I see us clearly in my memory — ten teenage girls walking down the sidewalk after school in 1955: black-and-white saddle oxfords, plaid skirts with sugar-starched crinolines beneath them, prim white shirts cinched by belts at the waist. We shriek with laughter.
What did we find so funny? Sometimes we would have to stop and clamp our legs together to keep from peeing our pants. One time Mary’s bladder gave way, and she crumpled to the ground and rolled about in autumn leaves as we pointed and cackled. Then we formed a tight ring around her and made our way to the nearest girl’s house so Mary could change underwear.
Forty-five years later, I am going to my high-school reunion. I’ve arranged to stay with my best friend from those times. We have not seen one another in twenty years.
When we meet, it’s obvious we have become very different people. I am fatter and often wear Salvation Army bargains, whereas she is sleek and carries Gucci bags. She’s into Florida vacations, George W. Bush, and pedigreed English setters. I voted for Al Gore, own three mutts saved from the streets, and think staying home is the best vacation. She lives in a big house with white walls and rococo furniture. My house is simple adobe with mismatched furnishings and brightly painted walls. This visit is going to be a disaster.
We hug hello, and she gives me the eye. (Later she will confess: “You looked so haggard.” I’ll tell her that haggard is a rude word to use to describe a friend, even if it’s true.)
I tour the house and put my bags in the bedroom. We are polite and dance around each other’s differences with carefully chosen words. Then she asks if I’d like to take a drive to see the old sights. Anxious to get out of that stuffy white environment, I grab my purse from the bed, only to find its zipper has somehow woven itself into the bedspread. I must look ridiculous trying to free my purse, because my friend snorts. She reaches for the trapped purse, and our fingers touch. We both pull at the purse, causing the bedspread to jump up and down.
“It wants to stay here,” I tell her, and we giggle wildly.
Hysterical, we both fall onto the bed, my purse between us. My friend puts out her hand, and I take it. Our hands are warm.
Las Vegas, New Mexico
My parents never laughed about anything. In elementary school I used to memorize jokes on the playground and recite them at dinner to lighten the mood: “Knock, knock. Who’s there? Amos. Amos who? A mosquito just bit me.” My brothers and sister laughed. My parents wanted to know where I’d learned the jokes and threatened to call the teacher and complain.
My sister and I shared the same bed, and at night we would talk about things that made us laugh — such as how the boys at our Catholic school would walk like penguins behind the nuns. Eventually our father would yell up the stairs for us to quiet down.
Our father was a marine who believed in discipline and hard work. He thought only fools found anything to laugh about and said that telling jokes was a waste of time. We knew from experience that, if he had to put down his beer can and bang his way up the stairs, we would be sore for days. We put pillows over our heads and stuffed the corners of the pillowcases into our mouths to muffle our laughter. We didn’t get caught very often, but when we did, neither of us laughed for weeks afterward.
Our mother said we shouldn’t laugh during Lent because Jesus was about to die, and that was no laughing matter. I spent weeks going through the Stations of the Cross at church and feeling guilty that I still wanted to eat candy after school. My sister and I were Girl Scouts, and Lent coincided with our cookie sale. I always stole a box of mint cookies from our supply and stashed them in the basement, worrying about hell each time I ate one.
As teenagers, my sister and I would whisper and giggle about boys and read forbidden magazines about Hollywood love affairs. If we were too loud, our father would ask us what was so damn funny. Beer can in hand, he would interrogate us about boys and what we had done with them. Had we been alone with a boy? Where had we gone?
My sister and I would deny all knowledge of boys. We’d tell him the magazine belonged to a friend of ours. Even so, our mother would ban us from talking on the telephone and make us come straight home after school. We would have to recite the rosary out loud with her every night until she decided our hearts were right with the Lord.
I don’t know why, but somehow I became like my parents. One day I found myself angry when my friends laughed at a joke. I thought to myself, What jerks. They think everything is funny.
When my granddaughter tells me a knock-knock joke, I watch her laugh. I watch her watch me for a reaction. I want to laugh and cry at the same time.
Snapshots of me as a child show a somber, depressed little boy in stiff, awkward poses. “There’s nothing as delightful as a child’s laughter,” my mother used to say. Then she’d revile me for never laughing.
I wanted to please her, so I studied other people’s laughter. Apparently it was involuntary, like coughing. I practiced laughing alone in my room, but if I made these sounds in public, people looked at me oddly, perhaps because I wasn’t smiling. My mother wasn’t fooled, either, and denounced me as a phony.
When I was six, my mother sent me to summer camp for two months. It was my first encounter with large numbers of children my own age. The other boys laughed a lot, and I tried to join in at the proper times, and to smile when I made the sounds, but sometimes I forgot.
Then one day a boy named James showed me his book of Pogo comic strips. James and I read several pages, and I began to feel unfamiliar sensations in my chest and belly. I was afraid I was going to throw up. I started making involuntary noises. Worried, I tried to stifle them, but I couldn’t. I was helpless with laughter.
In college I volunteered to work for a semester at a hospice for the poor in Katmandu, Nepal. The hospice building was a long cinder-block bunker lined with beds: men on the left and women on the right. The only light came from a half dozen small windows with metal gratings instead of glass.
I began each day by scrubbing the concrete floor with a towel and a bucket of water and detergent, the smell of which burned my nostrils. I would shuffle along the corridor on hands and knees while the clanging chorus of a Hindi pop song blared from a radio. My knees ground against the cement. My fingers turned to pale, watery prunes. I felt a little lightheaded and wondered whether the detergent fumes were toxic.
If I paused and looked down the hall, I’d see Muni Krishna, the paraplegic, staring back at me, smiling. His teeth glowed, large and square below a thick white mustache. Muni’s head was shaved, leaving a gray stubble that peeked out from under a yellow wool hat. Every morning, after I’d cleaned the floor and the bedpans, I walked over to Muni, picked him up, and cradled him in my arms, feeling the bones of his spine and ribs. Like a strange creature with two heads, we waddled down the hall, out of the cool darkness of the ward and into a sun-soaked patch of earth beside the road. There Muni would sit for the rest of the day, watching merchants selling fried vegetables and bread, and children playing soccer with empty plastic bottles.
I think Muni’s laughter started from embarrassment, the awkwardness of being picked up and carried like a small child by a complete stranger not half his age. Since I spoke so little Nepali, and he spoke no English, I couldn’t ask why he laughed. But his laughter soon lost its embarrassed quality and flowed easily. It became our greeting to each other. It meant, “Yes, go ahead and pick me up.” When his laughter was absent, it meant I was picking him up wrong, or that he had forgotten the cup and spoon he kept by his side.
I have one photograph of Muni and myself: it shows a small old man with furrowed brown skin and a wide grin, huddled in the embrace of a gangly boy-man, both of them smiling. The photo was taken by my roommate Whit, who was teaching English in Nepal. He’d come to visit me on my last day at the hospice, and as I was carrying Muni out the door, Whit said something to Muni in Nepali. Muni grinned, and Whit snapped the picture.
Afterward Whit translated for Muni and me. The old man and I smiled and laughed like friends who had met on the street after years apart. But when Whit told Muni I was leaving, the smile left Muni’s face. He looked at me and then looked away.
Once every few years, I dig through my stack of photos from Nepal and look at the picture of Muni and me. I try to remember his laugh.
St. Paul, Minnesota
My salesman father was away a lot when I was a child. His territory included virtually all of the Southeastern United States. When he was home, he would grumpily catch up on yardwork.
One Sunday my father was trimming the box hedges in the front yard with a pair of yellow-handled shears. I was riding my bike, which was used, fenderless, and too big for me. Having recently perfected my riding skills, I rode up and down the street, picking up speed and confidence. Hoping my father would admire my newfound skill, I came barreling down the street toward our driveway.
I remember the moment I lost control of my bike. The front wheel caught the edge of the driveway, and I went soaring over the handlebars. My chin skidded across the asphalt.
When I looked up, I saw my shirtless father standing by the hedge, shears at his side, staring at me. And then he laughed.
Catching himself, he said abruptly, “Get in the house and let your mother have a look at you.” But he never came over to help or console me.
I was too stunned to cry. I did have the presence of mind, however, to pick up my bike and wheel it around to the garage, for fear that my father would scold me if I left it in the driveway.
A year or two later we moved from that place, thanks to my mother’s constant petitioning. My father’s traveling decreased, and his disposition softened. I never asked him why he’d laughed that day, and if I pursued it now, I’m sure he wouldn’t remember.
I have many fond memories of childhood. But a few years ago, when a therapist asked me to share a childhood memory, any memory, it was this one that popped into my head: of my father laughing at me when I was down.
Culver City, California
Several years ago, I was sitting at the kitchen counter with my two young children when my daughter fell off her stool. She wasn’t hurt, and we all laughed loud and heartily. Laughter was unusual in our house, and I was startled by the sound of it, and by how good it felt. I’d been so busy trying to raise my children well that I had forgotten how to enjoy them.
Since that day, I have made a conscious effort to laugh with my children. Mostly I laugh at myself and at my life. Sometimes I laugh for no reason, and my children roll their eyes and tell me I’m weird. But the truth is, my home is a happier place now that I’ve rediscovered the humor in life.
My friends complain about being unable to reach their surly teenage daughters, but I know that, more often than not, I will find myself laughing with mine at the end of the day, perhaps through a mouthful of toothpaste or while painting our toenails.
My ten-year-old son and I watch Austin Powers over and over, much to the dismay of my husband and daughter. I hope that, by laughing with my son, I will not only offset the sexist messages of the film, but teach him to enjoy the company of women.
I’ve had a baby since I remembered how to laugh. She is six now, and she was born laughing. She laughs at the breeze, at her reflection, at everything.
It was December 1989, and I had been at Baker Correctional Institution only a year. That winter was an unusually cold one in Florida. The thin wool blankets they gave us barely kept off the chill, and our blue prison jackets were all but useless against the wind. I had gotten a sweat shirt and long johns in my last package from home, but guys with no family were out of luck. Christmas was a week away, and the seasonal depression was intense.
After one miserably frigid night, my cellie Galen curled up under his blankets and declined to get up for chow. It was too cold, he said. I rose and stomped around the freezing cell, watching my breath billow out. When I pissed, steam came up.
The dorm speakers blared: “Chow call! Chow call! Anybody want to eat, go now!” I did not relish the walk in the cold to the chow hall — about a thousand feet from our dormitory — but I was hungry. When the front door clicked open, I joined the herd of men stampeding through the icy wind in the predawn darkness, hunched over to preserve body heat. I was beginning to think Galen had the right idea.
Up ahead I saw a dozen guys slip and fall on the sidewalk. Everyone stopped and looked around. The starry sky was moonless, but the yard was brighter than it should have been. The ground was covered in a thin layer of snow.
“Holy sheep shit,” the guy next to me whispered. We mumbled to each other as we began moving again, not running now but walking, taking it all in. I felt fascination and awe swelling inside me.
Breakfast was cold eggs and clotted grits. Nobody talked about sports scores or the previous night’s television shows, only of the snow we had just seen, and memories of snow up north. Walking back to the dorm, I scooped up a little snow and relished the feel of it in my palm.
At 8 A.M. the dormitory doors were unlocked for the day. Most work duties were canceled because of the snow. Despite the cold, small crowds of men began wandering outside. A few snowball fights started. A couple of inmates built two-foot-high snowmen, the best they could do with the thin dusting of white.
The sky was a cloudless expanse of blue, and although the biting wind never let up, I was happy to be outside. We all were. Horseplay broke out, and just plain play, and for once the guards didn’t mind. You would never have known that we were all a bunch of fenced-in, angry, hard-ass felons, to hear the laughter that rang across the snow.
Bowling Green, Florida
It was my senior year of college. I was waiting in line to see Kiss of the Spider Woman at the university’s theater when my old girlfriend Lisa came up to me and said she had bad news: my housemate and bandmate Myra had jumped off the thirteenth floor of her old dorm. She was dead.
Lisa and I drove to our other friends’ houses to tell them. Later that night, about twenty-five people came over to my place, and we all sat in the basement, where the band had rehearsed. We didn’t know what to say or how to act. Most of us had just turned twenty. We were unfamiliar with death, except in stories we read for English class.
At one point I went upstairs to the kitchen for something to eat. I hadn’t eaten all day. But as soon as I put the first bite of leftover spaghetti in my mouth, I knew I wouldn’t be able to swallow it. I spit it out in the trash and went back downstairs to wait for this horrible feeling to end.
My friend Mark was leaning back on his chair when suddenly he lost his balance and fell backward onto the carpet. He wasn’t hurt, and he looked pretty silly going down. We couldn’t help but laugh.
For a second, laughing seemed a terribly wrong thing to do, but it broke the spell. Soon we were all talking, trying to make sense of what had happened.
My laugh has been called a guffaw, a horse laugh, a bray, and, often, an embarrassment. It is my mother’s legacy — one of the few things she left me when she abandoned me at the age of six. She also left me a cat, my own library card, and a pair of blue eyes that filled too easily with tears. But it is the laugh I am most thankful for. Deep and throaty, often loud, and definitely unladylike, it is either the blessing or bane of all who hear it.
At home my husband glows with pride whenever he cracks a joke that causes me to laugh; in public he sinks deeper into his chair. My friends jump in their seats when my laughter erupts, no matter how many times they’ve heard it. Strangers stop and stare. Are they jealous that I’m having so much fun, or just irritated by the loud outburst?
It doesn’t matter. There is too much sadness and too little laughter in this world. I want to share mine with every-one around me. And, of course, with a laugh as loud as mine, I don’t give them much choice.
When I was twenty-three, I worked in a health-food store in Honolulu. I hadn’t seen my father since I’d left home at sixteen. Sometimes I felt sad that I couldn’t afford a ticket back to the mainland to visit him. (Now I wonder why he never sent me a ticket.)
One day, in the produce section, I saw an old man who looked so much like my father that my heart jumped. He reached for the counter to support himself, but then began to fall. I lunged forward to catch him. He thanked me, and we talked. His name was Ed, he said, and he had leukemia and lived alone. I offered to help him out.
I began going to Ed’s apartment once a week to do some light housework. Sometimes I helped him take a bath. He had a quirky habit of putting Clorox in the water — it made his skin smooth, he claimed. (I was sure I’d found the reason for his leukemia.) We had some long talks and became friends.
Then my boyfriend convinced me to move to Los Angeles with him so he could make it as a drummer. I dreaded telling Ed that I would probably never see him again.
When I did tell Ed, it took him a while to get used to the idea. On my last visit, as we were saying goodbye, I choked back tears. He looked at me and said, “Mary, I have to tell you something.”
Oh, God, I thought. I was sure he was about to say I was like a daughter to him.
“Has anyone ever told you,” he said, “that you have bad breath?”
I quickly put my hand over my mouth and thanked him for his honesty. While racing home to brush my teeth, I burst out laughing. His remark had made saying goodbye easy.
Santa Barbara, California
My friend Joey and I have danced in many places: discos, grocery stores, mall parking lots. When we were teens, our high school had a talent show, and we put together a corny dance routine, half Saturday Night Fever, half Fred and Ginger. We worked for weeks on the moves, practicing in his family room, drinking endless glasses of Pepsi, and laughing: the kind of laughter that hurts your sides and cheeks and eyes and reminds you you’re alive.
We won third place. We wouldn’t have done so well except that whenever we made mistakes onstage, we giggled until we picked up the beat again. The crowd loved it.
Once, a woman shimmied up to us on a dance floor and said, “I bet you guys have great sex!” But Joey and I have never slept together, nor will we.
In 1987 Joey called and told me he was HIV-positive. He said it as if he were telling me he had just gotten his teeth cleaned. I was a shrieking mess, a theatrical fool, and retreated instantly from the unknown. I was needy when my friend needed me.
Before we hung up, I told him I wished we could be together, instead of him in San Francisco and me in Iowa. If only we could go dancing, then things would be OK.
Joey’s undergone several personality changes since he found out he was sick: there’s devout Joey, heavy-drinking and smoking Joey, and holistic Joey, the expert on vitamins and herbs and macrobiotics. I never know which one I’ll get when I call or visit. As much as these new characters amuse me, I miss the old Joey, always witty, always sarcastic, always laughing.
A while back we spent a day sitting at his parents’ kitchen table drinking beer and eating guacamole and chips. We laughed for hours — the kind of “you had to be there” laughter that includes snorting and falling off chairs.
When our conversation slowed, I thought it was OK to pose a serious question. I asked him how he felt.
“Great,” he said.
No matter which personality I ask, he’s always great. And I must respect that, because his condition is one thing he can’t share with me, the one thing we will never laugh about.
West Conshohocken, Pennsylvania
My father-in-law was a violent man. One evening I sat with my husband and his two younger sisters and listened as they recalled events from their childhood, like the time at the dinner table when my husband had said something that ignited their father’s temper.
“Yeah, Dad got really mad,” my sister-in-law said to my husband, “and he shot up and backhanded you and knocked you out of your chair.”
As I listened to the story, I felt a sense of helplessness and fear. I actually started to shake.
It was then that I noticed my sister-in-law had begun to laugh, the way you do when you are in the midst of telling a joke. The other sister, also giggling, said, “Yeah, and then Dad grabbed the chair he’d just knocked you out of and swung it high over his head, with every intention of bringing it down on your skull.”
At this point, everyone but me was bent over with laughter.
“Thank God one of you screamed,” my husband said, trying to catch his breath.
I sat there with tears stinging my eyes. Clearly, I would never have survived childhood in their home.
Montauk, New York
As a teenager I quit smiling. It didn’t happen overnight. Years of conditioning led me to that point. My friends and I cultivated a cool, sullen posture. Butts hung from our dour lips, and we kept contraband hidden in our clothing. We would gather in the school hallways, in the boys’ room, or in front of the drugstore, and there we would conceive illegal plans and brag of unsavory victories. “Death to the smiling Henrys” was our motto.
By the time I was seventeen, I hadn’t cracked an honest grin in years — with one exception. Sometimes, when high on acid, my friends and I would snort, titter, and roar uncontrollably. While tripping, normal rules did not apply. But by morning our demeanor would again be steely and cool.
By nineteen, I was tripping daily — in part because I was literally starved for laughter. I had to make a change or die. Today, in recovery, I can see that what I thought was my salvation was actually the opposite.
I can even laugh about it.
I came out to my parents just after I told them I was divorcing my husband, a wonderful man they both loved. Immediately, my dad told me he loved me and always would. Crying, I hugged him. My mom hadn’t yet moved from her chair.
Finally she stood up and silently embraced me. I cried into her shoulder, and she stroked my back. Then she said, “I’m going to walk the dog.” And she left my dad and me to talk about my new life, the woman I was dating, and how my mom would eventually come around.
A few weeks later, a co-worker told me a corny joke about “wiener dogs.” Knowing that my mother dreamed of raising dachshunds, I committed the joke to memory.
That afternoon, I called her, eager to share the joke. Our first few exchanges were chilly, as all our conversations had been since I’d come out. Then I told her the joke, about a cowboy and his desire to “get a long little doggy.” She laughed fully, completely. It was a joyful moment.
Just as quickly, however, it disappeared. “Is that all?” she asked warily.
No, I thought, but it’s a start.
Stevens Point, Wisconsin
My mother and I used to laugh hysterically about the silliest things. She had a raucous, bawdy sense of humor that contrasted sharply with her ladylike demeanor. We’d laugh so hard that our hands would fly to our stomachs and tears would run down our cheeks. At those moments, our personalities clicked, and our laughter rendered our relationship effortless.
But then my concern over her drinking settled in just under the skin of our conversations, and our laughter became less frequent.
The first week my mother was in the hospital, I watched her go through withdrawal. She talked into her finger as if it were a microphone, informing the police about the terrorists who were getting ready to burst into her room. She pulled at the oxygen mask and the tubes in her forearms, a fiery hatred in her eyes, and yelled that I didn’t know what I was talking about. Drinking hadn’t put her there, she said. Her doctors didn’t know shit. Then she lay back in exhaustion on the hospital bed.
Drinking killed her in the end. Or maybe she killed herself, mixing bottles of pills with Glenfiddich.
Now, a year later, I reread one of the jokes — many of which were downright filthy — that my mother relayed to me by e-mail. I can almost hear her laugh. I am laughing myself now, with tears in my eyes.
Los Angeles, California
Grandma Lucy lived three short blocks from the house where I grew up, and my youngest brother, my sister, and I spent many nights at her house. No one could make us feel more special. She made our favorite dinners and even let us have a cup of ice cream — in bed, after our teeth were brushed. We spent hours playing Yahtzee, Scrabble, Kings in the Corner, Aggravation, and Hide the Thimble. Grandma also had a jar of old buttons that we could string on thread. (For some reason, this was entertaining at Grandma’s house.)
Grandma Lucy won most of the games we played, and we always wondered if she cheated. If we asked, her eyes would sparkle, the corners of her mouth would crinkle up, and she would say, “You never know!”
My favorite game at Grandma Lucy’s was a game she made up. It could be played at any time: in the middle of a heated card game, or while you were watching cartoons, or as she was tucking you into bed. Grandma Lucy would pause long enough for you to wonder what was going on. Then she would get a sparkle in her eye and say, “Let’s just laugh.” And Grandma would begin to giggle quietly, which made us giggle, too. Before long we were all in tears, rolling on the floor, laughing as if it were our sole purpose in life. Often one of the players in the laughing game would pee her pants. This meant the game was a success.
I can’t remember the last “real” conversation I had with my mother. I’m sure it was of the “What’s new with you?” variety. Now that she’s in the late stages of Alzheimer’s, there’s nothing much left to talk about. I sit and listen as she innocently carries on conversations that only she can understand.
The last time I visited her at the Saint Francis Home, we sat and looked out the opaque window of the rec room and listened to the rain. The pitter-patter of raindrops on glass seemed to have a calming effect on her.
As I got up to leave, I bent down to kiss her forehead and absent-mindedly asked if she needed anything.
“How about a cold one next time?” she said.
Her reply caught me off guard, and I laughed out loud. She looked up at me from her wheelchair and began laughing, too. From then on, I’ve lived for those rare moments of laughter that connect us.
After the divorce, my husband moved a thousand miles away and out of my life. During that harrowing time, my five-year-old son began to have frequent nightmares. I’d be awakened several times a night by his frightened voice calling out to me. I’d stumble to his bedside in the dark, feeling exhaustion, annoyance, and a tightness in my chest. Somehow I had failed to protect him, to keep his innocence intact.
Some nights, however, I would be startled awake by the clean, bell-like sounds of my son’s laughter. This laugh was unlike any I’d heard from him in his waking hours: utterly abandoned, absolutely delighted.
As I lay there listening to those bouts of midnight laughter, I felt blessed, buoyed, healed. I opened myself up and drank it in, so I could recall it in the dark days to come.
When I was in first grade, I was bullied by the neighbor boy, James. He was in my class at school, and every day I waited for the school bus with him. Whenever he caught me laughing, he’d command solemnly, “Don’t laugh.” And, crestfallen, I would stop laughing immediately. (It never occurred to me that a fellow first-grader didn’t have the right to tell me what to do.)
Then one day after the school bus had dropped us off, James began harassing me as usual, and I surprised myself by knocking him over the head with my plaid metal lunch pail. He burst into tears. (I don’t think he had ever made me cry that loud.) He chased me up my driveway and hit me a few times, but I didn’t care. It didn’t hurt that much, and it felt good to finally stick up for myself.
If only I’d done it more often in life. But I’m afraid I returned to being meek, and I went on to encounter much meaner bullies than James, who ended up becoming a preacher.
As a Peace Corps volunteer, I lived in Mongolia. One day I was walking back to my apartment when I saw a camel tied to the fence around my building. A group of teenage boys were tormenting the camel, pulling on the rope attached to its nose ring and pelting it with stones while laughing raucously. Their laughter grated on me.
There was something about groups of adolescent males in Mongolia that made me uncomfortable. As a foreigner, I sometimes attracted attention, but they were the only ones who made outright fun of me, hooting and pointing when I passed by. I generally ignored this behavior, but I entertained thoughts of grabbing the nearest offender by his collar, smashing him up against a wall, and gut-punching him repeatedly. This fantasy was very emotionally fulfilling.
I decided to talk to these boys instead.
I walked up to them, affecting a sort of wide-eyed expression of wonder. “Hi, guys,” I said.
“Hi,” they replied automatically. I stood near the camel’s head. The boys stopped throwing rocks, and one of them said something that I didn’t quite catch.
“What?” I asked.
“Don’t stand too close,” said the boy. “He’s going to spit on you.”
The camel looked at me, probably wondering if I was going to throw something at it too. I backed off.
“We don’t have camels in America,” I said, “so I find them really interesting.”
It turned out they were happy to talk. We chatted aimlessly about camels for a minute. Then I suggested a photo. Excited, they made as if to take a picture of me and the camel.
“No,” I said, “let’s all get in it.” And we did.
Now I look at the picture and see the camel standing off to the side, looking faintly relieved. The boys and I lean in together, laughing at the camera like friends.
Cindy Y. Ogasawara
With the kind of day I’d had, I wasn’t much in the mood for laughter. It started when my alarm clock didn’t go off. I got up at 7:20 A.M. and had to be at my teaching job at the prison by 8:00. I brushed my teeth with one hand and combed my hair with the other. When I opened the door to leave, I was greeted by a blast of cold, wet air. Already late, I didn’t have time to go back into the house for a raincoat. I simply hoped it would stop raining before I got to work.
When I arrived at work, it was still pouring. The area where I had to park was sometimes referred to as the “back forty,” due to its distance from the building. By the time I made it to my classroom I looked as if I had just rolled out of a washing machine. The day went downhill from there.
When I arrived home that afternoon, it was still raining. As I hurried up the steps to my kitchen door, I dropped a stack of papers on the wet stairs. Then, while trying to pick up the papers, I dropped my coat in a puddle. At least the day was turning out to be consistent.
I can only imagine what I looked like when I walked in the door. My wife and son both saw me at the same time, and their reactions were the same: they burst out laughing.
At that moment all the things that had gone wrong during the day didn’t seem as troubling. My wife and son’s laughter made me realize that a bad day is not the end of the world.
Thomas P. O’Brien
Coal Township, Pennsylvania
I followed the prison guard into the large stainless-steel kitchen. “We’d like you to demonstrate your exercises in here,” she said, “to see how many of the inmates are interested in taking your class.”
It was far from the ideal environment for exercising, but her starched gray uniform and unflinching expression told me that the kitchen was my only option.
“We will move you into the cellblock next week,” she muttered, “if enough prisoners sign up.”
Ten sullen black women were ushered into the kitchen. I introduced myself, asked their names, and requested that they make a semicircle in front of me. Disdain showed on their faces, and jeering obscenities issued from their mouths. Looking them directly in the eyes, I told them that some stretching, followed by a gentle jog, would warm us up for the more difficult exercises.
“I’m already warmed up, baby,” one of the women called out.
The rest giggled, or glared at me.
I began with raising the hands over the head, bending forward at the waist, and slowly trying to touch the floor with both hands.
After I’d done this exercise three times, I became aware that one of the inmates was standing behind me with a broom in her hands, waiting for me to bend over. I turned around and asked her name again.
“Moe’s my name,” she said defiantly and grinned.
The grin gave me some hope. “Moe,” I said, “holding a broom is not going to help you stretch out your spine or the backs of your thighs or calf muscles.”
Some inmates laughed and a few said, “Shee-it.” I realized that I had become their entertainment in this Godforsaken place. I asked Moe to please rejoin us in the semicircle. She complied, and I thanked her.
Next I asked the women to sit on the floor, stretch their legs out in a V, and slowly try to touch the floor in front of them with their head. As I was bending my own head to the floor, a muscular young woman with a light beard, no breasts, and hair on her chest sat in front of me and threw her legs over mine.
“What are you doing?” I asked.
She said, “I wanna do your exercise.” And she proceeded to bend over and shove her face into my crotch.
To this day, I don’t know why I started laughing, but once I did, I couldn’t stop. My stomach was shaking; tears were rolling down my cheeks. My laughter must have been infectious, because the young woman and the other inmates — and even the guard — joined in.
Finally the laughter stopped, and we sat on the floor and talked a bit. Preparing to leave, I suggested we “try this again next week,” and we all started giggling again.
As she was escorting me out of the prison, the guard whispered in my ear, “I think you made it.”
Essex Fells, New Jersey
In my family, we use humor to deal with strong emotions. My father, in particular, was known for his clever quips in times of adversity. When faced with uncertainty about the future, for example, he was fond of saying, “We’ll jump off that bridge when we come to it.” We may not have learned how to reach out to one another, but we knew how to have a good laugh.
When my father lay dying in the hospital, my three sisters and I returned home from locations around the globe. We met at a restaurant and proceeded to have the most raucous evening I can remember. We laughed so hard that people at other tables stared. At one point, the waitress asked us what was so funny. We were quiet for a moment. Then one of my sisters said, “Our father is dying,” and the four of us burst out laughing.
South Burlington, Vermont