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 time to time. The rest of us 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__lIt’s 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 weird, strange, and just plain different that we all stepped back for a second in confusion. Our jokester friend’s quick, witty reply implied that one of the reasons the rest of us operated from a shared premise was that we all 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 our own, similar conclusions 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 what we thought of our nature.

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 thoughts that 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 various cool overlords to become a cool person. “Dare to be different,” they say, but they aren’t, and we see this in little bits and pieces when we encounter a person 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. We want to taste every piece of pie available to us before we reach the end of the buffet.

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 epistemology, and we want to know the anthropological origins of their thought process. We might not agree with 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 with their process that we listen to them with some excitement, as we think their story, or some sedimentary layers of their story, could apply and affect 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 platypus people 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’s a little humorous when a faceless entity on the local news, or someone with whom we have no association, but what if we have some sort of attachment to the victim? Does 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 these 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. Do they develop an emotional immunity to such moments, because they hear about them so often? If that’s the case, is our laughter an impulsive reaction to something we find 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? 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.

✽✽✽

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 people 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.

Don’t Go Chasing Eel Testicles: A Brief, Select History of Sigmund Freud


Late bloomers envy those who knew, at a relatively young age, what they wanted to do for a living. Most of us experienced some moments of inspiration that could lead us down a path, but few of us ever read medical journals, law reviews, or business periodicals in our formative years. We preferred an NFL preview guide of some sort, teenage heartthrob magazines, or one of the many other periodicals that offer soft entertainment value. Most of us opted out of reading altogether and chose to play something that involved a ball instead. Life was all about fun for the kids in our block, but there were other, more serious kids, who we wouldn’t meet until we were older. They may not have known they would become neurosurgeons, but they were so interested in medicine that they devoted huge chunks of their young lives to learning everything their young minds could retain. “How is this even possible?” some of us ask. How are they able to achieve that level of focus at such a young age, we wonder. Are we even the same species?

At an age when so many minds are so unfocused, these people claim some levels of tunnel vision. “I didn’t have that level of focus,” some said to correct the record, “not the level of focus to which you are alluding.” They might have diverged from the central focus, but they had more direction than anyone we knew, and that direction put them on the path of doing what they ended up doing, even if it wasn’t as specific as we might guess.

The questions regarding what we should do for a living has plagued so many for so long that comedian Paula Poundstone captured it with a well-placed joke, and I apologize, in advance, for the creative paraphrasing: “Didn’t you hate it when your relatives asked what you wanted to do for a living? Um, Grandpa I’m 5. I haven’t fully grasped the mechanics or the importance of brushing my teeth yet. Those of us of a certain age have now been on both sides of this question. We’ve been asking our nieces and nephews this question for years without detecting any irony. What do you want to do when you grow up? Now that I’ve been asking this question long enough, I’ve finally figured out why we ask it. Our aunts and uncles asked us this question when we were growing up, because they were looking for ideas. I’m in my forties now, and I’m still asking my nieces and nephews these questions. I’m still looking for ideas.”

Pour through the annals of great men and women of history, and that research will reveal legions of late bloomers who didn’t accomplish anything of note until late in life. The research will also reveal that most of the figures who achieved success in life were just as dumb and carefree as children as the rest of us were, until the seriousness of adulthood directed them to pursue a venture in life that would land them in the annals of history. Some failed more than once in their initial pursuits, until they discovered something that flipped a switch.

Those who know anything about psychology, and many who don’t, are familiar with the name Sigmund Freud. Those who know anything about Freud are aware of his unique theories about the human mind and human development. Those who know anything about his psychosexual theory know we are all repressed sexual beings plagued with unconscious desires to have relations with some mythical Greek king’s mother. What we might not know, because we consider it ancillary to his greater works, is that some of his theories might have originated from Freud’s pursuit of the Holy Grail of nineteenth-century science, the elusive eel testicles.

Although some annals state that an Italian scientist named Carlo Mondini discovered eel testicles in 1777, other periodicals state that the search continued up to and beyond the search of an obscure 19-year-old Austrian’s in 1876.[1] Other research states that the heralded Aristotle conducted his own research on the eel, and his studies resulted in postulations that stated either that the beings came from the “guts of wet soil”, or that they were born “of nothing”.[2] One could guess that these answers resulted from great frustration, since Aristotle was so patient with his deductions in other areas. On the other hand, he also purported that maggots were born organically from a slab of meat. “Others, who conducted their own research, swore that eels were bred of mud, of bodies decaying in the water. One learned bishop informed the Royal Society that eels slithered from the thatched roofs of cottages; Izaak Walton, in The Compleat Angler, reckoned they sprang from the ‘action of sunlight on dewdrops’.”

Before laughing at any of these findings, one must consider the limited resources these researchers had at their disposal, concerning the science of their day. As is oft said with young people, the young Freud might not have had the wisdom yet to know how futile this task would be when a nondescript Austrian zoological research station employed him. It was his first real job, he was 19, and it was 1876. He dissected approximately 400 eels, over a period of four weeks, “Amid stench and slime for long hours” as the New York Times described Freud’s working environment. [3] His ambitious goal was to write a breakthrough research paper on an animal’s mating habits, one that had confounded science for centuries. Conceivably, a more seasoned scientist might have considered the task futile much earlier in the process, but an ambitious, young 19-year-old, looking to make a name for himself, was willing to spend long hours slicing and dicing eels, hoping to achieve an answer no one could disprove.

Unfortunate for the young Freud, but perhaps fortunate for the field of psychology, we now know that eels don’t have testicles until they need them. The products of Freud’s studies must not have needed them at the time he studied them, for Freud ended up writing that his total supply of eels were “of the fairer sex.” Freud eventually penned that research paper over time, but it detailed his failure to locate the testicles. Some have said Freud correctly predicted where the testicles should be and that he argued that the eels he received were not mature eels. Freud’s experiments resulted in a failure to find the testicles, and he moved into other areas as a result. The question on the mind of this reader is how profound was the effect of this failure to find eel testicles on Freud’s later research into human sexual development?

In our teenage and young adult years, most of us had odd jobs that affected us in a variety of ways, for the rest of our working lives. For most, these jobs were low-paying, manual labor jobs that we slogged through for the sole purpose of getting paid. Few of us pined over anything at that age, least of all a legacy that we hoped might land us in annals of history. Most of us wanted to do well in our entry-level jobs, to bolster our character, but we had no profound feelings of failure if we didn’t. We just moved onto other jobs that we hoped we would find more financially rewarding and fulfilling.

Was Freud’s search for eel testicles the equivalent of an entry-level job, or did he believe in the vocation so much that the failure devastated him? Did he slice the first 100 or so eels open and throw them aside with the belief that they were immature? Was there nothing but female eels around him, as he wrote, or was he beginning to see what plagued the other scientists for centuries, including the brilliant Aristotle? There had to be a moment, in other words, when Sigmund Freud realized that they couldn’t all be female. He had to know, at some point, that he was missing the same something everyone else missed. He must have spent some sleepless nights struggling to come up with a different tactic. He might have lost his appetite at various points, and he may have shut out the world in his obsession to achieve infamy in marine biology. He sliced and diced over 400 after all. If even some of this is true, even if it only occupied his mind for four weeks of his life, we can feasibly imagine that the futile search for eel testicles affected Sigmund Freud in a profound manner.

If Freud Never Existed, Would There Be a Need to Create Him

Every person approaches a topic of study from a subjective angle. It’s human nature. Few of us can view people, places, or things in our lives, with total objectivity. The topic we are least objective about, say some, is ourselves. Some say that we are the central topic of speculation when we theorize about humanity. All theories are autobiographical, in other words, and we pursue such questions in an attempt to understand ourselves better. Bearing that in mind, what was the subjective angle from which Sigmund Freud approached his most famous theory on psychosexual development in humans? Did he bring objectivity to his patients? Could he have been more objective, or did Freud have a blind spot that led him to chase the elusive eel testicles throughout his career in the manner Don Quixote chased windmills?

After his failure, Sigmund Freud would switch his focus to a field of science that would later become psychology. Soon thereafter, patients sought his consultation. We know now that Freud viewed most people’s problems through a sexual lens, but was that lens tinted by the set of testicles he couldn’t find a lifetime ago? Did his inability to locate the eel’s reproductive organs prove so prominent in his studies that he saw them everywhere he went, in the manner that a rare car owner begins to see his car everywhere, soon after driving that it off the lot? Some say that if this is how Freud conducted his sessions, he did so in an unconscious manner, and others might say that this could have been the basis for his theory on unconscious actions. How different would Freud’s theories on sexual development have been if he found his Holy Grail, and the Holy Grail of science at the time? How different would his life have been? We could also wonder if Freud would have even switched his focus if he found fame as a marine biologist with his findings.

How different would the field of psychology be today if Sigmund Freud remained a marine biologist? Alternatively, if he still made the switch to psychology after achieving fame in marine biology, for being the eel testicle spotter, would he have approached the study of the human development, and the human mind from a less subjective angle? Would his theory on psychosexual development have occurred to him at all? If it didn’t, is it such a fundamental truth that it would’ve occurred to someone else over time, even without Freud’s influence?

We can state, without too much refutation, that Sigmund Freud’s psychosexual theory has sexualized the beliefs many have about human development, a theory others now consider disproved. How transcendental was that theory, and how much subjective interpretation was involved in it? How much of the subjective interpretation derived from his inability to find the eel testicle fueled it? Put another way, did Freud ever reach a point where he began overcompensating for that initial failure?

Whether it’s an interpretive extension, or a direct reading of Freud’s theory, modern scientific research theorizes that most men want some form of sexual experience with another man’s testicles. This theory, influenced by Freud’s theories, suggests that those who claim they don’t are lying in a latent manner, and the more a man says he doesn’t, the more repressed his homosexual desires are.

The Williams Institute at UCLA School of Law, a sexual orientation law think tank, released a study in April 2011 that stated that 3.6 percent of males in the U.S. population are either openly gay or bisexual.[4] If these findings are even close to correct, this leaves 96.4 percent who are, according to Freud’s theory, closeted homosexuals in some manner. Neither Freud nor anyone else has been able to put even a rough estimate on the percentage of heterosexuals who harbor unconscious, erotic inclinations toward members of the same sex, but the very idea that the theory has achieved worldwide fame leads some to believe there is some truth to it. Analysis of some psychological studies on this subject provides the quotes, “It is possible … Certain figures show that it would indicate … All findings can and should be evaluated by further research.” In other words, no conclusive data and all findings and figures are vague. Some would suggest that these quotes are ambiguous enough that they can be used by those who would have their readers believe that most of the 96.4 percent who express contrarian views are actively suppressing their desire to not just support the view, but to actively involve themselves in that way of life.[5]

Some label Sigmund Freud as history’s most debunked doctor, but his influence on the field of psychology and on the ways society at large views human development and sexuality is indisputable. The greater question, as it pertains specific to Freud’s psychosexual theory, is was Freud a closet homosexual, or was his angle on psychological research affected by his initial failure to find eel testicles? To put it more succinct, which being’s testicles was Freud more obsessed with finding during his lifetime?

 

[1]https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Eel_life_history

 

[2]http://www.theguardian.com/environment/2010/oct/27/the-decline-of-the-eel

 

[3]http://www.nytimes.com/2006/04/25/health/psychology/analyze-these.html

 

[4]https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Demographics_of_sexual_orientation

 

[5]http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/pages/frontline/shows/assault/roots/freud.html

 

That’s Not Dirt


“In my professional opinion,” a plumber said. “I think we’re stuck.” The plumber said that after assuring me that a cranking mechanism on his truck would make “easy work” of snaking the sewer line of my home. He allowed that mechanism to snake the drain for about fifteen minutes. When that didn’t work, he attempted to assist the mechanism manually. He finally turned the mechanism off and attempted to perform the task manually.

I was impressed when the plumber informed me that his mechanism would make this a quick process, for that went against everything I heard. Everyone from the tree experts I talked to, to the plumber that snaked this drain before told me that the silver maple leaf was the worst possible tree a homeowner could have when it comes to plumbing. Our silver maple leaf was about sixty-feet tall, and the previous plumber informed me that that means it probably goes sixty feet down, “and as I’m sure you can guess, a sixty-foot tree does not go straight down. It builds itself a foundation by spreading outwards infiltrating whatever is in its way.” I told this current plumber this, but he insisted that his truck’s cranking mechanism would make easy work of this task.

“Just watch,” he said before flipping the switch on the crank.

The crank on the plumber’s truck did make some progress before we reached that point of being stuck. Evidence of that progress lined my basement in the form of piles of debris on newspapers throughout my basement. The debris consisted of numerous silver maple leaf’s twigs and some dirt that I assumed followed the twigs in the drain.

“Well,” I said, looking down at one of these piles. “It should be easier to work through since all the dirt is wet?”

“You’re kidding, right?” he said looking down at the same mound of debris. “There is some dirt in there, no doubt, but most of that is not dirt.”

I looked at him in confusion for about half a beat, until it dawned on me what he was saying. I colored with embarrassment for a moment. “Wait a second,” I said, “isn’t that what we’re supposed to have in there?”

“Sure,” he conceded, “but it’s not dirt.”

The plumber’s confidence turned out to be false bravado, as evidenced by the fact that the effort he put into trying to clear the drain physically drained him. His hopelessness led him to consider calling a professional colleague at one point, and he considered calling the home office for advice. “I hate to ask you this,” he said, “I’ve never done this before, and I’m sure my colleagues would frown at this, but could you help me?” After I agreed to do just that, he added, “I think the two of us could do this together, don’t you?” He put me on the lead, and he said he would also be pulling from behind. He then added, “I want you to pull as hard as you can, of course, but when I say stop. Stop.”

He asked me to look at him, and he repeated that line to make sure I understood the importance of stopping. I told him I would do as instructed. As I began to pull, however, I began making significant progress. It was obvious, at one point, that I was making more progress than a certified plumber had. I was proud. He was helping me to a point, but when I started making real progress, he stopped pulling from the back and said, “You’re getting it.” That led me to start pulling even harder.

I don’t know about anyone else, but when another fella tells me that I’m displaying feats of strength beyond his own, it invigorates me. When I’m outdoing a professional on his own profession, I try to live up to that compliment and expound upon it. As I sought to expound upon it, the primary source of our concern appeared in the sewer clean out fitting built into the wall of our basement. I was excited, I thought I was accomplishing something huge, but the plumber informed that working it through the fitting was often the hardest part. I had this in mind, coupled with the progress I made, when I began pulling for what I thought would be one last time. It wouldn’t happen on the first couple of pulls, as the entanglement popped up in and out of the fitting on the side of the wall like a ground squirrel taunting its tormentor.

After those first couple of tantalizing pulls failed, I let the snake go slack and regrouped for one final pull. I inhaled and grabbed ahold of snake line, and I put everything I had into one final pull.

“Stop!” the plumber shouted. He was too late.

The mass, that was not dirt, entwined with silver maple leaf twigs, finally made it through the fitting. Its release, combined with the force of my pull, caused me to fall backward until I was flat on my bottom. The result of that fall not only prevented the mass that was not dirt from hitting me, but it put me in a perfect position to watch the mass fly up over my head.

As anyone with a basic understanding of physics can guess, this did not happen in slow motion. It happened so fast that I didn’t see the glop hit the plumber in the face, and I didn’t have enough time to see if the plumber failed to duck in time, or if he accidentally ducked into it. Regardless what his reaction was, some of the glop that was not dirt landed on his nose and eyeglasses.

It took the plumber about two seconds to digest what happened. Once he did, the expletives flew. One of those expletives could adequately describe some of material in the glop that was not dirt, now on his face. He blamed me for not stopping when he told me to, he blamed himself for not calling in a professional colleague to assist him, and he displayed some anger at the world for a moment. Throughout this understandable tirade, the plumber did not wipe the glop from his face. He just stared at me, and with me, in mutual disgust for what just happened.

“This is, by far, the most disgusting thing that’s ever happened to me,” he said after he cooled down a little, “and I’m sure you can guess that this profession has provided me quite a list!” That was a good line, I thought, and I wasn’t sure if he valued good lines as much as I did, but I wondered if he allowed this glop to remain on his face, because he thought his appearance might enhance the comedic value of such a line.

I don’t know what he was thinking, or if I was assigning my values to his reaction, but my guess was his years spent as a plumber raised his tolerance level for that which others consider unspeakably disgusting. What I couldn’t understand, however, was his ability to stand there with that on his face without feeling embarrassed. I also couldn’t understand why wiping this glop off his face wasn’t an instinctual response. Whatever his reasoning, he continued to leave it on his face to deliver one last comedic line, “All I can say, and I never thought I’d be saying this, but I’m glad I need to wear glasses.” 

Unconventional Thinking vs. Conventional Facts


Raymond Skiles is a dumb guy. We both are. He did as poorly in school as I did, and we both tried to educate ourselves, after our school years, to try to catch up to those who were more engaged in their studies. Being a dumb guy was more state of mind than an absolute characteristic for us, and we spent the rest of our adult lives trying to escape the label. We shared so many characteristics at one point in our lives that some might call us similar. As such, we both fell prey to some bizarre ideas in our youth, but at some point in our respective timelines, we diverged.

The differences that emerged between the two of us can be explained in one simple scenario. If a used car salesman approached us, on separate occasions, with his persuasive sales techniques, we would both enter into the transaction believing that we were smarter and better equipped than a person who chose to become a used car salesman. I don’t know if there was an incident, or an accumulation of moments that led to some clarity on the matter, but at some point, I realized that I wasn’t half as bright as I thought I was. I realized that while I might now know more than the average person does about James Joyce, Fyodor Dostoevsky, and U.S. Presidents, that knowledge doesn’t do me any good the moment a guy in polyester leaps out from behind his balloons saying, “What do I have to do to get you into a car today?” I developed a technique that works for me. I run away.

Raymond Skiles, on the other hand, knows a thing or two about the techniques used car salesmen employ on unsuspecting customers. By reading alternative websites that warn potential clients about the tactics used car salesmen employ, Raymond believes he knows them, and that he can use that knowledge to defeat them at their game. “You just have to know who they are,” he says. “Once you know what he eats for breakfast, who he calls his family, and if he’s stepping out on his wife, you got him where he lives.”

Whereas I now recognize the limits of my intelligence the moment I set foot on a salesman’s home turf, Raymond considers it a challenge and a mark of his intelligence to outdo the man. I might over-estimate the craftiness of the average used car salesman, but if they are half as skilled in the art of persuasion as I fear most of them are, they will know who Raymond is. They might manage to flip the focus of their negotiations to an arena Raymond finds more pleasing. They might even compliment Raymond for the knowledge he has attained on the industry, and they might take a more honest and direct approach in their negotiations, and Raymond might end up paying more for the car than he intended.

In the battle between unconventional thinking and following traditional or conventional norms, unconventional thinking is far more seductive. The purveyors of unconventional information seduce us with the idea that they have different knowledge, as it pertains to having more knowledge than those who did better with traditional knowledge in school than we “dumb guys” did. The seeds of this seduction involve “dumb guys” believing that anyone who believes what “they” tell us is a sucker. 

When we hear conventional knowledge, we’re more apt to consider the source and frame it accordingly, and then fact check it. When we hear unconventional ideas, however, we have an instinctive, emotional attachment to them. Some part of us wants these ideas to be so true that we put our skepticism aside to embrace them, another part of us believes that unconventional knowledge is the result of healthy skepticism and therefore thoroughly vetted.

Some psychologists state that we must make a concerted effort to avoid falling prey to the allure of unconventional information. Those of us who fall prey to this desire want to have more knowledge, learn, over time, that quantity does not always equal quality. There are only so many facts on a given issue, and most of them fall into constructs that are comparatively boring. Alternative, unconventional avenues are so intriguing and sexy because they make us feel intelligent for arriving at a different take on an issue that our peers haven’t ever considered before.

We’ve all witnessed the effect this can have on people. “Where did you hear that?” they ask us, after we drop what they consider a surprising level of intellect on them. “I’ve never heard that before.” The tone of their voice, and the slight bit of awe on their face, can prove so intoxicating to dumb guys who didn’t do well in school that we spend the rest of our lives chasing that dragon. Some of these arguments are worth pursuing, but in my experience, most of them provide nothing more than provocative distractions and obfuscations from the core argument.

Finding out, later, that many of my intoxicating, alternative theories, based on unconventional information were wrong, provided another break between Raymond’s way of thinking and mine, as I realized that I preferred being correct over provocative. Conventional information, reported by conventional outlets, is not always true either of course, but in my experience, their batting average is far superior to the alternative outlets. Some don’t put as much value in this results-oriented approach, and they tend to place greater value in avoiding the word naïve, a label attached to those of us who believe everything we’re told.

In our discussions on a wide variety of topics, Raymond and I also found many differences between how we arrive at a conclusion. We both seek primary source information, corroborating evidence, and perhaps some opinion pieces to bolster our conclusions. At some point, however, I am “easily satisfied” with my findings, whereas Raymond digs deeper. Raymond knows when the subject of a topic is a piece is crud, and Raymond knows how a piece of crud thinks. He seeks explanations that detail the piece of crud’s motives in a way Raymond can understand. In Raymond’s search for absolute objectivity, he accidentally trips over a critical line between objectivity and subjectivity. He finds subjective speculation regarding the motives of the piece of crud that fit with his theories on the subject in question, and he uses them to develop theories that end up mostly autobiographical.

Alien Information

Police officers, working a beat, have a modus operandi (M.O.) they bring to their job, “Believe none of what you hear and half of what you see.” This is the ideal mindset for a law enforcement official working a beat. Is this M.O. ideal for a consumer of news, an employee who learns information regarding their employer, or a friend listening to another friend tell a story?

A high profile media personality once suggested that skepticism of the press undermines their authority, but the vaunted role the press plays in our republic should require them to combat constant, intense scrutiny, skepticism, and cynicism that makes them uncomfortable. Members of the media should conduct themselves in a manner that welcomes that from their audience and defeats it with a performance that leads to a solid record they can point to whenever anyone questions them. Wouldn’t the members of the media say the same thing of the subjects they cover?

There is a tipping point, however, when a healthy sense of skepticism creeps into a form of cynicism that believes “none of what I hear and half of what I see.” Such cynicism opens holes in the mind that allows other information to fill it.

As an individual who has an insatiable curiosity for a wide spectrum of thought regarding human behavior, I have had a number of friends introduce me to a wide array of alternative outlets. They introduce me to various definitions of human psychology through astrology, numerology, and witchcraft. Raymond Skiles introduced me to the idea that aliens from other planets could teach us a lot about ourselves.

Raymond provided me a collection of transmitted (or transmuted) messages that these superior beings sent to earthlings. As I read through the information he found, I found that the theme of these messages was that various bullet points of my philosophy were wrong. I found them somewhat humorous, but before I could entirely dismiss them, I learned that Raymond considered these messages proof that I was wrong. Although he didn’t say these words exactly, the import of his responses was that I could not argue against statements made by superior life forms.

The first question this skeptic would love to ask authors of human psychology, by way of alien scripture, is why do we assume that aliens from another planet are of a superior intellect? The collective thought, in certain quarters of human authority, suggests that not only is there intelligent life out there, but they’re more intelligent than earthlings can conceive. Even though we have no concrete proof that life exists outside our planet, at this point in our space explorations, it would be foolish to think that the only lifeforms in the universe are those that exist on Earth. If other lifeforms exist, however, we don’t know what form they take. (We assume they are humanoid in form and that they’re here for our water, but if they’re intelligent beyond our comprehension why haven’t they been able to develop a substitute for water, or an artificial way to preserve or increase their supply?) We also don’t know what concerns alien life forms have, or how they think, but we assume that all creatures have the same concerns. The one crucial nugget of information missing in these theories is that we know less than nothing about aliens. If we had some substantial proof that they exist, we could say we know nothing about them, but we don’t even know if they exist. With that in mind, any theories of alien intellectual superiority can only be rooted in the human inferiority complex.

What would be the point of worshiping a deity who had a level of intelligence equivalent to our own, and what would be the point of reporting on the transmissions from space if the aliens were not of a superior intellect who could teach us a lot about our way of life? My takeaway from this friend’s collection of transmitted (or transmuted) messages was that most of the alien transmissions submitted for the reader’s pleasure have an agenda that suspiciously aligns with the author of the work.

The next time an alien transmits a message that suggests humans are of equal or superior intellect, “We are in awe of the capabilities of your iPhone, and we have not found a way of replicating that technology in our labs,” will be the first time I take an alien transmission seriously. The next time an alien transmits a message that has something to do with a compliment regarding human technology in agricultural techniques, “We find the techniques developed by Monsanto awe-inspiring”, will be the first time I re-read an author’s interpretation of an alien transmission. One would think that a complex being would know that the best way to persuade another being is to surround criticisms with some compliments. Even if they have no emotions, in the manner most sci-fi movies depict them, it would only be logical for them to suggest that our life form managed to get some things right. What readers receive from aliens, instead, are warnings about our dystopian nature that suspiciously align with human politics.

What If?

“You’re problem is you have no room for if,” Raymond told me one day. “Numerous wonderful and beautiful people have brought us to where we are today by asking if questions, but you put a big old lid on if and lock it up.”

“I’ve cleared an entire warehouse out for if,” I say. “Give me an if!  

“I’ll give you a what-if?” I continued. “What if I told you that there was incontrovertible proof that your favorite conspiracy theory was wrong? Let’s say they discovered an unknown security tape that showed your favorite victim of the justice system pulling the trigger. I’m not saying he’s guilty, but have you ever considered that mind-blowing prospect before?”

The ifs and what ifs of unconventional information are so interesting that it’s challenging to read them and say, “They’re just wrong.” We pursue the angle, the speculative ideas regarding motive, and the idea that the purveyor of such knowledge is fighting against the man, or the status quo. Concerned parties watching such scenarios play out, might want to caution someone like Raymond from relying too much on these alternative sources of information. We might want to tell him that doing so could lead him to being vulnerable to half-truths and greater confusion.

When we try to caution them, however, they tell us that they’ve done massive amounts of research on this subject, and most people don’t know the truth. “I know I didn’t,” is something Raymond will say before he launches into one of his speculative theories. The questionable outlets he researches often feed his confirmation bias and leads him to believe he is more knowledgeable than those who ascribe to conventional truths, because he had massive amounts of different knowledge that he believes might eventually equal greater knowledge and truth.

Disciples of alternative knowledge also fail to focus on results. How many of their favorite outlets provide straight, verifiable points that pass peer review? How many of them can point to a verifiable track record of their assertions, as opposed to providing the anecdotal evidence that they promote? How many of their messages devolve into speculation regarding motives that no one can refute? How many of us are skeptical enough of the information that seems so right it has to be true?

Those of us who ascribed to unconventional thoughts at one point in our lives began to spot these plot holes for what they were, and we came to the uncomfortable conclusion that just because the information we hear is unconventional, alternative, and “what your father doesn’t want you to know” does not mean that it’s correct. We enjoyed the offspring of the counterculture for what it was. We thought they were so hip that our interest in their theories led some programmers to identify and capitalize on the purveyors of unconventional thinking, until those thoughts seduced us into incorporating them into our conventional thinking on some matters.

Whether it is cultural, social, or any other venue of thought, some people derive definition by fighting against the status quo, but we could say that the status quo is an ever-shifting focus that can lead to so many converting to such thoughts that those thoughts could eventually become status quo, conventional.

I no longer buy a book of unconventional thinking, or befriend an unconventional thinker, with the hope of having them change my mind on a subject. If their ideas persuade me to change my mind, that’s gravy, but I have learned that such thoughts, are often best used to challenge my current worldview, and/or bolster my arguments as I attempt to defeat them. I do not then write this with the intent of changing anyone else’s mind. I do enjoy, however, taking the conventional standpoint and melding it with the unconventional to arrive at what I consider a hybrid of the truth that neither party has considered before.

He Used to Have a Mohawk

My lifelong fascination with these different modes of thinking moved me to write a piece called He Used to Have a Mohawk. In this piece, I document the conventional thoughts some might have regarding an individual who decided to have his hair cut in a thin strip on his head. At one point in the main character’s life, he grew an eight inch mohawk, and at another point he dyed it blue. Conventional thinking suggests that he might deserve any ostracizing he receives. Unconventional or non-traditional modes of thought observe that there’s nothing wrong with a person who decides to shave their head in such a manner. This line of thought asks the observer to accept the mohawk wearer for who he or she is as a person. It also suggests that the conventional observer might discover the limits of their preconceived notions or conventional thoughts of a person, by finding out that a person who leaves a thin strip of hair on their head, grows it eight inches, and dyes it blue is actually a beautiful person inside. The approach I took, with this piece, combined the two modes of thought and examined them through the prism of a real-life character who used to have such a haircut.

What kind of person asks a stylist to cut their hair into a mohawk? What happens to them when they age and go back to having what we consider a more traditional haircut? Do they miss the altered perceptions they used to experience when they had a mohawk, or do they regret ever having the haircut in the first place?

One of my favorite critiques of this piece stated that the immediate components of this story could lead a reader to find impulsive, emotional offense, until they re-read the piece to carefully understand the complex subtext of the piece through deep analysis. “I like the way you take a mohawk and turn it into something greater than just a simple hairstyle. You give it character that I feel not many others could appreciate,” Amanda Akers wrote.

No matter where the reader stands on the conventional fulcrum of this subject, they must acknowledge that an individual who asks to have their hair cut into a mohawk does so to generate reactions, or different reactions, more than a person with a more traditional haircut might invite on any given day. Some would say that mohawk wearers generate unwanted attention for themselves by wearing such a haircut, but others could say that no attention is unwanted for some.

Another mohawk wearer surprised me one day by wearing it to a Halloween party. I told him that I enjoyed his costume, but he told me it wasn’t a costume. It was his hairdo. When I asked him further, more prodding questions, he said, “I wear my hair flat in the office, but I wear it up when I go out.”

If a mohawk wearer detested those who judge them for such a haircut, he or she could just allow the hair to lay flat. They don’t, I pose, because they enjoy detesting straight-laced people who will never understand them as a person. They also enjoy the bond they have with those that sympathize with their plight, and they bathe in the sheer number of reactions they’ve received since they made the decision to wear a mohawk.

I met the main character, who used to have a mohawk, at his wedding. After the wedding was over, the groom’s best man and the bridesmaid both stated, in their toasts, that they wanted to get to know the groom who used to have a mohawk, when he had the mohawk, in part because he had a mohawk. As they learned more about him, to their apparent dismay, they discovered that he was a nice man. As an uninformed bystander, I considered the shock they displayed that a man with a mohawk could be nice, a little condescending. We could view a traditional thinker’s views of a person who has a mohawk as condescending, as they might make generalizations about mohawk wearers, and they might stereotype them. Listening to these toasts, I heard sympathetic souls, who I presumed aligned with unconventional thinking, sound just as condescending as one who might generalize or stereotype. The only distinction was that they were trying to ingratiate themselves to the groom, but I still found it just as condescending.

The groom appeared to bathe in all of it. I watched this man react to these toasts, and I couldn’t tell if he considered it a mark of his character that he had befriended people regardless of the haircut, or if he missed the reactions that he used to generate when he had the mohawk, but my money was on the latter.

The point, as I see it, is that we should maintain a level of skepticism for anything we see and hear, but those who put so much energy into unconventional thoughts often end up more confused on a given subject than enlightened. Forming a hybrid of sorts, is the ideal plane for one to reach as it suggests that while we should remain skeptical in nature, we should also maintain an equal amount of skepticism for enlightened, unconventional thoughts. Yet, as I write, we deem unconventional information to be the result of skepticism thereby granting it immunity from a ledger that scores thoughts, theories, and ideas.

FOBF: The Fear of Being Foolish

Most people hate being wrong, but we’re willing to concede to the idea that we’re going to be wrong some of the times. What we cannot abide is the idea that we’re wrong so often that somebody will consider us a fool. How many rhetorical devices, tactics, and persuasive techniques have we developed over the years to avoid being called a fool? One thing we know is that people who believe in nouns (people, places, and things) are more vulnerable to the charge of being a fool, and we seek foolproof status. Due to the fact that most alternative thoughts are rarely shown to be substantially incorrect, unconventional thinkers are shielded against ever being called a fool. On the off chance that they are incorrect, they might make slight adjustments in their presentation to incorporate the newfound facts, but most of them just move on.

“They just move on?” we asked our friend who told us about her unconventional parents. We’ve all been wrong so often that we’re familiar with the humiliation of being so wrong that we’re laughable. We all have friends and family who are eager to call us out on our errors, and we know that they won’t allow us to just move on, not until they’re done churning us over the spit. Even then, some of them hold onto it for years. When we pose a notion or theory, they say, “Aren’t you the guy who believed … ?”

Our friend told us that her parents “latched onto just about every conspiracy theory and unconventional notion they ever heard.” She said that when the facts rolled out, and they were proven incorrect, they just moved onto the next one.

“So, when the rest of us are proven wrong, we have to deal with the ramifications that come our way, but when your parents are wrong, they just move onto the next conspiracy theory? How do they do that?”

“They just do,” she said.

She informed me that her parents were prophets of doom, as the millennium neared. They were handing out pamphlets and grain pellets at their church. They believed something would happen on 9/9/99, and when it didn’t, they moved onto the millennium. When nothing happened on 1/1/2000, they suggested that we all miscalculated the Aztec calendar, and that the day of doom still awaited us sometime in the near future. She said they listed a specific date, based on specific criteria, but she didn’t remember the exact date, because she knew they would just move on after that date passed. She knew they would just move onto the next date of doom to some day in the all too near future.

Most of us know, firsthand, the humiliation of being so wrong on an issue that our friends won’t value our assessments in the future. If we staked our personal reputation on a prediction of this sort, and it passed without event, we would be mortified. After being wrong numerous times, these parents were out, at the next date of doom, passing out pamphlets and grain pellets.

We don’t know what drives common, every day people to partake in doom-saying, but it probably has something to do with the idea that the track record of alternative, unconventional information is somehow immune to criticism. It is foolproof, because the alternative is believing what the ever elusive “they” tell you to believe.

If in the course of them trying to warn us, we were to call these parents out on their track record, they might turn the tables on us, “How can you be so sure that it won’t happen this time?” 

We can’t be sure, of course, because we are insecure beings who falter in the face of certitude. We’ve also watched too many movies where no one believed the sexy actor who knew something no one else in the production did, and we don’t want to be portrayed by the overweight, unattractive character actor who didn’t believe. They frame this question in a probing, “Who do you think you are?” manner that asks us how many times we’ve been wrong before, and if we’re willing to wager that we know more about this than their list of experts do.

Dumb guys who fell prey to believing far too many alternative, unconventional, and conspiracy theories were so relieved to read some psychologists write that we must all make a concerted effort to avoid falling prey to this type of seduction, because it suggests that we’re all susceptible to their siren calls. Our grades in school haunt us to this day, and we will use any excuse we can find to declare that we’re not as dumb as we think we are. When someone comes along and basically writes that the siren call of these theories are so alluring that all of us must proactively keep our susceptibility in the “off” position, it lends credence to the “shame on you for fooling me” portion of the idiom. As long as we maintain the “off” position to prevent the shame from doubling back on us in the future. Though the psychologists’ conclusion does not absolve us of the idea that we once believed a wide variety of crazy theories and loony conspiracy theories, we do find some comfort in numbers.

Maintaining this “off” position is not easy, and it is not our intent to suggest that we woke up one day deciding that we were no longer going to believe alternative ideas loaded with unconventional information that can lead to conspiracy theories. It wasn’t any easier for us to avoid their interesting and thought-provoking theories. We simply put forth constant and diligent effort to defeat our susceptibility in this arena. Tune out, turn on, and defeat is the credo we use anytime we encountered sexy, enticing pieces that lead to emotional reactions. Current and future stories such as those are as difficult to ignore as all the previous ones were, but after mentally charting all of their hypothetical guesses, based on alternative thinking that many considered unconventional, we were finally able to break the leash.