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Smile, Laugh, Cry – Elizabeth Wadsworth Ellis

May 7, 2022 | Non Fiction | 0 comments


The lyrics say You’ll find that life is just worthwhile if you just smile.* I happened to look at the pictures in the obituaries that the families chose and wondered what they meant to transmit when they decided which photo to use. Smiling makes us seem friendly, kind, and relaxed; to indicate a happy good life. Of the 47 men and 31 women pictured, only four men and two women were not smiling.

The dictionary defines smiling as pleasure; a favoring aspect. A spontaneous smile is fearless, honest. A non-smiling face is threatening “the shortest distance between two people,” Victor Borge said. Character is transmitted through our mien. The face is an introduction to what you can expect from its owner. We are hard-wired to read the face within two seconds to safety or danger. An instructor once told her class, “I can read your face, but I can’t read your mind.” In Korea it is called “reading the eyes.”

The mirror effect says that we will reflect back good or bad what we see in them. The frown is seen as unfriendly, suspicious, using caution, guarded; is anxious, worried, concerned, obsessed with tension.

It is said that the only genuine smile is the crinkle at the eyes, every other reason to smile can be faked. Think politician fake. The fraud, the phony smile intent is put on for cause, to fool, delude or disguise. People can fake something they want or need you to believe. “He smiles because he wants something from you,” David Foster Wallace wrote. An aide said President Clinton knew how to choose a spot over people’s head to make them think he was smiling at them. Some people smile only when the photo is taken. A smirk is a “knowing smile,” “affected” the dictionary says. The stern or angry person cannot or will not smile. Their frown is sober, serious.

Humans of all the primate groupings are the only primate capable of the fake smile. “Laughing frequently can employ, conceal or mask.” [Darwin] Crow’s feet are branded genuine. Somewhere it is written that a Native American tribe celebrates a baby’s first laugh because it proves them totally human. When our babies would smile their grandmothers would scold, “Oh, that’s just gas.” Humor depends on incongruity that provide the “Ah-ha!” moment.   When the airline gate agent was trained to greet flyers with a standard boiler-plate, “Hello, how are you,” elderly ladies believed him. They told him. Laughing and smiling aren’t always happy. Smiles are universal.

People alone without stimulation get frightened with the boredom of being by themselves and maybe they can’t find a reason to smile. We are after all social beings. Jean W. makes me smile because her smile is welcoming. Who makes you smile?

If you just smile*  (lyrics by Parsons, Geoffrey Turner, John)
Sources: Bates, Brian; Cleese; John; Darwin, Charles.



When I lived in Russia, I heard kids squeal with laughter and scream while sledding fast downhill in winter snow just like kids at home and I wondered is screaming de rigueur to having fun? And was screaming exhilaration? Or fear? Or both? When I saw U.S.A. kids scream on amusement rides, I looked at the carneys standing by stoic sober-faced, bored, and not having any fun at all. When I was invited to a male strip show, the emcee yelled at the sober-faced, bored attendees not having any fun at all, “C’mon gals! Put your hands together and give it up for the guys!” Gutter balls? Strike outs? It isn’t any fun when you’re not any good at it. What if laughter really were tears, Soren Kiergaard asked.

One theory says that humor heals when we turn harm in to help, when no one gets hurt in the end.* According to Emil Kraepelin (1856-1926), “A joke is the arbitrary connecting of linking principles by means of linguistic association—of two ideas that contrast each other in some way. The result is surprise and illumination overlapping conflicting frames of reference.” According to The New Yorker, humor is “two completely unrelated frames of reference that a good line will comically glue together.” Jonah Lehrer’s book Imagine explains that the inhibitor switch in our brain turns off when we go to sleep and that Improv students learn to exercise this anything-goes-humor, i.e., that faux pas are funny; playful, even humor balances pleasure with pain. A Dead End sign leads to a cemetery and the “Exit” sign on a crematorium should point up.

I saw an All-You-Can-Eat restaurant next door to a Weight Watchers franchise. The sign posted on the enclosure read “Long Fence.” I thought it meant, “Don’t even consider a short cut or cutting through. This is a long fence.” Do you pull up grass at a Yard Sale? Is Toys-R-Us a Playboy Club?

Jokes depend on assumptions. I asked Pest Control, “You do boyfriends?”

Headline: Guard dog stolen. Want ad: “Wedding gown for sale.” The sign in the parking lot read Patient Parking Only and I wonder where do impatient people park?

At the grocery store I asked, “This sign says natural pistachios, where do you keep the unnatural pistachios?” and the grocer replied, “In the trunk of my car. Wanna see ‘em?”

Headline: Guard Dog Stolen

What isn’t funny? “Offensive,” a man said. Sense of humor is the ability to discern what is funny and what’s not. A joke at your expense has hostility crouched in it. Perhaps that explains the term punch line. Being the butt of a joke, insults, veiled aggression, like a food fight scene in a movie. “They couldn’t make Blazing Saddles today,” someone said. Slapstick humor was a different era. Only when it’s quid pro quo, when you get as good as you give is it O.K., e.g., Eddie Murphy battling Dave Chapelle, or Archie Bunker when someone brings him down a notch. Teasing is a form of ADR (Alternative Dispute Resolution) to vent, disguise or defend anger and hostility short of harm, or attack convention, ridicule and rebel and challenge society and pretentions. Razzing (“Can’t you take a joke?”) pushes a man to the edge, a test of his tolerance. “A man can control you if he can drive you to fight,” Walter Mosley wrote.

Soldiers joke to hide anxiety, by laughing at themselves. In a combat zone (Black Hawk Down) laughter can be palliative.

When I went into premature labor the day before my father’s birthday party, my sister quipped, “Some people will do anything to get out of making potato salad.” When our family cat lay dead in the street hit by a car, my sons and I wailed in grief and their sister dead-panned, “Well, get a shovel.”

A man I know approached the cashier to pay for his purchase at the service station. The cashier asked, “Did you have gas with that?” He replied, “Isn’t that kind of personal?” When I went in to pay for my purchase, my ex-husband was in front of me in line writing a check. I joked to the cashier, “You’re not going to take that, are you?”

I hear street workers curse each other out, but they laugh a good-natured laugh.  Nonsense and titter form a laugh without rancor. We joke and wisecrack to relieve tension and stress. The ability to make jokes, with oneself as the butt is spunky, a barometer of surviving, Vivian Gornick wrote. People like you when you laugh.

Satire can be evil and derisive, a caustic attack to expose folly, stupidity, and incompetence. Funny can be snide, hidden behind and beneath. According to Bob Mankoff of The New Yorker, “Humor thrives on conflict, needs a target; is antidote to overthinking, is contradiction and paradox, a coping mechanism, “a release of tension.

Seinfeld said timing, inflection and attitude determine humor and, “Candy is the only reason to live when you’re a kid.” One day my granddaughter was crying. We teased my granddaughter out of her tears. She was anxious so we gave her both affection and trust that she would be alright. She laughed for sheer relief. Laughter broke her tears.

Oh, and about those kids in Russia squealing with laughter and screams while sledding fast downhill in winter snow? I screamed and laughed when my grandkids asked me to slide down the hill with them. It was exhilaration, fear, and fun, and nobody got hurt.



I cried when my house was broken into. I cried when my car broke down five miles after USD 1,000 was spent on repairs. I was angry. Am I a crybaby?

I came to tears out of frustration and rage interviewing an abusive man. What we most want and most fear when I didn’t want to expose my vulnerability and weakness to his vitriol. He successfully pierced my Achilles’ heel. Losing control of emotion can come with a price. “Alone in the hospital Serpico cried for the first time as an adult out of frustration and rage and sorrow. [Peter Maas] Two men told me crying tears while watching movies embarrassed them. They wiped their tears away secretly. I cried watching T.V.’s Lassie as a child (and ducked my head).

“Did you cry?” I asked his wife when her husband’s hand was severed in a farm implement. “What good would that have done!” she spat. Can we—should we—reasonably judge another’s tears? Is crying wrong? A woman told me she never cries, but her sister, “could cry at the drop of a hat.” Crying is emotion, lacks objectivity, is irrational; disables good decision-making and necessary action.

Can crying be fraudulent? Manipulative? Genuine? Abuse of power or influence? Joni Mitchell claims laughing and crying you know is the same release. When I saw one mourner console another during a funeral their grief brought me tears. “This must be empathy at work,” I thought. I came to tears seeing a young man victimized by a bully in a street brawl. When the family cat was hit by a car, my sons and both I bawled. Their sister quipped, “Well, time to get a shovel.” When the beauty of a concert brought me to tears, daughter told me, “Mom told me you were like this.” When she was in kindergarten, her teacher told this same granddaughter “Crying must stop!” Is it okay for a child to grieve? The dentist slapped me when I was her age and couldn’t stop crying.

“Crybaby!” boys will tease and taunt a boy on the playground or the campground. Crying in combat could prove fatal when a soldier can’t control emotion, can’t function, and can’t assist his comrades. Does strength imply overcoming feelings? Separate the men from the boys? Is that courage? Fear? Inhibition regulates emotion, thought and attention in order to conserve energy, avoid waste.

Crying: An Eskimo laughs at his grandson and the boy cries which makes the man laugh harder.* Eskimos in Greenland teach boy-children to have a sense of humor. In Afghanistan, according to Robert Byron, if a six-year-old boy weeps, they call him woman.

*Source: Professor Pete McGraw’s Benign Violation
If you just smile* (lyrics by Parsons, Geoffrey Turner, John)
Sources: Bates, Brian; Cleese; John, Darwin, Charles
*Source: Kounios, John Eureka Aha Moments, Creative Insight, and the Brain New York: Random House, [2015].


For Elizabeth Wadsworth Ellis, words are doctrine; the library, her basilica. Her work was accepted for publication by literary journals such as The Antonym, Bluntly, Bell, Denver Quarterly, Oregon State’s “45th Parallel,” Poached Hare, and Underwood.


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