Platypus People


They’re platypus people! They’re platypus people! It’s a kookbook!

Platypus people do not have a duck’s bill or an otter’s body, but in many ways they are as foreign to us as their Australian counterparts were to scientific community in England, in the late 18th century. These weird, strange, and different people tend to stray from the premise we all share from time to time. The rest of us might not even know that we share a premise, until we hear someone say something so shocking and so far outside the mainframe that we think it suggests they’re operating from an altogether different one.

FullSizeRender_1__lIt’s almost as shocking to us as the introduction of platypus was to Britain’s scientific community. They were so rocked by it that they thought the semi-aquatic, egg-laying mammal was an elaborate and well-conceived hoax. They thought they had a comprehensive catalog of the animal kingdom before the introduction of the platypus. Those of us who have met platypus people empathize, for before we met them, we thought we had a decent catalog of human nature.

“Doesn’t he have cable?” one of my friends asked after a platypus person said something so weird, strange, and just plain different that we all stepped back for a second in confusion. Our jokester friend’s quick, witty reply implied that one of the reasons the rest of us operated from a shared premise was that we all watched too much TV.

Even though this joker and I disagreed on everything two people can disagree on, and we approached the platypus person from widely different perspectives, we both came to our own, similar conclusions about the man.

It was such a relief to hear this joke teller say that, because it suggested that my confusion over the platypus person’s thoughts of the world was not a matter of taking sides. The jokester was just as confused as I was.

We thought someone glued a proverbial bill of a duck on an otter’s body to try to pass him off as a new species. We did not physically dissect him to find the truth, in the manner the skeptical Brits did when they first encountered the platypus, to search for the taxidermist’s stitching. We did probe, however, and we came away thinking he was genuine, unlike those Brits who remained skeptical even after seeing a live platypus, but we had no idea how to process his thoughts.

As with the Brits and their introduction to the platypus, the more we learned more about our platypus person, the more that shock turned to intrigue as we began to think that his funhouse mirror perspective might tweak what we thought of our nature.

vandevelde1732010t152920Our path to formulating a final philosophy involves a wide variety of influences we encounter along the way. We learn that most of the voices we hear offer different perspectives from a shared premise, but others are unusual thoughts that formulate weird, strange, or just plain different impressions. Yet, there is a difference between those who exhibit organic differences and those for whom free-thinking independent thought is a bit more contrived. They are weird for the sake of being weird, they disagree just to disagree, and they follow the edicts of various cool overlords to become a cool person. “Dare to be different,” they say, but they aren’t, and we see this in little bits and pieces when we encounter a person who genuinely operates from a different premise. When viewed this through this looking glass, we see that if we’re all the manufactured free-thinking, independent spirits we see on cable TV, then none of us are, and the channel the platypus people are on affects us in a manner that motivates us to learn everything we can about their philosophy before we reach some version of what we consider our final formulation. We want to taste every piece of pie available to us before we reach the end of the buffet.

When we hear someone who appeared to go through the same intellectual progressions we did, only to arrive at an entirely different conclusion, we want to know how they arrived at that. We want to know everything about their philosophy on matters and how it applies to their epistemology, and we want to know the anthropological origins of their thought process. We might not agree with anything they say, and by the time they’re finished, we realize that the specific subjects they discuss don’t matter either. We’re so fascinated with their process that we listen to them with some excitement, as we think their story, or some sedimentary layers of their story, could apply and affect our own.

All of these reactions to the platitudes of platypus people are subjective, but within these subjective reactions are autobiographical attempts to understand ourselves better, and whether we are going to eventually agree with them or attempt to nuke their theories, we want to know how to process what they are saying.

When we obsess over such matters, some of us have a propensity to overthink otherwise inconsequential matters. When someone drops a line like, “Doesn’t he have cable?” it only highlights this proclivity.

We might envy those quick wits who can diagnose a situation and summarize it in seconds, but we also wonder if they understand the import of what platypus people say. After chewing on the line, we realize that we probably didn’t understand the totality of the jokester’s joke. If the import of the joke was that the platypus person might be operating from the same premise as the rest of us if he wasted as many hours of his life as we had watching cable TV, then the joke was probably spot on. That line also effectively diverted us from processing the platypus person’s thought, and it allowed us to dismiss him as a joke. It’s rare that we consciously dismiss another based on a single joke, but when the joke is so spot on, we will have it bouncing around in our head in all future interactions we have with the platypus person.

Some are just quicker than the rest of us. They can listen to an hours-long discussion and sum it up in one quick line. Some of us are processors who need time to process information, and we enjoy hearing numerous opinions before forming a conclusion. We might obsess over otherwise inconsequential matters far too often, but we can’t understand how someone can come up with a quick, reflexive line like that and consider the matter settled. Do they develop this ability, because they are more comfortable in their own skin and that confidence allows them to swat nuanced, complicated ideas away? Or, do they develop this ability to come up with a quick assessment of a person, because they are so insecure that they seek to thwart unusual thoughts before they question the fundamentals of their being? Is it a defense mechanism they use to help them avoid dwelling or obsessing on such topics, or do they consider most of the mysteries that plague the rest of us settled?

Being Weird is a Choice 

grosz7After meeting a few more platypus people in the years that followed, I realized the matter was far from settled for me. I met some platypus people who were weird, others who were strange, and those who were so different that I was sure they didn’t have cable TV growing up. One of the best ways I found to define a relative term like weird is to define what it is not. It is not, for the purpose of this discussion, strange. The term strange, by our arbitrary definition, concerns those affected by natural maladies. They had a variance inflicted upon them that they could not control, and they cannot escape its influence. As opposed to a person we might consider strange, a person who chooses to be weird, can easily find their way back to the premise. They simply choose, for various reasons, to step away from it for a moment. Platypus people cannot find their way back for reasons that are less philosophical and more anthropological, as their philosophical makeup has been passed down their genealogical tree.

We don’t define these separations to be nice, though we do deem it mean-spirited to mock, insult, or denigrate those who arrive at their differences in a more natural manner. We don’t create this rhetorical device for our readers to consider us wonderful, more understanding, or compassionate, but we deem those who go out of their way to poke fun at the strange to be lacking in basic human decency. We also don’t want to leave the reader with the impression that we might be more normal, or more intelligent, than any of the species we discuss. We design this arbitrary separation for the sole purpose of providing some classifications for those who had no choice in the matter, against a backdrop of those who choose to be weird through the odd decisions they make in life.

We might think that anyone who chooses to be weird must suffer from a strange psychology. In my experience, it’s quite the opposite. For most of us, our decision-turned-need to be something different started out as a form of rebellion in our youth. Our parents, and various other authority figures, had a strong philosophical and spiritual hold on us. They set the premise from which we operate for the rest of our lives, whether we enjoyed it or not. Most of us didn’t enjoy it, of course, and we sought to break free those shackles in any way we could. For some of us, this involved momentary and situational breaks, but the rest of us sought total philosophical freedom. We wanted to be perceived as being just as weird, strange, and just plain different as those we were conditioned to dismiss and avoid by our friends and family.

My dad sensed this early on, and he did everything he could to guide me toward a more normal path. Through the decades that followed, he attempted to correct my weird ideas with more sensible, normal lines of thought. “That isn’t the way,” was a phrase he used so often that my refusal to acquiesce to his more structured ways of the world was one of my primary forms of rebellion. There were so many intense arguments, and debates in our household that no observer could escape it without thinking that it was, at least, combustible. Before we explore the ways in which the old man was strange, I would like to offer a posthumous thank you to the man who put so much effort into trying to make me normal. I now know he did his best to overcome his own obstacles to provide his children the most normal upbringing he could.

I rebelled to the relatively strong foundation he built without recognizing the luxury I was afforded. The primary reason for my gratitude is that some of the truly weird and strange platypus people I’ve met since I left my dad’s home lead chaotic lives that can be a little scary. They came from very different homes, with a less than adequate foundation, and they ended up expending as much effort trying to prove they were normal as I did to be considered weird.

This premise is often generational, as our parents pass on the fundamental knowledge they learned from their parents. As we age, we begin to see the cracks in that foundation. At some point, we assume our parents are so normal that they’re boring. They might have some quirks but who doesn’t? They might even have more quirks than others, but doesn’t that just make them quirky? When we begin to add these quirks up, as we age, and we compare them to others’ parents, an uncomfortable, irrefutable truth emerges in this dichotomy: Our parents are strange people. They aren’t a little weird, or goofy, and we can no longer find comfort in the idea that our parents just have some different ideas about some subjects. They have some bona fide, almost clinical, deficiencies.

If we ever gain enough distance from them to view their idiosyncrasies with some objectivity, the revelations we uncover can be earth-shattering. We witnessed, firsthand, some confusing elements of their thought process, and we began adding them up, but it wasn’t until we put all the pieces together that that uncomfortable truth emerged.

After that relatively daunting epiphany clears, a sense of satisfaction takes its place. Our rebellion to their quirky ideas was the right course to follow, and we now see how justified we were. At some point in our various stages of processing this newfound information, we realize that for much of our life, our parents were our beacon of sanity in an otherwise confusing world they were charged with helping us understand. When we couple that information with everything else we’ve realized, it’s no longer as funny as we thought it was. We reach a point where we want/need them to be normal, and we ask them not to express themselves in front of our friends, because if our friends learn how strange our parents truly are, how long will it be before they connect those dots back to us?

My dad was abnormal, at the very least. Some might say he was a kook, and others might suggest he was an odd duck. In the frame we’re creating here though, he was a platypus person who was difficult to classify. Either he was born with certain deficiencies, or they were a result of self-inflicted wounds. One could say that those self-inflicted wounds were choices he made along the way, and if that is true I believe he made them as a result of some of his natural deficiencies.

The point of writing about the man’s deficiencies is not to denigrate the man, but to point out that which separated him from what one would call a normal man. Those deficiencies plagued him, and he put forth a great deal of effort to convince the world around him that he was as normal as they were. The trials and tribulations he experienced in this regard marked his life, and he didn’t want his children to have to go through what he did, so he tried to establish a normal home without too much chaos. In his subjective approach to life, he thought fitting in with others and being normal were the keys to happiness, and he tried to pass that along to us. I rebelled to those teachings, because I couldn’t see his efforts for what they were at the time.

Even after years of reflecting on this, and recognizing what my dad’s efforts for what they were, I still like to dance in the flames of the weird, but once the lights come up I’m as normal now, and as boring, as everyone else. As hard as my dad tried to force normalcy on me, however, he couldn’t control the impulses I had to indulge in the artistic creations that glorified life outside the norm. I knew weird ideas were out there, and I pursued them with near wanton lust.

When I left the relatively normal home my dad tried to create for us, I ventured out into a world outside the realm of his influence. I lived the life I always wanted to live, and I found weird, oddball philosophies so intoxicating that I had trouble keeping them in the bottle.

My dad’s overwhelming influence on my life was such that I preferred the company of normal people long-term, but I remained eager to invite weird people in for a brief stay to challenge my status quo. Their brief stay would present me with different and weird ideas of thinking, weird platitudes, and oddball mentalities that shook the contents in my bottle a little bit more. I needed to know what made them tock (as opposed to the ticks I knew all too well). I became obsessed with the abnormal to find out what made them different, or if they were, and I had to deal with friends and family telling me that I should be avoiding these people, because they were so strange. I couldn’t, I said, not until I consumed all that they had to offer.

A Piece of Advice to the Young Weirdo Wannabes

george-grosz-new-york-street-scene-nd-webIf there are any young people seeking to disappoint their parents, and anyone else who has expectations of them, in the manner we did, we have one word of caution. Pursue the life of a freak, become that rebel that makes every square in the room uncomfortable. Violate every spoken and unspoken rule of our culture, and become that person everyone in the room regards as an oddball. Before going down these roads, however, an aspiring rebel needs to consider learning everything they can about the conventional rules that they plan to spend the rest of their life violating. Knowing the rules provides a blueprint for a successful rebellion. All rebels think they know the conventional ways of the conventional, and they might think there’s no point in studying them, but if there’s one thing that I learned as an aspiring rebel, and in the many conversations I had with other rebels since, it’s that a rebel needs to know the rules better than the squares do. A violation of rules comes with its own set of rules, and subsets, for those seeking to violate in a constructive and substantive manner. Failure to learn them, and the proper violation of them, will allow those who set the rules to dismiss a rebel as one who doesn’t know what they’re talking about, and a rebel without a cause.

Most rebels seek inspiration, and their preferred source of inspiration are the screen stars who violate standards and upset the status quo in their presentations. These stars provide color by number routes to rebellion that are provocative and easy to follow. These manufactured rebellions also look great on a screen, but those seeking inspiration often fail to account for the fact that the screenwriters and directors of these productions manipulate the conditions and side characters around the main character to enhance their qualities. We all know this is true, in some respects, but most of us do not factor it into our presentation. In real life, there are situations and forces that even a rebel with strong convictions cannot control. There are people who will present the rebel with scenarios for which they’re unprepared, and a failure to study the conventional rules from every angle possible, will lead the audience of the rebel’s argument to forget it soon after they make it.

James Dean was A Rebel Without a Cause, though, and James Dean was cooler than cool. For ninety minutes he was, and with all of conditions and side characters portraying the perfect contradictory behavior that would define the James Dean character’s rebellion as cool. The real life rebel cannot manipulate his conditions and side characters to enhance their presentations in the manner all the behind the scenes players did in that movie. In real life, the extraneous players who outdo the uninformed rebel with corrections consider the rebel, a rebel without a cause, and a rebel without substance. They may regard him as uninteresting, after the initial flash of intrigue with their rebelliousness subsides. 

Our advice to all aspiring rebels is to listen to those squares who are so normal they make them throw up in their mouth a little, for they may teach a rebel more about what they’re rebelling against than those who feed into their confirmation bias.

Everyone has that aunt, uncle, or friend of the family who knew everything there was to know about “Good and honest living”. They teach us the elements of life that bore the fill in the blank out of us with their preachy presentations. They don’t know where it was at, as far as we’re concerned. We seek entrée into the “Do what you feel” rock and roll persona that leaves carnage in its wake, and we debate her point for point in our ‘shake up the premise’ argument. We know the elements of our rock and roll lifestyle well, and they know their “Good and honest living” principles, but they can’t debate us point for point. When compared to the rock and roll figures of our culture, they have poor presentation skills. They’re overweight and unattractive children of farmers, and our favorite entertainers are attractive and thin who have strong jaw lines.

Our rock and roll philosophers tell us that life should be easy, judgment free, and fun. It shouldn’t involve the moral trappings of what is right and what is wrong. As long as no one gets hurt, a person should be able to do what they feel like doing. Viewing all of this in retrospect, however, we realize that the boring, pedantic, obese, and unattractive descendants of farmers taught us more in ten minutes than any of the entertainers did. The entertainers were just better at packaging their presentations.

The crux of our rebellion was that we wanted to expel whatever our body couldn’t use into the face of the mainstream. We want to be so weird that the various “theys” could taste it. The responsible grownups who played such a prominent role in our development had a boring sameness about them, and the idea that we might be able to be something different led to some growth in our undercarriage. They vied for this sameness in life, and they wanted the same for us, but no matter how hard they tried to make us normal, we continued to explore the abbie normal side of humanity.

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In our efforts to have someone, somewhere consider us weird, we spotted the now endangered platypus person. With the advent of the internet and all of the apps available on the devices we all own, the idea of unintentional nonconformity is even rarer than it was a generation ago when the dividing line was between those who had cable, and those who did not. The platypus person has, thus, become more of an endangered animal. The candidate vying for platypus person status must avoid all that is available to them in the information age, including the internet. It’s easier than it’s ever been for them to consciously and subconsciously replicate and mimic the thoughts, rhythms, and patterns of the mainframe. It also leads to greater assimilation, and it makes them tougher to spot. If, for whatever reason, they are not able to camouflage their duck’s bill on an otter’s body, we should know that it’s rarely by choice. As suggested earlier, platypus people strive to be normal, but their upbringing was such that it requires more effort on their part to do what it takes for others to achieve it. They don’t mimic to deceive anyone, unless one considers convincing oneself of a lie so thoroughly that they believe it themselves an act of deception.

In the course of our efforts to locate the rare bird, we realize that it can take weeks to months for them to show us their duck bill. They only show it to those they trust and that level of trust takes time to build. It also takes a level of familiarity for them to be comfortable. To get them to open up, we might have to give them our weaknesses, but we can’t do this for the sole purpose of getting them open up. They are skittish, and they will sense contrived attempts to open them up. This is not a problem, of course, for in most cases it’s almost impossible to spot them. We aren’t reporters digging for their story, a story, or the story. We’re just ordinary people establishing a rapport with another person. As with the egg-laying, semi-aquatic mammal, establishing a rapport that leads to a friendship with a platypus person requires a certain environment, and very specific conditions before they reveal themselves. When they do, there is some insecurity involved in their reveal, but they also experience relief in the reveal. It’s obvious that they have experienced levels of ridicule and abuse for their thoughts and ideas, and they are relieved to find someone who is so curious about the way they think.

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Building this level of trust requires spending quality time with the platypus person, and the only occasions I have been able to achieve an environment in which they feel free to speak their mind was in the prolonged confines of shared employment. On one occasion, I developed what we could call a cerebral crush on one of my fellow employees. We had numerous, fascinating conversations on a variety of unrelated topics. In one of our last non-work-related conversations, she replied to one of my stories with a, “Wait a second, did you just say you want to be weird? You actually want to be weird? People don’t want to be weird. They either are, or they aren’t.”

george_grosz_blue_ladyHer response wobbled me. I thought she was trying as hard to be weird as I was. I thought we were soul mates in that regard, laughing at all the other people climbing all over one another to achieve absolute normalcy. I thought she was weird in all the same mechanical and inorganic ways I was. She laughed as hard as I did at some of the things she said. I thought she was being self-deprecating. I thought she was messing with peoples’ heads in the same manner I did. I thought she wanted to be considered weird too. I had no idea that the things she did and said were more organically weird, strange, or just plain different. Her response told me that not only was this not a game to her, but I had no business playing with her toys. It also wobbled me, because I never heard anyone defend the organic nature of being weird before. The conversation went on for a couple minutes, but no matter what I said, she kept cycling it back to this two sentence theme: “People don’t want to be weird. They either are, or they aren’t.”

I would try, numerous times, after that conversation to steer her back to what I considered a fascinating topic, but she would have none of it. I wanted to know what she considered weird and what she thought it meant to be weird. I wanted her to elucidate on the differences between her and me, but unbeknownst to me, she considered that conversation over, and she found all of my subsequent questions on the topic insulting.

Therefore, I can only guess that the condemnation of my efforts was based on this idea she had that weirdness should be a birthright. It should be natural and organic. It was a ‘how dare you try to be one of us, if you’re not’ reaction to those who regard the organic nature of their oddities a birthright. She presumably regarded this as equivalent to a person who wears glasses to look sexier when they don’t have to wear them, an act that ticks off those required to wear them.

I felt exposed in the moment. I thought of all the attempts I made to have another consider me weird, and I thought of how inorganic they were. I felt like a fraud. As I said, my dad raised me in a manner that forced me to accept the norms, and I’m going to take another moment out of this piece to say something I didn’t say to him when he was alive, God bless you Dad for forcing a foundation of normalcy down my throat. God bless you for teaching me the premise from which we all operate and for creating a base of normalcy from which I rebelled, for without that base I wonder what I may have become if left to my own devices.

My guess was that this woman’s upbringing was probably chaotic, and she spent most of her adult life striving for what others might call normal. She was weird in a more natural and fundamental sense, and she condemned anyone who might dare play around in what she proclaimed her birthright, but there was also an element of sadness and misery in her being that was obvious to anyone who knew the details of her struggle.

Those of us who had enough involvement with her to know her beyond the superficial, knew that chaos dominated much of her life, and we learned that it led her to desperately seek the refuge of any substance she could find to ease that pain.

I realized through this friend, and all of the other platypus people who have graced my life before and after, that there was weird and there was weird. There is a level of weird that is fun, a little obnoxious, and entertaining in a manner that tingles the areas of the brain that enjoy roaming outside the nucleus. The other level of weird, the one that we could arbitrarily define as strange, is a little scary when one takes a moment to spelunk through the caverns of their mind.

Was this woman a little weird? Was she so weird that we could call her strange by the arbitrary definitions we’ve laid out, or were her sensibilities so different from mine that she was operating from an altogether different premise from which I sought to classify her in some way to help me feel normal by comparison?

When compared to all of my other experiences with platypus people, she was an anomaly. Was she weirder than I was though? “Who cares?” we might say in unison. She did. It may never have occurred to her –prior to this particular conversation– to use the idea of being weird as a cudgel to carve out some level of superiority. In that particular conversation, it was for her, and she didn’t appear to feel unusual doing so. It appeared, in fact, to be vital to her makeup that I acknowledge that she had me on this topic. She was weird, and I was trying to be weird. Who tries to be weird? Phony people. That’s who. Check, check, check. She wins.

What did she win though? Some odd form of superiority? How long did she search for some point of superiority? How many topics did we cover, in our numerous, unrelated conversations, before she was able to spot one chink in my armor? If either of these questions wreaks of ego on my part, let’s flip it around and ask how many battles did she lose trying to appear as normal as her counterpart was? She needed a victory. I had numerous conversations with this woman before we drifted apart, and I never saw this competitive side of her again. She thought she had me on this one weird, strange, or just plain different topic, and I can only assume it gave her some satisfaction to do so.

Are you weird, strange, just plain different, or an unclassifiable platypus person? No one cares, you might say, and quit judging people with labels. Our subjective reactions to define anomalies defines us. Some of us try to cut analysis short by accusing anyone who obsesses over differences as lacking in compassion. Others drop a quick, humorous line such as, “Doesn’t he have cable?” to dismiss subjects of curiosity. Those of us who dwell (obsess) over these topics don’t understand how others can turn this part of their brain off, because we think our story lies somewhere in the sedimentary levels of the strange and weird platypus people.

We all know some weird people, and we’ve encountered those who are strange, and some are so different that they’re difficult to classify. The one answer we could provide is that we all have a relative hold on the various truths of life, and those answers help us keep the idea of random chaos at bay. If you have had any prolonged involvement with a platypus person, however, you know that they have their answers too. Those answers might be different from everything we’ve heard our whole life, but does that make them weird, strange or just plain different? The frustration that those of us who search for answers in life know is that some of the times there are no concrete answers to some questions. Some of the times, questions lead to answers and some of the times, answers lead to other questions, intriguing, illuminating questions. Am I weird, strange, or so different from everyone else that they have trouble classifying me? Do these questions require the level of exhaustive analysis we devote to it, or does it have more to do with the idea that some of us didn’t have cable growing up?

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Most of the platypus people we will meet in this book, knew how to assimilate most of the time, but they have their moments. We all have our moments that reveal deep-rooted, embarrassing characteristics that others can never unsee once we reveal them. They might pretend they didn’t see it, and we might try to change the subject, but moments like these stick like peanut butter.

Some of us might prefer that platypus people have a duck’s bill plastered on their otter’s body, or some sort of distinguishing characteristic to help us separate them from us. We might give them a silly voice or a weird hat reading some of these platypus people stories. Distancing ourselves from different people gives us comfort, but I’ve found most of these people kind, generous, and relatively normal people who had some noteworthy quirks that defined them in a manner I found unforgettable. They spent so many years trying to cover these quirks, in their quest to achieve sameness, that they have accomplished some surprising results.

Almost all of the platypus people depicted in these stories were my good friends at one point or another, and if I were to run into one of them tomorrow, I’m sure our affection for one another would be obvious to anyone who witnessed it. Some of the stories involve character defining moments, others involve characteristic missteps that reveal all of us by contrast, and some of the other ones involve unforgettable types that we know we’ll never meet again no matter how long we live.

Our interest in these people is rooted in the idea that we see a little bit of ourselves in them. We might strive for objectivity, but it’s almost impossible to tackle any subject without some subjectivity. In doing so, as Ms. Elizabeth Alexander said, “We are telling our story while reporting on the stories of others.” We have to hear their stories, process them, and write about them if we ever hope to understand ours better. We have to compare and contrast, laugh and cry, and experience various levels of confusion if we ever hope arrive at some level of clarity.

Don’t Go Chasing Eel Testicles: A Brief, Select History of Sigmund Freud


Late bloomers envy those who knew, at a relatively young age, what they wanted to do for a living. Most of us experienced some moments of inspiration that could lead us down a path, but few of us ever read medical journals, law reviews, or business periodicals in our formative years. We preferred an NFL preview guide of some sort, teenage heartthrob magazines, or one of the many other periodicals that offer soft entertainment value. Most of us opted out of reading altogether and chose to play something that involved a ball instead. Life was all about fun for the kids in our block, but there were other, more serious kids, who we wouldn’t meet until we were older. They may not have known they would become neurosurgeons, but they were so interested in medicine that they devoted huge chunks of their young lives to learning everything their young minds could retain. “How is this even possible?” some of us ask. How are they able to achieve that level of focus at such a young age, we wonder. Are we even the same species?

At an age when so many minds are so unfocused, these people claim some levels of tunnel vision. “I didn’t have that level of focus,” some said to correct the record, “not the level of focus to which you are alluding.” They might have diverged from the central focus, but they had more direction than anyone we knew, and that direction put them on the path of doing what they ended up doing, even if it wasn’t as specific as we might guess.

The questions regarding what we should do for a living has plagued so many for so long that comedian Paula Poundstone captured it with a well-placed joke, and I apologize, in advance, for the creative paraphrasing: “Didn’t you hate it when your relatives asked what you wanted to do for a living? Um, Grandpa I’m 5. I haven’t fully grasped the mechanics or the importance of brushing my teeth yet. Those of us of a certain age have now been on both sides of this question. We’ve been asking our nieces and nephews this question for years without detecting any irony. What do you want to do when you grow up? Now that I’ve been asking this question long enough, I’ve finally figured out why we ask it. Our aunts and uncles asked us this question when we were growing up, because they were looking for ideas. I’m in my forties now, and I’m still asking my nieces and nephews these questions. I’m still looking for ideas.”

Pour through the annals of great men and women of history, and that research will reveal legions of late bloomers who didn’t accomplish anything of note until late in life. The research will also reveal that most of the figures who achieved success in life were just as dumb and carefree as children as the rest of us were, until the seriousness of adulthood directed them to pursue a venture in life that would land them in the annals of history. Some failed more than once in their initial pursuits, until they discovered something that flipped a switch.

Those who know anything about psychology, and many who don’t, are familiar with the name Sigmund Freud. Those who know anything about Freud are aware of his unique theories about the human mind and human development. Those who know anything about his psychosexual theory know we are all repressed sexual beings plagued with unconscious desires to have relations with some mythical Greek king’s mother. What we might not know, because we consider it ancillary to his greater works, is that some of his theories might have originated from Freud’s pursuit of the Holy Grail of nineteenth-century science, the elusive eel testicles.

Although some annals state that an Italian scientist named Carlo Mondini discovered eel testicles in 1777, other periodicals state that the search continued up to and beyond the search of an obscure 19-year-old Austrian’s in 1876.[1] Other research states that the heralded Aristotle conducted his own research on the eel, and his studies resulted in postulations that stated either that the beings came from the “guts of wet soil”, or that they were born “of nothing”.[2] One could guess that these answers resulted from great frustration, since Aristotle was so patient with his deductions in other areas. On the other hand, he also purported that maggots were born organically from a slab of meat. “Others, who conducted their own research, swore that eels were bred of mud, of bodies decaying in the water. One learned bishop informed the Royal Society that eels slithered from the thatched roofs of cottages; Izaak Walton, in The Compleat Angler, reckoned they sprang from the ‘action of sunlight on dewdrops’.”

Before laughing at any of these findings, one must consider the limited resources these researchers had at their disposal, concerning the science of their day. As is oft said with young people, the young Freud might not have had the wisdom yet to know how futile this task would be when a nondescript Austrian zoological research station employed him. It was his first real job, he was 19, and it was 1876. He dissected approximately 400 eels, over a period of four weeks, “Amid stench and slime for long hours” as the New York Times described Freud’s working environment. [3] His ambitious goal was to write a breakthrough research paper on an animal’s mating habits, one that had confounded science for centuries. Conceivably, a more seasoned scientist might have considered the task futile much earlier in the process, but an ambitious, young 19-year-old, looking to make a name for himself, was willing to spend long hours slicing and dicing eels, hoping to achieve an answer no one could disprove.

Unfortunate for the young Freud, but perhaps fortunate for the field of psychology, we now know that eels don’t have testicles until they need them. The products of Freud’s studies must not have needed them at the time he studied them, for Freud ended up writing that his total supply of eels were “of the fairer sex.” Freud eventually penned that research paper over time, but it detailed his failure to locate the testicles. Some have said Freud correctly predicted where the testicles should be and that he argued that the eels he received were not mature eels. Freud’s experiments resulted in a failure to find the testicles, and he moved into other areas as a result. The question on the mind of this reader is how profound was the effect of this failure to find eel testicles on Freud’s later research into human sexual development?

In our teenage and young adult years, most of us had odd jobs that affected us in a variety of ways, for the rest of our working lives. For most, these jobs were low-paying, manual labor jobs that we slogged through for the sole purpose of getting paid. Few of us pined over anything at that age, least of all a legacy that we hoped might land us in annals of history. Most of us wanted to do well in our entry-level jobs, to bolster our character, but we had no profound feelings of failure if we didn’t. We just moved onto other jobs that we hoped we would find more financially rewarding and fulfilling.

Was Freud’s search for eel testicles the equivalent of an entry-level job, or did he believe in the vocation so much that the failure devastated him? Did he slice the first 100 or so eels open and throw them aside with the belief that they were immature? Was there nothing but female eels around him, as he wrote, or was he beginning to see what plagued the other scientists for centuries, including the brilliant Aristotle? There had to be a moment, in other words, when Sigmund Freud realized that they couldn’t all be female. He had to know, at some point, that he was missing the same something everyone else missed. He must have spent some sleepless nights struggling to come up with a different tactic. He might have lost his appetite at various points, and he may have shut out the world in his obsession to achieve infamy in marine biology. He sliced and diced over 400 after all. If even some of this is true, even if it only occupied his mind for four weeks of his life, we can feasibly imagine that the futile search for eel testicles affected Sigmund Freud in a profound manner.

If Freud Never Existed, Would There Be a Need to Create Him

Every person approaches a topic of study from a subjective angle. It’s human nature. Few of us can view people, places, or things in our lives, with total objectivity. The topic we are least objective about, say some, is ourselves. Some say that we are the central topic of speculation when we theorize about humanity. All theories are autobiographical, in other words, and we pursue such questions in an attempt to understand ourselves better. Bearing that in mind, what was the subjective angle from which Sigmund Freud approached his most famous theory on psychosexual development in humans? Did he bring objectivity to his patients? Could he have been more objective, or did Freud have a blind spot that led him to chase the elusive eel testicles throughout his career in the manner Don Quixote chased windmills?

After his failure, Sigmund Freud would switch his focus to a field of science that would later become psychology. Soon thereafter, patients sought his consultation. We know now that Freud viewed most people’s problems through a sexual lens, but was that lens tinted by the set of testicles he couldn’t find a lifetime ago? Did his inability to locate the eel’s reproductive organs prove so prominent in his studies that he saw them everywhere he went, in the manner that a rare car owner begins to see his car everywhere, soon after driving that it off the lot? Some say that if this is how Freud conducted his sessions, he did so in an unconscious manner, and others might say that this could have been the basis for his theory on unconscious actions. How different would Freud’s theories on sexual development have been if he found his Holy Grail, and the Holy Grail of science at the time? How different would his life have been? We could also wonder if Freud would have even switched his focus if he found fame as a marine biologist with his findings.

How different would the field of psychology be today if Sigmund Freud remained a marine biologist? Alternatively, if he still made the switch to psychology after achieving fame in marine biology, for being the eel testicle spotter, would he have approached the study of the human development, and the human mind from a less subjective angle? Would his theory on psychosexual development have occurred to him at all? If it didn’t, is it such a fundamental truth that it would’ve occurred to someone else over time, even without Freud’s influence?

We can state, without too much refutation, that Sigmund Freud’s psychosexual theory has sexualized the beliefs many have about human development, a theory others now consider disproved. How transcendental was that theory, and how much subjective interpretation was involved in it? How much of the subjective interpretation derived from his inability to find the eel testicle fueled it? Put another way, did Freud ever reach a point where he began overcompensating for that initial failure?

Whether it’s an interpretive extension, or a direct reading of Freud’s theory, modern scientific research theorizes that most men want some form of sexual experience with another man’s testicles. This theory, influenced by Freud’s theories, suggests that those who claim they don’t are lying in a latent manner, and the more a man says he doesn’t, the more repressed his homosexual desires are.

The Williams Institute at UCLA School of Law, a sexual orientation law think tank, released a study in April 2011 that stated that 3.6 percent of males in the U.S. population are either openly gay or bisexual.[4] If these findings are even close to correct, this leaves 96.4 percent who are, according to Freud’s theory, closeted homosexuals in some manner. Neither Freud nor anyone else has been able to put even a rough estimate on the percentage of heterosexuals who harbor unconscious, erotic inclinations toward members of the same sex, but the very idea that the theory has achieved worldwide fame leads some to believe there is some truth to it. Analysis of some psychological studies on this subject provides the quotes, “It is possible … Certain figures show that it would indicate … All findings can and should be evaluated by further research.” In other words, no conclusive data and all findings and figures are vague. Some would suggest that these quotes are ambiguous enough that they can be used by those who would have their readers believe that most of the 96.4 percent who express contrarian views are actively suppressing their desire to not just support the view, but to actively involve themselves in that way of life.[5]

Some label Sigmund Freud as history’s most debunked doctor, but his influence on the field of psychology and on the ways society at large views human development and sexuality is indisputable. The greater question, as it pertains specific to Freud’s psychosexual theory, is was Freud a closet homosexual, or was his angle on psychological research affected by his initial failure to find eel testicles? To put it more succinct, which being’s testicles was Freud more obsessed with finding during his lifetime?

 

[1]https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Eel_life_history

 

[2]http://www.theguardian.com/environment/2010/oct/27/the-decline-of-the-eel

 

[3]http://www.nytimes.com/2006/04/25/health/psychology/analyze-these.html

 

[4]https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Demographics_of_sexual_orientation

 

[5]http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/pages/frontline/shows/assault/roots/freud.html

 

Unconventional Thinking vs. Conventional Facts


Like those of us who stray so far from the premise that we can’t see it anymore, Raymond Skiles seeks a different way, a better way, through alternative, and unconventional answers to life’s problems. His line of thinking can be intriguing and refreshing, but it can also be a little troubling. He just doesn’t think like the rest of us do. He scours alternative resources to find alternative routes through our legal system, our financial systems, and in the ways we maintain health. The discussions the two of us have often involve the two of us debating from what I consider an illogical base, while struggling to avoid thinking he has lost his way. I try to be objective, in other words, but as our debates flow in and out of the various rabbit holes he creates, that becomes more and more difficult. I strive to believe that what works for someone like Raymond may not work for me. When Raymond told me that he was going to risk it all based on some alternative information he learned I felt the need to warn him based on my understanding of the issue we were discussing. Was I right? Was he wrong? I thought I was right of course, but I wasn’t overly concerned with him bowing to my logic in this instance. My argument came from a pure place in that I care about him, and I don’t want to see him pursue an avenue I consider ill-advised. If he considered my advice uninformed or in any way worthless, I was fine with that, as long as I thought I did my part to help him see his issues from another perspective.

Raymond Skiles is a dumb guy. We both are. He did as poorly in school as I did, and we both decided to educate ourselves, after our school years, to try to catch up to those who were more engaged in their studies. Being a dumb guy was more state of mind than an absolute characteristic for us, and we spent the rest of our adult lives trying to escape the label. We shared so many characteristics at one point in our lives that some might call us similar. As such, we both fell prey to some bizarre ideas in our youth, but at some point in our respective timelines, we diverged.

The differences that emerged between the two of us can be explained in one simple scenario. If a used car salesman approached us, on separate occasions, with his persuasive sales techniques, we would both enter into the transaction believing that we were smarter, more savvy, and better than a person who chose to become a used car salesman. I don’t know if there was an incident, or an accumulation of such moments that led to some clarity on the matter, but at some point, I realized that I wasn’t half as bright as I thought I was. I realized that while I might now know more than the average person knows about James Joyce, Fyodor Dostoevsky, and U.S. Presidents, that knowledge doesn’t do me any good the moment a guy in polyester leaps out of his balloons saying, “What do I have to do to get you into a car today?” I developed a technique that works best for me. I run away.

Raymond Skiles, on the other hand, knows a thing or two about the techniques used car salesmen employ on unsuspecting customers. By reading alternative websites that warn potential clients about the tactics used car salesmen employ, Raymond believes he knows them, and that he can use that knowledge to defeat them at their game. “You just have to know who they are,” is something he says. “Once you know what he eats for breakfast, who he calls his family, and if he’s stepping out on his wife, you got him where he lives.”

Whereas I recognize the limits of my intelligence the moment I set foot on a salesman’s home turf, Raymond considers it a challenge and a mark of his intelligence to outdo the man. I might over-estimate the craftiness of the average used car salesman, but if they are half as skilled in the art of persuasion as I fear most of them are, they will know who Raymond is. They will then flip the focus of their negotiations into an arena Raymond finds more pleasing. They might even compliment Raymond for the knowledge he has attained of their industry, and they might take a more honest and direct approach in their negotiations, and Raymond might end up paying more for the car than he intended.

***

In this battle between unconventional thinking and following traditional or conventional norms, unconventional thinking is far more seductive. The purveyors of unconventional information seduce us with different knowledge, with the promise that it could lead to more knowledge. When we hear conventional knowledge, we’re more apt to consider the source and frame it accordingly, and then fact check it. When we hear unconventional ideas, however, we have an instinctive, emotional attachment to them. Some part of us wants these ideas to be so true that we put our skepticism aside to embrace them, another part of us believes that unconventional knowledge is the result of skepticism and therefore thoroughly vetted. Some psychologists state that we must make a concerted effort to avoid falling prey to their allure. Those who fall prey to the desire to have more knowledge should heed the warning that quantity does not always equal quality in this regard. There are only so many facts on a given issue, and they’re comparatively boring. Alternative, unconventional avenues are so intriguing and sexy because they can make us feel intelligent for coming up with a unique take on an issue that our peers haven’t considered before. In some cases we should consider those arguments, but in my experience most alternative theories provide nothing more than provocative distractions and obfuscations from the central argument.

Another break between Raymond’s way of thinking and mine occurred when I realized how often alternative theories based on unconventional information are wrong. Conventional information, reported by conventional outlets, is not always true either of course, but I would suggest their batting average is far superior to the alternative outlets. Those who aren’t as results-oriented, appear to put more value in avoiding the word naïve, a label they attach to those of us who believe everything we’re told.

In our discussions on a wide variety of topics, Raymond and I found many differences between how we arrive at a conclusion. We both seek primary source information, corroborating evidence, and perhaps some opinion pieces to bolster our conclusions. At some point, however, I am “easily satisfied” with my findings, whereas Raymond digs deeper. Raymond knows when the subject of a topic is a piece is crud, and Raymond knows the way a piece of crud thinks, and he seeks explanations that detail the piece of crud’s motives in a way Raymond can understand. In Raymond’s search for what he considers total objectivity, he accidentally trips over a critical line between objectivity and subjectivity. He finds subjective speculation regarding the motives of the piece of crud that fit with his theories on the subject in question, and he uses them to develop theories that are mostly autobiographical.

Alien Information

Police officers, working a beat, have a modus operandi (M.O.) they bring to their job: “Believe none of what you hear and half of what you see.” This is the ideal mindset for a law enforcement official working a beat to have. Is this M.O. ideal for a consumer of news, however, an employee who learns information regarding their employer, or a friend listening to another friend tell a story?

A high profile media personality once suggested that skepticism of the press undermines their authority, but the vaunted role the press plays in our republic should require them to combat constant, intense scrutiny, skepticism, and cynicism that makes them uncomfortable. Members of the media should conduct themselves in a manner that welcomes all of that from their audience and defeats it with performance that leads to a solid record they can point to whenever anyone questions them. Wouldn’t the members of the media say the same thing of the subjects they cover?

There is a tipping point, however, when a healthy sense of skepticism creeps into a form of cynicism that believes “none of what I hear and half of what I see.” Such cynicism opens holes in the mind that allows other information to fill it.

As an individual who has an insatiable curiosity for a wide spectrum of thought in regards to human behavior, I have had a number of friends introduce me to a wide array of alternative outlets. They introduce me to various definitions of human psychology through astrology, numerology, and witchcraft. One of these friends introduced me to the idea that aliens from other planets could teach us a lot about ourselves.

This friend provided me a collection of transmitted (or transmuted) messages that these superior beings sent to earthlings. As I read through the information he found, I found that the theme of these messages was that my philosophy was wrong. I found them somewhat humorous, but before I could entirely dismiss them, I learned that my friend considered these messages proof that I was wrong. Although he didn’t say these words exactly, the import of his responses was that I could not argue against statements made by superior life forms.

The first question this skeptic would love to ask authors of human psychology, by way of alien scripture, is why do we assume that aliens from another planet are of a superior intellect? The collective thought, among certain quarters of human authority, suggests that not only is there intelligent life out there, but they’re more intelligent than earthlings can conceive. Even though we have no proof that life exists outside our planet, at this point in our space explorations, it would be foolish to think that the only lifeforms in the universe are those that exist on Earth. If other lifeforms exist, however, we don’t know what form they take. (We assume they are humanoid in form and that they’re here for our water, but if they’re intelligent beyond our comprehension why haven’t they been able to develop a substitute for water, or an artificial way to preserve or increase their supply?) We also don’t know what concerns alien life forms have, or how they think, but we assume that all creatures have the same concerns. The one crucial nugget of information missing in these theories is that we know less than nothing about aliens. If we had some proof that they existed, we could say we know nothing about them, but we don’t even know if they exist. With that in mind, any theories of alien intellectual superiority can only be rooted in the human inferiority complex. 

What would be the point of worshiping a deity who had a level of intelligence equivalent to our own, and what would be the point of reporting on the transmissions from space if the aliens were not of a superior intellect who could teach us a lot about our way of life? My takeaway from this friend’s collection of transmitted (or transmuted) messages was that most of the alien transmissions submitted for the reader’s pleasure have an agenda that suspiciously aligns with the author of the work.

The next time an alien transmits a message that suggests humans are of equal or superior intellect in some ways, “We are in awe of the capabilities of the new iPhone, and we have not found a way to replicate that technology in our labs,” will be the first time I take an alien transmission seriously. The next time an alien transmits a message that has something to do with a compliment regarding human technology in agricultural techniques, “We find the techniques developed by Monsanto Co. awe-inspiring”, will be the first time I re-read an author’s interpretation of their message. One would think that a complex being would know that the best way to persuade another being is to surround criticisms with some compliments. Even if they have no emotions, in the manner most sci-fi movies depict them, it would only be logical for them to suggest that our life form managed to get some things right. What readers receive from aliens, instead, are warnings about our dystopian nature that suspiciously align with human politics.   

We Want it to be True

Unconventional information is so interesting that it’s difficult to read it and say, “That’s just wrong.” We pursue it to hear the angle, the speculative ideas regarding motive, and the idea that the purveyor of such knowledge is fighting against the man, or the status quo. Concerned parties watching such scenarios play out, might want to caution their friends from relying too much on these alternative sources of information. We might want to tell them that doing so could lead them to being vulnerable to half-truths and greater confusion.

When we try to caution them, however, they tell us that they’ve done massive amounts of research on this subject, and most people don’t know the truth. “I know I didn’t,” is something they say before they launch into their speculative theories. The questionable outlets they research often provide them information that confirms their biases and leads them to believe they are more knowledgeable than those who ascribe to conventional truths, because they have massive amounts of different knowledge that they believe equals greater knowledge and truth.

Disciples of alternative knowledge also fail to focus on results. How many of these outlets provide straight, verifiable points that pass peer review? How many of them can point to a verifiable track record of their assertions, as opposed to providing the anecdotal evidence that they promote? How many of their messages devolve into speculation regarding motives that no one can refute? How many of us are skeptical enough of the information that seems so right it has to be true?

Those of us who ascribed to unconventional thoughts at one point in our lives began to see them for what they were, and we came to the uncomfortable conclusion that just because the information we hear is unconventional, alternative, and “what your father doesn’t want you to know” does not mean that it’s correct. We enjoyed the offspring of the counterculture for what it was. We all thought they were so hip that our interest in their thoughts led some programmers to identify and capitalize on the purveyors of unconventional thinking, until those thoughts seduced us into incorporating them into our conventional thinking on some matters.

Whether it is political, social, or any other venue of thought, some people derive definition by fighting against the status quo, but we could say that the status quo is an ever-shifting focus that can lead to so many converting to such thoughts that those thoughts could eventually become status quo, conventional.

I no longer buy a book of unconventional thinking, or befriend an unconventional thinker, with the hope of having them change my mind on a subject. If their ideas persuade me to change my mind, that’s gravy, but I have learned that such thoughts, are often best used to challenge my current worldview, and/or bolster my arguments as I attempt to defeat them. I do not then write this with the intent of changing anyone else’s mind. I do enjoy, however, taking the conventional standpoint and melding it with the unconventional to arrive at what I consider a hybrid of the truth that neither party has considered before.

He Used to Have a Mohawk

The lifelong fascination I have had with these modes of thinking drove a non-fiction piece I wrote called He Used to Have a Mohawk. In this piece, I document the conventional thoughts some might have regarding an individual who decided to have his hair cut in a thin strip on his head. At one point in the main character’s life, he grew an eight inch mohawk, and at another point he dyed it blue. Conventional thinking suggests that he might deserve any ostracizing he receives. Unconventional or non-traditional modes of thought observe that there’s nothing wrong with a person who decides to shave their head in such a manner. This line of thought suggests that it’s on the observer to accept the mohawk wearer for who he or she is as a person. It also suggests that the conventional observer might discover the limits of their preconceived notions or conventional thoughts of a person, by finding out that a person who leaves a thin strip of hair on their head, grows it eight inches, and dyes it blue is actually a beautiful person inside. The approach I took, with this piece, combined the two modes of thought and examined them through the prism of a character who used to have such a haircut.

What kind of person asks a stylist to cut their hair into a mohawk? What happens to them when they age and go back to having what we consider a more traditional haircut? Do they miss the altered perceptions they used to experience when they had the haircut, or do they regret ever having the haircut in the first place?

One of my favorite critiques of this piece stated that the immediate components of this story could lead a reader to find impulsive, emotional offense, until they re-read the piece to carefully understand the complex subtext of the piece through deep analysis. “I like the way you take a mohawk and turn it into something greater than just a simple hairstyle. You give it character that I feel not many others could appreciate,” Amanda Akers wrote.

No matter where the reader stands on the conventional fulcrum of this subject, they must acknowledge that an individual who asks to have their hair cut into a mohawk does so to generate reactions, or different reactions, more than a person with a more traditional haircut might invite on any given day. Some would say that mohawk wearers generate unwanted attention for themselves by wearing such a haircut, but others could say that no attention is unwanted for some.

Another mohawk wearer surprised me one day by wearing it to a Halloween party. I told him that I enjoyed his costume, but he told me it wasn’t a costume. It was his hairdo. When I asked him further, more prodding questions, he said, “I wear my hair flat in the office, but I wear it up when I go out.”

If a mohawk wearer detested those who judge them for such a haircut, he or she could just allow the hair to lay flat. They don’t, I pose, because they enjoy detesting straight-laced people who will never understand them as a person, they enjoy the bond they have with those that sympathize with their plight, and they bathe in the sheer number of reactions they’ve received since they made the decision to wear a mohawk.

I met the main character, who used to have a mohawk, at his wedding. After the wedding was over, the groom’s best man and the bridesmaid both stated, in their toasts, that they wanted to get to know the groom who used to have a mohawk, when he had the mohawk, in part because he had a mohawk. As they learned more about him, to their apparent dismay, they discovered that he was a nice man. As an uninformed bystander, I considered the shock they displayed that a man with a mohawk could be nice, a little condescending. We could view a traditional thinker’s views of a person who has a mohawk as condescending, as they might make generalizations about mohawk wearers, and they might stereotype them. Listening to these toasts, I heard sympathetic souls, who I presumed aligned with unconventional thinking, sound just as condescending as one who might generalize or stereotype. The only distinction was that they were trying to ingratiate themselves to the groom, but I still found it just as condescending.

The groom appeared to bathe in all of it. I watched this man react to these toasts, and I couldn’t tell if he considered it a mark of his character that he had befriended people regardless of the haircut, or if he missed the reactions that he used to generate when he had the mohawk, but my money was on the latter.

The point, as I see it, is that we should maintain a level of skepticism for anything we see and hear, but those who put so much energy into unconventional thoughts often end up more confused on a given subject than enlightened. Forming a hybrid of sorts, is the ideal plane for one to reach as it suggests that while we should remain skeptical in nature, we should also maintain an equal amount of skepticism for enlightened, unconventional thoughts. Yet, as I write, we deem unconventional information to be the result of skepticism thereby granting it immunity from a ledger that scores the thoughts, theories, and ideas.

FOBF: The Fear of Being Foolish

Most people hate being wrong, but we’re willing to concede to the idea that some of us are going to be wrong some of the times. What we cannot abide is the idea that we’re wrong so often that somebody is going to consider us a fool. How many rhetorical devices, tactics, and persuasive techniques have we developed over the years to avoid being called a fool? One thing we do know is that people who believe in nouns (people, places, and things) are more vulnerable to the charge of being a fool, and we seek foolproof status. Due to the fact that most alternative thoughts are rarely shown to be substantially incorrect, unconventional thinkers are shielded against being called a fool. On the off chance that they are incorrect, they might make slight adjustments in their presentation to incorporate the newfound facts, or they just move on. 

“They just move on?” I asked a friend of mine who told me about her unconventional parents. Her parents latched onto just about every conspiracy theory and unconventional theory they ever heard. When the facts rolled out, and they were proven incorrect, they just moved onto the next one. “So, when the rest of us are proven wrong, we have to deal with the ramifications that come our way, but when your parents are wrong, they just move onto the next conspiracy theory? How do they do that?”

“They just do,” she said.

Her parents were prophets of doom, as the millennium neared. They were handing out pamphlets and grain pellets at their church. They believed something would happen on 9/9/99, and when it didn’t, they moved onto the millennium. When nothing happened on 1/1/2000, they suggested that we miscalculated the Aztec calendar, and that the day of doom still awaited us sometime in the near future. They listed a specific date, based on specific calculations, but I don’t remember the exact date, because I knew they would just move on after that date passed. I knew they would just move the date of doom to some date in the all too near future.

This mentality eludes me, because I know, firsthand, the feeling of being so wrong on an issue that people won’t value my assessments in the future as a result. I would’ve been mortified when these dates passed without event, but their daughter informed me that after all those dates passed without event, her parents were handing out pamphlets and grain pellets warning about the next date of doom. I’m still not sure what drives common, every day people to heed the warning of such doomsayers, but I believe it has something to do with the idea that the track record of alternative, unconventional information is somehow immune to criticism. It is foolproof, because the alternative is believing what the “they” want you to believe.

“How can you be so sure that it won’t happen this time?” is something people like my friend’s parents ask.

We can’t be sure, of course, because we are insecure beings who falter in the face of certitude. We’ve also watched too many movies where no one believed the sexy actors who knew something no one else in that production did, and we don’t want to be portrayed by the overweight, unattractive character actor who didn’t believe. They frame this question in a probing, “Who do you think you are?” manner that asks us how many times we’ve been wrong before, and if we’re willing to wager that we know more about this than the experts they list. 

Dumb guys who fell prey to believing far too many alternative, unconventional, and conspiracy theories were so relieved to read some psychologists write that we must all make a concerted effort to avoid falling prey to this type of seduction, because it suggests that we’re all susceptible to their siren calls. Our grades in school haunt us to this day, and we will use any excuse we can find to declare that we’re not as dumb as we think we are. When someone comes along and basically writes that the siren call of these theories are so alluring that all of us must proactively keep our susceptibility in the “off” position, it lends credence to the “shame on you for fooling me” portion of the meme, as long as we maintain the “off” position to prevent the shame from doubling back and making us the fools in the future. Though the psychologists’ conclusion does not absolve us of the idea that we once believed a wide variety of crazy theories and loony conspiracy theories, we do find some comfort in numbers.  

Maintaining this “off” position is not easy, and it is not my intent to suggest that I woke up one day deciding that I was no longer going to believe alternative ideas loaded with unconventional information that can lead to conspiracy theories. It wasn’t any easier for me to avoid their interesting and thought-provoking theories. I simply put forth constant and diligent effort to defeat my susceptibility in this arena. Tune out, turn on, and defeat was the credo I used anytime I encountered sexy, enticing pieces that lead to emotional reactions. Current and future stories such as those are as difficult to ignore as all the previous ones were, but after mentally charting all of their hypothetical guesses, based on alternative thinking that many considered unconventional, I was finally able to break the leash.

 

Scorpio Man III: Everything Has Changed


This, I am happy to announce, will be the final installment in the Scorpio Man series. Recent findings from NASA, detailed in a NASA1 blog post, declared that the axis of the Earth has changed, and they reminded us that there is a thirteenth constellation Ophiucus. NASA declared that these recent findings require a change in date ranges in the astrological signs, as we know them. They declare this a correction. I call it a miracle, the 9/26/2016 miracle, because it has brought about an end to my suffering. As of this date, I no longer have to worry about some nosy busybody badgering me for my date of birth. I no longer have to lie when they do, for I am no longer a man born under the sign ruled by Mars the god of war and Pluto the god of the underworld. The prejudicial preconceptions people have of those born under the Scorpio ecliptic no longer apply to me. I no longer have to endure those who claim to sense a murderous, dark force within me, and I no longer have to endure the Scorpio Man Evolvement courses to keep those inclinations at bay. I no longer have to partake Ms. Edgeworth’s in-group sessions, nor do I have to take the pharmaceuticals and participate in the Emotional Support Animal program that Ms. Maria Edgeworth prescribed to help me deal with the emotional trauma I’ve dealt with as a result. It’s all over for me now, as of 9/26/2016, a day that shall live in infamy for me, for the realignment of the stars declare me a perfectly balanced specimen of a man, a man of partnership, equality, justice, and objectivity man. By the powers vested in NASA, I am now Libra Man.

I don’t know if the annual Scorpio Man entries on this topic, over the last three years, appeared contrived. They weren’t. After discovering my powers, I decided to post a complaint about the prejudicial treatment I endured from those who insist that men born when the Sun was in the Scorpio ecliptic are the incarnation of a dark force. My intention, in that first testimonial, was to try to change minds about men born under the sign of Scorpio, and to try to spread awareness in a way that I hoped might lead to a national conversation on this matter. The second testimonial was an unplanned report on the progress I made to that point in my Scorpio Man Evolvement courses. After rereading that second installment, I gather that some might assume I enjoyed the process. To those people I ask, have you ever heard of the Stockholm syndrome? For those who haven’t, it involves the idea that one develops feelings of trust, and in some cases affection for their captors. In writing such a thing, I do not intend to minimize those who are actually kidnapped, or in any held against their will, but I harbored some feelings of being unable to escape my plight while appreciating the efforts my captors put forth to free me.

Every time I entered Mrs. Edgeworth’s office I did so voluntarily, and I followed my girlfriend, Faith Anderson’s wishes voluntarily. I felt trapped by this idea that I wanted people to like me, and from what I could see, they didn’t. Some were even afraid of me. I can understand that some people might fear any grown man, while alone with them in an elevator, but I am not a tall man, nor am I any larger than the average male. I don’t know if these reactions to me subsided and I missed it, or if my Scorpio Man characteristics flared as I aged, but prior to this recent phenomenon, I’ve never intimidated another person my whole life. Even when it served a purpose, I’ve never been able to intimidate people. It might be my fair skin, or my baby blue eyes, but no one considered me an intimidating presence before the last couple of years. I intended this testimonial to be a laundry list of complaints regarding the lack of progress I made to that point in the Scorpio Man Evolvement, but the tiny, little NASA miracle rendered all of those complaints moot. I feel for those few who continue to endure the plight of the Scorpio Man, and I have empathy for those forced to endure the toxic climate created over the last 2,000 years, but I am no longer one of them, and I officially bid them adieu.

As an industrious, self-driven man, I don’t often admit despair, but a feeling of powerless overwhelmed me in the last couple of years. The forces that sought to ostracize, impugn, and relegate others to some sort of generalization can be so powerful that it is difficult for the subject to defeat internally and otherwise.

My Natural Psychologist, Ms. Maria Edgeworth informed me that my progress toward the enlightenment that awaited me in second stage of Scorpio Evolution, The Eagle Totem stage, was exemplary.

As these testimonials illustrate, she said that to me many times. The last time she said it to me, I said, “If this is progress, then you’ll have to define the word for me.” I informed her that I felt great about myself, and this suggestion of progress, while in our sessions, “but the minute I walk out that door, it’s one step forward two steps back.” I told her that young children and women continue to flee when I exposed myself to their opinions. Then the lovely Faith dumped me because of my inability to confront my pre-existing limitations, and she stated that my failure to transmute and evolve past them suggested that I had not made the commitments necessary for spiritual growth.

What I didn’t tell Ms. Edgeworth, because I couldn’t summon the courage to say it to anyone, much less her, was that I found out that Faith was with someone, days later, and I suspected that the true nature of our breakup was more self-serving than Faith would admit. Regardless why we broke up, I found myself feeling as alone as I did the day I started the evolvement courses and their subsequent group sessions.

Ms. Edgeworth considered our breakup a traumatic episode that could impede my progress, and she suggested that I might need temporary, emotional, and external support to give me the strength necessary to get back on the road to progress. Ms. Edgeworth prescribed what she called an Emotional Support Animal (ESA). I heard of the ESA program, I saw dogs in airports and restaurants, and I knew about their attachments to the program, but I told her that was skeptical that such a program could work for me.

“What are pets, when we boil the concept of the companionship they provide us down to its most basic definition? They’re our friends,” Mrs. Edgeworth said. “I wouldn’t want to limit anyone’s definition of what a pet is, as my Gordon has provided my life so much more than mere companionship. To a person who has never had a relationship with a pet, however, I think someone like Gordon might fulfil some of your needs, even if only temporarily.”

I was in a vulnerable state, and she knew it.

Ms. Edgeworth went on to provide further details of this program, as she pulled up a webpage on her iPad that documented first person testimonials of the benefits the ESA program provided those suffering from what Ms. Edgeworth called similar, post-traumatic stress disorders (PTSDs). While I read the testimonials on that webpage, she added that she considered the ESA program such a worthwhile venture that she placed her own dog in it.

“Gordon is a 173-pound Newfoundland,” she said, “so his size might intimidate some, but he is just about the sweetest dog I’ve ever met, and I’ve had dogs as companions since I was about twelve.” She paused here. She spoke in the manner she always did when she was about to open a wound. “I think the companionship Gordon could provide you would be beneficial. I suggest you try him out for a weekend. You can take him places now. The laws in this state have changed. I’m sure you’ve seen dogs in airports and restaurants. You’ve said sitting alone in restaurants makes you feel lonely, now that you and Faith have broken up, and I think Gordon can help you. You try it out. Just for a weekend. You tell me what you think.”

I deferred to Ms. Edgeworth’s abilities as a Natural Psychologist, of course, but I had no idea the expense involved. The state changed their laws, as she suggested, but these new ESA laws required the prospective participant write a therapy letter that required a mental health professional evaluation. The law also required that each individual patient purchase an ESA vest. An ESA travel kit is also required, regardless if the prospective participant plans to travel or not, and this includes the registration card and a survival guide. On top of that, I had to pay Ms. Edgeworth’s rental fees, and the high-priced food that Gordon eats. Ms. Edgeworth was kind enough to provide the necessary evaluation of my therapy letter at her customary hourly fee, and she said she could provide the various other products I would need at her retail prices. I probably should’ve been more skeptical when she placed the bill before me, but I was in such a desperate place at that time in my life, and I considered Gordon a light at the end of my dark, lonely tunnel.

I wasn’t sure what to expect of Gordon, but when I met him, I was giddy. The thought that the sanctioned companionship of this dog might help me progress through mental health channels was such that I thought he might change my life.

As Ms. Edgeworth warned, Gordon’s size was intimidating, but his almost comically sad face and the very sweet disposition countered that. I laughed when I saw him. This laughter was born of the preposterous nature of the idea that he could help me, but it was also born of the idea that it was so silly that it might just work. I tried everything else, I rationalized, who am I to say that the companionship this dog offers cannot offer healing properties. On top of all that, Gordon was such a beautiful dog that I wanted to love him, just to love something, just to revive those feelings of completion that my relationship with Faith Anderson provided.

I am not a dog guy. I am not a cat guy, a goldfish guy, or a pet guy in general. My family had a couple of dogs when I was younger, but I never bonded with them in the manner kids normally do. It’s not that I have a problem with animals. I don’t loathe them, and I am not afraid of them. They are just not for me, but I was eager to pursue any idea that I thought might get me out of the funk I was in, until Mrs. Edgeworth informed me that Gordon would need to lick my face to establish a relationship between us.

The need dogs have to lick is the primary reason I’ve never had anything more than a passing relationship with a dog. I understand that dogs are no different from humans in requiring some form of link that makes them comfortable with a total stranger. I’ve fed dogs special treats in the foyer of their home, I’ve avoided eye contact with them until shaking hands with one, and I’ve pet numerous dogs until they were comfortable enough with me to leave me alone. I’ve never heard of a dog who needed to lick a person to establish that link before, and to be frank I thought less of Ms. Edgeworth for suggesting it.

The very idea of anyone, or anything, licking my face repulses me, and I have had to restrain myself on those rare occasions when a friend’s dog would sneak in a lick of my arm or leg. It’s just a leg or an arm, I think to coach myself down, but I am unable to control my emotions when a dog licks me in the face. I’ve lost control, I’ve yelled things, and I probably made a fool out of myself, but it’s very traumatic to me. I don’t know if I have some deep-rooted psychological issue, or if it’s just so disgusting to me that I can’t control my reaction, but I consider a lick to the face an affront every bit as personal as a slap to the face.

I told Ms. Edgeworth all of this. All of it. It confused her. Even after all of our counselling sessions, the facts of my being confused this woman. She informed me that to Gordon, a lick was the equivalent to a handshake, and that the two of us wouldn’t be able to work together, unless I allowed Gordon a lick. I don’t know if the dilemma at hand absorbed me, but I swear I saw a plea in Gordon’s face, as she said this.

“If you’re aversion to licking is that intense,” Ms. Edgeworth said. “We may want to consider allowing him to sniff either your crotch or your backside. I’ve never tried it before, but it may be an alternative. It’s up to you, but we have to find a way to allow Gordon to bond with you, on Gordon’s terms.”

When faced with this alternative, I considered a lick to the face preferable. I thought it might prove less traumatic than voluntarily placing my crotch in front of the dog. I’ve never tried to get a dog to sniff my crotch before, but I suspected that it would require numerous attempts as the dog likely wouldn’t know what we were trying to do at first. I suspected that I might confuse Gordon’s confusion with some sort of rejection. As a person who never owned a dog before, I also wondered if they ever smelled something in a human’s anus or crotch that they found so unattractive that they wanted to progress. I flirted with all of these notions, but the primary reason I went forward with this interaction was that my vulnerabilities were so intense, at the time, that I didn’t think I could endure even an unwitting rejection from a canine.

When Gordon licked me, a part of me expected a spiritual connection to develop, but this was no single swipe of the tongue. This full-fledged, pore-penetrating lick led me to believe I may have lost some layers of skin in the process. The tongue on this massive beast was the width of four of my fingers. My recollections of this lick occur in slow motion, and I imagined that it took a full five seconds, though I know it only lasted a second. The saliva of the Newfoundland is renowned for its near-gelatinous quality, but what I felt on my face reminded me of the congealed substance that the alien in the movie Alien had dripping from its mouth. I immediately moved to scrub my face raw to rid myself of what I assumed might disfigure my face, but Ms. Edgeworth stopped me.

“Don’t wipe it off yet,” Ms. Edgeworth said. “Not until he looks away, anyway,” she cautioned.

Gordon’s sad eyes stayed on me for an elongated period, until he looked at Ms. Edgeworth. I took that occasion to begin wiping it off, and I was in the process of sprinting to the bathroom to begin scrubbing when she squealed:

“He likes you.” Whatever she saw in his face affirmed her hope we would get along, and she was giddy. She was clapping. “You’re in!” I heard her say before I closed the bathroom door behind me.

When Ms. Edgeworth convinced me that the initial lick was often all Gordon needed, and that he wasn’t a licker, I retained Gordon’s services for the next weekend. I signed up for a night shift on Friday, the day shift on Saturday, and a short day shift on Sunday.

I was a little skeptical, seeing as how I was, in essence, paying Ms. Edgeworth to babysit her dog for a weekend while she engaged in an active social life, but the next Scorpio Man group session I attended quelled those fears. One Scorpio Man sang the praises of ESA program in general, and Gordon in particular. He said that Gordon was a loving dog who sought constant companionship, and he said that feeding, watering, and walking Gordon also provided a sense of responsibility that distracted him from his pain in life. Another Scorpio Man stood up and detailed for the group how Gordon gave him the courage to make a clean break from organized religion. I wasn’t sure how valid these claims were, but I knew that these men believed what they were saying. I couldn’t help but feel awed by such claims, and I looked forward to witnessing my own progress in this regard.

When Gordon began whimpering at my table, that first night at a Denny’s, I tore off a bite of my sandwich and fed it to him. When he whimpered more, I gave another, larger one. I thought the dog was begging in a rather aggressive manner, and even though I considered him a nice dog with a sweet disposition, he intimidated me too. As the dog continued to wolf down whatever food I gave him, I began calculating how much it would cost me to keep this enormous dog fed when he began walking around in small, tight circles. I thought he was searching for a comfortable place to rest.

I’ve never owned a pet as an adult, as I said, and I never paid much attention to those who did. If a conversation about dogs arose among my friends, I would tune them out until they switched subjects. I write this to illustrate how foreign a dog’s characteristics and routines are to me. If the others in the restaurant knew these patterns of behavior better than I did, and they said nothing, it was on them when Gordon proceeded to arch his back and lower his bottom to dispense extraneous nutrients. I, honestly, didn’t know what was going on, until it was too late.

I wouldn’t call the sounds the other patrons at Denny’s made shrieks or screams, but they did make sounds when the dog began responding to his biological needs after I failed to do so. After those sounds ended, the giggles of younger people at a nearby table were the only sounds to hear. I was embarrassed when I saw the source of the commotion, but what could I do? How does one stop a dog, once they’ve started the process? I was so embarrassed, looking out on the patrons, and I decided to pretend that nothing out of the ordinary happened.

Two patrons stood up, their meal half-eaten, and left the restaurant without paying.

“Excuse me sir,” the waiter said. “I believe your dog has gone to the bathroom on our carpet.”

“I know,” I said. “And I am sorry. I’m sorry!” I called the latter out to the remaining patrons.

“We’re going to have to ask you to clean it up,” he said.

I showed him the evaluation that Ms. Edgeworth provided my therapy letter. I showed him Gordon’s registration card, and I informed him that I didn’t think cleaning up after Gordon would be conducive to my therapeutic progress. “I’m a man born under the astrological sign of the Scorpio, during Pluto’s once-in-a-lifetime transiting influence.” I said. I thought that would bring clarity to our discussion.

The waiter gave me that look that I detailed in my first testimonial, and I could feel my therapy begin to regress under the weight of that look.

“You brought the dog in sir,” the waiter concluded. “I believe it’s your responsibility to clean up after it.”

“Sorry,” I said. “I can’t.”

The waiter consulted his manager, who promptly left the stand at the front of the restaurant, went to the bathroom to retrieve some toilet paper, and scooped up Gordon’s offense.

I informed Ms. Maria Edgeworth how much stress the ordeal caused me, and she decided that we needed to explore the benefits of her Eastern Medicine cabinet. We tried this before, of course, and I was dubious about their medicinal properties. I also informed her that I considered them too expensive for my budget.

“I understand,” Ms. Maria Edgeworth said, “but at this point, a better question may be can you afford not to?”

Ms. Edgeworth was an excellent Natural Psychologist. She administered to my needs, throughout the years of our professional relationship, in a manner that suggested that she cared about me, as a person. She listened to everything I had to say, she offered me advice, and she was a patient steward of my life. I write this disclaimer, based on her reaction to my claim that Gordon did me more harm than good. Her claim that I needed to pursue the pharmacology of the Eastern Medicine was so, how should I say this, urgent. She even placed me on a timetable for payment, which she never did before, and she placed me on a timetable for taking these drugs, saying that I needed to do something to help me get past the trauma Faith’s breakup caused me. The prospect of doing nothing, and its probable effect on my progress prompted me to say that I would do some research on that which she prescribed. I didn’t even want to do that, but I was in pain, and I wanted that to end as quickly as possible.

I had that itemized list of medicines before me, off to the left of my laptop. I was involved in research on the medicinal properties of the drugs on that list, and I had already checked three off. As a person who lives paycheck-to-paycheck, with various other bills and whatnot, I calculated that I might not be able to make the payments on these drugs, according to Ms. Edgeworth’s timetable. Therefore, I entered my company’s website and saw that some overtime would be available to me at the click of a mouse. I entered the amount of hours I thought I would need, and all I had to do was click the enter button and my next two weekends would be gone. I was reluctant to hit that button, of course, as I enjoyed my weekends, but I knew it had to do something. With the blinking cursor in the blank, I surfed around on the net through all of the meaningless websites I normally read, and that’s when I stumbled upon the miracle.

It started with a simple, little link on an alternative news site. The link to this story read, “NASA changed all of the Astrological Signs, and I’m a Crab Now.” I wouldn’t say that the article moved me in anyway when I first read it. I read the article in about a minute, and I reread it for the next five. I attempted to process what this article suggested, and how it pertained to my life, but my emotions drifted between euphoria and confusion. It seemed odd that after 3,000 years of study that everything could just change like that. It seemed so arbitrary. It seemed like a spoof.

I’ve fallen for so many online stories before that I became a primary source reader. I went up to the title of the article. I wanted to make sure it wasn’t a piece from The Onion, or some other spoof news site. I went to an independent search engine and entered the words, “NASA changes Astrology”. I took a deep breath, I hit enter, and one of the first posts listed was a link on the previous article from a kid’s site called NASASpacePlace. It appeared as a kiddie information page will, but it also appeared to confirm the declarations made by what I worried might be spoof pieces. Rereading this, and reading again that it was from NASA, I decided that it was a page designed for kids, but various lines on the site suggested that it was from NASA. I clicked on links on the page and searched the various authoritative names listed on the site to verify that they worked for NASA. As excited as I was, I tried to remain skeptical. I tried to determine how anyone could consider this anything but primary source information. I watched YouTube discussions on the matter. I watched news clips from local and national broadcasts. By the time I read this information, it was days old, and several outlets had secondary information on it. After getting burned by so many online stories before,

That idea that this piece was from NASA should’ve been sufficient. After everything I had been through, however, I couldn’t achieve a sense of confirmation that brought me peace, until I had overwhelming evidence of the fact that everything had changed.

I felt free. I felt peaceful and fair-minded. I felt like a balanced man who seeks the cooperation his fellow men and women are more than willing to offer. I felt more diplomatic, and gracious. I felt like a social man who no longer needed the accompaniment of a dog in a Denny’s restaurant. I felt like a Libra man.

Here are the facts I attained from exhaustive searches, for those suffering from anything close to what I’ve experienced. NASA decided to do the math on the astronomy put forth by the Babylonians, and they discovered that there are 13 constellations in the original zodiac, and that the Babylonians arbitrarily left 13th constellation, Ophiucus, off because they already created a 12-month calendar, and they apparently didn’t want to go through the messy details of correcting that error. Other sites confirmed the fact that NASA, and the astrology community as a whole, have known about the Ophiuchus constellation, and arbitrary calculations of the Babylonians for years. I enter this for the sole purpose of refuting the use of the term discovered, as if the use of that term pertains to something that they just found to be true. They didn’t recently find it, most of the articles detail, they’ve known about it for decades. They also detailed that:

“The sky has shifted because the Earth’s axis (North Pole) doesn’t point in quite the same direction that it once did.

“The constellations are different sizes and shapes,” NASA furthered. “So the Sun spends different lengths of time lined up with each one. The line from Earth through the Sun points to Virgo for 45 days, but it points to Scorpius for only 7 days. To make a tidy match with their 12-month calendar, the Babylonians ignored the fact that the Sun actually moves through 13 constellations, not 12. Then they assigned each of those 12 constellations equal amounts of time. Besides the 12 familiar constellations of the zodiac, the Sun is also aligned with Ophiuchus for about 18 days each year.”

“What took them so long?” I whispered to myself. Why did NASA decide to come forward with this information now? How long did they wait? When did the Earth’s shift become apparent? At what point did the manipulation of the Babylonians become mathematically apparent and how long was NASA sitting on this information? I’m speculating here, but something tells me that one of the reasons that NASA listed the excuse that “Astronomy is not Astrology” is that they knew the chaos this would cause so many people. Something tells me that the men and women of NASA sat around boardrooms trying to figure out a way to reveal their findings, but they didn’t have the courage to come out with this information sooner. If they had come out with this sooner, and the article said they knew about this error 3,000 years ago, they could’ve eased my suffering a lot sooner.

One answer I found is that we live on, and I quote, “a wobbly earth”.

“This wobble, a phenomenon called precession, has altered the position of the constellations we see today.”

This begs the question, what defines a person? Some say parents are the ones who best define a person, and that family and friends are almost as influential. Other suggest that class and the location of one’s maturity are other mitigating factors, as in even a person born in Saint Louis is going to view the world in a fundamentally different way than a person born ten hours away in small town, Kansas. Those who I listened to for too many years said, in a roundabout manner, that a person born under the Sagittarius ecliptic, for example, is going to be the same whether they were born in the depths of poverty, in a third world country, or in the richest cities of the richest nations on earth, until, apparently, the earth wobbles.

One of the unfortunate characteristics of the Libra Man that I’ve known for so long is that we do hold grudges. As a newfound Libra Man, I would like to direct my first official grudge at the Babylonians. They developed the 12-month calendar, and they wanted their constellations to match that calendar, so they arbitrarily picked a constellation, Ophiuchus, to leave off and thus match that calendar. I’m quite sure that if they knew that this calendar, and its accompanying listing of the Sun’s movement, would last 3,000 years, they might have reconsidered leaving one constellation out, but my question is why did it take so long for modern man to make this correction? Do those who decided to wait have any sympathy for those who have suffered for so long? We’ve been through personal and financial hell because of their delay, to prove that the Mars the god of war and Pluto the god of the underworld didn’t rule us, and that no dark forces ruled some part of our nature.

I don’t care what it is, any time something earth shattering of this nature arises true believers will say something to account for these changes. They say that they knew all along, that there are different kinds of astrology, and that it’s more a reading of relationships between stars, planets and other heavenly bodies than it is a direct reading of a person’s nature through the stars. It was for this reason that Ms. Edgeworth proclaimed that I was making a mistake by firing her, and “that would be only be fully realized over time.”

“Did you read the latest NASASpacePlace post,” I asked her over the phone. She said she had. “Then you know,” I said with less confidence. “Everything has changed.”

“Nothing has changed,” she said, adding my name to the tail end of that sentence. “NASA works from a Sidereal Zodiac, which is different from the Tropical Zodiac you and I have been working from in your therapy. The Tropical Zodiac has not changed. Astronomers have known about the differences between the two studies and the 13th constellation since about 100 B.C. It’s been rumored for a year that NASA would be evaluating the findings of astronomers from the Minnesota Planetarium Society found regarding the moon’s gravitational pull on Earth, and the affect it had on the alignment of the stars.”

“Okay,” I said. “Why didn’t you tell the rest of us? Why did you lead some of us to believe that astrology was based, in part, on a science consistent with astronomy?”

“As I’ve always said,” she said in a manner politicians will when they have been inconsistent or vague on an issue. She also concluded this intro with another mention of my name. I don’t think Ms. Edgeworth was lying to me, but I do think there was an element of desperation in her attempts to persuade me. When I hear someone say my name in a repetitive manner, I suspect that they are trying to make a deep, personal connection to help me avoid the central theme of our discussion.

“Astrology is geocentric. It involves the children of earth, and the mother of nature, and the dramatic effects of her seasons. It’s also been in place since Ptolemy first made calculations on the Zodiac for Tropical, or Western astrology. This strain of the zodiac is not affected by NASA’s recalibration.”

“Then why have a number of publications decided to publish new star dates based on NASA’s findings?” I asked. “I’ve noticed that some of these publications are sitting in your waiting area.”

When she answered this question, I thought about what a beautiful woman Ms. Edgeworth is. Ms. Edgeworth is a very smart person, with a rich vocabulary, and a person who should have received an honorary degree in persuasion, but she is also extremely beautiful. The reason this matters is that in my plight to find happiness, I believed everything she said. I believed every proclamation, every diagnosis, and every prescription she provided for what ailed me, because I wanted to believe her. I also thought about the urgency she displayed when the experiment with Gordon fell through, and how quickly she wanted to get me on pharmaceuticals, with a scheduled payment timetable. Our relationship was such that I had no reason to be skeptical, but I couldn’t help but think that she knew I, and all of her clientele would read this NASA report, and she probably figured that it might do some damage to her business. I knew I was regarding Mrs. Edgeworth in a manner that might’ve been unfair, but while she spoke, I considered the idea that she wanted me to pay her as much money as I could before I found this NASA report.

Even as I was considering Mrs. Edgeworth’s actions in the most cynical manner possible, I didn’t want to believe any of it. I wanted to believe she was so beautiful that she knew a secret password, or handshake, to the world of beautiful women. I thought she could tell me something I missed. I began to wonder, as she continued to answered my question, if her appearance had been bland, and she was slightly overweight, if I would’ve spent years, and as much money as I had, in our professional relationship. She did answer every question I had, sort of. She answered me bold in some areas, but in others, she deflected, obfuscated, and outright avoided my question.

“I’ve decided to go another way,” I said when she finally finished.

“Okay, I understand,” she said, “but I want you to understand that it is possible that not only we will lose any progress we’ve made together, but you might regress.”

“I understand that,” I said, “and I appreciate all that you’ve done for me, but I think it’s in my best interests to pursue other avenues.”

“I-I’m sorry to hear that,” she said, again mentioning my name. She sounded so sad. There were tears in her voice. She sounded like a jilted lover, and that hurt. That hurt me. My resolve, in the silence that followed, nearly broke. I wanted to be happy, but I also wanted her to be happy. She was, is, and always will be a nice person, and this hold she had on me was difficult to break.

I knew I never had unusual inclinations to murder, a dark side if you will, and these feelings have now been borne out. I knew that that designation was not correct when it came to me. I believed that it was as unfair as suggesting that all Italians have fiery tempers, and all Irish drink massive amounts of beer, but the people around me believed these things about the Scorpion Man, and they convinced me that I needed to expunge something from my being.

I contemplated suing NASA for the delays they had in coming forth with this information that cost me thousands of dollars. I asked my lawyer what he thought, and he said, “I would not take such a case,” my lawyer said, “but if you really want to pursue this, and I would recommend that you do not, I will set you up with another who will. My concern is that whatever money you have left, after your episode, will probably be gone after this lawsuit is over, and I highly doubt you’ll be satisfied with the result.” I told him it might be worth it, however, just to go through the discovery phase of a trial to learn what information NASA had and when. When did they discover the purposeful error on the part of the Babylonians, and when did they decide to make this information public? How much money have I, and others, spent in the interim, trying to convince the world that while all of us have dark sides, the dark side of the supposed Scorpio Man is no more prominent than any others?

I decided not to pursue a case and focus all of my attention on the idea that I’m free now. I don’t care what excuses Astrologists conjure up. I know nothing about the differences between Tropical and Sidereal Astrology, and I honestly don’t care. My desperation to be something better led me to believe in something I now consider exposed as an arbitrary study. Writers of horoscopes may not uniquely tailor them to apply to every individual reading them, as the Forer Effect suggests, and Astrology might have some science to it, but I am free of those concerns. I no longer have to lie about the Sun’s positioning at the time of my birth. I can feel comfortable, for the first time in my life, about my celestial phenomenon in relation to my Sun’s positioning. I feel free to look people in the eye again. I no longer have to endure expensive and intensive Scorpio Evolvement sessions, and Ms. Maria Edgeworth’s group sessions with those of us suffering from Male Scorpion debilities. I have been able to fire Ms. Maria Edgeworth, and all of her expensive and extensive treatments, and the stars now consider me a man of balance, a Libra Man, thanks to NASA. I do have some empathy for those few who are still under the Scorpio classification, though they have narrowed Scorpio date range to less than a week, November 23 to November 29. This is largely a good thing, as there should be as few Scorpions as possible on this planet, but I am no longer one of them. I am Libra Man.

They’re Platypus People


“Did you know that your friend’s dad is an infidel?” Mrs. Francis Finnegan asked me, as I stood just outside the door of her home. Her greeting did not intimidate me, because it was not unprecedented. I received these greetings whenever I drove to the Finnegan home to pick up her son for the night, and she answered the door. I received this greeting when she had a topic that she wanted to discuss before we went out. I referred to it as her headline hello.

It’s possible that Mrs. Finnegan greeted me at the door in a more traditional way in the beginning, but I don’t remember it. She may have greeted other, less familiar people in that manner, but I never saw it. As far as I was concerned, she greeted everyone at the door with a provocative introduction to the family discussion of the day, in a manner similar to the headlines that newspaper editors use to draw attention to a story.

“Hey, it’s mister cigarette smoker!” she said to introduce me to the Finnegan family discussion of the day, regarding my smoking habits. “It’s the heavy metal dude!” she said on another day, to introduce me to the discussion we were about to have regarding my decision to wear a denim jacket, a t-shirt of whatever band I was listening to at the time, and jeans, or as she put it ‘my heavy metal dude gear’. I was fair game for these family discussions, Mrs. Finnegan said, because I had such a heavy influence on her beloved son. She also informed me that the state of my home suggested that I needed more guidance.

The “Your best friend’s dad is an infidel” greeting informed me that the Finnegan family discussion of the day would involve a detailed account of her husband’s recent business trip to Las Vegas in which “he happened to get himself some [girl]”. I write the word ‘girl’ here, in place of the more provocative P word that Mrs. Finnegan used to describe the other party in Greg Finnegan’s act of infidelity.

Mrs. Finnegan was a religious woman who rarely used profanity or vulgarity. She reserved such words for moments when she needed to wound the pride of the object of her scorn, and those times when she felt she needed to pique the ears of the listener. She used these words with a Look what you’ve made me do! plea in her voice to further subject the subject of her violation to greater shame.

Hearing her use such a vulgar word was not as shocking to me as hearing her use the word ‘infidel’ in an incorrect manner however. As a self-described word nerd, Mrs. Finnegan prided herself on proper word usage. She informed me on another occasion, half-joking, that I was her apprentice. She loved teaching me and I was her eager student, and I viewed that assessment in that light, in the beginning. As the years went by, however, I began to believe she said that to relieve her of whatever guilt she may have felt for correcting every other word that came out of my mouth. There were times when I was almost afraid to open my mouth around her, lest she correct me, but I did enjoy our respective roles in this relationship.

My initial thought was that the emotional turmoil of this moment caused the faux pas, but her diction was so proper and refined that I didn’t consider her capable of such a slip. Prior to that presumed faux pas, I thought I caught her violating the conventions of languages number of times, but she always assured me that she was correct. I would go home, look them up, and find out that by the strict rules of our language she was correct.

Even during the most tumultuous Finnegan family discussions, the woman managed to mind her rules of usage well. Thus, when she made the error of attributing the word infidel to her husband’s act of infidelity, I assumed she intended the slip to pique the interest of the listener in the manner her sparse use of profanity and vulgarity could. Either that, I thought, or she was attempting to creatively conflate the incorrect use of the word, and the correct one, with an implicit suggestion that not only had her husband violated his vows to her, but his vows to God. I knew I might be overthinking the issue, but her violation was that unprecedented.

My friend James was sitting on the couch, next to his father, when I entered the Finnegan home. The two of them were a portrait of shame. They sat in the manner a Puggle sits in the corner of the room after having made a mess on the carpet.

James mouthed a quick ‘Hi!’ to me, as I walked by him, and he pumped his head up to accentuate that greeting. He then resumed the shamed position of looking at one spot on the carpet.

“Mr. Finnegan decided to go out to Las Vegas and get him some [girl]!” Mrs. Finnegan said when I entered the living room. I did not have enough time to sit when she said that. When I did, I sat as slow as the tension in the room allowed, an air that did not permit quick motions.

“Tell him Greg,” she said.

“France, I don’t think we should be airing our dirty laundry in front of outsiders,” Greg Finnegan complained. The idea that he had been crying prior to my entrance was evident. His eyes were rimmed red, and they were moist. He did not look up at Francis, or me, when he complained. He, like James, remained fixated on a spot on the carpet.

France was the name Mrs. Finnegan grew up with, and she hated it. Only her immediate family members addressed her with such familiarity. She had very few adult friends, but to those people she was Frances. To everyone else, she was Mrs. Finnegan. She may have allowed others to call her less formal names, but I never heard it. Mrs. Finnegan was not one to permit informalities.

“NO!” Mrs. Finnegan yelled. That yell was so forceful that had the room contained an actual Puggle, it would’ve scampered from it, regardless if it were the subject of her scorn. “No, he has to learn,” she said pointing at me, while looking at her husband. “Just like your son needs to learn, just like every man needs to learn their evil ways.”

A visual display followed that verbal one. It was carried into the living room by the daughter. The daughter appeared as unemotional about this particular family discussion as she had the prior ones. In my experience, she was more of an observer to the goings on in the Finnegan home than a participant. She rarely offered an opinion, unless it backed up her mother’s assessments and characterizations, and she was never the subject of her mother’s scorn. She was the dutiful daughter, and she walked into the room, carrying the display, in that vein. She carefully positioned it on living room table and pulled supports out so that it could stand without manual aid. She then went about lighting all of the candles in the display. When she was done she sat as silently as she completed all those actions.

Mrs. Finnegan allowed the display of Greg Finnegan’s shame to rest on the living room table for a moment without comment. The display was a multi-tiered, wood framed, structure with open compartments that allowed for wallet-sized photos. The structure of the frame was a triangle, but anyone who looked around the Finnegan family home knew of Mrs. Finnegan’s fondness for pyramids. Greg Finnegan purchased the triangle to feed into Mrs. Finnegan’s fascination with pyramids, but it didn’t have the full dimensions of a pyramid. When the daughter pulled the supports out, however, the frame rested at an angle. At that angle, the frame appeared to be one-fourths of a pyramid.

Before this discussion began, Mrs. Finnegan somehow managed to secure enough unique photos of the “harlot, slut, home wrecker” to fill each of the open compartments in the pyramid, so that the bottom level had five photos, the next level up had four, and so on, until one arrived at a single photo at the top. Each photo had a small votive candle before it to give the shrine of Greg Finnegan’s shame an almost holy vibe.

“It’s the pyramid of shame,” Mrs. Finnegan informed me with a confrontational smile. “What do you think of it? The frame was Greg’s gift to me on my birthday. Isn’t it lovely? I’m thinking of placing it in our bedroom. I’m thinking of placing it in a just such a position that if Greg is ever forced to [have sex with me] again-” (Except she didn’t say sex. She said the word, the big one, the queen mother of dirty words, the “F-dash-dash-dash” word.)[1] “-he can look at those pictures while he’s [sexing] me. Do you think that will help your performance honey?” she asked her husband.

As we sat in the wake of that uncomfortable comment, the question of how far Mrs. Finnegan might go with her characterizations of their lives was mercifully interrupted by a knock at the door. For obvious reasons, we didn’t see the individual approach the door, so his knock startled us. The construction of the Finnegan duplex was such that when the drapes were open the inhabitants could see the knocker if they were facing in that direction. The knocker was Andy, the third participant in the adventure James and I planned for the evening.

“Welcome to the home of Greg Finnegan, adulterer and infidel,” Mrs. Finnegan said after leaping to her feet, as if to beat everyone racing to the door. No one was racing her to the door. We were scared and shamed into staring at our own spots on the carpet. “Come on in,” she said stepping back to allow Andy’s entrance.

Andy turned around, walked back down the steps, got in his car, and drove away. Just like that, Andy escaped what I felt compelled to endure. From what I could see Andy didn’t respond to Mrs. Finnegan’s greeting in anyway. He didn’t go out of his way to show any signs of respect, or disrespect. He just turned and left.

I watched him leave with my mouth hanging open. I didn’t know we could do that.

Andy left, because he knew what Mrs. Finnegan’s headline hellos entailed. He knew what he was in for, and I did too. To my mind, his departure was not only unprecedented it was inexplicably bold. I didn’t know we could do that.

“How could you do that?” I asked him later.

“I just didn’t want to go through that all over again,” he answered.

“Well, of course,” I said. “Who would?”

Andy further explained his reaction, but the gist of it was that he didn’t want to have to endure another Finnegan family discussion. His impulsive reaction was so simple that if he planned it beforehand, and he told me that plan, I would’ve countered that it would never work, ‘and, besides, you won’t be able to do it,’ I would’ve added. I’m sure he would’ve asked why, and I don’t know what I would’ve said, but it would’ve involved the inherent respect and fear we have of other people’s parents. Andy and I were good kids, and good kids consider it a testament to our character that we maintain model status around other people’s parents. When Andy did what he did, and Mrs. Finnegan did nothing more than close the door, I realized that I would have to do a much better job of evaluating my options in life.

When the confessional phase of the Finnegan family discussion began –a phase that required Mr. Finnegan to confess to me what he did– I wasn’t there to hear it. I was looking out their front window imagining that Andy’s display so emboldened me that I just stood up and followed Andy to his car. Just like that. Just like he did. I imagined the two of us driving away, laughing at the lunacy of these people. I imagined calling the Finnegans platypus people at one point in our round of jokes, and how that might end Andy’s laughter, until I explained.

What is a platypus, I imagined myself telling Andy to encourage more laughter from him, but an animal that defies categorization. One study of them, informs the world of science that they should fall into one category, until they do what they do to further mystify the scientific community. Further study only yields more surprises with the classification-defying animal, until even the most seasoned naturalist throws their hands up in the air in futility. Experts in psychology might think they have a decent hold on human classifications, but imagine what one day in the Finnegan family home could do to them.

At its introduction, naturalists considered the platypus another well-played hoax on the naturalist community, I would add. I say another well-played hoax, because it happened before. Some enterprising naturalists stitched together body parts of different parts of dead animals to lead the scientific community to believe that the hoaxer discovered an entirely new species. Thus, when someone introduced the platypus, the scientists believed that it was but another elaborate hoax of taxidermy.

‘Those who guarded themselves against falling for future hoaxes, even had a tough time believing the platypus was an actual species when they saw one live,’ I would tell him.

Even though it violated my beliefs in random occurrences versus the orchestrated, I stared out that window Andy once darkened, wondering if there might be a greater purpose behind the situation I was in, listening to a grown man confess his transgression with far too much detail. Was I a small-scale example of natural selection, because I didn’t have the guts to pivot on a heel and run the way Andy did, or was this event a storyteller’s gift that I didn’t appreciate in the moment? Were the Finnegans such an aberration that they might confound those in the scientific community who think they have a firm hand on human psychology in a manner equivalent to the platypus confounded other fields of science?

Even when I had all of the sordid details of this Finnegan Family as Platypus People story to tell, I didn’t think anyone would believe me. My penchant for stitching together facts and fabricated details into a great story might come back to haunt me. They might not even believe the story if Andy stuck around to corroborate the details of it, and they might not even believe it if they saw all of this live, I realized while Mr. Finnegan continued to offer me explicit details of his sordid weekend. My audience might think they’re the subjects of an elaborate hoax.

“He has already confessed those details of his weekend to his children,” Mrs. Finnegan interrupted Mr. Finnegan’s confession to inform me, “and he will be offering his detailed confession to the mailman, a traveling salesman, or any others who happened to darken our door today.” She instructed us to look at her when she said this, and we did.

After the uncomfortable confession met Mrs. Finnegan’s requirements, following a Q&A that further explored the humiliating details that Mr. Finnegan would not reveal without prompting, she forced us to acknowledge the primary reason the Finnegans married in the first place.

“No one would play with Mr. Finnegan’s [reproductive organ],” she said, except she didn’t say reproductive organ.

“He was lonely,” she said with tones of derision. “Mr. eighty dollars an hour consultant fee, and Mr. professional student with eight degrees would be nothing without me, because he was nothing when he met me. He was a lonely, little man with nothing to do but play with his little computer products, designs, and his little [reproductive organ] when no one else would.”

“That’s enough France,” Greg said standing.

“Do you play with your [reproductive organ]?” Mrs. Finnegan asked me, undeterred by Greg’s pleas. “Do you masturbate? Because that’s where it all starts. It all starts with you men, and all of your pornographic material, imagining that someday someone will want to come along and want to play with it.”

Of course, I had no idea how this family discussion would play out, but Mrs. Finnegan’s normal confrontational demeanor was building. I don’t think I ever saw the woman attempt to conceal her hostility or bitterness before, but the building tension provided contrast to anything I witnessed prior to this point. She was all but spitting her questions out between bared teeth, and her nostrils flared in a manner of disgust that suggested she was directing all of her hostility at me.

“You think it’s about love?” she asked me, aghast at an assessment I never made. She had a huge smile on her face when she asked that that might have been more alarming than the manner in which she asked all of those previous embarrassing questions. The smile seemed so out of place with the building tension that I began to wonder if she was in full control of her facilities.

“You think every couple has a story of love, and dating, and that hallowed first kiss?” she continued. “Go rent a gawdamned love conquers all movie if you want all that and once it’s over, you come to Mrs. Finnegan with your questions, and I’ll introduce you to some reality. I’ll tell you tales of men, grown men who marry because they’re desperate to find someone to play with their [reproductive organ]. Isn’t that right Mr. Finnegan?” She called after him, as Mr. Finnegan finally mustered up the courage to begin walking away from her. When he wouldn’t answer, or even turn to acknowledge her question, Mrs. Finnegan took off after him.

Mrs. Finnegan moved across the room quick, which for anyone who spent any time around this otherwise sedate woman knew was a little startling, troubling, and in retrospect foreboding.

Pushing her husband down a flight of stairs was not the feat of strength that some might consider it. We didn’t see it, but we figured that he had to have been off balance, resulting from his refusal to turn and face her in his flight to the basement. She was screaming things at him from behind, and her intensity grew with each scream until we couldn’t understand what she was saying. Mr. Finnegan continued to refuse to turn around and face her, but he should’ve suspected that his wife’s intensity would lead to a conclusion against which he should guard himself. Thus, when she pushed him, he was in no position to defend himself or lessen the impact of falling down a flight of perhaps twenty steps.

When we ran to the top of the stairs –after the sounds of him hitting the stairs shook the house in such a manner that we all instinctually put a hand on the armrests of the furniture we sat in to brace ourselves– we witnessed Mrs. Finnegan pulling her husband up the stairs with one hand in his hair.

Mrs. Finnegan’s final scream, that which proceeded her pushing her husband down the stairs, led us to believe that whatever frayed vestige of sanity she clung to for much of her life just snapped. I could not hear what she said as she pulled him up the stairs by his hair. The screams of her children, and her husband, drowned out those grumblings.

“France!” Greg screamed in pain. “France, for God’s sakes!” he screamed repeatedly.

When I saw Mrs. Finnegan’s contorted facial expression, it transfixed me. In their attempts to either help her, or break her hold on Mr. Finnegan’s hair, her children blocked my view of her face. I bobbed and weaved to get a better look at it. I didn’t know why my need to see her face drove me to such embarrassing lengths, but I all but shouted at those obstructing my view of it to move out of the way.

I’ve witnessed rage a couple of times, prior to Mrs. Finnegan’s, but I couldn’t remember seeing it so vacant before. This almost unconscious display of rage was one those not employed in specific levels of civil service probably see once in a lifetime. She was lifting a six-five, two-hundred pound man up the stairs, by his hair and with one hand. Her body blocked any view we might have had of Mr. Finnegan, but I assumed that he was back stepping the stairs to relieve some of the pain of having his hair pulled in such a manner. I also think he was putting his hand on the handrail in a manner that assisted her in pulling him up. Regardless the details of this moment, it was still an impressive display of strength fueled by a scary visage of rage.

She was in such a state, once she was atop the stairs and standing in the kitchen with her children trying to calm her that she couldn’t speak. Her lips were moving but no sound was coming out, and when that initial brief spell ended, the master of language could only manage gibberish, the same gibberish I realized that proceeded her pushing her husband down the stairs, and all moments between. She later suggested that that gibberish resulted from her being overcome by spirits. Once she escaped the state she was in, she stated that the gibberish we all heard was her speaking in tongues. She believed that divine intervention prevented her from further harming her husband, in the manner divine intervention prevented Abraham from harming his son Isaac in the biblical narrative. I believed it too, at first, and in the heat of the moment, but I would later learn that I just witnessed my first psychotic episode.

I don’t know what happened in the aftermath of this incident, in the Finnegan home, as I never entered it again. I do know that the Finnegan marriage survived it, and I’m sure that Mrs. Finnegan thought that had something to do with that divine intervention too. I’m also sure that if anyone doubted Mrs. Finnegan’s account, they would be greeted at the door with a “Welcome to the home of the divine intervention!” headline hello to introduce them to that Finnegan family discussion of the day. If those future visitors were to ask me for advice on this matter, I would advise them to weigh their options before entering.

[1]http://nj1015.com/my-top-ten-favorite-quotes-from-a-christmas-story/

Find Your Own Truth


“Find your own truth,” Ray Bradbury said, offering advice to an aspiring, young writer on a radio call-in show.

Most people loathe vague advice. We want thorough and perfect answers, the kind that will help us cross our proverbial bridges. A super-secret part of us also wants those answers to be pointed and easy to incorporate into our methodology, but another part knows the seeker of easy paths often gets what they pay for in that regard.

When we listen to a radio show guesting a master craftsman, however, we expect some nugget of information to unlock the mystery of how that master craftsman managed to carve out a niche in the overpopulated world of his craft. We want tidbits, words of wisdom about design, and/or habits we can imitate and emulate, until we reach a point where we don’t have to feel so alone in our structure. Vague advice and vague platitudes feel like a waste of our time. Especially when that advice comes so close to our personal core and stops abrupt.

Bradbury went onto define this relative vision of an artistic truth as he saw it, on this radio show, but that definition didn’t step much beyond that precipice. I already tuned him out by the time he began speaking of other matters, and I eventually turned the channel. I might have missed some great advice, but I was frustrated.

If the reader is anything like me, they went back to doing what they were doing soon after hearing that advice, but the vital components of deep and profound advice arrive when it starts popping up in the course of doing whatever it is we do. It might take hours, it might take weeks, but this idea of an individual truth, as it pertains to one’s artistic vision, becomes applicable so often and, in so many situations, that we begin to chew on it and digest it. Others may continue to find this vague advice about an artistic truth nothing more than waste matter –to bring this analogy to its biological conclusion– but it begins to infiltrate everything the eager student does. If the advice is pertinent, the recipient begins spotting truths what should’ve been so obvious before. They begin to see that what they thought was their artistic truth, and what their primary influences considered true, is not as true for them as they once thought.

Vague advice may seem inconsequential to those who do not bump up against the precipice. For these people, a platitude such as, “Find your own truth” may have an “of course” suffix attached to it. “Of course an artist needs to find their artistic truth when approaching an artistic project,” they say. “Isn’t that the very definition of art?” It is, but if we were to ask an artist about the current project they’re working on, and its relation to their definition of an artistic truth, they will surely reply that they think they’re really onto something. If we ask them about the project after they finish the piece, we will likely receive a revelation of the artist’s frustration in one form or another, as most art involves the pursuit of an artistic truth coupled with an inability to capture it to the artist’s satisfaction. Yet, we could say that the pursuit of artistic truth, coupled with the frustration of never achieving it, provides more fuel to the artist than an actual, final, arrived-upon truth ever could.

Finding an artistic truth, involves intensive knowledge of the rules of a craft, locating the parameters of the artist’s ability, finding their formula within, and whittling. Any individual who has ever attempted to create art has started with a master’s template in mind. The aspiring, young artist tries to imitate and emulate that master’s design, and they wonder what that master might do in moments of artistic uncertainty: Can I do this? What would they do? Should I do that? Is my truth nestled somewhere inside all of that awaiting further exploration? At a furthered point in the process, the artist discovers other truths, including artistic truths that contradict prior truths, until all truths become falsehoods when compared to the current artistic truth. This is where the whittling begins.

In a manner similar to the whittler whittling away at a stick to create form, the storyteller is always whittling. He’s whittling when he writes. He’s whittling when he reads. He’s whittling in a movie theater, spotting subplots and subtext that his fellow moviegoers may not see. He’s whittling when we tell him about our experience at the used car dealership. He’s trying to get to the core of the tale, a core the storyteller might not see. “I could tell you about the greatest adventure tale ever told, or a story that everyone agrees is the funniest they’ve ever heard,” she says, “and you’d focus on the part where I said the instead of the.” The whittler searches for the truth, or a subjective truth that he can use. Is it the truth, or the truth? It doesn’t matter, because he doesn’t believe that the teller’s representation of the truth is the truth.

Once the artist has learned all the rules, defined the parameters, and found his own formula within a study of a master’s template, and all the templates that contradict that master template, it is time for him to branch out and find his own artistic truth.

The Narrative Essay

Even while scouring the read-if-you-like (RIYL) links the various outlets provide for the books I’ve enjoyed previously, I knew that the narrative essay existed. Just as I’ve always known that the strawberry existed, I knew about the form some call memoir, also known as literary non-fiction or creative non-fiction, but have you ever tasted a strawberry that caused you to flirt with the idea of eating nothing but strawberries for the rest of your life? If you have, your enjoyment probably had more to do with your diet prior to eating that strawberry than the actual flavor of the inexplicably delicious fruit. In the course of one’s life, a person might accidentally indulge in a diet that leaves them vitamin deficient, and they might not know the carelessness of their ways until they take that first bite of the little heart-shaped berry.

“You simply must try the strawberries,” a friend said in a buffet line at the office. I love strawberries, but I didn’t even notice them in the shadow of a glorious array of meats and carbs at the other end of the buffet. While I stood there, impatiently waiting for the slow forking procedures some have for finding the perfect piece of meat, she gave me a look. “Just try them,” she said. I did.

Prior to eating that strawberry, I knew nothing about chemical rewards the brain offers when we fulfill a need, and I didn’t know anything about it after I took that bite either. The only thing I knew, or thought, was that that strawberry was so delicious that I experienced an inexplicable feeling of euphoria. The line was slow, so I was allowed to eat another strawberry without progressing past that station in the buffet. The second one was almost as delicious as the first, and before I knew it, I was gorging on the fruit when another friend behind me, in the buffet line, informed me that I was holding up the line.

By this point, the reader might like to know the title of the one gorgeous little narrative essay that spawned my feelings of creative euphoria. The only answer I can provide is that for those suffering a depletion, one essay will not quench it any more than one strawberry can. One narrative essay did not provide a eureka-style epiphany that led me to understanding of all the creative avenues worthy of exploration in the form. One essay did not quench the idea depletion I experienced in the time-tested formulas and notions I had of the world of storytelling. I just knew I needed something more and something different, and I read all the narrative essays I could find in a manner equivalent to the effort I put into exploring the maximum benefits the strawberry could provide, until a grocery store checker proclaimed that she never witnessed anyone purchase as many strawberries as I was in one transaction. She even called a fellow employee over to witness the spectacle I laid out on her conveyor belt. The unspoken critique between the two was that no wife would permit a man to make such an exaggerated, imbalanced purchase, so I must be a self-indulgent bachelor.

An unprecedented amount of strawberries did not provide me with an unprecedented amount of euphoria, of course, as the brain appears to only provide euphoric chemical rewards for satisfying a severe depletion, but the chemical rewards of finding my own truth, in the narrative essay format, have proven almost endless. The same holds true for the rewards I’ve experienced reading the output of others who have reached their creative peaks. I knew narrative essays existed, as I said, but I considered most to be dry, personal essays that attempted to describe the cute, funny things that happened to them on their way to 40. I never thought of them as a vehicle for the exploration of unique creativity, not until this epiphany occurred within the stories written by those authors who accomplished it.

It is difficult to describe an epiphany to a person who has never experienced one or even to those who have. The variables are so unique that they can be difficult to describe to a listener donning an of-course face. More often than not, an epiphany does not involve unique, ingenious thoughts. My personal definition involves of-course thoughts nestled among commonplace thoughts that one has to arrive at by their own accord. When such an explanation doesn’t make a dent in the of- course faces, we can only conclude that epiphanies are personal.

For me, the narrative essay was an avenue to the truth my mind craved, and I might have never have ventured down that path had Ray Bradbury’s vague four words failed to register. For those who stubbornly maintain their of-course facial expression in the shadow of the maxim the late, great Ray Bradbury, I offer another vague piece of advice that the late, great Rodney Dangerfield offered to an aspiring, young comedian:

You’ll figure it out.”

If a vague piece of advice, such as these two nuggets, appear so obvious that they’re hardly worth saying, or the recipient of such advice can’t understand how it might apply, no matter how often one thinks about it, does it, attempts to add to it, or whittles away at it to find a core worthy of exploration, I add, you’ll either figure it out, or you won’t.

A Simplicity Trapped in a Complex Mind


“That’s David Hauser,” my friend Paul responded when I asked about the guy who sat in the corner of the liquor store, the one who appeared to have full-fledged conversations with himself. “He’s crazy, an absolute loon. Went crazy about a year ago. People say he got so smart that he just snapped one day.” Paul snapped his fingers. “Like that!” he said.

I frequented The Family Liquor Store for just this reason: I loved anomalies, and I learned that The Family Liquor Store was a veritable breeding ground for them. In the sheltered life I lived, I knew little to nothing of anomalies. I knew that some people succeeded and others failed, but the failures in Dad’s inner circle were a rung or two lower. I knew nothing of the depths of failure and despair that I would encounter in the liquor store owned by my friend Paul’s parents, where Paul also worked.

Even while immersed in that world of despair, I encountered pride, coping mechanisms, and lies. A customer named John informed me that he once played against Wayne Gretzky in a minor league hockey match, Jay informed me of the time he screamed “Go to Hell JFK!” to the man’s face, and Ronny told me of the various strength contests he won. The fact that I flirted with believing any aspects of these tales informed those in The Family Liquor Store that I was almost as laughable as the fools that told them.

“Why would they lie about things like that?” I asked to top off the joke.

“Wouldn’t you?” they asked when they reached a break in their laughter. “If you lived the life they have.”

The unspoken punchline to this ongoing joke was that I might be more lacking in street smarts than any person they had ever met. The answer to the question that was never asked regarding my standing in their world was that a thorough understanding of their world could be said to be on par with any intellectual study of the great men of the book smarts world, in that they both involve a basic understanding of human nature.

“You see these guys here,” Paul’s father whispered to me on a previous day at The Family Liquor Store, gesturing out to its patrons. “I could introduce you to these men, one by one, and you’d hear varying stories of success and failure, but the one thing you’ll hear in almost every case is the story about how a woman put them down. They all fell for the wrong woman.”

Knowing how this line would stick with me, I turned back to Paul’s father while still in the moment.

“What’s the wrong woman?” I asked. “And what did those women do to these guys?”

“It varies,” he said. “You can’t know. All you can know is that you don’t know, because you’ll be all starry-eyed in the moment. Bring them home to meet your dad, your grandma, and all your friends, and you listen to what they say.”

In the life I spent following that advice, I met a number of fussy guys. Some wouldn’t even look at a woman below an eight, on the relative scale of physical appearance. Others looked for excessive class, intelligence, strength and weakness, and still others were in a perpetual, perhaps unconscious, search for their ma. For me, it’s always been about sanity. I’ve date some beautiful women throughout my life and some strong women who could school me in intelligence. Most of the women I decided to date brought that sassy element I so enjoy, but it’s always came back to the FrootLoopery index for me. I had an inordinate attraction to the mama-that-could-bring-the-drama for much of my life, but when those ultimatums of increased involvement arrived that sage advice from Paul’s father would weaved its way into my calculations. I did not want to end up in an incarnation of my personal visage of hell, otherwise known as The Family Liquor Store, where it appeared a wide variety of bitter, lost souls entered by the droves, but none escaped.

For all of the questions I asked in The Family Liquor Store, there was one question that I dare not ask: Why would a normal family, with normal kids, want to open a liquor store on the corners of failure and despair? I would not ask this question, even as a young man with an insufferable amount of curiosity, because I knew that the answers I received would reveal some uncomfortable truths about the one that answered. One answer I did receive, over time, and in a roundabout way: Surrounding one’s self by failure and despair does make one feel better about our standing in the world by comparison.

“How does one become so smart that they go crazy?” I asked Paul, still staring at David Hauser, the man who was still discussing things with himself

“I don’t know,” Paul said. “They say he had a fantastic job, prestige, and boatloads of money, but he got fired one day, and no one knows why. His wife divorced him when he couldn’t find other work, and he ended up sitting in the corner over there, talking to himself for hours on end, and drinking on his brew.”

Among the possibilities he listed was the idea that a woman might have led to David’s fall. I latched onto that possibility, because it suggested Paul’s father was right. I was satisfied with the answer, but Paul and those who informed him wouldn’t let the too-smart angle go in regard to David Hauser’s condition. They declared that was the, “The nut of it all.”

Speaking to oneself was a common practice of The Family Store patronage. Those who didn’t do so, in fact, stood out. The interesting and unique thing that separated David Hauser from the pack was that he was a good listener in those one-sided conversations, a characteristic that made him an anomaly in a world of anomalies. There were times when David looked to the speaker whom no one else could see, but he reserved those shared glances with the speaker for the introductory portion of the speaker’s conversation. When the purported speaker’s dialogue progressed, David Hauser’s gaze then took on a diagonal slant, and it morphed into an outward glance, followed by an inward one that suggested he was contemplating what the other was saying. At times, David Hauser and the purported speaker said nothing at all.

Prior to David Hauser, I assumed that people who speak to themselves do so to fill a void. In a world of people with no listening skills, most intangible friends are excellent listeners. David Hauser filled that void, but he and his companion created other voids, what some might call seven-second lulls. At times, the lulls in those conversations ended with active-listening prompts on David’s part. This display suggested that the purported speaker ended the lull, and David’s listening prompts encouraged the speaker to continue. At other times, David stopped speaking abruptly, as if someone had interrupted him. Those elements deepened my already deep fascination with David Hauser. I knew the abuse I took for this would be brutal, but I couldn’t take it anymore. I had to know what this guy was saying.

“I have to know what he’s saying,” I told Paul.

I went on to inform Paul that my curiosity was based on comedic intrigue, but that was a ruse to cover for the fact that my need to know what David Hauser was saying grew into a full-blown obsession to understand something about humanity, something I didn’t think I could learn from my otherwise sheltered life of books. I needed to know if a person as incapacitated, as David Hauser appeared to be, speaks to himself to sort through internal difficulties, and if such an individual recognizes it for what it was on some level, or believe they are talking with someone else.

“For God’s sake,” Paul said. “Why?”

I’m don’t recall what I said at that point, but I know it was an attempt to defuse the situation, so Paul wouldn’t have material on me later, when it came time to mock me for my odd curiosity. I think I said, “I don’t know, I just do.”

I didn’t know what would’ve satisfied my curiosity. I didn’t know if I was searching for listening prompts or seeking the particular words that David Hauser would use to answer my questions. Is there a word that can inform another that a person genuinely believes another person is there? Is there a word, or series of words, that will inform an observer that a person has manifested another person to satisfy a psychological need? The latter was so far beyond my comprehension that I didn’t want to spend too much time thinking about it, but I figured David’s mannerisms, his tone, and the context of his active-listening prompts would somehow form a conclusion for me.

“Be careful,” Paul said.

The two words slipped out as if Paul was repeating a warning he received when he considered further investigation, and he focused his attention on me and said, “Be careful” again.

I was willing to accept these words of caution on the face of what they implied, at first, but my curiosity got the best of me.

“Why?” I asked.

“I don’t know,” he said. “What if he says something so intellectual that it gets trapped in your brain and you go insane trying to figure it out?”

“Could that happen?”

“How does a guy go insane by being too smart?”

Perhaps Paul was messing with me and my obsession kept me from seeing the joke, but it was just as probable that he believed it. We were both avid fans of the horror genre, and we were both irrational teenagers who still believed in various superstitions, black magic, curses, elements of dark art, and the supernatural. Our minds were just starting to grasp the complex, inner workings of the adult, real world, but we were still young enough to consider the childlike belief in the possibilities of how reality occurring under an altogether different premise.

Long story short, Paul’s attempts to warn me, followed by his questions, did set me back, and I did try to avoid the subject of David Hauser for a spell. I was not what one would call an intellectual young man. My curiosity was insatiable, and I was an observant sort, but tackling highbrow intellectual theory or highbrow literature was beyond me. I was ill equipped for that, ill-equipped, naïve, and vulnerable to the idea that a thought, like a corruptible woman bent on destroying, could leave a man incapacitated to a point that they frequent a low-rent liquor store for the rest of their days and speak to non-existent people.

I thought of the idea of an intellectual peak in the brief moment that followed Paul’s warning. It seemed like one of those foolish, rhetorical questions I ask that results in ridicule, but I found the question fascinating. If there was an intellectual peak, I figured that hadn’t even come close to mine at that point in my life, but I thought that I should work through the dynamics of it in the event that I ever brushed against that border. Will a person know when they’ve arrived at an intellectual peak? I wondered. Is there a maximum capacity one should be wary of crossing? If they do cross it, do they risk injury, similar to athletes who push themselves beyond the actual limits of their physical ability? I thought of a pole-vaulter, sticking a pole in the ground, attempting a jump he should have reconsidered and the resultant physical injuries that could follow.

When I put those irrational fears aside, other irrational fears replaced those, as I walked over to David Hauser. Paul’s “Be careful” played in my head, along with the realization that prior to building the courage to step near David Hauser my fear of him was speculative in nature. It dawned on me that all I did was brave my fears of an unknown quantity, I had no idea how I would deal with whatever reality lay ahead. His volume lowered a bit, as I neared his sphere of influence. I considered that a coincidence and I progressed, pretending to look at something outside the window behind him. As I neared closer, his volume dropped even more. I didn’t that was a coincidence, but I wasn’t sure. I wondered if he was trying to prevent me from hearing him.

Whatever the case, I couldn’t hear what he was saying, and I was more than a little relieved about that. I felt encouraged by the fact that I had neared him, even though I was afraid. I was wary of getting too close, because I feared the idea of having his overwhelming theories implanted in my brain. I assumed such an implantation might be equivalent to an alien putting a finger on a human head and introducing thoughts so far beyond that brain’s capacity that it could cause the victim to start shaking and drooling, like that kid in The Shining. I considered it plausible that I could wake in a straitjacket with that theory rattling around in my head, searching for answers, until I ended up screaming for a nurse to come in and provide me some relief in the form of unhealthy doses of chlorpromazine to release the pressure in my head.

I later learned that David Hauser achieved a doctorate in some subject, earned from some northeastern Ivy League school. That fact placed him so far above those trapped in this incarnation of hell, known as The Family Liquor Store, that I figured everyone involved needed a way to deal with his story, and everyone did love the story.

I wasn’t there when David Hauser told the story of what happened to him, so I don’t have primary source information of his fall from grace. The secondhand story of this once prominent man of such unimaginable abilities falling to a level of despair and failure was on the tip of the tongue of everyone that heard it. “Like that!” they said, with a snap of their fingers to punctuate the description. Bubbling beneath that surface fascination were unspoken fears, confusion, and concern that if it could happen to a guy “Like that!” it could happen to any of us. In place of traveling through a complex maze of theories and research findings to find the truth, there was an answer. No one knew who came up with it first, and no one questioned if that person knew what they were talking about. We just needed an answer, a coping mechanism.

The fact was that no one knew the undisputed truth of what really happened to David Hauser. We knew some truths, the ones he purportedly revealed, but he didn’t give us an answer, because he likely didn’t have one. My guess was that even if we could’ve convinced David Hauser to sit down in a clinical setting or create some sort of climate that would assure him that no one would use his answers to satisfy a perverse curiosity, we still wouldn’t get answers out of him, because he didn’t have any to offer.

The man who spent most of his life answering the most difficult questions anyone could throw at him reached a block, a wall, or some obstacle that prevented him from finding the one answer that could prove beneficial to his continued existence. His solution, therefore, was to talk it out with a certain, special no one for answers.

That led me to believe that the reason his volume dropped as I neared was a mixture of pain and embarrassment. If David Hauser’s mind was as complex as those in The Family Liquor Store suggested, and it was stuck on a question repeating in his head, to the point of needing to manifest another presence to help him work through it, how embarrassing would it be for such a man to have an eavesdropping teenager, that knew little to nothing about the world, find that answer for him?

I did have an answer for what happened to David Hauser, we all did, but I’m quite sure our answer didn’t come anywhere close to solving the actual question of how a man could fall so far. I’m quite sure it was nothing more than a comfortable alternative developed by us, for us, to try to resolve the complexities of such an intricate question that could’ve driven us insane “Like that!” if we tried to figure it out and it trapped itself in our brain.

If you enjoyed this piece, you might enjoy the other members of the seven strong:

The Thief’s Mentality

He Used to Have a Mohawk

That’s Me In the Corner

You Don’t Bring me Flowers Anymore!

… And Then There’s Todd

When Geese Attack!

Scorpio Man II: The Second Testimonial


My life has taken quite a turn, since last we spoke. I might continue to experience some unease when confronted with the dark shadow of my fixed, archetypal Scorpio male leanings, when the moon is in the north node of my chart, and people ask what Sun I was born under, but I now understand that this is due to years of patriarchal conditioning bred into my psyche.

Those of you who read the previous testimonial may deem me irretrievable, and I may be, but I am focusing all of my energy on progressing through the three totems of this Scorpio archetype. To suggest that I achieved evolvement, or that I’m progressing toward change, would be harmful to my progress, but suffice it to say that my wonderful Natural Psychologist, Ms. Maria Edgeworth, informs me that I’m more open to balancing my summer and winter now. “This is an accomplishment most associate with the Pisces,” she said, “and you’re moving closer to a center than any of the Scorpio Men I treat, who remain stuck in the first level of Scorpio Evolvement, the Scorpion totem.” That’s a direct quote, and I don’t mind posting my progress here. As someone once said, “If you done it, it ain’t bragging.”

Yet, as I work my way through this, I am still going to lie about my archetype, as I said I would in my previous testimonial. I wish I didn’t have to do it, but I find that this temporary lie cleanses the palate for those who worry that Mars the god of war and Pluto the god of the underworld might still rule me, while I undergo intense Level 1 training to face my limitations in order to transmute and evolve passed them.

My hope is that we all find a way to move passed our prejudicial and unconscious displays of emotional security that take the form of a silent scream when we find ourselves trapped in enclosed spaces, such as an elevator, with a Scorpio Man. The act of lying about my essence is counterproductive to my therapy, of course, but it’s just so frustrating that I haven’t witnessed corresponding progress in others. I want to tell these people, these silent screamers, that I’m working on it, but that I’m not yet to the point where I can harness the discordant elements of my power. Until I’ve achieved that level of confidence, I decided to take the stairs.

The always-positive Ms. Edgeworth tells me there is hope, however, and that all of the expensive and intensive hours we put into these sessions to purge the limitations of my past and foster growth, will pay dividends in the form of spiritual fulfilment of my aura that will eventually become evident to all.

Ms. Edgeworth proclaimed that controlling the criminal element of the Scorpio Man is the most difficult aspect of Scorpio Evolvement, for those seeking to achieve the enlightenment found in the second stage of Scorpio Evolution, The Eagle Totem. “But you’ve made such great strides in this regard,” she said. “The idea that you’re spending so much of your free time around such a helpful soul, without giving in to the impulsive desire to harm her in all of the sadistic ways the Scorpio man is predisposed to, suggests that you may already be on the cusp of advancement.” Ms. Edgeworth added that she “thinks sexual congress with this woman may be an ideal method to metamorphose some of my limitations.”

That’s right! Scoop! I have a woman with whom I now spend my evenings. Her name is Faith Anderson, and she have been getting along quite well.

Faith told me that she was a Pisces on our first date. She said it while we were playing pool. I should’ve been suspicious, but I wasn’t until she sank a frozen to the rail cut shot, using a medium stroke in our very first game of eight ball. When she proceeded to sink several ninety-degree cut shots in the games that followed, I was totally onto her. I knew she was harboring secrets only a fellow Scorpio would. No Pisces could sink a frozen to the rail, cut shot, after calling it, and walk away as if nothing happened. I didn’t hold it against her though. I lied to her too. I told her I was a Virgo, so she couldn’t know that I have the same powers she does of detecting when people are playing mind games. She would later tell me that she was onto the fact that Mars the god of war, and Pluto the god of the underworld ruled my world too, the moment she caught wind of the articulate nature of my dark sense of humor.

As I stated in my previous testimonial, the pressure society places on Scorpio Men forces us to conceal our nature, but what I didn’t know until I met Faith is that women face some similar reactions. Perhaps it was my male need to protect a woman, but I was mad at no one in particular and everyone at the same time. I wanted people to feel ashamed that we scorpions felt the need to conceal our identity no matter how hard we’re working through our predispositions. I wanted to tell the people at the bar that night that this innocent and sweet woman felt the need to deceive them into believing something she’s not. “And do you want to know why?” I would’ve asked in a confrontational manner befitting such a launch. At that point, I would’ve asked them if they dined already, because my rant would’ve been so long I would’ve heard their belly gurgle long before I was done. Long story short, I identified with her need to lie to me and tell me she was a Pisces, until I came to know her better, and she felt comfortable disclosing her vulnerability. “I just wanted a chance,” she confessed when she finally opened up to me, “a non-discriminatory, judgment-free chance to find acceptance and love.”

“I know,” I said. “I know.”

Our connection was so strong that when Faith finally agreed to metamorphose my limitations, she did so saying, “As long as you continue to work with Ms. Edgeworth to confront your pre-existing limitations and make a commitment to grow passed them.”

“It’s as important to me as it is you Faith,” I said.

She relented, but I could tell she had misgivings. “You swear,” she said, stopping me in the moment. “This isn’t just talk? You swear to seek a balance between summer and winter, while acknowledging that you’re predisposed to cling to your blossoming previous life at the same time? We need you to interact with others to delve beneath the surface and prepare for a more spiritual and fertile future.”

I said, “I do,” to each of these questions.

“You can’t just rely on me,” she continued, “or even Ms. Edgeworth. You can’t become dependent on either of us to achieve the highest expression of Scorpio, beyond the Eagle Totem to The Phoenix Resurrected Stage, and don’t say I do to everything I say. These aren’t wedding vows.”

“You don’t need to worry about me Faith,” I said. “I’m striving to advance beyond all this.”

“I believe you are,” she said, holding my face in her hands. “I believe I’ve finally met a man who, like that mythical Phoenix, will rise from the nature of your being and overcome it all.”

It was a glorious moment in our relationship, but it didn’t last long. I don’t remember if it was the next day, or the next week, but we were fighting like cats and dogs. Imagine that, two people ruled by Mars the god of war and Pluto the god of the underworld fought. Ha! Our argument involved an incident in which I exited a packed movie theater aisle, to go to the bathroom, facing the people in the aisle.

“That was definitely a microagression,” she informed me. I said I didn’t know what a microagression was, and she explained the concept to me.

“Okay, how was exiting a movie theater aisle a microagression then?”

“You put your … front side to the people sitting in the aisle, and in such close quarters.”

“Front, back, what’s the difference?” I asked.

“You are, essentially, putting your maleness right in their face,” she said. There was some exasperation in her voice, as she saw that I would need further explanation. “You are essentially raping the space between you and them. It’s called hyper toxic masculinity.”

“But if I didn’t intend to do this-”

“Look up the term microagression,” she added, “and you’ll see the word ‘unintended’ listed as one of the first words in the definition.”

We went back and forth through various incarnations and details, but the import of it was that while she was a little disturbed by my action, she was “completely mortified” by my failure to acknowledge how my derogatory action was directed at people rooted in marginalized groups, and until I confronted my offense, we were “totally incompatible”.

The argument extended into the night, and it included an impenetrable silent treatment that ended with threat that I might never have my limitations metamorphosed again. I was confused. I knew Faith’s belief system, and even though I didn’t fall in lock step with them, I did my best to respect them. I was so confused that I brought the issue to Mrs. Edgeworth in our next session.

“Welcome to primacy of the secret intensity of Pluto’s bearing on the Scorpio archetype’s personality,” Ms. Edgeworth said when I detailed this argument for her.

“Pluto?” I said. “Don’t you mean Mars? Don’t you mean the fires of Mars?”

She laughed in a soft, polite pitch. “Most people think that,” she said. “I think that misconception is based on the fact that Pluto is a relatively new planet, dwarf planet –or whatever they’re calling it now– to us. I would not say that you, or anyone else for that matter, are wrong on this matter. I would just say that because we didn’t discover Pluto until the 20th century, it’s relatively new to our interiority, and we haven’t evolved our understanding of the quietly driving effect its strange elliptical orbit can have on a Scorpio, like Faith. It can alter the characteristics in a manner some call a manifestation magnet that acts in conjunction with the more consistent, more understood fires of Mars acting in a manner that when Pluto is in the Scorpio node two, and Saturn is in Scorpio 10, opposing the Taurus moon, and squaring Venus in Leo and Jupiter in Aquarius. The effects of this magnet can lead to a manifestation you may view as out of character reactions in the Scorpio archetype. Some may use this alignment against themselves and others, attracting destructive outcomes through hyper-awareness and obsessing on negative observances, but when two separate and distinct Scorpio archetypes begin interacting under the same manifestation magnet conjunction, it can lead to some intense energies that result in either the darkest shadows or the bravest, brightest lights.

“My advice,” Ms. Edgeworth continued. “Is try talking to her in a non-manipulative manner. Explore the dynamics of power and powerlessness in your relationship and coordinate those with your patterns of behavior, and her desire to invest future emotions in you. You may find that you’ve accidentally introduced the darkest aspects of the Scorpio archetype into your psyche that have manifested a situation of non-growth, and stagnation, which result in her lashing out in a manner that just happened to occur in the movie theater, but could’ve occurred just about anywhere on any matter of substance.

“If you can somehow tap into undistorted expressions of the matriarchy,” she continued. “To heal your relationship and connect to the healing process of absolute and undistorted femininity you two will achieve a plane above limitations and find deep communion with the higher levels of the Scorpio archetype that are full of healing, grace and compassion.

“It’s up to you of course,” she concluded. “But I have always found that the intense nature of the Scorpion archetype nature can be distorted and misunderstood, but beneath all that is a desire to get to the bottom of things, the real truth as it relates to the soul.”

Ms. Edgeworth was right, of course, as Faith agreed to work with me toward a greater understanding and a brighter future. I can tell you now that with their guidance, I have never been as happy, or as confused, as I am right now, but if there’s one thing to take from this testimonial let it be this: there’s no substitute for a well-informed partner providing a thorough, and subjective, reading of your charts. Not even a wonderful Natural Psychologist can provide such assistance in intensive and expensive, five-day-a-week, hour-long sessions. For those, like me, who spend so much of their time now struggling to understand their charts to escape the first totem, Scorpion level of the Scorpio archetype, who no longer have time for sports, sitcoms, or beer with the buddies, I have empathy. I will tell you, however, that I haven’t found a better method of achieving spiritual fulfilment, or your life’s goals, than sitting down with a partner who can help you find your individualistic method of transmuting passed your pre-existing limitations in a caring and non-manipulative manner.

That’s Me In the Corner


I never considered the possibility that I might be witnessing a physical manifestation of me –that speculative writers might call a doppelganger– dancing on the dance floor. I did not expect this kid to take to a corner, open up an NFL preview guide and eat an entire bag of soda crackers, while listening to the band Kiss. I don’t know what I would’ve done, if that happened, as I had already reached a frequency of thought I might never have reached on my own –thanks to that near impenetrable, crusted shell of good and bad memories that prevents, and protects, the human mind from seeing who we were when we weren’t paying attention– just watching the kid. By watching the kid, to the point of an unusual, momentary obsession, some part of me thought I might be able to answer some unanswered questions I had from my youth.

I wasn’t watching the kid at first. He was the bride’s son, from a previous marriage, and as distant from my attention as every other participant in the wedding ceremony. He did little to nothing to stand out, in other words, until he took to the dance floor.

“Look at the kid,” I heard some wedding patrons whispering to others. “Look at Kevin!” I heard others say. I was already watching him. I thought everyone was. How could one avoid it, I wondered, this kid was putting on a show.

There was a ‘something you don’t see every day’ element to this kid’s step that challenged the audience to look away. He didn’t look out into the audience, he didn’t smile, and he did not attempt to communicate with us in a manner I suspect a well-trained dancer might. There was, however, an element of showmanship in his step that should not have occurred in a normal nine-to-ten-year-old’s “conform as opposed to perform” step.

The kid’s shoulders dropped low in his dance step. I don’t know what this suggested exactly, but he did appear more comfortable on the floor than any of the other kids his age. His handclaps were also a little harder than the other kids were. I don’t know if it was the volume of Kevin’s claps, but the other kids appeared to be struggling to follow the beat, or his beat. His gyrations were so out of step with the rest of the participants that those of us not in the wedding party had trouble stifling our giggles. This kid was dancing.

“Who’s the kid?” I asked my uncle.

“That’s Kevin,” he said. “The bride’s son.”  His smile mirrored mine, and those of all of the whisperers watching.

After I asked that question, I realized I was one of those whispering and pointing at Kevin. My initial assumption was that everyone watched this kid in the same manner I was, with one bemused eyebrow raised, but the sheer volume of whisperers called to mind the first time I heard Miles Davis’ Kind of Blue. Some consider that album a masterpiece. Some called it Davis’ Sgt. Peppers. I liked it, but I wasn’t sure it was a masterpiece. The structure seemed so simple. I discovered its simplistic brilliance after repeated spins, but the point is I may not have listened to it a second time if group thought hadn’t conditioned me to believe that there was something I was missing out on.

It was this fear of missing out, FOMO in common parlance, that prompted to continue to watch this kid. I knew as little about dance as I did jazz, so I figured it was possible that I was missing something.

“Why are we watching this kid?” I asked my uncle.

“Because it’s cute.”

My Uncle gave me a look that informed me that we shouldn’t try to make more out of it than what it was. He then went back to watching the kid, and he even regained an appreciative smile after a spell.

There was no simplistic brilliance going on in this moment, in other words, it was just cute to watch a young boy carry on in a manner that suggested he knew what he was doing. The kid didn’t know how to dance, most nine-to-ten-year-old boys don’t, but the effort he put into it was cute.

Anyone that focused attention on the kid’s step –as opposed to the surprising amount of bravado he displayed by attempting to dance– knew that the kid didn’t know what he was doing. He had no rhythm, no choreography, and no regard for what others might think of the fact that he had no knowledge of the crucial elements of dance. The latter, I think, was the point, and it was the reason we were watching him.

My guess was that at some point, someone somewhere had informed him that free form dancing has no choreography to it. You just get out there, lower your shoulders a bunch of times, throw your arms about, pick your feet up, and jiggle every occasionally. It’s free form dancing. A trained chimp could do it.

When the kid made a beeline to his chair the moment this obligatory dance concluded –a dance I assumed his mother had forced him to participate in– I imagined that some people might have been shocked at the manner he exited. I laughed. I thought it added to the spectacle. I laughed loud, believing that those that laughed while he danced would share my laughter. They didn’t. I received confused looks from those around me. His beeline exit did not elicit shock, or any other response. They’d moved on. I tried to, but I was fixated on this kid.

Some may have characterized this kid’s exit as a statement regarding what he thought of the art of dance, but I didn’t think that captured it. I thought that a desire to watch how this party would unfold fueled this kid’s exit.

The kid’s exit suggested that he was one that preferred to watch. It was aggravating to those of us that watched his initial dance steps and thought he had something to offer to this otherwise routine wedding reception. He didn’t appear to be the least bit embarrassed by his performance, so why would he prefer to watch?   

Psychologists state that we have mirror neurons in our brain that seek enjoyment from another’s perspective, and that that enjoyment can be so comprehensive that we may reach a point where we convince ourselves that we’re the ones performing these actions. Others describe it as a frequency of thought, or a through line to a greater understanding of being: being funnier, more entertaining, and better in all the ways an insecure, young man thinks that his elders are better. Honing in on this frequency is something that TV watching, video game playing nine-to-ten-year-olds know well. It goes beyond the joy of watching others make fools of themselves, for entertainment purposes, to a belief that when watching better performers attempt to be entertaining, we’ve achieved that level ourselves without having to deal with all the messy details involved in the trials and errors to get to that point.

I knew, even while I was doing it, how odd others might find it that I was obsessing over the actions of a nine-to-ten-year-old boy, in such an innocuous moment of the boy’s life, and I attempted to look away several times. Every time a member of the party made some kind of misstep, however, this kid would draw my attention by laughing harder than anyone else would. My guess was that the relief that he wasn’t one of those in the position to commit such errors fueled that raucous laughter. This kid would laugh so hard at every joke that it was obvious he wanted to be louder than any others laughing.

“He’s attempting to cross over,” I thought.

“What’s that?” my uncle said.

“What?” I said. “Nothing.” 

My uncle’s ‘What’s that?’ is often characterized by a preceding pause. The pause suggests that either they know that you’re talking to yourself, and they’re looking to call you out on it, or they believed the comment was situational, until they chewed on it for a bit and realized they couldn’t place it.

Whatever the case was, I hadn’t intended for anyone to hear that thought. I was embarrassed. I was embarrassed, but I also wondered if I intended to think that aloud, so that I might have it on the record if it went down the way I thought it would.

What I would not tell my uncle, for fear of being deemed one that is far too interested in self-serving minutiae, was that this ‘cross over’ is the Houdini milk can of the observer’s world. It is an attempt to establish one’s self as a participant in the minds of all partygoers without participating.

The initial stages of a crossover are not a difficult to achieve. Anyone can shout out comments, or laugh in an obnoxious and raucous manner that gains attention. The crossover does require some discretion, however, for it can be overdone. When one overemphasizes an attempt, they could run the risk of receiving a “We know you were there. You wouldn’t shut up about it” comment. The perfect crossover calls for some comments and/or attention getting laughter interspersed in the emcee’s presentation to lay the groundwork for the stories the subject would later tell others regarding his participation.

“He knows what I’m talking about,” the groom, acting as the emcee of the event, said at one point. He was alluding to Kevin, and Kevin’s over-the-top laughter.

It would be almost impossible for me to know if this kid achieved a total crossover, for I had no familiarity with the family, and I would have no opportunity to hear the kid’s after-party stories. The kid did accomplish an excellent first step, however, thanks to a groom that, I assume, had spent the last couple years trying to have the kid accept him as an eventual stepfather.

The answer to why I was so obsessed with a 9-to-10-year-old crystallized soon after the groom’s comment. Kevin’s mother called upon Kevin for increased participation. The kid waved her off. He waved her off in the manner I waved off so many of my own calls for increased participation. It dawned on me that my preference for observation went so deep that it was less about fearing increased participation and more about a preference for watching others perform that was so entrenched that any attempts to have me do otherwise could become an obnoxious distraction.

That’s me in the corner I thought. That’s me in the spotlight, losing my sense of belonging.

“You were just integral to the party,” I wanted to shout out to that kid with such vigor that I would’ve revealed myself. “Why would you prefer to sit on the sidelines of your mother’s wedding?”

Could it be that this preference for observing has something to do with the idea that we’ve all been participants and observers in the audience at various points in our lives, and we’ve all witnessed this idea that those roles can somewhat interchangeable in people’s memories? Unless the participants are so over-the-top funny, entertaining, or in all other ways memorable, observers have can manipulate the memories of participants, if they know how to enhance their role as an astute observer.

When one is an athlete, for example, the members of the audience may cheer their athletic exploits in ways that display the pride they might feel through vicarious connections. When an athlete commits an error, or underperforms in any way, they may feel sorry for the athlete, but they won’t associate with them in any meaningful way. They may not disassociate themselves from the athlete, depending on the error, but the error allows them to believe that put in the same position as the athlete was at the time of the error, they would not have committed it. ‘All you had to do was catch the ball,’ is something they may say, ‘and it was hit right to you.’

Some may view the desire to view an activity, as opposed to partaking in it, as a bit of a cop out. It may have been a cop-out for this kid, just as it may have been for me, but I do have fond memories of various events that I refused to participate in, in the same manner this kid might have of his mother’s wedding. I laughed with my fellow party goers, as we all recalled those past events that took place with fondness, and I did offer funny anecdotes to those conversations, but my role was often limited to that of an observer. Actual participation in these events was the furthest thing from my mind.

If this kid shared as many traits with me, at nine-ten-years-old, my guess was that he was already documenting stories that he would retell for years. Some of these stories might involve slight exaggerations regarding his role in them, but my guess is that few listeners would have the temerity, or the memory, to dispute him. Some of his versions of the story may offer interesting insights, and if those little vignettes involve creative, entertaining nuggets, they might become a part of the narrative in a manner that listeners to join him in making the leaps of re-characterizing his actual involvement.

If this kid manages to accomplish this, and he gets so good at it that others start corroborating his version of other events, he may make the leap to an almost-unconscious discovery of a loophole in his interactions that provide him a future out on all requirements of participation.

If he already does this, on a conscious level, and his evolution is so complete that he’s already choosing vicarious participation over actual participation on a conscious level, then that is where the similarities end. I thought he was too young for all that however, but I did consider the idea that he might be slipping into an all too comfortable position where he is neglecting the importance of participation on purpose.

The problem that I foresaw for him, a problem I now see as a result of watching him act out a page in the first chapter of my autobiography, was that he was learning what to do and what not to do through observation alone. I considered this portal equivalent to the type of learning one can experience while watching too much TV and playing too many video games, with all the same vicarious thrills of victory and dissociative feelings of failure. I also thought that he would come to a point where he had problems learning the lessons, and making the vital connections, we only make by doing. If I had been in a position to advise this nine-to-ten-year-old of the lessons I’ve learned, but did not heed at his age, I would’ve shouted:

“Get back on the dance floor, kid! I don’t care if you were already out there. Get out there and do it. Then get out there and do it so often that you tailbone is on the line and you’re making an absolute fool out of yourself. Then, when that obnoxious observer steps up to laugh at you for making such a fool of yourself, you can turn on them and say, ‘At least I was out there. Doing it! What were you doing? Sitting on your can watching me!’”

If you enjoyed this piece, you might also enjoy the other members of the seven strong:

The Thief’s Mentality

He Used to Have a Mohawk (This is not a prequel to this piece, but it is another story that occurred in the same wedding.)

A Simplicity Trapped in a Complex Mind

You Don’t Bring me Flowers Anymore!

… And Then There’s Todd

When Geese Attack!

Anti-Anti-Consumer Art


I may be in the minority, but I prefer the work of angry, bitter artists who are unable or unwilling to adjust to cultural norms. If I deign to offer an artist my bourgeoisie, Skittle-eating, domestic beer-drinking, and modern TVwatching opinion on their artistic creation, and they don’t hit me with a red-faced, spittle-flying, “Your opinions are excrement!” rebuttal, I might begin to question if they have the artistic temperament I require of those who lack any other means of venting their rage on the world than through artistic creation.

If I am to view their art in a serious manner, they had better view me as a symbolic substitute for the America-loving, God-fearing, football fan of a father they had, the man who ruined everything they held dear in their youth. I want them to view me as a symbolic substitute for the art critic who deigned to call their work pedestrian, the fellow artist who told them, “You’ll never make it in the art world,” or the art teacher who advised, “You might want to seriously consider changing your major to economics.”

The path to artistic purity is different for every artist, of course, but for most true artists, the primary motivation is not to create pieces consumers enjoy. For the great majority, the struggle of artistic expression is to locate and expound upon their individualistic interpretation of nouns (people, places, and things). While the idea that others may share a love for their interpretations might be exciting and fulfilling, it is not why they feel the need to express themselves. Outside adulation is of secondary concern to them, but it is also gravy. Some, however, create complicated pieces of literature or other forms of art for the expressed purpose of airing their complications. For these artists, the loathing they harbor for the common man’s opinion is so complete that they’re often looking at something else before we can complete our second sentence. Even authors of bestsellers, writing for the sole purpose of writing a bestseller, will argue until they bleed that their intention was not to create something consumers love. “I just happened to accomplish that,” they might argue, as if popularity was an inadvertent side effect of the quality of their creation. No matter how much we might disagree, we really can’t blame them for if they state that they intended to create a product of mass appeal, few would consider them serious artists.

If a starving artist declares how much they love their fans in their artistic statement and they’re hoping to one day see their art exhibited in a New York City gallery, they may do well to avoid the heartache, and headaches, and just consider another profession. If they have that mindset, it might behoove them to try out for the Atlanta Falcons instead. The chances are probably better that they’ll make that team than any team of artists considered for an exhibit in a New York City art gallery. A true artist can say they value input from those who have experienced their work, but they must word these critiques in such a manner that adamantly avoids any form of fan appreciation.

The best chance an artist has for achieving a spot in a prestigious gallery is to condemn everything purported by the consumer standing before them. Their best bet, in fact, is to find an artistic method of denouncing everything everyone believes in, to generate and work from an anti-consumer theme.

The anti-consumer theme has a timeless quality about it, one that goes to the heart of the artist. Its provocative nature does not yield to pop culture winds. It is anti-pop culture and a hot ticket in any era that appreciates its artists.

Little old ladies, in a blatant attempt to appear young and hip, will walk up to an artist in these galleries and try to find some way to tell the artist they find the most disturbing pieces in their portfolio, “Wonderful”, “Amazing”, and “Wonderful and amazing!”

“You are so not my demographic,” a true artist of an anti-consumer piece of art might say in the wake of such comments coming from a little, old lady. A vehement rejection of this sort could enshrine the artist in the word-of-mouth halls of the art world, and their opportunity for such prestige might increase if they added some sort of exclamation to that rejection, such as a healthy stream of spittle dropped on the little old lady’s shoes.

Receiving a compliment from a little, old lady must put an anti-consumer artist in an awkward place. Most artists feel a reflexive warm glow rising whenever they receive a hard-earned compliment from anyone, but the non-conformist artist knows better than to concede to some display of it. The intention of their creation was to reject everything most consumers hold dear, its purpose was to disturb the little old ladies of the world, and its goal was to shake up her conformist mindset. To hear that such a woman allegedly gets the artist’s attempt to disavow and denounce her generation –the generation that the artist purports screwed us all up with their toys, and wars, and unattainable gender-specific imagery– must be vexing for the artist.

Thus, the best way to handle such a situation might be to spit on her shoes. An enterprising, young, anti-consumer artist might even want to create such a scenario in which such an opportunity will arise. They might want to use a found-footage, shaky cam method of capturing the scene for a publicity junket. The artist who pulls such a situation off might just become the talk of the town if she managed to pull it off.

“Did you hear what happened when some old bag complimented Janice on her anti-fifties piece?” other artists would say to one another. “She spit on her shoes.” If such an incident made it through the artist community grapevine, it could become part of the artist’s folklore.

Criticism from some remnant of the 1950’s would be the next-best reaction for the angst-ridden, bitter, angry, anti-conformist artist. “Good, it was meant to unsettle you,” the artist could say. “Its purpose was to cause you to reexamine all the harm your generation has caused us.”

If the patron is not of the fifties generation and they deign to criticize anti-consumer art, they might want to consider the idea that they might be part of the problem. The artist might instruct them to venture outdoors more often to find out what’s going on in the world, or they may want reexamine the full scope of the artist’s narrative. The sociopolitical theme of anti-consumerism invites and hopes to incite criticism, because it is immune to most criticism by its very nature. If that were true, why wouldn’t a curator want their gallery lined with anti-consumer pieces?

The anti-consumer artist doesn’t have to worry about using current products in their projects either, for an anti-consumer artist can employ whatever consumer-related products are necessary to denounce the ethos of an era. A pro-consumer piece does not have such allowances, for to try to create an artistic expression that professes an enjoyment of Superman cereal, the consumer must have some experience with Superman cereal, in order to relate to the theme. That piece will likely evoke little more than some elements of quaint nostalgia. If the artist is unwilling to include some underlying, angst-ridden subtext regarding all the ways in which eating Superman cereal created unrealistic expectations in the patron’s mind and thus messed up that patron’s childhood the artist can be sure the piece will not fetch the kind of price that a bitter, condemnation of being forced to ingest the cereal (and thus the ideals of Superman as well), will.

Is there a sliding scale on anti-consumerist statements? I’m sure many anti-consumer artists would love to know it. If their piece contains subtle, sophisticated irony in its anti-consumer theme, with an ironic twist, what kind of return can they expect for their time? Are vehement declarations of such themes more profitable? Does the price point increase in conjunction with bullet-point adherence to the sociopolitical, anti-consumer theme?

The amount of anti-consumer art for sale in a gallery can be overwhelming, for this has become the most consumer-related, rebellious, radical theme for starving artists to pursue. In fact, “What are you waiting for?” might be the question that fellow artists and curators have for those who hold out. They might even inform the holdouts that anti-consumer art has become the safest theme to explore for any artist that wants to have their work exhibited.

Curators don’t have to worry about fads or trends in the art world, for the very idea of fads and trends violate the anti-consumer artist’s tenets. All a curator has to do is rotate collections of anti-consumer art year round, and their gallery can exist in the radical, counterculture milieu 365 days a year.

How long have anti-consumer pieces held primo spots in top galleries around the nation? One would think the ubiquity of this anti-consumer theme in art galleries would invite a rebellion that would expose it as the market force it purports to detest. It would take a rebel willing to expose the counterculture in their work, regardless of how it affects their pocketbook, because the current art world would not view their work favorably.

As such, framing the concept of their piece would provide an obstacle for the rebel. The rebel would have to word their artistic statement carefully, for it would be career suicide to have their anti-anti-consumer art confused with pro-consumer art.

Grimace-e1414637657704

“Eat at McDonald’s”

“It says ‘Eat at McDonald’s,’” a curator might say with absolute disgust.

“Right on,” the anti-anti-consumer artist would reply. “It’s my attempt to highlight the stereotypical art of anti-consumerism. My portrayal of the McDonaldland character Grimace is used as a vehicle for the larger idea through which I attempt to explore the tendency our counterculture has to use social media and propaganda to prescribe narrow, contrived definitions of art to individuals and the nation.”

The hip, avant-garde patrons of an art gallery would be prone to view the anti-anti-consumer artist’s piece as a stab at consumerism that contains sophisticated irony. They might consider it quaint, hilarious, and an incredible salvo sent to consumers around the world, the people who really don’t get it.

If this anti-anti-consumer artist was available for a Q&A session, and the artist made the mistake of imploring their artistic friends to accept their anti-anti-consumer theme for what it is, the hip, avant-garde smiles would likely flatten. Some might consider the piece obnoxious, and they might even consider the anti-anti-consumer artist a whore for corporate America.

“I just want to celebrate the history and tradition of the McDonaldland character Grimace,” the anti-anti-consumer artist’s intro would be. “My painting is an effort to explore all the joy and happiness Grimace has brought to so many lives.”

“Is that sophisticated irony?” the patrons would ask.

“No. It’s an anti-anti-consumer theme that I am attempting to explore here.”

“So it’s … a pro-consumer statement?” one of the more obnoxious patrons might say to intrude upon the artist’s pitch.

“Good God, no!” the artist must respond, if they hope to generate the amount of interest that might result in a sale.

If the anti-anti-consumer artist has the artistic temperament of one who doesn’t care about the sale, however, and they’re able to maintain focus on the artistic theme, they might have to engage in a substantial back-and-forth with the patrons of their piece before they conclude that the artist isn’t putting them on or being obnoxious.

As stated earlier, being obnoxious in an anti-consumer theme is not just acceptable it’s expected. Stubbornly pursuing an anti-anti-consumer stance, however, will cause others to deem the artist obnoxious and pro-consumer.

Thus, attracting patrons to the anti-anti-consumer exhibit would not even represent the beginning of the artist’s problems, as no self-respecting curator would deign to display their work. I’m guessing most curators aren’t bad people, and they might even have some sympathy for this anti-anti-consumer artist’s frustrations. If the curator’s knowledge of the industry was such that they knew enough about it to be objective, they would probably sit the artist down to inform them of the inner workings of the industry.

“I know you are a passionate artist,” the curator might say, “but you really should reconsider this whole anti-anti-consumer theme. I know you built it to counter the counter, but you should know that this will not play well over the long haul. If you want serious cachet in the art world, there are two genres to consider. These genres include art built on an anti-consumerism theme and the anti-consumer works that are vehement in their theme. I suggest you drop this whole anti-anti-consumer artistic statement and make it known that your work contains a subtle, sophisticated irony with an anti-consumer twist, if you ever hope to sell anything.”

If the anti-anti-consumer artist somehow managed to achieve some degree of success with their theme, they would likely become the scourge of the art world. At some point, fellow artists would also approach the artist, as a coalition of condemnation for the audacity of the anti-anti-consumer theme. “You’re ruining this for all of us. Why would you do this to us? What do you think you’re doing?”

The anti-anti-consumer artist should look them in the eye and ask, “Is that subtle, sophisticated irony?”

Fear of a Beaver Perineal Gland


“Do you know what’s in that?” a friend of mine asked as I approached our table with a strawberry shake in hand.

We’ve all heard this line from informed consumers, and we often hear it when we have a delectable morsel dangling before our mouth. The ones who speak this condemnation are informed consumers who prefer an order of yoke free eggs and tofu, with a side of humus, yet we can only guess that their repetitive condemnations are fueled by some sort of confusing variation of envy directed at the delectable morsel we have dangling before our mouth.

We know where our conversation with these people are heading. We know most busybodies have no problem intruding into our lives to inform us that our dogs shouldn’t chase ducks in city parks, that our hygienic standards are subpar, that we watch too much TV. We know we can’t just run away when they take their place behind the proverbial pulpit. We put up with it, all of it, because the alternative means conceding to the idea that there’s too much knowledge out there.

The premise of this idea of too much knowledge makes us wince. How can there be too much knowledge? If we thought this contention was limited to the idea that too many people know too much about too many people, and that too many people focus too much energy on trivial matters, we might be able to get behind that. Even when an informed consumer decides that it’s perfectly acceptable to share his knowledge about the ingredients of the food we’re about to eat, we might still wince at the alternative. We can only hope it will amount to little more than a casual, humorous observation, akin to a sitcom joke. We might consider the idea of placing some kind of Orwellian governor on such information available on the net, but we won’t concede to the idea that there’s too much knowledge available to the concerned. Knowing that an institutional governor of some sort, on information outlays, violates our personal constitution, we might want to suggest that informed consumers at least place a personal cap on the type of information they share with us, insofar as we might deem what they “simply have to hear about” irrelevant. We think the onus should be on the speaker to note when their audience reaches the point of visible agitation. We might want to ask a poignant, roundabout question regarding how few people recognize when they’re violating another’s personal space, to a point when they don’t mind intruding upon another’s enjoyment of a meal with trivial information that is often vulnerable to contradictory studies.

“Let’s put it this way,” my friend said. “What would you say if I asked you to tell me the difference between the strawberry flavoring in your shake and a beaver’s anal secretion?”

I did everything but close my eyes in this space. Being within earshot of such an individual exhausts me. They’re indefatigable. They know so much about so many trivial things that I wonder if they’ve ever spent any time studying the fine art of discretion. They display no ability to read their audience or an awareness of when to stop. It’s almost as if they have so much trivial knowledge stored in their cerebral tanks that if they don’t hit the release valve every once in a while, they may implode. Experience dictates that if we let them have their say, it will all be over soon, but we cannot precipitate this closure by saying, “I don’t want to be part of this information dump.”

“I’d say I can tell the difference,” I said without yawning.

“You’d think that wouldn’t you,” said my friend, an informed consumer, “but people confuse the two every day. Those who enjoy eating strawberry, raspberry, and vanilla ice cream are, in essence, big fans of a beaver’s anal secretion. If they’re willing to pay a little more for products that use ‘natural flavorings,’ they’re probably eating a number of secretions from animals, insects, and a wide array of repulsive animal byproducts. The natural assumption is that the opposite of natural flavorings involves manmade, chemical enhancement, but does the average consumer know the true extent of the ‘natural flavorings’ in the products they purchase? Chances are that anyone who prefers natural flavoring in their strawberry shakes has actually been devouring the yellowish secretion from the dried perineal glands of the beaver, in a most gratuitous manner, for years.”

The Castoreum Connection

Castoreum is the exudate from the castor sacs of the mature North American Beaver. Consumers have stated that they prefer this natural flavoring augment to other natural flavorings in blind, taste tests of course. The internet offers no details regarding whether this market-tested preference is due to the scent of the secretion, or if the flavor has been determined to be more delicious than any of the other alternatives flavorists have tried over the years. Whatever the case is, the beaver doesn’t produce this exudate from its castor sacs to tweak our senses. Rather, they release this natural produce as a territory marker. The procedure involved in extracting the exudate is such that the beaver doesn’t have to give up his life to provide this flavoring. Rather, enterprising young hands milk it from the castor sacs located in the beaver’s anal glands. Those curious enough to pursue more knowledge on this subject, to the point of probably having too much, should know that entering the search term “milking the beaver” in a search engine may not pull up the instructional videos they seek.

It’s important to note that research scientists in this field, called flavorists, have developed synthetic substitutes for castoreum and almost all of the natural additives listed herein. Yet, informed consumers tell us that synthetic substitutes fall under the artificial flavorings umbrella, and artificial flavorings fall under the manmade umbrella, and that we should all consider these two terms unacceptable. When informed consumers read the words “synthetic substitute,” “chemical additive,” or “artificial flavorings,” they may make the leap to animal testing or to the unintended consequences of man messing with nature, because some anecdotal bits of information stick in our minds regarding chemical synthetics leading to cancer and other health concerns. As a result, we prefer natural flavorings.

Natural and Artificial Flavoring

So, what is the difference between artificial and natural flavorings? Gary Reineccus, a professor in the Department of Food Science and Nutrition at the University of Minnesota, writes that finding the difference between the two requires one to look at the original source of the chemicals used.

“Natural flavorings just mean that before the source went through many chemical processes, that it came from an organic, natural source as opposed to an artificial one that has no natural origin.”[1]

“I used to be a vegetarian,” a friend of mine told me. “I grew up on a farm, and I saw what they did to the chickens and the ducks to prepare them for our meals. I decided that I would no longer eat them. I felt bad for them. When I was a little girl, I had no idea I was eating the chickens from the pen. I never associated the chickens from the pen with the chicken I enjoyed eating. The question of why they had the same name just never occurred to me. When they explained it all to me, and I saw how they prepared my friends, the ducks and chickens, for my consumption, I didn’t eat chickens or any other meat for years.”

How much does the average consumer enjoy M&M’s and jelly beans? Would their enjoyment of these products lessen if the tender, chewable morsels were less shiny? The flavorists at these companies either experienced initial failure with the dull glow of their candy, or they decided not to risk it, and they relied on an additive called shellac. That’s right, in order to give our favorite tasty morsels a little extra shine, they coat them with same stuff others put on our wooden furniture to give it that extra shimmer. What’s the problem with that, though, if it passes the rigorous standards of our Food and Drug Administration (FDA)

“Nothing,” writes Daisy Luther, for the Organic Prepper, as long as consumers know the shellac “is a resinous secretion from bugs during their mating cycles, the female lac beetle in particular. Glazed donuts and glossy candy shells owe their shininess to these secretions.”[2]

Starbucks once had a difficult time keeping their strawberry Frappuccino a visually appealing vibrant red. The struggle for Starbucks was that most of the red flavorings they tested couldn’t offer that delightful hue, so they turned to Natural Red #4 dye, otherwise known as carmine. This proved more successful in holding the color, but informed consumers discovered that it is actually a cochineal extract, a color additive derived from the cochina beetle’s shell. The process involves drying the insects and grinding them up to give their strawberry Frappuccino a more sustainable red flavoring. Informed consumers forced Starbucks to end the practice and caterwauled them into transitioning to lycopene, a pigment found in tomatoes.

As usual, all this caterwauling is much ado about nothing, as studies performed over the last sixty years by independent researchers and the FDA’s research arm conclude that while most of these additives land high on our yuck list, there are no discernible health concerns or anything life threatening about them. Our culture once had a joke that we applied to such matters, “If you want to enjoy sausage, do not watch how it is made.” Those days are gone, long gone, and in its place are these, “Do you know what you’re consuming?” questions that informed consumers end up saying so loudly that corporations hear them and adapt.

Fish Bladders and Bitter Beer Face

Many such studies take an anti-corporate stance in their findings. Some are subtle, while others are overt in their call for greater corporate social responsibility. They suggest that food producers and manufacturers are engaging in deceptive business practices because they do not list “beaver anus juice” in their ingredients, and the FDA should force them to be more transparent.

To this charge, I submit that most of these ingredients have been market tested and FDA approved, and they will bring consumers no harm. I also submit that in most areas of the food and beverage industry, profits are a lot slimmer than infotainment purveyors would have consumers believe. Those who prefer clear beer, for instance, may find it at least slightly inhumane to use the dried swim bladders of beluga sturgeon (Isinglass) to filter sediment, but the alternative is yeast-filled beer that no consumer, informed or otherwise, would purchase. The food and beverage industry is such a competitive industry that the need to keep costs down and pass those savings on to the consumers is often the difference between being able to deliver said products and folding up shop. If an informed consumer demands more corporate responsibility, along industry lines, they should be prepared to pay more for these alternatives, because those higher costs will be passed on to consumers. Informed consumers are also fickle beings who force corporations into changing from natural flavorings to synthetic and back, nearly undermining their efforts with constant barrages from the outrage of the day vault. Those of us who pay attention to such matters, long for a pushback from corporations and consumers. We long for the day when uninformed consumers will step up, en masse, and say something such as:

“I don’t enjoy hearing that dried fish bladder spends time in my beer. I might prefer that they find some other way to clean my favorite beer, but I’ve been drinking it and those fish bladder remnants for decades. I eat fish all the time though, and I see nothing wrong with it, and I think the idea of bullying corporations to do things another way has reached a tipping point.”

To Get Us in the Mood

Various corporations also use products like beaver castoreum to cure headaches, fever, and hysteria, as it contains large amounts of salicylic acid, an active ingredient in aspirin. These anal secretions contain around twenty-four different molecules, many of which act as natural pheromones that help us get in the mood.

Castoreum gives off a musky scent used in perfumes, much like ambergris, the solid, waxy, flammable substance of a dull gray or blackish color, produced in the gastrointestinal tract of sperm whales. The whale does not have to die for ambergris extraction either. Ambergris is a bile duct secretion produced to ease the passage of hard, sharp objects the whale ingests in the sea. As such, enterprising souls often locate the ambergris floating on the surface of the ocean in whale vomit, which makes it easier to harvest and include in our favorite perfumes and colognes.

Giacomo Casanova, well-known raconteur, often sprinkled a dash of ambergris in his evening hot chocolate, in the hopes that when his lover approached its musky aroma would be permeating from his skin. If Casanova were feeling particularly insecure while in the company of a promising damsel, he added an extra coat of it on his collar.

The theory is that our sense of smell serves a dual purpose: warning us of danger and attracting a prospective mate. Market research has expounded on these findings. They have that animal materials such as civet, castoreum and musk (from cats, beaver, and deer, all located in the same region) offer a sensual fragrance, because they harbor chemical structures similar to our own sexual odors. Musk has almost identical properties to human testosterone, in other words, an enzyme that powers our sex drive.

Who Discovered It First?

The last questions that arise in discussion involving natural substitutes and additives involve their origin: “Who first discovered this, and how did they arrive at the conclusion that it could be used in the manner we now use it?

Did someone notice that an inordinate number of women had an inordinate attraction to whalers? Did this first observer set about to try to discover why? Did whalers, after a number of successful conquests of women, realize that there was something to their success rate? Did some notice that the correlation went beyond the rugged individualism women of the era seemed to associate with whaling? Did one whaler rub some whale vomit behind his ears before he went to the tavern one night and encounter so much success that his fellow whalers followed suit? How long did it take before someone officially unlocked the alluring properties of ambergris? On that note, who was the first person to mix beaver anal juice in ice cream and decide it was such a winning proposition that they should pitch it to corporations? What did this enterprising soul say in that pitch to make it persuasive? While we’re on this topic, how did someone discover the psychedelic and psychoactive properties of the toad?

What was the trial-and-error process that led to this discovery? Did someone eat a toad and find themselves feeling a little loopy in the aftermath? Did they discover these toad venom properties by accident, or did this enterprising individual walk around licking everything in the forest, from the trees to the orifices of the aardvark and the antelope, seeking a natural high that they hoped would lead to fame and fortune?

We can make an educated guess that any individual who persisted in this manner probably didn’t care about money as much as they did about achieving a state of mind in which they could no longer care about money.

We know the natural properties in plants and animals can provide homeopathic remedies, and these theories date back to the Native Americans, to Aristotle, and beyond. We also know that there was a great deal of trial-and-error in that research, much of it accomplished in environments that were not sterile, and they produced results were not consistent and would have a difficult time standing up to the kind of peer review such a finding would experience today. With that in mind, another question naturally arises: “How many people became ill during these trials? How many experienced short and long-term paralytic effects? How many died before they found that the 5-methoxy-N, N-dimethyltryptamine (5-MeO-DMT), is a chemical derivative of bufotenine located in toads? This chemical, after all, is not available in all toads. It appears to be the exclusive property of the bufo alvarius. We can only guess that many people had to lick a wide variety of toads before they discovered the one that secretes the perfect venom for those who wish to experience the euphoric results of brain cell death.

The chemical (5-MeO-DMT) is a natural venom these toads produce to defend against attackers, and recent research indicates that the toad-licking phenomenon is dangerous, and an old wives’ tale. That research reports that human beings, whom the toad views as attackers, are susceptible to consequences similar to any attacker that runs up to lick it. The human attacker may become ill and/or paralyzed in an attempt to milk the toad in a squeezing motion or to ingest it in an oral manner. This leads to the next question, which alleged educated researcher watched their fellow researchers or test subjects fall to the ground in paralytic spasms, or to their death, and crossed out the words lick it. The researcher or the one next in line must have tried everything before they found the successful method of drying the toad and smoking it. Word then leaked that someone found the Holy Grail of brain cell-killing euphoria, and the proper use of the secretions of the Bufo alvarius soon became so ubiquitous and eventually so detrimental that Queensland, Australia, deemed toad slime as contraband, an illegal substance, the possession of which is punishable under their Drug Misuse act?

My Advice to Informed Consumers

If the reader is anything like my informed consumer friend who insisted on informing me about the natural byproducts of my strawberry shake, and the reader is interested in trivial information about consumable products, that reader already knows about the number of websites that will feed that hunger. These websites provide tidbits and warnings about just about every product and service available to mankind, updated on a daily basis. If the informed consumer is so interested in such information that they feel an overwhelming need to share, just know that an ever-increasing segment of the population has already reached that tipping point, because most of this information proves to be little more than a conglomeration of trivial concerns, if not contradictory.

My initial fear, in publishing this particular article, was that it might contribute to what I deem a violation of social protocol, yet I offer it here under the banner “There’s no such thing as too much knowledge.” I am aware, however, that there will always be some informed consumers, like my broiled to black on too much information friend, who don’t believe that sharing such information will do any harm. I also know that the moment of sharing will arrive soon after the unsuspecting sits down to enjoy those products the informed consumer is now afraid to consume based on what they know about said product. To these people, I offer my paraphrase of one of Mark Twain’s most famous quotes: “Sometimes it’s better to keep your mouth shut and appear uninformed than to open it and remove all doubt.”

Therefore, the next time someone approaches your table with a strawberry shake, a bottle of beer, M&M’s, or a fried Bufo alvarius toad they plan to consume, let them do it in peace. This might provide the informed consumer the biological equivalents of letting a kidney stone calcify in their system. If they were to ask for advice, however, I would tell them to use discretion. I would tell them an ever-increasing segment of the population doesn’t care one-eighth as much about this information as most informed consumers do, and the discretion the informed consumer shows in allowing the consumption to continue without comment could go a long way in their quest to win friends and influence people.

[1]https://www.happycow.net/blog/vegan-beware-natural-flavorings-and-other-hidden-animal-sources-in-your-food-supply/

[2]http://www.theorganicprepper.ca/natural-additives-bugs-hair-and-anal-secretions-oh-my-04242013

Are You Superior? II


Working as an ice cream truck driver one day –a ding ding man, a good humor man, or whatever you’d call me in your locale– I was pulled over by a couple of bandannas, beneath hats that were turned backwards, and sunglasses. I braced for the worst. I imagined this encounter a modern-day equivalent of bandits pulling over a stagecoach. I flirted with the notion that the only reason they stopped me “just to talk” was to allow their stickup man enough time to sneak around the back of my ice cream truck to complete the heist. I divided my attention between them and my mirrors as a result, watching for any movement behind my truck. When that didn’t happen, I began to wonder if they were feeling me out, to gauge if I was an easy roll for a future heist. All of that may have been unfair, but I have always been a nerdy guy, and these guys appeared to be so cool. I could find no reason why they would want to stop their truck in the middle of a neighborhood street “just to talk” to someone like me.

I don’t understand the subtle differences and wide divides between being cool and being nerdy, and as many tell me, “You probably never will.” I did know that these guys were cool, however, or cooler than me anyway. They had this aura about them I call cool, but others, far smarter than me, call radiating self-possession. They spoke in an ethereal tone that suggested they were probably potheads, and as one attuned to pop culture references, and pop culture characterizations, I knew that meant that they were way cooler than me. If all of this was true, and they were thieves, and I was the modern day equivalent to the aproned shopkeeper of the ice cream truck, their comparative cool points were through the roof.

In a world of what I considered proper metrics, I should’ve been superior. I wore better clothes, and I figured I had a better education, but these guys had intangibles that I couldn’t even imagine attaining. They had a look about them, a strong sense of cool, and an aura that suggested that they were fun loving, party-going types. Such characteristics threw my metrics right out the window. They weren’t stupid, however, and that fact was evident minutes into our conversation, but there was no way their education was as expensive as mine was. If they were potheads, they probably spent a lot of time equivocating moral issues, and those who equivocate –my Catholic school educators informed me– have a fundamental flaw about them that they spend an inordinate amount of time trying to hide. In this world of proper metrics, I thought I was, check, check, check, superior.

Except for one tiny, little nugget, I conveniently neglected to input into the equation: on this day I was also wearing sunglasses and a bandanna beneath my backwards facing hat. The only difference between the three of us was that I didn’t wear this gear on a day-to-day basis. I wore this getup for the sole purpose of concealing my true identity. I was so embarrassed to be a ding ding man that short of wearing a fake beard and a Groucho Marx nose and eyeglasses, I had every inch of my identity concealed from the public.

They didn’t know any of that. They must have thought I was a bandanna, beneath a backwards facing hat, and sunglasses brutha, and that may have been the primary reason they decided to stop and chat with me in the first place. It may have been the reason they were so relaxed about their status, and my status, and the superior versus inferior dynamic influencing our approach to one another. Within the internal struggle I experienced in this interaction, was a ray of sunshine. I felt superior, because this was a get up for me. This was not my every day apparel. That moment was fleeting even while basked in that moment, for I realized that if I was superior I wasn’t doing anything with it, and that fact led me to be embarrassed that I was now wearing a bandanna, beneath a backwards facing hat, and sunglasses. I wondered if I input that variable into the equation if it might actually make me inferior to them.

Those who tally superiority points in interactions, often fail to reward points to those who are comfortable in their own skin. We only see their limitations. We don’t factor in how comfortable they may be with them. We’ve been led to believe that achieving vast amounts of power, prestige, and money are the endgame, and the ultimate goal, and anyone who says otherwise is lying. Very few would deny wanting such these things, of course, but some don’t need them in the way others do. Most people just want enough disposable income to do something on weekends, and what they do on weekends can be as fulfilling, if not more so, than that which the most successful man achieves during the week.

These two were older than me, but they were still young, and as such, the opportunities for them in the future were as wide open for them as for me, but they were still much more comfortable in their current situation than I was. They learned to live with their limitations, until they were so comfortable with who they were that they were radiating self-possession. I realized that in my bandanna, beneath a backwards facing hat, and sunglasses disguise, I lost points in this category.

The bandanas, with hats on backwards, and sunglasses did not wear shirts, and they were riding in a beat up, old International truck, that rattled in idle. They were construction guys with deep, dark tans that made their teeth appear whiter when they smiled and laughed. My guess, watching these two twentysomethings speak, was that even though they appeared inferior, they had no trouble landing women. My guess was that among those women who knew them well, there was a whole lot of adulation going on. I didn’t know that to be a fact, of course, but guys like me –who were always on the lookout for what I missed in life– were always looking to guys like these for ideas.

They laughed a genuine laugh at some of the things I said. The matters I discussed had something to do with the business side of being a ding ding man, and how I loathed my current station in life, but I can’t remember specifics. I remember their laughter, however, and I remember wondering if they were laughing with me or at me. At this point in my life, I just escaped a high school that contained a large swath of people who were often laughing at me. This casual conversation reminded me of those kids I just escaped, and it revealed the shield that I erected whenever I thought one of them neared.

That takeaway didn’t strike me as a profundity in the moment. The thought crossed my mind, but I didn’t grasp the totality of what happened between us until they told me they had to leave. This intangible something that I wouldn’t fully grasp until later, caused me to miss them before they drove away. I enjoyed speaking with them, and I realized that all of the preconceived notions I had about them were based on my experiences in high school, and I thought about all of the hang-ups and insecurities I had a result. I realized that these two were just a couple of good guys, and they thought I was a pretty good guy too. I didn’t expect them to want to talk to me, but when they did, I expected them to lose interest quickly. When they didn’t, I realized I liked being the guy they thought I was. I wasn’t sure what it was they thought they saw when they sidled up next to me to chat, but I liked it, and while I watched them drive away, I realized I wanted a retake of the whole scene. The next time I saw them, I decided, I would enjoy our conversation from beginning to end, without any hang-ups or preconceived notions, but I never saw them again.

The idea that most people speak in superlatives was not lost on me, but most people who knew me well said that I might have been one of the most uptight, frustrated, and angst-ridden individuals they’ve ever met and the costume I currently wore supported that characterization more than I cared to admit. Very few of these people have ever accused me of being too relaxed.

It wasn’t until these two were long gone that I realized that my inability to put high school behind me prevented me from enjoying a simple, casual conversation with some decent fellas who just happened to drive up on me. In my cynical mind, I was and always would be, playing a proverbial king of the mountain game, a game I often lost in high school, and I was still so locked into that defensive position that it ruined my life for years.

Is it true that we’re searching for a point of superiority, or inferiority, in even the most casual conversations? I don’t know, and some would say no, and others would say hell no! “I’m just asking you what you think about the latest wheat and grain prices on the commodity markets.” So, why do we loathe speaking to some people? What makes us so uncomfortable that we leave some of the most casual conversations feeling incomplete and inferior, and why do we enjoy casual conversations with others so much more? The tricky, sticky element of this argument is that most who propose that in some way, shape, or form these elements shape just about every conversation we have, wish we never discovered it. Now that our mind’s eye is open to this idea, we wish we could turn it off, and enjoy the fruits of casual conversations again.

If it is true that every single conversation has these elements in some form, where was I in this casual conversation with two guys that wore a bandanna, beneath a backwards facing hat and sunglasses? That was never established in a substantial manner, but my takeaway from this particular encounter was that for a very brief moment in my life, I didn’t care, and that might have been what I liked, what I missed, and what caused me to watch them drive away.

Deserve vs. Earn


“You just received a raise? Well, congratulations! I think you deserved it.” A co-worker said after I stepped out of a one-on-one with my boss. I was so proud that I almost missed her faux pas. If it wasn’t a faux pas to her mind, I thought, but it was a violation of my philosophical principles.

“Well, thank you for the kind words,” I said with all sincerity, “but I didn’t deserve that raise. I earned it.”  

I don’t know if I offended a third party in our group or not, but she stepped into the conversation when I stressed the word earn. “If you earned that raise, then we all did,” she said with a dismissive tone. “We all got a raise, but it wasn’t a raise in a traditional sense. It was a bump in pay. Yeah, the federal minimum wage went up, and we all received a commensurate bump in pay.”

I knew about the raise in the minimum wage, but I made more than the minimum wage, so I ignored the stories on the topic. I didn’t think I would be affected by it, and I didn’t know anything about the general practice companies have of raising wages commensurate with the minimum wage. In our one-on-one, my boss led me to believe that the increase in hourly wage I would see was an amount of money I would receive, going forward, based on merit. He never said the word raise, I realized in the aftermath of my co-worker’s clarification, but he said enough to allow me to fill in the blank. I was so proud. I couldn’t wait to tell my dad, but it turned out this bump in pay wasn’t an amount of money I earned, but money I deserved for working in a country that decided to mandate that employers pay their employees more money.

“Why do you care whether you earned or deserved more money?” another co-worker later asked, “as long as you have more of it in the bank.”

Other co-workers told me to shut up in various other ways, and that I should be grateful that I had a job. I tried to be that guy, as I knew the pain of being laid off and fired. I don’t know if my state of mind had something to do with my boss delivering the news of my bump in pay under what I considered false pretenses, but I thought it had something to do with the overwhelming sense of pride I felt when I thought the company was finally recognizing all of my hard work, and how that all came crashing down when I realized I deserved it.

✽✽✽

In a post-game interview, following his first 1994-1995 national championship, former Nebraska Cornhuskers head coach Tom Osborne was asked if he felt he deserved the title. Tom Osborne began head coaching duties in 1974. What followed was a level of consistency almost unheard of in college football, with numerous near-misses in national championship games. No college coach, at the time, could be said to be more deserving of a national championship. No college coach worked harder, or was more effective in building a consistent winner, at the time, than Coach Tom Osborne. Yet when he finally won his first championship, and someone asked him if he felt he deserved it, he said, “No one deserves a national championship,” I write paraphrasing Coach Osborne. “You win one in that particular season.” Without going into too much detail, every loss to the Oklahoma Sooners, every bowl game loss, and every near-miss informed Tom Osborne that he needed to change some in-game strategies. He also realized he needed to change the type of players he needed to recruit to finish his career with three national championships and a 60-3 record over his last five seasons as Nebraska’s head coach.  

What’s the difference between the words earn and deserve? If a reader sorts through various periodicals they will find the two words used in an almost interchangeable manner. We conflate these two words so often that some of us consider them synonyms, some thesauruses and dictionaries even list them as such.

This casual, but curious, observer of language would not go so far to write that those periodicals are incorrect, but in a purely philosophical sense, I consider these words so far apart as to be antonyms. When the office worker speaks of deserving a raise she has not yet received, even those who know the standard measurements of the company would not bring up the word earn, fearing that doing so might taint the relationship they have with her. When a sports fan speaks of his favorite team deserving a championship, only his antagonists will mention the fact that that team hasn’t earned it yet, and when the lovelorn and politicians speak of the word deserving, it is an emotional appeal that their audience dare not counter.

Most define deserve as something for which they are entitled, as if by birthright, and earn has a more meritorious quality. We think we deserve to have something, as a result of a natural course of events. If another has, we should have. In this context, deserve takes on the definition of an adjective to describe those who should attain, and earn is more a verb to describe the justifiable reward for the hard work put into attaining a goal. Deserve is also a term used by those who feel they are owed something by being a good person, a human, or a human being that is alive.

All philosophical differences aside, this causal, but curious, observer can’t help but think that those who invest emotions in the idea that they are deserving, at the expense of working to earn, set themselves up for failure, heartache, and even diminished mental health when the reality of their circumstances continue to dispel such notions. One would think that, at some point, the confused would take a step back and reexamine their algorithm, but for most of us that’s easier said than done, as it could lead us to the conclusion that we’re a lot less deserving than we once believed.

LOVE

Love is difficult to calculate by standard measurements of course, as past behaviors do not dictate future success. As such, no rational person should ever say that they deserve to be loved in a conditional manner by a prospective lover, but love is not something one can earn entirely by merit in this manner either. Conditional love, between adults, is a complicated algorithm fraught with failure that begins with simple, intangible superficialities. These superficialities can be as simple as the way a person combs their hair, their scent, the clothes they wear, the way they smile when they see you coming down the aisle at Cracker Barrel, and all of the other, otherwise meaningless intangibles that form superficial attraction. Some could argue that the superficial nature of the early stages of love are nothing more than a crush, but a crush forms the fundamental layer of all that will arise from it. At some point, and every relationship is different, a cross over occurs. The initial spark that drove the relationship from point A to point B progresses into shared values, individualistic ideas, and some modifications on long held beliefs and philosophies, until it eventuates from that initial, superficial attraction into the ultimate, comprehensive and conditional decisions we make about another person we call love. In this sense, we earn love every day thereafter by maintaining and managing the conditions that the other party lays out for us in overt and implicit ways to form adult, conditional love.

“Do you think you should receive love simply by being?” I would ask those who claim to deserve love. “Do you think that you should be able to walk up to a total stranger on the street and inform them that you are a good person, and therefore deserving of love, and that they should do their civic duty, as a good citizen of the world, and love you? If that’s what you believe, you’ll probably end up with the type of love you deserve.” 

The point is that those who claim they’ve achieved the quality of deserving open up a whole can of why, for those who are asked to believe it. ‘Why do I deserve,’ should be the first question we ask ourselves, and ‘why am I more deserving than anyone else’ should be the next, and all of the answers should culminate in self-evident facts and figures that result in the definitions of the words ‘merit’ and ‘earn’.

Some high-minded types who tend to overthink matters are often quick to warn the rest of us that we tend to overthink matters. One such person told his audience that love is nothing more than a complex mixture of chemicals in the brain, and he did so under the theoretical umbrella that suggests that a human being is no more complex than the penguin. This person added that other animals, like some penguins, maintain long-term, monogamous relationships based on decision-making. The rest of us would not say that this is outright false, but we would add that the definition of love can vary with the complex and simple variables we add to it. If we want the love we deserve to be no more complex than the penguin’s, and our drive to be loved, and love, is nothing more than a natural and primal need to procreate, then all humans deserve to be loved by the primal, prospective mate who senses when we’re in heat. If the human’s senses are equal or inferior to the penguin’s, in the sense that a penguin can tell when their mate is in heat, and humans don’t know when we deserve love, we may want to develop a mating call that informs prospective mates when we feel ‘deserving’ to see what comes running down the alley to us.

Most of us prefer to believe that we earn the love we receive on a perpetual basis, a love that is much more complex than the penguins, and that the love we receive is reciprocated by the love we give. This, in financial circles, is called ROI (return on investment). If we decide to invest our emotions into another, we try to make an informed decision of whether that person shares our values. After we make that initial assessment, we advance it to greater levels with all variables that both parties introduce to it on a day-to-day basis. If we settle on this primal, penguin definition of love, and we choose to believe that we deserve a form of love that should be nonjudgmental, and lacking in morals and values, and that which is nothing more than a stick that stirs the chemicals in our brain, the love we receive will be as meaningless as the penguins’, and what we deserve.

The Unfunny, Influential Comedy of Andy Kaufman


At one precise moment on the timeline of comedy, the subversive nature of it was so comprehensive that it became uniform, conventional, and in need of total destruction. Although the late, great Andy Kaufman may never have intended to undermine and, thus, destroy the top talent of his generation, his act revealed his contemporaries for what they were: conventional comedians operating under a like-minded banner. In doing so, Andy Kaufman created a new art form.

Those of us with a seemingly unnatural attraction to Kaufman’s game-changing brand of unfunny comedy now know the man was oblivious to greater concerns, but we used whatever it was he created to subvert conventional subversions, until they lost their subversive quality altogether.

Those “in the know” drew up a very distinct, sociopolitical definition of subversion long before Andy Kaufman’s variety. They may deem the art form of Kaufman’s making evidence of his certifiable comedic genius now, but they had no idea what he was doing while he was doing it. I can only guess that most of those that saw Kaufman’s act in its gestational period cautioned him against going through with it. 

I see what you’re trying to do. I do,” I imagine them saying, “but I don’t think it will play well in Omaha. They’ll just think you’re weird, and weird doesn’t play well on the national stage, unless you’re funny-weird.”

Many of them regarded being weird, in the manner embodied by his definition of that beautiful adjective as just plain weird, even idiotic. They didn’t understand what he was doing.

Before Andy Kaufman became Andy Kaufman, and his definition of weird defined it as a transcendent art form, being weird meant going so far over-the-top that the audience felt comfortable with the notion of a comedian being weird. It required the comedic player to find a way to communicate a simple message to the audience: “I’m just acting weird and that’s all.” Before Kaufman and those influenced by his brilliance broke the mold on the word, comedians relied on visual cues, in the form of weird facial expressions, vocal inflections and tones so that the so-called less sophisticated audiences in Omaha could understand the notion of a comedic actor just being weird. Before Kaufman, comedic actors had no interest in unnerving audiences. They just wanted the laugh. 

One can be sure that before Andy Kaufman took to the national stage on Saturday Night Live, he heard those warnings, but for whatever reason he didn’t heed them. It’s possible that Kaufman was just that weird, and that he thought his only path to success was to let his freak flag fly. It’s also possible that he had enough confidence in his act that he was able to ignore the advice offered by those in the know. We admirers must also consider the idea that Kaufman might not have been talented enough to be funny in a more conventional sense. Whatever the case, Kaufman maintained his unconventional, unfunny, idiotic characters and bits until those “in the know” declared him one of the funniest men who ever lived.

The cutting-edge, comedic intelligentsia now discusses the deceased Kaufman, in a frame that suggests they were onto his act the whole time. They weren’t. They didn’t get it. I didn’t get it, but I was young, and I needed the assistance of repetition to lead me to  the genius of being an authentic idiot, until I busied myself trying to carve out my own path to true idiocy, in my own little world.

Andy Kaufman may not have been the first true idiot in the pantheon of comedy, but for those of us who witnessed his hilariously unfunny, idiotic behavior, it opened to us a completely new world. We knew how to be idiots, but we didn’t understand the finer points of the elusive art of persuading another of our inferiority until Kaufman came along, broke that door down, and showed us all his furniture.

For those who’ve never watched Andy Kaufman at work, his claim to fame did not involve jokes. His modus operandi involved situational humor. The situations he created weren’t funny either, not in the conventional sense. Some were so unfunny and so unnerving, in fact, that viewers deemed them idiotic. Kaufman was so idiotic that many believed his shows were nothing more than a series of improvised situations in which he reacted on the fly to a bunch of idiotic stuff, but what most of those in the know could not comprehend at the time was that everything he did was methodical, meticulous, and choreographed.

 

Being Unfunny in Situations

 

Like the knuckleball, the manner in which situational humor evolves can grow better or worse as the game goes on, but eventual success requires unshakeable devotion to the pitch. Some will hit home runs off your knuckleball, and you will knock out an occasional mascot with a wild one, but for situational jokes to be effective, they can’t just be another pitch in your arsenal. These pitches require a commitment that will become a concentration, until it eventuates into a lifestyle that even those closest to you will have a difficult time understanding.

“Why would you try to confuse people?” they will ask. “Why do you continue to say jokes that aren’t funny?” 

“I would like someone, somewhere to consider me an idiot,” the devoted will respond. “Any idiot can fall down a flight of stairs, trip over a heat register, and engage in slapstick comedy, but I want to achieve a form of idiocy that leads others to believe I am a total idiot who doesn’t know any better.”

For those less confident in their modus operandi, high-minded responses might answer the question in such a way that the recipient considers us more intelligent, but they obfuscate the truth as to why we enjoy doing it. The truth may be that we know the path to achieving laughter through the various pitches and rhythms made available to us in movies and primetime sitcoms, but some of us reach a point when that master template bores us. Others may recognize, at some point in their lives, that they don’t have the wherewithal to match the delivery that friends employ, particularly those friends with gameshow host personalities. For these people, the raison d’être of Kaufman’s idiot may offer an end run around traditional modes of comedy. Some employ these tactics as a means of standing out and above the fray, while others enjoy the superiority-through-inferiority psychological base this mindset procures. The one certain truth is that most find themselves unable to identify the exact reason why they do what they do. They just know they enjoy it, and they will continue to continue it no matter how many poison-tipped arrows come their way.

An acquaintance of mine learned of my devotion to this method when she overheard me contrast it in a conversation with a third party. What she heard was a brief display of intellectual prowess that crushed her previous characterization of me. When I turned back to her to continue the discussion she and I were having prior to the interruption, her mouth was hanging open, and her eyes were wide. The remark she made in that moment was one she repeated throughout our friendship.

“I am onto you now. You are not as dumb as you pretend to be.”

The delicious moment occurred seconds later, when it dawned on her that what she thought she figured out made no sense in conventional constructs. Most people pretend to be smart, not the other way around. No one pretends that they are dumb or inferior. As she looked at me, her expression changed, as it dawned on her that her revelation was not as comprehensive as she first believed.

The pause before her second sentence gave birth to an expression every idiot strives to achieve, as the pride of figuring me out faded, and she realized that everything she thought she figured out only brought more questions to the fore. I imagined that something of a flowchart developed in her mind to explain everything I did and said to that point, and that each flowchart ended in a rabbit hole that once entered into would place her in a variety of vulnerable positions, including the beginning. She pursued me after that, just to inform me that she was onto what I was doing, until it became obvious that she was the primary audience of her pleas.

I’ve never thrown an actual knuckleball with any success, but watching her flail at the gradual progression of my situational joke, trying to convince me that she was now above the fray, cemented my lifelong theory: Jokes can be funny, but reactions are hilarious.

The point is that if you devote yourself to this mindset, and you try your hardest not to let your opponents see the stitches, you can convince some of the people, some of the times, that you are an idiot.

The Idiostory

Some present and future idiots purchased every VHS tape, book, and album that carried Andy Kaufman’s name, and we read everything we could find about him online, trying to unlock the mystery of his effect on us. We wanted those who knew him best to tell us why he chose to go against the advice of those in the know and if it was possible for us to follow his indefinable passion to the end. We followed his examples and teachings in the manner of disciples, until it became a lifestyle. Andy Kaufman led us to believe that if we could confuse the sensibilities of serious world just enough, it could lead to some seminal moments in our pursuit of the idiotic life.

If our goal were to be funny, we would’ve attempted to follow the trail laid by Jerry Seinfeld. If our aim was only to be weird-funny, we would’ve adopted weird-funny voice Steve Martin used in The Jerk. If we wanted to be sardonic or satirical, we would have looked to George Carlin for guidance. We knew we weren’t as funny as they were, but we reached a point when that didn’t matter to us. When we discovered the unfunny, subversive idiocy of Andy Kaufman, however, it filled us like water rushing down the gullet of a dehydrated man.

Most of our friends considered it being weird for the sake of being weird, but they didn’t recognize the depth charges until they detonated. Some didn’t see any humor inherent in our bits even then. Some of them didn’t want to have anything to do with us after repeated displays, and others were so confused and irritated that they found themselves confronted, once again, by the question of why we do it. It’s possible that the majority of us will never be able to answer that question to anyone’s satisfaction, least of all our own, but we know we like it, and we know we will continue to do it.

 

The Disclaimer

 

If the goal of the reader is to have others consider them funny, following this advice will only lead to heartache and headaches. Instead, they should put acute focus on the beats and rhythm of their delivery and learn how to incorporate them into their responses. Quality humor, like quality music, must offer pleasing beats and rhythms that find a familiar home in the audience’s mind. To achieve this level of familiarity, there are few resources as great as the sitcoms and standup comedians everyone knows and loves. If the joke teller leads into the punchline with a familiar rhythm and lands on the line in a familiar beat, the audience’s reward for figuring out that beat will be a shot of dopamine, and the joke teller’s reward is the resulting laughter. 

If, however, the goal is to be an unfunny idiot that receives no immediate laughter, the joke teller still needs to follow the rules of comedy regarding the beats and rhythm of humor, and they may need to know them even better than truly funny people do. As any gifted practitioner of the art of idiocy will tell those willing to listen, it is far more difficult to find a way to distort and destroy the perception of conventional humor than it is to abide by it. This takes practice and practice in the art of practice.

The rewards for being a total idiot are far and few between. If we achieve total destruction or distortion of what others know to be the beats and rhythm of humor, a sympathetic soul might consider us such an idiot that they might take some time out of their day to advise us about our beats and the rhythm of our delivery. For the most part, however, the rewards idiots receive are damage to their reputations as potentially funny people. Most will dismiss us as weird, and others might even categorically dismiss us as strange. Still others will dismiss us as idiots who know nothing about making people laugh. “We don’t,” we will confess. “That’s why we’re here.” Most will want to have little to nothing to do with us. Women, in particular, might claim they don’t want to date us, declaring, “I prefer nice, funny guys. You? I’m sorry to say this, but you’ve said so many weird things that … I kind of consider you an idiot.”

Busybody Nation


“Busybodies learn to be idlers, going about from house to house, and not only idlers, but also gossips and busybodies, saying what they should not.” – Timothy 5:13, Holy Bible (NES) –

It should have been an uneventful walk in the park on an otherwise uneventful Thursday. The weather was even uneventful, an occurrence that many Omaha, Nebraska residents will inform anyone willing to lend an ear that this would be an event in and of itself. The conversation was pleasant, albeit unmemorable and uneventful, and our walk through the park should have ended that way, but I’d had enough.

Without intending to do so, I initiated what would eventuate into a confrontation by allowing my leashed dog to chase some ducks into the water, an apparent crime against nature.

“Don’t do that!” a female voice shrieked from somewhere in the distance. 

After chasing the ducks, my dog sniffed at the shore where their webbed foot stood seconds earlier. He looked up and watched them swim away for a couple seconds, then casually walked away, his mission complete.

If my wife asked, “Did you hear that woman shriek at you?” I could’ve pled ignorance. I could’ve played dumb and pretended that I had no idea what she was talking about. The woman’s shriek was that faint and distant. The park wasn’t densely populated, but it was plausible that any of the other attendees could have earned such a reaction. I could have assumed I was not the subject of her scorn, and I could’ve simply walked away from it. I could have pretended that I didn’t hear her, and no one not even my wifewould’ve known any better. My pride was not on the line, and I had nothing to gain by pursuing confrontation. I did consider all of that, while my dog sniffed the shore and my wife voiced her concerns, unrelated to the matter at hand, in the background, but I’d had enough.

Some confrontations produce rewards. If a person’s character is on the line, they need to come out swinging, with the best vocabulary in their arsenal. Sometimes, confrontation breeds the type of definition we should not allow others to define for us. We cannot sit back and allow unwarranted, slanderous accusations to go unchallenged. We do make mistakes, however, when we confuse perceived slights with actual, in-your-face accusations, in our quest for definition. This need for respect can be such a driving force that we might engage in inconsequential confrontations that result in no gains for either party. Sometimes, we engage in confrontation just to feel better about ourselves. Other times, we engage in irrational, unnecessary confrontations for the irrational reason that we’ve allowed so many slights and inconsequential confrontations slip by without response that we reach our threshold, and a breaking point.

Consider is at the base of the word inconsiderate, and both parties of an interaction would do well to remember that before reacting, for most people don’t consider how their actions might affect others. There is a wide chasm between being rude and being inconsiderate, but our perception drives the two together. When we read into the motivations of the inconsiderate, we see our own. We think everyone is as considerate as we are and that others choose to violate the unspoken, social contracts we have with one another to the point of being rude.

Most of us simply move on, ignoring perceived slights. On most days, we find a way to walk away from the shriekers, and their prosecuting attorney friends (whom we will discuss later), preferring uneventful, non-confrontational days. We do so without losing one minute of sleep, because we know most confrontations won’t teach the inconsiderate social decorum or the life lessons they should know by now.

Those of us who choose to live peaceful, uneventful, non-confrontational lives often have an outlet most busybodies lack. We have a support group at home who will kiss us and love us after we experience confrontations with the miserable. We can inform our loved ones of the near confrontation, and then boast about how we managed to avoid overreacting. We do this with the knowledge that those who do overreact to every perceived slight have something bubbling beneath the surface, waiting to be unleashed. We even avoid confrontation on those occasions when we know we’re right, because we know that doing otherwise might turn out to be a decision that affects our happy lives in ways that are unalterable, depending on who the recipient of our response is. We don’t know who the person on the other end of the confrontation is, on most occasions. We don’t know how miserable they are, and to what extent they might go to resolve this otherwise inconsequential confrontation. It isn’t fear that drives our decision to let it go, however, we just prefer to let this inconsiderate person have their way, so we can return home to play with our kids, love our spouse, pet our dog, and move on in our otherwise happy lives. We realize, at some point, that this means far more to them than it does us.

There is a tipping point, however, when the inconsequential, inconsiderate actions of others begin to pile up. Even the nicest, most peaceful person on Earth has a threshold. This moment will not cause the affected to become an irrational person that seeks confrontation, but even the most peaceful reach a point when they believe they need to aid the inconsiderate in reconsidering their definitions.

After spending years listening to shrieking busybodies notifying authority figures of the perceived slights heaped upon them or their children I hit that threshold in the park. The list of these perceived slights, filed under national catastrophes, is now so long that a compendium the thickness of War and Peace would require a Volume 1 subtitle. I reached my threshold of tales about shrieking busybodies calling out mothers and fathers for the manner in which they treated their children. I’d had enough of shrieking busybodies sifting through my emails and instant messages, searching for material for their next “To whom it may concern” report. Shrieking busybodies hold government seats now, and they occupy our judicial system, our hard drives and message boards, even our minds trying to ferret out motives we might have had when we decided to engage in a perceived slight.

Shrieking busybodies have no problems telling others how to dress, what beer to drink, where to eat, and what to think of the corporations that sell such products. They ask consumers, “Have you tried to quit smoking?” in the checkout line at the pharmacy. They tell us that our child needs to be in a Federal Aviation Administration approved car seat, until he reaches forty-four pounds. They inform us that our lawn looks “Absolutely horrible” when it exceeds the neighborhood association’s recommended height of two inches. They remind us what our body mass index should be and what we should feed our children, whether we should drink coffee, what kind of Environmental Protection Agency- approved vehicles we should drive, and how much money we should have. We are content with this advice, because we believe busybodies have the best of intentions, but busybodies don’t see it that way. They see it as a launching point. 

If the sole motivation of these busybodies was to be an information resource, a we-report-you-decide outlet, those of us on the other side of the velvet rope might have less of a complaint. We know that everything in moderation will provide a quality life, better health, and overall wellbeing. We know that indulging has deleterious consequences, and some do need information outlets to remind them of what we already know. If their sole motivation were to provide nothing more than information, they wouldn’t grow so frustrated that they end up shrieking in a city park, at a stranger who has decided not to follow their edicts.

Most busybodies are the result of a peaceful nation that leaves its citizens with little in the way of greater concerns. They’re typically a begrudged segment of the population, one that holds a lifelong grudge against those who allegedly got away with alleged transgressions in their youth. Most children test boundaries, and busybodies are not exception, but they don’t remember ever getting away with anything. They saw classmates disrespect authority in a manner that made the busybody resentful and envious. The authority figures listed off the consequences so many times that the busybody could recite them, yet others ignored the rules acting as if they didn’t care. This happened so often that, in the mind of the busybody, a percolating anger began bubbling beneath the surface.

“Don’t let Ms. Johnson catch you doing that, or she’ll tan your hide,” the busybody informed us when we were in grade school. When Ms. Johnson did little to nothing to punish us for our transgression, the percolating began. The busybody believed Ms. Johnson was a fierce authoritarian, and that was the primary reason the busybody didn’t engage in the activity in question. Thus, the busybody grew confused and resentful when Ms. Johnson failed to live up to the busybody’s expectations of fire-and-brimstone punishments for the disorderly to preserve order. They overestimated Ms. Johnson based on their need to fear authority and the consequences of acting up. If Ms. Johnson didn’t witness the transgression, the busybody provided explicit details of it. When Ms. Johnson ignored Exhibits A through X and did nothing, a festering boil of begrudged feelings was born in the mind of the busybody that they would spend the rest of their lives treating. They leave school with the bitter idea that they are the lone sentry, tasked with guarding the final outpost to total chaos in the universe. The busybody doesn’t mind invading your privacy to get you to act according to their begrudged findings of how the world around them should operate.

“That’s not fair!” becomes their battle cry, and they say it to assist the various authority figures in their life commissioned with the difficult task of imposing order. This battle cry followed them into adulthood when their life mission transitioned to assisting office managers, supervisors, and lawmakers with their very difficult task of imposing a sense of what should be everyone’s very strict definition of order. They write letters to the editor, their parent/teacher conferences last forty-five minutes, and their one-on-one meetings with management fall just short of screaming matches. They want order, they demand perceived fairness, and they don’t want anyone to get away with what they dare not try.

These are our busybodies, the Gladys Kravitzes of our nation, trying to right the wrongs of a previous generation, to protect the vulnerable from perceived vicious assaults.

As a side note, for those who weren’t alive or didn’t watch television during the 1970’s, Gladys Kravitz was the fictional embodiment of the busybody. Her eye was ever watchful of her neighbor, the supernatural witch Samantha Stephens, on Bewitched. Gladys has become the fictional embodiment for many of this generation of those neighbors who peer through drapes to document the goings-on of those in their neighborhood. Gladys Kravitz-types know when their neighbors arrive home, who accompanies them, and how long they remain home. To the Gladyses of our world, everything a person does affects the perception and, thus, the property values in the neighborhood. They’re the busybodies of our little corner of the world, and this is becoming their nation.

Abner Kravitz, the folk hero of those who have simply had enough, was the first responder to his wife’s eyewitness testimonies. Abner closed his newspaper and casually walked to the window to see what caused his wife’s shrieking. At that point, the punchline arrived in the form of a return to normalcy in the Stephens home. After that, Abner would turn to his busybody wife and say, “Why don’t you just mind your own business, Gladys?”

The buildup of these Gladys Kravitzes telling to tell us all how to live reached a threshold in the ten seconds I spent contemplating doing nothing in response to the faint, anonymous shriek that instructed me to stop doing what I was doing. Ultimately, I decided to let my still leashed dog have another run at another set of ducks. I knew I was the target of that faint, anonymous shriek, and I knew that repeating the action that sparked it would only exacerbate the situation. I also knew I could have avoided it without anyone knowing, but I had enough.

“Watch your dog,” a fisherman on a different shoreline called out to initiate the confrontation, after I allowed my dog a second go.

“He’s all right,” I informed the gentleman. “He’s just having a little fun. I keep him on a leash at all times, but I do allow him to chase ducks a little.”

“Be careful,” the man said. “I’m a prosecutor, and people run sting operations in this park all the time.”

I must admit that this put me back a step. Was that a threat? It was, and it stoked my ire.

“We’re just having a little fun,” I said, “but I do thank you for your concern.” I then offered him a genuine smile and a good-natured wave that was as confrontational as a genuine smile and a good-natured wave can be.

The “Don’t do that!” shrieker stepped to the fore from her place about twenty yards ahead on the park trail. She waited there, I could only assume, to see how the prosecuting attorney’s threats affected me. When she determined it had no effect, she began to tremble with rage. In a much higher volume than was necessary, she informed me, “The ducks are scared, and they cannot fly.” She then added some other gibberish that flew out of her mouth at such a speed that I feared she might be exhibiting the early warning signs of cardiac arrest.

I stopped on the walking trail, for a moment, caught off guard by the intensity of her venom, until I realized the faux pas of remaining frozen in place. She was standing in front of me, inadvertently blocking my path, but I walked forward, toward her. I did my best to make it clear that I was not charging her, or nearing her in any confrontational manner, yet I refused to remain standing back in a manner that might lead her to believe her vitriol paralyzed me in fear.

The woman then developed a scenario for me. “What if a large, menacing dog came after your little pooch there? Wouldn’t you be just as scared as those ducks are?” she asked.

“Not if that dog were leashed,” I said.

“Yes, you would,” she said.

The uninteresting uh-huh-yes-huh portion of the confrontation lasted for another couple seconds, with each party parrying and thrusting, until the shrieking woman decided to turn and walk away. She was still muttering things over her shoulder, but her venom diminished a tad.

Some have accused me of being a last-word person, but I’ve found that those who accuse me of this often have a need for the last word that surpasses mine. They enjoy trapping the recipient in a state of flux, and their last words are typically an accusation that the other is seeking the last word. This has happened to me so often that I’ve thought of accusing people of needing to have the last word before we even begin such an argument, just to take that arrow out of their quiver.

I will concede that if more than five to seven people make such an accusation, there may be something to it. If that is the case, it may have something to do with the fact that draws and defeats don’t settle well in my digestive system. I prefer to think I can accept draws and defeats, as long as the other person has considered my point of view before we go our separate ways, but I admit that I always put some effort into making sure the other side hears my words, last or not. I will admit that these characterizations of my point of view are relative to my definition and that I don’t provide the most objective perspective on me.

“It looks like we won’t be coming to this park anymore,” I informed my wife, at high volume, to initiate my last word. “It’s filled with busybodies who don’t know how to mind their own business!”

“Get out of the park!” this woman said, shrieking again. She then shrieked something about calling the Humane Society, and she punctuated it with anything and everything she could to defend her position. I allowed her that final word.

It was such a meaningless confrontation. I didn’t feel any better or worse when it concluded, and neither party proved our point, unless one considers the goal of proving to one member of this busybody nation that I was not going to abide by her edicts in silence. In my own subtle way, I did at least inform one busybody, of the busybody world, that sometimes they can engage in overreach.

I know that 99.5 percent of the American public would never allow a dog, leashed or not, a second run at the ducks after the initial shriek. That would make the perpetrator of such an action a bad guy, and no one wants to be a bad guy. In this particular scenario, the subject would’ve been engaging in a confrontation with an elderly woman, defending their right to let a thirty-pound dog chase helpless ducks enjoying a leisurely swim in a city pond. I doubt that many, other than the .5 percent who overreact to every perceived slight, would’ve defended their pro-dog-chase-duck position in the manner I did. A person who wants to be a nice guy would view this whole thing as a no-win proposition.

My only defense –one that I agree borders on the time-honored, political tactic of diversion– is to declare that I am not pro-dog-chase-duck. I’m a man-stop-busybody guy, more focused on informing these people that we would appreciate it if they would take one step back to that time-honored state of mind when people were uncomfortable telling complete strangers how to live their lives. It’s a first step in a movement I would love to spearhead. We would be the “Enough already!” movement that would inform federal, state, and local busybodies of their new limitations.

If they nominated me for this role, I would inform my followers that we must engage in more inconsequential, indefensible arguments such as the one that occurred on a Thursday in the park. We must, if we are to roll the tide back effectively, on the busybodies who involve themselves in all of the otherwise inconsequential moments of our lives. Our goal would not be to stop busybodies, for that would be impossible. Rather, the objective is to begin a non-violent rebuttal that involves planting proverbial, “Mind your own business Gladys!” flags in the terra firma of city parks, just to let the no stress/no conflict/no turmoil busybodies know they’re not going to receive their righteous warrior badges on our watch.

“This park is neutral ground for the inconsequential to go on living our inconsequential lives without consequence!” we should scream as we plant our proverbial flags in the confrontation.

To those members of our group who wouldn’t dare commit a so-called crime against nature by allowing their children or dogs, a run at the city ducks, I would challenge them to do so. I would ask them to look back over their shoulder after the purported crime against nature has been committed, to watch the ducks fly right back to the exact same spot on the shoreline that their dog, or child, scared them off moments earlier. Insecure bullies who experience some joy in scaring innocent, little ducks might perceive this return to the shoreline as a direct challenge to their manhood, and they may do something else to flex their muscle. Our movement would not support that. On the contrary, our goal would be to serve as an information outlet. We would inform our group members that, as in the scenario involving the ducks, that ducks have listed these purported crimes committed against their sanctity as an acceptable consequence of living among humans. We would state that this happens to the city ducks so often that it doesn’t even ruffle their feathers anymore. If the ducks have conversations, I imagine that this procedure has become so routine for them that they fly away and back without so much as a pause in their sentence.

I should’ve asked the elderly shrieker to detail for me the trauma that my supposed crime against nature caused the ducks. I should’ve said, “If such actions cause them the trauma you suggest, why don’t they live elsewhere? In the wild, they would face actual predators stalking them on a daily basis, as opposed to a thirty-pound Puggle giving chase to tweak some instinct the canine has never executed to completion. He wouldn’t know what to do with it if he did,” I could’ve said.

I also could’ve added, “If the trauma of the Puggle threat was so severe that the ducks opted to forgo the world of gorging on human largesse to the point of obesity –which is what threatens their ability to fly and the many other survival skills that their forebears honed for them by the way– they would opt for an existence that might result in them going hungry for the night. If they were to survive it.”

Of course, I don’t know how advanced or informed the decision-making process of the city lake duck is. I’m guessing the wariness they have for the little beings such as children and pets that tend to accompany larger beings trumps the fear they have for all the other beings that exist in all the areas of the world that mankind has not preserved for their comfort and well-being.

 

The Pitfalls of the Previous, Private Generation

 

Even those of us who despise the ways of the modern busybody must acknowledge that their existence sprang from the ashes of the previous generations.

“What a man does in his own home is his business,” declared the previous generations that believed that respecting others’ privacy was, at the very least, a preferred method of dealing with neighbors, if not the honorable one. Thus, even when faced with extreme situations, good and honorable people deemed it the preferred course, if not the honorable one, to do little to nothing.

A concerned citizen might have persuaded a good and honorable person to have a word with the one perceived to be causing an extreme situation, but if the accused informed the honorable person, “It’s none of your business” a good people would back off and say, “I tried, Mildred. I tried.” The next course of action would involve either a physical altercation or a call to the police, and most did not follow up to that extent.

The current generation witnessed the deleterious effects of ignoring extreme situations in which the helpless incurred irreparable harm that would affect them for rest of their life. Good and honorable people realized that there was a call-to-arms to provide defense and comfort for the helpless in ways greater than those symbolic measures put forth by previous generations. They may go a little overboard at times, in the interest of protecting the helpless, but they feel that it is sometimes best to say something early, before a situation escalates. There is also some foggy notion in their head that if they do overreact in some situations, perhaps they might rectify the wrongs of the previous generation who decided to do little to nothing.

The problem with this call-to-arms mindset is that extreme situations don’t come around as often as others lead us to believe. This problem of scarcity has given rise to the perception of injustice and the belief that the situation before us is an extreme that requires action.

“I’ll be damned if I’m going to allow them to get away with that,” we say when our child comes home with a real, or imagined, slight. “What’s that principal’s phone number again?”

Even if the situation is not of an extreme nature, it is possible that it could evolve into one. Who knows how these things progress? Isn’t it better to act now, rather than to allow it to fester? We feel a responsibility to protect the helpless from further mistreatment, even if there was no real, definitive mistreatment in the first place.

“It may be nothing now, but I don’t want to go to bed tonight regretting the fact that I said nothing. If I’m wrong, big deal. My motivations were pure. If I say something when a mother is scolding her child too harshly, most will regard my intentions as righteous. If the mother is a little more insecure, going forward, correcting her child in public, in a manner that might result in the child being more prone to act up in public, it’s all an acceptable error on my part, right? If I managed to save one helpless child from a true, extreme situation.”

There are varying degrees of busybody intrusion, of course. Some, as noted above, carefully intercede on behalf of another in a moment they believe has, in some way, spun out of control. They might say something, and then they move on. They might concede they didn’t know the whole story, but they believed the situation called for advice from someone who’s been there before. Others take great pride in their ability to recognize a situation before it escalates, and they intercede without concession. The difference occurs in the aftermath, when busybodies trumpet their exploits to friends and family. This is what true busybodies do. They’re proud of their busybody nature, as that is precisely how they attain their badges of honor. They love when others deem them righteous warriors, according to their definition of what they think people should say about them.

We should also note that in most cases, the audience of the righteous warrior’s retelling often knows little to nothing of what actually happened during the incident in question, so they might perpetuate the self-righteousness of the righteous warrior by congratulating them for stepping in. Rarely does a listener prod a righteous warrior for more details on the matter.

“Did you know the totality of what happened before you intervened? Did you make sure you were at least apprised of most of the details involved, or did you make a leap of faith?”

“What do you mean, did I know what happened?” the busybody will ask in their defense. “I saw an adult correcting a child in a manner I deemed to be unwarranted to the extreme! It’s just a child for gosh sakes! There was no need for that!”

“But how many times have you been wrong though?” a bold questioner may ask. “How many times have you stepped in on a situation of this nature and done more harm than good?”

The honest righteous warrior would admit that they didn’t know all of the details all of the time, and if they were brutally honest and reflective they would admit that they probably don’t know the pertinent details most of the time.

“Look, I’m not going to play this game,” is the more common response from righteous warriors, as most of them act on impulses as opposed to pertinent information. “I may be wrong some of the times, I’ll grant you that, but that’s the price I’m willing to pay to create a more just world where the helpless of our society receive some protection. I see it as doing my part.”

“But you don’t know that to be the case all the time. That’s what I’m saying. I’m saying that some of the times, you should mind your own business, unless you know for sure.” 

This is why some of us loathe busybodies and why we are willing to go to extremes to roll back the tide. As anyone on the “but” end of a busybody’s complaint will tell you, the escalation of busybodies has reached a point of no return. The sins of the past generation and the numerous movies and TV shows that have documented them have led us to believe that extreme situations lurk around every corner, until we’re screaming at the top of our lungs about the psychology of a duck being scared into a lake by a dog, a completely natural crime against the natural.

I don’t know who invented the word busybody to describe these people, but my guess is that there was some irony involved, a joke played on the world, a widely accepted oxymoron. Most busybodies are anything but. If we were to confront a busybody with the idea that they should get out more, they might provide a lengthy list of activities, and groups they’re involved in, a list that would likely surpass ours. “It’s obvious that that’s not enough for you,” we might say. “If it was, you wouldn’t have been shrieking at the top of your lungs about the psychological plight of the duck. Not only that, but some past transgression must be eating away at your soul, one that comes barreling out of you when you perceive a slight against some perceived victim.”

If the confrontation that occurred on a Thursday in the park was solely about protecting duck, why did one of them hit me with a veiled threat of a fine and possible prosecution? If the focus was on the well-being and livelihood of the ducks, the shrieking woman could’ve put me in my place with a quick, inside- voice condemnation of my actions. She could’ve undressed me, in a psychological manner, with a few quick words, “Don’t scare the ducks. You’re a grown man, for gosh sakes. Do you get some kind of perverse joy out of it?” If she expressed her fears with some measure of restraint, in a measured tone, my dog and I would’ve left the park with our tails between our legs. What the two shriekers did, instead, was so over the top that I’m quite sure that the first’s doctor –concerned about her high blood pressure, and her heart valves weakened from years of overreacting to perceived slights and perceived extreme situations– would’ve warned her against future outbursts. I am also sure that the partners in the second shrieker’s law firm would’ve cautioned him against throwing his weight around in otherwise meaningless moments. Most busybodies have no authority to say anything that they’re saying. This, I can only assume, frustrates them to a begrudged point that they feel the need to hit the release button on the pressurized valve, and they hope that will, in turn, ruin your day in the manner so many of their days have been ruined.

Scorpio Man


I didn’t ask to be born under the eighth sign of the zodiac, during Pluto’s once-in-a-lifetime transiting influence, but here I am in all my despondent glory. I am Scorpio Man.

I was once a proud man. I was proud of everything that made me who I am. I knew the astrological sign I was born under, just as I knew my ethnic heritage, but I never paid much attention to it. If someone asked me, as far back as a month ago, if I believed other people were concerned with astrological signs, I would’ve said no. What I’ve witnessed since then, however, leads me to believe that I woefully underestimated the number of people who view astrology as the truth.

I don’t watch much TV, and I don’t go to the movies very often, but I suspect that one of them introduced some concept that suggested all Scorpio males born under the sign Scorpio are evil, especially if the year of their birth happened to occur during Pluto’s transiting influence. For all I know, some website that focuses on astrological signs developed this theory by connecting arbitrary dots, and its followers believed it. I’ve done research on the topic, and I haven’t found anything definitive, so I’m at a loss for how it penetrated the zeitgeist.

When I first received a reaction to my date of birth, I thought it was a joke. The next time, I considered it such a coincidence that I thought my friends coordinated a joke. I asked my friend, the prankster of the workplace, if he knew what was going on. “Don’t tell me you don’t know,” he said. I don’t know if he had any knowledge of what I was going through, or if he decided that might be the funniest to say.

Regardless what he knew, people are now asking me for my date of birth everywhere I go. What’s going on? I don’t know. I’ve asked them. They don’t answer. They just look at me as if they know stuff about me, and what they know alarms them. What does that mean? I don’t know, but they start sniffing around my brain the minute we’re in an enclosure in which they feel trapped.

“What’s your date of birth?” they ask after they conclude their little brain scans. “What year were you born?” On more than one occasion this little Q&A ended with a non-verbal shrieks. I’ve witnessed mothers move to shield their children from me, and I’ve seen other women doing everything they can to get as far away from me as they can. I don’t know what’s going on, but the not-so-subtle attempts these people make to escape my company when I mention that the Sun positioned itself in the Scorpio in our birth chart, during a year in which Pluto had a once-in-a-lifetime transiting influence, have caused me so much shame that I’ve decided that the next time I’m in the office elevator with some nosy, busybody who badgers me for my date of birth, I’m just going to lie.

Scorpios are people too, with all of the same hopes and dreams as the rest of you. We want to have friends, and people who love us for who we are, but those of you in the eleven other sectors of the ecliptic have created a climate where the only way Scorpio males can feel comfortable in our celestial phenomena is to lie about our Sun’s positioning.

“I mean you no harm,” is something I tried saying once, “and I do not want to hurt you.” After I said that, the woman pushed the two button to get off the elevator as quick as she could. Prior to my plea, she pushed the six button. I realized that did more harm than good.

Rather than go through anything like that again, I’ve decided that I’m just going to start telling anyone who asks that my date of birth happens to fall under a Virgo Sun, and that nothing, not even an Aquarian Mars coming down on me hard-core, can disturb my Zen. If they continue to question me, stating that they can smell the darkness on me, I’m just going to say I’m a Pisces, because they can be whatever the hell they want to be.

I’m grown so tired of the prejudicial reactions I receive from those who know that Pluto is the god of the underworld, and that I just happen to be a man born in the Pluto in Scorpio generation that lying about the essence of my being, and all that I stand for, is now preferable. Is this what you all want? It appears as though you do. I’ve thought about fighting it. I’ve thought about telling you about all of the peace-loving Scorpio brethren that litter history, but I now know that that’s an unwinnable war.

Some of you and you know who you are, have decided that it’s acceptable, in this age of supposed enlightenment and acceptance, to call Scorpio men a dark force! The term dark force, you should know, is a pejorative term my people have had to deal with since the Hellenistic culture exerted its influence on Babylonian astrology. Just because a few bad eggs have gone rotten since that point does not mean we should throw the whole basket out. In this age of enlightenment, one would think that we would all make a more concerted effort to see passed whatever constellation the Sun happened to be in at the time of our birth.

Even those of us who decided to undergo extensive, and I add expensive, treatment to achieve the evolved state of a Scorpio man, still get that look from you troglodytes who happened to crawl out of the womb during another, superior positioning of the Sun, when you suggest that we “Can be total trips sometimes.” Then to have that air of superiority that comes from some of you (I’m looking at you Cancer Sun women!) who know that we will either get murdered (statistical samples show that most Scorpio males may get murdered in their bed) or murder (statistical samples state that Scorpio males “Can be most high rated criminals” (sic)). And just because we tend to be serial killers who “Thrive on power and control because they [Scorpios] are so insecure, and if they loose (sic) that power or control they go crazy” does not mean that it’s going to happen on our elevator ride together.

We don’t know when it’s going to happen, if you want to know the truth, and some of us have been able to control our Scorpio man impulses thanks to extensive and expensive “Scorpio man” evolvement courses.

It’s obvious you don’t care about any of that though. You’re not even curious enough to ask. You can say you are, but we all know what you say about us when we’re not around. We know you think we’re “Sadistic in our ability to bring out the worst in others.” We realize that no matter how hard we try to prove that we might, might be exceptions to these rules, you’re still going to say things such as, “There may be exceptions to this [Scorpio man] phenomenon. Would not want to rule out that possibility, however, they are rare.”

It’s this kind of talk that has led even us tweeners (those so close to other signs that we may share astrological characteristics with another sign) who are now taking classes to diminish the power of our dark half, to decide that we’re just going to lie about our date of our birth from this point forward. We didn’t want it to come to this, and our intention is not to deceive you, as most of us are quite proud of the position of the Sun in the constellation at the time of our birth. The climate you have all created, with your prejudicial reactions, is now so toxic that it’s become almost impossible for some of us to live normal lives, and we’ve reached a point where it’s just easier for us to conceal that aspect of our identity that was, at one time, such a proud heritage to some of us.

I didn’t ask to be born under the eighth sign of the zodiac, during Pluto’s once-in-a-lifetime transiting influence, but here I am in all my despondent glory. I am Scorpio Man.

I was once a proud man. I was proud of everything that made me who I am. I knew the astrological sign I was born under, just as I knew my ethnic heritage, but I never paid much attention to it. If someone asked me, as far back as a month ago, if I believed other people were concerned with astrological signs, I would’ve said no. What I’ve witnessed since then, however, leads me to believe that I woefully underestimated the number of people who view astrology as the truth.

I don’t watch much TV, and I don’t go to the movies very often, but I suspect that one of them introduced some concept that suggested all Scorpio males born under the sign Scorpio are evil, especially if the year of their birth happened to occur during Pluto’s transiting influence. For all I know, some website that focuses on astrological signs developed this theory by connecting arbitrary dots, and its followers believed it. I’ve done research on the topic, and I haven’t found anything definitive, so I’m at a loss for how it penetrated the zeitgeist.

When I first received a reaction to my date of birth, I thought it was a joke. The next time, I considered it such a coincidence that I thought my friends coordinated a joke. I asked my friend, the prankster of the workplace, if he knew what was going on. “Don’t tell me you don’t know,” he said. I don’t know if he had any knowledge of what I was going through, or if he decided that might be the funniest to say.

Regardless what he knew, people are now asking me for my date of birth everywhere I go. What’s going on? I don’t know. I’ve asked them. They don’t answer. They just look at me as if they know stuff about me, and what they know alarms them. What does that mean? I don’t know, but they start sniffing around my brain the minute we’re in an enclosure in which they feel trapped.

“What’s your date of birth?” they ask after they conclude their little brain scans. “What year were you born?” On more than one occasion this little Q&A ended with a non-verbal shrieks. I’ve witnessed mothers move to shield their children from me, and I’ve seen other women doing everything they can to get as far away from me as they can. I don’t know what’s going on, but the not-so-subtle attempts these people make to escape my company when I mention that the Sun positioned itself in the Scorpio in our birth chart, during a year in which Pluto had a once-in-a-lifetime transiting influence, have caused me so much shame that I’ve decided that the next time I’m in the office elevator with some nosy, busybody who badgers me for my date of birth, I’m just going to lie.

Scorpios are people too, with all of the same hopes and dreams as the rest of you. We want to have friends, and people who love us for who we are, but those of you in the eleven other sectors of the ecliptic have created a climate where the only way Scorpio males can feel comfortable in our celestial phenomena is to lie about our Sun’s positioning.

“I mean you no harm,” is something I tried saying once, “and I do not want to hurt you.” After I said that, the woman pushed the two button to get off the elevator as quick as she could. Prior to my plea, she pushed the six button. I realized that did more harm than good.

Rather than go through anything like that again, I’ve decided that I’m just going to start telling anyone who asks that my date of birth happens to fall under a Virgo Sun, and that nothing, not even an Aquarian Mars coming down on me hard-core, can disturb my Zen. If they continue to question me, stating that they can smell the darkness on me, I’m just going to say I’m a Pisces, because they can be whatever the hell they want to be.

I’m grown so tired of the prejudicial reactions I receive from those who know that Pluto is the god of the underworld, and that I just happen to be a man born in the Pluto in Scorpio generation that lying about the essence of my being, and all that I stand for, is now preferable. Is this what you all want? It appears as though you do. I’ve thought about fighting it. I’ve thought about telling you about all of the peace-loving Scorpio brethren that litter history, but I now know that that’s an unwinnable war.

Some of you and you know who you are, have decided that it’s acceptable, in this age of supposed enlightenment and acceptance, to call Scorpio men a dark force! The term dark force, you should know, is a pejorative term my people have had to deal with since the Hellenistic culture exerted its influence on Babylonian astrology. Just because a few bad eggs have gone rotten since that point does not mean we should throw the whole basket out. In this age of enlightenment, one would think that we would all make a more concerted effort to see passed whatever constellation the Sun happened to be in at the time of our birth.

Even those of us who decided to undergo extensive, and I add expensive, treatment to achieve the evolved state of a Scorpio man, still get that look from you troglodytes who happened to crawl out of the womb during another, superior positioning of the Sun, when you suggest that we “Can be total trips sometimes.” Then to have that air of superiority that comes from some of you (I’m looking at you Cancer Sun women!) who know that we will either get murdered (statistical samples show that most Scorpio males may get murdered in their bed) or murder (statistical samples state that Scorpio males “Can be most high rated criminals” (sic)). And just because we tend to be serial killers who “Thrive on power and control because they [Scorpios] are so insecure, and if they loose (sic) that power or control they go crazy” does not mean that it’s going to happen on our elevator ride together.

We don’t know when it’s going to happen, if you want to know the truth, and some of us have been able to control our Scorpio man impulses thanks to extensive and expensive “Scorpio man” evolvement courses.

It’s obvious you don’t care about any of that though. You’re not even curious enough to ask. You can say you are, but we all know what you say about us when we’re not around. We know you think we’re “Sadistic in our ability to bring out the worst in others.” We realize that no matter how hard we try to prove that we might, might be exceptions to these rules, you’re still going to say things such as, “There may be exceptions to this [Scorpio man] phenomenon. Would not want to rule out that possibility, however, they are rare.”

It’s this kind of talk that has led even us tweeners (those so close to other signs that we may share astrological characteristics with another sign) who are now taking classes to diminish the power of our dark half, to decide that we’re just going to lie about our date of our birth from this point forward. We didn’t want it to come to this, and our intention is not to deceive you, as most of us are quite proud of the position of the Sun in the constellation at the time of our birth. The climate you have all created, with your prejudicial reactions, is now so toxic that it’s become almost impossible for some of us to live normal lives, and we’ve reached a point where it’s just easier for us to conceal that aspect of our identity that was, at one time, such a proud heritage to some of us.

 

Know Thyself


“I do not know myself yet, so it seems a ridiculous waste of my time to be investigating other, irrelevant matters,” —Socrates, on the subject of studying mythology and other trivial concerns.

“Know thyself?” we ask. “I know myself. In fact, I know myself better than anyone else does. Why would I waste my time trying to understand myself better when other people are the ones who make no sense? I have no problem with me, and this idea of trying to know thyself better, to the level the ancient Greeks and Socrates suggest, seems to be nothing more than a selfish conceit for pointy-headed intellectuals with too much time on their hands.”

Philosophers suggest that the key to living the good life lies in reflection and self-examination. If an individual does not have a full grasp of their strengths and weaknesses, any changes they make for the better might be pointless or unsustainable.

One of the measures some use to gain a better understanding of themselves is through comparative analysis. They use others to understand how weird, strange, and different they are, and they derive feelings of superiority and inferiority in the process. This analysis also provides some relief when they examine themselves against the freaks, creeps, and geeks. “At least I’m not that,” they declare.

Using the Cartesian coordinate system we studied in high school algebra might help us locate where we are compared to the point of origin, referred to here as the point of absolute normalcy, on one axis, versus our resultant superiority and inferiority on the other, to form a (0,0) for example, on the (X,Y) axis. This may be an inexact science, but comparative analysis is the most common method we use to know ourselves better.

We’ve all met strange individuals who tend to be strange in a more organic manner, and we know we’re not that. Through comparative analysis, we might say that the strangest person we meet exists five increments to the left of the point of normalcy on X axis of the Cartesian coordinate system, if being strange is a negative. Yet we know, because people have told us that we are not the type anyone would place on the point of origin, our arbitrary definition of absolute normal.

The first question those of us who seek truth through comparative analysis should ask is if we have a model for absolute normalcy. The second question regards the numerous ideas we all have about being normal, weird, and strange. Most consider these relative concepts nearly impossible to quantify, but I’m sure they would have an argument against defining us as the barometer by which all people striving for normalcy should be measured. Normal might be one of the most relative concepts there is, for we all define it internally and compare the rest of the world to our definition of it. How normal are we, and how normal is the most normal person we know?

If we prize normalcy, we might argue that for all of our eccentricities, we are quite normal. We might admit that a majority of people we run into are more normal than we are, but we also consider them just as boring. If we are able to admit that, we’re admitting that we are a two on the weird-to-normal axis. We can guess that our point on the X axis would have a corresponding effect on the Y axis if being normal has a corresponding relationship to self-esteem and the subsequent feelings of superiority. Through comparative analysis we could say, with some confidence, that we are a (2,2) coordinate, as compared to the rest of the normal, well-adjusted world.

When plotting points in our personal ledger, most people don’t view themselves honestly, and that makes it difficult to compare ourselves to others. Too often, we instinctually eliminate the negative in our quest to accentuate the positive. Thus, if we are the ones introducing the variables to this equation, there will always be contradictions, and these contradictions lead to the answer no solution.

The true solution to all that plagues us does not lie in comparative analysis, so everyone can put their pencils down. These ledgers are pointless. The solution to knowing more about oneself lies just inside the analysis we perform when deciding our comparative plotting points to form our Cartesian coordinate points. Most of us will not arrive at a definitive answer, but if the questions we ask ourselves lead to other questions we were on the correct road to final analysis through self-reflection. Ask more questions, in other words, and the subject of the interrogation is destined to provide their interrogator more answers. The point plotter might never find the perfect question that leads to a truth of it all, but questions lead to answers, and answers provide other questions, ultimately providing more answers than most that never ask them receive.

✽✽✽

The great philosophers spent a lifetime asking questions of themselves and their followers, yet many in the audience considered their inquiries too general. Bothered by these complaints, some believed the ancient Greeks granted them a gift in the form of a maxim. One of the many things, the ancient Greeks offered was a simple inscription on the forecourt of the Temple of Apollo at Delphi, reported to the world by Pausanias.

This gift was what modern-day philosophers might call the ancient philosophers’ “Holy stuff!” moment, and what a previous generation would call a “Eureka!” moment. To all philosophers since, it has become the foundation for all philosophical thought. For modern readers, the discovery may appear as vague as it has always been, but it is a comprehensive sort of vague that helped construct the science of philosophy. This simple, complex discovery was a Rosetta Stone for the human mind, human nature, and human involvement, and the ancient Greeks achieved it with two simple words, “Know thyself.”[1]           

Perhaps a modern translation or update of the ancient Greek maxim is necessary. Perhaps, today, we should say, “Keep track of yourself,” as that might be a better interpretation for those modern readers who are blessed or cursed with the many modern distractions that render such a task more difficult.

Although it could be said that mankind has found the investigation of other, more irrelevant matters far more entertaining for as long as we have occupied Earth, few would argue that we have more distractions from the central argument of knowing thyself than we have right now. Today, it is easier than ever before to lose track of who we are, who we really are.

The Holy Grail for those who produce images for our numerous screens is to create characters the audience can identify with so well that we relate to them. Another goal is to create characters that we not only relate to but we attempt to emulate. Idyllic images litter this path to the Holy Grail, and we associate with them so often that we begin to incorporate the characters’ idealism into our personality. On a conscious level, we know they are fictional characters, yet they exhibit such admirable characteristics that we attempt to mimic them when we are among our peers. Somewhere along the path, who we really are can get lost in the shuffle.

A decisive moment eventually arrives when we find that we’re having difficulty drawing a line of distinction between the subconscious incorporation of these fictional characteristics and the realization that we are not those characters and vice versa. This decisive moment is often one of crisis, and it can lead an identity crisis, because we always thought that when a moment of crisis arrived we would be able to handle it much better than we did.

When this identity crisis occurs, we might initially project an idyllic screen image version of us into reality. That version knows how to handle this crisis better than we ever will. Yet, it is not us, in the truest sense, but a different us, some fictional image we have created of us that handles pressure so much better. The trouble is, now that the reality of a real-world crisis stands before us, we cannot remember how that character that we resonated with did it.

In one distant memory, we were a swashbuckling hero who encountered a similar problem and dealt with it in a more heroic fashion. We might have encountered a verbal assault on our character in another distant, foggy episode, which we remember countering with a cynical, sardonic comeback that laid out our verbal assaulter. We cannot recall the specifics of these moments, now that really need them, because we weren’t really doing them. On some level, we recognize that we’ve been fooling ourselves, but we’ve incorporated so many idyllic images of so many characters handling so many situations with such adept fluidity that we’ve incorporated those idyllic screen images into our image of ourselves.

Another idyllic image occurs over time, in our interactions with peers. These images may be nothing more than a false dot matrix of carefully constructed, tiny mental adjustments made over time to deal with situational crises that have threatened to lessen our self-esteem, until we became the refined, sculpted specimen now capable of handling any situation that arises. These adjustments may be false interpretations of how we actually handled those previous confrontations, but we’ve preferred our rewrites for so long that they somehow became part of a narrative that we now believe.

We have all experienced moments in which we felt the need to correct a peer on the specific details of a past event, because their retelling of it to a third party is incorrect. When they don’t believe us, we invite others into the argument to augment it with overwhelming corroborating evidence. We are shocked when our peer refuses to acknowledge their error, even in the face of the corroborated account. At that point, we fear our peer must be delusional, and the only sane thing to do is walk away.

If we know them well, and we know they’re not delusional in general, we assume that they must be purposefully lying about the incident, spinning it to make themselves look better. We assume they need to colorize their role in it to boost their reputation and self-esteem. We think less of these confused, delusional, or lying individuals from a distance, and that distance suggests to us that we’ve achieved a place of honesty they never could.

After thoroughly condemning them, we encounter a similar scenario, only with the roles reversed. We won’t see it this way, of course, as a significant amount of time will pass between our confrontation and theirs, but my guess is most who confront the delusional experience someone who seeks to show us we have similar holes in our memory. It can be an eye-opening experience for those of us who strive for objective honesty, if we are able to see it for what it is.

✽✽✽

Lurking in the fourth layer of Abraham Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs, we find esteem. Maslow states, and I paraphrase, this need for greater self-esteem, this need for respect, value, and acceptance by others is vital to one’s sense of fulfillment.[2] If esteem is so vital to our psychological makeup, what happens when one of our peers succeed where we fail? If we are able to convince ourselves that these successes are an exception to the rule, we find an excuse, but when others achieve that success in the same vein and the repetition is such that we can no longer find a suitable excuse for our lack thereof, frustration and confusion sets in. We might even find ourselves sinking into depression. To avoid falling further down this spiral, we develop defense mechanisms.

Mental health experts say that if these defense mechanisms are nothing more than harmless delusions and illusions, they can actually be quite healthy. The alternative occurs when the reality of these repeated situations begins to overwhelm us. This can result in clinical depression or other forms of regressed mental health. If this is true, where is the dividing line between using delusions for greater mental health and becoming delusional?

If an individual attains what they seek from delusional thoughts and they get away these delusions in the court of public opinion, what’s to stop them from using those tools so often that they’re rewarded with a better perception among their peers, along with greater self-esteem? Why would they choose to moderate future delusions? What’s to stop the delusional thinker from continuing down their delusional paths, until they begin to lose track of who they are, who they really are?

Most historical research dedicated to the brain focuses on its miraculous power to remember, but some recent articles suggest that the power to forget and misremember seminal moments is just as fundamental to happiness and greater mental health.[3] The thesis suggests that the brain distills horrific memories and horrible choices, and it eliminates them for the sake of better mental health, in a manner similar to how the liver distills impurities out for better physical health.

Thus, we could say our delusional peers might be actually recalling the incidents differently as an unconscious attempt to improve their mental health. Their account of what happened may not be true, but did they create it to deceive us? We don’t know the answer to that and each situation calls for independent analysis, but experience with such matters and extensive reading on the subject has led me to believe they may just be deceiving themselves onto an idyllic path, the one they need for better mental health. To take this theory to its natural conclusion, one could also say those in need of professional counseling may have opted for the bright and shiny delusional paths too often. They might have subconsciously omitted embarrassing details from their memory and forget some of the self-esteem-crushing decisions they made along the way. Some may have filled those gaps with the actions or words of their favorite scripted responses or actions from screen actors. By replacing and redefining the embarrassing details and self-esteem-destroying decisions with idyllic images and positive reinforcements, they’ve spent a little too much time in those bright, shiny forests of positive illusions and delusions. The power of these idyllic images have become so ingrained that they now need a professional to take them by the hand and guide them back to the truth that they’ve hidden so far back in the forest of their mind that they can no longer find it without assistance.

That therapist attempts to express what amounts to teaching the client how to know thyself better. They assist the client in attempting to rid their mind of the accumulation of illusions and delusions that the client used to create a sense of superiority. They attempt to remove the dot matrix, idyllic images used to forestall mental health issues, as well as the need for excuses for why they failed when others succeeded. To remove these subjective views, the therapist asks their client questions the client should’ve been asking themselves all along, to help them achieve some form of personal clarity.

Some of us are better able to keep track of ourselves, to gain personal clarity as we age and as a result of experiences, but clarity cannot occur without extensive reflection, and Abraham Maslow suggested that 2 percent of the people in the world reflect enough to achieve self-actualization.[4] The comprehensive term personal clarity is not necessarily moral clarity, but without guiding principles, it is impossible to achieve it. Clarity serves as subtext for morality and vice versa.

Of course, no human being can achieve absolute clarity, as we are all unsure of ourselves in various moments and we are insecure by nature. Nevertheless, some submit the red herring argument that because absolute clarity is nearly impossible to achieve, it is pointless to strive for it. They also submit that because there are no absolutes, they don’t understand why anyone would attempt to achieve clarity on any matter. I submit that reliance on anecdotal arguments invites the confusion that inhibits progress toward clarity, and that their argument that a thoughtful person always focuses on anecdotal arguments permits them to avoid trying to achieve a level of clarity.

The final hurdle in achieving clarity by knowing thyself arrives when we recognize that too much comparative analysis intrudes upon introspection, as seen in the Cartesian coordinate system exercise above. There’s nothing wrong with comparing oneself to others, of course, as it helps us clarify our progress and learn more about our identity. Too much comparative analysis might distract us from who we really are, in some cases, as we attempt to assimilate their characteristics into our own, and it can dilute the acute focus we need to jump through the hoops involved in knowing thyself better, however, it becomes counterproductive.

It is for these reasons that greater minds than ours have suggested that the path to greater knowledge, a better life, happiness, and more self-esteem exists somewhere on the path to knowing thyself better. They also suggest that too often, we spend too much time investigating superfluous minutiae. It’s a waste of time, they say, for people with too much time on their hands.

[1]https://thezodiac.com/soul/oracle/whentheoraclespoke.htm

[2]https://www.verywellmind.com/what-is-maslows-hierarchy-of-needs-4136760

[3]https://www.huffingtonpost.com/dr-judith-rich/the-power-of-conscious-fo_b_534688.html

 

[4]http://www.deepermind.com/20maslow.htm

The Best Piece of Advice I’ve Ever Heard


“You’ll figure it out,” Rodney Dangerfield informed a young, aspiring standup comedian who sought his counsel on “something in comedy.”[1]

Rodney Dangerfield was being dismissive is the first thought that comes to mind when we read that Dangerfield quote. Fellow comedians knew Rodney Dangerfield’s legacy well, and they regarded him as one of the foremost experts on the trials and tribulations involved in succeeding in the field of comedy. As such, we can guess that they approached him all the time with questions regarding their personal struggles. Thus, when this now famous comedian approached Rodney when the comedian was in an early stage of his career, Rodney probably said whatever was necessary to convince this comedian to leave him alone. Either that, or Dangerfield found the answer to that question to be so loaded with variables, and so time consuming, that he didn’t want to go down that road with yet another aspiring comedian.

For all we know, Rodney sat in the audience during that comedian’s act and decided that he didn’t know how to fix it. We can guess that he didn’t think it was so bad that he didn’t know how to fix it, but that that comedian’s act was so different from Rodney’s that that might have been the reason Rodney didn’t know how to fix it. Rodney might have even loved the comedian’s act so much that he couldn’t wait to see how the comedian would fix it with all of his individual fixes. Perhaps he was a fan, and he didn’t want to meddle with another man’s act. Whatever the case actually was, “You’ll figure it out” seems dismissive, but as with all good advice and all perfect strawberries, it becomes tastier the more you chew on it.

Some advice is more obvious and usable. Major League Pitcher Randy Johnson once talked about some advice fellow pitcher Nolan Ryan offered him. Nolan informed “The Big Unit” that the finishing step of his pitching motion should end approximately one inch further to the left. Randy said that that presumably trivial piece of advice changed his whole career. He stated that he wouldn’t have accomplished half of what he did without it. He even went so far as to say he owed Nolan Ryan a lifelong debt for that career-changing piece of advice. Some of us have received such advice, but for most of us, advice is more oblique and requires personal interpretation.

The best piece of advice I’ve ever heard combines an acknowledgment of the struggle to succeed with a notice that the recipients of such advice must find their own way to apply it. The best advice I’ve ever heard does not involve miracle cures, quick fixes, or the elusive true path to instant success “That can be yours for one low installment of $9.99!” Most of the best nuggets of information I’ve heard, such as “You’ll figure it out,” are so obvious that the recipient thinks they’ve wasted everyone’s time by asking the question.

The underpinning of “You’ll figure it out” suggests that there are no universal methods to achieving true individual success. A struggling individual can watch a how-to video or read a training manual. They can study the various expert techniques and the experts’ interpretations of those techniques. They can internalize the advice offered by everyone and their brother, but at some point, individuals who hope to achieve true success eventually have to figure it all out for themselves.

Instant success is as rare in the arts as it is in every walk of life, but if an individual is lucky enough to avoid having to figure it out, they’re apt to find the level of success they achieve meaningless when compared to those who experience failure, adjust accordingly, and struggle to carve out their own niche.

In the course of my employment, I worked with a number of flash-in-the-pan employees who didn’t want to figure anything out. They considered themselves Tom-Cruise-in-shades naturals. They were the high-energy, fast-talking, glamour types who focused so much energy on their new job that they burst out of the gate to thunderous applause. Trainers and bosses love them. “Look at Bret!” they say, high-fiving Bret in the hall, hoping to inspire everyone within earshot to be more like Bret. The one thing the powers-that-be do not see, or won’t admit, is that these high-energy, fast-talking, glamorous, flash-in-the-pan types often burn out after reaching the immediate goals that define them as successful.

Those who experience a measure of instant success are often the darlings, or studs, of the training class. They can answer every question, and they often enter the training seminar with quotes on success from the famous and successful. They treat training as a competition, as one would an athletic event, and they’re not afraid to do touchdown dances soon after the release of the initial productivity numbers. They wear the clothes and drive the cars to foster the image. They may even go so far as to have someone in authority catch them reading a personal success guide that one of them may read to chapter two. Most of them won’t read that far, however, because most of them aren’t in it for the long-term.

Bullet-point, large idea minds have no patience for the time it takes to figure out the minutiae the rest of us will pine over in the agonizing trial-and-error process. The instantly successful don’t heed Rodney Dangerfield’s advice to “figure it out,” because they already have it figured out. Either that or they’ve done so much to foster the image of one who already has that they don’t want to stain that image with new knowledge. They seek the quick-learner perception, and most of what they attain after the flurry-to-impress stage lies in either the knowledge they dismiss as something they already knew or inconsequential minutiae. They just know what they know, and that’s enough for the show.

They are also not good at taking criticism, as most constructive criticism calls for a restart, and they’re much too smart for a restart. To be fair, some of this criticism is bestowed on quick learners by jealous types who enjoy feeling they have some authority on the subject, but some of that criticism is constructive. It falls upon all of us to figure out whether we are receiving helpful criticisms or competitive insults. Some criticism should make us wonder if we’re deluding ourselves with the belief that we’re as accomplished as we think. Some suggests that to find success in our craft, we should humbly consider doing it like someone else. In some cases, the criticism is correct, for there’s nothing wrong with following a proven path to success. That advice can be right or wrong for us, but that is just something else we have to figure out.

✽✽✽

“Do you have any tips on how to keep writing?” a fellow writer once asked me. My first inclination was to tell him about a book I knew that covers this very topic. I empathized with the idea that writing has few immediate rewards, and I enjoyed the perception of being a writer who knows what he is talking about when it comes to writing. I never read that book about writing, but I was sure it was loaded with all the usual ideas: “Keep Post-it notes on hand, so you don’t miss out on those little inspirations that could turn into great ideas.” Another solid idea they offer is, “Write a story that occurred in your life, for your life is an excellent cavern that can be mined for constant gems.” Then there is the ever present, “Read, read, and read some more.” I could’ve told that writer about that book I never read, but even if I did take the time to read it and I found it invaluable to me, my recommendation would have been half-hearted. Experience has taught me that true success in writing requires nuanced ingenuity and creativity, and the writer has to figure these elements of the process out for themselves. If they don’t want to go through that time-consuming and laborious process, they should go do something else. This idea would form my addendum to Dangerfield’s quote: “You’ll [either] figure it out … or you won’t, and you’ll figure that out too.”

✽✽✽

I’m quite sure this aspiring comedian, otherwise known as Jerry Seinfeld, sought Rodney’s advice, because he knew all about Rodney’s well-documented failures. Seinfeld likely knew that Rodney was so frustrated with his inability to achieve anything in the field of comedy that he just quit, and he didn’t try again for almost twenty years. Seinfeld probably thought Dangerfield could give him a shortcut out of his personal cocoon and transform into a bona fide star. “You’ll figure it out!” the answer Rodney Dangerfield offered to the young Seinfeld, alluded to that struggle a butterfly goes through in its efforts to escape its cocoon. Yet, as any nature lover knows, if an outside influence cuts the butterfly’s struggle short, it will not gain the strength necessary to survive in the wild.

On that note, some critics grow frustrated with the amount of self-help charlatans moving from town to town in their Miracle Cure stagecoaches, who promise placebo elixirs to those seeking advice. They should direct these frustrations, instead, at those seeking shortcut exits from personal cocoons. When Seinfeld approached Dangerfield, and the aspiring writer approached me, they sought an alternative to learning from experience and failure, but Rodney’s advice suggests that he never found one. “You’ll figure it out,” might sound dismissive, but it also speaks to learning from experience and failure, and the resultant, almost imperceptible adjustments a craftsman must make to separate their final product from all of the others. The final answer for those seeking a quick fix is that there is no perfect piece of advice that we can give another who is unable or unwilling to display the temerity necessary to endure the necessary elements of failing, learning from that failure, and making all of the frustrating, time-consuming, and tedious little adjustments that must be made along the way. The final answer is that the struggle provides the answers. The struggle informs the craftsman whether or not they are capable of fixing what is wrong with their presentation and if they are desperate enough to figure out if they are willing to do what is necessary to carve out some individual definition of success in their craft, and if they aren’t, they’ll figure that out too.

[1]https://twitter.com/rodneynorespect/status/750692684738813952

 

When Geese Attack!


What happens when animals attack? Those of us who watch Shark Week or any of the all-too-numerous, reality clips that appear on just about every network and YouTube know what happens when animals attack. We know the formula for these shows. We know victims will discover the one consistent truth about nature: There are no consistent truths. We expect to hear those more accustomed to handling animals relay proper safety protocols to the audience to lessen the risk, but even the most experienced handlers admit that there are no steadfast rules when it comes to predicting or preventing animal aggression. Those of us who pay attention to this formula, also now expect lucky survivors to state that they have no hard feelings for their attackers. At the end of the clip, they say something about how they know it’s just the nature of the beast:

“I don’t blame the animal and I hold no ill will towards it,” they say. “I was in its domain. It just did what comes naturally to it, and I deserve at least some of the blame for being there in the first place.”

Before we regular viewers became aware of this formula, some of us just stared at our screens in silent awe when we heard these unemotional reactions. We thought these survivors were either wonderful, forgiving people, or they were just plain stupid. They could’ve had limbs torn from their bodies, yet they maintained that they were not bitter. Some of us found this reaction so incomprehensible that we began to wonder if there wasn’t a bit of gamesmanship going on. We wondered if the networks test-market victims’ reactions to these clips. We wondered if they discovered that audiences might find such violent clips a little less horrific, and more entertaining, if survivors come out on the other side of the clip with wonderful, forgiving sentiments, granting their attackers a full pardon.

We’ve all had friends who enjoy hearing cruel jokes about friends and coworkers, but they refuse to laugh until they add a qualifier to relieve themselves of the guilt of finding the joke funny. “What an awful thing to say,” they say to distance themselves from the mean-spirited nature of the joke. On that note, it’s difficult for most individuals to admit that they enjoy watching an alligator tear a human apart, without some sort of qualifier that suggests that the video is nothing more than a tutorial on the brutal realities of nature. Neither party truly believes this. We know we experience some schadenfreude watching fellow humans suffer, but we need to have a wink and a nod agreement with the producers of such content. This helps absolve us of our voyeuristic need for carnage with a qualifier that suggests that viewers are not awful for enjoying other people’s trauma. If this isn’t the case, why do almost all victims appear to react in such a formulaic manner, as if they’re reading from a script? If they’re not reading from a script, we can speculate, the producers don’t air the disgruntled, bitter testimonials that go off the proverbial script.

Here in the Land of Hysterical Emotional Reactions, we know it is perfectly reasonable for victims to state that a bear is “Just doing what comes naturally to them,” when it rips a person apart for the delicious treats they happen to have in their backpack while in the bear’s domain. We know that inherent within the victim testimonials is the attempt to avoid appearing foolish, as they would if they tried to suggest that they had no idea that a bear might attack might occur after they walked into a bear preserve. Even those of who are skeptical of this whole practice must admit that we might consider such a person foolish, or at least more foolish than a guy who expressed surprise at a bear attacking them in a Schlotzky’s deli in Omaha, Nebraska.

We also understand that it’s the goal of the testifiers to appear reasonable when they say, “It was just a bear doing what a bear does” when she clenched her jaw on their face and left them looking like the elephant man. As informed people, we understand that to suggest that the attack was, in anyway, vindictive or personal or that the bear acted in any manner other than instinctual would make the victim appear foolish. We know wildlife doesn’t single people out for attack, and they prefer to avoid humans, unless conditions dictate otherwise. All of this is perfectly reasonable, even to those of us in the Land of Hysterical Emotional Reactions, but that logic and reasonability discounts the emotional, hysterical reactions one should have if a bear removes a limb, or leaves a face in a condition that now causes small children to run screaming in a mall.

I do not think I’m alone when I say that if a bear ripped me apart and left me on life support, in a coma, or clinging to life for months, I would spend the rest of my hysterically emotional life cheering bear hunters on. Would it be reasonable, seeing as how I was in a bear preserve when the bear attack occurred? It would not be, but most survivors of bear attacks should not be so reasonable that they are able to hide their new, lifelong, irrational fear (see hatred) of bears in the aftermath.

***

If there is one person we might excuse for being bitter and hateful, it is Charla Nash, the victim of a shocking 2009 chimpanzee attack. That 200-pound chimpanzee, affectionately known as Harold, lived with his owner in a suburban neighborhood. Harold not only blinded Charla, he severed her nose, ears, and hands, and she received severe lacerations on her face. Her life was as ruined as any who have survived an animal attack, but Ms. Nash somehow managed to forgive Harold and his owner. She wasn’t as forgiving as those who offer statements based on what I believe are a reaction to a “Do you want to be on camera? Then say this …” stated or unstated ultimatum. Charla Nash does appear to be forgiving, and that forgiveness appeared genuine.

Charla Nash

“I’ve gotten angry at times,” she told The Today Show, “but you can’t hold anger. It’s unhealthy. It goes through you. You’ve got to enjoy what you have.”

Ms. Nash’s response to her horrific moment in life provides a philosophical outlook on life that those of us who have lived without such a horrific moment occurring in our lives can use as inspiration in dealing with our comparative trivialities. Her reaction to such a vicious attack is nothing short of admirable. It’s a little incomprehensible to most of us, but we still respect Charla Nash for maintaining what appears to be genuine optimism about life after such an attack. The main character of this story, affectionately known as the goose guy, is not Charla Nash, however, and he should not be afforded the same admirable plaudits Nash is due.

As we see in this video, pro kayak angler Drew Gregory was fishing in a lake one day when a couple geese began swimming near him. Mr. Gregory decided to feed them some of the contents from his backpack. One goose, decided the best way to beat his competition to the food was to go directly to the source. Then, doing what geese do, this goose attempted to empty Gregory’s backpack. In the process, the goose sent Mr. Gregory overboard. If the sounds that followed Mr. Gregory’s splash were not the goose’s laughter, even the least competitive man could have confused them with some expression of dominance.

In the era of selfies, and YouTube videos of the most mundane activities one can imagine, it’s not shocking that a man would film himself fishing. People also filmed themselves fishing for TV shows long before the internet, and before most of us were born. When we were kids, we knew there were fishing shows on the other channels. We grew up with it, and we learned to accept the idea that other people must enjoy watching the people on these shows fish. Why would it continue to be on the air if people didn’t enjoy it? I don’t enjoy fishing, so I don’t understand why people do it, but I’ve had friends and family convince me that it has some virtues. I’ve yet to meet anyone who can convince me that watching another man fish has one redeeming quality that I might consider. I don’t understand the industry, but I don’t begrudge anyone who creates such a video and attempts to make a buck on it. All the power to you, but how does it help a star of one these shows to distribute an episode in which they were dominated by a goose? Why didn’t Dick Gregory hit the delete button soon after it happened? One could say, depending on what the video contains, that such a video might show that a person like Dick Gregory has a very healthy ability to laugh at himself. If that’s the case, he’s healthier than I am, for if I was the victim of a goose attack, no one but the geese would ever know about it. I would never watch this video again, my pride couldn’t take the hit, and I would avoid watching it with the hope that I might eventually be able to forget it ever happened.

Some have suggested that we are now at a point in human history when human beings will do whatever is necessary for fifteen minutes of fame. If Andy Warhol, the originator of this quote, lived to see this video and learned that the victim, Drew Gregory distributed it himself, and made himself available for aftermath commentary on a TruTV airing, I can only guess Warhol would smile and say, “Told you!”

“It’s just a goose,” many readers might say, “and what are the chances that an animal that averages seven to eight pounds could end a human life?” We can all agree that the chances are remote, but what are the chances that the same animal could do irreparable damage to an eyeball or an ear? What are the chances that a goose could land its victim in the hospital? I can tell you one thing. I would bother calculating odds or possibilities in the moment. I’m guessing that some primal, self-preservation tactics would rise, and I would do whatever was necessary to fight my attacker off.

I also guarantee that the networks that run such video clips would deem my video unusable, as I’m sure that videos of goose beheadings don’t test well in the market research that the networks conduct.

I am also confident I would not be the amiable dunce who would find a way to laugh about it later. I would not view such a moment as entertaining in anyway, nor would I qualify it by saying I was in goose’s environment, and I deserved everything that happened to me. I would view such a moment as one of those survival-of-the-fittest moments. In the moment, I wouldn’t think about all these video clips I’ve watched, and I wouldn’t recall the idea that the one thing we do know about nature is that it’s unpredictable. My impulses would override all that, and I would act. I would grab the thing by its throat, whisper some Hannibal Lecter lines to it, and separate its head from its body. If that bird managed to escape all retribution and I still had some angle on it, I would use my kayak oar like a Callaway I-MIX FT-5 and drive the bird in a manner that would make fellow lefty golfer Phil Mickelson proud. I imagine that drive would be fueled by the type of stress and fear that propels little old ladies to lift cars off their grandchildren, and in that light I don’t see Mickelson’s average 315.3 yard drive as an unreasonable distance.

If the goose managed to elude that, you can bet I wouldn’t be smiling and forgiving in the interview that followed. My, edited for television, version would go something like this:

“I don’t know how your network attained this video, but it has ruined my life. Everyone I know now calls me the ‘goose guy.’ If I get a hold of that goose, I will find the slowest, most agonizing death possible for it. I’ve already slaughtered twelve geese in this area, thinking that it might be that one that ruined my life, and I’m not sure if I’ve killed this particular goose yet, or not, but I’ll probably end up killing a dozen more before I rest.”

After witnessing a Rottweiler attack firsthand, I find myself relegated to the Land of Hysterical Emotional Reactions whenever an average, full-grown Rottweiler walks into a room. I strive to avoid irrational and emotional overreactions to all situations in life. When I encounter dogs with a particularly long history of vicious attacks, however, my reactions to them are now a part of me I can no longer control. I’ve lost arguments with those who state that no dog, be it Rottweiler, Pit bull, or otherwise is evil by nature. They cite science, and I cite hysterical emotions based on experience. I lose. Even as I’m losing these arguments, however, I know I’m not alone with such fears. Those who laugh at me or form opinions about my inferiority on this subject inform me that I am in the minority, and I may be, but I am sure that more people would join our screaming minority if they witnessed such vicious attacks firsthand. I’m also quite sure that most of what I consider a victim’s normal reactions to vicious, life-altering attacks by wild animals ends up on the cutting room floor of the ubiquitous clip shows. I know this because those who need to feel better about their enjoyment of such shows would not appreciate what people like me will do, and then say in the aftermath of such an attack.

If you enjoyed this piece, you might enjoy the other members of the seven strong:

The Thief’s Mentality

He Used to Have a Mohawk

That’s Me In the Corner (This is not a sequel to Mohawk, but it is another story that occurred in the same wedding.)

A Simplicity Trapped in a Complex Mind

You Don’t Bring me Flowers Anymore!

… And Then There’s Todd

 

Charles Bukowski Hates Mickey Mouse


It was a shock for me to hear that some assume Sesame Street’s Ernie and Bert are gay. When I first heard that, I thought the statement, true or not, was provocative, insurgent, and hilarious. I don’t remember who first made the claim, but I do recall thinking the individual was on the cusp of something new, something insidious, and transcendent. This person must be part of an insurgent generation that revolts against civil authority, through pop culture, in a manner that is not belligerent, I thought. I wanted to be at the forefront of that insurgence that didn’t just break down societal barriers but left a wasteland in its wake, and I was not concerned with collateral damage. Children be damned, I thought. I wanted to be one of those that shook the cultural two-liter bottle up, and I considered that characterization of Ernie and Bert a good start.

I wanted to convince the world, through repetition, that the reason Aloysius Snuffleupagus (affectionately known as Mister Snuffleupagus) talked and moved so slow on the set of Sesame Street was that he was stoned. I wanted to inform anyone who would listen that the Bradys were all stoned, gay, and involved in incest, along with anything else we could dream up to poke holes in the traditional wholesomeness that led my fellow brethren from broken homes to feel estranged. On the reality side of the tube, we were suffering, and many of us found it disgusting that sixties and seventies television would have the audacity to portray an idyllic image of a family that left the rest of feeling ostracized. I was ready, willing and able to join the fights, until Hollywood vindicated us by producing The Brady Bunch Movie that had its characters deal with pot smoking, lesbians, and the realities we purported to be more in line with our experiences.

“I’m serious. I can’t stand Big Bird. He’s an *******!” someone said.

I’m still not sure how much sincerity drove such comments, but that was precisely what made the insidious provocation so delicious. If it wasn’t serious, it was funny in a serious, seditious manner. If it was serious, on the other hand, it was funny in an unserious manner. Whatever the case, the artful joke teller left it as a standalone. A comment like that one stated that there was no need to preface such comments with the qualifiers most insurgents felt compelled to offer in the gestation period of the movement, when characterizing a child’s beloved creature in such a manner. Refraining from such typical hospitalities and considerations signaled to the rest of us that the age of qualifiers was over, and a full-on insurgency was under way.

Charles Bukowski was not the first to speak out against the authority figures of the sociopolitical world, nor will he be the last. The mindset might date back to the Romans, the ancient Greeks, and beyond, but to my knowledge, no one attacked the soft underbelly of civil authority through the pop culture staples of children’s entertainment as successfully as Bukowski. If he didn’t start the movement, he at least exerted tremendous influence on me and my insurgent brethren. We raised our fists high with a scream, when we learned that the writer had the temerity to come out against a cultural icon many believed to be the standard-bearer of cutesy America, and spawn of Walt Disney.

“Mickey Mouse is a three-fingered son-of-a-bitch with no soul,” Charles Bukowski said.   

“For us to get back to real America,” a friend of mine said, paraphrasing Bukowski, “we have to destroy Mickey Mouse, because Mickey Mouse destroyed the soul of America.”

It was such a provocative statement, a plane of thought crashing into what I considered the foundation of America. Those I associated with at the time claimed that by making such a declaration, my friend gained panache, and the women around us dug panache. Someone else accused him of being an angry young man, and experience taught us that women loved angry young men. His statement was so provocative, and so Rage Against the Machine that we dug his anger too. Knowing nothing of Bukowski or any other insurgent thoughts at the time, we thought this guy had anger without causation, and we considered that the essence of cool.

“What are you rebelling against?” a female actor asked actor Marlon Brando in the 1953 movie The Wild One

“Whaddya got?” Brando replied. 

That’s the stuff! Suck it Mickey!

Those who have read Charles Bukowski already know that cute America began with an institution called Disney, which started with the institution created by the cartoon character called Mickey Mouse. “It all started with institutions for those who need to be institutionalized,” was a refrain of retro-hip haters. “Those who seek Mickey Mouse, as their form of entertainment live in a soulless, philosophy-free form of hell,” they said. “A life of Mickey will lead to an uncomplicated life of laughter, frivolity, fun, and soullessness. It will lead a generation of Mickey fans, children and otherwise, who will live without knowledge of the stark realities of poverty, drugs, disease, prostitution, and porn.” They apparently thought it would lead to a generation of children who wouldn’t understand the harsh realities of life.

“Mickey Mouse?” the aghast asked. “What could you possibly have against Mickey Mouse?”

“Nothing,” the cool, hip cats answered, “except that he is a three-fingered son-of-a-bitch with no soul.”

We fellas watched such cool, retro-hip cats walk away from such conversations, with laughter, open-mouthed awe, and elongated stares trailing behind them. We didn’t know if the women believed them, but we saw that some women loved such comments, and we knew we had to get some of that.

These provocative soothsayers appeared to have a formula for intriguing otherwise unattainable women, when they delivered such lines in a subtle and suave manner. The formula also appeared to be something we uncool fellas thought we could put to good use. I don’t know if others ever managed to use this technique successfully, but any flirtations I had with using the tool met a quick end when the retro-funny-nerd types stepped in with their “Elmo rocks!” and “Grover is a dude!” T-shirts. Those apparel choices were not intentionally insurgent, and their motivation confused me. Their shirts made kind, funny statements like, “Big Bird is my homeboy!” and, “I was raised on The Street” (with an accompanying picture of Sesame Street on the shirt), and they garnered laughter from women. Women asked them about their T-shirt, and the T-shirt wearers got a ticket to ride. This left the rest of us confused. “We had a formula,” we wanted to say to the retro-funny-nerd types. “You’re messing up the dynamic of what we just started to understand.”

Even if we had been able to use those insurgent statements, we would’ve said them with some humorous underpinnings. We wanted to be funny in a way that some strong, intellectual themes of that era were. I don’t know how many contra rebels sought the higher plane of funny in the manner I did, but I did run across a few who took the insurgent movement a bit too seriously and presented their arguments without any humorous underpinnings.

I don’t know if Bukowski was one of them, or if he used the insurgent formula to rise to the throne of the insurgent rebels in a capitalistic venture, but standup comedians took Bukowski’s fundamentals into the stratosphere. Bukowski might have found this a little unsettling. Then again, he might have intended these statements to serve as a launching point. Whatever the case, I’m sure that if Bukowski lived long enough to witness the insurgency permeating culture to the degree where even little old ladies began declaring, “Barney sucks!” at Applebee’s, he would’ve been proud. Whatever the case, Bukowski’s acolytes took this message more seriously than the rest of us.

Few can pinpoint where movements such as these begin. Likewise, few can pinpoint their demise. In our limited perspective, we are only aware of what happens in our inner circles. In my inner circle, the insurgent institution began to wane, but the Bukowski acolytes held true. “Barney still sucks!” they said. They blasted the otherwise innocuous, purple dinosaur so often that some in their audience began to believe it was something more than comedic shtick. They were true believers. The retro-funny-nerd types and little old ladies at Applebee’s inadvertently exposed the true believers as ludicrous, and a little too serious and self-righteous, to a point where we laymen began to back away from our attempts to achieve orthodoxy.

“You do realize that Barney the Dinosaur wasn’t written for middle-aged men, right?” we asked the ultra-serious strain, waiting for their dry tones and deadpan expressions to break into a smile.

“I don’t care,” they answered. “He’s created a soulless America that seeks the cute mindset with those horrible ‘I love you’ and ‘you love me’ songs he sings. He has no soul.” Then, to further this insurgent agenda, they might turn to their children, and inquire, “Ms. Mary, What do we think of Barney the Dinosaur, Miss Mary?” 

“He sucks!” Ms. Mary says. “He should have a hypodermic needle hanging from his arm, and a mohawk on his head, and the world would be a much better place if his father learned the proper use of a condom.” Ms. Mary’s learned version of cute sophistication often elicits laughter and a chorus of “Aw,” from everyone at the table.

At this point or some points in between, the observer begins to realize that the true believer has a bona-fide opinion on the matter, one they consider so consequential that they teach their children to mimic it. They are angry that any individual of any age would seek the soft entertainment that Mickey or Barney provides.

They cannot abide their children’s occasional giggles at the humorous actions of a grown man in a Barney outfit. When the show does garner a giggle, we can imagine them peering around their electronic device at Ms. Mary and admonishing, “What do we say about Barney again?”

“He sucks,” Ms. Mary repeats.

“That’s right,” they say before going back to their device.

At this point or some points in between, the casual observer can’t help but further question the parent’s motives. “I think this is all funny, don’t get me wrong, but you don’t actually believe it do you?”

For some parents, the dinosaur, the mouse, and some of the other, more popular characters of youth programming are annoying. Most parents of this era talked about the mind-numbing repetitiveness of some songs, and how the cutesy, nice interactions between the characters drove them crazy, but there are others who take these annoyances a step further. I’ve met them. I met parents who wanted more for their children, and their various definitions of more were largely left to the imagination. If a parent doesn’t want mind-numbing educational songs for their children, or cutesy interactions that might teach children how to interact with their peers, how does a parent counter such programming to prepare their children for the stark reality of the world? Do they introduce them to violent, obscene movies to give their children a more vivid picture of themes that contain violence and sexual identity? Do they do this under the guise that they believe this will lead to their children being less inclined to ostracize and hate the differences in people? What if, after watching such material, their child tickles Elmo in a department store, and they giggled along with the furry toy? We can only guess that this might manifest into some form of hopeless frustration. How does a parent counteract that? Would they sit their child down and remind them of the misery in the world? How far would they go to achieve some form of hopeless tears in their child? If they did achieve it, would they feel an odd sense of satisfaction by preparing the little one for the misery that awaits them on the other side of childhood? One has to wonder if these children are more miserable based on the efforts of their parents, and if there is anything, anyone could do to prepare them for a life of that.

Bukowski’s goal was to create an anti-Disney America that was awash in stark reality. By implication, we can suggest that if Bukowski were in charge, the children of America would be awash in alcohol, sex, and violence. He would want America’s children to know the country he knew and wrote about in his poems and books. He would want them to know the stark reality of abusive fathers and to be aware that alcohol is the only form of escapist entertainment that has any soul. “And the track,” Bukowski acolytes might remind us, “Don’t forget about Bukowski’s routine trips to the track.” We can be sure that the gospel according to Bukowski would include the belief that horses, not Mickey Mouse, can make all our dreams come true, and any child who doubts that can tune in to the cast of characters at their local track.

“Screw childhood,” Bukowski appeared to say. “Screw wholesome Americans, born and bred on Disney, who believe that naïve childhood should last as long as possible. It’s not realistic. Childhood is the very essence of cutesy America. It’s farcical, and it has no soul.”

To support the counter-argument, we must cede to the idea that Disney has damaged some susceptible children-turned-adults. We must recognize that some adults have an unusual and unhealthy propensity for fantasy, but what Bukowski and his acolytes don’t account for in the provocative, insurgent statements against Disney is that if Walt Disney’s creation never existed, there would be a need to create it. If Barney or Sesame Street never existed, something would fill that vacuous hole. Some of us may not enjoy the manner in which that hole was filled, but as my fifth grade teacher once said in various ways on far too many days, “The country in which you live has a Bill of Rights that allows you to complain about whatever you want, but if you’re going to complain in my class, you do have to offer an alternative solution. If all you do is complain, you’re useless to me.”  

If those who complain about these institutions are able to see past their subjective frustrations and view the market in an objective manner, they will recognize that there was a need that Walt Disney and all of these other institutions filled. Rather than complain, in what my fifth grade teacher would’ve characterized as useless, Bukowski and his acolytes should’ve complained in a constructive manner by offering a viable alternative. If that need is institutional in America –be it is financial, capitalistic, emotional, or fundamental– these family-oriented entertainment vehicles tapped into something that made a generation of children a little happier. AY! There’s the rub, the nut-core of it all, happy. Bukowski types hate happy. If they were in control, America would be a happy-free zone.

Bukowski had a dream, a dream in which all children could one day live in a world where they were judged not by the shallow, clueless smiles on their faces, but by the spiritual –or spirited– lights of their soul. He had a dream in which all Americans, black and white and everything in between, could one day join hands in a happy-free, cute-free, Disney-free America.

Most would say America is a better, happier place for children, with Disney, Sesame Street, and most of the child-like, simple-minded, cute programming in it. Even the most jaded adult would admit that the tedious songs and simple-minded exercises make an imprint on young minds. Children learn through repetition, and the simple-minded, tedious repetitions also provide children a refuge from the various stresses that childhood might provide. The counterarguments seem incomprehensible to some of us, but perhaps that’s what makes them funny, quasi funny, and provocative. There are others, we’ve all met them, who believe these fantastical presentations do more harm than good, and they’re not trying to be provocative. The inevitable question arises, if these programming choices for children border on evil in their simplistic pursuits, how would we go about replacing them? The idea that they want children drinking alcohol, or attending the track is a strawman argument, they say, but when we advance the argument beyond the fallacious and beyond their provocative statements, we find that they’re stance is steeped in bitter contrarianism.

If Disney represents happy, cute America, as Bukowski suggested, should we nominate Bukowski an unofficial honorarium as miserable America’s ambassador? If Disney brought uncomplicated happiness to America’s shores, coupled with laughter, and joy, what did Bukowski bring? Anyone who knows anything about Bukowski knows that he had an abusive, alcoholic father. He also suffered from a clinical case of acne in his youth. These, among other issues, led him to a degree of misery that he mined to carve out a niche in the market that brought him fame and fortune. We know that while Bukowski may not have been the first to tap into the misery market, he might have done it better than those that preceded him, for few in history have relayed the unhappy mindset in such a comprehensive manner, and even fewer could express their hatred for happy people with such vigor.

Some believe Bukowski created the current manifestation of anti-happy that led to a hierarchical web of minions that display near-visceral hatred for The Brady Bunch, Leave It to Beaver, Disney, and all that is wholesome. These wholesome ideals, portrayed on screens, represented something that irritated these types. Perhaps it had something to do with the idea that these images served as a mirror to reveal something about them that they didn’t want others to see. Their anger hung out from beneath their skirt for all the world to see, but it did nothing for them to learn that in many quarters of America, it is now popular and chic to hate happy and wholesome America, simply because it’s too cutesy. It does nothing for them to know they’ve won in certain sectors, because their goal has never been about winning or achieving some form of satisfaction that could lead to happiness for another. No, the insurgent movement that I once considered so attractive was about spreading the misery, so they wouldn’t feel so much of it percolating under their skin while they sat on the other side of the tube, seething in the juices of their reality.

Let Your Freak Flag Fly!


“Some of the times you just gotta let your freak flag fly,” my aunt said to her brother. I didn’t know the context of their conversation, but I didn’t think any definition of this otherwise elusory idiom could remedy any of my dad’s issues. He was a man whose primary goal in life was to fit in, and he did anything and everything he could in life to make that happen. My aunt was the opposite. She did everything she could to stand out as someone hipper and younger. She knew the Billboard Top 40 singles far better than I did at a young age, she wore clothing better suited to younger girls, and she said things better suited to women thirty years younger. This was the first time I heard that particular phrase, however, and even though it involved my aunt’s embarrassing attempt to appear hip, the line stuck with me. I never used it, but when I later heard someone on a hip, top-rated television show say it, I knew something was afoot. Then, one of my friends said it in school, and a week later I began hearing it everywhere.

“Where did you hear that phrase?” I asked my friend from school.

“Dude, I don’t know. I’ve been saying it for decades,” he said. Unbeknownst to me, this response was the key to keeping it cool in the phraseology universe, for no one ever seems to know where they hear them first. To be fair, it can be difficult to remember where we first heard a phrase we’ve been saying for a time, but purveyors of this particular phrase appeared to conveniently forget where they heard it to leave the impression that they started it. There’s apparently a lot of prestige wrapped up in starting a phrase, and if someone gets a taste of it, they don’t give it up willingly. Whatever the case is, when obsessively curious types pursue such matters, we often receive everything from blank faces to evasive and defensive responses. Even if the phrase user just started using the phrase last February, those who are evasive and defensive want us to think they’ve been saying it for decades so they can think that, and they dismiss further intrigue on this issue as uncool.

If we found a truly reflective individual who could remember the first time they heard the phrase, it might result in a response to our question as humdrum as, “I think my Cousin Ralphie is da shiznit, and when I heard him say it I wanted his awesome sauce all over me.” If this individual were that honest, they might run the risk of being so over as to be drummed out of the in-crowd, for the clique might deem that confession a violation of the binary, unspoken agreement those in the in-crowd have designed for the world of phraseology. In this world, all users want their audience to consider them the originator of the phrase, and anyone who insists on pursuing this line of interrogation runs the risk of being drummed out on an “If you have to ask …” basis.

Another unspoken rule regarding catch phrases is that we better hurry up and use them as often as possible, before a cool cat steps in to declare that the days of using the phrase are now over. “Stop saying that. I’m trying to get the word out that that phrase is over. Tell your friends.” We might be disappointed to learn that we are no longer able to use words, phrases, or idioms that we enjoy using, but we know that when cool people step in to warn us that it’s over, it’s a serious blow in the world of phraseology. We also know that by continuing to use such a phrase, we run the risk of being so over. This begs a question to the arbiters of language who declare they’ve been saying this for decades, how is it that you haven’t encountered someone who declared it so over in that time span? Did you ignore them, and if you did, why should I listen to you?

A work associate of mine attempted to play the role of the foil in this manner by correcting me in front of a group of people. “Dude, stop saying that,” he said mimicking the phrase to end phrases. “I’m trying to get the word out that that phrase is over. Tell your friends.” Anytime we hear someone issue such a condemnation, it is human nature to assume that it’s rooted in something the speaker learned from a person with some authority on the matter. In my experience, however, most of these self-professed arbiters of language consider starting a hip phrase fine but ending one divine. Those with no standing in the hierarchy of cool often take it upon themselves to issue such a condemnation without knowing anything more on the matter than anyone else, but they hope that by pushing us down a notch they might improve their standing in the hierarchy.

Like most of those in the lowest stratum of this hierarchy, I knew nothing about this confusing world of using hip, insider, cool cat language, so I was in no position to question my work associate, but by my calculations this feller was a doofus. He was such a complete doofus that I would no sooner consider advice from him on language than I would his dating advice. I still don’t know if this fella assumed a level of authority on this matter based on the idea that he considered me inferior, of if he heard this news from a more authoritative figure, but I decided he did nothing to earn a seat on my personal arbitration board. That situation led me to wonder how we determine our arbiters of words and phrases. My guess is that most people will not heed such advice from just anyone, as that might reveal their status in this hierarchy. My guess is that we make discerning choices based on superficial, bullet point requirements we have for those issuing them? Put another way, if my work associate was more attractive and less chubby, and he wasn’t such a doofus, I may have been more amenable to his guidance on this issue.

✽✽✽

For fact checkers, a search return suggests that the phrase “Let your freak flag fly” first appeared in a Jimi Hendrix song If 6 was 9 in 1967. It was later popularized in a David Crosby song Almost Cut my Hair that he wrote for the Crosby, Stills, Nash, and Young album Déjà vu. We can guess that that phrase made its way through the “in-crowd” circuit long before Hendrix or Crosby used it in the song.  

The Urban Dictionary defines “Letting Your Freak Flag Fly” as: “A characteristic, mannerism, or appearance of a person, either subtle or overt, which implies unique, eccentric, creative, adventurous or unconventional thinking.” 2) “Letting loose, being down with one’s cool self, preferred usage to occur in front of a group of strangers. Your inner freak that wants to come out, but often is suppressed by social anxiety.” 3) Unrestrained, unorthodox or unconventional in thinking, behavior, manners, etc. One who espouses radical, nonconformist or dissenting views and opinions that are outside the mainstream. When traveling through the bible belt of the U.S., it’s best not to let your freak flag fly high. Otherwise, you’ll be harassed and attacked by these backwater, backward thinking theocrats.

Typical Freak Flag Flyers make very specific decisions to avoid titles. They tend to be abstract thinkers who believe they fly high over those of us who believe in nouns (i.e. people, places, and things). Freak Flag Flyers tend to know more about those nouns than the average person, because those people haven’t done their homework. Some Freak Flag Flyers base their outlier status on anecdotal information of these nouns to whom others swear allegiance, on the idea that if we knew what Freak Flag Flyers know, we would be just as sophisticated in our skepticism about allegiances as they are.

Most people fly under a flag: Americans fly under the Stars and Stripes; the Irish fly under the Irish tricolor; and the British fly under the Union Jack. There are some people, however, who fly under no flag, and they provide this information to anyone who asks, and some who don’t. Don’t expect them to admit to flying under a freak flag either, for the very essence of flying under a freak flag is designed to give its flyer an open-ended, free lifestyle persona that doesn’t conform to societal definitions such as definition or allegiance … Even if such a definition extends itself to a freak flag. They aren’t proud members of a country, political party, or a coalition of freaks. They’re just Tony, and any attempt we make to define them as anything but –based upon the things they do and say– will say more about us and our need for definition, than it does them. Freak Flag Flyers tend to be moral relativists who ascribe to some libertarian principles when those political policies adhere to principles they find pleasing –those that suggest as Dave Mason did, “There ain’t no good guy, there ain’t no bad guy. There’s only you and me and we just disagree”- but they tend to distance themselves from the economic libertarian ideals, for that might result in too much libertarianism.

Some Freak Flag Flyers raise their flags in political milieus, but most freak flags involve simple eccentricities and peculiarities. An individual who prefers to listen to complicated and obscure music could be said to fly a freak flag in that regard, but they usually keep close information to their vest when their more normal family members and friends are around. An individual who enjoys various concoctions of food, philosophies, and other assorted, entertainment mediums could be said to have a freak flag, but most of these people live otherwise normal lives. Every person can have a freak flag without being a freak, in other words, but the general term freak flag is reserved for those activities we engage in and those preferences we have that could be embarrassing if they found their way back to our normal friends and family members.

Even if we don’t have what others might call a Freak Flag, we can identify with the mindset of those who dared to let theirs fly. Now that we’re all normal and stable, we might not remember the days when we strove for some sort of definition, or we may be embarrassed by it, but most of us can recall a day when we dared to be different.

A friend of mine worked in a corporation, and he was a corporate joe from head to ankle. To maintain some level of freak flag status, however, he wore a wide variety of loud socks and skater shoes that were so out of place with the rest of his attire that it was impossible not to notice. If he was going to take a corporate gig, and become everything his boss needed him to be, he wanted to have something he could point to, to suggest he wasn’t a corporate sellout. We all have some sort of freak flag that we stand behind to separate us from the rest of the pack. Some of us are just a little more diligent in our efforts.

Thus, the ultimate definition of a freak flag flyer is a relative concept defined by the individual. It’s almost the opposite of my aunt’s attempts to be younger and hipper than her peers, as the true freak flag flyer does not engage in freak flag flying, they just are in a manner that is more organic than anything someone like my aunt might dream up.

The Thief’s Mentality


The best thief I ever knew accused me of stealing from him so often that I began to question my integrity. I dated a woman who cheated on me, and she cheated on me so often that I’m still embarrassed that I wasn’t more aware of her infidelities. Her octopus ink was so effective that I spent most of our relationship defending myself against what she was doing the whole time. These are but a few of the greatest hits of the tactics compulsive liars used against me, so often, that I forgot to question their integrity. If their goals were to prevent me from analyzing them, they were successful. When I did analyze them, I realized their accusations said more about them, and their worldview, than they ever did me. Some might call this projection, others might call it deflection or obfuscation, but I believe the games these people play fall under a comprehensive, multi-tiered umbrella I call the thief’s mentality.

Even though I wasn’t aware of it at the time, Kurt Lee introduced me to the confusing mind of a deceptive person. The art of deception was such a key component of his personality that he was hypervigilant to the signs and signals of possible transgressions occurring in the minds of those around us. In the manner a professional saxophone player might spot nuances in the manner another player plays, Kurt Lee spotted the little things other people do to manipulate others, and he did so from the angle of appreciation. Kurt Lee spent his life so attuned to this frequency that his instincts often led him astray.

Kurt taught me more about how a deceptive person thinks, than any other person I’ve encountered, movie I’ve watched, or book I’ve read on the subject. He would serve as my prototype for those who would exhibit a wide array of similar traits, traits I would only later deem the attributes of the thief’s mentality.

The most interesting aspect about the man, a characteristic that might defy that which I will describe throughout this piece, was his charm. When it served him, Kurt Lee had the propensity to be nice, engaging, and infectious. He was also a funny guy, and a genuinely funny people disarm us, unless we stick around long enough to learn more about their sensibilities.

Those who knew Kurt Lee, on a superficial level, envied him for the ways in which he openly defied authority figures without guilt. Those who actually spent as much time around Kurt Lee as I did, however, witnessed that for all the charisma a piece of work (POS) displays, they ultimately end up destroying themselves from the inside out.

One afternoon while on a city bus, Kurt decided to play with the crocheted ball on top of the stocking cap of the elderly woman that sat in front of him. My reaction to this spectacle may be one of the things I have to answer for on Judgment Day, because I found his appalling act hysterical.

Hindsight informs me that my youthful attraction to Kurt Lee’s antics may have had something to do with learning about the mores and rules my mother taught me. Why haven’t I ever played with the ball on top of an old woman’s stocking cap? What’s the difference between Kurt Lee and me? Is it about morality, or does it have more to do with common decency? My mother taught me that when a young, healthy male sees an elderly woman sitting alone, he should smile at her and try to think up something nice to say. My mother taught me to hold the door for her, and she said that I should consider it a privilege to give up my seat to a woman like that on the city bus, if no other seats were available.

Not only did Kurt Lee ignore those typical conventions, he chose to pursue what we could term the exact opposite. He decided to violate the most vulnerable member of our culture’s sense of security by playing with her stocking cap. Of course, it was wrong, but it was also a fascinating exploration of human nature. How would this old woman react? How would a real POS counter that reaction? Why did he do it in the first place? Did he think he would get away with it? Did he even care? I would never know the answer to the latter questions, but my fascination with the answers to the former led me to urge him on with laughter. That was wrong, too, of course, but I now believe my laughter was borne of curiosity. I wanted to learn more about the moral codes by which we all abide. I hoped to learn all that by watching another solidify my rationale, with no regard for the consequences of violating them. At the time, I really didn’t have those thoughts, but I couldn’t wait to see how it would end, and I dare say that most of those who are more successful in abiding by the standards their mothers taught them would not have been able to look away either

The vulnerable, elderly woman did eventually turn on Kurt, and she did so with an angry expression. She allowed the first few flicks of the ball atop her stocking cap go, presumably taking a moment to muster up the courage to tell him off, and then she gave him that angry look. Kurt Lee appeared ready to concede to that initial, nonverbal admonition, until he spotted me laughing. Egged on by me, he did it three more times before she reached a point of absolute frustration that led her to say something along the lines of, “Stop it, you young punk!”

To that, Kurt began thrusting his hips forward in his seat, while looking at me, whispering, “She just wants unusual carnal relations!” As a teenager trying to elicit more laughter from another teen, Kurt Lee did not use that term. He selected the most vulgar term he could to describe his extrapolation of her desires.

Had Kurt Lee decided to stick his middle finger up in the face of a healthier, younger adult, it would have been just as difficult to avoid watching. The fact that he chose such a sacred cow of our culture for his rebellion, however, made his actions over-the-top hilarious. In my young, unformed mind, this was a real life equivalent to David Letterman’s man-on-the-street segments, taken up ten notches on the bold-o-meter. I would later learn that Kurt Lee was not the type to make profound statements about our societal conventions. He was more of a doer, and doers just do what they do and leave the messy interpretations of what they do to others. I would also learn, by the manner in which Kurt Lee selected his victims based on their inability to fight back, that Kurt Lee was something of a coward. At the time, though, I found his actions so bold that I couldn’t look away, and I couldn’t stop laughing.

As time wore on, I discovered a wide array of fascinating explorations of human nature, but those paled in comparison to Kurt Lee’s mentality, his philosophy, and what drove him to be so different from everyone I had ever met. To listen to him speak on the topic, there was nothing different about Kurt Lee. He simply had the courage of his convictions. He ascribed to the more conventional line of thought that we were all afraid to be like him, but he also suggested that the rest of us have had this part of our makeup denied by parents and teachers instructing us to act differently for so long that we now believe we are different. The import of his message was that this was not about me, and it was not about him. It’s about human nature and the thief’s mentality.

“If you could get away with it, you would try,” was his answer to any questions posed to him. “You mean to tell me you’ve never stolen anythingEver? All right then, let’s talk about reality.” Kurt Lee was a thief, and like most thieves, he did not defend his position from the position of being a thief. He would substitute an exaggeration of your moral qualms regarding thievery, claiming that any person who has stolen even once is in no position to judge someone who steals on a regular basis.

In short bursts, and on topic, Kurt Lee could lower the most skilled debater to the ground. We called him a master debater, with the innuendo intended, because it was almost impossible to pin him down on specifics. It was a joy to watch. Prolonged exposure, however, opened up all these windows into his soul.

When we asked him how a guy from the sticks could afford the latest, top-of-the-line zipper pants, a pair of sunglasses that would put a fella back two weeks’ pay, and an original, signed copy of the Rolling Stones, Some Girls. He would tell us, but even his most ardent defender had a hard time believing Santa Claus would be that generous to even the nicest kids on his list.

Kurt Lee stole so often by the time I came to know him that the act of shoplifting lost much of its thrill. He decided to challenge himself as top athletes, and top news anchors do, by hiring third-party analysts to scrutinize the minutiae of their performance. He asked me to watch him steal baseball cards from a baseball card shop owner that we agreed needed to learn a lesson, because the man refused to buy our cards 99 percent of the time. On those rare occasions when he agreed to buy them, his offers were so low they were almost insulting.

I posed a theory about our transactions with this shop owner. I theorized that the intent behind his frequent refusals to buy our cards was to establish his bona fides as a resident expert of value. That way, when he informed us that any of our cards were of value, we were ready to jump at the chance, no matter what amount he offered. “By doing so,” I concluded, “he actually makes us feel more valuable, because we think we finally have something worthy of one of his offers.”

“You’re right,” Kurt Lee said. “Let’s get him.”

I felt validated for coming up with a theory that Kurt Lee accepted, but in hindsight, I think Kurt Lee would’ve used anything I said to motivate me to conspire against the owner.

“One thing,” Kurt Lee said before we entered. “I don’t know if this needs to be said, but I’m going to say it anyway. Don’t watch me, don’t talk to me, and be careful about how often you look at me. Don’t try to avoid looking at me either.” When I laughed at that, a laugh that expressed some confusion, he added, “Just don’t do anything stupid or obvious.”

It was an invitation into a world I never knew, and Kurt Lee’s provisos might have been necessary, because I was as nervous as I was excited. I considered the idea that my foreknowledge of this crime could implicate me as an accessory, but I couldn’t shake the asexual intimacy that Kurt Lee was sharing with me, with this invitation into his world.

Before we entered the shop, Kurt Lee opened his pockets, in the manner a magician might, and he asked me to confirm that he had no cards in his pockets.

Throughout the course of our hour in the shop, I didn’t witness Kurt Lee steal one thing, and I mocked him. “What happened? I thought you were going to steal something,” I said. “I’m beginning to think you’re chicken.”

He allowed me to mock him without saying a word. When I finished, he opened his jacket to show me his inner pockets. What I saw knocked me back a couple steps. I actually took a step back when I witnessed the number of baseball cards that lined his inner pockets. I would’ve been impressed if he displayed one card, and three or four would’ve shocked me, but the sheer number of cards he stole without me noticing one act of thievery, led me to believe that Kurt Lee wasted his abilities on the petty art of shoplifting. I considered telling him to try his hand at being a magician for I thought what I was witnessing were the skills of a maestro of deception. If he could hone in on those skills, I thought the possibilities were endless for Kurt Lee.

Soon after recovering from that shock, I began to wonder how one acquires such a deft hand. As with any acquired skill, there is some level of trial and error involved, and nestled within that lies the need to find a utility that permits the thief to proceed uninhibited by shame. A skilled performer in the arts or athletics delights in displaying their ability to the world, in other words, but a thief has to operate in the shadows, and they acquire their skill with a modicum of shame attached. Success as a thief, it would seem to those of us on the outside looking in, requires the potential thief to either a defeat of that sense of shame or find a way to manage it.

Shame, some argue, like other unpleasant emotions, becomes more manageable with greater familiarity. When a father introduces shame to his child, in the brutal assessments a father makes regarding the value of the child, the child becomes familiar with an intimate definition of shame before they are old enough to combat them. When such brutal assessments are then echoed by a mother’s concern that their child can’t do anything right, the combined effort can have a profound effect on a child. When those parents then console the child with a suggestion that while the child may be a bad seed, but they’re no worse than anyone else is, something gestates in the child. The moral relativism spawned from these interactions suggests that the search for the definitions of right and wrong is over, and the sooner the child accepts that, the more honest they will become. Seeing their mother scold a teacher for punishing their child for a transgression only clarifies this confusion a little more. In that relativist scolding, the child hears their mother inform the teacher that the child can do no wrong, and they see her unconditional support firsthand. Over time, the child must acknowledge that their parents will not always be there, so they will need to develop personal defense mechanisms in line with what they’re learned. The child also learns to accept these realities for what they are, for the Lee family has never had the courage necessary to commit suicide.

I hated discounting the level of individual ingenuity on Kurt Lee’s part, but he was simply too good at the various forms of deception for it to have been something he arrived at on his own. Attempting to source it might be a fool’s errand, but I wondered if I were able to sort through Kurt’s his genealogical tree, if I might find sedimentary layers of grievance, envy, frustration, and desperation that worked their way down to him. To those who consider seeking evidence of foundational layers a bit of a stretch, I ask how much of our lives do we spend rebelling against, and acquiescing to parental influence, and how many of us can say we are entirely free from it?

I was so obsessed with this, at one point, that I bridged a gap between being curious and badgering, something Kurt Lee made apparent in his volatile reaction:

“You think you’re better than me?” Kurt Lee asked, employing the universal get-out-of-judgment free card of moral relativism. This time-honored redirect relies on the lessons taught to us by our mothers, that we are no better than anyone else is, but Kurt Lee’s rant began to spiral out of control when he tried to pivot to what he believed its logical extension.

If no one is better than anyone else is and everyone resides on the cusp of whatever Kurt Lee was, the logical extension required the inclusion of an individual that many perceived to be so harmless it was almost laughable to suggest otherwise. The individual, in this case, was a kid named Pete Pestroni. If Kurt Lee’s arguments were going to hold water, the idea that Pete Pestroni was a wolf in sheep’s clothing would have to become an agreed upon fact. I’m still not sure why Kurt Lee went down the Pete Pestroni road so often, but I suspect it had something to do with the idea that if Pete was immune, in one form or another, everyone else had to be too. In Kurt’s estimation, Pete was just too weak, or too scared, to let his wolf run wild. We would laugh at the implausibility of Pete Pestroni having a Kurt Lee trapped inside, a thief dying to come out, but our intention was to laugh with Kurt Lee. He wouldn’t even smile, however, because some part of him believed that if everyone was a thief, then no one was, at least to the point of separating the thief out for comparative analysis. This was a sacred chapter in Kurt Lee’s personal bible, and an ingredient of the thief’s mentality that took me decades to grasp.

The thief’s mentality is a mindset that involves a redirect of exposing an uncomfortable truth, or a hypocrisy, in others, so that the thief might escape a level of scrutiny that could lead to an uncomfortable level of introspection. An individual with a thief’s mentality may steal, but that person is just as apt to lie and cheat. The thief’s mentality begins as a coping mechanism for dealing with the character flaws that drive them to do what they do, but it progresses from those harmless, white lies to a form of deception that requires a generational foundation. 

The thief’s mentality requires deflection, by way of subterfuge, as a means to explain the carrier’s inability to trust beyond the point that they should be trusted, but some thieves’ outward distrust of others reaches a point of exaggeration that says far more about them than those they accuse. Their cynicism is their objectivity, and others’ faith in humanity is a subjective viewpoint, one that we must bear. We live in a dog-eat-dog, screw-or-be-screwed world in which those who trust anyone outside their own homes are naïve to the point of hopelessness. If the listener is to have any hope of surviving in such a world, it is incumbent upon them to see passed the façades and through the veneer, others present to the truth.

The truth, in Kurt Lee’s worldview, held that TV anchors with fourteen-inch parts, and perfect teeth, ended their days by going home to beat their wives. He didn’t believe that a person could attain wealth by honest means. He insisted that because some states convicted some Catholic priests as pedophiles that meant all Catholic priests were, and he had a particular fascination with infidelity in the White House. “You think JFK and Clinton are different? They’re just the ones that got caught is all.” There was also his contention that little old ladies who complained about having someone toy with the balls on the stocking caps just want to have unusual carnal relations. As with most tenets of a person’s worldview, there was some grain of truth in Kurt Lee’s, but he often had to put forth a great deal of effort to support it.

In most such discussions, Kurt Lee’s audience was immune. “I’m not talking about you,” he would say to the parties concerned, so they would view the subject matter from the perspective of an ally. If we began to view ourselves as an ally, we might join him in convincing our world that he’s not that bad, or the world is as bad as he is. Yet, our agreed upon immunity from his charges begins to fracture in the course of the thief’s logical extensions. When that happens, the thief turns their accusations on us. We may consider ourselves all virtuous and moral, but the thief knows everything there is to know about hidden agendas. They maintain a perpetual state of readiness for that day when we break free of the constraints of morality and loyalty to expose our evil, naked underbelly to the world. They have us all figured out, because they know those lies we tell. It’s the thief’s mentality.

Thieves may even believe their exaggerated or false accusations, regardless of all we’ve done to establish ourselves as good, honest people. The validity of their accusation, however, pales in comparison to their need to keep a subject of their accusations in a perpetual state of trustworthiness. They make this accusation to keep us in check in a manner they know we should keep them in check. The import of that line provides us a key to understanding why an individual with a thief’s mentality would make such a charge against us, and the Pete Pestronis of the world that are so honest it’s laughable to suggest otherwise. Some might call such accusations psychological projection, the inclination one has to either deny or defend their qualities while seeing them in everyone else. Others might say that it’s some sort of deflection or obfuscation on the part of the thief, but I believe it all falls under a comprehensive, multi-tiered umbrella that I call the thief’s mentality. Still others might suggest that Kurt Lee’s accusations were born of theories he had about me, the people around him, and humanity in general. If that is the case, his theories were autobiographical.

Whether it was as complex as all that on an unconscious level, or some simple measures Kurt Lee developed over the years to prevent people from calling him a POS, I witnessed some try to turn the table on the accusations by telling Kurt Lee that other people trust them.

Kurt Lee’s response to one particularly defensive combatant was so clever that I thought it beyond his years. Again, I hate to discount individual ingenuity, but it just seemed too clever for Kurt to deliver as quickly as he did when he said:

“So you think if someone trusts you that means that you’re trustworthy?” is how Kurt Lee responded. He said the word trustworthy, as if the word itself was an accusation, but that wasn’t the brilliant part of his response. As brilliance often does, his arrived in that section of an argument when the participants say whatever they can to win, regardless what those words reveal. Kurt Lee suggested, in not so many words, that those who consider themselves a beacon of trustworthiness are suffering from a psychosis of another stripe. The reason I considered this response so perfect, as it pertained to this specific argument, was that it put the onus of being trustworthy on the person who challenged Kurt Lee trustworthiness. It also put any further questions regarding Kurt Lee’s character –or what his inability to trust the people in his life said about him– on the back burner, until the questioner could determine whether the level of his own trustworthiness was a delusion that group thought led them to believe.

With all that Kurt Lee taught me about this fascinating mentality, always fresh in mind, I’ve had a number of otherwise trustworthy friends ask me how to deal with the thief in their life. They fail to understand why their beloved doesn’t trust them in even the most benign arenas of life. These worried souls said things like, “I don’t know what I did to damage our bond of trust, but they call me irredeemable.” My friends were insecure about their trustworthiness, as we all are, yet they wondered what they did to trigger the damning accusations regarding their trustworthiness.

“How do I win him back? How do I regain his trust?” they asked, with sorrow in their hearts.

“I’m sorry to say it’s not about you,” I tell them. “It’s the thief’s mentality.” 

I am sorry to say this, because these concerned friends find themselves trapped in a relationship with the afflicted, one that requires them to spend long hours, days, and years with this person. I have explained the plight of the thief, to the best of my ability, via my personal experiences with Kurt Lee, and it has helped these concerned and confused souls frame the accusations with a name for what their loved one does. The idea that there might be a name for it never occurred to them, and it provides them some comfort to think that others have had similar experiences so often that someone developed a name for it. Whatever short-term relief they experience in the moment, the idea that their loved one is never going to trust them anymore than they trust themselves dispels it.

The damage that thieves, like Kurt Lee, incur is irreparable. They may not enjoy the lives they’ve created for themselves, and the idea that they can’t even trust the one person in their lives that they could, or should. On the flipside, their accusations do allow them to spread their misery around a little. It lightens their load to transfer some of their toxins to others. It also gives them a little lift to know that we are a little less trusting than we were before we met them. They must find some relief in the belief that they are not such an aberration, but this relief is temporary, as the toxins that have made them what they are as endemic to the biological chemistry as white and red blood cells. Nevertheless, it must please them to know that after our interactions with them, we now view humanity in the same cynical, all-hope-is-lost manner they do.

If it’s true that a mere 2 percent of people are self-aware, then the lack of self-awareness, at least as it pertains to what we are, and what we are to become, is as endemic to the thief’s mentality as it is in every other walk of life. Like the rest of us, thieves do not believe they live on an exaggerated pole of morality. Rather, they believe they reside in the middle, right alongside the rest of us, somewhere just north of the good side of the fuzzy dividing line. They also know that we’re all tempted to do that one thing that could place us on the south side. What separates them, to their mind, is their lack of fear, coupled with their refusal to conform to the norms their parents and other mentors taught us. They are also keenly aware that we place most of humanity on their side of the fuzzy line because we all have problems trusting those we don’t know well enough to determine whether they will make moral decisions in life. Some take this natural state of skepticism a step further. Some thieves’ exaggerated, outward distrust for those around them says far more about them than about those they condemn and accuse. It’s the thief’s mentality.

 

The Balloonophilia Conflict


“Welcome to the group, our group, of balloonophiles,” a group moderator who chose the name Olive Branch said to open the proceedings. “Some people call us loonies and loonatics. I see some fresh faces here today, so I’d like to welcome you all to our group.

“We balloonophiles enjoy blowing up balloons and watching others do so,” she added.

After the all-too tedious introductions ended (“Hi. My name is Jordache, and I like green olives and Octopuses,”) Olive opened the floor for the discussion of the day.

In the general discussion that followed, we fresh faces learned of a philosophical divide that arose between the two factions in Balloonophila. A group called the poppers were on one side of the proverbial aisle, and the non-poppers were on the other side. The word proverbial is germane here, because the participants did not sit on opposite sides of one another, and they did not sit together to imply they would only sit next to those with whom they shared solidarity on this matter. The divide between the two was purely philosophical, and other than a few harsh words, I never saw anything that would suggest otherwise.

“Most of us use the common latex balloon,” one of the poppers explained to us, “but we will use the higher-quality Mylar when we had disposable cash on hand.”

“Segments of the popper faction of the balloonist community enjoyed popping with a pin,” another popper explained. “Others enjoy flames, but some loonatics use shoe heels for maximum impact.”

“We non-poppers used Mylar balloons almost exclusively,” another said, “because Mylar holds up better to the oven baking process we use to make them stretchier.”

Except for the few anecdotal examples provided below, most balloonophiles engaged in these activities in conjunction with various sex acts.

“I pictured a military man the other day, a grunt, forcefully contorting a balloon into shape,” said a man called Andy. “He doesn’t want to hurt the balloon, but he enjoys hearing it squeal.”

Most of the introductions the loons of both factions provided were less personal than Andy, as they preferred the more instructional rhetoric to describe the philosophical conflict that developed in Balloonville between the popper and non-popper factions. Members of each group later informed me that, in a few cases, their past discussions grew heated, but for the most part, any tension that occurred between the two factions was a subtle undercurrent that can develop with any two parties who have philosophical differences. The speakers maintained that their disagreements were peaceful, and they repeated that so often that I began to believe it. Even the most peaceful arguments have sides, however, and there are always going to be some participants feel the need to bolster their ranks.

“Poppers prefer to have their carnal explosion occur in conjunction with the balloon’s,” a non-popper named Elliot said to try to explain what he considered the crux of the argument. “Non-poppers, on the other hand, prefer to use the same balloon repeatedly. We consider a popper’s enjoyment of popping a balloon as unnecessarily violent, even a little sadistic.” Elliot’s characterization was the most interesting, of course, but I didn’t give it the attention it required at first. I considered it a natural flow of such discussions, as one person will always try to outdo the others, but when Elliot continues, using other devices to bolster his argument, he convinced me how important this characterization was to him.

I figured Elliot was probably a nice guy, as I watched him carry on and provide far too many details of the plight of the non-popper. I figured he was a man who followed all of the rules and treated people the way he wanted to be treated, but he has his moments. We all do, and we worry about those moments and what they say about us. We might think about them, and some of us might obsess over them, but the mirror can only provide so many answers. I figured that questions of morality plagued Elliot so much that he needed to find a way to soothe his soul. So, he joined a group. I wondered if Elliot had any interest in balloons before he joined this group. The first question, of course, is how would one find such a specific group without very specific needs? Maybe a friend told him about the group, like my friend told me. Maybe he thought it would be hilarious to hear people talk about sex with balloons, like I did, and somewhere in that meeting he found a level of affinity for these people that led him to some level of solidarity. Maybe he was just a lost soul in need of a group, and he just happened to find these people.

There’s nothing wrong with joining a group, of course, as we can find friends and feel a part of a community, but such groups can lead the individuals involved to develop an us versus them mentality. When we get caught up in the group mentality, we find ourselves using comparative analysis more often than self-reflection. We attempt to persuade our group, and anyone else in between, of our virtuousness. We hope to persuade them to our point of view to bolster the view we hope to have of ourselves.

Elliot said that poppers do what they do, because “they are so unnecessarily violent that they might be sadistic”. The first question that comes to mind, when one hears such a thing is, we’re still talking about balloons right? As one who obsesses over word choices I’ve often found that the audience should consider excessive use of modifiers, particularly adverbs, a warning about the speaker’s intentions. I’ve often found them used in the introduction of some level of manipulation on the part of the speaker. Elliot could’ve simply said poppers enjoy popping balloons and I don’t, but by adding those modifiers he hoped to persuade those of us with no rooting interest that those who pop balloons are bad guys, which he hopes leads us to consider him a good guy by comparison.

This Elliot guy was talking about popping balloons, so the reason I didn’t pay enough attention to the guy at first was that he was talking about balloons. It was a silly topic on a silly evening as far as I was concerned. When this guy rambled on about how poppers were on the wrong side, I realized there was something about human nature, in general, involved in his characterization. I thought about how many philosophical arguments I’ve been in where the person I was arguing with went beyond saying I was wrong to saying I should reconsider my views before someone, somewhere called me a bad guy.

My reaction to Elliot’s comments were not what I would call an epiphany, as I had these thoughts before, but no one I argued with ever went as far as Elliot did to label their philosophical opponents bad guys. It struck me, even as Elliot was speaking, that there is a sliding scale that some try to instill in their audience. If Elliot was able to convince those of us who have no rooting interest that poppers are wrong, he receives short term, situational satisfaction if we consider him right. If he is able to convince us that they’re bad, he might hope that we consider him good by contrast. If he convinces us that their unnecessarily violent and sadistic tendencies could be characterized as evil, then we are almost required to recognize Elliot as the beacon of virtue.

I also gleaned from the testimonials and the many comments made in the meeting that non-poppers tend to believe they attain more from a balloon in what could be termed a monogamous relationship, and this is more often than not the case when that balloon is made of Mylar and filled with air as opposed to helium. They never defined the word more in their descriptions, nor did the non-poppers ever use the word monogamous. Many in the non-popper community approached the ideas in different ways, however, and they left them as a standalone, which I assume to be a self-evident proposition of theirs.

The testimonies were such that I gathered that the non-poppers were the more sanctimonious of the two, but the poppers had their own level of sanctimony. Some of the poppers alluded to the idea that the non-poppers were complete wusses for their aversions to loud noises.

“…And the loud noises are where it’s at,” said a man with the alias of Jim (his preferred moniker if I should ever publish this piece). “There is something exhilarating about rubbing your fingers along a balloon that is inflated to maximum capacity. The sound it makes does something that those with an aversion to loud noises will never understand, like screams or something.”

✽✽✽

“There are a number of theories regarding the origin of the balloonophile,” Olive Branch said after the intros were complete, and the discussion of the differences between the two factions subsided. “I know we’ve discussed them before, but I thought we might address the issue again for some of our newer members.” Olive didn’t look at me when she said this, but the energy of the room made an obvious shift in my direction.

I wasn’t sure if I was the lone new member, as that was never addressed, even in the introductory period, but I apparently stood out more than the others did, because most of the speakers chose to direct their focus on me.

“Some have suggested that balloonophiles are borne of castration anxiety,” Olive continued, “or a denial of breastfeeding. They also suggest that some go too far in their endeavors that they advance to a stage in their pursuit of therapy when they manage to replace the natural need for human contact and become irretrievable in a psychological manner. How many of us think these theories hold any measure of truth?”

A chorus of “No’s” went around the table. They expounded on their rejection of these ideas a little, but as with most attempts to disprove theories regarding the essence of one’s nature, the ballonophiles didn’t feel a great need to bolster their rejections of these notions with what I considered constructive refutation.

Terrance Gill, a non-popper, chuckled at the very idea that castration anxiety was even a theory, and a few others parroted his position with soft chuckles of their own.

“What about the Freudian breastfeeding theory?” Olive asked.

One balloonophile informed the group, “I might have been breastfed too long, according to what my mother told me.” Two others offered anecdotal attempts to refute the breastfeeding theory until the group reached a silent agreement that the anecdotal refutations of Balloonophilia demoted themselves to anecdotal. Various members began branching out from these refutations to personal experiences they had with other theories, and their refutations of them teed up other members to bolster their refutations with quick affirming tidbits. At the end of this particular stretch, the otherwise combative groups appeared satisfied with themselves for offering the new attendees the group’s version of Origin of Species.

I, however, didn’t think any of them offered one piece of solid refutation. They seemed obsessed with distracting and obfuscating the central point of Olive Branch’s question. I was a quiet observer at this point, nothing more and nothing less. My smile was level and polite throughout. I even allowed most of the rejections of theories to pass without comment. It wasn’t in my nature to remain silent for long, however, and this aspect of my personality was even more difficult to maintain as the attempts to defeat what these individuals believed to be anecdotal theories proved so anecdotal.

“Everyone is not a damned anomaly!” I said.

At that, the group was shocked. If shocked is a self-serving description, how about silent. In the wake of a challenge of what I considered their self-serving descriptions, they said nothing. I realized, in the space of the silence that followed that they might have thought I argued from some point of certitude that I was right and they were wrong. If I thought of it at the time, I would’ve disavowed them of this notion, for how can one be right or wrong on such matters? I did recognize the general idea that I was a bit ahead of myself, and I probably overstepped my station by questioning them in such an outburst.

“I’m sorry,” I said, too little, too late. “It just gnaws at me when people invest so much energy in telling people what they are not, and they fail to invest any thought in what they are, or how they came to be.

“Most people are much more comfortable telling an interested party that other’s theories about them are either wrong or that they happen to be anomalous to those theories,” I continued. “They want people to believe that anyone who tries to figure them out is wasting their time. I have no problem with the idea that you think you’re complicated. Don’t get me wrong. That said, let’s dig through those complications. Let’s try to find a truth that lies somewhere between simple logic and what I consider a lack of objectivity on your part.”

“No one is objective,” Elliot said. “I’m not objective. You’re not objective. Even if the only team you’re rooting for is your own, you still have a rooting interest.”

“Fair enough,” I said, suspecting that Elliot was parsing my words and attempting to divert the subject with my poor choice of words. “But we’ve developed simple rules of logic in our studies of human nature, to govern our ways of life. Within those agreed upon understandings lies a belief that I turned out the way I did, because of the conditions in which my parents raised me. The economic conditions in which they raised me played a role, the locale of my upbringing, and various other social conditions affected the person I am now. While there will always be some anomalies to these findings, but not everyone can be one. The fact that most people believe they are anomalous to every rule just reiterates to me that self-examination is sorely lacking, but I don’t think it suggests that there is anything wrong with the general rules we’ve established. I’ve asked various people if it’s true that those from their specific locale tend to be, and believe, what others tell me they believe. They say, “Oh, that’s such a generality. We’ve all fallen in love with that rejection, as if it refutes the general rules we’ve established. They don’t say anything else, and they expect us all to walk away, as if that’s an acceptable answer. I’m saying stop that. We need to find a way expound on the reasons why the general rules we lay out are generally incorrect. I don’t care if you and your second-cousin Janet are specific exceptions to the general rule. If you are anomalous to the theories Olive just laid out, we should want to dig deeper into these theories, to see if there are any commonalities. If there aren’t, we should explore that possibility to locate the countervailing realities we share. Aren’t you interested in what makes you who you are?”

One is never sure how others will receive such a rant. We’d like to think we present such profundity that the silence that follows is just a pendulum, waiting to swing the group in our favor, but I had no such delusions. I was, however, confident in the idea that what I had to say was thoughtful and that my conclusions were, at the very least, worthy of consideration. That belief, like many presumptions and assumptions proved false.

“They just are,” non-popper, Vicki Lerner, explained. She looked around for a brief, pregnant moment. “We just … are.”

That gained Vicky some good vibes from the others. No one offered her words of thanks or congratulations, but the positive energy of the room swung in her direction.

I smiled at her words and the unspoken accolades that followed, but I intended that smile to conceal my fatigue. A second after Vicki said that, I realized I should’ve qualified my statements, “And you cannot just say, ‘We just are.’ You cannot say, ‘And on the eighth day, God created the balloon people.’” 

“There has to be a reason some of you have this predilection.” I said. “I can pretty much trace all the things that led me to being the way I am.”

“Why do you need labels?” Terrance Gill asked me. “Balloonville is not about labels.” 

They all enjoyed that. Captain Federico, an obvious toucher, even reached out to touch Terrance’s leg. He pointed to Terrance’s face, and then pumped his eyebrows at Terrance.

“You spoke of a lack of examination,” Jim said. “Let’s examine you for a moment. Why do you need very specific answers to your specific questions? Is there a part of you that abhors chaos so much that you pledge to fight the random wherever it rears its head? Have you always been this way? Do you think you have life all figured out? On the other hand, maybe you’ve reached the point when matters such as these make so little sense that you have to jam sense into it. Why can’t they just be? Why can’t we just be? Some of the times, things are random. Some of the times people are just different. Sometimes people just become what they are by a random series of events.”

“That is true,” I said, “It’s undeniably true, but I think if we all examine our differences and those events that seem to be random, we might find some correlations that lessen the randomness of it all.”

The idea that the group never welcomed dissent into their origin-of-species discussions was obvious by their initial, silent shock and the follow-up counterpoints. I won’t bore the reader with the remaining counterpoints, as most were redundant and circuitous and they focused on the agreed-upon theme that balloonophiles are just what they say they are. We did arrive at one collective conclusion, albeit an unspoken one, that I was the one with the problem, and the discussion that followed suggested that we all grew a little closer in the aftermath of that conclusion.

“I view the use of balloons in foreplay as an indicator of confidence,” a man named Mel said. “I don’t use balloons as often as some in our group do, but it’s an excellent device to use when trying to switch things up. Most people feel weird involving balloons in foreplay, yet they have no problem with other, more accepted devices. Most people don’t know what we can do with balloons, and when they find out, they’re weirded out by it. A person who can work their way past that displays an overwhelming amount of confidence I find sexy.”

As the only person to confess that his fascination might be deep rooted and psychological, Mel stated that he saw balloons as “a physiological substitute that, when ingested by a female, can achieve excitation. This is often the case when said female pops the balloon upon total immersion.” As a member of the popping camp, Mel admitted to “having an inflation fetish that occurs in a manner similar to sudden expansion of body parts.”

“The popping can be violently dramatic when it’s timed just right,” a stage performer who engaged in total balloon immersion in her act, said to agree Mel’s assessment. She was excited by Mel’s confession, and she all but hopping in her seat throughout. She said “Yes!” three times before Mel concluded, and she could begin. “The fascination with balloons and their relationship to some kind of allure is more widespread than even this group realizes. A performer has to know how to do it though. It can be very theatrical in experienced hands, with proper attention paid to detail and timing. To those who watch my act and assume it’s easy, I always say, ‘You try it!’” 

Non-poppers do not all have a general aversion to loud noises, just like not all poppers demand well-timed explosions. Some non-poppers view well-timed, loud noises as arousing, as opposed to the ligyrophobic terror they experience with sudden loud noises.

This idea of ligyrophobia, or the fear of loud noises, was introduced by a non-popper named Brett. “Some kids grow out of it, I never did. I hole myself up in my apartment during July 4th, and try to block out all sound as best I can, but for some reason I enjoy popping balloons on occasion. “It’s like a controlled, non-threatening way to tweak my fears,” said a man named Brett. “Gil here calls me bacurious.”

“Balloon curious,” Gil added to everyone’s enjoyment.

Captain Federico, a non-popper, was far more open than his counterparts were. He claimed he selected his name from a Star Trek character, and none of the group members knew his real name.

“I initiate visual contact with my balloon while on all fours,” he said, detailing non-popper foreplay for us. “I begin barking at the balloon, until I believe I have achieved a level of dominance. I then crawl back to my balloon in a cautious, submissive manner that leads to embraces and comfort. Next, I roll onto my back, during the supplication phase of the tryst, to allow the balloon full exploration of my body.”

There were no immediate reactions to that confession. I can only guess that most of the balloonists found the revelation uncomfortable, as they feared the new observers in the group might attach it to them. After that cloud of awkwardness lifted, Terrance Gill touched Captain Federico’s shoulder and let his touch linger for a second, and the two of them shared a warm smile. That appeared to be a sign of gratitude for the Captain’s courage in coming forth with that confession, but I figured the gesture returned the sentiment Federico displayed earlier, when he touched Terrance’s leg.

Some of the balloonists lived stressful, non-balloon oriented lives, and they considered their acts of balloonophilia relaxing and therapeutic.

“I work sixty to seventy hours a week for a company that doesn’t appreciate me anymore,” said a man named Leo. “I have a wife and two kids who don’t even greet me at the door anymore, and the boy doesn’t even look away from his gawd-damned PlayStation long enough to acknowledge that I’ve arrived home from work. I can’t force them to be appreciative or gracious, and I’m tired of yelling at them. They don’t listen, and, hey, I’m not hurting anyone. Why does anyone care what I do in my free time?”

“My evenings with balloons are not sexual and tend to involve a wide variety of adults blowing up balloons and trying to keep them airborne. It doesn’t always have to be a sexual thing,” said a woman named Ana who claimed no one would hire her, other than the “stressful, unrewarding field of telemarketing.”

✽✽✽

In the immediate aftermath of the group meeting, I became obsessed with refuting their refutations of my questions. I didn’t think I was obsessed, but my friends did. They said I was repeating the exchanges I had with the group members so often that it was obvious to them I was obsessed. I wanted objective feedback from parties that could provide third-part analysis, but I decided to drop the matter and display a little mercy. I took to the internet and found a number of articles that would bolster my presentation in the Balloonophilia meeting next week.

Two days after writing up my presentation, however, Olive Branch emailed me, “Although balloonophile meetings are open to the public, and you can still attend if you want to, the group has decided that it would be in everyone’s best interest if you decide otherwise.” Further reading of the email made the disdain with my attendance clearer: 

“The group decided that balloonophile meetings are intended for balloonophiles and for those interested in becoming a balloonophile. Various comments and physical gestures that you made throughout the meeting made it clear that you are not interested in joining our group.”

It was my first excommunication, and I didn’t know how to deal with it.

The import of this email was that I was not only a naysayer. They viewed me as an opponent of Balloonophilia, an anti-balloonophile or an anti-loonite, but that is certainly not the case. The nature of the balloonophile fascinates me still, because of what I think it says about humanity in general.

One particular internet article I found better encapsulated what I was trying to say, and I was excited present it to the group. Even if they allowed me to introduce his findings, though, I didn’t really expect it to change any minds. If the balloonophiles taught me nothing else, they convinced me that there is nothing to cure. They are not sick. They enjoyed doing what they do, and they preached their philosophy well enough for me to acknowledge that they are not seeking debate on this topic. I did hope my findings might raise some eyebrows, but I would not expect them to change their ways one iota based on a quote from someone that knows nothing about their individual situations. No matter what information I presented, I knew they would declare themselves an exception to that rule.

“So you failed to convince a bunch of loons that you’re correct? So what?” That has been the general reaction to my complaints about the meeting. Another common reaction is “Is your ego so huge that you can’t take it when everyone doesn’t agree with you?”

After some reflection, I think I can now admit that I was obsessed with the issue, albeit not for the reasons one might assume. Do I have an almost overwhelming desire to have my notions proven correct, and does this desire lead me to do things that compromise friendships with those who have a couple of fun ideas that don’t settle well in my system? Yes and yes, but I think the ideas we discussed that evening say a lot about where we’re going as a culture. We are now so attracted to the sympathetic, compassionate, and understanding lexicon that we think the peak of understanding is to avoid any attempts at understanding. We are to default to Vicki Lerner’s assessment that “we just are”, but if we’re proud of who we are, shouldn’t we trumpet it out to those who have no rooting interest and the curious?

Few enjoy a challenge to our core beliefs. Most of us want others to take our side. The art of playing devil’s advocate is not only lost, it’s dismissed with an all-encompassing name, or some accusation of being unable to accept differences for what they are. This, I believe, results in us being so pleased with ourselves for not recognizing our differences that we refuse to spend any time truly analyzing them. Differences are what they are, and we believe there is something so beautiful about that that we don’t take the time to try to understand what really makes us tick.

 

… And Then There’s Todd


My first clue that my good friend Todd was more than unusual arrived when his mom let it be known, moments after our initial greeting, that I would be able to have relations with her if I wanted. She wasn’t shy, or coy, but she avoided giving me extra looks when she knew her son was looking. Those penetrating looks informed me that all she needed was a thumbs-up to start the proceedings. If Todd’s mom had admirable or attractive qualities, my humility wouldn’t permit me to write such a thing, but there were reasons that a 40-something female made it clear that her intentions with her son’s 20-year-old friend were less than honorable, and most of those reasons had more to do with her marketability than mine.

Todd’s mom wore a frayed, yellow T-shirt that said something she considered funny on it. Her hairdo led observers to believe she spent quite a bit of money on oils, and a considerable amount of time curling. I wasn’t able to determine if either of these enhancements were natural or not, but judging by her overall appearance, my educated guess was that the woman hadn’t darkened the door of a beauty salon since Mikhail Gorbachev stepped down as the Russian general secretary. She also wore a what-are-you-looking-at? expression that led one to think an apology might be necessary, until it could be determined that this was her natural facial expression.

Todd’s mom was the first parent I met who didn’t have puritanical notions about underage drinking, smoking pot, and premarital sex. She was a proverbial free spirit, open in her disregard for the conventions of our constrained society. In other words, Todd’s mom was the first cool parent I ever met, so cool that she offered to drink and smoke with us as soon as she was off work.

After she extended that invitation, and Todd gauged my reaction to it, Todd’s mom shot me another extra look, over Todd’s shoulder that said, “If we do this, those pants of yours will be coming off!” No full-grown woman had been that attracted to me at that point in my life, so her extra looks were quite a turn-on, even though there were things going on with her that my young mind could not yet process.

She also said snarky, bitter things that slipped beyond the definition of cool to a dreaded arena few can escape of trying too hard. I’m sure that cynical bitterness did not lead her to name her only-begotten son Todd, and I do not believe that his mom’s near palpable hatred of men had anything to do with her sentencing her son to a life of misery with the moniker. I’m sure she just liked the sound of the name.

Most people don’t consider it plausible to curse a child with a name. Even a person with an odd, one-syllable sound attached to their identity is not cursed, naysayers might add. A child can go onto achieve great things as an adult, in spite of their name. The illustrious career of Aldous Huxley is but one example. They can gain acceptance among their peers, they can be happy, and they can escape anything put before them. A name is a trivial concern in the grand scheme of things. Even the most vocal contrarians would have to admit that some names might cripple a child, such as those that rhyme with embarrassing body functions, but seldom will a parent intentionally set out to hinder their offspring in such a manner.

And then there’s Todd. Naming a child Todd might not seem cruel, on the surface, as it’s a rather common name in American society today that dates back to medieval England. It means “fox”, as in “clever or cunning”. Chances are everyone knows at least one Todd, and most don’t presume that the name boxes the recipient of such a name into any sort of predestination. They might consider the notion irrational, but I would venture to guess that most of those that believe that do not have the name Todd.

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When I first met Todd, I thought he was an idiot. That assessment was unfair, of course, because I based it on the sound of his name. When I learned that Todd couldn’t tie his own shoes, however, I considered that a bit of a stretch beyond my initial assessment.

This revelation occurred soon after Todd asked his girlfriend, my girlfriend’s best friend Tracy, to tie his shoes. I joked that I considered this an excellent domination technique that I might explore the next time I was around my girlfriend, but that little joke paralyzed the room to silence. If Todd considered it funny, he didn’t show it. He feared Tracy in the manner a lamb fears a border collie, and Tracy wasn’t even smiling politely. I could’ve told them that all I was doing was joining in on the joke that Todd started by asking Tracy to tie his shoes, but Tracy’s expression informed me that I should not pursue this matter further. She had a “don’t-go-there!” glare on. My initial thought was that her glare had more to do with the domination theme of my jest, and I felt some remorse for saying that, considering that my girlfriend was Tracy’s best friend.

That remorse ended for me when I convinced them I was joking, but the cloud continued to loom over us. I soon realized that that glare had less to do with my joke and more to do with a storm that gathered in the silence that followed. I began to feel trapped, as if I’d tripped a tripwire that would reveal domination techniques, or some sort of sexual peccadillo I didn’t care to explore with them. Their pregnant silence, combined with the looks they shared, suggested they were ready to share if I was ready to hear it, but I feared I might have placed them in the uncomfortable position of having to reveal a whole bunch of unusual details about their relationship. The glare and the weighted silence were such that I was considering the idea that they could lead to some sort of physical altercation between Todd and I, until he finally broke down and told me the reason he asked Tracy to tie his shoes. He never learned how to tie them.

“Come on!” I said, “You’re 19!” I was a naïve 20-year-old, and I was not difficult to fool. I didn’t know that at the time, of course, but I sensed a certain susceptibility that I would have to expend effort to defeat. Even with that acknowledgement, I thought the idea they were trying to sell me was beyond the pale.

Todd did not willingly reveal his story. I had to prompt the revelation, after I tired of the confusing, silent tension.

“So, if you don’t know how to tie your shoes,” I said, believing the shoes were symbolic of a Pandora’s Box that I would regret ever opening, “why would you buy tennis shoes that have laces?”

The answer to this question was what he called a funny story. His funny story involved a loving mother purchasing Velcro and slip-on shoes for her son throughout his youth. The funny story occurred when Todd entered his first shoe store all by himself, seeking to break the shackles of a mother’s hold with the first paycheck he earned. The shoe store attendant tied Todd’s shoes for him, in the store, and Todd walked around the store saying, “I’ll take them” with the pride so many young people experience with their first, individual purchase. “I was so proud of myself that I wore those shoes out of the store,” Todd continued. “The clerk said that was just fine, as he would be able to use the UPC symbol on the box. I wore them for so long that day that when I went home and got ready for bed, I began to take them off as a matter of routine. That’s when I realized that once I untied the shoes, I would never be able to wear them again without assistance. And since I knew I couldn’t get my jeans over my shoes, I ended up sleeping with my jeans and shoes on.”

I was the only one in the room not laughing.

“It was like buying a sweater with a stain on it,” Todd said to expound on the funny story, “but you don’t see the stain until you get home.”

As a younger man, I sought out the weaknesses of my fellow man to use it against them when the need would arise. Some juicy tidbits, however, go beyond the typical malleable information one can tease into mockery and ridicule. It wasn’t just that Todd never learned how to tie his own shoes. If that were the case, I would’ve used this intel without a second thought. It was the whole backstory, and the idea that Todd’s mother did things to prevent him from learning and progressing in life, to a point where he needed to find another enabler to help him deal with the consequences of that by tying his shoes for him. This whole story was so funny, to my mind, that some of the particulars of Todd’s reliance on his mother and his girlfriend intertwined with tragedy.  

Even when Todd later joined a bunch of fellas engaged in a round of competitive, good-natured ribbing against me, I knew I couldn’t say, “What are you talking about? You can’t even tie your own shoes.” As painful as it was to withhold this information, I chose to refrain from using it because I wanted to remain friends with Todd. I refrained from using it so often that I eventually forgot about it, and I realized that if a guy wants to be friends with another guy, he has to block out large chunks of information he might otherwise considered unforgettable.

In the moment, though, while Tracy tied his shoes, I found myself trapped between not wanting to pursue the matter and demanding an answer to a question that I did not want to ask.

“How did you get out of the first grade without tying your shoes at least once?” I asked. “Don’t teachers have to check that box on a report card before they advance you to the next grade?”

The answer to that question was another funny story, and more material about a mother’s desire to protect her son by continuing to purchase slip-ons and Velcro for her boy, in spite of his teachers’ instructions. I had more questions, but I feared they would only lead to more other stories about a single mother’s stubborn attempts at protecting her son in a manner I considered bordering on neglect. It was then that I realized the full import of Tracy’s don’t-go-there glare, so I flipped the switch of my curiosity to the off position. I kept that switch off for much of my friendship with Todd, and I even defended him against the ridicule from those who train themselves to go after weakest member of the herd, until I later learned of Todd’s lifelong fear of cotton.

“Oh, c’mon!” I said. I was naïve as I stated, and I had some difficulty coming to grips with certain characteristics I learned about the various Todds I’d met in life, but I now had to deal with the idea that one of them was afraid of cotton. Cotton! It was the second such hurdle our friendship would have to traverse, and Todd and I had to work through the fundamentals of his fear. We established the fact that Todd had no fear of towels, for example, and he wasn’t afraid of the 50 percent of my shirt that wasn’t polyester. Unmanufactured cotton and cotton balls, such as the cotton that aspirin companies use to keep the pills in place, however, terrified him.

“It’s what they call an unexplainable fear,” Todd explained, as if that was a suitable explanation. The fear was also, I would soon learn, a type of fear that called for a strong woman to step in and defend.

“Who has inexplicable fears?” Tracy asked rhetorically. “I’ll say it, everyone!” she answered. “That’s what most fears are, an irrational, emotional reaction. Can you explain your irrational fears?”  

Yes!” I said. “Yes, I believe I can! I have an irrational fear of heights, but I fear falling more than I fear being high up. Whether it’s a learned behavior or primal instinct, I’ve learned that hitting the ground at a high rate of speed hurts and it could damage something that I enjoy using. I’m not just talking about reproductive organs here either. I’m talking about arms, legs, and brain matter, and if you have a problem with that, you’ll have to take it up with my brain. My brain is the epicenter of self-preservation, and that brain has learned over the years and through the many mistakes I’ve made to use the emotion of fear to prevent me from harming myself. And I think my brain has been doing a damn fine job thus far.”

The silence that followed that, and the faces of my opponents, suggested that I weakened them with body blows, and all I had to do now was deliver my haymaker.

“I can accept the premise that most fears are irrational, and they provoke emotions that can be difficult to explain, but if you are arguing that my fear of falling and Todd’s fear of cotton should be placed on equal ground, someone is going to have to explain to me how a brain I can only assume is equipped with all the same tools as mine, and is as undamaged as mine is, can convince a grown man that a ball of cotton presents a danger equivalent to falling from a great height.”

I wasn’t sure if the silence that followed was because they didn’t know what to say, but I decided I didn’t have to pound the point home with the haymaker I planned to use that listed my numerous experiences with paraplegics who ended up that way as a result of falling. I didn’t need to recount the number of fatalities that resulted from falls, and I didn’t need to compare those grim statistics to the statistics that listed the number of people maimed or killed as a result of an episode with a cotton ball. I had no need to go into that, because I made my point. I wasn’t the type to engage in verbal touchdown dances anyway, because I knew that doing so would only make Todd look bad in front of his girlfriend. Thus, I was fully prepared to allow the matter to die at that moment, no harm no foul, until I remembered that I had an aspirin bottle in my bathroom cabinet.

I was old enough to know that I should refrain from making a man look bad in front of his girlfriend, if I wanted to remain friends with that man, but I was still young enough to follow my impulses.

I hoped that I hadn’t fallen prey to my typical routine of throwing the cotton ball out the minute I opened an aspirin bottle, and I was excited when I saw I hadn’t. I smiled anxiously at the billowy white ball. I knew it was bound to be an obnoxious moment, and I knew Todd’s feelings would be hurt, but at 20-years-old, those considerations take a back seat to the prospect of having a moment that could prove hilarious to the point of being historic.

I was so anxious to get that cotton ball out of the bottle that I spilled the bottle and scattered aspirin all over my bathroom counter. I didn’t even bother to pick them up. I thought timing was of the essence, and I knew that I could always pick the tablets up later.

I raced toward Todd and Tracy with the cotton ball dangling from my fingertips. “Ooga booga!” I said. Ooga booga were not words I typically used to strike fear into the subjects of my cruelty, but I felt they captured the perfect hybrid of comedy and horror. I would later attach all sorts of brilliant thoughts to my decision to use those words. I would tell people about the decisions I made to accompany this moment with the perfect ooga booga face, and I would walk my listeners through it frame by frame to capture my thoughts in the moment. In reality, the choices I made at the time were all impulsive.

“Dude! Dude, don’t! For the love of God don’t!” Todd said leaning back against Tracy, clutching her in a position that approached fetal.

Todd was the first “Dude!” I ever met. Todd spread the word across the spectrum of grammar. He could use it as a noun, verb and transitory verb, adjective, in an introductory declaration, and as ending punctuation in an interrogatory sentence. I would meet many “Dudes!” later, and I would call them “dudes” in a derogatory fashion, but Todd was the first.

In the brief moments preceding “Ooga booga!” I thought about Todd’s vulnerable confession that he feared cotton. My reaction to it was equivalent to my first time I heard someone say they feared clowns. Over time, these coulrophobics convinced me that their fear of clowns was a bona fide documented terror that would not go away. They also, eventually, convinced me that it was not just a means of garnering attention or sympathy. I doubted that sidonglobophobics, those who fear cotton balls, could win me over as easily.

My first experience with the coulrophobics involved them saying, “I don’t know why I fear clowns. I just do. They’re creepy.” That didn’t do it for me, especially since such confessions seemed to conveniently follow Cosmo Kramer’s hilarious portrayal of coulrophobia in the series Seinfeld.

I remained skeptical, until a coulrophobic added, “They are creepy, but there is something familiar to their creepy vibe, something that reminds me of a time when I was a little girl, and I thought they were a different species who lived in carnivals. I enjoyed their antics onstage as a girl, but I’m not sure if that laughter was based on the idea that they weren’t near me anymore, or if I was relieved to learn that they weren’t as evil as I imagined. Whatever the case, I was just as afraid of them the next time they were near me, as a little girl. People who dress as clowns all say they’re all about the fun, but they have to know that part of their allure involves the fear children have of them. I think this subtle distinction between the imagined horror children experience when they encounter a person with a painted face and the relief they feel when they realize that their fears are unfounded is part of the allure of clowns all children have to them, and I think that’s what it is for me to this day.”

That explanation provided me more insight into the mind of a coulrophobic, but I wasn’t convinced on the spot. Those words familiar creepiness stuck with me, however, and the idea of familiar fears touched a core. I had familiar fears, we all do, but we might not ever know we have them until something taps into them.

The movie The Blair Witch Project, for example, tapped into one of my familiar/creepy nerves. The reactions to that movie divided evenly among the people I knew, and that fact confused me. I didn’t understand how the naysayers missed the horror I experienced. They thought I was being silly, in the same manner I initially thought those who feared clowns were either silly or faking it. The Blair Witch Project recalled moments in my childhood when I camped out in a forest, however, when I would imagine what populated the trees around me. Those dark scenes in the movie were so real to me that I could almost smell the burnt wood in the theater. Those moments on the screen carried me back to a time in my life when I considered the unimaginable real.

When I posed that all of these theories to another coulrophobic I met, she said, “Like a cancer sufferer, I think my fear of clowns was in remission for much of my life. I feared them as a kid. As I grew older, I kept those fears at bay with the notion that they were nothing more than irrational childish fears, but as with your experience with The Blair Witch Project, I never experienced a trigger, until I saw the movie for Stephen King’s It. That movie triggered that old fear in a way I have not been able to shake since. I didn’t like clowns in the intervening years, as they’ve always unnerved me a little, but I didn’t go out of my way to avoid them in the manner I do now. It, and more specifically its character Pennywise, caused a recurrence of that fear that I believe was exacerbated by my otherwise rational, adult mind.”

Even with my newfound understanding of coulrophobia, I didn’t draw any correlations between it and Todd’s case of sidonglobophobia. I didn’t bother looking into this with any depth in other words. I didn’t consider the notion that Todd might have had some traumatic experience he associated with cotton balls, and I didn’t consider sidonglobophobia a real thing. I just decided Todd’s fear of cotton balls was a little freaky, and I considered it my comedic obligation to put that freakishness on display for all to enjoy.

My “ooga booga!” moment revealed the exact opposite of what I expected. Todd’s fear of cotton balls was as real, and as freakishly familiar to him as the fears others had of clowns, and as I had a camping out in the dark woods. For him it was a vein-straightening fear and a terror so deep and real that it caused him to clutch his girlfriend as if his life depended on it. When I threatened to put it on his skin, I sensed that he might shriek.

Even after Todd’s humiliating reaction, I maintained that I was just trying to be funny, and that made it all right with me. That immediate reaction did subside somewhat when I considered the idea that I might be assigning my mindset to his actions and reactions. Yet, those who met Todd’s mother knew that his upbringing had to be, at the very least, unusual, and his unusual fears might have resulted from those unusual circumstances that altered what might have otherwise been normal thought patterns. I realized that this moment I so enjoyed might have opened some dark caverns in Todd’s soul, freeing up archived fears that he might spent the next twenty-five years recounting on psychiatrist’s couch.

Regardless the amount of reflection I would put into this moment, or the ultimate effect it had on Todd, I had to deal with the fact that my ooga booga moment brought my party to a crashing halt. Most in attendance were now staring, with sympathy, at Todd, and they were staring at me in scorn with the same intensity. Some of the females said some awful things to me, and then they insisted that their boyfriends take them away. I ruined my own party, but I also ruined Todd in the eyes of those who were there, or so I thought. I had my moment, the moment I sought when I remembered I had a cotton ball in my medicine cabinet, but the partygoers obviously didn’t appreciate the moment in the manner I thought they would.

The partygoers, I can only assume, probably thought I sought to ruin Todd. They might have considered the idea that I made a conscious effort to somehow defeat him, and if my efforts weren’t of a conscious variety, then they were in some ways subconscious. I can’t answer the latter charge, but I can tell you that there were no conscious efforts to ruin him. Todd was my friend, and the worst charge one could make against me was that I used a good friend as a comedic foil.

If my moment did consist of some subconscious effort to ruin Todd, I was woefully unsuccessful. For the girls who loved Todd before ooga booga, appeared to love him even more after it. Years later, the only explanation I can come up with is that he displayed an endearing element of vulnerability about him.

He also had those eyes, the crystal-blue kind that made women swoon. “Could one call them dreamy?” I asked.

“Dreamy?” one woman asked. “I don’t know if I’d use the term dreamy, but they definitely make him more attractive.”

Todd also had that hair, the same oiled and curled hair his mother had, only more natural blonde. It was a little dirty and somewhat unkempt, but he fit the mold of one who could get away with such a look. That look even seemed to work to his advantage with some women, in the sense that it might have added to this endearing element of vulnerability he had.

His most glaring vulnerability was that he was not very bright, but the female reactions to Todd led me to believe that women dig a man who is not very bright, even if no self-respecting woman will admit to such a thing. They might not want to settle down with such a guy, since the ones we choose to marry are such a deep reflection on us. Couple that with the instinctive, and some might say primal, decisions we make when we seek a suitable provider for whatever children we might have if we marry them. Those instincts do nothing for Todd, in my opinion, but the compassionate instincts that compel them to defend such a man, regardless of the ideas we all have about him, are the key to someone like Todd having so much success in the dating world. She might want to convince the Todds of the world that everyone else is wrong about him. While doing so, she might spend so much time defending and befriending him that she becomes attracted to him in a way that she cannot explain.

These were all guesses I made trying to understand what was for me an inexplicable attraction women had to the man, but whenever I posed my theories to the women that never met Todd, scorn and ridicule followed.

“That is all so ridiculous!” is what they said. This reaction was so ubiquitous among women, from all walks of life, that it requires notation, but the time I spent around Todd informed me that if a guy has all the ingredients listed above, the eyes, the hair, and an air of vulnerability about him, and he has a way of making a woman feel smarter on top of all that, he’s bound to land permanent residence on “hotty” isle. As long as that guy doesn’t say or do anything to tarnish his presentation, and Todd never did anything to diminish his presentation.

One measure of a man is how many women he is able to attract. If that were the lone measure, most men would list Todd as a man among boys. I don’t know many men who would want to follow Todd’s blueprint for landing women, but when such discussions arise among young men looking to become players, I inform them that I’ve witnessed one successful formula firsthand. I’m as in the dark on this topic as they are, I tell them, but I’ve witnessed a real-life asterisk in the equation for them to consider. I tell them about how Todd could work a room of women without effort. I tell them how I saw the man move from one woman to another without leaving any of them upset in the aftermath. He had one-night stands with a woman who was not his girlfriend, and I saw those two girls begin yelling at one another, screaming insults and threats over a breakroom table, without considering the role the Todd –the man who sat between them– might have played in the situation. When these fights would erupt between the scorned women, Todd would play peacemaker, and he would do everything a man could do to prevent them from harming one another. Then, when the smoke cleared, he would begin hoping, with all sincerity, that they could all be friends again. The most annoying aspect of my Todd testimonial arrives when I attempt to convey the idea that Todd did all this without considering the true import of his actions.

Most people who hear Todd’s tale believe he had a carefully orchestrated plan for achieving success. I’ve tried to explain the anomaly Todd was to these people, and they naturally assume that he was smarter and craftier than I assert. There was no plan, I tell them, for he did not accentuate certain aspects of his personality to appeal to women, and he did not work on his faults. As far as I know, he did not develop schemes and plot paths to take that would attract more women. At one point in the arguments I’ve had with people on this matter, we reach a bottom line. “Bottom line, you’re jealous,” they all say in numerous ways, “if he had as much success with women as you suggest, he obviously had more success than you, and he must’ve been craftier and smarter than you.” He did have as much success as I detailed, I tell them, but he wasn’t craftier or smarter, he was just Todd.

No research, I know of, concludes that giving a child a relatively normal name like Todd, Gil, or Ned affects them in any way. There is no sociological evidence to suggest that the Todds, Gils, or Neds, of the world, live different from anyone else. If you’ve ever known one of these unfortunate, possibly cursed individuals, however, you know there is a fundamental difference about them that they will spend most of their lives trying to overcome. Something about those odd, one-syllable sounds affects their identity so much that it affects their existence. They don’t all become square pegs in a round-hole world of more pleasing sounds, some of them are exceptions to the rule, some of them are just Todd, but the preconceived notions most of us have of such sounds grease their slide to the outer layer.

 

I’m Disgusting, He’s Disgusting, She’s Disgusting, Wouldn’t You Like to be Disgusting Too?


I considered the national obsession with hygiene a well-played, well-timed joke that we were all in on, until I witnessed two grown men form a friendship based on shared demands for hygienic excellence. In their conversation, they set up a standard of behavioral traits intended to define them as the next step in the evolutionary process that they believed might place them in a pseudo superman, or Übermensch, status beyond the inferior, basic hygiene practices of the common man and woman. I considered their hygienic standard so high that I thought they were exaggerating it for humorous effect. By the time their bond was sealed, however, I realized that this newfound friendship was based not only on respect for the other’s demands for excellence in this regard, but for their hygienic superiority.

I loved the brilliant television show Seinfeld as much as anyone else. I found the main character’s obsessive demands for hygienic excellence so funny that when these two friends of mine began the list of requirements they had for their fellow man an impulsive laugh escaped me. After spending so many years laughing at Seinfeld’s obsessive quirks, my laughter was almost a conditioned reflex, but they weren’t laughing. They had smiles on their faces, but the smiles they shared were not of a sly variety that concealed a clever joke. Rather, they were kind, appreciative smiles, and a recognition that they finally found a likeminded soul in one another.

In the space normally reserved for laughter, they further detailed how the common hygienic habits of their fellow man were gross, and they both agreed that one particular person, our mutual acquaintance, was emblematic of those common habits. Without saying these exact words, they suggested he deserved all the shame that persons of modernity should cast upon him. I spoke with the two men separately a number of times, and they were well versed in the cultural norms, the belief that all men and women are created equal and we should accord them a degree of respect we require of them–unless, apparently, that person decides to leave the bathroom without washing their hands.

The implicit suggestion nestled within this discussion was that as the representative of one with common hygienic practices, I was supposed to recognize that I was gross and completely disgusting, and if I had any designs on becoming friends with either of them, I would have to seriously up my hygienic practices. I was to fear adding input into their conversation for that that might lead to an examination of my hygienic practices and a revelation that my habits were closer to our mutual friend’s than I ever knew. We might also find that what I considered an acceptable hygienic standard to be so disgusting and gross as to be worthy of some sort of public flogging in the public square to set an example for anyone else who might consider basic hygienic standards acceptable.

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“If you’re disgusting and you know it, clap your hands,” is the ostensible mantra of a major news network website that a number of my co-workers visit on a daily basis. The overarching milieu of this site is news, but the regular visitors of the site that I know are aware of little to nothing of the news of the day. Yet, they always have some nugget of information about how we can all improve our hygienic standard of living a little.

“Your kitchen counter is covered with more germs than your floor,” one of my co-workers said when he approached our lunchroom table. “Your dishrags and sponges are cesspools. Using them on a continual basis doesn’t rid your kitchen of germs. It only spreads them around.”

The idea that this particular purveyor of hygienic knowledge was male did not strike me as odd because I considered it less than macho to be hygienic, but he was the first man I met who would prove so obsessed with it. His warning would prove to be the first of many signposts to signal that the obsession I once believed indigenous to the female demographic had now crossed income brackets, social stratifications, and genders.

“Install a lighter-colored counter-top so you can see germs better.”

“Stainless steel is the best defense against the spread of germs.”

“The most germ-ridden room in most homes is the kitchen. Your cutting board can contain up to 200 times more fecal bacteria than your toilet seat.”

“Your fingertips can spread more germs than any tool in your kitchen.” 

The best way to avoid germs, it appears, is to avoid the kitchen, the bathroom, and your fingertips. They’re gross! The bathroom is obvious, but what about your bedroom? Furthermore, if you have any thoughts of going into the basement, you might want to consider investing in a gas mask and a Tyvek suit with hood and boots. Your basement is a cesspool teeming with pathogens no one can pronounce! It’s gross! Disinfect everything! Sanitize! Sterilize! We need more government research on this matter! We could get sick! We could die!

Our mothers taught us that the best way to avoid pathogens is to clean, but modern scientific research dictates that cleaning might be nothing more than a good start. Our mother didn’t know that the optimal way to avoid germs is to religiously and fastidiously clean the cleaning products to the point of sterilization. She used the same sponge and dishrag for more than a week without dipping it into a solution that contained one part bleach to nine parts warm water, and she used the same cleaning products for more than one task with no knowledge of cross contaminants. She didn’t know. 

CBS News reports, “If you’re cleaning up appliances, counter- tops, tables, etc., it’s almost mandatory that you use different cleaning agents. There should be different designated sponges for each function. After you clean up the debris from the meat carcass, place your sponge in this cleaning solution for about a minute or so. That will kill all the potential pathogens.”[1] 

Mom didn’t know.

Mom didn’t consider the idea of placing an industrial air shower to divide the kitchen from the rest of the house, because she was born in a generation that didn’t know anything about these hygienic standards of excellence. She might not have considered putting an industrial-strength anti-radiation shower in her kitchen for the sake of better health practices and greater avoidance of accidental pollination by pathogens. Mom didn’t have the information we do today, so how can we blame her? She didn’t know that it’s best to stay out of the kitchen altogether. Her generation wasn’t privy to the kind of scientific research that discovered that it’s probably safer to stay out of the house, unless that means going outside. The dangers inherent in leaving the house are so obvious that it’s not even worth exploring. We all know that the air outside is just teaming with pathogens, but our mom allegedly had no idea about this. She might have thought it was safe to send us outside to play, but she didn’t have the ubiquitous news sites clamoring for clicks, or the search engines that provide the latest tidbits of science in proper hygiene.

One of the worst conversations the creators of the Seinfeld show, Jerry Seinfeld and Larry David, brought to American life involved this obsessive level of hygiene. Conversations about hygiene occurred before the Seinfeld mindset began invading our culture and corporations began adding antibacterial agents to our soaps and body washes, but in the aftermath of that great show, it seems that every fifth conversation we hear now involves some form of obsession over cleanliness. We all thought Seinfeld’s obsessions were hilarious, but we had no idea how influential this mindset would prove to be. People now claim, with pride, that they don’t just wash their hands. They use a paper towel to open the bathroom door. “Oh, I know it,” the sympathetic listener proclaims with pride, “that handle is gross!”

No one has a problem with better practices that aim for cleanliness or those that strive for greater hygienic practices, but some, like my two friends, are so obsessed with it that they tip the scale of hygienic standards discussions toward superiority versus inferiority. When they spoke of our mutual acquaintance, the hygienic heretic, their disdain for him sealed whatever bond they needed to declare a friendship based on some kind of perverse superiority they felt regarding the man’s inferior habits.

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A Psychology Today (PT) by Rachel Herz piece details this perversity, stating that some obsessives even avoid shopping carts that have crumpled paper in them.[2] Why do they avoid those shopping carts, because they’re gross? A crumpled piece of paper is evidence that someone else used the shopping cart, at some point, since its creation. We know someone has used this cart before, of course, yet we regard visible evidence of it repellent. Supermarket and department store chains throughout the country have addressed this concern by putting antiseptic wet wipes near the shopping cart area, but that does not address the trauma of spotting a crumpled store ad in a cart. The only remedy for that is selecting another cart, but why should we be forced to select another cart? Why doesn’t someone address our concerns better? It would be one thing if the cart was home to a soiled piece of tissue paper, but what crime against humanity did the crumpled store ad commit? It’s evidence of other people, germs, pathogens, and a general lack of uncleanliness on the part of the store. It also initiates in us, “a desire to keep that which is outside from getting in.”

An interesting note about the emotion of disgust that Ms. Herz adds is that it’s both learned and selective. If a hygienic person with obsessive characteristics happens to see the person who left the crumpled ad in the cart and they find that person somewhat attractive, the potential cart user will not be as disgusted by the crumpled ad and the subsequent use of that cart. If they judge that previous cart borrower to be gorgeous, they will be even less disgusted. To take this idea to its logical conclusion, if the hygienic person with obsessive tendencies sees that the previous cart user was an attractive celebrity, that customer may feel privileged to use the cart regardless the celebrity’s hygienic practices. They might even save the crumpled ad and brag to their friends and family that the gorgeous celebrity touched it. If the previous cart user was somewhat overweight or of foreign descent, however, customers are more apt to select another cart, regardless that person’s hygienic standards.

Those who engage in obsessive hygienic practices also tend to be less inclined to be friends with those with physical disabilities, for images of frailty or illness lead us to avoid having anything to do with that person.

If those obsessed with hygienic practices had someone force them to share a toothbrush with someone, they would be more inclined to share it with a relative, rather than the mailman. This makes sense, because we are more familiar with our family members, and we assume we share some of their immunities.

What doesn’t make as much sense to those who believe their disgust has philosophical purity is the decision-making process that concerns those outside our immediate realm. We view our boss, for example, as a stranger who exists outside our immediate realm. We may interact with our boss daily, but this is not with the same level of intimacy we share with relatives. Our natural inclination is to place that boss below our family members, but the study also suggests we place our boss below the weatherman on the list of people with whom we would forcibly share a toothbrush. If our overriding concern were hygiene, why would we prefer to share a toothbrush with a weatherman we’ve never met to a boss we interact with on a regular basis? A weatherman is often better looking. The weatherman is often better-looking, clean cut, and better dressed. Moreover, there’s a greater possibility that we personally dislike our boss.

“Our attraction toward someone,” the Herz writes, “can override our qualms about sharing body fluids.”

There is one point of inconsistency in the PT article: “Those who avoid objects touched by strangers report fewer colds, stomach bugs, and other infectious ailments,” it states in one place, yet in another it offers, “Exposure to benign bacteria stimulates the immune system so that it is better able to fight bad bacteria.” Perhaps the explanation resides in the word “benign,” but other than that, the two purported facts appear to be contradictory.

The Origin of Disgust

Contrary to internet myths and our own preconceived notions on the subject, disgust is not an innate emotion based on self-preservation. Disgust is, rather, a learned behavior that we learn more about every day, exacerbated by every news report and website we read. Despite the fact that a baby might twist up his face in disgust when force-fed strained squash, his expression does not have a direct link to disgust. Studies suggest that the baby doesn’t really know disgust until they’re 3 years old. “If we were to make a look of disgust to a baby, say when we take out the garbage,” Rachel Herz writes, “the infant is more apt to think we’re mad at them for something than to associate the look with disgust, until they’re three years old.”

This is why babies have no problem eating whatever they find on the floor. It is also why they have no problem crawling through what we consider disgusting debris. They have no understanding of what they should find disgusting and what is not, no matter how often we tell them. It’s the reason my brother and his wife had to keep my nephew away from the dog dish, because he didn’t recognize the difference between the liquid his parents served him in a bottle, and the liquid we place in the dog’s dish.

“Even after we achieve three years of age,” Herz writes, “we don’t have a total understanding of disgust. It is the most advanced human emotion that requires reasoning, thought, and deduction. Humans are the lone animal with a brain advanced enough to process the complexity of disgust, and that knowledge occurs with experience and over time. It is also something we learn more and more about every day, and we get more and more grossed out by what could be deduced as minimal when it comes to actual infection.” 

Those of us who used to think exaggerated obsession with hygiene was nothing more than a brilliant characterization and one of the best recurring jokes to support that joke, now know how wrong we were. We’ve learned that these characteristics can aid in the pursuit of psychological dominance, and they can form friendships with fellow travelers on the road to hygienic excellence.

“You’re all just silly,” I told the two men that formed a friendship based on their hygienic standard. “You’re obsessed with all this.”

“Hey, better safe than sorry,” one of them said. I received that response before from the obsessed, so I expected it. I didn’t expect him to expound on that typical response, “If more people were as obsessed as I am, as you say, I wouldn’t have to be the way I am.”

“I guess,” I’ve responded, “but you do recognize that all these reports about pathogens and sterilizing sponges and counter-tops hit home with some people, until they’re afraid to enter their homes or anyone else’s or go outside. I don’t know anyone who takes all these reports seriously, to the point of adjusting their habits accordingly, but I’m sure there are some. If you met such a person, wouldn’t you consider them silly?”

“Well, yes and no.”

I was disgusting and I didn’t know it, until I met these two. I knew I wasn’t disgusting, but group thought can be difficult to thwart when the one in the minority hasn’t studied the subject in question. The idea that these two men were extreme was not lost on me, of course, but I needed an extreme from the other pole to counterbalance their subtle condemnations. For that, I turned to comedian George Carlin:

“I never take any precautions against germs. I don’t shy away from people who sneeze and cough. I don’t wipe off the telephone, I don’t cover the toilet seat, and if I drop food on the floor, I pick it up and eat it! My immune system gets lots of practice! It is equipped with the biological equivalent of fully automatic military assault rifles, with night vision and laser scopes … and we have recently acquired phosphorous grenades, cluster bombs, and anti-personnel fragmentation mines …. So, when my white blood cells are on patrol, reconnoitering my blood stream, seeking out strangers and other undesirables, if they see any—any—suspicious-looking germs of any kind, they don’t [mess] around. They whip out the weapons, and deposit the unlucky fellow directly into my colon! Directly into my colon! There’s no nonsense. There’s no Miranda warning, there’s none of that three-strikes-and-you’re-out [mess]. First offense, BAM! Into the colon you go.

“Speaking of my colon, I want you to know I don’t automatically wash my hands every time I go to the bathroom, okay? Can you deal with that? Sometimes I do. Sometimes I don’t. You know when I wash my hands? When I [mess] on them! That’s the only time, and you know how often that happens? Tops, tops, two to three times a week … tops! Maybe a little more frequently over the holidays. You know what I mean?

“And I’ll tell you something else my well-scrubbed friends… you don’t need to always need to shower every day, did you know that? It’s overkill, unless you work out or work outdoors, or for some reason come in intimate contact with huge amounts of filth and garbage every day, you don’t always need to shower. All you really need to do is to wash the four key areas; armpits, [anus], crotch, and teeth. Got that? Armpits, [anus], crotch, and teeth. In fact, you can save yourself a whole lot of time if you simply use the same brush on all four areas! [3]

[1]http://www.cbsnews.com/2100-500178_162-697672.html?pageNum=2&tag=contentMain;contentBody 

[2]Herz, Rachel. “The Cooties They Carry.” Psychology Today. August 2012. Pages 48-49.

[3]https://www.lingq.com/lesson/george-carlin-fear-of-germs-235986/

The Expectation of Purchasing Refined Tastes


“One of the worst things a person can be,” purveyors of social commentary say in various ways, “is a consumer, and I say this in the most condescending manner possible.”

Such statements often receive wild applause and raucous laughter from esoteric, refined consumers in the audience, spurning them against buying products. An overwhelming majority probably considers such statements brave and bold, but they don’t consider the idea that the condemnation is direct at them too. No one, in such an audience, would stand up and say, “Hey, I’m a consumer. How dare you crack on my people?” These people picture a consumer they know, some poor sap who actually purchases consumable products. They know the truth, of course, but they define themselves against a marker of exaggerated contrast, and they’re often not objective enough to understand that authors of such quotes intend to include everyone but the author.

“What is the difference between consumers who deign to purchase consumable products sold at McDonald’s and those sold at the local mom-and-pop shop?” I would love to ask this of such authors. The answer, of course, would be that one while one may be a consumer, the other is a consumer, and we are to pronounce the latter in the most condescending manner possible. This distinction became clear to me when I informed some friends of mine that blind taste tests showed that McDonald’s coffee tested as high as the coffee found in some of the small mom and pop coffee shops the more erudite attend.

“Pshaw!” my friends responded, albeit not with that word exactly. They opted for more refined and somewhat polite (see condescending) words, but the message of that response was that they are more cultured than those involved in blind taste tests, more posh and eclectic. They eat sushi and Thai, after all, and they broaden their minds by listening to exotic podcasts and watching obscure documentaries.

I confessed that I couldn’t taste the difference between the beans, and most of the products I consume would be more at home on a 1950s table, before the research on food taught us what we now know. I confessed that I enjoy some broadcast television and I enjoy reading mainstream books sometimes. I may as well have admitted to being a Neanderthal.

These people are coffee aficionados. They enjoy exotic coffee beans exclusive to urban coffee shops that I’ve never attended. Their homes come equipped with exotic coffee makers that require minimal mixing times, gentle air pressure pushes, and low brewing times for professional cuppers and true coffee connoisseurs. I am not welcome in this world.

That world involves community venues (see coffee shops in the Neanderthal’s lexicon) with artistic geniuses throwing brilliant ideas at one another under exotic Matisse paintings, all while learning to love various styles of coffee beans that are beyond me. Some of the community venue customers have goatees, and others have cornrows and dreadlocks, but they are all very Euro. They also feel a little sorry for bourgeoisie like me, who know little beyond the pleasures of a mundane McDonald’s cuppajo. “Pshaw,” they say, but they would never actually say pshaw, as I mentioned, for elitists say, “Pshaw,” and they abhor elitists.

They feel at ease when bracketed, alongside fine wine drinkers. They eat Foie Gras, black pudding, and organic foods. The posh, eclectic types don’t eat caviar anymore, beluga or otherwise. “Caviar is a product consumed by consumers with wealth,” they say in the most condescending manner possible. Their condescending caricature of consumers with wealth mirror those found in episodes of Scooby Doo, Captain Planet, and Gilligan’s Island. Caviar doesn’t provide prestige in community venues. Foie Gras is the new caviar.

“But blind taste tests conducted by various institutions, including Consumer Reports and other online Canadian websites found that McDonald’s and Dunkin’ Donuts coffee tested better than the products sold at Starbucks or Tim Horton’s[1],” I told my friends.

This didn’t shock them, as they heard tell of similar blind tests done with similar products, but that never led them to question their beliefs. They were confident that their tastes were more refined than Americans’ taste. (A phrase to read in the most condescending manner possible).

They answered my follow-up clarification with, “Oh, no!” and a titter almost leaked out in reaction to my lack of knowledge. That condescending titter may have made it out of the less refined. It was obvious to all of us that I knew nothing of coffee, and they appeared to be a little embarrassed on my behalf, for being so clueless to attempt to step foot onto their home turf.

“We don’t like Starbucks,” they said, “And we’ve never heard of this Tim Horton’s.” 

They missed the general point I was trying to make, but it wouldn’t have mattered if the magazines performed specific blind taste tests on their specific brand of coffee. They would continue to consider themselves exceptions to the rule. They are posh and eclectic. I couldn’t know to whom I was talking when I was talking to them. No one could.

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In his book, You are Not so Smart, author David McRaney cites such blind with professional wine sippers. The tests incorporated cheap wines as well as expensive, exotic wine, and the goal was to see if the connoisseurs could tell the difference. The results were quite shocking. Not only did they exhibit an inability to discern between the chintzy and the pricey, but the brain scans of the professionals also revealed that they were not lying when they stated their preferences. Their brains actually altered with excitement when they drank the more expensive wine. One particular test asked controllers to place the same wine in two different bottles. They informed the professional sippers that the wine in Bottle A was expensive and exotic, while Bottle B contained a bargain brand. The subjects’ brain scans lit up in response to the contents detailed in Bottle A, allowing the conclusion that the professional sippers grew more excited by the expectation of sipping something more expensive.[2]

Elevated expectations, in other words, are not limited to Pepsi drinkers, domestic beer drinkers, or those consumable products developed by corporations that spend billions on marketing to achieve brand name recognition. Some just prefer imported beer, expensive wine, and Colombian coffee. These allegedly high-end products define them in a manner they find pleasing, but we’re all products of marketing, packaging, and environment. Expectation might also lead us to believe a product can redefine us.

“Have you tried the latest lager from Djibouti?” Gucci asks Dior. “You simply must! It exhibits an exceptional respect for the ancient art of brewing. It is a highly fermented lager with a light malt, corn, water, hops and a yeast that gives it a bright, golden hue with dazzling reflections.” When Gucci concludes his exotic narrative, Dior must have it. Is Dior so excited to try it because Gucci’s narrative elevated his expectation? Maybe, but he also wants the aura and the identity inherent to drinkers of lager from an exotic sounding place like Djibouti. He wants that prestige, coated on his epidermis for the attendees of the next party he attends to see. The fact that those who have even heard of Djibouti could not spot it on a map makes its lager even more alluring. Even if Dior doesn’t know anything about Djibouti either, what’s a little pregnant pause between friends?

These types wouldn’t be caught dead sipping a McCafé drink, as those consumers who prefer a community venue that offers exotic coffee beans with exotic flavors for the exotic mind would define drinking that as consumerism in the most condescending manner possible. If they entered a community venue that offered an exotic coffee bean, and they saw paintings of cartoon clowns on the walls, my friends would consider the bean it produced inferior. If, on the other hand, that same venue had Matisse paintings on display and all the consumers donned goatees and dreadlocks, I’m quite sure they would be sipping on that same bean with a satisfied smile.

The advertisements for such products might not show sports heroes clinking glasses or horses kicking field goals, but that’s not who they want to be anyway. As they pass by their local McDonald’s, en route to the community coffeehouse that offers an environment more suited to someone with esoteric and refined taste, they scoff at American consumers who are susceptible to such blatant marketing. They do this without recognizing that the stratified American marketplace appeals to consumers and consumers.

If an individual attempts to open a McDonald’s franchise, the franchise adviser will inform them that all McDonald’s franchises must be X number of miles from the next nearest McDonald’s location. They base this notion on the fact that the marketplace cannot sustain two such facilities too close together. Those in charge of mapping out franchise locations would inform a potential franchisee that the optimal location would consist of no fast food restaurants within X miles of the franchisee’s desired location, but with the ubiquitous nature of fast food restaurants they concede that  is becoming a logistic impossibility. If that franchisee wants to open a McDonald’s right next to a community venue, however, the franchise locator will inform them that this is much more feasible, as they appeal to such different demographics. The point is that those who believe they are not susceptible to the crass marketing schemes employed by the famous Golden Arches franchise may be right, but those marketing schemes are too immediate for Foie Gras eaters. They prefer a more subtle marketing scheme that appeals to quieter sensibilities, an environment tailored to their personality, and a presentation that speaks volumes with no slogans. They are different from consumers, but they are really just another link in the chain of this huge, monolithic beast we all call capitalism.

There may be a difference between the taste of the exotic Kopi Luwak bean and the beans used in McDonald’s coffee, but most don’t know the difference, at least not to the degree that they can tell in a blind taste test. That may be an exaggeration of the extreme. Perhaps the Kopi Luwak coffee berry that passes through the digestive system of the Peruvian Civet Palm Cat, and is then picked out of that cat’s dung, is so refined that there is a discernible difference between that and McDonald’s coffee. On a linear scale (say Starbucks) McDonald’s coffee proves comparable in blind taste tests, if not superior.

Even if I presented this information in conjunction with the tests that suggest McDonald’s provides a superior cup of coffee, I’m sure these friends would pshaw me. Whether or not they’ve ever tried a selection on the McCafé menu, they would know it to be an inferior product. Their pshaw would contain elements of the messenger within a message, for they would assume that it was Americans who were involved in those blind taste tests, and those Americans were likely truck drivers and church goers from a place like Iowa. They would know that everyone they know knows better. They know I know little about coffee, and they know I have no idea to whom I’m talking when I’m talking to them.

I prefer to think I’m not one of these people. I prefer to think I’ve made conscientious choices that have made me a Bud man and a Pepsi drinker, based on the flavor of those drinks. I understand that the feds prohibited Budweiser and all alcohol producers from visually representing humans consuming alcohol in their TV commercials. In reaction to this prohibition, marketers of such products began selling a lifestyle to those who might consume their products. We all watched those commercials, and we even enjoyed a few of them. Some of us might have unconsciously selected our brand based on the lifestyle those commercials projected, but did we enjoy the products more because we enjoyed the affiliation? My friends would pshaw at such reflection, for they know who they are. They know they’ve made conscientious choices in the products they’ve decided to consume, but the fundamental question remains: Are we buying products based on flavor, discerning tastes based on trial and error, or a level of refinement we gather with experience and age. Or, are we all susceptible to the purported lifestyle the marketing arms sell to consumers and consumersWhen we begin to purchase a product to a point that we establish some level of brand loyalty, are we making the statement that we are informed consumers who choose one product over another based on our refined individual tastes, or are we attempting to purchase a lifestyle that some part of us knows we’ll never achieve, until we purchase it so often that we do?

[1]https://www.theglobeandmail.com/life/food-and-wine/food-trends/mcdonalds-tim-hortons-who-makes-the-best-brew/article4183891/

[2]McRaney, David. November, 2011. You Are Not So Smart. New York, New York. Penguin Group (USA) Inc.

Every Girl’s Crazy About a Faint Whiff of Urine


How much time, money, and effort do we spend in our quest to be attractive? How many deodorants, scented shampoos, perfumes, colognes, and body washes do we purchase to mask the natural scent of our bodies, so someone, somewhere might find our scent pleasant? How many hours do we spend spraying, brushing, scrubbing, applying, lathering, and repeating if necessary? Recent surveys report that scent factors very low on our list of priorities when seeking a mate. Why, then, do we spend so much money and effort to present the illusion that we don’t have an unappealing odor?

What drives attraction, if not scent? Societal conditioning leads us to believe it’s more about muscles, glands, and bulges in the front and back, but do these visual cues override our sense of smell? Does a person with a sculpted, angular face, great hair, perfect teeth, and a strong chin have an advantage in the world of attraction, regardless of their scent? Pablo Picasso believed they do. He believed the basis of human attraction involves visual cues in the symmetry and angles of the face and the human form. Blunter groups argue that it’s all about being sexy. “Sex sells,” they chant, “so, show your angles, reveal that symmetry, and display those organs and glands in a tasteful or tasty manner. Wear tighter clothing, reveal more cleavage, and accentuate that walk in a manner that will have them flipping and flopping on their path to your pelvic floor.”

In her Serendip Studio piece, Meghan McCabe wrote that attraction is not as complex as Picasso theorizes, nor is it as simple as the blunter groups’ chants.(1) She says sexual attraction centers on “airborne chemicals called pheromones,” and she adds that these “airborne and odorless molecules emitted by an individual can cause changes in the physiology and/or behavior of another individual.” We sense these pheromones in our vomeronasal organ (VNO), which is part of the olfactory system and located inside the mouth and nose. She believes pheromones are “chemically detected, or communicated, from one human to another by an unidentified part of the olfactory system.” Those of us who cake our necks with perfumes and cologne, in other words, are just wasting a whole lot of money on chemical scents, because most research on human pheromones concludes that the main odor-producing organ is the skin, courtesy of the apocrine sebaceous glands.

The skin produces more attraction agents than the entire line of the products in the personal grooming section of your local drugstore. This notion is impossible to sell, however, so we don’t buy it. We don’t buy the idea that the subtle smell of underarm odor could be a valuable tool in attracting a mate. We don’t care for the smell of underarm odor, and we don’t think anyone else does either. On the surface, the whole idea may seem humorous or even ludicrous, yet even those laughing must admit that our understanding of why we do what we do, even on the surface, is subject to further review. When we submit the word subconscious into our argument, most people stop laughing. That word is loaded with a stable of ideas most of know little about, and we’ve been on the wrong end of that argument so many times that we now concede to the idea that we don’t know why we do many of the things we do.

Even those who are open to the idea of body odor as some kind of subconscious agent of attraction would be far too insecure to walk out of the house with even a hint of organic odor on them. Most would feel insecure carrying even a subtle smell, to the point of being afraid to talk to a prospective mate. Therefore, we wash and scrub those odors away when we fear that masking our scent with a topical deodorant might not be enough.

Jousting is commonly understood as a martial game of the Middle Ages. Jousting was a popular form of entertainment that involved two armored knights attempting to unseat one another from their horses. The goal was to replicate the clashes that occurred during heavy cavalry. The spoils of victory, which many of us have witnessed at Renaissance fair reenactments or in the movies included a damsel’s handkerchief, and the victorious knight huffing on that handkerchief with celebratory joy. Most believe the greater importance of such a scene is symbolic. We believe it is a visual depiction of the sweet smell of success, on par with drinking wine from a gullet or showering a locker room in champagne. The portrayals of this moment in modern cinema may illustrate it as a damsel giving her hand to the victor, but in historical actuality, the damsel would have carried that small swatch of fabric in her armpit for the entirety of the jousting match. According to an article posted by Helen Gabriel, after the handkerchief spent a sufficient amount of time in the damsel’s underarm area, it was coated with her smegma, and the jouster’s reward for victory was greater knowledge of the damsel’s true essence when he huffed it.(2)

Having said all that, people needn’t look to the animal kingdom or its artificial equivalents developed in research labs to find an attractant. We might be able to unlock the greatest attractant ever known by bathing less often. It may seem contradictory, but the modern ritual of daily bathing deprives us of the very human scents that are, in many ways, attractants. That said, if you do not bathe very often, your visual cues would suffer. Some might consider this a juggling act fraught with peril, but if we manage our bathing rituals in such a manner that our visual cues still score high in the world of attraction, we might be able to maximize our smegma production. Doing so, according to the research scientists quoted here, could land us atop the dating world, without us having to say so much as a kind word to anyone. As our culture dictates, we are required and expected to bathe and wash away this smegma, which is particularly located on and around our reproductive organs and in our urine, on a day-to-day basis. The same prospective dating community then requires us to replace those scents we wash away with those found in a beaver’s castoreum, civet, musk, and on the tip of a boar’s sexual organs or their preputial glands.

It’s also impossible for us to believe that the subtle smell of urine can sexually excite a prospective mate. Urine stinks. The very idea of the smell of urine causes revulsion when we walk into an unsanitary bathroom, and we associate the smell with a general lack of cleanliness. We think the key to attracting a mate is convincing them we have no natural odor and that we don’t engage in impolite body functions, or at least we don’t want those thoughts at the forefront of a person’s mind when they’re talking to us.

We are an insecure people, but we are also competitive. Our insecurity might provide subtext for our competitiveness, for we seek assistance from companies that spend millions in research and development to come up with the perfect chemical combination that will put us over the top in the race to attract others. McCabe and Dr. Goldsmith believe most of these products are not just a waste of money may also be counterproductive.

Contrary to what the marketing arms push so hard to sell to the public, the key to sexual attraction lies in the skin. The apocrine sebaceous glands mentioned before produce pheromones in great abundance, particularly in the sweat glands and in tufts of body hair that are located everywhere on the surface of the body.

“They [pheromones] do tend to center themselves in six primary areas,” Melissa Kaplan writes in her Herp Care collection piece. (3) “The underarm, the nipples (of both genders), the genital region, the outer region of the lips, the eyelids, and the outer rims of the ears. This is not due to the fact that the hairs [on these parts of the body] produce these pheromone messages, but that the hairs hold onto the chemical stimuli that the skin’s apocrine sebaceous glands produce.” Nevertheless, most of us shave these pheromone holders away to attract a mate.

While many believe we have natural predilections to these pheromones, we are not attracted to them all the time. Women, for example, are no more attracted to the smell of musk than men are during a woman’s menstruation cycle. Ten days after ovulation, however, women become very sensitive to it. Production of this musk substance also occurs by synthetic means, as it is in exaltolide, but it is also a substance produced in a cat’s anal glands and on the tip of a boar’s sexual organs or their preputial glands. Ten days after menstruation, women reach a peak in estrogen production, and this causes them to be far more susceptible to the musk scent.

Production of musk tends to occur in the underarms, in  smegma found on and around the reproductive organs, and in urine. The fact that men secrete these substances and women have a greater sensitivity to them when they are most fertile is an indication that there may be an olfactory role for these substances in human sexuality.

It is also important to note that while researchers believe the (VNO) is a powerful organ in detecting chemical stimuli that leads to attraction, other stimuli can overwhelm the messages this organ receives. If a person provides no visual stimuli to a prospective mate, for example, chemical messaging might not play a dominant role in attraction. In addition, while VNO functions link to the sense of smell, this does not mean its relation to scent is as direct as one might guess.

The VNO detects these chemical messages, these pheromones, and it is possible that an overwhelming scent could impede the VNO’s ability to do so. If the sense of smell dominates, the message the brain receives might be only the smell, and the chemical message will be secondary. Coating oneself in urine, in other words, will not increase one’s chances to attract a mate. It is also not true that fecal matter contains sexual attractants, even though it gathers some as it makes contact with areas of the skin believed to produce these pheromones. So dabbing a little fecal matter behind the ears before going out on the town will induce no sexual attraction. The messages sent to the brain by other senses regarding visible fecal matter would drown out any subtle chemical stimuli the VNO detected, even if it managed to gather sexual attractants as it made contact with the skin.

Urine, in and of itself, is not a pheromone-producing agent, but when the liquid we drink makes contact with the various parts of our body that produce pheromones, it holds those pheromones in the same manner that body hair will. As stated above, however, urine does produce a slight musk scent that women are attracted to at certain times of the month, and in faint doses –when the overall smell does not dominate– it could contain some attractants

The study of pheromones, VNO functions, and the very idea that humans are susceptible to them in the same manner other animals are, is controversial. For every study that suggests that humans are no different from any other animal when it comes to chemical attraction, another study counters that these definitive conclusions are anything but conclusive.

1) http://serendip.brynmawr.edu/exchange/node/2052

2)https://www.questia.com/article/1G1-113079856/the-mag-health-the-smell-of-romance-valentine

3) http://www.anapsid.org/pheromones.html

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You Don’t Bring me Flowers Anymore!


“You’ll make it work in the end,” an adult baby said with a hand on his wife’s shoulder, as she pined over their financial affairs, “you always do.”

The wife recognized the compliment for what it was, but the full import of the gesture failed to register with her at the time. She had no idea, for example, that her husband would not be participating in the sacrifices required to “make it work out in the end,” unless she was adamant, and she could be adamant. Even when she was adamant and detailed with her instruction, however, he would only alter his lifestyle for as long as he deemed necessary to get over what she declared a dire financial state.

The adult baby intended the compliment to serve as a statement of appreciation for his wife’s abilities, and he wanted her to know he would stand by her, as long her findings didn’t affect his preferred lifestyle in the long term. Thus far, she did have an excellent record when it came to making their lives work, and he wanted her to know that he recognized that. Her record of achievements in this regard did not begin and end with finances however. The family made sacrifices to offset his irresponsible behavior, and she informed him of the sacrifices they needed to make to offset his actions. He saw the effort she put forth, and he was aware of the idea that his family needed to sacrifice, but he viewed it from third-party perspective.

Adult babies are like small children playing with toys in the living room. Neither party expects others to clean up after them. They simply don’t put that much thought into it. If no one instructs them to pick up their mess and no one enforces the practice to the point of making it the child’s habit, the idea of cleaning up doesn’t enter their purview. They play as much as they want to play, then, without any effort or sacrifice on their part, the area is clean. They won’t even notice that the area is clean, when they return to it, it just is. It always is.

Adult babies hear about financial problems, but like those mysteriously disappearing toys on the floor, they hear about those financial pile-ups so often that the adamant tirades go in one ear and out the other. They know everyone in the family must make sacrifices, and they even echo the wife’s sentiment to the children, but they know that these temporary blips have a way of working themselves out.

The wife may have to work some overtime or even, take on a third job to keep food on the table, but no one ever starves. He might not have much involvement in the lives of his children, but they receive the attention they need. All they know is that the home is always sound, so sound that he can eat his tortilla chips and watch his shows in peace. The little woman may harp, and she might nag a little, but she gets over it once she’s had her say. She always does, and to keep a happy home, he knows that he has to let her have her say.

If he wants to continue doing what he wants to do, he will not only have to endure those occasional rants, he will respond with a line that suggests that the woman is always right. A nice “Yes dear!” sprinkled into those conversations makes the clocks run on time, balances the books, and allows him to live the life he’s always wanted.

The adult baby has no powers of reflection. His woman might be adamant that he look around on occasion, but she’s not adamant very often. If she was adamant more often, he probably wouldn’t be an adult baby, for the adult baby species would be on the endangered list were it not for its enablers.

 “I used to love getting flowers,” a woman named Sheila confessed, “until I found out how much I was going to have to pay for them.”

Sheila’s ex-husband, Craig, used to bring Sheila flowers. He bought flowers for her when they dated, and he continued to buy her flowers long after they tied the knot. Craig loved Sheila, and he didn’t want to be just another man who brought a few roses home to the woman he loved. He bought flowers. The rooms of flowers he bought and choreographed made cinematic statements of how much one man can love a woman, and he did so regardless of the effect it had on their financial statements.

“How can you put a price on love?” Craig would ask when she interrogated him.

As far as finances were concerned, Craig would be the first to tell you that he knew little to nothing. “The wife takes care of all that,” Craig said on one occasion, “and she can be a real drill sergeant. That woman can drain the romantic symbolism out of flowers and turn them into economic principles. She can be so anal-retentive, like that character on the show Friends. Monica Geller. That’s what we call her,” he added with a laugh.

“Money is her big topic,” Craig said when he talked about how she was always harping on him.

As is often the case when one person complains about another, Craig refrained from offering any details of Sheila’s argument, for those details might have revealed the substance of her argument. Craig did not say anything about how Sheila complained about his spending habits. He didn’t acknowledge her complaint that he signed up for multiple credit cards without telling her. He also would not repeat Sheila’s line, “You spend money like a child learning the power of money for the first time, and what’s worse is you’ve done so for so long that it’s obvious that you are incapable of gauging the consequences of your actions.”

I made the money she complained so much about,” Craig said to conclude his rant. “And I’m a grown-ass man who worked as hard as any man I know. I don’t know who she thought she was, always trying to tell me how to live?”

As with most adult babies, Craig lived by his own set of rules and standards. As far as he was concerned, no one –not even his beloved wife– was going to tell him how to spend the money he earned. He confessed that he might have had some problems with impulse control, “But hell who doesn’t?” he asked. Spending money and purchasing things gave Craig a sense of identity he couldn’t explain. He confessed that purchasing products gave him a rush.

“You’re selfish,” Sheila said the day she found evidence of yet another one of Craig’s out of control spending sprees, evidence he usually did a better job of concealing. “You’re the most selfish person I’ve ever met.”

“Only to you guys,” Sheila quoted Craig replying to that accusation. Craig was referring to Sheila and their two daughters. Craig apparently said this without reflection, and to remind her that he was not a bad guy. “People love me,” he added, assessing his character via perceived public opinion. “While I might seem a little self-involved when it comes to you three, I’m not a bad guy. I know better. I help people Sheila. Your opinion doesn’t extend beyond these four walls, so don’t try to tell me that you know who I am.”

We all say things we regret in the heat of the moment, but sometimes, our words define and expose us. The things we say reveal what we believe our image is, what we believe others see in us or what they should see. As far as we’re concerned, those aren’t lies, fabrications, or exaggerations. We might step on a landmine on occasion that exposes our failure to mature in all the ways our peers have, but, hell, everyone has made missteps.

While not all adult babies are male, the majority of the demographic consists of over-nurtured, 40-something males who are unable or unwilling, to shake free of the leash of the people who control them. Women have reminded them of the need to share, that they need to eat their peas and clean up their messes, but at some point, the adult baby became fed up with it. Women have set their clocks, raised their children, and handled the more inconsequential matters for most of their lives, while they did what was necessary to provide. Even though their wives have had to make sacrifices and they’ve done whatever was necessary to supplement the family income, the adult babies argue, “I’m the one who’s been clocking in and out for decades, without complaint, and now you’re asking me to do more? Where does it all end?”

“I’m not asking you to do more,” the wife counters, “I’m asking you to do less. I’m asking you to stop doing what you’re doing. You’re making my job impossible.”

“Women have it so good,” the adult baby says. “They get to sit home and watch their shows, while the man goes to work and caters to the whims of a boss. Whatever happened to the idea that the man is the king of the castle?”

If the man wants a new motorized vehicle that only travels on water, he gets it, even if he lives in a land-locked state that requires the vessel to sit in a high-priced storage unit 364 days a year. If the man wants a leaf blower that has a high-powered engine, when his is working just fine, he gets it, and if the man wants the electronic gadget or device, that one of his friends has, he gets it. The woman is in charge of the accounting, and she attempts to balance the books in the wake of his attempts to indulge his desires. “I don’t know how she does it,” the adult baby says if his friends ask how he can afford such luxuries, “but she makes it work.”

Experts might have informed Craig that his current predicament resulted from a cycle of dependency, but Craig probably would’ve dismissed that as daytime talk show gibberish. He was unaware of his role in the matter, and he was naïve to the fact that as soon as the first eighteen years of his cycle of dependency ended, he married a woman, straight out of college, who reminded of his mother. He was not cognizant of the fact that the responsibility for his welfare transferred from a mother who coddled him to the wife tasked with doing the same.

Craig was crazy in college. He “got drunk” in a manner that suggested he was trying to make up for the time he spent acquiescing to his beloved mother’s request that he act more responsible. He also engaged in a number of sexual liaisons, until he met the good woman that could cook like his good old ma’. Craig never lived alone. He didn’t encounter the pratfalls of being irresponsible in those years, and he never learned the level of freedom that allows one to succeed and fail. Craig was thus deprived the lessons that young people learn during these years and carry with them throughout life.

Even when we marry, buy a house, and have kids, there is that constant need to relive the crazy, college years when we were old enough to know the complexities inherent in adulthood, but young enough to shrug off the consequences of ignoring them. Back then, we thought we were equipped and entitled to show all those who mattered that we were no longer children,  back when we were young enough to shrug off the ramifications that come with continuing to live like them. In our adult years, we flexed the muscles of independent living in college, all while our parents footed the bills. We were in a zone toddling between adulthood and childhood that allowed us the freedom to form an identity without any concerns for the responsibilities that might help better form it.

Few, however, have the resources to make those crazy college year last well into adulthood, and the lack thereof requires most to make choices no one wants to make. We work hard to put ourselves in a comfortable position in life. We kowtow to bosses, and we hold our tongue when our peers have said things with which we disagree. We try to build an empire that will allow us to do most of what we want, but some others who just do it. That’s the gist of their answers to the curious who question how they’re able to afford such luxuries on their salary, with two kids, “Like Nike says, you just do it.”

Most full-fledged adults know the despair that results from crushing debt, and they learn to fight off the impulses and temptation that could drive them to shut-offs, red box “past-due” notices, and shameful credit ratings. We’ve all made our share of mistakes. We’ve all been broke at one time in our lives, and we all know the horrible feeling of not having as much money as someone else, but we’ve all come to terms with bitter reality that the good times of living like a child ends. For some of us, this is a long, painful process. Others might never have to face these inevitable truths because others make it all work out for them.

The women in the lives of the adult baby learn to do everything they can to avoid leaving them to their own devices. As a result, the babies don’t experience embarrassment, aren’t required to deal with inadequacies, and ever fail. They are good boys and good sons that become good and honest men, but they are the half of those relationships rarely held to account for their failings.

“I never spent us into unmanageable debt,” Craig said. It was his best defense, for in those moments when the family had to sacrifice Craig decided to control his spending, in the short-term. He refrained from purchasing big, luxurious items when the family budget hovered near ground zero. He even felt some guilt for the role he may have played in the familial sacrifices, albeit only in the short term. To rectify whatever damage he may have caused, Craig bought his wife flowers, but he didn’t just buy her flowers. He made his apologies cinematic.

“You can’t buy me flowers anymore!” Sheila shrieked, “We’re broke!” Sheila would later say she felt bad about the times she yelled at him like that, because she knew he meant well. She said he bought her flowers, because she used to love flowers. “They used to be one of my guilty pleasures,” she said, “until I realized how much I was going to have to pay for them.”

In the wake of their divorce, Craig entered the house to collect those prized belongings of his not listed in the decree. Craig also considered this his opportunity to tell us his side of the story. He answered all of the questions posed, as listed above, and he pointed out the days when he acted “all growed up” to counter Sheila’s claims. Craig also informed us of all the purchases he didn’t make, because he knew the family couldn’t afford it to counter Sheila’s claim that he was such a spendaholic.

We couldn’t help but wonder if the purchases he didn’t make, and the moments Craig recounted for us to counter Sheila’s claims, were all the more remarkable in Craig’s memory because of their rarity.

We reminded Craig of one of his favorite sayings, “Money is power! Money is freedom!”

“Was I saint in our marriage?” Craig asked. “I was not, but I was not an idiot. We always found a way to made it work. Somehow or another, she always made it work in the end.” We couldn’t help but avoid thinking he slipped up in the second sentence saying she as opposed to we in the second sentence, as he slipped a final bouquet of dead roses into a living room now full of dead roses to complete what he considered a final cinematic statement to his ex-wife.

He Used to Have a Mohawk


“Mark is a good man,” the best man said, before raising his glass in a toast, “but he used to have a mohawk.”

The maid of honor echoed the best man’s sentiment, “I like Mark. I found out he used to have a mohawk, and I found out that he even colored it blue at one time. I couldn’t believe it. He seems so nice.”

What an odd, seemingly contradictory, thing to say, I thought when Mark’s friends finished their introductions. The best man was presumably one that Mark listed as one of his best friends, and the maid of honor clearly had a spot in her heart for him now, after presumably spending time around him as one of the bride’s best friends. Yet, these two chose to introduce us to Mark in a manner that suggested that there might be something wrong with people that have their hair cut into a mohawk, but not Mark. He’s nice. It was the theme of their intro and they added to it throughout the toast. We found out that not only did Mark have a mohawk at a time in his life, but he also colored it blue for a time and at another time, he spiked it eight inches high. No matter what form his hair took, however, he was always nice, and he would talk to you just like any other feller.

Mark appeared to take this all in stride. Either he agreed with the sentiment of the theme, or he didn’t hear the underlying condescension. Whatever the case, Mark appeared to miss the associations, the looks, and the reactions back in his mohawk days.

I attended this ceremony at the behest of my uncle, who was quite fond of the bride. He did not know the man that used to have a mohawk however. As such, he did not know if the haircut was a result of some sort of an identity crisis, or the psychology that chased Mark after he relented to chop it off and begin mingling with common folk again. My uncle only met Mark a few times, but he assured me that the man was nice.

Based on the idea that my one conduit into Mark’s mind was almost as unfamiliar with him as I was, I was forced to draw on personal experience with like-minded souls to try and dig into Mark’s essence. The obvious goal of adorning one’s body with an attention-drawing tattoo and hairstyle is to gain attention, but hearing all that I heard at this wedding reception and watching Mark react to it, I realized that might only be half of it. I thought Mark’s goal might have been to change the perception he had of being a wallflower that sits in the corner of a party and leaves such a poor impression that no one recalls them ever being there.

To distinguish themselves in the beginning, those that Mark reminded me of tried to establish some sort of association. They might start by displaying a fiery temper, so others might say, “Don’t mess with Jed, he’s insane.” If that display doesn’t work, they feel compelled to provide a visual to promote it with a quick mean-faced punch. I’ve even witnessed some going so far as to say such things about themselves with the hope of kick starting such a reputation. They don’t conclude this with “Tell your friends,” but the end game is obvious to those on the receiving end. If this chain of events does not produce the desired effect, the plan B of ornaments of self-expression begin to appear, that take the form of physical shouts of ‘I am here!’ from their otherwise anonymous corners.

I’ve heard some mohawks speak of sitting in front of a mirror, for over an hour to gel those eight-inch spikes up just right, to achieve a perception that is exclusive to an eight-inch Mohawk. The unspoken goal is to entice someone, somewhere to look at them. Some consider them strange, but at least they’re looking. Some ask questions, but at least they’re asking. Some might even ostracize them, but even that is evidence of a concerted effort directed toward them.

“For God’s sakes, Helen, the boy’s got a blue mohawk!” a senior citizen, unfiltered by social graces might say to his wife. The rest of us whisper it for fear that a mohawk man may hear and feel further estranged, but in my personal experience, they love it all. Mark, I can only speculate, was no different.

“It turns out Mark has a great heart,” the best man said to complete the circuit of the clichéd best man toast, “Who would give you the shirt off his back.” At one point in his toast, the best man said that he was, “Attracted to Mark, because Mark used to have a Mohawk. It wasn’t one of those flat, more acceptable Mohawks either. This one was spiky, and eight-inches high. It was even blue at one point. This was a Mohawk!”

The best man laid a deft, joke teller’s emphasis on the words ‘was’ and ‘mohawk’ to punctuate the joke. He received some laughter for the effort, but there was nothing raucous about it because there was nothing raucous, shocking, or rebellious about Mark anymore. The mohawk was gone.

Men with sensible haircuts now felt so comfortable with Mark that they felt free to laugh at him without fear. They thought they were now laughing with him, and he had to sit there and take it, nodding in silent vulnerability from his proverbial corner of the room. His nod had an unspoken “Yep!” to it that suggested either Mark regretted giving up the mohawk, or that he regretted trying it out in the first place. My money was on the former.

In the years since this wedding, I’m betting that Mark still tells people, “I’m an old, married man now, but I used to have a Mohawk, and it was eight inches high, and it was even blue at one time,” when they ask him questions about himself.

The ceremony that preceded those odd, contradictory toasts was also unorthodox, but one look at Mark and his bride, Mary, should’ve informed any observer that they were, at the very least, in for something unorthodox. Then again, most of the attendees were unorthodox too. The church was unorthodox, and it appeared to have seen its best days thirty years prior, but unorthodox can be quaint, and quaint can be romantic, and colorful, and the best way for two people to express their unique, and unorthodox love for one another in a quaint, memorable way.

Those of us that put some thought into it found that unorthodox core and appreciated it for what it was. We believed that we grasped the individualistic statement Mark and Mary wanted to make to one another and their friends and family. We thought there was something unique and beautiful about the ceremony, and that something influenced us to think about the ways in which we could make our own individualistic statements in our own ceremonies. I must admit I went through all of that, but my appreciation of what Mark and Mary accomplished ended when two singers stepped to the mic stands positioned at the side of the altar.

The songs performed by two teenage girls sang weren’t Gershwin or Schubert. They were as hip and nice as Mark and Mary wanted the congregation to believe they were. They were informal, and the best way Mary could find to express her love for this man who used to have a mohawk. The songs were also terrible.

A song can provide a brief, abridged interlude to any ceremony. In such a special ceremony, a song can add to the overall theme that the bride and groom are trying to establish in their ceremony. The best-case scenario, learned by way of the contrast offered by Mark and Mary’s union, is to condense those songs to the meaningful lyrics, or the meaningful portion of the song, that the couple hopes will capture the essence of their ceremony.

Wedding architects should maintain focus on the song’s refrain to establish some familiarity with the audience, but these same architects should avoid including the entire song. I’ve been there. We all have. As an enthusiastic music fan who regards some songs in the devout manner some view religion, I have a list of songs that I regard as unique definitions of who I am. I’ve fantasized about using them in my ceremonies, to provide my friends and family members a window into my soul. Common sense has prevailed upon me though, and logic tells me these moments might not be the time or the place to proselytize on the virtues of the undiscovered, aberrant songs I enjoy.

Mark and Mary obviously did not receive such objective perspectives, and the audience had to listen to songs that these tone deaf, teenage girls sang in a kitschy, wonderfully amateurish, and endearing, and embarrassing manner. I could hear their earnest effort, but it didn’t work for me. I can’t sing, and I do harbor some empathy for anyone attempting to do anything artistic in a public forum, but that display made me cringe.

“But, it was sung from the heart,” a sympathetic listener might have said, in an effort to give this rendition of whatever song they sang endearing qualities. “Fine,” I would say, “Keep it under two minutes.”

“But this was Mark and Mary’s ceremony,” they might have countered, “and even if it was unorthodox, it was unorthodox to your conformist orthodoxy, and who put you in the seat of professional critic. Get over yourself man!”

The duet sang a second song, ten minutes in. The second song was as painful as the first, yet another interruption the flow of the ceremony. It was agony for those of us that didn’t know Mark and Mary, and it altered a moment the bride and groom were supposed to cherish into the introductory segment of American Idol for all of us to try to avoid becoming frustrated, mean-spirited Simon Cowells.

Bereft of Brevity

The groom was so shaken up during the wedding ceremony that he couldn’t maintain his composure while reciting his vows. The evidence that Mark wanted this moment was so palpable that all but the cold-hearted felt it. I was so into this ceremony, and so deep into my effort to understand this man from afar, that his tears moved me. I considered the idea that Mark thought if he could get this one moment in his life right, it might help him move beyond whatever drove him to get a mohawk in the first place. I thought about those precious few moments we all have to rewrite the course we’re on, and I thought about what we do when they arrive. I also thought that if such a moment did exist for Mark, it was gone. In its place were two four-minute songs that the bride selected for this ceremony, to attempt to make the moment even more seminal than it might have otherwise been.

The bride, the groom, and the priest stood up there like jackasses, staring at one another while those two songs dragged out to four minutes each. Four minutes may not seem long, unless you’re the one trying to make more of this moment than it might otherwise have.

Less is more when we’re seeking a moment, I realized, watching as all of the moments failed to accumulate into something seminal. A seminal moment occurs when one is engaged in a moment, and no amount of choreographing will move it there. We can try, and we shouldn’t fall prey to the less-is-more principle to a point that we do nothing, but as we continue to add moments in the hope of achieving the seminal, we encroach upon a tipping point.

That tipping point may never become apparent to those who choreographed their moment. If it does become apparent, that clarity often arrives soon after it’s too late to change, and the only people who learn anything from it are those who witness the fact that brevity allows all participants to define the beauty for us, and with us, through the contrast of our efforts.

When we lose our moments, or see them redefined, we try to take them back. Cheesy, choreographed lyrics about tenderness, togetherness, love, and always being there for one’s partner, appear beautiful and thematic on paper. In reality, they’re show-stopping, moment stealing, and over-wrought ideas that we later come to regret, even if we refuse to admit it. We find ourselves trying to disassemble and reassemble our moment any way we can, until our ability to take it back and relive those seminal moments lead us to ache for the days when we used to have a mohawk.

 

Fear Bradycardia and the Normalcy Bias


“Didn’t you hear the old, Native American woman say something evil lurks in that there lake?” one of the great-looking people on the shore screams. Dougie ignores them, apparently unaware of the golden rule of modern cinema: Always listen to Native Americans, especially if they’re old and speak in hallowed tones. “You’ve gone too far, Dougie!” the great-looking people on the shore continue to shriek. “Come back!”

“C’mon, you chickens!” Dougie says, backstroking leisurely. “It’s fun, and there’s nothing evil out here!”

The music that cues Dougie’s impending doom spills out of the Dolby surround sound. A subtle roar follows, and those of us in the audience tense up. We grip the armrests so tight that our forearms flex. We join the gorgeous people on the shore, mentally screaming out warnings to Dougie, telling him to get out of the water. We then join the collective hysteria that erupts when the water of the lake begins to swirl.

“Dougie, please!” we shout in unison.

“Aw, shut it!” Dougie says, waving off the warnings. 

The trouble is the character actor who plays Dougie is unattractive and chubby. Those of us who have watched thousands of movies know movies, and we know casting. We knew Dougie’s role in this movie would meet an unfortunate demise.

The monster roars to an impossible height. Dougie looks up at it, and as his fate becomes apparent, he screams. Is the monster evil, or is it just hungry? We don’t know, and we don’t care. It’s going to eat Dougie, the comedic foil in our movie. The monster takes its time, so we can see the full breadth of its horror. It gnashes its teeth a little. It swivels its head about. It looks menacingly at Dougie. Dougie continues to look up and his screaming continues until the monster lowers onto him and bites Dougie’s head off. The idea that this macabre scene took a full thirty seconds leaves those of us who have watched too many horror movies nonplussed.

“Why didn’t he just move?” monster movie aficionados have asked for decades. “Why did he stay in the water, screaming, for thirty seconds? Why didn’t he even try to swim away?” We can live with the fact that the monster would naturally move through the water much quicker than Dougie, since the monster is aquatic and Dougie is not. We can also live with the fact that Dougie probably didn’t have much of a chance the moment he jumped into the water. Still, we horror movie aficionados would love, just once, to see victims do a little more to prove that they, like all humans share an inherent survival instinct.

When I later learned that actors have to stay on their mark, I was a little less disgusted with the actors who played Dougie roles. I still want them to move, but I now know they must obey the director who commands them to stay in a designated spots for the decapitation scene. This cliché scene may strike horror in some, but I would venture to say that either the terrified are under the age of 30, or they haven’t watched a thousand horror movies yet. For those of us who have crossed both thresholds, we know it’s just plain irrational that a person wouldn’t move or do something to get away from a menacing monster. We certainly wouldn’t just stand in one spot, looking up, screaming, at the person, place, or thing looking to seal our fate.

Author David McRaney argues this point though. He claims that not only are Dougie’s reactions normal, but they are closer to the truth than anything monster movie aficionados might expect. In McRaney’s incredible book, You Are Not so Smart, he suggests that the one conflicting detail of this monster scene that might counter how we think we would react in a similar moment of unprecedented horror is Dougie’s screaming.[1]

Those of us who are not as knowledgeable about psychology believe there are two basic reactions to catastrophic, chaotic moments: action and non-action. We break it down to those who act and those who choke. Those who act may also be broken down into two categories: The selfish who fight to save themselves and the martyrs who act in a heroic fashion to save others. Either way, casual, non-psychology types insist there are but two reactions to such situations. Either the individual involved in the situation does something to save their lives or they choke.

McRaney argues that there is a third reaction, though casual, non-psychology types are more apt to view this course of action as little more than an extension of choking. Psychologists call it fear bradycardia. The difference between fear bradycardia and choking is that a victim of fear bradycardia experiences a heart deceleration, as opposed to the acceleration we might expect in such a traumatic situation. An acceleration of the heart could lead a potential victim to fumble about and select an incorrect reaction, but a deceleration might lead one to freeze up in a manner some call attentive immobility. Fear bradycardia is a reflex, an involuntary, automatic instinct that often occurs in moments of unprecedented chaos and horror, heaped upon the unprepared.

Put succinctly, fear bradycardia is the idea that in our movie not only will Dougie not scream or scramble out of the way, he will reflexively stop moving and simply hope for the best possible outcome. The normal reaction one might have to surviving a plane crash, for example, is that we need a moment to gather the most terrifying thing that ever happened to us. We might also need a moment to come down from the horror of it, and the euphoria we experience when we realize we’re one of the survivors. The concept psychologists are describing, when they talk about the term fear bradycardia, goes one step beyond that. It suggests that we will remain frozen beyond the normal moment necessary to deal with the situation. It suggests that if the plane is on fire, in our scenario, and other survivors are screaming that the plane is going to blow, we might not do enough to assure our survival, as we will remain frozen hoping that this moment simply passes. This fear bradycardia reaction involves an automatic, involuntary instinct that exists in all of us. Some refer to this state as tonic immobility, but no matter the name, it falls under the umbrella of another psychological term, normalcy bias.

McRaney details several incidents in which people experienced fear bradycardia: an F5 tornado in Bridge Creek, Oklahoma, survivors of floods, and even the infamous 9/11 Trade Center terrorist incident.

According to some first responders, the one commonality in most similar tragedies is that victims wander about in a dreamlike state. These first responders say that their first responsibility is to shake survivors out of this state. For even if their world is falling down around them, most survivors shut down and go to a safe, more normal space in their minds, if no one is around to shake them out of it.

In the aftermath of the 9/11/01 terrorist action, most first responders spoke of the calm that evacuating survivors exhibited. They stated that most of the survivors obediently followed instructions, without any panic, allowing for a safe exit that ultimately saved many lives. The first responders we saw interviewed on the news stated that the heroic first responders provided a model for proper evacuation procedures.

Other first responders agreed with that sentiment, but they added that the unspoken sense of order among the survivors was so calm and quiet that it bordered on eerie. Very few survivors were screaming, they said, and though there wasn’t room to sprint, there is no record of anyone pushing, shoving, or doing anything out of the ordinary to get out of the burning, soon to be falling buildings. There is no record of survivors complaining about the slow, orderly exit, or attempting to find their own alternative exit, if there was one available. We might think these are normal, human reactions to such a horrific episode, but the limited records we’ve found suggest no such incidents occurred.  

McRaney cited some of the accounts first responders of 9/11/01 reports of some survivors taking a couple extra, crucial moments to complete the log-out procedures on their computers. Before following the instructions of first responders, some even gathered their coats. Others engaged in mundane conversations, with their coworkers on the way out of the office, in a manner we might deduce helped them achieve some level of normalcy amidst the chaos.

Those of us on the outside looking in might view this as lunacy. If I were in that situation, we might think, I’d be running, screaming, and I might be crying. I might even knock an old lady down in my departure, but I would do everything I could to get out. I don’t care what this author says I’m all about survival brutha.

Television shows and movies depict such drama on a regular basis, and we’ve all watched such drama and trauma play out on our screens, be it some horror flick with a monster and a Dougie or our favorite cable news program. We’ve all placed ourselves in the shoes of the characters involved in such stories, and we list how we would do things differently. We’ve all shouted these condemnations at our various screens when the Dougies just sit there as a monster nears them, and we all know how we would’ve reacted before the menacing monster bites our head off. The central question of McRaney’s thesis, however, is this: While we might think we know how we would act, unless we’ve experienced such a moment in our lives we can never really know.

“If you haven’t,” McRaney writes, “you can never know how prepared you will be, and you can never know how you’ll react. The ideas we have about how we will react may be lies we’ve told ourselves so often that we might end up not knowing the actual truth after it’s too late to rectify it.”

Shutting down computers, gathering coats, and having mundane conversations are automatic, involuntary responses that occur because of this dream-like, faux normal state we defer to when it becomes clear that no amount of rationalizing will ever render the horrific, unprecedented, chaotic moment normal. We shut down to block out the flood of external stimuli that might otherwise cause us further panic.

“The people in the World Trade Centers on 9/11 had a supreme need to feel safe and secure,” McRaney writes. “They had a desire to make everything around them go normal again in the face of something so horrific that their brains couldn’t deal with it in a functional manner.”

As stated previously, most casual, non-psychology types might characterize this as choking in the clutch, but McRaney states that it goes beyond this, because they do not freeze as a response to panic. “It’s a reflexive incredulity,” McRaney writes, –attributing the term to Amanda Ripley– “that causes you to freeze up in a reflexive manner. This reflexive incredulity causes you to wait for normalcy to return beyond the point where it’s reasonable to do so. It’s a tendency that those concerned with evacuation procedures –the travel industry, architects, first responders, and stadium personnel– are well aware of, and they document this in manuals and trade publications.”

Sociologists McRaney cites say, “You are more prone to dawdle if you fail to follow these steps and are not informed of the severity of the issue.” Failing to gain the necessary information leads to speculation and to the inevitable comparisons and contrasts of other more familiar incidents.

Men, in particular, seem to have an almost imbedded desire to rationalize fear away. Fear, by its very nature is irrational, and most men feel it incumbent upon them to keep fear a rationalization away. In the face of a tragedy that alarms most, the rational, no fear, man is prone to say, “It’s bad, but it’s not as bad as a previous experience I once had?”

Their preferred culprit for unwarranted fear is the media and politicians. The media wants viewers, and politicians want voters, so they pound horrific details home to keep us afraid and focused on them and their efforts to investigate and rectify. All of this is true, but it’s also true that the terrorist incident on 9/11/01 was one of the most horrific to ever happen in our country.

I add politics to this discussion to illustrate the mindset of those who rationalize horror away. They do so to lighten the load such an incident might have on their minds if they don’t find a way to deal with it. The problem arises when they face the type of horror they’ve rationalized away for most of our lives. At that point, they fall back on what they know, hoping to normalize the incident in such a way that they can deal with it in terms with which they are more familiar, until it becomes apparent that the incident is far worse than anything their rational mind could imagine.

To those who suggest, “There are “politics at play here”, and we should all start viewing the hype of politicians and media players as nothing more than hype.” I say this is a rationalization in and of itself. Most of us recognize that some media outlets and politicians make their bones on promoting fear, but at times, a bit of fear –an emotion capable of igniting awareness– might save our life.

For these reasons and others, it is crucial for a city facing an ensuing crisis to allow the local media to inundate us with reports of that impending storm, because the media needs to help us redefine our norm. It is also a reason for those of us who make fun of our friends for paying attention to the flight attendant’s pre-flight instructions, to drop our macho façades and listen. We may also want to drop the pretense that as frequent flyers we are prepared for anything. We must redefine our sense of normalcy in preparation for the many things that could go wrong in the air or upon our return to ground.

In spite of McRaney’s findings, I still find it hard to believe that the movie scenes that depict the near-catatonic reactions Dougie displayed as the monster neared him are closer to the truth than I am about how most people will react. I live with the belief that a survivor’s instinct will kick in for anyone facing impending doom. As those dumb enough to corner a badger into a corner know, most beings will do whatever it takes to survive, and I believe that the human being, regardless how chubby or unattractive they are, have that same instinct. The difference might be that the badger hones those skills more frequently, but we’ve all experienced mini-disasters and personal traumas in our lives, and most people have a decent batting average when it comes to reacting to them. Will that be enough to avoid experiencing fear bradycardia, tonic immobility, reflexive incredulity, or any of the normal bias tendencies we have in the wake of a horrific incident? We don’t know, and we won’t know until the decisive moment reveals if we are so ill prepared that we fall prey to automatic and involuntary instincts that result from lying to ourselves for so long that we will end up rationalizing ourselves to death.

[1]McRaney, David. November, 2011. You Are Not So Smart. New York, New York. Penguin Group (USA) Inc.

 

Groundhogs, Led Zeppelin, and Our Existential Existence


We love to define ourselves through artistic venues. We believe that listing off our current musical preferences provide a concise definition of who we are, and who we aim to be. Our preferences in all art forms define us in relative ways, but music appreciation appears to be the common denominator we use to define ourselves among other fans of music. Most adults continue to listen to the hit singles and albums they enjoyed back in that insecure, confusing period of our development that occurs roughly between age 15 and 25. I don’t know if it’s a sense of nostalgia we seek, or if we’re trying to relive an era of our lives we didn’t appreciate enough at the time, but most of us find ourselves trapped in that era when others defined good music for us on the sliding scale of cool. If others helped us define all of the variables inherent in the definition of cool music, and we regard our musical preferences as a concise definition of who we are, how much control did we have in shaping the people we’ve become? We might prefer to believe that we’ve left those mercurial teenage years behind us, as they become smaller and smaller in our rear-view mirrors, but some social scholars state high school is like a line from a hit single that preceded my era, but was nonetheless as ubiquitous in it, “You can check-out anytime you like, but you can never leave.”

What this means, to some, is that it is almost impossible to reach such a level of confidence regarding our identity. It is possible to know thyself to elevated degrees as we age, but remain forever susceptible to getting this definition slapped around by the prevailing winds of cool and uncool? This spawns another question: Do we ever reach a point where this dimension of our identity is absolute and true? Those of us who reflect on our life and analyze our actions believe we learn more about ourselves as we age, but others state that even though the core tenets of our personality mature as we age, our core identity forms in the early stages of life. How often was that core identity slapped around by the prevailing winds of cool and uncool? “You listen to who? Uncool man, uncool.” This spawns another question: Do we ever reach a point when this dimension of our identity is absolute and true? We all prefer to believe we’ve made individual choices regarding the music we listen to on a regular basis, but are those preferences ours, or were they shaped by group thought, rebellion to group thought, and/or rebellion to rebellious thoughts?

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Why do research scientists study other animals to get to the root of human psychology? Is it because the nature of the reactions other animals have are more primal? Humans are often more difficult to test, particularly in groups, because we tend to project idyllic images of who we prefer to be, rather than who we really are. Animals test much better because they remain closer to the primal state, because one animal might tell us more about our psychological base than hundreds of idyllic human test subjects can.

I understand the general point about the primal state, but I don’t understand how animals can teach us about the comparative complexities of the human mind. As far as we know, animals do not have the mental capacity to sit around and contemplate greater questions of individual identity. Most concepts of this nature are too foreign and complex for them, but how simple and primal are their brains? 

On nature shows, we witness groundhogs watch one of their own fall prey to a predator. We assume their desire to watch a predator eat one of their own is born of simplicity, but could it be more complex than we’ve ever imagined? Is the desire to watch similar to our complex desire to rubberneck an accident on the interstate, or is that a primal, base desire on our part?

Groundhogs screech and chatter when a predator eats one of their brethren. We assume these screams are a mechanism they use as a last ditch effort to try to save their brethren. We also assume that they are attempting to warn other groundhogs in the vicinity, but could these screeches be similar to those that we engage in during horror flicks when we scream while watching a predator slaughter one of our own in a slasher flick? Is their fascination with horror similar our own, in that they’re horrified, but they can’t look away? Do they chatter about the images they saw later, in the manner we do when walking out of a theater, and do they mourn the lives of former friends and relatives in the aftermath?

When humans die, we attempt to minimize the deceased so we can live better lives in the aftermath. “Richard was a great guy and all, but he was old,” we declare to minimize the pain and horror of his death. We might say something along the lines of, “He smoked,” or “he ran himself ragged for so long that it was bound to happen sooner rather than later.” One has to wonder if groundhogs have a similar need for detachment to help them achieve some sort of distance from the deceased, so they can deal with the complexities inherent in life and death better. Do they say, “Alfonso was great guy and all, but he was slow. He didn’t work out enough, and building and rebuilding his home was really one of the only forms of exercise he engaged in. I knew he was going to die, and to be frank, I say good riddance.”

Do groundhogs like and dislike other groundhogs based on personality traits? If this is the case, how far do they take it? Do they ostracize those who have strange growths on their head, or are they more accepting of differences than us? Do they castigate others based on work ethic, the obnoxious behavior of their pups, and would one groundhog ever exclude another from the cool kid, groundhog group based on a titty twister?

I used to give titty twisters all the time. If you were in my contingent, and I considered you a mentally stable male, I probably gave you a titty twister. I thought it was funny, and I considered it harmless. These titty twisters had no sexual motivations as far as I was concerned, and I didn’t do it to establish dominance over a twistee. I just considered it a funny thing to do to a guy standing there, doing nothing, and acting far too normal. I thought a good twist might shake them out of an otherwise boring, normal day. It’s who I was, and who I will probably always be. I don’t force people out of the norm with physical actions in that manner anymore. I prefer more subtle measures now.

When I gave a titty twister to this one guy, however, he punched me in the chest for it. I twisted his titty. He was being too normal. He had a normal expression on his face, and he didn’t say anything for a spell. I gave him a titty twister, because I thought he needed a random shake.

His reaction might have left me doubled over on a normal day, as I loved impulsive, obnoxious reactions, but his reaction carried a mean face with it. I assumed we were friends, but his mean face informed me that the punch sent a message that rejected everything I valued, and that our friendship was officially irretrievable. I’m sure groundhogs reject other groundhogs’ over over-the-top attempts at humor, but do they hold grudges? This guy told people he hated me after that, and he added an insulting characterization of my manhood.

Does a groundhog ever do anything to shake up the norm, or is their existence so primal that they’re simply happy to be alive for one more day? Does that attribute say more or less about human beings? Do we take life for granted to such a degree that we’re no longer happy just to be alive? Is this desire to shake our lives out of the norm a complex desire, or is it a simplistic, biological need to keep our brains firing at a rapid pace?

If a groundhog decided to perform an act of procreation in a different position, for example, would we document that decision as simple or complex? If the groundhog displayed a sense of listlessness prior to trying the new position, how would we document his actions? If the groundhog performed his act on other groundhogs when his selected mate wasn’t around, would we view the adulterous act as complex or simplistic? If we could see inside the groundhog’s brain and witness a dream of an army of aliens shackling him to a wall, while suckling on his reproductive organ for the semen nutrient they needed to survive, would we consider this a complex need for fantasy or a simplistic, base desire?

That former friend of mine, whom I titty twisted into an enemy was a heavy metal dude, and I was a heavy metal dude. I mistakenly assumed that commonality would serve as the glue to our lifelong bond.

Most of the people I grew up around were heavy metal dudes. We called all like-minded souls, hessians. I so badly wanted to be a hessian that I was willing to do just about anything to make it happen, but I had a tough time gaining entrance into their world. I didn’t like Rush or Iron Maiden, but I did like KISS. They regretted to inform me that my application to into the world of hessianism would require a rejection notification at this time, for KISS was too popular and mainstream. Feel free to reapply, they said, when your preferences evolve to more of an outlier group. If I stubbornly resisted Rush or Iron Maiden, they said, then I should feel free to explore the worlds of Slayer or Megadeth. “Sorry,” I said. I wanted to be a hessian, but I didn’t care for those musicians. Their album cover art was cooler than cool, with cool monsters and satanic imagery, but their music was beyond me. I wore the mandatory denim jacket and donned the requisite mullet, but for some reason I was on the outside looking in for most of my young life. It may have had something to do with the fact that I didn’t say the “Dude” but I didn’t give “a durn about nothing”, and I found authority figures laughable. I thought that should be enough.

One thing I learned in the beginning of my public square humiliation was that my practice of calling my grandma “My Nana” would be out, if I wanted to be a hessian. I didn’t have to hate her or anything she stood for, as that was a trait reserved for punkers, but I didn’t have to like her so much either. A hessian was to remain somewhat unimpressed by his grandmother’s entrance into a room. He might consider shaking her hand as an alternative to hugging her, and a “Hello ma’am” is a viable alternative to running across a room screaming, “Nana!” When the greeting reaches a conclusion, the hessian is then to go on about his business, as if he’s not concerned with her existence. Ignoring such staples could consign the music aficionado to the perception shared by Genesis and the B-52s listeners.

Genesis lovers valued simplicity over the adrenaline rush we found in the force of heavy metal, so we hated them, and hating things gained us a lot more mileage than any expression of love, adoration, or a fondness for anything or anyone. Hatred gave a hessian character and complexity. To the question, “Do you enjoy the music of Phil Collins?” one must answer, “No. I think he’s feminine.” Loving something subjects one to scorn and ridicule, and it gives a hessian the license to hate another. What you love is irrelevant be it KISS, Happy Days, or your Nana. Loving something is a weakness to poke and prod, until the recipient of such scorn is too embarrassed to love anything, unless it’s Metallica. One can say, “I love Metallica,” and their hessian membership card will remain unblemished, but that’s the extent of love in the hessian world.

If the scorned has never heard the music of Metallica, friends will instruct them to run out to the store tomorrow and buy Ride the Lightning, Master of Puppets, or And Justice for All…” If the listener stubbornly refuses to worship these three albums, after repeated listens, they run the risk of having a ‘poser’ label cast upon them. That person may as well take the denim jacket off, cut their mullet, and start calling their grandma “My Nana” again, because they’ll never gain entrance into the hallowed halls of the hessian.

Hessians can smile and laugh, but they need to reserve those reactions for moments of scorn and ridicule. A hessian can like KISS and Van Halen, but as I said that’s not enough. They cannot –I repeat cannot– like Poison, Cinderella, or Faster Pussycat. Doing so, will open up the floodgates for scorn and ridicule, granting all card-carrying hessians in attendance the smile and laugh allowance. I assume that social media forums have made life easier for teens in America by comparison, for a person can now block those who question their musical preferences.

This complex world of identity through music became a lot easier for me when I became a Zeppelin guy though. Prior to experiencing the sensorial, shocking world of Led Zeppelin, I assumed they could be lumped in with The Doobie Brothers, Foghat, and all the other relatively nondescript bands of seventies music. When I discovered how faulty that assumption was, I became a Zeppelin guy.

Most of the fellas I knew wanted to befriend Zeppelin guys. They wanted to talk with us, be like us, and accept us into their community. I could hang out with Zeppelin guys. We could talk for hours about the band’s iconography and folklore. I could even proselytize others into the Zeppelin world if I wanted another friend. I could just play the Led Zeppelin albums II and Zoso, and create a friend, complete with all the shared associations and memories that went along with it. After becoming a Zeppelin guy and creating more Zeppelin guys, I decided to progress from being just a Zoso and Zeppelin II guy to a Physical Graffiti and Zeppelin III guy. I learned every lyric and every beat on those two Zeppelin albums, and to some Zeppelin guys I progressed from being a Zeppelin guy to the Zeppelin guy. For loving those two albums as much as I did, other Zeppelin guys assigned complicated and mysterious Zeppelin guy characteristics to me.

“Yeah, II and Zoso are great,” I said to beginners, “but wait till you start listening to III and Fizzy Graph,” (Fizzy Graph was the nickname the Zeppelin guys gave to Physical Graffiti.) “I’ll lend them to you when you’re ready.”

It was a glorious world to enter into, a world of opportunity. In this world, Zeppelin girls existed, and one could taste forbidden fruits and still be one of the fellas. Hessians, punkers, and even some Genesis guys could stand side by side, in mutual admiration. This society involved musicians and music aficionados of all stripes. We could talk, laugh, and listen to the greatest music ever produced, for as all Zeppelin guys know, all music stems from Led Zeppelin.

Zeppelin guys felt like rule breakers, for who broke more rules than Jimmy, Robert, JPJ, and Bonzo? Rule breakers do have rules though, albeit unspoken ones. We Zeppelin guys still had to avoid giving a durn about most things, as being a Zeppelin guy wasn’t a cloak against being ostracized. We still had to despise Beverly Hills 90210, Michael Jackson songs, and Tom Cruise movies, and the fake, superficial, and artificial matters, they espoused. We also could not permit fellow Zep guys to call their grandma “My Nana” either, especially if they aspired to the Zep guy status.

We also had to fortify our Zeppelin guy status on a continual basis, then the Zeppelin guy status if we were lucky enough to achieve it. A Zeppelin guy still had to guard himself against complacency in the Zep guy world, or we could lose our status entirely. It was all right to enjoy the music on In Through the Out Door, for example, but a true Zeppelin guy could not love it, because the music on that album relied on synthesizers too much, and John Paul Jones had far too much influence on it. It lacked the raw Page/Plant magic of the first six albums, and every fella who wanted to maintain the Zeppelin guy status had to know that.

We all know that the brain of a groundhog is less complex than that the human brain, but we also know that even the most simplistic, primal minds react to music. If a groundhog listens to the same music, however, will he, over time, develop an affinity for it? Will certain groups of groundhogs break out of the pack and develop discerning taste? Will these groups begin to develop an affinity for Zeppelin over Genesis? Will they begin to ostracize Genesis lovers just to gain some cachet within their own groups? Will groundhogs reach a point when it is no longer about the music for them but the iconography and complexities they developed in their particular group in the groundhog community for the music they chose to love? Will their love for the music strengthen over time, and if it does, will it reach a point when one can characterize that love as complex, or will we simply deem it a simplistic desire to belong to that group of groundhogs who listened to the same music other groundhogs considered cool, and will the groundhogs ever begin to see the distinction for what it is?

Abbie Reinhold


“Be nice,” is the advice I would give someone who was accused of being crazy. “Be nice and smile a lot,” I would add. This doesn’t sound like an adequate defense to such a malleable charge, but if someone accuses us of being crazy there’s probably not much we can do to change their mind. This defense acknowledges that by suggesting we convince those who surround the accuser that we’re kind and we genuinely care about them. By doing so, we might gather a defense team who will mount a defense team that leaves our accuser in the minority.    

Most of us have never had others seriously question our sanity. They might say things like, “You’re crazy,” or “You’re insane,” but they often say that with a wink and a nod. To those who have seriously been accused of being so far outside the mainframe that it has diminished their quality of life, we offer this advice because we’ve witnessed others rush to the defense of a person they consider nice, regardless what anyone else says. These defenders are prone to dismiss most eccentricities of the nice and kind as endearing qualities. As these eccentricities begin to build up, people will talk. They will share stories and compare notes, but again, if the subject of this scrutiny is considered nice, sweet, or genuinely kind, their defenders will only ramp up their defense.

One of the primary components of selling this nice façade is a warm, pleasant smile. A genuine smile not only speaks of peace of mind, it disarms observers searching for cracks in our foundation, and it might serve us well in our attempts to conceal our eccentricities. Anyone who has seriously been accused of being crazy might be surprised to learn just how disarming a simple, warm smile can be. “You think she’s crazy?” observers might say in the face of another’s accusations regarding a subject’s crazy characteristics, “because I think she seems nice.”

“And you’re basing that on her smile?” we argue. “Ted Bundy had a radiant smile too. Do you think he was normal?” It doesn’t matter to them, for the idea that a crazy person seems nice, based on their warm, glowing smile is the primary point and the end of the discussion to others.

Observers have bullet points that they look for when they’re trying to spot crazy people. Are these bullet points fair? It doesn’t matter. We have created them to help us avoid saying, or doing, the wrong thing to the wrong person who might go crazy on us. One of the most prominent bullet points we look for is nastiness.

Most people don’t choose to be nasty, but they’ve been attacked so many times over the years that when they meet new people they’re defensive. They attack before anyone can attack their vulnerabilities. They become so accustomed to being attacked for their characteristics that being nasty is the first arrow they reach for in their quiver. The goal of this preemptive attack is to convince us to avoid them, and that is just fine to the crazy person for they have not found a better alternative to avoid being attacked. The problem with this strategy is that the accused might find otherwise sympathetic souls joining in on the discussions of their unpredictability, until the crazy person’s peers reach an agreed upon characterization that they will not expect. The solution is so simple that most crazy people have never considered it as a viable strategy before, smile and be nice.

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I used to work for an online company. The company rewarded its employees with a month long sabbatical for tenured service. While on this sabbatical, my department hired a number of new people. One of them was a crazy person named Abbie Reinhold. One of the first things Abbie did, to introduce herself to the group, was defeat any impressions we might have about her. This preemptive attack was comprised of confrontation and nastiness that dared anyone to challenge the impression she may have made. This defense gained her a reputation, however unfair, of being a cat lady.

To this point, no one knew if Abbie Reinhold owned a cat. She simply fit the stereotype, arrow for arrow, bullet point for bullet point. She could’ve been the prototype for the cat lady on the television show The Simpsons. The stereotype is an affixed staple in our culture, because there are examples of it. It’s not true that all women who own cats are crazy, of course for we’ve all met perfectly sane women who have an inordinate number of cats as companions. We’ve also encountered women who scream at these cats, as if they’re human, and they find that they get along a lot better with cats than they do humans for all of the psychological underpinnings that are indigenous to a cat lady.

When I arrived back at work, I found that those in charge of making seating arrangements placed this crazy woman across from me, in the cubicle I faced. Did I know that Abbie Reinhold was a little crazy? How could one not sense that something was off about her, based on her preemptive attacks?

My attempts at building a psychological profile on someone, based on first impressions, had been so wrong, so often, at that point in my life that I decided to give Abbie Reinhold a chance. Mary, one of the precedents for how wrong I can be, sat right next to Abbie Reinhold. I was so wrong about Mary that I decided Abbie Reinhold might be another Mary. Mary was a woman of solitude, and a little “off”, but it turned out that Mary was such a sweet woman in all other matters that she became anecdotal evidence for how wrong the psychological profiles we build can be.

As that first day wore on, I noticed that Abbie talked to herself a lot, and while I do deem those who talk to themselves a lot a little crazy, I cut all new employees a little slack. Some of the cases we worked on for this company, could be quite difficult and overwhelming, and I had firsthand knowledge of how difficult and overwhelming the job could be for a new person. For this reason, I paid little attention to Abbie Reinhold on that first day.

On the second day, Abbie Reinhold began talking to herself when I sat down at 8:00 A.M. up and to the point when she left at 5:30. Man, I thought, this poor woman is really struggling. Abbie’s frustrations were on display for all to see, but as I said I empathized. We all have coping mechanisms for dealing with the stress and pressure of the job, and we all know that coping mechanisms can vary, and they are often unique to the person. If this woman’s coping mechanism included talking to herself, who was I to judge? She did talk to herself a lot though.

The third day was something altogether different. The coping mechanism of talking her way through a case progressed to screaming. Abbie developed the habit of silently screaming at her computer. Everything about her face and mouth suggested she was screaming, except for the sound. Her head was bopping, and she bared her teeth. I glanced around to determine the source of her frustration. I couldn’t find anything. She was new though, and I continued to offer her some slack, but the progression didn’t ebb and flow in the manner it had in the past days. Abbie’s frustrations had progressed. Matters, such as these, don’t usually phase me. I’m a calm and levelheaded guy, but I had one foot pointed to the door in case her frustration resulted in some sort of ultimate resolution.

I worked in various computer companies for near a decade at that point, and I saw so many anomalies of human behavior that her idiosyncratic behaviors were noteworthy. Nothing more and nothing less. Did those of us around her laugh when she laughed for no apparent reason, we did. Did we share raised eyebrows when some noises escaped her otherwise silent screams, we did. Those who might call us out for those judgmental reactions have to understand that it’s human nature to laugh at something we don’t understand. When we witness what we consider a confusing anomaly, our impulsive reaction is to either laugh or cry, and I wasn’t so afraid of her that I would cry. I came close the next day, when I saw her eat a cookie, as everything about that act appeared to crystallize the notions I had that she might be crazy.

I would never go so far as to say that I’m a macho man who fears nothing, but I can say without fear of rebuttal, that I’ve never experienced anything resembling fear, while watching another person eat a cookie. I don’t think I feared her, in the truest sense of the word, but I did have goosebumps.

What are goosebumps? Some have theorized that they are a physiological phenomenon we’ve inherited from our animal ancestors. They’re useless to us, because we don’t have a coat of hair, but the reason other animals may use the same elevations in the skin is to protect against the cold and to make themselves appear larger when confronted by a potential threat. I didn’t consider Abbie Reinhold’s ravenous consumption of the cookie threatening, but the physiological phenomenon occurring on my arm suggested that I might want to consider getting larger just in case.

I assumed she was diabetic, as I have known many diabetics who were calmed by a cookie. I don’t know if that was the case with her, but she ate that cookie in the manner I suspect one would after starving themselves for three days.

I watched every bite she took. I don’t know what I was waiting to see, but I was watching. Watching is probably the wrong word to describe what I was doing, for I was not looking at her. By the time Abbie Reinhold began eating the cookie, she and I established the rule that I was not to look at her, so I trained myself to pay attention to her, without looking. I was looking at my computer, but I wasn’t typing or doing anything work-related. I was staring at her without looking at her. When she finished that cookie without any progressions, I did not sigh, but I was relieved.

In the days that followed, I would see her laugh. When a person sits behind a computer for ten hours a day, the mind drifts. Those of us who worked in the service industry dreamed of a day when we didn’t have to work with people. Once we achieved it, we realized we needed more human contact. To satisfy this need, we drift back to the rude thing the supermarket checker said to us, and we conjure up a perfect comeback while staring at our computer. We remember the hilarious thing our friend said to us, and we laugh, and we think up the perfect addition to their joke. Some of the times, we find ourselves so wrapped up in these memories that a smile or a grimace might slip out. When this happens, we drop that expression as quickly as possible, and we scan our surroundings to make sure no one saw it. This woman didn’t seem to care about any of that. Her smiles turned into uproarious laughter. Her grimaces turned into silent, vehement screams.

In the professional climate of office workers reading the words on their computers, the white noise of the sounds of typing, can lull all employees into a safe harbor of the mind. Anything and everything is distracting. Drop a pencil on the carpet, and six people might turn to watch you pick it up. In this climate of solitude and servitude, whispers are distracting and annoying. The relatively benign sounds of soft laughter can lead others to roll over to see what you’re laughing at on your computer. Other employees did this, in the early days of Abbie Reinhold’s tenure on our team. After a couple more of these incidents, fewer and fewer rolled over to Abbie’s desk. We would laugh, however, but it was a laugh of empathy, for we knew how often we drifted into our own daydreams. We managed to restrain ourselves from displays of emotion, but we knew how close to that line we were. Over the course of our brief tenure together, Abbie shattered the shackles of embarrassment by reenacting scenes from her life without shame. When a non-team member would stop by our desk to ask us a question, and they would see her turning left and right with laughter or anger, they would ask us about it, and we would say, “Just ignore it.” On one such occasion, she placed a hand between her breasts and apologized to her computer screen for laughing so hard. She wasn’t speaking to me, the unfortunate witness to her activities. She wasn’t speaking to anyone.

When Abbie Reinhold talks to herself, she gesticulates in a casual manner that one uses to expound upon meaning. These gesticulations progress to a flailing of the arms, in a manner reserved for partygoers having one hell of a good time. She swirls in her computer chair, in a Julie Andrews, “The Hills are Alive” manner, when she appears immersed in a wonderful moment in her life, and she says mumbles responses to the fictional characters who surround her.

I wondered one day if she is talking to people in the future or the past, or is she one of those rare individuals who –like a Kurt Vonnegut character– is unstuck in time, and is living in the past, the present and the future at the same time?

I wondered what Abbie Reinhold would think of me if I started talking to myself, followed by uproarious laughter and wild gesticulations. Would she laugh from a distance at my foolish actions, to reveal how oblivious she is to her own? Would Abbie laugh at me with full knowledge of her actions, but by ridiculing me, she hoped to gain some distance from the things that crazy people do? Would she view my foolish display as an opportunity in which she could define herself to others, thus lifting herself above those who engage in such activities for the purpose of either changing the minds of those around her, or vindicating her beliefs in her own sanity? The unlikely alternative, I suspect, is that she would see what I was doing and identify with in a manner that might establish some sort of solidarity between us. Even if I mimicked her without any form of mockery, I doubt that she would defend me against anyone who ridiculed me for talking to myself. I doubt she would say anything along the lines of, “Hey, I talk to myself, how dare you crack on my people.” I doubt that she was that objective.

On one of the days that followed, Abbie Reinhold stood. She was not looking at a fellow employee named Natalie, but she wasn’t looking away either. She was just standing. She did stand near enough to Natalie that Natalie thought the Crazy Lady had a work-related question that she couldn’t articulate. Natalie was a senior agent on the team, assigned to answering agent questions.

“What’s up?” Natalie asked her.

“Just stretching,” the crazy lady said.

“What’s wrong with that?” I asked when Natalie informed me of these details.

“She was standing still,” Natalie informed me. “I don’t think she moved a muscle.”

“Did you ask her what muscles she was stretching?”

This Crazy Lady also eats her earwax. She pulls it out, examines it, and she eats it on occasion. Some of the times, Abbie Reinhold looks at it and discards it. I often wonder what her selection process involves. What’s the difference between a good pull, and a bad one?

I wondered if I cracked a joke about people who eat their own earwax, what Abbie’s reaction would be. Would she laugh from a distance at such foolish people, or would she defend her fellow earwax eaters? “Hey, I eat my ear wax, how dare you crack on my people.”

✽✽✽

Some readers might find this piece mean-spirited, as we should never discuss (much less laugh at) those who have vulnerabilities. To those charges, I submit to the court of public opinion, exhibit A: Abbie Reinhold.

Abbie Reinhold was not a sympathetic figure, and witnesses to Abbie Reinhold’s demeanor would testify to the fact that Abbie Reinhold could often be witnessed laughing as hard, if not harder, at the idiosyncrasies of those around her as anyone else. (I think this raucous laughter might have been born of the relief of being on the other side of that laughter for once.) We understood that she was defensive by nature when we met, but she began leveling attacks against us before we knew her last name. We have no knowledge of the incidents that drove her to attack us, and we empathize with anyone who has been attacked for their characteristics, for we have all experienced such attacks throughout our lives.  

When it comes to using past grievances to fuel nastiness, anything can provide an impetus. Perhaps she made unfair associations that led her to unfair conclusions about us, but we were ambivalent to her presence, until she attacked us with her shield. Abbie Reinhold brought her past grievances to the table not us. We did not seek to chastise, or ostracize, Abbie Reinhold. We viewed her as nothing more than another employee in a large company, until she made her presence known.

For those in the court of public opinion who are not willing to take some anonymous author’s word for it, we submit exhibit B: Sheila Jones. Sheila Jones was what many might consider the prototype for a nice, sweet, woman who has lived long enough, and experienced just enough, to know the best and worst of humanity. Sheila is the type of person who chooses to view humanity from the magnanimous position of believing that her waste matter stinks too. Sheila is one of those rare individuals who genuinely seeks to find the best in everyone, and those who know her well would probably say that Sheila is the prototype for those individuals we laud by saying, ‘she never had an unkind word to say about anyone.’ Not only was Sheila an audience to the stories we told about Abbie Reinhold, she would break that mold by contributing to them.

I make no claim to being as nice and understanding as Sheila was, is, and always will be. She is one of those rare individuals who are nice, understanding, and empathetic to the plight of the 99.9 percent of the population. When the subject of Abbie Reinhold arose, not only did Sheila join the pack of hyenas, ripping at the carcass, she laughed as hard as any of us did, even if it was behind a hand.

The question I have, now that I have achieved enough distance from this story to have some objectivity on it, is would anyone like Sheila want to trade such stories if Abbie Reinhold was a nice person? Would anyone as nice as Sheila laugh as hard as she did, if Abbie Reinhold was a sweet person who just happened to have been afflicted with some noteworthy eccentricities? The males might have, for males are predisposed to enjoying stories that pertain to the weaknesses and frailties of another, a trait that we can trace to their king of the hill mentalities. Mean girls might have too, for many of the same reasons. We’ve all heard of people raised with Midwest values and southern hospitality. Sheila had all that, plus a personal level of sympathy for others that those of us who knew her considered unmatched. Thus, we can only guess that if Abbie was anything from ambivalent-to-nice to someone like Sheila Jones, she would have shut down any discussions about the woman’s eccentricities with a simple word about decorum and niceties. If Abbie was a nice person who just happened to do odd things, the women in our group like Sheila might have even shamed the rest of us who engaged in such discussions. “She’s a nice person,” is something they might have said, and they would’ve dismissed every characterization of Abbie Reinhold on that basis. The fact that these women not only laughed uproariously at the stories of Abbie Reinhold’s idiosyncrasies, but shared their own experiences with her, and drove the discussion in many cases, should suggest to any crazy people seeking to proactively diffuse any attempts at characterizing them in an unfair and exaggerated manner, that the best way to ingratiate themselves to those who might end up defending them, is by being nice.

The Leans


“This is it,” Andrew Parizek said at my desk. I was listening to music in my earbuds, so I didn’t see, hear or sense his approach. By the time he said that, Andrew was so close that he startled me. Andrew was a close talker, but he narrowed his customary gap in this particular instance. “My final farewell to you, my friend,” he added. “I’m leaving the company. I’m on my way out the door.”

“Oh shoot,” I said to my co-worker who I considered a close associate. I don’t know how he would characterize our multi-year association, but when we had a go-between, we spoke every day. When that third party moved desks, I thought the triumvirate was over. Yet, Andrew kept coming over to my desk to talk about the stupid stuff stupid people talk about. “It was great working with you buddy,” I told him.

This “Final Farewell” had been in various stages of an active gestation cycle for about two weeks. The prior weekend, he and I discussed his departure at his going away party, and we also discussed his future at length. We didn’t hug at the end of that particular discussion, but we engaged in a heartfelt, hearty handshake at that going away party that expressed how I felt about him, coupled with some discussion of the good times we shared together, and how much we would miss the little things we both did to brighten the other’s otherwise boring days.

I thought that those final farewells, and all the ones prior to it, were the final farewells, but his presence at my desk informed me that that notion was premature. I told him it wouldn’t be the same at the company without him, as I had in the previous final farewells, but I felt compelled to add original material to this one. Therefore, I added some sentimental junk that I didn’t mean. I was being nice, and I was trying to make him feel important in my life. In truth, I liked the guy, but he bothered me, in insignificant ways, at the same time.

I asked Andrew Parizek if he was excited about his future prospects, and I told him that I was jealous that he was doing something so important with his life. I wasn’t jealous, as Andrew was moving onto a career that I didn’t want to do, but it seemed like a fitting sentiment to add to this final version of our final farewell.

I also told him that I thought he was a swell fella, and a nice guy, and I meant that.

I asked Andrew if he was a little scared about the prospect of leaving the comfy confines our company offered to venture out into an unknown world where the prospect of failure was greater. He said yes to all of the above. Then he launched.

He spelled out for me, in explicit detail, this new venture of his life. He did so with magnificence and aplomb. He was also magnanimous. He spoke about how he thought that I was delightful, and the type that would succeed, and that if I stuck to it, all my dreams would come true. It was sappy and weird. I hid my revulsion for his word choices. He tried to be multisyllabic, and he used as many –ly words as he had in his vocabulary. He tried to instill a sense of timeless profundity to this final version of his “Final Farewell”. If it were a speech, it might have caused great emotion. The audience might have been applauding at the end, some may have cried, and others may have even stood to applaud. The over the top farewell was one that often elicits such near-compulsory emotion. Andrew lit up in moments where ‘dreams can come true’ lines poured out of him. When the line “If it can happen for me, it can happen for anyone” brought him to crescendo, I might have placed two fingers on a handkerchief if I had one within reach.

It was so over-the-top brilliant, coupled with subtle attempts at self-deprecating humor, that I wondered if Andrew plagiarized some of his material from the “Going to War” letters that Ken Burns collected and displayed from soldiers for his The Civil War documentary. If it wasn’t, I felt safe in my assumption that Andrew practiced and rehearsed this speech that day, before a mirror. Whatever the case was, I felt compelled to inform him that I thought this version of the final farewell was an “Experience for anyone lucky enough to hear it,” “Your best, final farewell since final farewell number four,” and a “Tour de Force!” I didn’t say any of this, but I felt Andrew Parizek choreographed it in such a way that it warranted superlatives.

We were fellow office workers, and we were associates, as I said. We got along on those levels, so receiving an invitation to his going away party wasn’t a great surprise to me. When I arrived at his going away party, we said our hellos, goodbyes, and as I said some talk about his future endeavor, but our conversation didn’t last that long. The relative lack of attention Andrew offered me compared to his closer friends, didn’t wound me. I thought he offered me as much attention as our association warranted.

This Casablanca-style parting was just way beyond protocol as far as I was concerned though. I wished him well and all that, and he again went into the same speech he gave me at the party. Andrew also told me that he wanted me to email him, so we could keep updated on each other’s lives. I knew that wouldn’t happen, but I thought it was a nice sentiment. He then concluded with another note about how he was nervous about his future, but he was excited by the prospects of it too.

By the time he began to step away, he was all but yelling good wishes to me. My mouth wasn’t open, but the display did set me back a pace. Then it happened …

Andrew Parizek entered into a wicked case of the leans with my desk neighbor. He was exiting the aisle my cubicle was in, and my desk neighbor was entering into it. He leaned to the left to get by her, she leaned left, and when he leaned to the right, she leaned right. Before they made it past one another, they performed four separate and distinct leans.

If Andrew was extracting himself from a casual conversation, and exiting the aisle in a routine manner, he might have been able to avoid the spectacle that ended up occurring between these two. If he felt no need to execute a departure to be earmarked in the annals of time for all of those “that were there” to witness his ride into the sunset, I suspect he would’ve been the gentleman he was and stepped aside to allow my female desk mate to pass. At worst, the two of them may have engaged in two leans, if it wasn’t Andrew’s hope that this “The Final Farewell” include women waving handkerchiefs and someone, somewhere saying, “You know what, there goes one hell of a good feller.” I assume that Andrew pictured the rest of us as side characters in his exit left behind to chronicle the attributes of the main character of this “The Final Farewell” scene.

I don’t keep a ledger on such things, but I do believe that the Andrew Parizek v. desk neighbor case of the leans to be the most intense I’ve ever witnessed. I’ve been a witness to a number of severe cases in my day, and I’ve ever been a party to a few, but I don’t think I witnessed four separate and distinct leans before that day.

I’ve witnessed two separate leans on so many occasions it’s not worth noting, and I’ve witnessed more than my fair share of three. The one thing we know about the public humiliation such as these is that no one gets out alive, for as the cliché illustrates “it takes two to tango.” I’ve witnessed some scream, “Get out of my way!” in an unsuccessful attempt to blame the other for the tango and avoid personal embarrassment. I’ve seen witnesses laugh and one of those involved turn angry on those laughing to change the subject. None of it works. No one gets out alive.

The only individual able maintain a modicum of dignity following such an episode was a nondescript, middle-aged, paunchy restaurant hostess named Susan.

“Shall we dance?” was what she said.

She said that in the second of what would be a reported, and corroborated, three leans. Susan said it in the midst of what should have been her humiliation. Other witnesses to this episode would later swear corroborated the fact that Susan had a glint in her eye when she said those three words. The glint was faint, and it was a little insecure, but it suggested to those observers that Susan knew exactly what she was doing.

What she was doing is susceptible to interpretation, of course, as this woman named Susan maintained a degree of humility that prevented her from addressing the full import of her purported casual salvo against future ridicule. Those who witnessed Susan issue this phrase will swear, to their dying day, that Susan knew that by saying this, she was setting the rest of us free from the ridicule that follows such an episode. We can only assume that Susan suffered similar ridicule for much of her life, and that it bothered her so much that she sought to put an end to it. If that wasn’t the case, it might have had something to do with Susan’s hope that this line might provide a remedy to so many other future sufferers. Her hope, we can only guess, was that the witnesses of this episode would spread the word to put an end to this scale of human suffering. Whatever the case was, this unassuming restaurant hostess provided those of us who were lucky enough to be there that day, a shield against public scorn that some of us would use the rest of our lives. We might not have carried it off with the grace and aplomb Susan did that day, but we would always think of her, and silently thank her, for freeing us from this ever-present spectacle in our lives.

Had my Andrew Parizek learned of this antidote prior to his case of the leans, it might have spared him the humiliation. I doubted this at the time, and I still do, for I considered Susan’s humorous quip an antidote to two, and in her case three, separate and distinct leans, but I wasn’t sure that even her ingenious response could shield one from the public fallout of four.

Four separate and distinct leans were so unprecedented, to my mind, that I doubt there is a sufficient antidote. Couple that with the fact with the Gone with the Wind-style, dramatic exit that Andrew hoped to execute preceded it, and I doubt that any clever quip would’ve allowed him to save face. His only recourse was to walk away and just hope that witnesses would forget it soon after it happened.

We all want to be remembered, and perhaps that’s all Andrew Parizek wanted when he delivered so many final farewells to so many people that he accidentally said goodbye to the same people more than twice. I don’t know how much preparation he put into his final farewells, but I’m sure he did it so that he could let each of us know how important we were to him and to have the sentiment returned. This is not to suggest that Andrew’s actions were, in any sense, self-serving, but everyone wants those around them to remember that we were here. It is possible that had Andrew escaped unencumbered by my desk neighbor, his final farewell might have had the lasting effect on me he hoped for, but the lasting memory I now have of him consists of him shucking and jiving with my desk neighbor, trying to get past her for a dramatic ride off into the sunset.

Looking for Emotions in All the Wrong Places


“Looking for love in all the wrong places can be dramatic, exciting, and fun,” nobody said. Nobody says this, but a number of us have a number of ten minutes to midnight relationships, and while some consider come of them exciting and fun, they know they aren’t built to last. The music stops at midnight, as we all know, and the curtain closes on our carefully crafted production. We take our costumes and makeup off and prepare them for the big reveal. 

The fairy tale romance is out there, and we know it. We’ve read about it, we’ve seen it in the movies, on TV, and we’ve heard about in rock and roll songs. We’ve heard about the turmoil and tumult that occurs in some relationships … in country music songs, but who wants to live like that? We shouldn’t have to settle. We might be embarrassed to admit that lust just doesn’t do it for us anymore, and we’re done trying to play a role in Gone with the Wind. We lick our wounds, we help them lick theirs, and we set about building our Frankenstein’s monster. We want someone funny, but not mean; somewhat skinny but not lean; dramatic but not traumatic; and nice but not sappy. We search far and wide, until we find that person who wants to get to know us while quietly watching reruns of the Andy Griffith Show and Three’s Company with us, eating a turkey sandwich and a bag of Lay’s original brand of potato chips.

When those after-the-show conversations casually morph into mundane conversation, we realize that some date-worthy people are normal, and they don’t mind listening to what we have to say. They also appear to be doing so with genuine interest. Our friends might not want to hear about the nights we spend with them, discussing the unheralded comedic genius Don Knotts, and they might even remind us how exciting and sexy our exes were.

We enjoyed those relationships for what they were, but they always find a way to transfer their toxic, emotional baggage to us. They affect and infect everyone in their wake, until the dating pool becomes an emotional, as opposed to physical, manifestation of the Cantina Bar scene in Star Wars. In our search for the perfect mate, we uncovered a precious commodity we never considered before normalcy. We never put the normal bullet point in our search engine, because we spent so much time condemning the normal. “Who wants to be normal? Normal is boring, and my parents were normal, and I’m anything and everything but,” we said various strains of this joke so often that we began to believe it. After all of the whirlwind romances leave us in an undefined state, somewhere near unstable, we begin to prize normal people. We seek someone who can yin our yang that might lead to a stable foundation that we can use to build something year by year, day by day, and hour to hour. We realize that the best romance is a “Little bit country and a little bit rock and roll.”

***

Elijah Wood and Tobie McGuire are two different people. I knew this on some level, but when I searched for a movie I just finished, to recommend it to a friend, I searched for Tobie McGuire. It turned out Elijah Wood read the screenwriter’s lines for the character of that movie. I used to know my cultural touchstones so well. Am I slipping? Who cares? We do. Knowing cultural references is important to us, and in many ways we think it defines our intelligence. As I’ve written elsewhere, in Abraham Lincoln’s day, it was vital to a person’s existence that they know The Bible and Shakespeare so well that you could drop and spot all references; in the 1990’s, it was The Simpsons and Seinfeld; and now with devices and streaming, the cultural touchstones are all over the map. There are still some cultural references everyone must know, however, and if a foreigner wants to assimilate into the American culture, they would do well to learn some of our cultural references. I slipped in one of mine, and I told a friend about this. She said, “That’s great, but I don’t know who either of those people are.” As someone who knows cultural references but doesn’t care too much about them, this placed me at a fork in the road. I used to care a great deal, and I once met a person who was as knowledgeable as I was in cultural references. She even topped me in several areas, a novelty I enjoyed. I had a crush on her, based almost solely on this area of her expertise. Our relationship didn’t last long however as she personified, for me, the idea that when selecting a mate in life, cultural knowledge might be on the tail end of the top 100 most important pieces of the pie in my decision making process.

***

“I’M MAD!” I yelled.

“No one cares!” my dad yelled back. Among the many things my dad taught me, one of the primary ones that stuck is no one cares when we’re mad. No one cares when we’re happy, no one cares when we’re sad, and no one cares when we’re mad. “If you choose to sit in the corner with a mad face on, that’s fine, but remember that’s your choice,” he said.

It was all quite frustrating at the time, but I now think my dad was probably, accidentally or incidentally, onto something. I now add to my dad’s emotionally callous response, “While you’re over there, in the corner, remember that it’s up to you to teach the world how they can help you avoid such messy displays of emotion. If you’re so mad that you’re now ready to tip the apple cart, ask yourself why you didn’t do, or say, something sooner. If you’re raging mad now, chances are you’re probably mad at yourself for your inability to do, or say, something sooner, when this was nothing more than a simple disagreement. We were all rational back then, and we probably would’ve listened to your solutions. Shoot that stuff at the source, and you might not ever have to be so mad again. If you’re mad at something someone said, or did, it’s your job to tell them about it.”

“But, they won’t listen to me,” the collective ‘we’ respond.

“Yeah, you’re probably going to have to do it a lot, and you might have to do it so often that it could lead to some form of confrontation or some sort of altercation, but if you don’t, you’re going to end up like Michael.”

Some twenty years prior to the day I met Michael, bullies were laying into him. The bullies were so relentless that whatever they did to Michael affected him twenty years later, when he told his story to a group of people who never met him before. These bullies picked on Michael so often, in his high school years, that he sought the assistance from an authority figure. That authority figure offered some advice that few authority figures would today. “Pick out the toughest one of the bunch and punch him in the mouth as hard as you can,” the priest, in charge of discipline at the high school we went to in different years, said. “He’s going to punch you back, and you’ll probably get beat up, but they will all leave you alone from that point on.”

“What did you do?” I asked after a pregnant pause.

“I didn’t do anything,” Michael said. “I couldn’t believe that a priest was telling me to punch someone.”

That was the end of Michael’s story as far as Michael was concerned. For those of us who never met Michael before, it was only the beginning of our understanding of him. If Michael found a forceful way to rebuke those bullies, his life from that day forward might be different. If Michael reached a point of desperation that required him to punch the biggest bully of the bunch, and he did it, he was probably a different man from the one we met that day. As the priest said, the big bully would’ve punched him back, and it would’ve hurt. Worst-case scenario, Michael ends up in a hospital, but most bullies simply punch back one time and leave their victim on the floor. Worst-case scenario, Michael ends up in the hospital, and he has to get his jaw wired shut, but Michael walks out of that emergency room a man who believes he knows how to handle his own situations. He doesn’t have to rely on the relative ineptitude of authority figures. He can handle himself, and he’s his own man, as opposed to the man we knew some twenty years who stepped away from his fork in the road.

As the years rolled along, in our working relationship, we learned that Michael was a seething ball of hatred. He hated certain people, until they came around. He said the meanest, most awful things about them, but when they stepped near him, he didn’t know how to express himself. Most of us have issues with confrontation, but most of us find a healthy, non-confrontational way of voicing our concerns. Michael didn’t even have that, and when I witnessed it firsthand, I wondered how different he might be if he followed that priest’s advice. It’s possible that Michael’s meek nature was a result of so many instances that one such instance wouldn’t make a dent in his approach, but it might have started the ball rolling.

It’s our job in life to teach others how to treat us. We might have to do it so often that they mock us for repeating ourselves, but we can add, “If you knew how I wanted to be treated, and you did it anyway, why do you continue to do it? What did you hope to gain?” We might have to repeat ourselves with such force that it results in what everyone fears most a punch in the mouth, but what’s the alternative? Where our we now? We’re so mad now that they’re under our skin. If people treat us poorly, we should recognize that as our inability to instruct them properly. Telling everyone that we’re mad, or giving them the silent treatment, is a complete waste of everyone’s time, including ours.” 

We didn’t enter into this argument with Michael. We simply felt sorry for him, but what if we had? We can imagine that Michael would’ve been able to counterpoint our every point. We would’ve argued, and he had twenty years of justifications for his actions. At what point in an argument, do we realize we’re doing more harm than good? At what point do we reach a zero point? We argue because we want everyone to know how smart we are. We argue because we want to persuade others to our point of view. We also argue to save our friends from themselves. At what point, do we realize the other party disagrees with us so much that no matter what we say, we’re never going to persuade them to our point of view? At what point do we realize there’s no point in continuing? Even when they’re demonstrably wrong, it makes no sense to continue the argument, as we can see that they’re not going to change their mind. We can also see that we’re insulting them at some point, and we might be damaging whatever relationship we have with them. As much as it pains us, we realize that some of the times it’s just better, less frustrating, and less maddening, to walk away.

Framing DeLorean: A Review


John Zachary DeLorean’s now historic tale has three bullet points, fraud, embezzlement, and an embarrassing cocaine bust. Those of us who knew next to nothing about the story, prior to watching Framing DeLorean, knew John DeLorean built a “car of the future” that few, outside the producers of the movie Back to the Future purchased. We read those “Metoric Rise and Dramatic fall” magazine articles. We heard that story on late-night talk shows, and we repeated the jokes that dropped from it, “The DMC DeLorean looks great … from the outside. If you’re on the inside though, you’re probably not going to think that, because you might not be able to get out of it.” Bottom line, we thought, the main character depicted in the now historic tale of John DeLorean was a bad guy, on par with Oliver Stone’s bad guy Gordon Gecko. After watching Framing DeLorean, the viewer finds that it’s a lot more complicated than all that. We see an ambitious, talented man who got so caught up in the tent poles of glory and fame that he ended up kicking them all down around him to bring the tent down on himself? We find ourselves asking the questions was the DMC DeLorean a fraud perpetuated on the public, or did its engineer/CEO fear what others might think of him so much that he allegedly engaged in fraudulent activity to try to prevent others from seeing him for who he really is? Even if he wasn’t what they suspected?

No one cares, you say, because law enforcement officials believed he engaged in fraud, and they they gathered enough evidence to successfully indict him on those charges. They also arrested DeLorean after a sting operation, in which they caught him, on tape, taking part in proposal to sell cocaine. A jury found him not guilty in both cases, but no one cares. The charges, alone, damaged his legacy beyond repair. He became a laughing stock, and that was the end of the story as far as we were concerned. As detailed in the documentary Framing DeLorean, the full story is so much more complicated than that. The first two-thirds of the movie, depicts an ambitious, talented man chasing an impossible dream, and the final portions detail what happened when that dream wasn’t realized as flawlessly as the genius thought it should’ve been.  

No one in the film disputes the notion that John DeLorean was an ingenious and wildly successful engineer. After succeeding beyond his dreams as an engineer at General Motors (GM), DeLorean could’ve landed just about any job he wanted in the automotive industry. He decided, instead, to leave the security of his job at GM to pursue the impossible dream of beating the Big Three in the automotive industry at their own game. He also left behind the structure that he had at GM (and by the end of the film, some viewers might say this is key), and the system of checks and balances GM exerted on his designs. The final portions of the documentary cover what happens to a dream, when that man hits a series of roadblocks, and he is not as capable as those in the foundational structure at GM would’ve been at solving them.

When DeLorean left a secure job at GM, he took a team of talented, some say brilliant, people with him. Those brilliant minds thought DeLorean was such a brilliant mind that they left their own secure jobs to set about trying to make history with him. Private investors considered him such a genius that they scrambled to gather whatever funds they could find to back whatever project John DeLorean chose to pursue. He also received $140 million, in public funds, from Great Britain for the work he proposed to do in Northern Ireland, and he had the sentiments of the entire country of Northern Ireland behind him. A majority of Northern Ireland residents still consider John DeLorean a hero for everything he did to revive the economy of their then war-torn country. The employees he hired in Northern Ireland considered working for DeLorean a “dream job”. All conditions remaining constant, those workers probably would’ve worked for DeLorean for the next twenty to thirty years. DeLorean also had what many considered a brilliant engineer, named Bill Collins, follow him from GM to the DeLorean Motor Company (DMC). Collins was purported to be the kind of genius who could make all of John DeLorean’s dreams come true, and he could augment some of the particulars of DeLorean’s dreams to make the DMC DeLorean a top performer.

Even with all that behind him, we learn that the talking heads interviewed for the documentary considered DeLorean’s dream improbable. During that era, becoming a car manufacturer was near impossible, they said. The Big Three, General Motors, Ford and Chrysler had the market seized. No person, in their right mind, would attempt to go it alone, they said. Against everyone’s advice, John DeLorean tried it, and he nearly did it. He nearly accomplished the impossible dream. 

To accomplish such an impossible dream, one has to have an unusual amount of confidence, and John DeLorean obviously did … in the beginning. When he experienced some roadblocks, and the talking heads in the documentary suggest that most of these roadblocks were manageable, DeLorean’s unusual level of confidence began to waver. Did he begin to see the impossible dream for what it was? 

How many people love to play “poke the genius” in scenarios such as these? “He’s a genius, you say? Did you know that once you close those beautiful gull-wing doors, you can’t get out?” “Did you know that critics suggest that the performance and power of the car are not as advertised? Genius you say? I say piffle.” Americans say that Americans love to build someone up only tear them down, but how many of us truly adore genius? We might use the ingenious products of Apple, for example, but we prefer to gripe about its relatively insignificant flaws.   

How many people tell us that our dreams are unrealistic? How many of us can weather those storms no matter what hurdles cross our path? How many of us truly believe we can accomplish that dream? How many of us eventually find ourselves beat down by all of the naysayers telling us that our dreams are unrealistic?

When the DeLorean DMC finally, after eight years, hit the market, it hit a major roadblock. People weren’t buying the car. The car hit the market during a recession, and few were buying brand new cars, and critics began slamming the car for a variety of reasons, including the idea that it didn’t test well.

“All John DeLorean had to do, at this point, was halt production of the car and fix the errors [exposed in the tests],” one of the talking heads said in the documentary.

Those words probably haunted John DeLorean for the rest of his life. For a litany of reasons that might forecast the actions of John DeLorean, he didn’t halt production. This is the pivotal part of the story, and I’m quite sure this is the point where the cynical among us begin sniffing out the fraud. Why didn’t he just halt production? It might have cost him millions to do so, but those of us who know the end result know that this would prove the ultimate downfall of the DMC DeLorean car. This gap in the story line requires explanation, and when we don’t receive it, we fill it in. When we fill it in, we fill it with information we already know. We know that at the end of the story, John DeLorean will go down for fraud, so this is the first chink in the armor, and the place where the fraud begins.  

Another key point in the documentary involves the suggestion that DeLorean secured enough money from private investors to save the company. His brilliant engineer, Bill Collins, would tell us that a suspicious clause in a contract, led to him to be somewhat suspicious, but no one else saw any telltale signs of possible fraudulent activity. The talking heads in the documentary express their confusion over what DeLorean allegedly did with the investor’s money (again, a jury of his peers found him not guilty), because they suggest he had enough to save the company. The details are either a bit sketchy, or it’s difficult to follow talk of money, but it appears as though DeLorean secured the necessary funds from investors, he embezzled it, and then he agreed to take part in the sale of cocaine to replace the investor’s money he stole. (A jury found DeLorean not guilty of attempting to sell cocaine, but he was caught, on tape, in an FBI sting operation.)

One plus one equals two and a group of accountants found the missing investor money that John DeLorean hid in various accounts. We were right. This man was a fraud. The question we keep coming back to throughout Framing DeLorean is, was he fraudulent all along, or did he get too caught up in being a successful genius and a renegade who decided he was the one to take on the Big Three of the automotive industry? Did he love the fame, fortune, and the accompanying family life he enjoyed so much that his passion for the DMC DeLorean diminished by comparison? Did he love his pep rally presentations so much that he didn’t want to taint the character he created and others adored, and he didn’t want to give any “poke the genius” players material with a production delay to fix the structural errors of the car? We can guess that whole idea of structural errors and production delays are a pain in the tailbone for auto manufacturers. We can guess that testers always find something, because that’s their job, and a big-idea-genius-engineer often mischaracterizes their findings so often that he begins dismissing so many of them that he ends up dismissing all of them.  

Was John DeLorean was a victim of big-idea-guy disease? Big idea guys who turn into acclaimed geniuses often have a difficult time dealing with the minutiae of their craft. Big idea guys enjoy stepping on a stage to present their big ideas to their audience. The other guys, guys like Bill Simmons, often prefer to execute their genius in the shadow of the glitz and glamor of the big guys. In DeLorean’s former world, as an engineer in the Pontiac subdivision of GM, he had a number of little guys check and balance his idea on his designs before they rolled off the assembly line. He probably took that part of the process for granted as an engineer, but when he became a CEO he couldn’t ignore that part of the process anymore, and it appears as though he did. We can guess that the star child engineer at GM grew tired of everyone questioning him and diminishing his status, and that that drove him to go it alone. At GM, he probably felt like a Rottweiler in a world of Yorkies nipping at his heels. When he opened the doors to the DeLorean Motor Company, he began building a car of the future, and when those pesky Yorkies began telling him that the car’s performance and power weren’t as advertised and the gall wing doors had a tendency to lock up and prevent exit, he considered these issues small matters in the grand scheme of things. Who cares that the car may not be as powerful as critics would prefer, we’re selling Shangri-La here. When DeLorean was an engineer at GM, he could be a big idea man, because he had a team of engineers and higher ups who would shoulder most of that mindless minutia, and he could be the big idea genius who soaked in all the accolades of the finished product.

Take everything we’ve discussed thus far and add an unbelievable dose of pressure on top. He probably placed most of the pressure on himself to maintain his star status, but we have to imagine that he felt pressure from the family to maintain the lifestyle. Add to that, the pressure of having someone like Johnny Carson as a private investor. Having Carson on board was probably a boon in the beginning, as all DeLorean had to say was, “Carson’s on board,” to entice future investors. That line alone, probably quintupled his investments. When matters go awry, as they did for DeLorean, he likely feared Carson using his late-night show to exact revenge. Coupled with all that, was the idea that Britain invested $140 million, and DeLorean had the economy of Northern Ireland counting on his success. That unbelievable amount of pressure might have played a role in John DeLorean eventually doing what he did. 

The final truth is we’ll never know why DeLorean did what he did, but the otherwise unwatchable movie Game Change served up a quote that sums John DeLorean up well. When speaking of why presidential candidate John McCain does what he does to try to have even his most ardent adversaries love him, his campaign adviser says, “If we could explain why they do the things they do, we’d probably have more of them.”

Is it possible that John Zachary DeLorean was the equivalent of an early 20th Century huckster? Of course it’s possible, but I don’t see how anyone can approach the full story of DeLorean’s career, with an open mind, and walk away thinking it’s probable that he stepped out of the offices of GM set to defraud the world.

When I watched Framing DeLorean, I did not see the main character as a malevolent Oliver Stone character. I saw a Coen Brothers character. I saw a plot that involves a man falling prey to a series of actions and reactions that could’ve been avoided if he just did that one now frustrating thing that could’ve solved the problem early on.  

Unrealistic and Unreasonable Expectations


“Try to avoid unrealistic and unreasonable expectations,” I say to my son when he becomes frustrated that he isn’t as great in sports as he thought he should be, and he throws the same fiery, embarrassing temper tantrums I once did.

“What makes you think you should be great?” I ask him. “How have you arrived at such unrealistic and unreasonable expectations? How much work have you put in? How much instruction have you received? Is it because you’re not great at hitting the ball? How long have you been playing this game? You have unreasonable expectations of yourself, and that will not serve you well in life, trust me.”

‘Why can’t I jack the ball out of the yard every time?’ he asks himself. ‘I’m already seven-years-old, I should be able to do this by now.’ Perhaps it has something to do with the idea that I have unreasonable and unrealistic expectations of him, and I’ve passed it along. I’ve tried hard not to be that parent, but as someone who had unrealistic and unreasonable expectations of myself, throughout my youth, maybe I passed that along. Whatever the case is, my son shows signs of wanting to be better, and I think one of the keys to accomplishing that is to teach him that his unrealistic and unreasonable expectations might impede that progress. 

Failure can be humiliating and embarrassing, but how we deal with it defines us. “Don’t get mad about your momentary mistakes. Learn from them,” I say. “What did you do wrong this time, and how can you correct it next time?” We ignore such instruction, because we believe we are already there. We disregard advice, because we’re already seven-years-old, and it’s probably too late to change our ways now. We consider tidbits annoying chunks of information from some know-it-all who claims to know better than we do. We also fail to process most of the small information that it takes to succeed, because “we already knew that”.    

Former Major Leaguer, and Hall of Fame, pitcher Randy Johnson once talked about the advice that former Major Leaguer and Hall of Fame, pitcher Nolan Ryan gave him. Ryan instructed Johnson to alter his finishing step one inch to the left. Johnson said that seemingly irrelevant piece of information changed his whole career. He says he wouldn’t have been half the pitcher he was without that advice. By the time, Ryan gave Johnson that advice, Johnson was already a major leaguer. He probably pitched, at various levels, for ten years at that point. He probably heard enough advice and tidbits to fill a copy of War and Peace from pitching coaches throughout his maturation as an athlete. One of them probably spotted the same flaw in Johnson’s mechanics that Ryan did, but Johnson ignored that piece of advice. Did Johnson ignore that advice for years, because he thought he was already a great pitcher, only to cede to one of the greatest pitchers of all time, or was Ryan the only one to spot it?

What’s the difference between a Hall of Fame pitcher and a pitcher who never pitched beyond high school? Most would say it’s all about natural, God-given ability. What’s the difference between an all-star pitcher and a Hall of Famer? Baseball is simple. You throw a ball, you catch a ball, and you hit a ball. Some naturally gifted athletes will be able to throw and hit the ball better than we can, but the seemingly insignificant minutia involved in the mechanics of the process might enhance that natural ability. How open are we to such instruction? Are we a blank slate, an eager student in life, or what they call a coachable player?  

Learning, in any venue, is a methodical, meticulous process that requires the mentality of a coachable player to succeed.  The best students enter into each new venture they pursue a blank slate, eager to learn. How many of us enter into a new venture, a curious sponge seeking to learn everything we can to be better? How many of us enter into the same situation believing that with our God-given abilities we’re already halfway there? Once they see us perform, really perform to the best of our abilities, they will see that we don’t need instruction, tidbits, or piece of advice. Those giving this advice might be shocked to see how great we are, we think. How many of us miss the tiny nuggets of information that could define a separation between those who are halfway there and us?

We say such things to the young kids around us, but how amenable are we to instruction, advice, and tidbits? If we could go back in time, via a time machine, and speak to a younger us, would we be as open to advice? Are we now? Did we think our natural abilities would eventually shine through, or did we, do we, have unrealistic and unreasonable expectations?

My brother had an awkward, inaccurate jump shot. My friend and I tried to coach him up with some of the tidbits we learned over the years. He said, and I quote, “It’s probably too late to learn anything new now.” He was sixteen-years-old at the time. I laughed at him then, but I lived by the same philosophy in basketball and many other things.

Most people find sports analogies tedious, but they’re illustrative. When I played recreational sports, I never received proper coaching, and I never had an attentive mentor, but I expected to be a quality player no matter what the sport was or how much coaching I received. Everyone I knew was self-taught, and we considered advice and tidbits of information insulting. When we found out we weren’t as great as we thought we were, we found it embarrassing, humiliating, and infuriating.

“Even the most successful fail more often than they succeed and they’re wrong more often than they’re right,” I will tell my son when he’s older. “Even with proper coaching, and a mindset conducive to coaching, most people won’t excel at sports, but if you can use everything playing sports teaches a person, you might be able to use it in other venues. Most people aren’t great at fixing things either. You might think I’m insulting you, but I’m trying to teach you how to approach matters with a mind that is open and conducive to learning.”

We say such things to our kids, because we wish someone would’ve said such things to us when we were kids, yet when we take our first crack at operating a power saw, we find it humiliating and embarrassing that we can’t do it properly.

Our inability to succeed might be that we want to succeed on our own. We don’t want to give other people credit. We receive a great deal of satisfaction constructing a toy without consulting the instructions. If we’re able to successfully build that toy on our own, without any of these tidbits or advice, we might enjoy it more. We want to surprise people with our natural ability. We want to be what others call a self-made man, a prodigy, and an artist who stuck by his guns, no matter what the experts said. We want to prove how smart we are, and how athletically, artistically, mechanically inclined we are. We don’t want to know “an easier way”, or that we can do something better if we adjust our approach ever-so slightly, and we hate it when someone tells us we’re doing it wrong. We hate it, because we think we should have everything all figured out by now. We want to be “special” and special people give instructions, they don’t receive instructions. Nobody told Mickey Mantle and Alex Rodriguez how to swing, nobody ever had to tell Steve Jobs how to run a company. There was no doubt something special about them, and all of the special people that litter history, but what separated them from equally talented and skilled people of their craft? Were they able to see beyond their unrealistic and unreasonable expectations to see that there was nothing special about them, until there was.   

How many times will we attempt to construct a toy without following the instructions, until we realize that there’s nothing special about us. We’re just not very good at fixing things. Our ability to admit that there’s nothing special about us is frustrating, embarrassing, humiliating, illuminating, and the mindset we should have in any such ventures. We see the latter in the unreasonable and unrealistic expectations our children have, and it proves to be something of an epiphany for us.  

I’ve grown so accustomed to failing the first time I try to construct a toy that it doesn’t bother me that much as it once did when I wasn’t able to without instructions. I now expect to be wrong five to six times more times, even with instructions, and when I exceed that number in the reconstruction process, it might involve some inflammatory curse words, but I no longer find it a humiliating condemnation of my ability. If someone spots my struggle, and they offer a suggestion, I am not as insulted as I used to be, because I’m starting to see that most people know more about fixing things than I do. My motto, throughout this process is, “If one way does not work, try another.” That might sound simple, but we complicate these trivial matters with our unreasonable and unrealistic expectations. “I should be able to fix something as simple as this by now,” we say to ourselves. Some of the times, these unrealistic and unreasonable expectations get in the way of us completing even trivial matters. If we could get out of our way, we might realize there is another way, and once we’re done we might wish that someone introduced us to how counterproductive our unrealistic and unreasonable expectations were years ago.  

Parents can talk about the philosophy and psychology of sports all day long, and we love doing it, but nothing penetrates better than doing it over and over again. This is what sports psychologists call kinesthetic learning. Throw the ball, catch the ball, and hit the ball. He hits the ball solid, he learns. He misses a perfect strike, he learns. He also learns that one of the keys to success in sports, as in life, is to have a short term memory. He learns the power of forgetting what he did last week, yesterday, and in the last at-bat. We can discuss the philosophy of rewarding our sons and daughters with words of encouragement, and we can debate whether the drill sergeant approach might be more effective, and kids are so different that we witness how these approaches can work differently for young individuals, but nothing is better than just plain doing it. We sign our son up for various leagues, and he gauges how he’s doing compared to his peers. He also wants to be better than them. He wants to be great, and I encourage that, but he gets so frustrated when he realizes he isn’t there yet. He’s just a kid, and when kids play sports, they not only want to be great, they expect it. When they aren’t, they don’t understand the difference between their unreasonable and unrealistic expectations and reality. It confuses them, and that confusion leads to frustration. What’s the difference between being a quality seven-year-old athlete and a poor one? Some of it’s natural ability, of course, but most of it involves just doing it over and over again, in practice, in the backyard, and in their dreams at night. Doing it, also allows them to put all of our psychological and philosophical tidbits and advice into play, and it’s there, somewhere in that complex mix, that they learn the various nuances and intricacies of the game.

Movies Operate in Patterns Humans Don’t


“Henry, I don’t think we’re going to catch this guy!” a policeman says as he and his partner chase a motorcyclist down a winding road through some scenic mountains at a dangerously rapid rate, during the opening credits of our movie.

“I think he might be the best we ever saw,” Henry replies. Even if the policemen could get close enough to see the motorcyclist, she is wearing a helmet with a heavily tinted visor that covers every inch of her face. “We’re not going to catch him,” Henry concedes. “He’s too good.” Chance intervenes, and they somehow manage to pull this woman over. When they remove her helmet, they discover that the alleged culprit is a woman. “It’s a woman?” the males whisper in awe.

“And I would’ve gotten away with it too,” she whispers between bared teeth, “if it weren’t for you meddling males.”

Movies operate in patterns humans don’t.

Two grizzled, burly men play darts. The pinpoint accuracy of the men impresses us, but it does not impress the main character of our production, a woman. Some clever wordplay ensues in which the woman, while downing shots of a highly alcoholic drink, subtly and confidently implies that she can beat both of them. “You? But, you’re just a woman,” the men say. They laugh. They laugh harder when she downs that alcoholic drink without so much as a grimace, as she prepares to stand. They’re near hysterics when she takes a dart, and she looks at the laughing men while throwing the dart. She doesn’t even look at the dartboard. The dart hits the center of the target so hard that it blasts through the center, and the wall behind it, where it hits an oxygen tank in a neighboring medical supplies store. The explosive blast sends the two men, now locked in silent awe, through the wall of the saloon and out into the highway. The blast only musses the dart-throwing female’s gorgeous locks of hair a little. She calmly walks toward the men with other blasts, from other oxygen tanks, exploding in her background as she nonchalantly steps on the highway. The 110lb woman then picks one of the 250lb men up with her index finger, as he whimpers, begging for mercy. She ignores his pleas and pulls him in closer, whispering, “And you, you’re just a man.” She then pulls out her sawed off shotgun and blows the man’s head clean off.

Movies operate in patterns humans don’t.

*“There are three things,” according to author Scott Adams, “to know about human beings in order to understand why we do the things we do.

  • Humans use pattern recognition to understand their world.
  • Humans are very bad at pattern recognition
  • And they don’t know it.”

We see patterns in movies, because most of them follow patterns. As Roger Ebert once said, “The motto in Hollywood is if something works, try, try and try it again.” Movies also fall into patterns because movie makers are lazy, they’re not as creative as we think, they to try to affect social change, and they know how much we love patterns. We find patterns pleasing, and they make us feel smart when we figure them out. We find those artistic enterprises that don’t follow our patterns “confusing,” “weird,” and “hard to follow.” They usually end up in “art house” bargain bins. 

We want movies to follow patterns, because we want life to follow patterns. We want to be able to figure people, places and things out. We want to be smart and being smart means spotting outcomes before they occur. We use pattern recognition to predict how others will act and react on a situational basis. We’re wrong on occasion, but we don’t expect to be right all of the time, and we focus on the times when we were right. We’re wrong in life as often as we are when we watch Jeopardy! Yet, how many of us knew the answer soon after the Jeopardy! contestant provided it? We clinch our fists in frustration, because we were so close to getting the answer before they did. How many of us accumulate so many of those almost-got it, should’ve-known, and after-the-fact answers that we actually believe we knew the answer, and we knew so many of those answers that we now consider ourselves trivia masters?

How many after-the-fact, should’ve-known trivia masters, who know a little something something about human nature, can tell us what we’re going to do next, after we do it? “I knew you were going to do that,” they say.

“Wait a second,” we say when they do this to us one too many times. “I already did it. You’re brilliant at predicting what I’m going to do next, after I do it, but if you want any credit for predicting what I’m about to do, you have to say something before I do it.”

“But if I tell you,” they say, “you’ll do something else to prove me wrong.”    

“Fine,” we say. “Tell someone else. Whisper it to them. If that person verifies that you were right, we can start putting together your scorecard.” 

They might have a brilliant response for us, regarding how they knew what we were going to do. They might be able to provide interesting details regarding their meticulous study of human nature, their knowledge of us, and their observational skills in general, but they didn’t put that knowledge on the line when it counted. They might know the patterns and routines of humans, and they might say they can use that knowledge to predict what we’re going to do next, but most of us aren’t as great as recognizing patterns as we think. 

***

The last emotional, irrational cerebral crush I had on someone was a man named John Douglas, a man many credit with being the first to use the art of profiling to capture serial killers. Douglas used extensive interviews with serial killers to gain insight into the mind of men who do such things. His book influenced the creation of the movie Silence of the Lambs, and Netflix later used Douglas’ book Mindhunter for a series of the same name. Silence of the Lambs wasn’t the first movie to focus on the magic of criminal profiling, but it launched the idea of it into the zeitgeist. The idea that certain people exhibit certain patterned behavior can predict future crimes seemed so obvious that we couldn’t believe no one ever thought of it before. If you’re looking for a serial killer, these profiles suggested, look for a single, white man who has military experience and mother issues, and is between the ages of twenty-five and thirty-five. Look for a guy who visits the scene of the crime. Look for the guy who pulled the wings off grasshoppers and tortured other small animals in his youth. Of course, we think, he’s just like my cousin Kirk. I always knew he’d grow up to be a serial killer.   

Movies operate in patterns humans don’t.

The cerebral crush I developed involved far too many emotions, as I fell in love with what I considered Douglas’ rational deductions and persuasive prose. I ignored the idea that Douglas’ study of patterns in human behavior often led to after-the-fact, educated guesses that could help law enforcement officials gain convictions. This earns the “Wait a second …” question all authors dread. Wait a second, I thought your book implied that following the patterns of behavior could lead to the apprehension of suspects that were on the loose. It’s been a while since I’ve read this book, but in my opinion Douglas is not the creative genius he purported to be in this regard. I believed that this veteran FBI expert had enough experience in his field to spot patterns beyond otherwise trivial coincidences. I’ve since heard that veteran law enforcement officials groan when their superiors call profilers in on a case, in the same manner they groan when psychics are called upon. 

John Douglas was correct on occasion, and he trumpeted his success in his book, but how often was his attempts to use patterns of human characteristics and behavior to pinpoint the serial killer wrong? Douglas did not provide a scorecard for his “creative thinking” in his book, but he did confess that there could be a psychic component to it. “If there is a psychic component to this, I won’t run away from it, though I regard it more in the realm of creative thinking.” This line led to some of us to run away from him. 

The “creative thinking” that some credit Douglas for starting is so ubiquitous in movies and TV shows now that we all know the bullet points, and the procedures that profilers use. We know them so well that we can spot the serial killer twenty minutes into any production. We know, for example, that when the head strong, female FBI agent creates a profile on an Episcopalian from Newark, New Jersey that she’s hot on the trail. None of the other FBI agents can see the correlation between the Episcopalian religion and someone wanting to tear the head off buxom young collegiate blondes, but she has a gut instinct based on years of experience, and we know she’s right. We don’t understand why the other male FBI agents don’t see how the trail she carefully lays out that will lead to the correct suspect. They begrudgingly see the errors of their ways before the credits roll, but they don’t want to give her the credit she deserves. That would shake up their whole world.

Movies operate in patterns humans don’t.  

If we know the pattern, we can spot the climax of a movie far before it arrives, a punchline of a joke before the joke teller gets there, and the return to the refrain of a song, after the bridge, before the band starts in on it. The idea that we can detect patterns and predict outcomes pleases us, and it makes us feel more intelligent for spotting it. We then employ that confidence in our ability to figure out patterns and see coincidences in our everyday interactions to know the people, places, and things around us a little better. The question we rarely ask ourselves, because we rarely remember when we guessed incorrectly, is how often are we wrong? The complicated algorithm can be broken down to a line the Coen Brothers wrote for the actor who played The Dude in The Big Lebowski, “That’s just, like, your opinion man.”

***

I never personally encountered one of those “supercomputers” from the sci-fi movies in the 50’s and 60’s. Those supercomputers were the size of a large room, and the moviemakers depicted them as having knowledge beyond human capacity. The supercomputers in these movies are usually entities in their own right with some ominous one-to-two syllable name, and the movies rarely mention a human programmer. The humans in the movie feed these allegedly autonomous computers data for a problem they want to solve and the “supercomputers” spit out an answer on a tiny, yellow slip of paper (it’s always yellow for some reason). The autonomous computers has data on the patterns of human behavior, and it spits out an answer allegedly not subject to human opinions and biases. If that were the case, one would think that the yellow slip of paper would say, “not much will change in the next fifty years.” That would not move the plot of the movie well, nor would a prediction that suggested, “There will be nothing but good times ahead for the human race.” The prediction on that yellow slip of paper is almost always dreadfully negative, and it’s often something we can’t handle. The only suitable answer, for the characters of the movie is to destroy the supercomputer before it infects the world with its brand of unbiased truth.

Movies operate in patterns humans don’t.  

Hindsight now allows us to view these scary, sci-fi movies as silly. The fear of computers, robots, or any artificial intelligence progressing past human intelligence is evergreen, but the idea that those archaic, room-length 1950’s machines could act independent of a programmer’s influence, or the movie maker’s influence, seems so silly now. We know those yellow slips of paper displayed a prediction based the mover maker’s opinion based upon an “expert’s” opinion, dressed up as a fact from a computer that allegedly escaped the bounds of human opinion and bias. If we could find one of those room length supercomputers from the 50’s to recreate the situation, we’d ask, “Okay, great, now who programmed this computer?” Computers are still not autonomous at this point, and they are still programmed with an opinion, based on an opinion, dressed up as a fact.

When we bite into a bland piece of chicken, loaded with preservatives, one of the first questions we ask is how many generations ago was this piece of meat actually attached to a chicken? We could ask the same questions of facts we receive from our modern, yellow slips of paper from a computer or device, in the form of search engine results, “Who wrote this?” Who provided the data for that modern, yellow slips of paper, and how many generations ago was this answer a primary source fact? 

The response writers of search engine results might have is that their answers are based on agreed upon historical facts, but how much of human history is based on some form of propaganda? How do other countries view our historical facts? Are there any discrepancies? The old saying is that winners write the history books. If that’s the case, how much of our history is based on propaganda, and an opinion based on an opinion of that propaganda that leads to an agreed upon fact? How many generations ago was that fact, upon which we all base our opinions, a fact? How many different incarnations has this grapevine truth gone through before it reached us?

We’ve all heard the George Santayana quote, “Those who don’t know their history are doomed to repeat it.” I’ll confess that I’ve probably used this quote as often as anyone else has without vetting it thoroughly. I also never read a contrarian, like author Scott Adams, dissect the quote and question its greater value. I heard so many brilliant minds drop this quote whenever people, or their leaders, were on the precipice of disaster that I did not question it enough. My prior interpretation of this quote was that if we study the patterns from the past, it will help us know more about our present, and it might help us in future endeavors. If human history is based upon an opinion, based on an opinion from some propaganda, based on a perceived pattern that led to some fact that we now all consider true, how often do we know what’s going happen in the future, how often will we be wrong, and how often will we have to repeat if necessary?

If we follow the patterns of history, will we learn that they are always going to be some human beings who are inherently violent, corrupt, and deceptive? Do we need to study patterns in history to know that? Can we use the map of past human behavior to dictate how we should act and react to others in the future, maybe, when it comes to specific individuals, but how does studying the interactions between ancient Athens and Rome help a country in their current relations with Uruguay? Adams alluded to the idea that the Santayana quote might help naïve leaders who believe that specific leaders of generally corrupt countries will somehow act less than corrupt when the naïve leader proposes laying a path for a new relationship. If that leader and his people fail to study the patterned history of this country, and its leader, they will be doomed to repeat the failures of other leaders who believed they could achieve a different result.

Humans are inherently routine, some might argue, and if we study their general patterns and the trends in history and society today, we can understand how humans will react on a situational basis. We know that residents of South Dakota will react different from residents of Uruguay, but if we gain a general sense of human nature and interaction, we might be able to determine human behavior through patterns. Maybe, to a certain degree, on a case-by-case basis, and depending on situation or issue involved, but how many qualifiers do we need to add to reach a desired conclusion that supports our thesis, opinion, and our biased worldview? If we dig deep enough, in our study of patterns, we (like my friend who could correctly guess what I was going to do after I did it) might find data that supports our opinion and makes us feel like a genius student of human behavior. Our best bet, according to Scott Adams, is stop searching for patterns, trends, and coincidences when trying to figure human nature out, because we’re wrong more often than we’re right. Our best bet is to remove our desire, our need need to be right, and the ego it feeds and admit that we are flawed prognosticators who can predict what will happen in the future.  

How many times have we had someone or something all figured out, only to discover that we were wrong? How many times do we rely on patterns, trends, and the overwhelming, “how could you miss it”, coincidences to figure something or someone out? How many of times have we realized that we were so wrong that we’ve been all wrong, all along? Here’s a line some of us love, “I’m more right than they know.” Some of us love that line so much that we live it. Some of us smile a conspiratorial smile in the face of a correction, believing that they do not know now how right we are, but they will … eventually. They will eventually see the light. They consult their experts, we consult ours, but how often are experts wrong? It depends on who you ask and which experts we consult. We passionately believe our informed beliefs system, and they passionately believe theirs. Who wins, who loses, who cares? Our best bet might be to avoid using other’s opinions to inform our opinion on patterns in human behavior, and while we’re at it, we might want to delete our opinions when trying to form an opinion too. Our best bet is if one way doesn’t work, try another. 

*Adams, Scott, Loserthink, 2019, New York, Penguin, page 66

A Review of the Netflix Series: Home Game


Most people love sports, yet most of us never bothered to ask why. The wide variety of answers for why we love sports might never be apparent to us, unless we meet someone who doesn’t love it at all. We might not be able to learn why we love sports by watching the Netflix series Home Game, and it won’t curb our appetite for specific sports, but it will show the uncomplicated love some people have for their sport, and it might remind us why we love ours.

Home Game’s documentary about Florence, Italy’s sport of Calico Storico will not satisfy anyone who misses American football or rugby. The documentary about the Kyrgystan sport of Kok Boru will not satisfy anyone who misses basketball or polo, and a horseracing fanatic is probably not going to experience satisfaction watching riders pushing water buffalo through a flooded rice field, in Bali’s sport Makepung Lampit. What we will see are the staples of sport. We’ll see the passion, determination, and the temerity it takes to conquer an opponent. We also see an element of sports that we don’t talk about enough, the arduous, sometimes excruciating training it can take to become a champion of any sport. Our initial response might be to view some of the games depicted in these episodes as silly, particularly the Makepung Lampit sport that involves throwing a dead goat in a large, cement vase, but from that vantage point, all sports seem silly. In many first world countries, ten guys try to force a ball through a hoop in basketball. In the third world country of Kyrgyzstan, four guys try to force a dead goat into a large, cement vase. What’s the difference? Would the Kyrgyz or the Balinese people view the idea that first world sports involve crossing lines and putting other balls and pucks in other goals of various sizes as silly too? What would they think of the sport that involves an athlete putting a ball in a can from a great distance, in as few attempts as possible? The point is that we can view all sports as silly on a micro level, but on a macro level what are they but a vehicle for displaying athletic prowess.

We can be sure the documentarians of Home Game did not choose the relatively obscure sports they did to help those sports achieve more popularity, and I doubt the sports will gain a greater following. It’s more likely that they chose the most obscure sports they did to examine the psychology of sports through an alternative lens. When we hear/read interviews of our favorite top tier athletes, they often use boilerplate language that becomes so common we don’t remember much of what they said five minutes after the interview is complete. It might have something to do with the fact that almost all of these episodes deal with sports in different countries, but they appear to give fresh insight into the art of competition, and the desire to win. English is not the native tongue of most of the competitors in the interviews, but we realize that the desire, the will, and the temerity it takes to win and eventually become a champion are a universal language. Most of the episodes require subtitles, and while that might turn some viewers off, it’s equivalent to watching sports with the volume off.

In one episode, we meet a champion named Guyga. Guyga is the champion of West Kinashasa, in the Democratic Republic of Congo’s version of WWF that they call Catch Fetiche. We see kids and teenagers triumphantly run alongside Guyga. We see him train, we hear him talk about his training, and we witness his drive to be the best. After meeting Guyga, the documentarians introduce us to other Catch Fetiche wrestlers, and they engage in similar rhetoric. It’s similar, but for reasons we can’t put our finger on, it’s different. There was something there, and we missed it, so we rewind back to the introduction of Guyga. We see the difference in his walk, this time, and we know we’ve seen that stride before. It’s Mike Tyson entering the ring in the late 80’s, it’s Tiger Woods and Michael Jordan in the 90’s. It’s a champion at his peak. It’s in his shoulders when he walks, and in his stride. When we see Guyga’s face again, we see, without knowing anything else about the sport of Catch Fetiche that Guyga is its champion. In a later shot, Guyga flexes before the camera, and his musculature is impressive, but his face is what we find captivating. He doesn’t appear as thrilled to be on camera as the rest of us are, but he doesn’t shy away from it either. His far off stare that suggests he’s seen battle many times before, and he wins far more often than he loses. The Congolese who run with him make a big fuss about him, and again, he doesn’t appear to need their adulation, but he doesn’t shy away from it either. He’s accustomed to it. He’s accustomed to glory. His stride, and his demeanor, reminds us of the quarterback of our state champion high school football team, the Heisman Trophy winner in college, and the MVP in the NFL. We recognize that for all the tangibles we attain from athletic pursuit, an intangible quality reveals itself in the walk and the face of a champion.

If Guyga decided to retire from the Congolese, voodoo version of the WWF, Catch Fetiche, and he moved to America, and worked in a cubicle next to ours, we’d know there was something different about him. “What’s up with you?” we’d say. “You’re the new guy, yet you walk around the office like a rooster in a henhouse.”

“I used to be a champion in the Democratic Republic of Congo,” he’d say. “Have you ever heard of Catch Fetiche? No one around here has, I used to be the champion of it.”

“I knew it,” we’d say. “I knew there was something different about you.”

In the roller derby episode from Austin, Texas, we see some subtle contrasts between Guyga and the Mad Maxican. After witnessing the glory of an individual champion who has it dripping from every pore, we listen to the roller derby team members speak, and we play a game called spot the champion. We might know more about roller derby than we do Catch Fetiche, but we still know very little. After witnessing Guyga, we think we can spot the look of a champion from a mile away. We think we see it on the face of a key player, who calls herself Ninja Please. The meeker Mad Maxican doesn’t quite have the confident/arrogant demeanor about her that Ninja Please did. Yet, when they take the floor, the Mad Maxican thoroughly outperforms Ninja Please. Why were so wrong about the Mad Maxican? Does it have something to do with the elevated expectations we have when someone says all the right things, as the Ninja Please character did? Does it have something to do with the idea that women, in general, are more humble, and harder to read in this sense, or does it have something to do with the difference between a team player and one who achieves individual glory? Is there an unsung player on the Mad Maxican’s team, who makes her success possible? Is this unsung hero equivalent to an all-star guard on the line of an NFL team, without whom the stars on the team couldn’t achieve half the success they do? We don’t know, because the documentarians don’t delve into those particulars. Perhaps, the Mad Maxican has a quiet confidence about her that doesn’t shine through in interviews. Whatever the case is, we see the contrast of individual successes can have on a person like Guyga and the team success the Mad Maxican enjoys.  

In an episode that covers The Highland Games, in Scotland, the documentarians introduce us to a former champion training an individual who wants to become a future champion. We see the faded glory in that former champion’s face. The athletic achievements of his past instill in him an apparent lifelong confidence, but there’s something missing in his face. We see how much he misses the glory of being a champion. We see the “Youth is wasted on the young” Churchill quote personified in the man that suggests the former champion wishes he appreciated his moment in the sun more.

The episode that Netflix used to promote the series and the one that appears to be garnering most of the critical attention is the first episode in the series depicting a sport called Calico Storico (historical football in English). Calico Storico is the equivalent of rugby meets martial arts. There are linemen who fight on the front line, as in American football, and two ball carriers. The ball carriers attempt to drop a ball in a field-length net. Four teams fight to be champions of Florence, Italy. There’s no money involved, just the pride of the players. The prize for victory is a cow. They don’t slaughter the cow to triumphantly eat it. They simply just walk down the street with it, in a victory parade. Some criticize this episode as a bunch of meatheads plowing into each other, but that criticism misses the mark. Those critics don’t see the passion, the will, or the sheer determination these men put into achieving victory. They prefer to see the sport through a political lens. If the documentarians chose to focus on a woman attempting to enter into Calico Storico, these critics would enjoy the episode more, but there is very little politics in any of the documentaries of Home Game. The documentaries choose to place their focus on the simplicity of athletic competition and athletic achievement. As opposed to modern American football players, the athletes in Calico Storico love their ultra-violent sport so much that they want their children to play in it. One athlete chooses to live in a specific part of the country, so his kid would have a chance to play for the team he did. They suffer minor to severe injuries for their sport, but the prospect of such injuries doesn’t diminish their love of the game.  

The beauty of Home Game beauty is that it reminds us of the unadulterated love of sports. Their love of sports calls to mind the prima donnas of most sports who take their status as a top-tier athlete for granted. If some of their athletes depicted in these documentaries play their beloved sport for money, the documentarians do not mention it in the episodes. The conditions of the countries of most of these documentaries suggest that if the athletes make any money, it’s a relatively paltry sum and not the reason they play the game. The documentarians focus each episode on the beauty of sport without much distraction. Almost all of the sports depicted are unique to our experience, but they detail in the faces of fans and athletes alike, that the language of sports is universal.

Dissected properly, just about every episode of Home Game teaches us a different element of sports that we might not have considered before. They provide us an outsider-looking-in perspective of what it means for the athletes to compete, what it takes to win, and what it means, to them, to become a champion. We see the captivated fans in the stands celebrating goals of a game hundreds to thousands years old. As we watch their game, we see the thrill of their favorite team scoring a goal, the disappointment of seeing their team scored on, the thrills they experience after victory and the agony of defeat. We see ourselves, from their perspective, we remember vicariously enjoying and celebrating the athletic accomplishments of others, and we realize how much we miss it. We appreciate their love of sport from a distance, and it touches us in a very familiar place at the same time.