Thursday, December 24, 2015

Christmas Eve 2015

Pink and white Christmas cacti

Today, December 24, 2015, the rain is coming down in alternating drizzles and downpours here in New Jersey. The temperature is hovering at a very un-Christmas-like 70 degrees and plants that are supposed to be dormant by now are still green and growing. Santa will certainly need to remove his heavy red jacket during his deliveries in this area tonight. I can imagine him saying, “Ho Ho Ho, it’s HOT in here!” So, for those of you in New Jersey, do Santa a favor, and leave him a nice cold glass of ice water tonight instead of the hot chocolate. 

For me, today, and, indeed, most of the next week, is a “looking back” time. I think it may start with the Christmas decorations. As I unpack each one, I am transported to Christmases Past. I get a comforting feeling of familiarity and tradition, and also a sometimes-melancholy feeling of change and difference. My house is a much quieter place at Christmas than it was many years ago. Once the designated “Christmas Party House,” the much smaller home I purchased after my divorce does not host a holiday throng of family and friends. As my children grew and began being out of the house more and more, it got even quieter. The large set of Christmas dishes, glasses and mugs gradually fell out of use and these years stay wrapped up in storage. Now my children are adults with homes of their own, extended family that also expect their presence on holidays and for some of them, inconvenient distance. 

I have the choice to dwell on the quieting of my house, or to reflect; instead, on the new joys life has brought me. I have 4 grandchildren who delight and surprise me on a daily basis. I live with the LOML (love of my life), whom I met just when I was getting ready to resign myself to forever living alone and maybe becoming a crazy cat lady. (Which would be especially difficult considering I have a dog and a bird, neither of which are fond of cats.) I have found a new calling in sharing laughter, not only for the fun of it, but also for the health of it. With a few stumbles and some glancing over my shoulder, I am learning to embrace change and move forward.

 I am grateful to be living in the days of Internet and cell phones, which help me keep in touch with my children, my family and my friends. Video chatting with my grandchildren is something my own grandmother never dreamed of. I remember that even making a “long distance call” to absent relatives on the holidays was a special event and always a rushed affair. Technology has truly made the world a smaller place. And although there are drawback and concerns about oversharing and lack of privacy, it is also a great thing that, this week especially, I can look back on my social media and remember all the smiles, laughter, tears and sighs from the past year.
 This week, I will physically embrace the loved ones that I can, emotionally embrace those who are distant, and open my heart to feelings of peace, joy and love. 

As we head into a New Year, may we all find bright spots of happiness to light our way when the road is dark.

Wednesday, December 9, 2015

Still Searching for Laughter

Thanksgiving was only two weeks ago, yet seems a longer time than that as, as once again, we are reeling in the wake of senseless violence. The overwhelming horror and frequency of these events make us feel fearful and helpless. As our nation, and the world, works to find solutions, we all do what we can in our own circles. For me, sharing laughter is not a way to lessen the seriousness of recent events or ask anyone to ignore them. It is a way for us to lift our spirits and lower our stress and fear in order to go on with our daily lives. It helps us feel closer to each other and find a common ground. As Alan Alda said, "When people are laughing, they generally are not killing each other." May our laughter help this come to be true.  In that spirit, I share with you the laughter I have found in the past two weeks:

On Thanksgiving, family members gathered at my sister’s house. Another sister and her husband came up from Virginia. A nephew drove in from Kentucky. Another nephew, on leave from the Marines, was there. Also, my daughter from Philadelphia, two nieces from right here in New Jersey, another niece from Pennsylvania, a complement of significant others and a baby who represented our growing family. Missing from the throng, but still close via text and phone, was a niece stationed in Pearl Harbor, my son and his family out in Iowa and my daughter and her family spending their holiday with her husband’s side of the family. These gatherings are a time for laughter, storytelling and lots of great food. This year, we played a word and drawing game around the table and laughed so hard we cried. I was reminded of how much the family has bonded with laughter over the years. I went home with a sore belly and a happy heart.

Days later I was working on a project to clean out my storage shed and find things suitable to take to auction. I opened a lot of boxes that brought back smiles and memories. One toy, a Disney playset from the Lion King was in perfect condition. I brought it over to my New Jersey grandchildren and was delighted to see them play with it, laughing. It was as much a gift to me as to them.

On the day of the terrorist attack in San Bernadino, I was booked to speak about Laughter Wellness at a Lawyer’s dinner. The tragedy was still unfolding as I was getting ready. I felt tentative about the appropriateness of a laughter presentation on such a day.  The knowledge that mass shootings and other violet acts seem to be occurring almost on a daily basis weighed heavily on me. I often add some of my own feelings and experiences after 9-11 to these talks and mention how laughter is a healing force, even in grief. I remembered how Viktor Frankl wrote that laughter and humor helped those in concentration camps endure. Still, I was feeling unsure. I checking in, via the Internet, with colleagues at the Association for Applied and Therapeutic humor and got some wonderful advice and support. I took my own advice about “smiling even when you don’t feel like it,” and ended up having a wonderful experience with over 50 participants.

The next day was the auction, and I drove my boxes of stuff to the auction house. On the way, my toll ticket for the turnpike fluttered down from the visor, floated past the side of my head like a feather, and disappeared into the piles of auction stuff. I knew that stopping to search for it at the tollbooth would cause nightmarish tollbooth traffic jam complete with honking horns and impolite hand gestures aimed in my general direction.

So, I pulled into a rest area, expecting to find the toll ticket between the seats. It wasn’t there. It wasn’t on the floor of the car in front of the passenger seat or driver seat, and not under the driver seat. I now realized that I was going to have to take some boxes out of the front seat and some off the floor in the back to search more crevices.  To add to the fun, it was also raining.

Finally, I spotted the toll ticket, under the passenger seat, standing on its side, wedged into the seat bottom. How it had performed this acrobatic trick was a mystery. It was out of reach from both the front and the back of the seat, unless I did one thing. That one thing was to kneel down in the parking lot, and put my arm and my head inside the car in the space left in front of the back seat by the folded down back of the seat. This placed me in a precarious position with the possibility of getting stuck with my backside jutting from the side of my car while rain poured down. Fortunately, I didn’t get stuck (thank goodness for my recent weight loss!).

When I finally arrived at the auction house, I parked my car and wheeled everything inside and started setting up.  After a while someone began shouting for the owner of a grey car. My car. My car that was somehow now sitting in the middle of the street in front of the building, blocking traffic. The driver of a big truck was scowling and looking for the idiot in the room who owned the car. OK, my mind is not so bad that I actually left my car like that. But apparently, I hadn’t pulled the emergency brake up high enough and left my 6-speed car in neutral the perfect recipe for a freewheeling car.  The rest of the people setting up their tables at the auction had a good laugh when I returned and told them what had happened.  And since there was no damage done, it was easy to laugh at myself.

Since that day I have been doing my best to balance the tears that often result from the seemingly unending assault of bad news with smiles and laughter; either at the real absurdities occurring in my own life, or as we learned in Laughter Yoga and Laughter Wellness laughing for “no reason” just for the health of yet.

Monday, November 16, 2015

A Time For Sharing

“If I can see pain in your eyes then share with me your tears. 
If I can see joy in your eyes then share with me your smile.”

At times of great sorrow, terrible tragedy and immeasurable grief, we often feel powerless. We want to heal the hurt, relieve the suffering, even return to a time when we were unaware that such pain existed. We may try to tell ourselves that without the depths of sorrow we cannot achieve the heights of joy, yet those words are seldom a comfort. 

As the world reels from yet more unspeakable acts of depravity and cruelty and our emotions run from horror to anger to sorrow; and we may scream or cry or lapse into silence; let us not allow our humanity to be taken from us. Look into the eyes of the mourners and share the pain. Look into the eyes of your loved ones and share your love. Look into the eyes of those around you, and help each other bring back joy.

I share here a video I share often in my laughter wellness sessions. To me, it epitomizes the joy that can be obtained when we set aside our differences, experience something in common, and reach out to find joy.

The Dancing Video

Tuesday, November 10, 2015

Baby Fat, Weight Loss, and Magic Socks

It has taken a couple of years, but I finally got rid of the baby fat. Most of it, anyway. And, OK, it has really taken a couple of decades. All it took was some dire warnings from my doctor, diet, exercise and a non-functioning thyroid. The thyroid has been non-functioning for a long time and I have dutifully been taking my thyroid hormone pills for years. What happened this year was the combination of losing weight and not eating within 3 hours of bedtime sent my thyroid hormone levels into the “overmedicated zone.” Now, with my body functions set on high speed, my blood pressure went up, I was beset with anxiety, and weight began to melt off me. This went on for 6 months as the doctor and I tried to reduce my dose of medication enough to match my weight loss and return my body to a “normal” state. The result was a total loss of between 30 and 35 pounds; which included a lot of my hair falling out, a lovely side effect of thyroid issues that I have experienced several times over the years.

Thankfully, things seemed to have balanced out, I am at a steady weight for a couple of months now, and my hair is slowly coming back. My blood pressure is great, no more meds for that. Still dealing with anxiety issues, but hopefully, that will fade away also.

So, finally, I can deal with the actual “fun” stuff associated with weight loss. Every week I have been looking at another drawer or armful of clothes, selling some of the few higher end things, and donating lots of stuff to Goodwill. Now that the cooler weather is here, I am still surprised when I pull a blazer or pair of pants out of the closet and realize they are huge on me. It has been hard to part with some of my favorites. 

Emptying out the undies drawer was an adventure. Let’s just say, for most of my adult life my bras have occupied a lot of real estate in the dresser. Their cup sizes represented letters not usually mentioned when one thinks of bra sizes. The straps of these bras were as thick and sturdy as some women’s belts, and many of them contained areas of gel padding and extra rows of hooks.  Out they went. Don’t misunderstand, their replacements still come from the “full figure” category, but no longer from the “available only online” area. Even my leggings, once stretched within millimeters of decency, now resemble skinny pants, and some can no longer be worn.  All this is to be expected when one goes down 2-4 sizes in clothes.

However, something strange is going on with my footwear. Several pairs of shoes are now flopping around on my feet. My actual shoe size hasn’t changed, so did my extra weight just stretch these shoes out somehow? I never noticed my feet actually being swollen or anything. And seriously, these are my FAVORITE shoes, and you just don’t get rid of favorite shoes. I’ve begun investing in heel pads and other such shoe accessories to try and keep them on my feet.

It is possible that the shoe problem is related somehow to what I have now recognized as my magic socks.  I work in an office; so having around 6 or 7 identical pairs of black trouser socks is a requirement. When they start wearing out around the toes I just replace them with another couple of pairs of the same socks. Recently, these socks have been performing tricks on me. As I am walking around the office, these socks start to move around. I can feel them sliding down my ankles into my shoes where they start to bunch up at the arch of my foot. When I look down at my feet, it looks like I am trying to smuggle tiny shar-peis in my shoes. If I don’t stop to pull them back up, my heels are soon bare and cold. Maybe you think I have stretched out these socks with my previously huge feet. However, that is not the case. They still have their shape and elasticity.  If I didn’t have my shoes on I think they would just keep sliding down until they fell off my feet completely.

The only logical conclusion is that after sticking with me through the past months of doctor visits, medication adjustments, test after test and sleepless nights, my socks have taken it upon themselves to give me some humor therapy. They must think this sliding off my feet bit is hilarious; the footwear equivalent of a whoopee cushion. Who knows what other items of clothing might join in on this? Already I have a couple of pairs of pants that keep trying to fall down if I don’t remember to belt them, and some shirts and dresses whose necklines keep trying to plunge to belly button level.

Ho Ho, Ha Ha, wardrobe, you got me! Now stop clowning around!

Tuesday, November 3, 2015

Laugh With Health

I have an old book called “Laugh With Health” by Manfred Urs Koch, that we often used as a reference when my kids were in school and they needed information on nutrition; especially what certain elements and vitamins did for the body. At the time it seemed an oddly titled book, nothing funny about it. I’ve since learned that it is a big seller from Australia, is all about nutrition, and it has been kept updated over the years. Still, the title doesn’t really explain what it is all about. Not unless you have been learning, as I have, all about laughter and the important role it plays in our health.

Through laughter yoga and laughter wellness training, I’ve felt first-hand the release of endorphins that comes with laughing. I’ve experienced the relaxing effects as laughter works both sides of my brain at the same time and pushes stress and anxiety to the side.  I’ve saved piles and piles of written material and research about healing humor and laughter. In a theoretical way, I have come to understand what it means to “laugh with health.”

This year, that understanding became even more personal and experiential. Since January, I have been on a health journey that, at for a time, robbed me of my laughter. At first I was unaware, thinking that I was just moving along, the same person I had always been. It wasn’t until my issues started to get better did I realize that I had not exactly been “myself.”  Recently, I’ve been told by some “you seem more like yourself lately.” The LOML and I have even been making note of the return of laughter to our daily discourse.

Most significant has been how I have noticed how much I get out of leading a laughter wellness session. This is something I took for granted in the past. Now, I stop and notice how pain-free I feel. I breathe deep and revel in the absence of anxiety and fear. I feel more like “me.” Suddenly, I know, on a deep physical, emotional and spiritual level, what it is to “Laugh with Health.” My goal now is to consciously keep laughter present in my life, whether it is a full laughter wellness workout, or a smile at today’s cartoons. I will not expect laughter or happiness to just fall on me from the universe, I will actively pursue it.

What are you doing to keep laughter present in your life?

Tuesday, October 27, 2015

We Are Experiencing Technical Difficulties

I had a vacation day today and it has been a busy one. Most of the day was spent gathering, sorting, and packing items from my house to send off to auction. I've collected quite a bit of mid century decor items, and now feel it is a good time to start downsizing the collection. Needing a new roof on the house also helped me make that decision.

So, I wasn't thinking much about finding today's humor, although I packed with the TV on, and did have some smiles with daytime television. Later, as we delivered the items to the auction house, we were helped by someone with a teasing manner and easy smile. We laughed along with him as we unpacked the items.

It wasn't until I sat down to watch the first game of the World Series that I found the laugh of the day. It came at the expense of FOX Sports when they inexplicably lost power in the middle of the game. Abruptly the game disappeared and we were treated to three sportscasters desperately trying to vamp their way through "technical difficulties." When their theme music began to play they thought it meant that the problems had been fixed, but they weren't. We were taken back to a live feed of the game that turned out to be Major League Baseball's International feed and what they were showing was a halted game, and confusion on the field. Apparently, when the TV network goes off the air, the game has to stop. (Instant replay was off the air too!)

Many years ago, "technical difficulties" brought many shows to a standstill. For it to happen these days seems almost impossible. As I write this, the power is back after another awkward transition and a visit to the in-studio broadcasters. The game is back on track, the "correct" broadcasters are once more on the mikes, and a good laugh was had by all.

Let's Go Mets.

Monday, October 26, 2015

We Girls Can Do Anything (with Barbie)

Recently, I opened up my storage shed and pulled out 14 large containers that housed my Barbie collection. From childhood, and especially from the 80s and 90s, I had collected various versions of this doll. When I had a larger house they were on display. When the kids and I moved to the teeny house they were relegated to the storage shed, to hibernate for 18 years. Their collectible value decreased gradually over the years, as the “collectible” market crashed along with the stock market. And, in some part, Barbie, herself, fell out of favor. There was a lot of talk about the doll creating inappropriate body images in the heads of girls (and probably boys too) and Barbie became, to some, the epitome of a brainless bimbo concerned only about her unattainable appearance. But, I would protest, this was not the Barbie I knew. OK, yes, she still had that figure, and feet molded to forever wear high heels. But bimbo? True, that intense pink aisle in the toy store is really a bit much. And some of the outfits border on indecent.

Yet, for me, that wasn’t really Barbie. For me, Barbie was the fiercely independent woman that many of us growing up in the 60s and 70s aspired to be like. It was something Mattel finally realized with the  “We Girls Can Do Anything” campaign. And, as I looked over my collection one last time before sending it to the auction house, I could see that Barbie. President Barbie. Astronaut Barbie (who wasn't available for the "we girls can do anything crowd" but did come along later). Veterinarian Barbie. Firefighter Barbie. Police Office Barbie. Barbie wrapped in historical garb from all sorts of eras – and admittedly, some of those outfits were more historically accurate than others. There was also an assortment of princess Barbies commemorating holidays and seasons — perhaps this was Barbie’s career of quintessential fashion model.

It has been said by other writers that Barbie reflects who is in charge of her at Mattel. When someone who has the Bimbo Barbie in mind, out comes that image. And perhaps that is the image that has been dominating Barbie in the intervening years that I wasn’t watching or collecting her.

So today, I was pleased to see a new commercial for Barbie. One that made me smile, and even laugh a bit. A commercial that uses humor to bring home a serious point about an enduring staple in the toy department, like her or not.  It makes me wish I had saved President Barbie or Astronaut Barbie from going to the auction.

Sunday, October 25, 2015

The Laughter of Friends

Laughter shared by friends is a joyous sound. To laugh in harmony with those who know you and all your foibles and follies is a wonderful experience. I experienced that today, more than once. Friends I have known for more (much more) than 20 years treated the LOML (Love of My Life) and me to a trip on a vintage train through the brilliantly colored woods of northern New Jersey.

Between the golden, russet and remaining green leaves we could glance the Delaware River, and the sunlight reflecting off it. We passed historic stone homes decorated for Halloween, and fields full of tall corn stalks. From inside the train we snapped photos and chatted. We discussed the yellow sports car that drove on the road running alongside the train track, keeping pace with the locomotive, stopping when it stopping, and continuing when we did. As we invented outlandish reasons that this car was accompanying our trip, we laughed. We laughed when three of us got tangled up in each others seatbelts preparing to drive home. We laughed in the restaurant as we had dinner. 

We laughed long, we laughed loud, we laughed in the comfortable and familiar way that old friends do. Proof positive that laughter and humor are part of the essential elements of friendship. And those that laugh with you will be there for you when things are not so funny.

Saturday, October 24, 2015

Are You Kidding Me?

Today we drove into Philadelphia and tried to get into a certain museum. To our great surprise and disappointment, we were told that tickets for general admission were sold out. It seemed ridiculous, the parking lot had not even been full, but all we could do was stare incredulously and say, "Are you kidding me?" But no one was kidding,  joking or fooling around with us. Just keep moving, citizens, nothing to laugh at here.

We ended up going to another museum, and thoroughly enjoyed the collection and the architecture. We got to do some walking around in Philadelphia on a gorgeous day. And we eventually found our humor of the day, on a postcard in the museum shop. (See below) Even though the subject of the painting doesn't look particularly happy or amused, we applaud his efforts to "put on a happy face."

"Smile Face" by William Bahmermann, 1982

Friday, October 23, 2015

Finding the Funny

To be on a mission to find humor on a daily basis sounds like I am looking for comedy, jokes and hilarity under every rock. In reality, while hearty laughter is a great workout for both body and mind, the humor of every day can be a bit more subtle. Perhaps it is something that just amuses or tickles you, or just makes you pause and smile. Often this happens to me when I find a typo or malapropism in a piece of writing ranging from news reports to facebook postings.

Today, it was a press release from a local police department. The department was justifiably proud of being awarded a $7,000 grant to provide bullet proof vests for their officers.  The New Jersey Division of Criminal Justice awards these funds through a program called the State Body Armor Replacement Fund.  A great program, to be sure. Unfortunately, this program uses its initials quite a bit to promote itself. Yes, promote itself as the State BARF Program.

I didn’t just smile at this, I laughed. I read it over more than once, thinking I was misreading. No, it truly is called the State BARF Program. And then I realized, the initials are not unfortunate. They are downright genius. You might not remember the existence of  the Bullet Proof Vest Investment Program, or the Police Protective Equipment Replacement Fund, but you will remember BARF.

I dare you to forget it.

Thursday, October 22, 2015

Looking for the Humor in Daily Life

Welcome to the Smile Side of Life — my newest blog. Here I will be looking at something that is both important to me, and a real life skill that all of us should strive to develop. Life is full of twists and turns that take us through, as Dickens said, the best of times and the worst of times. How we react, cope and move through these twists and turns controls our stress level, our happiness and even our health. And while being human means that there is a time to laugh and a time to cry, we can make our journey a bit easier by incorporating laughter and humor into our daily life. 

Some days it will be easy, some days it may be very hard, indeed. I remember in the time after 9-11, as a society we wondered if we would ever laugh again. The pendulum had swung all the way over into heartbreaking sorrow. But the pendulum is never static. Eventually it must swing the other way. We may try to control it — keep it swinging is a small arc near the center, where there is neither the height of joy nor the depths of grief. In this blog I will be dealing with that pendulum, and where it is swinging in my daily life. I will be looking for humor — used by me or someone else — to nudge that pendulum over, to see how actively seeking happiness and joy can help me — and perhaps, you — live on the Smile Side of Life.

I start this journey with a link to an article I recently wrote for the Rutgers Alumni Magazine. Meet Bart Sumner, and his story. He exemplifies the human need to have laughter and joy in life; not to discount or downplay grief, but to live through it and with it. Overcoming Grief With Laughter