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September 2, 2009

Kid about it

 

I have decided to wean myself off one of my worst addictions.

Over the years I have developed my own behavior modification system. I used it to quit smoking cigarettes a few years ago. That wasn’t easy. It took a lot of reprogramming, but I did it, and when I quit, I knew the cigarette in my hand would be my last. I was done, and the urges I had subsequently weren’t enough to overcome the strength of my knowledge that I didn’t ever want to smoke another cigarette.

I quit drinking carbonated beverages in much the same fashion. Over the last couple years, I have been changing my attitude toward meat and adjusting my diet accordingly. Having a 9-year-old son, I’m afraid I’ll find it difficult to stop eating fast food, but I’ve cut back on that a great deal as well. American life is loaded with unhealthy options. It seems like everything I want to do is bad for me.

More recently, I decided to eliminate one of my most unhealthy behaviors: irony. A friend in college used to call it “No for Yes,” a game where, in response to a simple question (ex. “Will you pass the salt, please?”), a person answers “No,” but performs the requested favor. Of course, this “No” is delivered with an inflection of knowing irony, as if to say, “You hardly need to ask, the gesture is meaninglessly simple, and responding in the affirmative is practically an insult to our shared intelligence.”

Like cholesterol, irony is ubiquitous. It runs roughshod over the landscape of communication in modern life. There is hardly a message conveyed that isn’t tainted by irony.

I blame “Seinfeld.” What a great show that was! But, how terrible! What an awful little group of people! These were not models for good behavior, examples of how we, as citizens of the modern world, could pursue happiness. This was (and I am, of course, assuming that you have seen an episode or two) a cautionary metaphor, disguised as a fun, hip approach to life. But ultimately, in its effort to maintain the status quo, the show created little more than a Sartrean hell. The final episode offered a perfect example of this, as Jerry, Elaine, Kramer and George found themselves locked in a jail cell for what was little more than a minor misunderstanding.

To that end, every relationship, every new acquaintance was begun with a critical eye toward its failing. There was a tacit understanding that the humanity of each character would be devalued, that there would be a “deal-breaker” (as the idea has been advanced via Tina Fey and “30 Rock”). Ah, but that is the nature of situation comedy. Of humor. Reduce, reuse, recycle.

As a writer, I find it ironic that I have become such an opponent of irony. That’s even worse than when it rains on your wedding day. (Um, that’s a reference to Alanis Morissette’s ironically ignorant song, “Ironic,” which failed to present a single example of actual irony. Ha ha ha. Maybe that was her goal all along, to mis-define a common term of art for a whole generation of college students who weren’t paying attention in English 101. How could I have missed the irony in that!? Ha ha ha. That’s another joke on me.)

The Internet is replacing face-to-face communication (and even voice-only communication, i.e. telephone). Absent is the knowing wink, the nudge and/or the most basic of human communication elements: inflection. A playful comment can become an insult faster than the speed of “Send.” Just try getting the idea of the playful “Shut up!” across in an e-mail without hurting somebody’s feelings. Can’t be done.

As an ambitious communicator (and a terribly witty one, if I am to believe my close friends and relatives), I can’t realistically eliminate irony from my arsenal of linguistic tricks, but I don’t want to be part of a problem that threatens to destroy intimacy in human communication. I realize that glibness can cause confusion or hurt feelings, even when it seems obvious one’s listener is in on the joke. I don’t know exactly where it comes from, but I recognize that my skin is curiously thin in this regard, so I’m not interested in testing it.

For further consideration: For surprisingly un-ironic entertainment, check out any of Hayao Miyazaki’s animated features: “Spirited Away,” “Princess Mononoke,” “Howl’s Moving Castle,” “My Neighbor Totoro” or his latest, “Ponyo,” which is still in theaters, if you act fast.