I was getting some dark looks as I rolled my way through the VA hospital on my way to an oncology maintenance appointment. Not everyone gave me the stink eye, a few people did double takes and then cracked a smile. I was on the verge of sniffing my own armpit to see if perhaps I was projecting some sort of odor when I realized what was prompting the reactions. For some time now, I had been wearing custom tee shirts on my visits to the VA. Today’s shirt was green and bore an orange stripe around the midsection. In stenciled white letters were the words “Herbicide, Butyl Ester.” In other words, my shirt was a reproduction of an Agent Orange barrel.
Some people apparently understood the humor, and they were the ones who smiled. The others, I can only assume, took a stuffy view of my mocking. Sadly, a large contingent of veterans are hard core conservatives –who don’t cotton to anyone even remotely putting the nation down. I say ‘sadly’ because like me, they fought for the rights for others to express themselves. They tend to think more in terms of having fought for the right to express their disapproval of others expression. I paid dearly for my right to wear this shirt and I happen to think it’s pretty funny. My Multiple Myeloma is presumed to be caused by exposure to Agent Orange, so there is a certain truth to my shirt: it indicates the contents somewhat faithfully.
“Humor is,” as Mr. Spock said in a Star Trek episode, “a difficult concept.” What is riotously funny to one person can easily be fighting words to someone else, or devoid of meaning to yet another. My collection of shirts continues to grow as my warped mind invents new revelations of my sense of humor. I have shirts emblazoned “Doxorubicin Sucks” and depicts the universal handicap logo –with the patient face planted in front of the wheelchair. This shirt is an homage to the chemical that nearly killed me on two occasions. I have a shirt which displays the skull and crossbones indicating toxicity with the words “Contains Velcade” plastered beneath it.
I do have limits of decorum. I elected not to make a tee shirt that proclaimed “Redesign Humanity, Give Revlimid to the Pregnant.” There are still too many for whom the Thalidomide disaster a couple of decades back is still too raw. But the thought of the shirt occurred to me as I was reading the label on my bottle of pills, and saw the cautions against pregnant people even being in the home of, or touching a person who’d only handled Revlimid. The fact is, the chemicals we use in chemotherapy are pretty damned dangerous.
I also have shirts I created which depict enlarged labels of the chemo compounds I’ve endured. The humor of these is obtuse and oblique. Few people like to be walking advertisements for such a gruesome set of products, but these things are a part of my life and I see no reason to hide them, or hide from the thoughts they invoke. These chemicals do a lot of good in spite of their toxicity, and so I see little difference between displaying them or the Nike shoe logo. Every time I see the Nike logo I happen to think of smelly feet and rancid gym socks. My thoughts about chemotherapy are, in contrast, actually more pleasant.
One of my shirts proudly proclaims “I Wait For Weeks To Get Treatment” and sports a Veterans Administration logo. The shirt is actually a compliment rather than an insult. My oncologist is a spectacularly qualified man named Kevin Weeks, MD. But I do find humor in the double entendre, and so does my oncologist. I’d like to think he sees the compliment as well. For those who don’t know of the relationship, well, there is a sad bit of truth to what the shirt says. I was just given a urology appointment for the earliest available slot which happens to be next May, three and a half months from now. As such, those conservative zealots who frump and ahem at my ribbing can bite me. I’m sure that each of them at one time or another uttered the words that most just abbreviate as ‘FTA’ during their army service, and thus we have a pot calling a kettle black.
I make my shirts at one of the online stores that offers custom tee shirts and other clothing items and accessories. There are a whole bunch of them out there. I happen to like one in particular because their shirts are 100% cotton and are heavy duty as well. Plus, they sell at a decently low price –about fifteen bucks a shirt. I have other items customized to my sense of humor as well. I have a license plate on my mobility scooter that faithfully copies the plates of my home state of Washington. My plate says “On Drugs.” Already it caused a short conversation with an off-duty cop who took exception to it. I told him, smiling innocently, “I paid for my First Amendment Right to express my opinion and I suspect it would take someone ungrateful towards disabled veterans to deny that.” I watched his face get red –and then drain of color as he realized the position he’d just put himself in. And yes, I took pleasure at his discomfort. The reason is simple. Those of us who have paid a profound price did so that everyone could express their opinion. It is precisely the speech we don’t like that we have to defend most vehemently. Anything else is preaching to the choir and not particularly admirable or democratic. I’ll give him this –after a second, he smiled and said “You know, that actually is pretty funny.” I saw him a few days later, in uniform and on patrol. He smiled widely at me and saluted from his seat in the patrol car. I saluted back and I meant it.
When it comes to humor, Spock was quite right. It can be a difficult concept because it embraces so many concepts within its various meanings. My tee shirts are a form of expressed opinion as well as a means of stress relief. I like that it makes people smile and I like that sometimes it doesn’t. When it doesn’t, I like that it makes people think. But mostly I like that it makes me smile.