Vignette: Flowers, movement, (failed) joke

November 30, 2018

By Matthew E. Milliken
Nov. 30, 2018

Sometime in early or mid-November, on a relatively pleasant fall afternoon, I parked my car on Iredell Street in Durham and walked the long way around the block to a local coffee shop.

After turning the corner onto West Markham Avenue, I proceeded up the incline toward Ninth Street, where West Markham becomes Hillsborough Road. As I closed in on the intersection, I noticed a man walking toward me who was carrying at least two floral arrangements.

I decided to be a comedian. “Oh, you shouldn’t have,” I exclaimed as we neared each other.

His face twitched. I couldn’t tell if he’d gotten the joke — which was that he needn’t have brought me all those flowers — or if he had completely failed to get what I’d been saying.

I kept on moving toward my destination and, as I frequently do following social encounters, began pondering my mistakes. Perhaps I should have said, “For me? You shouldn’t have!” Or, to be even clearer about my jest: “Are those flowers for me? Oh, you really shouldn’t have.”

To be sure, this isn’t a big deal. I could have lived without trying to make the joke. And this is not one of those extremely cringeworthy encounters that I sometimes experience: Occasionally, I’ll think of something that happened years ago and clench my fist in anger and spit out some sort of imprecation.

But this incident did get me thinking about why, as a child, I aspired to be the funniest kid in the room. I think that was about getting people to like me. I realized that I couldn’t be a hero in the mold of the science fiction protagonists I saw in movies like Star Wars or on TV shows like Star Trek or Battlestar Galactica. I recognized that many times I couldn’t be the smartest person present; also, I found that that in situations where I was able to demonstrate my intelligence, I usually failed to win the appreciation of peers that I craved. What’s more, I was a very clumsy, kind of scrawny youngster, so there was no way I could be athletic or tough like sports heroes or some other kids.

No, I couldn’t be perceived as heroic or smart or tough, but I could be funny… or at least, I thought I could be. But after years and years of striving to be an amateur comedian, the funny guy whom everyone loved and laughed with — not laughed at! — I eventually realized that I just didn’t have that good a sense of humor. Or maybe it was good, but not universal. Or maybe it was my verbal delivery that was rotten. At any rate, I stopped trying so hard to be clever.

And you know what? For the most part, this was OK. I’m still not comfortable 100 percent of the time with who I am or how others perceive me, but I’m fine fading into the background a little bit.

By the way, something interesting happened when I cut back on my attempts to be funny. And, as so often happens, my jokes started to land more frequently and with greater impact.

I’m sure that there’s an important lesson to be learned here. If you find out what it is, please let me know.

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