Anatomy of a Joke, or Why My Marriage Survives

Anatomy of a Joke

I am nothing if not an observer of human nature. It is not only essential to what I do for a living as Security in a hospital environment, but it is endlessly entertaining. Last year, in a kind of fit of nostalgia I had a red dragon, taken from an old Japanese print by Hokusai, tattooed on my right arm. A great deal of thought went into the exact expression on the dragon’s face. I wanted the gaze to be piercing and strong, yet not threatening or angry. My excellent tattooist Jami and I finally came up with a kind of quizzical look that captured what I wanted exactly. 

Jami, our wonderful tattooist!

Jami has been our family tattooist for the past couple of years now. She has a round cheerful face populated by a broad knowing smile and her hair always seems in transition from one interesting state to another. She is the replacement for my last tattooist of over 30 years, who although brilliant as an artist, and entertaining in the extreme, also tended to go into periodic rages where he fires various of his friends. The loss of him as my tattoo muse left a painful gap in my heart and Jami has moved  right in and started redecorating. Her and her husband entertain us with stories of their Paleolithic Diet, their deep community commitments and the endless stream of eclectic students, some wonderful and some simply characters in an ongoing tale. I bring her various gifts with each visit, generally ethnic masks or statues of various Buddha’s, as well as a never-ending flow of home made beef jerky, which luckily falls within her dietary restrictions. This coming weekend we bring the newest addition to the tattoo shop and the world of anorexia, which she promises to drive around town in her classic Cadillac.


One session, after she had finished with most of the dragon’s face and had begun to move further up my arm in a tangle of fiery scales, I remarked to her that I had discovered something strange about the dragon’s nose. Mind you, Jami is an instructor at a tattoo school in Portland and is always, more or less, on stage for her students. They look to her as the example and she models the perfect behavior of what you want your tattooist to be, from tattooing technique, to ergonomics and cleanliness, from customer care to professionalism.


So I say to her… “Jami, This tattoo you’re doing on me, I’ve discovered something really strange about it.” She stops tattooing for a moment and leans back and then she says, “What’s that?”


“You know, if you touch the dragon’s nose, the eyes cross.”


Jami again!

“No.” She says, “You’re kidding.” And I hold my wrist up towards her, so that the nose protrudes a bit and those odd searching eyes peer up at her, and almost as if I have her finger on an invisible string, her hand begins to move towards the crimson proboscis. On its fated trajectory, the doomed digit falters slightly, as if Jami senses on some level what is coming next, yet cannot resist. In her mind she is thinking, perhaps I have discovered some muscular trick, where I tense and relax and the eyes do some little trick, like an old time sailor making his pin-up tattoo do a little dance. Somewhere, deep in there, she is also thinking, “I shouldn’t be doing this.”


Just as her finger is about to plant one squarely on the dragon’s sniffer, I let out a short sharp bark like an enraged Chihuahua and Jami lets out a scream and snatches her hand back like she had stuck it in an electric socket and the entire class erupts in laughter.


Since then, I have done that joke literally hundreds of times. I did it once for a young woman at a 7-11 in Portland. She had a tattoo of a crab on her wrist, and I said to her, “Kid, I am going to show you something that will change your life.” She gave me the most suspicious look you can imagine and then, I held out my wrist and told her that if she touched the nose, the eyes would cross…


Go ahead, touch the nose…

When I barked at her, she let out a yelp as if I had taken a chunk out of her hand and everyone in the store laughed and laughed, then I pointed to the crab on her wrist and said, “Tell them when you touch the crab, the antenna wiggle.” And she said, “Oh my God! You are right!” Since then, I stop by regularly and get reports on the various people she has scared.


I find there are two kinds of people. The majority are tentative and touch the dragon’s nose with misgivings, but there is a large contingent who it seems, can hardly wait. Before I have the words “The eyes will cross.” out of my mouth they are reaching for the serpentine snout without a care. The funny thing is, it seems to be about a 99 percent success rate. Like it is something in the nature of the human creature where people cannot resist a temptation even though they know they shouldn’t.


Why do I do these things?

So I wonder, what is the anatomy of a good joke? What is that draws the unsuspecting mark in towards that moment of perfect surprise and how much I love the sweet innocent spirits of the naïve, the gullible. My sainted wife once said to me, after a particularly silly trick, that the only reason we were still married was because she still falls for my stupid jokes, a statement that might fall closer to the mark than she realizes. She is an innocent. She still trusts people and believes they will treat her fairly and I treasure that.


Last year, at a yard sale, I found a bag of plastic lemons and limes for a quarter that looked almost exactly like the real thing. I took them home and left them in the refrigerator in the crisping bin, where they sat for the next several months, unmolested and un-aging, nestled in amongst the baby carrots and the iceberg lettuce which was not faring quite so well.


One day finally, my wife comes into the computer room and gives me a slightly exasperated look and says, “Very funny.” 


I knew exactly what she was talking about. Humor, like vengeance is a dish best served up cold. It ages like good wines and stinky cheeses. Like the lemons and limes sitting there quietly in the dark refrigerator, it gets a little better every day until finally someone realizes they are not what they seem.


A number of years ago I worked at The Benson Hotel in Portland, a venerable establishment steeped in elegance and tradition and possessed of a rather antiquated Security video system. From my miniscule office tucked away behind the imposing front desk, I could electronically roam the historic halls and passageways like a modern day phantom, observing the ebb and flow of the patrons and staff.


One day I happened to notice Kit, the Catering Captain coming out of his office on the 3rd floor. He was a sweet and gentle character, if perhaps just a little prissy… but honestly, a man of honesty and kindness. So possibly it was a bit cruel of me that on seeing him coming out of the door, I immediately snatched up my phone and called his office.


A dragon from my favorite Japanese pprint maker, Hokusai

Kit carried a set of hotel keys that would make a medieval dungeon master hang his head in shame. It is an old hotel and old establishments grow keys like gnarled old men grow whiskers in their ears. Probably half the keys on the ring belong to locks long since lost or broken, but no one knows exactly which keys are no longer needed and so the ring grows.


On hearing the phone ring in his room, Kit begins to nervously shuffle through this mass of keys trying to find the right one in time to catch the unknown caller. Just as he gets the right key in the lock and throws open the door, I hang up the phone. I watch as Kit comes back out of his office obviously perturbed and possibly swearing, and just as the door closes… I call his number again.


The look on his face is priceless. Again, in a fluster, he fishes through the panoply of keys and rushes back to try and answer the persistent ring and once again, just as he gets the door open, I hang up. This time as he comes back out the door, it is apparent he is swearing up a storm and just at the moment the door closes, and I should say here, that timing is everything, I call again.


He pulls up sharply, like a stagecoach stopping abruptly at the edge of a washed out bridge, but does not turn around. He grasps at his ring of keys like they are a small wild animal trying to escape his grasp, but does not seek out the Catering key. He just stands there for a moment cursing up a storm, and then he stomps off down the hall.


A week or so later, I am talking to him about some other subject and I casually remark to him, “Don’t you hate it when you run to catch a phone, and just as you get there, the caller hangs up?”


“Yeah!” he says. That just happened the other day and he starts to get all animated as he tries to tell me about the episode in the hall… and I start to laugh, then I say, “Kit, you have to remember, I have cameras.”


There is this moment where you watch the realization begin to spread across someone’s face that they’ve been had. There is a slight confusion followed closely by a reorganization of expression. A dawning of understanding, and then, of course the name calling and occasionally a minor physical attack.


For a really good joke though, the revelation is not always even required. Sometimes it is enough to just let it simmer, like a good savory stew. Several years ago, I decided to learn how to make prosthetic fangs. In the pursuit of this knowledge I resorted to that extraordinary resource known as Youtube and sure enough found fairly extensive instructions there. Before long, I had several sets of malicious looking incisors the made my grin something to be reckoned with. For almost three years, I would slip them in before going shopping at  my favorite Safeway on my way home from the swing shift.  What I found particularly sweet was that the staff, although obviously intrigued, never mentioned them. What I also found interesting was that people in the store would often stop me and talk to me for extended periods of time. 

One night at Winco I neglected to put them in and the cashier there looked confused and asked if I had had them ground down at the dentist. I just smiled and said that it depended on the phase of the moon. When I came in next time wearing them, she didn’t say a word.

 I wonder sometimes, why do I do this? It is never meant to hurt feelings or demean the subject, but it also never gets old. It’s a lot like throwing a stick for a faithful dog. who can resist the occasional feint, the pretend throw, where your beloved companion goes running joyously off in pursuit of an un-thrown missile only to bound to a confused stop and then turn suspiciously and fix you with a resentful stare. “Where’s the stick? Where’s the stick?” you say excitedly and your canine becomes joyous in expectation of the revelation! Aha! You have it after all! All is forgiven! “Throw the damn Stick!”


Many years ago in Santa Cruz my best friend Bill wanted to take mushrooms with a young lady friend and go exploring in the forest. He asked me if I would accompany them in a non-altered state to make sure they didn’t lose their way, sort of a designated driver for journey down the rabbit hole. I agreed and we spent the day wandering through the magical woods and creeks surrounding the University of Santa Cruz campus and I kept an eye on them as they crashed about from one amazing discovery to another. Every turn in the ravine brought new entrancements and every circle of redwood trees were another invitation for dance and rejoicing. The two of them in their innocence and their explorations were as amazing to me as the natural world was to them, with their deep galaxy eyes and their face splitting grins.


I watched over them like an attentive mother cat watches over her kittens, directing them away from dangers like Poison Oak or steep ravines and gently edging them towards small adventures I thought they might enjoy. Fairly early in the day, Bill found a cat’s eye marble by the path nestled in amongst the cool green ferns and the low sweet Miner’s Lettuce. It was a revelation! The simple glass ball took on special meaning and became deep and liquid in their altered states. “This Marble!” he said, “Will represent this journey! We will keep it to remind us of this day! It is a magic marble!”


look deeply into the marble

Later, in the glistening sand next to a small summer creek, they found another one, which was not only amazing, but seemed appropriate, as now they had two, one keepsake for each of them, a talisman, a charm, a small distillation of a marvelous day.


The amazing thing was, that they continued to find marbles all day. It seemed there were marbles everywhere they went. In the creeks, in the bushes, on the hillsides and in the ravines. They must have been, Bill decided, scattered from a plane. They were not just near the paths, or along the creeks, they were everywhere, sometimes several together, but mostly each one a surprise found in a totally unexpected spot. By the end of the day, they had found probably 50 or 60 marbles.


It wasn’t until years later that I was talking to Bill and I mentioned the amazing day and the bounty of marbles… “Wasn’t that amazing!” He said. “ It must have been a plane! It was so incredible!”


There was a pause, and I said, “It was me.”


I had started the day with both pockets full of marbles and every time their attention would focus on something over in one direction, I would take a marble out of my pocket and holding it in my fist like a kid shooting marbles in a game, Blip! I would flick it off into the woods in a different direction. They found nearly every one. Blip.


When I was quite young, I ran across a quote  that said… “God bless those of us who can laugh at themselves, for they shall never cease to be amused.”


Jami’s new travel companion!




One Response to “Anatomy of a Joke, or Why My Marriage Survives”
  1. Peter says:

    Excellent……..come south east young man come east

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