Portion Control


“Excuse me,” a customer calls out to a server. “I ordered a roast beef sandwich, and I believe my slices are insufficient.” Has this ever happened? Has a customer ever called a server back, with bread pealed back, to inform a restaurant employee that they need more slices? I know it has. I know if I interviewed a number of servers on this topic, they would tell me to sit down before they began their tales, but I’ve never witnessed it firsthand. The more common complaint occurs in whispers long after the server walks away, as most of us avoid confrontation and situations that could draw attention to us. Most of us quietly cede portion control to the restaurants we choose for our dining experiences.

“MORE? You want more?” a Dickensian character might say in a manner that drops a proverbial spotlight on us. When we go to an established franchise we’ve learned to accept their nationally accepted portion control, but do we accept the same norms from an upstart mom and pop’s deli at the end of the block? Anyone who has worked at a restaurant has heard a wide array of complaints from customers, but how many hear that the portion of meat on a sandwich is too small, or that there aren’t enough fries? Would we deem that so bold as to be obnoxious? It might seem like such a violation of sorts of our conditioning that we might view the complainant as gluttonous?

Franchise websites suggest that portion control is vital to establish a level of consistency in a national chain, and they discuss the health benefits of lesser portions for the consumer and the profit potential for franchise owners. “Customers don’t complain about more portions,” they write, “but they will certainly complain about less.” I realize that writers of such columns have franchise owners in mind when they write such things, but I’ve never heard customers openly complain about less.

How many ounces of roast beef should we expect when we purchase a roast beef sandwich? Is there a generally accepted or preferred amount? How much does it vary with each restaurant? We could look this amount up, but the actual number is relatively unimportant when compared to our expectations. It’s a ‘we know it when we see it’ amount that varies, and if the restauranteur violates that principle most of us simply go to a restaurant that meats (sic) that expectation.

If the restaurateur notices our absence and finds a way to ask us why we left, they might say, “Well, why didn’t you say anything? We could’ve provided you a couple more ounces of roast beef to make you happy.” The problem for most restaurateurs is that most of us are members of the silent majority who don’t complain. We don’t fill out suggestion cards or comment cards, then we tell the cashier that everything was fine when they ask how our meal was, and we never go back. We also whisper things to our friends that close restaurants down.

If it benefits all parties concerned to speak up, why don’t we? As with just about every adult predilection, it goes back to high school. We see the hungry patrons in line behind us at the deli, and we remember the groans, fidgeting, and ridicule we heard when we asked one too many questions in our Algebra II Trig class. Even if we still didn’t understand the teacher’s explanations, we learned to shut up and stop asking so many questions. Our peers’ audible fatigue conditioned us to stop asking questions, don’t appear difficult in any way, and avoid complaining. Thus, when we feel the hungry patrons behind us, who just want us to move along so they can get their sandwich, we do. Even though we’re not satisfied, we shut up and move along to avoid causing a scene, and some of us do this so often that we start ceding portion control to the restaurant.  

How many customers prevent a waiter from leaving their table with the complaint, “I only have four broccoli florets on my plate, I’m accustomed to having five?” How many people would say, “I’m accustomed to a half a cup of mashed potatoes. Does that look like a half cup to you?” The more likely complaint would be, “I ordered the eight ounce steak, but this looks like six ounces to me.” I’m sure there are some who complain about this portion control restaurants have on us, but I have to guess that that percentage of the population is so small that it’s hardly representative. The rest of us know that they’re in charge, and we’ve learned to accept this facet of life. 

Most complaints lead to a manager visiting our table, and that manager brings a proverbial spotlight with him. When that manager kneels before our table that we’re being difficult, and we experience the same anxiety we did in Algebra II Trig. “It’s not a big deal,” we say to attempt to soften the blow, “I just thought I should get a couple more slices of beef for my roast beef sandwich.” I’ve witnessed some go bold in the face of a one-on-one with a restaurant manager, but most people shrink from the magnitude. We don’t want to appear difficult. The manager might consult a franchise advisor, as I’m guessing that a person complaining about portions happens so infrequently that they don’t have a standard operating procedure, but my guess is that the manager does whatever he has to do, under the “customer is always right” imprimatur to make us go away.

The inclination most restaurants might have to avoid such stated and unstated complaints is to go “bigee” on the portions. I witnessed this as a deli employee at an upstart, now defunct bagel shop franchise. The national chain decided to allow an owner to open a franchise in our area, and they apparently believed that their key to success was bigger portions. They never said that they wanted to compete with the portions Arby’s provided, but that was my takeaway. They provided over-abundant roast beef portions on a bagel sandwich. I was a dumb kid who didn’t know anything about market testing, or any of the particulars franchises uses to establish themselves in a given area, but when I took my first bite of their roast beef sandwich, all of my fixins fell out the other side. The sandwich was excellent. The roast beef was so tender, and I thought all of the other fixins were fresh and tasty, but their portions were so large, on a comparatively weak bagel, that everything fell out the other side. I told the owner of this particular franchise that I thought it gave the sandwich a sloppy presentation.

The manager lifted an eyebrow on me, but he said nothing further. I thought he totally dismissed my observation, until the franchise advisor walked in the bagel shop, days later, to see how things were going. My manager encouraged me to ask my question. I repeated my question, and I added, “We’re a bagel shop. My motto would be if you want more meat go to Arby’s.” I said that the bagel shop didn’t have to say such things openly, but that it should be our M.O., and I said that I thought bagel shop patrons would understand that, even expect it, before they set foot in our restaurant.

We all enjoy eating out at restaurants, but how much of our enjoyment of the food centers around presentation? How many of us would be turned off by a sloppy sandwich at an otherwise clean bagel shop? I told the franchise adviser that I thought portion control, and the art of presentation were everything. I said that a patron of Arby’s might find a sandwich overflowing with meat more attractive, whereas a bagel shop patron is more likely to prefer a clean presentation that appears more structured, regardless of the portions. To me, it was all about demographics. 

I’m sure that their insider information told the owners of the franchise that if they wanted to open a location in the Midwest market, they had to increase their portions, but my gut instinct told me that if you’re going to increase portions, make a larger, stronger bagel. The bagel they sold did not adhere to the illusory notion of portion control, and when the bagel shop went out of business in our area, I felt vindicated.

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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. 

You are Not so Dumb


“You are what we call a processor,” my boss said in a one-on-one meeting. “You study the details of a question before you answer. It might take you more time to arrive at a conclusion, but once you do, you come up with some unique, creative thoughts. There’s nothing wrong with it. We just think differently, and when I say we,” Merri added to soften the blow, “I include myself, for I am a bit of a processor too. So, it takes one to know one.”

Merri added some personal anecdotes to elucidate her point, but the gist of her comment appeared to spring from the fact that she was a quality manager who knew I was struggling under the weight of a quick thinking co-worker that she considered a marvel. I may be speculating here, but I think Merri knew that the best way to get the most out of me was to sit me down and inform me that in my individual manner I was a quality employee too.

That woman just called me slow, I thought as she continued. She may have dressed her analysis up with a bunch of pretty adjectives, but the gist of her analysis is that I was a slow learner. I tried to view the comment objectively, but the sociocultural barometers list a wide array of indicators of intelligence, but foremost among them are speed and quickness. She just informed me that I was the opposite of that, so I considered her analysis the opposite of a compliment.

I also tried to come up with some compelling evidence to defeat her analysis of me. Yet, every anecdote I came up with only proved her point, so I chose to focus on how unfair it was that those of us who analyze situations before us, to the point of over-analyzing, and at times obsessing over them, receive less recognition for the final solutions we find. We receive some praise, of course, when we develop a solution, but it pales in comparison to those who “Boom!” the room with a quick formulation of the facts followed by a quick one. Even on those occasions when my superiors eventually deemed my solution a better one, I didn’t receive as much praise as the person who came up with a quick, quality one in the moment. I don’t know how long Merri spoke, or how long I debated my response internally, but I changed my planned response seven or eight times based on what she was saying. Two things dawned on me before Merri’s silence called for a response. The first was that any complaint I had about the reactions people have to deep, analytical responses as opposed to superficial, quick thoughts, were complaints I had regarding human nature, and the second thought I had was any response I gave her would be a well thought out, thoroughly vetted response that would only feed into her characterization. I figured she might ever respond, “And that’s exactly what I’m talking about.”

Putting those complaints about human nature aside for a moment, Merri’s characterization of my thinking pattern was spot on. It took me a while to appreciate the depth of her comment, and that probably proves her point, but she didn’t really know me well enough to make such a characterization. I think it was a guess on her part that just happened to be more right on than she’ll ever know.

Merri’s characterization gradually evolved my thinking about thinking, and it led me to know a little bit more about knowing than I did before my one-on-one with her. Her comment also led to be a little more aware of how I operated. Before I sat down with her, I knew I thought different. I went through a variety of different methods to pound facts home in my head, but I never considered the totality of what she was saying before.

This was my fault for the most part, but I never met a person who thought about the thinking process in this manner before. They may have dropped general platitudes on thinking, with regard to visual, auditory, and kinesthetic learning styles, but no one ever sat me down and said, “You’re not a dumb guy, you just need to learn how you think.”

Merri’s commentary on my thinking process was an epiphany in this regard, for it led to a greater awareness about my sense of awareness, or what psychologists call my metacognition. The first level of knowledge occurs when we receive information, the second regards how we process it in a manner that reaches beyond memorization to application, and the third might be achieving a level of awareness for how we do all of the above.

When she opened my mind’s eye to the concept of processing speeds, I began to see commentary on it everywhere. I witnessed some characterize it as ‘deep thinking’. This might be true in a general sense, but I am inclined to view this as a self-serving term. Slow processors have endured so much abuse over the years that we consider this re-characterization a subtle form of revenge against those who have called us slow. When a person informed me that I might be a deep thinker, I loved it so much that I wanted to repeat it, but I cringed every time I felt the urge, because I think we should leave such characterizations to others. There is an element of truth to it, however, and it arrives soon after a processor begins to believe he’s incompetent, slow, or dumb.

Most reflective processors are former dumb people. Intelligent people may disagree, but if most theories are autobiographical then we must factor my intelligence into the equation. My autobiographical theory goes something like this. I spent my schooling years trying to achieve the perception of a quick thinker, and I failed miserably. When the teacher asked a question, I would raise my hand. My answers were wrong so often that a fellow student said, “Why do you keep raising your hand? You’re always wrong.” I would also hear groans, ridicule, and embarrassment for other incorrect answers in other classes, until I was so intimidated that I didn’t answer questions anymore.

The byproduct of this was that I began considering my answers to the questions more often, until it achieved a cumulative effect on my thinking processes. Before Merri provided my thought process a much-needed title, I assumed I didn’t know enough to know enough. I took this perspective into everyday situations. I didn’t just consider other, more knowledgeable perspectives to resolve my dilemmas I relied on them for answers. The cumulative effect of this approach led me to begin processing information more and more often, until I gathered enough information to achieve some level of knowledge on a given subject.

In my search to find intellectuals who could conceptualize this notion in different ways, I discovered the term ‘down the stairs’ thinking. If a ‘down the stairs’ thinker attends a corporate meeting in which a corporate idea, or concept, is introduced, the supervisor will conclude that meeting by asking if anyone has any questions or input they would like to add. The processor says nothing, because he can’t think of anything while in the moment. The meeting ends, and he walks back to his desk (down the proverbial stairs), when an idea hits him. I write that specific timelines to stay true to the analogy, but my ideas unfortunately do not occur that quickly. I often have to chew on the problem at hand for far too long, and the cliché ‘let me sleep on it’ definitely applies to my thinking type. This dilemma might lead one to ask, if an idea is good enough, who cares when an idea hits as long as it hits? The processor who wants the perception of being quick cares. He wants others to marvel at his intellect in the moment. The seeds of frustration and confusion are borne here, until someone comes along and clarifies the matter for us.

A college professor once praised a take-home, assigned essay I wrote on some required reading. She claimed that the ideas I expressed in that essay were “unique and insightful” and she wrote that she wanted me to participate more in in-class discussions, because she said she thought I could add something to add to them. My wrong answers in high school and the resultant teasing all but beat class participation out of me, but I wanted to live up to her compliments. I did try to participate more often in the college class, the next day, but the experience only reiterated why I shouldn’t be answering questions in class. I was so wrong so often that she gave me a worried look. When we took the final in this class, it involved an in-class essay on another book. This teacher watched me in a manner shop owner might a suspected shoplifter. I think she suspected that I cheated on the take home essay, and she wanted to see if I could provide an equal performance on an in-class essay. I received the same grade on that final, and many of the same comments followed that grade.

She and I both walked away from that experience with the knowledge that no matter how hard one tries to promote it, or affect it, we all think different. There are quick-thinking, reactive brains that can process information quickly and instinctively produce an answer in the manner a knee pops up when a doctor hits it with one of those rubber hammers. Others require some slow roasting, and while it may be embarrassing and frustrating for those who can’t come up with a quick answer, once they learn how they learn, think about how they think, and become more comfortable with the way in which they operate, it can liberate them from the idea that they’re as dumb as they once feared.

The theme of David McRaney’s You are Not so Smart was obviously that we are not as smart as we think we are. The various essays in that book describe why we do the things we do, and how various psychological mechanisms condition us to do the things we do. I loved that book so much that I’ve written probably thirty of my own articles on the theme. This particular article is the antithesis of that book, and its purpose is to provide some relief for the confusion and frustration some have regarding their thinking style. If the information in this article spares one person from the decades of frustration I experienced in this regard, I might even consider this the best article I’ve ever written. I would do so without ego, for I am merely passing information along. If the reader identifies with the characterizations we’ve outlined here, I do have one note of caution: You may never rid yourself of this notion that you’re less intelligent than the firecracker over there in the corner, but if you can come to grips with the manner in which you think, process information, and know it to the point of arriving at an answer without all of the frustration you experience when everyone else is shouting answers out, I think you might be able to achieve some surprising results. You might never reach a point of bragging for I don’t know how they would, but attaining knowledge of self can go a long way to understanding how we operate, and it’s our job to take such information and use it accordingly. 

Leonardo’s Lips and Lines


My takeaway from Walter Isaacson’s Leonard da Vinci biography is that hypervigilance is not a switch an artist turns on to create. Artistic creations are often a display of one’s genuine curiosity about the world, a culmination of obsessive research into the miniscule details that others missed, and a portal through which the artist can reveal their findings. Did Leonardo da Vinci’s obsessions drive him to be an artist, or did he become obsessed with the small details of life to become a better artist?

Da Vinci might have started obsessively studying various elements, such as water, rock formations, and all of the other natural elements to inform his art, but he became so obsessed with his initial findings that he pursued them for reasons beyond art. He pursued them, the author states, for the sake of knowledge.

I don’t think I’ve ever read a book capture an artist’s artistic process as well as this one did. The thesis of the book is that da Vinci’s artistic creations were not merely the work of a gifted artist, but of an obsessive genius honing in on scientific discoveries to inform the minutiae of his process. Some reviews argue that this bio focuses too much on the minutiae of da Vinci’s work, but after reading the book, I don’t see how an author could capture the essence of what da Vinci’s accomplished without focusing on his obsessions, as focusing and obsessing on the finer details separated him from all of the brilliant artists that followed.

Some have alluded to the idea that da Vinci just happened to capture Lisa Gherardini, or Lisa del Giocondo, in the perfect smile for his famous painting The Mona Lisa. The inference is that da Vinci asked her to do a number of poses, and that his gift was merely in working with Lisa to find that perfect pose and then capture it, in the manner a photographer might. Such theories, Isaacson illustrates, shortchange the greatest work of one of history’s greatest artists.

Isaacson also discounts the idea that da Vinci’s finished products were the result of a divine gift, and I agree in the sense that suggesting his work was a result of a gift discounts everything da Vinci did to inform his work. There were other artists with similar gifts in da Vinci’s time, and there have been many more since, yet da Vinci’s work maintains a rarified level of distinction in the art world.

As an example of Leonardo’s obsessiveness, he dissected cadavers to understand the musculature elements involved in producing a smile. Isaacson provides exhaustive details of Leonardo’s work, but writing about such endeavors cannot properly capture how tedious this research must have been. Writing that da Vinci spent years exploring cadavers to discover all the ways the brain and spine work in conjunction to produce expression, for example, cannot capture the trials and errors da Vinci must have experienced before finding the subtle muscular formations inherent in the famous, ambiguous smile that captured the deliberate effect he was trying to achieve. (Isaacson’s description of all the variables that inform da Vinci’s process regarding The Mona Lisa’s ambiguous smile that historians suggest da Vinci used more than once is the best paragraph in the book.) One can only guess that da Vinci spent most of his time researching for these artistic truths alone, and that even his most loyal assistants pleaded that he not put them on the insanely tedious lip detail.

Isaacson also goes to great lengths to reveal Leonardo’s study of lights and shadows, in the sfumato technique, to provide the subjects of his paintings greater dimension and realistic and penetrating eyes. Da Vinci then spent years, sometimes decades, putting changes on his “incomplete projects”. Witnesses say that he could spend hours looking at an incomplete project only to add one little dab of paint.

The idea of a gift implies that all an artist has to do is apply their gift to whatever canvas stands before them and that they should do it as often as possible to pay homage to that gift until they achieve a satisfactory result. As Isaacson details this doesn’t explain what separates da Vinci from other similarly gifted artists in history. The da Vinci works we admire to this day were but a showcase of his ability, his obsessive research on matters similarly gifted artists might consider inconsequential, and the application of that knowledge he attained from the research.

Why, for example, would one spend months, years, and decades studying the flow of water, and its connections to the flow of blood in the heart? The nature of da Vinci’s obsessive qualities belies the idea that he did it for the sole purpose of fetching a better price for his art. He also, as the author points out, turned down more commissions than he accepted. This coupled with the idea that while he might have started an artistic creation on a commissioned basis, he often did not give the finished product to the one paying him for the finished product. As stated with some of his works, da Vinci hesitated to do this because he didn’t consider it finished, completed, or perfect. As anyone who understands the artistic process understands, the idea that art has reached a point where it cannot be improved upon is often more difficult to achieve for the artist than starting one. Some might suggest that achieving historical recognition drove him, but da Vinci had no problem achieving recognition in his lifetime, as most connoisseurs of art considered him one of the best painters of his era. We also know that da Vinci published little of what would’ve been revolutionary discoveries in his time, and he carried most of his artwork with him for most of his life, perfecting it, as opposed to selling it, or seeking more fame with it.

After reading all that informed da Vinci’s process, coupled with the appreciation we have for the finished product, I believe we can now officially replace the meme that uses the Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band album to describe an artist’s artistic peak with The Mona Lisa.

Historical Inevitability


The idea that history is cyclical has been put forth by numerous historians, philosophers, and fiction writers, but one Italian philosopher, named Giovanni Battista Vico (1668-1744), wrote that a fall is also an historical inevitability. In his book La Scienza Nuova, Vico suggested that evidence of this can be found by reading history from the vantage point of the cyclical process of the rise-fall-rise, or fall-rise-fall recurrences, as opposed to studying it in a straight line, dictated by the years in which events occurred. By studying history in this manner, Vico suggested, the perspective of one’s sense of modernity is removed and these cycles of historical inevitability are revealed.

To those of us who have been privy to the lofty altitude of the information age, this notion seems impossible to the point of being implausible. If we are willing to cede to the probability of a fall, as it portends to a certain historical inevitability, we should only do so in a manner that suggests that if there were a fall, it would be defined relative to the baseline of our modern advancements. To these people, an asterisk may be necessary in any discussion of cultures rising and falling in historical cycles. This asterisk would require a footnote that suggests that all eras have creators lining the top of their era’s hierarchy, and those that feed upon their creations at the bottom. The headline grabbing accomplishments of these creators might then define an era, in an historical sense, to suggest that the people of that era were advancing, but were the bottom feeders advancing on parallel lines? Or, is it possible that the creators’ accomplishments might, in some way, inhibit their advancement?

“(Chuck Klosterman) suggests that the internet is fundamentally altering the way we intellectually interact with the past because it merges the past and present into one collective intelligence, and that it’s amplifying our confidence in our beliefs by (a) making it seem like we’ve always believed what we believe and (b) giving us an endless supply of evidence in support of whatever we believe. Chuck Klosterman suggests that since we can always find information to prove our points, we lack the humility necessary to prudently assess the world around us. And with technological advances increasing the rate of change, the future will arrive much faster, making the questions he poses more relevant.” –Will Sullivan on Chuck Klosterman

My initial interpretation of this quote was that it sounded like a bunch of gobbeldy gook, until I reread it and plugged the changes of the day into it. The person that works for a small, upstart company pays acute attention to their inbox, for the procedures and methods of operation change by the day. Those of us who have worked for a larger company, on the other hand, know that change is a long, slow, and often grueling process. It’s the difference between changing the direction of a kayak and a battleship. 

The transformational changes we have experienced in technology, in the last ten years, could be said to fill a battleship, occurring with the rapidity of a kayak’s change of direction.  If that is true, how do we adapt to them at such a breakneck pace? Those 40 and older can adapt to change, and we incorporate those changes into our daily lives at a slower pace. Teens and early twenty somethings are quicker and more eager to adapt and incorporate the latest and greatest advancements, regardless the unforeseen, and unintended consequences.

Some have suggested that if the technological changes we have encountered over the last 10 years occurred over the course of 100 years, we might characterize that century as one of rapid change. Is it possible for us to change as quickly, fundamentally, or is there some methodical lag time that we all factor in?

If we change our minds on an issue as quickly as Klosterman suggests, with the aid of our new information resources, are we prudently assessing these changes in a manner that allows us to examine and process unforeseen and unintended consequences before making a change? How does rapid adaption to technological change affect human nature? Does it change as quickly, and does human nature change as a matter of course, or does human nature require a more methodical hand?

These rapid changes, and our adaptation to them, reminds me of the catch phrase mentality. When one hears a particularly catchy, or funny, catchphrase, they begin repeating it. When another asks that person where they first heard that catchphrase, the person that now uses the catchphrase so often now that it has become routine, say they don’t remember where they heard it. Even if they began using it less than a month ago, they believe they’ve always been saying it. They subconsciously adapted to it and altered their memory in such a way that suits them.  

Another way of interpreting this quote is that with all of this information at our fingertips, the immediate information we receive on a topic, in our internet searches, loses value. One could say as much with any research, but in past such research required greater effort on the part of the curious. For today’s consumer of knowledge, just about every piece of information we can imagine is at our fingertips. 

Who is widely considered the primary writer of the Constitution, for example? A simple Google search will produce a name: James Madison. Who was James Madison, and what were his influences in regard to the document called The Constitution? What was the primary purpose of this finely crafted document that assisted in providing Americans near unprecedented freedom from government tyranny, and rights that were nearly unprecedented when coupled with amendments in the Bill of Rights. How much blood and treasure was spent to pave the way for the creation of this document, and how many voices were instrumental in the Convention that crafted and created this influential document?

Being able to punch these questions into a smart phone, and receive the names of those involved can give them a static quality. The names James Madison, Gouvernor Morris, Alexander Hamilton, and all of the other delegates of the Constitutional Convention that shaped, crafted, and created this document could become nothing more than answer to a Google search. Over time, and through repeated searches, a Google searcher could accidentally begin to assign a certain historical inevitability to the accomplishments of these otherwise disembodied answers. The notion being that if these answers aren’t the correct answers, another one could be.

Removing my personal opinion that Madison, Morris, Hamilton, and those at the Constitutional Convention the composed the document, for just a moment, the question has to be asked, could the creation of Americans’ rights and liberties have occurred at any time, with any men or women in the history of our Republic? The only answer, as I see it, involves another question: How many politicians in the history of the world would vote to limit the power they wield, and any future power they might attain through future endeavors? How many current politicians, for example, are likely to vote for their own term-limits? Only politicians who have spent half their life under what they considered tyrannical rule would fashion a document that could result in their own limitations.   

How many great historical achievements, and people, have been lost to this idea of historical inevitability? Was it an historical inevitability that America would gain her freedom from Britain? Was the idea that most first world people would have the right to speak out against their government, vote, and thus have some degree of self-governance inevitable? How many of the freedoms, opportunities, and other aspects of American exceptionalism crafted in the founding documents are now viewed as so inevitable that someone, somewhere would’ve come along and figured out how to make that possible? Furthermore, if one views such actions as inevitable, how much value do they attach to the ideas, and ideals, created by them? If the answers to these questions attain a certain static inevitability, how susceptible are they to condemnation? If an internet searcher has a loose grasp of the comprehensive nature of what these men did, and the import of these ideas on the current era, will it become an historical inevitability that they’re taken away in a manner that might initiate philosopher Vico’s theory on the cyclical inevitability of a fall?

I’ve heard it theorized that for every 600,000 people born, one will be a transcendent genius. I heard this quote secondhand, and the person who said it attributed it to Voltaire, but I’ve never been able to properly source it. The quote does provide a provocative idea, however, that I interpret to mean that the difference between one that achieves the stature of genius on a standardized test, or Intelligence Quotient (IQ) test, and the transcendent genius lies in this area of application. We’ve all met extremely intelligent people in the course of our lives, in other words, and some of us have met others who qualify as geniuses, but how many of them figured out a way to apply that abundant intelligence in a productive manner? This, I believe, is the difference between the 1 in 57 ratio that some have asserted is the genius ratio and the 1 in 600,000 born. The implicit suggestion of this idea is that every dilemma, or tragedy, is waiting for a transcendent genius to come along and fix it. These are all theories of course, but it does beg the question of what happens to the other 599,999 that feed off the ingenious creations and thoughts of transcendent geniuses for too long? It also begs the question that if the Italian philosopher Vico’s theories on the cyclical nature of history hold true, and modern man is susceptible to a great fall, will there be a transcendent genius who is able to fix the dilemmas and tragedies that await the victims of the next great fall? 

Why Adults Hate Their Parents


I am so glad I don’t have to go through all that anymore, is the first thought I have when I hear an adult talk about how they still hate their parents. When they say it with such animosity and rage, I remember the emotions that drove me to say such things, and I’m happy to be past all that. When I hear someone say that their parents are bumbling fools, idiots, or backwater hicks from the 1950’s, I remember saying such things. I regret some of it, sure, but as has been said of regrets, there is little that we can do about them now, and our struggle to correct past errors defines us.

I also remember thinking no one was listening to me. So, when people talk about how awful their parents are, I listen. I listen to those in their twenties, and I remember those complaints. I listen to thirty-somethings, and I try to remember if I was that angry in my thirties. When the complaints come from those who have cross the big four-oh!, the question I want to ask them, “Why is it so important to you that they still be wrong?”

“I’m smarter than my dad,” writes a twenty-something blogger. “I really wish I wasn’t. It’s like finding out Santa isn’t real.” 

That isn’t an exact quote, but it is a decent summary of her snarky blog. The blogger goes onto discuss how intelligence and cultural sensitivity are a cross that she must now bear in her discussions with her parents. She never states that she hates her parents. She states that she, in fact, loves them a great deal, but she characterizes that definition of love with an element of pity, bordering on condescension, that appears to be endemic in twenty-somethings.

Some carry this teenage hatred well into their twenties. The teen years are a period of cultivation, rebellion, learning, etc., that occur before our minds fully form. As we age, our mind matures, and so does our rebellion, until it manifests into either full-fledged hatred, or a condescending pity that recognizes their backwater modes of thought for what they are. This matured rebellion is also based on the fact that our parents still have some authority over us, and that reminds us of those days when our parents had total authority over us, and how they “abused it to proselytize their closed-minded beliefs on us.”

When we finally reach a point when they’re no longer helping us pay for tuition, a car, or rent, and we’re able to flex independent muscles, we spend the next couple of years fortifying this notion that they were wrong, all wrong, all along.

By the time we grow past our narcissistic teens and twenties, circumstances reveal the logic and wisdom our parents attempted to pass down to us, and the idea that some of it applies in some circumstances. (Some will never admit this. Some remain stuck in a peak of rebellion.) Their advice did not apply in all circumstances, of course, but it did in so many that we decided to turn the bumbling fool tint on our rose colored glasses. Then, when we reach our forties, we begin to think that they’re idiots all over again.

I wrote the last line to complete a joke I read. It’s a funny line, because there is an element of truth in it, but in my experience the truth lies somewhere in the middle. The truth is a hybrid of the lifelong recognition we have had of our parents’ failings combined with the points we begrudgingly give them on some matters. We also respect them in a manner we never did as kids, because we now have our own kids who view us as bumbling fools. As flawed as they were, and some of their advice and philosophies were fundamentally flawed, we have enough distance from our youth that we can now view them as fellow parents who tried to lead us down a path conducive for happiness and success in life. At some point, we learn it’s no longer about them. It’s about us. 

This specific timeline may not apply to everyone, as we all go through these stages on our own time, and the word hate may be too strong to describe the animosity some adults still have for their parents, but anyone who has been through the peaks and valleys of a combustible relationship with their parents knows it can be one hell of an emotional roller coaster ride.

Theory formed the foundation of much of my uninformed rebellion, and real-world circumstances revealed to me that some of the archaic and antiquated advice my dad offered me had some merit. These circumstances, as I said, included having my own child and my own attempts to protect the sanctity of his childhood, in the same manner my dad attempted to protect mine. As evidence of this, I once thought my dad committed some errors in raising me by sheltering me too much, until some know-it-all said that means my dad did his job. “How so?” I asked. I was all ready to launch into a self-righteous screed about how he knew nothing about my childhood, until he said, “By allowing your childhood to last as long as possible.”

Another circumstance arrived when I tried to get along with my co-workers, and I tried to appease my boss. My father warned me that this would be more difficult than I assumed, and he was right, but I regarded that as nothing more than an inconvenient coincidence in my path to individuality.   

It’s not debatable to me that I was right about some of the things I planted a flag in, but these circumstances led me to understand that my dad lived a rich, full life by the time he became my mentor, and some of my impulsive, theoretical thoughts about the world were, in fact, wrong. (Even after gaining some objectivity on this matter, it still pains me to write that line.)

Having my own job, my own money, and my own car did a great deal to provide me the independence I desired, but I wanted more. Having my own home, and friends, and a life completely devoid of my dad’s influence gained me even more, but it wasn’t enough.

I wanted to be free of the figurative shackles being my dad’s son implied. Every piece of information I received about history, the culture, and the world was exciting, and new, and mine, because it stood in stark contrast to everything my dad believed. The information I received, that confirmed my dad’s wisdom, bored me so much I dismissed it. The new age information coincided with everything I wanted to believe about the brave new world that my dad knew nothing about, and it confirmed my personal biases.

I didn’t ask myself the question that I now pose to those who still need to prove their parents wrong. I probably would not have had much of an answer, even if I searched for it. I probably would have said something along the lines of “Why is it so important to him that he cling to that age-old, traditional mode of thought?”

This redirect would not have been an attempt at deception or evasiveness. I just did not have the awareness necessary to answer such a question. Moreover, as a twenty-something, new age thinker, I was rarely called upon to establish my bona fides. All parties concerned considered me a righteous rebel, and the old guard was, by tradition, the party on trial. They often felt compelled to answer my questions, as opposed to forcing me to define my rebellion, and I enjoyed that because on some level I knew I couldn’t answer those questions.

My twenty-something definition of intelligence relied on emotion, theory, and very little in the way of facts. I thought they were facts, however, and I had the evidence to back them up. I thought I was intelligent, more intelligent than my dad was, but the question I did not ask is what is intelligence? The answer is it depends on whom you ask.

In Abraham Lincoln’s day, the ability to drop a pertinent reference from Shakespeare and The Bible in any given situation formed the perception of one’s intelligence. My generation believed that dropping a well-timed, pertinent quote from Friends and Seinfeld defined intelligence, coupled with a thorough knowledge of the IMBD list of Bruce Willis. To the next generation, it has something to do with knowing more than your neighbor about Kim Kardashian and Lady Gaga. (I concede that the latter may be an epic fail on my part.)

My dad knew nothing of Seinfeld, or Bruce Willis, so he knew nothing as far as I was concerned. He knew nothing about computers, or devices, and a third party introduced him to gold records (These gold records were CDs, compact discs, LOL! Gold records?) shortly before his death. This lack of knowledge about pop culture and technological innovation transcended all matters, as far as I was concerned. I believed my dad was a bumbling fool, traditionalist trapped in 1950’s traditionalist modes of thought, and that he could’ve never survived in our current, more sensitive culture. He was a backwater, hick, and whatever other adjectives we apply to one trapped in a time warp of the sixties, maybe seventies, but definitely not nineties, the noughties, or the deccas.

The question that we in the smarter-than-our-parents contingent must ask ourselves is how much of the divide between our parents’ level of intelligence and ours is in service of anything? I, like the snarky and provocative blog writer, can say that I knew more about more than my dad did, but I defined that divide and most of what I used to inform that divide involved inconsequential information that would never serve a substantial purpose. The conditions of my dad’s life were such that he didn’t receive what most would call a quality education, but he used whatever he learned to prosper on a relative basis. One could say that the difference between  my dad’s education and mine, and the education of the snarky contingent versus her parents’, could be whittled down to quantity versus quality.    

In the Workplace  

Much to my shock, I began quoting my dad to fellow tenured employees, well into my thirties:

“Everyone has a boss,” and “You can learn everything there is to know about the world from books, but the two words most conducive to success in life are going to revert to either: ‘Yes sir!’ and ‘No sir’.” 

I loathed those words for much of my young life, as they implied that even after escaping my dad’s management of my life –a level of authority that turned out to be far more macro than I ever considered possible– I would always have a boss, and the bosses that followed my dad taught me the difference between his level of macro management, and my boss’s definition (Hint: micro) when I was out on my own, and out from under his totalitarian thumb. I would also learn that my boss’s moods would forever dictate whether my day would be a good one or a bad one, in the same manner days under my dad’s moods affected me, only tenfold.

Dad’s advice derived from his experience in the workplace, but that experience occurred in an era that required reverence of a boss. Thanks to the new age ideas of boards and panels conducting arbitration cases for those who have been fired, the various wrongful termination lawsuits, and the threat thereof that gave life to the Human Resources department, the reverence requirement was no longer as mandatory in my era.

I would also learn that my newfound level of freedom would contain a whole slew of asterisks that included the idea that no matter how much free time I had, I would spend a great portion of my life in a workplace, under the watchful eye of authority, compromising my personal definition of freedom every step of the way.

Throughout the course of my life, I’ve met those who never went through these stages of rebellion. If you find this as incomprehensible as I did, all I can tell you is I’ve met them. They said rational things like this, in their twenties, “I never thought my parents were perfect, but I know that they always tried to steer me into what they believed to be the right course.”

As soon as I picked myself off the floor from laughter –believing that I was on the receiving end of a comedic bit– I realized they were serious. The fact that their upbringing was so much healthier than mine, caused me to envy them in some ways, but after chewing on that for years I realized that all of the tumult I experienced, self-inflicted and otherwise, defined my character and my current individual definition of independence.

We are our parent’s children, and at times, we feel trapped by it. Therefore, we focus on the differences. We may mention some of the similarities, but we take those characteristics for granted, and we think all parties concerned do too. Even when we reach a stage in life when we begin to embrace some elements of that trap, somewhere in our thirties and forties, we cling to the idea that we’re so different. The answers as to why these dichotomies exist within us are as confusing to us as the fact that they are a fait accompli.

When immersed in the tumult of the younger brain, trying to make some sense of our world, we may fantasize about what it would be like to have other parents. Our friend’s parents seem so normal by comparison. We think most of our problems could be resolved if we had their parents, or any normal people as parents. We might even fantasize about what it might be like to have been free of all patriarchal influence. We consider how liberating it might be to be an orphan, until we recognize how confusing that must also be. Those without parents must lack a frame of reference, a substantial framework, or a familiar foundation from which to rebel. When we consider this, we realize that our current identity is comprised of various pushes and pulls of acquiescence and rebellion to our parents.

While there is some acknowledgement of the ‘the more things change, the more they stay the same’ dictum when we receive advice from our parents, our rebellion operates under the “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times” principle when we process that advice and apply it to our era. When we acknowledge that knowledge of innovations and pop culture are superfluous, that removes a substantial plank of our rebellion, until politics takes its place. We then sit down at our proverbial dinner table to resolve the political and geopolitical problems of the day, for our nation, in a manner we deem substantial. It fires us up. We deliver nuke after nuke, until we realize that the effort to persuade our parents is futile. We also recognize that nestled within this effort was our juvenile, sometimes snarky need to prove them wrong. While a more substantial plane than pop culture, political discussions can be just as silly for us, as it was for our parents when they discussed such issues at their parents’ dinner table, and they considered their parents to be bumbling idiots that offered nothing new to the discussion and stubbornly resisted the winds of culture change. The one import that they may have taken from their discussions with their parents, as we will with ours, over time, is that the more things change, the more they stay the same, and human nature doesn’t change as much as we may believe it does with innovations, cultural advancements, and social awareness. A kiss is still a kiss, a boss is still a boss, and the fundamental things still apply, as time goes by.

Epilogue

One final piece of advice this former rebel turned-individual offers to the provocative, parent-hating rebels is that we should all thank our parents for raising us. Thanking them could be one of the hardest things we ever do, as we may lose most of the provocative, parent-hating points we’ve spent our whole life accumulating, but it might turn out to be one of the best things we ever do too.

I thanked my dad for everything he did for me, and I did not add all of the qualifiers and addendum I would have added years earlier. I managed to put all grievances behind me for the ten seconds it took me to thank him.

Was it hard? I will not bore you with the details of my rearing, but suffice it to say my dad could be a difficult man, and he played a significant role in the anger, frustration, and the feelings of estrangement I felt for much of my life.

I could go into further detail to ingratiate myself with those currently struggling with the idea that I don’t understand their dilemma. To display my empathy, I have a quote that served me well throughout the traumatic years: “Not every person who becomes a parent is a good person.” Parents are people too, and some of them are as misguided, confused, immoral, and selfish as the rest of us are. Yet, we are people too, and some of us are susceptible to making the mistake of amplifying their faults in our myopic view of them. If we were able to shake that myopic view, I think most of us will see that our parents were essentially good people who tried to move past their limitations to make us better than they were.

I dedicate this addendum to those who acknowledge that there might be anecdotes in this post that provide clarity on this subject, and they might even admit that thanking their parents would be noble, but the wound is too fresh and raw to forgive or thank them today. I empathize on a relative basis, but all I can tell my fellow angry offspring is that it would not have sat well with me if I waited.

As I sat in a pew staring at the pine box, I realized that no matter how obnoxious, self-serving, and angry my father could be at times, he was a member of an endangered species comprised of those who truly care what happens to me. How many people truly care what happens to us? Our closest friends may say they do, but they have their own lives to live, and they will move on. We know our parents care, but some of them show it by seeking constant updates, harping, and telling us how to live our lives, long after the tie that binds us has been broken. As impossible as this is to believe today, expressing some level of gratitude in whatever manner your relationship with your parents require might be the best thing you have ever done. We might not see it that way today, but my guess is that even the most obnoxious rebel will see it one day, and my hope is that this addendum will convince someone, somewhere that waiting one more day might be one day too late.

To worry, or too worried?


Nestled within the quest to be free and to experience life through the portal of YOLO (You Only Live Once), or FOMO (Fear of Missing Out), lies a fear, concern, and worry that we might be too free.  Born, if the thesis of Francis O’Gorman’s book, from a need to be led.

It may seem illogical to make an argument that we’re too free, in lieu of the technological, and governmental, advances have led us to believe every move we make, and every thought we have is monitored, infringed upon, and legislated against.  Francis O’Gorman Worrying: a Literary and Cultural History is not a study of freedom, but one of the common man worrying about how the people, places, and things around us that are affected by the freedom.  Mr. O’Gorman makes this proclamation, in part, by studying the literature of the day, and the themes of that literature.  He also marks this with the appearance, and eventual proliferation of self-help guides to suggest that this greater sense of concern, or worry, led to readers, of another era, rewarding writers that provided them more intimate, more direct answers.  This study leads Mr. O’Gorman to the conclusion that this general sense of worry is a relatively new phenomenon, as compared to even our recent ancestral history.

yes_me_worryOne fascinating concept Mr. O’Gorman introduces to this idea is that the general sense of worry appears to have a direct relation to the secularization of a culture.  As we move further and further away from the religious philosophies to a more individualistic one, we may feel freer to do what we want to do, but we are also more worried about the susceptibility we have to the consequences of unchecked, mortal decision making. We humans have an almost inherent need to be led.

How often does a secular person replace religion with politics?  Politics, at its core, is leadership, and in our dining room table discussions of politics, most of our discussions revolve around why one person is capable of leading our locale, our state, and our nation.  It involves why one person’s idea of leadership may be inept, while another –that abides by our principles– is more capable. As much as those adults that believe themselves fully capable of living without leadership would hate to admit it, all political thought revolves around the desire to be led.

Reading through the various histories of man, we have learned that our ancestors had more of a guiding principle, as provided by The Bible.  The general theory, among those that preach the tenets of The Bible is that man’s mental stability, and happiness, can be defined in direct correlation to his desire to suborn his will to God’s wishes.  God gave us free will, they will further, but in doing so He also gave us guiding principles that would lead us to a path of righteousness and ultimate happiness.

If a man has a poor harvest –an agrarian analogy most preachers use to describe the whole of a man’s life– it is a commentary on how this man lived.  The solution they provide is that the man needs to clean up his act and live in a Godlier manner.  At this point in the description, the typical secular characterization of the devoutly religious comes to the fore, and their agreed upon truth has it that that these people are unhappier because they are unwilling to try new things, and puritanical in a sense that leads them to be less free.  The modern, more secularized man, as defined by the inverse characterization, has escaped such moral trappings, and he is freer, happier, and more willing to accept new ideas and try new things.  If the latter is the case, why are they so worried?

We’ve all heard snide secularists say that they wish they could set aside their mind and just believe in organized religion, or as they say a man in the sky.  It would be much easier, they say, to simply set their intelligence aside and believe.  What they’re also saying, if Mr. O’Gorman’s thesis can be applied to them, is that it would give them some solace to believe that everything was in God’s hands, so that they wouldn’t have to worry all the time.

Like the child that rebels against authority, but craves the guidance that authority provides, the modern, enlightened man appears to reject the idea of an ultimate authority while secretly craving many of its tenets at the same time.  A part of them, like the child, craves the condemnation of immorality, a reason to live morally, and for some greater focus in general.  The randomness of the universe appears to be their concern.

One other cause for concern –that is not discussed in Mr. O’Gorman’s book– is that the modern man may have less to worry about.   If social commentators are to be believed, Americans have never been more prosperous:

“(The) poorest fifth of Americans are now 17 percent richer than they were in 1967,” according to the U.S. Census Bureau

They also suggest that the statistics on crime are down, and teenage pregnancy, and drinking and experimental drug use by young people are all down.  If that’s the case, then we have less to worry about than we did even fifteen years ago.  It’s a concern.  It’s a concern in the same manner that a parent is most concerned when a child is at its quietest.  It’s the darkness before the storm.

Francis O’Gorman writes that the advent of this general sense worry occurred in the wake of World War I.  Historians may give these worriers some points for being prescient about the largely intangible turmoil that occurred in the world after the Great War, but World War I ended in 1918 and World War II didn’t begin until 1939, a gap of twenty-one years of people worrying about the silence and calm that precedes a storm.  This may have propelled future generations into a greater sense of worry, after listening to their parents’ concerns over a generation, only to have them proved right.

The idea that we worry about too much freedom, as in freedom from the guidelines and borders that religion, or God, can provide, can be accomplished without consequences, writes The New Republic writer, Josephine Livingstone in her review of Francis O’Gorman’s book:

“The political concept of freedom gets inside our heads.  It is a social principle, but it structures our interiority.  This liberty worries us; it extends to the realm of culture too, touching the arts as much as it touches the individual human heart and mind.

“In this way, O’Gorman joins the tide of humanities scholars linking their discipline with the history of emotion, sensory experience, and illness. It’s an approach to culture most interested in human interiority and the heuristics that govern the interpretation of experience: Happiness can be studied; sound can be thought through; feeling can be data.”

Ms. Livingstone furthers her contention by writing that the human mind can achieve worry-free independence, in a secular society, by studying select stories, from select authors:

“Worrying also fits into the tradition of breaking down myths and tropes into discrete units, a bit like Mircea Eliade’s Myth and Reality or C. S. Lewis’ Studies in Words. We care about these books because we need stories about the cultural past so that we might have a sense of ourselves in time. The real value of O’Gorman’s book lies, I think, in the way it flags the politics of the stories we tell ourselves. In its attribution of emotional drives to the ideas behind modernist culture and neoliberal politics alike, Worrying shows that their architects –writers, mostly– are as much victims of emotion as masters of thought. If we can see the emotional impulses behind our definitions of rationality, liberty, and literary craftsmanship, we can understand our own moment in cultural time more accurately and more fairly: Perhaps we can become our own gods, after all.”

One contradiction –not covered in the O’Gorman book, or the Livingstone review– is the trope that religious people are miserable in their constraints.  This is ostensibly based on the premise that they fear the wrath of God so much that they’re afraid to live the life that the secular man does.  Yet, O’Gorman infers that religious people tend to worry less, because they follow the guidelines laid out in The Bible, and they place their destiny, and fate, in the hands of God.  The import of this is that for religious minds, the universe is less random.  Ms. Livingstone’s review basically says that the secular life doesn’t have to be so random, and it doesn’t have to cause such concern.  She basically states that if we study happiness as if it were an algorithm of either physical or aural data points, and incrementally form our thoughts around these findings we can achieve happiness.  She also states that through reading literature we can discover our own master plan, through their mastery of emotions through thoughts and ideas.  On the latter point, I would stress the point –in a manner Ms. Livingstone doesn’t– that if you want to lead a secular life, there are the ways to do so and still be worry free.  The key words being if you want to.  If you’re on the fence, however, a religious person could argue that all of the characteristics Ms. Livingstone uses to describe the virtues of the stories and the authors she considers masters of thought, could also be applied to the stories, and writers of The Bible, and the many other religious books.  If her goal, in other words, is to preach to her choir, she makes an interesting, if somewhat flawed case.  (I’m not sure how a living, breathing human being, could study a data sheet on happiness and achieve the complicated and relative emotion.)  If her goal, on the other hand, is to persuade a fence sitter that secularism is the method to becoming your own god, this reader doesn’t think she made a persuasive case.