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Getting in touch with my inner Li’l Abner was a great step forward.

T.J. stressed the importance of humor in managing stress. He spoke at length about the noble tradition of satire as a way for powerless people to resist oppressors. He showed PowerPoint slides starting with Goya etchings, George Grosz, and Thomas Nast. T.J. lamented the decline of newspaper editorial cartoons. Comic pages have lost importance, their place being taken by sanitized television sit-coms. Perhaps in reaction to that, local comedy clubs are making a comeback.

Know your Humors and how to use them.

Puns: the lowest form of humor.

Irony:  the Socratic method of discussion by professing ignorance: conveyance of meaning by words whose literal meaning is the opposite: a condition is which one seems to be mocked by Fate. (Greek eironela, dissimulation–eiron, a dissembler.)

Satire: a literary composition, originally in verse, essentially a criticism of folly or vice, which it holds up to ridicule or scorn–its chief instruments, irony, sarcasm invective, wit, and humor. (Latin satira, satura, full (dish), a medley.)

Sardonic: scornful, heartless, or bitter, said of a forced unmirthful laugh: sneering. (French sardonique, Latin sardonius, Greek sardonios, doubtfully referred to sardonion, a plant of Sardinia which was said to screw up the face of the eater).

Sarcasm: scorn, contempt, a bitter sneer: a jibe: a satirical remark, often but not always ironical. (Latin sarcasmus, Greek sarkasmos, sarkazein, to tear flesh like dogs, to speak bitterly.)

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Toads of Property by George Grosz (1921)

My father had Anger Management issues of his own, of course, although that’s not what they called it in those days. Spankings were common as rain and as easily passed over. Our family custom was to celebrate birthdays with a ceremonial spanking–one whack for every year, administered by an older sibling and gleefully counted out by others: eventually numbering thirteen.

Haven’t you ever been paddled by a priest, or had your knuckles rapped by a nun? Beating bad boys was the norm where I grew up, and there is no doubt among us that we deserved what we got. Ignorance was not an excuse. You knew the rules:

“Whatever you do, DON’T MAKE MOM CRY!”

H.L. Mencken, “the Sage of Baltimore” was a writer whose social satire T. J. recommended. As founding editor of the satirical The American Mercury magazine from 1924-33, Mencken published one of the first essays by Bernard De Voto, expertly skewering his home state of Utah. Here is Anger Management as satire of the finest and fiercest kind:

Utah by Bernard De Voto (1926)

“Never kid a kidder,” is what my father used to say when I attempted to match his humor with outrageous surmises of my own. He had grown up on H.L. Mencken as the ultimate social critic. Mencken was one of our household gods, cheap re-prints of his collected essays jammed into cluttered bookshelves around the house; living room, basement, and bathroom.

Charlie Chaplin’s little tramp is another well-known subversive. The Great Dictator is a classic example of using humor to disarm a well-armed enemy. The Marx Brothers anarchic humor is another example of popular underclass resistance.

“But Groucho Marx would be nothing without Margaret Dumont,” T.J. handsomely interposed. Her willingness to blithely bear the brunt of Groucho’s rude remarks and double entendres makes for great social satire.

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Duck Soup (1933) Directed by Leo McCarey
Margaret Dumont as Mrs. Teasdale and Groucho Marx as Rufus T. Firefly

Mrs. Teasdale: Your Excellency, the eyes of the world are upon you. Notables from every country are gathered here in your honor. This is a gala day for you.
Rufus T. Firefly: Well, a gal a day is enough for me. I don’t think I could handle any more.

According to T.J., Lenny Bruce was a brilliant social critic victimized by the repressive era in which he lived. T.J. said he had really looked forward to seeing the movie based on his life, starring Dustin Hoffman, but was disappointed by the result. The movie makes Lenny Bruce look like a hero, but get real: he was an irresponsible, self-destructive drug addict. He wasn’t a criminal. He was a guy who needed help.

From Lenny Bruce, T.J. transitioned to a tour around the history of drug-abuse and creative people, going back to opium dens of San Francisco, French absinthe-drinkers, and the drug-raddled works of William Burroughs, Hunter S. Thompson, and Ken Kesey, particularly One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. Kesey worked in a mental institution as a student, his story was based on first-hand experience, but making the mental institution into a metaphor for something much larger.

T.J. was a big fan of all Jack Nicholson’s performances but he singled out this scene in Five Easy Pieces:

Diner Scene

T.J. asked the class to discuss how to how Anger Management skills might have helped Jack Nicholson’s character get what he wanted.

Richard Pryor and Gene Wilder were T.J.’s favorite comedians because they were survivors. After trial and error, each overcame self-destructive traits. Blazing Saddles is a great example of popular media delivering a razor-sharp satiric message about racism and the cliches of Hollywood movie-making.

“Who is your inner cartoon character?”

T.J. asked our class to ponder that question as our homework assignment, and then make a one-panel comic strip about the character for a show & tell. We posted our pictures around the room and told our stories, reveling in the freedom of cartoon characterization.

“This isn’t really me, but this is how I feel…”

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Linus & Lucy: this is how I viewed my relationship with  powerful Women Managers.

Getting in touch with my inner Li’l Abner was a great step forward, illustrated by the next picture. Abner is the opposite of Lucy Van Pelt’s weakling little brother Linus. He’s a big, strong, self-reliant nature lover in patched jeans and working-man’s boots. And he’s married to the most bodacious woman allowed in the funny pages. Happy-go-lucky is me.

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The Stress Test adds up all the possible causes of stress in your life and divides by the number of ways you have to deal with it. I scored pretty high on stress and pretty low on dealing with it. This is where believing in God, or any kind of higher power really pays off, T.J. pointed out. If you have a support group of fellow believers, that’s even better.

But if you don’t believe in God and don’t have a support group of fellow believers you’re kind of screwed. Belonging to any kind of group is better than not for dealing with stress.

T.J. talked about “Bowling Alone” as a common condition of modern life.

Test results showed that one of my major stresses was driving up and down Ogden Canyon every day to work. I’ve had an aversion to driving ever since my then-young son and I were blindsided by a drunk driver. My femur was shattered and I had to learn to walk all over again. I had always biked to work at previous jobs. When possible, I rode the bus to work up in Ogden Valley, until that route was discontinued. And then driving was the only way to get to work: another reason to seek work elsewhere. I was ALWAYS looking for another job.

Another source of stress was editing and publishing the library newsletter. It had formerly been a respected literary journal. Like countless other print publications, my fiefdom diminished by degrees. Accepting its diminishing was a big part of my anger.

“What do you mean, ‘I can’t dismiss the Editorial Board!!'” (A quote from my notebook of those days.)

But the primary source of stress was my son joining the Marines. My wife and I had no doubt that Piete was cannon fodder caught up in an imperial expedition for petroleum, also known as Operation: Enduring Freedom.

“Oh yeah! Operation: Enduring Freedom is in the house!”

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Private Sawatzki, Co. D, Class II, 2nd Batallion ITB, School of Infantry, Camp Pendleton, CA

That was when Suzanne stopped sleeping regularly. She worried and she aged. We had 20 years of marriage and mires of mixed feelings. It was ever thus. An open-ended relationship is what we want, allowing for the possibility of things impossible to imagine. Flexible. Married, but not welded, has always been our motto. Our son in harm’s way was an unexpected stress fracture between us.

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