Wearing a Mask the Face Grows Into


The purpose behind the short story, Shooting the Elephant, is to describe our lifelong struggle between acting in an authentic manner and ceding to group thought. As anyone that has ever attempted to write a story, the true story lies within the story. As anyone that has attempted to write a story, stories are stories. Some of them list a chronology of seemingly irrelevant events that happened in a person’s life and documenting them. A great writer can take one of those moments and translate them into a meaningful moment, and they do so by attempting to dig into the depths of why the players involved acted the way they did. The author may also become obsessed with why they acted the way they did. What was my motivation at the time, a writer may ask, and what does it say about me, or what does it say about humanity as a whole? 

As a standalone, i.e., listing off the events that took place, I’m guessing that the aspiring writer –that was Eric Arthur Blair– considered the story incomplete and without purpose. I’m guessing that it was probably written numerous times, in search of a driving force, and that that probably was not achieved without some creativity on George Orwell’s part in the rewrites.

We can also guess, based upon what Blair would achieve under the pseudonym George Orwell, that the search for the quality story, supported by a quality theme, was the driving force behind his effort. If the driving force behind writing a story is to achieve fame or acclaim, so goes the theory, you’ll have neither the fame nor a quality story. The mentality most quality writers bring to a piece is that fame and acclaim are great, but it should be nothing more than a welcome byproduct of a well-written piece. Shooting the Elephant is a good story, but it’s the fact that it has a fantastic purpose-driven, central message that led Eric Arthur Blair to achieve fame as George Orwell.

HappyFaceResizeIn the pre-Facebook world, the story Shooting the Elephant –sans the purpose-driven, central message– would’ve probably been viewed as nothing more than one man describing an eventful day in an otherwise uneventful life in his youth. It may have also been considered a decent travelogue piece, as the setting of the story occurred in Burma. Without the central theme, however, it may have sat on a shelf somewhere and Eric Blair may never have become George Orwell. The writer may never have published the piece. It may have sat on his shelf as a chronicle of an event with no home.

It’s also possible –knowing that Shooting the Elephant was one of Orwell’s first stories– that the theme of the story occurred in the exact manner Orwell portrays, and he built the story around that theme, and he then proceeded to build a writing career around that theme. The actuality of what happened to Orwell, while employed as the British Empire’s police officer in Burma is impossible to know, and subject to debate, but the quality of the psychological examination Orwell puts into the first person, ‘I’ character is not debatable, as it relays to the pressure the onlookers exert on the main character, based on his mystique. It’s also the reason Orwell wrote this story, and the many other stories that examine this theme in many different ways.

The first person, ‘I’ character of George Orwell’s Shooting an Elephant was a sub-divisional police officer of the town of Burma. Orwell writes how this job, as sub-divisional police officer, brought him to a point where he began to see the evil underbelly of imperialism for what it was, a result of the Burmese people resenting him for his role as the one placed among them to provide the order the British Empire for the otherwise disorderly “natives” of Burma. Orwell writes, how he in turn, began to loathe some of the Burmese as a result, while secretly cheering them on against the occupiers, his home country Britain. It all came to a head, for him, when a tamed elephant went must<1>. As the sub-divisional police officer, Orwell was called upon to shoot the elephant.

Orwell describes the encounter in this manner:

“It was a tiny incident in itself, but it gave me a better glimpse than I had had before of the real nature of imperialism – the real motives for which despotic governments act.”

The escaped elephant gone must wreaked some carnage in his path from the bazaar to the spot where Orwell came upon him. En route to the eventual spot where Orwell came upon the elephant, Orwell encountered several Burmese people that informed him of the elephant gone must. Orwell then discovered a dead man on the elephant’s destructive path that Orwell describes as a black Dravidian<2>coolie in one spot of the story, and a Coringhee<3> coolie in another. Several witnesses confirmed, for Orwell, the fact that the elephant had killed the man.

When the ‘I character’ finally comes upon the elephant, he sees it “peacefully eating, the elephant looked no more dangerous than a cow,” Orwell then describes the Burmese throng that surrounded him:

“It was an immense crowd, two thousand at the least and growing every minute. It blocked the road for a long distance on either side. I looked at the sea of yellow faces above the garish clothes-faces all happy and excited over this bit of fun, all certain that the elephant was going to be shot. They were watching me as they would watch a conjurer about to perform a trick. They did not like me, but with the magical rifle in my hands I was momentarily worth watching. And suddenly I realized that I should have to shoot the elephant after all. The people expected it of me and I had got to do it; I could feel their two thousand wills pressing me forward, irresistibly. And it was at this moment, as I stood there with the rifle in my hands, that I first grasped the hollowness, the futility of the white man’s dominion in the East. Here was I, the white man with his gun, standing in front of the unarmed native crowd – seemingly the leading actor of the piece; but in reality I was only an absurd puppet pushed to and fro by the will of those yellow faces behind. I perceived in this moment that when the white man turns tyrant it is his own freedom that he destroys. He becomes a sort of hollow, posing dummy, the conventionalized figure of a sahib<4>. For it is the condition of his rule that he shall spend his life in trying to impress the “natives,” and so in every crisis he has got to do what the “natives” expect of him. He wears a mask, and his face grows to fit it. I had got to shoot the elephant. I had committed myself to doing it when I sent for the rifle. A sahib has got to act like a sahib; he has got to appear resolute, to know his own mind and do definite things. To come all that way, rifle in hand, with two thousand people marching at my heels, and then to trail feebly away, having done nothing – no, that was impossible. The crowd would laugh at me.  And my whole life, every white man’s life in the East, was one long struggle not to be laughed at.

Orwell states that he did not want to shoot the elephant, but he felt compelled by the very presence of the thousands of “natives” surrounding him to proceed.  He writes:

“A white man mustn’t be frightened in front of “natives”; and so, in general, he isn’t frightened. The sole thought in my mind was that if anything went wrong those two thousand Burmans would see me pursued, caught, trampled on and reduced to a grinning corpse like that (coolie) up the hill. And if that happened it was quite probable that some of them would laugh.”

In the aftermath of the shooting of the animal, Orwell describes the controversy that arose, and he concluded it with:

“I was very glad that the coolie had been killed; it put me legally in the right and it gave me a sufficient pretext for shooting the elephant. I often wondered whether any of the others grasped that I had done it solely to avoid looking a fool.”

The Hard-Ass Boss

A boss of mine enjoyed the mystique of being a hard-ass. He enjoyed having those of us under him believe that he would do whatever it took to get maximum efficiency out of his employees. If we did well, he took credit for it. If we did poorly, say for a week or a month, not only did he direct 100% of the blame on us, he informed us that he would not be there to defend us in an indirect fashion. I cannot speak for all of the employees that were on his team, but I was not motivated by fear of this man, or the need to impress him. I was motivated by the idea that one slip up on my part could land me my walking papers.

Those of us that worked under this hard ass boss knew he would not defend us, even if we had verifiable reasons that warranted a defense. We figured that if we had that reason that we might have to go to our Human Resources department to mount a defense, and there was also a sneaking suspicion we had that he may mount a defense against us in that meeting.

This resulted in most of us believing that he cared little-to-nothing about us and only about advancing his mystique, until it advanced him within the company. Was this a fair characterization? It may not have been, but it was pervasive throughout the team, and he never did anything to dispel us of this notion.

Thus, when I was called upon to meet with him in a closed-door, one-on-one session to discuss a punishment I was to receive for a transgression, I was surprised to find him congenial and unassuming. I had expected the worst. I was wrong. He cut my punishment in half, and he did so with a smile, a pleasant and unassuming smile.

I was disappointed, and I also lost some respect for him. I couldn’t explain it, and I could’t avoid pursuing it. The characterization I had of him was such that when he didn’t punish me in an unfair manner, above and beyond that which his superiors accorded to him. I was left to fill in the blanks with pleasant and assumptive characterizations. 

He offered me another pleasant and unassuming smile in the silence that followed.

“See, I’m not such a bad guy,” he said.

If he had asked me what I thought, before leaving this closed-door session, I would’ve told him that he might have been better off refraining from those smiles, and he would’ve been better off just giving me the full punishment. I would’ve told him that the mystique he had a hand in creating was so firmly entrenched, by the time we spoke in this one-on-one, that he was in a no-win situation … If it was his hope that I like him, or think that he’s not such a bad guy after all. I would’ve informed him that once you establish a firm, hard-ass leadership mystique, doing otherwise will only lead the recipient of your leniency to believe that you are flexing your authoritative muscle as a condescending reminder to those that are under your stewardship that they will forever be subjected to your whims and moods, until they leave the room loathing you more than they had when they entered.

I would’ve ended my assessment by informing him that he’s worked hard to foster this image, and sustain this mystique, that he should probably just sit back and enjoy it. The employees on your team are now working harder than they ever have, because they fear what you won’t do to help them if they don’t. They’re also putting a great deal of effort into avoiding anything that could even be reasonably perceived as wrongdoing, based on the idea that if they get caught up in something that you won’t defend them. I would tell him that by firmly establishing yourself as a hard-ass boss you’ve given up the freedom of latitude in your reactions. We’ve adjusted our working lives to this mask you created, and any attempt you make, going forward, to foster a “nice guy” image will be perceived as weakness, and it will not redound to the benefit of any of the parties involved.

It’s too late for you, and your current mystique, I would inform him, but if you want to escape this cycle in your next management position, clear your desk library of all of these unread “how-to lead” guides that you have arranged for maximum visibility and pick up a copy of Orwell’s Shooting the Elephant. In this story, you will find the true detriment of creating a hard-ass boss mask, until your face grows into it, and while it may impress your superiors to be this way, the downside will arrive when you try to impress upon the natives” the idea that you’re not such a bad guy after all, and you spend the rest of your days trying to escape the spiraling duality of these expectations.

<1> Must, or Musth, is a periodic condition in bull (male) elephants, characterized by highly aggressive behavior and accompanied by a large rise in reproductive hormones.

<2> A Dravidian is described as any of a group of intermixed peoples chiefly in S India and N Sri Lanka

<3> A Coringhee coolie” refers to such an Indian immigrant working in colonial Burma as an unskilled laborer in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.

<4> Sahib –A name of Arabic origin meaning “holder, master or owner”.

The Paris Syndrome


There are a number of psychological tactics that modern casinos will spare no expense to learn, and employ, to get an individual to part with more of their money. Some would go so far to say that anytime that a person steps into a modern day casino, they’re stepping into the finished product of think tanks, and psychological studies. These casinos want to create an exciting, yet soothing experience that distracts the gambler from the stress they might associate with losing all of their money, but there is no psychological tactic more endemic to the ultimate success of a modern day casino than the psychological manipulations of expectations.

“We’ll always have Paris.”

Expectation, successful casinos have learned, is more powerful than the reality of accomplishment, or winning. When a slot machine player sees a triple bar drop into the first slot, only to be followed by another triple bar, that brief moment of excited expectation has been determined to provide the player a more powerful psychological boost than the reality that would occur if that third slot were filled with another third triple bar.

When that king eventually drops, with strategic slowness, into that third slot, we’re disappointed when we look up at the menu list of winnings atop the slot machine and realize we’ve actually won nothing, but the thrill that occurred before that third slot was filled, and the idea that we came “so close” is more powerful, and more conducive to us continuing on that machine, than winning would actually be. Without drawing on that exact scenario, Rosecrans Baldwin, author of the book Paris, I Love You, but You’re Bringing me Down, suggests that the same psychological thrill of expectation occurs when one plans a vacation to Paris, France.

Paris is the world renowned capital of love. For as long as most of us have been alive, Paris has provided the setting for some of the most famous, romantic movies, books, and songs. Many people we know list visiting Paris on their bucket list. If, for no other reason, than to find out what everyone is going on about. There’s an air of mystery about the city that we all need to experience for ourselves.  As is normally the case, the narrative, and the expectation derived from that narrative, is much more powerful than the reality. Some, that have vacationed in Paris, are often so distressed by the reality of what they experience that it can cause a psychological disorder called The Paris Syndrome.

“Japanese visitors are particularly susceptible to this,” writes Rosecrans Baldwin. “This is possibly due to the uber-romantic image that Paris holds for the Japanese.” This can get so bad, for some Japanese travelers, Baldwin writes, that “The Japanese embassy used to repatriate sufferers with a doctor or nurse aboard the plane ride back to Japan.”

NBC News also had a report on this subject that stated that:

“Around a dozen Japanese tourists a year need psychological treatment after visiting Paris as the reality of unfriendly locals and scruffy streets clashes with their expectations, a newspaper reported on Sunday.”

That Sunday newspaper also quoted psychologist Herve Benhamou saying:

“Fragile travelers can lose their bearings. When the idea they have of (a place like Paris) meets the reality of what they discover, it can provoke a crisis.”

Bernard Delage, from an association called Jeunes Japon, that helps Japanese families settle in France, is also quoted as saying:

“In Japanese shops, the customer is king, whereas (in places like Paris) assistants hardly look at them … People using public transport all look stern, and handbag snatchers increase the ill feeling.”

A Japanese woman, Aimi, that had some experience with this disorder, told the paper:

“For us, Paris is a dream city. All the French are beautiful and elegant … And then, when they arrive, the Japanese find the French character is the complete opposite of their own.” {1}

After deciding to take up residence in Paris, author Rosecrans Baldwin found that:

“Smiling is discouraged for Parisians posing for documentation like Metro passes or tennis-court permits.” 

Most citizens, the world around, can identify with this procedure. We’ve all had experience with employees in legal departments, and DMVs, telling us that smiling is discouraged when posing for headshots that will appear in legal documentation. It’s not illegal to smile in those situations, just as it, presumably, is not illegal to smile when posing for Parisian documentation headshots, but it may have something to do with the fact that smiling for official documentation, makes it appear less official. With regards to this practice in Paris, writes Baldwin:

The discouragement of smiling for various legal documents gets to an elemental fact about living in France’s capital. That for a madly sentimental and Japanese tourist, visiting Paris is mostly about light, beauty, and fun with berets.  Living in Paris is different.  Living in Paris is business, and nothing to smile about.”{2}

Though this particular Paris Syndrome is obviously indigenous to Paris, the tenets of it could just as easily be applied to any popular tourist destination the world around. Midwestern Americans, for example, also live under this “customer is king” mentality, and they have for so long that they begin to take it for granted. Midwestern people know that the hotels and restaurants, of their locale, are so competitive that they won’t tolerate even an ambivalent employee. There are exceptions to the rule of course, but most people that travel to the Midwest, from other parts of the country, are shocked by the Midwestern hospitality.

“We expected it from you guys,” a hotel resident once said of the hospitality she experienced from Midwestern hotel employees. “You’re paid to be pleasant, but wandering around your city, we’ve discovered that you’re all like this,” she said as if she believed she had stepped into some alternate universe. “You’re all so nice.”  

Thus, when a Midwesterner gets so used to their locale’s common pleasantries —like the Japanese traveler, traveling to Paris— they are shocked by the contradictions that occur in their preferred travel destinations. They probably assumed that the top-notch customer service they’ve come to expect would be a given in their chosen destination, if not amplified with the kind of money they’re spending. They probably considered it such a given that they focused most of their attention on the other aspects of their dream vacation. Once they’ve come to terms with the reality of the situation, they’re so shocked that not only is their dream vacation ruined, but some become physically ill as a result.

This degree of ambivalence, directed at tourists, in some popular tourist locations, can occur in some of the first steps tourists make from the airplane to the terminal. Those wondering why this happens, should ask themselves what they thought of the thirty-second ant they watched leave an anthill. If they confess that they didn’t take the time to pick that ant out, and that they didn’t spend more than two seconds looking at those ants, they may expound upon the idea that seeing ants leave an anthill is such a common experience that they don’t even look at ant hills anymore, such is the plight of the service industry worker watching tourists disembark at popular tourist destinations.

You’re not an ant, you say? You’re a human being, and you’re not just any human being, you’re a human being with money to spend, money that helps pays their wages. The problem is that you’re probably not the thirty-second tourist that service industry worker has seen disembark that day, or even the 132nd. By the time you’ve stepped up to their counter, they’re probably so burnt out on tourists, that you’ve become a species lowering than ants to them. At least ants are self-sufficient, and they don’t complain about their lot in life, and they don’t live with the mindset that their existence should somehow be catered to in a manner that makes the ant feel special. Ants know their role, and on a less conscious level, they know their station in life. The harmony in that ant universe works so well that most service industry workers, in popular tourist destinations, probably believe that tourists could learn a lot from ants.

Some tourists are objective enough to acknowledge that poor service industry employees exist everywhere, even in their small town, yokel community, and they try to view this one ambivalent-to-hostile employee in that light. They also try to view their one bad experience, with this one ambivalent-to-hostile employee, as an aberration, so that they can go about enjoying the rest of their trip. Some Midwestern tourists also attempt to reconcile their indignation by convincing themselves of the fact that they’re small town yokels, unfamiliar with the ways of the big city, but they can’t shake the idea that their appearance should be considered somewhat special by these employees.

It isn’t too long after disembarking that the tourist comes to the realization that there are ten special tourists “looking to have a special time” behind them in line, and those tourists just want the special transaction in front of them to end, so they can finally get to the front of the line, to finish their transaction and get back to the craps table.

That “customer is king” mentality that these tourists live with is usually gone within hours, and the pattern of how things are done in this popular tourist destination becomes so apparent that by the time the tourist reaches the employee that dutifully hands them change without smiling, or even looking at them, and possibly trying to shortchange them, they’ve come to terms with the fact that those first few rude service industry employees were not, in fact, aberrations. Those that don’t recognize these patterns think that if they were that thirty-second ant, they might have a better chance of receiving more courteous treatment, if for no other reason than the idea that they might be considered something different from the lowest form of life on earth that service industry employees have deal with hour after hour, day after day: tourists.

Time; personal experiences published in online, travel forums; stories about mafia versus corporate ownership of Vegas; tales of prostitution and pickpockets; and the unsettling, almost weekly, settings on the show Cops have done some damage to the mystique of Las Vegas, but Paris’s mystique has not been forced to weather the such storms.

Living in Paris, Rosecrans Baldwin writes, does do some damage to that mystique however. Those that believe that Paris is the home of cutting edge artistic exploration are not wrong, in the greater sense, but they also have to explain how Britney Spears’ song Toxic, remained a staple of Parisian parties years after its release. Those that believe that Parisians have analytical palates far superior to the American one, have to explain Paris’s culinary fascination with the food from a chain of American restaurants called McDonald’s. These quirks may be no different than any popular travel destination around the globe, but it takes traveling to the destination, and living there, to find all this out.

“I enjoy the French Roast flavor,” I tell friends, “But I know that the term French Roast simply means robust. I have no illusions about the fact that any of the beans I use have actually spent any time in France. I know that some Americans make attachments to the term “French” in the same manner some French make American attachments to the food of McDonald’s, but I’m not so silly that I believe that the French Roast bean I enjoy is anything less than an Americanized version of this robust bean, but” and here’s where the wrinkle will form on the nose of the listener “I actually prefer this Americanized version.” 

That wrinkle will form on the nose of our fellow Americans, because most of those blessed with “analytical palates” believe that that ‘A’ word, Americanized, should never be used in conjunction with the exotic flavorings of the products that they deign worthy of purchase. Their use of the word “French” entails exotic styling in the chain of production, transportation, that may have involved some slow crossing of the Seine River on some French version of a Gondola before being docked in an elegant port with a beautiful French name that we cannot pronounce, and that those individual workers involved in the chain of production may have, at one point, sang a French sea chantey in striped shirts and handlebar mustaches. Those that wrinkle a nose believe that they are able to sniff out any ‘A’ word that may have wormed its way into the process that ended with them purchasing a French Roast product.

When one reads the descriptions from those that have actually walked the streets of Paris, and dined in her cafes, and tasted the true “French Roasted” bean, they learn that those cafés actually use old, over-roasted beans, and second-rate machines. We read that Parisians so prefer the robust flavoring that we term “French Roasted”, that their cafés actually use a low-cost, low quality bean to please their customer base. This actual un-Americanized, French Roasted bean would leave the unsuspecting, and truly analytical palates, with a thin and harsh taste in their mouth.

Paris is not about the taste of the coffee, some might argue, and no trip to Las Vegas would be ruined by the fact that a towel boy didn’t smile at me and welcome me to his city. All of these complaints seem so trivial, and inconsequential, in lieu of everything these two, popular travel destinations have to offer. Taken one by one, these complains may seem trivial, and inconsequential, but when a romanticized, excited traveler sits down to complete their dream of having a lunch in an elegant, little Parisian café, only to have an ambivalent-to-rude waiter deliver a cup of coffee that is so shockingly –and perhaps to them insultingly– inferior, that may only be one cup of coffee, and one waiter to the rest of us, but it may also be only one incident in a series of incidents, that leads to a pattern of behavior that shatters all of the illusions and dreams the starry eyed tourist may have had about that vacation they saved for so long for, that their country finds it necessary to have a doctor, or nurse, on board the plane home to help them deal with the fact that so many of their expectations, and so much of what they once believed in, were wrong.

{1}http://www.nbcnews.com/id/15391010/ns/travel-news/t/paris-syndrome-leaves-tourists-shock/#.Uys8r6hdWSo

{2} Baldwin, Rosecrans.  Things you didn’t know about Life in Paris.  Mental Floss.  May 2014.  Page 40-41. Magazine.

‘P’ is for Potential


“You have to create some dung to fertilize the flower,” Martin Sheen said when he was asked how he could only be proud of three movies in a career that listed 69 titles.

The fact that this was my favorite quote, for years, should’ve told me something about the dreams I had of becoming a writer. I believed that I had a capital ‘P’ emblazoned on my chest, until I realized that everyone else did too, and I hadn’t done enough to separate myself from the pack. The thing with the ‘P’ word that those in the card carrying ‘P’ world don’t know is that there is another ‘p’ word in the vocabulary of those that watch you. This is an evil ‘P’ word to those in the card carrying ‘P’ world. That ‘P’ word is performance.

HaloSome may have their ‘P’ word swinging before their face, in the manner a farmer puts a carrot on a stick before their horse. They may also wear it in every smile they give you, and those smiles tell you they are meant for something more, but they just don’t know what yet. When one runs across a true ‘P’ word, they know it when they see it, and it diminishes their capital ‘P’ a little by comparison. Most people are not unusually jealous, they’re happy, and they lead a great life, but when they run across one that carries a true ‘P’ on their various smiles, they decide that they would do just about anything for just one of those smiles.

When they speak of events that have occurred in their life, and they speak about them in a casual manner, the observer knows that the career that we currently share with them is just a way station for them, and we can’t help but be genuinely jealous in that moment.

Others wear this letter ‘P’ as a costume, in conversations, to cover for the fact that they haven’t achieved as much as they once thought possible. We’ll know these people when we see them too. All of these people teach us the various definitions of the ‘P’ word. We see the beauty in their smiles, and we perceive their limitlessness, but we’ll also see the evil ones. We’ll see that these definitions are defined by how the user uses it, and if they use it.

I thought I had a capital ‘P’ branded into my chest at one point. I didn’t. I thought I did though, and that thought prompted me to work my tail off to convince myself, and others, that it was truer than true. The idea that I pursued something, for which I had so little talent, amazes me now in retrospect, when I look back on the actual performances that convinced me that there was, at least, a lower case ‘P’ somewhere on my chest.

Those that manage their ‘P’ word correctly, rarely comment on it.  They don’t have to say it. It is the conclusion their observers reach soon after getting to know them. Those that wear the letter ‘P’ on their chest, as a costume, know this also.  They know that most in their audience are so loaded with insecurities that those insecurities can be translated into a variety of ‘P’ words, and ‘P’ word synonyms, if they do it right.  In order to do it right, however, they know to avoid performing in front of them. Give them silence, and let them fill in the rest.

“I can’t hang out with those two anymore,” a friend of mine told me one day after an outing with co-workers. I initially thought he was being a cool guy. A cool guy tells those around them that a fun and exciting night was boring; a cool guy tells those around them that a great movie, or album, sucked; and a cool guy stops all the plastic people, with all of their plastic proceedings, and drops a quick quip like: “The world sucks!” Cool guys can also reveal those nerds around them by saying that what we thought was such a great time, was time spent with nerds. I attempted to dispel what I thought were my friend’s cool guy condemnations by saying that those two were fun and entertaining, and that fun and entertaining people don’t usually hang out with two drips like us. He said that wasn’t it. He said his concern was work-related.

I attempted to dispel this notion by saying that our company didn’t discourage senior agents hanging out with employees, only managers. My friend believed he was born with a capital ‘P’ on his chest, and I thought this was another moment where his delusions of grandeur had gotten away from him. “It’s not that,” he concluded. “It’s that, they know what I think now.” Here I thought that all the symptoms I was witnessing added up to the fact that my friend had come down with a simple case of delusions, but as it turned out he was suffering from a complex case of grand delusion.

What his last sentence told me was that he knew his thoughts were never as complex, or as complicated as he wanted them to be, but those two didn’t have to know that. He was despondent. They knew. He told them what he thought. All those weeks and months he spent quietly sitting in the background cultivating, harvesting, and weaving the idea of his brilliance into gold by allowing these people to fill in the blanks for him were gone, shattered, in one night.

He feared that the grand delusions he had perpetrated in their world, had just been popped, and he feared that when Monday rolled around, they would know that he was just one of them, in the present, with a future that probably wouldn’t be that much different than theirs. On Monday, they would see him quietly typing away at his keyboard, in an office, and that visual would take on an entirely different meaning than it had on the Friday before our weekend outing.

The other employees around him took their jobs less seriously. They always got their work done, but they played, and talked, and joked. He didn’t. He was serious. He even went so far as to shush employees when management walked by. He had always been a quiet guy with few friends, and in the real world this defined him as an awkward person that had a difficult time mixing with other people. In the office world, these characteristics can lead to an employee gaining a mystique of being a model employee with a serious future. That night, spent with our two co-workers, revealed him as more of a quiet, socially awkward guy that feared authority. It made everything he had done to procure those grand delusions in their head feel pointless.

He feared that they would now believe he was what they saw, nothing more. The idea that he didn’t mix well with others, was once a silence thing, but silence begets the ‘P’ word if one does it often enough and allows others to fill that silence in with their own exciting and intoxicating words. Why does he behave so well? Why doesn’t he mix well with others? I’ll tell you why, that boy’s got the ‘P’ word in spades. They fill that silence with words that you wouldn’t believe, until you accidentally fill those blanks in for them one night, while drinking, and there’s no turning back after that, or so he feared.

There were times when he spoke his mind during that night, and our two co-workers realized he didn’t know everything. He wasn’t as wise as they feared in their silent, insecure comparisons. There were other issues he wouldn’t discuss with them that he found too revealing, because he said he couldn’t discuss it with them. In the latter, he attempted to convey the notion that he had proprietary information that he could not divulge, due to his position in the company. When we reminded him that he was not management, and he could reveal whatever he thought on the matter without fear of recrimination, he went silent. It was revealed that he simply didn’t know what we were talking about. We accidentally took away his shield of silence. He thought these co-workers had given him a capital ‘P’ followed by an exclamation point, and he feared that that ‘P’ had replaced by an ‘R’ word, reality, that would shatter all the myths he had worked so hard to create.

My friend wanted to be like a politician that stood for nothing, but allowed his constituency to fill in the blanks that he left for them, until they had other ‘P’ words dancing in their head, and ‘P’ words that had question marks behind them, as opposed to his preferred exclamation point.

The thing with the ‘P’ word is that it can be beautiful.  It can drive a person to become better tomorrow than they are today, if they’re willing to engage in the naughty ‘p’ word of the ‘P’ world vocabulary, performance. The reason that most card carrying ‘P’ words regard performance as a naughty word is that performing can lead to another ‘R’ word, revelation. It can reveal if the card carrying member truly has a ‘P’ word or not. It can tell reveal whether a person is truly special, gifted, and meant for more, or if they’re just a regular guy, collecting a regular paycheck, with as many limits on your ‘P’ word as everyone else.

I identified with my friend. I thought I had a capital ‘P’ behind my name that was followed by a big, old gleaming exclamation point. I thought God whispered things in my ear, and I wrote down everything I heard. I wrote short stories. I wrote novels. I wrote anything and everything I could fit in one mind. I thought it was my job in life to see this calling to its end. I thought I was a few steps below Stephen King and Dean R. Koontz, and Robert McCammon. I thought I just had to perform my way through that hole.

I’ve read through all those whispers recently, and I realize that if they happened today, I would turn to my wife and say, “I just had a thought.” I would then say those two sentences, and be done with it. Back then, a part of me believed that those whispers were telling me to be a writer, and I listened to these whispers, until I had enough material that it should’ve come true, and then I wrote some more, until I reached a point where I may have fertilized that ground so well that all the cultivating, harvesting and turning of those lies might have accidentally produced a truth.

An Argument About Arguing


“You just love to argue!” a friend of mine said to me.

To me!?

To that point in my life, I had been that person that avoided arguments. I often walked away from them. When that wouldn’t work, I was prone to level the “You just love to argue!” charge against them.

Bear+Attack+Girl+Video+PhotoI don’t think even this friend of mine would accuse me of being a hyena, in the world of arguers, but I was once a limping antelope caught up in a pack of hyenas. It got so bad, at times, that I would examine, and reexamine everything I planned on saying. I feared everything I said would provoke an argument. I just wanted to have one peaceful day at work. When that wouldn’t work, I just stopped talking. I didn’t understand how everything I said could be so wrong, so controversial, debatable, and subject to argument. At one point, I gave up trying to figure it all out.

It was obvious to this pack of hyenas that I didn’t know how to argue, because I wasn’t used to everyone challenging every idea I had, but the fact that they were so confrontational about damning my ideas told me more about arguing than any debate class could.

Being the recipient of such a charge, after those dark years, taught me something. I liked it. It was shocking, but it was also pleasing.

When this accusation began popping up more often, and I began to reflect on the nature of the charge, it dawned on me that there are those that love to argue and the vulnerable subjects of society that they pick on. Some of these vulnerable subjects were less intelligent, but most of them didn’t spend every waking moment of their life arguing, so they weren’t as equipped as those that did. The question I had, now that I was being accused of being the former was, am I guilty of preying upon the vulnerable?

The difference between a healthy debate and an out and out argument is seismic. Even if some of these healthy debates are characterized in this manner, by the hyena that won’t leave you alone, you’ll find yourself leveling the “You just love to argue!” charge to end all future debates, healthy debates, and out and out arguments, and you will grow frustrated when it doesn’t work.

The question the vulnerable subject will have is why do they keep coming back to me with new information, new points to ponder, and a never-ending cycle that appears to be redundant to all observers? Why me? Why don’t they bother Suzy Q over there? She appears to enjoy arguing as much as they do? Yet, they keep coming back to me.

After receiving the charge that I’ve made against many, for so many years, I found the answer. I found the answer to why they sought me out, in my search for why I sought some of them out: I like to win.

Those that hate arguing, hate losing. They fear entering into an argument with a worthy opponent over subject ‘A’, and the revelations that will occur when they find out that the worthy opponent prove to know more about that subject than they do. The worthy opponent has proven, in the past, to be a worthy opponent. Most arguers do not enjoy arguing with a worthy opponent. The best way to avoid such embarrassing and stressful revelations, they think, is to just avoid arguing altogether.

Those that love to argue, on the other hand, appear to think that they learn things about all the players around them, and they may feel they learn things about themselves by arguing. It might all be a complex pursuit of intellect and psychology, for them, but it might also be something very simple: it may be all about winning and losing.

Most arguments seem so simple that they’re not worth having, but some people love to win arguments so much that they seek out the one person in the room that feeds their bear better than anyone else. Is this you? Do you have a person, that no matter how many times you say you don’t want to argue about it, won’t leave you alone about an about an annoying amount of everything? It may be that you’re better at feeding their bear than anyone else. Either you walk away, or you let it be known that you just don’t like arguing. Whatever the case is, they must find your reactions nourishing to their ego, or they wouldn’t keep coming back.

“Why do you insist on arguing about everything?!” is something you might say, in the face of their constant badgering. Or, “Does everything an argument to you?” You may even decide that you just don’t enjoy being around them, that they make you uncomfortable, and that you don’t enjoy their company. You may know that they enjoy watching you scream and squirm on a certain level, but you’ve provided yourself some comfort in stating that there must be something wrong with them if they enjoy doing that. If you’re one of these people, and you’re getting lost in the forest of their argumentative minds, you may want to start looking for the signs that say: “Don’t feed the bears!”

“I know I shouldn’t walk away,” you may say. “But it can just get so exhausting arguing with them.” The problem with this line of thought, as anyone that knows anything about bears will tell you, is that when you feed a bear they keep coming back. It’s the nature of the beast to keep coming back to the spot where their ego was nourished with the least amount of effort involved. They will no longer go out into the wild, where they belong, to keep their instincts shiny and honed, and they will become fat, and lazy, subsisting on your ineffectual, but nourishing responses.

There are some bear feeders, and we all know one, that believe that an argumentative bully can be put down with one clever turn of a phrase, or a well-timed, well-placed shot on the chin. If you’re one of those people, you may want to consider the idea that you’re watching way too much TV. In the fantasy world of television, where the screenwriter of that show has their character deliver that one shot, clever turn of a phrase they wished they said to their bully, that puts their bully in his place. In the fantasy world of television, the bully comes to respect the victim for their moxie, and the two of them may skip off together, hand in hand, in an eventual pursuit of the conflict that led this complex bully to be so insecure that he felt compelled to pick on his victim. If you’re one of these people, you may want to consider either turning the TV off, or switching the channel. The Lifetime Network is doing you more harm than good at this point.

In the world of reality, your single shot results in little more than putting the smell of gun powder in the air. The reason that you fired that shot was not to hurt them, but to try and scare them off a little. As anyone that knows anything about bears can tell you, the smell of gun powder triggers an instinctual mechanism in the bear that will cause them to keep coming at you until you are forced to recognize that it’s going to take a strategic concentration of blows to be delivered over time to put them down. It’s going to take a thorough understanding of the bear, and an ability to defeat them, with repetition and patience, until that moment of truth arrives when they bring up an argument and they try to avoid looking over at you while doing it. Either that, or they will avoid broaching that topic that they know is in your wheelhouse.

_47451911_4compYou will know that you’ve stuck a dagger in their purported “lifelong love of the arguing” when they give visual cues that they’re relieved that for the first time in a long time, you have said nothing to contradict them. These moments, when you become the bear, don’t come around often, and you should feel free to rub it out on the nearest tree as a reward for your constant, and confident, and strategic defeats, of every argument they left by the trash can for your nourishment.

Some unfortunate, and lifelong, victims believe that I am 100% incorrect in my assessment that constant, confident, and calm refutation has any merit, and they opt for a more high-pressured, high-volume attack that they believe will whip the head of the argumentative bully around to a realization that all victim’s desire: the ‘You don’t wanna go messing around with me no more’ realization. This attack often involves a lot of swear words, a red-face, and some ultimate ultimatum. This tactic has never proven effective, in my experience, and I have witnessed it attempted many times, from all sides of the paradigm.

There have been times when I’ve been on the casual observer side, and I’ve heard these argumentative bullies whisper: “Watch this!” before launching on you people. I’ve heard them state with pride that they can get a rise out of you, when you’re not around. They love this, is what I’m saying. They take great pride, almost to the point of arousal, in the fact that they are one of the few people that can cause you to get hysterical.

“Why do you give them that?” I’ve wondered aloud on more than a few occasions. In a few of these occasions, I have been a disinterested, neutral party. I don’t care about the well-being of the vulnerable subject, and I didn’t find the bully’s persecution particularly funny. I just wanted to know if the vulnerable subject understood the dynamic of the situation. The reactions I’ve received are just as red-faced, and laced with profanity, and high volume. It has led me to believe that some people are victims as a matter of happenstance, and some are a species unto yourselves.

Some arguments are germane and vital to a person’s existence, and the best argument I’ve heard for never walking away from them is that you have to teach people how to treat you. Those that love to argue will put a person through the ringer, just to see what they’re made of. These types disgust those that don’t enjoy being tested. They want to live in a world where everyone treats everyone else in the manner they want to be treated. They want to live in a land of peace of harmony. Too bad, say those that love to argue. This is the real world, and we’re going to force you through this tiny, revelatory hole just to see what you come out looking like on the other side. These arguments are often of a more personal nature, and they cannot be avoided. You have to teach others how to treat you.

If a person enjoys arguing, and they seek out arguments of all stripes, they will eventually encounter a person that argues about everything and nothing, and they will do so in the same argument. My advice to those that have any regard for their mental health, is to simply pack up your belongings and walk away. These types of arguments are indigenous to an annoying species of bear called the plane switchers. The modus operandi of the plane switcher is to start an argument. If they find that they have tripped upon a subject their counterpart is well-versed in, until an argument that began with a discussion on the homeopathic uses of emu urine somehow switches to the origins of the Wiccan religion. How did these people do that, might be the first question we ask, as we begin to see all the “Don’t feed the bears” signs around us in the dark and sparse forests of the plane switchers. Further inspection of the argument reveals the fact that the question regarding their ability to deflect doesn’t matter near as why they do it, and I can answer that question with one word: victory.

My advice, again, is to simply walk away. If, however, it is impossible to walk away, as the person may sit in an adjoining cubicle in an office place, or they may be a loved one. In some cases, I have found that the task of switching the topic back to the germane topic takes a steady, subtle hand, and on other occasions I have found that it calls for brute force. If we are able to manage switching the playing field back to the subject at hand, we might find our way out of one argument, on one day, in the everlasting arguments with these exhausting people, and all exhausting arguers, until we run across the person that mistakes us for being a person that loves to argue.

I remember that day, oh so long ago, when that first person accused me of being an argumentative person. I almost laughed in her face. When she did that, they had no idea how many times I said what I said just to get the other guy to shut up for five minutes. They had no idea how many times, I packed up my stuff and walked away from an argument I found tedious, and they had no idea how many times I lost arguments. They also had no idea how many times they presented me an argument, and all I was doing was countering that argument. They had no idea that they just wanted me to lie down, and roll over, and accept their argument in the manner they presented it. If they knew the painful and emotional road I traveled on to get to the point where I received their wonderful compliment, they would have never said it. They just knew the finished product that stood before them arguing against their argument. They didn’t know how many years I spent in the loser’s bin, unable to compete, not knowing the right thing to say, and trying every possible method I could think up just to shut just one of them up. They just knew the finished product. They didn’t know about all the Dr. Frankenstein’s that gave the beast life.

Very few arguers know the argumentative beast living inside them. They don’t know the maturation process that their beast went through, or the weaponry their beast purchased with intangible experience, but they do know that they like to argue with you over any other individual in the room, because they love to see someone else do the squirmy, screamy dance that they used to do when arguers chose them over everyone else in the room. They may not know any of the complex, intellectual, and psychological algorithms of their beast, but they do know that they like to win, and that you –the person that doesn’t like to argue– will always give them that.

The Freedom of the Self-Checkout Aisle


When the first self-checkout aisle was rolled out, circa 2001, I thought that Big Business had finally invested in technology for someone like me. I thought I was being rescued from the inane conversations that seemingly lonely checkers feel compelled to engage customers in in the full-service aisles. I thought price checks might finally become a thing of the past, in my life, with the advent of self-checkout. I thought I was being rescued from ever having to endure the spectacle of a customer waiting to pull out their checkbook until all the items have been scanned and the total has been given. There are no checks allowed in self-checkout after all. I thought self-checkout was a dream, for do-it-yourselfers around the nation, a dream come true. I thought we would all be granted more time to do other important things in our lives.

Self service checkout-1349917As with any dream, that eventually becomes a reality, I feared self-checkout would be a temporary experiment that everyone would have to do their part in if we ever hoped for it to survive. I knew this experiment was conducted for business, and as with any experiments in business there would have to be a learning curve in the beginning. Eventually, I thought, lines in the sand would have to be drawn if the gods that manned the security cameras were going allow us this privilege long-term.

At some point, I thought, we consumers would have to engage in a melding of the minds that defined those that were prepared for the requirements of self-checkout and those that weren’t. I never thought we would reach an age, in the self-checkout era, where a Darwinian divide would have to be laid out. I just thought that those that were perpetually unprepared would eventually weed themselves out.

You can call me a fool if you want on this note, but I thought that this dream-like opportunity would eventually weave its way through our society in just such a manner that the unprepared would begin to decide that self-checkout just wasn’t for them, that it made them too nervous, or that they couldn’t handle the rigors of all that scanning and swiping. I thought some would eventually decide, through trial and error, that they were just more comfortable with full-service, and that they would never attempt to cross aisles after repeated, embarrassing failings. I thought a certain point of harmony could eventually be achieved where the prepared would say to the unprepared, “I have no problem with you brother. I don’t think any less of you, full-service consumers, as long as you learn your aisle, and they stay there.”  Unfortunately, as we’ve all discovered over time, the self-checkout aisle didn’t cut dividing lines, it only exacerbated the notion that most people live with delusions and illusions of who they are.

I probably wasn’t as prepared as I believe I was back in 2001, when I first began scanning my own items, feeding machines my money, and bagging my owned groceries. I probably made some mistakes that would greatly embarrass me if anyone had tape on it. I wanted to be one of the prepared, though, I wanted to perform self-checkouts for the rest of my life, and I thought I would only be allowed this privilege through merit. I never thought I could do it once or twice and be given a special designation. I knew I would have to prove that I was a prepared one every time out.

And if you’ve ever had a hard-nosed teacher in grade school, that granted you a special privilege, you learned this principle too. You learned that if you didn’t constantly prove yourself worthy of that privilege she granted you, on a constant basis, that hard-nosed teacher took that privilege away from you. If you had that hard-nosed teacher, you learned that excuses played no part in her world of privileges. Act right, and you get them, screw up, and they’re taken away from you. That’s what I though this whole world of self-checkout would eventually become.

I thought that the prepared world would eventually acknowledge that there are some products that don’t have Universal Product Codes (UPC) symbols. I didn’t think this message would have to be sent out twelve years in, especially when we’ve all been in full-service aisles where checkers have to look up UPC numbers on those pieces of fruit, or candy, that don’t have UPC stickers on them. We’ve all seen this, and in the universally prepared world, we prepared for that eventuality before we reached the self-checkout aisle.

Others don’t seem to care about the special privilege self-checkout offers us. They don’t think about the freedom performing our own checkouts offer us, or the time it frees up for us. It’s just another aisle to them. They do little-to-nothing to uphold the standard required to sustain this freedom. They just buy a couple of watermelons and stare at them with confusion, with a loaded UPC gun in their hands. At that point in their transaction, I want to run in and block them from all security cameras. I don’t want the gods manning the security cameras to see this. I don’t want them to know that there are still people, twelve years after its nationwide rollout, that haven’t prepared for the self-checkout aisle.

They twist the watermelons over and over, they turn to their tech-savvy teens, and then they ask the self-checkout checker for help. They have no fear that this could be documented, and that the self-checkout could go the way of extinct animals that weren’t properly equipped to sustain themselves. “You’re ruining this for everyone!” I want to scream. The checker, in charge of the self-checkout aisle slides over, and she punches in the code that these watermelon buyers should’ve noted, on the watermelon bin, the moment they realized there was no UPC sticker on them.

These particular customers aren’t satisfied with the checker’s services. They’re even more confused when she finishes punching in the code.  “I thought they were two for one?” they say.

“They’re only two for one, if you …” the checker went on to detail the specifics of the deal, and the customers only grew more confused. The two parties argued a little. I didn’t know the specifics of the deal, and I didn’t care what they were, but I wasn’t purchasing watermelons. If I were, I would’ve known every detail of deal, because I am always prepared. I belonged in this aisle.

The customers then ask this checker to take one of the watermelons off. We’re stretching into the five minute category, at this point, much too long for a self-checkout transaction. ‘They’re watching,’ I want to tell these customers, ‘And they’re taking note of all of your confusion.  Do you have any idea what you’re doing? Do you even care that you don’t belong in this glorious aisle? You need more help lady, you need full-service, and if you ever paid attention to your characteristics, you’d know this.’

Other self-checkout aisles, others that I abandoned based on the fact that they were loaded with fat, doughy customers, are proceeding through their checkouts with speedy glee. I entered this aisle based on the fact that this family was Asian, and you can call me racist, or racial, but I thought they would have enough intelligence to figure this whole thing out. In my experiences with the Asian people, I have found them to be either intelligent enough, or so embarrassed at their lack of knowledge in one particular area that they sheepishly accepted whatever they were told to avoid causing a scene, or an unnecessary delay to those waiting for them. I have found them to be extreme conscientious, in other words, to a point that usually matched mine. These Asians did not match my expectations, and they didn’t appear to care one way or another that they were causing me a delay.

In lieu of this unprepared family’s actions, I lined up all of my UPC symbols, so I could scan in a flurry. I also took out all the cards that would be necessary to complete the transaction. Now you could say that I was slightly unprepared prior to the example set before me, but I knew where all the UPC symbols were before I lined them up, and I knew exactly where all of my cards were. By performing these few actions, I was not only prepared, I was extra-prepared. I would be cutting a thirty-second transaction down to twenty with my extra-preparedness. I considered this a service to those behind me. I considered this doing my part to sustain the legacy of freedom created by the self-checkout gods. I wanted to show all of those around me, and the gods manning the security cameras, that this whole idea of absolute freedom being afforded to the consumer was not only warranted but necessary in a society of impatient people.

‘We’re almost through,’ I thought when the Asians finally began swiping their credit card. I thought about how much of my life I had already lost watching them struggle through the self-checkout process. I also thought about how, if these people had allowed me to cut, based on the comparatively few items I was purchasing, I would already be home, immersed in a conversation with my wife. I was soothed by the fact that they were swiping their card, though, and that this would be all ending soon, until they began having trouble with the swiping process.

As a non-confrontational individual, I decided to communicate my fatigue for their inability to swipe, through body language. I slumped back and began texting, and I sighed. It wasn’t a huge, look at me sigh, but it was audible. When that didn’t work, I began stretching my head up over the aisles to look at other self-checkout aisles, and how much fun they were all having over there. I never intended to go to another aisle, it was too late at that point, but I thought if nothing else comes of this, at least I can inform these unprepared people that they should never go through the self-checkout aisle again. They were just too unprepared for the self-checkout requirements, and if they only learn one thing from this whole experience, perhaps future generations of consumers can be spared from ever having to go through this kind of trauma again.

After the fourth swipe, the Asians cast an obligatory look at the back of their card. After the fifth swipe, they cast the obligatory look to the staff member in charge of helping out self-checkout customers. This staff member slid over again and achieved an approved status on her first swipe, and the customer granted the checker the obligatory excuse for why she couldn’t do it herself. I thought of Larry David.

Larry David is not a good swiper, and he acknowledges this, and Larry David is a relatively intelligent being, and even he can’t explain why he’s not good at swiping:

If you told me twenty years ago that I wouldn’t be a good swiper,” Larry David said, “I never would’ve believed you.”

‘Being a bad swiper is not a sign of a lack of intelligence,’ I repeat in my head over and over, until I begin to believe it. ‘You’ve had some problems swiping in the past, and you’re a reasonably intelligent being. You know this, the gods have to know this, and they have to be making some allowances for these Asians in their notes.’

I am through my self-checkout transaction in under thirty seconds. The people behind me love this, the gods behind the security cameras see this, and I almost sprint with my shopping cart to get right behind the Asians as we exit the supermarket, to show them that a self-checkout transaction can be performed this fluidly by someone that is prepared. I want them to know that in the future, if they’re as unprepared as they were today, they should probably just go through the full-service aisles to engage in witty banter with a checker. I want them to recognize which aisle of humanity they belong on, so they won’t ever venture into our glorious, self-checkout line again. I want to tell them that it’s fine that they’re not prepared, and that I think nothing less of them, as long as they acknowledge the facts about who they are, and they don’t venture into our world ever again. This freedom should not be afforded to all, I will tell them, and we will both laugh when they say, “Those aisles just make me nervous.” That laughter will be fueled by both parties acknowledging that we’re just different people, neither of us superior to the other, just different, and if we could just learn to stay in our separate aisles, the world would be a much better place to live in.

Details, Details, Details


Epiphanies, like women, can pop up when you least expect them, and they can free you from a troubling part of your life you didn’t recognize as a problem until they were revealed.

In a PBS documentary on Mark Twain, a number of incidents arose in the building of Twain’s home, and the construction team began “badgering” Twain with questions regarding how he wanted them handled. The questions regarded the construction of his home, the place he would presumably live for the rest of his life, so the observer should forgive the construction crew’s chief for the badgering. The team didn’t know what he wanted, and there were presumably hundreds of questions they had on his desired specifics. What the team did not know, however, was that Twain had an oft expressed aversion for details.

Twain

Putting myself in a similar situation, I realize that, like Twain, I’m not a detail-oriented guy. I’ll listen to every question put to me, but I’ll be listening with a sense of guilt. Details make me feel stupid, they start firing far too many neurons in my brain for me to handle, and I usually get overwhelmed and exhausted by them. I know that I should be listening to every question, and I know I should be pondering the details they give me to come up with the ideal solution for my family, but my capacity for such matters is limited.

In the beginning of the process, I’m all hopped up. My mind is acutely focused, and I’m knocking out every question with focused answers. I’m considering every perspective involved, and I’m asking for advice from all of those not involved. I’m reading what others have done, and I’m gathering as much information as possible to make an informed decision, but I will eventually grow overwhelmed and exhausted because I’m not a detail oriented guy.

By the time we reach the 7th and 8th questions, I’ll be out of gas. I’ll be mentally saying, “Whatever, just get it done!” I’ll be falling away from creative answers and onto what is expected in the situation, or what it is that those still paying attention want. I will be answering in an autonomic manner. “Yes, that sounds fine,” I’ll say without knowing what has been said. I’ll just want the damn thing to be built already by that point, because I’m not a details-oriented guy. I’ll want to make the big decisions, but I’ll want to leave all of the “inconsequential” details-oriented questions to others.

I do feel guilty about being this way.  I want to be involved, informed, and constantly making acutely focused decisions throughout the process.  I’ll feel guilty when others start making the decisions that affect me, because I know I’m an adult now, and I should be making all these decisions.  There is also some fear that drives me to constantly pretend that I’m in prime listening mode, based on the fact that I may not like the finished product if I’m not involved in every step.  I may not like, for example, the manner in which the west wing juts out on the land and makes the home appear ostentatious, or obtuse, or less pleasing to the eye with various incongruities, and I’ll wish I would not have been so obvious with my “Whatever just do it!” answers. Details exhaust me, though, and they embarrass me when I don’t know the particulars that the other is referencing.

I don’t know if this guilt is borne of the fact that I know I’m an intelligent being, and I should be able to make these decisions in a more consistent manner, or if I’m just too lazy to maintain acute focus.  I do have a threshold though, and I know how my brain works.  I know that if there are seven ways to approach a given situation, I will usually select one that falls in the first two selections offered.  I usually do this, because I’m not listening after the second one.  Everything beyond that involves the other party showing off the fact that they know more than I do.  I know this isn’t always the case, but it’s the only vine I can cling to when having to deal with my limited attention span and the limited arsenal of my brain.

Knowing my deficiencies for retaining verbosity, I will ask for literature on the subject that provides the subject a tangible quality that can be consumed at my pace. If I do that, and I have, I will then pretend to read every excruciating word, but I will usually end up selected one of the first two selections offered.  I like to think I have a complex brain.  I like to think that I display all that I’m about in my own way, but I’m always reminded of the fact that most of the people around me give full participation to the details of life no matter how overwhelming and exhausting they can be to me.  It’s humbling to watch these brains, I like to consider inferior, operate on planes of constant choices, and decisions, and retentions, and details I am incapable of retaining.

I have this daydream that I will one day be afforded an excuse for having a limited brain by the relative brilliance I reveal to the world in the form of a novel.  I am interviewed in this dream, and I am asked, “So, what does it mean to you to have crafted such a fine book?”  I am far wittier than reality would suggest in this dream when I reply: “It will help me deal with my faults better.  The fact that I cannot fix my own plumbing, can now be countered with, but he wrote a fine book.  The fact that I cannot fix my own car, compete with my wife in certain areas of intelligence, or hold down a decent job can now be countered with, but he wrote a fine book that is held up as a fine book in certain quarters.”

We’ve all heard the line “Everybody’s brain works differently,” but until we learn something regarding the fact that the brilliant brain that composed Huckleberry Finn has similar deficiencies, we cannot help but feel guilty about them.  “Well, work on your deficiencies,” those around us suggest, and we do when that next project comes about.  We’re out to prove ourselves in that next project.  We answer every question, from the first few to the 7th and 8th, with prolonged mental acuity.  When that third and fourth project rolls around, however, we’ll revert back to those inferior brains that can’t retain details, and it is then that we’ll envy those “inferior” brains, consistently showing their superiority.  This could lead those of us that never knew we were suffering from such a recognized deficiency into feelings of incompletion, until someone like Mark Twain recognizes and vocalizes his defeciencies for us.

The History of Bloodletting by Mark Twain


It may strike modern readers of Mark Twain’s 1890 essay A Majestic Literary Fossil as a little ironic that Twain focuses such scorn on the theories of his yesteryear in the field of medicine. His age, after all, knew nothing of the world’s first synthetic drug aspirin, the medical uses of the X-ray, EKGs, antibiotics, penicillin, dialysis machines, advancements in vaccines and vitamin knowledge, MRIs, and of course the knowledge we’ve gained in our studies of the human genome. Those that disregard everything Twain calls “modern technology”, based on his age, should note that Twain saw the advancement from the common practice of Phlebotomy (bloodletting) in medicine to the “more advanced” methods of curing ailments in his lifetime. An advancement Twain describes thusly:

“The change from reptile to bird was not as tremendous, it just took longer.”

Mark_Twain_life_1900sIt should also be noted that bloodletting was the most common medical practice performed by the most brilliant minds of medicine in the 2,000 years that preceded Mark Twain. Twain knows this of course, and it forms the basis of the essay A Majestic Literary Fossil.

Most modern readers would read such a thing and laugh with the knowledge that those in Twain’s day may have known more than bloodletters, but that they didn’t know a fourth of what we know today. The question that these laughers should ask themselves is how many of those reading what we know to be true today are going to be laughing just as hard at us based upon what they know 123 years from now? Will they be laughing at us for our prolific use of antibiotics to cure so much of what ails us? Will they be looking back on our use of chemotherapy as an archaic treatment of cancer? Are these the best of times in medical technology, or will they later be perceived as the worst on a relative basis?

Twain focuses most of the scorn issued of his essay on those Bloodletting theories of the prominent physician, surgeon, and philosopher Galen of Pergamon from Rome (circa 129-216 A.D.). Galen was known as the father of Humorism, or bloodletting, and his theories were based on dissections of monkeys. Twain writes that Galen would’ve, unfortunately, been welcomed into his father’s home, but that Galen may have been left waiting, because Twain’s family doctor “didn’t allow blood to accumulate in his system.” [Author’s Note: Writings from the day detail that for bloodletting to be used as a proper, preventative measure, a citizen should be bled at least once a month.]

The commentary provided in this essay focuses on what they knew in their modern age (in the year 1890), versus all they thought they knew yesterday. It focuses some scorn, some objective looks, and some hilarity on the prevailing wisdom of the previous eras. In their “modern era” of medicine, they saw how ridiculous collective wisdom could be, when viewed in the reflective “glare of the open day”. The essay details, without actually stating it, how much deference we offer doctors, their theories, and authority figures in general. The essay also focuses on how scientific theory can appear groundbreaking and miraculous in one era, until it is discovered to be seriously flawed by the “knowledge of the moderns” of another.

“One could die of a headache in the age of bloodletting”, Twain writes, “For bloodletting was listed as the proper cure of a headache back then. One such victim “seized with a violent pain in the head” was subjected to bloodletting in the arms, the application of leeches to the nostrils, the forehead, the temples, and behind the ears.

“Alas,” observed the doctor, named Bonetus, that was focused on this particular patient, “These procedures were not successful, and the patient dy’d (sic). Had the patient not dy’d, and a surgeon skilled in Arteriotomy been present, that procedure would’ve been called upon.” [Author’s note: Arteriotomy, as defined by Twain, “Is the opening of an artery with a view of taking away blood.” It was the next step of the procedure to be used when the opening of the veins proved insufficient to cure what ailed the patient.]

Twain comments: “Here was a person being bled from the arms, forehead, nostrils, back, temples, and behind the ears, and when none of this worked the celebrated Bonetus was not satisfied, and he wanted to open an artery for a view of the cure.  Now that we know what this celebrated Bonetus did to relive a headache, it is no trouble to infer that if he had a patient that suffered a stomachache, he would disembowel him.  Bonetus labels his writings as “observations”. They sound more like to confessions to me.”

Twain goes on to cite several remedies listed in the 1745 Dictionary of Medicine by Dr. James of London and Samuel Johnson. According to this book, “One can cure frostbite by mixing the ashes of an ass’s hoof with a woman’s milk”. And “Milk is bad for the teeth, for it causes them to rot, and loosens the gums.”

“They did apparently have false teeth in those days,” Twain writes, “But they were lashed to neighboring teeth with wires or silk threads. Wearers of these teeth were encouraged not to eat with them, or laugh with them, as they usually fell out when not at rest. You could smile with them, but you should not do so without practicing first, or you may run the risk of overdoing it. These false teeth were not for business, just decoration.”

The cure for malaria, according to a man named Paracelsus, is a spider, a spider’s web, or water distilled through a spider’s web. As evidence of their homeopathic properties, Paracelsus, notes that when a spider is given to a monkey, “That monkey is usually free of the disorders from which they normally suffer.” Paracelsus then backs this up with the case of a dying woman that was bled dozens of times a day without response. When these constant bleedings failed to yield satisfactory results, the desperate doctors forced this woman to swallow several wads of spider web, and the results were immediate.  “She straight-way mended” Paracelsus wrote.

“So,” writes Twain, “The sage (Paracelsus) is full of enthusiasm over the miracle cure that the spider web presented while mentioning, in only the most casual way, the discontinuance of the dozens of daily bleedings she had to endure.  Paracelsus never suspected that this had anything to do with the cure.”

The theory behind bloodletting was that a body’s “humors” (fluids) had to be in proper balance to sustain health. Although Galen of Pergamon made some important discoveries regarding blood, he also believed that blood was created and eventually used up. He did not believe that blood circulated in the manner we do today, and as a result he believed that some blood could stagnate in the extremities and cause ill-health. Thus, he believed that a humoral balance was the basis for illness or health. He believed that blood was the dominant humor and the one in most need of control. In order to perpetuate this balance of the humors, a physician would either have to remove excess, or stagnant, blood from the patient, or give them an emetic to induce vomiting, or a diuretic to induce urination. {1}

Humors of the body were broken down to four basic components by Galen: blood, phlegm, yellow bile, and black bile. “The theory of the four humors arose out of a Hellenic philosophy that attempted to relate all things to universal laws.” {2} Another component of the theory was that bloodletting could produce beneficial and countering effects on the body that was subjected to deleterious effects incurred as a result of the effects changing seasons could have on humors, how a person’s dietary habits could affect these fluids, the zodiac, a person’s age, and even the compass directions’ effects. The theory held that any, and all, of these exterior forces could shake up a body’s humors and cause a body to produce more of one humor (fluid) than was necessary in that body, and that by releasing the blood from the body, the body could then re-regulate the humors better in regeneration.

Twain takes some other cracks at the “home remedy” market of his day. He cites “Alexander’s Golden Antidote” that contains over one hundred ingredients, some of them common, others too complicated to mention, or attain over the counter. Twain concludes the lengthy description of this antidote with: “Serve with a shovel.” But, he corrects, “We are only to take an amount that is the quantity of a hazelnut” according to the instruction on the listing.

He then mocks the “Aqua Limacum” antidote that lists the “homeopathic” qualities of the garden snail when properly prepared by washing in beer, baking in fires contained in a cleaned chimney until “they make a noise”. And with a knife and a coarse cloth to wipe away any green froth that develops; then combining those snails with a quart of saline scoured earthworms; which should then be laid on a bed of herbs and combined with two handfuls of goose dung, and two handfuls of sheep dung, then put in three gallons of strong ale, and fixed on the head and refrigeratory until distilled according to art. “The book does not say whether this is to be taken in one dose,” Twain writes, “or if you should split it and take a second shot at it … in case you live through the first one.

“The book does not specify what ailment this concoction is good for,” Twain continues, “But I have found that it is a formidable nostrum for raising good flatulencies from the stomach. It appears as though the advocates of this antidote sought to empty a sewer down the throats of those with malady so as to expel it. It is equivalent to dislodging larva from cheese with artillery fire.”

Most readers of this essay, yours truly included, would infer that Twain stood tall against homeopathy as a cure for anything, but he actually credits homeopathy for advancing modern medicine beyond bloodletting and other archaic forms of medicine when he states, “When you reflect upon the fact that your father had to take such medicines as those listed above, and that you would be taking them today yourself but for the introduction of homeopathy, which forced the old-school doctor to stir around and learn something of a rational nature about his business, you may honestly feel grateful that homeopathy survived the attempts of the mainstream medical proponents to destroy it, even though you may never employ any homeopath but a mainstream medical proponent in your life.”

The takeaway from this essay, as I see it, harkens back to the Dickens’ quote: “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times…” Are we living in the best of times in the arena of medical technology and advancement, or have we “advanced” to the worst of times where we run the risks of foregoing the natural, homeopathic, and organic cures of our forebears? Twain basically writes that the collective brains of modern medicine may still be bleeding us if it hadn’t been for homeopaths injecting some sense into the conversation, but such a statement leads us to a confusing fork in the road that asks whether we should continue to follow homeopathy or the advancements in modern medicine, or as Twain seems to suggest a healthy combination of the two?

In our more modern era, there is a move towards advancements in modern medicine that is just as strong, in some quarters, as the movement against it. There is a common sentiment, among those against, that states that proponents of modern medicine are relatively neglectful of the consequences of modernity. This concern was perfectly captured by an old Biology teacher of mine that said: “Any time you put a foreign substance into your body; there will be other ramifications.” When you put something foreign in, this theory states, something else will fall out as a result. When you take a foreign, synthetic substance that fixes your eye, this concern states, how possible is it that you won’t be able to hear the next day? We’ve all read the research, heard the disclaimers, and experienced horror stories, but which side of medical knowledge do we trust more?

Did the relative scarcity of medicinal techniques force our forebears to brilliantly, if simplistically, derive more natural —and in some opinions more effective— methods of survival in their age? Does our suspicion of advancement and technology cause us to reference old world, home remedies, and those remedies used by Native Americans, the Ancients, or any of those generations that preceded us, because they were forced to be more attuned to natural, more organic, and thus healthier cures?

Most of us are not students in the field of medicine, and we don’t understand how some guy in a lab can synthetically create some substance that makes our body work better, and what we don’t understand, we don’t trust. We’d much rather put our trust in the time-honored tradition of homeopathic remedies. Or, as my Biology teacher alluded, we’d much rather not introduce foreign, synthetic substances to our biology if we can avoid it, for fear of something else falling out.

How many of us have seen those commercials promising cures that are so laced with disclaimers that the disclaimers take up the majority of the commercial. It’s almost laughable. It’s enough for us to put out a call on the Federal Drug Administration (FDA) to up the average twelve to twenty-four years of testing on medicinal drugs before they hit our shelves. “I don’t trust them,” we say when a Big Pharmaceutical company puts another drug out on the market, and we resort to the antidote that calls for snails, worms, goose dung, and lamb dung for a cure. “I just prefer the natural cures that we’re learning so much about nowadays,” we say to sound more intelligent than those that seek modern, Western advancements in medical technology. “They’re only in it for profit.” Fair enough, but if you’re looking to those homeopathic, Eastern cures that were prominent in Twain’s day, you must also account for the fact that 42.5 was their life expectancy, and it is 78.7 now. And for every Eastern, homeopathic remedy that worked in Twain’s era, and could work now, there are about one hundred, bloodletting type cures that are listed in the 1745 Dictionary of Medicine by Dr. James of London and Samuel Johnson that did not.

{1}http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bloodletting

{2}http://www.maggietron.com/med/humors.php