Artist Judith Youshock of Heart to Art directed happy World Laughter Day participants as they painted the mural that will benefit the non-profit Humor Therapy Fund.
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Laugh to Live owner and certified laughter yoga leader Jeannine M Luby (me) led mini sessions of laughter yoga at the World Laughter Day Scranton celebration held at Nay Aug Park. Here we're practicing a round of "ho ho ho's." This was one of many celebrations across the country and around the world. Dr. Madan Kataria, founder of laughter yoga started World Laughter Day to unite the world through something peaceful and positive. He said, "When we laugh, we change. When we change, the world changes."

It's hard to believe that nearly a month has gone by since Scranton's first StorySlam. I was proud to be one of 10 storytellers on this oratorial maiden voyage (I'm not sure that's event a word but I'm using it). The Vintage Theater in downtown Scranton was packed to a degree that I could tell who used and didn't use their Degree. It was hot, sweaty and exciting.

I was the fifth speaker and the last before the intermission. Every storyteller did an awesome job to share a bit of personality and a little glimpse inside a page of their scrapbook of life's memories. Of course Connor McGuigan as emcee was nothing short of what I imagine is his usual high level of charm and comedic delight (I have not had the pleasure of attending his performances and appearances in the past few years - nothing personal- with my schedule I just haven't been able to attend but have heard the buzz). 

I was especially nervous before delivering my story on stage. It was a completely different feeling than what I typically experience before performing stand-up comedy or doing one of my Laugh to Live wellness workshops. My story meant a lot to me and I wanted it to matter to people in even the slightest way. I wanted people to know just how important the relationship I had made with my French friend is to me. I wanted my story to also grab the audiences' ears and hearts. And, being the type of person who follows rules because that is what attending Catholic School from age 5 to 17 taught me, I wanted to follow the rule of not going longer than 7 minutes. I knew for weeks and weeks what my story would be about but it was only the afternoon of Saturday, March 31 (the event date) that I finally put my story into words and practiced it a few times. I didn't want to memorize it but I wanted to be sure that I hit certain points. I wanted it to make sense so I feared leaving out crucial information. And heaven forbid I leave out my snarky lines that I thought were sure to bring out some laughs.

When I took the stage I felt ready and I just told the story. I was in the moment and I did remember to share all of the things I had practiced earlier in the day. I talked about how after 9-11 America was on edge and emotional. There was anger, bitterness, sadness, confusion, pride and I said even among all of it, I felt there was hope.  I talked about how people were afraid to fly which is why there were incredible fares being offered and how that led to me taking my dream trip to Paris. I told how the anti-French sentiment was strong and recalled our renaming of America's #1 "vegetable" French fries to freedom fries. (I don't recall however McDonald's ever changing their menu boards to say that a Happy Meal included a cheeseburger, drink, cheap plastic toy and Freedom Fries.) I remember with a sly smirk the handful or more of people who asked me why I wanted to visit France. I entertained inane questions like "Why do you want to visit there, what's to see there?" I would tilt my head and say to myself "Eiffel Tower, Arc de Triomphe, the Louvre, Brie, baguettes, beaujolais, duh!!!" And my other favorite question/comment was "Why go there? They hate us!"  As if every person in France had sat down to pen a letter "Dear America, We hate you!!  Signed, The French."   I told the audience that I was glad I didn't get this letter because my bags were packed and I was headed to France.

I went on to tell how I was on a train to a little town called Auvers- sur-oise, where my favorite painter Van Gogh is buried, but didn't know what stop to take. I approached a petite woman to ask where I should exit the train and she held up her keys and expressed that if we got off at her stop, she would drive us there. I was surprised to say the least. She was a tiny woman. We were two strangers. Two American strangers. And one of us was a man. My traveling companion was a male friend, Chris P. As I followed her to her car I was thrilled to be speaking to a real, live French woman and getting into her tiny little French car, driving down narrow little French streets (rues).  I told how I could sense that she was the type of person who was doing this to be nice and would not accept the Euros I offered her. Sure enough she would not take my money but she suggested that we exchange addresses and she would send me a postcard from Italy where she was going on vacation the next day with her husband Jean-Claude.

I further shared that nearly 10 years have passed and not only did I receive that postcard from Italy but when Marie and her granddaughter Chloe came to New York City four years ago, I visited with her and showed her the Brooklyn Bridge and her favorite building the Flatiron Building. And, I took her to Ground Zero. At the time the memorial was still under construction so we looked through fences at a big hole in the ground and a lot of construction equipment. She looked at it and turned to me with a very pained expression and said "What sadness." It didn't matter that it was the country that she and her country "hated," she looked at me understanding what a great loss it must have been for our country and how any person would be saddened by such a tragedy.  I wrapped up my story by saying that I knew then even more than I ever knew that "they" don't hate "us" and that when we look at one another as individual people with not just our eyes but with our heart, hope is always possible. Anything is possible.

I was happy to share my story and I hope that people felt just a little of the connection that I have made with Marie and her husband Jean-Clause DeGuines of St. Leu La Foret, France. Two years ago I spent a week with Marie and her husband in their home while they treated me like family showing me Versailles, Monet's Garden at Giverny, a French jazz club, the Eiffel Tower in the daytime and so much more. This coming September 2012 I will fly to Marseille to spend a week with Marie and Jean-Claude in Provence. Now I get to fulfill another dream of seeing the French countryside and it's appropriate that I'll get to do it with the woman I met on my first dream trip to France.

Scranton feasted on the stories told at the first StorySlam on March 31. They did not go away full and needing a Pepto Bismol. They took in just enough to make them already hungry for more. The McNichols are hard at work putting things in motion for the second StorySlam this Summer. We hope that the stories will continue. I think it's a great way to unite people and help to make the world a little smaller as we share more of ourselves with one another in person rather than through facebook posts.

For more information, check out the newly active: http://scrantonstoryslam.com/SSLM/

To all those folks who like to say Scranton is behind the times, you might want to change your tune with this. Something called "Cash Mobs" are popping up across the country in typically bigger cities but Scranton is on board now! Yes, right here in northeastern Pennsylvania we're right in step with the latest trend to help promote and support local businesses with the "Scranton Cash Mob."

Thanks to Angela Sheehan, owner of "Why Not Designs" boutique on East Market Street in the Green Ridge section of Scranton and organizer of Scranton Cash Mob, people are unified in their efforts to shop at and support local businesses. Through the Scranton Cash Mob, a business is announced once or twice a week where people are to gather as a "mob" to spend cash. 

The description of the "Scranton Cash Mob" on the facebook page reads:
Let's all work together in keeping our small businesses in NEPA! How about once a week we pick a business to CASH MOB! The business will have notice but the general public will not know who we are MOBbing until it is announced, usually the day before the MOB! How fun does that sound? We pick a place, announce it the day before and then as many people show up as possible at the announced time and spend at least $10! It's happening all over so let's put Scranton on the map! If you spend $10 in just one business that's great! So why not get 20 or 30 people to all spend $10 on the same day! What would that mean to our local, small, struggling, business owner? Get involved and tell your friends!

Click on "Scranton Cash Mob" in the first paragraph above to link to the facebook page where you can stay up-to-date. Then grab your allowance and get shopping locally. Not only are you helping your local economy and neighbors, you also get to meet new people and make new friends - if that's what you're into :-)
Calling all new and old fans of zombies. It's your chance to walk with the dead!  Introducing "Infect Scranton!" 

If you're thinking "Brains, it's what's for dinner!" then you'll want to be part of this awesome event. There's a short film contest, a zombie run, and exciting special guests that zombie lovers will kill to meet!  Click on "Infect Scranton" above to link to the facebook page with updates, details and other fun facts! While Walking Dead is on hiatus, fill your zombie hunger here!!
With Scranton StorySlam just a week away, I'm excited about sharing my story and also aware that I should probably put all of my thoughts and visions into words. I know the story that I want to tell. I've told it to friends and acquaintances many times but I don't think it's ever been contained to five minutes. If Twitter has taught me anything though, it's that I can say something important and profound in fewer words, it just takes more self-control, discipline and effort. So in the next few days I'll be working out the actual words I want to use to tell my story about making a friend in France. I want it to be moving, interesting, funny and organized - everything that at story should be. And I don't want it to end on a flat note and leave audience members saying "Well I thought that was going to end with something bigger than that." I want my story to build to a climax that gives the audience more than their money's worth. I want them to feel something, to take something away - even if it's "Ya know, I don't think I really care for that Jeannine and her story" at least it's a feeling and I think for me that's better than a neutral or apathetic reaction. 

Switching gears, I have another story on my mind this weekend: "Wartz & All," the children's book that I am currently working on, thanks in part to a Lackawanna County Arts and Culture grant. I am really excited about where the story is headed, not just because of the story and illustrations - which are wonderful by the way and being drawn by Clarks Summit resident Mindy Mendicino- but because this gives me an opportunity to tout a beautiful part of the greater Scranton area. I started this website so that I could promote all of the gems in and around the Scranton area - the people, places and events that are sources of pride to me.  Because I'm using an area of the trail in Archbald to feature as the setting for this book, I get to promote some of the incredible beauty that I enjoy when I run. I hope that people will be curious to see the trail and the pond and river and all o the other features that appear in the book. I hope that families will put on their sneakers and head out for a walk, bike ride, stroll and take in all that nature has to offer. I have some ideas about how I can promote the book and encourage people to get active on the trails that have me really fired up - in a good way! I cannot wait to share this book with the community. 

This afternoon I met Mindy by the pond in Archbald to share it with her. She now has new enthusiasm for the project and the knowledge to include some really great details in her drawings. 

Time to get back to my stories. 

The end - for now!
"All children are artists. The problem is how to remain an artist once he
grows up. "
Pablo Picasso

I was so fortunate to receive a grant from the Lackawanna County Arts and Culture Department this year for my children's book entitled "Wartz & All."  With each step I take, and each revelation I make even to myself, I get more excited about the progress of this project. I am genuinely enthused and inspired and cannot wait to complete this book to get children excited as well. I have so many ideas and aspirations for this book. The best thing of course that could happen, is for children to read it and take even the tiniest seed of inspiration to grow their own aspirations!

Here's a little video commentary from me about the project's progress:

Last night I went to the first of what will be a monthly series of art by "Pop-up Studio," a group of artists who are able to do their work in part thanks to a grant from the Lackawanna County Arts & Cultural Department. The first event was entitled, “Sugar: A Borrowed … Landscape” constructed at the Connell Building, in retail space no. 2.

I attended last night knowing nothing other than location and time. I wasn't sure what to expect. When I arrived and was greeted by Valerie Kiser she asked if I brought my sugar. People were apparently encouraged to bring a cup of sugar. I didn't know this but I was still able to enter and enjoy the art. Brown cardboard boxes of all sizes were stacked, taped together. The center piece in the room was "The Machine" which was also made of boxes and was a container in which people could pour their sugar. There was another box next to it named "The Pit." On top of the box was a lot of sugar and even some sugar cubes that someone brought. People played with the sugar and added to it as the night went on. Then there was a little doorway into another area of more boxes. Some of the boxes had white string lights in them and I personally loved that. I'm a big fan of lights like that. In fact, this year at Christmas time I strung white lights in my kitchen under cabinets and on my windowsill in a clear mason jar and under beautiful vanGogh vodka bottles (empty now of course) to light up the gorgeous artwork of vanGogh that's in every bottle. I enjoy the look of the lights so much that I'm going to keep them up all year. So I really liked seeing boxes being used as a decorative source of light. In fact, I was so inspired by the look that I'm cutting up some boxes I have and plan to copy the idea and put string lights in them. I think it's a nice alternative to a table lamp.

In this second "room" there were black Sharpies for people to pick up and use to create their own graffiti or art on the boxes. Of course I decided to write a few things. As a one-woman band, I'm always looking for creative ways to promote what I do so of course I had to write "Laugh to Live" with a smiley face and put my website LaughToLive.net and I attempted to draw a frog but it turned out to look more like an owl with elephant trunks for arms. So then I drew a wine glass and wrote "Keep Wine-ing He Might Start To Look Like Prince Charming" - the name of my current comedy tour of wineries (was that too much? should I be embarrassed that I plugged my own art?). And across the room on another box I drew a smiley face and created hair with a series of "Ho ho hos and Ha ha ha's and Hee hee hees" - a reference to the laughter yoga exercises I do :-)  Hey, if people smile and laugh then that's good for us all, right?!!  There was tea and coffee set up on boxes and then there was a little seat tucked in the boxes on one side that was like a bathroom or seat in a telephone booth - cozy and beckoning for people to draw, sit, relax. Bubble wrap hung to create a makeshift ceiling.

It was fun to walk around and wonder about the meaning of the art and if anything else was going to happen. Art is subjective so I'm sure opinions and impressions of this first Pop-Up Studio varied from person to person. Everyone there seemed to be having fun and interacting and that's what these events are all about. I was very happy to see a nice size crowd in attendance on a cold night in downtown Scranton. For me, the best parts of this event/display/artwork (not sure what to call it which is actually a cool thing - because it's different, fresh) were the encouragement and permission (that we seem to need as adults) to be playful by: doodling on boxes with the Sharpies, crawling under or in boxes and playing with the sugar; and the community aspect. People were talking. Some talked about the art and others just chatted. Anything that helps us think differently, come together and communicate is a great thing. I had fun and I look forward to seeing what Pop Ups next month!!

After about 40 minutes or so enjoying the vibe of the Pop Up, my friend Tony and I headed over to Jack's Draft House in the East section of Scranton for drinks and snacks where talk of art continued. The best part of the evening was that I got to take home my own art. Tony gave me my Christmas present - a watercolor he did for me of the Eiffel Tower. I absolutely love it. It's full of life and color! It's the Eiffel Tower, how could I ever not love it! And it was created just for me. There's no better art or gift than that. Sweet, like sugar.

  For more information on Pop-Up Studio, visit www.thepopUpstudio.org.

"I feel there is nothing more truly artistic than to love people."
My favorite artist, vincent van gogh.

I am so pleased to be a recipient of a 2012 Lackawanna County Arts and Culture Grant. Last night I attended the ceremony held at the Scranton Cultural Center and I felt so pleased and proud to be among so many prolific, talented people. 

I love art. I love supporting First Friday in Scranton and talented artist friends. I didn't use to consider myself an artist because I cannot paint or draw but then I realized that I was being way too narrow in my view of what art is. I'm sure that people's ideas and opinions on what is art or who is an artist varies. I think a simple definition of art is anything that is put forth as a form of individual expression. I would add that art also has the amazing and special ability to captivate people's attention, to engage their minds, hearts and souls. Art is the focus of conversation, controversy, arguments, battles and often the centerpiece of love and pain.

I now think of myself as an artist. I write. I write comedy. I perform comedy. I express my creativity in very colorful, fun ways. I have vision. I connect dots to bring things to life. I balance business and creativity and that, I am quickly learning, is an art in and of itself!

As a recipient of one of the grants awarded by Lackawanna County this year, I will write a children's story called "Wartz and All." I will reunite with Clarks Summit artist Mindy Mendicino, who illustrated my first book "He's Not Prince Charming When..." to share my vision with her and direct her in illustrating the characters for Wartz and All - the story of animals living near a swamp  - a setting inspired by a real swamp along a Lackawanna trail in Archbald. Together, Mindy and I will create a book that is intended to spread the message of acceptance - accepting one's own "warts" or flaws and accepting others' so we can get along, respect one another and form valuable relationships. Once the book is finished I will give copies to each of the County's 10 locations and I will do two public readings. The first reading is planned for National Trails Day on June 2 on the trail in Archbald and the second is scheduled to take place in November - a time recognized for Anti-bullying events - at the Nancy K Holmes Library in the Green Ridge section of Scranton. 

The book will be aimed at children ages 5 - 8 and will allow them to put their own mark on it by coloring the characters and engaging in some other fun activities included. I hope that children and adults enjoy the story and remember the message that we all have warts but we can still love each other "Warts and All."

One should either be a work of art, or wear a work of art.
Oscar Wilde

In art the hand can never execute anything higher than the heart can inspire
Ralph Waldo Emerson

Art enables us to find ourselves and lose ourselves at the same time.
Thomas Merton

It's often been featured in movies. This year it was the whole premise for a movie. And every year many of us spend time thinking about what we'll do to celebrate. I'm talking about New Year's Eve. For much of my life I've spent New Year's Eve with good friends celebrating at house parties. Food. Drink. Laughs. Good times. I was often sans date but I was never curled in the fetal position crying because I had no lover to kiss at midnight. In fact, there's really only two NYE I can recall when I did have someone special to kiss at midnight. And on one of those NYE's I ended up screaming and yelling at my guy because he just had to call his ex-girlfriend only minutes after midnight to wish her Happy New Year. I believe he told me she had broken her leg and was in the hospital so that was all the more reason she needed to hear his voice. Now, don't think I'm heartless but this woman was the topic of 90% of our arguments and let's face it, it wasn't really about her at all. Rather it was about my ex-boyfriend's behavior and my ridiculous notion that he might change and my willingness to put up with the behavior and punish us both with my tantrums of yelling and throwing things (I'm not proud but I would throw my shoes, keys - nothing too big - I would have thrown him but I lacked the strength, in many ways). Okay, this story is taking a turn that I didn't intend so let's get back to New Year's Eve as my topic. 

Every year I secretly hope that I'll be doing something fabulous on New Year's Eve, even though I know it's just another night and I would have to seek out or create those fabulous things. Let's face it, I'm not living in a Romance Novel. (Umberto isn't going to descend from the sky with his hot Latin body and whisk me away on his yacht to an island of riches and happily ever after where we make our own fireworks for the New Year and I wake up to the booming success of my business, etc.)  I guess part of me does believe NYE deserves its special status because it is the night when we say good-bye to the previous year, whether characterized as good or bad, and we have the chance to shift our focus and actions to all the plans and dreams we want to fulfill in the year ahead. I'm in that phase of my life now in which most of my friends are married and most have children, which has meant a lot of changes to my life as well, that I didn't ask for. For the most part, it's fine. But it does affect or impact the plans I make. So this year when I received a facebook invite to a NYE yoga class at Mission Yoga, a new studio opening in downtown Scranton, I thought I might attend. I wasn't convinced it was going to be the best way to spend my NYE. I did think about it for a long time and kind of waited to see what else came up. But the more I thought about it, the more it seemed like a great idea for me to choose to spend my NYE doing something really healthy for my mind, body and spirit. Truly, is there any better way to welcome in a new year than to be very peaceful, centered and healthy?! Yet there was still that part of me that wanted to dress up, put on more make-up than usual and sip champagne. I was invited to a house party that I'm sure would have been the usual food, drinks, conversations with nice people but I was thinking that yoga was sounding like a really good idea. There was just this twinge I was feeling that somehow I was a loser for making plans with myself for NYE. And now all I can say is "Shame on me for not thinking I am worthy of plans to do something healthy for myself."

The yoga class started at 10:30 PM and I knew that if I didn't leave my house until 10 PM that I wouldn't leave my house, period. You see, I am in a relationship. I'm engaged in a pretty serious relationship this winter with my couch. (The longer I sit on it, the more attached we get to one another.) I thought that I would visit some First Night Venues before the yoga class. Again, there was this twinge or little voice in my head that was whispering that I would look like a loser to other people if I were to attend these venues alone. But then I told myself, "If I lived in NYC or another larger city I wouldn't even think twice about going out alone. I just happen to live in a smaller city where coupling is more the norm."

I left my house around 8 PM Saturday night to head to the Steamtown Mall where I bought my First Night Button. I then headed to Afa Gallery to hear the talented little Ms. Mollie Edsell play guitar and sing. As always she was adorable and quite good. Then I went to the Federal Building to watch my friends in the group "Here We Are In Spain" perform improv. Even though there were pillars in my way for pretty much the entire show, I still enjoyed the show from an aural perspective. I perform improv and have performed with these guys before so it was kind of fun to just imagine what the visual antics were taking place. After the show I had the chance to speak with a friend I haven't seen in years and then I headed to Mission Yoga on Spruce Street. As I suspected and somewhat feared, because I still house my 5-year-old self filled with social anxiety walking into kindergarten class filled with people I don't know, most people there knew other people or at least had come with friends. I was the only "loner" so-to-speak but that was no big deal.

The almost 90-minute yoga class was amazing. Kelly and Alex, the owners of Mission Yoga, were very welcoming. Kelly led the class and I really enjoyed it. It was a challenge at times and it was beyond peaceful and replenishing at other times. As party horns blew outside, I didn't for one second wish I had a drink in my hand or that I was tuned in to Ryan and Dick counting down to midnight. As the class ended we were able to enjoy the fireworks going off outside above the courthouse. It was the perfect end and beginning for me. I left the yoga studio and watched the fireworks outside. The beautiful bright purples and greens were so pretty. I was in a state of zen and felt truly healthy and glad about the choice I had made  for myself to spend NYE in downtown Scranton and more specifically that I had ushered in 2012 doing something healthy for me. I hope that I continue the practice of making many more decisions that have me and my health and prosperity at the center. When I am happy, healthy and prosper, I can help others through my gifts! 

Happy New Year - I hope you'll enjoy 2012 by visiting many beautiful people and places in Scranton!

Each year I get excited about viewing Christmas lights at Nay Aug Park and throughout a number of different neighborhoods in Scranton including South Side, Green Ridge and others. This year did not disappoint. With four of my favorite gal pals at my side, I took in this year's light display at Nay Aug and then proceeded to visit the always well-lit and now-famous home on Moosic Street in South Side. We toured another neighborhood nearby in the Nativity section and then headed over to Green Ridge to see the beautiful home decorations on North Washington and Wyoming Avenues. The best part of the trip is just the lights alone but the comments exchanged inside the car among us gals that are just as colorful as the light displays. We tease one another and laugh a lot! Here's a snippet from my Tuesday night visit to see the lights of Nay Aug Park and other parts of Scranton.