Sarcasm: It’s in the Blood

Posted on July 7, 2010


I see articles in magazines and newspapers that speculate about the existence of genes for certain traits. Is there a gene for religious belief? Homosexuality? Intelligence? Alcoholism? These are mildly interesting questions, and I usually read the articles at least halfway through before going off to fold my socks. But what about the sarcasm gene?

All four of my grandparents, and my mother, were born in Sicily. I have the sarcasm gene. I grew up in the Bronx, where the trait was respected, nourished, and cultivated. I went to a Catholic school staffed entirely by nuns, women of God who could slice a nine-year-old to pieces with three or four carefully chosen words. My barber was a white-haired Italian named Louie, who told me he would slice me to pieces if I didn’t stop squirming around in his chair. When I was a little older, I studied at the feet of the master: my Uncle Angelo. Many years later, someone asked me if I dreamed in black & white or color. I closed my eyes and smiled: I dream in sarcasm.

So it was with great anticipation that I awaited the arrival of my first child. Did she inherit the gene? Would she help to carry on the family tradition? One day, when Allison was three, she was seated in front of the television, watching her Wee Sing video for the eleven thousandth time that week. The sound was blaring. From the next room I yelled to her, “Allison! Could you make that a little louder? I don’t think they can hear it in Chicago!” Now you need to know that we lived in Connecticut at the time, which is nowhere near Chicago, so you can sense the sarcastic tone. But could she? Did my little girl speak Sarcasm? I watched, wide-eyed and motionless, as she stood up and walked over to the television. She reached out her hand and placed it on the volume control. And then she turned it down. Down! She had obviously understood the sarcasm perfectly, because she did the opposite of what I asked her to do. I was overwhelmed with emotion. Not only had she inherited the gene, but at this tender age Allison was already in my league. She had to be some kind of prodigy. I tried to imagine where she could take this sarcasm talent, how much more she could achieve than I’d ever dreamed. And isn’t that what every father wants for his children? To exceed his own accomplishments, and go on to better things?

Allison is now twenty-five. The sarcasm gene apparently receded or was stunted in some way, or she hit her head on something hard. It’s gone, if I must tell you the whole truth. The sarcasm is gone! When she asks me a dumb question now, like “If I call you tonight around eleven-thirty, will you be home?” and I answer with, “No, I’m going to a seance that starts around eight, then I’m having dinner with President Coolidge and the 1927 Yankees,” she says, “Oh… Really?” I wonder, at those times, if maybe there was a mix-up at the hospital. Could I have the wrong child? Is there some bewildered, mild-mannered couple back in Connecticut completely mortified by the daily rantings of their razor-tongued daughter?

Unless you’re Sicilian, you have no idea how sad that little story is. But there’s hope. My son, Shaun, is fifteen. He hasn’t had the opportunities I had as a young boy. The nuns seem to have vanished, and Louie the barber and Uncle Angelo are both long gone. But I’ve tried to teach Shaun everything I know, and he quickly graduated to a steady diet of The Simpsons and South Park. He seems to have the gift. When he sees me do something stupid or clumsy, he instinctively yells, “Good job, genius!” It brings a tear to my eye every time, and I go to bed that night, content in the knowledge that I’ll soon be dreaming in sarcasm.

Postscript: Allison is about to start her first job as an elementary school teacher. I recently read in a science magazine that the gene for sarcasm has been known to go dormant during adolescence, only to reactivate later in life. Whether that happens with Allison or not, I’m certain a year or two with a classroom full of third-graders will bring out the sarcasm I know is inside of her and screaming for release. After all, it’s in the blood.