Wednesday, September 13, 2023

"Oh Brother, Not Again"


"Oh brother, not again." It was a phrase that a small group of children had decided came with a built in laugh. Over the course of any given day, they would say it a dozen times or more, always cracking one another up. Sometimes they would use it in context, like when their block tower toppled over, but it was more often deployed during random moments. It didn't matter, it always got a laugh. Once a boy who had hurt himself in a fall even managed to laugh at the joke through his tears.

I hear it as an old fashioned expression, so I image that one of them picked it up from a vintage book or cartoon rather than an adult in their lives. Whatever the case, it delighted them and, in turn, it delighted me.

Over the course of weeks, this hackneyed phrase was an important plaything, one they tried out again and again, in a variety of circumstances. But where they seemed to find it most useful was the it reliably introduced the option of levity to tense or painful situations. More than one argument was diffused by an onlooker sighing, "Oh brother, not again." It was a magic spell in that it obliged the children in this group to laugh, not matter what else was going on.

My wife and I have a few jokes like this, one-liners we say to one another, particularly when things look grim. "This is the critical phase" might no longer incur belly laughs, but it does, even after nearly 40 years, still have the capacity to make us chuckle, often through our metaphorical tears, a reminder of all the other "critical phases" we've encountered together.

"Louder and funnier" is one that comes from my wife's family. "Get with the times" is a joke I picked up from my brother. They aren't particularly funny to you because the humor is embedded in the story of the relationship between people. To the rest of the world, they are empty words, clich├ęs, yet to those on the inside they are plump with so much meaning that to evoke them is to completely alter the emotional content of a moment.

No one teaches us about these kinds of jokes. They emerge as a natural part of human bonding, even among preschoolers. Each time a child would say, "Oh brother, not again," I found myself chuckling along, shaking my head in wonder over this sophisticated thing that the children were doing. As the renowned Russian psychologist Lev Vygotsky wrote, "Through others we become ourselves," and that, it seems to me is what they were doing: becoming themselves, both individually and collectively, unified behind this tired joke that they had revived and made their own. 

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