MAKING THE WORK // Laugh a Little, Cry a Little
Once at a dinner party, when we were all cheerfully in our cups, my uncle asked me what kind of writing I aspired to. I told him the first thing that came into my head: my favourite kind of writing is both funny and sad. My uncle, whose delivery is always dry, so you never know where he’s going, then told me that a kid in the neighbourhood died at a party earlier that year from sucking helium from a tank. The helium was for the birthday balloons.
“Can you imagine?” he said, “The kid was dying and he probably sounded like Donald Duck saying,”—here his voice went up—“‘Help me, help me.’ ... Is that what you mean by funny and sad?”
I almost spat my drink out but got it down when I saw the look on my aunt’s face. She didn’t think the story was something to laugh at. “He was from our own neighbourhood,” she said.
My uncle, a lawyer, calmly asked if it would’ve been okay to laugh if the kid was from another neighbourhood.
Lorrie Moore is one of the best writers I know of when it comes to funny and sad. She says, “I don’t sit down to write a funny story. Every single thing I sit down to write is meant to be sad.” She also says, “If you record the world honestly, there’s no way people can stop being funny. A lot of fiction writing doesn’t get that idea, as if to acknowledge it would trivialize the story or trivialize human nature, when in fact human nature is reduced and falsified if the comic aspects are not included.”
Here’s another quote I love, this one from Jonathon Franzen: “The most reliable indicator of a tragic perspective in a work of fiction is comedy.”
Now, let me be clear, I feel terrible for the young man who died only because he wanted to make his mates laugh at a birthday party. My heart also goes out to the loved ones who had to suffer through such a senseless death. My uncle had asked about whether the story fit my idea of funny and sad. Yeah, I guess it does. Not because I’m a sicko, but because those are the kind of stories that, for me, contain all the feelings—sad, absurd, beautiful and all the rest. It goes back to what Lorrie Moore said, it doesn’t trivialize human nature to see that sad story as a little funny, it just makes it more human, which is to say, more true.
Postscript: I’m writing a book about some of the saddest things I’ve ever known. I’m hoping it’ll make people laugh.
LOVABLE PROJECTS // Humans of New York
You’ve all heard of Humans of New York (HONY), right? Me too, except, until I took the time to visit the actual blog and read a few articles, I didn’t know much about the project other than the images and story snippets I saw shared on Facebook.
Here are a couple of things I adore about the project. First there is the photographer, Brandon Stanton. I love this dude’s commitment and his overgrown-puppy spirit. Since 2010, he has walked around New York taking photos every day. Stanton sees each photo as “picking a single person and celebrating them.” If you watch the fun video on his “About” page you’ll see him bounding around with his baseball cap on backwards, disarming folks with his easy approach and slightly cartoony voice. After he shoots a photo, he chats with his subject and their words make up part of their portrait. For instance, an adorable old bird (middle photo above) who he recently photographed said, “I was extremely shy when I was younger. I wasn’t asked to the prom or anything. Life didn’t really even start for me until I turned fifty. But let’s just say I got plenty of experience after that!”
The other thing I love about HONY is “The HONY Effect”, as an article in The Independent from July dubbed it. HONY has almost nine million followers who’ve often reached out to Stanton’s subjects. A teen heavy metal band, for instance, got a huge boost (i.e. over 22,000 likes) after their manager—the dad of the drummer—was featured. The band is now about to release their debut EP. Stanton himself has also instigated The HONY Effect in a number of cases. Examples include raising hundreds of thousands of dollars for Hurricane Sandy relief efforts, as well as $80,000 for a couple to adopt a child from Ethiopia.
Final note on Stanton: He took thousands of photographs before he got noticed. Also, he began his project with almost no experience and no training—and he didn’t let perfectionism get in his way. This is an art project, but moreover it’s a humanity project—and a hell of a good use of the internet. Spend enough time rooting around all of Stanton’s photos and you’re guaranteed to feel some feelings.
CULTURE // “Lay Low” by Shovels & Rope
I know of no quicker way to feel all the feelings than by listening to music. A while back, a friend of mine sent me this link to an exceedingly lovely song called "Lay Low" by Shovels & Rope as a prezzie for my ears. Now I’m re-gifting it to you.
Here’s a wee bit of background. Shovels & Rope are an American folk duo from Charleston, South Carolina composed of husband and wife Michael Trent and Cary Ann Hearst. This version of “Lay Low” was recorded live at Pickathon in 2012, a music festival held on an organic farm in Happy Valley, Oregon. Trent and Hearst, perched on a couple of stumps, look like they just rolled out of a tent or the back of a van after a night drinking beers. Hearst (last photo above) is wearing a red & white gingham shirt and no make-up and it's hard to take your eyes off of her as she wraps her voice around Trent's. There are even dappled trees behind them. It’s summery perfection.
One YouTube commenter, after listening to the song/watching the video said, “I feel like crying and I can’t even explain it.” See? Feelings. And not in the terrible Paul Anka way.
Go listen now. Preferably with headphones and the sun at your back.