Yesterday I Learned … IV


Yesterday, I learned that taste is so relative that it must be impossible to make any money trying to appeal to it. “If you want to write a best seller,” experts say, “read through some books already on the list. If you want to make a living at this game, you need to know the trends.” The word flavor should have a capitalized ‘f’ attached to it in this article, for it focuses on the wide spectrum of taste. Food and drink have a flavor of course, but so do music, literature, and all of the arts in the sense that some of it creates the same but different tingles in the brain.

Today, I watched a gorilla at the zoo have what appeared to be a brain-tingling moment when he removed some dung from the anus of another gorilla. I might be assigning human emotions to the gorilla when I write this, but soon after eating the concoction, the gorilla closed his eyes. I thought he was taking a moment out of his day to savor whatever that other gorilla ate and whatever flavor that other gorilla’s digestive system added to it. The elongated, almost spiritual closing of the eyes might have been a coincidence, but I thought the gorilla enjoyed the concoction so much that he wanted to savor this moment before going back to the dispenser. There was a full tray of food awaiting the gorilla, in the southeast corner of his enclosure, but he preferred going to the dispenser before him. Watching that gorilla go back for more, I realized that individual tastes are so relative to the flavors we create that it’s pointless to try to fashion our work in such a way that it pleases everyone. We can only create whatever it is we create from our own dispensaries and hope that others enjoy it for what it is.  

Yesterday, I realized those gorillas defined for me one of the most unusual and successful pairings in music history: Ben Folds and William Shatner. I enjoy the music of Ben Folds, and I’ve been a fan of his for a long time, but there is some element inherent in his music that keeps it from being listed in that “my music” category for which all artists pine. If I informed Folds how frustrated I am, that he comes so close to reaching me, I’m sure he wouldn’t care. Not only would he not care, he shouldn’t care. He should probably say that’s on you. I can only do what I do. I can’t worry about offending you, or pleasing you. I can only do what I do. If it pleases enough people that I can make a living at this game, that’s great, but I’m not going to change what I do to please you or Betty Beatle from Idaho.  

Similarly, William Shatner is not one of “my guys” either, but he’s always around. He’s the green bean casserole of the entertainment world. I doubt anyone who hasn’t tried green bean casserole looks at it and thinks, “Yum!” but it’s at so many family get togethers and potluck dinners that we eventually “what the hell” it, until we discover it’s not so bad. As long as we don’t overdo it, repetition can lead to a level of fondness for it, until we look forward to the next get together or potluck dinner that has a tray of it.

When Folds and Shatner teamed up on an album called Has Been, however, it also reminded me of one of my favorite concoctions: granola and yogurt. On its own, banana flavored yogurt is too sweet, and while cranberry granola product is tasty, I wouldn’t purchase it as a standalone. When I put the two together, however, I enjoy it so much that I’ve considered submitting it to the overlords as my reward for living a decent, moral life. When I pass on, I want to meet my long-deceased relatives of course, and I wouldn’t mind it if someone wanted to play me a Brahams Sonata on the harp, but if they’re wondering how best to reward for a life well lived, might I suggest that the floors and walls of my reward taste like the banana-flavored yogurt and cranberry granola concoction I created.

When we eat concoctions like these, we spoon too much of one flavor most of the times. Some of the times, we spoon too much yogurt, and some of the times, we spoon too much granola, but there are occasions, at least once a container, when we hit a Goldilocks spoonful. The album Has Been is the Goldilocks concoction of music for me, and when I listen to it, I close my eyes to savor the moment. I’ve listened to that album so often that I’ve tried listening to other concoctions, but they rarely hit the mark in the same manner. On their own, Shatner and Folds created interesting, quality material that doesn’t quite hit that brilliant, Holy Crud! mark, but together they created a quality, Goldilocks moment. I would think that such moments are so fleeting them that they would want to dispense another collaboration, but perhaps they don’t think they can create another Goldilocks moment, or perhaps they don’t want to overdo it.  

Yesterday, I thought I had a universal sense of humor. Today, I realized that most appreciation for humor is conditional and polite. If our audience is predisposed to find us disagreeable, they will not laugh at anything we say. Humor and laughter also involves a certain quid pro quo agreement that calls for us to laugh at their attempts at humor. If we fail to live up to our end of the agreement, they will not even laugh politely at our attempts to be humorous. Toddlers and other kids are not a part of this agreement. Kids are the very definition of honesty, and they have no agendas, especially the ones we’ve never met. If we’re behind one in our local Wal-Mart, we might try out our best “baby laugh” material to see what kind of reaction we receive. They will turn away at some point, but if nothing else distracts them, we’ll get a second glance followed by a reaction. If we don’t get a second look, or a subsequent reaction, we can go ahead and assume that we’re probably are not as funny, or as charismatic as the polite and conditional reactions led us to believe.

Yesterday, I thought people people were so unusual. “I’m just a people person,” they might say when we ask them why they enter a business enterprise just to chat with some of the employees. “I don’t know why, I just like being around a lot of people.” Today, I found the term people person an unusual, accepted description healthy men, and women, use to describe themselves. We all enjoy speaking with other people, we do it all day, but some people go out of their way for some quality conversation. 

When I was much younger, I hung around my friend’s liquor store, and I worked in restaurants, and hotels. I saw a wide array of people people who walk into an establishment and just start talking to whomever would speak with them. These people “stick around” for a chat that can last hours. They even endure long lulls, hoping that some provocative conversation will weave its way through it all. They just stand there silently, trying to think up something interesting to say. My first thought was that these conversations sprang up in a more organic manner, until my friend said:

“Nope! He stops in here, every other day, and talks my ear off about the most inane stuff.”

Some men would walk into the restaurant where I worked, alone, and ask for a table in their favorite waitress’ station. Most of them didn’t have a newspaper or anything to busy themselves while they waited for her to chat with them. They usually entered after the breakfast rush and before the lunch crowd, so the waitress would have a couple of minutes to chat.

“Why do you stop and chat with these guys who seem to be a little creepy,” I asked one of the waitresses.

“You can tell he doesn’t have anyone,” she said, “and he’s harmless … trust me. Plus, he adds a couple bucks to the tip when I take the time to chat with him.”

I thought they were wrong. I thought they underestimated these guys. I didn’t want anything to happen to them. They were my friends. I was wrong. I over-estimated these guys. They were, in fact, harmless, insofar as nothing ever happened in my time there. These men weren’t just alone in life, they were lonely, and they had holes in their soul. Some of them were old, but most of them were men in their prime who would get dressed up, perhaps sprinkle on a little cologne, and get regular, fashionable haircuts for the purpose of fostering the belief that they might have a chance to spend some quality time, between the breakfast crowd and the lunch crowd, to speak to young, attractive girls.

If the traveling businessmen who frequented our hotel were lucky enough to time their entrance into our hotel, so that one of the cute, young women on staff checked them in, they would remain at the front desk long after their check in was complete. They just wanted to chat with some young women, and hopefully make them laugh a couple times. I intervened in these conversations multiple times, but they made it clear they had no interest in speaking to me. They weren’t rude, but I was obviously not the purpose of their chats.

“So how you doing?” they would ask these women with all of the urgency removed from their voice. They, too, were harmless individuals who just wanted someone to speak with young women. Most of them didn’t want to date these girls, or see them in varying stages of undress. They just wanted to chat. They wanted these girls to think they were people people. They were so alone that they just wanted a couple of minutes of that girl’s time to break up the quiet, tedious monotony of their lives, and have just one attractive, young female on God’s green earth say:

“Hank Schwertley, how are you doing? How’s that God forsaken Cutlass Supreme holding up for you?”

Business needs often ended these conversations abruptly, and when they interrupted the conversations, I could see the beaming smiles on the customers’ faces collapse. Their face went back into the more customary expression of fatigue, sadness, and loneliness that the muscles in their face were used to supporting.

The customers at the hotels and restaurants appeared to be normal men, with normal and pleasant dispositions, and it seemed impossible to me that they couldn’t get some woman to pay consistent enough attention to fill that gap they needed filling.

“You want to be a traveling salesman?” one of these men, a traveling salesman who stayed at our hotel so often I knew his whole life story said when I expressed some polite, conversational interest in his profession. “The first thing you’ll need to do is forget about ever having a family,” he said. When I asked why, he added that, “It would be unfair to any woman, much less the children you produce, to be on the road about 200 hundred days a year.” My shock was obvious in his expression, as he sought to lessen the blow, but he could not redefine the impact of his statement. Prior to his cautionary description, I considered this man a successful, self-defined man. After it, I saw how lonely he was. From that point forward, I realized he was a second fiddle. I finally saw him as the Stan Laurel, Bud Abbot character he was, who bounced off the more charismatic centerpiece of the conversation. Even in the polite, time-filling conversations we had with him at the front desk of the hotel, this man was always a second fiddle.

When we have such conversations with the people who orbit our lives, they remind us how fortunate we are to have people who enjoy being around us. I’ve felt lonely before, but I’ve never felt so alone that I went into an establishment just to speak to someone for five minutes.

Who are these people, and what do they do in life to gain some separation from the lives they selected. They want moments in life to help them make it to Thursday, and they want to find someone to notice them long enough to achieve some level of companionship, even if it’s only for five minutes. My experience in the service industry also taught me that they are a lot more common than most people think.

Yesterday, I Learned … III


Yesterday, I thought carnivores in the wild were mean bad guys. The cartoons we watched when we were young depicted lions, sharks, alligators, and bears with such jagged teeth and menacing growls that we all thought they were the bad guys of the wild. As we often do, we confused being scary with being mean or bad. Today I learned that they’re not mean, or bad, they’re just hungry, and like all other animals, they eat when they’re hungry. What they do to their prey, when they eat, might appear scary, but they’re not mean or evil in the manner we define such terms. Regardless what it does to their reputation as a wonderful, beautiful animal, wolves enjoys eating fluffy bunny wabbits. Today I learned that they don’t select their prey based on who’s naughty and nice.

Yesterday I learned that even if the animals at the top of the food chain are not the meanies we thought they were when we were kids, we should still consider doing everything we can to avoid one in the wild. After watching videos that contain animals biting humans, nature lovers qualify it by saying, “We are not on their diet.” The nature lovers then provide a number of theories regarding how these particular incidents often involve nothing more than a case of mistaken identity. These theories are true, of course, as most animals in the wild or in the ocean have never witnessed a human, and self-preservation is more important to animals than eating in most cases. Most of the time, most animals will pass on anything unfamiliar if they think they could get hurt in the process. Some of the times, they’re so hungry that they’re willing to eat anything that moves, especially if it moves slower than other prey.

Most animals don’t know what a human is, and that’s why they fear us, but we are also a point of curiosity for them too. Thus, when they see us walking around in their domain, or floating on the surface, they’re curious, and that curiosity is almost exclusive to considering whether they should consider adding us to their diet. Yet, seeing, hearing, and smelling something unfamiliar might not be enough to satisfy their curiosity, and they obviously cannot communicate with us, so their last resort is to try tasting us to try to figure out what we are to see if they might want to start adding us to their diet.

The nature lovers further their argument by opening up the belly of a bull shark. “When we open up the belly of a bull shark, we find everything from license plates to cans of paint to packs of cigarettes. They’ll eat anything they see floating on the surface of the water, even if it is a human on a surfboard.” Translation: They do not intend to devour us. They’re just curious. They just want to taste us to see what we are. I see them working here. I know they’re trying to relieve our fears about sharks, and in turn preserve the shark population, and I know wild animals are not bad or mean in the context humans define the terms, but it does not comfort me to know that all they want to do is taste me. If I happen upon one of these carnivorous beasts, and it’s clear that all they want to do is taste me, I’m still going to do whatever I can to get away. If that fails, I’m probably going to shoot it, because I have to imagine that even though they’re just tasting me, it’s still going to hurt like the dickens.

Yesterday I learned that I’m an old fogey. I don’t use hip, chic, or en vogue terms when I’m excited. My vocabulary consists of phrases I’ve said my whole life, and I’m old now, so some of my terms are outdated. Today, I tried using what others consider modern terminology, and I decided I don’t mind being an old fogey.    

Yesterday I learned that conventional wisdom plus uniformity equals conformity.

Yesterday I learned that the basis for our confusion with most people is a result of assigning our thoughts and thought patterns to them. It’s a little easier to spot when we do it to animals and kids, but some of the times, we accidentally do it to adults. Our world is all about our viewpoints and patterns, whether we care to admit it or not. Everyone we know thinks the same way we do, and they act the way we act. When others follow the first two steps of our process, we’re confused when they take a different third step. Today, I realized that to understand other people we need to remove ourselves from the equation. By doing so, we might minimize our confusion by learning how, and why, others think the way they do. It’s not as simple as it sounds, but it’s not that complicated either.

Yesterday, I learned to judge not lest ye be judged, and that we should be careful not to judge others until we put ourselves in their shoes. In other words, try to think as others might in a given situation. The problem with ridding our lives of all judgment is that we’re defining and redefining our own sense of morality on a perpetual basis. If we were in the same situation as the subject of the story, would we act in the same immoral way? Nobody wants to have another accuse them of being a hypocrite, but we have to learn from our errors and the errors of others. If we absolve others of immoral acts, is it our goal to receive the same absolution from them? Lady luck plays a role for some of us, as we’ve been able to avoid humiliation and tragedy. Perhaps we should amend the line and say, “We should use the lessons others learn to enhance our own life, but we should not judge them too harshly when they choose a different path, or end up on a different one due to circumstances they either can’t control or have trouble doing so.”

Yesterday, I learned that a huge corporation paid very little in taxes. Today, I learned that we should all be upset about this. Why do we care what anyone else, corporation or otherwise, pays in taxes? Why do we care what another person pays at a restaurant, in a drug store, or at a casino? It’s none of our business. If this corporation did something illegal, the IRS and the market will punish them, but if that doesn’t occur, the matter should be between the taxpayer and the IRS. Most of the critics qualify their disgust with, “I’m not suggesting that the corporation did anything illegal, but c’mon.” Unless we’re shareholders, or prospective shareholders, we shouldn’t care how much the corporation is worth, what kind of profits they make, or how much they pay in taxes. Nobody is saying that corporations shouldn’t report their tax returns, or that the media shouldn’t publish those records, but the general sense of outrage seems misguided. Rather than focus our outrage on the percentage of taxes a corporation pays, we should redirect the focus of our outrage on the percentage of our taxes that the federal government wastes, in fraud and abuse.

The inference critics make is that either the corporation cheated in some way, or the IRS turns a blind eye when it has the taxes of Big Corporations before them. Anyone who knows anything about the public sector versus private sector mentality knows that public sector lawyers and accountants pine for the day when they can beat a team of private sector tax lawyers and accountants at the game. The corporation’s accountants and lawyers also know that any attempt they make to cheat or defraud the government will form the lede of every news outlet and do great damage to the reputation of the corporation. Until someone can show us how anyone paying more in taxes benefits us, or the country, we should ignore these stories, because they’re none of our business. These stories are largely between the corporation and the IRS.

Yesterday I learned … II


1) Yesterday, I learned that some love to hug, and they hug so long that it starts to feel weird. We can feel the message they want to convey. We know that they want to tell us that they’re fond of us, that they miss us, and that they want to strengthen the bond we once had, but in the midst of trying to create that moment, some overdo it. ‘Why are we still doing this?’ we ask ourselves while in the embrace. ‘Is this becoming more meaningful to them, or did they lose themselves in the moment? Would it be impolite if I started patting their shoulder here to signify that this is over for me? Why are we still hugging? They didn’t fall asleep did they?’

Today, I learned that a hug is not just a hug. For a greater portion of my life, the hug was largely indigenous to the female gender. We knew males who hugged. We called them “huggers”, as in, “Watch out for that one, he’s a hugger.” At some point, a shift started to happen. Suddenly, men were hugging each other to say hello, to celebrate their favorite team’s touchdown, and to say goodbye. No one knows when this shift started, but I blame the NBA. We teenagers could distance ourselves and mock the huggers we knew, but NBA stars were the essence of cool in the late 80’s-early 90’s. When they hugged, it took an arrow out of our quiver. For these NBA players, a hug was nothing more than a physical form of saying hello. It was a step above a wave or a handshake, but to us, it was a deep and meaningful physical embrace. We didn’t have anything deep and meaningful to convey to our friends. Others did, and they appreciated the NBA influence. They took these “hello” hugs to another level.

“We’re cousins,” huggers would say. “Cousins don’t shake hands. Cousins hug. Get in here bro.” Some of them even embraced us when it hadn’t been that long since our last hug. Their hugs were so deep and meaningful that they thwarted our attempts to break free. Their hugs bordered on combative. “I think the world of you bra.” We non-emotional, non-huggers learned to adapt to the need others have to hug, but we never fully embraced it, and they could feel it. They adapted to our adaptation. “All right, I won’t hug ya’,” they would say, and they stopped, and we sighed in relief, until we were the only ones they didn’t hug. We never wanted back in, but we recognized the strange way abstinence makes the heart grow fonder.

2) Yesterday I learned that “a little after three” can mean 3:23. In what world is 3:23 a little after three? When I hear a little after three, I think 3:01-3:10. Anything after that should be a little more vague, such as “after three”. The next time block, the 3:23 time block, should list at “around three-thirty”. Today, I learned that we become more aware of time constraints and the relative definition of time blocks when a six-year-old is tugging at our sleeve.    

3) Yesterday, I learned that pop culture defines deviancy upward by defining any actions a criminal uses to evade law enforcement as those of a criminal mastermind. True crime authors characterize actions such as wiping fingerprints off door handles as brilliant. When compared to most impulsive, criminal acts, perhaps it’s worth noting when a criminal puts some thought into their criminal activity, but I’m not sure if I would call them brilliant criminal masterminds. If we take a step back from our desire to view them as brilliant, we might see that their methods are relatively mundane, based on information available to anyone with a TV and access to the internet. Today, I learned that criminals don’t want to get caught. They want to be free, and they want to be free to continue to hurt, maim, and kill as many people as they can. The Unabomber, for example, enjoyed the characterization of a secluded genius with a cause, but court documents of his trial reveal that he was “often unconcerned” with his targets. They reveal that he was meticulous about the construction of his bombs, and he went to great lengths to avoid capture, but he didn’t really care who the victim was as long as he maimed or killed someone. He basically wanted to shower in whatever rained down upon him in his elaborate fireworks show.    

4) Yesterday, I learned that criminal masterminds need a cause to justify their actions. They might not be able to justify their actions to anyone but themselves, but they do seek the satisfaction a cause provides. No self-respecting criminal mastermind would say that they did it, because they enjoy hurting, maiming, and killing people. That would diminish their value, their self-esteem, and their historic value. Today I learned that criminal psychologists say that we learn more from their initial crimes than those that follow, because impulses drive those initial crimes. If this is true, we find that most criminal masterminds are petty people who resolve internal and external, disputes in a violent manner. They also have a bloodlust, and as this bloodlust escalates the need for a cause escalates, until they slap a sticker on their actions to satisfy those questions we have about why they did it. It strikes me that everything these criminal masterminds say is window dressing to conceal their simple, primal bloodlust. They want to put a cause on it, because we want the cause. It wouldn’t be very satisfying, or entertaining, if a mass murderer, or serial killer said, “I just had some basic psychological, primal need to hear people scream.” No matter how many causes we assign to people hurting people, the simple truth is that some of us enjoy hurting people, and the rest of us enjoy reading and watching everything we can about it.

5) Yesterday, I learned that bad boys fascinate us. Some of us want to know more about them than otherwise peaceful, normal individuals who accomplish great things. On a corresponding scale, too many of us want to know about the minutiae of the Unabomber’s actions, the motivations, and the aftermath of his terror, and too few of us, by comparison, are as fascinated by the actions and motivations behind Leonardo da Vinci’s artistic output. We label them both brilliant in their own, decidedly different ways, but the Unabomber fascinates us more. Today, I learned that I’m no different. Most of the people who fascinated me in my youth had violent tendencies. Some of my friends in high school, and some of my parents’ friends had violent tendencies on a much lower scale of course, but they fascinated me. I found their ways hilarious and engaging. Is this human nature, or do some elements of our culture encourage this mindset? Most of our favorite critically acclaimed movies have something to do with some low life committing violent acts. When someone found out that I listed the simple, feel good movie Forrest Gump among my favorite movies, they asked, “Why?” with a look of disdain. When I told her that I thought it was a great story, that didn’t help my cause. When I told her all of the others I had one my list that mollified her, but she still couldn’t understand why I would list a feel good movie like Gump among them. Today, I learned that the fascination with violence is universal and cool. 

6) Yesterday, I learned that I’m no longer interested in writing about politics. Today, I realized that I am far more interested in the psychology behind why every day citizens decide to become so political that they’re willing to create a divide between those who think like them and those who don’t.

7) Yesterday, I learned that psychologists state that we have a “God spot” in our brain. Today, I realized that this spot is inherently sensitive to the belief in something, if the rational brain accepts the rationale for doing so. This view suggests that the brain needs belief in a manner similar to the stomach needing food. We seek explanations and answers to that which surround us. Some of us find our answers in God and religion and others believe answers lie in a more secular philosophy, and the politicians who align themselves with our philosophy. They seek a passionate pursuit of all things political, until it becomes their passion, because they need something to believe in.   

8) Yesterday, I learned that there were as many differing opinions about Calvin Coolidge, in his day, as there are our current presidents. Today, I realized that no one cares about the opinions opinion makers had 100 years ago, and few will care about what our current opinion makers write 100 years from now. Some of those writers passionately disagreed with some of Coolidge’s successes, and history exposed some of their ideas as foolish. The historical perspective also makes those who passionately agreed with Coolidge seem boring and redundant. Once a truth emerges, in other words, it doesn’t matter what an opinion maker thought of the legislation at the time. Most opinion writers are less concerned with whether legislation proves effective or not, and more concerned with whether their philosophical views win out. In one hundred years, few will remember if our political, philosophical, or cultural views were correct or not, and even fewer will care. Yet, some of us believe in politics, because politics gives us something to believe in.

9) Yesterday, I learned that Tim Cook is an incredible, conventional CEO of Apple. Former Apple CEO, Steve Jobs, was the company’s incredible, unconventional leader, and he helped build the company from scratch. Steve Jobs was a brilliant orator, a showman, a marketer, and a great motivator of talent. If we went to an It’s a Wonderful Life timeline, in which Steve Jobs never existed, Apple wouldn’t exist. I had a 200-word list of superlatives describing Steve Jobs, but I decided to delete it, because it didn’t add any new information we know about the man and what he did. I decided to leave it at those two sentences. Better, superlative descriptions of the man, and what he did, are all over the internet. Walter Isaacson’s book might be the best of them. Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak created and oversaw a team of talent that created the most innovative company of our most innovative era of America, but Tim Cook has proven to be an incredible steward of that technology. If we flipped the timeline around, and Tim Cook was the first CEO, Apple wouldn’t be the innovator it is today, but I wonder if the less conventional and more mercurial measures Jobs employed would translate to the same consistent levels of growth of Apple we see today under Cook.    

10) Yesterday, I learned that Apple’s stock was ready to fall. Anyone who reads independent analyses from stock market analysts thinks that not only is the smartphone market capped out, but Apple’s position atop this industry is also nearing an end. Reading through some of the analysis of Apple’s projections for their various quarterly reports through the years, we arrive at some common themes. “There’s no way the iPhone (insert number here) can deliver on the projected sales figures Apple is promising,” they write. “Everyone who wants an iPhone already owns one, and numbers show they’re not going to upgrade. Those who don’t want an iPhone are loyal to another brand. The market is saturated, and Apple’s reign is about to end.” Today, I learned these analysts began making such predictions years after Apple began controlling the market between 2008 and 2012. Some of the times they were right, in the sense that Apple missed some quarterly projections, but most of the time they were wrong. Some think that there might be an anti-Apple bias, and there might be, but I think it’s human nature to cheer on the little guy and despise the big guy. I also think analysts/writers want us to read their articles, and the best way they’ve found to do so is to feed into our love of doom and gloom. These stories have a natural appeal to anyone who owns Apple products, Apple shareholders, and everyone else in between, because we love the prospect of the leaning tower. Apple will fall too, for what goes up must come down, particularly in the stock market, but the question of when should apply here. After it falls, one of the doomsayers will say, “I’ve been predicting this would happen for years.”

“Fair enough, but how many times did you make this prediction? How many times were you wrong? How many times did a reader act on your assessment and miss some gains? Nobody asks the doomsayer analysts these questions, because most of us don’t call doomsayers out when they’re wrong. The answer to this question was that on 2/3/2010, Apple stock closed at 28.60 a share, adjusted for dividends and stock splits, per Yahoo Finance. If one of the doomsayer analyst’s customers purchased 35 shares for a total investment of $1,001.00 that investment would be worth $11,170.60 on 2/4/2020. Anyone who invests in the stock market relies on expert analysis to know when to buy and when to sell. We consider the positive assessments and the negative, and some of the times, it takes an iron stomach to read the negative and ignore it. These negative stock analysts had all the information the others had, and yet they consistently predicted Apple would fall, because they knew a negative headline would generate a lot more hits than a positive one.

In our scenario, Apple experiences a significant fall in stock price, and the analyst finally proved prophetic. How many times were they wrong in the interim? It doesn’t matter, because a doomsayer need only be right once, for they can then become the subject of email blasts that state, “The man who correctly predicted Apple’s downfall, now predicts the fall of another behemoth.” The penalties for incorrectly predicting doom and gloom are far less severe than incorrectly predicting good times ahead. The former doesn’t cost you anything except potential gains, which most people inherently blame on themselves, regardless what anyone says. There’s the key, the nut of it all, an analyst can predict doom and gloom all day long, and no one will blame them for trying to warn us, but a positive analysis that is incorrect could cost us money.

The prospect of investing our hard-earned money in something as mercurial as the stock market is frightening. We’ve all heard tales of the various crashes that occur, and we know it will occur again. Most of us need Sherpas to guide us through this dangerous, dark, and wild terrain, and most of them are quite knowledgeable and capable. There are a few who will tell you that it’s so dangerous that you should get out now, and some might even tell us that it’s so dangerous that we shouldn’t even consider making the journey. Those with an iron stomach will tell us that we can get rich working for money, but we can get filthy, stinking rich when our money is working for us.  

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

 

Octopus Nuggets II


Octopus Nuggets I discussed some unusual characteristics of our favorite cephalopod, including the idea that two thirds of the octopuses brain are in their arms, the manner in which the three hearts of an octopus operate, some stories of their reproductive process, and the near-unprecedented loyalty a mother octopus extends to her offspring. We also discussed the ink cloud defense, and the fascinating pseudomorph the octopus creates when, presumably, a simple ink cloud doesn’t confuse the predator enough. If any of these characteristics fascinate the reader, I suggest they read that post first, as this second installment is more of an extension on the more elementary discussion on the characteristics of the octopus.

Image courtesy of Cool Facts for Kids

With the recent and largely refuted click-bait story that the octopus may have originated on another planet, my interest in the octopus was reborn. A word of caution here, the information in this second installment may blow your mind. I’m not going suggest that the reader take a seat, as I am biologically predisposed to avoiding clichés of this stripe, but if anything happens to anyone while reading the final third of this piece, I hereby absolve myself of all responsibility if you’re not already seated.

Most who love stories regarding the surprisingly complex brain of the octopus have heard the myriad of stories regarding the ability the octopus has to figure puzzles out and escape the best, most secure aquariums, and the tales of SCUBA divers playing hide and seek with an octopus. A writer for Wired, Katherine Harmon Courage, has presumably heard the same stories, and she has an interesting, provocative idea for why we should continue to explore the octopus for more stories though more research, as they might prove instrumental in developing a greater understanding of the human mind.

“If we can figure out how the octopus manages its complex feats of cognition, we might be closer to discovering some of the fundamental elements of thought –and to developing new ideas about how mental capacity evolved.”

As stated in the first installment, the octopus has more neurons in its arms than it does in its brain. I assume the arms and brain work in unison for some sort of prime directive, but what if one of the arms disagrees? As Scientific American states, “Like a starfish, an octopus can regrow lost arms. Unlike a starfish, a severed octopus arm does not regrow another octopus.” So, if the brain directs an arm to perform a dangerous task, does an arm ever exhibit self-preservation qualities? Does an arm ever say something equivalent to, “I saw what you did to arm number four last week, and I witnessed you grow another arm, good as new, in a short time. I do not consider myself as expendable as arm number four was. I am a quality arm who has served you well over the years,” the sixth arm says to brain. “Why don’t you ask arm number seven to perform what I consider a dangerous task? We all know that he is far less productive.” I am sure that no arm has such a consciousness of its own existence in this sense, and that they largely function to serve the greater need, but how much autonomy do the arms have?

Blue Blood: How many of us believed the tale that humans have blue blood, and that it only turns red when introduced to oxygen. The octopus actually does have blue blood, and as Laurie L. Dove writes in How Stuff Works, it’s crucial to their survival.

“The same pigment that gives the octopus blood its blue color, hemocyanin, is responsible for keeping the species alive at extreme temperatures. Hemocyanin is a blood-borne protein containing copper atoms that bind to an equal number of oxygen atoms. It’s part of the blood plasma in invertebrates.” She also cites a National Geographic piece by Stephan Sirucek when she writes, “[Blue blood] also ensures that they survive in temperatures that would be deadly for many creatures, ranging from temperatures as low as 28 degrees Fahrenheit (negative 1.8 degrees Celsius) to superheated temperatures near the ocean’s thermal vents.”

On the planning front, the Katherine Harmon Courage piece in Wired states that researchers have discovered that octopuses in Indonesia will gather coconut shell halves in preparation for stormy weather, then take shelter by going inside the two pieces of shell and holding it shut.

Courage’s Wired piece also suggested, “If you asked Jean Boal, a behavioral researcher at Millersville University about the inner life of octopuses, she might tell you that they are cognitive, communicative creatures. Boal attempted to feed stale squid to the octopuses in her lab and one cephalopod sent her a clear message: It made eye contact and used one of its arms to shove the squid down a nearby drain, effectively telling her that the stale food would be discarded rather than being eaten.”

The freaky almost unnerving elements of this story, for me, lay in the details of the Jean Boal’s story. The idea that an animal might exhibit a food preference suggests a certain level of intelligence, but I’m not sure if that level of intelligence surpasses that of the dog or the cat. The eerie part for me occurred in contemplating how the octopus relayed that message. Boal suggested that she fed the stale squid to a number of her octopus subjects, and when she returned to the first octopus in that line, that first octopus waited for her to return. It looked her in the eye when she did and shoved the stale squid down the drain, maintaining eye contact throughout the act. We weren’t there, of course, so we can only speculate, but she made it sound like the octopus made a pointed effort to suggest that not only was it not going to eat the stale squid, but it was insulted by her effort to pass this stale squid off as quality food, and it wanted to correct her of such foolish notions in the future.

We all characterize our pets, and other animals with human emotions and statements, but how many dogs and cats will do something more than sniff at the food and move along? How many will wait for a human to return, so they can be assured that the message will be received that they don’t care for the food, and how many will look the humans in the eye before discarding the food in such an exclamatory manner? I don’t know if you’re anything like me, but the thought creeps me out in the sense that I thought I had a decent frame for how intelligent these beings were, and that frame was a generous one.

The characteristics we’ve discussed thus far in part I and in the portion you’ve read thus far in part II are fascinating to me, illuminating, and as I say unsettling to those of us that find comfort in the idea that humans are heads and shoulders more intelligent than the other species. This next part may be where the reader reconsiders whether they should set up some reinforcements behind them.

Recent scientific discoveries are suggesting that the octopus can edit their Ribonucleic acid (RNA). Boom! How are you doing? Did you forget to remove all sharp objects behind you? If the only thing keeping you upright is the idea that you kind of, sort of don’t know what RNA is? Don’t worry, I had to look it up too, and the Google dictionary defines RNA as an enzyme that works with deoxyribonucleic acid (DNA) in that it “carries instructions from DNA for controlling the synthesis of proteins, although in some viruses RNA rather than DNA carries the genetic information.”

For those who don’t consider this a “Holy stuff!” fact, think about this. The next time you’re in your man cave engaged in a spider solitaire marathon, some octopus somewhere is in their cave re-configuring their molecular structure to redefine their characteristics in a manner that will help it escape a shark attack better. One example might be the defense tactic we talked about in Octopus Nuggets I, the pseudomorph. One octopus may have sat in their cave one day realizing that sharks were adapting to the shot of ink that they send out, and sharks were no longer as confused by it as they once were. To adapt to the sharks’ adaptation, the octopus reconfigured its typical ink cloud settings to produce a self-portrait of itself that might confuse sharks more. As we will discuss later, octopus researchers aren’t sure why they edit their RNA, but we have to assume it has something to do with predation, either surviving it or finding nuanced ways to perfect their own. If you’re nowhere near as fascinated with this idea as I am, at this point, you will have to excuse my crush with these cephalopods in the ensuing paragraphs.

An article from Business Insider further describes the difference between DNA and RNA as it applies to editing them, by stating, “Editing DNA allows a species to evolve in a manner that is more permanent for future generations. This is how most species evolve and survive. When a being edits their RNA, however, they can essentially “try out” an adaptation” to see if it works. One other note the authors of this piece make on this subject is that “Unlike a DNA adaptation, RNA adaptations are not hereditary.” Therefore, one can only guess that if an octopus discovers an RNA rewrite that is successful for survival or predation, they can presumably teach it to their offspring, or pass it along information by whatever means an octopus passes along such information. (Octopuses are notorious loners who don’t communicate with one another well.)

A quote from within the article, from a Professor Eli Eisenberg, puts it this way: “You can think of [RNA editing] as spell checking. If you have a word document. If you want to change the information, you take one letter and you replace it with another.”

Research suggests that while humans only have about ten RNA editing sites, octopuses have tens of thousands. Current science is unable to explain why an octopus edits their RNA, or when it started in the species. I must also add here that I don’t know how they can determine with any certitude that an octopus can edit their RNA. I’m sure that they examine the corpses of octopuses and compare them to others, but how can they tell that the octopus edits their RNA themselves? How do they know, with this degree of certitude, that there aren’t so many different strains of octopus who all have wide variables in their RNA strands? I’m sure someone will tell me that the process is far more elementary than I’m making it, and I’m revealing my ignorance on this topic in this paragraph, but I’ve read numerous attempts to study the octopus, and almost all of them suggest that the live octopus is notoriously difficult to study. Some have described their rebellious attempts to thwart brain study as obnoxious. If that’s the case, then I have to ask if the conclusions they reach are largely theoretical based on the studies of octopus corpses.

If it’s an embarrassing display of ignorance on my part to ask how we know if octopuses edit their RNA, is it more embarrassing to ask if we know how they do it? For those who consider this a futile task, I again ask how do we know that they do it in the first place? The answer to that question circles back to Katherine Harmon Courage’s provocative notion that “If we can figure out how the octopus manages its complex feats of cognition, we might be closer to discovering some of the fundamental elements of thought –and to developing new ideas about how mental capacity evolved.”

If we are able to do that, Gizmodo.com quotes scientists who suggest we might be able to root out a mutant RNA in our own strands to see if we can edit them in a manner that helps us cure a number of ailments heretofore considered incurable.

For those scientists who seek guidance on how to edit human RNA the authors of the Business Insider, David Anderson and Abby Tang piece cited above suggest that if these scientists, “Have recently proven ways of using the [genome editing tool] CRISPR-Cas9 to edit RNA, perhaps they can learn a thing or two from these cephalopod experts.”

Willie and Kenneth


“I have a death voice,” Kenneth Greene said after interrupting a conversation I was having with my fellow employees on break. Kenneth Greene was the manager of this restaurant, and the only time he interrupted our conversations in the breakroom was to inform us that the restaurant was so busy that we would have to cut our breaks short to help the staff out. When he first entered our breakroom we thought that’s what he was doing, but he looked so insecure about it.

Kenneth Greene operated from a baseline of insecurity. Kenneth didn’t think the staff took him seriously enough in the first few months of his tenure as our manager, so he grew a Fu Manchu. Kenneth’s Fu Manchu did not have handlebars, a la Salvador Dali, it was more late 60’s Joe Namath. Kenneth would never admit that he grew a Fu Manchu for the sole purpose of generating respect from his peers, but when that Fu Manchu grew to fruition, the psychological effect on his was all but emanating around his head. Kenneth Greene went from a greasy, overweight ginger with a mullet to a greasy, overweight ginger with a mullet and a Fu Manchu.

The psychological influence of the Fu Manchu became apparent when he progressed from a manager that asked his employees if they wouldn’t mind cutting their breaks short for business needs to a manager that instructed us to do so. Thus, when the new Kenneth Greene stepped into our breakroom, it appeared that the Fu Manchu might have lost its psychological influence. After a moment of hesitation, in which it appeared that Kenneth had something to say, he left without saying a word. When he returned, after apparently recognizing how vital this moment was to the new Kenneth Greene, he stared at me with renewed conviction.

“What’s up?” I asked.

“I have a death voice,” Kenneth Greene said.

“What’s a death voice?” I asked.

“I front a death metal band,” Kenneth said. “In my off time.”

Kenneth Greene’s goal, I can only assume, was to display a talent that matched the subjects of the discussion he interrupted. In that discussion, a friend and I spoke about the various artistic talents of those on the staff, and Kenneth Greene wanted us to know that he had a talent equivalent to those that we were discussing. He wanted us to know that he was much more than a manager of a low-rent restaurant chain that would go out of business within a year, and he wanted us to know that this death voice was his gift and artistic calling.

‘Beauty is in the eye of the beholder,’ is an expression that dates back, in various forms, to the Ancient Greeks. The reason such a notion exists, as Benjamin Franklin’s version of the expression states, is that at the core of one’s definition of beauty is an opinion.

I would never consider myself an arbiter of art, in other words, but I thought Kenneth Greene would have a tough road ahead of him if he hoped to convince those of us sitting in a restaurant break room that we should consider a skilled death voice for our conversation of artistic talents. I was, as I always am, eager to have another prove me wrong.

I didn’t know what to do with this information, however, so I assumed that he wanted to show us. After several attempts to goad him into it, Kenneth decided against performing his death voice for us. I think he saw something in our faces that suggested that the moment after one lets loose a death voice in the middle of a restaurant breakroom, they become the person that let a death voice loose in the middle of a restaurant breakroom. When he invited us to hear it in person, at one of his shows, I could tell he knew we wouldn’t attend, but he needed to say something to get out of the uncomfortable situation he created.

***

I thought Willie Bantner was a real character when I met him. Willie and I found that our backgrounds were similar, and I thought this was odd considering that our outlooks were so dissimilar. Willie’s worldview was foreign to my own, yet there was something about him I couldn’t quite put my finger on. This sense of familiarity became so hard to deny that it stirred feelings of déjà vu, until Willie revealed to me the actual character he was playing in life.

My initial inclination was the once one meets a significant number of odd characters in life they begin some overlap. There are only so many odd characters out there, in other words, and I thought Willie reminded me of one of them.

These odd, weird sensibilities were the reason I was so fascinated with Willie Bantner. It was the reason I would go to him with very specific scenarios. I wanted to learn what he thought, why he thought what he did, and how someone can arrive at such a notion. The funny, thought-provoking things he said were the reasons that we became friends. This friendship lasted for over ten years. Over the course of those ten years, I grew so familiar with Willie that his peculiarities were not so peculiar, but there was still that nagging sense of familiarity about him that plagued me.

When we began one of those lists that seem indigenous to the male gender, this one of the best television shows ever, we mentioned the usual shows that we considered the best of their day. When we entered into the list of what we thought should be on a list of honorable mentions, the list was lengthy. I mentioned the show Family Ties. Willie agreed that show should be on the list of honorable mentions. I added, “If nothing else, the show gave us Michael J. Fox, and the character Alex P. Keaton, and I think Alex P. Keaton was one of the best TV characters ever written.”

“I modeled my life after him,” he said. After some confusion, Willie clarified that he did not model his life after Michael J. Fox. He modeled his life after Alex P. Keaton.

Over the years, I’ve learned that one of the reasons young men swear so often is that they lack confidence. They don’t know how to articulate an opinion in a manner that will impress their peers. They are also unable, at this point in their lives, to provide detailed analysis of the subject of their opinion, so they choose to coat those opinions in superlatives that they hope will provide cover for any unformed intellect. If one person says that Marlon Brando was the best actor of all time, another may agree with that person. Rather than enter into a detailed discussion of that sense of spontaneity Brando brought to his roles, or the fleshed out nuances he brought to method acting that influenced a generation of actors, they say, “I’ve built a personal shrine to him in my bedroom.” When one person says that a movie was the scariest movie they’ve ever watched, another might say, “That movie was so scary that I didn’t sleep right for weeks.” In most cases, there were no shrines built or hours of sleep lost, but in the absence of detailed analysis, a young man thinks he has to say something over the top to pound the point home. I thought this was all Willie when he said he modeled his life after Alex P. Keaton. The more I chewed on it, however, the more I began to see a truth mixed into that admission.

I would watch him, going forward, with that admission in mind. The idea that the man modeled his reactions, his physical gestures, and his life after a situation comedy character became obvious once I had a conclusion for my search for that nagging sense of familiarity. Once I saw that elusive sense of deja vu for what it was, I couldn’t believe I didn’t see it earlier. 

I was also disappointed that my initial assessment of Willie Bantner proved so prescient. I thought he was a character, and he was, but not in the general sense that I intended. I was disappointed to learn that individual experiences did not inform Willie Bantner’s personality as much as I thought, unless one considers tuning into NBC’s early to mid 80’s, Thursday night lineup at 7:30 central to be an individual experience.

Willie Bantner made me think, he made me laugh, and I thought he earned it all with ingenious, individualistic takes. After his admission, I began to wonder how many of those comments were off the cuff, and how many of them he lifted from Family Ties’ scripts. The unique personality that I wanted to explore became, to me, a carefully manufactured character created by some screenwriters in a boardroom on Melrose Avenue. The odd sense of familiarity plagued me as I wrote, but I can’t remember putting much effort into trying to pinpoint the core of Willie Bantner’s character. If I had, I probably would’ve over-estimated what influenced his core personality, but that’s what young men do. Even if I was able to temper my search to more reasonable concepts, I don’t think I would’ve considered something as banal as watching too much TV to be the sole influence for what I considered such a fascinating personality, until he admitted it.

Now, I have no illusions that I’ve scrubbed the influence of TV characters from my personality. I imagine I still have some remnants of the Fonz in my cavalcade of reactions, and I’m sure that Jack Tripper is in there somewhere. I also know that an ardent fan of David Letterman could spot his influence somewhere in how I react to the people, places and things that surround me, but I think it’s almost impossible to develop a personality without some degree of influence from the shows we watched every week for years. To model one’s entire life on one fictional, television character, however, speaks of a level of insecurity I think the American Psychiatric Association should consider in their next edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders.