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.

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My personal experience with the fuzzy line between comedy and tragedy, didn’t involve falling into a manhole, but licking a pole. I was in the fifth or sixth grade, old enough and smart enough to know better, but young enough and dumb enough to do it anyway on one of the coldest days in February. I didn’t know the philosophical details of the symbiotic relationship between comedy and tragedy, but I knew 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


We, 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 could they achieve that level of focus at such a young age, we wonder. Are we even the same species?

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 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 researcher 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’.”

EEL TesticlesBefore 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

If you enjoyed this unique perspective on Sigmund Freud, you might also enjoy the following:

Charles Bukowski Hates Mickey Mouse

The History of Bloodletting by Mark Twain

The Perfect Imperfections of Franz Kafka’s Metamorphosis

James Joyce: Incomparable or Incomprehensible?

Rasputin I: Rasputin Rises

Rasputin II: A Miracle at Spala

Rasputin III: Rasputin’s Murder

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.

Philosophical Doubt versus the Certitude of Common Sense


If philosophy is “primarily an instrument of doubt”, as Scientific American contributor John Horgan writes in the fifth part of his series, and it counters our “terrible tendency toward certitude”, can that sense of doubt prevail to a point that it collides with the clarity of mind one achieves with common sense? In an attempt to provide further evidence of the proclamation that philosophy is an instrument of doubt, Horgan cites Socrates definition of wisdom being the knowledge one has of how little they know. He also cites Socrates’ parable of the cave, and it’s warning that we’re all prisoners to our own delusions.

“In Socrates’ Allegory of the Cave, Plato details how Socrates described a group of people who have lived chained to the wall of a cave all of their lives, facing a blank wall. The people watch shadows projected on the wall from objects passing in front of a fire behind them, and give names to these shadows. The shadows are the prisoners’ reality. Socrates explains how the philosopher is like a prisoner who is freed from the cave and comes to understand that the shadows on the wall are not reality at all, for he can perceive the true form of reality rather than the manufactured reality that is the shadows seen by the prisoners. The inmates of this place do not even desire to leave their prison; for they know no better life.”

“In the allegory, Plato [also] likens people untutored in the Theory of Forms to prisoners chained in a cave, unable to turn their heads. All they can see is the wall of the cave. Behind them burns a fire. Between the fire and the prisoners there is a parapet, along which puppeteers can walk. The puppeteers, who are behind the prisoners, hold up puppets that cast shadows on the wall of the cave. The prisoners are unable to see these puppets, the real objects, that pass behind them. What the prisoners see and hear are shadows and echoes cast by objects that they do not see.” 

This allegory has probably been interpreted a thousand different ways over the thousands of years since Plato first relayed Socrates allegory. A strict reading of the allegory suggests that the cave is a place where the uneducated are physically held prisoner. The prisoners are also imprisoned in a figurative sense, in that they’re imprisoned to their ideas about the world from a narrow perspective. A strict reading would also detail that the philosopher is the one person in the story free of a cave, and thus an enlightened man who knows the true nature of the forms.  

Socrates bolstered this interpretation when he informed a young follower of his named Glaucon that:

“The most excellent people must follow the highest of all studies, which is to behold the Good. Those who have ascended to this highest level, however, must not remain there but must return to the cave and dwell with the prisoners, sharing in their labors and honors.”

In the first installment, Socrates suggests that the philosophers are the enlightened ones who must lead to the prisoners to a better life, but in the second installment he cautions philosophers, in a round about way, to avoid staying in the highest level. The initial reading could lead us to believe Socrates wanted philosophers to remain in tune with the plight of the prisoner, or he wanted them to remain humble. Another interpretation of the second cautionary quote is that Socrates was warning present and future philosophers about remaining in the philosopher’s cave for too long, thus becoming prisoner to their own insular, echo chamber. Inherent in the latter interpretation is the warning that by remaining in the philosophers cave, one might lose perspective and clarity and become a victim of their own collective delusions.

The philosopher could accept an idea as a fact, based on the idea that the group thought contained within the philosophical cave accepts it as such. This philosopher may begin to surround themselves with like-minded people for so long that they no longer see that cave for what it is. The intellectual might also fall prey to the conceit that they’re the only ones not living in a cave. The intellectual might also see all other caves for what they are, until they come upon their own, for theirs is that which they call home. As Horgan says, citing the responses of “gloomy” students responding to the allegory of the cave, “If you escape one cave, you just end up in another.”

One of the only moral truths that John Horgan allows, in part five of his series, that trends toward a “terrible tendency toward certitude” is the argument that “ending war is a moral imperative.” This is not much of a courageous or provocative point, as most cave dwellers have come to the same conclusion as Mr. Horgan. Most cave dwellers now view war as something that we should only utilize as a last alternative, if at all.

For whom are we issuing this moral imperative, is a question that I would ask if I were lucky enough to attend one of Mr. Hogan’s classes. If we were to issue the imperative to first world countries, I would suggest that we would have a very receptive audience, for most of the leaders of these nations would be very receptive to our proposed solutions. If we were to send it out to tyrannical leaders and oppressive governments of third world governments, I am quite sure that we would have an equally receptive audience, as long as our proposed solutions pertained to the actions of first world countries.

Former Beatles musician John Lennon engaged in a similar pursuit in his “make love not war” campaign, but Lennon directed his campaign to first world leaders almost exclusively. Some of us now view this venture as a colossal waste of time. If Lennon directed his moral imperative at the third world, and their dictators were genuinely receptive to it, Lennon could’ve changed the world. If these third world leaders agreed to stop slaughtering, and starving their country’s people, and they also agreed to avoid engaging in skirmishes with their neighbors, all of us would view John Lennon as a hero for achieving actual peace in our time. This scenario also presupposes that these notoriously dishonest leaders weren’t lying to Lennon for the benefit of their own public relations, and that the leaders did their best to live up to such an agreement while quashing coup attempts by other tyrannical leaders who have other plans. This is, admittedly, a mighty big asterisk and a relative definition of peace, but if Lennon were able to achieve even that, the praise he received would be unilateral.

What Lennon did, instead, was direct the focus of his sit-ins, and sleepins, to the receptive leaders of the Britain and The United States. The question I would’ve had for John Lennon is, how often, since World War II, have first world countries gone to war with one another? Unless one counts The Cold War as an actual war, or the brief skirmishes in places like Yugoslavia, there hasn’t been a great deal of military action between the first world and the second world since World War II either. Most of what accounts for the need for military action, in modern times, involves first world countries attempting to clean up the messes that have occurred in third world countries.

If Lennon’s goals were as genuinely altruistic, as some have suggested, and not a method through which he could steal some spotlight from his rival, Paul McCartney, as others have suggested, he would have changed the focus of his efforts. Does this suggest that Lennon’s sole purpose was achieving publicity, or does it suggest that Lennon’s worldview was either born, or nurtured in an echo chamber in which everyone he knew, knew, that the first world countries were the primary source of the problems when it came to the militaristic actions involved in war?

To those isolationists who will acknowledge that most of the world’s problems occur in the third world, they suggest that if The United States and Britain would stop playing world police and let these third world countries clean up their own messes, we would achieve a form of peace. To these people, I would suggest that the world does have historical precedent for such inaction: Adolf Hitler.

Some suggest that war with Hitler was inevitable. Hindsight informs us that Hitler was such a blood thirsty individual that he could not be appeased. Britain’s Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain did try, however, and the world trumpeted Chamberlain’s name for achieving “peace in our time”. Chamberlain’s nemesis in parliament, Winston Churchill, suggested that Chamberlain tried so hard to avoid going to war that he made war inevitable. Churchill suggested that if Britain engaged in more diplomatic actions, actions that could have been viewed as war-like by Germany, such as attempting to form a grand coalition of Europe against Hitler, war might have been avoided. We’ll never know the answer to that question of course, but how many of those living in the caves of idealistic utopia of ending war, as we know it, would’ve sided with Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain and against Churchill, in the lead up to, and after, the Munich Peace Accords? How many of them would’ve suggested that Hitler signing the accords meant that he did not want war, and that heeding Churchill’s warnings would’ve amounted to a rush to war? Churchill also stated, and some historians agree, that the year that occurred between Munich and Britain’s eventual declaration of war, left Britain in a weaker position that led to a prolonged war. How many of those who live in anti-war caves would’ve been against the proposal to form a grand coalition of Europe against Germany, because it might make Germany angry, and they could use that action as a recruiting tool?

The point of listing these contrarian arguments is not to suggest that war is the answer, for that would be a fool’s errand, but to suggest that even those philosophers who believe they have the strongest hold on truth may want to give doubt a chance. It is also a sample of a larger argument. The larger argument suggests that while the philosopher’s viewpoint is mandatory to those seeking a well-rounded perspective, they also need to visit other caves every once in a while.

They may not agree with the cave dwellers in other caves, but they may hear different voices on the matter that influence their approach to problem solving. The point is if the only thing a student of philosophy hears in a day is doubt directed at the status quo, and that they must defeat that certitude, how far can that student venture down that road before they trip on the tip of a fulcrum, and everything they learn beyond that progressively divorces them from common sense?

We’re all prisoners in a cave of our mind. Our parents and teachers gave us the names of the shapes and shadows on our wall, and those answers provided us clarity and comfort. The philosophers, visiting our caves, taught us the intoxicating discipline of doubt. They taught us to doubt those principles and question the shapes and shadows further, and like a muscle that requires equal amounts of strain and relaxation our brains became stronger as a result. We learned to doubt our fundamental structures in ways that led us to question everything those that formed us hold dear, and it strengthened our intellectual resolve. At some point in this self-imposed challenge to pursue answers to simple questions that are more well-rounded, some of us revealed that not only have we eluded a life sentence in the common man’s cave, but we’ve become prisoners in the philosopher’s cave. Few know when their answers to the forms dancing on wall reveal this, but those of us who have, have had an intruder visit our cave to inform us “It’s a goat.”

Let Me Have Cake


An article I read detailed that eating food to sustain life was something of a miracle. For all the things we take for granted, sustained life has to be the most fundamental. Are you sustaining life as you read this? Have you ever considered the idea that food allows you to continue living?

ask-history-did-marie-antoinette-really-say-let-them-eat-cake_50698204_getty-eAn uncle of mine contracted a muscular degenerative disease at a young age. Throughout the course of his life, this degeneration progressed, until he lost almost all bodily functions. He reached a point, in this degeneration, where he was no longer eating well. He had coughing fits in the course of digestion that caused concern. I saw these coughing fits, hundreds of them, and they were difficult to ignore. The coughing fits caused such concern, to the workers at the care facility where he lived, they determined that my uncle should no longer be fed orally. The determination was that he would be fed through a tube going forward. Uncle John was so crushed by this, he had a lawyer draw up a letter that stated that neither John, nor any of his remaining family members, would hold the care facility liable for anything that happened as a result of oral feeding. But, the letter stated, he wanted to enjoy oral feeding once again. He also threatened to sue the care facility, in that letter, if they did not abide by his wishes. He then said, and this is the heartbreaking part, that “Eating is one of the last joys I have left, and I do not want this taken away from me.”

I had a boring, mindless job at the time. Throughout the course of my time at this job, I rebelled. I talked to whomever I wanted, whenever I wanted. I did the work, and my scores were admirable, but management could not abide by all the talking. I assumed, at one point, that management was either trying to drive me out, or the job had become so awful that I couldn’t maintain the illusion that it was a decent job. I was miserable. I obsessed over those that had no talent, but were living the life I had always wanted to live.

A majority of my co-workers were obese. The first inclination I had was that these people ate the same as everyone else, but they were in a job that involved ten hours of sitting. My next guess was that eating was the only joy they/we had left. I, too, was gaining weight, and I was reaching a point where I didn’t care. I read an article that listed off the heinous deeds of serial killer Jeffrey Dahmer. One of the accounts detailed that Dahmer opened a hole in his victim’s head and poured acid in. He wanted to kill his victim’s brain, or that part of them that produced such sedition. The purpose was to allow Dahmer to enjoy having relations with them, without having to listen to their complaints. How different, I wondered, is that from the day to day life in my current job? My inability to prove my worth to anyone, much less myself, had landed me in a job where creativity is not appreciated. “Just be happy you have a job,” was the mantra fellow employees scream at the unhappy. “You’re in the greatest country in the history of the world, at what could be its greatest time, and you’re complaining? Just be happy that you can financially sustain life, and shut up.”

Routine has a way of killing the mind. Fear of the unknown has a way of convincing one that they are happy. Or they learn, over time, to just shut up!

Employers use fear as a motivation. They convince a person that they’re lucky to have a job, and they instill fear as a motivator. How often have I been informed that I’m meeting the required goals? A number of times, but it’s done in a lethargic manner. They would much rather inform their employees that they’re not, so that they’re motivated to do better. The one that achieves the goal is not the focus of concern, so they fade into the background. They allow their minions to focus on you, and destroy you with hyper critical edicts that chip away at your self-worth. Not only are you in a mindless job that eats away at any creativity that a person may use to prosper in some fashion that they cannot find by themselves, as non-self-starters, but they’re not making the grade.

We were not allowed to speak, in a casual manner, to our co-workers. All conversations were required to be work-related. We were not allowed to email friendly messages to our friends, and our Instant Message system was taken away from us. Food was all we had left, and we were all gaining weight. We were being paid to do this mindless job, and we were using this money to feed ourselves food that was killing us.

When a person sits behind a computer for ten hours a day, four days a week, the clock is a cautious bitch that won’t turn right on red. She drives twenty-to-thirty miles an hour under the speed limit, and we can’t help but notice that the other lane contains free flowing cars, speeding up to prevent entrance. We were in this position as a result of lack of talent, lack of drive, and the inability to take a risk. We felt lucky to have a job in a country that provides ample opportunity for ambitious risk-takers with an idea, but with so much available it’s hard to pick one lane to drive in. The grass is always greener on the other side, of course, but I felt I was planted in a field of weeds that inhibited my own growth. The alternative, of course, is stagnancy.

The complaints that I have/had were all sourced from a first world, privileged background, but I saw those around me grow and prosper, and I reached a point of frustration that probably should’ve led to some counseling. I witnessed firsthand, the end result of frustration so great that one doesn’t want to live anymore, but I have never been suicidal. I’ve always considered alternatives, and what greater alternative is there than change? I would explore my mind for anything and everything that could lead me to happiness. My definition of happiness, I calculated, could be attained. I could live free to explore my mind for every thought I had ever had. It was a privileged, first world avenue, but I had the means to do so. Why wouldn’t I take advantage of it?

People have definitions of the way in which one should conduct their lives. If an individual doesn’t fit those parameters, he is cast out. He is condemned for not living life the way they think he should. How should he live? He made a mistake somewhere around the first thirty years of his life. He sustained life. He entered the workforce with few skills. He developed some. He developed a work ethic. He never called in sick, and after a time, he became more serious, and he was never tardy. Once the latter was managed better, he fell into the background, but he was still employed, gainfully? That’s the question. Was he satisfied? No, he went to another place, and another place, and he discovered a cap on his abilities. He never interviewed well, his public speaking abilities were less than admirable, and he tested poorly. Analysis of his being made him so nervous that he developed a comprehensive form of test anxiety.

His role models, in life, were blue collar workers that did their job, went home, drank too much, and complained about the awful responsibility in life. These were people that focused on his shortcomings. “Where did you come up with that?” was a question they asked the aspiring young minds around them. I have gone back and forth on this relatively innocuous question. At the outset, one has to imagine that such a question arises in an adult mind when the child they’ve known for decades comes to them with a particularly ingenious thought. It has to be a surprise to that old mind to see a younger one outdo them, so one can forgive them for what may cause the young mind to question their base, but it defines that young mind in a manner that suggests that they should remember their station in life.

I’ve witnessed what I can only assume is the opposite of this rearing pattern. I witnessed young, ambitious, and adventurous minds believe in themselves. If they had questions about their abilities to accomplish great things in life, their insecurities paled in comparison to mine. They had such belief in their abilities that when I showed them awe, they swatted my awe away saying that their accomplishment was either not as awe-inspiring as I believed, or that it was but a rung on a ladder to an accomplishment I couldn’t even fathom pursuing.

I considered some of these people so different, I wondered if we were even the same species. How can one put themselves on the line in such a fashion without due consideration put into the fear of failure? They don’t mind the prospect of exposing themselves to ridicule. ‘What if it all comes crumbling down around you?’ I wondered to them. Their answer, in roundabout ways, was that they’d try something else. That wasn’t going to happen, however, for they had belief in themselves. Where does this unbinding faith in one’s self come from? Answer, it’s bred into them. They’re not afraid to try, to risk it all on something that would keep me up at night.

At some point after we spent so much time together, getting drunk and what have you, they ventured out and pursued matters that I didn’t have the confidence to pursue. They were self-starters, and they led, and they accomplished, and I look forward to eating something different in a day. The meal of the day became something to look forward to, nothing more and nothing less than my uncle had to threaten to sue to maintain in his life.

“Let them eat cake,” is an old line, purported to be delivered by the bride of King Louis XVI, Marie Antoinette, that suggested that the unhappiness of the Frenchman in her empire could by quelled by allowing them to eat something delicious. Some have also interpreted it to be an illustration of Marie Antoinette’s detachment from the common man, based on an idea that if they could not afford bread, to sustain life, they should eat cake. Whether or not she actually delivered that line, the import is that we, peasants, derive pleasure from food. Some of us hate our jobs, our family, and our lives, and if we can just find one semi-pleasurable meal, we can find some measure of happiness. If that single meal doesn’t do it for the talent-less minions that neglected to develop an ambitious plan for life, we can look forward to the next day, and thus not only sustain life, through the miracle of food, but achieve some sort of sensorial pleasure through the routine of it.

Eating to sustain life. Eating for pleasure. Too much pleasure? Too much eating? What else do we have?

Impulsive vs. Reflective


I have learned, the hard way, to avoid the impulses that drive one to make impulsive purchases. I have learned to define my desire for said product through separation. Take a step away from it, I say to myself, and try to take the newness element out of the product and imagine it on you, in you, or under you one month from now. The problem with these impulses I have is that they drive me to purchase shocking, ridiculous, and useless products that satisfy a short-term desire to be different.

Craftsmanship means as much to me as anyone else, but when it comes time to purchase products, the subtlety of a craftsman’s curve in a rocking chair has never spoken to me on a personal level. I much prefer a new-age piece of furniture that has some innovative sex appeal with a couple exclamation points behind it. I want a piece that causes people to ask questions that have no suitable answers.

Had I followed the impulses that have controlled me at various points in my life, I would now be driving a bright orange Jeep with black trim. I might even have a bright yellow colored living room with equally bright orange furniture, and some kind of multicolored carpet that accentuates the overall theme. I might also have a visually striking painting of a screeching gargantuan, gold eagle, with beaming blood red eyes, flying above shadowed villagers scampering to safety on a red felt background. Those products would fulfill a definition I have for the immediate, shocking, discomfiting, and shocking elements of beauty. It’s a definition of who I was, and who I am, that I know would shock my visitors into thinking there might be something we need to sit down and discuss before it gets out of hand.

Two things currently prohibit me from following these impulses: A wife and a child. A wife, or any person on the inside looking in, tempers such impulses with rational refutation. When a single man, with no children, follows his impulses, people sort through the psychological damages he must have accrued throughout his life, and they laugh it off as a bachelor pad. When that same man has a child, however, that child has extended family members that care about that child and worry about their well-being when they see that one of his primary role models has created a living room that requires sunglasses. When one of that child’s primary role models also has a painting of a bloodthirsty eagle flying above doomed villagers, above the hearth, they might question his ability to raise a proper child.

The other thing that prevents me from following these impulses now is that I’ve been there, and done that. I’ve been the person that others tried to understand, and I’ve been a person that others gave up trying to understand, until they conceded that the person they thought they knew is a lot weirder than they ever thought. I’ve purchased a shockingly bright, baby blue pair of shoes that I considered an expression of my personal definition of beauty. I tore these shocking baby blue pair of shoes off the shelves on sight and without thought. I figured I was in for a psychological pummeling from those that consider anything different a source of ridicule, but I was willing to ride it out for the effect I thought the pair of shoes would have on my essence.

Others echoed these fears by informing me that I should expect the worst from my classmates, if I had the temerity to wear these shoes to school. “People do wear such shoes,” they warned, “when they workout. They don’t wear them at work, in school, or on the path to and fro.”

Hindsight maybe 20/20, in this case, but I remember tingling with anticipation over the effect I thought this would have on my classmates. I couldn’t wait to introduce them to the new me. I then made a statement about the old me, by throwing away my old, sensible shoes.

Those that tried to prepare me for the psychological pummeling that would follow, would have been shocked at how successful my attempt to shock people was. I lost loyal friends over it, as they attempted to distance themselves from me to avoid having shrapnel rain down upon them. The experience was such that I thought of a short story called The Boy with the Bright, Baby Blue Shoes. I remembered a nature documentary in which a pack of hyenas brought a zebra down bite-by-bite, and my sympathy for that beast churned to empathy after this moment in my life. For those that abhor judgments of any kind and seek the karmic effects on those that do judge, this was one of the many for me. It did not feel good, and the pain I experienced changed me. If you’re going to judge others, however, you should prepare for them to judge you. I wasn’t then. I am now, thanks to memories like this one.

I did not have the confidence, or temerity necessary to stare these people down back then, and they broke me. I did learn that when one dares to be different, there are whole bunch of guidelines and borders, and most of them are superficial. I also learned one golden rule of life that I would pursue for much of my life to arrive at a final answer, and that was that most people consider it a worthy goal to dismiss as many people as possible in life. A wearer of bright, baby blue shoes becomes a wearer of such shoes, for example, until that person becomes a barometer of agreed upon truths that need to be agreed upon in the most brutal fashion possible.

At some point, I did find the subtle beauty of a craftsman’s curve in the gap of others’ writings, in certain lyrical phrases, and in the margins of dialogue and characterization. I discovered something in the intended, and unintended, philosophical truths of various artistic expressions of organic craftsmen. In those phrases, lines, paragraphs, and comprehensive thoughts, I discovered a shockingly different beauty that replaced my need for superficially shocking modifications.

My need for character-defining purchases also led me to be a sucker for innovation. My impulses drive me to purchase the latest and greatest technology my fellow man created for my convenience, and it led me to spend a great deal of money in the “As Seen on TV” aisles of prominent stores, and the “As Seen on TV” stores in malls. I purchase these products in the hope that they will simplify otherwise arduous and mundane tasks, but I’ve purchased these types of products so often that I now know that whatever short-term convenience these products provide pale in comparison to their suspect long-term durability. These innovations do sell, of course, because people, like me, get amped up on the idea that a collapsible garden hose will free up so much space on my back patio. The question I ask myself, now, when wrestling with the impulses that drive me to purchase anything that will make my life easier is, if this “new and improved way of doing things” product were in fact better than the more traditional products in the main aisle, wouldn’t the new products would replace those traditional products that my dad and my grandfather used in the main aisle. It wouldn’t take long, I would suspect, for those stores that sold such products to put the more traditional products in the end cap of the aisle, for those that insist on using the more traditional and less convenient products.

For those that still can’t rationalize their impulses away, I have one piece of advice when attempting to define your desire by separation. Those bright, baby blue pair of shoes that look so deliciously freakish sitting in that aisle will eventually become nothing more than a pair of shoes over time. A Jeep will become nothing more than a mode for transportation, and a chair will eventually become nothing more than something to sit in, once the effect of being shocking wears off, and you’re left looking at a pair of shoes that you’re now embarrassed to wear to school, to the office, and to and fro. The person that makes these impulsive purchases also realizes that these products provide onlookers data about the person that purchases them in a manner that the purchaser will likely regret long term. I hoped that by purchasing a pair of bright, baby blue tennis shoes that I would make a statement that no one in my vicinity would soon forget, and they didn’t, and I realized that I allowed them to dismiss me as a person that wore bright, baby blue shoes. I learned that every day beauty requires a study of the subtle forms of beauty that will grow on a person, and when the otherwise impulsive learn this they will decide to purchase the white Jeep with black rims.