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


We, 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 could they 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 may 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 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 researcher 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

 

[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

If you enjoyed this unique perspective on Sigmund Freud, you might also enjoy the following:

Charles Bukowski Hates Mickey Mouse

The History of Bloodletting by Mark Twain

The Perfect Imperfections of Franz Kafka’s Metamorphosis

James Joyce: Incomparable or Incomprehensible?

Rasputin I: Rasputin Rises

Rasputin II: A Miracle at Spala

Rasputin III: Rasputin’s Murder

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The Thief’s Mentality: A Preview


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 so often that I’m still embarrassed that I wasn’t more aware of her infidelities. Her octopus ink involved psychological projection in the form of repetitive accusations of infidelity on my part. Her charges were so effective that I spent most of our relationship defending myself. These are but the greatest hits of compulsive liars who used tactics on me, so often, that I forgot to question their integrity. If their goals were to prevent me from analyzing them, they were successful. The more I thought about it, the more I realized their accusations said more about them, and their worldview, than it 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.

Kurt Lee introduced me to the confusing mind of a deceptive person, even though I wasn’t aware of it at the time. 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. He 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 person can 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, 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 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 could be that generous.

Kurt Lee stole so often by the time I came to know him that the act of shoplifting lost 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 the shop owner that we all agreed was in need of a good 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 had never known, 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 awe, I began to wonder how one acquires such a deft hand. As with any acquired skill, trial and error is involved, but 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 prefers 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 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 this 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 perceive to be so harmless it’s 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. Pete was just too weak, or too scared, to let his wolf run wild, in Kurt Lee’s worldview. We would laugh at the implausibility of Pete Pestroni having a Kurt Lee trapped inside, a thief dying to come out. Our intention was to laugh with Kurt Lee, but he wouldn’t even smile. 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 the thief 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 is deflection, by way of subterfuge, 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 as 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 past 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 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 a thief’s 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, all theory is autobiography.

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 banal arenas of life. These worried friends said things like, “I don’t know what I did to damage our bond of trust, but they call me irredeemable.” My friends are insecure about their trustworthiness, as we all are, yet they wonder 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 have consigned themselves to some sort of 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, also suggests to them that someone has had similar experiences so often that they 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 on 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 other side. What separates them, to their mind, is their lack of fear, coupled with their refusal to conform to the norms our 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 Thief’s Mentality IV: The Umbrella


The Thief’s Mentality is not concerned with actual acts of thievery, as much as it is the worldview of the deceptive and the delusional. If all theory is autobiography, the deceptive and delusional view the world from the perspective that the world around them is as dishonest as they are. Furthermore, those who don’t know acknowledge that they are either as dishonest as the rest of us, are in some form of denial or suffering from a psychosis of another stripe. They also believe those who instructed us to act right throughout our maturation (our parents and our teachers) have done this for so long that we’re now convinced that we are more honest than we truly are. The thief’s job, as they see it, is to open our eyes to the world around us to provide us a perspective we’ve never considered before.

The Thief’s Umbrella. We’re no better than anyone else is, and we know it. Our parents pounded this principle home so often that many of us consider it our defining principle. If for any reason we forget that, in our interactions with deceptive people, they remind us of it. They’ll put so much effort into it that by the time they’re done with us, we might end up questioning our integrity. Most of us have had a lover cheat on us, but how many of us have had one cheat so often that we’re still embarrassed by how much they fooled us. Their octopus ink involved psychological projection in the form of repetitive accusations of infidelity on our part. Those of who have never cheated on a lover know how effective such charges are, for they keep us on defense. We’ve all encountered deceptive individuals who employed these tactics so often that we never considered questioning their integrity. If their goals were to prevent us from analyzing them, they were successful, but when we reflect back of those confusing entanglements, we recognize that their accusations said more about them than us. Some might call it projection, others might say that it’s some sort of deflection or obfuscation on the part of the thief, but The Thief’s Mentality suggests that it all falls under a comprehensive, multi-tiered umbrella called the thief’s mentality.

Delusions and Illusions. While some of the characters in these stories may be engaged in one of the various forms of deception, most of them (actual thieves, liars and cheats excepted) are not lying in the manner we traditionally associate with a dishonest person. They believe what they are saying to be true, but the difference between them and most people is how they rationalize what they do. Some of us consider the ramifications of what we are about to do, others just act, and leave it to us to reflect on what they did.

Whether we’re the odd ones or not, their worldview is so foreign to ours, we dig deep to understand how, or why, they think so different. It might be a fool’s errand to try to source such a line of thought, but if we were able to meet their parents, and various other members from their genealogical tree we might discover the seeds of it. For those who consider this a bit of a stretch, The Thief’s Mentality asks 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?

The Stories of Others. “You have to tell your own story simultaneously as you hear and respond to the stories of others,” by Elizabeth Alexander. This quote captures the essence of The Thief’s Mentality. The essays contained in this collection were not spontaneous creations. Rather, they are deep methodical dives into the motives of everyday people involved in everyday interactions. These are their stories, and it was the author’s job to capture them. Some of their stories might be similar to ours, but most of them provide a contradictory view of the world that is so different from ours. We learn through our reading that it’s all a big, tasty stew.

The Sitcom Formula. My favorite sitcoms involve the formula of a normal main character playing the eye of the storm. The ensemble cast members define the show and the main character, through contrast, but the central role the main character plays on the show is that of an observer. (Think Jerry Seinfeld on Seinfeld or Alex Reiger on Taxi.) The main character is so normal that they act as the conduit to the everyman in the audience, pointing out the flaws, foibles, and eccentricities of the side characters. “Wouldn’t your life be so much easier if you just did that this way?” is the main character’s response to the ensembles’ thoughts and actions. Our side characters in life often define us in similar ways, as they add unnecessary complications to their lives, and we play the center to their storm.

We found the “Wouldn’t your life be so much easier if you just did that this way?” questions a more engaging way of framing an argument in these stories. This isn’t to say that The Thief’s Mentality avoids arguments. In the most opinionated pieces in this collection, we present the “I” character’s opinion in conjunction with how the opposing view may have formulated. We do disagree with the manner in which they conduct themselves, but we catalog the probable gestation cycle of the begrudged, and the role we all played in it, but we “but” our way to achieving the final question regarding their nature.   

A POS. Do you know a true piece of work (a POS)? Have you ever met his parents? Yeah, nuff said, right? Chances are his parent’s friends were all POSs too, and so were their kids. Chances are our friend spent most of his youth running around with those kids. Without knowing it, he developed an affinity for likeminded people, until everyone he knew thought the same way and developed in a similar manner, until Ms. Comparative-Analysis came walking down the hall. By the time he encountered her, he knew how to use his “She ain’t all that” to combat uncomfortable comparisons. As he learned more about her, he added a splash of “Who does she think she is anyway?” to fortify his wall. If he eventually befriended her, most of his preconceived notions fell apart, but he wasn’t discouraged. He attempted to convince her that she was a POS too, and she didn’t even know it. He aided her enlightenment with a constant barrage of accusations, and he continued this onslaught to keep her as honest as he wanted her to be. His rationale was that he didn’t want her to do to him what he was more apt to do to her. Even if some part of him knew she never would, he did his best to keep her insecure and unsure of her moral integrity, so she didn’t flirt with the notion that she might be better than he is. He also did this because a part of him knew that if people wanted to keep him honest they would consider using such tactics against him. He also knows that the best defense is a good offense and a constant barrage of accusations will keep her on defense, so that she might never examine him and see his true POS nature for what it is. 

Listening skills. “You’re a great listener,” a casual associate once told me. “In a world of people waiting for others to stop talking so they can speak, you actually listen to what people say, and you pay attention to what they do. I just want you to know how rare that is.” I beamed with pride. I didn’t beam as much when others issued similar compliments, because by that time I happened upon a secret that might diminish their compliments: I didn’t actually care what happened to the people telling me their stories. I listened to their stories so well that I could repeat them with a surprising level of accuracy, and the questions I asked them throughout revealed how fascinated I was with their story, but I may have cared less about what actually happened to them than those who don’t listen. This little secret left me wondering if they would still give me the compliment if I revealed that fact to them. Would they smile in the appreciative way they did if they knew my motives were less than pure and some might say self-serving?

Others didn’t offer me that compliment in such a direct manner, but they opened up and told me things about their life I can only guess they didn’t dare tell anyone else. This indirect compliment expanded when I asked them active listening questions, and they answered every question I had. The intimacy we shared during those moments told me how rare it was for them to have a person so interested in what they had to say.

The easy answer I developed for my dilemma was that I love a great story, and when I hear one, I want to know every single detail of it. I want to explore it beyond the storyteller’s frame, to the extent that the storyteller is examining the short-term and long-term effects of their story in a way that the storyteller may not have considered before. No matter how urgent I became, however, I didn’t care about them. I just wanted to know everything about their story.

The final answer I arrived at was as confusing as the question, for the primary reason most people don’t listen to others is that they’re too self-involved. Yet, I was so self-involved that I was more interested in the stories of others than most are. When I listened to another tell their story, it was almost entirely self-serving, as I strove to know them better than they might know themselves, so that I might understand myself better through all the similarities and contrasts they present in their story. Did I deserve the title of being called a great listener if my motives were not pure, or was the “who cares why you’re listening as long as you are” concept more prominent? I still don’t know the answer to that question, but I do know that in some ways their stories helped shape my story in a way that shaped this collection of essays.

Rocking the Worldview. When we listen to others tell their tale, we develop an idea for how the world works one person at a time. Similar to the manner in which the universe works, we believe that all earthly bodies have a magnetic relationship to one another that defines their orbit, our orbit, and the general sense of order in our universe. When an exception to our rules comes along and redefines it, they do so at their own peril. We don’t allow them to breathe after they hit our tripwire. We rip them apart and help them put all their pieces back together according to our sense of order. Some might argue that that is the essence of The Thief’s Mentality, but this book focuses its theme on those people who tweak the premise of our sense of order.

The Epiphany Effect. The Thief’s Mentality is loaded with epiphanies. A reader could make the mistake in assuming that the reason we wrote the essays in question was to provide the author a vehicle to write all the epiphanies he learned over the years. While that’s not entirely true, we do find the epiphanies so compelling that there is some grain of truth to it, but what is an epiphany?

Most of us park in the same place for work every day, even if we don’t have an assigned spot, and we sit in the same spot for meetings and any other regular event we attend where there are no designated spots for us. Routines have a way of staving off the random and leading to a greater sense of order, and this all leads to a greater sense of overall happiness. One could say that any contradictions and inconsistencies we encounter could lead to confusion and ultimately unhappiness. We watch these contradictions live their lives in a way that makes no sense to our foundational structure, our values, and our way of living life. As we attempt to account for contradictions and inconsistencies and try to gain a greater hold on the way the world works, we experience more and that can lead to greater comfort and more happiness. The relief we feel can lead us to become stuck in our ways, and any idea that questions our newfound sense of order could make us uncomfortable and unhappy. Yet, most of us come equipped with a small window that we leave cracked open to ideas that might rattle our notions. These ideas are, more often than not, not revolutionary ideas that might shatter that window. Rather, they are eye-opening clarifications that tweak our understanding of the way the world works that The Thief’s Mentality calls epiphanies. Merriam-Webster.com defines epiphany as “An intuitive grasp of reality through something (such as an event) usually simple and striking.”

Even though there is a dictionary definition of the word epiphany, it is a unique word in the lexicon for most define it based on their individual experiences with it. The potential power an epiphany might have on a person’s life is characteristically patient for the immediate reaction we have to these thoughts is that they’re so obvious that we think either we have explored them before or we should have.

A revolutionary thought, by contrast, has an almost immediate impact. A revolutionary thought causes our jaw to drop, but an epiphany typically requires subsequent incidents for the recipient to understand how they apply to our lives. When this occurs, the recipient begins to see what they considered an accepted norm in a way slightly different than they did before they heard the thought. For some the word has religious connotations, for others it might involve striking moment, but some consider it nothing more than a subtle crank of the wheel. One noteworthy experience discussed in The Thief’s Mentality, involved an obvious thought the author spent far too much time tweaking. When he first heard it, he dismissed it as so obvious that he didn’t think about it for ten seconds. The characteristics of this epiphany reared its beautiful head later, when the author least expected it, and it continued to do so until he had it all shiny, redefined, and ready for use in his world.

This definition of an epiphany is similar to a subtle twist in a movie that does not reveal itself until the movie is over. “Why did that happen?” we ask our friends on our way out of the theater. “Because she said that to him? Oh, before she did the other thing. Ok, now it all makes sense.” When we begin to notice how often these subtle, otherwise insignificant thoughts apply to our situations we start chewing on it, until we’re digesting it, and we’re viewing the world a little bit differently than we did before we began processing the thought. Others might continue to find such tiny nuggets of information nothing more than waste matter –to bring this analogy to its biological conclusion– but when an eager student begins adding bits of their own thoughts to an epiphany, it snowballs into an individual truth. Once we clear these hurdles and embrace the power of epiphanies, we begin to see what we once considered the accepted truth, as it is for so many, is not as true for us as we once thought.

The Thief’s Mentality plants no flag on whatever unusual points of brilliance these epiphanies unearth for the reader, for the author is but a messenger repeating what should’ve been so obvious prior to processing it. These epiphanies provided eye-opening clarification on a topic we thought we understood, but the epiphany can provide a subtle crank of the wheel that we call the epiphany effect. As I wrote, the epiphany effect can lead the recipient to think they should’ve considered it before, even to the point of considering themselves less than intelligent in the aftermath. “I can’t believe I never saw it quite that way before.” Epiphanies can do that, but the individual who might consider themselves less than intelligent for not seeing it sooner should relax with the knowledge that this happens all the time to such a wide range of people.

One final note on epiphanies, they are elusive and fleeting. As author James Joyce once said, “[They] are the most delicate and evanescent of moments.” An epiphany is not a one size fits all, as most of them do not apply to most people. The delicate nature of an epiphany is such that even when they do apply they are so personal that no one else might understand why it means more than the obvious to us. Locating the qualities of an eye-opening thought and interpreting it for personal usage does not require a level of intelligence, as I wrote, but it does require some level of personal ingenuity to sculpt and shape them for individual interpretation. The fleeting nature of an epiphany suggests that it’s entirely possible that a person could stumble across an epiphany and miss it. Most naked epiphanies, or those that we haven’t shaped for personal interpretation, seem so obvious that we allow them to pass without further thought. By the time we recognize the substantive information of an epiphany, we may not remember the loose, delicate connection it could have had to our lives and the manner in which we could’ve applied it. The author has encountered many situations in which an epiphany could’ve applied, but he couldn’t remember the exact phrasing of the epiphany. How many times do we hear such a subtle crank of the wheel, and when we try to use it, we narrow it down to the author that wrote it, and the book they wrote it in, but we can’t find the exact passage in question when we need it. It’s frustrating. Some might say that if the epiphany were as profound as we suggest, we would’ve remembered it, and while that may be true in some cases, in others, it elucidates how elusive and fleeting they are by nature. As the Joyce quote alludes, the nature of their power requires diligence on the part of the recipient. The Thief’s Mentality is comprised of what some might consider so obvious that they’re hardly worth considering, but it’s these little, insignificant thoughts that end up shaping our thoughts more than the revolutionary ones might.

The Thief’s Mentality: The Hate/Love Relation with Reading Books


The Thief’s Mentality is for people who hate to read books. Most of us hated reading books for a chunk of our life, especially those our English teachers crammed down our throats in high school. We tried to love them, because he told us that these books were beloved classics enjoyed by millions of people for hundreds of years, but we couldn’t block out the “Get to the point!” voice screaming in our head when we read them. We looked forward to our teacher’s summations the next day, because they were so entertaining and informative that it prompted us to ask him, “Why didn’t the author just write that?” The teacher informed us that we probably didn’t have the attention span necessary to bring their complex structures together. “That’s probably true,” we acknowledged, “but isn’t it the author’s job to entertain me?”

2) “So, if I hate to read books, why would I buy yours?” I’m not going to say that The Thief’s Mentality is entertaining, I’ll leave that up to the reader, but I’ve written over 500 articles. Most of the articles are unique and they stand on their own. As such, I’ve tried with as much objectivity as possible to collect (for lack of a better term) a “greatest hits” package for the reader. When a writer is on point, they tend to belabor. We all do it. With extensive editing, I think I’ve kept this to a minimum. I’ve tried to write a book that is as stimulating, engaging, and entertaining to you, the reader, as I possibly could. Entertaining you is one of the hardest things to do, of course, as we’ve all jumped through the hoops, performed on the pommel horse, and removed some of our clothing to entertain you. For various reasons, we’ve come up short, and we’ve decided the only best we can do is entertain ourselves and hope that you consider it just as entertaining.

We directed The Thief’s Mentality to those who say they don’t have time to read. We directed it at those moments in life when we have time to kill. Some theorize that the average person spends one and a half years of their life waiting in line. Whether we’re waiting to buy tickets to a movie, waiting in line at the local supermarket, or waiting for our latest inoculation at the doctor’s office, we would love to have something to do while we’re waiting. Some small time operations place mirrors around elevators, larger operations place digital ads around the areas reserved for the line, but what better way to lessen the pain of waiting is there than an entertaining and informative book? Something that feels substantial. This book will not fill that year and a half, depending on how slow you read, because it is a relatively thin book, but it may relieve a couple of hours of pain. We all play around on our phones, and most of us read internet articles, but how many can we read about the Kardashians before irreparable brain damage sets in? Human beings need constant stimuli to keep the synapses firing. We need substantive information and entertainment and when writers spend twenty pages writing about a Wisteria tree by a lake, we experience burn out. We want to read an author who knows how to get to the point, and at this point in our lives, we want something entertaining, informative, and different.

3) The Speed Reader. “I can read any book you’ve read, in about an hour and a half, and tell you everything about it. I might even be able to tell you things you missed,” a friend told me after completing a class on speed-reading. “There’s just so much fluff in every book a person reads.” Her arrogance annoyed me, but I thought she had a point. I also considered the idea that the only reason she took a speedreading class in the first place was that she didn’t enjoy reading as much as I did, and she wanted to find an end run around the traditional and methodical ways of educating herself.

I never took her up on the challenge she posed, because I didn’t want to know if she could match my weeks of reading in a little over an hour. This led to another thought that chased me into adulthood, if her abilities to speedread were as accomplished as she suggested, and she could teach me things about books I carefully read, how much of my life did I waste reading that I could’ve spent being more active?

I love to read now that I can choose the books I read, and some of them are the books my English teacher forced me to read, but even the most avid book reader will acknowledge that they spend a lot of time reading them, time that we could spend being more active. Even the most readers will cede the point that most books contain a lot of fluff, but we would argue that in the course of careful reading, a reader learns how to use finer points to support their logic and conclusions. In doing so, I would think, the reader learns not only how to form an opinion, but how to map it back to the central point by tracing the manner in which an author uses various rhetorical devices to achieve a conclusion with supporting evidence. The fluff, as my speedreading friend called it, lies in the supporting evidence. The author’s job, as I see it, is to either delete as many extraneous (and in my opinion far too numerous) finer points or make them so entertaining that no reader will consider them fluff. One of my many goals was to find that author who accomplished this feat so well that speed-readers wouldn’t want to skim in fear of missing a word. I found some, of course, and I loved their work so much that I tried to write like them.

4) Descriptions. One of the finer points, this book lover detests are the unnecessarily lengthy descriptions of scenery some fictional authors indulge in. Some of our greatest authors spent so much time describing scenery that even the most ardent book lover might speedread to the point. In some cases, these authors don’t even deliver a payoff for these lengthy descriptions. The purpose of their lengthy descriptions, in some cases, was the unnecessarily lengthy description. The Thief’s Mentality did what this book lover wanted other authors to do, cut the crap and get to the point. The Thief’s Mentality doesn’t inform the reader about the shapes of the clouds in the sky the character walked under, and there are no tumbleweeds rolling across the prairie, because the settings do not involve prairies. We tried to avoid exclusivity, but the settings of all of these stories occurred on the planet Earth. As such, the reader can feel free to assume that the natural settings surrounding the characters in these stories are those familiar to Earth bound creatures. We felt no need to remind the reader that the situations involved in the stories occurred on Earth.

5) Writing to Writers. Some books are letters to their peers, critics, and other writers. The exhaustive descriptions of scenery, for example, are their single leg swings and scissor kick on a pommel horse appeal to the scoring system of their judges. I understand writing “Jack and Jill went up a hill to fetch a pail of water. Jack fell down and broke his crown, and Jill came tumbling after” is too simple and uninteresting for most writers. Writers want to dig into the characters of their stories to let the readers know who Jacks and Jill are, and they delve into descriptions of setting to place the reader at the scene, but those who hate to read consider so much of that nothing more than fluff. One writer I enjoyed reading spent so many pages describing a monster in his novel that I put my reading out of its misery, and I never read the author again. That author is a painter, so his ability to paint intricate detail with words was admirable and exhausting at the same time. I admired the author’s style and his ability to bring this monster to life, but I considered it a chunk of exposition only a writer could love. To paraphrase the late Christopher Hitchens, such passages are private letters, written to appeal to other writers, appearing in public space.

6) Strange Strategy. Most readers who hate to read enjoy it when an author includes some swearing, slang and colloquialisms. They can relate to a character that swears in the manner they do, and they may consider it a strange strategy to delete such words from a collection of essays about real people. The dilemma the author faced was largely self-imposed for while he recognized that using swear words and slang can customize a character to familiarity, abundant usage of such norms can be distracting. Using them is also a very “writerly” thing to do, and it shows how hard the author is working to be “cool” to the reader. The author opted to forgo all such efforts under the guise of consistency.

Another note to add on this subject is that most of us remember an era when network censors were more stringent, and those network censors defined an era. Back then, their edicts seemed so silly. We often said things such as, “Rambo can mow down an entire militia poised against him, but SNL has to fire a guy who accidentally drops an ‘F’ bomb on air? We need to loosen the restrictions on these artists. We need to follow the European model. People cuss on TV in those countries, and no one is harmed by it.” Now that these restrictions are essentially gone and actors can pretty much say whatever they want, some of us miss them. Morality plays an undeniable role, as we cringe when we hear ‘F’ bombs and ‘S’ words on non-subscriber cable stations, but it’s more than that for some of us. Some of us enjoyed the wink and nod creative ways in which scriptwriters dodged network censors, because we said, “They have to do it that way.” We didn’t know it at the time, of course, but looking back, we now recognize how creative those writers had to be to comply with the Broadcast Standards and Practices. What was also not so obvious at the time was how much material we all had regarding those silly standards and practices. When the higher ups considered something naughty, their edicts made the jokes and innuendos naughtier, more humorous, risqué, and more entertaining. As a product of that era, I found some of the efforts to “get away” with various dodges hilarious, and I employed some of them in The Thief’s Mentality.

The Thief’s Mentality: The Search for Something Different


“The Thief’s Mentality truly is, in my opinion, a bit of a world all its own, something different than what I’ve seen in my editing queue or even in the library where I work part time,” –Autumn Conley

 “And now for something completely different,” Monty Python’s Flying Circus.

 “Take that bottle off the thing. Put it over on the dingle,” Dean Ween Group.

“Just because something is different, or strange, doesn’t mean it isn’t quality material,” Dan Gillespie.   

Attention all book lovers, our search is for something different is finally over, The Thief’s Mentality is here. How many times do we go to the bookstore (online or otherwise), scouring the racks for something different? We don’t even know what we’re looking for, but we know it when we see it. When we find it, we can’t wait to get home, crack the binding, and enter into another author’s slice of life. Most book lovers enjoy other art forms, but there’s nothing more exciting to us than finding a great book. When we think we’ve found it, we tell our friends and family about it, and we call it a “find”. This find is the book lover’s literary equivalent to an archaeologist digging through some catacombs for an artifact.

Some book lovers call themselves book connoisseurs, but there are others. A subset in the book lover subset of the art connoisseur, master classification is someone others might call a “book snob”, and it often includes a group of book lovers who have read so many books, and been through so many finds, that our desperate search for something so original that meets our stringent, snobbish standards have led us to create it. We want our own “Take that bottle off the thing. Put it over on the dingle” lyrics. We want to create something so unique and weird, and meaningless and poignant at the same time. The constraints restricting (and constricting) an author of any fictional and non-fiction art form are far greater than those of a lyricist, of course, but some avid readers are so hungry to find a different book that we decide to write our own.

As The Thief’s Mentality proves, writing is not a science. It’s an art form. What’s the formula for a great story? Is there one? I think all aspiring authors should cancel their subscription to Writer’s Digest and throw their ‘How to Write Best-Seller’ books in the nearest fire. Most authors of these books have never written one, so why do we follow their advice? This author has never written one either, but I’ll tell you the best piece of advice I’ve ever heard, and it’s so simple that most won’t follow it in favor of the lengthy, more professorial advice ‘how to’ authors provide. In Stephen King’s On Writing, King gives us the super-secret sauce to success: reading a ton and writing a ton. To understand the art form of storytelling at its most primal level, it’s the only piece of advice worth considering. Step one in this process involves the aspiring author should reading so often that they want to read something decidedly different from anything they’ve ever read before. Step two is that they should write so often that they almost accidentally create something different. Another piece of advice to consider is: forget about writing a best-seller and turn your focus on the only element in your control. Story is sacred.

It is important that an aspiring author learn the rules of their craft. They need to know how to spell and have a decent grasp of the grammatical rules, but no aspiring author should let that keep them from writing. At its most primal level, a storyteller should know how to tell a story? They should also learn how to generate a reaction with their story? Write your story and learn the rules as you go. We all know those writers who can write a grammatically correct story with no spelling errors, because most of them will highlight all of our errors, but can they tell a great story? Most of them are excellent critics. It’s been my experience that if you write an excellent, captivating story, most readers (critics aside) will forgive the occasional error.

There is a continental divide between seeking success and finding it, just as there is a similar divide between the art connoisseur and the rest of us. Those of us in the “book lover” contingent have spent our 10,000 hours reading a wide range of books, until we reached a point Malcolm Gladwell might describe as a tipping point. This point of burnout is as hard to define as it is to see coming, but at some point, we know the formulas of most of the genres so well that we know them too well, and all the joy of figuring it all out has dissipated, and that’s when our search for something different begins.

The Nature of the Artist

One of the primary reasons most authors don’t write something different is that it is very frustrating and extremely hard. Those who haven’t tried it might fall prey to the notion that every revolutionary, transcendent artistic creation is simply the product of a talented author. What is a talented author of a book, a painting, or a transcendent song? Suggesting that one is talented suggests that the fruits of their labor are somehow God-given, otherworldly, or something that they should used. I think the term talented, more often than not, shortchanges a creator, for it allows us all to avoid the discussion of how hard they worked.  

We average-to-below average artists find some comfort in the idea that the great author just had more God-given ability, and this allows us to leave out some crucial details of the labor involved. When we look at Leonardo da Vinci’s oeuvre, for example, we might describe him as a comprehensive thinker, but he had comparatively few artistic creations. Those of us who know how hard he worked on each creation, thanks in part to Walter Isaacson’s book on da Vinci, know the excruciating amount of work he put into the pain-staking detail of each piece. As evidence of this, one reviewer of his book claimed that Isaacson’s book was nothing more than a boring recitation of da Vinci’s process. “A boring recitation of the process?” we ask, “of someone many consider the greatest artist of all time?” Before launching into a book-length rant against the reviewer, creative types must remind ourselves that non-creative types might find a compelling, thoroughly detailed book regarding the artistic mindset of a master a little boring. “Da Vinci was not only talented but smart,” was the theme of such snarky reviews. “We got it already.” They don’t seem to care that da Vinci combined an unusual understanding of science and mechanics with art, based on extensive experimentation and trial and error, and he used them in his work. They end the discussion with the conclusion that da Vinci had an unprecedented ability to portray real life artistically, and their reply to anything beyond that is, “I got it, for criminy’s sakes.”     

Creating something different is so hard that most creators stop at some point in the discovery process. They decide, instead, to create a story from a master’s template, hoping that adding their voice will be unique enough that no one will consider it derivative. This isn’t to say that authors of a given genre plagiarize other authors, but when they read one author’s books too often, they cannot hide the influence. Their inspired book might even be entertaining and informative, but it does have a disappointing sameness to it. The idea that one book is more entertaining, or more informative, than another is relative to the reader, but the author of The Thief’s Mentality doesn’t know how anyone could read this book and declare it derivative or formulaic.

The author did not write these essays for the sole purpose of producing something different, just to be different however, but his biggest influences are those artists who displayed breathtaking originality at one point in their career. No one artist influenced The Thief’s Mentality, and no one piece from any of these artists did either, but I’m not going to deny there wasn’t some influence from the myriad of books I’ve read over time. At some point in my favorite artists’ careers, they made a break from their formula, and it often occurred after they achieved a certain level of acceptance. The subsequent artistic creations were so unusual and revolutionary that the artist’s closest friends and family members didn’t see them coming. “I don’t know where that came from,” they confess. “They were on a different level when they created that piece.”

After sorting through the various books in the genre of social sciences, philosophy, humor, and entertainment, we discovered a book we considered a transcendent book of breathtaking originality. It is a book by David McRaney called You are Not so Smart. Amid all of the Malcolm Gladwell books, the Freakonomics books, and all of the books influenced by them, You are Not so Smart reached this author on this very personal “Something different” level. It provided a blueprint for how to formulate The Thief’s Mentality. If the fan of that book decides to read this one, they might not find many similarities after all of the work that followed that initial inspiration, but You are Not so Smart appealed to us on such a personal level that we wanted to write our own version of it.

Even art connoisseurs initially greet some breathtakingly original creations with confusion, disappointment and suspicion. “Why didn’t they just stick with what they do best?” they ask. Another question we ask is how can any person, even a critic who gets paid to listen to music, listen to an album one time and know that it is “revolutionary, brilliant, and a tour-de-force!” We all know that critics often receive advanced copies, but they don’t appear to need time to process the unique greatness of the material. Most people need a little time to appreciate works of breathtaking originality and transcendent qualities. Once their brilliance is processed and we lick the carcass clean, we all realize how brilliant their decidedly risky venture was. The artists who had the largest impact on The Thief’s Mentality were often unusual, offbeat individual trailblazers who viewed the world from a very different corner.

It’s almost impossible to escape some influence in any artistic pursuit, but the author suggests that rewriting and editing these essays have drained whatever influence may have inspired him to begin writing them. All but two of the essays contain the unique experiences he’s had with the unique people he encountered in life, so the only probability for influence lies in the analysis, but thanks to hundreds of rewrites, the author doesn’t think the author who influenced the analysis would be able to spot their role in it. Commenting on the originality of the collection, an independent editor said, “It truly is, in my opinion, a bit of a world all its own, something different than what I’ve seen in my editing queue or even in the library where I work part time.”

When Geese Attack!


Those of us that have watched an episode of Shark Week –or one of the other, all too numerous home movie, reality-oriented clip shows that appear on just about every network now– have witnessed what happens when animals attack humans. Those of us that have watched enough of these videos know the formula. We know that all victims will discover one consistent truth about nature that there are no consistent truths. There are methods to handling animals that those more accustomed to handling animals will relay to an audience to lessen the risk, but even the most experienced handler will state that there are no steadfast rules if a person hopes they can use rules to prevent a wild animal from ever attacking. Those of us that watch these videos often enough also know to expect the survivor state that they have no hard feelings for the beast that attacked them in the testimonials they offer at the conclusion of animal attack videos.

“I don’t blame the animal, and I have no ill will towards it,” they say. “I was in their domain, they were just doing what comes natural to them, and I deserve some of the blame for being there in the first place.”

Some of us just stare at the screen in silent awe. These survivors either are the most wonderful, most forgiving people on the planet, or they’re just plain stupid. These survivors had the threat of having their limbs torn from their body, at the very least, yet they maintain that they are not in the least bit bitter toward the animal. Some of us find this reaction so incomprehensible that we begin to wonder if there isn’t a bit of gamesmanship going on here. We wonder if the networks of these shows test-marketed victims’ reactions, and they have found that the audience will find such violent clips a little less horrific, and thus more entertaining, if the survivor comes out on the other side of the clip with wonderful, forgiving sentiments.

We’ve all had friends that enjoy hearing us say mean things about others, but they will not laugh at a joke made at the expense of another, until they add the, “What an awful thing to say,” qualifier. The qualifier varies with the person, but the need a wonderful person adds to substantiate their characterization before laughing is a constant. On that note, it’s difficult for most individuals to say that they enjoy watching a video of an alligator tear a human apart, unless a qualifier is provided to those that don’t want to feel guilty doing so. “This video,” the after video qualifiers appear to be suggesting, “is nothing more than a study of the brutal realities of nature.” Neither party truly believes this. If some suggest that they do, it’s not the reason that we tune in. Viewers want to experience some schadenfreude by watching a fellow human suffer a wild animal attack, but we need to have a wink and a nod agreement with producers of such content, so they can feed into our primal need for violence with a qualifier that suggests that the viewer is not an awful person for enjoying it. If this isn’t the case, why do almost all of these victims appear to react in almost the exact same manner? It almost appears as though they’re reading from a script. If they’re not reading from a script, we can speculate, the producers don’t air the testimonials that do not provide the show the qualifiers that they need.

We here in hysterical, emotional reaction land, know that it is reasonable to state that a bear is “Just doing what comes naturally to them” after it ripped that poor person apart for the delicious treats they happened to have on them when they happened upon the bear’s domain. We know that part of the victims’ testimonial involves them trying 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 that are skeptical of this whole practice would admit that we would consider that person foolish if they said that, or at least more foolish than a guy that expressed surprise after being attacked by a bear at a Schlotzky’s sandwich shop in Omaha, Nebraska.

We also understand that it’s the goal of those that give testimonials 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. We understand that to suggest that the attack was, in anyway, vindictive, personal, or that they were acting in a manner other than instinctual, would make that victim appear foolish. We also know that most animals don’t single people out for attack, and that they prefer to avoid humans, unless conditions dictate otherwise. All of this is perfectly reasonable, even to those of us in hysterical, emotional reaction land, but it discounts the emotional, hysterical reactions one should have if a bear removed one of their limbs, or left their face in a condition that now causes small children to run screaming from them at the mall.

I do not think I’m alone when I state that if a bear ripped me apart to a point that I was on life support, in a coma, or clinging to life for months that I would spend the rest of my hysterical life cheering on bear hunters. 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 now able to hide their new lifelong, irrational fear (see hatred) of bears in the aftermath.

If there is anyone that we might excuse for being bitter, and hateful, it is Charla Nash. Charla Nash was the victim of a chimpanzee attack, in 2009. That chimpanzee was a friend’s pet, a 200-lb chimpanzee named Harold. In the attack, that occurred in a suburban neighborhood, this chimpanzee blinded Charla. He also severed her nose, ears, and hands. She also received severe lacerations on her face. Her life was as ruined as any that have survived an animal attack, but Charla Nash, somehow, remained forgiving. She wasn’t as forgiving as those that offer statements based on what I believe are a reaction to a “Do you want to be on camera? Then say this …” type of stated, or unstated ultimatum. Charla Nash does appear to be forgiving, and that forgiveness appeared genuine.

Charla Nash

“I’ve gotten angry at times,” the Today Show quoted Charla Nash saying. “But you can’t hold anger. It’s unhealthy. It goes through you. You’ve got to enjoy what you have.”

Charla Nash provides a philosophical outlook on life that those of us that have lived without such a horrific moment in our lives can use as inspiration in dealing with our comparative trivialities. Her response 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 genuinely optimistic about life after such an attack. The “goose guy” is not Charla Nash, however, and he should not be afforded the same admirable plaudits Nash is due. The goose guy is just an idiot.

The goose guy, pro kayak angler Drew Gregory, was fishing in a lake one day when a couple of geese began swimming near him. Drew Gregory decided to feed the geese some of the contents from his backpack. One of the geese, in the competition for the food Gregory was offering them, decided that the best way to beat his competition to the food was to go to the source. The goose, doing what a goose does, attempted to empty Gregory’s backpack, and in the process sent Gregory overboard. After that, the goose appeared to begin laughing at the goose guy. If it wasn’t laughter, the sounds the goose made sounds that one could confuse with an expression of dominance.

The first thing that struck me is why does a guy film himself fishing? I understand that fishing shows date back to an era that precedes me, but I have never understood how it achieved a level of popularity in a visual medium. The next question I have for the goose guy is why did you allow this particular, embarrassing video distribution? Why didn’t you hit the delete button on your phone in the immediate aftermath? If I were involved in this incident, no other set of eyes would ever see this video. I don’t think I would even be able watch it. My pride couldn’t take the hit.

Some have suggested that we are now at a point in human history where human beings will do whatever they need to do for fifteen minutes of fame. If Andy Warhol, the originator of this quote, were still alive, and he saw this video, and learned that the victim, Drew Gregory, distributed it himself, and that Gregory made himself available for aftermath commentary in the TruTV airing of the video, Warhol would smile and say, “Told you!”

It is just a goose, I’m sure most readers will say, and what are the chances that an on average seven-to-eight pound animal could end your life? We can all agree that those chances are remote, but what are the chances that that same animal could do irreparable damage to an eyeball or an ear? What are the chances that a goose could do something that would land a victim in the hospital? I can tell you one thing. I would not be calculating these possibilities in the perilous moment. I’m thinking that some primal, self-preservation tactics would rise to fight my attacker off.

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

I would also not be that amiable dunce that found a way to laugh about it later. I would not view this moment in my life as entertaining in anyway. I would not qualify it by saying that I was in goose’s environment, and I deserved everything that happened to me. I would see such a moment as one of those survival of the fittest moments. I would think about all these videos I’ve watched, and how the one thing we do know about nature is that it’s unpredictable. I also have to consider the idea that I would not think about any of this, not while in the moment. I have to think that my impulses would override rational thoughts. I would just act. I would just grab this thing by the throat, whisper 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 grab my kayak oar and drive the bird in a manner that would make fellow lefty, golfer Phil Mickelson, proud.

If the bird managed to escape all retribution, 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 killed 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 twelve more before I rest.”

After witnessing a Rottweiler attack in person, I find myself relegated to an embarrassing hysterical, emotional land whenever the average, full-grown Rottweiler walks into a room. It’s irrational and emotional, two reactions I strive to avoid in life, but they’re a part of me I cannot control. I’ve lost arguments with those that state that no dog, be they Rottweiler, Pit bull, or otherwise are evil by nature. They cite science, and I cite hysterical emotions based upon experience. I lose. Even as I’m losing these arguments, however I know I’m not the alone with such thoughts. Those that laugh at me, or form thoughts about my inferiority on this subject, inform me that my thoughts are in the minority, but I think our numbers would grow if more people witnessed such vicious attacks firsthand. I’m also quite sure that what I consider normal reactions to attacks, by wild animals, end up on the cutting room floor of these ubiquitous clip shows, for those that need to feel better about their enjoyment of such shows would not appreciate what I have to say, or what I do, 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

 

Patterns and Routines


Why do certain chores attempt feel more time consuming when we do them a different way? If we mow the lawn in a different pattern, chances are it will still take around 45 minutes if everything else remains constant. We thought if we mowed in a different direction, it might shave a couple minutes here and there, but it doesn’t. The perimeter equation of a rectangle remains constant regardless how we do it. Our primary goal was not to shave minutes. It was to do this tedious chore different. We don’t get too far into the mow before it dawns on us that this tedious chore appears to be taking longer. It isn’t, and some part of us knows it isn’t, but we can’t shake the perception. We realize that on those occasions when mowed in our typical pattern, the reason it flew by was that we probably sleepwalk through it. How many typical patterns and routines do we sleepwalk through in this manner? How many times do we wake up with the realization that it’s July, and we forgot to appreciate the beautiful month of June for what it is. How many times do we realize that we’re almost fifty, and we forgot to appreciate our forties for what they were? How much time do we lose following typical patterns and routines?

I saw a bunch of bright yellow bananas in a supermarket bin on Monday, and I couldn’t wait to sink my teeth into its brand-new solidity. I thought about that first bite a couple times in the store, and on the short drive home, but by the time Tuesday rolled around, I realized I slipped Monday’s banana into the routine of eating breakfast that Monday. I eat two eggs, toast, and I drink a glass of orange juice for breakfast. Then I top it off with a banana. I absently ate that banana as part of my breakfast routine, and I totally missed its freshness. When I bit into Tuesday’s banana, it was delicious, and I tried to appreciate it, but I couldn’t help but think about how much more fresh and delicious that recently purchased banana might’ve been if I remembered to appreciate it.

Most of us hate to admit that our lives have fallen into patterns and routines, but to those who might argue that they’re an exception, I say add a dog to your life. Dogs spend so much of their lives studying our patterns that when they peg them, they can often tell us what we’re about to do before we decide. On that note, my primary takeaway from the movie My Dinner with Andre was that we should try to break routines and patterns whenever we can. If we can break a couple of rituals one on day, we might feel more aware of one Monday before we turn fifty. In that movie, one of characters talked about opening the door with his left hand for a day or two just to break that routine in a way that might lead to other breaks. The gist of that exchange was that we have so many patterns and routines that some of the times we accidentally sleep walk through life.

One of the best ways I’ve found to avoid falling too deep into routine is a grueling workout. I’m not talking about a simple workout, because some of the times we workout so often that working out becomes nothing more than a part of our routine. I’m talking about a grueling workout that leaves the buns and thighs burning, and when the buns are burning, the brain cells are burning just as bright. This idea led me to believe that a grueling work out might provide a brief, temporary cure to what ails us.

When too many Mondays melt into Tuesdays without notice, the best way to break the routine is to push our body beyond our otherwise lazy boundaries. If we’re feeling excessive fatigue, we can burn our brain and body bright with a long and grueling workout. I’ve expressed variations of this cure so often that some people say it before I do, to mock me for routinely advising that this is the ideal way to break up routines. The footnote I now add to that routine advice is before we put our mind and bodies through a rigorous workout, we need to make sure we’re happy first. It doesn’t happen after one grueling workout, of course, and it might take a regular routine of three workouts a week, with at least one grueling workout mixed in, but after a while, we might start to become more aware of the choices we’ve made in life. We need to make sure we’ve attended to life’s matters, because the acute awareness grueling workouts provide can make us happier than we’ve ever been, but they can also make us angrier and more depressed. If we have dotted our I’s and crossed out T’s, a grueling workout can cause us to appreciate life a little more than we did yesterday, but it can also lead to some painful critiques.

I’ve snapped at people on a Tuesday for something that didn’t bother me that Monday, and the only difference was I had a grueling workout the night before. My various computer chairs were comfortable for years before I decided to discipline myself to working my buns rock hard. I’ve always liked Peanut M&M’s, but after a couple of grueling sessions, I considered the candy so delicious that I thought of eating them by the pound. I also realized how unproductive my job was in the grand scheme, how fraudulent my bosses were, and how I had little to no home life to look forward to once my excruciatingly slow workday ended. The grueling workouts made me more aware of the little things life has to offer, and some of them made me happier, but others made me so angry and depressed that I realized one of the reasons that people drink so much and smoke so often is to dull their brain to a point that they don’t question the choices they’ve made in life.

The mantra of patterns is, “If at first you don’t succeed try, try, and try again.” An addendum to this quote, that some attribute to W.C. Fields, suggests, “If at first you don’t succeed, try, try—and then quit! No use being a fool about it.” A quote by the Canadian humorist Stephen Leacock and published in 1917, suggests that, “If you can’t do a thing, more or less, the first time you try, you will never do it. Try something else while there is yet time.” My addendum to this line of thought is, “if one thing doesn’t work try another.” If you can’t jam a square into a round hole, there’s no sense in making a fool out of yourself by continuing to jam it home. Try something else, or look at the thing and realize that it’s never going home. How many people make fools out of themselves by screaming at the manufacturer of the shapes? We scream to gain distance from our personal failing, “It ain’t me. Don’t look at me. The instructions say do this and that should fix it.” We throw a fiery temper tantrum to distract from the fact that we’re incompetent. We just fixed something just last week with wonderful aplomb. There’s nothing different about us with this particular project. It’s the manufacturer. “That’s fine, but have you tried a way other than just jamming it home? Try another way.” We then paraphrase Albert Einstein, “The definition of insanity is trying one thing one way, over and over, and expecting different results.”

We’ve all heard the phrase life is short, enjoy every minute you’re alive, because before you know it you’ll be on the other side of fifty thinking about how much life you’ve missed. “I agree with that in principle,” a person in pain told me, “but, at times, life seems to take forever.” No one wants to be in pain, and when the conversation switches to that topic, most people say, “Pull the plug.” I don’t want to face that scenario, but if I do, I believe I might think that I want another 45 minutes of being alive in an otherwise pattern life of too many routines.  Mowing the lawn might be a poor example for this scenario, for no matter how one mows a lawn, the results will always be the same. Unless we push a mower faster, it’s always going to take the same amount of time, and unless we change the levels, it’s always going to mow the same length. Nothing will change in other words, unless we realize that we’re not sleepwalking through it in the manner we normally do. On this particular mow, I thought about how much time we lose by adhering to the routines we develop. I was thinking about writing this piece too, and while writing this piece might not add much to my life, it’s different from anything I’ve written before.

Scat Mask Replica VI


My son has a very healthy imagination, and I encourage it in every opportunity I can. We play all sorts of imaginary games, some involving his stuffed animals. We put these animals through various life scenarios. I am in charge of developing these stories, but he will often spider web these stories into other side stories. In one of these sessions, he gave his stuffed turtle an unusual name. Playing the role of the tiger in this production, I asked the turtle if his parents were weird. “If they gave you such an unusual name,” Tiger said, “your parents must be weird people.” I was not testing my son, or playing any type of psychological game. The reader might flirt with such notions, because it was an odd thing for a dad to say to his six-year-old son. My only defense is that we play so many of these games that he wears me out.

Tiger pressed turtle for an answer on this question, and the turtle refused to denounce his parents in anyway, saying, “No, I have great parents who love me and don’t let me get hurt.” That was all turtle said, and we moved into other areas of the turtle’s life story. Months prior, someone suggested that my son’s lack of displays of affection could suggest that he might be on the spectrum. Boulderdash, I say. I say his lack of displays of affection means that his parents are doing one hell of a bang up job. I’ve seen my son’s six-year-old friends worry when they can’t see their parents at the park. ‘Shouldn’t that be the other way around?’ I wonder. I know my son doesn’t worry about such things. I know he considers every minute we can’t see him a momentary minute of freedom. I’ve witnessed other boys appreciate their parents. I’ve seen other kids his age, kiss their dad without him having to ask for one, and my reaction is 180 degrees different from envy. I think if a six-year-old voluntarily displays affection for their parents, it suggests there might be some deficiency in their home. It’s a guess, and it’s probably wrong. Some six-year-old boys are just more affectionate than others are, but that just seems so unnatural to me. If my six-year-old boy says, “Leave me alone”, and he hates hugs and kisses, it means he takes me for granted. He takes it for granted that I’ll always going to be there for him, and he knows that I will always “protect him from getting hurt”. As a person who has never had a parenting job before, it strikes me that if you’re doing your job, your child should be surprised to learn that other kids like you and think you’re fun to be around you, because he thinks you’re one of the most boring people on earth. Then, if you’re doing one hell of a bang up job, you might eventually reach a point when you’ll hear how much he appreciates what you do from his turtle.

A forty-something man on our block died recently. It’s a sad thing when any person dies that young, but I didn’t know this guy as a man. I knew him as a rival when we were in our early teens. One could go so far as to say we “hated” each other in the harmless way young, testosterone-driven teenage males hate each other. We did whatever mean, harmless territorial peeing things that two teenage boys do to each other. I tee peed his house, he egged mine, I threw an M-80 in his yard, and he shot a bottle rocket under our car. I sidewalk chalked something awful about him on his driveway, and he lit firework snakes on the sidewalk leading up to our house (some of those stains are still there some 35 years later). I spotted him on our old block some 35-years later, and I waved at him. He did not wave back. He apparently believed that our teenage rivalry should extend into our forties, and I found this out soon after I waved at him. I was driving into our old neighborhood, and he was driving out when I stuck that hand up. He gave me the nastiest look he could. That look said, “I don’t like you, and I never will!” That’s fine, I guess, but how about I wasn’t asking if I could come over for dinner, or if I could play with his Star Wars figurines. I was putting my hand up in the air to him as nothing more than a momentary, symbolic greeting. It’s your job, sir, to put your hand up in the air back at me! You don’t have to smile when you put your hand in the air, and a wave is not a promissory note on future conversations. You just wave back, and everyone moves on with their lives. It’s what we adult humans do when we somewhat, sort of recognize each other. If you can’t forget the things I did to you at 13, well, that’s kind of on you. If he was still alive, I’m sure he could give you a laundry list of things I did to him, but I don’t remember them, and none of them would post date 1983. If anyone suspects that I bullied him, and it affected his personality in such a way that he could never forgive me, I can only say this in my defense, this kid gave as well as he got. When my family would drive onto our block, he would have a special twinkle in his eye when he spotted me, knowing that we would be spotting his latest bit of carnage. When I saw how much he enjoyed this, I realized what I was up against, and I stopped. He didn’t, and he apparently didn’t want to let it go 35 years later.  

Sports announcing is a cut-throat business. The person who gets more excited will win the job. I know that’s not an earth-shattering revelation, but when I hear a hockey announcer almost lose his lunch when a goalie sticks their foot out, I see the profession for what it is.

“HE STUCK A FOOT OUT! HE STUCK A FOOT OUT!” the announcer screams.

As we watch the replay about seven times, the color analyst speaks about the command the human being playing goalie has of his body, as if he’s never seen it before. “I hope the viewers at home recognize how brilliant this save was,” the analyst says with reverence as we watch it. “To have the wherewithal to know not only how, but when, to stick that foot out, you just can’t teach that. The goalie is in the zone, and he’s just playing on another level.”

As one who has never played hockey, I have to imagine that sticking a foot out is the very thing they teach goalies that when they see a puck nearing the goal line. It is not our intent to diminish the athleticism it takes to play goalie in this piece. When a puck is traveling at a high rate of speed and the goalie has a center in front of him, trying to block his view, and that goalie gloves the puck, it’s impressive. Those of us at home know we probably couldn’t do that on a regular basis. When a wing flicks a puck to the goal and a goalie sticks his foot out to stop its progression, however, that’s just what we call sports.

The key to most sports (spoiler alert!) is to cross lines. The other people on defense don’t want the offense to do that, so they will use the parts of their body to try to prevent that from happening. The idea that a person puts a hand out to block a pass, and another puts a hand out to catch that pass can be brilliant at times, but most of the time it’s just a guy doing what he’s practiced for years. If an announcer can convince a viewing audience that’s brilliant, they will win the job.

Some of my favorite inspirations arrived in tight spaces. My manager put me on suspension. “Get your numbers up in 90 days or you’re gone!” he said. With my little world crashing down around me, flashes of inspiration bombarded me. Some were so good that I had to write them down. A guy interrupted me with a question, and I thought his mannerisms were perfect character-driven piece. The inspiration for another piece arrived when another fella said goodbye to me. My mind was on fire when I heard a set of lyrics from a Sufjan Steven’s song, and those lyrics inspired a novel I would spend the next two years writing.

It turned out it wasn’t a great novel, but the inspiration for it struck me during a very inopportune moment of my life. I’ve had these moments before, I think we all have. They’re the “You’re not supposed to think about that now” moments when creativity seems to flourish. I had an “in-class” friend one time. We engaged in “what you’re not supposed to do” fun in class, when the teacher wasn’t looking. When we ran into each other in the hallway, we had nothing to say to one another, other than a conspiratorial “there he is” point. I used to love to make my brother laugh in church, with stupid, little in-jokes that would not have been funny anywhere else. This was naughty “You’re not supposed to do that here” fun that required subtlety and a deft hand to avoid getting caught. Was that what I was doing here, with my job on the line and my boss watching every move I made? Regardless, my mind was on fire with naughty, “You’re not supposed to be thinking that now” thoughts that I would spend the next two years completing.  

I did manage to quiet the inspirations long enough to survive the suspension, and I spent the next five years juggling my need to be creative and the need to be productive for the company. I wouldn’t say that these tight spaces always resulted in creative inspiration, but I was never that close to losing my job again, and I would never have that much inspiration flooding my brain either. 

So, you want to be a Kindergarten, Flag Football Coach


“Coach! Coach! Coach!” is something every kindergarten, flag football coach will hear in a huddle, on just about every play. When the coach responds, they are likely to hear classic gems like these, “I have a new shirt,” “I felt a raindrop,” or “I have a loose (or new) tooth.” Then there are the most common questions that follow every play, “When do I get the ball?” and “When do I get to score a touchdown?” The other comments I’ve heard are, “I don’t have a mouthpiece,” and “how come you’re not wearing sunglasses today?” Some of the kindergarten children repeat the shouts of “coach!” so often, while you’re attempting to tell the players involved in the next play how to run it that by the time we get to their question/comment, they forget what they wanted to ask/say. Once we complete that exercise, and get the kids to the line of scrimmage, ready to run the play in the time allotted by the referee, be prepared for them to forget everything you just said. (Even when we keep it as simple as possible, by telling them to hand the ball off and run left or right, they often run the opposite way about 50% of the time.) 

For those interested in prepping themselves for this adventure, try herding small kittens, not cats, kittens into something. I’ve never tried that before, but I have to imagine it is similar. Then, try to get the kittens to perform a very specific task. I know that the average 6-7-year-old brain is superior to the felines, but I’ve found that the attention and retention levels are about the same.

The easiest part of being a FF coach is putting flags on your team’s players throughout the game, as the other team will pull those flags off on every play, and some flags mysteriously fall off on every other play. (I’ve tried to show the kids how to put those flags on themselves, but it takes a level of dexterity for which most kindergarten-age kids are not quite capable yet.) The coach will be responsible for doing this while telling those involved in the next play, what that play is. The coach must do this while answering all of the questions and comments the other 5-7-year-old children can think up in the middle of a huddle. (Even though I provided some of the highlights above, they are but an example of the questions/comments I’ve heard in the past five weeks.) The volunteer, with no discernible experience in this regard, must be able to juggle these three things while trying to adhere to the referee’s unspoken timetable for getting your players to the line of scrimmage to pull next play off in a timely manner.

In this, my fifth game, I flirted with dropping the whole notion of plays, as they only invite more questions and different levels of chaos, but just handing the ball off on every play doesn’t teach kids the fundamentals of the game very well. On the subject of plays, I don’t think it will shock the potential volunteer to learn that if you plan to have a playbook, the goal should be to keep it as simple as possible. I thought adding a simple reverse would fall under this heading, until I witnessed in real time. (Picture a herd of wet cats attempting to run to the source and away from it at the same time.) I also added a pass play, in which the receiver runs a simple curl route. I thought this was a simple enough play, until I saw it play out live. (If the coach is lucky, they’ll have one player who can throw and one player who can catch.) The coach should also prepare for the idea that most players won’t know what they’re supposed to do on any given play, so you’ll have to provide individual instructions to each player before the snap, and you’ll have to tell them where to stand, and you’ll have to repeat it. Again, the coach will have to accomplish this while trying to keep the referee happy by getting your players to the line and pulling off a play in time.

The coach should also prepare to repeat those very specific instructions at least twice, and answer all questions that follow. The most popular question a coach will have to answer in each huddle is, “When do I get to I score a touchdown?” My pat response is, “That team over there is not going to let you score a touchdown. You have to go get it, when it’s your turn.” The reason we must continually express the idea of taking turns is that once they score a touchdown, they want to do it repeatedly, and as many times as we express the idea, most kindergarten-age children don’t fully comprehend the idea of taking turns.

As stated in the opening paragraph, they will introduce questions in each huddle by shouting the word “Coach” an average of two to three times a play, and this can be overwhelming in a five-man huddle. I’ve instructed them that, “We can only have one voice in the huddle,” so many times that some understand, but most do not. I’ve instructed them to keep all comments and questions related to football, but they’re kindergartners. One important note to add here is the patience and understanding a flag football coach must employ. Remind yourself, throughout the game, that they’re kindergarten kids. They can’t remember what we said five seconds ago.

As kindergarten kids begin running toward one another they will inevitably run into one another, and the volunteer coach with no prior experience handling such matters, will have to address such injuries on about every third play. The coach will also have to deal with the emotional aftermath of a child having their flag pulled. To us, this is part of the play. Person A runs down the field, person B pulls their flag, and the play is over. To the kindergarten mind, this is a humiliating condemnation of their athletic ability. They might regard it as an unfair part of the game, or the coach’s fault. When we experienced such a display, we simply moved on and let his parents handle the matter. As a voice of authority, on the field, the inclination might be to correct that child’s behavior in some way, but we have to remember that these are other people’s kids. It may embarrass us to have one of our team members act this way, but we have to respect our boundaries while trying to keep control of the individual players. The best advice I provide the kids who don’t succeed on their play is to have a short-term memory. “Try your hardest on every play, but if you don’t succeed, employ a ‘next play’ mentality.” I developed this mindset after years of playing recreational sports. It worked well for me, but it’s too complex for the disappointed, kindergarten mind to comprehend. 

My advice to anyone who chooses to volunteer for such a role is to enter into it with a plan. Watch some YouTube videos on kindergarten flag football. Some videos there show some very helpful drills a coach can run, in practice. Have a plan, but ditch the playbook. I whittled our game plan down to my handoff left and handoff right. We mix one, maybe two, reverses a game and a pass play. Conduct a practice that is very active and participatory. Don’t let them stand in line idle. If there is some idle time, you might want to have them do jumping jacks or something else active, until their turn arrives. When you provide any instructions, ask them to repeat the things you said. One question I ask is, “How do we catch the ball?” They raise their hands, and I call on one of them. “Two eyes and two hands,” is their response. In my recreational league, we have 20-minute practices before each game, and the option of having a midweek practice. I tried one midweek practice, and it was so chaotic that it was pointless. I learned that kindergarten-aged children have an increased level of focus on game day that applies in the 20-minute practice, because they want to prepare to score a meaningful touchdown in the game, and they want to tackle the other team, but to a kindergarten-aged kid, a one-hour, midweek practice is all about directionless, unfocused fun. The two most important elements of coaching kindergarten, flag football is to try to teach them some things that stick, and let them have some fun. Let them worry about winning and losing, for you need to focus on what you can control. We should also make sure we take turns giving the ball to each kid. Not only is that what they signed up for, but it maintains their focus. I try to compliment each player on their strength and ignore any weaknesses they might have. This keeps them happy, focused and interested. The most important ingredient is to try to keep it fun for the kids.

After dealing with these kids one hour a day, for six weeks, I now have profound respect for anyone who chooses to have a career dealing with kindergarten children full-time. If, at one time, I considered my son’s teachers unreasonably strict, by instituting a level of structure to try to establish some level of order, I now empathize. I’ve heard kindergarten teachers say things to their assistant teachers, such as, “Could you take care of Johnny today. I can’t deal with Johnny today.” I now have a couple of Johnnies that I only deal with for one hour a week, and if I could have one on-field assistant answer the questions, and tend to, just one of my Johnnies, I probably wouldn’t be writing this piece to release my frustrations.  

Scat Mask Replica V


Turtle Porn. We’ve all read reports from conservation biologists detailing the trials and errors involved in saving a “critically endangered species like the Yangtze Giant Softshell Turtle”. Some of us might view such a chore as thankless and not very rewarding financially, but for these people it’s a passion. Most passionate people have, at least, one or two stories to tell about moments they’ve experienced in their field that define their reason for being, what the French would call their raison d’être. Others spend their careers chasing such moments. For a conservation biologist, zoologist or anyone else involved in the field, the idea that they might one day play some role in saving a species would be that raison d’être. Reading the note in the accompanying photo, even the most casual observer can’t help but feel that passion coming off the plaque.

Courtesy Henry Doorly Zoo

Perhaps no story better illustrates the frustrations of working with animals in this manner better than the tale of Lonesome George. Lonesome George was a “Pinta Island giant tortoise who lived in captivity in the Galápagos for 41 years, as biologists tried to coax him into copulating with a female of a closely related species. His caretakers tried just about everything—they even considered showing him videos of tortoise pornography (though it’s not clear if that ever happened). But the 100-plus-year-old George just wasn’t in the mood. He died in 2012, taking his species with him.”{1}

Numerous testimonials from conservation biologists inform us that as common as these captive breeding programs are, they don’t work near as often as some might think. The frustrations of years of such failures probably lead to feelings of such hopelessness that end when the male Yangtze Giant Softshell Turtle finally violates the sanctity and purity of the female. When that moment happens with a critically endangered species, one can only imagine the euphoria that must occur in those observation rooms. Those involved probably lose all sense of professional decorum, as they begin unleashing all of that frustration by using crass words to describe the moment of truth. We can also imagine that they try to abide by a self-imposed governor placed on any displays of jubilation, as a viral video of such a celebration might cast the entire profession in an awkward light. We can also guess that colleagues in these fields try to hold one other in check by mocking and ridiculing those who get a little too excited. “Did you see Darren when the pandas started going at it? He was out of control. I bet he doesn’t get that excited in his own situations.” 

Baseball is boring. Anyone who has any appreciation of the history of baseball can’t help but feel nostalgic when they enter an old Major League baseball stadium. When we smell the peanuts, the hotdogs, and something we can only guess is the smell of age-old soda drying on the ground, associations between game and country come to mind. When we hear the crack of the bat, as the players take batting practice, we think of all of the great players who stood astride home plate waiting for their pitch. When the warmth of the summer sun hits us, we think of the associations most Americans have with summer and baseball, and it makes me feel a part of something larger. When the players take the field, we take some pride in knowing their names and a little bit about their history. We also know that every team has a scouting report on their tendencies, and that this will dictate how the opposing team pitches to them and plays them in the field. “It’s a chess match,” we tell our friends.  

In that first inning, we watch the best players in the game do battle, and we understand what the sportswriters are talking about when they write about the historic lore of the game. It’s an experience that anyone who hasn’t been to one of the older ballparks must experience for themselves. Those of us who have been to a number of them know this magical feeling. We see it, we feel it, and we get it. By the time the third inning rolls around, however, these qualities begin to wear thin. We’re not short-attention span types, but the game just isn’t one that can captivate an audience for three hours. It might have something to do with the uncomfortable seats, the pace of the game, or the awful concessions most baseball stadiums provide, but by the fourth inning most of us want to be anywhere else. By the time the sixth inning rolls around, the children around us are so bored that they’re screaming and few adults are still paying attention to the game. I’ve witnessed a grand slam to win a ballgame with two outs in the bottom of the night, and I saw an extra-inning, game winning home run to complete the cycle on another night, and I almost failed to calculate how historic those moments were, because by the time they occurred I was so bored I almost missed them. The baseball purists might not be, but anytime I think of hard-core fans, I remember something a hard-core race car fan said, “We watch the first five laps and the last five. No one I know watches all of them from the edge of their seat.”  

Eating your appetite. When we are younger, we eat anything and everything, all the time. Eating is just something we do when we’re young. Ask a teenager their favorite places to eat, and they will inevitably list off the top five fast food restaurants. They don’t appreciate the quality of food they eat. They just eat. They’re not especially hungry when they grab a sandwich en route to a meal. They just eat it. They eat while they watch TV, when they drive, and so they have something to do with their hands. When we’re young, we eat because we’re bored, because it’s there, and because everyone else is doing it, but we offset all of this eating with rigorous physical activity.

As we age, and our rigorous physical activity begins to slow as much as our digestive system does, we limit our eating. Some of us start by eliminating snacks, or we change our snacks to healthier fare. Some of us even go so far as to eliminate entire meals, so that we’re only eating once, or twice a day. By doing so, we make mealtime an eventful moment of our day, and for some it becomes the most memorable moment in a given day. Then we talk about past meals, and we labor over deciding future ones. “What are we going to eat?” “Where are going to go?” and “When are we going to eat?” We don’t know what we want to eat yet, but we want it to be tastier than the meal we had yesterday. We want something that might help make today even more special. Once we finish that meal, we are often disappointed, because it wasn’t as great as the other meals we’ve had.

We still talk about french dip we had the other day at the corner deli, and we use all of our creative skills to describe it, “I was literally and actively walking down the sidewalk, and I just happened to literally look up and see the sign Corner Deli. I didn’t think too much of it at the time, but then I literally ordered the french dip sandwich. You haven’t tried it? Oh, you simply must,” we say to the uninitiated. “The meat is so tender, and the au jus is to die for there.” Some of the young people at the table might listen to such observations, if they have nothing else to distract them. Some of them might even begin to mimic them, but no matter how they might react, they don’t care as much as we do. They just want this whole dining experience over, so they can do whatever it is they do to make their day eventful. For us, the meal is the event. “You don’t know how to eat,” we say to them to try to establish some level of appreciation in them. They might want steak, but it’s only because we place so much value on it.

If we grill the most beautiful, tasty filet mignon, a cow has ever produced for their nourishment, they might say, “It’s good,” after they search for a suitable response between shrugs, but they say it with the same emotions they say things like, “The grass is green, sky is blue, and I love you.” They may not even look at us when they answer, and they might not answer us at all, if we fail to inform them how rude it is if they don’t. To us, this is such a delicious slab of meat that we will remember it for weeks. We also think that, at the very least, people our age should treat it the same way, until we witness one of them eat a sandwich on the fly. I can appreciate it when Seinfeld says adults don’t lose appetites, but when one of my peers eats an apple on the way to the restaurant I don’t think that they’re ruining their appetite by doing so, but I can’t help but think they’re diminishing the event status of our meal tonight.

Literally and actively. The next generation has probably been twisting and turning the language to have others take them serious for as long as humans have been alive. The next generation is insecure and they don’t think anyone will take them seriously, or find their stories funny, because few people do at this point in their lives. I empathize with their plight for when I was a member of the next generation I always thought I was missing something. I didn’t know what it was, of course, but I thought I needed to add something extra to generate interest and/or laughter. For my generation, it was all about cussing. We relied on swear words, delivered in a confident rhythm, to give our stories provocative punctuation. I don’t know if the comparative prevalence of swearing in movies and TV shows makes it passé to cuss now, or if young people don’t cuss around me now that I’m old, but the young people I know don’t swear as often as we did.

The problem for them, as I see it, is how does one punctuate a story without swear words if they want to provoke a response from an audience? If they tell us a relatively common story about how they noticed that the stop sign of at the end of their block was upside down the other day, for example, they know that they won’t receive quality reactions if they tell such a story flat. They know they need to spruce it up a little. When my generation told such a story, we said, “I was walking down the street the other day, when I noticed the [insert the popular swear word of the moment] stop sign was upside down.” I don’t know if we felt compelled to add the swear words to acquiesce to the rhythms to which our peers were accustomed, or if we thought adding them would attach some gravitas to our stories, but we added them whenever and wherever we could. The special ingredients this next generation adds to their stories now are the infamous –ly words. Thus, the new way to add provocative import to one’s otherwise banal experiences is to add an adverb. “I was actively walking down the street when I literally noticed that the stop sign at the end of our block is now upside down.” I might pay too much attention to linguistic trends in the popular culture, but I’m curious about how such trends start, and what the user hopes to accomplish with them. The next generation obviously uses the –ly words to affect the rhythm of their stories, but I don’t think the words provide the provocative punctuation they seek. The only rationale I can find for adding these –ly words as often as they do, is that they seek to add gravitas to their stories in a way they might not otherwise achieve. When I listen to them, however, I hear the effort more than the story, and it distracts me so much that I can’t take them seriously.   

{1} https://psmag.com/environment/is-breeding-endangered-species-in-captivity-the-right-way-to-go

Falling Down Manholes


“When you fall down a manhole, that’s funny. When I do, that’s a tragedy.” –Mel Brooks

Is it funny when a healthy adult falls down a manhole? It’s funny when it happens to someone else, and by someone else we mean a person with whom we have no association. It might be funny if it were a story on the local news, but what if we have some sort of attachment to the victim? Does familiarity affect how we view such an incident? If it does, how much familiarity do we have to have before the incident becomes tragic, and is there a middle ground that reveals the unusual relationship these two reactions have? If we find a tragic incident like that funny, what is funny, what’s tragedy, and what’s the difference?

Laughing at other people’s pain is just kind of what we do. We can call those who do heartless, but we also need to recognize how prevalent this is in our society. We can also say that such laughter represents a dark side of humanity, but we should also recognize it as part of human nature. I’ve found few exceptions to this rule, but those who are tend to be in professions that experience other people’s pain on a daily basis. Do they develop an emotional immunity to such moments, because they hear about them so often? If that’s the case, is our laughter an impulsive reaction to something we find shocking? We’ve all heard the phrase, I didn’t know whether to laugh or cry. If we worked with other people in pain on a daily basis, would we develop something of an immunity to these moments that might lead us to deal with them in a more compassionate manner?

Most people who fall down manholes don’t fall straight down the manhole clean, like Yosemite Sam, and most of them aren’t mumbling comedic swear words to themselves as they fall. They will likely damage something precious upon entry, and depending on the depth of their fall, they’re probably going to be screaming. They might not have enough time to fear death, but anyone who has fallen from a decent height knows that it’s such a scary experience that it’s not funny to them.

If our friend walks away from the fall with some superficial bumps and bruises, that might be funny, but what if he chipped a tooth? What if he took a nasty knock on the head, or broke an ankle? What if his injuries were so severe that he required Emergency Medical Technicians to free him? Does the severity of the injury make the incident more tragic or more humorous? Before you answer, think about how you might tell the story of the incident. Any time we tell a story, we want a punctuation mark at the end. What better punctuation would there be than a prolonged hospital stay that involves tubes and machines keeping the victim alive? “They’re saying that the nasty knock on the head could leave him mentally impaired for the rest of his life?” If it isn’t hilarious, it’s at least so noteworthy that we’ll have a great story to tell our friends.

The initial sight of Jed lying in the sewer might be funny, unless he’s screaming. What if he’s hurt? How can he not be? We laugh. We don’t mean to laugh. We don’t find this funny, but we can’t stop. Some of us might wait to find out if Jed’s okay before we laugh, and some of us might wait until he’s not around, so when we can retell the story of his fall and laugh with others. Most of us will laugh at some point. It’s often our reaction to something tragic.

Laughing, or otherwise enjoying, another person’s pain is so common, that the Germans, developed a term for it: schadenfreude. Is our laughter fueled by the relief that it’s not happening to us, or is it the result of comedies and comedians molding our definition of what’s humorous by twisting dark, tragic themes into something funny? Whatever the case is, incidents such as these reveal the relative nature of humor, the fuzzy line between tragedy and comedy, and how we find comedy in others’ tragedies. The purposeful melding of the two even has its own genre now: tragicomedy.

✽✽✽

My personal experience with the fuzzy line between comedy and tragedy, didn’t involve falling into a manhole, but licking a pole. I was in the fifth or sixth grade, old enough and smart enough to know better, but young enough and dumb enough to do it anyway on one of the coldest days in February. I didn’t know the philosophical details of the symbiotic relationship between comedy and tragedy, but I knew people would laugh if they saw me stuck there. I knew there would not be a “Well, at least you’re okay” sentiment among my classmates. I knew this wasn’t one of those types of mistakes. I didn’t know a whole lot about human nature, but I knew that certain people live for stories of pain and humiliation. We all know those types, and we know they never forget. We could win the Pulitzer Prize, or become a world-renowned adventure seeker, and they will say, “Wasn’t he the kid who got his tongue stuck on a pole in fifth or sixth grade?”

I didn’t stand there and think about all this while stuck in the moment of course. The only things I thought about were how am I going to rip myself free and how much is this going to hurt? When I thought about the pain, though, I knew it would be worth it to prevent anyone from finding out about this. The idea that one person might see me stuck on this pole compelled me to pull my tongue off as quickly as possible. The pain involved in ripping several layers of my tongue off led me to believe I should’ve given it more consideration, but I still didn’t regret it. I still considered the physical pain secondary to the mental and emotional pain I would’ve endured if I hadn’t ripped my tongue off the pole.

I’ve read stories since of others suffering a similar embarrassment, calling in civil servants to help them get free. The first question I have for these people I’ll never meet is, what were you thinking?

These unfortunate victims had to know that the chance of someone seeing them in that embarrassing position increased exponentially with each second they remained stuck to the pole. They had to know that calling someone over would lead them to call another over, until they all gave up and called in a rescue squad. The very idea that that many people might know about it, still makes me so uncomfortable that I cringe when I think about it. With that many people involved, the chances of this information making it to their peers is so great that it’s not even worth considering.

I have to imagine that this victim was either younger than I was at the time, or that the severity of their incident was much worse than mine. For if all of the circumstances were even somewhat similar, then I have to ask them why they didn’t just rip themselves free? My empathy goes out to them if they feared how painful that would be, but they had to consider all the ridicule, teasing, and bullying they would endure in the aftermath. Even if they feared the pain so much that they wanted an adult to come along and find a less painful solution for them, I would ask them if it was worth it. Even if that adult went inside and retrieved a cup of hot water for them and prevented the kid from knowing the pain I did, I would wager that the physical pain I endured paled in comparison to the emotional abuse this kid endured from his peers.

Even when I was still stuck on that pole, I knew my bully would be waiting for the details on my tragedy with baited breath. I also knew that his audience wouldn’t be able to restrain themselves from laughing at his displays of cruel and clever creativity. I didn’t know what nicknames or limericks he would develop, but I knew he would develop something. He was our class clown, and he was always developing material on someone. All of the pain I experienced in the aftermath of the toe curling rip of my tongue was worth it, because at least he wouldn’t have this material on me.

We’ve all heard talk show guests say that they were the class clown in school. We all smile knowingly, picturing them as children dancing with a lampshade on their head and coming up with the perfect response to the teacher that even the teacher considered hilarious. Those of us who knew a class clown saw some of that, but we also saw what happened when they ran out of good-natured and fun material. I knew the minute our class clown ran out of material he would begin looking around for victims, and I was always one of his favorite targets.

We all enjoy making people laugh, but some have a deep psychological need to make people laugh, and they don’t care who has to get hurt in the process. Based on my experiences with class clowns, I can only guess that those who would fashion a career out of it, such that they were so successful that they ended up in a late night talk show chair talking about it, probably learned early on that no matter how you slice it, if someone falls down a manhole, or gets their tongue stuck to a pole, there’s comedy gold there waiting to be excavated. They may be too young to know anything about the complexities inherent in the symbiotic relationship between comedy and tragedy at the time, but at some point they realized that anyone can get a laugh. To separate themselves from that pack, former class clowns-turned-successful standup comedians would have to spend decades learning the intricacies and complexities of their craft, as everyone from the Ancient Greeks to Mel Brooks did. They would also learn that for all of the complexities involved in comedy, one simple truth they learned in fifth to sixth grade remains, if one wants to achieve side-splitting laughter from the broadest possible audience, someone has to get hurt.

Stuff Stuck in the Orifice: The 2018 Edition


My guess is that human beings have been jamming foreign objects so deep in various orifices that we require assistance throughout our history, but we didn’t have a Consumer Product Safety Commission’s database catalog them until recently. We also didn’t have writers like Barry Petchesky from Deadspin.com condense that database of emergency room (ER) visits to entertaining bullet points until more recently. For most of human history, we didn’t know the luxury of having skilled professionals trained in removing such things for much of human history, so we can only guess that the cavemen who experimented in this manner paid dearly for their curiosity. We can also guess that these incidents, coupled with the threat of predators and their dietary habits, are all reasons that the cavemen worshiped the elder members of their clan who lived to fifty. I think everyone and their kids listened to this people, because they wanted to know their formula to living to fifty.

1) Petchesky’s select version of an otherwise lengthy database begins with the people who stuck things so far in their ear that they needed to go to an emergency room to have it removed. If the person who “Was cleaning ear with Q-Tip, accidentally walked into wall, [and] pushed Q-tip into ear” was a caveman, I don’t think he would’ve been one of the few to live to fifty. Whatever the Q-Tip of his era was, he would’ve walked around with it in his ear for the rest of his life, and it probably would’ve led to an infection that brought him down. Either that or he and his buddies might have developed some form of surgery to remove it, and he probably would’ve died during that surgery or from its aftereffects. 

2) The best “verbatim” quote in Petchesky’s summary, and he claims they are all quoted verbatim, is from an ER attendant who wrote, “Popcorn kernels in both ears, ‘feeds her ears because her ears are hungry’” in the ER report for the patient. The obvious question here is why would anyone use such a line to explain their situation? The less obvious and more humorous question is why would ER personnel write that into their report? How much grief did they have to deal with after writing it?

Anytime a person involved in the field of medicine writes such a report, their professional reputation is on the line. Attending physicians, insurance company agents, and fellow ER personnel read these reports, and I’m guessing that attempts at humor do not go over well. Years of training have shaped such reports in this manner, and all ER personnel know they could get fired by sprucing them up for entertainment purposes. It’s their job to stick to the facts when they write these reports, and their only defense to the interrogation sure to follow is, “That’s a direct quote.” We can also guess that the ER attendant asked the patient if they want to revise their characterization of the incident. “Are you sure this is what you want going into your final report? A number of people are going to see this, and they’re going ask both of us a lot of questions.”

3) Another thing that struck me throughout this report is how do people fit such things in their ear? I’ve never tested the capacity, or threshold of the orifice leading to my ear canal, but I’ve seen the toy mouse, and I have to imagine that getting it in so deep that they required a medical procedure to get it out required a great deal of time and effort on their part. They might also walk out of the ER saying something along the lines of, “I really need to find a hobby or something to fill up some of my free time.”

4) In the nose section of this report, we encounter some incidents that we can lay at the feet of human error. We don’t know why someone would put a rubber band up their nose, but we can guess it involved doing some kind of parlor trick. As for the butterfly, the cotton ball, and the paint, these are all unusual things to have near the nose, but they’re not freakish. My guess is Petchesky wanted to lay a relatively common foundation to build a rhythm for, “Sneezed and a computer key came out the right nostril, sneezed again and another one almost came out.”

Those of us who have viewed these lists for years now know that some people have a propensity for sticking unusual things up in their body. One thing to keep in mind throughout this list is not only did this person stick a computer key in their nose, but they stuck it so far up there that they needed someone schooled in medical procedures to retrieve it for them. Another thing we can speculate about, based on some of the items on this list, is that a greater percentage, if not all, of them didn’t go to the ER right away. They were probably so embarrassed by their action that they left it in there hoping that they might find a way to get it out themselves, or that it might work its way out in some more natural way. At some point, they realized that wasn’t going to happen, and they couldn’t live with the pain anymore. The way this person addressed their computer key sneezes, it sounds as if they are more accustomed to computer key sneezes than the rest of us are. The next logical question is, “How did they get in there?” Some ER attendants probably ask such questions, but some don’t. Those who don’t probably want to avoid pursuing the matter to avoid further embarrassing the patient.

5) Petchesky includes the “gum, gum wrapper, and gum in wrapper” incidents of things stuck up a nose as if they involved three separate incidents in emergency rooms throughout the country, but what if they weren’t. What if this prospective “America’s Got Talent” nominee managed to put all three in her nasal cavity in an attempt to outdo the friend who could tie a cherry stem in her mouth, but she was unable to extract the fruits of her labor?

6) The final one, listed under things stuck in nose is “piece of steak.” I file this one under simple human error too, because of the errors we all make while eating. We all make such mistakes, and they’re always a little surprising when they happen. How many full-grown adults, with decades of practice chewing on things, still bite their lip or the lining of their mouth when they eat? How many of us still attempt to speak while chewing in a manner that opens our epiglottis in a way that causes us to cough and choke. Most of us are able to hit our mouths with whatever we put on the end of a fork, but with the ratio of eating to incidents, what are the chances that someone could miss so badly that they end up putting a forkful in their nose on accident? They’re remote, perhaps infinitesimal, but they’re not impossible. Perhaps this person was so engaged in conversation, while eating, that they went a couple degrees too far north. I understand that this particular person put it so far up that they required medical assistance to get it out, but we don’t know what their conversation was about either.

7) The first item on the list of things stuck so far down the throat that it required medical assistance is banana. I know what happened here, because I’ve been that guy who was so habitually tardy that my job was on the line. I’ve woken up, while on probation, with so few minutes to spare that I dressed, grabbed my keys and my wallet and rushed out the door. I’ve been so late that I accomplished whatever rudimentary grooming I needed in the car, on the road to work, and I’m sure it showed. Buttoning a shirt eats away precious seconds on these mornings, so I don’t button until I’m halfway to work. I’ve even learned how to button with one hand while driving with the other. I don’t shower on these mornings, of course, so I have to follow the age old ‘spit on the hand and pat down whatever hair is sticking up’ on the road to work. In the midst of such mornings, we grab whatever quick food we can find and stick it in our mouth to shut the stomach up. For those of us who place ourselves in such circumstances, chewing is a luxury for those who have seconds on spare.

8) The next entry in the throat category is, “Throat lozenge still in blister pack.” How many of us have chewed on a lozenge at one point or another? We didn’t just swallow it. We chewed on it. I blame the manufacturer, because they package these lozenges in such pleasing colors that they look tasty. The first time this patient took a lozenge on his own, he chewed on it and consumed the foul liquid inside. When he informed the person next to them how awful the liquid tasted, the other person said, “You’re not supposed to chew on them. You’re supposed to swallow it whole.” This patient mistakenly conflated the word ‘whole’ to mean including the blister pack.

9) I’m guessing the person who swallowed the “mood ring” was depressed. I’m guessing that their lover dumped them, and that they believed in the mood ring’s suggestions to such a degree that when it suggested they should be happy, they internalized it to see if it could change their emotional interiority.

10) As for the items stuck in the male reproductive organ, we can only guess that the guy who stuck a pipe cleaner so far in so far that he required physical assistance to get it out, is a clean freak who never forgets to clean behind the ears. He probably uses a paper towel to open the doors of public restrooms. He probably soaps himself between the toes, and he has spent a lot of time searching for nooks and crannies that could become gross if left unattended, until he ended up in an emergency room.

11) The guy who had a straw reach an inextricable location in his reproductive system doesn’t understand the hoopla surrounding the anticipation portion involved in the act of love-making routine. Some find the moment before punctuation so exhilarating that they try to make it last for hours. This guy is one hundred and eighty degrees different. He and his lover tried to find a way to be more expedient.

12) We’ve all had lovers cheat on us, and we’ve all thought about the perfect way to exact our revenge. The guy who required medical assistance to remove six to seven BB pellets from his reproductive organ, decided that the next time he and his lover were involved, he was going to blow her head off.

13) The person who put a billiard ball in their rectum is a trick shot artist, and in the world of trick shot artists, there’s very little room for originality. Most trick shot artists are simply showing the world that they can duplicate the tricks Minnesota Fats and Willie Mosconi did fifty years ago. There is no room for originality in this world, because there is only so much one can do with ten balls and a pool table. This guy thought he was really onto something, but he failed miserably.

14) The poor patient who “sat down on the sofa and accidentally sat on a ball point pen,” only to have it lodge so far up his rectum that he required medical assistance is now suing the pen manufacturer. He doesn’t want any money. He is suing for one symbolic dollar to direct our attention to his primary goal of forcing the manufacturer to put a very specific warning on their package. His goal is an altruistic one, in that he doesn’t want others to have to suffer his (now very public) humiliation.

15) Amateur astronomer Gil Burkett’s excitement was understandable. He thought he was going to be famous. He thought he just discovered a new planet. He was so emotional that he couldn’t contain himself. He began jumping up and down, all over the place, screaming with joy. In his reckless and irrational exuberance, he landed on the “leg of a telescope”, and after he put some effort into extracting it, he realized it was so far in his rectum that he knew he would need medical assistance to retrieve it. If that wasn’t humiliating enough, Gil consulted four other amateur astronomy society websites, while waiting for the EMTs, and he found that a previous astronomer already named the planet.

16) The first time we introduce some intoxicants to our system, we will receive the greatest high we will ever experience with that particular intoxicant. Every drug effects our system differently, but from what I’ve read on the subject, that first high is almost impossible to reproduce for some of them. Most of us either don’t know that, or we don’t consider that when we attempt to reproduce that first experience. We fall prey to the notion that if we do more, it won’t just reproduce it, it might outdo it. Drug users refer to this pursuit as chasing the dragon.

Firsthand knowledge eventually teaches us that in the interactions between body and intoxicants, more is not always more. After we reach this depressing conclusion, we seek alternative routes to the great high. Some who enjoy intoxicants gain some education in their pursuit of a great high. They learn basic knowledge of nutrition, as they seek to replace what their drug of choice depletes, they learn about chemistry, and they learn a surprising amount about their biology. They learn, for example, that the various ways of taking their drug of choice orally allows the liver to distill some of its impurities. The liver does this to protect the body, of course, but some of those impurities can increase feelings of intoxication. By one way or another, we learn that taking an intoxicant through the rectum is a way to circumvent the liver. In their quest to utilize that alternative route, and achieve their greatest high ever one patient “pushed drugs up rectum using a lighter, was able to retrieve the drugs bag yet believe lighter got stuck.” Another person, “Took a soda bottle with Fireball whiskey via his rectum, stuck bottle in rectum and squeezed.”

17) We can also find some elements of this pursuit in those who use sexual toys. When users upgrade to larger toys or pursue greater depths, they seek to achieve the arousal they probably experienced the first time they experimented, or they try to outdo the last time. This is probably what happened when Neil stuck a “vibrator in rectum and tried to remove it with screwdriver and lacerated rectum; object in colon now.” He probably tried to outdo previous experiences with his toy, when he discovered the painful difference between far, farther, and too far.

18) Neil’s dilemma also brings to mind a nagging question I had reading through this list. I understand that no one would be on this report if they didn’t require medical assistance, but how much effort did they put into removing these items themselves? We’ve all met people who aren’t embarrassed easily, and they seemingly have no problem telling another person “they got a toothbrush stuck in their rectum after jumping on the bed.” If you’re sitting next to such a person in the waiting room, and you ask them why they’re here, these types provide far more information than you care to hear. “Aren’t you embarrassed?” you ask them. “Well, why are you here?” they’ll ask you in reply. No matter what you say in response, they will respond, “Aren’t you embarrassed?” They will tone their response with a whole lot of sarcasm to mock you and your original question. You could tell them that you fear you’re exhibiting early signs of the Ebola virus, and they would still respond in that sarcastic manner, to imply that the reasons the two of you are in there, are more similar than you ever considered.

Readers perusing such a list can’t help but place themselves in the shoes of the victims in such scenarios. It’s difficult to imagine us doing some of these things, of course, but if we did, what would we do? Most of us would be so embarrassed that we would do anything and we could think of to avoid the embarrassment of having to look people in the face, while telling them what we’ve done. We don’t know how much physical pain we would be willing to endure to avoid it, but we would probably test our threshold. We would likely consider that pain secondary to the painful embarrassment of telling another person what we did. We all know that doctors, nurses, and various other ER personnel probably see more in one month than most of us will see in a lifetime, but they’re people too, and in their off hours, they surely think this stuff is funny. They probably say something along the lines of, “Oh yeah, the job is incredibly stressful, long hours, and all that, but there are some moments. There are moments that make it all worth it. Just the other day, there was this one guy who …”

Neil and I probably share the “I don’t ever want to be that one guy who …” mentality. Neil probably said something similar to himself before reaching the point of desperation where a screwdriver appeared to be a reasonable solution. “This thing is coming out!” Neil probably said with visible determination.

How many hours of digging and painful scraping did Neil have to endure before finally realizing he was doing more harm than good, and we have to think of this in terms of hours, because the thought of leaving something as large as a vibrator in there for days is unimaginable and anything longer seems so impossible that its unfathomable. Would Neil be able to find a pain-free way to sit in his office chair, if some of it is sticking out, and we have to imagine that some of it is sticking out. Would he be able to find a way to deflect questions if this dilemma lasted for days? As cringe-worthy as these questions are, we also have to factor in all the scraping Neil did in his efforts to end this dilemma. How early on did the idea of removing it with a screwdriver hit Neil? If it was the first day, we have factor that into the equation. He may not have lacerated the walls of his rectum, for that probably didn’t happen until his embarrassment and the resultant frustrations got the best of him, but we do have to factor this into Neil’s dilemma.  

One other question I have on this subject is, did the ER attendant have to inform Neil that the item in question reached his colon, or did Neil already suspect as much? Neil obviously knew the item was irretrievable, or he wouldn’t have lacerated his rectum, and he wouldn’t be in the ER, but was there a particular sensation he felt when it reached another level? Did it feel like the item reached a shelf beyond his reach?

19) The guy who put a “significant amount of string” so far into his rectum that he couldn’t get it out without assistance is another curiosity for me. Was this just another boring Tuesday for him, was he measuring his depth in Mark Twain fashion, or was he desperately constipated? If I were the ER attendant on staff, I think my curiosity might overwhelm professional discipline. Once we worked our way past the procedural Q&A’s, I would have to ask him why he stuck so much string up his rectum. The two of us could probably chalk “a little string” up to an embarrassing and perverse curiosity, but I would have to know what drove him to continue past those levels to one we both agreed was significant.

I also wonder about the process involved in the word ‘significant’ making it into the final report. If the ER personnel see as much as these reports suggest they do in one year, I’m guessing that superlatives to describe such incidents almost become passé over time. The words, “If you think that was as a lot, you should’ve seen what I saw last night” probably get passed around ER break rooms all the time. ER personnel probably grow so competitive in this unspoken manner, over time, that they become reticent to introduce adjectives like “a lot” when describing the amount of blood they saw, or the word “unusual” when describing a smell coming from some organ, because they know their peers will call them out on those adjectives. That peer pressure likely effects the manner in which they write reports over time. Thus, when they find some string, they simple write “some string” to provide a succinct description of what they’ve found. When they find “a lot” of string, they probably don’t have a personal or professional measurement to distinguish it from “some” string, but they know it when they see it. With that in mind, how much string do seasoned veterans of emergency rooms have to find in a rectum before they allow the words “a significant amount of string?” into the final report? Barry Petchesky’s list of reports the Consumer Product Safety Commission’s database does not provide clarity in this regard, but my guess is that the addition of the word significant is an indicator that we’re no longer talking about inches here but feet, and likely yards. If the ER patient declared that a significant amount string was in his rectum, we can guess that the ER attendant probably checked him. “I’ve witnessed a significant amount of string before, and trust me you likely don’t have that much in there. Why don’t we just write “a lot” for now, and we’ll address the verbiage later.” I don’t know how much editing goes on in the process, or how vital the terminology would be in such a case, but I’m guessing that most emergency rooms undergo a number of unofficial and professional series of checks that occur before a medical report ends up on an insurance agent’s desk. At this point, we can guess that the operating doctors and nurses have their say, based on their own individual experiences, before the description “a significant amount of string” ends up in the final report. If everyone agreed that it was a “significant amount of string”, we can also guess that in post op, some wisenheimer dropped some joke about magicians pulling handkerchiefs out of their pockets.

The Social Contract of Lending: Hairbrushes and Rakes


I didn’t make a sound when the lovely Paula handed me my first paycheck, but I had a marching band going on in my mind, complete with a field commander leading a marching band, drum and bugle corps. To my fellow employees, standing in line to collect their own checks, this was just another payday. I flirted with making it more memorable for them. Paula didn’t last long at the restaurant, for reasons endemic to her character, but due to the fact that she was the one who handed me my first paycheck, her face is enshrined in my personal Mount Rushmore. As I walked away from that cash register, I thought of the lessons my father and grandfather taught me about the value of a dollar. Those lessons may have been nothing more than a creative way they found to avoid giving me more money, but whatever it was their lessons did to me were born the day I received my first paycheck.

Sleep was an inconvenient conclusion to the night for me back then, but a precious commodity in the morning. I didn’t greet mornings with a “healthy, wealthy and wise” attitude. I wasn’t happy to see another sunrise, and I wasn’t happy to be alive for another day. I wanted more sleep. I took advantage of every opportunity to sleep during the day, because I didn’t want to sleep during the night back then.  

The eve of my first paycheck was different however. I went to bed early. I didn’t sleep, I was too amped up, but I was in bed. I purposely woke early the next morning. I knew what morning it was the moment I awoke. There was no mid-morning delirium, and the first words out of my mouth did not contain a swear word. I didn’t go back to sleep on this morning, as I would any other normal morning when I didn’t have to awake early. I threw my warm, comfy blankets off, ready to greet the day. Even though we were in the crack of dawn hours, I already had a mid-morning smile on my face, and that hadn’t happened since a certain someone ruined Christmas for me. I don’t remember the bus ride over to the restaurant that day, but I remember stepping off the city bus, knowing that my paycheck was waiting for me inside the restaurant.

I knew that the days of asking my father and grandfather for money were officially over that morning. I was as free as a teenager could be. That day was the day I learned the power of the dollar, firsthand, and it is still one of the top ten greatest days of my life.

My first official purchase, with my money, was a hairbrush, and I considered it an argument against my father and grandfather’s claim that I would never learn the value of a dollar. My grandfather lived through The Depression, and my father lived in the aftermath of it, and they knew the value of a dollar and the subsequent scarcity of it better than I ever could. Their words went in one ear and out the other, until I cashed that first paycheck. Buying products with my own money, introduced me to the power of the dollar, but the more profound lesson I learned occurred soon after the intoxication with my financial freedom led me to blow that first paycheck in the course of one weekend. Even with all of the lessons they taught me, I went from being a power player in control of my financial fate to the vulnerabilities inherent in being dead broke in the course of one weekend, and the only thing I had to show for it was a hairbrush.

My father and grandfather informed me that when I purchased a product that I was to care for it in such a way that extended its life cycle beyond generally accepted norms. Doing so, they said, paid homage to the cogs in the system that made that product available for my convenience. Caring for it also displayed a level of appreciation for the idea that I was only able to demand quality services from my fellow man by providing quality services to him. If I purchased a meal, for example, they suggested I should all but lick that plate clean in appreciation. If I purchased a rake, I was to hang that rake in such a manner that it wouldn’t fall off its peg, and/or collect any water that might cause rust. There was no excuse for a rake falling off a properly secured peg, in their world, and if it did, its rattling tone would reverberate throughout our genealogical tree. This newfound purchasing power, and the subsequent values inherent in the dollars I earned, taught me more about the power of the dollar than their theoretical lessons ever could.

Their lessons also suggested that while I should care for the products I purchased, I should display reverence for the products another might lend me. If a man were generous enough to lend me his rake, in my time of need, not only was the rake not mine, it was not mine. I was to treat such a rake as if the Baby Jesus himself had once suckled it. Not only was I to return it in a timely manner, but I was to return it in the condition in which I received it, or replace it for the man if it was not. This horrible responsibility I considered inherent in borrowing things from others, often led me to just purchase a brand new rake. It’s also much less emotionally taxing on me to simply do without. 

Purchasing a new rake is not easy for me either, for doing so is a condemnation for how I treated the previous one. I would much rather use a rake that is not 100% productive than endure the personal embarrassment and remorse I experience when replacing one. Even if my standards and practices lead the productive lifespan of the lawn tool to last ten years beyond its life expectancy, I still experience a small scale Oskar Schindler dilemma when I throw away an old rake away thinking there was something I could’ve and should’ve done better to extend the life of that old rake.

I know most people do not receive the philosophical training seminars on preservation and conservation I did, but when I decided to loan my hard-earned hairbrush to a friend, and he disrespected it, I considered him unprincipled. I worked hard for that hairbrush. It cost me approximately one half hour of manual labor. As a general practice, I didn’t keep that hairbrush in the family bathroom, fearing that others in my family might use it, ruin it, and alter its life expectancy. I knew where this hairbrush was at all times, and I developed a special spot for it that I thought might prevent me from losing it. When I did loan the brush to my best friend, I monitored his usage and stipulated the terms of its usage. Once he no longer needed it, I told him, he was to return it in the manner I loaned it to him.

On a separate occasion, I loaned a Queen’s Greatest Hits cassette tape to another friend. Although this tape endured thousands of plays, over the years, its condition was excellent relative to usage. The friend I loaned it to managed to lose the plastic jewel case and the inner jacket sleeve within a week, and he had to spend another week locating the cassette tape. He never found the jewel case or the jacket, but he did manage to locate the tape. The friend didn’t offer to compensate me for my loss, or display any of the guilt that should’ve followed such an egregious violation. I would’ve considered this a reflexive response, he did not. When I informed him, in a heated argument, that I would be compensated, he said. “It’s just a cassette tape geez.”

“It’s my cassette tape,” I said, “and you do not dictate its usage.” He decided to compensate my for the loss later, after I offered him a month’s long sampling of our father and grandfather’s many lessons on value, relative value, and what I considered the epistemological penalty of violating those standards in regards to his character. In the aftermath of this incident, my friend found it less stressful to buy the products he wanted, rather than borrow anything else from me.

The thing that still grates on me is that this friend who borrowed my cassette tape knew the backstory of my hairbrush, and the friend to whom I loaned it. He even joined me in condemning my hairbrush friend. So, “It’s just a tape geez,” was what I considered a violation of the values I assumed he and I shared. I wasn’t sure if I should continue to befriend him if our values were so disparate, and I told him so. “It’s just a tape geez,” he repeated, and he added my name at the beginning of this repetition to strengthen his case that I should rethink my whole line of thought on this matter.

There wasn’t a whole lot of clamor for usage of my hard-earn hairbrush, and that’s the way I preferred it, but anytime one values a possession in the manner I did with this item, some people are going to be seduced by the intangible qualities we assigned them.

After a couple years, a piece of plastic splintered off the mainframe. The splinter started as a simple fracture in the border of that hairbrush, but it grew over time, until it was sticking out from the brush at a length as long as the average person’s index finger. The splinter soon became an eyesore, and an embarrassing detail for its owner. I didn’t want to cut that piece off or try to fix it in anyway, however, for it had been my experience that whenever I tried to fix something I only made it worse.

When my friend asked if he could borrow the hairbrush again, I was reluctant. As I said, I consider the whole practice of loaning items out rife with unforeseen ramifications. I don’t think either party gains anything in the transaction. If the recipient returns the product as it was, it is a relief to the relationship. The relationship continues as is without any EKG style movements. Anything less than as it was, could cause unforeseen turmoil and/or unseen tension between the two parties involved that might damage the relationship.    

As a responsible lender who didn’t want this transaction to end in any tension, I laid out some of my stipulations for him to consider before using it, and he said, “It’s a brush (he added my name with a hint of condescension). I’m going to brush my hair with it a couple of times, and I’ll hand it back to you. I promise.” His intention was to make me feel silly for valuing a hairbrush in such an inordinate manner. When he added the words ‘I promise’ after evaluating me, it revealed how uncomfortable I was with the notion of lending out my beloved brush to anyone, even someone I considered a best friend. I felt foolish, and I begrudgingly acquiesced, but I watched him use it intently.

He watched me watching him use it, and he informed me that I might have some hang ups a psychologist would find fascinating. He then pretended to throw it, and my near hysterical reaction caused him joy. As anyone who knows anything about psychology can probably guess, my friend asked me if he could borrow my hairbrush as often as he could. He enjoyed watching my squirm. I lied at times, and told him I didn’t have it on other days. He knew I was lying, and he capitalized on it. He enjoyed doing things that might cause me to lie, and he tried to force me to prove that I didn’t have it by opening up my school bag. I told him that I would not be emptying my bag to show that my hairbrush was not there and that he would just have to take my word for it. I also speculate that he knew I wouldn’t be able to use the hairbrush for the rest of the day, in fear of revealing the lie. If I wasn’t going to allow him to use my brush, then he wouldn’t permit me to use it either. Whether he knew it or not, this tactic was very effective, because I knew I could never use it in his company again. 

To thwart the effectiveness of this tactic, I told him he could not borrow my hairbrush on another occasion, and I offered him a pre-planned explanation. I informed him about the hygienic concerns he should have when using another’s hairbrush. I wasn’t concerned about such matters, but I considered it an excellent excuse regarding why he shouldn’t want to borrow another person’s hairbrush. When he proceeded to rip that excuse apart, I endured that rant with the knowledge that my rationale was sound.  

On one of the other occasions when I did lend it to him, he began fiddling with the splintered piece of plastic that hung off the brush. His fiddling included twisting the splintered piece in such a manner that it would eventually fall off. I caught him in mid twist, “Wait a second,” I said. “What are you doing?”

“Oh, you want that left on there?” he said.

A brush is just a brush, and a rake is just a rake, but it seems common sense to me that when two parties enter into a social contract of lending, an unspoken stipulation accompanies that agreement that suggests the recipient of another’s largess has no standing when it comes to the condition of said product. This, it would seem to me, is an ancient rule that compels both parties to recognize the guiding principles of such a transaction, regardless the relative value of the product in question. I realize that I may have been over-schooled in this concept, relative to the rest of the world, but I would think that everyone would have a firm grasp on the elementary aspects of conscientiousness and respect. 

I understand that a rake is just a rake, but if I was to borrow another’s rake, and I damaged one of its rake teeth, I wouldn’t say, “It’s just a rake. Just favor the left side from now on.” I would consider such a statement an atrocious violation of my personal constitution that I wouldn’t be able to look the owner in the eye ever again, and I don’t understand how other grown adults, with presumed mentors teaching them about guiding principles, can violate them and absolve themselves of any guilt by commenting on how inconsequential the item in question is. It’s not your product, I say, and you have no standing in this arena. 

I have tried to understand this matter in an objective manner, and I can report to you that these two friends do not engage in subterfuge. They might attempt to excuse their guilt away, but I do not believe they do so to insult me, or minimize my valuables. I think they genuinely believe that my tape and my brush were disposable items that would eventually be lost, broken, or in some way ruined. The fact that it happened while in their possession was simply the laws of chance occurring in that brief window of time. In the case of my friend who lost the Queen’s Greatest Hits tape, he wanted me to buy the idea that because I owned the product for ten years, it was bound to be lost sooner or later whether I loaned it to him or not. He didn’t say those words, but that was the gist of his reaction to my righteous anger.   

I could go into further details on this matter to break it down into the minutiae involved in such an agreement, but I consider them so fundamental that neither party involved should be required to undergo the near-militaristic training I received, in this field, to understand its fundamental role in a civilized society. Expressing such concerns in the hope of changing their mind, or opening it to the possibility that they should reconsider how valuable these products are to me, and that they should value them accordingly, is an exercise in futility.

My friends’ defense was that they did not intend to lose, ruin, and destroy my products, and they did not seek to insult me by placing so little value on my possessions. They were just careless people who hadn’t been taught the same principles I was. In the case of my hairbrush friend, he was also an unconscious fiddler. He fiddled with everything he could get his hands on, and that fiddling often led to an unconscious destruction of everything he didn’t lose. I knew my friend’s habits, and I knew that the subtext of his condition involved a mother replacing everything he lost or destroyed. 

My friend and I came from different sides of the track in this regard, for if I fiddled with a hairbrush in a manner that led to its destruction, and/or lost it, I might have to create a ten point dissertation describing my careless act, and why a young man, my age, might need a hairbrush in this day and age, before my father or grandfather regretfully parted ways with the money I might need to complete such a transaction at Walgreen’s. My friend would just have to say, “Mom, I need a new hairbrush.” Say what you want about the binary constraints my father and grandfather placed on me, but their stubborn, frugal ways led me to learn their lessons on value long before I was able to purchase products on my own.  

If my friend and his mother valued their products in ways I could not see, they had no regard for the products of others. I knew if I loaned one of my products to my friend, and he destroyed it, it would take nothing short of a civil case to get his mother to replace it. I knew that if he destroyed my hairbrush, I would have to work another half hour to buy another one, and I would have to budget accordingly. He didn’t understand any of this, because he didn’t have to, and he considered my desire to have my hairbrush returned to him in the condition he received it quaint and quirky.

I spent most of my teen years with this friend, and I watched him blow through money like a high stakes Vegas gambler. He had no regard for the various components of power money wielded. He spared no expense when it came to having a good time. He didn’t make discerning choices with money in the manner one might to make his good times last as long as possible, but, again, he didn’t have to. I was the tightwad who made discerning choices. I decided, for example, not to throw a softball at the target to win my girlfriend a prize at a fair, because I knew I would not hit the target. I also knew that when I didn’t hit it, I would play the stupid game until I did to prove to everyone involved that I could. The idea that attempting to win a girlfriend a prize at the fair is a time-honored staple of a relationship was not lost on me, and I knew she wouldn’t hold it against me if I didn’t win one, but my competitive instincts were so powerful that they would override good sense, and I would end up blowing through whatever money I did have to win her a prize of minuscule value.  

At various points in my life, I was a kid with money, making decisions on how to spend it. I was also the kid without money, at various other points in my life, who lost the power to decide. I knew that the kid with money had a lot more power and prestige than the kid who didn’t. I decided against playing the stupid softball game, enduring the abuse for doing so to spend my limited resources on tickets for her to ride the rides at the fair with me, and I bought food for her too. I thought the fun we ended up having proved that I made wise, thoughtful choices with my money, but the only thing they remembered from that weekend was my refusal to play the stupid softball game.

In the course of that night at the festival, my hairbrush friend played every stupid game the fair offered, and he won his girlfriend prizes, and he ran out of money. He called his mom to inform her of this, and he chastised her for her lack of foresight. “I told you that $20.00 wouldn’t be enough,” he said. Not only did my friend’s mom avoid commenting on my friend’s irresponsible spending habits, she accepted her role in the incident by not showing enough foresight to give him more than $20.00, and she felt guilty about it. The heated exchange that followed also involved my friend accusing his mother of making him look foolish in front of us, his friends, and his girlfriend. This exchange was so foreign to my experience that the only reaction I could find was laughter. 

The natural arc of such a piece should lead the reader to a laundry list of how the antagonist’s lack of principles led to his eventual downfall, and how the author wallowed in the glory of that man’s eventual realization. This is not one of those stories. My grandfather, my father, and I thought my friend’s story would not end well. We thought he would eventually learn the responsibilities inherent in responsible spending. “One way or another he will learn,” they told me. “Every man does in his own ways and on his own time.” My friend did go broke numerous times in his adult life. After an employer fired him, he filed for unemployment, then disability, and then welfare. He said, “I don’t agree with the idea of government assistance, in general, but I can tell you they saved my tailbone.” After discovering a loophole in the bankruptcy laws, he found a way to file for bankruptcy twice. When he needed a loan from a bank, he knew his credit rating was such that they would turn him down, so he and his wife filed for it under his wife’s name. I thought our principles would reveal our relative characteristics over time, but they didn’t. The reader might suggest that falling to a point where he had to use such resources was a punishment in and of itself, but my friend had excuses all lined up for anyone who might condemn him for such actions. As far as any shame or remorse he might have felt, I can tell you that he took some pride in figuring out how to manipulate bankruptcy laws, and all of the other systems that provided him more money.

“So, why were you friends with this guy?” some people have asked. My first inclination is to say, he and I shared a set of values. We talked values all the time, in all the indirect ways friends do. He and I talked on the same page so often that we became brothers. Yet, when I try to come up with a defense for why I decided to befriend him, the words “good friend” don’t come to mind. I want to say that, “For all his faults, he was a good friend,” but he wasn’t a good friend. He wasn’t always there for me. He wasn’t loyal or trustworthy. He wasn’t a good husband. His kid didn’t turn out too well, from my limited experience around the young man, and his parents ended up falling prey to some news worthy charges. All I can say, in defense of our friendship is that he and I became brothers in the formative years of my life, and we have been brothers ever since. Anyone who has a brother understands that he can be 180 degrees different from us, and that might confound us considering that the two of us were born and raised in the same way, but we’re still brothers. We realize that shortly after we disagree, and after we fight and hate each other in the short term, the two of us can sit down together to strengthen the unbreakable, inexplicable bond between us. 

The search for any lessons my friend may have learned require a deep, philosophical dive on my part, and it has something to do with my friend never learning the basic definition of value. The objects involved in this discussion are of relative minuscule value, but if we do not value the relatively meaningless articles and aspects of life, it ends up forming an underlying layer of definition of our character that surfaces throughout our life. 

Can the desolate feelings of desperation teach us anything about ourselves? What happens to us after we’re backed into a corner? Some may joke that the desperation we experience in such situations are relative, and that the problems listed here are first-world problems, but they still require proactive and reactive solutions that we learn over time to define our character, unless someone steps in and helps us avoid ever having to endure them.

“She always believed in me,” my hairbrush friend said at his mother’s funeral. “Even when she probably shouldn’t have, she always had my back.” I considered that sentiment a touching testimonial to his mother in the moment, and in my experiences with the two of them, it was 100% true. As a person who spent most of my maturation without a mother, I envied her unconditional loyalty to him, but that jealousy blinded me to the idea that although unconditional loyalty can be a beautiful thing to watch, it doesn’t always serve the recipient well.