Shame, Shame, Shame!


“You should be ashamed of yourself,” is a line all of us have heard at one time or another in our lives.  The words have a powerful effect, no matter how much we hate to admit it. When said with a dash of harshness, that’s not harsh enough to provoke rebellion, these words can break us down, make us feel foolish, bad, and ashamed.  Whether we are guilty or not, they can also touch such a sensitive core that makes us feel like children, again, being scolded by our grandmother.  We don’t like feeling this way, no one does, and we all know this when we use it on others.

Reveal to Justine Sacco, Lindsey Stone, Jonah Lehrer, and the cast of others that have been recently experienced worldwide shaming, via the internet, the basic plot of the 1973 version of the Wicker Man, and how it involves (spoiler alert) villagers sacrificing a man, by burning him alive, to provide for the coming harvest, and they may tell you that they would not be able to sit through such a movie.  The correlation may not be perfect, but if you replace the harvest with social order and couple it with the proverbial act of condemning someone for the purpose of advancing a social order, those that have been regarded as sacrificial by social media, may experience such a wicked case of déjà vu that they may physically shudder during the final scenes of that movie.

stocksOne of the first images that comes to mind when one hears about a group sacrificing a human for the common good is this Wicker Man image of a relatively primitive culture sacrificing one of their own to appease their gods or nature.  We think of people dressed like pilgrims, we think of chanting, mind control, and individuals being shamed by the shameless.  We think of arcane and severe moral codes, and the extreme manner in which they handled those that strayed from the collective ideal.

Members of those cultures might still stand by the idea that some of these ritualistic practices were necessary.  They might concede that the whole idea of sacrificing humans for the purpose of yielding a better harvest was ill-conceived, especially if they were being grilled by a lawyer on their agricultural records, but burning people at the stake, hangings, and putting people in stocks, however, were punishments they provided to the truly guilty, they might say.  And these were necessary, they might argue, to keep their relatively fragile communities in line.  They might argue that such over-the-top displays of punishments were necessary to burn images into the mind of what could happen to those that are tempted to stray from the moral path.  They might suggest that based on the fact that our law enforcement is so much more comprehensive nowadays, we cannot understand the omnipresent fear they had of chaos looming around the corner, and the use of shame and over the top punishments were the only measures they could conceive to keep it at bay.

We may never cede these finer points to them, in lieu of the punishments they exacted, but as evidenced by the cases of the four individuals listed in the second paragraph, the greater need for symbolic, town hall-style shaming has not died.  Our punishments may no longer involve a literal sacrifice, as it did in that bygone era, but the need to shame an emblematic figure remains for those of us that feel a call to order is justified to do whatever it takes to keep total chaos at bay.

The conundrum we experience when trying to identify with how our ancestors acted is easier to grasp when we convince ourselves that these actions were limited to the leadership of those communities.  We can still identify with a suspect politician, an inept town council, and a couple of corrupt and immoral judges, but when we learn that most of the villagers involved themselves in the group’s agreed upon extremes, we can only shake our head in dismay.

Writers from that era, and beyond, describe the blood lust that occurred among the spectators in the form of shouts for someone’s head, and the celebratory shouts of “Huzzah!” that occurred immediately after the guillotine exacted its bloody form of justice on the alleged perpetrator.  How could they all cheer this on?  How could so many people be so inhumane?

Some would argue that the very idea that we read history from a distance –believing that the human being has advanced so far beyond such archaic practices that it’s tough for us now to grasp their motivations– while engaging in similar, but different behaviors, is what makes the study of group thought so fascinating.

In his promotional interview with Salon.com, for the book So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed, author Jon Ronson details the Twitter treatment he wrote about in that book, directed at a publicist named Justine Sacco.  Justine Sacco took an eleven hour plane trip to Africa.  Before boarding the plane, Justine sent out a number of tweets to her 170 Twitter followers. Among those tweets was a now infamous one:

“Going to Africa.  Hope I don’t get AIDS.  Just kidding.  I’m White!”

No matter how one chooses to characterize this tweet, it’s tough to say that it’s the most inflammatory tweet ever put out on Twitter. For varying reasons, millions of people latched onto this statement and took this relatively unknown tweeter from 170 followers to the number one worldwide trend on Twitter, all while Ms. Sacco remained oblivious, in the air, en route to Africa.  She received everything from death threats, people wishing that she would get AIDS as retribution for her heartlessness, and the varying degrees of near lustful excitement that began mounting among those villagers gathering around the intangible town square, imagining the look on her face when the lowering, technological guillotine finally became apparent to her when she landed, so they could all shout “Huzzah!” in unison.

“I’m dying to go home but everybody at this bar is so into #hasjustinelandedyet. Can’t leave til it’s over,” was a tweet Mr. Ronson found soon after the publication of his book to illustrate the excitement that had been building among those that couldn’t wait for Ms. Sacco to land and discover that the life she lived prior to that tweet was now over. 

Shaming in the Modern Era

Before purchasing RonsonSo You’ve Been Shamed book, one might be tempted to think that it is little more than a detailed list of those, like Ms. Sacco, that have committed purported transgressions.  The fact that it is not, is illustrated by the decision Mr. Ronson made to focus on incidents that would’ve been considered inconsequential were it not for the varying reactions observers had to them.

Ms. Sacco, for example, wasn’t inferring that she hoped that more black people contract AIDS, or that she hoped that the AIDS virus would continue to attack black people almost exclusively.  One could say, reading her tweet literally, that she may have been intending to speak out against the infection for being racially biased.  Perhaps it is the confusion regarding who, exactly, Ms. Sacco was condemning that led so many to fill in the blanks for their own purpose.  Whatever the case was, they did fill in those blanks, and the pack mentality did frame that single tweet in a manner that encouraged tweeters, 24-7 news programs, and all of the other venues around the world to heap scorn and shame on her in a manner that could leave no observer with the belief that shaming is dead.

It could also be guessed that Ms. Sacco was attempting to provide her followers poignant humor.  Her tweet was, presumably, her attempt to garner empathy for sufferers of a disease that appeared unnaturally selective, and that she was probably attempting to spearhead some form of awareness among her 170 Twitter followers without sufficient regard for how it could be misinterpreted by those that would choose to misinterpret her tweet for the purpose of spearheading a movement to garner empathy for sufferers of a disease that appeared unnaturally selective. Those that responded on Twitter not only appeared to relish the opportunity to champion a cause, for greater definition among their peers, but to technologically burn whomever they had to to get there.

And while we can only guess that most of the offended had to know that Ms. Sacco wasn’t intentionally infringing on their ideological issue, the opportunities to prove one’s bona fides on an issue don’t come along very often, and when they do they’re often limited to coffee shop and office water cooler conversations with two-to-four people.  And those two-to-four people, are often forced to soft-peddle their outrage, because they will have to work around, or otherwise be around, the target of their condemnation in the aftermath.  Ms. Sacco, on the other hand, was an intangible victim that most of those in the intangible town square would never meet, so they didn’t have to worry about her feelings, and her tweet provided them the perfect venue to establish their bona fides on a worldwide stage.

“If we were in one of those Salem town squares witnessing a witch burning,” one of Ms. Sacco’s Twitter shamers might argue, “We would be shouting at the throng gathered around the witch, calling for them to be burned, and not the alleged witch.  We’re not shaming with the sort of moral certitude of those people of a bygone era, we’re shaming the shamers here.  It’s different!”  They might also argue that their goal, in shaming the Justine Saccos of the world, is to not only to redirect shame back on the shamers, but to effectively eradicate the whole practice of shaming … unless it’s directed at those that continue to shame others.

On this revised act of shaming, the Salon.com interviewer of Jon Ronson, Laura Miller, provided the following summation:

“If you are a journalist or a commentator on Twitter or even just aspiring to that role, you have to build this fortress of ideology.  You have to get it exactly right, and when you do it becomes a hammer you can use against your rivals.  If you even admit that you could have possibly been wrong, that undermines both your armor and your weapon.  It’s not just something you got mad about on social media; it’s your validity as a commentator on society that’s at stake.”

If that’s true, then no one angrily wished death and disease on Justine Sacco, but they felt a need to sound more brutal than any that had tweeted before them to establish their bona fides on the issue.  They weren’t angrier than any of the previous tweeters, they were just late to the dog pile, and they felt a need to jump harder on top of the pile to generate as much impact as those on the bottom had with their initial hits.  The idea of the target’s guilt, and the severity of her guilt, kind of got lost in all of the mayhem.  Each jumper became progressively concerned about the impact their hit would make, and how it would define them, until they felt validated by the proverbial screams of the subject at the bottom of the pile.

US

If you’ve reached a point, in this conversation, where you’ve recognize the different, but similar shame tactics employed by the primitive and advanced societies, you’ve probably reached a point where you’ve recognized the correlation, and you’re shaking your head at both parties.  In his book, however, author Jon Ronson cautions us against doing so.  It’s not about them, the central theme of his book suggests, it’s about you, him, and us.  In one interview, he stated that he thought of pounding that point home by simply calling the book “Us”, but that he feared some may infer that meant that he was specifically referring to the United States, or the U.S.

The subjects of shame, and the shamers that exacted their definition of justice on them, he appears to be saying, are but anecdotal evidence of the greater human need to shame. It’s endemic to the human being, to us, and while the issues may change and evolve, and the roles may reverse over time to adapt to the social mores of the day, the art of shaming remains as prevalent among the modern man as it did during a B.C. stoning.

The elephant in the room that Mr. Ronson did not discuss in his book is the idea that the viciousness the modern day shamed person experiences may have something to do with the vacuous hole created by the attempt to eradicate shame from our culture.  Our grandmothers taught us this very effective tool, as I wrote.  They used it to try and keep us on the straight and narrow, and they did it to keep us from embarrassing ourselves.  When we witnessed our childhood friends engaging in the very same behavior that we had been shamed into avoiding –thus displaying the fact that they hadn’t been properly shamed against such behavior– we stepped in to fill the void.  We shamed them in the manner our grandmother had, using –as kids often will– the same words our grandmother had.  We then felt better about ourselves in the shadow of their shame.

As adults in a modern, enlightened era, we learned that we are no longer to use the tool of shame.  The lessons that our grandmother taught us, we’re now being told, were either half-right, or so baked in puritanical, traditional lines of thought that they no longer apply.  Ours is an advanced, “do what you feel” generation that struggles to believe that there is no right and wrong, unless someone gets hurt.  The benefit, we hope, is that if we eradicate judgment and shame from our society, we can also be liberated from it.  Yet, there is a relative line in the sand where attempting to avoid judgment and shaming will eventually, and incidentally, encourage that activity.

We all know that this activity will eventually lead to internal decay and rot for the individual, and eventually the culture, and we know that some judgment and some shaming is necessary to keep the framework intact.  It’s a super-secret part of us that knows this, and the need to shame and judge gnaws at us in a manner we may never knew existed, until that perfect, agreed upon, transgression arises.  When it finally happens that we find someone that it’s safe to shame, it fills that need, and that pressurized need that we’ve hidden so far back in the recesses of our minds in a quest to acquiesce to the new ways of thinking that the act of shaming explodes on that person, regardless of their degree of guilt.

Those of us that have learned some of the particulars of the Salem Witch Trials believe that early on in the situation there may have been a need for greater order.  The fear of chaos probably prompted them to believe some of the accused actually were witches, looking to infiltrate their youth with evil.  As we all know, it eventually began spiraling out of control to a point that people began randomly accusing others of being witches over property disputes and congregational feuds.  One can also guess that many accusers leveled their accusations for the purpose of attaining some form of superiority over the accused that they could not attain otherwise.  Those citizens of colonial Massachusetts eventually learned their lessons from the entire episode, and some would say their lesson is our lesson as of yet unlearned, as accusations of racism, and anti-patriotism, are leveled at those that may have been guilty of nothing more than a poorly worded joke, or participating in an ill-advised photograph, as in the case of Lindsey Stone.  Our era is different though.  The lessons of the self-righteous, puritanical man do not apply to today, and we don’t need to know the whole story before we make that leap to a defense of the social order that provides us the characterization we desire in the dog pile?

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Deserve vs. Earn


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

“Thank you for the kind words,” they might say, “but I didn’t deserve the raise. I earned it.”

I don’t know if I offended a third party in our group or not, but she stepped into the conversation when I said the word earn. “You didn’t earn it. If you earned it, we all did. We all got a raise, or what I call a bump in pay. The federal minimum wage went up, and we all received a commensurate bump in pay.”

I knew about the raise in the minimum wage, but I made more than the minimum wage, so I ignored all of the stories on the topic. I didn’t think I would be affected by it, and I didn’t know about the practice of companies raising wages commensurate with the minimum wage. In our one-on-one, my boss led me to believe that my bump in pay was a raise that I earned based on merit, but it turned out I deserved it for working in a country that decided to mandate that employers pay their employees more money.

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

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

✽✽✽

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

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

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

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

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

LOVE

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

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

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

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

Most of us prefer to believe that we earn the love we receive on a perpetual basis, a love that is much more complex than the penguins, and that the love we receive is reciprocated by the love we give. If we decide that another has earned our love, we advance it to higher levels with all variables that we introduce to it on a day-to-day basis. If we settle on this primal, penguin definition of love, and we choose to believe that we deserve a form of love that should be nonjudgmental, and lacking in morals and values, and that which is nothing more than a stick that stirs the chemicals in our brain, the love we receive will be as meaningless as the penguins’, and what we deserve.

Rilalities VI


Lucky is the man who does not secretly believe that every possibility is open to him.” — Walker Percy

1) A Man on the Rise: Is it possible to know so much that you’ve actually learned very little? I once met a man on the rise. He was so intelligent that it was almost intimidating. We’ve all met this guy, in one form or another, and we’ve all secretly envied him. He had so much potential that those around him couldn’t help but say, “Holy stuff!” when he would exit our conversation.

534382_543655018980917_1211806109_nI met another man who surprised me with how little he knew about matters I considered essential. We all have a formula for intelligence and success, but how flawed are they? How many inconsequential matters make it into this formula? This man didn’t know how to set an alarm clock, so I showed him … numerous times. Frustrated and embarrassed by this revelation, he stopped me and said, “Just give me a damned wake up call!” He looked at me with a bemused, self-deprecating smile. The smile suggested that he knew this was an embarrassing moment in his life, but there was also a bold confidence in his stance that suggested it didn’t bother him as much as I thought it should. I was so shocked that I could barely return a polite smile. This man had obviously been cared for his whole life. His mom, his wife, his secretaries, and all those around him had presumably made sure his clocks ran on time. I shared this spectacle with a number of people, until I finally ran into someone who knew who that fella was. “Did you know that that man is the vice-president of one of the most prestigious companies in the world,” they said mentioning the name of the company in question.

It seemed unfair to me that the man who knew so much should achieve so little, while this near infant-of-a-man should rise to the upper reaches of our society. The difference between the two, life has taught me, is tunnel vision.

One man knew no limits on his ambition, and he ended up working next to me. The other man focused what I considered limited resources in one particular area that he eventually succeeded beyond 99 percent of most men. The other man, superior in all ways I consider vital, had no focus, and no direction, and thus no arena in which to display his prowess. His potential to succeed was unbound, and we all knew it. He knew it. The man of comparatively, limited resources, presumably learned his limitations early on, and he learned how to hone those few strengths he had to become what we all deem successful.

We’ve all witnessed impressive people before, but how many people do we know that are so impressive that their listeners cannot contain themselves? Most people try to find the one thing that is not impressive about the impressive, so that they can feel more comfortable their less than impressive lives. Most people do not say things like: “What’s he doing here?” … among us?

“If someone were to just give me half-a-(durned) chance … ” the man who knew everything would complain when I complimented him on his intelligence. The compliment I gave him didn’t please him. It made him more angry about his station in life. “I just-I have so many ideas … ” he complained. He knew so much, about so much, that he was an intimidating force of a man, but he had learned so little in life that he never found out how to capitalize on it. Watching him, one was left to wonder how many learned men in history had so much trouble harnessing their ability that they were deemed a failure by those that witnessed him? And how many lesser men learned how to harness their limited ability, until they achieved a place in history we all know well?

Catchers and framing

Catchers and framing

2) Framing an Argument: Have you ever found out that an overwhelming number of people disagree with something you’ve believed in for so long that it’s now an ingrained truth to you? Is this issue something that you hold so close to your heart, that it pains you to learn that so many disagree with you? The disagreements you’ve heard aren’t simple disagreements either, they’re profound, substantive disagreements that cause you to question everything you once held dear.

The first question that your like-minded cohorts will ask you is what is wrong? Even moral issues are relative when looked at in a certain light. There are no absolutes, they will say. You may love that answer for it falls in line with your philosophy, but it doesn’t satisfy the internal dilemma you’re experiencing, because the contradictory information pouring in is penetrating.

You simply need a course in framing, your like-minded cohorts will say. The art of framing employs the soul of wit: brevity. If you can frame your issue in the form of a sound bite, a lyric, one frame of one cartoon, or a couple of pictures, the world will be your oyster. The particulars of the argument may damn you to the point of being wrong on this particular issue, but you need not worry about the particulars when you’re framing. Your goal, in this the age of 140 words, is to succinctly portray your position in a manner that can be repeated, and shared, until you’re as close to right as you can possibly be without saying the wrong thing, and your brokenhearted brethren will like you for it.

3) LANGUAGE: I’ve always had a passing interest in the French language. When it’s fluently spoken, it can sound so rhythmic and beautiful. I was so taken by the language that I decided to take a college course in French.  It became clear to me (about a month in) how passing that fascination was. I still enjoyed hearing the language though, and I’ve even tried my hand at using some of the language’s more exotic words with all of the umlauts, graves, and aigues in place. It was my goal to speak the language in a manner absent the mundane, specific-to-America renderings. The French word for accessories, accouterments, got a hold of me once, and I began using it as often as I could. It made me feel exotic and a little worldly when my English speaking friends would say, “What?”

“It means accessories,” I would say with a subtle amount of smugness that bathed in the exotic juices of knowing a little French. I finally ran into a native French speaker some time later, and I couldn’t wait to give the word a test drive. I used it in proper context, and I thought I had my elocution down. I had also used the word for years at that point, so I felt confident in the idea that I could now say it without the effort those that had never heard the word used.

When my native French speaking friend said: “What?” I was a little taken aback.

“Isn’t that French for accessories?” I asked.

He asked me to repeat it, and when he was able to pick himself up off the floor, he informed me that most non-native French speakers should just stick with the American renderings.

elliwtch4) SELF-PROMOTION: Rarely will you read an author write, “I’d like to talk about myself now … ” They’re usually more creative than that, but some of them aren’t.  Some of them should spend a little more time trying to creatively frame their indulgence a little better.

I recently put a book down that contained the words: “They don’t want Harlan Ellison messing around with that.” Speaking in the third person can be funny, and some of the times it can be an affectation of funny that leaves the reader thinking that they’re about to go down an unusually funny, self-defecating (sic) path, but this particular fork in the road was not a veiled attempt at humor, nor was it eventually self-deprecating.  This was pure self-promotion.  This was Harlan Ellison telling the reader that the establishment regards him as a dangerous rascal that keeps on mucking up the status quo to a point that they believe he must be constrained to maintain their precious military, industrial complex.  They’re afraid of what Harlan Ellison might tell you, Harlan basically writes.  They do not want Harlan speaking out, because they know that his powerful words can cause unrest.  Harlan also wants you to know that the establishment, the man, doesn’t appreciate him speaking out, because they’re afraid of his thoughts, and he’s much more powerful than you know (or perhaps than he even knows), but the man knows, and they have tried to find some way of shutting him up.  Either that, or the cynic in me believes, that Harlan wants you to feel like an outsider that doesn’t know how truly rascally Harlan can be, so you may want to buy more of his books to find out.  When we buy a book, we do want to find out what an author thinks, and we’ve been tantalized by his thoughts through some other medium that led us to being so interested in his thoughts that we wanted to purchase a compendium of them, but when that author qualifies his thoughts in a manner that suggests that he believes that his thoughts are extravagantly provocative, some of us simply tune him out.

5) Quote: Recalling the fifty year anniversary of the legislation, George Will writes of President Lyndon B. Johnson’s Great Society: “In 1964, 76 percent of Americans trusted government to do the right thing “just about always or most of the time. Today, 19 percent do. The former number is one reason Johnson did so much; the latter is one consequence of his doing so.”

Rilalities V: Challenges and Insecurities


The 6’5” Guy

“I’m six foot five,” a man named Joe said. He did not work this into his greeting, and he did not say it in the early minutes of our introduction but it hung over our heads until I acknowledged it.

Those fortunate enough to meet Joe will soon discover that the reason for listing his height before his name. Some of us drop our last name with pride to suggest that our family’s lineage should mean something to someone we’ve just met, some will list their occupation soon after the listener learns their name, Joe was 6’5”. Joe was more 6’5” than he was Joe, and those fortunate enough to have a conversation with him that extends beyond superficial pleasantries will learn how 6’5” he is. If that conversation evolves into a minutes-long discussion, and the listener doesn’t acknowledge his height, with verbal or nonverbal cues, he’ll break the news to them:

“I’m six foot five!”

Although Joe and I spoke for a total of about three minutes, I got the feeling that he could’ve written a bestseller, won the Heisman Trophy, saved children from a fire, or discovered the cure for cancer, and his height would still mark his life. I had the feeling no matter what happened to him in life, he would prefer to have “Here lies Joe. He was 6’5” chiseled into his gravestone.

Joe was an interesting guy. He appeared to be conversant on a wide range of topics, and he managed to tell some aspects of his life’s story in an impressively timely manner, but everything he spoke of came back to the refrain of his life.

His height was the reason he had trouble finding chairs to sit in with comfort, the reason his 5’3” mother was always on him about stuff, and the reason he couldn’t be as particular as he wanted to be about the clothing he wore:

“You can’t be finicky about clothes when you’re 6’5” and built like me.”

Joe, we should also note, was broad-shouldered. This attribute, coupled with the idea that he was 6’5” was the reason he had trouble going door-to-door to talk to people.

“Would you be comfortable discussing politics, if a man my size came-a-knocking on your door?”

His height was also the reason that he had such trouble finding a decent woman. That subject may have shocked most people, or at least made them somewhat uncomfortable, as most people would deem such a discussion inordinately intimate for a conversation between two people meeting for the first time. I had a best friend in high school that was 6’7” however, so I was well versed in the travails of being a tall male in America today, and I was used to my friend going into such intimate details to make his point with people he had just met. Joe and I did try, at various intervals, to move on to other topics, but he was unable to let the fact that he was 6’5” go as easily as I was.

What struck me as odd was that I never made mention of his height, and I don’t think I provided any verbal or physical cues that called attention to it. Was that the point though, I later wondered. Was my refusal to acknowledge his height such an aberration to his experience that until I acknowledged it in some way, he would not be able to move on until one of us did?

Being a tall man has numerous advantages, but it has almost as many disadvantages. As I wrote, however, I was well versed in the details of being an abnormally tall man in America. I knew, for example, that a person’s height is the first thing people notice about one that is taller than 6’3”, and the thing they talk about after you leave. It’s the first thing people in malls pester a person about, it’s the reason some guys won’t mess with you, and the reason others do. It’s also the reason some women want to date you and others don’t. You could be the most charming person in the world, in other words, and most people will have preconceived notions about you based on your height.

With that in mind, one would think that an abnormally tall male, or a woman with abnormally large breasts, would find it refreshing when they’ve encountered that one person that seems to be genuinely unconcerned with their attribute(s). One would think that they would find it refreshing that they’ve finally found a person that is willing to talk geopolitics with them without looking down their shirt, or saying, “How’s the weather up there?” One would think that the person that broke those patterns of human interaction would receive a bright smile as a reward, and maybe even something along the lines of, “Thank you. You may not even know why I’m thanking you, but thank you!” Yet, tall men, and large-breasted women, just like all humans with exaggerated attributes become so accustomed to these patterns of interaction that they feel compelled to draw your attention to them just to comfortably complete a line of dialogue.

Most people will try to avoid talking about a trait generally considered a negative, and they will do everything they can to avoid noticing it. When they consider that person’s attribute a positive, most people think you should feel privileged to have it, so they don’t mind drawing attention to it. “You’re tall Joe!” they will say, or “I wish I had those,” and “You should feel privileged.”

As my conversation with Joe continued, and he began to belabor the point of his height, I initially thought he was trying to assert some sort of dominance. I may have been wrong on that note, and it might have had more to do with everything I thought later, but I began to rebel against his theme by making a concerted effort to avoid the topic of his height. Our conversation ended soon thereafter, and we moved onto other people at the gathering.

“What did you say to Joe?” our mutual friend –a friend that informed Joe and I that we would have so much in common that we would hit it off– later asked.

“Why?” I asked.

“He says he doesn’t care for you.” When I asked her for more details, our mutual friend said, “He said he can’t put a finger on it, but he doesn’t like you as much as I thought he would.”

Without going into what I deem to be the unnecessary details of our otherwise innocuous conversation, I can tell you that it involved no disagreements. To my mind, there were no moments of subtle tension, and there certainly were no overt ones, but he didn’t like me. I’m not one of those people that thinks that every person has to like me, and if they don’t there has something wrong with them, but to my mind this conversation I had with Joe proved to be amicable if not pleasant. Joe and I also proved to be as like-minded on certain topics as our mutual friend believed we would be. The only thing I did, and that which I presume led Joe to state that I didn’t live up to the characteristics our mutual friend detailed for him, was refuse to acknowledge his height in any way.

Going Clear—

Anytime I finish a book as fantastic as Lawrence Wright’s Going Clear, I wonder what I am going to do with my free time?  The book gives credence to Phillip Roth’s line about non-fiction being stranger than fiction.  A complaint that an Amazon.com reviewer posed was: “If everything Wright writes is factual, why would anyone want to join the Scientology religion?”  This reviewer stated that this was the only point, and a central point, that they found lacking in the book.  If I were this Amazon.com reviewer’s teacher, and I lived by the credo, there’s no such thing as a stupid question, I would simply require that student reread the book.

Kiss in Rolling Stone—

Anyone that thinks that being “king of the hill, top of the heap, and ‘A’ number one” means that you will be able control your press, should read the March 28, 2014, issue of Rolling Stone magazine.  Kiss may no longer be the band that sells platinum records every year, and they may be more about marketing than music at this point in their career, but this Rolling Stone article was supposed to be about their soon-to-occur induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.  To read this piece in the Rolling Stone, however, that fact means little-to-nothing.

This piece of rock journalism was so shockingly brutal that one has to imagine that Gene Simmons is still throwing some of his much detailed Kiss memorabilia at the wall when he thinks about it.  All four members of the band Kiss came under attack from the author of the piece, but the author reserved most of his unprofessional brutality for Gene.  This writer’s attacks were so petty and snarky that a regular reader of Rolling Stone would suspect that Gene was a Republican candidate running for office.  Yet, Gene’s not even a Republican voter, as he has made it public that he voted for both Barack Obama and Bill Clinton twice.

This article would also be an excellent read for journalism students seeking answers on what not to do with subjects they’re covering in an article.  Having never taken a journalism course, I would have to imagine that one of the primary rules discussed in a Journalism 101 class is: “The articles that you write are not about you.  No one will be reading your article to learn what you think, unless you’re writing an opinion piece.  If you’re covering a subject in a journalistic manner, however, remember that your readers are only reading your article to learn more about the subject.  It’s not about you.  Your readers won’t care about your opinion, your preferences, or what you think about the subject you’re covering, so be careful how you frame their answers.  If your subject says something stupid, infantile, or in any way revealing of their character, put that statement on the record, but do not comment, or frame, that quote in anyway.  That’s not your job.”  Judging by the course journalism has followed in the last generation, I’m quite sure that most journalism schools now include an asterisk with each of these rules that states: “Unless your subject is a Republican politician.”  As I wrote, however, Gene Simmons is not a Republican voter.

Inspiration—

“This guy sounds like a complete fraud,” a writer said of a fellow writer I was describing.  I wasn’t even done with my description of this fellow writer, when this writer interrupted me with her blunt characterization.  I wasn’t shocked by her assessment of this fellow writer.  She had said as much of other, more established writers, but it was apparent to me that this woman believed that by diminishing all other writers around her, her stature as a writer would somehow be fortified.  Had this been the first time I heard any writer say such a thing, I would’ve passed her comments off as flaws in her character, but I’ve heard a number of novices, and well-established writers, engage in the this practice.  If you’ve ever heard a U.F.O. chaser, a ghost hunter, or some fortune teller attempt to establish their bona fides by telling you that every other person engaged in their craft are fraudulent, then you have some idea what I’m detailing here.

Knowing how hard it is to come up with ideas, and execute those ideas to the point of proper completion, one would think that a writer would bend over backwards to extend professional courtesies to anyone trying to do the same.  If you think that, you’ve never sat down with a group of writers.

“You can say he’s a poor writer,” I said, “But are you saying he’s not a writer?”

“I’m saying he’s probably a hack,” she responded.  She didn’t arc her nose upward after saying that, but that’s how I now remember it.  It seemed like such a violation of the code, on so many levels, that it was hard to comprehend how she could be so brutal.

She cut me off before I could ask her what she meant by “hack”.  I know the general term applies to writers that write just to write, and churn out poor quality submissions for financial gain, but she had never read this person’s material.  She had never even met the man.  Yet, he was a hack in a manner that made her appear adept at using the word.

One essential component to avoid being called a hack, apparently, is to write so little that everything you write can be perceived as enlightened, or divine in nature.  If you want to avoid being a hack, you should never write what others might consider mundane.  Yet, those of us that truly love the minutiae involved in writing, believe that it’s only through exploring the mundane that moments of inspiration can be discovered.    

One key component to being in a position to level such a charge, and have that charge stick –I now know after reading her material— is to never allow those that hear you level it, read your material.  Your charge should remain an indefinable accusation that leaves you with the dignified, nose-in-the-air air about you.

Her material brought to mind the one key component of storytelling that every writer should focus on —be they a writer of vital, substantial material, or a hack— make sure it’s interesting.  Translation: You can be the most gifted writer the world has ever read, but if your material is not interesting, no one will care. 

In the face of the constructive comments (see negative) this woman received from our group, she said, “Perhaps, I’m a better editor, than I am a writer.”  Translation: I have little in the way of creative talent, but I am, indeed, gifted in the art of telling others how little they have. 

Brutal Honesty in the Age of Being Real


It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of being real, it was the age of delusional thinking, it was the epoch of honesty, it was the epoch of lies, it was the season of transparency, it was the season of delusions, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us, we were going to achieve, what we had already achieved, what we would never achieve – in short, it was a period of time that needed to exist to rectify a period that may never have existed to the superlative degree of comparison that some of its noisiest authorities defined for the era.

As that paraphrase of Charles Dickens’ epic intro to A Tale of Two Cities suggests, reality TV did not the divide American culture in the manner some purported it would in the age of being real. The doyens and doyennes of our culture asked if reality TV was art imitating life, or if it was reflecting it? Others suggested reality TV represented such a small sample of the culture that the shows’ producers projected it out into the society as a measure of realness that wasn’t real to the superlative degree they portrayed? Others wondered if the culture used reality TV for what it was and dispensed of it in manner similar to the way a body puts out byproducts it can’t use?  Some people I knew, very real and intelligent people, acknowledged that while reality TV focused on a sample of a society none of us knew that didn’t mean it wasn’t real.

"Lars and The Real Girl"

“Lars and The Real Girl”

How many times in one episode did an actor say, “Hey, I’m just being real with ya” to assuage the guilt they might otherwise have while insulting another person? How many times did these show participants gain a certain degree of realness on the back of another? How many times was being real used as a confrontational device to belittle those who were less real, until the real proponent managed to gain some real definition on them?

Being real, in such instances, was nothing more than a cudgel used to diminish a person who wasn’t like the speaker. They used this device to make the unreal more like the real, and the viewer at home was supposed to accept all that as real thinking, if they ever hoped to gain real stature in the real world. Most of us now reflect back on the being real era, and see it as an intellectually dishonest era, designed to promote the position of the proselytizing speakers. 

Those of us who thought the age of being real was anything but, couldn’t deny the influence it had on the culture in general, and our friends and family. Otherwise kind and polite individuals who wouldn’t say an unkind word about anyone yesterday, started lobbing verbal grenades at us. “Hey,” we would say. 

“I’m just being real with ya,” they would respond. For word watchers in search of colloquialisms, it was mandatory for real people to use the less formal incarnation of the word you as a literary device to gain familiarity with the subject of their insults.   

“Why did you say that? That was not very nice.”

“We can do that now, in this era of being real.”

No one said that latter line, of course, but that was the import of the discussion. It didn’t happen in a day, and it didn’t happen this way, but friends and family felt they could say anything they wanted in this era, and they didn’t need to bother being conscientious, if they were just being real with ya. 

Those of us who experienced this era and studied it for what it was, learned it was based on the false premise that one could be real with ya without undergoing any substantive reflection of their own. Even those who may have watched a total of one hour of the more sophomoric shows of reality TV, could not escape its influence.

We thought the era of white lies were over. Even if being real had nothing more than a conjugal relationship with brutal honesty, and some of us used the nuggets of that message to put more brutal honesty in our presentation, regardless if anyone thought we were being real or not. In any repeated message of this type, there is a personal takeaway for some. Most of us didn’t believe the real characters in reality shows were being real, in other words, but the presentation affected us nonetheless. We changed our presentation to one that could be called brutal honesty, in regards to how we thought we should be perceived, and we encountered a number of surprising reactions.

The most surprising reaction we received was no reaction. We would detail our weaknesses for our audience and our trials and tribulations, and they would not say anything. We would finish our testimonial, and if someone didn’t say something to change the subject, the lunchroom table would go through a seven-second lull. Our audience presumably took it in stride, because they thought they were as honest with themselves as we purported to be. They lived with the idea that they were so honest that most people couldn’t handle their special brand of honesty. It didn’t dawn on them, however, that that interpretation of brutal honesty was limited to assessing others. Very few have the wherewithal to evaluate themselves honestly, and their particular brand of being real incorporated many of the elements the dictionary uses to define the word delusional. Those who attempt to help them be more real learn that it’s pointless, because the subject will attempt to be more real than you, with you, until the discussion devolves to something equivalent to the type of gunfight banter Hollywood writes into scripts to provide a tense setting for paragraphs of exposition.   

Those who have never made a concerted effort to be honest about themselves, might expect that being harshly critical of one’s self to be somewhat influential. The expectation I had was that others might “raise their game” in this regard, to be more honest. They didn’t, because, again, real people already think they are brutally honest.

Another surprising, and somewhat depressing, reaction to displaying brutal honesty, in the age of being real, was that our friends began to think less of us. In any other era, it might make sense to consider a person who provides us a laundry list of weaknesses a weak person. In the era of being real, we might fall prey to the belief that our friends and family might consider such brutal honesty refreshing, and that they might consider that moment the perfect time to be just as honest in return. No such luck. What often happens is that they join in on the discussion and add other weaknesses that the brutally honest person neglected to include.  

“How do you think you’d do in jail?” A Delusional Person asks Frank.

“Not well,” Frank replies with refreshing, brutal honesty.

When Frank provides a laundry list for why he probably wouldn’t do well in jail, the Delusional Person might laugh, because being this honest can be humorous when the recipient is allowed to bathe in the weaknesses of its purveyor. The Delusional Person will often agree with Frank’s frank assessment of himself, but they won’t assess themselves by the same measure.

“How do you think you would do?” Frank returns.

“I think I’d do all right,” the Delusional Person replies.

Even in the age of being real, most people fell prey to the idealized images they have of themselves. One of the more effective measures weight loss programs will employ are progress charting photos. They ask their clients to do this, because we can look in the mirror every day and fail to see our progress or regressions. We need a somewhat distant perspective to truly evaluate ourselves, and the same holds true with conversational scenarios such these.     

Most of us live with idealized images of ourselves, as if they happened yesterday for the rest of our lives. This particular Delusional Person was a championship-level wrestler in his teenage years. While on the wrestling team, he endured exhaustive workouts, and exercised levels of self-discipline, that most non-athletes will never know. This resulted in The Delusional Person being a finely crafted specimen who at that time may, indeed, have been capable of handling the hand-to-hand combat situations reported to occur within the confines of a cell block. When he answered Frank’s question, the Delusional Person remembered himself as finely tuned wrestler who won championships. The idea that lifted a weight or sprinted in fifteen years didn’t enter into his equation. A more brutally honest assessment of his stay in prison should have been, “I don’t know how I would so in jail, but I suspect that all of the years I’ve spent sitting behind a computer, and avoiding physical activity, would be exposed early on.”

We all picture ourselves in peak physical condition when we listen to others speak about how they have let themselves go. We laugh when others joke about those who have gained weight, conveniently forgetting that we just graduated to a thirty-six inch waist pair of pants last week. We’ll do this when we speak about the people we grew up with who “now look so old”, even though we’re now using hair-dye, wrinkle cream, and supplements to fight the aging process. We aren’t lying when we do this either, we’re projecting an idyllic image of ourselves into these scenarios that used to be able to lay out an entire prison yard when we were called upon to do so … in the movies.

Another surprising, and somewhat depressing, reaction I encountered was a kind, polite person who had no interest in being real, adding brutal honesty to my brutally honest presentation. 

“Are you sure that you’re capable of that?” she asked after I informed her that I threw my hat in the ring for a promotion that had everyone abuzz. The surprising element of this question was not that she asked it, for it could be said that she was looking out for me in her own way, but that she never asked that question of any of our other co-workers. With them, she expressed in what we could call a Hallmark card-style response to their desire to advance within the company. “Good luck!” she would say to them, or “I know you can do it.” She may have said those words to be polite, but she wasn’t polite with me. 

She asked me to reconsider whether I might be qualified. I told her that I had as many, if not more, qualifications than some of the others who applied for it. I assumed her question was borne of jealousy, but I didn’t say that. After processing her warning, I acknowledged that she was kind person, and I realized that her concerns were simple reactions to my presentations of brutal honesty. She didn’t want me to get hurt by the realities of my limits, limits that I had expressed in the course of being honest about my vulnerabilities, and she was just reacting to what I told her over the years.

Yet, people like my sweet, polite friend can inadvertently assist those striving for brutal honesty into a depressing state of their reality. The honest assessor realizes, about halfway down the spiral, that they’re doing this to themselves, and that they’re becoming too honest. Their friends aren’t helping, but their friends are just reacting to what they’ve heard us say, and they’re regurgitating our harsh and brutal opinions of us to us. Our friends are, in fact, greasing the skids to a form of depression. An honest assessor realizes, about halfway down this spiral, that they’ve become so realistic in their assessments that they’ve become brutally realistic.

We might start avoiding attempts to advance ourselves, because we’ve become so realistic in our abilities that we’re now asking ourselves so many brutally honest questions that we’re afraid to try and advance. As a result of such thorough examination, we’ve also become so realistic that we don’t think it’s realistic for any honest assessor to succeed. These could be called minor setbacks in the grand scheme of becoming more honest with one’s self, until we begin to see the Delusional People around us –some with half of our talent– begin to succeed beyond us. These Delusional People may even know that they’re lying to themselves, on some level, but they’re harmless little, white lies that everyone tells themselves in the quest for advancement, and if you can get all of them to add up just right, they may become a reality that no one can deny.

When the company selected Molly for this promotion, the confusion it created was almost painful. It wasn’t Armageddon, and no one was harmed by the company’s decision, but the aftermath of this tragedy left a proverbial wasteland of confusion. Those who devoted a large portion of their lives to this company felt that it could only be outweighed by familial or personal tragedies. The world moves on after political disasters, and religious hypocrisies can be overcome through personal devotion, but a seismic disaster on par with a person of Molly’s character, and work ethic, landing a top gig in their company can lead to reverberations that are felt throughout a person’s life. The company is where most people live most often. It’s a better indicator of how they’re living, as it’s the place where most people devote most of their resources. When matters in the workplace take a divergent path, different from all of the scenarios workers list in their head, it can lead to a company wide crisis.

“Part of an interview involves salesmanship,” those in the know tell the employees gathered in a team meeting, and that assessment was to remain within those closed doors, as off the record comments. This assessment was a “wink and a nod” attempt to assuage the confusion building around what many considered an absolute travesty. 

Those who have been in similar situations know the term “new reality”, as it becomes the theme of the many presentations that follow. If those in the know do comment on such a situation, they will say something along the lines of “You should be happy for Molly”. This leaves the suggestion that most of the confused, are confused about her promotion as a result of personal animus.

“We wouldn’t have a problem if Marsha, Kelly, or Dan received this promotion,” one person argued to reflect the general sentiment of the aggrieved, “but if Molly has any moral fiber, or conscience, she won’t be able to sleep at night.” No one cares. Molly has scoreboard. It’s the new reality. Deal with it. 

Amid the personal and professional confusion, one honest assessor, from the out of the loop sector, stepped forth and professed the harsh reality of the situation: “Molly simply fed into the leadership mystique of her superiors better than us.

“When we were concerned themselves with learning the inner machinations of the company’s system in a proficient manner they hoped might impress their superiors,“ the honest assessor added, “Molly was purchasing gift baskets for her bosses on boss day. When others were out volunteering for special projects to pad their resumé, and working untold amounts of overtime to put a smile on their bosses’ faces, Molly was at the bosses’ lunch tables laughing at their jokes, and when all of the applicants were drilling the interviewer with the bullet points of their resumé, Molly was feeding into whatever mystique they wanted to gain in that particular setting. This was Molly’s primary skill set.“

It was a bow atop the corporate basket of lies given to bosses, on boss day, in the age of being real. In the age of being real, employees began to demand more recognition for their accomplishments, and management responded, but in the end the employees realized that it was all part of a scripted, choreographed, and edited production designed to pacify their audience by mentioning their name in the credits that rolled out at the end of the day. When crunch time came, however, it was the Delusional People who had learned how to feed the mystique of those in the know that left everyone else feeling malnourished.

“Those who live in a dishonest manner will eventually get theirs,” our nuns told us in grade school. They also told us that, “Truth has a way of prevailing”. The company eventually discovered what everyone knew at the time, Molly was eventually discovered to be “not a good fit” for the position, but she was promoted up and out of the position, and out of the department, and the person who replaced her was yet another mystique feeder.

Those of us who lived and breathed corporate America heard all the stories about evil corporations, but we knew our corporate leadership board. They weren’t faceless corporate entities. They were people named Jeff and Sandy, and all the others who had kids and cats. We had one boss who was learning how to ride a motorcycle, and she drove one of her friend’s beloved Harleys into the ground, and it wasn’t funny, but it was. She was a real life, flawed individual who wasn’t afraid to show us her scars, literal and otherwise. When they speak in our corporate meetings, and our one on ones, we learn a little bit about their essence. We learned how they took their coffee, and what shows they went home to watch, and it all seemed so real, until they selected Molly for a big promotion.

We were all temporarily and permanently disillusioned. We thought our corporation was different, and that they hired and fired, and promoted and handed out raises based on merit. We believed that our corporation did not rise and fall based on the whims of faceless corporate entities. Ours was a real corporation comprised of people who knew us as well as we did them. We weren’t so delusion that we thought Jeff and Sandy knew us, but we thought some knowledge of our essence ascended from our bosses through the spider web, hierarchy, until we felt our efforts were recognized. 

The problem –those naïve enough to believe in the age of being real– discovered was not with Molly, but that Molly was emblematic of the problems inherent in a system that honest people once believed would find a way to provide rewards to those honest, hard working people who put their nose to the grindstone. The problem that seemed so complex to those of us who tried to wrestle with it, turned out to be so simple. The problem was that the various Jeffs and Sandys who controlled the spigots of reward for the hard working women and men in our company were humans themselves, and humans are inherently susceptible to flattery.

The nuns also provided their grade school students the proviso that if you’re living the honest life with the expectation of eventually receiving concretized recognition for it, you’re doing it for all the wrong reasons. We knew they were preaching gospel when they said this. Even if we didn’t know the depth of their statement, or how it might apply over time, some part of us knew that the rewards of living the honest life involve intangible, internal, and spiritual rewards. When the Delusional People begin to beat us to the more tangible goals in life, however, even the most honest assessors in a group will admit that it is difficult to avoid being affected by it, if they are being real with you.

The Debilitating Fear of Failure


“The reason we struggle with insecurity,” notes Pastor Steven Furtick, “Is because we compare our behind-the-scenes with everyone else’s highlight reel.”

Some quotes educate us on matters we know nothing about, but the ones that stick take a matter we know everything about and puts a clever twist on it that changes our perspective. We all know failure, or some level of it, at various points of our life. Some of those failures have shaped us in profound ways that we assume everyone remembers the moment we enter a room, and some people will remember our failings, but will they remember their own, or will they compare our failings to their highlight reels.

Pastor Steven Furtick

Pastor Steven Furtick

“Acknowledging failure,” Megan McArdles writes in the book The Up Side of Down: Why Failing Well is the Key to Success, “Is a necessary first step in learning from it.”

Some of us are old enough to remember the severe penalty for missing a rung on the monkey bars. An erroneous grab, at the very least, could land a victim center-of-attention status, as we attempted to find our feet. At worst, it would cause the pack of onlookers to send an emissary to the office with a call for assistance. These everyone-is-looking-at-you moments are so immersed in embarrassment, and pain, that few can see any benefit to them.

Most of those liable for such situations, have lowered the monkey bars, and made the ground so forgivable that one would have to fall from a skyscraper to receive any pain. Thanks to these and other technological advances, fewer children get hurt on playgrounds, fewer playground ride manufacturers get sued, and everyone is much happier. There is one casualty, however, the pain of failure.

No one wants to see a child cry, and we should do everything we can to prevent it, but pain teaches us.

After a near fall in a supermarket, the checker complimented me on the agility and nimbleness I displayed to avoid hitting the ground. “It could be that,” I returned, “or it could be said that only one so well-practiced in the art of falling knows how to lessen the pain and injury normally associated with it.”

I eventually did touch ground a short time later, at a family reunion. I also touched a parked car, and then I touched the ground again. Among the lessons I learned is that pain hurts. Had it been a simple fall, it would be hardly worth noting. This was one of those by-the-time-this-ends type of falls everyone will be looking, some will be concerned, and most will be laughing. I thought I had corrected my trajectory a number of times, but I was moving too fast. By the time it was finally over, I silenced just about everyone in the vicinity. The kids around me laughed, as kids will do when anyone falls, and my age-denying (Not Defying!) brother laughed, but if the Greg Giraldo line, “You know you’re getting old when you fall down, no one laughs and random strangers come running over acting all concerned,” is true, then I am getting old.

Most lessons in life are learned the hard way, and they are often learned in isolation, in that even our closest friends and family members distance themselves from us in these moments, so that they have no association with them. These dissociations range from laughter to sympathy, but the latter can be just as dissociative as the former if it’s done a right. The point is, no matter how we deal with these moments of failure, we usually end up having to deal with them alone. If we learn how to deal with these largely inconsequential moments, The more we deal with them, the better we are able to deal with more consequential failures down the road.

The point is that the lessons learned through pain and embarrassment, are lessened by lowering the monkey bars, providing a forgiving ground, and instituting zero tolerance bully campaigns. The point is that those of us that see little-to-no benefit derived from bullying, or that any benefits are inconsequential when compared to the damage done by the bully may eventually see the fact that few lessons in life are learned by the individual, until those kids enter adult arenas.

A quote like Pastor Steven Furtick’s, also tells us the obvious fact that we’re not alone in having moments of failure, but that those that can deal with them in the proper perspective  might actually be able to use them to succeed on some levels.

Artistic Creations

Any individual that attempts to create some form of art knows more about comparing another’s “highlight reels” to their “behind-the-scenes” efforts better than most.

In the process of becoming an artist, every individual artist has a shining light that influences them. That shining light provides a template for which the artistic form, that interests the young artist, should be accomplished. For the purpose of this discussion, let’s say that shining light of influence is Stephen King, since he is the most ubiquitous and influential author to most young writers of the modern age. After reading King often enough, a young writer may believe he can write like King. After repeated attempts, this young writer eventually realizes he can’t write like King, but in the course of those efforts he may have almost inadvertently created a voice that is somewhat his own. After repeated attempts to further develop this voice, some otherwise inconsequential person comes along, reads his stuff, and picks out a line or two saying, “That’s halfway decent.”  Buoyed by the compliment, the writer expands upon those few lines and begins to grow so divergent that the Stephen King influence is no longer as recognizable in his writing.

The point of this very succinct summation of the artistic process is that if the writer gets bogged down in any phase of the process, with the idea that he can’t write duplicate King’s highlight reels the writer is done before they get started. If that young writer eventually learns that taking that influence, from that influential writer, is simply a part of the process to developing a voice, he may be able to develop his own highlight reels.

1455Ernest Hemingway

How many times did Ernest Hemingway grow insecure when comparing his behind-the-scenes efforts to the shining lights that preceded him? How many times did he fail, how many times did he quit, and give up, under that personally assigned barometer, before finally finding a unique path to success?

Even in the prime of his writing career, Hemingway admitted that about 1 percent of what he wrote was usable. Think about that, 1 percent of what he wrote for The Old Man and the Sea, was publishable, worth seeing, and that which Hemingway considered worthy of the highlight reel that we know as the thin book called The Old Man and the Sea. The other 99 percent of what he wrote, proved to be unpublishable by Hemingway’s standards. Yet, this highlight reel of the Old Man and the Sea writing sessions are what has inspired generations of writers to write, and frustrated those that don’t consider all of the behind-the-scenes writing that never made it in the book’s final form.

mark-twain-6fa45e42400eea8cac3953cb267d66a33825a370-s6-c30Mark Twain

“Most of what Mark Twain wrote was dreck,” writes Kyle Smith.{1}

Most of us know Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn, the highlight reels of Mark Twain’s writing. We know the infamous Twain quotes that occurred in the numerous speeches he gave, and the essays that he wrote, but it is believed that he wrote as many as 50,000 letters, 3,000 to 4,000 newspaper and magazine articles, and hundreds of thousands of words that were never published. Twain also wrote hundreds of literary manuscripts—books, stories, and essays—that he published, and then abandoned, or gave away. Almost all of it has been discovered over the last century, and placed in a home called The Mark Twain Papers.{2}

Very few of us are so interested in Mark Twain, or any of his writing, that we want to read his “dreck”. Very few of us are so fanatical about Twain that we want to know the material he, and his publishers, deemed unpublishable. Yet that “dreck” ended up fertilizing the foundation of his thought process so well that he churned out two highlight reels that many agree to be historic in nature. Similarly, very few would want to want to watch a Michael Jordan, or a Deion Sanders, practice through the years to tweak, and foster their athletic talent to a point that we now have numerous three to four second highlight reels of their athletic prowess. Their behind-the-scenes struggles may provide some interesting insight into their process, but they’ve become a footnote at the bottom of the page of their story that no one wants to endure in total.

nirvanain-365xXx80Kurt Cobain

When we hear the music contained on Nirvana’s Nevermind, we hear a different kind of genius at work. We hear their highlight reels. We don’t know, or care, about all of the “dreck” Kurt Cobain wrote in quiet corners. Most of us, don’t know, or care, about the songs that didn’t make it on Nevermind. Most of us don’t know, or care, about all the errors he committed, the refining, and the crafting that went into perfecting each song on the album, until the final form was achieved. We only want the final form, the highlight reels, and some of us only want one highlight reel: Smells Like Teen Spirit.

On an album prior to Nirvana’s Nevermind, called Bleach, Kurt Cobain penned a song called Floyd the Barber. “Where does the kernel of a song like that start?” Soundgarden’s Chris Cornell asked. Cornell may not have come from the exact same background as Cobain, and he may not have been influenced by the exact same artists as Cobain, but he presumably felt like his creative process was close enough to Cobain’s that he couldn’t fathom how the man achieved such divergence from the norms of musical creation. Those familiar with Cobain’s story also know that he was heavily influenced by the music of Soundgarden, and that fact probably confused Cornell all the more.

Other than Soundgarden, Cobain also loved Queen, The Beatles, The Pixies, The Melvins, and a number of other lesser known bands. How much of his early works were so similar to those artists that no one took him seriously? As I wrote earlier, it’s a major part of the artistic process that every artist goes through to attempt to duplicate influential artists in some manner. It’s a step in the process of crafting original works. When that artist duplicates those that came before them often enough the artist (almost accidentally) begins to branch off into building something different … if they have any talent for creation in the first place.

Divergence in the artistic process

Few artists can pinpoint that exact moment when they were finally been able to break the shackles of their influences, for it happens so progressively that it’s almost impossible to pinpoint. Most artists do remember that moment when that one, somewhat inconsequential person said that some aspect of their piece wasn’t half bad however. At that point, the artist becomes obsessed to duplicate, or replicate, that nugget of an idea. Once that nugget is added to another nugget, those nuggets become a bold idea that wasn’t half bad. Once that is achieved, another bold idea is added, until it all equals a “halfway decent” compendium of ideas that may form something good. At that point, the artist believes he has something that others may consider unique enough to be called an artistic creation in its own right. When enough unique, artistic creations are complete, the artist may eventually achieve their own highlight reels.

When did Cobain finally begin to branch off? How did he become divergent, and creative, and different on a level that made him an organic writer to be reckoned with? How many casual statements, spray paintings on walls, and other assorted personal experiences had to occur before Kurt Cobain had the lyrics for Nevermind? How many of different guitar structures did Cobain and company work through, until he arrived at something usable? How many Nevermind lifted music or lyrics from other failed songs, casual strummings in a closet, and offshoots of other guitarists? What did Floyd the Barber, Come as You Are, and Pennyroyal Tea sound like in those moments when they first found their way from notepad to basement practice sessions? How many transformations did these songs go through in those practice sessions, until they were entirely original, and transformative, and legendary additions to the albums they were included on? If Cobain were alive to answer the question, would he acknowledge that Nevermind is a 1% highlight reel of about a decade of work? Most of us don’t care, we only want to hear the highlight reels, so we have something to tap our finger to on the ride home from work.

Cobain’s highlight reel, Nevermind, proved to be so popular that record execs, and fans, called for a B-list, in the form of the album Incesticide. That album proved Cobain’s B-list was better than most people’s A-list, but what about the D-list, and E-list songs that proved to be so embarrassing that no one outside his inner circle ever knew they existed?

The point is that some of us are so influenced by an artist’s highlight reels that we want to replicate it, and duplicate it, until we become equally as famous as a result, and when we don’t, we think that there is something wrong with us. The point is that the difference between a Mark Twain, a Hemingway, a Cobain, and those that compare their behind-the-scenes work to an influential artist’s highlight reels is that while these artists recognized that most of what they did was “dreck”, they also knew that their behind-the-scenes struggles could be used as fertilizer to feed some flowers.

So, the next time you sit behind behind-the-scenes of your computer keyboard, tattered spiral notebook, or whatever your blank canvas is, remember that all of those geniuses —that so inspired you to be doing what you are doing right now— probably spent as many hours as you do staring at a blank page, or a blinking cursor, trying to weed through all the “dreck”, that every artist creates, to create something different, something divergent from all those creations that inspired them to create. You now know that they succeeded in that plight, but you only know that because the only thing you want to see, hear, and read are their highlight reels.

{1}http://www.forbes.com/sites/kylesmith/2014/02/20/what-mark-twain-van-halen-and-dan-rather-teach-us-about-failure/

{2}http://www.marktwainproject.org/about_projecthistory.shtml

Something Different: A Crazy Lady


If a crazy person ever asked me for advice on how to get along in the world, I would tell them to be nice.  This advice may appear to be so obvious that it’s not even worth giving, but it’s been my experience that people will rush to the defense of someone they consider nice, regardless what that person does or says.  Being nice, courteous, gracious, and conscientious also allows a person to float under the radar of most people.  People do talk, and they will talk about a crazy person, but if they consider that person nice, that will be the beginning and the end of any such discussions.

Crazy-cat-ladyOne of the key components to selling a nice façade, is to walk around with a warm smile on your face.  A warm smile disarms the observers looking for cracks in your foundation, and it will serve you well in your attempts to conceal your eccentricities.

We, observers, have bullet points that we look for when we’re trying to spot crazy people.  Are these bullet points fair?  It doesn’t matter.  They’ve been created by us, for us, to help us avoid saying or doing the wrong thing to the wrong person that may go crazy on us.  One of the most prominent bullet point is nastiness.

The preemptive strategy of attacking before being attacked is effective.  People will avoid an attacker, but they will also talk about them.  They will talk about the attacker behind the attacker’s back, until most of those that the attacker knows and loves will reach some sort of sort of agreement that the attacker will not expect.  The solution is one that is so simple that they may have never thought of it before: be nice.

I used to work at an online company.  This company rewarded its employees with a month long sabbatical for tenured service.  While on this sabbatical, my department hired a number of new people.  One of them was a woman named Abbie Reinhold.  One of the first things Abbie did, to introduce herself to the group, was defeat any impressions we may have made about her.  This planned defense was comprised of confrontation and nastiness that dared anyone to challenge the impression she may have made.  This defense gained her the reputation, however unfair, of being a cat lady.

To this point, no one knew Abbie Reinhold owned a cat.  She simply fit the stereotype, arrow for arrow, bullet point for bullet point.  She could’ve been the prototype for the cat lady on the television show The Simpsons.  The stereotype is an affixed staple in our culture, because it’s true.  It’s not true that all women that own cats are crazy, for I’ve met a number of sane women that have an insane number of cats, but some women scream at their cats as if they’re human, and some women find that they get along a lot better with cats than they do humans for all of the psychological underpinnings that are indigenous to cat ladies.

When I arrived back at work, I found that those in charge of seating arrangements placed this crazy lady across from me, in the cubicle I faced.  Did I know that she was a little crazy?  How could one not sense that something was off about her, based on her defensive posture?  My attempts at building a psychological profile on someone, based on initial impressions, had been so wrong, so often, that I decided to give Abbie Reinhold a chance.  My precedent sat right next to Abbie Reinhold.  A Mary something or other.  I had been so wrong about her that I decided Abbie Reinhold might another Mary something or other.  Mary was a woman of solitude, and a little “off”, but she was such a sweet woman in all other matters that she became the precedent for how wrong I could be about some people.

As that day wore on, I noticed that she talked to herself a lot, and while I do judge people that talk to themselves a lot as crazy, I cut her some slack for being a new employee.  Some of the cases that we worked at this company were difficult and overwhelming, and I had firsthand knowledge of how difficult and overwhelming the job could be for a new person.  For this reason, I paid little attention to her on that first day.

The second day, she began talking to herself when I sat down at 8:00 A.M. up and to the point when she left at 5:30.  Man, I thought, this woman is struggling.  Her frustrations were on display for all to see, but I empathized.  I went through those frustrations when I was the new guy, and we’re all the new guy at one point in our lives, and we all struggle, and some of us need to talk our way through it.  She did talk to herself A LOT though.

The third day was something altogether different.  On the third day, she appeared to be so comfortable with us that she didn’t mind screaming at the computer.  There were no sounds coming out of her mouth, but she was going off.  Her head was bopping, and her teeth were bared.  I glanced around to determine the source of her frustration, I couldn’t find anything.  She was new though, and I tried to continue cutting her some slack, but the progression wasn’t subsiding in the manner it had in the past days.  Her frustrations had progressed.  I am not often phased by much, I’m a calm, level-headed guy, but I had one foot pointed to the door in case some sort of progression occurred.

Depending on the size of the company, it is possible to work with thousands of anonymous people at an online company.  It’s possible to meet a fellow employee at a grocery store and believe you’ve never even seen them.  An employee, at an online company, spends most of their time staring at a computer screen, and those that are not in their immediate vicinity can escape notice for years.  It’s even possible for an employee in the immediate vicinity to escape notice, depending on their personality traits.  Abbie Reinhold was an anomaly that gained attention and stuck in the memory.

If her displays had been limited to silent screams at the computer, I may have been able to overlook that too.  I had been working in computer companies for near a decade at that point, and I saw so many anomalies by that point that their idiosyncratic behavior was something to notice.  Nothing more and nothing less.  Then I saw her eat a cookie.

I would never go so far as to say that I’m a macho man that fears nothing, but I can say without fear of rebuttal, that I’ve never known fear watching another eat a cookie, before that third day that is.  She pulled that cookie out and went at it.  I assumed she was diabetic, but I have also known non-diabetic women that were calmed by a cookie.  I still don’t have many answers regarding the nature of this woman, but I’ve never witnessed a person eat a cookie with such vigor.  She ate the cookie in a manner that suggested she had starved herself for three days.

I watched every bite she took.  Don’t ask me what I was waiting for, but I was paying attention.  Watching is the wrong word to describe what I was doing, for I was not looking at her.  We had already established, through confrontational exchanges, that Abbie Reinhold was not to be looked at.  As a result of that, I trained myself to look at my computer and watch her at the same time.  I was looking at my computer, but I could not focus on anything before me.  I was not working.  I was just staring at it.  My attention was directed at her, until she finished that cookie without further incident.  I did not sigh when the cookie was devoured, but I was relieved that I would be able to return to work without further incident.

In the days that followed, I would see her laugh.  The mind drifts when you’re sitting behind a computer for ten hours a day.  That day that that the rude checker at the supermarket said something rude comes to mind when you’re sitting behind a computer for long stretches of time, and the something that should’ve been said to her comes to mind when all one has to stare at are inanimate objects all day.  Hilarious jokes comes to mind, when a person is staring at their computer, and the things that could’ve been added fall into place.  Some of the times, a person can get so caught up in these memories that they may let a smile or grimace slip.  When that happens, the expression is drop as quick as possible, and a quick search for witnesses occurs.  This woman didn’t seem to care.  Her smiles turned into uproarious laughter.  Her grimaces turned into silent, vehement screams.

One minute the sounds of typing, whispers, and people talking in inside voices lull the employee into concentrating on the work before them.  The next minute, the employees in the surrounding area are hit by uproarious laughter.  In the early days of Abbie Reinhold’s tenure, other employees would roll their chair to her computer to see what was so funny.  After a number of such incidents, no one rolled over.  It was just something she conjured up in her head.  Many were the times, when she would turn to her left, or right, depending on the occasion, and she would laugh.  On one occasion, she placed a hand between her breasts and apologized to her computer screen for laughing so hard.  She wasn’t speaking to me, the unfortunate witness to her activities, she wasn’t speaking to anyone.

When she speaks to herself, she gesticulates in a casual manner that one uses to expound upon meaning.  These gesticulations progress to a flailing of the arms, in a manner reserved for party goers having one hell of a good time.  She swirls in a Julie Andrews, “The Hills are Alive” manner when it appears she’s thought of a wonderful moment in her life, and she says things no one can hear.

I wondered one day if she is talking to people in the future or the past, or is she one of those rare individuals who –like a Kurt Vonnegut character– is unstuck in time, and is living in the past, the present and the future at the same time?

I wondered one day, if I started talking to myself, followed by uproarious laughter and wild gesticulations, what she would think of me?  Would she laugh from a distance at such foolish actions, to prove how she was oblivious to her own?  Would she laugh at me with full knowledge of her actions, but by ridiculing me she hoped to gain some distance from the things that crazy people do?  Would she do anything to take advantage of the opportunity of my foolish display to define herself, and lift herself above those that engage in such activities for the purpose of either changing the minds of those around her, or vindicating her beliefs in her own sanity?  The unlikely alternative to all that would be that she would see my display and identify with it in a manner that formed some sort of solidarity between us.  If I performed these actions in a manner that suggested there was no mimicry going on, and that I may have been a victim of many of the same maladies as her, would she see me as one of her people?

On one of the days that followed, she stood.  She was not looking at a fellow employee named Natalie, but she wasn’t looking away either.  She was just standing.  She did stand near enough to Natalie that Natalie thought the Crazy Lady had a work-related question that she couldn’t verbalize.  Natalie was a senior agent on the team, assigned to answering agent questions.

“What’s up?” Natalie asked her.

“Just stretching,” the crazy lady said.

“What’s wrong with that?” I asked when Natalie informed me of these details.

“She was standing still,” Natalie informed me.  “I don’t think she moved a muscle.”

“Did you ask her what muscles she was stretching?”

The Crazy Lady eats her ear wax.  She pulls it out, examines it, and she eats it on occasion.  Some of the times, she looks at it and discards it on the carpet.  I often wonder what her selection process involves.  What’s a good pull, and what’s a bad pull?

I wondered if I cracked a joke about people who eat their own ear wax, what her reaction would be.  Would she laugh from a distance at such foolish people, or would she defend her fellow ear wax eaters?  “Hey, I eat my ear wax, how dare you crack on my people?”

As the unfortunate witness to all this, I would have considered the Abbie Reinhold crazy regardless her temperament, but I had an audience that waited, with bated breath, for the next story.  This audience appeared eager to hear details that supported their initial prognosis.  The question I now have, now that my supervisor was supportive enough to move me away from this woman, is would anyone have wanted to hear these stories if she was nice?  Would anyone have laughed as hard as they did, or offered their own stories about her to our round table discussions, if she was a nice person that just happened to have been afflicted with some eccentricities?  The males may have, for males are predisposed to enjoying stories that pertain to the weaknesses and frailties of another, a trait that may be traced back to their king of the hill mentalities.  I can only guess that the females, that surrounded us, would have shut any discussions about the Crazy Lady’s eccentricities down quick, if she was a nice person that happened to do these things, and they may have even shamed me for engaging in such discussions.  ”She’s a nice person,” is something they may have said, and everything I said, before and after that, would have been dismissed on that basis.  The fact that they not only shared their own experiences but drove the discussion in many cases, suggests that the Crazy Lady was not a nice person worthy of defense in their eyes, and a warning to all people that may suffer from similar, manageable maladies: be nice.