The Leans


“This is it,” Andrew Parizek said crouching down beside my desk. I was listening to music in my earbuds, so I didn’t see, hear, or sense his approach. By the time he said that, Andrew was so close he startled me. He was a close talker, but he narrowed his normally uncomfortable distance until I could smell the cool ranch Doritos he had for lunch. “My final farewell to you, my friend,” he added. “I’m leaving the company. I’m on my way out the door.”

“Oh shoot,” I said to a co-worker whom I considered a close associate. I don’t know how he would characterize our years-long association, but when we had a go-between, we spoke every day. When that third party changed jobs, I thought the my relationship with Andrew was over. Yet, Andrew kept coming over to my desk to talk about the stupid stuff people talk about. “It was great working with you buddy,” I told him.

This “Final Farewell” had been in various stages for about two weeks. Two weeks prior, we discussed his departure at his going away party. One week later, he and I discussed his imminent departure in greater detail, and we also discussed his future at length. We shared brief discussions about the people we knew and the good times we shared. We also talked about how we would miss the little things we both did to brighten the other’s otherwise boring days. We didn’t hug at the end of those discussions, but we engaged in heartfelt, hearty handshakes that expressed how we felt about one another.  

I thought that those final farewells were the final farewells, but his presence at my desk informed me that those notions were premature. “It won’t be the same around here without you,” I said, as I had in the other farewells, but I felt compelled to add original material to this one. I don’t remember what I added, but it involved some sentimental junk that I didn’t mean. I was being nice, and I was trying to make Andrew feel important in my life. I liked the guy, but we weren’t what anyone would call close.

“Are you excited about this move?” I asked him, and when he told me why he was excited, and how excited he was, I said, “I’m jealous.” I wasn’t jealous, as Andrew was moving onto a career that I didn’t want to do, but it seemed like a fitting sentiment to add to this final version of our final farewell.

“You’ll succeed,” I said, “because you’re a nice guy and a hard worker.” I meant that.

“Are you a little scared about the prospect of leaving the comfy confines our company? I know it’s what you want to do, and all that, but you’re venturing out into an unknown world where the prospect of failure is greater.” He said yes to all of the above. Then he launched.

He spelled out for me, in explicit detail, this new venture of his life. He did so with magnificence and aplomb. He was also magnanimous. He spoke about how he thought that I was delightful, and the type who would succeed, and that if I stuck to it, all my dreams would come true. It was as sappy and weird as you imagine. I hid my revulsion for his word choices. He tried to be multisyllabic, and he used as many –ly words as he had in his vocabulary to instill a sense of timeless profundity to this final version of his “Final Farewell”. If it were a speech, it might have caused some emotional reactions. The audience might have been applauding at the end, some may have cried, and others may have even stood to applaud. The over the top farewell was one that often elicits such near-compulsory emotion. Andrew lit up in moments where ‘dreams can come true’ lines poured out of him. When the line “If it can happen for me, it can happen for anyone” brought him to crescendo, I might have reached for a handkerchief if I had what they call emotions.

It was so over-the-top brilliant, coupled with subtle attempts at self-deprecating humor, that I wondered if Andrew plagiarized the material he prepared for this from one of the soldiers’ “going to war” letters that Ken Burns compiled for his The Civil War documentary. If it wasn’t, I felt safe in my assumption that Andrew practiced and rehearsed this speech that day, before a mirror. Whatever the case was, I felt compelled to inform him that I thought this version of the final farewell was an “Experience for anyone lucky enough to hear it,” “Your best, final farewell since final farewell number two,” and a “Tour de Force!” I didn’t say any of this, but I felt Andrew Parizek choreographed his speech in a manner that warranted such superlatives.

We were fellow office workers who chatted almost every day for years. We got along on those levels, so receiving an invitation to his going away party wasn’t a big surprise. When I arrived and Andrew offered me relatively little attention compared to his closer friends, it didn’t wound me. I thought he offered me as much attention as our association warranted.

This Casablanca-style parting was just way beyond protocol as far as I was concerned though. Once I got past the idea that it didn’t matter that Andrew already said goodbye to me a couple times, I politely listened to his spiel as if for the first time. We exchanged email addresses so we could keep updated on each other’s lives. I knew that wouldn’t happen, but I thought it was a nice sentiment. He then concluded with another note about how he was nervous about his future, but he was just as excited by it.

By the time he began to step away, he was all but yelling good wishes to me. My mouth wasn’t open, but the display did set me back a pace. Then it happened …

Andrew Parizek entered into a wicked case of the leans with my desk neighbor, as she entered into the aisle he was exiting. He leaned left to get past her, she leaned left, and when he leaned to the right, she leaned right. Before they finally made it past one another, they performed four separate and distinct leans.

If Andrew was extracting himself from a casual conversation, and exiting the aisle in a routine manner, he might have been able to avoid the spectacle that ended up occurring between these two. If he felt no need to execute a departure to be earmarked in the annals of time for those “who were there” to witness his ride into the sunset, I suspect he would’ve been the gentleman he always was and stepped aside to allow my female desk neighbor to pass. At worst, the two of them may have engaged in two leans, if it wasn’t Andrew’s hope that this “The Final Farewell” include women waving handkerchiefs and someone, somewhere saying, “You know what, there goes one hell of a good feller.” I assume that Andrew pictured the rest of us as side characters in his exit, left behind to chronicle the attributes of the main character of this “The Final Farewell” scene.

I don’t keep a ledger on such things, but I do believe that the Andrew Parizek v. desk neighbor case of the leans was the most intense I’ve ever witnessed. I’ve seen a number of severe cases in my day, and I’ve ever been a party to a few, but I don’t think I witnessed four separate and distinct leans prior to that day.

The one thing we know about the public humiliation that results from a case of leans is that no one gets out alive. Most people try to find some way to quell the embarrassment, but I’ve witnessed some get angry. “Get out of my way!” they shout, in an unsuccessful attempt to direct the humiliation sure to follow to the other party. I saw one person grab the other person by the shoulders and gently usher them right, so they could pass left. I’ve seen some giggle at their own foolishness, and I’ve seen some try to change the subject as quick as they can. None of it works. No one gets out alive.

The one exception to the rule I heard about involved a nondescript, middle-aged, restaurant hostess named Susan. She fell prey to three separate and distinct leans with another co-worker. She was able maintain a modicum of dignity following the episode, and she did it with three simple words: “Shall we dance?”

The witnesses to this event said she said it in the second of what would be a reported, and corroborated, three leans. Susan said it in the midst of what should have been her humiliation. The witnesses of this episode would later swear that she said those three words with a glint in her eye. The glint was faint, they would report, and it was a little insecure, but the observers suggested that they thought Susan knew exactly what she was doing.

What she was doing is subject to interpretation, of course, as this woman named Susan maintained a degree of humility that prevented her from addressing the full import of her purported casual salvo against future ridicule. Those who witnessed Susan issue this phrase swore that Susan knew that by saying this she would be setting the rest of us free from the ridicule that follows such an episode.

We can only assume that Susan suffered similar ridicule for much of her life, and that it bothered her so much that she sought to put an end to it. If that wasn’t the case, it might have had something to do with Susan’s hope that the line “Shall we dance” might provide a remedy to future sufferers. Her hope, we can only guess, was that the witnesses of this episode would spread the word to put an end to this scale of human suffering. Whatever the case was, this unassuming restaurant hostess provided those who were lucky enough to be there that day, and those who later heard about it, a shield against public scorn that we would use the rest of our lives. We might not have carried it off with the grace Susan did that day, but we would always think of her, and silently thank her, for freeing us from this ever-present spectacle in our lives.

Had Andrew Parizek learned of this antidote prior to his case of the leans, it might have spared him the humiliation. I doubted it at the time, and I still do, for I considered Susan’s humorous quip an antidote to two, and in her case three, separate and distinct leans, but I wasn’t sure that even her ingenious response could shield someone from the public fallout of four.

Four separate and distinct leans were so unprecedented, to my mind, that I doubt there is a sufficient antidote. Couple that with the fact with the Gone with the Wind-style, dramatic exit that Andrew hoped to execute preceding it, and I doubt that any clever quip would’ve permitted him to save face. His only recourse was to walk away and just hope that witnesses would forget it soon after it happened.

Andrew Parizek was an “always a bridesmaid, never a bride” fella. Everyone I knew liked him. He was a likable guy, but no one I knew liked him so much that they would hang out with him, or consider him a best friend. He was one of those guys who was always there but never the focus of the room. Andrew Parizek wasn’t the type of guy we will remember, and perhaps that’s all he wanted when he delivered so many final farewells to so many people that he accidentally said goodbye to the same people more than twice. I don’t know how much preparation he put into his final farewells, but I’m sure he did it so that he could let each of us know how important we were to him to have the sentiment returned. This is not to suggest that Andrew’s actions were intended to be self-serving, but everyone wants those around them to remember that we were here. It is possible that had Andrew escaped unencumbered by my desk neighbor, his final farewell might have had the lasting effect on me he hoped for, but the lasting memory I now have of him consists of him shucking and jiving with my desk neighbor, trying to get past her for a dramatic ride off into the sunset.

Platypus People


They’re platypus people! They’re platypus people! It’s a kookbook!

Platypus people do not have a duck’s bill or an otter’s body, but in many ways they are as foreign to us as their Australian counterparts were to scientific community in England, in the late 18th century. These weird, strange, and different people tend to stray from the premise we all share from. We might not even know that we share a premise, until we hear someone say something so shocking and so far outside the mainframe that we think it suggests they’re operating from an altogether different one.

FullSizeRender_1__lPlatypus People are almost as shocking to us as the introduction of platypus was to Britain’s scientific community. They were so rocked by it that they thought the semi-aquatic, egg-laying mammal was an elaborate and well-conceived hoax. They thought they had a comprehensive catalog of the animal kingdom before the introduction of the platypus. Those of us who have met platypus people empathize, for before we met them, we thought we had a decent catalog of human nature.

“Doesn’t he have cable?” one of my friends asked after a platypus person said something so far out of the mainframe that we all stepped back for a second in confusion. Our jokester friend’s witty reply also implied that one of the reasons the rest of us shared a premise was that we watched too much TV.

Even though this joker and I disagreed on everything two people can disagree on, and we approached the platypus person from widely different perspectives, we both came to a similar conclusion about the man.

It was such a relief to hear this joke teller say that, because it suggested that my confusion over the platypus person’s thoughts of the world was not a matter of taking sides. The jokester was just as confused as I was.

We thought someone glued a proverbial bill of a duck on an otter’s body to try to pass him off as a new species. We did not physically dissect him to find the truth, in the manner the skeptical Brits did when they first encountered the platypus, to search for the taxidermist’s stitching. We did probe, however, and we came away thinking he was genuine, unlike those Brits who remained skeptical even after seeing a live platypus, but we had no idea how to process his thoughts.

As with the Brits and their introduction to the platypus, the more we learned more about our platypus person, the more that shock turned to intrigue as we began to think that his funhouse mirror perspective might tweak our worldview.

vandevelde1732010t152920Our path to formulating a final philosophy involves a wide variety of influences we encounter along the way. We learn that most of the voices we hear offer different perspectives from a shared premise, but others are unusual thinkers who formulate weird, strange, or just plain different impressions. Yet, there is a difference between those who exhibit organic differences and those for whom free-thinking independent thought is a bit more contrived. They are weird for the sake of being weird, they disagree just to disagree, and they follow the edicts of their overlords to become a cool person. “Dare to be different,” they say. They aren’t different, though, they’re just another same, and we learn this in the little bits and pieces we hear from someone who genuinely operates from a different premise. When viewed this through this looking glass, we see that if we’re all the manufactured free-thinking, independent spirits we see on cable TV, then none of us are, and the channel the platypus people are on affects us in a manner that motivates us to learn everything we can about their philosophy before we reach some version of what we consider our final formulation. 

When we hear someone who appeared to go through the same intellectual progressions we did, only to arrive at an entirely different conclusion, we want to know how they arrived at that. We want to know everything about their philosophy on matters and how it applies to their worldview, and we want to know the anthropological origins of their thought process. We might not agree with everything or anything they say, and by the time they’re finished, we realize that the specific subjects they discuss don’t matter either. We’re so fascinated by their process that we listen to them with some excitement, as we think about the sedimentary layers of their story and how we can apply it to our own.

All of these reactions to the platitudes of platypus people are subjective, but within these subjective reactions are autobiographical attempts to understand ourselves better, and whether we are going to eventually agree with them or attempt to nuke their theories, we want to know how to process what they are saying.

When we obsess over such matters, some of us have a propensity to overthink otherwise inconsequential matters. When someone drops a line like, “Doesn’t he have cable?” it only highlights this proclivity.

We might envy those quick wits who can diagnose a situation and summarize it in seconds, but we also wonder if they understand the import of what platypus people say. After chewing on the line, we realize that we probably didn’t understand the totality of the jokester’s joke. If the import of the joke was that the platypus person might be operating from the same premise as the rest of us if he wasted as many hours of his life as we had watching cable TV, then the joke was probably spot on. That line also effectively diverted us from processing the platypus person’s thought, and it allowed us to dismiss him as a joke. It’s rare that we consciously dismiss another based on a single joke, but when the joke is so spot on, we will have it bouncing around in our head in all future interactions we have with the platypus person.

Some are just quicker than the rest of us. They can listen to an hours-long discussion and sum it up in one quick line. Some of us are processors who need time to process information, and we enjoy hearing numerous opinions before forming a conclusion. We might obsess over otherwise inconsequential matters far too often, but we can’t understand how someone can come up with a quick, reflexive line like that and consider the matter settled. Do they develop this ability, because they are more comfortable in their own skin and that confidence allows them to swat nuanced, complicated ideas away? Or, do they develop this ability to come up with a quick assessment of a person, because they are so insecure that they seek to thwart unusual thoughts before they question the fundamentals of their being? Is it a defense mechanism they use to help them avoid dwelling or obsessing on such topics, or do they consider most of the mysteries that plague the rest of us settled?

Being Weird is a Choice 

grosz7After meeting a few more platypus people in the years that followed, I realized the matter was far from settled for me. I met some who were weird, others who were strange, and those who were so different that I was sure they didn’t have cable TV growing up. One of the best ways I found to define a relative term like weird is to define what it is not. It is not, for the purpose of this discussion, strange. The term strange, by our arbitrary definition, concerns those affected by natural maladies. They had a variance inflicted upon them that they could not control, and they cannot escape its influence. As opposed to a person we might consider strange, a person who chooses to be weird, can easily find their way back to the premise. They simply choose, for various reasons, to step away from it for a moment. Platypus people cannot find their way back for reasons that are less philosophical and more anthropological, as their philosophical makeup has been passed down their genealogical tree.

We don’t define these separations to be nice, though we do deem it mean-spirited to mock, insult, or denigrate those who arrive at their differences in a more natural manner. We don’t create this rhetorical device for our readers to consider us wonderful, more understanding, or compassionate, but we deem those who go out of their way to poke fun at the strange to be lacking in basic human decency. We also don’t want to leave the reader with the impression that we might be more normal, or more intelligent, than any of the species we discuss. We design this arbitrary separation for the sole purpose of providing some classifications for those who had no choice in the matter, against a backdrop of those who choose to be weird through the odd decisions they make in life.

We might think that anyone who chooses to be weird must suffer from a strange psychology. In my experience, it’s quite the opposite. For most of us, our decision-turned-need to be something different started out as a form of rebellion in our youth. Our parents, and various other authority figures, had a strong philosophical and spiritual hold on us. They set the premise from which we operate for the rest of our lives, whether we enjoyed it or not. Most of us didn’t enjoy it, of course, and we sought to break free those shackles in any way we could. For some of us, this involved momentary and situational breaks, but the rest of us sought total philosophical freedom. We wanted to be perceived as being just as weird, strange, and just plain different as those we were conditioned to dismiss and avoid by our friends and family.

My dad sensed this early on, and he did everything he could to guide me toward a more normal path. Through the decades that followed, he attempted to correct my weird ideas with more sensible, normal lines of thought. “That isn’t the way,” was a phrase he used so often that my refusal to acquiesce to his more structured ways of the world was one of my primary forms of rebellion. There were so many intense arguments, and debates in our household that no observer could escape it without thinking that it was, at least, combustible. Before we explore the ways in which the old man was strange, I would like to offer a posthumous thank you to the man who put so much effort into trying to make me normal. I now know he did his best to overcome his own obstacles to provide his children the most normal upbringing he could.

I rebelled to the relatively strong foundation he built without recognizing the luxury I was afforded. The primary reason for my gratitude is that some of the truly weird and strange platypus people I’ve met since I left my dad’s home lead chaotic lives that can be a little scary. They came from very different homes, with a less than adequate foundation, and they ended up expending as much effort trying to prove they were normal as I did to be considered weird.

This premise is often generational, as our parents pass on the fundamental knowledge they learned from their parents. As we age, we begin to see the cracks in that foundation. At some point, we assume our parents are so normal that they’re boring. They might have some quirks but who doesn’t? They might even have more quirks than others, but doesn’t that just make them quirky? When we begin to add these quirks up, as we age, and we compare them to others’ parents, an uncomfortable, irrefutable truth emerges in this dichotomy: Our parents are strange people. They aren’t a little weird, or goofy, and we can no longer find comfort in the idea that our parents just have some different ideas about some subjects. They have some bona fide, almost clinical, deficiencies.

If we ever gain enough distance from them to view their idiosyncrasies with some objectivity, the revelations we uncover can be earth-shattering. We witnessed, firsthand, some confusing elements of their thought process, and we began adding them up, but it wasn’t until we put all the pieces together that that uncomfortable truth emerged.

After that relatively daunting epiphany clears, a sense of satisfaction takes its place. Our rebellion to their quirky ideas was the right course to follow, and we now see how justified we were. At some point in our various stages of processing this newfound information, we realize that for much of our life, our parents were our beacon of sanity in an otherwise confusing world they were charged with helping us understand. When we couple that information with everything else we’ve realized, it’s no longer as funny as we thought it was. We reach a point where we want/need them to be normal, and we ask them not to express themselves in front of our friends, because if our friends learn how strange our parents truly are, how long will it be before they connect those dots back to us?

My dad was abnormal, at the very least. Some might say he was a kook, and others might suggest he was an odd duck. In the frame we’re creating here though, he was a platypus person who was difficult to classify. Either he was born with certain deficiencies, or they were a result of self-inflicted wounds. One could say that those self-inflicted wounds were choices he made along the way, and if that is true I believe he made them as a result of some of his natural deficiencies.

The point of writing about the man’s deficiencies is not to denigrate the man, but to point out that which separated him from what one would call a normal man. Those deficiencies plagued him, and he put forth a great deal of effort to convince the world around him that he was as normal as they were. The trials and tribulations he experienced in this regard marked his life, and he didn’t want his children to have to go through what he did, so he tried to establish a normal home without too much chaos. In his subjective approach to life, he thought fitting in with others and being normal were the keys to happiness, and he tried to pass that along to us. I rebelled to those teachings, because I couldn’t see his efforts for what they were at the time.

Even after years of reflecting on this, and recognizing what my dad’s efforts for what they were, I still like to dance in the flames of the weird, but once the lights come up I’m as normal now, and as boring, as everyone else. As hard as my dad tried to force normalcy on me, however, he couldn’t control the impulses I had to indulge in the artistic creations that glorified life outside the norm. I knew weird ideas were out there, and I pursued them with near wanton lust.

When I left the relatively normal home my dad tried to create for us, I ventured out into a world outside the realm of his influence. I lived the life I always wanted to live, and I found weird, oddball philosophies so intoxicating that I had trouble keeping them in the bottle.

My dad’s overwhelming influence on my life was such that I preferred the company of normal people long-term, but I remained eager to invite weird people in for a brief stay to challenge my status quo. Their brief stay would present me with different and weird ideas of thinking, weird platitudes, and oddball mentalities that shook the contents in my bottle a little bit more. I needed to know what made them tock (as opposed to the ticks I knew all too well). I became obsessed with the abnormal to find out what made them different, or if they were, and I had to deal with friends and family telling me that I should be avoiding these people, because they were so strange. I couldn’t, I said, not until I consumed all that they had to offer.

A Piece of Advice to the Young Weirdo Wannabes

george-grosz-new-york-street-scene-nd-webIf there are any young people seeking to disappoint their parents, and anyone else who has expectations of them, in the manner we did, we have one word of caution. Pursue the life of a freak, become that rebel that makes every square in the room uncomfortable. Violate every spoken and unspoken rule of our culture, and become that person everyone in the room regards as an oddball. Before going down these roads, however, an aspiring rebel needs to consider learning everything they can about the conventional rules that they plan to spend the rest of their life violating. Knowing the rules provides a blueprint for a successful rebellion. All rebels think they know the conventional ways of the conventional, and they might think there’s no point in studying them, but if there’s one thing that I learned as an aspiring rebel, and in the many conversations I had with other rebels since, it’s that a rebel needs to know the rules better than the squares do. A violation of rules comes with its own set of rules, and subsets, for those seeking to violate in a constructive and substantive manner. Failure to learn them, and the proper violation of them, will allow those who set the rules to dismiss a rebel as one who doesn’t know what they’re talking about, and a rebel without a cause.

Most rebels seek inspiration, and their preferred source of inspiration are the screen stars who violate standards and upset the status quo in their presentations. These stars provide color by number routes to rebellion that are provocative and easy to follow. These manufactured rebellions also look great on a screen, but those seeking inspiration often fail to account for the fact that the screenwriters and directors of these productions manipulate the conditions and side characters around the main character to enhance their qualities. We all know this is true, in some respects, but most of us do not factor it into our presentation. In real life, there are situations and forces that even a rebel with strong convictions cannot control. There are people who will present the rebel with scenarios for which they’re unprepared, and a failure to study the conventional rules from every angle possible, will lead the audience of the rebel’s argument to forget it soon after they make it.

James Dean was A Rebel Without a Cause, though, and James Dean was cooler than cool. For ninety minutes he was, and with all of conditions and side characters portraying the perfect contradictory behavior that would define the James Dean character’s rebellion as cool. The real life rebel cannot manipulate his conditions and side characters to enhance their presentations in the manner all the behind the scenes players did in that movie. In real life, the extraneous players who outdo the uninformed rebel with corrections consider the rebel, a rebel without a cause, and a rebel without substance. They may regard him as uninteresting, after the initial flash of intrigue with their rebelliousness subsides. 

Our advice to all aspiring rebels is to listen to those squares who are so normal they make them throw up in their mouth a little, for they may teach a rebel more about what they’re rebelling against than those who feed into their confirmation bias.

Everyone has that aunt, uncle, or friend of the family who knew everything there was to know about “Good and honest living”. They teach us the elements of life that bore the fill in the blank out of us with their preachy presentations. They don’t know where it was at, as far as we’re concerned. We seek entrée into the “Do what you feel” rock and roll persona that leaves carnage in its wake, and we debate her point for point in our ‘shake up the premise’ argument. We know the elements of our rock and roll lifestyle well, and they know their “Good and honest living” principles, but they can’t debate us point for point. When compared to the rock and roll figures of our culture, they have poor presentation skills. They’re overweight and unattractive children of farmers, and our favorite entertainers are attractive and thin who have strong jaw lines.

Our rock and roll philosophers tell us that life should be easy, judgment free, and fun. It shouldn’t involve the moral trappings of what is right and what is wrong. As long as no one gets hurt, a person should be able to do what they feel like doing. Viewing all of this in retrospect, however, we realize that the boring, pedantic, obese, and unattractive descendants of farmers taught us more in ten minutes than any of the entertainers did. The entertainers were just better at packaging their presentations.

The crux of our rebellion was that we wanted to expel whatever our body couldn’t use into the face of the mainstream. We want to be so weird that the various “theys” could taste it. The responsible grownups who played such a prominent role in our development had a boring sameness about them, and the idea that we might be able to be something different led to some growth in our undercarriage. They vied for this sameness in life, and they wanted the same for us, but no matter how hard they tried to make us normal, we continued to explore the abbie normal side of humanity.

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In our efforts to have someone, somewhere consider us weird, we spotted the now endangered platypus person. With the advent of the internet and all of the apps available on the devices we all own, the idea of unintentional nonconformity is even rarer than it was a generation ago when the dividing line was between those who had cable, and those who did not. The platypus person has, thus, become more of an endangered animal. The candidate vying for platypus person status must avoid all that is available to them in the information age, including the internet. It’s easier than it’s ever been for them to consciously and subconsciously replicate and mimic the thoughts, rhythms, and patterns of the mainframe. It also leads to greater assimilation, and it makes them tougher to spot. If, for whatever reason, they are not able to camouflage their duck’s bill on an otter’s body, we should know that it’s rarely by choice. As suggested earlier, platypus people strive to be normal, but their upbringing was such that it requires more effort on their part to do what it takes for others to achieve it. They don’t mimic to deceive anyone, unless one considers convincing oneself of a lie so thoroughly that they believe it themselves an act of deception.

In the course of our efforts to locate the rare bird, we realize that it can take weeks to months for them to show us their duck bill. They only show it to those they trust and that level of trust takes time to build. It also takes a level of familiarity for them to be comfortable. To get them to open up, we might have to give them our weaknesses, but we can’t do this for the sole purpose of getting them open up. They are skittish, and they will sense contrived attempts to open them up. This is not a problem, of course, for in most cases it’s almost impossible to spot them. We aren’t reporters digging for their story, a story, or the story. We’re just ordinary people establishing a rapport with another person. As with the egg-laying, semi-aquatic mammal, establishing a rapport that leads to a friendship with a platypus person requires a certain environment, and very specific conditions before they reveal themselves. When they do, there is some insecurity involved in their reveal, but they also experience relief in the reveal. It’s obvious that they have experienced levels of ridicule and abuse for their thoughts and ideas, and they are relieved to find someone who is so curious about the way they think.

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Building this level of trust requires spending quality time with the platypus person, and the only occasions I have been able to achieve an environment in which they feel free to speak their mind was in the prolonged confines of shared employment. On one occasion, I developed what we could call a cerebral crush on one of my fellow employees. We had numerous, fascinating conversations on a variety of unrelated topics. In one of our last non-work-related conversations, she replied to one of my stories with a, “Wait a second, did you just say you want to be weird? You actually want to be weird? People don’t want to be weird. They either are, or they aren’t.”

george_grosz_blue_ladyHer response wobbled me. I thought she was trying as hard to be weird as I was. I thought we were soul mates in that regard, laughing at all the other people climbing all over one another to achieve absolute normalcy. I thought she was weird in all the same mechanical and inorganic ways I was. She laughed as hard as I did at some of the things she said. I thought she was being self-deprecating. I thought she was messing with peoples’ heads in the same manner I did. I thought she wanted to be considered weird too. I had no idea that the things she did and said were more organically weird, strange, or just plain different. Her response told me that not only was this not a game to her, but I had no business playing with her toys. It also wobbled me, because I never heard anyone defend the organic nature of being weird before. The conversation went on for a couple minutes, but no matter what I said, she kept cycling it back to this two sentence theme: “People don’t want to be weird. They either are, or they aren’t.”

I would try, numerous times, after that conversation to steer her back to what I considered a fascinating topic, but she would have none of it. I wanted to know what she considered weird and what she thought it meant to be weird. I wanted her to elucidate on the differences between her and me, but unbeknownst to me, she considered that conversation over, and she found all of my subsequent questions on the topic insulting.

Therefore, I can only guess that the condemnation of my efforts was based on this idea she had that weirdness should be a birthright. It should be natural and organic. It was a ‘how dare you try to be one of us, if you’re not’ reaction to those who regard the organic nature of their oddities a birthright. She presumably regarded this as equivalent to a person who wears glasses to look sexier when they don’t have to wear them, an act that ticks off those required to wear them.

I felt exposed in the moment. I thought of all the attempts I made to have another consider me weird, and I thought of how inorganic they were. I felt like a fraud. As I said, my dad raised me in a manner that forced me to accept the norms, and I’m going to take another moment out of this piece to say something I didn’t say to him when he was alive, God bless you Dad for forcing a foundation of normalcy down my throat. God bless you for teaching me the premise from which we all operate and for creating a base of normalcy from which I rebelled, for without that base I wonder what I may have become if left to my own devices.

My guess was that this woman’s upbringing was probably chaotic, and she spent most of her adult life striving for what others might call normal. She was weird in a more natural and fundamental sense, and she condemned anyone who might dare play around in what she proclaimed her birthright, but there was also an element of sadness and misery in her being that was obvious to anyone who knew the details of her struggle.

Those of us who had enough involvement with her to know her beyond the superficial, knew that chaos dominated much of her life, and we learned that it led her to desperately seek the refuge of any substance she could find to ease that pain.

I realized through this friend, and all of the other platypus people who have graced my life before and after, that there was weird and there was weird. There is a level of weird that is fun, a little obnoxious, and entertaining in a manner that tingles the areas of the brain that enjoy roaming outside the nucleus. The other level of weird, the one that we could arbitrarily define as strange, is a little scary when one takes a moment to spelunk through the caverns of their mind.

Was this woman a little weird? Was she so weird that we could call her strange by the arbitrary definitions we’ve laid out, or were her sensibilities so different from mine that she was operating from an altogether different premise from which I sought to classify her in some way to help me feel normal by comparison?

When compared to all of my other experiences with platypus people, she was an anomaly. Was she weirder than I was though? “Who cares?” we might say in unison. She did. It may never have occurred to her –prior to this particular conversation– to use the idea of being weird as a cudgel to carve out some level of superiority. In that particular conversation, it was for her, and she didn’t appear to feel unusual doing so. It appeared, in fact, to be vital to her makeup that I acknowledge that she had me on this topic. She was weird, and I was trying to be weird. Who tries to be weird? Phony people. That’s who. Check, check, check. She wins.

What did she win though? Some odd form of superiority? How long did she search for some point of superiority? How many topics did we cover, in our numerous, unrelated conversations, before she was able to spot one chink in my armor? If either of these questions wreaks of ego on my part, let’s flip it around and ask how many battles did she lose trying to appear as normal as her counterpart was? She needed a victory. I had numerous conversations with this woman before we drifted apart, and I never saw this competitive side of her again. She thought she had me on this one weird, strange, or just plain different topic, and I can only assume it gave her some satisfaction to do so.

Are you weird, strange, just plain different, or an unclassifiable platypus person? No one cares, you might say, and quit judging people with labels. Our subjective reactions to define anomalies defines us. Some of us try to cut analysis short by accusing anyone who obsesses over differences as lacking in compassion. Others drop a quick, humorous line such as, “Doesn’t he have cable?” to dismiss subjects of curiosity. Those of us who dwell (obsess) over these topics don’t understand how others can turn this part of their brain off, because we think our story lies somewhere in the sedimentary levels of the strange and weird platypus people.

We all know some weird people, and we’ve encountered those who are strange, and some are so different that they’re difficult to classify. The one answer we could provide is that we all have a relative hold on the various truths of life, and those answers help us keep the idea of random chaos at bay. If you have had any prolonged involvement with a platypus person, however, you know that they have their answers too. Those answers might be different from everything we’ve heard our whole life, but does that make them weird, strange or just plain different? The frustration that those of us who search for answers in life know is that some of the times there are no concrete answers to some questions. Some of the times, questions lead to answers and some of the times, answers lead to other questions, intriguing, illuminating questions. Am I weird, strange, or so different from everyone else that they have trouble classifying me? Do these questions require the level of exhaustive analysis we devote to it, or does it have more to do with the idea that some of us didn’t have cable growing up?

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Most of the platypus people we will meet in this book, knew how to assimilate most of the time, but they have their moments. We all have our moments that reveal deep-rooted, embarrassing characteristics that others can never unsee once we reveal them. They might pretend they didn’t see it, and we might try to change the subject, but moments like these stick like peanut butter.

Some of us might prefer that platypus people have a duck’s bill plastered on their otter’s body, or some sort of distinguishing characteristic to help us separate them from us. We might give them a silly voice or a weird hat reading some of these platypus people stories. Distancing ourselves from different people gives us comfort, but I’ve found most of these people kind, generous, and relatively normal people who had some noteworthy quirks that defined them in a manner I found unforgettable. They spent so many years trying to cover these quirks, in their quest to achieve sameness, that they have accomplished some surprising results.

Almost all of the platypus people depicted in these stories were my good friends at one point or another, and if I were to run into one of them tomorrow, I’m sure our affection for one another would be obvious to anyone who witnessed it. Some of the stories involve character defining moments, others involve characteristic missteps that reveal all of us by contrast, and some of the other ones involve unforgettable types that we know we’ll never meet again no matter how long we live.

Our interest in these people is rooted in the idea that we see a little bit of ourselves in them. We might strive for objectivity, but it’s almost impossible to tackle any subject without some subjectivity. In doing so, as Ms. Elizabeth Alexander said, “We are telling our story while reporting on the stories of others.” We have to hear their stories, process them, and write about them if we ever hope to understand ours better. We have to compare and contrast, laugh and cry, and experience various levels of confusion if we ever hope arrive at some level of clarity.

Falling Down Manholes


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

Is it funny when a healthy adult falls down a manhole? It might be a little humorous when a faceless entity on the local news does, or someone with whom we have no association, but what if we have some sort of attachment to the victim? Does our level of familiarity affect how we view such an incident? If it does, how much familiarity do we have to have before the incident becomes tragic, and is there a middle ground that reveals the unusual relationship comedy and tragedy have? If we find a tragic incident like that funny, what is funny, what’s tragedy, and what’s the difference?

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

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

If our friend walks away from the fall with some superficial bumps and bruises, that might be funny, but what if he chipped a tooth? What if he took a nasty knock on the head, or broke an ankle? What if his injuries were so severe that he required Emergency Medical Technicians to free him? Does the severity of the injury make the incident more tragic or more humorous? Before you answer, think about how you might tell the story of the incident. Any time we tell a story, we want a punctuation mark at the end. What better punctuation would there be than a prolonged hospital stay that involves tubes and machines keeping the victim alive? “They’re saying that the nasty knock on the head could leave him mentally impaired for the rest of his life?” We might be using an extreme here, as few would find that funny, but where is the line or the lines of demarcation that define comedy and tragedy in this matter?

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

Laughing, or otherwise enjoying, another person’s pain is so common, that the Germans, developed a term for it: schadenfreude. Is our laughter fueled by the relief that it’s not happening to us, or is it the result of comedies and comedians molding our definition of what’s humorous by twisting dark, tragic themes into something funny? The advent of slapstick comedy occurred long before we were alive, but I don’t think anyone would argue that comedy has grown darker and more violent over the decades. We now consider some truly brutal acts hilarious. Have comedy writers changed our definition of humor, or are they reflecting the changes in society? Would an Abbot and Costello fan considered it hilarious if someone fell in a manhole, what would a Mel Brooks fan think, or a Will Farell fan? Are such incidents funny in a timeless, or has there been some changes? Whatever the case is, incidents such as these reveal the relative nature of humor, the fuzzy line between tragedy and comedy, and how we find comedy in others’ tragedies. The purposeful melding of the two even has its own genre now: tragicomedy.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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