“One plucky leper”

I have been a fan of Gary Trudeau’s work for a long time.  He does a lot of current political things.  I’m pretty sure, for instance, that there will be a caricature of Donald Trump in today’s cartoon.  But a lot of the stuff he does is just classic.  This column is one of those.


I laughed out loud when I first saw it.  And then, over the next few days, it would come to mind and make me smile.  It delighted me. [1]  So first, what’s funny about it?  I don’t know many jokes that have the word “leper” in the punch line.  I think the best answer is the Trudeau is the master of discrepancy and discrepancy (the sense that this and that really don’t belong together) taken playfully, is at the heart of humor.

B.D. [2] has one line.  Boopsie (Barbara Ann Boopstein) says everything else.  And this is pure Boopsie: the relentless focus on herself, her infatuation with her “past lives,” and her focus on beauty.  In a strip that contains 76 words, Boopsie has the first 72 and they all go in the same direction.  And there’s nothing funny about them.

B.D is coming from a different place entirely.  Of the four “identities” Boopsie is remembering, he picks the most grotesque one.  He picks the one most at odds with the theme Boopsie has discovered: “always tried to look her best.”  But he doesn’t ridicule that identity.  That wouldn’t be funny.  He accepts it–kind of–and tags it with the perfect word.  “Plucky.”  Perfect.

And speaking of discrepancy, nothing in the first 72 words hints at B. D.’s  angle of attack.  In that way, it is classic Trudeau.  You don’t get what the first three frames were really about until you get slapped in the face with the last one.

There are two reasons, I think, why I kept smiling at this strip and why I wanted to share it.  I live in a retirement center. [3]  It’s a very good retirement center and I am delighted to be here.  On the other hand, it is, as you would expect of a retirement center, full of old people.  Myself included, of course.  And a lot of these people have disabilities of one kind or another.  Again, no surprise.

I’ll tell you what rIMG_0272.jpgeally has surprised me.  There is no relationship I can see between how constraining a disability is and how the person responds to it.  I write on our “front porch,” just outside the door of our apartment.  The front edge of this picture is a hallway and I sit at one of the tables.  And most of the time I am writing, people are walking by–some with the aid of walkers or canes.

Some people are consumed by their walkers.  They look like they have given up on the common task of living here together.  They look as if the rubber handles and the aluminum tubes and the wheels have somehow drained them of their vitality.

Others, who are every bit as disabled, treat their walkers as if they were some sort of launching pad.  They are going from one place to another.  They are grateful for the assistance of the walker.  They greet with enthusiasm anyone they happen to meet.  They are fully alive and are delighted that they can still get around and see their friends.  The walker might just as well be a pogo stick.

“Well, yeah,” you might say, “but they aren’t lepers.”  No, they are not.  But from what I can see, if they were lepers, they would be “plucky lepers.”  And I don’t mean, by reusing that expression, what Boopsie means.  Boopsie is there because she has a straight line to deliver.  I mean what B. D. means.  I am full of admiration for these people who refuse to be defined by the amount of help they require to get from one place to another.

I want to be like them.  “Rising above decline” is what I call it.  It is the work of the day here–every day–and I am grateful to be among so many accomplished old people who can serve as my mentors.

[1]  And I call this blog “the dilettantes’s dilemma” because “dilettante,” is a word based on “delight.”  In my blog, I said when I started it in 2010, I will write about the things that give me delight.  Today’s post is a good example.

[2]  Brian Dowling (B. D.) was quarterback of the Yale football team when Trudeau was at Yale.  He and Dowling have long since made their peace about what a dork B. D. is, but if you don’t follow the strip, you might not know why he is always wearing a football helmet.

[3]  I start the fourth week tomorrow.

About hessd

Here is all you need to know to follow this blog. I am an old man and I love to think about why we say the things we do. I've taught at the elementary, secondary, collegiate, and doctoral levels. I don't think one is easier than another. They are hard in different ways. I have taught political science for a long time and have practiced politics in and around the Oregon Legislature. I don't think one is easier than another. They are hard in different ways. You'll be seeing a lot about my favorite topics here. There will be religious reflections (I'm a Christian) and political reflections (I'm a Democrat) and a good deal of whimsy. I'm a dilettante.
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2 Responses to “One plucky leper”

  1. Bonnie Klein says:

    I like this post so very much. And I LOVE Trudeau’s line! Actually, I have coupled it in my mind with another post you wrote some time ago about improving the atmosphere of and honoring others in a group by dressing well. Add age-induced disability (or any kind of disability) and we are talking about “pluck” indeed! Perfect word, absolutely.

    • hessd says:

      I agree, Bonnie. That particular word has just the right informality. If B.D. had said something like “courageous leper,” it wouldn’t have been funny at all.

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