Monthly Archives: January 2022

Try laughing

We’ve been going through a rough patch.  Name it:  Covid fatigue, our overly-partisan political scene, endless stories about Russia’s possible assault on Ukraine.

Can anything pull us out of the dumps?  The New York Times recently talked to a bunch of medical professionals who came up with a solution:  Try a little laughter.

A cardiologist at a med school in Maryland called humor not only a distraction from grim reality but also a winning strategy to stay healthy.  “Heightened stress magnifies the risk of cardiovascular events, including heart attacks and strokes,” said Dr. Michael Miller.  “Having a good sense of humor is an excellent way to relieve stress and anxiety and bring back a sense of normalcy during these turbulent times.”

Is there a scientific basis for the benefits of laughter?  Actually, there is.  Laughter releases nitric oxide, a chemical that relaxes blood vessels, reduces blood pressure, and decreases clotting.  At least two studies have demonstrated its positive effects.  In Japan, a study of older men and women confirmed that those who tended to laugh more had a lower risk of major cardiovascular illness.  And a study in Norway reported that possessing a sense of humor was associated with living longer, especially for women.

A neuroscientist at University College London, Sophie Scott, pointed out that laughter has been shown to reduce the stress hormones cortisol and adrenaline, thereby increasing the body’s uptake of feel-good endorphins.

Ready for more?  There may also be cognitive benefits. According to a study conducted at Loma Linda University, watching a funny video was related to improvements in short-term memory in older adults; they also increased their capacity to learn.

The Times noted that some hospitals have initiated formal humor programs, making funny books and videos available to their patients.  One nurse-manager who works with chronic-pain patients has tried teaching them laughter-exercises and other ways to enhance positive feelings like gratitude and forgiveness.  Although the stress of the pandemic could make the experience of pain worse, she found that humor helped her patients “relax and release their grip on pain.”  She advised patients to set aside time for humor on a daily basis (much like setting aside time for physical activity).  She also recommended having “laughter first-aid boxes,” where patients can stash items like joke books and funny toys. Instead of their simply taking a pill, she liked encouraging people to “cultivate the healing power of laughter,” helping them to be in control.

Dr. Miller added that he was trying to bring a dose of comic relief into his own medical work, and he believed that his colleagues had begun to do the same.  “The culture is beginning to shift—injecting humor and humanity back into medicine,” he said.  If you can’t change the world around you, you can at least “change how you view it.  Humor gives us the power to do that.”

So…if you’re thinking about choosing something to read or watch, consider something funny.  It may be tempting to opt for anxiety-producing suspense or stories fraught with horror, but if you need a lift, you’re probably better off with humor. 

My choice?  I’m off to watch one of my favorite Seinfeld episodes, The Marine Biologist.  “The sea was angry that day, my friends”–but I won’t be angry or stressed.  I’ll be laughing!

A Remarkable Friend

This is a brief tribute to a remarkable friend, Karen Ferguson, who died last month.  You can read more about her life in the following obits:

New York Times https://www.nytimes.com/2021/12/30/business/retirement/karen-ferguson-dead.html
Washington Post  https://www.washingtonpost.com/obituaries/2021/12/29/pension-rights-karen-ferguson-dies/

Why was Karen remarkable? As the Times noted, she was “a Nader Raider, one of a legion of young public-interest lawyers who flocked to Washington” in the 1970s to work for Ralph Nader, the consumer advocate who was at that time a heroic figure on the American political scene.  She chose to devote herself to working on pension law, an “unglamorous-sounding subject” that was actually full of human drama, where she was able to champion workers’ rights and effect enormous changes to benefit their future.

I met Karen and became her lifelong friend when we were both students at Harvard Law School in the 1960s.  I had just moved into Wyeth Hall, the women’s dorm, during my first year, and the delightful Karen Willner was in her third year.  Karen’s warmth immediately enveloped me, a lowly 1L. Happily for me, we stayed in touch after she graduated.

While I was finishing my three years at HLS, Karen married John Ferguson, who decided to attend the University of Chicago Law School, and together they headed for Chicago.  Karen wrote to tell me that she’d begun working at a downtown Chicago law firm, where she was the first and only woman lawyer. 

During my third year of law school, I actually interviewed with that firm.  Disillusioned with the D.C. of Richard Nixon (my original destination), I was thinking about returning to Chicago, my home town.  Although I hoped to get a clerkship with a federal judge, I also interviewed with several Chicago law firms.  After chatting for a while, the recruiter for Karen’s firm told me outright, “We just hired our first woman, and we’re waiting to see how she works out before we hire another one.”  (This interview took place after passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, and the recruiter was violating federal law when he said that.)  I’ve told this story many times, to the amazement of most listeners, and I like to add that I knew who that “first woman” was:  Karen.

When I returned to Chicago, I began working for U.S. District Judge Julius J. Hoffman [please see “Hangin’ with Judge Hoffman,” a ten-post series beginning at https://susanjustwrites.com/2020/11/13/hangin-with-judge-hoffman/].  With both of us living and working in Chicago, Karen and I enthusiastically resumed our friendship.  Because John was busy with his law school studies, Karen and I saw each other many times in downtown Chicago.  And one memorable evening, Karen, John, and I went together to see “The Yellow Submarine” at a downtown movie theater. 

I was sad when Karen and John departed for D.C. after he finished law school (and began his career as an NLRB attorney).  But their departure led to Karen’s groundbreaking new chapter in her life as a lawyer:  her launch into helping people by reforming pension law, with fairness as her first priority. 

We managed to stay in close touch during the many years that followed.  My memory-bank is filled with happy memories of our long friendship, including wonderful times spent together in both D.C. and Chicago.

I loved following Karen’s career, deeply enmeshed in working on pension-reform legislation, including the Retirement Equity Act of 1984, signed into law by President Reagan, and the Butch Lewis Act, signed into law last year by President Biden.  I reviewed her excellent book, Pensions in Crisis (original title: The Pension Book).  My glowing reviews appeared in the Chicago Daily Law Bulletin on January 25, 1996, and the Chicago Tribune on May 13, 1996 (“Pension Problems Come Alive, Along with Practical Guidance”).

Karen’s never-failing efforts to establish a secure and adequate retirement system, on top of expanded Social Security, are still under discussion on Capitol Hill. 

I also loved learning about the wonderful family she and John created, including her son, Andrew Ferguson, a lawyer, writer, and law professor at American University, and his wife and children.  My review and discussion of Andrew’s important book, Why Jury Duty Matters, appeared on this blog in April 2013. [Please see https://susanjustwrites.com/2013/04/03/does-jury-duty-matter/%5D

One more thing:  When I wrote my first novel, A Quicker Blood (published in 2009), I named my protagonist, a young woman lawyer, “Karen.”  I later brought her back as the protagonist in my third novel, Red Diana (published in 2018).  Was I thinking of my friend Karen when I chose that name?  I was. And all of the current nonsense focused on the name “Karen” infuriates me.  Although there may be a few women with that name who have acted inappropriately toward others, it’s totally unwarranted to pigeonhole all Karens that way.  Just think of Karen Ferguson and all that she’s done to make the lives of hard-working Americans more secure.  That’s in addition to her being a delightful human being, beloved by everyone who knew her.

In short, I was supremely lucky to know Karen Ferguson and to call her my friend for over five decades.  I’ve lost—indeed, we’ve all lost–one of the very best people on Planet Earth.