I was walking up Broadway the other day, and I stopped to snap a quick picture to send to my bestie, Meg. She’ll be visiting NYC for the first time in a few weeks, and it’s been lots of fun stoking her excitement:
Me: “You know. Just another day. Walkin’ around the city.”
When I was in kindergarten, I went the entire school year without uttering a single word to my teacher. Mrs. O’Connor was both a seasoned educator and a veteran parent, and as such, she was surely mystified by my unwillingness to speak to her. Not only did it obstruct her ability to evaluate me as a student; I believe she took my stubborn reticence as a personal challenge, putting a career’s worth of teaching and a lifetime of mothering to the test. But the harder she tried, the quieter I became. The longer I went without speaking to her, the bigger the deal it became for me to open up. I could feel the pressure mounting, and each day became an anxiety-ridden struggle to resist her conversational advances. It wasn’t until my very last moments as her pupil that she finally got me to speak in her presence. It seems she had realized that when one is trying too hard to make something happen, sometimes it’s best to step back, turn down the pressure, and just let that something happen instead.
I had always been a shy child, notoriously tight-lipped around unfamiliar grownups and prone to zeroing in on any random peccadillo that might render one radioactive in my eyes. Mrs. O’Connor was what I now imagine to be very model of an early-childhood educator. She was a kind, cheerful lady whose expert blend of firmness and nurturing gently ushered us into the world of schoolhouse learning. But, while any fathomable reason to dislike her may have eluded most people, I was instantly able to fixate on one rattling quirk: her voice. She spoke with a distinctive, jarring falsetto that resembled a cross between Mickey Mouse and Julia Child, and honked out words with the dynamic range of an air horn. Some may have found it peculiar; I found it terrifying. My instinctive response in the face of this bellowing Irish banshee was to shut down entirely, refusing to let my voice fall on her ears while her shrill howls tormented mine. And so began the yearlong standoff between a teacher’s uncanny voice and a student’s unyielding silence.
Over the course of the year, Mrs. O’Connor’s attempts to coax a few words out of me came in various escalating forms. At first, when I wanted to play with an out-of-reach toy, she would tell me I had to ask for it before she would agree to retrieve it. I would simply huff and go without the toy. Later on, set off by my standard refusal to say “here” during the morning roll call, she ratcheted up her efforts by sending me home early two days in a row. She explained that if I wouldn’t state my presence in class, I wasn’t allowed to be present in class. But I was unbothered by the extra time away from Mrs. O’Connor, and the gravity of this two-day suspension never sunk in. A parent-teacher conference was eventually called, and to my horror, this involved Mrs. O’Connor (who also happened to be my neighbor) coming into my house and sitting in my living room. Perhaps she had hoped that the comfort of home and the reassurance of my parents might soften me up a bit. But, to everyone’s chagrin, I just laid low – hiding under my bed – until she was gone. Her more direct approaches weren’t working, and time in the school year was running out.
While my aversion to Mrs. O’Connor was at first rooted in the sound of her voice, I did eventually grow accustomed to it, and as the year wore on, my abhorrence of her very existence lessened somewhat. I became warily cooperative in the occasional one-on-one scenario, like the time she asked me to help her search for the escaped class hamster, and when she offered to take me home from school after my usual escort (my older brother) had fallen through. I even started participating in show-and-tell, proudly waving my favorite teddy bear in front of the class (though still leaving the whole “tell” portion out of it). But, by the latter half of the year, a slightly different reason for my silence had emerged. One day, I arrived at school wearing my very first pair of glasses. Unfortunately for me, five-year-olds in glasses are irresistibly cute, and Mrs. O’Connor couldn’t contain her effusion over how adorable I looked in my new specs. The overwrought, cheek-pinching attention from her left me absolutely petrified. If this was how she reacted to my glasses, what was she going to do when I finally spoke? Now, more than anything, I dreaded the ecstatic fireworks I was convinced my first words to her would ignite. The very prospect of such gushing elation only deepened my resolve to keep quiet.
As the school year came to a close, Mrs. O’Connor, no closer to getting me to speak in her presence, decided to make kindergarten graduation her last-ditch gambit. For the ceremony, she decided that I would be the one to recite the Pledge of Allegiance for all the parents, teachers, and students in attendance. This, of course, was a huge gamble on her part, as all indications were that I would just stand silently, as I had in rehearsal, until relieved by a more willing classmate. Mrs. O’Connor had never gotten a single word out of me; what made her think she could get thirty-one out of me in a single night? She must have had a plan.
The night of graduation, when the moment of truth arrived, I nervously approached the microphone. Unsure of what I would do next, I anxiously scanned the crowd to see if Mrs. O’Connor was watching. I soon noticed that she had moved to the rear of the auditorium, turned her back to the stage, and appeared to occupy herself with something other than my impending performance. This was my chance. She wasn’t paying any attention to me. I had to speak now, or stand before the crowd in awkward, humiliating silence. Seizing the moment, turned to the flag, took a deep breath, and spoke. I was done in mere seconds, my delivery as rapid-fire as my heartbeat. Mrs. O’Connor stared at the back wall the whole time, and though she must have been delighted by her successful ruse, she withheld any reaction when I finished. It was a hard-won breakthrough – the first time she’d ever heard the sound of my voice – but she played it totally cool. I let out a huge sigh of relief, and returned to my seat.
As I may have mentioned before, my hubby Mike is a very-soon-to-be-published author and illustrator of children’s picture books. Nearly two years in the making, the first installment of his Little Elliot series is set for release on August 26th. It’s all very exciting, and the buzz is already building as Mike begins this summer’s ramp-up to the big release. Here’s a little sneak-peek at his debut title, Little Elliot Big City,via this beautifully done book trailer from Mike’s publisher. It’s amazing. And so is Mike.
When asked what it is that makes a writer funny, my friend Geraldine DeRuiter, author of the popular and hilarious travel blog The Everywhereist, simply replies, “A traumatic middle school experience.”
It is a deft rejoinder, showcasing a keen wit and succinctly demonstrating her brilliance as a writer and humorist. While one might take this question as an invitation to expound at length on the philosophy of humor, Geraldine’s answer neatly compresses as much insight into five little words. For all its concision, her response conveys layers of widely relatable truth, while pinpointing personal experience as an essential source of humor. It works because it delivers the incisive honesty that underlies so much great comedy. The joke is funny because it’s true. Geraldine is funny because she is honest.
To be clear, Geraldine doesn’t actually identify as a humorist. Indeed, she is reluctant even to identify as a writer, preferring to call herself a blogger, which she feels “sounds less boastful.” Though she pens daily essays, has been recognized in national publications like Time and Forbes, and is currently at work on a full-length travel memoir, she considers the “writer” title something she still aspires to achieve. And as far being labeled a humorist, she says she has “never considered [herself] as part of that genre or aspiring to be part of that genre.” She describes herself as “surprised and delighted” that people find her work funny.
This is not to say that Geraldine’s writing is unintentionally funny – that the humor found in so many of her posts is not deliberate. While getting laughs may not be Geraldine’s primary motive as a blogger, the amusing tone of her writing emerges as the inevitable by-product of a naturally humorous disposition. “It’s just a reflection of how I view the world,” she explains. “I find humor in a lot of things. Every day … I encounter stuff that makes me laugh.” And though not every observation lends itself to humor, Geraldine explains that some posts “practically demand that you take a humorous approach.” Given this outlook, it is not surprising that so many of her posts land squarely in the “funny” column.
Whether or not one actually identifies as a humorist, crafting a funny blog post takes skill. Many would argue that a great joke hinges on its delivery, and for a blogger like Geraldine, the delivery comes in writing. This means that snappy writing skills are an essential component of her humor. Fortunately, she has no small amount of experience as a writer, and plenty of passion for the craft. “I’ve always loved write,” she explains. “It satisfies the creative bug in me.”
It was this love of writing that led her to initially pursue a major in journalism, and ultimately earn a communications degree from the University of Washington. After college, she held a series of jobs in which her duties entailed writing blog posts, newsletters, marketing material, and more. Though Geraldine found much of this work creatively limiting, with few opportunities to write in her own voice, the experience was undoubtedly useful in helping fine-tune her skills as a wordsmith.
Geraldine launched The Everywhereist in 2009 after being laid off from a full-time copywriting position with the Seattle game company Cranium. The loss of this job, she writes on her site’s homepage, “might have been one of the best things that ever happened to me.” It finally freed her to accompany her husband on the frequent jaunts across the nation and the globe demanded by his work. The blog, which has become her primary creative outlet, serves as a lighthearted diary of their adventures abroad, preserving these memories for the benefit of a man who spends much of this time in meetings and giving presentations. “Yes it’s a travel blog,” she writes. “But at its core, it’s a love letter to my husband. A big, long, cuss-filled love letter. The only kind I’m able to write.”
Putting it this way, Geraldine stays true-to-form, blending unvarnished humor with heartfelt purpose. This is her voice – a humorous style she describes as “observational … peppered with sarcasm and occasionally punctuated with long tirades written in all caps.” Her approach is at times “so insane, so passionate, so over-the-top” that she makes herself “cackle like a madwoman” while she writes.
Luckily, this voice finds tremendous liberty in the freewheeling format of a personal blog. Real-life Geraldine and her Everywhereist persona are “virtually identical,” she explains. “Which is kind of terrifying, because it means I say lots of inappropriate things in person.”
As a result of this candid style, Geraldine’s posts often veer from travel into discussions of her marriage and personal life, her quirky obsessions with cake and Jeff Goldblum, and a particularly heart-tugging (yet somehow still amusing) series about undergoing surgery to remove a brain tumor (which she had named “Steve,” and from which she has mostly recovered). It’s an honest, likable approach that enables an easy personal connection with her audience – the kind of connection upon which the best comedy relies.
Geraldine’s answer to my question about what makes a writer funny is a perfect example of this relatable style of humorous writing. What, one might ask, does “a traumatic middle school experience” have to do with being funny in your thirties? She doesn’t elaborate. But I think the point is that she doesn’t need to. She knows her audience, and banks on the assumption that they will be able to relate. Many of us can recall the awkwardness and anxiety of adolescence, and the internalized pain that often resulted. While this certainly doesn’t make everyone funny, Geraldine has an undeniable knack for locating the humor in such trauma and exploiting it to full comic effect. She isn’t afraid to make light of her insecurities or to poke fun at her own human imperfections. Indeed, disarming self-deprecation seems to be a cornerstone of her appeal. “I’m really awkward, and I’m a huge dork,” she replies when asked why people read her blog. “I’m kind of a walking disaster … which I think people can relate to.”
While Geraldine tends not to target any specific audience with her work, readers of the The Everywhereist do seem to be predominantly women in their twenties and thirties. When asked why this is so, Geraldine guesses that her easy-to-relate-to approach may have a lot to do with it. “Often times people are more comfortable relating to those who are in their same demographic,” she supposes. “I’m a woman in her early thirties. Many of my readers are, too.”
In 2011, The Everywhereist won a spot on Forbes’ “Top 10 Lifestyle Blogs for Women” list, and the blog has been named among the magazine’s “Top 100 Sites for Women” for the past two years. While she truly appreciates these honors, Geraldine notes that she’s a little uncomfortable with the “for women” modifier. “I just like to say that Forbes magazine listed me as ‘one of the best websites for human beings … many of whom happen to have vaginas.’”
Even as the numbers show her blog’s most frequent visitors to be women, she isn’t necessarily shooting for an all-female audience. It just goes to show that as much as a blogger decides what she wants to write and how she wants to write it, she can’t decide who is going to respond or how much they will enjoy it. Audiences tend to choose themselves.
What all of this comes down to is the subjective nature of humor. What makes a writer funny is a question of how well they speak to the experience of a given audience – whether the sheer silliness or outright absurdity of a bit will resonate with readers. There is no objective formula that guarantees laughter, no mathematic equation that adds up to funny. Every attempt at humor is essentially a gamble. “My post about German fooddid really well,” Geraldine explains with a degree of surprise. “I’m not really sure why it’s so funny. At some point, I think I just started writing crazed proclamations about sausages in all caps.”
But, even when the gamble pays off, humor remains a far-from-universal thing. There will always be those who don’t get the joke, and Geraldine’s offbeat antics and sarcasm-laden rants have had their share of detractors. “The post I wrote about dying our milk pink garnered quite a few angry responses,” she recalls. “BECAUSE I DYED OUR MILK PINK.”
Nevertheless, there are plenty of folks who look to The Everywhereist for a daily dose of irreverent hilarity. One commenter recently wisecracked, “You’re my favorite immature jerk who isn’t me,” capturing the pitch-perfect harmony between Geraldine’s humor and the comedic tastes of her readers. They get her, it is safe to say, because she gets them.
Geraldine’s writing is funny for many reasons. She is naturally inclined toward humor and she enjoys making people laugh. She is incisively observant and wickedly clever with words. She is unabashedly candid and unflinching in riffs on her own warty humanity. She is unpretentious and humble, with an appealing authenticity that draws thousands of readers to The Everywhereist each day. She addresses her audience with well-earned credibility; they come back with genuine admiration and devoted fandom. It is the complete honesty of her writing that makes this possible – a “keepin’ it real” style that cannot be faked. Her fearless embrace of this approach is evident whenever she rolls the comedic dice, and made explicit in her own tidy summation: “I feel like there’s humor and value in my opinion – I just need to express it honestly and be myself.”
So, I formally declared as a history major today, and since it’s been a while since my last post, I thought it might be a good time to follow up this one from last fall with a little snippet from the homepage of my school’s history department:
“For undergraduate history majors, career opportunities are many and varied. Becoming a history teacher has long been a goal, but there are also positions of interest in government, publishing, media, communications, and business. Medical, law, and other professional graduate schools favor history majors because of their broad background in liberal arts and skills in analyzing the past in relation to the present.”
I’m going to memorize that. It expresses in three sentences what it took me a 700-word blog post to say. It’s perfect.
And with that said, I’ll let you know what I want to do with my history degree – what I want to be when I grow up – as soon as I decide. But for now, it’s back to my homework.
I’ve seen Billy Joel in concert seven times. Yes, SEVEN. And while every one of those on-the-road shows was magical in its own way, I’ve never seen him play a home game. Apparently, his New York City shows, charged with the energy of an adoring hometown crowd, are incredible.
Well, as luck would have it, things are about to change for me. Tonight the Piano Man will be ringing in the new year at the Barclays Center here in Brooklyn, and Mike and I will be there! (Also, Ben Folds Five is the opening act! I can’t friggin’ believe it. More on this later.) I am pee-my-pants excited about tonight’s show, so in celebration, I thought I’d share my own BuzzFeed-style listicle of five quintessentially “New York” selections from the Billy Joel catalog. I hope you enjoy.
(Also, be sure to tune into “Dick Clark’s New Year’s Rockin’ Eve with Ryan Seacrest” on ABC tonight. They’ll be cutting to the concert after midnight, as Billy will be performing the first song of the new year.)
Have a happy New Year, and I’ll see you all in 2014!
“Why Should I Worry?”
Performed (though not written) by Joel for the 1988 Disney animated film Oliver and Company. Dodger, the shades-sporting mutt who rules the streets of New York, cockily boasts about his “street savoir-faire.”:
Named for the Manhattan street on which Joel’s record label and studio were located at the timeof its recording (1978), and a tribute to the street’s history as a famous jazz-performance corridor.Despite being the title track from one of his best-known albums, this little number remains a relative obscurity in the Billy Joel catalog:
“Big Man On Mulberry Street” A big-band inspired highlight from the 1986 album The Bridge. Joel self-referentially conjures a “Mr. Cool” poser strutting around lower Manhattan“like he’s the King of Mulberry Street”:
“Miami 2017 (Seen the Lights Go Out On Broadway)”
From 1976’s Turnstiles, and inspired by the infamous “Ford to City: Drop Dead” headline in The Daily News. Joel’s lyrics imagine the Big Apple’s apocalyptic demise from the perspective of an aged survivor who watched it all go down. (Note: the “distant” future from which this old-timer gives his account is now only three years away. Yikes):
“New York State of Mind”
Joel wrote this number to celebrate his New York homecoming after living in Los Angeles for several years. Said to have been composed within 20 minutes of his return, the 1976 release has since become an extensively covered standard and Joel’s own definitive NYC anthem:
Don’t get me wrong. I have nothing against teachers. I love teachers. They are noble, dedicated professionals for whom I have nothing but respect and admiration. But please, please, for the love of god, PLEASE! When I tell you I want to major in history, stop asking me if I plan on becoming a teacher.
Okay, it’s not the question itself that bothers me. I don’t mind that people are curious about my life plans/career goals. What rubs me like a schoolyard noogie is the automatic, assumptive manner in which this question is always put to me. It’s as if the word “history” triggers a reflex-like response where people can’t help but blurt, “Oh, so you want to teach then?” As if they’re only asking me to affirm what they already know – that, “duh, what else would you do with a history degree?” That my desire to study history must translate to an aspiration to teach.
And I’m not saying I’ve ruled out the possibility of becoming a teacher. Far from it. But, as you might imagine, it gets a little frustrating when you’re relentlessly confronted with other peoples’ narrow view of your future options.
Look, I get it. There aren’t many professions where it’s important to know when the Battle of Hastings took place. But anyone who thinks bite-size tidbits of trivia are all I’ll gain by studying this subject completely misunderstands history as an academic discipline.
An astute observer will recognize a history major as someone who’s well-read and well-practiced in writing, who’s adept at detailed analysis and deep critical thinking, who knows how to do intensive research, connect obscure dots, draw informed, insightful conclusions, and can present these ideas in a cohesive and convincing manner. It’s a rigorous, intellectually demanding curriculum that should speak volumes about the aptitude of those who successfully take it on. (Also, you get to learn when the Battle of Hastings took place!)
With that said, it shouldn’t be so hard to imagine any other profession where these skills and aptitude are coveted assets. Or to realize that a history degree frequently precedes any number of perfectly viable graduate programs. (Ever hear of law school? Journalism school? Even business school?) Needless to say, peoples’ tendency to underestimate the practical value of a history degree is … irksome.
So, if not teaching, what will I do with a history degree? Well, beyond hanging it on my wall, I really haven’t decided. I’m pursuing this course of study with no specific career objective in mind. I want a to earn a college degree, and history is my favorite subject. It’s as simple as that. My lack of laser-focus might seem foolish to some, especially given today’s competitive job market and the out-of-control costs of higher learning, but I’m really not that worried about it. As I’ve explained, a history degree is a versatile credential, and if my extensive experience as a job-seeker is any indication, having one will give an opportunity-expanding boost to my future aspirations.
In the meantime, I’d rather not dwell on the professional viability of my college education. I get that it’s something I’ll have to sort out eventually, but for now, I’m just looking forward to immersing myself in a subject that has captured my imagination for as long as I can remember. I just want to learn – to to enrich my mind and become a smarter person – regardless of the financial payoff. To me, that’s what education is supposed to be about.
So, to sum up today’s lesson, I am sincerely flattered by your interest in my future plans. And you are welcome to ask me if I want to become a teacher, provided the question arises more naturally in our conversation. But again, please stop asking simply because you assume there’s nothing else a history major can do. It just annoys me, and makes me want to put your ass in the corner with a dunce cap. We both know you’re smarter than that, so kindly knock it off.
Well if you aren’t yet, I think you should become one. They’re really one of the best things going on in the whole alternative/rock/indie/pop/whatever-music scene right now. And if you put any stock in what the critics say, the New York band’s latest album, Modern Vampires of the City, is their best work yet, and among the best albums so far this year. (I have yet to decide if it’s my favorite VW album, but still, it’s pretty fantastic.) Anyway, check them out:
I used to have an awesome Swiss Army knife. It was given to me by my eldest sister as a 21st-birthday present. I had been wanting one for years, and considering the milestone birthday, and the fact that she’d first taken the time to have my initials engraved in the blade, it was an object to which I’d formed a particular sentimental attachment. It was shiny and compact; both beautiful and practical. And for more than a few years, I carried that handy little tool in my pocket at all times.
But as I passed through airport security in Seattle one day, my folded-up knife was stashed in a small inner pocket of my carry-on bag. I had completely forgotten it was there, and apparently, the TSA screeners never noticed it. I boarded my flight without incident, and for the rest of that trip, I was totally oblivious to the illicit little stowaway in my backpack.
That is, until it was time for me to fly home.
The more-alert TSA screeners at Newark’s airport detected the knife right away. The agents immediately pulled me aside to ask me what, exactly, this potentially lethal object was doing in my carry-on. I explained my honest oversight to them, and they seemed to understand. Nevertheless, they weren’t about to let me board a plane with that blade in my bag. I was presented with a choice: Go back and check my carry-on (and almost certainly miss my flight), or toss my knife into a sad receptacle full of forbidden items discarded by other absent-minded travelers. In the heat of the moment, I made a snap-decision, and ruefully (almost tearfully) relinquished my treasured Swiss Army knife.
I’m sharing this sad tale because I recently read that the TSA is about to relax its restrictions for knives on planes. Today, it’s considered unsafe to carry any knife onto an aircraft. But next month, blades of a certain size will be perfectly fine. It feels kind of arbitrary to me. I mean, has something suddenly changed as far as the inherent risk posed by a two-inch blade? Or is the TSA telling us that flying would have been just as safe all along without a decade-long ban on pocket knives?
In other words, was losing my Swiss Army knife a noble sacrifice made for the greater cause of safer skies? Or was it just another degrading act of TSA security theater, serving only to coddle the reptilian brains of anxious travelers? I really don’t know.
As an anxious flyer myself, I readily admit to sometimes allowing myself to be soothed by hollow security gestures. (Whatever gets you through the flight, my friends.) But from the grounded comfort of my home office, I feel more free to rationally ponder the implications of these measures, and question whether they make us safer, or just make us feel safer.
I understand the original rationale behind the knife ban. And I realize that the line between genuine security, and the mere illusion of it, is a blurry one. I don’t pretend to know what it takes to keep a planeful of travelers safe.
But I do know that reactionary, emotion-based impulses frequently lead to less-than-reasonable decisions. (Heck, if all security decisions were based on my usual pre-flight emotions, the only objects allowed on planes would be donuts, Valium, and Captain Sully.) And useful or not, the security measures born in these rash moments seem to have exacted a troubling toll on the weary traveling masses.
So, with these policies subject to sudden and seemingly arbitrary reversal, it does seem reasonable to ask the overall question, “what for?”
Anyway, I’m not trying to get all mired in a controversial debate to which I bring zero expertise. And I really don’t mean to offer commentary from one side or the other. (I’ll leave that to The Onion.) I’m just saying, now that the TSA’s decided it’s safe to carry knives onto planes, I wish I could get my knife back.