EYE ON EUROPE
The following column was first published by TheColumnists.com on June 23, 2002. It's reprinted here this week in memory of Michael Johnson's sister, Sara Adair, who died in 2007, and in celebration of the publication of Michael Johnson's book, "101 Uses For An Empty Bra," which was inspired by
his sister's undying sense of humor about her fatal illness. Those readers
who wish to obtain a copy of the book can do so by contacting
LAUGHTER AS MEDICINE
...the ultimate test
'SURGEON STRANGLER' is one
of the cartoons in Johnson's
'101 USES FOR AN EMPTY BRA'
To help cheer ailing sister,
he created a cartoon book
By MICHAEL JOHNSON
Few would quibble with the claim that laughter makes us feel better. Even trained doctorsnot a hilarious lot by naturehave studied what a smile can do for us. They say laughter releases neuopeptides and enkaphalins, the feelgood hormones that our bodies produce to help us cope with life's little surprises.
Somewhere I once read that the mere act of smiling compresses certain cheek muscles that release endorphins, that other happiness hormone. There is even something called the Happiness Project at Oxford University that studies how people might be able to deal with depression by learning to laugh again.
And more evidence of laughter's effectiveness is accumulating every day. Norman Cousins once saved his own life by deciding to check himself out of a New York hospital and into a hotel room (which cost one-tenth the price) while suffering a mysterious blood disease. He rented "Candid Camera" and Marx Brothers videos to test his theory of laughter as the best medicine. It worked so well that he wrote a book about it called Anatomy of an Illness.
But it was Flip Wilson who said it best: Funny is an attitude.
I am not depressed but I certainly depend on humor every day to get through the rigors of corporate life.
But what can possibly be the relationship between humor and breast cancer? It is not obvious to ordinary people, but then my sister Sara Adair in Littleton, Colorado, is not ordinary. She is possibly the funniest woman aliveand I thank God that she is still kicking.
Sara has had the full Monty, as the English saya double mastectomy and hysterectomy. Under the knife, everything that wobbles went. In chemotherapy she began to look a lot like my bald-headed younger brother. Just for laughs, one day she put on a white shirt and tie and had her picture taken. The resemblance was too eerie for words. She found it hilarious.
Actually, breast cancer has been an unwelcome visitor to my family for 25 years. My mother suffered and died from it, my sister Mary fought it off and continues to struggle with its effects. Then Sara got it.
I wanted to do what I could from a distance to ease Saras pain, so every few days during her post-op chemotherapy I sent her a letter with a few cartoons. The mastectomy was to be a test of just how resilient that cackle of hers could be.
She responded beautifully to treatment. As I realized my drawings were having the intended effect I stepped up the pace. I found myself digging deeper and deeper into the strange world of rounded shapes. She loved the result and shared the drawings with her support group. Most of her fellow-sufferers responded with big laughs, although a few of them were not ready for this medicine yet.
Sara concluded that there might be a wider audience out there for something to help these women see the funny side of their plight. I agreed, and installed a mental trap in my mind to capture any fleeting ideas that might fit.
Soon nearly everything I looked at seemed to have a relation to the female breastnot uncommon in the adolescent male (which I am, despite my 60-plus years). Without intending it, I eventually came up with Project 101 and built the collection up to 101 Uses for an Empty Bra. The book was designed by my cousin Robert Morehouse at Vermilion Design in Boulder, Colorado, and a small private printing was arranged.
Some of the drawings have strange origins.
Ken and Barbie Bumbershoots came to me as I was hurrying through Geneva Airport to a consulting assignment for a cigarette company and passed by a shop window featuring Swiss dolls and rubber balls.
Here are two more cartoons from Johnson's book. At left, he suggests a bra
might help feed the family cat. At right, 'Ken & Barbie Bumbershoots'
offers a unique use of a bra no longer in regular service.
Surgeon strangler came into focus as I tried to imagine the mental state of a woman who had undergone the mastectomy experience.
Cat feedbag hit me as our cat vomited a huge wad of tuna chunks in brine on the living room carpet in our London home.
Gradually the collection expanded to 101 drawings and became a book. It is something of a relief to me that I can now close that mental trapdoor and think of other things.
I dont believe in analyzing humor. Doctor Freud once did that and put the world to sleep. Whats funny is whatever makes you laugh, and that is often a personal thing. Trying to learn humor the Freudian way--by matching up expectations vs. end-run reverse punchlines--would drive a gag writer to distraction. Even bad taste is okay with me so long as it is truly funny.
I envy humor writers and I am openly jealous of good cartoonists who combine art and words. But speaking as an amateur cartoonist, I have never been so gratified with the result of my modest efforts. Getting a smile out of a breast cancer support group (there's a joke in there somewhere), desperately in need of the pleasure of a good laugh, is the ultimate satisfaction.
© 2002 by Michael Johnson. The cartoons are from Michael Johnson's "101 Uses For An Empty Bra" © 2001 by Michael Johnson.
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