A Call to Action

cat7-citizenPeople who know me will tell you I’m a good citizen.

That’s very gratifying to me, because I have always endeavored to serve as a civilizing example to those of less taut moral fiber, and it’s nice to know my efforts aren’t going unnoticed. Fact is, while doing one’s civic duty can at times be tiresome, the burden of responsible behavior can be managed to a great extent by the imposition of a Code. “Brush my teeth,” would be a thoughtful personal mandate, for instance, or “Pay for things”, or “Don’t bother Steve.”

Being exceptional, of course, my own bar is set much, much higher. For one thing, my own Code strictly forbids me to commit crime unless there’s a chance that personal or financial advantage might be gained thereby.

Also, I will never engage in productive work if letting someone else do it for me might give them a sense of accomplishment, or perhaps a mild aerobic benefit.

By my scrupulous rule regarding personal property, upon finding somebody’s lost wallet I don’t waste precious time and energy attempting to locate the careless clod that is its rightful owner, but instead pump its contents directly into the economy through retail channels, helping to foster prosperity for all.

And, as a good citizen, whenever I perceive a threat to the public weal, I act swiftly to expose it. I do now, selflessly and without any thought of remuneration, sound the alarm on what I believe to be an insidious menace of such colossal proportions that, left unmitigated, it may very well spell catastrophe on a planetary scale.

If you keep rolling your eyes they could freeze that way. Would you like that?

I count myself among that number of uncritical thinkers who suppose the Ancients possessed important knowledge and advanced insights long since lost to Humankind. Take the Egyptians – although utterly lacking modern technologies, the ancient Egyptians were able to raise enormous stones to dizzying heights. Clearly, they were privy to amazing secrets that made it possible for Egyptians with swords to induce Egyptians without swords perform difficult and dangerous tasks.

Indeed, only arcane knowledge can explain ancient Egypt’s marvelous irrigation systems – great ditches, miraculously free of their original dirt and capable of directing moderate quantities of water in a single, downhill direction. And what long-buried scientific inspiration led that desert-dwelling people to discover that desiccated flesh liberally treated with naturally occurring salts would not immediately spoil?

cat6-conePerhaps most remarkable, it was the ancient Egyptians who first divined that, after several hours under the broiling sun, women with melting cones of beeswax, honey and spices affixed to their heads tended to smell more fetchingly than women not so equipped.

Magical!

 

 

And they invented beer.

So we see that the Pharoahs knew a thing or two about a thing or two. And it turns out that one of those things was biology. It has recently come to my attention that a particularly reflective sect of ancient Egyptian philosophers was the first to scold otherwise happy diners with the admonition “You are what you eat.”

It was the contention of those courageous scientist-priests that the flesh of all living creatures must
necessarily accrete from what stuff they consume. It was their further contention that all living creatures consume pretty much the same stuff, or at least stuff that’s already consumed pretty much the same stuff. Taken together, those two irrefutable principles tend to suggest that all creatures are composed of pretty much the same physical substance.

Except they’re obviously not.

Those canny contemplators were also perfectly aware that there exist good creatures and bad creatures, not to mention a whole lot of creatures exhibiting varying degrees of good and bad characteristics, which patent truth presented a knotty logical inconsistency. If we all eat the same stuff, why aren’t we all the same? Their answer to that philosophical question was both elegant and, I think, inescapable.

Everybody poops.

Because animals, good and bad, are material constructions of the food they eat, it was their belief that the general food supply must contain both good and bad components. If some creatures are better than others, it must be because they retain a greater portion of food’s positive elements and excrete most of its negative ones. Likewise, creatures that fall toward the bad end of the spectrum must necessarily absorb a larger part of what is evil in their diets, while expelling the greater part of what is good.

An illustration ~

cat5-bat

The ancient Egyptians hated bats. To their way of thinking, bats were sneaking and cowardly and carried disease and exalted the darkness and weren’t really birds and weren’t really rats and they squeaked. It would have been quite impossible for an ancient Egyptian to hate bats any more than they already did. By the reasoning outline above, bats clearly retained virtually everything vile in their food, and pooped out its every redeeming ingredient.

cat1On the other hand, ancient Egyptians loved cats. Cats were sacred to them. They weren’t gods, exactly, but they were high enough on the divinity chain to hobnob with all the best deities. Cats had dash, and polish, and a naturally superior attitude that just screamed “quality.” The only thing an ancient Egyptian loved more than a cat was two cats, And so forth. They spent small fortunes mummifying their cats so they wouldn’t have to face the Land of the Dead without them. And if cats were so very, very good, they plainly extracted every ounce of goodness from their sustenance, but incorporated no part of its badness.

If we are to accept the ancient Egyptians as authorities in all fields scientific – and we’ve already established that they invented beer – then we must also yield to this gastronomical analysis and its unavoidable conclusions. Call it the Unified Theory of Doody.

Even as bats suck all the badness out of their food, so does iron-clad logic dictate that their excrement must be entirely good. Bat guano, despite its undeserved reputation, can only be the most sublime substance in existence.

Conversely, the defecations of cats can only be the most vile and toxic emissions imaginable, having been efficiently stripped of every last particle of good.

But why, you may in your tragic ignorance wonder, is this explosive information relevant to inhabitants of the 21st Century?

Americans own something like 90 million cats. The average cat defecates twice daily, producing approximately three ounces of poop during each episode. That’s something like 18,000 tons of concentrated evil flowing into the nation’s pristine landfills every single day. Add to that the 10,000-ton holocaust waged daily by another 50 million feral felines, and the magnitude of the crisis becomes plain.

The horrific truth is that if something is not done to stem this toxic tide – and done quickly – we’ll soon confront a calamity of Biblical proportions. The ruin that awaits us beneath that relentless accumulation of devilish distillation will make the specter of death at the hand of Global Warming seem a mercy.

So what must be done to save Humankind from looming litter-box Armageddon?

Don’t ask me. I’m a thinker, not a doer.

cat2I’m also a good citizen.

Don’t say I didn’t warn you.

Getting Back to Nature

Stereotypes are easy.

Funny? Or nefarious?

That’s why we like them. Easy is, um, easier.

And yet, we are endlessly reminded, stereotypes are unfair. Inaccurate. Harmful. Because everybody’s different; unique; special; insert-your-own- stereotype-defying adjective-here.

That’s true enough, so far as it goes. For every drunken Irishman of my acquaintance, there’s a Mick who won’t touch the stuff. For every arrogant German, a Teuton of more temperate attitude. I’ve known many a Greek who lives out loud on Ouzo and bouzouki music, and I’ve know many another to be bookish and retiring.

Yet stereotypes persist. Despite all assurances to the contrary, the weight of observational evidence would seem to indicate the existence of general personality trends among persons of similar ethnic background. A lot of Frenchman really are rude, for example, and the Danish tend to diffidence.

A dispassionate observer might conclude that good reasons underlie bad reputations. For myself, I always assumed that, over a reach of centuries, individual societies evolve in direct response to prevailing circumstances, naturally emphasizing those social and behavioral patterns best suited to survival in specific climatic, social, economic and political conditions. The Swedish, for instance, are taciturn because it’s dark all the time, and the Irish like to drink because the English used to pick on them so much.

I didn’t invent the idea – that’s pretty much Cultural Adaptation 101 – but I’m a bit abashed in hindsight that I was for so long willing to blithely toe a straight “nurture” line on cultural development when common sense suggests a strong “nature” component. In my defense, I wasn’t alone in that deficiency. For more than 50 years it’s been an article of faith among sociologists, educators, and those ardent levelers for whom “social justice” seems an attainable goal, that we all emerge from the womb a “blank slate” upon which individual experience inscribes our personality. In view of what we know now – and, more to the point, knew then – about genetics, such an unyielding stance seems naïve at best, and at worst intellectually dishonest.

Hard-line Nurturers seem happy to ignore the contradictions underlying their own assumptions. They insist, for example, that a child’s success in school is informed solely by the quality of instruction and encouragement they receive, yet have no problem demanding increased funding to chemically treat and medicinally mitigate presumed biological barriers to learning like attention deficit disorder and dislexia. Nurturers see no disconnect between their belief that boys who are nurtured in feminine environments don’t grow up to be violent and their dearly-held conviction that all men are naturally violent. They can as easily argue a purely environmental foundation for infidelity as a purely genetic basis for homosexuality. Fact is, I don’t think you can have it both ways.

Dyed-in-the-wool Naturers, on the other hand, are as quick to attribute virtually all behaviors to the manner and quality of our physical construction, in blind defiance of the obvious and singularly human ability to adapt our mental and personal conduct at will. Not one of us, between sunup to lights-out, doesn’t modify our thinking or actions at least once, and in direct odds with our natural inclination.

I don’t pretend to know all the answers. I’m not a scientist, although I once sat next to one on a plane ride from Tucson to Denver. Astrology is a science, right? Turns out copper is my lucky metal. Anyway, I may not know where Nature ends and Nuture begins, but I suspect it’s somewhere in the middle. About a year ago, I was somewhat surprised to be supported in that contention by National Geographic, a stubbornly Nurture-centric and unabashedly relativistic publication on all matters cultural.

Separated at birth

‘Twas in January of the year 2012, and the article was “A Thing or Two About Twins.” As it happens, diverse teams of researchers from universities and agencies across the country have for 20 years been waging a campaign officially titled Twins Reared Apart, but usually just referred to as the Minnesota Study. In brief, their method is to locate identical twins who were separated in youngest childhood and reunited as adults, then minutely (and figuratively, of course) dissect their lives and characters. The study’s purpose is to learn how the separately-nurtured pairs are alike, and discern whether Nature or Nurture might best explain their similarities. To date, 137 pairs of reunited twins have come under the microscope, and the findings are astonishing.

“For people raised in the same culture with the same opportunities,” the article reads, “differences in IQ reflected largely differences in inheritance rather than in training or education.”

For revealing that little piece of hard, cold, statistical data, one researcher, a college professor, was targeted by far-left campus groups for immediate dismissal. And the figures grow more compelling, and more interesting, with the reading. For instance, if one identical twin has a criminal record, there’s a 50-percent greater likelihood their identical counterpart has also run afoul of the law “suggesting that genetic factors somehow set the stage for criminal behavior.”

Further, the Minnesota Study indicates a strong genetic influence on the strength of a person’s religious commitment, though not on choice of faith, and strong statistical evidence for genetically ordained aggressiveness, aesthetic sensibilities and romantic tendencies. Curiously enough, the article’s author, and the researchers themselves, seemed a bit crestfallen by those discoveries, but soldiered on anyway, in the name of science, and because there’s plenty of evidence for other factors that can, and do, mitigate genetic imperatives.

For one thing, a new field of study called “epigenetics” makes clear that genes are only as good as the strength to which they are “expressed” in the organism. Imagine that Mozart and Yoko Ono are identical twins, each with an identical gene potentially conferring great musical ability. Now imagine that gene is an amplifier, and Yoko’s dial is stuck on 2, while Mozart’s is cranked up to 11. Same gene, different expression, vastly divergent results. You get the picture.

For another, a genetically increased probability of criminal behavior isn’t the same thing as knocking off a liquor store or producing the criminally bad “Double Fantasy” album. The very fact that a percentage is applied speaks to the many way in which environmental factors can influence genetic predilections. Unless your delinquent gene is turned up to 11 all the time, a strong law-abiding environment could well suffice to keep you on the righteous path, and running with a pack of no-count hoodlums could land you in jail however clean your DNA.

The thing is, as fascinating and scientifically valid as the Minnesota Study may be, those are all truths that reasonable people of average intelligence should be able to deduce without resort to twins, scientists, or math of any kind.

Virtually everyone will agree that our physical characteristics – from height to freckles to genetic disorders like cystic fibrosis – are direct manifestations of the blueprint contained in our specific DNA. Why would anyone assume our psychological characteristics are somehow exempt from that relationship? If DNA can make Peter a faster runner than Paul, can’t it as easily make Paul a better thinker than Peter? The brain is, after all, a physical organ that functions and is sustained by the same processes as a lung or a liver, and the operating efficiency of individual lungs and livers is no more uniform than their owners’ ability to bluff at poker. In terms of mental acuity, the same genetic variations that make one person a track star and another asthmatic must necessarily result in varied mental landscapes, each in no small part the product of genetic inheritance.

To remove the argument from the speculative and into the empirical, consider that when the union of two Caucasians result in a Caucasian offspring, nobody ascribes that outcome to environmental factors. When two tall people give birth to four tall children, most accept the childrens’ tallness as an inherited condition. And when the children of two smart people excel at their studies, most are comfortable asserting that intelligence “runs in the family.”

The most common argument against a genetic component to human mentality is at once historical and largely emotional. To wit ~ allowing the possibility that intelligence and behavior are hereditary would be to somehow legitimize the various politically-driven eugenics programs attempted by, among others, Adoph Hitler. Put another way, because a scientific principle has been – or could be – put to evil purpose, it can only be wrong and must be expunged from the catalogue of human learning. It’s a bit like saying that because atom bombs are terrible weapons, the atom can’t really be split. Sorry to break it to you, but that genie’s out of the bottle. And if the field of nuclear physics has resulted in great suffering, it has also yielded great benefits, and a greater understanding of it is no less essential to human advancement than the study of medicine.

Secrets revealed!

Likewise, the fact that a more comprehensive knowledge of genetics could potentially be put to malicious use doesn’t diminish its potential for good, its importance to the body of human knowledge, or its essential truth. To maintain that our psychological proclivities are somehow insulated from our genetic legacy is to deny both science and the testimony of one’s own eyes, and to bury one’s head in sand no less deeply than the Christian fundamentalist who insists the Earth is 6,000 years old because the Bible says so.

If, at this point, you haven’t found more rewarding diversion watching funny animal YouTubes, you’re probably wondering

“What’s his point?”

I’m glad you asked because, believe it or not, I have one.

Although awake only intermittently during Introduction to Physical Anthropology, I came-to often enough to know this much: The longer a population remains relatively static, the more concentrated certain genetic traits become within that population. On a vast stage, that’s why Africans have dark skin, Chinese have shoveled teeth, and Caucasian males can’t jump. On a more intimate scale, it’s why Inuits tend to be short, the Swedish tend to be blond, and the English tend to have bad teeth. The operative word here is “tend.”

Anybody who’s ever spent time among the Swedes and didn’t take their own life as a result knows that not all of them are blond. Far less than half, in fact. As it happens, blond hair is a relatively rare human trait, but long genetic isolation has concentrated the genetic formula for blond hair within the Swedish population, increasing the relative  incidence of blond hair within the Swedish population. All Swedes may not be blond, but enough of them are to make it a justifiably distinguishing characteristic of Swedishness.

Now, if we assume that mentally determinant genes distill in the same way that physically affective ones do – and I think we just decided they do – then specific populations must necessarily display a greater incidence of certain characteristic behaviors, aptitudes and attitudes.

This is where I step in it.

Maybe, just maybe, a statistically large percentage of Chinese students excel at mathematics because their brains are built for it. And perhaps the Germans are known for making really good cars because a mental machinery conducive to engineering has been concentrating in their gene pool for a hundred generations. And what if the Italians are traditionally adept at organized crime because whatever gene is reponsible for thumbing one’s nose at the cops and courts is more frequently represented in Italian DNA?

Makes you think, doesn’t it?

What it makes me think is that maybe stereotypes are not really unfair generalizations so much as the intuitive application of sound scientific principle. And that by such meticulous and logical method we may reasonably conclude that – as a function of statistically relevant frequency, of course – the Irish really are shiftless louts. And Bulgarians really are thuggish hoods. And the French really are insufferably snooty. And Arabs really do hold grudges. And Poles are mule-headed, and Russians are paranoid, and Greeks are as reliable as a pack of feral cats, and the Chinese really are inscrutable.

It’s liberating.

Even better, since America has never had a static population we may freely and accurately stereotype each other based solely on our respective last names.

Think of the time it will save.

Best of all, now that we have established a solid and unassailable foundation for them, ethnic jokes can once again be plied without reservation.

Did you hear the one about the Indian couple that didn’t know the difference between Vaseline and window putty?

Go ahead – it’s not insensitive.

It’s science!

Let’s get something straight

i_didnt_vote_sticker_set-rc068551d78a54b2a994f9a0b37061a91_v9waf_8byvr_512

It’s okay to not vote.

All the folks in a lather about people who don’t vote need to towel off and pipe down.

Voting is a right “granted us by our Creator”, not a requirement, or even a responsibility. Like every other right, it can be exercised or not.

Almost everybody has the right to drive a car, which is great for the economy, but nobody ever browbeats bicyclists for selfishly depriving important industries from oil, to steel, to electronics.

You have a right to own a gun, but you don’t have to. If you shoot somebody with your gun you have a right to counsel, but you don’t have to accept it.

You have all kinds of rights that you never use and nobody bats an eye. Voting is – or at least should be – no different.

Voting is your right, and not voting is also your right.

Nobody has to vote.

If you hate all the candidates, you don’t need to vote for any of them. It’s your right.

If you’re disillusioned with the process, you don’t have to participate in it. Not voting doesn’t make you a Bad American, it just makes you a taxpaying citizen who didn’t vote.

If you simply don’t believe your vote will do any good, it’s okay to shrug it off. There’s a good reason voting isn’t required by law.

It’s not “wrong” to not vote.

And it’s not always “right” to vote.

Contrary to the sweaty emanations of the screaming classes, voting is not, of itself, a noble act. The undemanding feat of pulling a lever or filling in a little circle does not constitute proof of patriotism, virtue or wisdom.

If you have no interest in, understanding of, or opinions about the issues, the candidates or the behavior of government, you should absolutely not vote. In fact, that being the case, the most responsible thing you can do is not vote. Anybody can throw a dart at a ballot and call it voting, but it’s not. Voting presumes an informed choice. It’s a safe bet that many people who don’t vote give a lot more thought to serious national issues than many people who do.

 

And if you’re voting for a candidate mostly because they’re better at public speaking, or have more successfully avoided offending the perpetually offended, or simply because they look better on TV, then your ballot is not only meaningless, it’s helping to sustain an electoral system that values form over substance.

Better you should stay home on Nov. 8.

And one other thing ~

Sanctimonious Get-Out-the-Vote types like to holler about how those who don’t vote automatically give up their right to complain about the government. They can take that ridiculous statement, carefully place it inside a provided “security sleeve” and stuff it straight up their poll.

chachi

You always have a right to complain. Voting is a right, just like every other right enumerated in the Constitution and the Bill of Rights, including the right to “seek redress”, and by not exercising one right you don’t magically forfeit all the others. Every American is entitled to all the rights and protections that come with citizenship, and if government moves to entail those rights, or abuse those protections, every American is entitled, even obligated, to cry “Foul!”, regardless of what they did, or didn’t do, on election day.

Voter or not, you have a right to your rights, and you have a right to insist on them.

And a right to yield them.

Either way, the ballot box has got nothing to do with it.

I’m glad we got that straight.

carlin

Dogs @ Work

CEO_Dog

This from the Humane Society.

 

“Dogs in the workplace, in general, make people happier. And less stressed. And more productive.”

 

 

Then again, the Humane Society would say that. The folks at the Humane Society would say having a dog under your desk improves Internet connectivity if they thought it would help improve human/dog connectivity. On the other paw, institutional bias doesn’t mean it’s not true, and there are lots of folks who swear by the amazing and beneficial properties of the increasingly common “office dog.” Having pups about the place boosts morale, increases efficiency and encourages employee interaction, they say. Pet-friendly policies enhance employee concentration and decrease absenteeism. Allowing dogs in the workplace aids recruitment and improves retention. It’s quite remarkable, really, the way letting people bring their pets to work can turn a bitter, disorganized and dysfunctional shop into a model of peaceful profitability.

Unless it isn’t.

dogBoardMeetingThe movement toward pet-friendly workplaces became official in 1996 when Pet Sitters International staged the first Take Your Dog to Work Day in Britain. The group’s Yankee branch followed suit in 1999, and the one-day experiment has been lapping up calendar pages ever since.

About 39 percent of American households contain one or more dog, and about 7 percent of American businesses allow one or more dogs on the premises, up from 5 percent in 2010. Approximately 5 percent of pet owners report bringing their dog to work “regularly”, another 7 percent said they do so “sometimes” and a more pet-independent 4 percent “rarely” share their cubicle with their canine. Together, the 16 percent of dog-owners currently taking advantage of their dog-friendly work environments comprise something like 6 percent of the workforce. And while that fraction is clearly fine with having Fido underfoot, reviews from the remaining 94 percent are, um, mixed.

According to a national marketing survey, where 34 percent of non-dog-bringers think they might be “happier” with dogs in the workplace, 63 percent are concerned the animals present stress-inducing “health and safety issues.” And while 25 percent believe dog-friendly policies “improve productivity”, a full 69 percent predict only productivity-sapping “distractions.” If recent studies are to be believed, they’re all right.

officepet-front-leadTrue, dogs in the workplace can improve employee morale, but mostly for those employees bringing their dogs to work. Noting that many dog-owners feel “guilty” and “worried” about leaving their pets home alone, a recent university study found that most experienced an 11 percent decrease in stress when allowed to bring their pet to the office and a 70 percent increase in stress when not.  And while statistics suggest that dog-owners are, indeed, more likely to accept and retain jobs in dog-friendly workplaces, it’s harder to say how many promising prospects are lost to such policies because studies on the pet-policy preferences of dog-less applicants are in short supply.  

It’s also true that dog-friendly policies can increase productivity by decreasing long lunches taken by employees rushing home to check on their dogs, and eliminating personal days taken for veterinary visits or to stay home with sick animals. But several companies experimenting with pup-pleasing programs have reported significant and expensive inefficiencies resulting from work-time lost to dog-feeding, dog-walking, dog-wrangling and general dog-tending.

sickDogOf “health and safety issues,” only about 10 percent of dog-owners “regularly” or “sometimes” bringing their dog to work say they would leave the animal home if it was sick or injured. Of the 4 percent “rarely” bringing their pets to the office, many say they take that step precisely because the animal is sick or injured. Thing is, animal behavioral specialists agree that a sick or injured dog is also a nervous dog, and that a nervous dog is far more likely to bite the friendly hand that pets it. What’s more, there are several diseases that move easily from dog to human, among them dog tapeworm, hookworm, roundworm and brucellosis. While the chances of cross-infection aren’t especially high, concern about the possibility is not without foundation.

The single greatest health question facing dogs in the workplace is purely allergic. About 7 percent of the human population is allergic to dogs, enough that dog allergy is recognized as a legal disability under the Americans with Disabilities Act. And no, there’s no such thing as a hypoallergenic dog, and short-haired pups aren’t less sneeze-inducing than the shaggier breeds. Also covered by the ADA is cynophobia, a fear of dogs shared to some degree by more than 30 percent of those Americans seeking treatment for an anxiety disorder.

Dog-AllergiesIf many dog owners dismiss apprehension about dog bites, dog diseases, dog dander and dog phobias in relation to their own well-tempered, well-immunized, well-scrubbed and, well-favored pets, business owners probably shouldn’t. Employee lawsuits stemming from dog bites, dog-allergies and dog phobias are increasingly common, increasingly successful, and can result in ADA penalties up to $75,000 for a first offense. On advice of their attorneys, many businesses have ultimately rescinded their dog-friendly policies, while others have sought to limit their liability by designating dog-friendly days, establishing dog-free zones and limiting the number of dogs allowed on-site at any given time. In a cautious spirit of accommodation, many employers now require employees determined to bring their dogs to work to first either sign an indemnification agreement taking the company completely off the hook, or privately purchase insurance covering any injuries, discomfitures or legal expenses incurred in the event their mutt misbehaves on company time.

There’s no question that dogs are great. They’re smart and loyal and loving and brave. They’re Man’s best friend. And yet something over 80 percent of the clock-punching public would rather not see dogs in the workplace. So why do they? Call it the Muzzle Effect.

“Many dog owners are very vigorous in support of pet-friendly workplace policies,” reads a report from the human resources firm EMSYS. “Co-workers opposed to such policies rarely voice their objections for fear of being labeled ‘anti-dog.’”

NoDogs

The laugh factor – ancient art of mirth still good for what ails you

 

Don’t worry, be happy

The more I live, the more I think that humor is the saving sense  Jacob August Riis

 Somebody – okay, everybody – once said that laughter is the best medicine.

Granted, back-fence physicians also claim that enough chicken noodle soup can cure everything from plantars warts to irritable bowels to ebola. But even as a blind pig will occasionally turn up an acorn, so a spoonful of sugar really can help the medicine go down, and may even offer an apple-free method for keeping the doctor away. Nothing personal, Doc.

Trouble is, sickness comes in a broad range of styles and colors. While a discount clown and a few balloon animals may easily divert a child in bed with the measles, a person diagnosed with cancer can be a tougher audience. From the moment the word “positive” is first uttered, the cancer patient quickly becomes caught up in a whirling, slow-motion cyclone of medications and doctors, neither of which are especially funny. Throw in a blizzard of insurance forms, a sea of cast-down eyes and the shadowy specter of awaiting Charon, and one might sooner crack a coconut with a hard stare as crack a smile.

But one must try, and not just because a cheerful disposition is about the only thing an HMO can’t charge a co-pay for. As it happens, laughter works.

A merry heart doeth good like a medicine; but a broken spirit drieth the bones  Proverbs 17:22

 Fact is, folks in the leech trade recognized humor’s restorative properties long before a diapered Hippocrates licked his first candy thermometer. Greek physicians of old commonly prescribed convalescent cases a trip to a “house of comedians,” and better Roman hospitals often kept comics on staff to cheer the sick. In medieval times, surgeons told jokes to distract their patients during surgery.

Of course, ancient medicos also believed that bat poop, taken internally, effectively cleansed the body of poisonous vapors, malevolent demons and Syrian spears. Fortunately, modern research amply supports their conviction that good spirits are good for what ails you.

Before anyone does anything rash, like blow the rent money on a Monty Python boxed-set, it should be noted that laughter doesn’t actually cure anything, at least not directly. But studies cited by the American Cancer Society strongly suggest that a hearty chuckle now and then confers numerous physical and psychological benefits. For starters, the simple act of laughing increases breathing, which spurs oxygen use and raises the heart rate. Next, even mild hilarity decreases the level of neuroendocrine and stress-related hormones in the body. Less stress means more laughter means less stress and so on ad infinitum.

Another study links laughter to an increased tolerance for pain, perhaps through the release of as-yet-unidentified endorphins in the brain that inhibit pain transmission. And a bunch of people who make it their business to know these things report that regular doses of mirth can stimulate the body’s immune system, which is a very useful system that should be stimulated at every opportunity.

More remarkably, humorless scientists exploring the biological impact of humor on the brain have discovered that even pointless musings of self-described humorist Bob Saget can have unexpectedly sanguinary – if not particularly humorous – results. To hear them tell it, as a joke begins, the left hemisphere of the cortex immediately begins processing words. The action then moves to the frontal lobe where it’s registered that what’s about to happen will be “funny.” Moments later, the brain’s right hemisphere synthesizes those two factors and searches for a pattern. In a trice, activity in the occipital lobe hits the roof as one “gets” the joke and – except in the case of Bob Saget – laughter ensues. The point of that tiresome recitation being that humor invites the entire brain to the party, or, in psycho-speak, tends to integrate and balance activity in both hemispheres of the brain. And that’s good.

Geez. In clinical terms, even fun doesn’t sound all that fun. Still, the movement to add humor to medicine’s accepted canon of treatments is steadily gaining ground, to the point where it’s been granted a tag – humor therapy.

According to the ACS, hospitals across the country now offer humor therapy rooms chock full of funny books, funny magazines, funny videos and, sometimes, funny people – whatever it takes to turn that frown upside down. In other cases, treatment centers simply detail volunteers to sit with patients and act as friendly foils for the kind of spontaneous laughter that comes naturally with casual banter. There’s a good reason behind those hospital hi-jinks, too. Statistically, folks who look on the sunny side get better faster and stay that way longer. Who knew?

There is no defense against adverse fortune which is so effectual as an habitual sense of humor  Tomas W. Higginson

 As any author of limericks will attest, humor’s principal boon is spiritual. Merriment eases the heart, calms the mind and reduces great and terrible issues to more manageable dimensions. Laughter takes the starch out of life’s many stiff collars, so to speak. In her book, Pulmonary Rehabilitation: Guidelines to Success, critical care nurse and tireless therapeutic humor champion Patty Wooten explains thusly:

The ability to laugh at a situation or problem gives us a feeling of superiority and power. Humor and laughter can foster a positive and hopeful attitude. We are less likely to succumb to feelings of depression and helplessness if we are able to laugh at what is troubling us.

At bottom, it’s about quality of life, and life is never sweeter than when punctuated by heartfelt giggles, snorts, hoots and guffaws. And it isn’t only the ill who could use a good laugh. The families and friends of the suffering carry their own freight of anxieties, and humor shines its beneficent light evenly.

Laughter rises out of tragedy, when you need it the most, and rewards you for your courage  Erma Bombeck