Can You Tell Me a Joke About Your Profession?

Summer, 2018 / No. 41
Illustration by Matthew Daley
Matthew Daley

Rachel understood life as a cadence of rituals. She took pride in monotonous tasks—eating, sleeping. How, in a way, living could be an art.

At thirty years old, Rachel knew her best features were her green eyes and thin wrists. She found patterns and particularities in the way she ate breakfast, what time she went to bed, when she masturbated. Kept track of everything in a Moleskine journal.

Throughout the day, she recorded every morsel consumed, hour overslept, turn-on, turnoff, and glass of water. Even kept a strand of her brown hair when she got a haircut. Her parents believed her to be obsessive-compulsive, but she imagined herself to be a diligent documentarian. Bodies required food, water, stimulation, and rest.

Transcription became ritual when she was in journalism school. Her need to record and preserve got her straight As. Rachel kept hundreds of Moleskines, sorted by colour, all dated in a rainbow of aligned spines.

She was never a very strong news reporter. Preferred the editing side of things. Instead of seeking a story, sniffing for truth, ravenous to be the first reporter to break the news, Rachel lived for the small details. Copy editing was her calling. Put her faith in the quality of good grammar.

In small-town New Brunswick, she looked forward to the Telegraph-Journal’s weekend arts insert, Salon. Rachel didn’t copy edit this section of the paper, so it felt new to her. On the weekends, she read it with fresh eyes.

Hunched over the breakfast table, a cup of lukewarm coffee and a day-old carrot muffin, she read with a red pen in hand. Added an Oxford comma when required.

This Saturday, Rachel decided to go to the local indie art gallery. She had to get out of the house. Put on her beige overcoat, and walked from her wartime-housing suburb into town. Halfway down the main drag, it started to rain. Felt wet pavement pool through the soles of her navy-blue Converse sneakers.

The gallery was still four blocks away. Past the barbershop, public library, and two overpriced cafés. By the time she made it to the bus terminal, her toes pruned in her wet socks.

Right outside the gallery hung an obnoxious, all-capitalized sign: “can you tell me a joke about your profession?” Nothing annoyed Rachel more than caps lock. People used it to command attention, for emphasis, but no one liked being yelled at. It enraged her.

Every year, on June 28th and October 22nd, Rachel received a slouth of e-mails in all capital letters wishing her a “happy international caps lock day.” Last year, she called in sick, didn’t check her e-mail for an entire day.

Between the weather and the signage, Rachel pushed through the gallery door with agitated angst. The door swung so hard the bells above the frame crashed to the linoleum floor.

“Oh God, sorry about that.”

Rachel squatted awkwardly, a pool of rainwater dripping from her coat onto the floor. Picking up the bells, she stood again and nearly slipped. She tried to re-hinge the bells, but she wasn’t tall enough. A gangly bald man walked toward her.

“Let me help you,” he said in a thick European accent.

Rachel stammered, “I’m such a klutz,” and stepped back. Wet sneakers squeaked across the floor.

“I’m Alwyn Engelen. Who are you?”

“Rachel MacDonald.”

He extended his right hand. Hers felt childlike in his.

“You are here for the art show?”

Rachel nodded.

“I am the visiting artist-in-residence.”

“I saw your photo in the paper this morning. Berlin is pretty far from New Brunswick.”

Alwyn cocked his head. Reminded her of a giraffe, long-necked, heavy eyelids, and thin lips.

“They are exactly three thousand, four hundred, and fifty-six miles apart.”

Impressed by his precision, she smiled.

Alwyn led her to a wall covered in square boxes divided by primary colours, arranged in the form of a grid. Each colour represented a corresponding graphical score based on diary entries from members of the local classical ensemble.

“I translated diary entries from each member’s daily life and created a musical score to soundtrack the entries after asking them a series of questions.”

Rachel was dumbfounded. Never heard of anyone taking stock of repetitive daily tasks and making them into music. She tried to interrupt to tell him about her notebooks, but couldn’t get the words out.

“You see, the questions I asked were very plain, ordinary records of everyday life.”

“Like, what sort of questions?” she stammered.

He squinted in answer.

“Things like: Can you describe the character of your voice and the way you speak? Do you know the key of your voice? What did you eat for every meal? And, of course: Can you tell me a joke about your profession?”

“I’m a copy editor. Nothing funny about that. I do record everything I eat, when I sleep. I’ve been doing it since I was a teenager, and it became compulsive in university.”

She reached into her recycled Walrus tote bag, took out a black Moleskine, and opened to the middle of the book.

“Wow. Mind if I take a look?”

She handed over her notebook with trepidation. Everything was written in blue ink, every letter perfectly formed. Noticed his eyebrows arch when he grazed over how frequently she got herself off.

“Twice, sometimes three times a day. You are very sexually active with yourself.”

She turned a shade of cherry-blossom pink.

He handed back her notebook with a shy smile. Changed the subject.

“Thank you for sharing.”

“So, what do you do with all this information?”

“I translate spoken language into a musical language. Can you tell me a joke about your profession?”


Alwyn nodded.

Rachel took a moment.

“Four dons were walking down Oxford Street one evening. All were philologists and members of the English department. They were discussing group nouns: a covey of quail, a pride of lions, an exaltation of larks.”

She continued the joke with wild hand gestures.

Alwyn scratched his head.

“What is lark?

“A lark is a bird. Haven’t you ever seen a lark?”

He shrugged.

“Oh, they are adorable. Nice feathers, very small birds.” She reached to take out her iPhone from her jacket pocket to show him a Google image.

“No, no. Go on with your joke.”

Rachel felt him study her mouth as she continued.

“O.K. As they talked, they passed four ladies of the evening. The dons did not exactly ignore the hussies—in a literary way, that is. One of them asked, ‘How would you describe a group like that?’”

Alwyn rested his hand on his right hip.

Rachel’s breath shortened, as she grew more excited with every word.

“‘A jam of tarts?’ suggested the first. ‘A flourish of strumpet?’ said the second. The third: ‘An essay of Trollops?’ Then the dean of the dons, the eldest and most scholarly of them all, closed the discussion: ‘I wish that you gentleman would consider “an anthology of pros.”’”

Rachel let out a deep belly laugh at her own joke. Alwyn half-heartedly joined in.

“You’re funny. Visual artists don’t have any humour at all. They are the most boring people you can meet. Most artists don’t have any humour, especially the painters. What do you do exactly?”

“I’m a copy editor for the Telegraph-Journal. Not exactly a born comedian, but I love a good grammar joke.”

As Alwyn paced around the installation, a backdrop of colour made him look like a mad primary-school teacher. Calculating figures in the air, he pointed at the red rectangles on the wall with intent, his brow furrowed in concentration.

“You are very similar to the cellist in the ensemble. Similar sleep patterns, food consumption, and personal pleasure. He used to be a journalist.”

Rachel was surprised at Alwyn’s keen ability to size her up.

“See these green blocks? They are your sleep patterns.”

Wrinkled her nose in disbelief.

“I don’t really grasp how you can decipher all of this from a joke.”

“That’s where the art comes in. I’ve colour-coded specific hours, and from there can count how many you spend sleeping, eating, and find where you sit in this musical staff I’ve created. From here, I add in the humour of you, and what I learn from your notebook.”

“So, where I see art in punctuation, you hear sound in the copy?”

He nodded.

“Somewhat. I am a sound artist. I work with sound because it’s in the air, and then it’s gone. I am interested in how you have to concentrate. You have this notion of hearing, and then it’s immediately gone. It’s the joy of the moment. You document.”

“How do I sound?”

“That part, I don’t know yet. If you let me borrow your notebook, I can chart a musical score for the ensemble to play at the opening tomorrow night.”

Rachel took her notebook back out from her purse. She knew life was all about small moments. Like sound, life was intangible. But she desperately tried to contain it, to preserve and distill—to capture the moment.

“I better get back to work now, anyway. I’ve got lots to prepare for tomorrow. I will return your notebook.”

Taken back by his bluntness. “O.K. I guess I’ll get going. See you tomorrow?”

“Yes, tomorrow.”

Squeaking her way out of the gallery, she felt both naked and invisible. How had she left her notebook with a complete stranger? The bells above the door jangled. She nearly turned around to ask for it back, but something somewhere deep down inside yearned to hear what she might sound like. What if her life held a melody?

The ensemble was halfway through its performance by the time Rachel made it to the gallery. Stuck late at work, she had to copy- edit the sports section over again. All day she was distracted and couldn’t care less about baseball scores. The tiny gallery was packed with curious art lovers. Some faces familiar, others she couldn’t decipher, Alwyn’s face she recognized immediately. He looked softer under dim light. Rachel stood in the back of the room, tried to go unnoticed.

The lower string quartet featured a viola player, two cellos, and a double bass. Deep classical. She loved the sound of the cello, and how it embodied both sorrow and a slight promise of hope. Alwyn stood off to the left of the ensemble, clad in black suit with a red bow tie.

Just as they finished their first movement, all hands in the room thundered together in applause. Alwyn towered over the crowd and spotted Rachel in the back. Waved her over. He reserved a front-row spot with her notebook on the seat.

Alwyn approached the microphone. “This next performance is called ‘Anthology of Pros.’” He bowed toward Rachel.

She gathered up her skirt, placed her Moleskine back in her purse. It was nearly twenty-four hours since she recorded her daily rituals. In a way, she felt free. The violist arched over the wood of the bow and created a cusp effect. Started to pluck the strings one by one. Slowly, his fingertips inched up the neck of the viola. At first she felt embarrassed by the dull, plodding melody. This was what she sounded like—ordinary plucking?

Suddenly, the two cellists came in and sunk their arm weight into the strings near the bridges of their instruments. The gallery filled with sound. One cello held a high note a little longer than the other, and the double bass kicked in in B minor. Struck by the haunting yet beautiful melody, Rachel felt the music overwhelm her.

She ached; a swell of relief came over her. Alwyn had paid witness to something deep down inside her. Heard the woman in her, beyond the lines of obsessiveness, documentation of daily rhythms. What she was made of. She was more than the sum of her diet, exercise, and personal pleasure.

Her eyes filled with tears as the song ended on the lowest cello note. Her heart roared in her chest. She stammered to her feet, and was the only one in standing ovation.

While everyone politely applauded, Rachel stood in the front row alone, filled with something extraordinary. Pieces of her, rhythms from a notebook, lifted from the page and transformed into sound. Turns out she was a subtle symphony.

Shannon Webb-Campbell is a Mi’kmaq poet, writer, and critic, and the author of Who Took My Sister? Her first book, Still No Word, was the inaugural recipient of Egale Canada’s Out In Print Literary Award. She was the 2014 Canadian Women in the Literary Arts critic-in-residence, and defended Bearskin Diary, by Carol Daniels, for CBC Radio’s Turtle Island Reads in 2017. Last updated summer, 2018.