November 2011 Prompts: It really wasn’t an appropriate time to laugh, but…

the word prompts inside bracketsEveryone can get involved with Hippocampus Magazine with {prompts}! Each month, we’ll post a new creative nonfiction prompt, inspired by a real-life event. Fact is stranger than fiction–if we experience something unbelievable, others must have a similar story.

From November 2011

“it really wasn’t an appropriate time to laugh, but…”

Join the fun with our current prompt; select entries will be published next month!

The Benefits of Laughing (aka the true story that inspired this prompt)

The head of HR from our corporate headquarters was up from Jacksonville to inform us about our new benefits package. I could have selected one of two time slots: 9 a.m. was way too early to hear about insurance. Come to think of it, so was 11 a.m., but that was the only other choice.

My friend Karen and I headed to the training center, coffees in tow, and took seats in the third row of long tables–the front row was too close and the back row was too far to see the Power Point. The chatter as we assembled revealed some folks were eager to ask about vacation days or inquire about paternity leave (a half dozen or so of my male coworkers had pregnant wives–I swear they all conceived the same night, after one of our wild after-work happy hours). Me? I was just really into the shiny, new, clickable pens–swag from one of the benefit providers. My new writing utensil coupled with a pile of handouts made a perfect set-up for doodling. The expectant fathers were drowned out as I started clicking… clicking…

The woman started; I tried to control my reflexive clicking as not to disrupt the presentation. As she talked about flexible spending accounts–did I spend $1,000 per year on prescriptions and copays?–I used my new pen to do some math. Even the simplest of math perplexed me that morning so I scribbled out my equation and rewrote it and then shoved my paper toward Karen; then I drew a question mark, clicked the pen and handed it to her. She did the math for me and we both tried to hold in our laughter. Then, as the woman droned, Karen and I paged through some of the fine print in our life or health insurance booklet — I cannot recall which policy it was.

Karen put her hand over her mouth as she read a paragraph; she pointed at the line with her pen. Apparently, we were not covered if we fell out of an aircraft. I imagined her and me dressed like aviator Snoopy in a Red Baron airplane and toppling out of the “convertible seats” spiraling toward our death, calling out “Oh shit! We’re not covered.” This mental image was enough to make me crack up, but I held it in. But then I had another thought. I clicked my pen.

“But what if I am pushed?” I jotted down in the margin.

That did it. She cupped her mouth again and slapped my arm in a classic (yet silent) “shut up!” motion. She and I both looked at each other, lips quivering, diaphragms bouncing. She had tears forming in the corners of her eyes as did I. I pursed my lips tightly and then couldn’t contain it any longer — I let out something that sounded like…

“Bless you,” said Randy from the row behind.

… a sneeze, apparently. Whew.

–Donna Talarico

* * *

You Funny Little Devil, You

As the nights had begun to turn colder, a jack-o-lantern glowed softly in the window. The porch light was on and, soon, the sound of footsteps could be heard crunching above the newly fallen leaves, echoing louder with each step. A familiar, demonstrative knock fell upon our front door. This was the knock of someone who evidently had had recent practice rapping upon closed doors. It revealed a kind of urgent, detachment that only comes from a parent employed in a task he may or may not wish to be doing. Grabbing a bowl filled with sweet treats, my mother dashed to answer it, as I trailed close behind her.

Flinging the door open and spying three of our neighbors, my mother exclaimed, “Oh, you both look so cute!” An orange pumpkin with small legs, blond hair and a shy, mischievous smile and a diminutive, mask-wearing hockey player who was more interested in swinging his hockey stick than procuring candy greeted us. I gazed over my mother’s shoulder and heard her utter to the father of these particular trick-or-treaters, “And, what are you supposed to be?” He adjusted the two red horns on his head, but before he could respond, my mother ventured a guess, “A nerd devil?”

As the kids examined their candy, the momentary stunned silence of adults was more haunting than any decoration. Seeing the look on both my neighbor’s face and the embarrassed expression on my mother’s, I started giggling uncontrollably. She clearly had forgotten that my neighbor wore glasses and dressed only semi-fashionably. He was, in fact, not attempting to blend two costumes to construct the alter-ego of a “nerd devil.” Sometimes though, how we’re perceived and how we wish to be perceived is as vast as the difference between a trick and a treat.

— Lauren Jonik; Brooklyn, N.Y.

* * *

Go in Laughing

A few days before my husband’s first chemo session six years ago he turned to me with an impish look. “Let’s create a silly slogan for a badge to wear during my treatment. I don’t want things to get too serious. I wanna go in laughing!”

How could we laugh at a critical time like this?

Bill’s humor — making others laugh — embodied one of his trademark characteristics. His hearty laughter often stood out among the chatter in a crowded room. Even though our spirits plummeted with his diagnosis of mantle cell lymphoma, a rare blood cancer, we vowed to move forward with optimism and fortitude. For Bill, that meant laughter and lots of it.

We tossed around ideas for a slogan and selected the one that tickled us the most. We arrived at the oncology offices and the infusion center wearing badges that said, “Go to Hell, Mantle Cell!” The resulting smiles and chuckles got him off to a laughing start for his treatment, laughter that continued through the summer and fall and culminated with a stem-cell transplant in December.

In addition to wearing the badges, we posted the slogan in prominent places throughout our living environments. Not only did the motto prompt us to laugh, it also focused us on the desired outcome of eradicating the cancer. Laughing helped us summon strength and courage to keep on.
Although cancer and treatments represent serious matters — not matters to take lightly — humor lightens the load and illuminates the path toward healing.

Six years later and cancer free, Bill still tells the story about his silly slogan and elicits lots of laughs. These days, no matter what we face, recalling this story encourages us to discover ways to go in laughing.

— Ronda Armstrong; Des Moines, Iowa

* * *

A Nose for Humor

Those black boots tapped in time to the tirade he unleashed upon the startled troops, so polished that I could see the reflection of each terror-rigid face as he passed down the line.  Spittle flew as he bellowed his distain towards the 30 of us. Although his voice carried the weight of a man well over 200 pounds, he was a military instructor that I had begun to think of as delightfully pocket-sized.

Stop it, don’t giggle!

Periodically he would stop at an individual to single out for being especially disappointing in some way. For some reason he had never stopped at me, my height put me somewhere in the middle of the flock most of the time. That must be it. Today I was at the front though. How did that happen?

Pay attention! FOCUS!

My blank stare must have slipped because now he was in my face. Up close I could see that his uniform was so starched that it could surely stand on it own. I felt the snicker bubbling up. Desperately I shifted my eyes up to find another place to look. To avoid the strictly banned eye contact I settled upon his nose. And there staring back at me was a booger the same shade of green as the over-starched uniform. I felt the tickle of playground humor start in my belly. The offending interloper dangled on a stray nose hair, that had to be out of regs, and worst of all it swung with each breath he took to scream at me. The tickle turned to a barely controlled spasm.

And when he said the words, “What do you think we are doing here? Just hanging out?” I did it. I laughed.

— Summer Benedetti; Oberkail, Germany

* * *

Last Respects

My sister and I, well into our forties at the time, were attending the funeral service for a fallen friend of our father’s. We decided to go to the service so we could offer moral support to Dad. He was in his seventies then, and it seemed as though his friends and colleagues were fading out at an alarming rate. On this day, we had come to mourn the loss of a long-time friend of Dad’s who defined the word “gent.”  He was an old-school newspaper reporter who kept his hair in a high pompadour and dressed like a character out of “Guys and Dolls.”  He wrote with a certain grace and style, and treated the people he wrote about with kindness. In short, the guy was a class act, and he would be missed.

The funeral service took place in a non-denominational chapel at the local funeral home. My sister and I had arrived respectably early and chose a pew close to the front. Our dad was sitting in the first row with the newly widowed wife and his grieving daughter.

The two of us chitchatted in whispers as the organ droned on from somewhere in the back. A short while later, a well-dressed man slid into the pew right behind us.  A quick glance over our shoulders confirmed that we didn’t know him, so we turned around and continued our quiet conversation.
Just then, the guy placed his hands on the back of our pew.

We turned to look at him. He smiled, leaned forward, and asked, “So, are you ladies friends of the bride or the groom”?

— Risa Nye; Oakland, Cali.

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