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April 28, 2020

Social Isolation May Save Us – But Does It Kill Humor?

There was a time was when I thought of things too funny to share with others

Not anymore.

When covid-19 struck I reflected on that selfish impulse to keep the laughter to myself. Couldn’t we now use a little collective mirth? So, is there still room for humor in the midst of a pandemic that is reconfiguring the nature of social interaction? When tragedy is everywhere?

It is another thing to embrace solitude willingly, but forced separation these days makes us mourn the loss of personal contact with others, at least for most of us. Those incarcerated would likely enjoy a break from proximity.

Then I contemplated a world of perpetual confinement. How would I react – survive in prison? And I think back to my behavior that could have landed me there.

I like making people laugh, making myself laugh. I wondered if judges had a sense of humor. And if I had to be judged would humor get me a lighter sentence? Mercifully, my closest brush with the law was back in the nineties.

I received an unwelcome command to fulfill my civic responsibility and avail myself for jury duty. A fit of rebellion had me writhing, worse than a toddler going nuts when parents won’t cave to endless badgering. Why me? I sang out of tune with a whiny lilt. It is a standard lament of the inconvenienced when self-interest is thwarted.

For those easily nudged to victimhood it makes sense to see overt plots to single one out for unfair treatment. With this haunting notion in mind, my lingering snit smoldered. What further exacerbated my upset was that I was the unlucky one in the voter roll roulette. Why was I chosen instead of someone else whose time was less valuable?

The only benefit I could see in this nuisance played to my strong suit – judging people. It was one of my earliest glimpses of self-awareness. It’s a gift, this ability of having total clarity in seeing others’ flaws. Unless I’m sleeping with them. I still don’t understand why sex is linked to myopia. Divorce rates suggest this fuzzy vision afflicts about 50% of people. I’m not sure if it’s this eye condition that brings on marital degeneration or the other way around.

There was however another, more positive side effect of my call to citizenry accountability. I could bring to bear deep seated doubts about the goodness of human nature and use them in an appropriate setting – a courtroom.

One requisite of jury duty was observing house rules, like dressing appropriately, as if I had to carry a casket. Yuck! I hate wearing a tie. And other clothes too! My natural disposition to rebel against authority (unless I am the authority) was welling up inside me.

There had to be something useful on the floor of my closet, something on the bottom of the pile. I rummaged through long-ignored garments, through the strata of out-of-fashion things once time appropriate, though now would be labeled ‘costumes’.

Having a flair for history but not closet organization, I had a vague recollection of the attention-getter that would set me apart in the selection process coming up. Eureka! Underneath everything was my perfect courtroom attire. It was a powder blue polyester tux from the late 70s. A darker blue border edged the collar, airplane-wing lapels and vertical side stripe on the pants. The accompanying shirt had ruffles that would make any lounge singer swoon.

Maybe it’s a man thing, the impulse to save things because one day, even long in the future – there will be a need to find something everyone else urges you to discard. My hoarding instincts proved me right once more.

Since I wore the tux only one time (it may surprise you) I wasn’t convinced it needed washing. I owned an ironing board, another household item that had fallen into disuse. I searched the entire home. OK, maybe it’s in the garage, I thought.

In the corner of the garage, behind the once-driven 1950 Nash classic car I bought within hours of getting my tax refund, I moved a dusty canvas bag full of duck decoys that came with the house. There was the missing ironing board. The iron was hiding behind the electric individual hamburger maker in a kitchen cupboard.

I dusted off the ironing board, set it up on its uneven legs, and spread the pants on top and waited for the iron to heat up. In the thought bubble overhead I imagined myself as a youthful John Travolta turning admiring heads in my pastel threads. (I have a firm grasp of the dress-for-success concept). A nod and a wink from the judge signaled his approval. I would be the swan among the duck decoys. Brother and Sister jurors would look to me for approval.

It was all very clear, preordained that I would stand out in a crowd (as the Chosen One always does). People would part like the Red Sea did for Moses as I made my way through throngs of admirers. Someone, a supplicant, would then hand me the scepter, the symbol of my investiture as Jury Foreman.

An acrid smell seized my attention. As I picked up the iron it stuck to the fabric which allegedly needed no ironing. Peeling it away, the scorch mark left the iron’s imprint with the pointy end over the crotch of the pants. Should I still wear them? Would it be too distracting? I could make a grand entree like no other.

On the other hand, the noticeable wardrobe imperfection might damage my prospect of becoming the arbiter of justice I was born to be. Too bad I had left the silver lame Mao jacket at my former girlfriend’s apartment.

I guess I would have to settle for attire that didn’t make a statement or reveal my panache.

The morning I was required to be at the courthouse I wore a navy blue blazer (which lacks gravitas without gold epaulets), gray pants, white shirt and dreary tie. I couldn’t find the paisley one – tie – not jacket.

We moved as a herd into the courtroom and were asked to take a seat. I was already silently practicing my line: “Your Honor, we the jury have found the defendant guilty on all counts.” We strive for speedy justice.

The judge questioned each prospective juror as a prelude to the coming Grand Inquisition. “Please give your profession and education background,” he said. People behind me started rattling off their college degrees; post graduate credentials, all sounding very self-absorbed. The words of Mrs. Jones, my kindergarten teacher, echoed in my head. She wrote in the first report card I ever received: “Mark has a hard time focusing but plays well with others.” And I have spent a lifetime living up to that prescient assessment. If playfulness is a requisite, I’m all in, I thought.

By the time the judge asked for my unspectacular academic achievements, I felt my Quasimodo imitation coming on. Clutching my ears, I would scream, The school bells! The school bells! Being spontaneous, this is one of the few impulses in my life I elected to ignore. My second one I thought I might get away with. I wanted to say “I’m a graduate of Tires Plus University.” My unexpected reticence again smothered this desire though it was wholly out of character. Instead I offered the truth: “I attended college for two years.” He didn’t ask how many classes I passed successfully.

The line of questioning drifted into our relationship with the law which presented a new opportunity to act out and earn notice. I guess he wanted to assess who among us was an artful dodger of law and order. Perhaps it was best not to mention that I never wanted others to think I was friendly with the police.

He pried deeper, looking for indicators that could eliminate ill suited candidates. Queries from the judge touched on our psychological preparedness for the task ahead. The respondents droned on about themselves – their favorite subjects. All very boring as it had nothing to do with me. The dragging day ended before it was my turn to shine.

The next morning I was the first to speak as the collective weeding process began anew. I asked: “Are we still trying to retrieve repressed memories?” A moment of silence… The judge’s face suggested I had become the fly in his cocktail, though he may have twigged to my suitability as a juror – someone who could think for himself. That was my positive takeaway.

The questioning moved along to others. Yawn. One of the last to abbreviate his life story was an attorney. At this juncture the judge chuckled and said it was strange to have in the pool of stalwart citizens “four lawyers.” I wanted instantly to declare: I thought lawyers were fifteen to the dozen. Again, suppression of my free-speech rights was an inordinate act of self-sacrifice.

Perhaps it’s the coffin colored paneling that imparts an air of sobriety in a courtroom. The judge’s black robe also lent a funereal tone. These visual cues likely had a subconscious impact on me, causing me to venture into silence and waste a clever quip when it begged audibility. Oh, that was painful. Alas, I think His Honor would have found my bon mot memorable. Who doesn’t like lawyer jokes, right?

I think laughter is one of the greatest bonding agents we have among people. Then, that routinely ignored inner censor’s voice said, ‘What if the judge hates smart asses? Cuz you’re a smart ass.’

It made me wonder if my nonconformist attitude in the sanctum sanctorum of Judgedom might earn me a ‘contempt of court’ citation…or…jail time?

But my default setting made me think humor should merit mercy and a lighter sentence.

In the end I was not selected as a juror. Yes, I couldn’t believe it either. It saddened me to know that courtrooms are sites where those eager to pass judgment on others are deprived of the opportunity to do what comes naturally. Still, what are the chances that a good number of judges don’t derive pleasure in condemning outliers?

Wait a minute. That could be me. Oh, well. At least I could share funny thoughts with others not in social isolation.

 

 

 

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