A Time to Cry and LAUGH: Writing with a sense of humor

Not long ago in a writing workshop, a colleague offered to read a personal essay I had written about a difficult life experience. My kind friend reported back that he felt as if I was dragging him, sad and depressed, to the abysmal end of the story. “I don’t want to feel as if I’m being forced to feel bad,” he said. “Where’s your sense of humor? And you’re not having any fun, either.”   Humor? I didn’t see anything funny about the story of my trip to Washington, DC, to see my husband’s name on the Vietnam Memorial for the first time – but – maybe I was taking myself a little too seriously. Perhaps Colette, the French writer whose husband locked her in a room to keep her writing, was right when she said that total absence of humor renders life impossible. Humor in nonfiction writing demands taking a firm, self-confident position about our “self” and then flipping the situation upside down. Writer Leigh Anne Jasheway calls this creative misdirection; engaging readers by taking them someplace they don’t expect to go, choosing words and metaphors that make readers giggle without knowing why. She says a smiling reader wants to read on even if the topic is inherently sad.   Where was my sense of comic relief? Obviously, I had forgotten that humor creates a bond with readers and cuts down on tension and anxiety. People need to cry and laugh. Humor fosters a sense of immediacy, a close personal connection. There was little to joke about in my essay, but there were some curious ironies that I hadn’t yet dug deeply enough to discover. As Dorothy Parker said in Writers at Work, “There’s a hell of a distance between wisecracking and wit. […]

The Benefits of Mindfulness

If you find yourself listening to co-workers complain at work, you’re not alone. Jane S., RN, often eats her lunch sitting on a curb in the parking lot next to the clinic where she works as a nurse. It isn’t sunshine she’s after. In fact, rain is a frequent occurrence in the area of the country where she lives. She’s looking for just a few minutes of peace and quiet from the chaos and complaints that echo off the walls in the employee break room where people wolf down their meal amid a chorus of gripes about work and working conditions. A recent Harris poll found that 80 percent of workers feel stressed about one or more things in the workplace. Long commutes and low pay were at the top of the list, followed by high workloads and difficult work relationships on the job. Feelings of persistent high stress among workers have been shown to be related to negative outcomes including personal and professional burnout, absenteeism, lower productivity and lower job satisfaction. Besides the “normal” sources of stress like employment uncertainty due to globalization and increased job flux, nurses like Jane must deal with meeting the needs of sick and dying patients and coordinating and documenting care across different health care systems. The sources of stress for workers at all levels and in all settings seems to be growing, Is there a panacea or secret potion that can be applied in a variety of work situations? Employers can help by offering wellness programs aimed at boosting mental and physical health. One highly recommended approach is the use […]

Approaching an Understanding of the Vietnam War Era

For those who grew up during the Cold War, the Vietnam War was an unexpected tragedy creating unimaginable losses. This memoir follows the  experience of losing a beloved young West Point officer  at the height of the war and the healing that came many years later at reunions of those who had served with him during the war. Those Who Remain: Remembrance and Reunion After War.  

Write, Eat, Walk, Write: Food for Thought

    One of my challenges in the writing process is how to stay connected to whatever I’m working on and enough distance, at the same time, to have a perspective on what I’m trying to say. Sometimes writing can feel like I’m looking through the wrong end of a telescope. I can work for hours laying down sentences and still feel I am not quite “there” on the page. My usual impulse is to get up and go to the refrigerator, just to check and see if something delicious has magically appeared. Even though I’m the one who stocks the frig, something new and different might have arrived mysteriously between paragraphs.   Amazingly, this little trip away from the desk helps the writing process almost instantly. As soon as I stand up from my desk, a sentence will reorganize itself in my head. Jonah Lehrer says in his book Imagine: How Creativity Works that this is the “outsider” problem. A writer reads her sentences again and again and very soon begins to lose the ability to see her prose as a reader. (In other words, I think I know exactly what I’m trying to say. I think I’m being clear, but that’s because I’m the one saying it.) A writer must reread and edit as if she knows nothing and doesn’t know what these words mean. She must somehow become an outsider to her own work.  But how can we achieve this?   Novelist Zadie Smith suggests putting a finished manuscript in a drawer – a year is ideal, she says, or as long as you can manage – so that you can become more of a stranger to your book and eventually read it in a new […]

Balancing Act: Understanding the balance between work and play

I grew up before the idea of balanced living was invented, at least in our family. I don’t remember my parents speaking about needing more balance in their lives. It probably seemed an impossible goal. Their days were packed with endless child raising, working and caring for extended family members. My mother, a nurse, sometimes came home after an eight-hour shift at a nursing home only to sleep on the couch in her white uniform and then go back on duty for another shift. She might make something in a free moment. Perhaps she’d model a small replica of a desert island with plaster of Paris, or cut out a dress pattern on the dining room table. Meals were composed of the New England trinity: meat or fish, potato and vegetable; mashed potato, codfish and cauliflower. The need to balance the composition with green beans or red beets was irrelevant. I might have tried, after worshipping at the altar of Betty Crocker’s Cookbook, but it’s a faint memory except for the pages of bright, colorful meals. My father, a builder and a fixer of all things, could be called out at midnight to unthaw a frozen water pipe in winter in the mobile home park he managed, or spend days rebuilding the engine of a car or a lawn mower. On a quiet evening, he sat in a rocking chair by the bookcase reading the Encyclopedia Britannica. Once he built a grandfather clock in the middle of the living room on a long table. Sawdust lingered for months on every cobweb. Life was a circle of work, preparing bland meals, raising children, and the occasional craft project. If balance is related to the relationship between work and […]

Three Secrets of Stress-Free Weight Control

After working in the area of counseling and eating disorders for many years, I recognize that one of the chief sources of stress and low self-esteem for people is the anticipation of failure at weight control.  Many people report a kind of feeding frenzy just before D-day (the day the diet is to begin), followed by failure to stick to a plan during the first three days, followed by a rebound in weight. Thinking about dieting and weight control can be more stressful than the actual process. In fact, the lead up to “time to go on a diet” can even result in greater weight gain. We are constantly bombarded with methods to lose weight. Usually they involve expensive programs that promise success. However, there are three important ingredients in any weight loss program that do not involve money or signing up with any particular program. You can do them yourself, for free, and be on your way to successful weight control. Think of these steps as your diet “launch pad.”   Begin by monitoring your present weight and deciding not to gain any additional weight. Whatever your starting point – if you are ten, twenty or fifty pounds or more overweight – the first step is to monitor you weight by weighing yourself daily for three to four weeks and trying to maintain your weight rather than gain. If you don’t lose weight during this time, it doesn’t matter. The goal is to maintain your weight and not put on additional pounds. Start to keep a diet diary. As you begin to weigh yourself each day, keep a record of what you are eating. Notice if your weight seems to increase or decrease depending on what you […]

A Friend in Need: Memories of War

The following is an excerpt from the memoir: Those Who Remain: Remembrance and Reunion After War.   There is no glory in battle worth the blood it costs.    Dwight David Eisenhower   It’s late April 2011, and already broiling hot at the entrance to the National Infantry Museum and Soldier Center in Columbus, Georgia. This outing is part of the planned program of events during my fourth reunion with the guys of Alpha Company. Once again, we’re part of a motley crew of former GIs who served in the 22nd US Army Infantry Division in various wars, a few spouses, and me, the only Vietnam War widow in the group. In spite of the fact that we are here among about two hundred veterans of all ages, our section of the bus – those connected in some way to Dave’s Company back in 1969 – behaves like a merry band of war buddies, joking and teasing, ribbing each other about things that happened long ago in the region of Tay Ninh.  Now they include me in their repartee, as if I had been there, too. Our bus driver, Ike, a thin, talkative man, lightens the atmosphere further when he chimes in over the loud speaker in his melodious Georgia drawl throughout the two-hour bus ride from Atlanta with quips like: “Whatever you folks do back there behind me, don’t wake me up while I’m drivin’ “ How amazing to be on a road trip with these guys who were with Dave forty-two years ago in the jungles of Vietnam. Each time I’m with these men at a reunion I’m flooded with the feeling that Dave is present among us, that he is smiling at me from somewhere in the room.     Joe, […]

Celebrating Fathers

A memoir in which a wonderful relationship between father and son is described, and the loss of the son in Vietnam. Those Who Remain: Remembrance and Reunion After War.

Fathers, Sons, and Daughters

Approaching Father’s Day, I scan the years that I shared with my father, remembering the handkerchiefs, the ties, the cuff links, the homemade cards I made, the terrible black walnut cake I proudly presented him with one year,  but the same unanswered questions bubble up. I have no doubt of his goodness, but I still wonder about the inner life of this person I knew for the first thirty-five years of my life. He died young by today’s standards, only sixty-one, as a result of falling from a roof he was shingling. He took risks, one of them being his intolerance for safety harnesses when working on the top of a three-story building. He often commented about the birds he had seen and heard while working high above the ground: sea gulls, mourning doves, mocking birds – even an owl at dusk. Perhaps he began to identify with creatures who could fly and that reduced his need to be safe with a tether. My appreciation for mountain tops may have come from my father’s unabashed fearlessness of high places, but I never went to a mountain with him during his life. I remember only watching him from the ground as he strolled across a building truss, using his arms for balance, looking like a visitor from Ringling Brothers circus rather than the father of four children. Jess Maghan, in his book 40 Fathers:The Search for Father in Oneself, eloquently expresses through vignettes of forty sons and daughters describing their fathers, the contemplations we can have about our parent. In the preface to the book, he says, “Leaning over the coffin, saying my final good-bye, I reached in […]

Father’s Day: Contemplating Fathers and Our Heritage

  As we approach Father’s Day this month,  I’m wondering what I would be if my father had been someone else.  This is the question posed by a magnificent collection of vignettes about fathers, called “Forty Fathers,” a book created by author Jess Meghan and photographer Sam Lindberg. This is not a book about parenting, It is rather about the enduring bond, like a fiber-optic cable, that stretches between father and child, father and adult-child, regardless of how much the father was present or absent from the child’s life.   Each tiny essay with accompanying archival photograph in “Forty Fathers” is a personal recollection, a deeply moving portrait of a son’s or daughter’s heritage. I will present several of these small anthems during this month as we contemplate fatherhood. Here is an excerpt by Cindy Brown Austin, entitled: “He Never Came Empty Handed.”   “I didn’t have a daddy. I had a father. And that was a different species altogether. Daddies wore shoes large enough for you to hide in; they stood in the doorway like unmovable bulwarks when the overflow from the project’s outside insanity flooded its banks and tried to push its way into the household. Having a daddy was greater than having money. Having a daddy meant you were a whole entire person in the world, not a torn scrap of a person, or a remnant from some thrown-away relationship that no longer existed. In the world of my early childhood my father was a shadowy figure, close enough to watch but too far away to make any real impact. My father had a wife who was not my mother. He married this woman, an older lady, in order to remain in the United States. […]