Despairing for Joy

Today I saw a woman standing at a bus stop.  She held up a blown out umbrella in a vain attempt to take shelter from the rain.  A sudden squall lashed at her, but twenty yards down the road the pavement remained absolutely dry.

So life sucks.   We can agree on that, can’t we?  There’s no need to defend this proposition.  But if some of you suspect that I’m being overly negative, just think back to a few moments from childhood that came as rude shock.  Extrapolate from there (review similar episodes from various stages in your life) and come to the aforementioned, obvious conclusion.  Don’t listen to Pollyannas who try to obscure the clarity of your dark vision when they babble on about newborn babies, flowers and sunshine.  The positive-thinking upbeats are just part of the evil.  Their one cruel purpose in life is to make you feel bad about your negativity.

As you sink deeper into depression reflect on the Buddhist teaching that all life is suffering.  Think, “Thanks a lot, Buddha.  That sure helps,” and feel even more justified in holding onto your black funk.

When you hit rock bottom find some satisfaction that you can’t sink any further, and then consider the additional afflictions that could arrive at any moment.  Marvel that the possibilities for personal misery are nearly infinite, and smile when you realize that God is magnificent in His Elaborate Creativity.

Find satisfaction in the fact that by wallowing in despair you are actually coming closer to the hidden foundations of All That Is.  A star doesn’t want to explode in a super nova, and galaxies fear the black holes swallowing them.   The seas shudder as they crash against the unyielding shore, and mountains despise the storms that gnaw at the magnificence of their height.  A microbe dreads the touch of an ameba as much as an antelope abhors the rake of a lion’s claws.

By embracing the pervasive Cosmic Despair you enter into the Great Ennui and become one with the true nature All That Is.  Unimaginable relief floods your soul as you realize that your futile struggle for happiness has finally ended.

“Thank God that’s over,” you’ll pray as your heart fills with sweet resignation, which is, after all, the purest form of joy.

Pitching Out Sales Pitches

Yesterday two men knocked at our door.  They represented an auto glass replacement company.  I pointed to the car in our driveway and said, “See the windshield.  There’s nothing wrong with it.”  One of the salesmen opened a binder and showed me pictures of chipped car windows.  He explained that my car might have micro fractures and chips that would gradually expand until the windshield collapsed.  I found the magic words to make him leave.  I said, “I just bought that car in November.  It’s new.”  My wife Judy asked me what I was doing as I stood by the door and watched the men cross our lawn and head down the street.  I turned away after they walked out of sight and told her, “They want to sell me a new windshield.  I watched them leave to make sure we won’t need one.”

Years ago a man surprised me as I swept leaves off the driveway.  He told me that he represented a pest control company and asked me if I had any problems.  I told him that carpenter ants invaded from time to time.  They congregated on the kitchen ceiling.  He offered to treat my house, but I told him that my wife didn’t want poisons sprayed inside.  We had small children.  The man paused for a moment to size me up, and then faked hysteria.  He cried, “But what are you going to do if you find ants in your house??!!”   “Squish ’em,”  I deadpanned.  He laughed, gave me his card and walked away.

Another man strode up to my porch–big gait, expansive gestures, everyone’s buddy.  I saw a pick up idling at the curb behind him.  A large cooler rested on the truck bed.  I knew this bit:  guys drove around town with steaks, lobsters, and shrimp on ice and sold them cheap door to door.  I never bought anything off a truck, so I tried to cut to the chase.  I met him before he could pound on my door and said, “We don’t want any.”  “But sir!” he cried.   “You don’t even know what I’m selling.  I’ve got the finest steaks, filet mignon and–”  “I don’t care what you’re selling.  I’m not buying.”  I  said.  “Hey, buddy.  That’s just rude,” he sputtered.  I could see him building up self-righteous rage–it was bad form to not let him deliver his spiel.  “Okay, I’m rude,” I conceded.  “But I’m not buying anything and it’s time for you to get off my property.”  “Mister, that’s just–that’s just—” he stammered.  “Go,” I said.  He balled up his fists and took a step toward me.  Then he thought better of it and stalked off across the yard.  He yelled to his friend in the truck, “Go to the next one.  This jerk ran me off!”

A teenage girl rang our doorbell one night right after we cleared the dinner table.  She belonged to an organization that helped disadvantaged youths better themselves.  She tried to sell us magazines and told us that the kid with the best sales record won a prize (cash, a scholarship?). When she saw that we had lost interest and sympathy she threw back her shoulders and declared, “Someday I’m going to be somebody.  I’m going to succeed!”  She studied us as she waited for a reaction.  She hoped, apparently, that we would feel pressured into helping her achieve her ambitions.  We didn’t.  I walked outside a few minutes after she left and saw teenage boys and girls canvassing homes along the street.  A school bus parked down the road had a sign on it that read, “American Dreamers”.  A man with a money bag and clip board stood by the front bumper.  He collected checks and cash from his crew, clipped order forms to the board, and directed out going kids to new targets.

I got a call several months after we moved into our home from a woman offering a free water quality test.  A middle aged salesman with a frizzy brown mustache came the next evening.  He set up a display case of powdered chemicals, beakers and test tubes in our living room.  He poured tap water and orange crystals into a test tube, and the mixture turned yellow.  A white precipitate fell to the bottom.  He held up the “test results” and said, “See?”  We didn’t.  My wife Judy and I had taken chemistry in college and could recognize a Mr. Wizard flim-flam routine.  The salesman saw that he hadn’t impressed us and said, “You know that there’s an EPA Superfund site just up the road on Forsyth.”  I knew that our water company pumped out of the Florida Aquifer, not out of a shallow well nearby.  The salesman shifted gears and told us that the expensive water filtration system his company sold would save us money because…BECAUSE his company threw in jugs of super efficient laundry detergent as a bonus.  We didn’t bite.  Then he held up the test tube with the white precipitate again and glared at my wife as she held our son in her lap.  “What about the kids?” he seethed.  “Don’t you care about your kids?”  Judy started to cry.  I squared up to him and told him to leave.  He packed his case in a hurry.  But before he left he said, “You’ve got a gift coming for letting me test your water.”  I said, “We don’t want anything from you, ” and shut the door behind him.  The next day we got a call from his company.  A manager asked, “Why didn’t you accept your gift?  Was there a problem with the salesman?”

Mormons, Jehovah’s Witnesses, and assorted evangelicals frequently make the rounds in our neighborhood.  They want to know if I am saved, believe in the Bible, know what will happen to me after I die, and whether I’d like to join their happy fellowship.  The brightly colored illustrations in their pamphlets show Jesus curing the sick, happy clusters of believers breaking into song, and throngs of ecstatic souls gathered on flowered meadows in heaven.  I sometimes tell missionaries that I have a faith of my own and am satisfied with it.  If they follow up and ask, “What faith is that?” I say, “Religion is a private matter.”

But sometimes I don’t answer the door and let them mill around on my front porch.  They peer into my picture window and spot me going about my business.  They knock again determined to save me regardless of my indifference.  (How far would they go if I did open the door?)  They eventually leave with defeated looks on their faces, but their visit has not been fruitless.  They’ve inspired me to reach out and communicate with the Beyond:  as I watch them retreat I offer a prayer of thanksgiving.  I pray, “Thank you Jesus for the steel bars on my front door.”

French Class: The Perils of Pierre

I transferred to Wright State University in the winter of 1982 to get a bachelor of arts degree.  My academic advisor told me that I needed a foreign language, and I signed up for French 101 that summer.  The class time was 8 a.m..  I worked third shift on weekends, and transferred to a normal sleep schedule each Monday so that I could stay awake for day classes.  8 in the morning presented a challenge early in the week, but I adjusted by Wednesday.  But if I arrived groggy and slow witted, my professor, Pierre Horne, had a manner of teaching that woke me up immediately.  He often placed his pointer finger on the side of one nostril and intoned the French word “un”.  The  nasal sound of the extended vowel, which reminded me of a garbage disposal whining after it had ground up its last bit of refuse, made the underside of my brain itch with irritation.  I  also stirred to a functional level of alertness when the professor spouted a steady stream of mushy vowels and consonants while pointing to objects in the room.  He paused to ask students questions about what he had just spoken, and chose his victims randomly.  When he called on me he stared with an expectant look that said, “Only a complete moron would fail to understand the beauty and majesty of the French language.”  After my inevitable moment of humiliation, of sputtering the few words I recalled that may or may not have been apropos, he always called on a willowy blonde two seats up the row.  She would answer at length in perfect French, and he would compliment her on her impeccable Parisian accent.  I hated that girl.

Eventually I picked up a understanding of French grammar as the professor began to relent and explain the basics in English.  I passed the first test but was stumped by one question.  Professor Horne spoke a phrase in French, and we were supposed to translate it into English.  He said, “Les voix des anges.”  That sounded like “Lay vwah dez on jzuh.”  I asked him to repeat it, and he obliged with a superior smile.  I understood that “les” was “the”, and “des” was “of the” but had no idea what “voix” and “anges” meant.  We hadn’t used those words in class when we discussed going to the library, our dietary preferences, the names of pieces of furniture, and the color of Gabrielle‘s hair, blouse and skirt.  I asked the professor after the test for the correct translation of the phrase, and he told me it meant “the voices of angels”.  I later paged through the text book several times and finally found “les voix des anges” in a caption beneath a photograph of Notre Dame in Paris.  The choir, apparently, sounded like the voices of angels when they sang in the cathedral’s choir loft.  Why hadn’t Gabrielle, my fictitious amie, stressed the importance of that nugget of information before the test?

One unfortunate lad joined the class late.  He had been in Israel studying Hebrew and found the transition into French difficult.  He annoyed Professor Horne especially when he pronounced “je”, the French word for “I” as “juh” instead of “jzzzuh”.  Pierre got incensed every time the kid butchered the French language and would cry out, “What is this juh-juh?  There is no such thing as juh!”

When the professor was in a happier mood he would muse about the oddities of American culture and the backward nature of life in Ohio.  He related anecdotes about a disastrous wine tasting at a local winery, the foulness of peanut butter,  and the rudeness of a bank clerk who said, “Hello, Pierre,” after she read his name on a form.  He expected her to address him formally as Mr. Horne as she and he were perfect strangers.  In France no one would dare to assume such intimacy (using someone’s first name) until a relationship had evolved much further.  (Perhaps his father had addressed his mother as Madame Horne until after the birth of their third child.)

I had to take two more semesters of French and chose another professor.  This man, whose name escapes me, spoke English with a French accent spiked with New York gutturals.  He had been born in Russia, escaped with his parents to Paris, and eventually settled in Brooklyn.  Having learned to speak three languages by the time he was a teenager he held the French language in lower esteem.  It was one of many.  He was much kinder and patient with us, and made no disparaging remarks about Ohio and the United States.  He did show us the 1950s film noir, “Hiroshima Mon Amour”, in which a French woman tells her Japanese lover that she was horrified when she and her friends listened to a news report about the Hiroshima nuclear bombing.  Her eyes filled with tears as she whispered to her Amour Japonais, “When we spoke of Hiroshima we said, ‘Those American bastards!'”  Two questions occurred to me after I read that subtitle:  Why would a French woman, a survivor of the Nazi Occupation, sympathize with an WWII ally of Germany? And why did the French flaunt a bias against Americans as if they were making a principled stand?

My new professor was a friend of Professor Horne and knew that many of us had taken his colleague for the introductory course.  He told us that Horne was on sabbatical in Paris where he intended to absorb as much of the latest French slang as possible.  I expected that our snobbish professor would be glorying in a return to the land of his birth where the cuisine enchanted the palate and bank tellers greeted customers with frosty aloofness.  We heard the opposite, however.  Apparently Professor Horne was homesick.  He found the French hostile and rude and missed the open friendliness of folks in the Midwest.  Pierre longed to return to Ohio, Wright State, and his sleepy, dull-witted students who insisted on butchering the most beautiful language ever spoken.

I took perverse pride in the fact that we had somehow managed to pull him down to our level.  Perhaps on his return he would dash out to the local supermarket and buy a loaf of spongy white American bread, a giant tub of sticky peanut butter, and a jug of Ohio wine that “tasted like turpentine”.   He might even beam with pleasure when the cashier called him “hon” and asked him about his weird accent (“Are you from Canada, Pee-air?”).

 

Teachers’ Disease: The Scourge Refusing to Remain Silent

 

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No one warned us about this malady when we were children, but we were exposed to it every day.  I remained largely blind to its insidious effects even when I was an undergrad in college.  I should have realized that an American Art History professor was a sufferer of Teacher’s Blathering Disease (TBD).   She droned on after one of her students fainted in front of her and never bothered to help while another student caught the stricken man and propped him up in his seat.  The professor simply couldn’t stop herself from making one more point, one more appeasement to her anxiety to be heard and understood.  Or perhaps the sound of her voice had become so sweetly intoxicating that she simply could not cut off the flow.

Years later when my children started to attend grade school I noticed another symptom of TBD:  a kindergarten teacher at a school gathering could not distinguish between students and parents.  Her daily communication with five year olds had created habituated neural pathways that rendered her incapable of complex speech.   She talked to us adults slowly…with…simple…words…that she carefully spaced so that we had time to comprehend their meaning.  She used big, enthusiastic gestures and facial expressions even when talking about mundane topics (REMEMBER to bring in BOXES of TISSUES and extra PENCILS!!!).  She repeated herself several times as if concerned that her audience couldn’t remember and follow simple instructions:  “The Thanksgiving Holiday starts on Wednesday, not Thursday, next week.  So don’t bring your kids to school on Wednesday…or Thursday or Friday.  No one will be here on any of those days, you know, Wednesday, Thursday and Friday.  Have a happy holiday next week on Wednesday, Thurs–”  (The principal led the poor woman away at that point.  The kiddie chorus jumped in and sang about a Thanksgiving turkey who wanted to live so that he could achieve his dream of learning how to fly.)

And I encountered a variant of TBD mostly found in the retired professor host population:  the need to be the most knowledgeable person in the room.  I attended a church in a university town that was lousy with white bearded coots who suffered from an insatiable desire to impress any victim who came within earshot.  And they didn’t rant just about subjects in which they had been trained.  They could bloviate about sundry topics while basing their arguments on hearsay they had just read in the local paper.  A few catch phrases and some unfiltered facts were all they needed to construct a tower of biased opinions held upright by the will to assert their intellectual dominance.  A correction by an actual expert in the field being discussed did not humble the blowhards into silence.  They would simply bend the discussion away from the damaging point or question the breadth and authenticity of the expert’s knowledge.

The sad thing is that TBD sufferers rarely know that they have a disease.  They remain blissfully  unaware that they have cleared out a room or drained all the joyful energy from a gathering.  They even follow after their victims as they flee out the door.  They want to give the desperate escapees a few thoughts to take with them.

I too suffer from this disease, but have become aware of my condition.  I use simple words, repeat myself, and suck the air out of a room when my need to dominate a social gathering takes over.  I can hear myself rattling on, interrupting others, saying the same damn thing over and over with slight variations in the hope that the latest iteration will capture the fine distinction in meaning that hovers in my mind.  I suffer from the delusion that its elusive elegance must be communicated at all costs.

But I am in recovery.  I will never truly kick my teachers’ disease habit, but hope to learn how to live a productive life that will do less harm to myself and others.  Teacher’s Blathering Anonymous tells us that we are powerless over our addiction and must surrender our thoughts and speech to a higher power.  Now, with God’s help, I am able to fight the urge to babble and can wait patiently while someone else speaks.  Now I can use three syllable words and give my audience time to figure out their significance for themselves.  Now I can go days at a time without hunting down victims and forcing them to listen to me rave on about how I would solve the crisis in Syria or broaden the economic base of Central Florida.  And I can spend time alone and simply keep my mouth shut.

The temptations are still there, of course, and I still suffer occasional relapses.  But the improvement has been real and the rewards great.  My children visit me again.  My wife no longer talks about taking separate vacations.  The neighbors no longer cringe and flee when I happen to meet them at the mailbox.

And I am able to finish an essay without summing up and restating points I have already adequately explained.

You’re welcome.

The Tell-Tale Patch

Have you noticed that men and women in long term relationships begin to lose their separate identities?  They transform into tandem units.  Below is a personal account of one such melding.

Over the Thanksgiving break I watched very little football, ate no red meat, and drank only a few beers…no whiskey…And I smoked no cigars.  When I cooked for myself I leaned toward vegetarian dishes, and I took time to meditate and do yoga.  I spent many contented hours sitting in a chair in my living room talking to my wife, Judy, and watching Downton Abbey reruns and a Netflix revival of Gilmore Girls.  At night before we went to bed we cuddled on the sofa and talked about how we first met, how sweet our children were when they were toddlers.  And I thoroughly enjoyed myself.

But I had a nagging feeling that something was wrong.

Two nights ago I fell asleep around midnight.  I woke when my bedroom door creaked open but didn’t jump up and confront the intruder.  I could see my wife in the dim light.  She carried a flash light pointed toward the floor with a hand cupped over the lit end.  I had no idea what she was up to, but decided to let her carry out whatever mission she had in mind.  She slowly approached and pulled back my sheet when she stood beside me.  I wasn’t wearing a pajama top, so the cool night air made me shiver.  She must have seen movement: she froze in place for a long spell and then carefully spread her fingers to shine a narrow ray of light on my face.  I closed my eyes just in time before she discovered that I was awake.  The light eventually snapped off.

I felt her fingers on my back.  They were cold.  They pressed something sticky between my shoulder blades.  Judy had studied medicinal botany, and I wondered if she was applying a poultice to ease a cough that had lingered for weeks.

She dropped the sheet and turned away.  I watched her shadowy figure retreat to the door and heard her slippered feet shuffle down the hallway.  I fell into a deep sleep and dreamt of rose gardens, newborn babies and a springtime trip to Paris.

Yesterday I woke up feeling refreshed.  I picked some flowers from the garden and made us chocolate chip scones and herbal tea for breakfast.  I lit a scented candle mid morning and chanted a mantra, and then Judy and I recited Elizabeth Barrett Browning poems to one another.  Everything was lovely, truly lovely, and I regretted that I had to go out to a nasty hardware store to buy an extension cord.

I decided to shower before I went.  I usually don’t bother but have recently found that when I give my appearance more attention I feel better about myself.  My eyebrows were a mess and needed a good plucking, and I just had to pull some white hairs that sprung up on my temples over night.  It was one o’clock before I stepped into the shower.  In a hurry I didn’t bother to investigate when I felt something hit the back of my left calf.  After I stepped out and dried myself off with a plush towel I had just bought at B, B and B (love that store!)  I took a few minutes to pick out my ensemble.  I didn’t go back in the bathroom to wipe down the shower.  I decided instead to give it a thorough scrubbing after I came home and rearranged the china in the kitchen cupboards.

I got distracted by a Julia Roberts movie marathon that afternoon, and it wasn’t until 8 o’clock yesterday evening that I ventured back into the bathroom to clean the shower.  When I did I saw a little patch lying on a nest of hair over the drain.  I picked it up and inspected it carefully.  It wasn’t one of Judy’s home made poultices.  The print was small and difficult to read, but I understood from the logo (ESTROGENIE) that it was an estrogen replacement patch.  Had Judy stuck this on my back the night before?

She was out in the living room watching a ballet.  I recognized the overture to Swan Lake and felt a strong urge to join her.  But I sneaked into her bedroom and searched her bureau.  I found a box of patches in an upper drawer.  It held a count of 50, and about a quarter of them were gone.

Judy has never taken hormone replacement therapy.  One of her menopausal girlfriends must have passed them along.

When I came out into the living room I didn’t confront Judy.  I didn’t know for sure whether or not she had been dosing me with estrogen, and I wasn’t in the mood to start a silly fight.  Instead I asked her if she’d like a blueberry muffin.  I had baked a dozen after supper.  I made us a pot of chamomile tea, and after we snacked we cuddled on the sofa and let Tchaikovsky carry us away on golden clouds of music.  We said goodnight when the last strains faded away and went to our separate bedrooms.  I waited in the dark.

At midnight I heard the door creak.  A shadowy figure crept into my room.  She lifted the sheet and touched my back with cold fingers.  She pressed one then two sticky patches between my shoulder blades and retreated.  I thought about pulling them off but suddenly felt too content and comfortable to bother.  I dreamed of butterflies and puppies and women wearing long, brocaded gowns.  They had decorative combs in their hair, and I admired the intricate weave of their ebony locks.

This morning I planted rose bushes in front of the house, vacuumed and took a shower.  I felt the patches fall off my back, but I managed to dry them off and stick them back on.  After I dressed I got out my watercolors.  I began to design a sweater that I had been thinking about knitting every time I’ve wandered into Jo Ann’s Fabrics the last few days.

The colors should compliment my complexion, but I hope that the pattern won’t be too bold and flashy…I like to make an impression when I walk into a room, but I don’t want anyone to think that I’m trying too hard.

Dysfunction: One Thing Leads to Another

A few months ago I drew a charcoal drawing entitled, “She Spurned His Advances”.  It showed an gawky looking monster hovering near a woman who was not thrilled by his amorous attention.  I used a Surrealist technique to develop the suitor, and based his lady on a 19th century daguerreotype.

She Spurned

After I finished this piece I got the idea to show a couple responding to a man’s unfortunate tendency to spontaneously eject his internal organs at inappropriate moments.  (I know what you’re thinking:  when is there an appropriate moment for involuntary self-evisceration?)  This idea evolved into “Eruptile Dysfunction”, an oil painting of a man responding to his wife’s sexual overtures by suffering a volcanic eruption to explode out of the top of his head.

dsc_0015  Eruptile Dysfunction, Oil on Canvas

I decided to satirize the erectile dysfunction pharmaceutical ad campaign (the commercials annoy me), and I played around with puns.  I first came up with “T-Rextile Dysfunction.”  I envisioned a T-Rex couple in bed having unsatisfactory relations, but this idea seemed too cartoonish.  I found some illustrations of T-Rex running, and one of them showed a dinosaur looking back over one shoulder.  I wondered what could possibly make a giant predator look behind itself with apprehension, and I remembered a documentary about aviation disasters.  Judy and I watched an old report about airliners losing tail sections and wings in mid flight when their metal under structures failed from repeated stress. I got the idea that the T-Rex’s tail, elevated off the ground as the monster ran, might break off.

dsc_0034T-Rextile Dysfunction, Acrylic on Board

I’m brewing up a few ideas for more paintings in this series.  “Electile Dysfunction” could feature a prominent player in our current presidential race.  An angry couple could break up in a vivid way in “Rejectile Dysfunction”.  “Ejectile Dysfunction” could illustrate a faulty ejection seat in a jet fighter.  An architect might stand by the collapsed ruins of an unfinished building in “Erectile Dysfunction”.

I’m not sure if I will actually make these paintings, but it amuses me to think about them.

“Funny” is Cruelty in Disguise

once, just onceOnce, Just Once  (graphite)

Humor is often based on pain and discomfort.  How many good jokes have you ever heard about sunshine, picnics and flowers?  Bad jokes, of course, are based on silly word play, puns, but the ones that really get me laughing hit on a deep level of hurt.

I heard one of my favorite jokes when I was a teenager and was dealing with daddy issues.  It goes something like this:  “My father, he was tough, really tough.  One day he rowed me out to the middle of Lake Erie to teach me how to swim.  He threw me overboard and told me to swim to shore.  But that wasn’t the hard part.  The hard part was getting out of the bag.”

I could relate to that.  My Dad forced me to teach myself how to swim by dunking me every time we went swimming.  It became a ritual of dread until I finally learned to dog paddle in the shallows when I was about ten or eleven.  Then he and my sister threw me into water over my head. They knew that I didn’t know how to tread water and thought that it was funny when they had to grab and shove me toward shore as I flailed around and choked on muddy lake water.

Pops didn’t really have any homicidal intentions, but there were times when I doubted whether he was truly happy to have me around as another burden costing him money to house and feed.  And he was tough, really tough.

The bag joke exaggerated my own situation to the point where it became ridiculous.  It defused an emotional bomb that was ticking in my head and let me know that other people had had similar doubts.  The joke had power in its truthful, if negative, take on the relationship between fathers and sons.

Some comedic writers such as Richard Russo have a keen sense of human folly, and their best work is based on the interaction of their characters as they stumble through the mishaps of their lives.  Anne Tyler’s early work often mixed shrewd observation of human behavior with comic moments that revealed flaws in her characters.  In “Celestial Navigation” she wrote a chapter from the viewpoint of an abrasive, domineering woman.  The words that this harpy uses to criticize her brother and sister end up exposing her harshness, self-righteousness and blindness to the needs of others.  She becomes a comic figure in that she unwittingly indicts herself.  Both writers were merciless and unsparing at moments while still showing some compassion and acceptance.

In his weaker, later novels Russo eases up on his protagonists and allows them to mule around, to wallow in their flaws.  He doesn’t skewer them, doesn’t deliver adequate comeuppances, and the work seems a bit flabby and sentimental.  Tyler’s work shows a similar laxness in her last five or six novels.  It seems that the two writers allowed their critical, sometimes cruel observation of human nature to soften into passive resignation. Their claws have been filed down to the nub, and the humorous elements of their work have been caged and tamed.

South Park and Family Guy will probably never lose their cruel streaks, but are often difficult to watch.  These shows keep trying to find new levels of meanness, new ways to outrage and shock their viewers.  But their humor often lacks realistic observation.  It’s often an abrasive attack on their viewers’ sense of decency, a never ending quest to violate another taboo.  Testicular cancer, grave robbing grandma’s corpse, and a father doing a lap dance for his daughter at her bachelorette party all become subjects of fun.  The two shows are like sharks that can never stop swimming as they search for new victims to tear apart.

But in the end their humor has little power;  it shocks but does little else.  It no longer connects to realistic observation of the human condition.  There are few moments of revelation, and the gratuitous cruelty becomes a pointless, soul deadening experience.