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  • Today's theme, writing stories about working with your hands, reminded me of one year at college when my hands were my livelihood. I'd worked odd jobs on my scholarship -- stacking library books, heading to East Palo Alto to do Good Works -- but nothing seemed to stick. "These are the worst piles of books I've ever seen," the librarian said, glaring at me. "Obviously you can't re-shelve and listen to music at the same time." I forgave him. He didn't realize I was listening to From The Choirgirl Hotel, which is, let's face it, an emotional rollercoaster. But the problem went deeper than that. I couldn't adjust to the post-Dewey system. Numbers seemed to lunge at books out of nowhere, dragging them off to the 700s for some perceived connection to horticulture.

    Anyway, that left me with no job sophomore year, so like most jobless people near research facilities, I hired myself out to the labs. I suppose this could have ended very badly, with me growing a third elbow or something, but in my case it worked out. This was the interview:

    "OK, thank you for coming in today. Most likely we'll be able to hire you, assuming you can do the job."

    "Yes. What is the job." (When I'm feeling very "down-to-business," I don't speak the question marks.)

    "The job is that you have to sit down with a pad of paper, in front of our participants, and no matter what happens, you can't laugh." The researcher who said this, incidentally, was one of those people who talks about laughter as if it is a kind of seasonal flu, and she's the only one still healthy enough to scramble eggs on any given Tuesday morning.

    "Well, what is going to happen?"

    "First, we will show them a scene from a comedy called Harry and Sally. It's very embarrassing because it's all about this woman screaming as though she's having an orgasm. But she's not, she's just faking it. She's also in public, which is why the scene is famous, and tends to make viewers uncomfortable."

    "OK."

    "Do you think you could not laugh at that?"

    "Well, ma'am, I'm not sure. To be honest, the first time I saw it, I did laugh. But I feel I deserve a second chance."

    Obviously, I came within an ace of being sent on my way, but I don't think many other people applied.

    "Then they'll watch a movie of themselves sing a song. It's a song from the 1970s and it's terrible. We told them we were studying their lungs and needed a big chorus in order to measure their exhalations."

    "Why do I need a notepad?"

    "You have to look sort of doctorly. You have to take notes. I don't care what you write, though. They don't have to be real notes. The whole point is just to increase the subject's discomfort."

    "So the deal is that I get paid if I can get through an hour of pretending to be a humorless doctor? They never suspected anything was fishy about the test?"

    "They absolutely did not. Most of them are, in fact, really anxious about the 'results' they're supposed to get back. Also, they were not aware that we were filming them."

    This turned out to be true. They'd sit there, shocked to be watching the orgasm scene from When Harry Met Sally, and all the time looking at me as though I was a young, up-and-coming oxygenologist. According to me as a sophomore, here are the least funny sentences in the English language:
    This is the last worthless evening that you'll have to spend. Just give me a chance, give me a chance, to show you how to love again. The night they invented champagne, everybody knew, that all they had to do, was to fly to the sky on champagne. The quick brown fox jumped over the lazy sleeping dog. The champagne jumped over the dog. Also, too. Champagne is from France. Grapes grapes grapes grapes grapes grapes.

    I'd scribble away like that, nonstop, trying not to giggle. My hands built up round, shiny callouses from keeping me not laughing (and therefore employed). But in the end, I really was a doctor to those people. Because the doctor is the person who has to deliver the bad news, and that fell squarely to me. I'd have to look at them and say, in a voice heavy as a lab coat, that we weren't studying their breathing or their lungs. We were studying feelings, nothing more than feeeeeeeeeeeeeeelings.
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