In his beautifully titled story, “Dangerous Laughter,” Steven Millhauser describes young girls who laugh themselves into a state of ecstasy. The laughter is brought on by a tickling assault, and the girls involved quickly give themselves over into meaningless, even painful hilarity that eventually reaches an apex of hysteria, at which point the laughter breaks the laugher like a Catherine wheel, and she enters into a state of bliss and, even sometimes, complete lack of consciousness, a release deeper and more profound than mere sexual catharsis can, fairly routinely, deliver.
I’ve observed what looks like dangerous laughter a few times over the years, when, on a few occasions, Dennis will start laughing so hard that he seems in peril of having some sort of a fit. Unfortunately, this tends to cause the kids and I to laugh rather than try to help him, because the sight of Perrin père falling apart to quite that degree is physical comedy of the highest form. But while I love to laugh, I don’t consider such a thing to be a condition to which I’m particularly susceptible.
That is, until I get around my friends from college.
Let me first explain that I was a theater major at the University of Utah. Whenever I tell people my alma mater, their eyes narrow in disbelief as they say, “You? A Mormon?” Of course, the answer is no; it is for a lot of the folks at U of U. After all, the truly devout head to Brigham Young, just an hour away and The Place for an upstanding church member to go. What isn’t widely known is that, in addition to the Utes, who very occasionally distinguish themselves somewhat on a basketball court, Utah offers an absolutely kick ass arts program.
My excuse for meeting with my buds was the annual distinguished alumni recognition ceremony. A teacher beloved by not only us but students all over the country, Kenneth Washington (currently at the Guthrie), was a recipient, and included former NYCB principal and choreographer Bart Cook and indie film powerhouse Christine Walker, among others. Amidst Salt Lake City’s concrete architecture that Axis Powers would have swooned at, almost hermetically sealed in by a ring of unforgiving, witchy mountains, teachers fiercely dedicated to the arts instill in a bunch of kids mostly from Mountain time zones that art, whether performing or visual, matters. The plunge can be mighty chilly, but at the U, I and a whole bunch of other children held hands as we dove, headfirst, into those opaque and roiling waters.
While not that many of us are performing, it was very cool to see how many of us are still deeply involved in some kind of art-involved expression. One managed an outstanding regional acting company for years, one’s an archivist for one of the most progressive venues in the country, one collects art with expertise and passion worthy of Getty. The only other friends that I can immediately engage in the same kind of conversation with are the ones from NY. But of course, there I can’t combine discussions about recent plays/movies/books etc. with reminiscences about all-night theater history cram session that dissolved into raucous parties, humiliating acting class exercises that are in hindsight brilliantly funny, and an incident I had utterly forgotten wherein two of us, moi included, attempted to have sex and ended up lying on a bed together helplessly laughing.
Laughing is what we all love to do and can’t help doing when we meet, and when together, we are the most hilarious people on earth. We’ve only met twice in ten years, a schedule that needs to get a lot shorter. We do not bring spouses/significant others; they would surely be appalled and/or bored to tears. We did entertain the suggestion of subjecting our kids to the extreme punishment but doubtless character building of watching their parents act like fools. All of us make no secret of our pride in the fact that each one of said kids, who number six in total, are in the words of a non-Utah friend, “arty-farty weirdos.” What better thing to instill in your offspring than a passion for expression that is beautiful, strange, but most of all, true.
If there is danger in the laughter, it is only in how much more of it I want. After a long period that’s been alternately bittersweet and heartbreaking, I am so ready for all-consuming, giddy joy. Surrounded by people who have seen us naked literally and figuratively, who still can’t help but find the 22-year-old beauty in our half-century-old faces, and who call me by the name I was born with – the tenderness of the syllable I chopped off feels like a caress – I have realized that you can go home again as long as you go with the right people. Home is a wide world with ever-expanding boundaries, a place of laughter as glorious as it is risky.
I can’t wait to go back.