Reflections about Books and Laughter

In these days of banning books, I have been contemplating how to deal with out-of-date textbooks that nobody wants. Not because they’re risqué, they’re just out-of-date. It makes me wonder what to do with the manuscript I began writing in 2015. The first draft is still waiting to be edited when I can find time. In the meantime, I often wonder whether the book would be of any use to others in the times ahead because it may be too academic. And if it does have potential to be useful, it’s doubtful to survive censorship because it’s as historically accurate as I can make it and critical of colonial domination.

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But there is still the question of those textbooks that have grown obsolete. In a continuing process of decluttering, textbooks are next on my list. It seems that only the pages can be recycled, but the covers and bindings must go. So, the process of unbinding has begun. It’s not as easy as one would think. Here’s a photo of my first attempt.

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It’s the fourth edition of Social forces and aging by Robert C. Atchley (1985). (In case anyone is eager to read it, it was published by Wadsworth, Inc.). I also have the fifth edition of this text in the pile of castaways, but I kept the eighth edition in the bookcase for now, perhaps out of sentimentality (or senility?). I suspect I used it when I taught a course on aging and mental health at my alma mater after graduating with a master’s degree. That’s when I discovered I love working with students of all ages.

I couldn’t resist a final peek at the content of the book in the tedious deconstruction process. I happened to notice the following at the beginning of Chapter 15: Deviance and Social Control…

All societies use general standards to judge the appropriateness of a given behavior, human condition, or situation. If a departure from conventional customs or practice is seen as merely unusual, we call it “eccentricity.” But if the departure is so great that the behavior or condition would be condemned, then we call it deviance. Deviance is always defined from the point of view of a particular normative structure. In large societies such as ours there are many subgroups and conflicting standards of behavior. The same act can be defined as deviant by one group, as eccentric by another, and as “normal” by yet another. For example, what is seen as deviant in a suburban neighborhood is quite different from what is seen as deviant on skid row.

Norms are by definition ideas about how human behavior ought to be, and it is no surprise that societies set up mechanisms to prevent and control both the incidence and degree of deviance. Social roles, socialization, and the internalization of norms are all important processes in the prevention of deviance. Formal social controls that seek to limit and discourage deviance include laws, rules, regulations, and authority systems. Informal social controls include customs such as ridicule, disapproval, and ostracism. (Atchley, 1985, p. 286)

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While I believe it’s important to know how people viewed things in the past, and what they were programmed to believe, this book has served its purpose and deserves to be repurposed. There is a pile of other texts waiting for their turn. But the topic of this quote stayed with me. I’m currently reading something that speaks to the profundity of cultural differences – I miss the rain in Africa: Peace Corps as a third act: A tale of transformation, by Nancy Daniel Wesson (2021), Modern History Press. I came across a passage about the challenges of communicating across cultures, even between people who believe they speak the same English language. I can’t quote the passage here because it would be out of context, but it brought to mind a passage in a different book that shares “an anecdote from World War II” (Estés, 1992, p. 343).

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Clarissa Pinkola Estés recounts an experience she had when she was twelve, spending a day with extended family. She heard her mother and aunts shrieking with laughter as they sat “sunning themselves” and was curious to know what was so funny. While her mother and aunts later dozed in the sun, Estés picked up the magazine one of her aunts had been reading out loud and discovered the passage quoted below.

General Eisenhower was going to visit his troops in Rwanda. [It might have been Borneo. It might have been General MacArthur. The names meant little to me then.] The governor wanted all native women to stand by the side of the dirt road and cheer and wave to welcome Eisenhower as he drove by in his jeep. The only problem was that the native women never wore any clothes other than a necklace of beads and sometimes a little thong belt.

No, no, that would never do. So the governor called the headman of the tribe and told him the predicament. “No worry,” said the headman. If the governor could provide several dozen skirts and blouses, he would see to it that the women dressed in them for this one-time special event. And these the governor and local missionaries managed to provide.

However, on the day of the great parade, and just minutes before Eisenhower was to drive down the long road in his jeep, it was discovered that while all of the native women dutifully wore the skirts, they did not like the blouses, and had left them at home. So now all the women were lined up and down both sides of the road, skirted but bare-breasted, and with not another stitch on and no underwear at all.

Well the governor had apoplexy when he heard and he angrily summoned the headman, who assured his that the headwoman had conferred with him, and assured him that the women had agreed on a plan to cover their breasts when the general drove by. “Are you sure?” yelled the governor.

“I am very, very sure,” said the headman.

Well, there was no time left to argue and we can only guess at General Eisenhower’s reaction as his jeep came chugging by and woman after bare-breasted woman gracefully lifted up the front of her full skirt and covered her face with it. (Estés, 1992, pp. 343-344)

I have to admit this made me laugh as well. It still does. These days I think we all need more opportunities to laugh. Yet, I know it’s easier to laugh at other’s expense, and harder to look at the humorous side of things we’ve been socialized to accept as “normal.”

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Initially, I give people the benefit of the doubt and trust what they tell me or write is true from their perspective. I’ve learned, though, that’s not always the case. Over time, I’ve become a lot more skeptical, but I wasn’t as an undergraduate student when I first read about a strange tribe in my anthropology class, the Nacirema.

Horace Miner’s (1956) article, “Body Ritual among the Nacirema” helped teach me that lesson and others.

Nacirema culture is characterized by a highly developed market economy which has evolved in a rich natural habitat. While much of people’s time is devoted to economic pursuits, a large part of the fruits of these labors and a considerable portion of the day are spent in ritual activity. The focus of this activity is the human body, the appearance and health of which loom as a dominant concern in the ethos of the people. While such a concern is certainly not unusual, its ceremonial aspects and associated philosophy are unique.

The fundamental belief underlying the whole system appears to be that the human body is ugly and that its natural tendency is to debility and disease. Incarcerated in such a body, man’s only hope is to avert these characteristics through the use of the powerful influences of ritual and ceremony. Every household has one or more shrines devoted to this purpose… While each family has at least one such shrine, the rituals associated with it are not family ceremonies but are private and secret. The rites are normally only discussed with children, and then only during the period when they are being initiated into these mysteries… (Miner, 1956, p. 503)

In conclusion, mention must be made of certain practices which have their base in native esthetics but which depend on the pervasive aversion to the natural body and its functions. There are ritual fasts to make fat people thin and ceremonial feasts to make thin people fat. Still other rites are used to make women’s breasts larger if they are small, and smaller if they are large. General dissatisfaction with breast shape is symbolized in the fact that the ideal form is virtually outside the range of human variation… (Miner, 1956, p. 506)

Wikipedia says the following about Miner’s work.

“In the paper, Miner describes the Nacirema, a little-known tribe living in North America. The way in which he writes about the curious practices that this group performs distances readers from the fact that the North American group described actually corresponds to modern-day Americans of the mid-1950s.”

(For those who don’t already know this, “Nacirema” is “American” spelled backwards.)

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These two authors, Miner and Estés, have something in common. They deal with topics that are rarely discussed in polite “normative” conversations. (I think Atchley of old might agree with that assessment, although Miner’s article had been published long before Atchley’s text.) Their published works will probably be censored in the coming years because they present views that could easily be classified as deviant by those leading the pack to enforce their seemingly joyless point-of-view. After all, hearty laughter and joy signify freedom from control – and they serve a valuable role as a “medicine for tough times” (Estés, 2992, p. 344).

Estés makes this point quite clearly when she describes the aftereffects of reading about Eisenhower’s welcome.

I lay under the chaise [lounge] stifling my laughter. It was the silliest story I had ever heard. It was a wonderful story, a thrilling story. But intuitively, I also knew it was contraband, so I kept it to myself for years and years. And sometimes in the midst of hard times, during tense times, even before taking tests in college, I would think of the women from Rwanda covering their faces with their skirts, and no doubt laughing into them. And I would laugh and feel centered, strong, and down-to-earth…

When the laughter helps without doing harm, when the laughter lightens, realigns, reorders, reasserts power and strength, this is the laughter that causes health. When the laughter makes people glad they are alive, happy to be here, more conscious of love, heightened with eros, when it lifts sadness and severs them from anger, that is sacred… (pp. 344-345, emphasis mine).

I hope these stories helped lighten the heaviness of these times, at least for a moment…

Here’s a video that may help inspire laughter as well – Loretta LaRoche, “The Joy of Stress”

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Wishing you all much joy and laughter to light the darkness in the days ahead.

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Works cited:

Atchley, R. C. (1985). Social forces and aging (4th ed.). Wadsworth, Inc.

Estés. P. C. (1992). Women who run with the wolves: Myths and stories of the wild woman archetype. Ballantine Books.

Miner, H. (1956). Body ritual among the Nacirema. American Anthropologist, 58(3), 503-507. (Link to copyright-free download here.)

Wesson, N. D. (2021). I miss the rain in Africa: Peace Corps as a third act: A tale of transformation. Modern History Press.

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20 thoughts on “Reflections about Books and Laughter

  1. What an excellent read Mon ami … truly lifted my spirits. I loved it. The ‘Joy of Stress’ video had me in stitches. That piece of writing is why I follow all that you write … you are a Wonder Woman of the writen word. Thank you. … lots of love from over the pond. xxx

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    1. Ah, dear Pat, it’s so delightful to hear from you. Thank you so much for your always kind words, dear, dear friend across the pond. Sending much love to you. 💜

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  2. Carol, a most enjoyable read this morning. I laughed out loud, too! I love to think that women get the last laugh…anytime. And I could go on about that! I also appreciated the photos of your shelves of books. Looks like heaven to me. A wonderful post, dear friend. 💜

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Dear Carrie, I am so grateful to hear that this made you laugh. That’s not an easy thing to do these days. And the thought that women were able to “get. the last laugh” despite so many oppressive forces gives me hope. Sending gratitude and love. 💜

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  3. I had to laugh with recognition – all those out-of-date materials that I’m sometimes tempted to hold onto forever for their historical significance. But it would be an honor (and a marketing boost) to get your work banned! Books and articles that support decolonizing various fields are important and of a lot of interest now, though in fairness, should always have been timely.

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    1. Yes, it would be an honor, Diane. It’s one I’m sure you are likely to experience if you haven’t already. But I also suspect that banning books will make more people eager to read them if the media keeps highlighting the taboo topics. I understand book banning has had that effect for my nephew. 🙂

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  4. A fun and informative post, Carol. It seems that as censorship (and prudery) increase, those leading the charge lose their sense of humor. When a culture, or people, can no longer laugh, decline is not far behind.

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    1. Thank you for your thoughtful comments about the importance of joyful laughter, Donna, and for your kind words. Sending my gratitude and best wishes. 💜

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    1. It’s a gift to hear from you, Marie. Thank you for your kind words and thoughtful comments. Culling books has been a lifelong process. It’s never easy to part with old friends, though, even when I had to haul them over mountain passes in a tiny Tercel, barely making it over the peaks with the gas petal floored. Sending my best wishes to you along with congratulations on your new book! 💜

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  5. I have stacks of old textbooks that I’ve tried to give away or recycle on more than one occasion. I haven’t opened them in years yet I find it difficult to part with them. The story of Nacirema made me smile. Yes we have some strange rituals. With regards to your book. What you have to say needs to be heard. This is a history that has been whitewashed and for many is unknown. I for one think it’s worth doing.

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    1. Dear Kathy, it’s a gift to hear from you. Thank you so much for your kind words and thoughtful comments. I hope all is going well and look forward to hearing about your gardens and puppies. Sending hugs and best wishes. 💜

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