The crowd at the bar is tough. Between the bartender and the regulars, they've heard pretty much every joke told on the planet since the first one, whispered to Eve in the garden. Man, that snake could tell a joke. What timing…what delivery! He'd do boffo box office in Vegas. Hmmm. Come to think of it, he probably already has.
But the snake's not here, and it's my turn to tell a joke. The last one was a killer, so I pretty much have to top it or admit my defeat and buy the next round. The other folks at the bar - two guys in cowboy hats, two guys in paint-covered overalls and the bartender - are staring at me over their beers, waiting oh so patiently. I have to either come up with a good joke that they haven't heard before or tell an old one so well that they laugh anyway. No pressure here, no.
That's how the game is played here; it's probably how the game was played back when the bar was a frontier saloon. Then again, it may just be how the game is played this Friday afternoon in March. I haven't ever sat in before; this is my first time. Like most of the other patrons, I sat on the sidelines for a while and just watched these four guys at the bar go at it with the bartender. Like the others, I laughed at every joke and watched the beers get poured every time someone told a dud and marveled at just how good these guys were. They could somehow deliver a joke and turn it into a work of art. So, having nothing to do until the new French flick started over at the Plan B Cinemateque, I figured I'd try to get in on the fun. I got up and walked over to the bar and tapped one of the guys on the shoulder and asked if I could take the empty stool next to him and sit in.
The bar went silent. I mean it…every sound in the room just stopped dead in its tracks. Including, mystically, the Gypsy music on the sound system. I looked around and found that everyone in the bar was staring at me, shocked. I looked down at the guys at the bar and saw the same look of shock on their faces. It was like the opening scene from the film Desperado. Any moment I expected the guys at the bar and all of the other patrons to whip out their machine pistols and blow my ass into the Bardo. The moment was long, and it was definitely not cool.
Finally, three microseconds before I was about to bolt and run for the door, the guy who I had tapped on the shoulder said, "Sure man. Pull up a stool and sit yerself down," and smiled.
I have seen that smile before. It was on the face of a black belt in my first no-contact karate contest back in the late 60s. I was a puny little brown belt, but they didn't have enough entrants to justify separate brown belt and black belt competitions, so they threw us all in the same pot and just drew lots to see who would fight who. And somehow, this was my second fight. In the first, I had drawn one of the black belts from the karate school that was our school's most bitter rival, and I had whupped his butt. I got medieval on his ass. I was flyin' high on kundalini and testosterone. I was bad. So I stepped into the arena with this second black belt, who I didn't know from Adam because this was my first contest, and I put on my bad face and I just looked at him. He looked back and smiled. It was a nice smile, but in my head I suddenly heard a little voice saying, "Be afraid. Be very afraid."
We bowed, and the bout began. I was still a little shaken by the smile, but hey, I was bad! So I danced around, doing all my best moves. The black belt just stood his ground and looked at me and smiled. Then, the next instant, all four judges were holding up their flags. Point. The match was over. I never even saw it happen. The black belt was already walking back to his corner for the final bow before I even realized that the judges were waving their flags and I was expected to walk back to my corner as well. It was a long walk. I was definitely not bad.
I bowed and the black belt returned the bow formally in Japanese style, then graciously walked across the mat and shook my hand and smiled once more. It was a warmer smile this time. Then he walked off. The black belt's name was Chuck Norris. He went on to win the contest that day, and the World Championship that year. Chuck had laid one of his now-famous double spinning back kicks on me and pulled the sucker about a quarter-inch away from my chin. And I never even saw it.
Chuck's smile was a lesson in humility I will never forget. And today at the bar, I see the same smile on the face of the big guy in the dirty white overalls, the one beckoning to me to pull up a stool and sit myself down. "We're just tellin' us some jokes here," he says. "You know any?" Be afraid. Be very afraid.
Everyone in the bar is still looking at me. No pressure here, no. I weigh the options. I could look at my watch and say, "Oh…I just noticed I'm late for my movie…some other time," and walk out, pretending not to hear the gales of derisive laughter in the bar as the door swung shut behind me. Or I could just sit down and go for it anyway, and endure the same derision face to face. I sit down, the Nietzsche quote that opens the film of Conan The Barbarian echoing in my head: "That which does not actually kill you makes you stronger."
I say, "I know a few," and order a beer. I offer to buy the guys one, but the one in the cowboy hat at the end shakes his head and says quietly, "We can wait." Then they all turn to the bartender and smile. He turns to me and smiles, and launches into a joke. It's a dick joke, but a great dick joke. All the guys laugh at it, and take a swig on their beers. Me, I would laugh too but I happened to be taking a swig of my beer when the bartender unexpectedly got to the punchline, and am busy choking.
The guys look at me, concerned, but I pull it together and the cowboy at the end takes another swig and swings around on his stool and tells his own joke. It's another dick joke, and another winner. This time, I have carefully refrained from drinking while he was telling the joke, and I lose it heavily. So do the other four guys; it's that good.
So it goes. The other cowboy and the first guy in overalls tell their jokes - both dick jokes, of course - and they're wonderful. Everyone laughs uproariously, even the folks pretending not to eavesdrop from the sidelines. Finally, taking a swig on his beer and turning to glare at me like the young Cassius Clay eyeballing his soon-to-be-out-cold opponent, the big guy next to me starts to tell his joke. My heart sinks as he constructs setting and characters so real they seem to be in the same room with us. He takes his time, feinting with a couple of false endings, and then pauses just the perfect number of beats and delivers the punchline. It's not just a dick joke. It's the best dick joke ever told, the Washington Monument of dick jokes. The entire bar loses it heavily.
And now it's my turn.
The bar goes silent again, and the guys stare at me over their beers, waiting oh so patiently. The bartender leans back against the counter and polishes a glass. I take a sip of beer, stalling for time. I'm cool on the outside, but inside it is panic city. When I made my mini-bid for power and asked if I could sit in, I was pretty confident, because I know a few killer jokes. But at that time I didn't know about the theme rule. Each round of jokes is supposed to keep to the same subject. I never got it before, but now it seems obvious that keeping to the same theme is one of the unspoken rules, and I am expected to come up with a dick joke.
I don't know any good dick jokes. I was all set to tell the Christ at the gates of Heaven joke, or the French Foreign Legionnaire joke. I hadn't heard them being told here before, and was pretty sure that either one would have gotten a big laugh. They were bad, and I figured all I had to do was tell one of them and I was home free.
But now I have to come up with a dick joke or lose face. I take a second sip on my beer, still stalling. A bead of sweat drips from my forehead into the amber liquid. Its splash is the loudest thing in the room.
And I'm stumped. I can't remember a single dick joke. My mind is empty, not in the meditation sense but more of an I-can't-believe-I-was-stupid-enough-to-do-this sense. I swallow my beer and am about to do the same with my pride and admit defeat when suddenly I remember a joke. It's an old joke, one of the first I remember hearing in my life. I smile at the thought of it and think, "I may not be dead in the water after all. This one has possibilities." I decide to go for it. I put down my glass and begin:
A man is sitting in his new Barcalounger, kicked back reading Sports Illustrated, when his young son walks up and stands right in front of him and says, "Dad, I know what I want for my sixth birthday next week."
The man puts down his magazine and looks at the boy and says, "What's that, son?"
"I want a tricycle, Dad. That red one we saw at Woolworths yesterday."
The man looks at him long and hard and finally says, "Son…is your dick long enough to touch your ass?"
The kid looks kinda shocked. He thinks about it for a moment and then says, "No father, it isn't."
The man says, "Come back and ask again when it is," and goes back to his reading. The kid slinks away, defeated.
Some years later, the father is sitting again in his Barcalounger, again reading Sports Illustrated, when his son walks up to him and says, "Dad, I'm going to be twelve next week. And you know what I want? I want that cool 10-speed racing bike I saw in the window at the bike shop."
The father stops reading and looks at him and says, "Son…I have just one question…is your dick long enough to touch your ass?"
It's déja vu all over again. The boy, crestfallen, says, "No Dad, it still isn't." "Well, come back and ask again when it is."
Again the kid slinks away. But this time he's thinking about it. And over the next few years, he quietly and privately starts working out. He starts light, just pulling on the little sucker as often as he can. But in time, he's tying 25-pound weights to it and letting it dangle in the breeze. He's doing curls with it. And one day, he looks in the mirror and practices what has now become a daily ritual for him, and looks up, surprised. He smiles at himself in the mirror and goes downstairs to find his father.
Dad's still sitting there, in the same Barcalounger. Both are starting to show signs of wear. And he's still reading Sports Illustrated, but this time it's the new 3D Swimsuit Edition, so he's sitting there wearing these weird red goggles with one green lens and one red one.
Seeing that his father is hard at work, the young man waits patiently and respectfully for him to finish. At one point, flipping the pages fast past the article about the champion surfer, the man glances up and sees his son standing there in front of him. Normally he would have just grunted and gone back to his magazine, but he's still wearing the 3D goggles and is amused by what they're doing to his son's punk wardrobe. He says, "What can I do for you, son?"
"Dad, I'm going to be eighteen next week. I'll get my driver's license and everything. And you know how we've been talking about me getting a car of my own? Well, that's what I want for my birthday, Dad…a car."
The father stares at him through the 3D glasses for almost a full minute. Finally, he says, "Well, son…you know the question…is your dick long enough to touch your ass?"
The young man straightens himself up to his full height and says, "Yeah, Dad…it finally is."
"That's great, son," says the father, slowly taking the 3D glasses off and smiling at the young man. He pauses for a couple of beats, just as I do telling the story, and then says, "So go fuck yourself."
I stopped talking. It was a Hemingway moment.
I waited. What else can you do? You give a joke your best shot and then you just wait. Sometimes the magic works, sometimes it doesn't.
It worked. They cracked up. Not nearly as much as they did for the Washington Monument of Dick Jokes, but hey!…they laughed. The bartender offered us all a free round and, while still pulling the beer, launched into a Heaven joke. I relaxed. I know just the best Heaven joke.
It turned into a most pleasant way to spend an afternoon. We sat there and told jokes and bought each other beers and laughed and laughed and laughed. It was with a profound feeling of reluctance that I finally had to say my goodbyes and leave for the theater. I walked out of the frontier bar and across the street and climbed into Protector. I turned the key and the tape in my cassette player started up just where I had left it, in the middle of Zazen's Techno Zen Master. The volume knob was cranked up to 11 and the dance club beat provided a heady contrast to the Gypsy music playing inside the bar, so I just sat for a few moments to groove on it.
Suddenly I am transported to a moment in the past, hearing this same song at high volume on the sound system of a London dance club and watching Rama lip-synch the words to the music he had produced. I am dancing beside him with a model who, in heels, stands about six inches taller than him and a foot taller than me. She is my date for the evening. Rama arranged dates for all of the guys here tonight with a modeling agency. Each of the monks who have been here in London for the last few weeks giving meditation classes arrived at the club and was introduced to the model Rama had personally picked out for them. I like the one he chose for me - she is intelligent and funny and absolutely stunning as she dances. I am one seriously happy camper.
Rama is dancing beside me. He has two dates. Naturally, they are the most beautiful women in the room. I think I recognize one of them from the latest Sports Illustrated swimsuit issue. And they seem to be having one helluva good time. Gee…I wonder why. Could it have something to do with the fact that they are dancing in a whirlwind of golden light, which seems to be emanating from the tall, curly-haired guy dancing with them?
Whatever the cause, we're all having a wonderful time when the song ends and segues into the next. It's one of my favorites, and as I dance I find myself lip-synching the words I know so well. Rama glances over and notices and fixes me in his gaze and mouths the same words:
I smile as Rama seems to laugh at his own joke - the koan he has posed to all of us with the models - and raises his eyebrows to me as if to say, "Go figure." Then he spins around and does a dance move that looks suspiciously like a karate kick and pulls it about a quarter of an inch from my chin. He smiles. Then he and his dates dance away. Slowly.
It was a nice moment. Sitting there in the parking lot, grooving on the beat and digging the music and appreciating Rama's mastery of the koan, I realize that it still is. That frozen moment in time - that smile - has somehow escaped the bonds of time and space and has found me again tonight, sitting here in my car. And magically, I feel that same smile on my face.
Koans are like that. As I sit there appreciating the phenomenon, I find myself smiling and thinking that the dick joke I remembered back in the bar would make a great one. The young man in the joke walks up to the Zen Master with a big smile on his face, certain that he's really got him this time. He bows and asks permission to play the koan game and waits patiently for the Zen Master to pose to him the same question he has been pondering for twelve years. Outwardly he is composed but inwardly he is grinning big-time, because he finally has the right answer. The kid is bad. The Zen Master asks his question. The young man winds up and delivers his killer answer and the Zen Master just smiles and says, "So go fuck yourself." It's not what the kid expected.
It's never what you expect. The thing that makes a good koan work is the same thing that makes a good joke work. It's that little snap! at the end, that unexpected twist that makes you realize with a start that you had expectations. It's all in the punchline. The punchline opens a magical window of opportunity, a frozen moment of quantum possibilities that can be followed either by a confused silence or a tremendous, soul-lightening laugh. And sometimes the magic works, sometimes it doesn't.
We don't know how the kid reacted. The joke ends before we find out. If you think about it, that's kind of a koan in itself.
He could have stood there confused, thinking to himself. "Go fuck myself? Go fuck myself? I went through all of this just to hear the old man say, 'Go fuck yourself?'" He could get pissed off at his Zen Master father. He could get pissed off at himself for wasting all those years doing all those exercises. He could get seriously bummed.
Or he could stand back and laugh. You know…one of those tremendous, soul-lightening laughs. He could realize that he'd been had, tricked by a master trickster. He could realize that tricycles and bicycles and cars have absolutely nothing to do with the length of his dick and never have, and he could just laugh. He could have himself a serious satori experience. I don't know what the kid in the joke did. I hope he laughed. I hope he realized that his father's challenge had given him a goal, and that the goal was good. It kept him going all those years - gave him hope, gave him a sense of purpose.
Goals are good. Our fathers set them for us and our Zen Masters set them for us. And they're often outrageous goals. Make your dick long enough to touch your ass. Learn to stop thought in meditation. Figure out this koan. Tough goals. And y'know…their true value may not even be in the attainment of them. The secret may just be that we have a goal, that we have been tricked by someone into pursuing a higher path than we might have taken on our own. So what if at the end of that path we find that the destination was not quite what we expected? While we were pursuing it, we were having fun.
So I hope the kid laughed. I hope he realized how much fun he had been having working out in his room all that time, how much purpose it had given to his life. And I hope he realized that it wasn't all wasted effort. No effort towards a goal is wasted. That which does not actually kill you makes you stronger.
And y'know…even if he didn't get it, if the magic of the koan didn't work and he winds up all pissed off and frustrated…it won't really matter. Because sooner or later it will dawn on him that he may indeed have been a fool for working so hard and so long on a task that turned out to be a joke, but it's all Ok because he's going to be very, very popular with the ladies.