Nov 102013

Today I was awakened by a knock at the door from a Jehovah’s Witness. They usually arrive in small groups, but this divinely appointed ambassador was by himself. He was a portly middle-aged man with a wide mustache, wearing a bright clean jacket, white shirt, and tie. (The JWs always dress to the nines, don’t they?) He held out a pamphlet and said very deferentially, “Hi. We’re here this morning giving these out to you and your neighbors—”

I interrupted him and snapped (truthfully), “I’ve asked the Jehovah’s Witnesses repeatedly not to bother me!” and I shut the door briskly in his face. I saw, through the glass in the top half of my door, that he looked forlorn.

I think it is hugely important to be nice and that it makes a significant difference in the world. “Nice” has acquired connotations over the years of superficiality or even phoniness, but I like it because it’s a simple, unpretentious word. “Nice” simply means being pleasant. The more respectable term today is “kind,” but to me “kind” sounds a little inflated when we’re talking about, say, tipping well or just being polite to various strangers and service people. But niceness is kind, and it’s important.

That said, as I demonstrated this morning to the Jehovah’s Witness at my door, I’m not always nice. There are certain common exceptions to my policy of niceness. For example, like many people, I can be an impatient asshole behind the wheel of a car. If I’m on a two-lane road, and the person ahead of me is driving 10 miles below the speed limit and I cannot pass them due to the blind curves up ahead (this happens a lot in Sonoma County) I often honk my horn, especially if the road has a shoulder where they could easily pull aside to let me pass. At night, I’ll occasionally drive close behind the slowpoke with my brights on (and I might also honk).

I am not nice to phone solicitors. Here is how I handle them. I pick up the phone (I don’t have caller ID) and say, “Hello?” And the voice at the other end says, “Uh, I’m calling for Marc Polonsky.” I say, “That’s me.” The voice says, “Hello, Mr. Polonsky, my name is ______ and I’m calling from ______. How are you this evening, sir?” I say, “Don’t call back,” and I hang up. (It works. They don’t.)

There are also more specific exceptions to my niceness. Probably lots of them and I cannot even recall them all, nor would I enumerate them here if I could.

I’m not saying my (or anyone else’s) lack of courtesy is justified (or not justified). For now, I’m merely acknowledging it, in the context of having begun my day today by being distinctly discourteous, face to face, to someone.

Jehovah’s Witnesses have bugged me for years. I want to throw a bucket of water on them (or worse) when they come to my door in their Sunday best. Back when I lived in Oakland, I put a No Soliciting sign on my door and the JWs  rang the bell anyway. When I pointed to the sign, one of them said huffily, “We are not solicitors!” Oof.

But I understand that their motives are not so terrible really. They don’t want my money. They just want to rescue me from being tortured in Hell forever. I think part of what pisses me off about them is that they’re a little smug, at least in their existential view of things, so secure in their uncomplicated universe. Statistically speaking, at least some of them must be (forgive the term) blessed with native intelligence but (to my view) they don’t make a habit of using their brains, and that annoys me.

That said, the man at my door today was not uncomplicated. I don’t know the first thing about him, but I know this much: He had an intelligent face, a soft and gracious manner, and emotional sensitivity—his feelings were hurt when I spoke harshly and then abruptly shut the door in his face. If he came back again (which he won’t of course) I might take the time to debate religion with him, and question the fairness of the God to whom he devotes his Sunday mornings (and probably his life), this God who abandons so many souls to eternal anguish, and for what? I might probe his concept of sin. It might even be interesting.

Then again, maybe I could just ask him never to come back, but do it more politely, and he wouldn’t have to have his feelings hurt at this particular stop on his journey to the Lord’s kingdom.

Sep 162013

Louis C.K. and Me

A number of my friends are really into Louis C.K., possibly the nation’s hottest comedian right now. So I’ve extensively surfed his youtube clips.

I use profanity myself, and I’m no purist. But the man’s sentences are so prolifically seasoned with what’s commonly known as “filthy language” (“fuck” “shit” “asshole” “dick” “pussy” etc.) and so much of what he talks about is so outrageous (shitting in dead people’s mouths, for example) that apart from whether or not he’s even funny, the sheer aggression in his overall routine creates (in me at least) a kind of constant, “what’s-he-gonna-come-out-with-next,” low-level adrenaline buzz, like the after-effect of consuming too much sugary junk food. Even when he is expressing some arguably socially redeeming message—such as the idiocy of road rage or homophobia—he weaves in countless “fuck you’s” and his tone seethes with something like imminent cruelty.

I suggested to a friend that Louis C.K. succeeds by tapping into his audience’s repressed anger and hostility, and that people experience through him some kind of release. She responded that, yes, he addresses what’s repressed, but not only anger and aggression; it’s all the inadmissible emotions, such as disgust for one’s own children, that he blows the cover off of.

Humor Exposes Secrets

This brought to mind Dostoevsky’s protagonist from Notes from the Underground, who asserts that there are three types of secrets. The most superficial secrets are those you share only with your one or two most trusted people in the world. The next level of secrets are those you admit only to yourself. The deepest secrets are the ones you keep even from yourself. Dostoevsky’s character goes on to say that the more “respectable” an individual is, the larger their store of this third category of secrets.

I keep this in mind when I feel disturbed or grossed out by comedians like Louis C.K. Is he abrasive to my heart or merely my propriety? I’m not sure. Sometimes (though rarely) I do laugh at him. Bill Maher once said that laughter is an involuntary response; we don’t laugh because we judge something to be funny; we laugh because it makes us laugh. There is an unimpeachable authenticity about laughter.

On the other hand, I think we become conditioned to find certain things funny, and this is culture-dependent. A few years ago, I played a tape of an interview with a folksinger to a twenty-something friend. At the end, the interviewer says, “Unfortunately, a few days after this interview was taped, David died unexpectedly . . .” and my friend burst out laughing. He found this hilarious. And he insisted it was simply very funny.

My friend has a sensibility—a “funny receptor” if you will—that I lack. He is of a generation weaned on dark humor.

Looking Deeper into Darkness

Another striking example: I once saw a clip of comedienne Sarah Silverman saying she thought it was cool that one of her female Jewish ancestors had been raped by Cossacks, because the Cossack blood in her gave her a kind of “street cred.” Some in her audience were offended; she didn’t care. I wasn’t sure what I thought (though obviously I didn’t find it funny, because I was not moved to laugh).

In the novel The Gates of the Forest by Elie Wiesel, a holocaust survivor goes on a journey looking for some peace of mind after all the horror he’s seen. He stumbles upon a gathering of Jews, and a rebbe who has them dance and sing devotional, celebratory songs. They are unsuccessful in conjuring any real joy, until the rebbe tells them to do the unthinkable—start singing a filthy Nazi song. At first they are horrified but then they follow the rebbe’s instructions, and lo! after their initial resistance and revulsion, they do actually wind up laughing and singing with gusto, and their dancing becomes wild and spirited. The rebbe’s eyes sparkle as he sees the miracle he has wrought.

So dark humor can offer authenticity, vitality, and even healing. Today’s most popular humor is outrageous; it busts boundaries and violates taboos. This is probably a necessary thing. What remains repressed gathers power. Repression leads to personal rigidity and political/religious fascism.

All the Same . . .

Yet repression’s opposite—an “all is permitted” disregard for mores and conventions of decency—can lead to chaos, moral relativism, and cynicism.

Personally, I cannot and honestly do not judge what others find funny, but I won’t deny that much of today’s “hip” humor strikes me as pessimistic, nihilistic, and unpleasant. If I were to deny my own visceral response, that would be a form of repression too.

And it feels important to be honest about what I really find funny and what offends or disturbs me. Otherwise, oddly, an ethic of blanket permissiveness can turn into its own force of political correctness.