Giggle, snicker, snort

Recently I’ve been thinking a lot about laughter — what makes people laugh, how laughs differ, how sometimes laughter triggers more laughter in a self-perpetuating cycle — the whole idea that some kinds of mental dissonance cause us to explode into undignified sniggers, or guffaws, or snorts.

The irony of attempting to seriously analyze laughter is not lost on me.

So I’ve been doing a lot of, um, research. I’ve been listening to comedy on the radio, watching some of my favorite artists online and playing cheery music a little too loudly in my headphones. On a recent stop at a Barnes & Noble, I casually picked up a book by a blogger I often read … and then spent 20 minutes on a cushion in the kids’ section, trying not to frighten passersby as I chortled into my sleeve.

Some things, of course, are funny to certain people and not others. During college I once spent eight hours in a minivan with a professor and four other students on our way to a literary conference. Instead of normal driving music, our merry band of English nerds brought books on tape to share, and someone pulled out an audiobook of “Hitchhikers’ Guide to the Galaxy.”

My fellow students and I were overjoyed. It’s a Douglas Adams classic, featuring lines such as,

“He felt that his whole life was some kind of dream and he sometimes wondered whose it was and whether they were enjoying it.”

That book can always make me dissolve into laughter, even in the most socially inappropriate situations. We immediately put the audiobook on play.

Our professor lasted through one whole chapter before he intervened. The story didn’t make any sense, he said. (We were still gasping for breath in the minivan’s back seats.) The plot didn’t follow, and the characters were inconsistent and confusing. He was glad we had offered the audiobook; but it was time for something new, and would we mind terribly if he turned on a reading of Alexis de Tocqueville’s “Democracy in America”?

De Tocqueville, it turns out, is a total buzzkill. You feel as if you will never laugh again after 10 minutes of de Tocqueville on tape.

I’ve been on the other side of the laughter continuum, too. In Oxford, one of my professors interrupted me midway through reading aloud my essay on C.S. Lewis’ “Screwtape Letters” to say, “No, don’t you see, it’s funny.”

A little humorous, I said; but Lewis is making a few very serious points —

“No,” my professor said. “You have to read it tongue-in-cheek. Don’t feel bad; most Americans don’t get it.”

That was the only essay he didn’t let me finish. I tried to get “Screwtape,” I really did; I enjoy the book. But I always turn the last page thinking about the dire consequences of seemingly insignificant human choices, while the British apparently giggle and toss it aside. I guess? I don’t know. It’s beyond me.

It’s also fun to listen for people’s laughs. Most of us have at least a few — a social laugh, the sort you use when your boss tells a joke that’s only slightly funny; a caught-off-guard laugh, usually accompanied by a quick grin or a sideways glance; and an out-of-control laugh, the kind you use when you’re comfortable with the people around you and something has happened that is so odd, so unusual, so completely confusing and wonderful that you cannot contain the little joy-bomb that goes off in your belly. Those are the most fun laughs, of course. Those are the kind that trigger a chain reaction.

Making people laugh, though, is probably the most fun. I’ve known people that can immediately own a room, making the outskirts smile and lean in at the slightest phrase. Listeners are primed to laugh when these people walk in, and these gifted souls always deliver.

It’s never been that easy for me. But every once in awhile I get the timing right — the right joke for the right crowd at the right moment. The comedy stars align. Some poor unsuspecting soul is hit upside the head by my punchline, and the impact scares a giggle out of him. He looks dazed; I feel accomplished; nobody else knows what just happened.

It doesn’t get better than that.

Local holiday

When I lived in Bemidji it was the Dragon Boat Festival.
Every year the whole city turns out to watch — or join — the races. The Chinese celebration only took off in Bemidji a few years ago, but it has turned into quite the event. Community teams of up to twenty members print matching T-shirts and practice synchronizing their paddling to the drummer’s beat.
On race day the teams clamber into long, thin dragon boats and pour all of their training (or at least their enthusiasm) into a three-minute paddle to the finish line. You can tell which teams are hard-line competitive and drilled for weeks, and which teams are really just there for the snacks.
I love the festival — I love that the hillside by Lake Bemidji is covered with blankets and picnic baskets and people wearing baseball caps. Everyone cheers, even if the teams are slow or a boat tips. (Especially if a boat tips…) People are there for the spectacle, the sales, the fun of it. It’s one of the times Bemidji’s diversity seems the most united.
While I was living in Oxford I got to celebrate Guy Fawkes Day, one of the most politically incorrect English holidays ever. Established on the day political radical Guy Fawkes was stopped from blowing up the British Parliament (“Remember, remember the fifth of November, the Gunpowder Treason and plot…”), the day is traditionally celebrated with fireworks and the ceremonial burning of an effigy of Fawkes. Now the day is often called simply Bonfire Night, and cities compete for the biggest or hottest or tallest bonfire.
I loved Bonfire Night, too — okay, I enjoy most community holidays. Oxford had carnival rides, some delightful fireworks and a bonfire so hot we couldn’t approach it — the kind that roasts one side of your body from 50 feet away while the other side freezes in the foggy English air. That, too, was a community celebration, and it’s one of the days I felt most connected to the community. The whole town was awake late that night.
Here in Worthington, apparently, the local holiday is Turkey Day. All I know about the celebration is what we’ve published in the Globe.
“You’ve never been to Turkey Day?” people keep telling me. “Oh, you have to see it for yourself.”
A parade, a 5/10k and a turkey race in the center of the town?
“You’ll love it,” people keep saying.
I’m guessing they’re right.

Unofficial guide to scones

Shake flour loosely into an average cereal bowl until it is about half-full.

I’ve always been a bit of a night owl. College fostered my nocturnal habits; having a full-time job as a night editor only adds to it. Night — after I’ve been in motion one way or another all day — is the time when I get creative. I read, write, catch up on my correspondence, listen to music, sing, clean, bake.

Add a pinch of salt, a smallish spoonful of baking powder and a splash of cinnamon.

During our last joint semester of college, my friends acclimate to my nocturnal schedule (of necessity, not choice). There simply aren’t enough daylight hours to complete our work in the time provided. Each week we knock back caffeine as we hunch over laptops in the library until the sun peeks through the windows. Then, hungry and slightly delirious, we stumble into the community kitchen in search of real food.

Slice butter — between a quarter and half a stick — into tiny cubes. Stir into the cereal bowl. Knead.

Strung out in various states of sleep deprivation, we band together against the post-caffeine slump and muddle up some survival foods. My contribution is always scones. Easy, messy, inexact, forgiving — the perfect baked good for the half-awake student. I carefully follow a recipe the first time I make them, but the next time — and every time after — I toss ingredients together haphazardly. Scones aren’t a science; they’re an art.

Pour milk into the bowl. Stop pouring before you think you should and stir the ingredients together until dough is evenly mixed. If you have chocolate chips, add them now.

We talk or don’t talk. A few verbal processors rehearse their presentations. Someone surveys the room and starts to crack zombie jokes; we’ve heard them before, but we laugh anyway. We compare the circles under our eyes. When the aroma of baking bread permeates the room, I pull the scones out of the oven.

Roll dough into two-inch rounds and flatten slightly. Place on a buttered pan. Dust each scone with milk and sugar, then bake at 350 degrees until golden-brown.

Someone serves up scrambled eggs; someone else offers fruit. The teakettle whistles. One of the hipsters is still grinding coffee beans. We reach for what we need, slowly coming awake. The sun beams full-force down the kitchen tables, reflecting into our eyes, warming our silverware. We trade compliments, cheer each other on. In twenty minutes the kitchen is empty. Some of us return to our laptops, re-reading or re-writing our work; others have set alarms and fallen asleep. A few with early classes have already left to turn in their work for inspection.

Serve scones while fresh and still hot. Best with jam and cream.

For the first time in sixteen years I won’t be going back to school. I’m so glad I’ve graduated — school felt like training, and I was ready to compete. But it feels wrong somehow to step into autumn without a heavy backpack on my shoulder and a working playlist cued up on my computer. I impulsively check out classics from the library; I put scones in the oven at 2 a.m. before I remember no one else is awake. I find myself researching literary theory just for fun in the wee hours of the morning and have to remind myself to sleep. I’ve lived in academia so long that I forget I’m already on the next page. I was lucky enough to find a job that incorporates my love of writing and my penchant for late nights — and let’s be real, I can fit the baking in on my free time. Study period is over; the exam has begun.

It’s going to be amazing.

Starscape

My father taught me it was called “light pollution” — the glow that surrounds Bemidji at night. You can see it for miles away. It’s a natural byproduct of cities; lampposts and neon signs, localized populations and businesses simply require more light. Bemidji’s haze is nothing compared to St. Paul’s, and Worthington may have a little glow, too.
Despite the brightness, I could always see the major constellations — Orion, Andromeda, the Big Dipper (or Great Bear) — from my backyard. As a kid I loved the constellation stories. I eagerly absorbed the Greek myths and memorized Native American legends.
Constellations felt like puzzles, scavenger hunts worked into the outer surface of our planet. We connect the dots and tell the stories, passing on some ancient tradition. It felt like being an insider, knowing a secret. I don’t think it occurred to me for quite awhile that I might not know the whole of it.
My family takes an annual camping trip to Clubhouse Lake, a trip I had to miss this year for work. The campground lacks basic amenities. We pump water and haul it to our campsite, and the only available toilets are outhouses. If you want electricity, you have to provide it yourself. We do all the normal camping things — swim, cook, fish, sing songs around a campfire. But sometimes, after campground quiet hours force us to stow the guitar, a few of us walk down to the lake.
We feel our way along the lake paths, whispering and tripping over each other. We bring flashlights but don’t turn them on. The tree canopy opens up when we reach the beach, and if there’s no moon, we can see the sky.
From my backyard, all I could see were the brightest stars, the ones able to compete with the glare of city lights. At Clubhouse, the outer rim of the Minnesota wilderness, the dimmer ones are visible. The sky is not a black curtain with scattered pinpricks, identifiable, classed into textbooks. It’s an untidy mess, stars bumping into each other, interrupting the approved constellations, overlapping, spilled carelessly upward and outward from treeline to treeline.
I remember the first time I saw the sky open up like that — the constellations I knew still recognizable, but suddenly less significant.
I’ve never felt so small.

Life on a Post-it

Some people write weekly to-do lists; some people keep up-to-date schedules in their iPhones. Some people (with freakishly accurate memories) simply remember everything they plan for the coming day.
I write Post-its. Each night I write everything I need to do and remember onto a three-inch-square piece of paper and stick it to my kitchen table, where I’ll see it when I wake up in the morning.
I don’t limit the note to calendar events: I write everything down, from the song I want to play as I make breakfast to how far I’ve progressed in this week’s existential crisis. People I want to talk to, messages I need to return, suggested library books and ideas for my next painting. Sometimes I think of my Post-it notes as messages from past versions of myself, offering me a glimpse into who I was yesterday — a person I’ve usually already forgotten.
I often neglect to throw my notes away, and every once in a while I wake up to four or five of them peeling up from the table. Sometimes the messages make me laugh.
Take, for example:
Go to work.
Now, why did I need to write that down? Did past me think future me was likely to forget?
COFFEE 8, 11, noon meetings
A busy morning; I clearly thought I’d need the caffeine.
Sometimes the notes are unnecessarily cryptic:
Pick up book with red cover
…because that’s going to narrow down my options at the library. Past me could have been a bit more specific.
Sometimes it seems past me wasn’t too happy with herself, and was looking for people who were:
I bet God still loves you.
And sometimes past me seems to know more than I do.
Chill out. Everything is going to be amazing.
I wonder what I’ll have to say to myself tomorrow morning.

Charlie’s retirement

My car and I have come far together. Charlotte, affectionately called Charlie, has been with me since high school. I’ve gotten used to her quirks and foibles — the way she runs out of gas before the gauge signals she’s low, the way she locks out anyone who tries to borrow her (proving, of course, her fondness for me), and the way she surprises me every month or so with a new repair bill. We have a history, Charlie and I.
Now the time has come to bid her farewell.
One rainy day a few weeks ago, I started home from visiting my sister in St. Paul. As Charlie and I crawled along in stop-and-go traffic, I noticed a wisp of smoke rising from the hood. Well, actually, more than a wisp — turns out the pounding rain had masked the sound of boiling antifreeze.
Parked on the side of the road with Charlie’s hood popped and pungent steam billowing into the rain, I fielded advice from the drivers inching by and questions from the tow service over the phone.
It took two hours for the tow to arrive.
The parts I replaced last month were insufficient, it seems, and I borrowed my generous sister’s car so I could make it home for my next workday. She agreed to drive my car once the repairs were finished, and we arranged a date one week later to switch back.
Before the week was up, I got a call from the parents.
My sister had apparently called them in concern after spending a day driving Charlie around St. Paul — no AC, broken window controls, a gas pedal that takes a few seconds to engage — and my parents had a proposition for me. Why don’t I take their minivan, and they’ll see if they can find a few long-term fixes for Charlie?
I agreed.
The minivan has character, but its personality is nowhere near as loud as Charlie’s — problems are limited to a broken clock/radio display and a weird noise when rounding corners. I haven’t feared for my life (or my pocketbook) once since I gave up Charlie. And, of course, the minivan doesn’t have a name yet — I’m open to suggestions!
Incidentally, after driving around Bemidji for a total of one day, Charlie found a new way to inconvenience my parents — the ignition key no longer starts the car. They have no idea why. (Charlie’s last practical joke?) In frustration, my cheap, penny-pinching, frugal-to-the-death parents went out and bought themselves a new car. This is so out of character for my parents that my siblings and I are still a little confused. Charlie, it seems, is doomed to remain parked in the driveway, collecting dust and dead leaves until she finds a new resting place.
“We’re trying to sell her!” my mom exclaimed brightly over the phone. “We have an ad out, but no takers yet!”
I am not surprised.
Rest in peace, Charlie. We had a good run of it. Happy retirement.

Wedding daze

People told me the summer after my college graduation would be a flurry of weddings.

I guess I didn’t realize how true that was until I was already in the thick of it.

College friends.Relatives. Family friends. It seems like a third of the people I know are offering or showing off rings this summer, shopping for taffeta and wedding cake and cummerbunds. I’ve spent the last few months chatting with grooms and brides and in-laws that aren’t mine, brainstorming over bachelorette parties and perfect gifts.

The bride of my next wedding told me last week that, as an attendant, I’ll be running point on her big day.

“I’ll give you a list, and you’ll tell everyone what to do,” she said.

She’s the boss, after all.

Sometimes it seems like a lot of effort and expense to pour into trivial details. I mean, you only wear the dress once. You don’t get to keep the cake. And what’s with all the taffeta, anyway?

From a distance, I try to be cynical about weddings — so many twitterpated people, and I can only summon so much emotion to put toward other people’s family drama and fabric preferences.

But in the end, I always enjoy weddings — laughing with (and at) the happy couple, gift shopping, running errands, rounding up extra party favors, getting to watch my family and friends celebrate each other.

Taking care of the details so the people I love can focus on being happy — it’s worth it, every time.

Even if it means I have to form an opinion on differing shades of taffeta…

It’s their day, after all. I just get to be there.

The wind and the waves

I don’t know anything about windsurfing.
To be honest, I’d never heard of it until I came to Worthington. In Bemidji, my hometown, lakes are as common as puddles, but there isn’t much wind.
The novelty of Worthington’s windiness wore off on my very first visit in early February. The snow blew so hard I couldn’t see to drive, filling my eyes with tiny ice particles when I ventured outside my car. (The weather didn’t do wonders for my car, either, but she’s a survivor.)
Since then, I’ve treated the wind as a minor inconvenience. I gave up on my pitiful attempts at hairstyles, started wearing sweaters whether or not the sun was out, and life went on pretty much as before. I got used to bracing for the wind — the gust when I open my car, the steady pressure along the lake shore — just necessary obstacles of living in prairie country.
It’s not an obstacle for the windsurfers, though — it’s a tool for speed and steering. They’re working with the wind; it looks like it takes every muscle of the body to harness that power. And watching them scattered across the lake, sails sticking out of the water like sideways dragonflies — it’s making the wind look valuable, purposeful. Fun.
Today, I hope to take advantage of those free windsurfing lessons. I’m sure (if they let me near a board, despite my obvious lack of skill) I’ll spend more time in the water than out. Still, I want to try.
It just looks fun.

Driving home

This week, for the first time since I moved to Worthington, I’m headed north to my hometown of Bemidji, MN.
It’s a business trip for me — I’ll be meeting with editors of the Bemidji newspaper — but after my work is finished I plan to stick around for the weekend, staying with my parents, spending time with friends. It’s high time I went home.
When I was a kid, my family used to take road trips from Bemidji to Texas to visit my mom’s side of the family. My parents are cheap, so they never wanted to stop for a hotel. Instead they’d drive through the night — a 25-hour trip — driving in shifts as the other napped in the back seat of our minivan.
My father always took the first night stretch, and I always maneuvered my way into the passenger seat beside him.
We’d talk, our voices just loud enough to be heard over the engine, trying (and often failing) to let our family sleep. Sometimes we wouldn’t talk; we’d watch the highway signs zip past us into the black, looking for deer. When my eyes got too heavy to stay awake I would tip the seat back and try to sleep, and then he would turn on the radio. I’d open my eyes when the sky started to brighten, but we never talked in the mornings, just watched the sky and scenery change from washed-out pastels to bold, warm colors.
I have such clear memories of those Texas drives, but I don’t remember much of the rides home. Usually someone in the family was ill, rebounding from the high-energy vacation, and I remember being woken up by the shock of snowy air after a balmy Southern Christmas. However, the drives home aren’t preserved in my memory, clean and specific, just the trips away — I think because the drives away were a hiatus from life for me, even more than the vacation itself.
I don’t have responsibilities on the road away. Everywhere else I have things I should be doing, an itch in the back of my mind pointing out that I really should be doing something, anything, pick an item on the ever-growing list of daily tasks. Even when I was in grade school I had homework, chores, family requirements. On the trip home the responsibility came rushing back. But the trip there was a break, a holiday, a sort of jubilee moment. I could take in the world, all I could see and hear, and I didn’t owe it anything back.
This week’s trip home will reverse the directions for me — I’ll be driving away toward my hometown, driving back toward Worthington. I look forward to seeing what has changed.
I’ll be back soon, Worthington — just in time for the Regatta!

Painting and philosophy

Yesterday was a painting day for me. I bought new brushes and taped a sheet of brown paper to my kitchen table. A few discarded plastic lids served as palettes. My paint tubes had been neglected for far too long, and I took a few minutes to select colors before I started in.
I am not, by any stretch of the imagination, a skilled painter. Halfway into a painting, I usually step back, sigh, and tell myself, “This one will have to be an abstract, too.” I rarely know what I want to paint before I start splashing around; sometimes I still don’t know by the time I’m finished. (And sometimes I know what I meant to paint, but the end result looks like something completely different.) Still, it’s not really about the product.
Painting doesn’t serve any real purpose in my life. It doesn’t advance my career. It doesn’t enhance my relationships. It certainly doesn’t earn me any money! It’s an almost entirely frivolous pursuit, absorbing time and energy that I could use reading, writing, exercising, cleaning, running errands, freelancing to boost my student loan payments and completing countless other useful tasks. Painting makes me think about all the things I could be doing instead of painting.
But that’s sort of the point. Every hour I use to slack could be spent on something immediately, clearly beneficial. Painting, however, is valuable to me in a different way.
I’ve been thinking a lot about Aristotle lately. (I learned about him freshman year in an intro humanities class, so don’t laugh if I misrepresent him.) He studied everything — biology, politics, physics — but what I remember most was his focus on the good life. My textbook translated his term “happiness”; my professors used the word “flourishing.” The term refers to a life that is more than economic stability and dutiful citizenship. Aristotle’s good life is about not only surviving but thriving, about living bigger than the daily stuff.
That’s just the starting point for Aristotle, of course. Always practical, he articulated a system for how people can go about achieving the good life. However, what was obvious to him — that life needs to be more than its physical components — I still forget. I need reminding that life is more than student loan payments, being organized, worrying about family. Painting reminds me.
Yesterday’s painting is, true to form, an abstract. (Or maybe that’s just what I tell myself…) The colors blur together because I was too impatient to let each layer dry before I started the next. I opened the windows in my apartment, letting the paint fumes out as I scrubbed my painty hands and brushes clean, enjoying the process. I’m still not sure what to do with my handiwork, in all its lopsided glory. It’s certainly never leaving my apartment.
But I still like it, looking with pride at my slapdash attempt at art. A symbol of the good life.