I generally avoid patronizing bloated national corporations that devour small businesses and cripple local economies, but Panera makes a decent Everything bagel and the hot tea is tolerable. I could get out of there for under $5, which complimented the pittance I earned as a Graduate Teaching Assistant at the University of Tennessee.
One morning at the Panera on the Strip in Knoxville, I ran into Becky, a nursing student whom I’d met through Reformed University Fellowship (RUF) at UT. We chatted and joked while she organized some notes on her computer and I congratulated myself on getting up early, which, I have discovered, is my Achilles’s heel and the key to getting anything done.
Becky and I have similar senses of humor, and we’d spent enough time together for her to know my character. For a woman to know your values, lifestyle, and the substance of your relationships is important if you plan on making sexist, politically incorrect, irreverent, suggestive, or awkward jokes. You have to establish a rapport before trying out some of your edgier material. Otherwise, she’ll tell all her friends that you’re a misogynist, bigot, God-hater, pervert, or social bumpkin. Seizing that golden “That’s what she said,” opportunity in mixed company isn’t worth the fleeting pleasure of a few chuckles from the guys and stink eyes from the women. One unsavory comment can cement your reputation as an all-around creep.
Another nursing student named Jane came up to the table where Becky and I were sitting. Silky blond hair, blue eyes, delicate features, dazzling white smile—Jane possessed the classic kind of beauty that causes men double take over their shoulders and have car accidents.
I was definitely headed for a wreck.
Jane asked Becky how she thought she’d fared on a test they’d taken that morning. Neither was confident in her answer to one particular question: what did the letters of the nursing association, N.H.P., represent? They tossed ideas back and forth.
“National Healthcare Professionals?” Jane asked.
“No,” Becky said, “I don’t think that was it. Maybe Nursing & Healthcare…something?”
While they were trying to unravel this mystery, I was strategizing—1) how to enter the conversation; 2) how to impress Jane with my intelligence and charm her with my wit; and 3) how to make her fall in love with me without falling in love myself. I needed to do all this in sixty seconds or less. After all, the future of our children depended on it.
One of girls was suggesting another option:
“Nurses for Healthy… .”
I had my door. Time to walk through it.
“Pornography?” I said.
Becky chuckled. She gets my sense of humor, and knows I’m not a pervert.
Jane, on the other hand, stared down at me, a mixture of shock and disgust on her face. She looked at me like I’d just confessed to cheating on her best friend or like she’d just caught a noseful of hot trash. I represented everything that she hated about men.
Well, that didn’t go well, I thought.
One type of humor involves predicting what people expect you to say then defying those expectations. For example, if someone asked, “Hey Austin, what’d you do today?” I might reply, “I spent all day cremating bodies and drinking lemonade.” Of course, that couldn’t be farther from the truth, no matter what I actually did that day. That’s what makes it funny. Perhaps I have a warped sense of humor, but this type of absurd response to a common question gets a laugh most of the time.
You also have to consider the questioner’s lifestyle and sensibility. For example, when my grandmother asks me how I’ve been spending my time, I like to tell her that I’ve been doing speed and carousing with beautiful women. Does she get offended? No, she giggles, and tells me that I remind her of her husband, my grandfather. She has never used illegal drugs or engaged in promiscuity, and she knows I haven’t either. Telling my Grandma about it even if I had would be ludicrous. That’s why it’s funny.
The more outlandish, illegal, or immoral the activity I proffer, the more delighted the other person typically is. I say “typically” because on occasion I do misread my audience.
N.H.P. could not possibly be “Nurses for Healthy Pornography,” but it still wasn’t a hit with Jane. You win some, you lose some.
Rather than risk being turned to stone by Jane’s gaze, I got back to work on my laptop.
Fast forward about two years.
I went to see my friends, the Dirty Guv’nahs, play at The Square Room. After the show I found a camera on the stage. Looking at some of the pictures gave me a pretty good idea that it belonged to one of Jane’s friends because Jane was in a lot of the pictures. A guy named Casey I’d met a few times knew Mary Catherine, the owner, and promised to return it to her. I met Mary Catherine later at a Sundown in the City and told her about my encounter with Jane.
Mary Catherine shed some light on her friend’s reaction to “Nurses for Healthy Pornography.” The time I offended her in Panera coincided with Jane’s discovery of her boyfriend’s second computer which he used to look at pornography. He kept his other computer clean because he knew that she checked the cache on a regular basis.
In using that word “pornography,” I had churned up for Jane three years’ worth of deceit, anger, frustration, disappointment, and disgust.
Oops. How do you apologize for that?
Here’s the apology I would have given:
“I’m sorry that many men settle for false intimacy, and rather than address their own fears and insecurities, they make a hiding place in lust and perpetuate an industry that objectifies women and adulterates the good gift of sex. I’m also sorry that I have a twisted sense of humor and made light of something that has been a source of pain for so many.”
Mary Catherine assured me that Jane is a kind, gracious, and forgiving person and that if I had chosen any other word, my first interaction with her would have been much different. Why couldn’t I have just said “puppies” or “pepperoni” or “prancing”?
My sense of humor is always getting into trouble. It needs a good spanking.
Moral: N.H.P. stands for “Never Horse around about Porn.”