This formula has ruled my life more constantly and consistently than any other, including the basic laws of physics. Once I survived my hormone-driven, anxiety-ridden teenage years with their barrage of high drama and passion, any situation I’ve found myself in – no matter how dire – has become instant fuel for an anecdote.
And like they say, practice makes perfect. I’ve encountered so many odd situations (most of them admittedly self-caused) that the two processes have become completely concurrent. Even as the realization of impending doom, difficulty or damage is dawning on me, part of my brain has already begun to narrate the unfolding event for posterity.
“So there I was…” I’ll think as I desperately search for the mop,“… walking past the shop window and this shoulder bag simply screamed out my name, it practically hollered at me, and of course, I had to have it. They take Visa, after all, and why shouldn’t I splurge on myself for once? It’s not like I have to spend it on something sensible like, I dunno, repairs around the house… So Mama’s got a brand-new bag. And then, of course, I walk in the door to find water seeping into the kitchen from the bathroom cause my toilet decided to give up the ghost…” I’ll lean on the mop, pondering the best way to express the horror while water laps steadily at my toes. I’ll put down towels and call the plumber just as soon as I’ve worked out how to best phrase the scenario for maximum hilarity.
It’s come in handy as a coping mechanism over the years. If you can picture yourself with a glass of wine in your hand regaling friends after the fact, you are well aware that there will actually be an “after the fact,” that this too shall pass. You register on some level that while things may look bleak at the moment, they will be cause for future amusement – albeit rueful.
It also cancels out any possibility of self-pity. I remember a time of crisis in my early twenties when it seemed everyone was against me and nothing would ever work out. I listed my woes to myself, from my lack of funds to the fact that the boy I was crushing on hadn’t called. “Not even the aliens want me!” I wept into my pillow, picturing the tabloid headlines I’d seen, the photos of grim looking Midwestern abductees with poor fashion sense and even poorer dental hygiene, captioned “My Baby Daddy is a Little Green Man.” I promptly got the giggles, and that was the end of that. Decades later, when I’m feeling down and get home ready for a good cry, the phrase “Not even the aliens!” pops into my head and my mood shifts.
And yet mining your life for self-deprecatory nuggets to offer up on the altar of entertainment – be it your own or that of others – has its drawbacks as well. Tears are liberating, they trigger an internal sense of relief, and if you hold them in for too long, they dry up and leave a bitter residue. While I’ve rarely been one to cry in front of others, I now find it difficult to cry even when I’m alone. And it’s a fine line between irony and bitterness.
I don’t know what the solution is. A happy medium perhaps, a golden mean as Aristotle advised back in the day. A more advanced formula, one beyond my basic math skills, one with squiggled letters and complex exponents in parentheses. Something along the lines of: Suffering + (Initial Response + Recovery) + Time = Irony.
Because without these intermediate steps something gets lost, depth, weight, meaning. If I don’t learn to allow myself these steps in between, I’ll never learn from my mistakes or grow from the experience. And then I’ll find myself once again with a mop in hand, crunching the numbers of my budget, waiting for a call back.
That, of course, is when the aliens will come for me.