How serious must we be?

How serious must we be?

In a dire situation, on a sad day, in a long line, in a boring meeting where the guy beside you is napping and another is playing on his phone, during a stressful final exam–in any situation where it seems everyone else is serious, where it would be politically incorrect to chuckle, guffaw, or even crack a grin…did you ever?

My mind is playful. She thinks of funny connections between ideas. She is immensely entertaining to carry around atop my shoulders. She often tries to send these tidbits to my mouth, and sometimes they escape.

Such events may offend others, and for that I apologize. Perhaps a year ago, some of these random thoughts would’ve been called politically incorrect, but we all know the idea of political correctness has been slain. For an empathetic human, the escape of the funnies may cause embarrassment, regret, or maybe a twinge of guilt.

But later, after careful reflection, just remember that life is a quest for peace. For contentment. We yearn for and despair without the good feelings. And when we are submerged in all-encompassing anger and despair, and when hope seems lost, a subtle reminder to our hearts and minds of goodness, a taste of the sweet, is like a fresh breeze. It brings relief.

So when I obsess on Twitter, and follow a thread to the place where someone I’ve never met simply throws up their hands and spouts humor, I find hope for our species.

Our self-awareness and consciousness gives us a closed loop of think, rethink, look, listen, collect information, hold it up to our opinions, reshape and reanalyze our ideas, and continually mold ourselves. Social media lets us display our self-critique in public, if we are so brave, and our tiny tweets touch others, who react, respond, and send the wave of ideas out in more ripples. (The mathematical web is beautiful.) And then, unexpectedly, in the middle of a battle of good vs bad vs evil vs a blur of human emotion and gut responses, someone is funny. And when that happens, I laugh, and silently thank those brave funny people with a little heart, a click on the favorite, a pat on the back, and encouragement to share.

I periodically check up on (stalk?) a funny woman on Twitter who shares my birthday. She used to be hilarious. Now she is so sad and angry, I worry for her health. I hope she finds a way to laugh until tears wash away her sadness.

A friend told me he saw a play last week that made him laugh for hours. The entire audience roared with glee. Once you laugh, you want more, so the comedy is like a catalytic quip that cracks your stern shell and spills out the need for more and more addictive good feelings. (You are thinking of SNL right now, right?)

This week, try to find some funny. Don’t feel guilty for laughing. You could even BE the funny one.

And to all of my students studying for their exams and frantically trying to meet the homework deadline, have a good weekend.

The deepest sad

She said her daughter was a strong woman. And I cried.

She told me all that her family endured in the last month and my heart broke into pieces.

A baby girl I never met, born of a woman I love like a sister, died this week, too far away for me to get to her mom and hold her tight. She was four months old. Her mom called her a happy baby. Only four months old, and already a strong woman.

I don’t know how people survive this much sadness. My job today was to spread the news to our friends. Each time I said the words, my heart cracked open again.


Why am I here?

I told my students today that I am here because they are. They laughed, smiled, and went “Aww.”

But it’s true. Choose your profession for whatever reasons propel you when you’re young, but as you age you’ll see you can’t maintain passion for a job simply for money. It’s about the people. All of life is about the people. How can you help them? What strengths do they have? How do they relate to others?

I started my professional career as a chemical engineer, making automotive coatings, and I loved that first job, not for the paint, or the chemistry, or the challenge of research (although I enjoyed all of those things). I loved the job because of the people. They were smart and hard-working and fun(ny). Smart and funny are my favorite combination. If your brain is so well-trained and curious that you notice humor in every corner, you’re enjoyable to those around you. If you’re cranky and competitive and serious ALL-THE-TIME, your colleagues will find it a challenge to interact with you day after day.

Teaching chemistry is, of course, interesting because of the science. But without the students, it wouldn’t be fun. So, yes, I am here because they are here. The end.

Confidence, stress, and a little joke

Confidence comes from experience. It is built in layers of little successes. Used well, confidence can be contagious. Spread some around. Encourage one another.

Stress comes from the unknown, and lack of sleep, time, and control.

Stress can carve a hole in confidence.

Many feed their own lack of confidence by hacking away at others, thinking by chopping down their friends, peers, coworkers, they’ll  feel or seem better, or at least taller. This is ridiculous, immature behavior. Stop it.

Sleep (and coffee) and a good joke can restore perspective, reduce stress, and lure confidence back. Add in a pinch of Mother Teresa’s “Do it anyway” and the path is crystal clear.

Today’s geek joke, from a student in the back of the room: “Hey, Dr. Lanni, what’s nu?”

I promise, it was funny. My best smile of the day. But if you aren’t a geek, you probably wouldn’t get it, so I’ll just keep the punchline here in my pocket.

Homesick, tarred, and ma’amed

I knelt on the hot tar in my skirt, head down, hair in my eyes, sweating and swearing, while I squinted under my glasses at the tiny cartoon on the “help” sticker on the metal diamond that was supposed to show how to use the metal loopy thing that might be a crank. I could do this. I didn’t want to wait the hour for AAA to send the help I paid for.*

Ten minutes earlier I’d crossed railroad tracks and a bridge over the river and wondered why I could hear the water whoosh so loudly. Turned out my tire was the whoosher.

I finally got the crank spinning pretty well (actually it was awkward and my left elbow made that creaking sound it makes when I knead bread dough) and the car was just rising up off the ground when a rattling pick-up truck slowed down. The tatooed and sunburned arm of the driver asked if I needed any help, ma’am.

Seriously, I did not look anything like a woman wanting to be called ma’am. There’s a special sarcastic twang to the m-word when it’s uttered slowly, in two full syllables to a sweating woman on her knees in a parking lot.

“No. I’m good. AAA is on the way.”

He drove away. Free. On four whole tires. He hadn’t actually stopped all the way.

A minute later a gray-haired man squatted beside me. “You got that?”

“Yes. Thanks.” I kept cranking.

“You know how to get those locks off the bolts?”

Crap in a hat. The bolts are locked? I stayed calm. I did not cry. I’d already done the math and knew I couldn’t get home tonight. Homesickness be damned, I had a tire to change and bolts to somehow unlock.

I looked up at the nice man and said, “I’ll get the book from the glovebox.” His smirk matched my doubt that the translated-from-Japanese/German guidebook would help. My knees cracked when I stood to get it.

I’m too old for so many things, but somehow I have not outgrown my stubborn. She rides on my shoulder and hisses in my ear, “Do it yourself, Laura.”

When I got back with the book, the nice man was cranking the jack up higher. I knelt back on the black tar and he read over my shoulder and nodded. We looked through the tools for the promised lock wrench. Nope.

I went to the trunk to search and when I came back, he said, “Look, they just pop off.” Wednesday Thursday Friday? Why are they called locked?

Then he uncranked two bolts and got stuck on the rest. He was older than I, which equates to way too old for this. He was also bleeding a little from a cut on his hand, caused by my tire, I guess. Nice people will bleed for me. But, despite the river of water dripping from his head, he couldn’t get the bolts off.

Stubborn-jerk-on-my-shoulder cheered, “Do it, Laura, doooooo it!”

So, based on the hundred stuck pickle jars opened by my tiny hands in the last half-century, I placed the wrench-thing on the bolt, parallel to the planet, and stood on it in my sandals. Two little hops–up, down, up, down–and the bolt let go and unwound. Ha! Gravity’s always on my side.

To make a long story short (as Gram C used to say to make her son-in-law roll his eyes), the tire got changed to the donut spare, I drove away from home, slowly, not crying, with angry drivers riding my bumper and my arm waving them by.

A day of clarity made me realize how lucky I was that the damn tire blew when I was driving 20 mph in a sleepy Southern town full of folks who are nice to grumpy women, instead of five minutes earlier when I was stock-car racing and playing chicken with Mack truck drivers on the freeway.

Thanks for your help, Joe.

*I hadn’t been quite as pleasant as I should’ve been to the operator lady and doubted anybody would show up. I think when she asked what year the car was, I said something like, “I’m in the trunk looking for a spare tire. The year of the car is on a little piece of paper in the glove box. Is it more important that you know the year than knowing whether I have a spare?” She was quiet for a beat before she said something nice back to me. Yeah.