Thief’s Mentality II: Whatever Happened to Kurt Lee


“Who is the greatest thief in history?” is one of the most provocative party questions I’ve ever heard. I didn’t consider it the most provocative I’ve ever heard when it was asked, until the active participants around us contributed to it. Some of the party goers provided specific answers, but most speculated, and their speculation led me to remember the first, true thief I ever met. Some quantified their answers by the amount the thief stole and others qualified their answers by the amount of historical notoriety or infamy a thief achieved. On the latter, I figured that our focus on notoriety, the amount of media coverage, and subsequent historical analysis, leads us to believe that the most successful thief must be the most infamous. That answer also provided an impetus for the most provocative answer I’ve heard to this question. It suggests that too often we intertwine fame, or in this case infamy, with success. Thieves are human, of course, and the natural desire to become famous probably drives most of them, but the overwhelming desire of an accomplished thief should be to avoid unwanted attention of any kind, particularly when it leads to a level of notoriety or infamy that might lead to their incarceration. Thus, my final answer would be that we probably don’t know who the greatest thief of all time is, because they are as unknown to history as they were to law enforcement officials at the time. The reason I consider this theoretical answer perfect, is that I knew a skilled thief, and I saw everything he fell prey to in his formative years.

Law enforcement officials inform us that the crimes that keep them up at night are the random, or seemingly random, crimes that are almost impossible to solve. Law enforcement officials count on a number of factors to help them solve such a crime, but the most prominent ones involve the character flaws inherent in the criminal mind.

Most criminals have never had any real money, for if they found an honest way to make real money, they wouldn’t be thieves. Thus, when they manage to steal a large amount of money, most of them will not invest it in a slow growth, high yield municipal bond. They’ll spend it with the same impulses that drove them to steal in the first place, they’ll spend it to live the life they hoped to achieve with the theft, and they’ll spend it in a manner that draws attention. They have never had any real money, so they do not know what to do with it when they get it. Thieves also know they’re living on borrowed time, so they spend their money as if it will all end tomorrow.

Buying extravagant items leads to extravagant flaunting, and flaunting leads to talk. Their people may not speak directly to law enforcement officials, but talk leads to talk. If the thief displays some restraint in this regard, they are apt to fall prey to another human conceit of wanting to tell those that said that they would never amount to anything in life about their newfound wealth. The natural byproduct of those forced to endure the bragging is jealousy, and jealousy might lead to trusted friends and family making anonymous calls that can change the direction of an investigation. In the event that those with a thief’s mentality are able to avoid the typical pratfalls of criminal success, law enforcement officials will often sit back and wait for greed to take hold.

If a true piece of work (a POS) manages to pull off a $10,000 heist, $10,000 dollars will not satisfy a thief. The nature of the thief’s mentality –as taught to me by Kurt Lee­– is such that they will probably be planning a $20,000 heist in their getaway car. Kurt Lee’s mentality suggested to me that a true POS would have so much wrapped up in that $10,000 theft that they would fall prey to all that listed above, with greed being the most prominent.

I knew Kurt Lee, on a superficial level, for years. He was good friends with my best friend. Kurt Lee and I spoke just about every day for years, but we were never so close that one would characterize us as intimate. It wasn’t until Kurt Lee invited me, and my best friend, to join him at the baseball card shop that I received a window into Kurt Lee’s mentality. As detailed in the first installment of this series, by the time Kurt Lee and I were in the car driving over to the baseball card shop, shoplifting had long since lost its thrill for him. It bored him so much that he asked me if I wanted to watch him steal from that baseball card shop’s owner. I never met a true thief before Kurt Lee, so my reference base was limited, but I imagined that more experienced thieves would suggest that this was the on ramp to a bad road for Kurt Lee.

More experienced thieves might also suggest that the very idea that Kurt Lee was attempting to accentuate the thrill of theft, by having another watch him do it, suggests that Kurt Lee wasn’t motivated by what they might call the philosophical purity of theft. He wasn’t doing it to balance economic equality, in other words, as some more experienced thieves will say to convince themselves that there is nothing wrong with stealing from someone that has so much that they don’t know what to do with it anymore. He wasn’t doing it to put food on a table, or any reasons that a more experienced thief might consider a more noble motivation. Kurt Lee was simply doing it because he wanted the stuff on the shelves, and he enjoyed the thrill of it all. Once that thrill was gone, he needed to supplement it. A casual observer, just learning of Kurt Lee, might also suggest that he asked me to watch to quell some deep seeded need he had for approval or acceptance. I would’ve considered that notion foolish at the time, for the Kurt Lee I knew displayed no visible signs of caring what anyone thought of him, much less me. With the advantage of hindsight, however, I have to consider that possibility.

The young man I knew believed in the spirt of generosity, but the basis of his belief in it was conditional. These words came out of his mouth most often when someone had something of excess that he wanted, yet I witnessed a number of generous acts on his part. I saw him help fellow students in need, and he helped me. Yet, his generosity was more of a quid pro quo than it was a simple act of generosity born of altruism. When he asked others to engage in the spirit of generosity in turn, the initial recipient of his generosity often paid about four times what his generosity cost him. After the first, and only, interaction in this regard, I decided it was better for all concerned that I go hungry rather than ask him to lend me lunch money for a day.

He claimed that his generosity was pure however, and he enjoyed it when others considered him a generous man, which leads me to believe that if the adult Kurt Lee managed to pull off a $10,000 heist, he would begin spreading the wealth around. He might hire the services of a prostitute for a night, he might give some of his newfound largess to a homeless person, or he might generously tip a waitress or a housekeeper, and he would probably do it in a manner that would lead people to talk. He would spread the wealth around just to be a guy that could, for one day in his otherwise miserable existence. He would do it with the hope that his various acts of generosity might say more about him than the criminal act he committed to attain the money. His motivation for sharing would not be truly altruistic, in other words, and he would do it regardless if he considered the idea that these actions might lay some breadcrumbs for law enforcement.

The point is that the theoretical greatest thief in history we talked about at the party, one presumably imbued with the same thief’s mentality as Kurt Lee, wouldn’t fall prey to any of these conceits. The point is that this thief would be such an exception to the rules governing one with a thief’s mentality that he might be able to achieve something historic in the field of criminality.

✽✽✽

Those of us who knew the as of yet unformed, maladjusted, high school-era Kurt Lee wouldn’t need the prophetic words of a skilled thief to know how Kurt Lee would end up. We also didn’t need the list of fatal flaws from law enforcement officials to know that Kurt Lee was susceptible to falling prey to these conceits. As evidence of this, Kurt Lee became the center of attention in high school.

Someone at our school learned about Kurt Lee, and they spread the word. I don’t know what this person said to spread the word, but I have to believe that it had something to do with the idea that for all of Kurt Lee’s humor and charm, he was not a nice guy. ‘Far from it,’ I imagine this person saying to his audience. ‘He’s actually a piece of work (a POS).’ For most of those outside our demographic, I imagine that such a presentation might do some damage to Kurt Lee’s brand, but for us it was a résumé enhancer. If Kurt’s carnival barker told the fellas he found a guy that was dishonest, duplicitous, and something of a POS, but he was actually a pretty nice guy, the air would leave that expanding balloon. Most of us are already friends with nice guys, and our dads and our uncles are nice guys. We want something different, some conniving, unpredictable, POS who shocks us.

Whatever the carnival barker said to describe Kurt Lee clicked, because Kurt Lee ended up becoming something of a celebrity in some quarters. The top athletes at our school were dying to know what he was going to do, or say, next. They found him hilarious. The cool kids even stopped by to get Kurt Lee’s reaction to the latest events of our school. They had never seen anything like him before. He was like a real life Al Bundy in our midst. Those of us who tried to avoid thinking that such people were impressive couldn’t believe the amount of attention Kurt Lee was receiving. Kurt Lee couldn’t believe it either, and more importantly, he couldn’t understand it.

Those of us who witnessed this Kurt Lee effect realized that our peers have an unusual attraction to a true POS with a thief’s mentality, and I don’t make any claims to being immune to this. As the previous entry suggests, I found Kurt Lee hilarious. Some may consider it a bit of a stretch to suggest that the young, unformed male mind wants to witness a bully humiliate and hurt others, but if it happens most young males want to be a witness to it. Those who told Kurt Lee’s stories knew that no one enjoys hearing a story from a guy who can’t stifle his laughter, so they managed to get through their narrative without laughing. It was hard though, because the vicarious thrills one receives from telling such a story can be difficult to maintain.

Kurt Lee opened a wormhole in our understanding of what it took to be an honest man. He was so unabashed in his dishonesty that some of us considered him the most honest guy we knew. He was a genuine article of consistent, and unflinching, dishonesty. When Kurt Lee learned that these aspects of his personality appealed to a wide swath of fellas our age, he exaggerated these characteristics in a way that suggested he didn’t understand their appeal any more than we did. His answer to whatever dilemma plagued him was to try to live up to the caricature that we built for him and exaggerate it.

Kurt Lee became that bully, thief, and POS that every young, unformed male dreamed of being but dared not stretch to the point of violating societal norms. The problem for Kurt Lee was that he needed a subject that would allow him to display his characteristics with consequences. He chose to focus on the mentally challenged and those significantly smaller than him, so they would present no challenge. He openly challenged anyone he considered at the bottom of the food chain to bolster his POS profile for those in attendance.

Kurt Lee was a POS the day I met him, but prior to his brief taste of popularity, he displayed a bit more discretion. I don’t know if he didn’t want to get in trouble, of if he actually had limits, but once he discovered how much the athletes and cool kids loved whatever it was that he was, he was balls out.

The problem with becoming such a character is that, inevitably, an ugly truth will rear its head. Young, unformed males eventually grow bored with a consistent character no matter how consistently offensive and insensitive that individual may be. When that happens, the instinctual response of such a character is to up their game even more, and exaggerate those characteristics that everyone loved fifteen minutes ago, until the character ends up doing it so often, and to such excess, that he ends up revealing his desire to be accepted. This new game face stood in stark contrast to the very characteristics that made Kurt Lee so appealing in the first place, to those in the upper caste system of high school. It also resulted in the implosion I alluded to in the first installment.

This implosion started when something went missing in our school. Kurt Lee plead innocence, on numerous occasions, claiming that he was being unfairly singled out by our school, and he may have been, but Kurt Lee made a name for himself for all the wrong reasons. He may have been such an obvious suspect that he was too obvious, but the school ended up expelling Kurt Lee as a result.

If Kurt Lee permitted me to caution him, prior to this incident, I would’ve informed him that these athletes and cool kids don’t give a crap about you. They may like you in the short-term, as they take what they want from you, in this case entertainment, but once they have expended you as a resource they will leave you out at the curb. They don’t care if you’re an actual POS, or if you’re just playing that character well. They don’t care if a person wants their attention. They won’t pay as much attention to them as they did fifteen minutes ago, once they see through the veneer. This long-term view would not have mattered to Kurt Lee however. He wanted to bask in the glow. When that brief spell ended, it wounded Kurt Lee, and he attempted to up his game even more, until he ended up with an expulsion, and he eventually ended up being incarcerated for another, unrelated matter.

✽✽✽

Decades later, those of us who went to school with Kurt Lee were all standing around a funeral engaged in a ‘What ever happened to’ conversation regarding our old classmates. Kurt Lee’s name eventually came up. Laughter erupted at the mere mention of his name, as we all remembered the awful things he did to people. Someone in our group attempted to quell that laughter by mentioning that he thought Kurt Lee was actually a pretty awful person. No one said a word. That silence, I can only presume, occurred because everyone considered that characterization so obvious. Another spoke about Kurt Lee’s expulsion from our school, and the subsequent incarceration for an unrelated crime. Those who didn’t know about the incarceration laughed when they heard about it, but it wasn’t the bitter schadenfreude that often comes from those that were bullied, ridiculed, and beat up by the guy in high school. The laughter was more of a head-shaking chuckle that suggested they all knew that’s where Kurt Lee would eventually end up. Then the subject changed, and it didn’t change because some of those, at the gathering, harbored ill will towards Kurt Lee, and they wanted to move on in life. The sense that they had already moved past all that was palpable. The subject changed because no one truly cared what happened to Kurt Lee.

If he was a celestial being, witnessing this conversation, with the ghost of Christmas past over his shoulder, he may have offered a number of excuses for why people thought he was so awful. He might inform the ghost of Christmas past that he was just a dumb kid at the time, and he might have said something about how bullying actually prepares kids for the real world in that it strengthens them. Kurt Lee might have experienced a slight twinge of guilt, hearing our accounts of him, but I don’t think so. I think he would’ve enjoyed hearing us talk about him. Seeing how quickly we changed the subject, however, and all that it intoned about how we felt about him long-term, probably would have stung.

The fundamental mistake Kurt Lee made, a mistake that most of us make at that age, is that we don’t understand human nature. We don’t understand how few people truly care about what happens to us, and we fail to grasp that nothing –including internal squabbles, politics, and the desire to be more popular– should keep us from these people. The mistake we make occurs when we seek the approval of others, because we often direct that effort at those who don’t give a crap about us in any kind of comprehensive manner. Kurt Lee made the fundamental mistake of believing that when those cool kids were laughing at the things he did that they were laughing with him. He made the mistake of believing when others are interested in what he had to say about something that they are interested in him, and I can only presume that when these truths became evident, he attempted to double down on those characteristics they enjoyed, it ended up destroying him from the inside out.

As evidence of this, one of the members of this conversation knew some things about the adult, post-high school Kurt Lee. He told a couple of stories about how Kurt Lee began stealing bigger and better things more often.

“He didn’t learn his lessons from high school,” this storyteller informed us. “He grew so bold that one could call some of the things he did stupid.” Some may place whatever it was that drove the adult Kurt Lee to steal more expensive items, at a greater rate, under the umbrella of greed, but I think it goes much deeper than that. I think that expulsion, and the end of the life he once knew, drove him to neglect those mountain lion skills he often displayed by refraining from launching on his prey, until he could determine that there was absolutely no chance of any harm coming to him. The stories I heard, that day at the funeral, of Kurt Lee stealing such conspicuous items were so confusing that I couldn’t help but think they were troubling and obvious cries for help.

Kurt Lee was the best thief I’ve ever known, and he influenced my speculative view on what the greatest thief in the history of man would have to do to get away with it all, with a sound mind and a guilt-free heart. For if this theoretical thief were to fall prey to some of the same things Kurt Lee did, in his formative years, that thief would have to learn the lessons from his formative years well. The Kurt Lee I knew never did, and the fact that he ended up doing time suggests that the adult, post-high school Kurt Lee didn’t either. It suggests that he imploded under the weight of whatever he was when I knew him.

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Are You Superior? II


Working as an ice cream truck driver one day –a ding ding man, a good humor man, or whatever you call us in your locale– I was pulled over by a couple of bandannas, beneath hats that were turned backwards, and sunglasses. I braced for the worst. I envisioned this encounter a modern-day equivalent of bandits pulling over a stagecoach. I flirted with the notion that the only reason they stopped me “just to talk” was to allow their stickup man enough time to sneak around the back of the ice cream truck and complete the heist. I divided my attention between them and my mirrors as a result, watching for movement behind my truck. When that didn’t happen, I began to wonder if they were feeling me out, to judge if I was a soft and easy roll. All of that may have been unfair, but I have always been a nerdy guy, and these guys appeared to be so cool. I could find no reason why they would want to stop their truck in the middle of a neighborhood street “just to talk” to someone like me.

I’ll be blunt, I don’t understand any of the subtle and wide divides between being cool and being nerdy, and as many tell me, “You probably never will.” I did know that these guys were cool, however, or cooler than me anyway. They had this aura about them I call cool, but others, far smarter than me, call radiating self-possession. They spoke in an ethereal tone that suggested to me that they were probably potheads, and as one attuned to pop culture, pop culture references, and pop culture characterizations, I knew that meant that they had to be much cooler than me. If they were, in fact, thieves, and I was the aproned shopkeeper –to complete the “old west” analogy– their comparative cool points were through the roof.

In a world of what I considered proper metrics, I should’ve been the superior one in this encounter. I wore better clothes, and I figured I had a better education, but these guys had intangibles that I couldn’t even imagine attaining. They appeared to have the look, a sense of cool about them, and an aura that suggested that they were fun loving, party-going types. Such characteristics threw all of my metrics right out the window. They weren’t stupid, however, and that fact was evident minutes into our conversation, but there was no way their education was as expensive as mine was. If they were potheads, they probably spent a lot of time equivocating moral issues, and those that equivocate –my Catholic school educators informed me– have a fundamental flaw about them that they spend most of their time trying to hide. In this world of proper metrics, I thought I was, check, check, check, superior.

Except for one tiny, little nugget, I conveniently neglected to input into the equation: I was also wearing sunglasses and a bandanna beneath my backwards facing hat. The only difference between the three of us was that I didn’t wear this gear on a day-to-day basis. I wore this getup for the sole purpose of concealing my true identity. I was so embarrassed to be a ding ding man that short of wearing a fake beard and a Groucho Marx nose and eyeglasses, I had every inch of my identity concealed from the public.

They didn’t know any this of course. They must have thought I was a bandanna, beneath a backwards facing hat, and sunglasses brutha, and that may have been the primary reason they decided to stop and chat with me in the first place. It may have been the reason they were so relaxed about their status, and my status, and the superior versus inferior roles in our approach to one another. When this idea hit me, I felt superior, until I realized that if I was superior, I wasn’t doing anything with it, and that fact led me to be embarrassed that I was now wearing a bandanna, beneath a backwards facing hat, and sunglasses. I wondered if I input that new information into the paradigm if it might make me inferior to them. Then it dawned on me how many points we derive from knowing our limitations, and learning to live with them, until we’re so comfortable with who we are that we’re radiating self-possession. I realized that in my bandanna, beneath a backwards facing hat, and sunglasses façade, I was going to get no points in any of these categories.

The bandanas, with hats on backwards, and sunglasses wore no shirts, and they were riding in a beat up, old International truck, that rattled in idle. They were construction guys with dark, rich tans that made their teeth appear whiter when they smiled and laughed. My guess, watching these two twentysomethings speak, was that even though they appeared inferior, they had no trouble landing women. My guess was that among those girls that knew them well, there was a whole lot of adulation going on. I didn’t know that to be a fact, of course, but guys like me –who were always on the lookout for what I missed in life– were always looking to guys like these for ideas.

They laughed a genuine laugh at some of the things I said. I remember that what I said had something to do with the business side of being a ding ding man, but I can’t remember specifics. I do remember their laughter, and I do remember wondering if they were laughing with me or at me. At this point in my life, I just escaped a high school that contained a large swath of people that were often laughing at me. This casual conversation among men reminded me of those kids I escaped, and it revealed the shield that I erected whenever I thought their types neared.

Something I did not expect happened to me in the midst of this conversation, however, and it happened soon after they told me they had to go. This something caused me to miss them before they drove away. I enjoyed speaking with them, and I realized that they had no pretensions about them. I realized that these two might have been just a couple of good guys, and that I liked being the guy they thought I was. The latter point was the something I didn’t expect. I wasn’t sure what it was they thought they saw, but I liked it, and it led me to watch them drive away until they were gone. The idea that most people speak in superlatives was not lost on me, but most people who knew me well said that I might have been one of the most uptight, frustrated, and angst-ridden individuals they’ve ever meet and the costume I currently wore supported that characterization more than I care to admit. Very few of these people have ever accused me of being too relaxed.

The idea that I was unable to put high school behind me didn’t hit me at the time, but looking back, I realize that my inability to enjoy a simple, casual conversation with some decent fellas –that just happened to drive up on me– was just that. I was still playing that proverbial king of the mountain game, a game I often lost in high school, and I was still so locked into a defensive position that it had ruined my life for years.

Is it true that we’re searching for a point of superiority, or inferiority, in even the most casual conversations? I don’t know, and some would say no, and others would say hell no! “I’m just asking you what you think about the latest wheat and grain prices on the commodity markets.” So, why do we loathe speaking to some people? What makes us so uncomfortable that we leave some of the most casual conversations feeling incomplete and inferior, and why do we enjoy casual conversations with others so much more? The tricky, sticky element of this argument is that most who propose that in some way, shape, or form these elements shape just about every conversation we have, wish we never discovered it. Now that our mind’s eye is open to the idea, we wish we could turn it off, and enjoy the fruits of casual conversations again.

If it is true that every single conversation has these elements in some form, where was I in this casual conversation with two guys that wore a bandanna, beneath a backwards facing hat and sunglasses? That was never established in a substantial manner, but my takeaway from this particular encounter was that for a very brief moment in my life, I didn’t care, and that might have been what I liked, what I missed, and what caused me to watch them drive away.

The Exit Strategy of Sitcoms


Finding the perfect formula for humor can be difficult. Most of us screw jokes up so often that it can be embarrassing. Some of us mess the stresses up when it comes to punctuating a punch line in a proper manner. Some of us have horrible joke-telling rhythm. Some of us provide our audience the exact same material as the best comic in the world, but for some reason we just don’t hit the mark in the exact same manner they do. What happens? Why didn’t they fall over laughing the way they did when that comedian told the joke?

The first thing we all need to do is relax for just a second and realize that we’re not as funny as Jerry Seinfeld is, and we never will be, and no one else is either. The next thing to focus on is that Jerry Seinfeld is not as funny as Jerry Seinfeld is. We’ve all seen interviews with the man, and we have seen that he is a humorous man, but he’s not as funny in everyday life, as he is on stage, or on TV. He works his tail off to perfect these routines, and those skits, and he fails more often than he succeeds. The difference is, we only see the successful portions of his ability to make people laugh. That standup routine we witnessed is a result of constant practice, and the honing and refining of his material. He places emphasis on a punchline, finds out if that works or not, and tries it another way when it doesn’t. This is what he does for a living, and he has stated that most of his concerts are a testing ground for that pursuit of the perfect tone, emphasis, and rhythm for telling the perfect joke. The basis of our frustration regarding our inability to execute our joke lies in the idea that we couldn’t execute it in the manner of an expert comedian after spending one impulsive minute (sometimes less) thinking about it.

One of the easiest ways we’ve found to evoke laughter among our friends at the water cooler is to mimic the patterns, and rhythms, of these comedians and their situation comedies (sitcoms). People already know those patterns. They’re tried and tested rhythmic structures that focus group tones and exit strategies. People are more comfortable with these patterns and rhythms, so it’s just easier, and less taxing, to copy them. We all do it in one form or another. Some of us wish we didn’t have to resort to that, but we can’t help it. We want the laugh.

A friend of mine believed the finer points of joke telling came down to his exit. I don’t know if he sat around and thought about it, or if he picked it up over the years, but he appeared to believe that the perfect exit would cover for any deficiencies he may have otherwise had telling jokes. He was a nervous guy. He doesn’t speak well in public, and we never broke the barrier between acquaintance and friendship to a point where he would’ve been at ease telling me a joke. Long story short, he was nervous around me.

Through the years we worked together, I had somehow attained some sort of upper-echelon status in his joke-telling world. If he ever came across a fantastic joke, in other words, he felt compelled to bring it to me. Regardless how nervous I made him, he had to tell me the joke, but he couldn’t look at me when he did it.

Before attempting his exit, the guy would lean down, and put his hands on the desk before him. This was, I’m guessing, his joke-telling stance. I can’t remember any of the actual jokes he told me. Most of them weren’t as great as he thought they were, but they weren’t that bad either. The actual jokes don’t matter though. What mattered to me were his exits. He had this whole routine down. He would lean down, tell the joke, and deliver the punch line. In the immediate aftermath of the punch line, he would pull his hands away from the desk in a swift manner and exit in an erratic fashion. This erratic exit was supposed to punctuate the joke. It was supposed to add to the comedic rhythm. “Get in, get out” was his strategy. Don’t stick around for the laughter. If you execute the perfect exit, the laughter will follow as a matter of course. It will arise in appreciation for the exit, as punctuation for the rhythm the audience feels compelled to conclude with you. “Get in, GET OUT!”

It’s a compulsion that diehard TV watchers feel compelled to add to the tail end of sitcom jokes after watching them for so many decades. This compulsion is so strong that it feels instinctual. The one “don’t try this at home” lesson that my friend illustrated is the comedic exit. His attempt at the maneuver carried with it a warning asterisk: Make sure you have somewhere to go in your exit. There is no “exit stage left” in real life. In real life, there is no curtain concealing the actor’s exit backstage. In real life, even trained TV watchers watch you leave, and some of the times, they see the real life actor trapped in the reality of having nowhere to go.

There have been times when my friend has attempted an exit stage left, after executing the perfect punchline tone and pitch, and ended up in another row of desks with nothing to do there. It’s embarrassing. The sitcoms don’t cover this, for their characters always have a predetermined destination. No one offered my friend, this luxury, and anyone watching him could see that he didn’t plan his exits well.

The pained question I see on his face, when I ask him to return is, “Why do you need jokes explained to you. Most jokes don’t survive explanations.” True, but some do. The presentation of some jokes requires explanation, whether that be due to a flawed presentation, or the inability of the listener to follow it well. Call all of those that require explanation stupid if you want, but if you’re going to come to us with a joke, be prepared to stick around for some of the questions.

On those occasions when the nature of the joke forced me to call my friend back, we would both look at each other with pained expressions. “I’m sorry,” my expression would say, “I just don’t get it.” Some of the times, he would come back and explain his joke to me, and we would be so uncomfortable that I felt compelled to laugh harder than I otherwise would have as an act of contrition for forcing him to provide follow-up. I had ruined his exit, and we both knew it, so I felt the need to cover for this sense of violation.

On other occasions, he would exit to a location so far away that it would be inconceivable for me to call him back. I would still call him back, but he often pretends that he can no longer hear me. We would then share an uncomfortable look when he established the fact that he was not returning. You’re not ruining what I consider the perfect exit, his gait stated, to explain things to you in the manner I have far too many times before. You’re just going to have to figure this one out yourself.

Are you Superior?


If an individual is strong or gifted in the athletic arena, they already know the feeling of superiority, as most of us regard one with physical traits superior. For the rest of us, the search is not as simple. It’s often difficult, and fruitless, to stare into a mirror and gain true, objective definition, so we use comparative analysis –through our day-to-day interactions– to try to gain information about ourselves and our true identity. The one unfortunate characteristic to this quest is that we gain definition on the backs of others.

Most people we encounter dress us down psychologically, soon after we meet them. Why do they do it? They probably don’t know why. If they did, they likely wouldn’t attribute it to a search for superiority, but they do know that they’re searching for something that will give them a lift for the day. These searches may occur in the first few moments we begin speaking to them, and it often begins with our physical appearance. Are we well groomed? Do we brush our teeth? Are all of our nose and ear hairs trimmed? Do we have a socially accepted hairdo? How much did we pay for it? How much did we pay for the clothes we wear? Do we wear fashionable clothes? If clothes make the man, what kind of man are we? Some say it’s all about the shoes. Others say that by creating a pleasing dimple in the tie, by denting that tie with the thumb in the tying process, a person can create quite a first impression. Most people don’t speak in terms of superiority or inferiority in polite company. Yet, those same people are worried about the first impressions they make. What are impressions, but an attempt to define one’s self among their peers?

Is it all about the clothes, or do we make a better first impression with the way we stand, the way we sit, the manner in which we hold our head when we talk, or whether or not we can look our counterpart in the eye? Do we have a tongue stud? Are we a tattooed individual, or a non-tattooed individual, and who is superior in that dynamic? It’s all relative.

First impressions can be difficult to overcome, but some believe what we say after the first impression has greater import. If we have a fatal flaw –noticeable in the first impression– we can garner sympathy or empathy, through an underdog status, with what we say in the follow up impression we provide.

To further this theory, some believe that if we notify our counterpart of this weakness –say in the form of a self-deprecating joke– it will redound to the benefit of a strong follow up impression. The subtext involves the idea that doing so will end their search for our weakness, and the feeling of superiority they gain will allow them to feel more comfortable with us. This, we hope, will result in them enjoying our company more. 

Comedian Louie Anderson turned this into an art form. Moments after stepping foot on stage, Louie Anderson informs his audience that he’s overweight in the form of a well-rehearsed joke. The first impression we have of Louie is that he is overweight. When he follows that first impression up with a quality, self-deprecating joke it disarms us. We thought we were superior to him, based on his physical flaw. By acknowledging that flaw, Louie takes that feeling of superiority away from us, and he gives it back to us with his definition of it. That re-definition of our superiority allows him to go ahead and manipulate us in all the ways a comedian needs to manipulate a crowd. The distraction of our physical superiority is gone, and we’re now free to enjoy the comedic stylings of Louie Anderson.

The problem with such a successful follow up to a first presentation rears its ugly head when we begin to overdo it. When our self-deprecating humor works in the second stage of impression, we attempt to move into the more personal third and fourth stages of impression. In these stages, we feel more comfortable with the person on their receiving end, and we let our guard down. The problem we encounter, partially due to our insecurity, is that these people are not as entertained by us as they were in the second, more self-deprecating stage of impression. As a result, we might begin to fall back on the more successful, second impression to lessen the impact of our attempts to be more personal with them. “Of course I’m nothing but a fat body, so what do I know,” is a qualifier that we insecure types add to an insightful comment we made that they don’t find entertaining. When that proves successful, and our counterparts begin laughing again, we begin committing to this qualifier so often that we become that weakness in their eyes. They can’t help believing this is who we are, because it’s the impression we’ve given them so often that it becomes part of what they think of us. One way to test if we’ve fallen prey to this progression is to remove that successful, qualifier that we have been adding to the tail end of our jokes and stories to gain favor with them. If we have been adding it too often, the recipient of the qualifier might add, “That’s true, but aren’t you fat?” to the tail end of our story for us.

Some of the times, we commit to these additions to complete the rhythm of a joke, or story, but most of the times we do it to insert some element of superiority or inferiority. Thanks to certain situation comedies, and the effect they’ve had on the zeitgeist, some jokes, stories, and thoughts feel incomplete without some element of superiority or inferiority attached to it. I used to be a qualifier, until I realized that too many people were exploiting my qualifiers for their own sense of superiority. It was so bad, at one point, that I couldn’t say anything halfway intelligent without someone adding, “That’s true, but aren’t you fat?” at the tail end of it.

***

It’s my contention that most of us are in a constant search of indicators of superiority or inferiority. If our counterpart is religious, we may feel superior to them because we’re not. If we are religious, we may want to know what religion they are, and we may base our feelings of superiority on that.

“They’re all going to hell,” a friend of mine commented when we passed a group of Muslims. When I asked why she thought this, she said, “They don’t accept the Lord, Jesus Christ as their personal savior.” 

I’ve heard Christians use that condemnation many times, but I rarely heard someone use it as a weapon of superiority. I realized some time later that this was all this woman had. She hated her job, her kids hated her, and she was far from attractive, or in good shape. She needed this nugget of superiority to help her get through the day, and to assist her in believing that she was, at least, superior to someone in some manner.

On the flip side of the coin, a Muslim friend of mine seemed forever curious about the American way of life. She would constantly ask me questions about the motivations I had for doing what I did. It dawned on me later that she was searching for points of superiority. She saw the Muslim religion as a clean religion from which she gained a feeling of purity. There is nothing wrong with that, of course, until she used that as a weapon of superiority against me.

The search for where we stand in this chasm of superiority and inferiority can be a difficult one to traverse, so we often attempt to answer them on the backs of others. It’s a shortcut around introspective examination and self-reflection. Some feel superior to another, based on that other’s religion, their politics, their race, or their education level. Some even gain feelings of superiority based on the manner they brush their teeth. Those who brush their teeth top to bottom are not doing it in the manner advised by the American Dental Association. Others base their comparative analyses on the manner in which a person shaves their pubic hair. If one person leaves a strip and another shaves Brazilian who is superior, and who is inferior, and where does the person that lets it all grow wild stand in that dynamic? We all have some positions of superiority and inferiority, and most of them are relative.

This modern battle for psychological definition often calls for the subtleties and nuance of guerrilla style warfare. The age of standing toe to toe occurred in the days of duels, and The Civil War, but most field generals of the modern age mind would never risk their troops in the type of toe-to-toe battles that former battalion leaders considered the gentleman’s way to fight. On that note, no one, of the modern age, would ever ask their counterpart if they think they’re superior, in other words, for that might involve some sort of equivocation that details the strengths and weaknesses of both parties in which no one is a winner and no one a loser. No, the battle between two modern day, psychological combatants, more often than not, involves a never-ending battle of guerrilla warfare-style pot shots.

For those, like me, who feel guilty about cashing in on those opportunities to nuke another person’s argument for the purpose of gaining superiority, my advice is to refrain judiciously. Some of us will take any opportunity afforded us to make another person look bad. They enjoy it, especially when they consider that other person to be superior in some way. Others don’t enjoy this, as we have intimate knowledge of the embarrassment that can accompany looking bad in front of others. We also feel some empathy for those who say things that can be easily corrected. We hold our fire. In a perfect world, others would value such judiciousness, and they would return it. For various reasons, including the idea that most people do not know when we’re refraining, it is not valued. Some may even consider it a display of weakness on our part.

In a perfect world, our interactions would call for facets of the modern definition of warfare. Most people would wait for enemy fire before firing, to win the battle off the field as well as winning the one on it. The problem with refraining too often, or only firing in self-defense, with those we battle in psychological warfare, is that most enemy combatants do not view refraining as an order to ceasefire. One would think that in the absence of pot shots, the other party would recognize the cease and desist order. In my experience, they don’t. They sense weakness, and they open fire. Something about the human condition suggests that even the most empathetic and sympathetic souls stay vigilant, and fire off a few rounds every once in a while just to keep our enemy combatants hunkered down behind shields. Even if it is just to keep them level with us, the individual with their mind’s eye open to the psychological games we all play must keep firing, if for no other reason than to remind all of our opponents of the arsenal we have at our disposal. 

The Leans


“This is it,” a former co-worker said approaching my desk. He was so close when he said that, he startled me. He was a close talker, but he narrowed his customary gap in this particular instance. “My final farewell to you, my friend,” he added. “I’m leaving the company. I’m on my way out the door.”

“Oh shoot,” I said to the man that was a close associate. The term friends would a bit extreme to describe our relationship, but we always talked about the stupid stuff that people that like each other, from a distance, talk about. “It was great working with you buddy.”

This “Final Farewell” had been in its gestation period for about two weeks, two weeks prior to this moment. I went to his going away party, we discussed his future at length, and we engaged in some final farewells. I thought that those final farewells, and all the ones prior to it, were the final farewells, but his presence at my desk told me that that was premature. I told him it wouldn’t be the same here without him, as I had in all of the previous final farewells, but I felt compelled to add original material to this one. Therefore, I added some sentimental junk that I didn’t mean. I was being nice, and I was trying to make him feel important in my life. In truth, I liked the guy, but he sort of bothered me, in insignificant ways, at the same time.

I asked him if he was excited about his future prospects, and I told him that I was jealous that he was doing something so important with his life. I wasn’t all that jealous, and I didn’t think he was doing anything important, or anything that I would want to do, but it seemed like an original addition to this version of our final farewell.

I told him that I thought he was a swell fella, and a nice guy, and I meant that.

I asked him if he was a little scared about the prospect of leaving the comfy confines our company offered to venture out into the mean, cruel world where the prospect of failure was greater. He said yes to all of the above. Then he launched.

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

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

We were fellow office workers, and we were associates, as I said. We got along on those levels, so receiving the invitation to his going away party wasn’t a great shock to me. When I arrived at that party, we said our hellos, and he gave me a final farewell, but we didn’t talk much beyond that. The lack of attention didn’t wound me. The guy gave me as much attention, at that party, as I felt our association had warranted.

This Casablanca-style parting was just way beyond protocol as far as I was concerned though. I wished him well and all that, and he again went into the same speech he have given me at the party. He told me that he thought I was one of the good ones, that I was going to make it, and that he wanted me to keep him updated on my life. He then concluded with some talk about the trepidation he felt, stepping into a new frontier, but he explained that he was just as excited by the prospects of it.

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

He entered into a serious case of the leans with my desk neighbor. He was exiting the aisle my cubicle was in, and my desk neighbor was entering into it. He dodged to the left. She dodged left. He dodged right, she dodged right, and they were ensconced in that awkward dodging about to get past the other person that resulted in four separate and distinct leans.

Had my friend been extracting himself from a casual conversation, and exiting the aisle in a more routine manner, they would have been able to avoid much of what followed. I think he would’ve been able to avoid the spectacle that ended up occurring between these two, if he had felt no need to execute a departure to be marked in the annals of time for all of those “that were there” to witness his ride into the sunset. I think he would’ve been the gentleman he was, and he would’ve simply stepped left to allow my female desk mate to pass if the moment involved a more routine departure. At worst, the two of them may have engaged in two leans, if he hadn’t hoped that this version of “The Final Farewell” would include tears, or women waving handkerchiefs, or someone, somewhere to saying: “You know what, there goes one hell of a good feller.” I assume that he pictured the rest of as side characters in his story that characterize the attributes of the main character in a movie scene, he deemed “The Final Farewell” scene.

Whatever images this man had in his head, before approaching my desk, I doubt he prepared for what would follow

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

I’ve witnessed two separate leans on so many occasions it’s not worth cataloging, and I’ve witnessed more than my fair share of three. The one thing we do know about cases like these is that no one escapes them unscathed, for as the cliché illustrates “it takes two to tango.” The only person I’ve ever witnessed maintain a modicum of dignity following such an episode was a nondescript, middle-aged, paunchy restaurant hostess named Susan.

“Shall we dance?” is what she said.

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

What she was doing was susceptible to interpretation, as this woman named Susan has maintained a degree of humility that prevents her from addressing the full import of her purported casual salvo. Those that witnessed Susan issue this phrase will swear, to their dying day, that something prompted Susan to set the rest of us free from the ridicule that often follows such an episode. We can only assume that Susan had experienced similar ridicule for much of her life, and that it bothered her so much that she sought to put an end to it. If that wasn’t the case, it might have had something to do with Susan witnessing so many other subjects of public scorn that had no remedy. Her hope might be that we spread the word and put an end to this scale of human suffering. Whatever the case was, this unassuming restaurant hostess provided those of us that were lucky enough to be there that day, a shield against public scorn that some of us would use the rest of our lives. We may never have carried it off with the grace Susan had that day, but we would always think of her, and silently thank her, for freeing us from this ever-present spectacle in our lives.

Had my former co-worker, friend learned of this antidote prior to his own case of the leans, he may have been spared the humiliation this case caused. I doubted this at the time, and I still do, for I considered Susan’s humorous quip an antidote to two, and in her case three, separate and distinct leans, but I wasn’t sure that even this phrase would shield one from everything that would follow four.

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

We all want to be remembered, and perhaps that’s all my former co-worker was doing, delivering final farewells to so many people that he accidentally said goodbye to the same people more than twice. I don’t know how much preparation my former co-worker put into his final farewells, but I’m sure he did it so that he could let each of us know how important we were to him, and to have the sentiment returned. This is not to suggest that my former co-worker’s actions were, in any sense, self-serving, but everyone wants those around them to remember that we were here. It is possible that had he escaped unencumbered by my desk neighbor, his final farewell may have had the lasting effect he hoped for, but the lasting memory I now have of him consists of him shucking and jiving with my desk neighbor, trying to get past her for a dramatic ride off into the sunset.

The ‘You Don’t Have a Shot in Hell’ Ray


A co-worker of mine shot a “you don’t have a shot in hell” ray at me, the other day at the gym. I did not deserve this. I waved at her. That’s all. I pulled my earbuds out as she approached my elliptical machine. I was prepared to have a polite, engaging conversation with her. I didn’t expect the “you don’t have a shot in hell” glare I received when she made it half of the way to me. I was a good friend.

She used to talk to me about the issues that bothered her, and I listened, and I was an active listener. Some of her conversation topics bored me, but I made sure she never knew it. We used to talk about some of the guys she was hoping to date. I was jealous. I wanted her to speak about me in this manner, but I never pushed it. I was a good friend. We worked in the same department for three years. We even sat by each other for about three months. We talked all the time. I say hello to her one day at a gym, and boom she shoots me a “you don’t have a shot in hell” ray that crippled me in a psychological manner. I was a good friend!

She did return the wave. She fulfilled her portion of polite protocol, but she did so in a guarded manner. It was an annoyed wave, and I’m not being sensitive when I write this. The most casual observer could have read her body language and determined that she didn’t even want to give me that, but she was polite, and then she followed that up by shooting that ray at me. Why would she do that? I was such a good friend that it seemed unfair.

I saw her at work the next day, and she gave me an over enthusiastic hello. She did everything but hug me. She knew what she did. She felt guilty. She knew I was a good friend.

Setting her internal phaser on “you don’t have a shot in hell” may have been reflexive, but I was the one saying hello. I was the buddy. I didn’t enjoy the limitation, but I abided by it just to have her talk to me on one otherwise innocuous afternoon. I was the one that listened her stories, and her honest confessions, without once looking at her breasts. I looked at her breasts. We all did. They were two, compact missiles set to stun any onlooker, but I wasn’t looking at them when she went into her deep, meaningful moments. I was a good gawdamned friend!

I’m the one that joked with her, listened to her complaints about the job and our co-workers without an eye to a future dating world, and she treats me like a hungry dawg whimpering for table scraps? I hate to sound like a seventh grade girl, but I’m done with her. I won’t go beyond the polite protocol with her from this point forward. How dare this girl, with incredible breasts, give me anything less than a polite ‘how do you do?’ I was one incredible friend.

The thing is she is a nice girl, and she may have just been having a bad day. It’s possible that others flirted with her a couple times before she saw me, and I sympathize with the idea that the constant barrage fatigued her, but I was at a point in my life where I decided to make an example of her. It’s my hope that my decision to defriend her will teach her, and the rest of her fantastic looking girlfriends, with fantastic breasts and apple-shaped bottoms, a little lesson in decorum when she posts this moment on her exclusive “great looking girls” website. I want her to tell them that good friends don’t deserve the “you don’t have a shot in hell” ray no matter what the circumstances are at that time.

I realize that she may have seen the enthusiasm with which I waved to her, and mistook it for my desire to do unspeakable things to her, and her adjective-defying breasts, her apple-shaped bottom, and curves that would have the Pope giving her second look, but this was not the case with her former friend and confidant. I’m sure that the constant barrage of men hitting on her so often has led her to hone her defense mechanisms, but I was such a good friend. Perhaps, she has had even had good friends hit on her, and she’s had those friendships dissolve as a result, so it’s best to have the “you don’t have a shot in hell” ray set whenever you leave your home. Well, I don’t play by those rules, and I won’t abide by them in the aftermath, so be good anonymous girl and have a good life. You won’t have this friend to kick around anymore. You just lost one fantastic friend missy!

Part II: We’ll Call Her Katie