Essays

These four humor pieces appeared in Tolosa Press/Simply Clear publications.

Contact Jean at jmmoelter@yahoo.com.

Matt and Jean do Laughter Yoga

(May 2, 2013)

The summer of 2010 was terrible. On July 3, my beloved mother died. Then three weeks later, completely out of the blue, my husband had a massive heart attack. Ambulance, ICU, the whole nightmare.

A few weeks into his recovery I received an email about an event at the Steynberg Gallery: the movie Laughology followed by a session of laughter yoga. I thought it might be just what we needed…

We arrived a few minutes after seven on a Friday night. The movie had already started, so I was upset. I hate to be late for anything. There were about two dozen people there, and we found seats in the back next to a thirty-ish couple.

Laughology is a documentary about the history and purpose of laughter, with interviews, silly historical reenactments, and scenes of diverse people laughing. Matt started laughing right away. In fact, everyone found it funny except me. I just didn’t think it was that clever. Plus the couple next to me wouldn’t stop talking, which drives me crazy.

Matt was laughing really hard. I was happy for him but also worried. His face was red and he was gasping for breath. Maybe he was laughing too hard. Then again his cardiologist hadn’t said anything about avoiding laughter, just strenuous exercise.

The movie eventually showed a few Laughter Yoga sessions, and I started to panic. Because they involved touching strangers, which I seriously can’t handle.

When the movie ended our leader, Bob, instructed us to move our chairs against the walls and form a circle. Three rules. First, fake it till you make it. Meaning, start each exercise with fake laughter and it will turn into genuine laughter. Second, no jokes or verbal humor. Third, don’t hurt yourself. Because ten minutes of hard laughter is equivalent to thirty minutes on a rowing machine.

My face must’ve panicked because Matt whispered, “It’s okay. Don’t worry.” I’d have to keep a close eye on him.

I was relieved when Bob started us off with a solo exercise. Sweep your arms up and down while saying Ha Ha Ha. Most people’s Ha Ha Ha’s easily converted to real laughter. My Ha Ha Ha’s sounded depressed.

Next, walk around the room pointing at people and laughing at them. Everyone’s faces looked scary. I wanted to scream.

Next was Bumper Cars. Drive around the room with your hands out flat, bump into someone, push off, and give a hearty laugh. Then move on to another person. I pulled over near the chairs.

Then I spotted the young woman who’d talked during the movie. She had long curly hair and tight jeans. Here was my chance for revenge. I headed toward her and she smiled at me. As I drove closer I saw that she was a lot less substantial than I am. A minivan versus a Minicooper. I could easily knock her down and it would look like an accident.

But at the last second I changed my mind. Violence wasn’t the answer. Our hands made contact, we pushed off, and she drove away.

There were several more excruciating games. I participated but never laughed. Every few minutes I checked on Matt. At one point I caught him sitting down, but he promised he was all right. And he wanted to stay, because this was so much fun.

At the end of class Bob asked us to lie on the floor in a circle with our heads in the middle. He instructed us to laugh for no reason while noticing sounds and vibrations. The laughter started off strong and didn’t let up. Matt was laughing so hard he had to bring his knees up to slap them. I was very worried. Also angry. Why did everyone get to have fun but me?

Then I thought of something. What if I started laughing in such an outrageous manner that it made people laugh? I took a deep breath and let out an insane high-pitched shrieking cackle. And it worked! The room exploded with gut-busting laughter. I did it again. And again. Absolute pandemonium.

It was thrilling to have so much power, even though Matt was one of my victims. And after a few minutes of this, I succumbed. I started to truly laugh, harder than I’d laughed for many months. And I suddenly felt nothing but love for all those nutty people. Even the movie-talkers.

Oscar Anxiety

(February 27, 2014)

A thrilling fantasy visits me this time each year: I have just been nominated for an Academy Award! For Best Original Screenplay. Or maybe Best Screenplay Adapted from Something Else, or whatever it’s called.

In this fantasy I am myself and, therefore, middle-aged and frumpy. So the question is… What should I wear? The young and gorgeous—and the artificially preserved—know their best bet is a tight, revealing gown. Not a wise choice for a plain, bookish woman. No, I mustn’t try to compete with the Photogenic Elite. That would be pathetic. And I’m not pathetic. I’m nominated for an Oscar!

I drop by a local boutique…

SALESGIRL: Lemme know if you need anything.

ME: I need a killer outfit for Oscar night.

SALESGIRL: Goin’ to a party?

ME: Actually, I’m attending the Academy Awards in Los Angeles.

SALESGIRL: Really? How’d you get so lucky?”

ME: Well, I’m nominated for an Oscar.”

SALESGIRL: No way!

ME: Way!

She helps me try things on. Jewel tones work well with my pale complexion. Pastels are too mother-of-the-bride. I avoid beaded and shapeless a la Queen Elizabeth. I finally go with tailored and short, since my legs are my best feature. According to the salesgirl. I’m not bragging.

The real challenge is my hair, which is just not camera-worthy. So it’s either a wig or a hat. But honestly, the thought of my wig or hat falling off is so terrifying I almost wish I hadn’t been nominated!

That’s silly. Why would my wig or hat fall off? There’s very little actual hugging at the Oscars. Just air-kissing. And I won’t know anyone except the cast of my movie. I’ll send them an email in advance: “No hugs on the red carpet!”

But I suppose my stylish hat (yes, a hat) could get knocked off when Julia Roberts, who’s sitting behind me, gets up to go to the bathroom. How embarrassing for us both when she clocks me with her clutch!

We attract attention…

SANDRA: What’s going on over there?

JOAQUIN: Julia just assaulted that poor non-celebrity.

GWYNETH: Oh my God, look at her hair!

And what about my speech? What on earth am I going to say? I won’t stand there thanking a long list of names. I’ll be funny, like my movie. That’s what people expect. No, I should say something important: “We must support arts education because…”

What if I’m boring? In the middle of a sentence, I’ll catch Meryl and Clint chatting in the front row. That’ll shake my confidence and I’ll lose track of… “What was I saying? Something about the arts. Oh no, is that the music? Wait! Give me another chance!”

After the commercial break, the host works me into his shtick: “How did that woman manage to write (name of my funny movie)? She can’t string together a coherent sentence!”

Stop. I’ve been fretting about what I’ll say up there. But what I might do is way more problematic. How will I react to the extreme stress of accepting an Oscar? I’ll probably lose all motor control. Even if I make it up the steps without tripping, I’ll trample the skinny model holding the statuette. I’ll be sobbing so hard (there goes my make-up!) I won’t even see her.

Then there’s the congratulatory peck on the cheek from the presenter. Chances are I’ll go to my left and George will go to his right. I could break both our noses!

Also, I tend to gesticulate when I talk, especially when excited. And there’ll be plenty of adrenalin pumping when they hand me that Oscar! How far is it from the podium to the audience? Even if the thing weighs several pounds, I could probably fling it quite a distance: “I’m so sorry! Angelina, are you okay?”

You know, it’s just not worth it. … “Ladies and gentlemen of the Academy, I’d like to thank you for NOT nominating me for an Oscar.”

So Long, Fuzzy

(June 11, 2015)

Firstborn started begging for a dog at age six, but his father and I weren’t ready for the commitment. So we convinced him that a rat would be just as much fun. Thus began many years of rodent infestation at our house.

We usually had a few at a time, so they wouldn’t get lonely. Rats only live about two years, and some of ours died peacefully in their sleep. But others developed rat bronchitis and spent their last weeks of life, not coughing exactly, but breathing loudly. We always sought medical treatment for the sick ones, but that just seemed to prolong their suffering—to the tune of eighty dollars for an exam plus antibiotics.

When Firstborn was ten, a rat named Fuzzy developed bronchitis.

“Let’s wait a few days,” I said. “When you’re sick, I don’t take you to the doctor right away. Because sometimes you get better on your own.” But that wasn’t the outcome I expected in this case.

Day after day Fuzzy held on. Her labored breathing upset Firstborn. He’d come home from school and say, “She doesn’t sound any better, Mom. She needs to go to the vet.”

Then one day it occurred to me that I should take Fuzzy to the vet. And the next time Firstborn brought it up I said, “You’re right, son. But there’s a chance the doctor will think it’s best to put Fuzzy to sleep.”

Firstborn looked sad so I added, “Later we can go to the pet store to see if they have any baby rats.” That cheered him up.

While the kids were at school I called vets all over the county. I skipped our usual vet, who’d make me feel guilty for not pursuing treatment. I eventually found one in another town who treated small animals—and was willing to off them.

This doctor was a young, WASPy type in a white coat. He asked about Fuzzy’s condition, and I told him she was very sick. He removed her from her cardboard box and listened to her lungs with a tiny stethoscope.

When he suggested antibiotics, I realized his receptionist hadn’t conveyed the real purpose of my visit. I explained that I didn’t want Fuzzy to suffer any longer, and I was concerned about my son’s emotional welfare. So I wanted to explore the other option.

He didn’t argue. Using a soft, concerned voice he explained that Fuzzy wouldn’t feel anything, and it’d be over in a few minutes. I told him that sounded fine, and started to leave.

Then he said, “Some people like to stay with their pets during this process. You could hold Fuzzy while I give her the injection.”

I looked down at Fuzzy. Some of our rats were almost cute: smallish with black and white fur. But Fuzzy was huge with spiky brown fur and a long naked tail. I’d worn thick gardening gloves to transfer her to the cardboard box.

“That’s okay,” I said. “I’ll just go.”

“All right. I’ll give you a moment to say good-bye.”

This would be my first and last conversation with Fuzzy. I had no idea what to say. Finally, I came up with, “So long, Fuzzy. It’s been fun.”

A week later, Firstborn received a condolence card from the vet signed by the entire staff. He was truly touched. It was the first one he’d ever received. But it wouldn’t be the last.

Our Book Club

(September 21, 2017)

Before we all go home, let’s talk about our next meeting. I’ve chosen Middlemarch by George Elliot. You know how I love the classics! Some of you don’t adore nineteenth-century literature like I do. But this book is a page-turner, if you give it a chance. It gets going after two hundred pages or so.

I think we can all agree, it’s been a long time since we read a book that was challenging or worthwhile. Sorry, Brenda. Fifty Shades of Grey was fine. I just think our next book should be intellectually stimulating.

Middlemarch has great topics for discussion: daily life in 1830s England, political reform, the effects of the railway on the rural economy. And the author is so interesting. George Elliot lived at a time when women weren’t taken seriously as writers. Seriously, Phoebe? You didn’t know George Elliot was a woman? Where on earth did you go to college? Just kidding.

Anyway, copies of Middlemarch are easy to find. The library has several, and any used bookstore will have a bunch. So we’re all going to read it, right? No excuses? Hey, no need to get defensive. I know this isn’t a book club where you have to read the book. But if everyone made an effort, think of the wonderful discussions we could have. Most months, it’s impossible to even talk about the book. Either people haven’t read it at all, or they’re halfway through and don’t want anyone to spoil the ending. Which is pretty selfish.

Yes, I know everyone is busy. But when we get together I hear about TV shows you’ve binge-watched and articles you’ve read online. So, you could read one book a month. You just choose to do other things in your free time.

That’s just me. I’m passionate about books. That’s why I joined a book club. But I guess “book club” means different things to different people: a fun night out with the girls, adult conversation, an escape from homework duty. So, of course, you don’t think it matters if you read the book. Or come on time.

At least the host should be on the ball, don’t you think? Last month when I arrived at Stephanie’s house – I was the first one there, as usual – she actually looked surprised to see me. Yes, Stephanie, you did. It was clear you forgot you were hosting book club until you saw me at your door.

Don’t deny it. Your family was still sitting at the table. They hadn’t even finished dinner. And remember what you served us? A store-bought cheesecake that was still frozen. I almost broke a crown!

Wait. Where’s everyone going? Is the meeting over? I suppose it’s getting late. Well, I look forward to seeing you all at my house on the twenty-fifth to discuss Middlemarch by George Elliot. It’ll be great. I promise.