February 25, 2014

My week of loving-kindness

My son Ben recently sent me a link to “Celebrities Read Mean Tweets” on YouTube. The bit is an ongoing series of videos created by Jimmy Kimmel that feature celebrities reading nasty tweets people have written about them.

The videos are at times hilarious and cleverly steeped in both schadenfreude and empathy. As it turns out, celebrities are people, too. Who knew? The celebrities, who are mostly movie and TV stars, come off as extremely sporting. And the people who wrote the tweets are exposed for the callous jerks they are. And yet, some of them are funny.

The readings provoked an unexpected emotional response: They made me examine my own history of bad manners.

Being genetically steeped in sarcasm and nurtured on snark, I am no stranger to spouting an occasionally mean-spirited comment. (I might even have been known to write one or two smart-arsed comments in these pages over the years.) And the Internet, a cesspool of tweets, comments, blogs and gossip, seems to taunt us into saying something snotty every time we touch the keyboard. There is a whole industry of mean “journalism”: Gawker, Huffington Post, Jezebel, TMZ and on and on. Not to mention print tabloids.

I’m not making excuses, but the snark that seems ever on my tongue isn’t usually in my head. In there, it’s all love and joy and puppies and gentle pleasantries, but when I open my mouth, sometimes the steaming piss-stream of a beast with seven heads and 10 horns just kinda, you know, comes out.

The “Mean Tweets” videos made me ask myself: When am I being funny and when am I just being mean? If a comment is truly funny, is it OK if it’s a little mean? And then there’s the reverse problem: How to be gentle without being sappy. Could I be kind while still being funny? If there’s a wisecrack-meanness spectrum from, say, Lewis Black to Jimmy Fallon, the ideal is probably somewhere in the middle: maybe Bill Cosby.

So I decided to test myself. For one week, I scored every comment that came to mind for its grade on the meanness scale. If the comment had even a shred of malice, I either tempered it or kept it to myself. It was a very quiet week.

Oddly, one of the biggest challenges came while simply watching television. I am your worst nightmare as a movie or TV companion, pointing out every flaw in plot or performance. I’m such a stickler for plausibility that whole genres are off limits to me: science fiction, fantasy, action, crime, thrillers — pretty much 95 percent of what comes out of Hollywood. (I was a huge disappointment to my entire family for refusing to sit still for even five minutes of “Lost.”) But the comments I found myself suppressing weren’t really funny. They were more of the “Like that would ever happen” variety. Score one for loving-kindness.

Another challenge came when a perfectly pleasant and charming woman in a business suit asked me if I’d like to attend a one-hour information session about a timeshare in Las Vegas. The first thought that came to my mind was to say, “Thanks, but I would rather undergo a Sriracha enema,” but instead I smiled and said, “No, thanks.” A moderately funny line didn’t justify being mean. Another score for kindness.

It actually became kind of fun to hold my tongue. But is it sustainable? Is it long-lasting fun or the kind of fun that comes early in a regimen of healthy eating that eventually gives way to a frenzy of tacos and beer? And can I make it to the end of this paragraph without saying that someone I’ve never met, let’s say Miley Cyrus, SUCKS SO BAD? Time will tell.

I undertook this experiment without telling anyone. And at the end of the week, exactly no one noticed. So either mean-spirited wise-assery is so ubiquitous that I’m not really a standout, or I wasn’t really great at loving-kindness. Maybe it’s good just to try. Surely mindless little insults have some kind of negative impact on my mental outlook.

Meanwhile, Ben is much better at not being mean than his father (no doubt owing to his mother’s genetics and influence). But he still manages to be hilariously funny, as any of his eighth-grade students will attest, without being mean. So I guess my role model was under my nose all along.