A couple threads of unrelated mental floss have recently intermingled in my brain. On the one hand is the dissection of comedy at the hand of Steven Kaplan’s book “The Hidden Tools of Comedy”. One of the concepts the book explores is that of the non-hero who, lacking sufficient skills to succeed, struggles against adversity but never gives up hope. Lacking skills can be something as simple as not having the necessary knowledge to navigate a given situation like not being aware of something that’s plain as day to the audience but hidden from the poor chump in the story. Mixed with that is a fictional piece I was working on which asks the question if you could go back and change certain aspects of your life, would you? I think back to the various situations in my childhood that essentially fulfill all the requirements of a proper comedy, and left me mortified in the moment. Little things like the time I walked into the plate-glass window at a mall that I was certain was an automated sliding door or the time I walked into the non-automated sliding screen door at my aunt’s house that I was certain was nothing but an open doorway. In both instances I felt like a proper idiot at the time, lacking both the minimal perception to avoid the collision and the dignified grace to recover from it. So I panicked. Like any good introvert, I would rather peel off my toenails with pliers then draw unwanted attention to myself. Had I been a quick thinking extrovert I might have hopped quickly to my feet, bowed with exaggerated flare and declared “tah-dahhhh” with a flourish of jazz-hands. Instead I tried to swallow my head with my shoulders and quickly fled the scene trying to pretend as if nothing awkward had just occurred. Of course after the horror had subsided it’s hard to deny the comedy of the situation. What must I have looked like on the other side of that plate-glass window at the moment of impact? I envision a pigeon, drunk on pyracantha berries, running into the bedroom window with a face flattening thud. Do I wish I could have avoided that bit of theater? Absolutely. Would I chose to have those events expunged from my memory? I’m not so sure. These become defining moments in our past to be groaned about with friends over a beer or commiserated about with a therapist over a lumpy couch. They add precious flaws to our developing personality. They instill us with compassion for the foibles of others. They make us more vigilant about plate-glass windows.
That got me thinking of other moments I endured during adolescence that fit the bill of a non-hero struggling against adversity, lacking sufficient skills to succeed but never giving up hope. One such event occurred just before my senior year of high school. It was summer vacation and I was nursing some sort of stomach bug. I had been popping chewable Peptos so I was feeling ok. When we got back from the doctor I remembered that some of my swim team friends, including a girl I had a crush on, were doing the summer league around the corner from my home and they had a swim meet that afternoon. School had been out for about a month, and while I can’t say absence made the heart grow fonder in this case, it did at least make my heart grow bolder. With a dose of this uncharacteristic boldness percolating in my system I worked up my courage, and made the short trip to the pool. The smell of chlorine brought forth a wave of nostalgic memories and my stomach flip-flopped with memories of meets past, nervous energy and lingering intestinal issues. I took a deep breath and waded into the assembled teammates. I did my best to be charming and in good spirits as I worked my way through the crowd. I had a good visit overall, even getting some quality time to talk one on one with the girl of my dreams. I returned home feeling pretty jazzed about the outing. The euphoria, however, was short-lived. Upon my next trip to the bathroom I looked in the mirror and discovered, to my horror, that the Pepto-Bismol had turned my lips bright pink all over. Not just a little color around the corners of my mouth, but full on clown-faced pink lips. Pink lips and no one says a word. Numerous hours and conversations and not a single person was kind enough to point this out to me.
At the time I remember obsessing about the envisioned aftermath and how I was certain to be the target of everlasting jokes and insults for the remainder of my high school career. It doesn’t take long though to realize that this type of embarrassment doesn’t last forever. I could have faced far more embarrassing moments (and I have a few that I may or may not share), and a minor one such as this is quickly replaced by the next snafu that someone else will inevitably make. Put in perspective the sting faded as summer rolled on. In hindsight though, as a moment of my life, I wouldn’t give it up for the world. Not only does it provide a great retrospective chuckle, but it was an instance of rare bravery that I am still proud of to this day. That same introverted nature that would rather remove toenails then attract attention is not one to generally wade boldly into a crowd of people, friends or not. This was an exception to be celebrated despite the outcome. And so it is with many of our memories of embarrassing moments. Each story offers insight into some significant aspect of ourselves. Something we did. Something we learned. Something that changed. If you removed every embarrassing thing you ever did in your life what would your past look like?
Another quote from Kaplan’s book is “Drama helps us dream about what we could be, but comedy helps us live with who we are.” These memories keep us grounded by our imperfection and keep us hopeful from hardships endured. Humor is vital for maintaining our happiness and keeping our sanity in a constantly crazy world. So while we aspire to sophisticated greatness and unbridled bravery remember to smile at the painfully playful memories that made us who we are, bright pink lips and all.