Patty Limerick is not a standup comedian, but she could be. I met Patty years ago at a conference for journalists, sponsored by The Property and Environment Research Center, and held at Lone Mountain Ranch in Big Sky, Montana. Since that time I have followed, and valued, the work of the Center of the American West that Patty cofounded at the University of Colorado in Boulder. She continues to serve the Center as the Faculty Director and a member of the Board.
Consider the Center’s mission statement: “the creation of forums for the respectful exchange of ideas and perspectives in the pursuit of solutions to the region’s difficulties.”
Don’t you think Maine could use something like this?
The Center of the American West has tackled critical issues including water, energy, conservation, immigration wildfire, and the federal government’s presence in the west, always in a thoughtful – and neutral – way. I invite you to check out that work at www.centerwest.org.
The Center’s current focus on fracking is of particular interest to many in Maine who are concerned about this issue.
I am writing today about the Center because a couple of days ago I received Patty Limerick’s annual fundraising letter. Believe it or not, I always look forward to Patty’s fundraising appeals. Having written hundreds of fundraising letters in my career, I marvel at the way Patty presents her requests in a very literate and humorous way. See if you agree. Here it her letter.
It is a wonderful episode when a Wyoming rancher and a Princeton professor arrive, from very different starting points, at exactly the same idea.
Twenty-five years ago in Casper, a rancher sought me out and delivered an incredibly kind appraisal of the speech I had just given. “I think,” he told me, “that you could make it as a stand-up comedian.”
Skip forward in time to early November 2013. At a conference at Yale, a Princeton professor unknowingly quoted the rancher. “Have you ever thought,” the professor said to me, “of becoming a stand-up comedian?”
Being a stand-up comedian requires discipline and persistence that lie far beyond my reach. But well within my reach is intense appreciation for the fact that two very different people converged on a recognition of the fact that my sense of humor is robust and irrepressible.
In the inventory of the assets of the Center of the American West, humor is our distinctive holding. It is a quality that is not in over-supply in contemporary life. If you set out in search of episodes of merriment and wit in the recent struggles over the federal budget and debt limits, you have embarked on a journey without a destination.
The conventional wisdom holds that some subjects are so serious that humor must be placed under a moratorium or an outright ban. And yet, as the work of the Center of the American West has shown repeatedly, humor can actually work as a friction-reducing force. The website for an oft-used product makes a claim that fits humor equally well: “WD40 lubricates, protects, and penetrates.”
Before this skids into figures of speech seldom found in solicitation letters, I will quickly shift gears (so to speak). In a prime example of the potency of humor, as the Center continues its work on the National Science Foundation project on oil and gas development, we make regular use of a limerick (composed, actually, in a conference room at the National Science Foundation) to explain the stance of neutrality we have taken:
When you try to be neutral on fracking,
You’re a quarterback set up for sacking.
You can assert and declare
That you’re going to be fair,
But you still won’t escape frequent whacking.
This verse many not register as the highest literary art, but it is factually accurate. More important, it has held its own as a reliever of tension and a momentary creator of consensus, manifested in laughter in any number of conference rooms, auditoriums, and lecture halls.
Of course, humor – like every other forceful expression and thought – needs to be used with care and consideration. But, in an era in which an astounding humorlessness provides a foundation for polarization in the public sphere, we at the Center are ever more determined to make the most of this great resource of the human soul.
At the minimum, humor provides an excellent way of getting off-stage. Thus, every experienced public speaker has stockpiled stories that conclude a presentation on a cheerful, positive note. My own favorite is a (possibly inauthentic) story from Mark Twain. His wife had persuaded him to go with her to church to hear a visiting missionary. Though he agreed reluctantly, he soon found himself moved by the missionary’s testimony. In anticipation of the request for donations at the end of the talk, he searched his wallet and found a $5 bill, which he resolved to contribute. In another ten minutes, even more moved, he had come to regret that he only had $5; but, looking around the room, he saw a friend from whom he resolved to borrow $10. And then the missionary went on and on and on. When he finally finished, Twain reported, “I was feeling so mean and nasty that I stole a quarter from the collection plate.”
This story has delivered genuine comic relief to my audiences, giving them the important news that I know the folly of going on too long. And so, even though I now offer you the relief of a shorter than usual letter, I am hoping that you will support the cause of unleashing humor in a region that needs a lot more of it. To quote again from that quotable website, our deployment of humor – like WD40 – “has been helping people get the job done.”
Faculty Director and Chair of the Board of the Center of the American West