Here on Cold, she’s also offering us an exclusive (sort of) interview with her main character, a naive, twenty-four year-old pacifist named Maggie.
But first, here’s a summary of The Bridge of Deaths – you know, just to whet your appetite:
In the winter of 2009-2010 a young executive, Bill is promoted and transferred to London for a major International firm. He has struggled for the better part of his life with nightmares and phobias, which only seem to worsen in London. As he seeks the help of a therapist he accepts that his issues may well be related to a ‘past-life trauma’.
Through love, curiosity, archives and the information superhighway of the 21st century Bill travels through knowledge and time to uncover the story of the 1939 plane crash.
The Bridge of Deaths is a love story and a mystery. Fictional characters travel through the world of past life regressions and information acquired from psychics as well as archives and historical sources to solve “One of those mysteries that never get solved” is based on true events and real people, it is the culmination of 18 years of sifting through sources in Denmark, England and the United States, it finds a way to help the reader feel that he /she is also sifting through data and forming their own conclusions.
The journey takes the reader to well-known and little known events leading up to the Second World War, both in Europe and America. The journey also takes the reader to the possibility of finding oneself in this lifetime by exploring past lives.
“An unusual yet much recommended read.” – The Midwest Book Review
An Interview With a Pacifist:
What’s your favorite thing to do when you’re not saving (the world, clients, your mate)?
I have to choose one favorite thing? There is so much in life that is simply magical, thrilling and important. I belong to a Peace activist group in the London area and we are not shy to express our complete distaste for all violence. My life is however not in any way limited to being a Peacenik and if there is a good party or fun weekend trip with friends, I have been known to miss a protest or two. I am only twenty-four and as much as I am sure we live many lives, I am not about to waste any good fun to be had in this one. Ah my mate, Bill does need a lot of saving doesn’t he? I really thought he’d be just a fun time when we met, I did not expect to feel so complete with him, not that I would have imagined or designed him that way as ‘the perfect mate’ mind you. I had dated a few foreign blokes before, but not from across the pond, he is lovely though.
What is it about Bill that makes you crazy in a good way?
There is so much that is frustrating and endearing. He keeps his thoughts so hermetically sealed, that I have to dig and pry to get answers don’t I? After all he is the one with the nightmares and the phobias, but I get to do all the digging. No room to be the saved damsel in distress here, I get to grab Bill by the hand and guide him kicking and screaming to meet his fate, well I exaggerate, perhaps not screaming but a bit of kicking.
Do you sometimes want to strangle your writer? Thrash her to within an inch of her life? Make them do the stupid crap they makes you do?
I certainly do not want to give any spoilers here for the end of the book, but well, yes I would have liked my freedom and adventure to last a bit longer. And I did drink quite a lot of Sauvignon Blanc didn’t I , so yes for every hangover let’s trash M.C.V.
I love Scandinavian fare because of my mom. Danish food and desserts are the best.
Tell me a little bit about your world. What are your greatest challenges in that world?
London is a great town, we have so many good museums and restaurants. I love how alive and quiet it can be. When I walk in certain areas I can tap into so much and I do not mean just history, but the fun stuff, like scenes from great films or knowing that musicians I love lived in certain places, and got the very ideas for the songs I love right there in Soho. Like Cat Stevens or as Bill would immediately point out Yusuf Islam; I mean when I go to Soho and walk down Denmark Street and Charing Cross road, right by where I met Bill at Foyles I can imagine how Cat Stevens drew from all that to write the songs that I love so much. See it is not just in history where a suspect mind and discernment is important, Bill was so sure that Cat Stevens was a militant aggressive person and he is actually the absolute opposite, but of course the media distorted his comments during the whole Salman Rushdie Satanic Verses thing and when the counter statements were made it was not in the front pages, but rather the back ones. When I showed Bill how something so relatively recent could be so distorted I think it really helped open his mind to all we were investigating from 1939 and the plane crash.
Describe yourself in four words.
Cautiously Optimistic, happy, hopeful and discerning.
What do you do for a living?
I counsel teenagers, I help them look into themselves for that feeling of security and sense of self rather than to be outwardly influenced by others. I work with very typical teens, nothing heavy just growing issues you know. I am such a free spirit (perhaps that should have been one of my words above) that the powers that be know I would not be strict enough with certain cases, got into a bit of a mess a few years ago… well that is neither here nor there, no sense in giving it any more energy, just help them choose classes and such a Guidance Counselor, I don’t like labels and I believe they have all the answers inside themselves, they just need to tap into them.
What do you fear the most?
War, actually the apparent inevitability of many horrible wars. If only we were clever enough to learn from the past right? But I guess that would be every pacifist’s worst fear wouldn’t it?
Years ago, my Aunt Viki and Uncle George owned a small, cheerful retirement home near Tampa, Florida. It was called Park Manor and was made up of mostly middle class old folks who more often than not felt some connection to my family’s Czech heritage.
Viki and George, although only in their early forties at the time, were like Mom and Dad at this place – and they got to know each and every one of the people who chose to make their lovely, little assisted living facility their home.
As you can imagine, there were a lot of unforgettable characters at Park Manor: The octogenarian former beauty queen who slinked around in low-cut party dresses by day and transparent negligees by night. She had a huge crush on my then twenty-two year-old brother and used to invite him to her, ahem, room. Then, there were the warring Czech brides. Fifty years earlier, one had run off with the other one’s husband, and they hadn’t seen each other since. In the kind of twist of fate that proves God really does have a sense of humor, these ladies were made roommates at Park Manor. Ignorant of their past, my aunt figured that since they both spoke Czech, they’d make fast friends. Instead, they had to be placed in opposite wings, or else be found rolling on the floor, pulling each other’s hair out.
But of all the love birds, the wicked witches, the playboys, the card sharks, the war heroes, the comedians, and the master bakers, none was more memorable than Merle.
At one hundred and one years-old, Merle stood slender and erect, with only the help of a hand-carved cane. Short gray hair, equally gray eyes that twinkled like deep water on an overcast day. Neat, comfortable clothes, no make up other than lipstick – “You can’t forget you’re a woman,” she’d say.
Merle had been married twice and widowed twice. Always ready for a laugh at her own expense, she displayed on her night table a come hither picture of herself – taken by her second husband, on her second wedding night. In it, she was seventy-five years of age, and looked pretty darned good in a long, black, silky nightgown with her hair swept up.
She always had a story, and I never heard a single negative word come out of her mouth on any of my visits. And this was a woman who’d lived through World War I, The Great Depression, World War II, Segregation, The Cold War, Vietnam – Jimmy Carter, for goodness sake, she used to say (alhtough always in good humor).
But the most extraordinary thing about Merle was expressed on Sunday afternoons.
Sundays at Park Manor were by far the most popular visiting days, as many families chose to stop in for lunch after church. By mid-afternoon or so, many visitors would start to take their leave. There were dinners to be made, and old folks get tired.
But at Merle’s, the party was just getting started.
Nearly every single Sunday, Merle’s room was so filled with visitors, that many had to linger in the hall and take turns going in. Boisterous laughter, children’s squeals and just about any style of music – Ragtime, Swing, Rock-n-Roll – echoed throughout Merle’s wing. Her children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren from her first marriage were there, but so were her second husband’s children. Although she couldn’t have met them until they were well into middle age themselves, she’d made inroads into their hearts and counted her second husband’s grandchildren as hers, too.
And everyone stayed up to the minute when visiting hours ended.
I guess I paid such close attention to Merle because of the wasted love I’d seen in my own family. I’d watched too many loved ones give away the ties that bind like they were 25 cent raffle tickets. They ran from their mistakes in their young lives, and kept running throughout midlife and even beyond. It seemed to work for them. By and large, they were free to live lives unencumbered by the inconveniences that true emotional responsibility can visit upon a life.
And they remained free of the benefits as well, always appearing vaguely uncomfortable when faced with the gush of a happy child’s love, or a chance view of a tender kiss stolen between a husband and wife at a crowded family gathering.
And sooner or later, they simply ended up.
I remember my aunt telling me that her experience at Park Manor had taught her that most people who ended up alone on Sunday after Sunday had earned it. I found that to be a devastating revelation.
Shortly after Merle finally died, my aunt and uncle got an offer they couldn’t refuse. It was from a large convalescent home chain, and sowed up their own hard-earned retirement. It was tough for them to let go because my aunt and uncle really cared about the people at Park Manor and had looked out for their dignity, their quality of life. On their last day, the place was filled with house-made chocolate pudding and tears.
Later, my aunt admitted to me that she could have never sold the place while Merle was still alive.
That Merle. Considering I only met her a handful of times, she’s had a pretty disproportionate effect on the way I view my life. When I find myself wallowing over my usual litany of complaints – undoubtedly revolving around childcare, work, and a lack of ME time – Merle often pops into my mind.
I’m sure I romanticize her to some extent, and that there are people out there who might tell a whole different story about the way she conducted her life – one that reveals her human foibles. Like if she got piss-drunk before the school play, then heckled the entire 7th Grade cast of “The Importance of Being Earnest”, or called her Aunt June a whore during Thanksgiving dinner, or threatened to leave her husband for their son’s history teacher, perhaps.
But even if all those things were true, I’d still hold her up as a gold standard. The way I want to end up.
Merle’s example has served as a lifelong reminder to me that the benefits of love accrue. Even when we mess up spectacularly, it’s worth going back for more, trying to right what we’ve done wrong. Merle’s life seemed to exemplify that. How could she not have given so much more than she got, seeing the devotion she inspired, long after her family had stopped needing her, after all?
Merle seemed to embrace the sad and wonderful truth about the human family. That the people under your roof are not happier when you’re more fulfilled, when your time is respected. They’re happier when you go out of your way for them. When you drop what you’re doing to have a laugh and a kiss.
The same way I’ll be happier if my children set aside their Sundays for me when I’m in my own version of Park Manor – one that hopefully includes a travel club, Barre classes and rabid boxing fans. Maybe a couple of dance halls and a Tiki bar. A cowboy or two.
Because even if my son and daughters are crazy busy and have cupcakes to make for a bake sale, or a big presentation at work due early that Monday morning, I want them in my room – laughing, talking, listening to music. Fighting to take their turn from the hallway.
When Michele Gwynn and Jami Brumfield asked me to come on their Blog Talk Radio program, Cover to Cover, I figured I was in for a good time – a thought-provoking, interesting, eminently bloggable time.
Case in point, Michele writes about murders, angels, aliens, ghosts and a German dominatrix who changes careers and becomes an officer in the State Police (dream job for an aging whippersnapper – badum ching!).
Jami is a passionate paranormalist (Is that even a word? Don’t know, but it fits) and hypnotherapist, no less, who writes fun and suspenseful novels about witches, vampires, ghosts, werewolves and forbidden love.
Pull me up a chair.
We talked about all sorts of things. History, and our love of it, visiting concentration camps, Germany as a seriously underrated vacation destination, and our admittedly genre-bending fiction. Not surprisingly, the conversation got a little bit woo-woo when Michele asked me about the paranormal elements in my own work.
It’s funny, I don’t consider myself a paranormal writer at all, and I think if you go strictly by genre rules, I’m not. I’m a Historical Fiction kind of girl, who weaves some pretty significant Thriller elements into my stories. But more often than not, a certain degree of magical realism does enter into the way I spin a yarn. My characters can have visions – religious or otherwise, divine love (albeit wrongly) from some pretty sadistic acts, and see the occasional ghost. One of my characters even becomes the Angel of Death after his own untimely demise. I suppose that is a bit divergent from, say, a Philippa Gregory or Ken Follett story – even if the latter, like me, tends to have a taste for the world of cloaks and daggers.
So, I guess a bit of enchantment is somewhat unusual for Historical Fiction, a genre which focuses on, as Ms. Gregory points out, “the animation and recreation of a life, of fleshing out historical bones.”
But is it unusual in history, this blending of fact and hocus-pocus? History is filled with leaders who feel they were communing with God or being guided by spirits. Just ask Joan of Arc, the Egyptians, or any number of Native American tribesmen and women – especially ones from days past.
Nor is a paranormal element unusual in historical writing. Homer comes to mind. Shakespeare’s Macbeth.
In my own life, I’ve always felt a co-existence with the “other.” From niggling feelings that end up being prophetic – foreshadowing the death of a loved one, or a turn in luck. Perhaps a paralyzing wave of deja vu.
To simply answered prayers.
And I know a thing or two about living with the dead. Breathing life into a pile of bones, all while relishing the nitty-gritty of uncovering the very facts of a time and place – the ones that make that skeleton dance.
Like any self-respecting history buff, I live in a house that was built while Thomas Jefferson was still among the living, for heaven’s sake. A place ripe for otherworldly shenanigans.
While I’ve heard only a handful of whispers in the night during the dozen or so years we’ve lived there, those incidents have been as palpable as sexual attraction. They provoked a physical reaction, an electric charge of anticipation and fear, a thrill.
So, I can’t imagine telling a story that doesn’t acknowledge at least the potential for belief in the existence of other worlds, of souls, of an overlap in space and time that even Einstein allowed for. He did, after all, speak of reality as an illusion, of love as something outside the constraints of the natural world, of mystery as the most beautiful thing we can experience – the source of all true art and science.
Because really, does any one of us – no matter how rational or literal – know a single someone out there who hasn’t felt the hair on his neck stand up? Who doesn’t have a ghost story to tell?
And here’s the link to the program:
I was cooking dinner when my husband called. He’d already been gone for ten days on this punishing, potato sack race of an international business trip and still had another week to go. So, I just couldn’t contain myself when his number came up on my phone. I mean, really, I jumped up and down.
I always look forward to hearing his quirky stories and cranky observations, especially when he’s far, far away. Since having children, I’ve become mostly an armchair traveler, so his musings about foreign countries I know – Ireland, England, Germany – and don’t know – Russia – were not only going to be a fun distraction for me, but a chance for us to connect and have a laugh, help me miss him less.
“What are you cookin’?” he asked.
“Chicken with lemon rice.” It’s a family favorite.
“Yes!” he said. “You slow-roasted the chicken, right? I mean, you didn’t cheat?”
Of course I cheated. I’m single-parenting until next Saturday and don’t have time to baste a chicken for three hours. “Cheat? Me?”
“Because my day took an unexpected turn this morning,” he continued. “And I’m going to be home in an hour.”
I got all verklempt.
“Are you crying?” he asked me.
Honestly, since having children I cry watching cat commercials, but I really was so happy that he was on his way home. And I love that he kept it from me until the last minute. That our son’s jaw was going to drop, then morph into a grin like a fat orange slice when he saw his dad come waltzing in. That our daughters would squeal. Well, one of them anyway. The other one gets all pre-teen and says mushy things like, “Hey, dad.”
As a family, we have always celebrated surprises. We take spur of the moment trips to podunk towns that do or do not turn out to be fun, we reach out to new neighbors, we move, we buy old houses, dream up schemes and stories, have more kids than we planned, don’t want to know the sex of our babies until they’re born, take on too many projects and surrender to rotten, good-for-nothing luck, not just in the hopes of surviving it, but with the belief that in the end something special will come out of our long, dark journey. Like a new best friend or a golden, once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. Or maybe just some wisdom and empathy.
All, not most, of the best things in my life have come from surprises, so I’m not just being a Pollyanna here. The Berlin Wall coming down was a huge surprise, as was my decision to move to Prague shortly after. Falling in love with my husband came so far out of left field that I still find myself humming that Talking Heads song,
“And you may find yourself in a beautiful house,
With a beautiful wife,
And you may ask yourself…well, how did I get here?”
Every facet of having children has been surprising – from finding myself obsessed with their interests and emotions to a pitying degree, to how much and how little they are like me. People tell you a lot of things about becoming a parent, but nobody tells you that children will be a mirror held up to your soul – exposing the best and the worst of you, making you desperate to fix your own flaws for their sake. Selfishness, vanity, any sense of moral equivalency or ambiguity – at least in regard to their welfare – don’t get thrown out the window, necessarily, but are definitely thrown a curve ball.
And no, sister, you can’t have it all. You get so much more than having it all.
Plunging into the role of wife and mother has been a one-way ticket to being a better person for me. More than the accomplishments I craved like street drugs when I was growing up, more than therapy, more than seeking enlightenment. Not to beat a dead horse here, but that’s been kind of surprising. It’s been a one-way ticket in coach, mind you, on a train that often smells of perspiration, spilled cognac, cigarettes and live roosters, but damn, it takes you to the most unexpected, often glorious places.
And lately, I’ve been surprised at the daughter I’m becoming.
Although we always loved each other tremendously, my mom and I weren’t actually close until my late thirties, when my youngest was born so sick. Without missing a beat, my mom kicked into overdrive. Her heroic efforts to ease our burden – taking the night shift at the hospital so that we could be with our other kids, massaging my feet after a shattering day, standing in for me at field trips and class parties – helped us both see each other anew. Since then I have slowly, sometimes painfully – in a cut and bleed, stitches and Band-aids kind of way – become a daughter.
It has been a narrow and bumpy road.
I’ve had to surrender some of my prized independence, care for my mother without taking on a condescending or bossy air, and accept the fact as lovingly and graciously as I can, that my littlest loves my mom more than anyone in the world.
More than she loves me.
Against everything that my younger self would have thought possible, I’m endeavoring to guide my mom through the twilight of her life – from the death of her husband to the change from her role as mistress of her own household, to being a part of mine. And I’m learning that I welcome and relish the challenge – most of the time. Even when I lose my temper and get it all wrong – which is often.
No surprise there.
I’m sharing my kitchen – which is huge for me – letting my mom rearrange things, throw out perfectly good mops in favor of her own, over-stuff my pantry, and serve us her “Chinese” food with a French baguette instead of rice.
“Mmm,” I say, hoping she won’t trot out her other “ethnic” dishes. Like spaghetti and meatballs served with a sauce of Campbell’s tomato soup cut with milk. My mom spent seven months in an Italian refugee camp after fleeing Communist Czechoslovakia and is the only person I know who loved everything about Italy, except for the food.
But while her forays into international cuisine are dubious, she’s actually a wonderful cook – when she’s cooking Czech food. Her goulash, potato dumplings, schnitzel and sweet and sour cabbage are a welcome shake-up of our family dinners. I can’t wait to cook Thanksgiving and Christmas meals with her for the first time in years. Goose, mushrooms, fruit tarts, spaetzle.
And the best surprise of all is that I’m once again finding myself falling deeper in love with the man I married. A guy who is not only welcoming his mother-in-law into his home, but is creating two lovely smoking lounges for her on our front and back porches. A man who isn’t afraid to be the bad guy when he needs to be – setting boundaries and confronting very real issues. Like when my mom contradicts our parenting, either behind our backs or right in front of the kids. From “Oh, come on, she can have another ice cream,” (Not after chocolate chip cookies and and a full bag of gummi worms she can’t!) to “If mama won’t buy you phone, I will,” (What the @#$%&*!??)
“It’ll take some adjustment,” my husband says. “But we’ll get to go away alone now, too – have overnight dates.”
I’ll get to tag along on business trips and expand my own career universe without feeling guilty for leaving for a couple of days.
“Most of all, it’s a chance to grow,” my husband reminds me.
A surprise always offers that chance – to those who are willing to embrace it.
“Remember, remember always, that all of us, and you and I especially, are descended from immigrants and revolutionists.”
― Franklin D. Roosevelt
American Coldsters – go out and watch the fireworks. Eat barbecue, drink beer and really listen to the lyrics of our national anthem.
Non-American Coldsters – please raise a glass for us today and know that you’re always welcome at our table.
Happy, Happy Birthday, America. I love you with unabashed sentiment.
Let me start with my grandfather, who used to wash my car by hand any time I left it in his driveway. He made me lunch during the mean girl years, when I would walk to his house midday to get a break from Middle School politics. Heating up pork and dumplings over the stove, he’d spoon them carefully onto my plate and pour me a generous glass of milk. A kiss on the forehead came with every meal.
To my dad, who married my mom when I was four and treated me and my brother as his own. He showed us the world on his dime and spent his money on our educations instead of getting a new Lincoln. There wasn’t a night I can remember when he didn’t get a call from one of his patients or a time when he ever complained about it. I realize now that he taught me, by example, to see the value of getting up night after night with my children – the bond that creates even when you’re so tired you want to cry.
To my boyfriends – even the worst of them were pretty darned good. And let’s face it, I wasn’t always an easy girl to please. I demanded a steady diet of adventure and engagement, when most guys would rather just save their pennies for that heart-shaped pendant they’d heard other girls wanted.
To a gang of the best guy friends a woman could have – men who can talk about anything from space travel to mommy porn and have been there for me through heartbreak and hurrah. If I may quote my friend Karl – who I’ve known since High School and who said this to me sometime during college, “Look, I know a lot of guys are a**holes, but I just want you to know that if any one of them ever really crosses the line and hurts you – I’ll break all of his fingers.” He meant it.
To my husband.
Now there is a man who I probably don’t deserve but am so lucky to have run into at an Irish bar in Prague some twenty years ago now. Feminists, cover your ears. The truth is, without my husband I would be half the person I am today. Maybe less.
But of all great guys, on this Father’s Day I want to honor my dad, who passed away this Spring. He had a long, complicated, successful life full of as much magic as misery. He was a great doctor, and a loyal and faithful husband to my mom. If I could have half his courage, I would consider myself something along the lines of Batgirl.
I’ve often raised eyebrows among friends and strangers alike for my admittedly dark sense of humor. For me, nothing – and I really do mean that I can’t think of a single thing – is off limits. Not racism, not poverty, not cancer, not Alzheimer’s, not Nazis or Communists or Democrats or Republicans or religion – including my own Catholic faith.
I know that just the mention of these topics in anything but the most earnest, delicate voice leaves many aghast, and I definitely understand why there is a reflexive, negative reaction to what some call black humor and others simply call insensitive, politically incorrect humor.
But to me, black humor is deeply misunderstood.
I believe the hostility stimulated by farcical, often morbid jokes that make light of what are unquestionably very serious, painful subjects has to do with the misconception that the person making those jokes is somehow mocking the pain of a given people or situation. The imagined result is the further infliction of grief on an already damaged being – a child, a slave, a man born grossly disfigured perhaps.
But in true black humor, the only mockery is of the absurd, the tyrannical, the sanctimonious. It’s meant to slay the boogieman and allow nothing – not a hateful word or heartache – to hold power over an individual.
I was reminded of this when a friend of mine sent me a link from the New York Times that chronicled a new Czech reality TV series called “Holiday in the Protectorate.” In it, three generations of a real-life contemporary Czech family are sent “back in time” for a reality show reenactment of the German invasion of Czechoslovakia. The show’s “contestants” are made to live in a remote area of the Czech Republic that was the first part of the country to be invaded and annexed by the Nazis at the onset of World War II.
There, according to the NYT feature, “They must not only survive the rigors of rustic life with outdated appliances and outdoor plumbing [circa late 1930s Czechoslovakia], but navigate the moral and physical dangers of life under Nazi rule.” Some of these dangers include air raids, having their doors kicked down and property searched by the Gestapo (played by actors), being betrayed by snitches, having to scavenge and traverse the black market in order to have enough food to simply keep from starving.
If they perform well, in everyday tasks such as cooking over a chalet stove and milking cows, as well as in life and death challenges such as managing not to get shot, they stand to win about forty grand.
Naturally, I was all over this. I immediately posted the link to the article on Facebook, writing, “Move over, Kardashians, this is my kind of reality show.” To me, this much-maligned genre was finally taking on something of real, historical significance; a welcome antidote to the mere peeling back of the curtain on the lives of the shallow and pampered. I thanked my friend by name and within minutes received a note from her in the comment box saying, “I’m not endorsing it, Vic!”
In fact, not a single one of my 887 Facebook friends liked or commented on the article, except for my mother – a mischling who was actually born under the Nazi occupation, and whose parents concealed their own racial secret while hiding and smuggling Jewish friends.
But to everyone but my mom, the article was like Kryptonite.
And I can understand why. The show itself, while getting a lot of attention, has been denounced by critics around the globe as trivializing a “brutal and dehumanizing period.” Much offense has centered around the title of the show, as Nazi rule was “no holiday.”
The Czech director of the series, herself a very earnest woman in her thirties, by the looks of her, says she is surprised at not only the volume of attention her show has received, but the often sight-unseen condemnation. Couldn’t people understand, she told the reporter, that the title was meant ironically? That the episodes, in and of themselves, were meant to educate modern viewers about a time in history, make it real for them in a way that also happens to entertain and keep their attention?
And this is the crux of black humor, is it not? The fact that through irony, juxtaposition, comedy and yes, even amusement, we are able to look into, past, under, over and through the most agonizing, unimaginable events both in our lives and in the world at large.
Look, I know that my innate sense of the dark and the funny coming together like a Reese’s Peanut Butter Cup isn’t for everyone. Much of it comes from my Czech culture, so it’s no shock my people would come up with something like this: a Nazi-themed reality show that’s darkly humorous in concept if not context and execution.
Of course, my husband shares my sensibility and he’s Irish, so this is not a trait specific to the Slav. But the Irish are no strangers to making light of an inherently awkward, gut-wrenching or just plain ole bad luck set of circumstances either. (Anybody out there ever read Jonathan Swift’s pitch-black masterpiece “A Modest Proposal”?)
And we’re not the can dish it out, but can’t take it type, either.
A few minutes after our infant daughter received her cancer diagnosis eight years ago – and on my birthday, no less – my husband and I were faced with even more bad news. In addition to the potentially deadly chemo, our daughter would require more surgery to assess her damaged liver. Basically, we were told, if the liver biopsy came back bad, she was dead. Somehow, without missing a beat, I turned to the doctor and said, “So let me get this straight. If the liver’s ok, we get to try our luck in a gulag; but if it’s not, a rusty iron ingot will be driven through our eyeballs?” My husband doubled over. What started as a snicker for me became an all-out crack-up. I was shaking, my eyes were tearing – I couldn’t even look at my husband without dissolving into yet another fit of laughter.
Even our daughter’s surgeon wasn’t immune to the contagion. He held it together – barely – and said, “Well, that’s one way of putting it.” The good doctor was no stranger to gallows humor. He’d already heard worse – from us, no less – and deeply understood how badly we needed a laugh. We’d been dealing with our daughter’s health problems since right about my second ultrasound in my fourth month of pregnancy and her birth had taken us to a new level of stress. And now, he was telling us, the stakes had just been raised once again. A knock-knock joke just wasn’t going to cut it. The situation demanded a heinous and ballsy comparison to the pits of despair. It required unbridled insanity and a complete re-framing of our circumstances. Something that would carry us into the next day, or just the next hour. To help us even understand, for the love of God, what we were experiencing.
Because black humor, like prayer, takes some of the weight off. It can make us smarter about the real goings on – spiritual, political, metaphysical. It leads us into asking unorthodox questions and drawing unexpected conclusions.
Laughter, we forget, is also a teacher.
I always think of reading about when Robin Williams busted into Christopher Reeve’s hospital room shortly after the Superman actor’s devastating spinal cord injury. Disguised as a doctor and wearing an earloop surgical mask, he began describing in cringe-inducing detail how he was about to perform an extensive and invasive rectal exam on his paralyzed friend.
Christopher Reeve credited that laugh with helping him want to live, and with giving him insight into his own reserves. That bit of tasteless humor showed him that joy was still possible – even if he would never hold his wife or children again, or feel the warmth of their skin and their hearts beating against his chest. He would not walk, run, make love, caress, tickle, or be tickled. But damn it, he would laugh. Laugh so hard that he couldn’t catch his breath. Laugh until it was dangerous and his doctors had to intervene. And after he was done laughing, he would teach us all a little bit about what true resilience means.
Oh, and here’s a link to the original NYT article: http://www.nytimes.com/2015/06/06/world/europe/czech-reality-tv-show-makes-a-game-of-life-under-nazi-rule.html?smid=fb-share&_r=0