Fats Waller said that one of his ambitions was to travel the country, preaching sermons with a big band in back of him. I feel the same tendency twice a year, so I encourage any reader who might find me even slightly didactic to turn the leaf and choose another page.
My travels in the land of jazz (and elsewhere) bring me face to face with men of my generation who affect a certain bluff, gruff heartiness as their mode of conversation with other men. It is meant to resemble comic friendliness, but it has bits of broken glass mixed in. This “being funny” has come to feel downright hurtful. “Making a joke” isn’t amusing when it’s at someone’s expense.
I do not exempt myself from blame. For a long time I was a small-time energetic Mocker, a Satirist, someone made fun of the failings of himself and his friends. I’ve tried to stop doing this. It’s mean. It is the very opposite of welcoming and loving.
I guess that many men grew up believing that if you displayed your affection for another man, if you showed that you were delighted he was there, you were girlish — behavior to be avoided lest someone think you insufficiently manly.
But if “Joe, you old rascal. Tired of bothering the girls at Safeway and they let you out to come here?” really means, “Joe, I am always glad to see you and am happy you are here,” or even, “Joe, I love you,” why not say it and drop all the “funny” banter that is really nasty stuff?
I suspect that some of the “comedy” is because we feel Small in ourselves (“Will anyone notice how tiny I have gotten? Does anyone love me?”) and one way to feel Bigger is to make others feel Small. If everyone is busy laughing at Joe, they will be too busy to laugh at Us.
But I believe that when we act lovingly, the questions of Who’s Bigger and Who’s Smaller quickly become inconsequential. And laughter with an edge is like any sharp thing: you never know who’s bleeding once the ruckus stops. (In this century, “edgy” has come to seem a term of modern praise. Think about it.)
Should any reader think I am being too hard on my fellow Males, I know that Women do this too — I think of Mildred and Bessie meeting on the street and one saying to the other, “I have this dress that’s too big for me. Why don’t you take it?” which I used to think was hilarious. Now I wish they could just have given each other a hug and shut up. Love is more important than what the scale says.
I offer two kinds of music for meditations on Meanness, which you know used to mean a kind of ungenerous smallness. Although these songs are based on the drama of the unresponsive or cold lover, let their melody and words (thank you, Roy Turk and Fred Ahlert) ring in your head before you — out of careless habit — say something Mean:
and almost a decade later:
If you show your heart to people, they show theirs back to you.
May your happiness increase!