Glad They Didn’t Serve Tomatoes

A Missed Call I Wanted to Return

Last week I received a phone call out of the blue. I saw this person’s name pop up on my phone after coming out of the shower. I knew him for years but not very well and I couldn’t imagine why I was getting a call at 8AM. After listening to his message I was pleasantly surprised to hear that he wanted to hire me to perform/speak to a group of seniors who were ending a week-long scholar program at a local university. The even better part was I had already presented programs at this university on about eight other occasions so I knew the concept of paying speakers for their time and talents was familiar to them. I also always enjoyed their vivacious audiences that had included hundreds of nuns, students, alumni and seniors. But for some reason, I was extra nervous on Friday. I will chalk that up to all of the anxiety that I am feeling lately in my personal and professional life for various reasons – all things that I am working to better manage.

Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner?

When I arrived Friday night the campus looked beautiful in the bright sun of late afternoon and smelled of freshly cut grass. I walked into the building where the dinner was being held and I saw just a few servers for the evening’s event, a few students and one or two seniors milling around. I did not see my contact so I sat down and wrote some notes about what jokes I would do and what laughter yoga exercises would follow. I am always a bit more cautious and concerned about jokes for seniors but I probably shouldn’t be because I tend to do very well with mature audiences who always give me smiles and rave reviews. When my contact did not appear and no other representative from the college approached me, I chose a table where I would sit for the dinner being served before my presentation. I introduced myself to the couple seated there as being the presenter for the evening. In a loud voice, the woman who we will call ‘Sue’ to protect her identity, asked “Oh, are you the comedian?” At that question my shoulders dropped a little as well as my head. I don’t do straight up comedy performances much anymore and I prefer not to be billed as a comedian. I do tell jokes or humorous stories, as I prefer to call them, before I talk about the value that humor and laughter add to our lives and before asking the audience to stand for interactive laughter yoga exercises but I’m not doing a full stand-up act.  I am a writer and an observant person who pays attention to details. I love words and I think they need to be used and interpreted correctly (keep in mind that I say correctly through the eyes of Jeannine, as in: correct grammar, accurate facts, descriptions and information being shared, proper details, etc). I am in the minority perhaps. While it is true that people will interpret as they want to and they will latch on to what they want to, it does make a difference how a message is communicated to determine how it is understood. When people hear that there is going to be a “comedian” after dinner, they prepare mentally to sit back, relax and be entertained. Because I want to engage them intellectually with information about research and anecdotes and I want them to participate physically, it is important to prepare them for what is expected. So I worried that they may not be into my program.

It’s Not the Piano That’s Out of Tune

As more seniors arrived and sat near me, I began to feel comfortable…that was until they ganged up on the poor piano man.  Sue had already commented once to her husband that the piano sounded like it needed to be tuned and they both shared their bad reviews of his playing with one another. Then as dinner went on, another woman, let’s call her Candi, responded to her friend’s question of “What song is he playing?” with “I don’t know but whatever it is, he stinks.” This was the confirmation that Sue needed. She now had her  ammunition to go ask another woman who had been helping with details of the conference all week to make the piano player stop playing. This other woman explained that it would be offensive to ask the piano man to stop playing but she would ask him to play softer to make Sue happy.  All the while an older woman seated to my right, had been commenting about how lovely the songs sounded, but she had a much more subtle presence at the dinner than Sue. As I sat there listening to them trash the piano player who was fine for my layman’s ears, fear rose up from my toes. I thought to myself “I’m glad there are no tomatoes around or they just might throw them.” I worried that they might look for a hook or get up and leave if they didn’t think I was funny.  I was roused from my daydream in which Sue was literally tossing me to the curb by Sue’s soothing statement of “I hope the others don’t mind that you’re not doing all comedy.”  I had thought the same thing but didn’t need Sue commenting on it as well. I told her that hopefully they would use humor to manage their disappointment since that was the point of my program.  Then, more reassurance came from Candi, “YOU are the comedian?” asked with such a degree of surprise that I wondered if I should be the one taking the microphone or if perhaps, Sue might be better suited for the gig. I foolishly began to explain that while I was going to tell some humorous stories, there was more to the program that would require audience participation. Then Candi persisted with “You mean we’re not gonna laugh?”  To that I wanted to answer, “Dear God, I hope you do,” but instead I said, “Yes, you will laugh, not to worry.”

And Now for Something Completely Different

A young, meek college student who had just explained the details of the survey that had been passed out and that the movie being shown after my program was going to be “Wild,” – a movie that Sue told us at dinner she had no interest in seeing – gave me an introduction like none I’ve received before. In her defense, she is inexperienced and was not given proper information or notice. She basically said, “You’re going to have a comedy and laughter program by Jeannine and she’s here with us tonight.” Then she walked away from the mic and all eyes – and bright cafeteria lights – were on me. I started off a little slowly and felt particularly nervous wondering what my table mates from dinner were going to think of me but then I kicked it into high gear and started getting laughs. I even saw Sue and her husband smile and laugh (controlled laughs) a few times. Candi looked like she might have preferred the piano player but that was okay with me because her friend to her right was beaming. Her eyes were laughing.

When it came time to do laughter yoga exercises, all but about four people stood to join me. And among those participating, all but a handful looked like they were into the practice and really enjoying it.  After my program I felt relieved, happy and less stressed. There is something to that feeling of satisfaction, knowing that you succeeded with an audience but there is also the fact that laughter really does work. It makes us feel good. That’s my message. And I am proof that I feel better after laughing and helping others to laugh.

I felt elated to hear comments like “That was just amazing how you got all those people up on their feet laughing because they… well some of them… are kind of glum.” And another woman added that she could not believe I got her husband to participate. More positive comments followed that made me feel very proud and pleased with my ability to be a conduit for laughter and a positive message. I didn’t see Candi after my presentation and Sue and her husband talked to one another while I gathered my belongings, but I know the truth. I saw them smiling. I saw them participating. And I saw them having such a good time that I don’t think they would have thrown tomatoes even if they had them. I’m not so sure about the poor piano man but he’ll have other gigs to play again. Friday night I was happy they were letting me sing my tune and happily singing along with me: Ho ho ho. Ha ha ha. Hee hee hee.

The Smell of Leather Saddle Shoes in Autumn

I love these August days. Maybe it’s because I’m a Virgo and I associate this time of year with many years of happy birthday celebrations … for me, and for years, celebrating with my grandmother, a fellow Virgo.  Another reason could be that I was what one might call a bookish, kind of dorky kid who enjoyed the back-to-school season like any other joyful, colorful holiday. One of my favorite memories is that of the annual event of shoe shopping with my grandmother that took place around this time of year. It was exciting because it was one of few opportunities to express my sense of style. Because I attended Catholic school and wore a uniform from Kindergarten through 12th grade, there was little room for freedom of fashion other than choices like: cardigan or V neck? And white or maroon knee socks?

I also enjoyed picking out notebooks, pens and erasers. I treated those as fashion accessories. A simple joy in grade school was getting pencils and erasers that smelled like grapes, bananas or chocolate. And don’t get me started on the scratch n sniff stickers that were all the rage to put on notebooks. If I close my eyes really tight, I can smell the salty pretzel sticker. I also remember the fun I had getting a notebook in high school bearing the “dancing baby” from the TV show “Ally McBeal.” It was a conversation piece that always made me grin. I think little things produced  much more joy back then.  Today I do gain joy from simple pleasures like a good cup of flavored coffee, a sunny day and the smell of autumn in the air, but I think I recognize these opportunities for joy less as an adult. And when I do my allow myself to enjoy the moment, the moment goes quickly. The good news is that I’m aware and I am working to change that. Or at least I’m aware that I want to work to change that. I’m enjoying a good cup of coconut coffee while I type this. There’s a start.

Today I have the freedom to dress how I want for back-to-school season (as long as it’s in good taste, I am teaching at a Catholic college after all). I no longer carry on the tradition of shoe shopping and I don’t buy notebooks, pencils and loose leaf paper. But this morning I did have that all-too-familiar nervous feeling of knots in my stomach that eventually morphed into excited anticipation as I taught my first ever college class. (I ask for some leeway when it comes to my use of the word “teach.”)  Since it was the first day, I eased students into this writing class. We just got to know one another a bit and talked about the syllabus. I guess, technically, I was teaching them about the course and what to expect, while learning from them what they wanted to gain.

Naturally I took the opportunity to introduce students to the concept of laughter yoga, because that’s what I do, and because laughter works as a great ice breaker and brings the level of stress down in a room instantly. I asked them to stand and take a few deep inhales and exhales of ho, ha and hee. I didn’t want to take them too far outside of their comfort zones but I think this was just enough to loosen them up a bit and elicit a few smiles. I’ll take them farther down laughter yoga lane another day. I expect that we’ll have times throughout the semester when stress will need to be let out of the room so we can relax, re-focus and re-energize.

Now if you’ll excuse me, I’m off to find some coffee-scented stickers for my academic planner.

Ready for Some Funny from Amy Sedaris

Tonight (Wednesday, July 9) I am going to hear actress/author/comedian Amy Sedaris speak in Scranton as part of the library’s speaker series. I am always embarrassed to admit that I am not an avid reader, especially because I am a writer. Allow me the indulgence of mentioning the two books I’ve written and published: “He’s Not Prince Charming When…” and the children’s book “Wartz And All.” Both feature cute frogs.  Learn more here.  I feel that writing and reading should go hand in hand but I just don’t love reading. With that said, I have not read either of Amy Sedaris’ books. I have read the book “Naked” by Amy’s brother David Sedaris.

Going into this evening, my knowledge of Amy is limited I admit. What I have seen, I have enjoyed. She’s quirky and bubbly and entertaining. I enjoyed the role she played on the ABC sitcom The Middle and I loved her on Andy Cohen’s interview show “Watch What Happens Live” on the Bravo network.  I look forward to hearing what she has to share with the audience. I was thinking this morning what question I would like to ask her – assuming I had the nerve to get up and do so. (Yes, I can speak to hundreds of people at conferences, etc. and I perform improv and stand-up comedy, but I have trouble even picturing myself standing up to ask a comedian a question that could provide me with insight. Messed up right?!)   I can’t really come up with any burning questions but that is not a reflection on what I think of Amy Sedaris.  I don’t know if I’m just not the curious type or what.  The only thing that really came to my mind is what she thinks about the whole notion that women aren’t funny.   Of course I want to know what her secret to success has been and how she overcomes challenges but I believe that will be covered. That’s some basic stuff.

I look forward to sharing some of Amy Sedaris’ insights and comments in next week’s blog. I know it’s Wednesday but I should have also mentioned that in addition to not enjoying reading and being shy, I’m also a procrastinator. I will make it worth the wait though, trust me! If you don’t enjoy, I’ll refund your money.

Have a happy hump day and find your funny somewhere tonight. I know where I’ll find mine: listening to Ms. Sedaris!

Still Laughing: No Seven-Year Itch Here!

When I flash back to that summer, I remember sitting in a stately room on the campus of the University of Scranton to listen to people provide information about how to start a small business. I received a green folder with paperwork in it about registering a name with the state and filing to become an LLC (limited liability company), along with other “official” forms. I also remember mattress shopping at Sleepy’s. The two are not related at all but those are the images in my memory bank for August of 2006.  Seven years have passed since I started my business “Laugh to Live, LLC” with the purpose of promoting the many life-enhancing benefits of laughter and humor.

Over the past seven years there have been a lot of laughs and a lot of serious moments as I ponder things that everyone in business ponders: how do I  make my business successful? How do I get people to attend my events? How do I get other businesses to spend their limited dollars on the services I have to offer their employees? How do I communicate to them so they understand just how valuable laughter is to reduce stress and improve productivity?  How do I grab the attention of businesses and consumers in a world already filled with so much noise on social media platforms, TV, radio and other media outlets?

I’ve also come to ask questions that other business owners (and some individuals) may or may not be asking: Is the definition of success strictly about profit? When people smile and say how long it’s been since they laughed liked that (thanks to the laughter/humor services I’ve performed) isn’t that success? How do I get decision makers and consumers in general to understand the great value of laughter and humor? How do I educate them about the incredible value of services that may seem intangible but can be life-changing? How do I impart the wisdom that the message provided and feeling evoked by a good motivational speaker/humorist/comic/laughter yoga leader is worth at least the same amount of their budget that was invested in the chicken dinner?  Food gets flushed, but an experience remains with people for a lifetime!

Over the past seven years since I formed my LLC I have spoken to, performed comedy for, led laughter exercises with well over 1,000 people of all ages. I have been in pre-schools, colleges and universities, senior centers, corporate conferences and workshops, private retreats and a variety of other settings within business, religious, and civic communities. I’ve made mistakes. I’ve learned. I’ve met people who have become friends and ambassadors of a shared mission to spread laughter throughout the world.

Some of my memorable moments have included: meeting a woman at a private house event who told me after doing some laughter yoga exercises that she felt better than she had on any of her medication for depression; meeting senior laughter advocate Sara Mayers who persisted until she got me to the Jewish Community Center in Wilkes-Barre and had me return about two more times to share laughter with her fellow laughter club members. Although Sara has since moved to a suburb of Philadelphia, we keep in touch via email and still believe that laughter is key to living a good life – and Sara should know since she has been laughing for more than 90 years. I enjoyed seeing a group of rough and tumble mechanical contractors swivel their hips while chanting “ha ha ha ha ha ha” and mocking one another in order to maintain their cool masculinity. And I especially enjoyed hearing seventh graders create their own hip chant with the ho ho ha ha ha I presented to them as their foundation- I was told later that these same kids were even doing their laughter chant in the hallway throughout the day.

There’s no question in my mind that laughter and humor are the valuable tools that I tell people they are. They can give us power over our challenging situations and moments.  They can give us a much needed break so we can take a moment to regroup, refresh, recharge and maybe just keep from crying or losing it altogether. They help to make us wiser and more enlightened. They are not always the easy choice but I believe that’s what makes them so great and sometimes feared by some people. When we use humor and laughter, some of us might be stepping outside of our comfort zones. It might seem like a real challenge. But we should remember that it’s when we’re challenged that we can create something great and make a difference.  And if laughter and humor come naturally to you, then use them and use them often to help others. Hopefully everyone will catch on and we can lighten things up when life becomes too dark.

After seven years in the business of promoting laughter and humor, it’s time to stretch because I’m just getting started. I have more to learn and more to share with others. I’ve shared the experience of laughter and humor with many of all ages and backgrounds and I’ve watched as some have resisted. I, myself, have questioned my choices, abilities and commitment and I have sat in darkness on many days. But I’ve had the pleasure of seeing many faces smile and laugh with me and I always hope that people I encounter walk away with a positive thought in mind that they can think of on dark days to lighten their mood. Ultimately, I have faith that laughter and humor are the luminous resources we can choose every day for happier, healthier living for ourselves and for others.

I hope you’ll choose to Make Life A Laughing Matter! If laughter has made an impact on your life (whether at one of my workshops or events or not) please share so that we can all benefit from your experience.

A Marathon of Humor

It’s not often enough- which I guess is why it really stands out and makes an impact when people do it – that people use humor to communicate important information. I’m in training to run my first marathon this fall, specifically, the Steamtown Marathon on my home turf of Northeast PA. I have to say that I really enjoy the email updates sent by assistant race director Jim Cummings. He delivers information that runners need and want to know but he does it in a very entertaining way. I have chuckled at many of his messages, like the ones in which he says to prepare for the downhill, which is most of the marathon, race participants should stab their calves with pitchforks to know what it will feel like after the race. Today’s email message was no exception, which is why I want to share it. I applaud businesses and people in leadership or organizational roles who use humor when communicating.

In response to people asking what happens if they get sick during the marathon or just cannot finish, Jim wrote:
First, everyone will point at them and laugh. Then a monster (or a telemarketer) will start chasing them and they will get completely lost. Finally, they will realize that they are sitting in a classroom wearing only their underwear. A math test? Oh no! I didn’t study!  No! That’s just a typical day in Congress.  Actually, if you run into trouble during Steamtown there will be lots of help out on the course.  And then he proceeds to talk about volunteers, ambulances, etc. He answered the question and took the opportunity to entertain and help us appreciate some levity. We should all take a page from Jim’s (funny) book.

In fact, during today’s 12-mile run – which wasn’t ‘funny’ to me at all but certainly memorable – as my mind wandered, I thought it would be a good idea to start acknowledging local businesses in the greater Scranton area who use humor to communicate to the public and their clients. Specifically I’m thinking of two area businesses- one is a pizza place and the other a car wash- who use their public message boards to entertain while marketing. When I run, I get a surge of creative ideas for my business and my stand-up comedy material. I think the reason I thought of recognizing these ‘funny businesses’ today while running was because I was at the car wash yesterday and I’m not sure what other reason it popped into my head other than running frees my mind to generate all sorts of ideas (it takes my mind off the distance I’m traveling). Businesses that promote humor should be promoted. I’m going to start taking pictures of their message boards when I drive by and laugh at their humorous words and I’ll post on my Laugh to Live facebook page and  tweet them. (I think it should go without saying that I will pull my car over before I take the pictures.)  The more we share and spread the humor that’s out there, the more people will be impacted in a good way and may begin to use it more in their own lives for the wonderful tool of resilience that it is.  Well, that’s my hope anyway.

A Time to Laugh

I have been blessed in my life to have only lost a few people close in my life, to death. The most important person I lost was my grandmother in April of 1993. I was a senior at Penn State and just under a month away from graduation. I had really hoped my grandmother, Esther Dolan, would live to see me graduate. She had been such an important person in my life to that point that I thought it only fitting that she would be there while I achieved my biggest accomplishment to that date. I was so fortunate that she lived in my household my entire life so I have so many cherished memories. One of my favorite moments to recall is being a little girl, sharing a bedroom with her and reaching across from my twin bed to hers to hold her hand as I fell asleep. My other favorite memory is being a a real pain in her ass by teasing her when she came home from the “beauty parlor.” I used to stand behind her chair when she was seated at the kitchen table and say “I’m gonna mess your hair. Ooh, I’m about to touch your hair.” as my hands would hover over her head pretending that I was going to stick my fingers in her freshly sprayed hairdo. I never did mess her hair. I wouldn’t dare. And yet she seemed to think I might. She would get very irritated and speak in Irish tongues – if you’re a fan of Kathy Griffin’s, think of her mother Maggie – by saying “Goddamnit Jeannine, leave my hair alone!” I would laugh and usually get a few chuckles from my parents and brother. Although, I’m not sure if they thought it was as funny as I did. It probably got old after a while.

When my gram died in 1993, I cried the most I’ve cried in my whole life. Keep in mind that’s not saying too much because I don’t cry all that much, but I did cry a lot. Even through all of the tears, I did have some laughs at the viewing and after the funeral mass with my family members. For anyone who has ever buried someone close to you, you know that you spend a lot of time with extended family and friends and you simply cannot cry the entire time. Your body would become dehydrated. My grandmother was a tough Irish woman who cam from an even tougher Irish woman. She said some really entertaining Irish sayings that we couldn’t help but recalling as we honored her memory. We shared all kinds of stories about her and smiled a lot… and laughed. And it was not out of disrespect for the occasion or for her. It was our way of healing and our way of keeping her with us. Laughter does have a place in death. It has to … because it is such an important part of life!

I’m writing about this now because I was reminded last week just how much value laughter has for the living who are saying good-bye to a loved one. A close friend of mine who I have known for over 10 years lost his father last week. He had spent months watching his father’s health decline. I can only imagine the pain that there is in that every day. So in reality, while it was difficult to lose his father, he knew that it was time because the pain and suffering would end. I attended the funeral mass and my friend’s brother said a few closing remarks at the end of mass. He told a few stories about their dad and he was sure to share some humorous anecdotes. People did laugh. And why not? The stories were funny and we were practically getting permission from the deceased’s son. He wanted us to remember his father in a light manner.

A few hours later I met my friend Kate for coffee. I had the pleasure of meeting her grandmother last summer at a bridal shower.  As per the usual in Scranton and the surrounding area, we’re always six degrees from someone. I didn’t know Kate’s grandmother or mom and aunts at the time but they welcomed me to their table with big smiles and I felt like family when I left. Of course the topic of Kate came up and I said how I had purchased some of her great Welsh cookies at my friend Abby’s yard and bake sale for charity. Then weeks and weeks later I got an email from Kate asking me to do some comedy for her church’s women’s group. The rest, as they say, is history. Kate and I have become friends.  So as we chatted over coffee, she told me about the eulogy she gave at the funeral mass for her 100-year-old grandmother and how she had to lighten things up or she would lose it. She talked about her grandmother’s love of the Price is Right and said people did stare at her a bit for her animated and humorous story but then eventually smiled and laughed. We talked about how it only makes sense to honor a person in death with laughter if they’ve spent so much time living their life in celebration with laughter each day.  It would be a dishonor to not remember them lightly.

But typically people don’t think funerals or viewings are places to laugh. We’re raised to think that death is just about sadness and dark clothing (although I have to say that must be changing since I was one of the only people at the funeral mass last week who was dressed in black from head to toe). We’re coming from a well-intentioned placed when we are a bit uncomfortable or afraid to laugh at a viewing or funeral because we don’t want to act inappropriately or seem disrespectful.  Thankfully, more and more, people are remembering their loved ones through personal, warm stories that reflect their spirit. So if a person shares a funny memory or story about their loved one, go ahead and laugh with them. You can take comfort in the fact that you are probably helping your friend to heal and keep it together in that moment.  There is a time to mourn. A time to dance. And definitely a time to laugh. And that time may be now!

Laughing All the Way to the Finish Line

I was never an athletic type of person. When I was a little girl I had a red bike with a white basket on it with flowers. It was cute. It was your typical little girl’s bike. On any sitcom or heartwarming family drama you ever watch, you usually see kids enjoying the act of riding their bikes up and down the driveway or cul-de-sac. That was not the case with me.  Most kids would dread hearing that their bike privileges were taken away but not I. My father would ‘punish’ me by telling me to go outside and ride my bike.  I was not a lazy kid but I was good at school and didn’t care too much about sports. I played pretend wrestling with my brother – we would have matches in which we would take turns being George “the Animal” Steele or Jimmy “Superfly” Snuka – and did some other active play but I did not care about riding my bike or anything too active. So it stands to reason that in my freshman year in college at the Worthington Scranton Campus of Penn State University I would be one of two outcasts in my Volleyball PE Class. This girl named Jean and I were told by the instructor to practice serving the ball to one another and against the wall while the rest of the class engaged in an actual game of volleyball.  And yet … here I am … training for my first marathon!

It was about six or seven years ago when my friend Stephanie and I ran our first 5K race in Wilkes-Barre. It was the first year for this race so there were not that many runners. I guess that’s why I won my age category. They gave out such cute awards too. The trophy was a girl runner bauble head. Of course the presentation was humorous because when they announced the winner in my age category and my friend Stephanie’s name came out, I knew something was wrong. She came in a clear distance after me. My mouth dropped when her name was announced. I could have taken it in better stride than I did. After she quietly explained to the woman that she knew I came in ahead of her, they realized that they had our names and times mixed up. Then they corrected their error and said a bit more quietly than their first announcement and with slight confusion, “Oh, Jeannine Luby?”  I walked up with my excitement rather deflated but still pleased to be receiving this honor.

Since that lovely fall day, I’ve continued to incorporate running into my life, increasing my mileage and races. I’ve run about 2 dozen 5Ks, a few 5-milers, a couple 10Ks and three half-marathons. Now I’m training for the 2013 Steamtown Marathon. My brain is still having a bit of trouble digesting that I will run 26.2 miles but I know that I CAN do it. As I train I’m trying my best to write about thoughts I have along the way, especially those tied to humor and laughter.  And they ARE there.  Like the run I did through my neighborhood one evening in which I faced an angry chihuahua named Princess, a pack of foul-mouthed teens tossing an empty pack of cigarettes out their moving car window at me and a pre-teen doing donuts on an ATV in a dirt parking lot. Once I made it through the cloud of dust I made my way home with a smile and a story.

Even on days when the air is heavier than a piano and I have next to no energy, running always gives me something good. There’s truth to this notion that exercise makes us happy. When  I run, my brain goes into overtime. I think creative thoughts. I come up with new comedy material and ideas how to market my business. By the time I’m finished I have a list of new ideas. Running is like a windmill generating thoughts that help my comedy and business. (I’m not sure if that metaphor makes sense but it sounds nice.)

I’m finishing my fourth week of training for the marathon and I know that as I extend the mileage, I’ll not only continue to get bursts of ideas and creativity but I’ll also feel healthier and get stronger. And ultimately, I’ll continue to think some funny thoughts along my running course; meet some funny people and smile.