I was at the doctor’s office week before last. Sitting in my briefs, waiting for the doctor to come back in the room, like you do, my gaze wandered over the decorations on the wall. In addition to the usual decorations one expects from a doctor’s office – diplomas, certifications, the photos and decorations that prove the man probing your sternum has a family life – there was one interesting commendation: a third place prize certificate from a gardening contest in Chapel Hill. It struck me. It’s not unheard of (though this would make my PCP the only man I know to ever enter a gardening contest, much less place with distinction), but it made me consider my doctor in a new light. You like to think of your doctor as a person of human interests – a parent, a baseball fan, a collector of desk knickknacks with corny sayings – but you rarely think of him or her as a person with other competitive interests. Should I be concerned that my doctor had academic passions other than medicine? Or that he’d only placed third?
Tongue-in-cheek, of course, and I considered remarking to that effect when he returned. But I didn’t; that’s not my way. I was anxious, not in anticipation of any particular diagnosis, but just in the general way that a man sitting in his underwear on a thin sheet of paper can be. It would have been perfectly understandable to make a joke and dispel the tension. But I couldn’t do it. And while thinking about that, I realized that signified something atypical about me: I never make jokes when I’m nervous. I can always tell when people do, and it bugs me irrationally. It feels dishonest. I would rather they just own up to their nerves.
(In my better hours, like the one I spent composing this blog post, I know that’s a terrible expectation for me to have of them. It’s not one of my prouder foibles)
But I never joke when I’m nervous. I can only crack wise when I’m supremely comfortable. Strangers, new acquaintances, new employers and coworkers always take me for a quiet, brooding loner at first. While they’re not wrong to do so, it’s only because I’m getting a sense of the scene, because I can’t allow myself to plunge in without testing the water repeatedly. I’ll never tell a joke unless I’m sure it’s going to kill, and if I’m wrong, I back off and start the acclimatizing process over. But I never use jokes as a defense against anxiety. I take humor way too seriously for that.