Tuesday, October 30, 2001

Are we allowed to laugh yet?

        We are laughing. I'll bet that frosts the Osama thugs, since part of their plan appears to be that we should be permanently gloomy, constantly afraid. But mirth is more than simple defiance. It's a recreational drug with no side effects.

        When we laugh, we produce something called NK cells, which fight infections. Laughter suppresses the release of cortisol, a hormone that weakens the immune system. Plus a really good whoop, an almost-wetting-your-pants laugh can give you the same cardiovascular workout as a minute of aerobic exercise.

The science of mirth

        A National Institutes of Health study videotaped recent widows and widowers as they recalled their spouses. Those who could laugh during the reminiscence appeared to cope better and recover sooner. Scientists tracked the muscles around the eyes and charted how hearty the laugh.

        They probably spent a gazillion dollars to discover something most of us already knew.

        We just feel better.

        But you always wonder if you'll be able to laugh again — after a death, after a disaster, after illness. During an illness. Sept. 11 was a greater collective challenge than usual. And it took awhile.

        Even the institutionally tasteless newspaper, The Onion, suspended publication for a week, but recovered with satirical stories headlined: “Hijackers surprised to find selves in hell” and “God angrily clarifies "don't kill' rule.”

        The Internet multi-mailers had already been busy. My personal favorite was a suggestion that we kidnap Osama bin Laden, take him to Sweden for a sex-change operation, then drop her back into Afghanistan. Another said we should tell the Taliban that unless they turned the terrorist in, we would round up all their women and send them to college.

Mustering troops

        One plan recommended sending menopausal women in to fight the enemy: “We've survived the water diet, the protein diet, the carbohydrate diet and the grapefruit diet and never lost a pound. We can easily survive months in the hostile terrain of Afghanistan with no food at all.”

        On the other hand, a 50-something man questions the wisdom of an army made up of young men. “Researchers say 18-year-olds think about sex every 10 seconds. Old guys think about sex every 15 seconds, leaving us thousands of additional seconds per day to concentrate on the enemy.”

        The venerable New Yorker, after a brief moratorium, cut its cartoonists loose. A man talking to his dog who has fetched the newspaper: “Have you considered the possibility that I don't want the paper?”

        Old-fashioned jokes in person, of course, are still best. Laughter begets laughter. Otherwise, why would they have added all those awful laugh tracks to Three's Company?

        A mail carrier — and heaven knows, they haven't had much of an excuse to laugh lately — walked into a law office here in town and said a woman was arrested at the airport for trying to carry knitting needles aboard a plane. He pauses. “They were afraid she would knit an Afghan.” Everybody laughed like crazy.

        Our soldiers are in harm's way, fighting what President Bush called “the first war of the 21st century.”

        Meanwhile, on the home front, we will be reclaiming our lives, a smile at a time.

        E-mail lpulfer@enquirer.com. Past columns at Enquirer.com/columns/pulfer.

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- PULFER: Are we allowed to laugh yet?
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