Embrace the Weird

Dan Elwes was a weirdo, we all were, but so was Stanford Days. We were all coming up with so many weird jokes, stories, and ideas that most of them got lost in the noise. Dan topped us all one day. He came up with an idea was so preposterous and absurd that some of us thought he might be brilliant, in a twisted, that-will-never-work, but what kind of mind comes up with such an idea, way. The reactions were varied, but the one thing we all agreed on was that no normal mind could think up such an idea. Then someone added that an abnormal mind wouldn’t come up with that idea either. “Seriously,” he said. “They might think it, but they’d never say it. They’d be afraid that the rest of us might know how abnormal they are.”

Weird-Americans have come a long way in the past couple decades. If a weirdo said something weird in the past, it could be a death sentence for them in some social circles. People would give them “that” look that would dismiss them from all future conversations. Thanks, in part, to the comedic stylings of weirdos like, Andy Kaufman, Peter Sellers, Chris Elliot, and David Letterman being weird is now more accepted. Those who used to dismiss weirdos as outcasts began to see them as creative provocateurs, but even the weirdest weirdos know that there is a difference between weird and strange and the just plain different.

Weirdos spent their high school years trying to put all of the unusual ideas, fantasies, and eccentricities of their youth behind them. We wanted people to laugh with us, not at us. We wanted them to take us serious, so they would like us. When we failed, we realized that we could only conceal who we were for so long. When we came together as adults, working for a company on the ideal shift for outcasts, the overnight shift, it didn’t take long for us to find each other and bond. Our time together didn’t last long, but we enjoyed it so much that we still talk about it.

We were a tight-knit group of the ostracized rejects who never fit into groups well, until Stanford Days joined us. When we first met him, we thought he probably should’ve signed up for the day shift. He was so normal there was no reason to notice him. He read books from the best-seller list, and his idea of good music was limited to what sold well. “You think your music is better than mine? I’ll have you know that this particular star,” he said mentioning the star’s name, “sold millions more copies with their last album than your favorite band has sold in total.” He quoted Lord of the Rings and Star Trek. He used math and science to make sense of the world. Yet, he didn’t fit in with the mathematical crowd, because he was too weird. He didn’t fit in with us, because he was not weird enough. He was an uncomfortable man, uncomfortable in his own skin, and it didn’t take a keen observer to see that he sought normalcy to quiet whatever vortex he had swirling around in his head.

The more we learned about Stanford Days, on those overnights, the more we thought the story was about him. Yet, he was a guy who was there, nothing more and nothing less than there. His path to being there ended when the management decided to shift our seating arrangement, and he ended up sitting next to Dan Elwes. 

Dan was the complete opposite of Stanford Days. Dan was the type a Stanford Days often loathes, because everything seems to come so easy to them. Dan loved to laugh, but everybody loves to laugh. Dan laughed so hard, so often, that some thought he might be simple-minded. Dan also wasn’t afraid to let his freak flag fly. He was everything Stanford wasn’t. Dan enjoyed being a freak and a weirdo in a way few do and he used to say different, weird, and strange things to pique our interest in a way that left us thinking he might be the story.

As anyone who has ever been in a corporate office, with no walls, knows your desk neighbor can become one of your best friends for as long as that particular seating arrangement exists, and when management put Dan next to Stanford, he took a shine to the man. Dan Elwes had an influence on all of us, but his most profound influence was Stanford, and Stanford found himself a member of our clique, thanks to Dan.

We had no problem with Stanford, but he didn’t seem to be a good fit for our clique. He was so normal that we suspected he studied the habits and mannerisms of the normal to convince others that there was nothing weird, strange, or just plain different about him, and we figured he probably would’ve succeeded if he didn’t get all caught up in our cliques effort to outweird one another.

Thinking back on the normal world, Stanford Days built for himself, it had to be a dilemma for the man when he started seeing us let our freak flags fly. He probably always wanted to do it, but he spent most of his life concealing that desire. We don’t know how much thought he put into it, if any, but he began saying things to fit in with our clique’s attempts to outweird one another, and he won, and he silenced the room. The things he began saying were so weird that they didn’t fit even fit in with the weirdest people you’ve ever met. When Stanford finally let his guard down, it put what Hank Hill would call “extra stress on a structure that wasn’t up to code in the first place.” 

We thought we were abnormal weirdos, but we were just having fun being unusually provocative. Stanford introduced us to the difference between the weird and the strange. To put this into a visual display, think of a dartboard with absolute normalcy being the center, bullseye of that dartboard. Stanford’s eccentricities informed us that with all the effort we put into being weird, we were actually a lot closer to the triple point layer than we knew. Dan Elwes was probably closer to the double score area, and Stanford defined for us what off the board meant.

The goal of true weirdos, who we might classify as strange and just plain different is to convince their observers that they hit the bullseye, the arbitrary and relative definition of absolute normal. When they make it over one of the borders, preventing them from progressing, we assume that they continue to have strange thoughts, but they learn not to say them. The fear of public perception keeps them desperately clinging to whatever progress they make, and they do whatever they have to do to maintain their hard-fought place on the dartboard.

To progress over a border, people like Stanford Days watch normal people, and they impersonate them. As any skilled impersonator will tell us, quality impersonation requires hitting bullet points of familiarity in your presentation, so that your audience knows the target of your impersonation. If an impersonator is imitating Johnny Carson, for example, they say things that Johnny said most often. Similarly, an abnormal person seeking to imitate a normal person focuses their presentation on the habits and mannerisms of the normal that we all know well. It’s not hard to do, of course, but the level of difficulty required in maintaining a consistent presentation corresponds with their placement on that dartboard. Some slip up, and others turn ultra-normal.

Those vying for the ultra-normal can reveal their effort in a variety of ways, but when we loaned Stanford Days some of our music, he revealed himself in cinematic fashion. It might be a fault-ridden form of measurement, but Stanford accidentally informed us that music could be used as a barometer of sanity.

We all listened to Top 40 radio in our youth, but most of us grew out of it. As we matured, our tastes in music followed. We might have become obsessed with Heavy Metal at one point in our lives, and we might’ve switch to Jazz, Punk and Classical at various points, until we worked through just about every genre of music at one time or another. Most of us stop, at some point, and listen to one genre for the rest of our lives, but some of us love music so much that we spider web outward. The weird clique, in our office, went through all of these phases and arrived at the most unusual, weirdest, and just plain different music you’ve probably ever heard.

When Dan brought Stanford Days into our clique, we thought Stanford was a like-minded music aficionado who was always on the lookout for something deliciously different. Our clique was anything but exclusive. We welcomed anyone and everyone to love our adventurous music as much as we did. We mostly loaned our music to people in our clique, but some of the times, some music excited us so much that we loaned it to outsiders. Most of them said they didn’t get it and they politely said it was just too weird for them. They often littered their rejections with humor, “You must be an odd duck if you like that.” The music we loaned them was not what we considered on the outer fringes of that particular dartboard, we reserved that stuff for the insiders. We loaned them what we considered weird music 101, just to gauge their reaction. Our MO was to stair step them to our most difficult favorites. When Stanford Days entrenched himself in our clique, we didn’t think stair stepping would be necessary. We thought he was ready for the weirdest music you’ve ever heard.

Stanford was outraged. He angrily rejected the music we loaned him, and he proceeded to tell everyone in the office to avoid listening to any of our music too. “It’s just so weird,” was the refrain of his condemnations, and his warnings to others. By going so overboard with his condemnations, Stanford accidentally revealed to us how tentative his hold on normalcy was.

“Why don’t you just say you don’t enjoy listening to our music, and that you don’t want to listen to it again?” we said. “Why do you have to make such a show of it?”

Stanford said something unmemorable and irrelevant in reply, but the gist of his answer was that he didn’t know the answer. We initially thought his display was all about his personal condemnation of us, but we learned that the show was the show. The goal of Stanford Days’ show was to inform the outside world how normal Stanford Days was by contrast. When he said the music was “just so weird” he wanted to declare to the world that that music was too weird for him, because he was just “too normal” to understand it. He never said such things, but his wild, angry display implied it. He wanted to use his hatred of our music as a platform to declare to that our music was exclusively for the abnormal, and he wanted no part of it.

We thought the unusual, so normal he was abnormal Stanford Days was the story. The more time we spent around Stanford and Dan Elwes, the more we realized that Dan Elwes was such an unusual thinker that no normal mind could come up with his unusual ideas, and no abnormal mind would either. As our mutual friend said, “[The abnormal] might think it, but they would never say it out loud. They’d be afraid that we might know how weird they are.” Most abnormal minds don’t want us to know how abnormal they are, and they don’t dare delve into their unusual thoughts either, because they don’t want to know how abnormal they are either. It takes a special mind to be so comfortable with their eccentricities that they embrace them, as Dan Elwes did just that when he heard our music. He didn’t reject it, as Stanford did, he tried to top it with his own brand of obnoxiously complicated and difficult music. We all knew that our music barometer was not a comprehensive indicator of the various levels of sanity, but Dan’s embrace of our music, and his subsequent recommendations prepared us for his personal embrace of the weird.

When One Thing Doesn’t Work, Try another

That won’t work … Yeah, that won’t work either. I tried it,” they say when we try to offer them solutions to their problem. “Why do you insist on helping me?” they ask with fatigue. “Why can’t you just listen?”

“When one of my friends has a problem,” we say, “I try to help them.”

“Why do you have to help?” they ask. “Is it because there’s some part of you that needs to be right?”

“If I need to be right, why would I pose so many, different solutions? If I have an unusual need to be right, I would only pose one solution and insist that you try that. My motto is, if one thing doesn’t work try another one. If I thought I was always right, why would I write as much as I do? I’m searching for answers and solutions when I write, and when they work for me I suggest them to my friends to see if it will work for them.”

“Well, you can go ahead and shove your solutions in your nether regions,” they say, “because none of them work.”

“Fair enough,” we say. “What solutions have you found?”

“I’ve tried everything,” they say. “Nothing works.”

Is it simplistic to think that for every problem there is a solution? Yes it is. Is it simplistic to say that if that solution doesn’t work, try another? Yes it is, but some truths are complex and some are very simple. Some say that there are only so many facts that lead to one final solution. Yet, we know we will argue over what that truth is until the end of time. When we argue over truths as they apply to solutions, we think that if all parties concerned dug deep enough, we will eventually arrive at an agreed upon truth.

One agreed upon truth we think we all have is that everyone wants to be happy. When we encounter problems, we think the pursuit of a solution that could lead to health, happiness, and peace of mind binds us all. When we finally find our solution, we want to share it with friends in similar straits, to help them sort through the complexities. We want to help them find happiness too. We don’t demand that they use our solution, and we’re not hurt when they don’t. Our goal is to join their quest for a solution to that which plagues them. The problem is they’re not as concerned with finding a solution that might work for them, even internally. Their goals are to presumably draw attention to the complexities of their predicament so they can gather sympathy and attention, and so we all acknowledge their problem for what it is. 

When we reach this point of an argument, we have two choices. We can either walk away or acknowledge the severity of their complaint? Neither choice solves their problem, of course, but it becomes obvious that they don’t want to solve their problem as much as we thought, and they only want us to acknowledge the severity of their problem, as they lay it out. Our reward for soothing them in this manner is their smile.

I saw that smile once in the uneventful silence of a hospital’s Emergency Room (ER). While counting the hours it took for an ER attendant to consult with me, I accidentally overheard an ER attendant inform a young teenager that she had a condition. He informed her that her condition was not life-threatening, or severely debilitating, but that she suffered from a relatively mild version of a condition that would require lifelong diligence on her part to maintain a modicum of health. She smiled. She probably didn’t mean to smile, but it happened. She tried to hide it from the ER attendant and her mother, because she knew how serious the moment was. She turned away from them because she couldn’t stop smiling.

Before I list off what I thought sparked a twinkle in her eye, let me write that it’s entirely possible that the ER attendant’s diagnosis soothed her because it put an end to the fear of not knowing. Those of us who have had our body fall apart in small, confusing ways can empathize, because we know that fear of not knowing. We spent months prior to our emergency room visit trying to figure out what was wrong with us. We listed our symptoms on various medical websites, trying to come to up with a diagnosis of our own, and we found a whole lot of nothing. Armed with a diagnosis, we, like this young woman, found solutions in the form of proactive measures we could employ to maintain a modicum of health that we hoped could lead to more energy and more healthy happiness.

The smile I saw on her face was something different however. I saw a little spark in her smile that suggested she considered that this diagnosis might add some complications to her life. Most of us live simple, boring lives, because we inherited quality genes that provided us a finely tuned and well honed machine that rarely breaks down. We appreciate the brilliance of the design of our body, to some degree, but after living with it for as many decades as we have, good health can be a little boring at times. When our body does break down, in small, relatively harmless ways, it can be interesting and even a little exciting for reasons that are tough to understand or explain. 

I do not know what was going on in her head, of course, but I imagine that she knew that this condition would not only require attention from her, but from her family, her friends, her employer, her school, and anyone else who cared about her. She probably sat in that ER room thinking that she would become the center of attention among those who cared about her. Until they could devise a plan to help her manage her day-to-day activities, she would also be a subject of sympathy from those concerned about her health. She knew she could talk to them about it, and that smile suggested she looked forward to those conversations and all of that attention. She knew she would be able to express her concerns, and she knew they would finally listen to her, because this was a big deal. They, along with her doctor, would help her devise a plan that would include a disciplined diet that she would have to follow, and she probably figured she could violate it when she was “feeling a little naughty”, and because she had a relatively mild case, the consequences of these violations would be minimal, but her friends and family would still be concerned when she did that.

She probably also thought about her obnoxious brother, boyfriend, or anyone else who thought they knew what was wrong with her. They all offered her a diagnosis, and she argued with them that it was far more complex than that, but they wouldn’t listen. They also offered her simplistic home remedies that promised some quick-fix solutions to what ailed her. Her smile suggested that she couldn’t wait to tell them they were all wrong, all along, and her condition was far more complex than any of them dreamed. Armed with ER attendant’s diagnosis, she realized she could now tell them all to go to hell. “You have no idea what you’re talking about. This is a big deal. You have no idea what I’m going through here. I have a condition that requires constant care and treatment.” That smile told me that she couldn’t wait to drop these lines on her obnoxiously simplistic friends and family. “Oh, so, you’re telling me that you know more about this than a doctor?”

What is the antonym of solutions-oriented thinking? Thesauruses list a number of antonyms, but they do not list the term problems-oriented. The term does not exist, because no one is problems-oriented, at least in the sense that a person uses problems to find some happiness. Some of them appear to love to talk about their problems non-stop, and they view any attempt to resolve them as an attempt to minimize their issue.

Solutions-oriented thinkers are no smarter, healthier, or in any way better than someone who appears to relish talking about their problems. Solutions-oriented thinkers are often quick to recognize patterns and devise an immediate solution, but they often have to face the flaws in pattern recognition thinking. When those humbling experiences occur, they choose a more methodical approach that includes consulting others, manuals, or another more methodical approach, and they use that information to devise another solution.

“But I thought you just said the other solution was the answer,” their agitators say. “I thought you were a know-it-all.”

“I was wrong.”

Solutions-oriented thinkers are also wrong as often as anyone else is. They might be surprised, confused, and frustrated when their proposed solution doesn’t work, and problems-oriented people might enjoy that initial failure, but the solutions-oriented person does something that shocks the problems-oriented person, they try something else. Solving problems, to them, is an ego-less pursuit of finding an answer that involves trial and error. 

Solutions-oriented thinkers in solutions-oriented positions, in some Fortune 500 companies, are doing away with the traditional interview process. Through trial and error, they’ve decided to do away with the closed boardroom methodology that challenges a potential candidate with a, “This is the problem. Quick, what is your solution?” is no longer the way to find the best candidate. These innovative companies are sending their questions to their potential candidate’s homes, via email, to allow them to process the question, trial and error it, and arrive at the best possible answer. They recognize that quick thinking might sound great in the traditional interview, it does nothing for them long-term. They think the “thinks quick on their feet” bullet point to finding the best employees is overrated. They prefer a person who studies the nature of the problem, arrives at a diagnosis, recognizes their errors of their impulsive, pattern-based thinking, and arrives at another diagnosis of the situation to be their ideal candidate. Their first prerequisite is to find a candidate who is bold enough to offer a unique, creative, and innovative approach to problem solving. Such candidates are rare, because most of these approaches are ridiculed when they’re wrong, and most prospective candidates have been conditioned to avoid sticking their neck out in this manner. Candidates who can absorb such ridicule and endure the lack of faith they receive from bosses for occasionally being wrong, and simply try something else are such a rare commodity that innovative companies are willing to try anything to find them. They know such thinkers do not perform well in the standardized, traditional interview format, so they tried another format to find that special candidate who tried something else when their second and third solution didn’t work. The Fortune 500 company doesn’t want people who are always wrong of course, but even the best candidates are going to be wrong, and some of the times their error will be humiliating. What do they do then? What do they do when all else fails? They want to hire that ego-less thinker who tries everything they can think of and when that fails, they use the revolutionary approach of problem-solving by trying something else.   

The Unfunny Comedian

“I love to eat. Who here loves to eat?” Barry Becker said to open his show in Waukee, Iowa. “You’re applauding politely. Most people do. Very few people applaud that line wildly. We all eat, and we all enjoy it, but we’re not going to hoot and holler a joke about it. Especially, if we’re on a first date. Nobody lets their lover see them naked with a line like, “You like what you see? Enjoy it while you can, because it’s all going to end soon. It’s only a matter of time before this becomes a big mess of Frito’s and Skittles. I love to eat babe.

“I’ll tell you who does hoot and holler. Skinny people. Yeah, they don’t mind sharing it with the world. “I love to eat!” Really, well, you obviously don’t love it as much as I do. I’m here today to take it back for we, the people. “I love to eat!” Shout it loud. Shout it proud. I like to sleep, and I like to sit and do nothing for hours at a time, but nothing compares to eating. 

“Have you ever had a friend say, “Let’s go get something to eat.” Their presentation is so mundane and routine. They act like eating a meal is just something that we should do, so we can get it over with and do something else. Hey, hey, hold on there little doggie. I don’t know what you plan to do after the meal, but the meal is the event to me. I’m getting old, and keeping these beautiful curves ain’t as easy as it used to be, so I’m not into ‘Let’s just get something to eat’. If I’m only going to be able to eat one meal a day, and you’re going to tell me to cut back on snacks, then you better get your A-game out if you’re going to ask me to have a meal with you. Use your words. Dadgumit! Seduce me.

“I ate a big, beautiful ribeye the other day. It was an event for me when the waiter placed that big old thing before me. This is what I planned for all day. It was just gorgeous. I could hardly see any plate. I wish I would’ve enjoyed it more, but I had to get down to eating. Then it was over. The event I looked forward to all day was gone. It was so hot and so good that I ate it too fast. I didn’t chit chat, and I didn’t look around the room too much. I even forgot I had someone sitting across the table. I hate reaching the end of a meal and having to force down the last few lukewarm bites. So, I eat those big, beautiful looking ribeyes so fast that I can’t remember how good they are.

“It’s my dad’s fault that I eat this way. The man taught me how to eat. He did not allow for chit-chat at the dinner table. We were there to eat, and like a huskie on a dog sled, if we didn’t have our utensils locked and loaded in a timely manner, our musher would start making those kissing sounds. Barry! Barry! Mmh mmh mmh!”

“My dad didn’t actually make kissing sounds, but what if he did? What if the Iditarod was so popular in our country that its tradition of making kissing sounds to get huskies to go faster influenced our parents to make kissy sounds at the table when we wouldn’t eat?  

“When we think about all of the quirky and odd traditions, is it really such an insane notion? My mom used to read to me every night, she’d tuck me in, and give me a kiss. Then, right before she’d close the door she’d say, “Good night. Don’t let the bedbugs bite.”

“She did not intend to introduce horrific thoughts into my already creative mind of course. It was a tradition that she passed that line down to me, because her mom passed it down to her, and I passed it down to my kid, and we do this without really thinking about what we’re saying to them. We think it conveys sentiment. I love you, and have a good night’s sleep. Oh, and don’t let the bedbugs bite. She did it so often that by the time I started thinking about what it was she was saying, it was already an accepted part of our parting ritual at the end of a night. I also think she just liked the phrase, because it rhymes, “Good night, don’t let the bedbugs bite.” If we take a step back and think about what we’re saying before we close the door, immersing our kids in total darkness, where their unusually creative minds spin just about everything we say into some horror that causes them insomnia and nightmares, we might want to give some thought to ending that tradition.

“I heard another tradition that we’ve passed down for generations when I picked up my kid from school. Some kids, somewhere on the playground, began singing the borderline horrific rhyme Ring around the Rosies. I smiled when I heard it. “Ring around the rosie, pocket full of posies, ashes ashes, we all fall down,” they sang. Apparently, there are numerous versions of this song, and some of you might know a different one, but that’s the one I know. That’s the one we know right? For as many versions as there are, there are almost as many interpretations of its lyrics. Most of us sang it just to sing something while we did something else, but some folklorists suggest the lyrics ‘ring around the rosie’ might have developed as a result of kids teasing other kids anytime they had a red owie on their arm. The theme of their teasing was that owie probably means that you have the plague that was killing over 100,000 Londoners in 1665. The ‘pocket full of posies’ lyrics, some suggest, were to mock those who thought that carrying flowers in their pocket was a homeopathic remedy to prevent the onset of the plague. “Even though you had a pocket full of posies, you still caught the plague, sucker!” The conclusion of the song might be the most horrific, as the “Ashes, Ashes, we all fall down” lyrics suggest that the tormentors relented that we’re all probably going to get the plague anyway, and we’re all going to die en mass. One would think that in the age of COVID, we might want to give some thought to ending that tradition too. 

“I’ve heard that that folklore that arose around these interpretations of the lyrics might not be true, but even the most obnoxious fact-checking, internet sleuths will have to admit that there’s enough speculation among folklorists who’ve examined the lyrics of the song that we should probably stop teaching it as a sweet, pleasant “sing-along” rhyming song our kids can sing on a playground. I mean, how can anyone spin “Ashes ashes we all fall down?” as anything other than a relatively disturbing image? A creative young mind might even spin the lyrics as a warning for all participants to prepare for a nuclear winter?

“In that spirit of the odd, decidedly less violent traditions we pass on, let’s say we meet our friend and his kids out at a restaurant, and he starts mushing his kids with the kissy sounds that can often be heard in an Iditarod. “Aiden, Aiden, mmh mmmh!”

“Why are you doing that Cliff?”

“The kid won’t eat,” Cliff says. “He gets distracted by every little thing, and if I don’t continually mush him, we’ll be here till eight o’clock waiting for him to finish.”

“So, you accomplish that by making kissy noises at him?”

“I guess I never put much thought into it before,” Cliff laughs. “My dad did it to me, and I kind of do it now without thinking when the boys here get to playing with their food and junk. My grandfather raced in the Iditarod, and I think he took that mushing sound home with him. My dad did it to me, and I guess the practice just made its way down to me.” 

“Okay, but you might want to reconsider doing it in the middle of the Olive Garden,” we say. “People don’t know your story, and I don’t think the Child Protective Agency will understand your family tradition.”