Sunday, March 17, 2013

Death and the cartoonists -- philosophical musings and a real-life story courtesy of Bob Mankoff


I'll explain what this David Sipress cartoon is in a moment. (For now trust me that it's not an indictment of nurses in general.) Meanwhile, I can use help. Can anyone tell me what this nurse, who's not seeing patients, is doing?

"One of the functions of humor is to cope with stress and adversity. This coping mechanism is put to the ultimate test when the stress is death stress."
-- New Yorker cartoon editor Bob Mankoff, in his latest
"To Be or Not to Be Funny"

by Ken

Bob has death on his mind this week. Death and cartooning, that is. Along the way he offers a couple of his own cartoonistic ventures into deathworld, like this one:

Since Bob has deep sympathetic vibrations in the world of psychology and psychotherapy, he naturally can't settle for his own formulation, which I've quoted above, and which seems to me to fill the bill quite admirably, but has to quote somebody going deeper (and I don't mean to catch a pass). "Sometimes," he tells us, "the caregivers in these environments seem more like I-don't-care-givers. In situations like these, according to the psychologist Rod Martin":
Humor is a way of refusing to be overcome by the people and situations, both large and small, that threaten our well being. By making fun of the stupidity, incompetence, laziness or other failings of the people who frustrate, irritate, and annoy them and thwart their progress toward their goals, individuals are able to minimize the feeling of distress that these others might cause, and derive some pleasure at their expense.
Fortunately, just when Bob seems to be falling over the edge, he usually snaps out of it. "This is all pretty abstract," he tells us. "Here's a concrete example, from my assistant, Marc Philippe Eskenazi, whom you've met in these pages before, as the Caption Contest Song Contest troubadour [and we also made Marc's acquaintance at the time], whose mom passed away, ten months ago, from cancer. Take it away, Marc!"
My mom was the most independent and determined person I have ever met. And I should mention that I have met Jeff Goldblum. Because of my mother's strong spirit of independence, being in the hospital and needing the help of nurses every time she had to stand up was like a nightmare.

Most of the hospital's nurses were kind, hardworking, and responsible. Others really loved the break room. Just loved it.

Unfortunately, the few nurses that had stopped trying were the ones that made the biggest impression on my mother. My mom told me that nights in the hospital were torture, asking for a nurse in the middle of the night, hearing "I'm with another patient," and then being forgotten about.

There were many times when help would not arrive at all. Her voice had gotten so weak that she could not yell into the intercom with her request, and some nurses wouldn't bother to even come in. This broke my heart.

To my surprise, she continued to insist that this ordeal would make for a good cartoon.

The next afternoon, as I was rushing out of work to go and see her, I sent an e-mail to a few cartoonist pals. The next morning, I came into the office and I saw this in my in-box, from Benjamin Schwartz:

Then this, from Liam Walsh:

And, finally, this one, from David Sipress:

[see above]

I left work for the hospital in a rush, excited to show Mom these cartoons. It was a very special occasion, because the doctors had suggested a last-recourse plan. We would transfer her to a rehabilitation center outside of the city for her to build up a bit of strength, and then try one more chemotherapy treatment.

A bunch of the family was together in the hospital room, laughing at the cartoons, and we tacked them up on the bulletin board. Every time one of the "bad nurses" walked in, my mom eyeballed the nurse and then the cartoons, experiencing some comic empowerment as her glasses slipped off her face.

For at least those few hours, life felt hopeful, fun, and a bit mischievous. Thinking of that moment still makes me feel happy. Even knowing the way things turned out.

When I think of Mom now, regardless of how much I miss her, I know at least one thing to be true…

Bob adds: "Thanks, Marc. By the way, her kid is no slouch either."

Here again is Bob's assistant Marc-Philippe Eskenazi singing the first of two hypothetical songs for the caption-contest song contest, "This Cartoon Ain't Got No Caption," with lyrics by "Goings On About Town" editor Ben Greenman.


In the comments, our friend me says, "I always liked this one," and links to this honey, by John Jonik:


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At 9:52 PM, Anonymous me said...

I always liked this one:

Last Laugh

At 9:45 AM, Blogger KenInNY said...

Cool, me! That's really lovely, and totally on point. I'm going to add it as an update.


At 8:10 AM, Anonymous me said...

That's the way I plan to go.


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