Oct 5th 2008

The best medicine yet – a good laugh

by Michael Johnson

Michael Johnson is a music critic with particular interest in piano. 

Johnson worked as a reporter and editor in New York, Moscow, Paris and London over his journalism career. He covered European technology for Business Week for five years, and served nine years as chief editor of International Management magazine and was chief editor of the French technology weekly 01 Informatique. He also spent four years as Moscow correspondent of The Associated Press. He is the author of five books.

Michael Johnson is based in Bordeaux. Besides English and French he is also fluent in Russian.

You can order Michael Johnson's most recent book, a bilingual book, French and English, with drawings by Johnson:

“Portraitures and caricatures:  Conductors, Pianist, Composers”

 here.

My sister died a year ago after a 13-year bout with various cancers. She had been cut to pieces by surgeons - mastectomy, hysterectomy, the lot -- but somehow she always managed to return to her productive normal role as wife and mother. She would be happy to see that one year after her death, a collection my cartoons, drawn personally for her, has been published. I called it "101 Uses for an Empty Bra".

She loved the irreverent title. Possibly the most light-hearted female I ever knew, her attitude toward most things was, "How can I make this funny?"

But Sara Adair got fed up with cancer scares and finally stopped laughing in August of last year. I like to think she chose her own time. "To hell with this," I can imagine her muttering as she sat alone in her Denver hospital room. "I'm out of here," and she slipped quietly away.

Until she crossed to the other side, she never stopped producing. Her creativity helped keep her going to the end - her "hack flute playing", as she called it, her singing, her poetry, her calligraphy, her inventive mind. She was still trying to learn to play the piano properly when she died.

Somewhere I read that the mere act of smiling compresses certain cheek muscles that release endorphins, one of the happiness hormones. Outright laughter goes further, releasing neuopeptides and enkaphalins to help us cope with life's little surprises. Sara Adair coped beautifully.

I wanted to do what I could from a distance to ease her very real pain, though, so every few days during her chemotherapy I sent her a letter from London, where I was then working, with a few of cartoons. They all involved women's underwear. The mastectomy was a test of just how resilient that cackle of hers could be.

She responded beautifully to my unorthodox treatment. As I realized my drawings were having the intended effect I stepped up the pace. I found myself digging deeper and deeper into the strange world of rounded mammarian shapes. She loved the result and shared the drawings with her cancer support group. Most of her fellow-sufferers responded with big laughs, although a few of them were not ready for this medicine yet.

I don't believe in analyzing humor. Doctor Freud once did that and put the world to sleep. What's funny is whatever makes you laugh, and that is often a personal thing. Trying to learn humor the Freudian way--by matching up expectations vs. reverse punchlines--would drive a comedy writer to distraction. Even bad taste is okay with me so long as it is truly funny.

Happily, Sara's constant life-threatening health problems provided her with good material. Recovering from chemotherapy, she borrowed her husband's white shirt and tie and posed for a photo. Now bald and flat-chested, she looked exactly like her younger brother. She found it hilarious. I still have that picture.

"This surgery solved a problem, she told me. "I was always too big up there anyway."

Funny things came to her naturally. She was voted "Best Voice" in suburban Denver for her telephone work at the Chamber of Commerce. Her sexy vocal delivery had not been ruined by the surgeons. For a newspaper photographer, she put on a black wig and a nice smile. I asked her what kind of reaction she got. She was disappointed. "I got only one phone call," she said. "Some woman wanted the name of my hairdresser." She loved that story.

I lived thousands of miles away from her for most of our adult years. Thanks to e-mail, however, we were in close contact. Her messages usually came attached to some bizarre Photoshop creation or video she had received from one of her like-minded crazies.

I already miss this link and I do not expect to get used to the void. Remembering her wacky, cranky side will help. That part remains indestructible.

From the Editor:

See also video on FACTS & ARTS: Reflections on Psalm 23 for people with cancer.

You might be also intetrested in reading: Vaccine for breast cancer within reach, says expert; by SARAH BOSELEY, The Guardian, October 6, 2008

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