Winner of the 2014 Oregon Writer's Colony Contest.
Finalist 2015 Pacific Northwest Writer's Association Contest
What would you do if you found a $1000?
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Sometimes a walk with your dog is not always just a walk with your dog…
That’s what the detective told me when the case was closed.
It started when I took my dog to a river. Gnarled tree stumps carried from headwater streams shared the shoreline with plastic bottles, candy wrappers, and the occasional hypodermic needle. Cranes dotted the Williamette River’s banks, perched over the water like herons waiting for prey. The metal reverb of shipping containers echoed across the water. Ospreys and gulls traded calls. Vessels of all sizes sliced the surface of the river. Cormorants bobbed in their wakes, diving for long minutes in search of food. Cars raced east and west on the bridges, salmon charged upstream, and century-old sturgeon sifted through silt in the depths.
I roamed the river’s edge, pocketed pebbles, and wrestled large pieces of driftwood back to my van for my garden. My footprints were crisscrossed with the drag marks of my latest finds. Big Head, my yellow lab, pawed and chewed at the logs as we moved along, steady but unhurried, like the currents at our side.
I noticed the black briefcase first. Zippers open, sand sticking to the cloth areas. With warning thoughts about heroin needles, I searched the main compartment and pockets, never plunging my hand in blindly. No identification. Empty. Then I noticed the shoes, the shirts, and the pants nearby. I wondered if the contents had spilled out naturally, or if someone had dumped them looking for bounty. I knelt, reached for the nearest pants pocket and felt the unmistakable shape of a wad of money, rolled and bending slightly with each squeeze of my hand...
Despite what you may have heard, man’s best friend is not a dog. Man’s best friend is laughter. Laughter doesn’t need to go for walks, it doesn’t need expensive vaccinations and it won’t get you in trouble for choking a neighbor’s sheep (I speak from experience here). Think about it: how many times has a laugh-free first date gotten you a goodnight kiss? Giggling, chuckling, bellowing, cackling—they all come from the same place. And they're all really useful, too. I’ve used laughter all my life, in different situations all around the world.
I was an extremely scatterbrained kid, always doing things like leaving my homework on top of the car. On “Career Day” in middle school, after tagging along with my dad for the day, I remember hearing a heavy “clunk” just as he accelerated onto the highway. My dad jumped at the noise, “What was that?” he asked. I leaned towards the side mirror and smirked: my notes for the day were scattered to the winds, dispersed across four lanes of rush-hour traffic. I can still hear my mom’s voice, ringing in my ears, after I pulled some boneheaded act or another: “Oh, Ryan!” What are we going to do with you?” So famous were my exploits that now, when one of my parents or my sister, say, programs the wrong address into a GPS and drives fifty miles in the wrong direction, they’ll say that they pulled a “Ryan.”
You might think this would give me a complex, but I don’t take offense because I’ve discovered that mistakes go down easier with laughter. That’s not to say I ignore my errors; I hang my head, call myself an idiot, and I dig deep to avoid making the same mistake, but I do all the aforementioned after I laugh at myself. So laugh at yourself, lighten things up, and pat yourself on the back before you kick yourself in the butt.
Laughter helps you cope during uncertain times, too—like when you’re traveling through faraway countries during a revolution, for instance. When my ex-wife and I were on a two-week trek through Nepal in 2005, a nationwide strike brought the country to a standstill. The king had dissolved Nepal’s parliament earlier that year and the “people,” as they say, were angry; they wanted democracy restored. Arriving at the small village that marked the end of our trek, we were greeted by burning tires and protests, a marked difference from the peaceful, self-sufficient villages where we had spent the past weeks. The busses—our rides back to Kathmandu--sat idle. Nobody would risk driving back amid this turmoil.
Later, our guide informed us in his broken English, “Ok No bus. Maybe truck will come morning or maybe we walk. Ok?”
Ok? A truck? What kind of truck? Walk? Isn’t Kathmandu seventy miles away?
We left the next day, and I cackled madly as we rumbled past burning cars, angry demonstrators and marching troops. Not because anything was funny, really, but because it was the only thing I could do. A nationwide all-hours curfew was in effect but tourists were allowed to move around the country. Our ride, a broken-down stock truck, donned a hand-lettered cardboard sign reading “Tourist Bus.” The truck stalled often, but it was easy to restart. German, Israeli, American and Nepali hands lined up to push. Initial grunts started the truck moving, multilingual expletives kept it moving, and a roaring group-laugh facilitated the final heave. As black smoke spewed from the exhaust, we laughed and climbed back onto the truck for another few miles before repeating the process.
My brother died when I was seventeen years old, and although I didn’t laugh at his bedside or at his funeral, I still laugh every time I think of the Bubble Episode. I can picture it perfectly: my family cruising through the white-capped mountains of Colorado for the first time, my sister, brother and I stuffed in the backseat. As we crested a steep mountain pass, my brother’s kid-face began to disappear behind a growing bubble-gum bubble. Somehow, that bubble kept growing, eclipsing his entire face, and our hysterics grew with it, filling the car with peals of laughter. The death of loved ones hurts so much because of the laughter you shared with them. Laughter never dies.
Although laughter technically doesn’t have mass, it holds and comforts you, keeps you company when you’re lonely. How many times have you found yourself alone at home, in a hotel room, in the car, or feeling transparent in a crowded elevator? Your heart is heavy, down in your stomach instead of in your chest, but then a soft chortle or a hearty chuckle saves you. At home your cat rounds the corner chasing ghosts, in the hotel room you bust out dancing in your underwear, in the car you belt out cheesy love songs at the top of your lungs, and in the elevator you notice a man in a very expensive suit with more nose hairs on the outside of his nose than inside. Suddenly, because of your laughter, you feel whole again, and happy to be alive.
This resonance not only feels good—it is good. A Google search of “laughter is good for you” turned up almost five million hits. Studies by real doctors, ones with the debt and the white overcoats to prove it, have found that laughter has many benefits. It boosts the immune system, reduces stress by releasing endorphins, prevents heart disease, and burns calories. One study showed that people with heart disease responded with less humor to everyday life situations and displayed more anger and hostility than their healthier peers did. (Instead of prescribing the latest and greatest pills, maybe doctors should direct their high-risk patients to make a funny face in the mirror three times a day.) Another study showed up to forty calories burned for every fifteen minutes of laughing. Not much, but it’s something to consider: a jolly night with good friends offsets that extra side of bacon the next morning. Or if you prefer longer horizons, that equals four pounds a year or, cumulatively, a dozen buckets of ice cream in a lifetime. Who wouldn’t want to keep off forty-pounds per decade just by laughing?
So with all that said, here’s an alternative definition of laughter, one you won’t find in a dictionary: a highly combustible accelerant for all social bonds. It has many uses, it never dies, it’s good for you, and best of all—it’s free.
STIR FRIED LOVE
Published: Cup of Comfort for Mothers, The Good Men Project
I reach for a worn handle. The tapered wood, one inch in diameter at its thickest point, slips between my fingers like a key in its lock. A warm feeling shoots into my hand, different from the flames heating the well-seasoned wok before me. I wonder how many times Mom had gripped the handle of this wok? How many hours had she stood over it waiting for the oil to get that wavy look before tossing in meats and vegetables expertly sliced and diced by her hands.
I turn to cut some ginger, and with a sweep of my knife’s blade, I scoop slivers of the flavorful root into the wok. The ginger hits the oil and sizzles immediately but not so much that it burns. I inhale the familiar smell---and I’m no longer a grown and married man with two beautiful boys.
I’m eight years old and taking my turn on the front of a shopping cart. Mom weaves in and out of the grocery aisle, ignoring the wobbling front wheel and shooting down my requests for sugar-laden cereals. The mountain of food in the cart dwarfs my mother’s five-foot frame. She squints at a handwritten list with the same scrutiny as an accountant reviewing a financial statement. A dozen or so coupons attempt an escape out of her purse but fail, as she stuffs them back in and closes the zipper. Getting the most bang for the buck is essential with three kids and Dad’s single income, but Mom is a master in this game of raising a healthy family, and no master skimps on food.
We pass the deli and take a number. Customers shift back and forth, impatiently checking their numbers and the “Now Serving” monitor. We will not wait; Mom has a plan. We’re number 88; plenty of time to hit the produce department and come back.
We stop at the cherries. Mounds of the deep red fruit are piled high. Some are still cold, and condensation covers the freshest ones. Pits are scattered along the front edge of the display. I add to the slipping hazard by taste testing and launching a couple pits of my own. Mom instructs me not to eat too many because they are not washed. For every one she sees me eat, I eat two behind her back. Other customers stuff handfuls into their bags, but not Mom. Each cherry is handpicked by her careful eye; the tender attention adds sweetness.
Back at home, she washes the cherries and sets them out for our eager fingers. Strawberries are next, but first she cores each one with a paring knife. Every single strawberry is cradled momentarily while the knife, seemingly working on its own, twists in a small circle. Soon, a dented and faded aluminum colander in the middle of the counter is filled. I wander over with cherry-stained lips and rest a hand on the edge of the Formica. She pushes the colander closer, turning it to a particular position. I stand on tiptoe and reach and reach. If the colander weren’t full, I wouldn’t be able to grasp anything. Mom grins like she has a secret. My hand clutches something so large it can’t be a strawberry, but it is.
“Wow!” I proclaim.
“That’s a big one,” she replies as her knife flashes back and forth on the cutting board.
With the fruit and vegetables all washed and cut, she switches to prepping a large piece of beef.
“Cut against the grain of the meat,” she instructs. “Makes it more tender.”
I watch the marbled meat fall victim to even strokes of the knife. Mom’s fingers are safely tucked under her knuckles, and in no time a pile of kid-size pieces sits neatly on the round cutting board. One day I will be allowed to use a knife, and one day I will cut with the same grace. For now, I just eat big strawberries and watch.
The meat goes into a bowl with a handful of green onions, a splash of rice vinegar, sesame oil, and a liberal dousing of soy sauce. Last, she sprinkles some cornstarch over the beef.
“What’s that for?” I ask.
“It gives the meat a silky texture. Here, why don’t you help Mom stir it all up,” she replies, handing me the bowl.
I watch the white powder disappear and congeal onto the meat as I stir and take in the aroma of Chinese cuisine.
“That’s enough,” she says, taking the bowl and placing it on the counter next to the stove. Different colored bowls stand at attention next to the wok. The wok sitting atop the stove with its shiny wooden handle safely out of my reach is ready---ready for the union with my mother’s hand and the ingredients of our future meal.
An hour later, the scraping of a metal spatula curls through the house letting everyone know its dinnertime. Steam rises over Mom’s shoulders and hovers briefly before being sucked into the exhaust. Her long black hair sways lightly as she stirs in a mixture of cornstarch and broth to thicken the gravy. Finally, she turns and pours the stir-fry into a serving dish. Dinner is served.
Almost thirty years have passed since the initiation of that wok. Now, I have it in my kitchen and grip it with the same love that Mom did. I swirl with the corner of my metal spatula, watching the thickened gravy bubble and cling to every bit of the stir-fry, like good gravy should.
I call my family to dinner just as the phone rings.
“Hi, Mom.” I hold the phone to my ear with my shoulder and empty the wok.
The inevitable question is coming.
“Have you been eating well?” she asks.
I smile and motion for everyone to sit down.
"Sharing stories reminds me of lessons I've already learned..."