The dangers of the joke

Years ago one of my daughters gave her father a trick spoon, a spoon that sits in a puddle of what looks like spilt milk and cereal, but which is in fact plastic.

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The trick spoon works well. Whenever an unsuspecting person sees it on a bench or desk top, they go to wipe it away.

‘Grab a dishcloth. ‘You’ve had a spill. ’ The person who put it out laughs at the joke. And with any luck, the person fooled laughs too and picks up the spoon and twirls it round for authenticity

I showed it to my now five year old grandson the other day and it took him a moment to figure it out.

I didn’t trick him with it but showed it to him and explained.

He was most impressed and like many five years olds wanted me to repeat the joke for the rest of the day.

We left it on the bench top and from time to time he’d say to me as we walked past, ‘Look, someone’s made a mess.’ And I’d give an exaggerated yelp and race for the dish cloth then try my best to wipe it up.

My husband is a man of tricks. It’s nothing to find the hem of my dressing gown tied to the bedstead in the morning when I get up. I go to put it on and it won’t yield.

It’s nothing to find a tissue shoved deep inside my shoe, or some unusual object, a wine bottle cork or a jam lid in my handbag. Whenever I find such objects I sigh and remove them, knowing my husband has been up to his tricks again.

My husband’s tricks are benign. The stuff of boyhood, I reckon. They seem to work better on his colleagues than they do on me.

In my husband’s office some folks take off their shoes, not out of custom but out of habit and for comfort. He tells me how he hides the shoes of certain colleagues in their filing cabinets or locker when they go off to the tea room barefooted.

My husband has been known to tie laces together, though not while the shoes are actually on someone’s feet. That would be dangerous.

I have a suspicion my husband is prone to tricks like this, not only for the amusement they offer, but also because they give him an odd sense of power.

Perhaps it feels uplifting to be able to render someone else temporarily helpless and then restore order once the joke is out.

Over the years, my husband’s jokes have worn thin, at least their effect on me has worn thin.

My grandson, on the other hand, is as delighted as a new day. His eyes light up at the thought of turning innocent people into worried souls, desperate to wipe up the mess only to discover the trick and laugh at themselves for their misperception.

But there’s a line between one person’s joke and another person’s horror. We hear about it often today, the young man who grabbed at the writer, Mary Karr’s crotch, as she unsuspecting walked down the street opposite him, might have considered it a joke.

Mary Karr did not. She describes the horror she felt at the time of this violation and the process whereby she found the courage, despite being temporarily winded, to report it to the police, who took it seriously and found the culprit.

Karr needed the help of a homeless person who sat nearby, stretched out on a sheet of cardboard, a man who recognised her distress and told her to do something about it.

His urging empowered her and turned the joke around.

Some jokes are benign and others cruel, but all jokes are tricky. They can wreak havoc on someone’s equanimity as much as they can make another person’s day.

The moral of the tale: All you jokesters out there, tread warily.

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Strange how a house empty of its usual occupants can feel so forbidding, as if there’s nothing but hidden menace in every corner, ready to appear when I finally turn off the light before midnight, exhausted and keen to sleep, but fearful of closing my eyes.

It must be like this for babies, reluctant to go to sleep in case they lose contact with the one who holds them together, the one who keeps their fears at bay.

During the week when we were out to lunch in a café overlooking the sea at Brighton, my cousin told me about her sister who lives a full and busy life with three sons, now grown, and a husband who has endured the ravages of Multiple Sclerosis for many years. She also finds the times when he’s away on respite and all her children away, too, similarly daunting.

The pleasure of not having to deal with a snoring husband is offset by a sense of unseen danger. The newspapers pile high on the bench, as my husband is the only one to read them.

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I once thought my difficulties sprang from a childhood of fear under the weight of nights spent with my father roaming the house.

When I was alone at home, I imagined my father still there on the prowl, but another friend observed during another time of sitting over coffee, this time in a café in Malvern overlooking Centennial Park, that we are by nature sociable creatures.

We humans are not meant to live alone. We are not hardwired to find ourselves in total solitude.

Although hermits and monks and Carmelite nuns might embrace the idea of such solitude by taking themselves off into cloistered cells or caves in retreat, they do so often as part of a community. And often they do so with a view to a higher power, one that keeps them company.

I think of the people who live alone. I admire their fortitude. I could not do this for long. I would take in boarders. I would move into a retirement community. I would look out for someone to house share. I would not let myself endure this haunting melancholy of turning out lights in an empty house for long.

Whenever I hear on the radio about a spate of aggravated burglaries in Melbourne, I tune out; reluctant to dwell on the thought it could happen to me. And the fantasy that somehow it is less likely to happen if someone else is at home, reminds me of my cousin’s thoughts about her disabled husband, who cannot move at all, and would be useless in an emergency. But his presence in the house, his company, reassures her, all is well. It gives my cousin leverage against the fantasy and fear of intrusion.

It is this fear of intrusion that creates the terror. And in my mind, I map out ways of escape.

I take both telephones, my mobile and landline receiver, to bed with me. I make sure both are within reach and rehearse the process of putting on my glasses and finding enough light from the mobile once I click it on to be able to dial triple zero.

Triple zero becomes my access to help, but I fear alerting the intruder to my presence. Better to hide, but where? In the cupboard, too obvious a place.

My anxiety paralyses me and so I need to call for help, but how to speak without sound so as not to alert the intruder to my presence.

I practise invisibility like Janet Frame’s imaginary sea bird, the one who soars overhead, the one who gives her wings and feathers to fly away from her terrors.

Janet Frame morphs into her migratory bird to fly away from the social situations that cause her angst.

For me, it’s the unsocial situations that herald danger, in the aloneness that opens me to intrusion. It calls for invisibility.

So I aim to slip away like a wisp of smoke that curls under the door, slides along the walls and out into the day light, under a street light, or into my neighbour’s house where I can resume bodily shape, safe in the company of others who do not wish me harm, and far from the ones who terrorise me in the empty night.

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