Daily Archives: December 5th, 2012
Even before I got cancer, my favorite kind of humor was the type you might call “painfully funny.” One of my favorite short stories, to read and to teach, is “The Approximate Size of My Favorite Tumor,” by Sherman Alexie. Jimmy Many Horses has spent his life “laughing to keep from crying,” as the old song goes, telling jokes to gain some illusion of control in bad situations, to claim his humanity in the midst of chaos, death, or inhumanity. Problem is, he can’t stop telling jokes, even when telling his wife about his visit to the doctor, giving him his diagnosis of terminal cancer:
“I told her the doctor showed me my X-rays and my favorite tumor was just about the size of a baseball, shaped like one, too. Even had stitch marks.”
“You’re full of shit.”
“No, really. I told her to call me Babe Ruth. Or Roger Maris. Maybe even Hank Aaron ’cause there must have been about 755 damn tumors inside me. Then I told her I was going to Cooperstown and sit right down in the lobby of the Hall of Fame. Make myself a new exhibit, you know? Pin my X-rays to my chest and point out the tumors What a dedicated baseball fan! What a sacrifice for the national pastime!”
While Jimmy’s wife needs him to be serious for a moment, to give her a chance to process her shock and grief, and while she might even have been willing to join him in jokes to cope later — Jimmy cannot stop and give her that time, even when she tells him she’ll leave him if he says one more funny thing. But even in the midst of his fury at this unwanted and useless “sacrifice” that has been pressed upon him, Jimmy’s joke is brilliant, both inside and outside the context of the story.
The historical allusions to baseball and Hank Aaron’s supplanting of Babe Ruth’s home-run record (with his 755 career home runs) raise issues about the racism that plays a low-key but omnipresent role in the rest of the story. Even in 1973, when Aaron was getting close to breaking Ruth’s record, he received about 930,000 letters, the majority of them death threats or wishes that he would die: “Dear Nigger, You black animal, I hope you never live long enough to hit more home runs than the great Babe Ruth.” Another letter that has been widely quoted wishes on Aaron a disease primarily connected with Africa and her descendants: “Dear Hank Aaron, How about some sickle cell anemia, Hank?”
But cancer, as Jimmy reminds us, does not discriminate; it is not a respecter of race, class, or power. Cancer, like humor, is an equal opportunity offender. And cancer has become almost like a national pastime. You can’t go anywhere without running into those damned pink ribbons and pricey pink items commodifying death and infantilizing the very personal, protracted, and agonizing fight to survive against breast cancer, a phenomenon some angry breast-cancer survivors have labeled “pinkwashing” — all purchased with the best of intentions and the hope to find a cure. But that support ironically creates a sense of audience, of fandom and voyeurism, the pink ribbons becoming our admission tickets to the new national pastime. Cancer itself is like a bad joke that just won’t quit.
To me, it is this kind of humor that reminds us of who we are, how little we actually control, and why it all matters anyway. Continue reading →