existence that gains one sixteenth of an inch each time you slam the door. If aging happened instantly, it would be called an accident.

I flew from San Francisco to JFK on the morning of the helicopter crash in LA, and the only remotely eventful thing that happened was that I got up twice and each time I came back, someone had put my aisle seat in the upright position. A real whodunnit, the Airbus A321 equivalent of Murder on the Orient Express at 30.000 feet. Well, the guy next to me was sleeping. The person in front of me? Why on earth (so to speak) would he do that? Neither could it be the person on the other side as no one reaches across the aisle anymore. So it had to be the young lady behind me who, for the duration of the flight, did not look up from her smartphone.

As we waited on the tarmac, all 200 of us standing with our necks bent at an angle of approximately 35 degrees, the only non-fracture position worse than staying in the seat, I could have said something – “I know what you did over Utah and Nebraska, young lady,” – but I didn’t. I strive to be graceful and was worried she might say, “Get a life!” with that millennial tone of voice that implies, “As you lay dying, I’ll be ordering oysters and dance all night.” Besides, vengeance belongs to the Lord, though I doubt He preordained that I ended up walking behind her to Baggage Claim, but as she turned and saw me fifteen feet away, the look on her face indicated that her seat-back-adjusting days over fly-over-country are a thing of the past.

As we all too soon will be. For now, I’m back in New York, writing over coffee in the old kitchen, with the lines of an old Leonard Cohen tune humming in my head:

It’s four in the morning, the end of December
I’m writing you now just to see if you’re better
New York is cold, but I like where I’m living
There’s music on Clinton Street all through the evening

Well, by now it’s six in the morning, the end of January, Cohen has left the building, and the music on Clinton Street stopped years ago, as the Lower East Side was hijacked by independently wealthy kids in shoes that cost more than my car. But New York is still cold and I am indeed writing you now just to see if you’re better. Aging and accidents teach us to cherish each other more profoundly. And she can have her oysters. I already had mine, and they were delicious.

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