Funny as a Rubber Crutch

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.

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Harshly Philanthropic

I was able to find more than 20 websites that featured people doing stupid things, often with fatal results.  It made me wonder if stupidity is becoming like bacon, a staple of modern western civilization. I mean, just about everyone has heard of the Darwin Awards, perhaps the most notorious herald of non-survival and finds humor in the telling of the stories.  Like the drunk who decided to bungee jump from a bridge one night and tied his ankles to the bridge with a 40 foot run of steel cable. When he jumped, the cable having no give, separated his feet from his legs and he drown from blood loss before he could make it to shore. I react to stories like this with a literal physical discomfort in the gut, yet there are a lot of folks out there that think that this is hysterically funny stuff.

Or the thief who tried to break into a restaurant by climbing down the chimney. He expected to wind up on top of a cold stove but found himself in the combustion chamber of the furnace, which automatically engaged before he could get back out. The premature cremation a part of the funny time hit parade. Or the mail bomber who sent out a bomb with too little postage and the post office returned it to him. Unthinking, he merely opened his mail and that was that.  While there is a certain ironic dark humor, is it really funny?  How about the girl that took a big swig from a thermos to discover it was full of nearly boiling coffee. The scalding in her throat inflamed the cells and cut off her wind and she suffocated. Isn’t that a riot?

In my circle, America’s Funniest Home Videos has been renamed to America’s Most Without Empathy, thanks to their laugh track punctuating hurtful bad luck happening to people on screen. It seems like we find a lot of ways to take pleasure from the misfortune of others. In an earlier article I commented on the brutality of the thinking prevalent in candidates for office. Suggestions of electrified fences, moats, and cheering the high body count of the Texas penal system and the opinion that sick people without health insurance should be left to die have made the news.  I don’t mean to sound like a wimp, but holy crap.

Then I look at our society again and I see the way that we will reach out to others in troubled times, reaching around the world to help if that’s what it takes.  Here in Spokane, when we see news stories about people who suffered a house fire or some other significant loss, a volunteer fund will be started within hours of the event.  Still today, neighbors will gather for barn raisings and there’s no need to explain Habitat for Humanity.  Look what the nation, in spite of government failings did for New Orleans after Katrina or the Iranians after the earthquake two years ago. Actually, I could go on and on with examples of American generosity –and just as many examples of insensitivity as I mentioned above.  We seem to exist with contradictory character manifesting the height of generosity while at the same time demonstrating incredibly crass ambivalence toward suffering.

It seems somehow very American to take both sides of any given topic, so perhaps I should find this interesting at all. I mean heck, our government seems mandated to operate in ways are geared to ensure that their successes are limited and often accidental. So maybe I shouldn’t think this was worthwhile to comment on. In many ways it’s par for the course. But I do think it’s interesting and something worth considering, another of the ways humans demonstrate their humanity.

Things I Found #4: Bring Me Calvin Klein’s Head on a Stick

Another essay from the last writing class has bubbled to the surface. This dates me terribly, because Calvin Klein has gone from avant-garde, enfant terrible, to a “mature” designer considered to be a classic stylist. But when he first started making headlines, he gave me headaches.
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Am I the only person who feels that Calvin Klein is responsible for the decline and fall of Western civilization? Maybe I just resent him because he officially stamped my passport into Old Farthood.

I was vaguely aware that Calvin Klein’s name was appearing on people’s asses in the first wave of something called Designer Jeans. (Previously there were only Levi’s and, if you didn’t know any better, Wranglers.) Designer Jeans were meant to look as though they had been airbrushed onto your body, and the trendoids, male and female, began cramming themselves into pants two sizes too small, trying to look blasé and aloof although they were also bug-eyed and breathless.

I wasn’t too alarmed. I was still a renegade, unwilling to give up my buttery soft, faded-to-baby-blue Levi’s for the crisp, navy full-length trusses called designer jeans.

But Calvin wasn’t happy just being a prestigious tush flag. A cultural visionary, Cal knew we were right there on the cusp of becoming a nation of sheep, eager to jump on the bandwagon of any ludicrous trend that two or three insecure suck-ups now pronounced Officially Cool. Calvin decided the time was right to branch out, and burst into my consciousness with commercials for a perfume called Obsession.

Obsession! Calvin Klein wanted us to smell like a personality disorder, a state of mental unbalance. “He broke my heart so I slashed his tires and burned down his house. Obsession.” And I just didn’t get it. I was no longer Talking the Talk.

Next was Infinity. Cal thought we should smell like mathematical concepts promoted by glassy-eyed anorexics, like Kate “I only eat tiny bits of” Moss. And I realized I was completely clueless about this campaign, too. I was once the drum majorette for hip, anti-establishment thinking and behavior, the poster girl for non-conformity. Now I sounded and felt like my parents: “What are they talking about?”

I grew up with Evening in Paris, Joy, Chanel, and for naughty girls, Tabu. And the models smiled, or at least offered a smoldering come-hither look. Wouldn’t you want to sell perfume — a luxury item — with images of style, glamour, allure, success, romance? But no, here was Cal peddling his wares with greasy-haired scowling waifs and apparently that’s what we wanted, because we made him a gazillionaire!

The new campaign was for something called CK1, an apparently transgendered scent with the brilliantly succinct catch-phrase, “Just be.”
Just be? Come on! What’s the alternative? Just don’t be? I guess if you just not be, you be dead, and it wouldn’t much matter what you smell like.

Maybe Cal has forged a bold path of marketing strategies into the obtuse, the obscure, the downright silly. If that’s the case, if I’ve finally “gotten it,” I’d like to offer a few suggestions for his next perfumes:
Yo, I din’t do it. Bring me some smokes.
Calvin Klein’s … INCARCERATION.
No, I’m full, really. Be right back.
Calvin Klein’s… BULIMIA.
Party like you mean it. Jimi and Janis. Yeah, dude.
Calvin Klein’s … HEROIN.
Fabulous. Gotta take this call, babe. Ciao.
Calvin Klein’s…SUPERFICIAL

I think I just launched a new marketing career! Do I look younger? Wait a minute – how about when I scowl?

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Things I Found #1
Things I Found #2
Things I Found #3

Happiness (Reconsidered)

by Judith Viorst

Happiness
Is a clean bill of health from the doctor,
And the kids shouldn’t move back home for
more than a year,
And not being audited, overdrawn, in Wilkes-Barre,
in a lawsuit or in traction.

Happiness
Is falling asleep without Valium,
And having two breasts to put in my brassiere,
And not (yet) needing to get my blood pressure lowered,
my eyelids raised or a second opinion.

And on Saturday nights
When my husband and I have rented
Something with Fred Astaire for the VCR,
And we’re sitting around in our robes discussing,
The state of the world, back exercises, our Keoghs,
And whether to fix the transmission or buy a new car,
And we’re eating a pint of rum-raisin ice cream
on the grounds that
Tomorrow we’re starting a diet of fish, fruit and grain,
And my dad’s in Miami dating a very nice widow,
And no one we love is in serious trouble or pain,
And our bringing-up-baby days are far behind us,
But our senior-citizen days have not begun,
It’s not what I called happiness
When I was twenty-one,
But it’s turning out to be
What happiness is.
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We didn’t need another reason to love Judith Viorst, but here’s one anyways. Priorities, perspectives and definitions shift and change as we age and, hopefully, mature. The first sentence resonates like a giant brass gong. Would anyone in their 20s, or even 30s have put a clean bill of health first on the list? Now I can’t imagine anything else. I think happiness may be the absence of strife, trauma, etc., and the ability to appreciate that absence. I know it’s a lot simpler that most folks realize. What do you think happiness is?

(Good insights at The Happiness Project; see cool sites at right.)