What’s So Funny About That?

jeering

“I don’t have answers; but I do have questions designed to make you think,” said the workshop leader, a young man with kind eyes and hair beyond his control.

“Oh great,” I thought, “I signed up for a workshop on humor in the classroom to get ideas on how to make learning fun; instead I’m going to spend forty-five minutes thinking lofty thoughts. Good grief.”

The instructor then asked a series of questions that, indeed, required thought. Worse, after each query, he stood silently for what seemed like an eternity looking at his participants as though we were thinking. So we did.

“Think about a time when unkind words, parading as humor, hurt you or someone you know,” he said. “How did you feel?”

In response, I remembered one of my fourth-grade students and her family entering my classroom during a back-to-school open house. I smiled at the shy but bright youngster, “Hi, Marlene, would you like to introduce me to your family?”

“Marlene?” her teenaged brother said, “We call her Toad. Just look at her. She looks like Grandpa.” As Marlene’s parents chuckled fondly, I saw the light in a little girl’s eyes go out. And it didn’t come back for some time.

I ignored the comment and said, “It’s a pleasure to work with Marlene; she’s an excellent, hardworking student.” I remember feeling inadequate in the moment, and the intervening years hadn’t changed my opinion.

I was relieved when the workshop instructor interrupted my self-critique with his next question: “When you feel uneasy or put down by words others find funny, how do you react?”

This time, my memory returned me to a faculty lounge in a new school in a new state where a colleague bombarded me with Mormon jokes after he heard my background. Daily, he greeted me with a new joke: “Hey, Janet, what do you call a good-looking woman in Salt Lake City? A tourist. What’s the difference between a Mormon woman and an elephant? About ten pounds. What is a Mormon woman’s favorite wine? When-ner we gun-na ha-va ‘nother baaaa-by?”

My colleagues laughed uneasily. I felt harassed, uncomfortable and defensive. Soon, I began to avoid the lounge.

Fortunately, my unhappy memories were ended by another question from the workshop instructor: “In the past, how have you responded to offensive or hurtful comments, stories or jokes presented as humor? Do you wish you’d responded differently? If so, how?”

“Obviously,” I thought, “I haven’t responded. I either pretend to ignore hurtful humor or avoid it. Then I feel ineffective. I wish this man would just tell us what to do.”

Once again, he didn’t enlighten us. Instead, he divided us into small groups and said, “We’ll never reach consensus on the best way to recognize and react to negative humor, but we can raise our consciousness by discussing our experiences with it.”

The intense discussion in my group included a response strategy suggested by a matronly lady with a kind smile: When someone used negative humor, she would wait until the laughter died and then pretend she didn’t understand the joke: “I don’t get it. What’s funny about that?” She told us that, usually, when someone attempts to explain negative humor, the joke’s put-down, hurtful nature is revealed.

After our group discussions, the workshop leader shared a quote:

“My pain may be the reason for somebody’s laugh. But my laugh must never be the reason for somebody’s pain.”
Charlie Chaplin

He then dismissed us.

As I left the room, I knew this brief workshop had forever changed the way I would hear, use and react to humor.

If Only

clipart kid

clipart kid

If I were to win the lottery, I know for sure I’d never again board a plane and park my posterior in economy: never again squeeze myself into a rear, middle seat where folks monopolize arm rests, and I stare at the bald spot of the reclined snorer in front of me while a robust child kicks the back of my seat as regularly as a clock ticks. Instead, when I win lots of money, I’ll occupy spacious first-class seats where there’s no need to be unruly and folks sip free drinks without their knees being in the way.

If I hit the jackpot, I’d also do something about shoppers who gather in crowded store aisles to chat with friends they haven’t seen since yesterday or block an aisle with their loaded shopping carts while they wander around in search of turkey pepperoni. I’d hire crotchety, roller-skating referees armed with frowns and whistles to keep traffic flowing during peak periods.

Perhaps my referees could also weed out the people who stand in line at eating establishments to order food and, when it’s their turn, have no idea what they want: “Oh, gee, uh, what kind of sandwiches do you have? Oh, right, yeah, I see the list up there. Um, do you have salads? Well, look at that, you’re right; salads are listed as well. Hmm. Which would you recommend? No, I don’t like avocados. Mary, hey Mary, what are you getting? Nah, I don’t feel like having a burger. Well, maybe I’ll just have soup. What kind do you have?”

These oblivious folks are probably the same people who block traffic while they wait for a car to pull out of a parking spot close to a store entrance when they could easily park a short walk away. This curious behavior is especially galling when the business they want immediate access to is a gym. I’d pay to have their cars towed.

Next, I would replace every wobbly table in every eating establishment in the United States. I hate it when, engaged in conversation, I lean forward to comment and send tidal waves of liquid sloshing into the laps of my lady friends. When I try to fix the problem by bending over — until my rear dominates the landscape — to wedge a balled-up napkin under the errant leg, the wobble worsens; and I lose my dignity.

I would pay someone to (1) produce packaging for dental floss and makeup that can be opened without broken fingernails or stab wounds and (2) to make cell phones that automatically disconnect within five feet of anyone in a public place who doesn’t want to hear a loud conversation about the user’s chronic bladder infection.

And finally, I’d use some of my payoff to offer a huge cash reward for anyone who could put an end to the passwords and personal identification questions required by computer land: “Please select and enter a password with four numerals, one special character, and three letters — two of which must be upper case; in addition, you should provide answers for any two of the following security questions: your middle school’s mascot, your father’s shoe size, and your favorite city with a population between 100,000 and 125,000.” Maybe my money could stop this madness.

You should send your lottery tickets to me. Obviously, I’d make good use of your winnings.

I Hereby Resolve

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As of January 1, 2017, I will no longer describe my latest ailment to anyone who will listen. It will be a difficult resolution to keep; I enjoy clucking away about my physical difficulties to those who don’t retreat when I lean close and confide, “You know, I have this rash…”.

I’m not alone in thinking others want to hear about my bunions, sore elbow and arthritic thumb. In my late fifties, I participated in an animated discussion with friends about our physical woes: dry eyes, insomnia, tinnitus and leg cramps. We described symptoms, “It’s like my head is filled with buzzing bees,” suggested remedies, “”Pull your toes back as far as you can for as long as you can,“ and shared our expertise or lack thereof, “You mean there’s a difference between floaters and flashers?”

Later, we couldn’t believe we spent an evening talking about our maladies rather than our jobs, families, movies and sports. Physical problems had plagued all of us our entire lives, but never before had we felt the urge to share them with all the fishes in the sea.

Like most people, my friends and I grew up in a maze of childhood sicknesses, wandering cluelessly from colds to mumps to measles to chickenpox. We suffered earaches, stomach-aches, sore throats, pink eye and the flu. We worried about tonsillitis, which could lead to a dreaded tonsillectomy, and lived with the threat of polio, which lurked in the background of every day, an uninvited and dreaded guest.

We were quarantined to our rooms and confined to our beds. We whined, complained of boredom and dreaded the agony of vomiting. We sweated under mustard plasters, soaked in Epsom salts and scratched our red spots when our mothers weren’t looking.

At one point, to cure my chronic sinus congestions, the doctor told Mom I had to forego sugary treats and, when it was cold, wear a stocking cap to bed. For weeks, I blew my nose and ate a banana while my siblings enjoyed cherry pie and made fun of the raggedy knit hat I wore to bed.

Yet I never inflicted a detailed description of my malfunctioning sinuses on my young friends; nor did I introduce my hangnail-infected big toe into a late night conversation with my college roommates. My impacted wisdom teeth and stress-related headaches were never discussed in a faculty lounge.

Now, however, Joel and I consider a day poorly spent if we don’t devote several minutes of conversation to the quality of our sleep and the status of our chronic issues. At family reunions, my siblings and I provide health updates to a sympathetic chorus of sighs and advice: “You can’t wish your sciatica away. You need physical therapy.” And my friends and I compare symptoms at length: “My mouth gets so dry my husband says I have a speech impediment.”

I admire my sister-in-law, a successful professional woman and involved grandmother, who has wit, intelligence and complex health issues, problems that would allow her to dominate any discussion. But she never mentions them. Ever. When directly asked by those of us who love her, she responds simply and briefly and then gracefully changes the topic to grandchildren, pets or politics.

So, in 2017, I’m going to follow her example and stop pouring a detailed description of my latest symptoms into every available ear.

But I don’t promise to quit writing about them.

The Gift of a Child

merry-christmas-free-clip-art-merry-christmas-clip-art-7-jpgEvery Christmas, I think about the gift of a child and remember my brother’s birth.

At the age of nine on a worn-out day in February, I heard a rackety car approach and ran to the kitchen window. The barren branches of cottonwood trees streaked shadows across dirty snow; and a pale sun fled behind West Mountain as Mom stepped from Mrs. Anderson’s car.

She slammed the car’s door behind her — launching our resident crows into an orbit of admonishment — then walked along our sidewalk of frozen mud, her face as tired as the day.

Entering the house, Mom glanced at me — my scattered paper dolls, their cut-out costumes and her sewing scissors. Then, saying nothing, she slowly stirred the coals in the stove with a poker. Made uneasy by her silence, I wondered about its cause: Was it her visit to the doctor in town or my use of the forbidden scissors?

“Mom, what’s wrong?”

“I’m pregnant.”

“What’s that mean?”

“I’m going to have a baby.”

“Don’t you like babies?”

“Oh, Janet, I’ve loved all my babies. But I’m old. And tired.”

My mother had delivered family news, introduced me to a new word and shared a confidence. I forgot all three before dinner.

Then, a few months later, my family arrived at church, and I rushed to catch up with my best friend. “Oh, your mother’s pregnant,” she remarked, looking at Mom in her new, ballooning outfit.

“What’s that mean?” I asked.

“That she’s having a baby. My mother’s too old to have another baby. She said at her age, it would kill her.”

My insides shriveled. A few years before, my mom had nearly died giving birth to a baby sister who hadn’t lived. When she told me she was old and tired, did she mean having a baby would kill her this time? My world slowed to a standstill; and in the following weeks my anxiety grew along with my mother’s stomach.

In September, shortly after Mom told us the baby could come any day, she and Dad went to Provo, saying they’d be home by dinner. But they weren’t. So we ate the bottled tomatoes and toast Carolyn fixed for us; then, sent to bed, but wide-awake and worried, I crouched by a bedroom window and hoped the headlights I could see across the fields would turn at our lane. I held my breath, watched the headlights, and promised I’d do my chores without whining and change the new baby’s diaper without complaining, if Mom was in that car rather than dying, far away in Provo, trying to have a baby when she was too old. The headlights turned.

A week later, I again stood sentry by a window. The evening before, Dad had taken Mom to the hospital. Grandma either believed my lie about an upset stomach or understood the fear clouding my eyes. When the others ran for the school bus, I stayed home.

Again, I tracked our car until it stopped beneath the cottonwoods. Dad stepped out, then stopped and studied the sky. Why was he looking at heaven? I ran from the house. Panic squeezed my voice tiny: “Dad?”

“Hey, Janet. You have a new brother. We named him Blaine. They’ll both be home Friday. Looks like it’s going to rain, doesn’t it?”

A few days later, I experienced an unexpected rush of love when Mom let me hold my brother, bundled in white flannel, smelling new, small fists waving at nothing. I smiled up at Mom, and my last worry vanished as I saw that she, too, loved this baby.

In that moment, as I exulted over the birth of our baby, I began to understand why hearts overflow with joy, love and hope each Christmas.

Stresses of the Season

janet-stressedYears ago, my friend Judy invited me to drop by for a visit the day after Christmas. When I arrived, I found her draping wet laundry around her kitchen and wiping away tears. She wasn’t crying about her dead dryer.

On Christmas Eve, she and her husband were helping her recently married son and his wife prepare dinner in their new home when her son said, “Why don’t you let Mom fix the gravy, Bev. She knows how I like it.”

In response, Bev burst into tears and said to Judy, “I’m sick of hearing about your perfect Christmases, your perfect cooking, your perfect dinners. Why don’t you go home? Here, take my car. I’m sure you’ll drive it perfectly.” Then she grabbed her keys, threw them at Judy and ran from the house, leaving an open-mouthed family, a half-cooked turkey and a doomed merry little Christmas behind.

“I felt like I was in a country-western song,” Judy told me, “It was terrible.”

More recently, friends and I discussed the anxieties of gift giving: “I need guidelines,” said one, “What do you buy for the grandchildren you loved when they already get too much for Christmas? What do you give babies who have no concept of Santa and would rather chew on a cardboard box? Or teenagers who have demanding taste in clothing or want specific, expensive technology?”

Another friend added, “My husband and I buy things for our children and grandchildren throughout the year, when they need it; we also help finance school trips and events, and we’re happy to do so. We spent a lot last year, so we gave less expensive gifts for Christmas. And I felt guilty the entire season.”

Fortunately, we have media experts who tell us how to glide gracefully through the holiday without exploding into hysteria, eating a pound of peanut brittle, or crawling under a bed. Their advice flows freely: Get enough sleep. Make a list of tasks to be accomplished and stick to it. Stay within your budget. Relax in a bubble bath before your guests arrive.

Right.

They also warn if we deny ourselves the foods of the season, we’ll binge later on stale marshmallows or stray chocolate chips. Instead, we should enjoy the goodies that come our way by sampling them: take half a brownie and a taste or two of ice cream.

Seriously? Might as well ask a flea not to bite.

Despite such expert advice, most of us experience some stress during the holidays. We over-schedule our lives and become cranky as we rush about. We grow too weary, or drink more than a sip or two of eggnog and then say things we regret. We wonder about gifts we receive — elf house slippers or salt-and-pepper shakers from Branson — and worry others won’t like the gifts we chose for them.

We also wonder why we don’t feel the joy of Christmas we did when young: everybody happy, everything beautiful, each moment perfect. Experts answer this one correctly: the wonder of childhood Christmases cannot be duplicated; nor were they perfect.

I remember seeing a photograph taken by my aunt when I was eight — the year I asked Santa for a red-headed princess doll — that shows me using a blonde baby doll to bludgeon Bob as we battle fiercely in front of a tree tilted awkwardly to one side as though trying to escape.But, in my memory, 1950 was a perfectly joyful Christmas; and I wish the same for you in 2016.

Giving Thanks

 

happy-thanksgivingLast week, I worked on my annual Thanksgiving newspaper column in which I express gratitude for small things that improve my life — duct tape, naps, peanut brittle and the death of girdles. As I generated ideas, chuckling at my wit, a question crept into my mind and interrupted my merriment: “Rather than trying to be a comedienne every year, why don’t I acknowledge the significant blessings that grace my life?”

In answer, important blessings worthy of sincere gratitude demanded my attention, and when I wrote about them, words of thanks flowed easily.

I’m grateful for autumn’s splendor when days of untrammeled sunshine softened by cool breezes make it impossible to stay indoors; when color-burnished leaves swirl around families readying for Halloween and Thanksgiving, crunch under the feet of walkers and wait in wind-drifts for the attention of children. A time when people of all ages pause, turn their faces to the sun, breathe deeply of the cinnamon-scented air and rejoice in this season that fills my heart with gratitude.

I’m thankful that through my increased online activity, I’ve re-introduced myself to my nieces and nephews. I let these precious people I knew as cuddly babies, delightful toddlers, inventive children and funny teenagers gradually withdraw from my life as they matured, moved away from my siblings’ homes, scattered across the country and became preoccupied with spouses and children of their own.

For years, I confused hearing about my nieces and nephews from their parents with learning about them through their words flavored by their personalities. But now, the youngsters who delighted me with their antics have returned as they interact with one another and me on Facebook or my blog: teasing, supporting, agreeing, disagreeing, and sharing. Occasionally, they address affectionate words and memories to me, and I feel the same rush of happiness I experienced when they were young and climbed on my lap or threw their arms around me.

I’m also grateful for the brothers and sisters who enrich my life. I used to feel alarmed when I thought about the years we had had accumulated and the inevitable outcome of having lived so many. Then I experienced the initial grief and lingering loneliness that accompanies the death of a brother and emerged thankful that my siblings and I walked life’s journey together, even as I missed Lawrence, who no longer walks with us.

Finally, I feel gratitude for the community in which I live. Every day the people of Craig bless me with smiles: the young boy walking to school who calls “Hi!” with a gap-toothed grin, the clerks and workers who glance up with a smile even at the end of a long day, the drivers who wave whether we’re acquainted or not; the parents who smile when I laugh at the cute actions of their little ones.

I know some of those who initiate a smile or return mine aren’t feeling well, are concerned about a child, are mourning a loved one, are feeling the pinch of our economic times, are lonely; yet they smile. Thus, I give thanks for them.

Happy Thanksgiving

Changing My Perspective

 

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clipart-kid

Picture a perfect late-summer evening in Craig, Colorado, five years ago: flowers a-bloom, birds a-chirp, breezes a-stir. Harmless clouds cluster in the east; children bounce bicycles over curbs; and volunteer parents gather at Sunset Elementary to ready its outdoor areas for the coming school year.

Wanting to enjoy the pleasant evening, my husband and I decided to take an after-dinner walk. As we exited the gate to our driveway, Joel looked around and asked, “Where’s the car?”

We then reverted to form and assumed the other had done something unreasonable with it: “I don’t know. Where’d you park it?”

“In the driveway. Where’d you move it?”

“What are you talking about? I haven’t driven it since you came home.”

Then reality struck; and Joel expressed it: “If you’re not joking, the car’s been stolen.”

Denying any prank, I peered up and down the street as though our headstrong car had wandered off like a mischievous puppy and would soon come home. My husband displayed more decisiveness: “I’d better call 911.” That quickly we became embroiled in loss of property, police reports, insurance negotiations and a realization of our need — even fondness — for a reliable, comfortable car.

Three adult drug-users took it from our driveway while inside the house I started the dishwasher, exchanged flip-flops for walking shoes and rounded up Joel. As we walked through the yard discussing which border flowers might need transplanting, the thieves drove at high speed up the hill on Barclay toward 10th Street through quiet residential areas. While we paused at the gate and examined the Russian willow to see if we had arrested its aphid problem, our car bottomed out in an intersection, lurched out of control, and hit two parked trucks. As we discovered our loss, the three fled.

As we waited in the driveway for an officer to respond to Joel’s 911 call, a patrol car come around the corner, and we waved it over. When the officer said he’d be back after investigating a nearby accident, we realized our car might be involved. Joel, who carries data like the car’s year, model and license number in his head, waited for the officer, and I took the truck to look for the accident.

I found it. Our car sat sideways on Barkley street: crumpled at each end, air bags deployed, interior untouched and Joel’s golf bag squashed up against the back window. I drove home to report I’d found our car: wrecked, totaled, looking as abandoned as an old couch left curbside.

Not only does Joel act while I dither, his perceptions are fast, focused, and true compared to my foggy ruminations. His first response: “I hope nobody was hurt.”

I pictured young girls with bouncing hair skipping along a sidewalk; grinning boys flying down the hill on bicycles; a family on its way to a soccer game driving into the intersection as a missile launched across it. “Oh, I didn’t think of that.”

I’d never experienced what I knew: Some who live in Craig make bad decisions born of addiction, greed, anger, or disregard for the lives and property of others; and innocent parties suffer because of those decisions. I didn’t understand how quickly feelings of security and safety shatter, even when your loss is only a car and some golf clubs.

And I hadn’t thought that our replaceable loss could have been a tragedy. I gave thanks that it was not.