My Hongkonger friend shredded me into pieces in front of ninety of our childhood schoolmates last Sunday evening. All over a joke. So, not a single bloke laughed at it. That is how easy it is to kill a joke. By shooting the guy who said it. Publicly. Be scathing, treat the joker like he is a joke. Or, better still, reprimand him like he is a child, show him utmost disrespect. Ignore the fact that he is as old, if not as experienced as any of the sexagenerians witnessing the discourse.
The joke was about a British woman who lost her case after she tried to sue the NHS for botching her husband’s eye operation. “Me and me ‘usband Fred ‘ave ‘ad bangin’ sex till ‘e went ta ‘ospital and ‘ad ‘is operation, now ‘e’s not interested ‘n me and it’s all down to them twats,” she complained to the magistrate. The surgeon who performed the operation gave evidence and said “All we did was removed Fred’s cataracts.” Had I been laughing at her fat and ugly body, then fair enough, it would have been only right that someone told me off for laughing at someone’s misfortune. But, the joke was about our perception of life. How with clear sight, we will look at something or someone totally differently. Notwithstanding the fact that the joke was accompanied by a photo of a rather obese woman wearing a sleeveless body-hugging fishnet dress that left nothing to our imagination about the grossly large body deformed by heavy amorphous blubber overhanging perilously from her pale-coloured sagging breasts. Her bright red stockings which were rolled up to just above her knees failed abjectly to distract our eyes from the star-shaped black patch sewn onto the fishnet which fortunately hid what I suspected were rather swollen nipples.
“What is your point of forwarding the article?” he asked. I was cognisant that he did not use the word ‘joke’. Words are so easily abused to distort facts. A joke is a joke is a joke. But, call it an article, and it is no longer a joke.
“It’s such a bad joke! You knew Edgar just had his cataracts done,” he said, raising his voice.
Edgar Poe, according to a self-confession a few days later, was quite anxious about his cataract surgery. I have many siblings who had theirs done, without fuss. My parents and father-in-law also had theirs done, without any calamity. I was unaware that Edgar was feeling at a knife’s edge over his operation. But, he had already shared another joke about an eye operation earlier the same day, so I knew he had gotten over his anxiety and was well on his way to a full recovery. His joke was funnier, the cartoon had the eye patient’s hands fully bandaged up rather than his eyes. A caption explained that this was to prevent him from using his phone to text his friends.
“It is a bad joke,” chimed another close friend, “and it is badly timed,” he added.
“It is about caring among brothers in this group,” the Hongkonger continued, more boldly, sensing support from other friends.
“A badly timed joke is a very bad joke,” he surmised.
“You guys are so uptight. Chill. You’re incredibly serious and hot under the collar. I’m so sorry that you find it hard to laugh,” I replied.
“I wonder if you’re even smiling at all. Breathe! So sorry that you’ve lost your sense of humour,” I said dryly, and tried to put him on the defensive.
“Not at the expense of others,” he said with an air of superiority.
We all know whoever sounds the more chivalrous and the more considerate will be judged the better character. Yes, he may have sounded more caring, but was he really? He didn’t care to hurt my feelings!
“Anyway it’s Sunday night. I’m going to enjoy a nice movie. I am sorry that you have such a dramatic issue with a joke. Anyway, please take a long walk, breathe in some fresh air, and find something to make yourself laugh. Good night, bro,” I said, as I walked away into the night. If I had a tail, it would be down between my legs.
Seneca was right all those years ago. Nourish our minds, refresh ourselves with fresh air and deep breathing. Take long walks and solve our problems along the way. But, is this one a problem? Should I be bothered by my childhood friend’s rather unsubtle remarks? Chiding me for posting a bad joke, criticising me for not caring for a fellow friend’s sensitivities, posting an ‘article’ at the expense of another – these are all severe judgements against my character. Take a walk, breathe, think, stay calm, and don’t react. I reminded myself of an old saying I learned recently, if we want a good day, get it from ourselves. Don’t make things worse, Marcus Aurelius’ words also came into my head.
If you want some good, get it from yourself.Epictetus, Discourses, 1.29.4
I was in the bathroom doing all the routine tasks just before bed when I received a barrage of text messages from another childhood friend. I do understand why I am often the target for criticisms or maybe even scorn. Maybe through my writings, they see me as a parvenu. A somewhat less deserving, less qualified person who has suddenly walked into their social circle. They accuse me of being indecorous but I am just being myself, different and perhaps indifferent to some extent. Sometimes, I think all they want from me is to be as lifeless as a coffin, and as predictable as a tomb. I gnashed a smile at the mirror.
“You should delete your joke. Please do not send jokes about cataracts,” my good friend continued to urge me.
“Cataract operation is such a common thing for people of our age. It’s nothing big deal and Edgar’s was done a few days ago now. Totally successful, so I’m shocked by this need for us to tiptoe about and be extra considerate,” I replied. Edgar posted a joke this morning too. If he can joke about his eye operation, it means he’s fine. “So please don’t tell me I’m being inconsiderate or unthinking!” I protested. Don’t make things worse, I reminded myself. But equally, they shouldn’t make things worse also. Again, they treat an old man of 63-years with three grown-up sons like a child. You should do this. You should not do that. He is a good friend, he means well, I told myself. Otherwise, he would have criticised me publicly too. Tear me into pieces and feed me to the vultures? That he did not do. So, he’s alright. Besides, our conscience is personal, it does not abide by public opinion. I know I meant no harm – a joke after all, if taken the proper way, can only be harmless. I should continue to ignore nebulous concepts like politically correct statements that are tailored to please the populists who divide rather than unite us. So, I abandoned my plans to go to bed and put back on my day clothes that Murray had infused his body smell with. I stepped into the cold dark night which was missing the moon. Breathe. Enjoy the calm of the night, I told myself. By the time I got back from a long walk, I was thankful for my friends. They are just being themselves, true with me. At least we do not engage in small talks. You know, the sweet nothings that are empty of meaning and thin on honesty.
Amongst all the people I know, there is no one who has changed my life more than Murray. And Murray isn’t even a human being, although often I suspect he is one, or at least an alien. Murray came to us when he was just weeks old. A puppy from Murray Bridge. He never ceases to amaze me when so many around me cannot understand me (or refuse to). Murray has a knack of knowing what I’ll do next before the thought even crosses my mind. By alien, I mean his predictive power, as if he is wired with an algorithm that suggests an intelligence far greater than mine.
How has he changed my life? Well, he has made me physically fitter! Together, we have walked hundreds and hundreds of kms. When once upon a time, I would robotically drive my car to a letter box up the street or to the local deli round the corner, it is perfunctory for me today to simply put on my walking shoes and take a walk instead.
How else has he changed me? Well, he has taught me to breath more deeply and that has enabled me to deliberate on important matters with a refreshed mind. So, I think my decision-making has improved. Long walks are great for us to find an equilibrium – a balance in our mental faculties – and to declutter our minds so that we can think more strategically. Nourish our minds with clean fresh air and we will surely solve our problems along the way. From Murray, I also observed that obstacles on the path become the way. If there is dog shit on the path, we sidestep it. If there is a puddle of water, we step over it. If the gate is shut, we find another route. Similarly, if a friend is rude, I forgive him. If he is unfairly picking on me, I simply smile. If he is hurtful, I practise forgiveness. If he is kind, I remind myself to be as well. If I find a mistake, I learn from it.
The obstacle on the path becomes the way.Marcus Aurelius, Meditations 5.20
“How old is your dog?” a Chinese lady asked me in Hazelwood Park. “I should unleash my dog so they play together,” she said. Dog owners are somehow friendly to one another. Hers was also a poodle mix. For a long while, I had kept telling people Murray was two and a half years old. The Mrs’ sister said it can’t be, time does not stand still. As it turned out, she was right and I was wrong. Well…not by much. Murray will in fact be four years old this September. The Chinese lady suddenly rattled off in Mandarin that was laced with a strong Beijing accent. “Ni de kou hen kuai, 你的狗跑的很快” she said, having noticed that her dog could not catch Murray. Yes, Murray is a fast runner, a lot quicker. Besides, he darts and weaves like a soccer player. No one can catch him. At times he would venture to the opposite end of the park, sniffing and peeing at strategic trees and bushes. When I see he is far enough, I would bolt as fast as I could away from him. Yet, he would be right at my heels in no time. Yes, he is that fast!
Dog owners are friendly and courteous to one another, this is true. Yet, it has not escaped my attention that it is only the women with their dogs that are friendly and talkative. The men would at best simply nod their heads as they walk past, but not so for the women. They must engage in small talk. The small talks I have had are seldom interesting but what a woman said to me the other day made me wonder a lot. She was about my age, perhaps a few years younger. Well-spoken and well-dressed, she sounded sophisticated and intelligent. Her accent suggested upper class British elite if not aristocracy. Her dog and Murray caught on like a house on fire. They became best friends very quickly. It was her dog’s tennis ball; surprisingly, Murray knew the etiquette of not retrieving the ball during the game of ‘Fetch’ even though he was the faster of the two. The English woman would throw the ball and sometimes, I would kick it to them. Murray never once fell for my fake moves, preserving his readiness to actually run after the ball whereas the other dog time and time again was tricked by my pretend kicks to the opposite direction. All the while, the lady made small talk.
She was quite a beautiful woman, if my memory serves me correctly. She wore a low bun too, although hers was more full-bodied than mine. Mine was a mess whereas hers was neatly bundled below a stylish woollen hat. Other than that, she was dressed as if ready for horse-riding. A white shirt beneath a tight elegant black jacket with matching tight khaki riding pants held up by a dark green belt and of course, a compulsory accessory, a pair of fancy knee-height leather boots.
“So, do you come here often?” she asked. Before I had the chance to open my mouth, she added, “This is my first time here. My husband normally takes our dog for his walks,” she said. “But, he is in Melbourne for a few days, and so here I am,” she said in a sweet voice and smiled at me, her eyes met mine and lingered. I returned a sugared smile and just then, a much younger chap walked towards us and started talking loudly about the weather. I took the opportunity to say goodbye and Murray proved his obedience as he sat down for me to clip the leash to his collar. As I took the long walk home, I could not stop to wonder why a woman would tell a strange man her husband was away for a few days. Small talks can be so dangerous.