One year anniversary

Come Tuesday, I’ll have lived in Worthington for exactly one year.

It feels weird, honestly. I haven’t lived in one place for this long since… Well, since high school. It feels oddly stable, like my life should be in flux right now. The balance is dizzying.

“One year,” I told myself. If I was really going to do it — move to a city smaller than my hometown, heavy with wind and harsh weather, a place where I didn’t know anyone and nobody knew me, for reasons I didn’t fully understand and couldn’t explain — if I was really going to do it, I was going to last at least one year. So I loaded up my parents’ minivan with all my earthly belongings and made the trek south to an apartment and a job at the Daily Globe, braced against the next twelve months.

And then — I don’t know when, I wasn’t paying attention — it became my job and my apartment. My town, sort of. I can’t engineer investment in places, people; it has to grow on its own. These days I sometimes find myself — on my off days — reading about the progress of a particular bill as it travels through the Minnesota Legislature, or looking at the way a local charity effort is impacting Worthington, and I wonder when that happened. When did this change from a thing that I simply do to a thing that I care about? I didn’t notice the moment I switched from observer to participant.

“This is a leaving town,” someone told me. Full of new arrivals and people who have lived here their whole lives. Relationships start to feel like they have expiration dates. When I meet someone here in town, I’m almost always asked the same two questions: “How long have you been here? Planning to stay?”

I’ll give it a year, I said. And now it has been a year, and instead of leaving I’m finding new ways to connect to the community.

This town is shaped by wind — ever-present, inflexible — and for me that applies to character and relationships as well as landscaping. The wind scrapes out the excess, everything that isn’t securely tied down, revealing rough edges and vulnerabilities, tearing open injuries. It has been a hard year. I’ve learned a little more about the things I cling to.

I’ve also met some of the kindest people I’ve known — people who have made me laugh, welcomed me into their communities. People who thought, “She won’t stay, she’s one of the leavers,” and took me in anyway. That kind of warmth, acceptance — I’m not used to it. It makes me wonder if I could have that kind of strength, that kind of generosity, and what kind of practice it takes to earn them.

I’m used to having a game plan, and I don’t have one yet. Question two left blank. But it’s been one year, and I’ve looked around and noticed I’ve put down roots here — projects I want to see to completion, relationships I want to puzzle into, community developments that make me excited about what can happen here. It doesn’t decide anything; I have roots in other places, too. But it’s been one year, and I’m still trying to pinpoint exactly when this became my town.

American citizen

He’s an immigrant from Burma, born the same year as my mother. He and his wife have lived in Worthington for several years. Their children are grown and scattered across the states. He probably has the most dignified smile I’ve ever seen.

We meet in a citizenship class at West Learning Center, where I volunteer once a week to tutor immigrants preparing to become naturalized U.S. citizens. Students practice reading and writing in English and learn answers to basic American history questions like, “Who is the father of our country?” and “What are two rights of anyone in the United States?”

He has completed the first stage of the exam when I meet him.

“He passed everything except the small talk portion,” the teacher says, guiding me over to his table. “He answered all the history questions, and he can read and write perfectly, but just — conversations — it’s difficult. Can you two maybe just talk?”

He inclines his head, grants me one of his dignified smiles. He doesn’t speak unless spoken to, I learn. He answers questions but does not initiate.

I think I understand a bit, at least. In college I studied French for five semesters (my teachers despaired of my ever achieving a passable accent), and I still struggle with the most basic of conversations.

There are so many ways to say the same thing. I can recognize the French for “What is the weather like today?” — but ask me “How’s the weather?” or “What’s it like outside?” or “Think it’ll rain?” and I come up empty. The words slur together if they’re not on the script I know, and that’s exactly what small talk is — unscripted.

So he and I talk. I try to remember to talk slowly; he listens carefully, staring ahead in concentration. I know I’ve said too many new words when his smile starts to look pained. He responds quickly to “Do you attend school?” but hesitates after “How long have you gone there?” I mentally kick myself, because long refers to distance more often than time, and gone is more vague than attend, and there refers to the previous question, and that’s far too much to lazily toss at someone who has just begun learning English.

I tap my head and roll my eyes, to show that it’s my fault, and his smile eases a little. He’s working so hard to understand.

“Did you make breakfast this morning?” I ask.

“Breakfast — yes, coffee,” he says, sitting back in his chair.

“How do you take your coffee?” I ask, and the smile starts to slip.

“What do you put in your coffee?” I ask, searching for new words to ask the same question. “Do you put cream, or sugar, or do you take it black — with nothing — just coffee?”

He looks at me silently, staring at the empty Styrofoam cup in front of me.

“One moment,” I say. I step outside the classroom to the coffee cart waiting in the hall, carrying the creamer and sugar back to our table.

I open my mouth to explain again, but he cuts me off, eyes lighting up.

“No sugar, just milk,” he says.

“Yes!” I say, a little too loudly, and he almost laughs at my enthusiasm, but offers his dignified smile instead. He understood the question. I didn’t teach him that.

We talk every other week, give or take. Learning conversation in a new language is practicing spontaneity: you’re methodically training for casual comfort, and it feels completely counterintuitive. It takes time, even if you study every day.

When I walk into class the day after his test, I almost don’t recognize him, because he doesn’t have that dignified smile — it’s an unrestrained grin I’ve never seen before stretching across his face, and he doesn’t have to tell me that he passed.

Snapshots of a road trip

When I was little, my family and I used to take a road trip to Texas every other Christmas.

Most of my mom’s family lives in or near San Antonio. My parents would load up the minivan with a week’s worth of luggage and pile three sleepy kids into the car, then trading driving shifts through the night. The trip lasts approximately 23 hours.

This year, my family decided to relive those road trip memories and make the trek south for the first time in a while. With three adult children. In my mom’s brand-new five-seater car.

“This is a bad idea,” I pointed out. “This is a recipe for murder.”

“We’ll be OK,” my sister said. “Everyone will just have to practice being decent.”

“No one is decent after 13 hours in a five-seater car,” I said. This seems obvious to me. Constant physical contact. Crick in your neck. Shared breathing space. Tired but unable to get comfortable so you keep shifting, changing positions, and the person beside you moves to accommodate and then you have to move again and someone’s knee is cutting off circulation in your arm and —

“It’ll be fine!” my mom said brightly. I was overruled.

I want it down on record that I voted against.

At 10:30 p.m., my family swings through Worthington to pick me up. As I’ve just gotten off work, I volunteer to take the first shift driving.

We pull over at the Bob and Steve’s to buy gas.

“Does everyone have everything they need?” Dad asks.

“Yes,” my sister says.

“I think I want to get my pillow,” Mom says.

“Do we have any chips?” asks my brother.

“Can I give you my purse to put in the back?” I ask.

“If you need to get something, get it now,” Dad says.

“Just put it under your feet,” Mom tells me.

“Right there under the brake pedal,” my brother encourages.

I put my head in my hands. We have not even left town and I am reduced to helpless snickering in the front seat as my family unpacks and repacks the trunk of the car, chattering. Every obstacle encountered — “Wait! Where are the chargers? Do you think we’ll need our extra shoes?” — only makes me laugh harder. Even after we’ve finished filling up on gas and pulled into the parking lot, it takes another 15 minutes until everyone is satisfied, the car is set and I have permission to drive out.

Off to a rolling good start.

Just before 5 a.m. we pull into another gas station. My brother is driving now, and I start to blink awake at the change in light. Slumped on a pillow in the back center seat, I’m still hazy when everyone starts talking at once.

“Say —”

“Um, Ben, behind right —”

“HEY HEY HEY HEY —”

A crunching noise, and the car rocks sideways. Dad, who had been leaning against the back passenger side door, tips sideways against me.

There are maybe four seconds of dead silence before everyone starts talking again.

The accident isn’t our fault. A pickup truck driver backing out of the parking lot forgot to check mirrors and hit us broadside. She apologizes on replay, and we keep assuring her that no one is hurt. The entire rear passenger door is dented concave, though, and we spend a good half hour documenting the damage and calling insurance before we continue as is. It doesn’t take too long for the collective adrenaline high to collapse, and the car slips back into tenuous early morning quiet.

We stop in Dallas late afternoon to see family friends. We talk, play games with the kids and eat homemade pizza. I don’t say much; the air is filled with words as it is. Mom is getting so caught up in a story that her thoughts are outpacing her words; my brother is tossing sarcasm to the peanut gallery under his breath; my sister is deep in conversation with the family’s youngest; Dad is smirking from the far end of the table. I rest my elbow on the table and lean, smiling drowsily.

“I’d love to know what’s going on in your head,” our host says.

“Just —” I gesture vaguely at the table. “I love my family.”

“I know,” he says, grinning.

I’m happy to report that we all survived the last leg of the trip to San Antonio. Texas was warmer than Minnesota, and we spent time with family we hadn’t seen in years, remembering, talking, re-forming connections. I met a cousin that hadn’t been born the last time we made the trip. I appreciate these Christmases, scattered and far between as they are. Family is still family, to me, but sometimes the ties need to be tied again.

As for the drive home…well, I think we all made it, but I didn’t exactly do a body count.

I think I’ll leave that up to the imagination.

That sneezy time of year

Barring, y’know, Ebola or something, I really only get sick once a year, but it’s a doozy. My immune system seems to organize it like a body-wide event: “We’ll lock up every disease that attacks her this year, and then release them all on the same day.” “C’mon, it’ll be fun!” “Let’s do it again next year!”

I’m knocked off-kilter for at least 48 hours, sneezing and exhausted with a spiked fever and an earache and several symptoms I haven’t yet been able to place. My skin becomes hypersensitive; I can identify small breezes that indicate people two rooms away and one floor below have opened a closet door. It would be like a superpower if it wasn’t accompanied by the sinus system drainage and fatigue.

I usually miss some major life event, too, while I’m semi-delirious and trying to disappear into the couch. My sophomore year of high school I joined the cross country team before I realized I hated competitive running. For the entirety of the season I took my temperature before each meet, desperately hoping my annual illness would strike. It held off, of course, until New Years’ Eve, two hours before a community-wide cardboard box maze I had spent days helping to construct was about to open.

My 10th-grade mind felt so betrayed by my 10th-grade body.

This year it’s been pretty standard — I’ve gone through at least four boxes of tissues and bought the medicine that makes the cashier ask, “You’re 18, right?”

But it’s not all bad — I’ve read more “fun” stories and watched more superhero dramas in the past two days than I have in quite a while. I’ve caught up on sleep and snacked on chocolate chip cookies. And hey, staring at the same place on my wall for several limp hours has given me ideas for redecorating. Really, the annual illness is doing me a favor.

But I’m really looking forward to having energy again — being able to do basic things like, y’know, move without the thought I-hate-everything-why-am-I-not-asleep hovering in front of my consciousness. I’m counting on it being a 48-hour bug this year, because otherwise I’ll have to shop for groceries in this state, and nobody wants to see me selecting apples at the produce stand. (As a community service, if it comes to that, I solemnly swear to wear surgical gloves and one of those SARS masks, just in case.)

In the meantime, though, I’ll return to my couch — gazing incoherently at my walls until my eyes decide to shut, pondering if I have the energy to remember my Netflix password and hoping tomorrow, maybe, I’ll be back to normal, once again grateful for the glorious wonder of nature that is the high-functioning human body.

See you on the other side.

Thanksgiving split

This year I have a double Thanksgiving planned — one traditional, and one entirely new.

I’m driving north Wednesday morning to help with prep for the hordes of family that will arrive Thursday. Thanksgiving is our holiday to host, and if I know my parents, my mom has already entered “the cleaning zone” while my dad is still pondering last-minute home improvement projects he won’t actually start until an hour or so before guests start to arrive. (Only joking, Dad.) (Mostly…) The kitchen will be a mini-tornado of high stress and buttered potatoes, and my siblings and I will keep circling back to Mom for marching orders until family starts to arrive and we escape to play carpetball with the cousins or brew coffee for Grandma.

One of my favorite Thanksgiving traditions fits into the 20-second speech my dad gives just before the meal. It’s not even the prayer — my grandpa will bless the meal right after. My dad gathers everyone’s attention, announces the food is ready and invites my grandpa to pray, after which, my dad says, my mom will “do what she does best — tell us what to do.”
My mom hits his arm, everyone laughs, my grandpa prays, and then my mom actually does tell us what to do — which way the buffet line will travel around the kitchen island, which dishes are spicy, where to find the drinks. Once she says “go,” the only thing that matters is the (rapidly shrinking) distance between each of us and the pumpkin pie.

I look forward to that annual gibe-and-response every year, and I’m not really sure why. It’s a symbol of things staying the same, certainly — my dad still mocks my mom for her type-A organizational habits and then hands the reins over to her; my mom still rises to the bait and then laughs along. Maybe I respond to the community aspect of it — a personal joke made semi-public, a kind of proof that my parents trust the people filling the room, a way of loosening the instinctive stiffness between people who only see each other a few times a year. Maybe it’s just the tradition — the fact that, planned or unplanned, the same joke happens every year.

But this year I have a second Thanksgiving. On Friday, I’ll hop on a plane to California, where I’ll celebrate again with a few of my closest friends.

I’ve never been to the west coast before. (I anticipate warmer temperatures and a higher concentration of extroverts.) My California friend is in a happy planning frenzy, and we’ve left the details up to her. (I swear she even mentioned something about riding elephants, which sounds like more of a lofty dream than a reality, but I am tentatively raising my hopes … who doesn’t love an elephant?) Honestly, I’m excited simply to see my friends again — letters and texts and Skype don’t always cut it. We built these friendships over 2 a.m. cups of tea and half-successfully smothered laughter in libraries, shared weirdnesses and unintentional vulnerability. I’m eager to see them (elephants or no).

But instead of two Thanksgivings, it feels a bit like I’m splitting one, neither holiday quite adding up to a whole. A shortened weekend with my family — will there be time for guitar-playing and leftovers? And a few days with college friends is not enough to fit in all the words and silences we need to share. It seems like every time you love someone, however poorly, a tiny thread connects you to them, and having that thread stretched tight hurts. I didn’t mean for most of those threads to be tied — usually I don’t notice them until after the fact, you know? I’ve already discovered a few here in Worthington.

People don’t exist in a vacuum, and while some seem to easily balance the space/time continuum as it pertains to relationships, I’ve never been good at the act. It’s forced me to be more intentional with the places I invest my time and energy, to work harder at communication and honesty.

But I guess that’s what I’m thankful for, this year — the people I’m tied to, old and new. Despite my own limitations, they’ve stuck around and been willing to work with phone calls, 160-character limits and half-holidays, because every minute counts. I’m so excited to take part in my family’s time-honored traditions this year — and I look forward to a few new adventures, too.

Happy Thanksgiving, everyone!

Hunting opener, indoors

Last weekend I made the trek north to Bemidji for deer hunting opener.

As a kid, I took hunter’s safety, got my permit and hiked into the woods at 6 a.m. opener morning like any good northerner. In more recent years, however, I’ve chosen to stay back at my grandparents’ home, sipping hot chocolate and talking with the other non-hunters in my extended family.

I’ve got nothing against hunting; I still reap the benefits when other family members get their deer. (Right now I’ve got some nice t-bone cuts in my freezer, waiting for the perfect dish…) The decision has more to do with the fact that my dad used to sneak up on me as I perched in my tree stand, toes clenched with cold, distracted and utterly oblivious. He’d eventually abandon all pretense of secrecy, crunching leaves loudly under his boots as he got closer. Sometimes I didn’t notice until he was forty feet away and said my name — and let me tell you, hearing your name whispered aloud when you’ve been camped out in a tree for several hours, alone and utterly silent — it sounds like the voice of God.

But it was always my dad, smirking up at me, and I think the shame of letting him get so close before I noticed was what finally pushed me out of the woods and into the comfort of a living room chair on these November mornings. Besides, if I didn’t detect steel-toed boots until they were close enough to hit with a rock, how would I ever spot a deer?

In the house, those of us who aren’t hunting are warm, comfortable and a little drowsy — my sister spent a good half-hour curled on the couch under a blanket. We talk, or don’t talk; we snack on desserts and pot-luck items; we play around on the upright piano and watch whatever game’s on. We do all the things that reconnect us to people we haven’t seen in awhile — that unconscious shifting that happens when you start to recognize what’s different, and what’s the same, about the people you’ve known your whole life. When the hunters start to straggle in just after sunset, we keep track of where they park. In the driveway means no luck, but backing up to the wide garage doors means someone got their deer. Only one pickup made it to the garage doors last weekend.

And then it’s dinnertime, and my grandmother and an aunt have finished laying out the potluck dishes (and what’s left of the desserts). We’re too old for a kids’ table now, but somehow everyone under 25 still ends up in the overflow room, sitting on spare furniture and folding chairs. The hunters recount the events of the day — what they saw, what they didn’t. Just as dinner wraps up, my dad pokes his head into the room and grins at my siblings and me. We groan.

It’s deer processing time — another reason I no longer hunt (though I still get recruited to help). In the garage, today’s deer is strung up to the rafters, hide peeled off to let the blood drain. The muscle needs to be cut from the carcass, stripped of tallow, wrapped in paper and labeled. The garage is kept cold in order to keep the meat fresh; we each pick a hunting knife and go to work. In 20 minutes my fingers are freezing and caked with congealed blood. I’m thoroughly annoyed, but this is another kind of reconnection: doing necessary, if not particularly enjoyable, work with the people you love.

I had to cut my not-hunting-weekend short to make it back for work. The five-hour drive home alone had less contemplative silence and more pop music; I think I’ve accidentally memorized enough of the words to Taylor Swift’s new song to draw another smirk from my dad. But I like to think that even though he failed to convert me to the joys of hunting — though who knows, there’s still time — I still learned to love some of the more important aspects of opener weekend.

Ben Rector and performance art

This weekend, one of my sister’s favorite musicians is putting on a concert at my old college, and she and I have tickets.

Over the last three months, she has repeatedly announced, “Just wait, you have to hear this,” and then played the same song — “Making Money” by Ben Rector.

She’s thrilled to introduce me to new music. Every time.

I’m looking forward to the concert. I like Ben Rector’s music — sometimes I find myself playing his songs on repeat — but a live performance is always different from a recorded track. A recorded track allows the artist a do-over; a show is a one-shot deal. I get nervous for anyone who has to get on a stage.

I still remember the piano concerts my parents nudged me into as a kid. They were always nerve-wracking. I would stumble out to the concert piano feeling like hundreds of eyes were watching me mess up, when in reality there were probably 20 people in the audience, all parents of the other kids who had likewise been shanghaied into performance, and I was the only person who cared if I messed up.

I feel like I should say something Calvin-and-Hobbes-esque here about how piano recitals build character — I’m sure they do and I’m the better for them — but I’m still most comfortable a few removes from the audience. It’s one of the things I like about writing; I get to check my words, make sure I mean what I’m saying. Performance doesn’t offer second chances.

My second year of college, I was hired as a teaching assistant for an introductory British Literature course. Inevitably, Shakespeare was part of the program. The play we were to perform was King Lear, which — I mean, it’s Shakespeare, so it’s good, but it’s not exactly anyone’s favorite play. Even English nerds don’t sit around saying, “Anyone want to read King Lear?”

King Lear is known for a) crazy people and b) killing off almost the entire cast. (Spoiler: two people left standing.) And while it has some brilliant speeches, I have to admit that I can only stomach so many pages before I toss the book across the room. In one rather long scene, every character on stage is either insane or pretending to be. (Not a joke.)

But you can’t say that to the students you teach, so I kept walking across the room and picking it up again, trying to map out metaphors and derive hidden meanings from crazy talk. As the TA, I was required to play all the characters with few or no lines (soldiers, servants, Cordelia’s dead body) so the students could focus on the more complex roles.

We were pretty bad: me, an enthusiastic professor, and twenty-five college freshman who had one week to practice and really didn’t want to be reciting Shakespeare in a tiny classroom with humming fluorescent lights. (I nailed it as a corpse, of course, but everyone else was suffering.)

But something happens in performance, even in an awkward, less-than-ideal setting like that. Boring lines become angry, or sad, or hopeful. Mad scenes become funny. We laughed at all the right jokes; the hams in the class started to act up. Nobody interrupted the silence surrounding the last living actress, bodies slumped on the stage behind her. Even our slapdash attempt at Shakespearian tragedy caught hints of what performance does — the way the performer engages the audience, and the audience engages the performer in return.

All that to say, maybe that’s why I’m excited about the Ben Rector concert. If that concert is full of people who love his music — evangelists like my sister who share his music with passersby — it’s going to be an excellent show. And even though I’ll just be one seat on the balcony, it’s fun to feel like I’m part of encouraging an artist to make good music.

Timing

Lately I’ve been collecting the small good things that happen over the course of my day. A joke with a stranger; an email from a friend; a happy caterpillar on the cover of my notebook.

I’m not superstitious (though I am a little stitious…) but there’s something about a well-timed talk or gift or moment that makes me want to describe it in terms of “meant to be.” I walk along the lakeshore on my lunch break, sunlight glaring off the lake into my eyes, and when I turn around, yellow leaves drifting earthward are catching in scattered sunbeams. It seems so perfect, a postcard moment, and it seems to me like it means something — like if my life was a movie, the music would swell here to indicate significance.

My life isn’t a movie. (If I’m trapped in some version of The Truman Show, I’m petitioning for a better soundtrack… Priorities.) And even though I know it’s just a leaf, just a gift, just a conversation, I always seem to decide that every good thing I have collected is a clue to the larger arc of the story, that each moment means something.

But I am learning — perhaps taking longer than most to learn — that the moments don’t mean anything on their own. We can collect as many moments as we like, but it’s up to us to order them in our own narratives. My leafy lunch break can be a peek into the timeless, or an existential crisis, or a trigger for scientific brilliance (à la Newton, didn’t he have his gravity epiphany under an apple tree?) or a deep breath to steel me for a long night. Maybe it’s just an excuse to get out the rakes. It means what I make of it.

Recently I told the same anecdote three times in a row (to a forgiving audience), rehashing an awkward moment of my week. The first time it was sassy, a nobody-tell-me-what-to-do story; the second time it was sad; the third it was funny. The facts of the story never changed; I was the only variable. We shift our own narratives.

It’s a bit scary to think about. I like thinking that I’m discovering the story, not writing it. And maybe at the end of our lives we’ll look back and see that what looked like scattered moments was really a path the whole time — but if so, it’s something you can only really see in retrospect. We can guess at where we should be and how we’re supposed to join up the moments, but ultimately it’s up to us.

And that’s why I’m collecting moments these days, catches of good things that happen, because I figure the days won’t always be good. I’ll need good things to work into my narrative in a way that I can make sense out of it. (Making meaning seems to be a messy process.)

Yesterday one of my neighbors left a string of colored Christmas lights rolled up on the newspaper outside my door. (It’s amazing how Christmas lights can make any story better — and a gift from a neighbor, at that.) A good hair-and-makeup day helps; and then there’s the joke I overhear while I’m getting coffee that makes me nearly burst with the effort of trying not to laugh because then they’ll know I heard and I didn’t mean to eavesdrop, I swear. I learn my first Burmese word — va-th-na, meaning “hobby” — and I know I’m pronouncing it with a thick Minnesotan accent, but my teacher smiles so encouragingly that I keep practicing. I find a package of chocolate chip cookies from my mom in my mailbox — even after shipping they still melt in my mouth. A few friends and I get one step closer to perfecting the Anna Kendrick Cups song rhythm. Another yellow leaf hits the sidewalk in front of my feet, and it doesn’t matter that I’ve been collecting them since autumn started, I tuck it between the pages of my notebook.

The pieces, strung together, start to mean something to me.

The letter-writing guilt cycle

I suppose it was inevitable. Befriending writers, literature lovers, historians, theologians, people who assign value to written words — and then choosing to live apart from those friends when we scattered across the country after college. The choices I’ve made have led me directly to this: the envelope staring me down from my kitchen table, containing several pages of matched stationery that a friend has filled from top to bottom with thoughtful, careful handwriting.

Cursive, in fact.

I read the letter, and I loved it. I am always thrilled to receive letters, even the greeting-card kind. Letters mean thought and effort and being remembered. They remind me that I am loved, and I am always grateful.

But receiving letters is only half the equation. Each one requires a longhand reply.

No pressure.

I’ve gotten so used to the backspace button on my laptop that trying to write thoughtfully on paper seems like a daunting task. When I mess up, I can’t rewrite unless I want to start again from the top — and if I misspell a word, or use incorrect grammar, there’s no way to fix it. Scribbles and crossed out words aren’t fooling anyone.

Then there’s the moment, after I’ve finally worked up the courage to brave the risk of syntactical errors, when I look down at the white sheet of stationery in front of me and feel my mind go blank, too. What do I have to write about? What have I done since we last spoke? Come to think of it, what was I doing five minutes ago? Where do I live?

In order to squeeze the words onto the page, I feign disinterest in the product. (Sort of the way you approach shy farm animals: I’m not paying attention to you, but if you wander over here I guess we can be friends.) The unwritten letter takes on an antagonistic life of its own: as long as it knows I want to write it, it will refuse to be written.

So I ignore It. I clean my apartment, cook dinner, watch television, check email, read a page or two of my current book. I don’t care about you, I tell my empty page.

Sometimes the letter wins these stalling contests — I go to straighten the stack of bills and newspapers accumulating on my table and find a piece of paper with only “Dear ____” written across the top. The shame is overwhelming. I immediately sit down to write… and the cycle begins again.

But other times I manage to do it. I grit my teeth and spit words onto the page, letting the smalltalk portion at the beginning of each letter build momentum and carry into something meaningful or funny or snarky. And who cares if I crossed out three attempts at spelling the word “definite” before it finally looked right, or misplaced my apostrophes, or realized a paragraph too late that one of my stories was a “you had to be there” moment — I have a letter, words scrawled on a physical piece of paper in semi-legible handwriting. I am so proud.

A week later I find the letter again and remember that writing is not enough: it needs an envelope, and a stamp, and to be posted.

The guilt eats me alive.

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.