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Humor tips for health

Paul Osincup, president-elect of the Association for Applied and Therapeutic Humor, suggests that everyone should incorporate more humor into their lives. He suggests taking a break from the news and creating a five-minute funny every day. Here are a few ideas:

Make a list: At the end of the day, write down three funny things that happened to you. Research says it can increase happiness for up to six months

Video playlist: Create a play list of funny videos for yourself with weblinks that you an watch at the end of the day.

Podcast passion: Listen to funny podcasts to try to boost your mood on your way to work or on weekends.

Spread the laughter: Think about funny anecdotes and stories that have happened to you, tell them to people and see which ones make people laugh.

Go out and laugh: Check out a comedy club or a funny movie that you haven’t seen yet.

New stuff: Try to do something fun or novel. If you’re having friends over, think about playing a game. Something funny will happen when you’re in a new situation, and you are 30 times more likely to laugh in groups than by yourself

Laughter Yoga: This type of yoga incorporates intentional laughter. You body does not differentiate between forced laughter and the real thing, and laughter can increase blood flow, reduce inflammation and increase pain tolerance. It also takes your mind of your problems.

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Read all of the PD's fire coverage here

During the first week of the October wildfires, motivational speaker Paul Osincup, his wife and two dogs evacuated from their home off Brush Creek Road and found safe harbor with his sister in Bodega Bay.

Not long afterward, Osincup went to the Walmart in Rohnert Park in search of respirator masks, but the store was already sold out. He started to leave, then noticed a child pointing to the Halloween masks: “Look daddy, they DO have masks.”

“His father and I looked at each other, and we had a little chuckle,” Osincup recalled. “Just that brief moment was a good break,” he said. “Your brain can’t experience trauma and humor simultaneously.”

While working in higher education, Osincup used to do some improv comedy on the side. But in the past year, he has become a strong advocate for “laughter as the best medicine,” explaining in his talks how humor can help build resilience and provide distance from danger and fear without negating it.

Sometimes, he will even tell humorous stories that emerged from last year’s fires. It’s a touchy subject for many, with scars still deep, and wounds of loss reopened for many as wildfire season gets underway.

“The trauma of the wildfires requires a delicate balance,” he acknowledges, “but there is a lot of research that shows that humor does help us be resilient and gives us some power over what is happening,” he said. “Most good comedy comes from pain points in life … . When you can find humor and laugh together, it’s a signal that we’re going to be OK.”

With the healing power of a smile in mind, we reached out to those who suffered all kinds of loss and trauma in the fires and asked them how humor, however morbid, helped them cope during the darkest days. Not everyone approved of our inquiries, which were published in the paper for several days, some felt it was insensitive to the pain still being felt. But simultaneously, an overwhelming number of responses poured in from all kinds of folks, who had looked disaster in the face and still dared to have the last laugh.

“The humor post-fire is wry and dark, and shared best with fellow ‘victims,’ wrote Michelle Gillies, who lost her home in Larkfield Estates. “This is the kind of secret humor you might find among cops or firemen, when you just have to make fun of the hellish reality in front of you first, before IT gets you.“

Osincup has seen the dark side firsthand. As a positive workplace strategist, Osincup also coaches businesses on the ways humor can help employees become healthier — raising levels of feel-good neurotransmitters such as dopamine, serotonin and oxytocin — while improving performance at work. For therapists and emergency personnel who are dealing with post-traumatic stress disorder from the fires — either others’ or their own — he believes humor can be an essential coping mechanism.

“It prevents burnout (caused by where you work) and compassion fatigue (caused by the kind of work you do),” Osincup said. “It makes leaders seem more approachable and bridges social distance.”

As evidence, Osincup pointed to a study by researchers at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, which found that shared laughter can improve the quality of relationships, providing a sense of closeness and social support.

“Shared laughter signals that they see the world in the same way, and it momentarily boosts their sense of connection,” said study co-author Sara Algoe in an article published in Greater Good Magazine. “It may have a lot of potential for helping people grease the wheels of their relationships in everyday life.”

Rather than wait around for humor to happen, Osincup has come up with ideas to help people consciously harness the healing power of humor, seen in the attached factbox.

Meanwhile, here are some of the stories (edited for space) that provided light amid the darkness, and a giggle amid the grind of rebuilding homes and lives.

A turkey surprise

“We were among the many in our community that lost our home in the fire, and once we had an opportunity to assess the loss, we walked around our property looking for things that might have been spared. We lived in a two-story home on a hillside in Wikiup … we had a chest freezer in our garage, and in the freezer was a frozen turkey. Because the garage slab was above ground, once the lower level collapsed, the slab gave way, causing things in the garage to be thrown downhill a bit.

“As I am sure all of us who lost our homes experienced, the loss and devastation was overwhelming. But as I made my way down the hill, I came across the chest freezer, on its side, with the top gone. Inside the freezer was that turkey, now fully cooked! The message was loud and clear: Turkey dinners represent Thanksgiving in our country, of course.

“Here in the midst of this devastating loss was a very clear message — we still have much to be thankful for! … The turkey story has gotten a lot of laughs, and certainly was a great way to begin the healing process, even at the very beginning.”

—Daryl and Jan Reese, Santa Rosa (rebuilding)

A redundant coupon

“While being evacuated during the fire, I went to the mailbox and found a coupon for discount cremation. I had to laugh, since it seemed entirely likely that nature was going to do the job for free!

Finally coming home to an intact house was like receiving a giant Christmas present. I remember walking around my house and talking to the most mundane items, like my old salt shaker, and saying ‘I almost lost you.’ I just can’t imagine what it’s like to lose it all.”

—Suzanne Shonburn of Sonoma

Fantastic clothing donations

“I live in Hidden Valley Estates, off Parker Hill. We evacuated on Sunday night of the fires and ended up at the Finley Center for five days. We evacuated, as most folks did, with just the clothes on our backs.

Approximately 150 homes in our little neighborhood of less than 400 folks, burned. We were lucky as firefighters arrived at 10 a.m. Monday, took a stand and stopped the fires just four doors from our home. But it’s difficult and painful seeing the devastation in our neighborhood, having friends and neighbors who lost their homes and knowing our neighborhood won’t be rebuilt for several more years.

The bright spot and the humor? While at the Finley Center, we were able to take advantage of fantastic clothing donations made by folks in the community. I snagged these colorful running shoes (my “shelter shoes”) and a David Bowie shirt (I haven’t yet had the nerve to wear it in public) among other things like socks and underwear.

When I’m having a down day or have an appointment with one of my doctors who lost her house or when I just want to smile and be happy, I wear these shoes. I’ve never worn them once without getting a comment about how fun and cheerful they are.”

—Diane Harris, Santa Rosa

A forgotten chore

“My home was at the very top of Skyfarm — and I watched the smoke through part of the evening and into the night. When Riebli Valley went up, I knew it was time to leave. I dashed out of the house — wearing only my PJ’s and my garden flip-flops and leaving behind my checkbook, wallet and extra keys — while chunks of embers were coming down throughout the neighborhood. As I traveled down the hill with the fire racing along beside me, my thought was: ‘Good God, I forgot to make the bed!’

—Shona Aves, Santa Rosa (bought a new house and probably not rebuilding)

Brightening moments

“My husband and I, two guests from New York City, and our two dogs evacuated our home off of Riebli Road just after midnight on Oct. 9, our 41st wedding anniversary. We didn’t realize when we left that we would lose everything we owned. And we certainly didn’t anticipate that we would be living at the Sheraton in Petaluma for a month. They treated us and many other fire survivors like royalty.

Three days into our stay, I was washing clothes at the hotel when I found this note on the laundry room counter: ‘For a fellow evacuee: Brand new (deodorant). Husband bought it for me, but I use his brand. How could he not know this after 30 years? I asked him if it’s his mistresses’ brand. He said she uses his, too.’

We were not able to recover much of anything from the burned debris at the site of our home, but my husband found this old barbecue grill and decided to put it to good use at the entrance to our driveway. He stuck a “Posted No Trespassing” sign on the grill but changed the “P” to an “R” so it would read “Ro(a)sted No Trespassing.”

—Patti Wick, Santa Rosa (rebuilding)

Solidarity in a restaurant

“We live just west of Mark West Lodge. We got alerted, and when I went outside with the wind swirling (60 mph) and the sky was glowing. The sound of the fire was like a locomotive bearing down on you. I was freaking out, and it froze my brain on stuff to grab. Important paperwork, a box of pictures, our uniforms (we are paramedics), some underwear. I couldn’t think past that. We are outta here! Next to my car in the garage is my golf clubs. I threw them in the car. My man asked “Really?” I said “They are right here. I love them. We have room” He paused, said “good point” and grabbed his.

After we fled the fire, we ended up at a hotel by Old Railroad Square. We weren’t eating well because of the trauma, stress and sleeplessness. After a couple of days, my man and I decided to walk around to find a restaurant that was open. We needed a real meal and vegetables! Keep in mind we had very little clothing. With T-shirts and shorts on, we saw that La Gare was open. My man turned to me and said ‘Bucket List!’ (One of his bucket list things was going into a five-star restaurant in his most comfy clothes.)

Of course this fabulous restaurant welcomed us with open arms. It was very apparent that the other patrons were in the same boat as us. We were enjoying the first decent meal in days when from the table behind us a women asked very loudly and firmly: “Can I PLEASE have a dessert that is NOT on fire?!?!?”

La Gare is a very, very good restaurant with fabulous desserts. Unfortunately, the special desserts were Cherries Jubilee and Seasonal Fruit Flambe. These are lit on fire tableside. Our heads went down, and we laughed until we cried.

—Janet Doty Santa Rosa (house survived, will rebuild barn)

Coping with crafts

“Like many others, my family lost our home in the October fires. It has been difficult and we have our moments. One way I have found to cope is through crafts — it keeps me busy and occupies my mind. One of my recent projects is this embroidered wall art: ‘You may tell yourself this is not my beautiful house’ (from the Talking Heads.) I have it hanging in our temporary home. Perhaps when we move in to our real home again I will embroider a red circle with an X over the word ‘not’ and hang it again.

We were not able to find much of anything in the rubble of our former home, but two items that have always been important to me survived, kinda. One is a tile my mom gave me years ago that hung in my kitchen: “Ask not what your mother can do for you. Ask what you can do for your mother.’ The other is a handmade ceramic mug made by my Swedish exchange student “sister” with my name on it. Remarkably, I even had pictures of both items from before the fire.

—Valerie Burns, Santa Rosa (rebuilding)

One fun thing a day

“A couple of nights after we lost our home (in Fountaingrove) in the fire, my husband joked that he was way more lucky than me. He evacuated with a second pair of underwear when I only had one! We laughed hysterically for about 5 minutes.

We’ve tried to cope with this tragedy by doing at least one fun thing per day — wine tasting (the alcohol helps), watching HGTV for design ideas, exploring Sonoma where we are temporarily living while our house is being rebuilt, and making time to visit with friends even when we are all busy.

We’ve been married 35 years and although my cancer battle was tougher, this one ranks right up there. Humor has helped us through everything!

—Marlene Demery, Sonoma (rebuilding)

Avoiding scurvy

“On Oct. 9 I made an entry into Facebook at 2:09 a.m. as my husband drove us bumper-to-bumper through the smoke out of our Larkfield Estates neighborhood. Turning to Facebook was perhaps a silly thing to do, but the best way to rapidly communicate to my friends and relatives in Minnesota that we were OK.

On that post, I provided a list of what I actually grabbed in our proverbial 15 minute exit. It consisted of one pair of cheap sneakers, a rain coat, an old baseball hat, some makeup, and five mandarin oranges. Oh, and I did pause to put on a bra.

Having packed our cars in San Diego for the 2007 fires and waited for three days for a fire that didn’t come, I thought I had a comprehensive mental list of what to grab in this situation. But, the reality of the moment was that, try as I might, I could not find that “in-case-of-fire” mental list anywhere, and somehow came up with a “for-18th-century-sailors-in-case-of-scurvy” list.

Twelve days later, in our hotel room, I realized I was still carrying those damned mandarins around and decided that when life leaves you with little more than five pieces of fruit, and you carry them around for 12 days, make a cocktail! A few muddled wedges, a little vodka, and a bit of soda in my plastic hotel cup and at that moment, all I could think was that I really wished I had grabbed the new jar of Armena dark cherries I just bought.”

—Michelle Gillies, Windsor (rebuilding)

Being with family

“Like thousands of others, my husband and I awakened to choking black smoke and soon after ran for our lives. Fast descending walls of fire fanned down off the Mayacamas, destroying our home, business and neighborhood.

In the hours after the fires burned through Larkfield, our banded-together lil family tribe, including 9-month-old grandson Lucas, caravaned around to several spots looking for safe haven. At 3 a.m. we landed at Graton Rancheria (reasoning that it was located south of wildfires, had a huge cement parking lot and was surrounded by wetlands.)

We seemed to be about the first evacuees to arrive. Talk about entering a parallel universe! The folks there at that hour entranced by video poker games definitely did not appear to have received the ‘Sonoma County is on fire!’ memo. And baby Lucas was now wide-wide-wide awake, laughing, smiling and experiencing for the first time the glittery bling-bling loud machines … and being handed brand new offerings such as glazed donuts.

My family members numbering 10 — all either lost their homes or were evacuated — ended up for eight days together in Occidental at my sister’s house. This included our 90-year-old mom, who has been living with advanced dementia for the last several years. Thankfully her illness shielded her from experiencing trauma or cognisance about the fires — she thought we were having the mother of all extended family gatherings! Each morning, she would arise and exclaim ‘Oh! We’re all still here; whose birthday are we celebrating?’

My husband — who loves hats and lost his extensive hat collection to the fires — was gifted a “Smokey the Bear — Only You Can Prevent Forest Fires!” baseball cap the day after, which he wore everywhere for weeks.

Although the fire brought so much loss and suffering, for me it also brought a deepening gratitude, connection to matters of the heart and a liberating feeling of being less tethered and encumbered by “stuff.” I first got in touch with such feelings several days after the fire through a cathartic laughing fit when I “re- remembered” that not only did I no longer have a house nor bathrooms nor a garage, but that I now no longer had to nag my husband about cleaning his bathroom or straightening out the sloppy garage: Liberation!”

—Dale Englehorn, Cotati (rebuilding)

The 20-year timeline

“We lost our home in the Valley fire in Middletown. It took us two years to find our replacement home (in Rincon Valley.) We finally had our housewarming party a few weeks ago (see invite with 1950s illustration of a house on fire).

My mother lost her house in Fountaingrove from the Tubbs fire. My mom owned her house 20 years and three months, which is the same amount of time we owned our house. We joke to anyone we know who gets to 20 years that they should sell their house!”

—Janet Mondragon, Santa Rosa

Laughter Yoga class

“We were pretty safe here in Healdsburg, but a block away was on notice that they may need to go in a hurry. There was major concern about fire whipping down the river so we had the cars packed and actually had folks from out on the river spend several nights here with us … I think the whole county suffered somewhat.

I almost always attend the “Laughter Yoga class” held Monday mornings at the Healdsburg Senior Center taught by Valerie Rogers … it is silly, it is fun and it has a lot of benefits. Currently I am going through chemo as a treatment for breast cancer. My laughter group is so supportive …. It truly makes me forget about my ills for the day and into the next.”

—Donna Manahan, Healdsburg

Staying positive

“A couple of days after the fires, my neighbor Reuben and I were standing outside our destroyed homes in Coffey Park. Reuben sighed and said, ‘Well at least I don’t have to listen to the neighbor’s chihuahuas yapping and barking all day long.’

For my part, I hated the white, decrepit chair in the neighbor’s front yard — I had plotted how to get rid of it. Now I didn’t have to worry — gone.

Reuben looked at his burned-out truck — he’d only had it for nine months. I said, ‘Look on the bright side. You said it was a lemon.’

A friend said to me, ‘Your beautiful clothes are all gone.’ Well, I’d been meaning to go through my closet. That took care of that.

Yes, it was devastating, but we have to count our blessings and stay positive. The tremendous outpouring of support from the community and the incredible stories of people helping others has been inspirational.”

—Patricia Streckfuss, Santa Rosa (rebuilding)

A stranger’s stare

“Like so many others during the October fires, our family was under mandatory evacuation for a week and we (and our cars stuffed with all our possessions) found refuge at the coast with a friend who didn’t mind also sheltering our two cats and black Lab (Paxton III.)

The morning after we arrived, I drove Paxton to the beach for his morning jaunt. I had borrowed my daughter’s 12-year-old beater car, crammed with blankets and pillows next to me on the passenger seat; Paxton was wedged in the back seat surrounded by piles of her clothing, books, and everything she could grab in the short time we had to leave our house.

On the way to the beach, I stopped to buy some Cool Mint Listerine for my smoke-raw throat. As soon as I parked, I whipped off the cap and took a swig of the electric blue elixir just as a very elegantly dressed gentleman walked by and glanced into the car.

The look of utter disgust on his face told me what he saw: an alcoholic older woman, dressed in filthy, ratty clothes, living out of her car and still in the throes of a hangover, harboring a no-doubt kidnapped pedigree black Labrador retriever.

That look gave me my first real belly laugh since the firestorm started. And of course, I then had to open the car door and spit out the Listerine. So classy. But it was a reminder for me not to be so quick to judge people or their situation.”

—Christine Hunsicker, Santa Rosa

Staff Writer Diane Peterson can be reached at 707-521-5287 or diane.peterson@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @dianepete56.

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