“Welcome to the group, our group, of balloonophiles,” a group moderator who chose the name Olive Branch said to open the proceedings. “Some people call us loonies and loonatics. I see some fresh faces here today, so I’d like to welcome you all to our group.
“We balloonophiles enjoy blowing up balloons and watching others do so,” she added.
After the all-too tedious introductions ended (“Hi. My name is Jordache, and I like green olives and Octopuses”), Olive opened the floor for the discussion of the day.
In the general discussion that followed, we fresh faces learned of a philosophical divide that arose between the two factions in Balloonophila. A group called the poppers were on one side of the proverbial aisle, and the non-poppers were on the other side. The word proverbial is germane here, because the participants did not sit on opposite sides of one another, and they did not sit together to imply they would only sit next to those with whom they shared solidarity on this matter. The divide between the two was purely philosophical, and other than a few harsh words, I never saw anything that would suggest otherwise.
“Most of us use the common latex balloon,” one of the poppers explained, “but we will use the higher-quality Mylar when we had disposable cash on hand.”
“Segments of the popper faction of the balloonist community enjoy popping with a pin,” another popper explained. “Others enjoy flames, but some loonatics use shoe heels for maximum impact.”
“We non-poppers use Mylar balloons almost exclusively,” another said, “because Mylar holds up better to the oven baking process we use to make them stretchier.”
Except for the few anecdotal examples provided below, most balloonophiles engaged in these activities in conjunction with various sex acts.
“I pictured a military man the other day, a grunt, forcefully contorting a balloon into shape,” said a man called Andy. “He doesn’t want to hurt the balloon, but he enjoys hearing it squeal.”
Most of the introductions the loons of both factions provided were less personal than Andy, as they preferred the more instructional rhetoric to describe the philosophical conflict that developed in Balloonville between the popper and non-popper factions. Members of each group later informed me that, in a few cases, their past discussions grew heated, but for the most part, any tension that occurred between the two factions was a subtle undercurrent that can develop with any two parties who have philosophical differences. The speakers maintained that their disagreements were peaceful, and they repeated that so often that I began to believe it. Even the most peaceful arguments have sides, however, and there are always going to be some who feel the need to bolster their ranks.
“Poppers prefer to have their carnal explosion occur in conjunction with the balloon’s,” a non-popper named Elliot said to try to explain what he considered the crux of the argument. “Non-poppers, on the other hand, prefer to use the same balloon repeatedly. We consider a popper’s enjoyment of popping a balloon as unnecessarily violent, even a little sadistic.” Elliot’s characterization was the most interesting, of course, but I didn’t give it the attention it required at first. I considered it a natural flow of such discussions, as one person will always try to outdo the others, but when Elliot continued, using other devices to bolster his argument, he convinced me how important this characterization was to him.
I figured Elliot was probably a nice guy, as I watched him carry on and provide far too many details of the plight of the non-popper. I figured he was a man who followed all of the rules and treated people the way he wanted to be treated, but he had his moments. We all do, and we worry about those moments and what they say about us. We might think about them, and some of us might obsess over them, but the mirror can only provide so many answers. I figured that questions of morality plagued Elliot so much that he needed to find a way to soothe his soul. So, he joined a group. I wondered if Elliot had any interest in balloons before he joined this group. The first question, of course, is how would one find such a specific group without very specific needs? Maybe a friend told him about the group, like my friend told me. Maybe he thought it would be hilarious to hear people talk about sex with balloons, like I did, and somewhere in the midst of that search, he found a level of affinity for these people that led him to form some level of solidarity. Maybe he was just a lost soul in need of a group, and he just happened to find these people.
There’s nothing wrong with joining a group, of course, as we can find friends and feel a part of a community, but such groups can lead the individuals involved to develop an us versus them mentality. When we get caught up in the group mentality, we find ourselves using comparative analysis more often than self-reflection. We attempt to persuade our group, and anyone else in between, of our virtues. We hope to persuade them to our point of view to bolster the view we hope to have of ourselves.
Elliot said that poppers do what they do, because “they are so unnecessarily violent that they might be sadistic”. The first question that comes to mind, when one hears such a thing is, we’re still talking about balloons right? As one who obsesses over word choices I’ve often found that the audience should consider excessive use of modifiers, particularly the adjectives they use to warn us about the other’s intentions. I’ve often found them used in the introduction of some level of manipulation on the part of the speaker. Elliot could’ve simply said poppers enjoy popping balloons and I don’t, but by adding those modifiers he hoped to persuade those of us with no rooting interest that those who pop balloons are bad guys, which he hopes leads us to consider him a good guy by comparison.
This Elliot guy was talking about popping balloons, so the reason I didn’t pay enough attention to the guy at first was that he was talking about balloons. It was a silly topic on a silly evening as far as I was concerned. When this guy rambled on about how poppers were on the wrong side, I realized there was something about human nature, in general, involved in his characterization. I thought about how many philosophical arguments I’ve been in where the person I was arguing with went beyond saying I was wrong to saying I should reconsider my views before someone, somewhere called me a bad guy.
My reaction to Elliot’s comments were not what I would call an epiphany, as I had these thoughts before, but no one I argued with ever went as far as Elliot did to label their philosophical opponents bad guys. It struck me, even as Elliot was speaking, that there is a sliding scale that some try to instill in their audience. If Elliot was able to convince those of us who have no rooting interest that poppers are wrong, he receives short term, situational satisfaction if we consider him right. If he is able to convince us that they’re bad, he might hope that we consider him good by contrast. If he convinces us that their unnecessarily violent and sadistic tendencies could be characterized as evil, then we are almost required to recognize Elliot as the beacon of virtue.
I also gleaned from the testimonials and the many comments made in the meeting that non-poppers tend to believe they attain more from a balloon in what could be termed a monogamous relationship, and this is more often than not the case when that balloon is made of Mylar and filled with air as opposed to helium. They never defined the word more in their descriptions, nor did the non-poppers ever use the word monogamous. Many in the non-popper community approached the ideas in different ways, however, and they left them as a standalone, which I assume to be a self-evident proposition of theirs.
The testimonies were such that I gathered that the non-poppers were the more sanctimonious of the two, but the poppers had their own level of sanctimony. Some of the poppers alluded to the idea that the non-poppers were complete wusses for their aversions to loud noises.
“…And the loud noises are where it’s at,” said a man with the alias of Jim (his preferred moniker if I should ever publish this piece). “There is something exhilarating about rubbing your fingers along a balloon that is inflated to maximum capacity. The sounds it makes does something that those with an aversion to loud noises will never understand, they’re like screams or something.”
“There are a number of theories regarding the origin of the balloonophile,” Olive Branch said after the intros were complete, and the discussion of the differences between the two factions subsided. “I know we’ve discussed them before, but I thought we might address the issue again for some of our newer members.” Olive didn’t look at me when she said this, but the energy of the room made an obvious shift in my direction.
I wasn’t sure if I was the lone new member, as that was never addressed, even in the introductory period, but I apparently stood out more than the others did, because most of the speakers chose to direct their focus on me.
“Some have suggested that balloonophiles are borne of castration anxiety,” Olive continued, “or a denial of breastfeeding. They also suggest that some go too far in their endeavors that they advance to a stage in their pursuit of therapy when they manage to replace the natural need for human contact and become irretrievable in a psychological manner. How many of us think these theories hold any measure of truth?”
A chorus of “No’s” went around the table. They expounded on their rejection of these ideas a little, but as with most attempts to disprove theories regarding the essence of one’s nature, the ballonophiles didn’t feel a need to bolster their rejections of these notions with what I considered constructive refutation.
Terrance Gill, a non-popper, chuckled at the very idea that castration anxiety was even a theory, and a few others parroted his position with soft chuckles of their own.
“What about the Freudian breastfeeding theory?” Olive asked.
One balloonophile informed the group, “I might have been breastfed too long, according to what my mother told me.” Two others offered anecdotal attempts to refute the breastfeeding theory until it became obvious that most of the attendees were more comfortable with their personal, anecdotal refutations. Various members began branching out from these refutations to personal experiences they had with other theories, and their refutations of them teed up other members to bolster their refutations with quick affirming tidbits. At the end of this particular stretch, the otherwise combative groups appeared satisfied with themselves for offering the new attendees the group’s version of Origin of Species.
I, however, didn’t think any of them offered one piece of solid refutation. They seemed obsessed with distracting and obfuscating the central point of Olive Branch’s question. I was a quiet observer at this point, nothing more and nothing less. My smile was level and polite throughout. I even allowed most of the rejections of theories to pass without comment. It wasn’t in my nature to remain silent for long, however, and this aspect of my personality was even more difficult to maintain as the attempts to defeat what these individuals believed to be anecdotal theories proved so anecdotal.
“Everyone is not a damned anomaly!” I said.
At that, the group was shocked. If shocked is a self-serving description, how about silent. In the wake of a challenge of what I considered their self-serving descriptions, they said nothing. In the space of the silence that followed I realized that they might have thought I argued from some point of certitude that I was right and they were wrong. If I thought of it at the time, I would’ve disavowed them of this notion, for how can one be right or wrong on such matters? I did recognize the general idea that I was a bit ahead of myself, and I probably overstepped my station by questioning them in such an outburst.
“I’m sorry,” I said, too little, too late. “It just gnaws at me when people invest so much energy in telling people what they are not, and they fail to put any thought in what they are, or how they came to be.
“Most people are much more comfortable telling an interested party that other’s theories about them are either wrong or that they happen to be anomalous to those theories,” I continued. “They want people to believe that anyone who tries to figure them out is wasting their time. I have no problem with the idea that you think you’re complicated. Don’t get me wrong. That said, let’s dig through those complications. Let’s try to find a truth that lies somewhere between simple logic and what I consider a lack of objectivity on your part.”
“No one is objective,” Elliot said. “I’m not objective. You’re not objective. Even if the only team you’re rooting for is your own, you still have a rooting interest.”
“Fair enough,” I said, suspecting that Elliot was parsing my words and attempting to divert the subject with my poor choice of words. “But we’ve developed simple rules of logic in our studies regarding human nature, to govern our ways of life. Within those agreed upon understandings lies a belief that I turned out the way I did, because of the conditions in which my parents raised me. The economic conditions in which they raised me played a role, the locale of my upbringing, and various other social conditions affected the person I am now. While there will always be some anomalies to these findings, not everyone can be one. The fact that most people believe they are anomalous to every rule just reiterates to me that self-examination is sorely lacking, but I don’t think it suggests that there is anything wrong with the general rules we’ve established. I’ve asked various people if it’s true that those from their specific locale tend to be, and believe, what others tell me they believe. They say, “Oh, that’s such a generality.” We’ve all fallen in love with that line, as if it refutes the general rules we’ve established. They don’t say anything else, and they expect us all to walk away, as if that’s an acceptable answer. I’m saying stop that. We need to find a way to expound on the reasons why the general rules we lay out are generally incorrect. I don’t care if you and your second-cousin Janet are specific exceptions to the general rule. If you are anomalous to the theories Olive just laid out, we should dig deeper into these theories, to see if there are any commonalities. If there aren’t, we should explore that possibility to locate the countervailing realities we share. Aren’t you interested in what makes you who you are?”
One is never sure how others will receive such a rant. We’d like to think we present such profundity that the silence that follows is just a pendulum, waiting to swing the group in our favor, but I had no such delusions. I was, however, confident in the idea that what I had to say was thoughtful and that my conclusions were, at the very least, worthy of consideration. That belief, like many presumptions and assumptions proved false.
“They just are,” non-popper, Vicki Lerner, explained. She looked around for a brief, pregnant moment. “We just … are.”
That gained Vicky some good vibes from the others. No one offered her words of thanks or congratulations, but the positive energy of the room swung in her direction.
I smiled at her words and the unspoken accolades that followed, but I intended that smile to conceal my fatigue. A second after Vicki said that, I realized I should’ve qualified my statements, “And you cannot just say, ‘We just are.’ You cannot say, ‘And on the eighth day, God created the balloon people.’”
“There has to be a reason some of you have this predilection.” I said. “I can pretty much trace all the things that led me to being the way I am.”
“Why do you need labels?” Terrance Gill asked me. “Balloonville is not about labels.”
They all enjoyed that. Captain Federico, an obvious toucher, even reached out to touch Terrance’s leg. He pointed to Terrance’s face, and then pumped his eyebrows at Terrance.
“You spoke of a lack of examination,” Jim said. “Let’s examine you for a moment. Why do you need very specific answers to your specific questions? Is there a part of you that abhors chaos so much that you pledge to fight the random wherever it rears its head? Have you always been this way? Do you think you have life all figured out? On the other hand, maybe you’ve reached the point when matters such as these make so little sense that you have to jam sense into it. Why can’t they just be? Why can’t we just be? Some of the times, things are random. Some of the times people are just different. Sometimes people just become what they are by a random series of events.”
“That is true,” I said, “It’s undeniably true, but I think if we all examine our differences and those events that seem to be random, we might find some correlations that lessen the randomness of it all.”
The idea that the group never welcomed dissent into their origin-of-species discussions was obvious by their initial, silent shock and the follow-up counterpoints. I won’t bore the reader with the remaining counterpoints, as most were redundant and circuitous and they focused on the agreed-upon theme that balloonophiles are just what they say they are. We did arrive at one collective conclusion, albeit an unspoken one, that I was the one with the problem, and the discussion that followed suggested that we all grew a little closer in the aftermath of that conclusion.
“I view the use of balloons in foreplay as an indicator of confidence,” a man named Mel said. “I don’t use balloons as often as some in our group do, but it’s an excellent device to use when trying to switch things up. Most people feel weird involving balloons in foreplay, yet they have no problem with other, more acceptable devices. Most people don’t know what we can do with balloons, and when they find out, they’re weirded out by it. A person who can work their way past that displays an overwhelming amount of confidence I find sexy.”
As the only person to confess that his fascination might be deep rooted and psychological, Mel stated that he saw balloons as “a physiological substitute that, when ingested by a female, can achieve excitation. This is often the case when said female pops the balloon upon total immersion.” As a member of the popping camp, Mel admitted to “having an inflation fetish that occurs in a manner similar to sudden expansion of body parts.”
“The popping can be violently dramatic when it’s timed just right,” a stage performer who engaged in total balloon immersion in her act, said to agree Mel’s assessment. She was excited by Mel’s confession, and she was all but hopping in her seat throughout. She said “Yes!” three times before Mel concluded, and she could begin. “The fascination with balloons and their relationship to some kind of allure is more widespread than even this group realizes. A performer has to know how to do it though. It can be very theatrical in experienced hands, with proper attention paid to detail and timing. To those who watch my act and assume it’s easy, I always say, ‘You try it!’”
Non-poppers do not all have a general aversion to loud noises, just like not all poppers demand well-timed explosions. Some non-poppers view well-timed, loud noises as arousing, as opposed to the ligyrophobic terror they experience with other, sudden loud noises.
This idea of ligyrophobia, or the fear of loud noises, was introduced by a non-popper named Brett. “Some kids grow out of it, I never did. I hole myself up in my apartment during July 4th, and try to block out all sound as best I can, but for some reason I enjoy popping balloons on occasion. It’s like a controlled, non-threatening way to tweak my fears,” said a man named Brett. “Gil here calls me bacurious.”
“Balloon curious,” Gil added to everyone’s enjoyment.
Captain Federico, a non-popper, was far more open than his counterparts were. He claimed to have selected his nom de plume from a Star Trek character, and none of the group members knew his real name.
“I initiate visual contact with my balloon while on all fours,” he said, detailing non-popper foreplay for us. “I begin barking at the balloon, until I believe I have achieved a level of dominance. I then crawl back to my balloon in a cautious, submissive manner that leads to embraces and comfort. Next, I roll onto my back, during the supplication phase of the tryst, to allow the balloon full exploration of my body.”
There were no immediate reactions to that confession. I can only guess that most of the balloonists found the revelation uncomfortable, as they feared the new observers in the group might attach it to them. After that cloud of awkwardness lifted, Terrance Gill touched Captain Federico’s shoulder and let his touch linger for a second, and the two of them shared a warm smile. That appeared to be a sign of gratitude for the Captain’s courage in coming forth with that confession, but I figured the gesture returned the sentiment Federico displayed earlier, when he touched Terrance’s leg.
Some of the balloonists lived stressful, non-balloon oriented lives, and they considered their acts of balloonophilia relaxing and therapeutic.
“I work sixty to seventy hours a week for a company that doesn’t appreciate me anymore,” said a man named Leo. “I have a wife and two kids who don’t even greet me at the door anymore, and the boy doesn’t even look away from his gawd-damned PlayStation long enough to acknowledge that I’ve arrived home from work. I can’t force them to be appreciative or gracious, and I’m tired of yelling at them. They don’t listen, and, hey, I’m not hurting anyone. Why does anyone care what I do in my free time?”
“My evenings with balloons are not sexual and tend to involve a wide variety of adults blowing up balloons and trying to keep them airborne. It doesn’t always have to be a sexual thing,” said a woman named Ana who claimed no one would hire her, other than the “stressful, unrewarding field of telemarketing.”
In the immediate aftermath of the group meeting, I became obsessed with refuting their refutations of my questions. I didn’t think I was obsessed, but my friends did. They said I was repeating the exchanges I had with the group members so often that it was obvious to them I was obsessed. I wanted objective feedback from parties that could provide third-part analysis, but I decided to drop the matter and display a little mercy. I took to the internet and found a number of articles that would bolster my presentation in the Balloonophilia meeting next week.
Two days after writing up my presentation, however, Olive Branch emailed me, “Although balloonophile meetings are open to the public, and you can still attend if you want to, the group has decided that it would be in everyone’s best interest if you decided otherwise.” Further reading of the email made the disdain with my attendance clearer:
“The group decided that balloonophile meetings are intended for balloonophiles and for those interested in becoming a balloonophile. Various comments and physical gestures that you made throughout the meeting made it clear that you are not interested in joining our group.”
It was my first excommunication, and I didn’t know how to deal with it.
The import of this email was that I was not only a naysayer. They viewed me as an opponent of Balloonophilia, an anti-balloonophile or an anti-loonite, but that is certainly not the case. The nature of the balloonophile fascinates me still, because of what I think it says about humanity in general.
One particular internet article I found better encapsulated what I was trying to say, and I was excited to present it to the group. Even if they allowed me to introduce his findings, though, I didn’t really expect it to change any minds. If the balloonophiles taught me nothing else, they convinced me that there is nothing to cure. They are not sick. They enjoyed doing what they do, and they preached their philosophy well enough for me to acknowledge that they are not seeking debate on this topic. I did hope my findings might raise some eyebrows, but I would not expect them to change their ways one iota based on a quote from someone that knows nothing about their individual situations. No matter what information I presented, I knew they would declare themselves an exception to that rule.
“So you failed to convince a bunch of loons that you’re correct? So what?” That has been the general reaction to my complaints about the meeting. Another common reaction is “Is your ego so huge that you can’t take it when everyone doesn’t agree with you?”
After some reflection, I think I can now admit that I was obsessed with the issue, albeit not for the reasons one might assume. Do I have an almost overwhelming desire to have my notions proven correct, and does this desire lead me to do things that compromise friendships with those who have a couple of fun ideas that don’t settle well in my system? Yes and yes, but I think the ideas we discussed that evening say a lot about where we’re going as a culture. We are now so attracted to the sympathetic, compassionate, and understanding lexicon that we think the peak of understanding is to avoid any attempts at understanding. We are to default to Vicki Lerner’s assessment that “we just are”, but if we’re proud of who we are, shouldn’t we trumpet it out to those who are simply curious and have no rooting interest?
Few enjoy a challenge to our core beliefs. Most of us want others to take our side. The art of playing devil’s advocate is not only lost, it’s dismissed with an all-encompassing name, or some accusation of being unable to accept differences for what they are. This, I believe, results in us being so pleased with ourselves for not recognizing our differences that we refuse to spend any time truly analyzing them. Differences are what they are, and we believe there is something so beautiful about that that we don’t take the time to try to understand what really makes us tick.