This Isn’t Funny

I love comedians and comedy, the late night talk show hosts. First Carson, then Letterman. I catch occasional snippets of Fallon. I was never a Leno fan; Conan bored me after a few episodes. I don’t stay up late enough for Craig or Kimmel but I’ll watch them in bits and pieces on YouTube.

I think a sense of humor is an essential skill for living, much like reading, writing, knowing basic math, having empathy, and being able to swim. For the last few years I’ve regularly watched Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert. Just recently I’ve gotten hooked on John Oliver’s new show, Last Week Tonight.

But over the course of the past five months or so, I’ve stopped watching The Daily Show and Colbert Nation. Because those talented men cannot make the bleak state of our world into something funny, even while riffing off the buffoons at Fox News. Irony only takes you so far.

Stewart is spitting mad most nights. And his anger feels entirely appropriate. He points out insanity wherever he sees it. But we don’t need to have it pointed it out; it is staring us in the face. Open any newspaper, print or online. There’s nothing but undigestible horror, and it is everywhere. Colbert basks in his faux celebrity, which has, ironically, become real as we anticipate his position as the new Letterman. But the glow wore off in short order. And his satire grows thin as the state of the world grows relentlessly more tragic. There’s no balance anymore. We’ve reached that point: there’s nothing funny or even hopeful to offset the Gaza strip, Ferguson, the Ukraine, ISIS, or Ebola. When ISIS beheads journalists—Foley attended my alma mater and Sotloff was a friend of a friend—as if for the pure murderous sport of it, because surely there’s no logic behind such lunacy, we have moved into a realm well beyond laughter, far beyond lightness. We can only shake our heads at the madness and wonder when we’ll be able to laugh again, and at what.  We certainly won’t be laughing at a nine year old girl with an Uzi.

John Oliver’s show is, of the three, angrier. I respect that. He seems less driven by a desire to find humor, more driven by true and well-researched outrage. Moral outrage. Justifiable moral outrage. There’s courage there. It might be hard to recognize because we see so little of it in the context of American broadcast journalism. But every week he wants to make a point. And his points are diverse and in your face, as well as giving you tips for how to get in the faces of others. Hooray for John.

It occurred to me today that while humor might seem like a survival skill, it is also, perhaps, a luxury. Because it requires some distance. Distance from pain and suffering. We don’t have that right now. Imagine what it’s like to be living in Gaza or Israel or Liberia or Ferguson or Syria or Iraq or any of those places that we read about fearfully, that cause us to lose our collective sense of humor. Imagine being those people and trying to laugh. I suspect it is more than difficult.

People tell me I’m good at humor so I want to find something funny to write about. But apparently I’m not good enough.

In my yard, there are turkey vultures; they’re big and ugly and incredibly uncoordinated. They land on my roof with a thud; they galumph across the grass. I don’t see anything dead and have no idea what they’re doing in my neighborhood. I would like them to go away; they are terrifying. I preferred the hummingbirds and goldfinches from summers past. But I realize that perhaps they are simply a metaphor for something larger, something I prefer not to acknowledge. We are living through dark days. Those of us who live without Ebola, without marauding murderers on our doorstep, who have roofs above our heads, who aren’t worrying about bombs or beheadings have much to be thankful for. There is nothing funny about gratitude. A moment of silence seems more in order.

Thoughts for 2016

As much as I would like to see a woman in the White House, I worry about Clinton fatigue as much as the next liberal strategist/pundit. I worry about it because I have it myself. How much more dredging up of Benghazi and Monica and various Billary-gates can a presidential hopeful tolerate, not to mention her loyal base? If someone fresh and new comes along, with only a few skeletons we’ve never heard about, and who seems not completely stupid, we’re likely to vote for him.  Not many people can stand the scrutiny long enough to get elected, let alone serve in office.

So how should Hillary actually go about getting herself elected? Because it seems pretty clear she wants it. She’s wanted it for a long time. I don’t think there’s any doubt she can do it.  That isn’t the issue. The issue is how to get past the Clinton fatigue to get her elected…

Here’s my suggestion. Pick a bright female running mate. There are a lot to choose from. I suggest that an all female ticket can win. You don’t need the white male voter (see 2012). You need to revitalize the Democratic party. You need female compassion. Hillary sounds more like a man than a woman when she speaks, and women love her anyway. So have her choose a female VP who has the ability to communicate like a woman, i.e. has the ability to connect, to listen, to show her feminine side. It would be a powerful combination.

Personally I like Betsy Warren. They might have a few issues to work out between them, but then politics make strange bedfellows.  We’ve seen stranger.

Published December 19th in the Chicago Sun Times

            Lydia Overton was my best friend.  She was the person I called whenever something good happened, when something bad happened, whenever I was scared or lonely.  She was not a sentimental sort; she didn’t utter meaningless platitudes.  She wasn’t famous or educated.  She was nearly deaf and utterly self-reliant.  She told the truth without any sugarcoating.  She was my mother. 


            When I reached my forties, my seemingly perfect life fell apart.  I went through a lengthy divorce complicated by a brain aneurysm.  Several close friends became ill and died.  My daughter had a horrific accident on Rollerblades and my widowed mom broke her neck while golfing.  I tried dating with markedly disastrous results.  And yet Mom still managed to provide wise counsel despite her own challenges.  As a result of her advice, a large part of my recovery involved writing a memoir that humorously examined the sad and silly and profound ways in which middle age had caught me unawares, but ultimately helped me grow up.


            My mother’s recovery from the surgery for her broken neck was complicated by something called postoperative delirium.  We came to understand it as a sign of underlying dementia. As her mind faded, I confided in her less and less.  I finished my memoir, Good in a Crisis, four months before Mom passed.  Ironically, she never would have approved of my saucy book.  And yet I felt her hand in it — a spiritual complicity of sorts.  The book was published on Valentine’s Day —Mom’s birthday — 18 months later and will be released in paperback shortly after New Year’s. 


            My mother was 93 when she died.  Though prepared for her death, I was shocked at the extent and duration of my grief.  It surprised me to feel like an orphan at my age.  Her end-of-life care, as well as the care of the elderly I see in my job as a physician, makes me worry, both in a humanitarian and an economic sense.   In the three years since her death, end-of-life has become the focus of my research and writing.  A new book, Muscles of Empathy, has emerged in large part due to my mother’s influence and experience.  I feel certain she would approve of this book, if not the last one.  But writing both books helped me overcome different types of pain, and I have her to thank for that.


            As the holidays approach, I think of my parents frequently.  I remember my mother’s mincemeat pie, my father’s brandy ice, our tradition of reading the Christmas letters out loud.  Our family has grown larger as my sisters become grandparents; my older daughter is now engaged.  As difficult as it is to have Christmas without Mom around, I cherish the memories of holidays past.  It occurs to me that I now have the same relationship with my daughters — friend, confidante and advisor — that my mother and I once shared.  And I hope that through my memoir and our chats, my daughters will see that it’s possible to overcome adversity. “Count your blessings,” Mom used to say, before I knew what that meant.  Now I count her among them.