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'God not only gave us hearts ... he gave us laughter, too'

Sunday, September 23, 2001

By Deborah Mendenhall and Mackenzie Carpenter, Post-Gazette Staff Writers

After the shock and tears of the past two weeks, one question hangs over us all -- when will we laugh again?

"Sooner than we think, longer than we'd hope," said Paul Friday, a psychologist at UPMC Shadyside. "It will be somewhere between never and today."

"The problem is," Friday said, "Leno and Letterman can't laugh much right now. And when they can't laugh, no one else can either. Our brains don't allow us to."

People's emotions are buried like land mines and still can erupt unexpectedly into grief, terror, anger and numbing shock. People feel vaguely displaced, and yet American flags in unlikely places make them swell with pride, or scenes of memorials bring tears to their eyes.

All that's missing is the carefree laughter we had just two weeks ago.

When President Bush told Americans to go back to work, he also was sending the message that Americans should try to resume normal lives. But many are finding that's not as easy as it sounds.

Psychologists say that's normal.

"When we have a crisis, we are extremely distressed, obviously," said Steven Sultanoff, a Costa Mesa, Calif., clinical psychologist and "mirthologist," who practices therapeutic humor. "The first stage of our recovery is to process our stress through the grief and horror and shock."

"One of the beautiful things humor does is take away stressful emotions, but part of the healing is wanting to experience and process stressful emotions. If humor takes us away from doing that, we may feel frustrated, angry and that others aren't taking our distress seriously."

That's one reason many people think having too much fun too soon is inappropriate.

Complicating the issue is the fact that people heal at different rates. Those who are ready to laugh again are waiting for a sign, but based on the behavior of the nation's leading funnymen last week, that time is only starting to arrive.

On Monday, a somber David Letterman watched, stricken, while his guest, CBS anchorman Dan Rather, began weeping while talking about firefighters who lost their lives. Later last week, another guest was able to talk about a man who joined firefighters at the World Trade Center and had to convince his wife it wasn't an excuse for coming home late.

"I've heard about comedy clubs where attendance was low, but those who were there got up and hugged the comedians and thanked them for being there because they needed a break," Sultanoff said. "On the other hand, there are thousands that would be appalled" at people enjoying a comedy routine.

In the Pittsburgh region, people are slowly starting to inch back toward normalcy, seeking diversions and returning to routines.

And some are trying to learn to have fun again.

On Wednesday morning, Lucille O'Neill of Munhall and her sister, Barbara Simak, of Lincoln Place met for breakfast at Eat 'n Park and headed for Bed Bath & Beyond for a shopping trip. They met because, even though "there's kind of a dismal film over everything, things just don't seem as bad when we're together," O'Neill said.

In Squirrel Hill, Lee Mai Carroll, a flight attendant for US Airways' international division who was diverted to Halifax when the attacks occurred, worked in her garden to feel better.

And that night, in the cozy darkness of the Funny Bone, a comedy club in Station Square, a sparse group waited for the show to begin so they could laugh again.

Thousands of people attended the Pirates home games this past week, "and people were cheerful, definitely," said Jim Trdinich, a spokesman for the team.

And the regulars are still showing up for their weekly bowling league nights, according to employees at Funfest Entertainment Center in Harmarville. "It's a little more subdued here, a kind of a mood where people seem preoccupied. But it's not like no one's having a good time," said a spokesman.

Friday, who also practices therapeutic humor, said all of these activities are an attempt to find stability, while "there's a war going on in our brains."

At any given time, he said, three parts of our brain fight for dominance: the deep emotions of fight or flight; language and logic; and values, such as the belief that "that should not have happened," he said.

"The reason we are going crazy over the terrorists is because the values in the frontal lobes, or 'that shouldn't have happened,' are in conflict with the deep emotions of fight or flight" that came in response to the terrible fact that it did.

People need to feel settled before they can laugh easily and readily.

"Laughter comes in when we are ready for balance," Friday said. "We can laugh as long as our world is stable. There's not a lot of humor in psychiatric wards."

Local humorous talk show hosts Gary Dickson and Jim Merkel, who run the popular WWSW-FM (94.5) four-hour morning show that blends oldies with chat, were striving for balance last week. The attacks had turned the usually lighthearted call-in show deadly serious.

By Tuesday, a week after the crashes, Dickson told listeners that higher-ups had casually suggested the duo return to a format of fun.

"But I didn't feel very funny," Dickson said in an interview. "I had a battle going on within myself and I think the listeners did, too. While I wanted to cheer people up, because I don't have any other marketable skills, I didn't want to show disrespect. So I opened the phone lines and let people talk."

Two camps emerged -- those who wanted to laugh and those who felt it was highly inappropriate, Dickson said. By Friday's show, there were more lighthearted moments.

On Wednesday, Danny and Penny Barnett of Troy Hill decided to use a gift certificate to Top of the Triangle, the restaurant atop the U.S. Steel building that is going out of business at the end the month.

"It was kind of weird," said Barnett. "You really did think about being so high up. The guy across from me kept looking for airplanes."

At the Community Presbyterian Church in Ben Avon, plans were on for the annual rummage and bake sale, which were to take place Friday and yesterday, said Jane DeSimone, president of the women's association.

But nerves were still on edge. One sign: A donation of crocheted throws, normally called afghans, had been renamed Freedom Blankets.

"I have cried a million tears in this," DeSimone said, "but God not only gave us hearts to feel with, he gave us laughter, too, and we have to use it."

Karissa Miller, 22, who has undergone surgery three times for brain cancer, said she has relied on laughter while recuperating -- which was one reason she and her husband went to the Funny Bone Wednesday. "Laughter really is the best medicine, a real spiritual healer, and I know that from experience," she said.

And while there were plenty of raunchy quips flying through the air at the Station Square comedy club, this past week's featured comics -- John Knight, Chuck Krieger and Bill Scott -- weren't going near the subject of the tragedy, said Randy Brodsky, Funny Bones' manager.

Said Bill Scott, one of the comedians: "You know the old equation, tragedy plus time equals comedy? I don't know if that will ever apply to this particular situation, ever."

Many have observed that gallows humor, which usually proliferates after catastrophic events, has been absent since these events.

But Sultanoff, the California psychologist, said the first signs of humor that refer to the terror are beginning to emerge.

He cited an e-mail joke a Chicago colleague sent out last week that said he wasn't worried about going to a baseball game because "no terrorist in his right mind would bomb a Cubs game and put the city of Chicago out of its misery."

"I thought that was good," he said.

Other early humor, Sultanoff said, will come from the people who have survived the incidents. "We'll know it's time to laugh again when victims begin laughing," he said.

One example he heard last week was from a woman who had been burned in the New York attacks and had some fat removed from her buttocks to use in reconstructive surgery elsewhere on her body. "Oh good," she said. "Now I don't have to have liposuction."

Friday said he too has seen evidence that humor is making a comeback.

"I saw a news clip of New York Mayor Rudolph Giuliani and Hillary Clinton walking down the street," Friday said. "Giuliani said something and Hillary laughed. It was good. It's already starting to change. We're getting there."

And when we do, both Friday and Sultanoff said, humor will become important for us to be able to heal as individuals and as a nation.

"It puts our life in perspective," Sultanoff said. "This is a horrific thing that happened, but it's part of a bigger picture. When we get through the shock and pain, and realize it is not disrespectful to go on with life, I think we will see great healing in our nation."

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