The Strange Days of a Small Town Sheriff III


He Was a Real Sonofabitch

 

Dispatch called Sheriff Dan Anderson to a family home. Dispatch would later state that the woman that called 911, informed the dispatcher that she “finally shot” a man that happened to be her husband.

“Even though I knew the residents of the home were elderly, and I knew some of the details the woman confessed to the dispatcher, I knew enough to know that one can never knows how such a scene is going to play out. So, I drove onto this woman’s estate prepared for anything,” Sheriff Anderson said, “and I saw the wife sitting on her porch in a porch swing. I couldn’t see anything that would cause greater suspicion on the scene, so I exited the patrol car.

“We received a call of an incident,” Dan said he informed the woman. “Do you mind if I enter your property?”

“‘That’s fine,’ she said. ‘The rifle is over there,’ she said alluding to a corner of the porch. “‘In the corner.’

“I entered the woman’s property, walked onto the porch and secured the rifle. I determined that the rifle had been recently fired.

“‘My husband’s body is in the living room,’ she said, mentioning her husband by name.

“I secured the body,” Dan said, “and I left the house to discuss the matter further with the wife.

“She informed me that her husband was violently abusive, and that he had been throughout the course of their long marriage. She said that she decided that she wasn’t going to put up with the abuse anymore, and she said that she decided to end it.”

“The wife stood without further incident, and we handcuffed her. We then placed her in a jail cell, and we went back to the scene of the crime to examine the evidence for the case. With all of the preliminary evidence, I considered further evidence collection largely unnecessary in this case. The wife signed a full confession, she provided a minute-by-minute recounting of all that had taken place that day, and she provided us a full backdrop for her motivation for doing what she did. The wife was very forthcoming, in other words, saying that she’d rather spend the rest of her life in jail than put up with another day enduring her husband’s abusive ways. Even though the evidence we had, prior to returning to the scene, was largely preliminary, I considered it the duty of a lawman to go back to the scene, no matter how open and shut I thought it was, to do my due diligence on the matter and collect every piece of evidence available.

“We determined that the rifle that had been sitting on the porch, was the rifle used in this incident,” he said. “We determined that it was her fingerprints on the gun. The husband’s fingerprints were on the gun too, but the nature of the wound suggested to us that it was not self-inflicted. All of the evidence we found, and gathered at the scene, suggested that the idea that anyone but the wife was the alleged shooter were remote.

“As her arresting officer, I was called upon to sit in on the trial of her case. I was there to offer my testimony, if necessary, and any other character assessments of the wife and husband I might be called upon to make, should that be necessary. Again, I didn’t think any of this would be necessary, for we had a full confession, and such an overwhelming amount of evidence that I didn’t think this would be anything but an open and shut case.

“Before the trial begins, the wife’s defense lawyer asked the judge for a sidebar,” Dan said. “The judge agreed to this, and he invited the state’s lawyer, and me, to attend this sidebar.

“‘Before we begin your honor,’ the defense’s lawyer says. ‘The defense would like to submit into evidence the idea that the accused had every reason to shoot her husband, because he was a real sonofabitch.”

“To this point in my career,” Dan said. “I had attended hundreds of court cases. I’ve witnessed such a wide variety of claims of innocence that it would take months to document them. I’ve witnessed defense attorneys make insanity claims and temporary insanity claims. I thought I’d heard everything, in other words, but this defense was a new, almost laughable, one to me.

“That was the beginning and the end of the defense lawyer’s submission to the judge, and the only reason he asked for the side bar, and the judge turned to the state’s attorney, and me, to ask us if we had anything to add. We both said no, the judge ended the sidebar, and he ordered us back to our seat.

“I walked back to my seat with a little bit of a laugh. I considered that defense so laughable that I wondered if the judge would declare a mistrial on the basis that the lawyer for the defense was incompetent, and that the wife would need a new lawyer.

“The defense has submitted the idea that the victim in this case of murder against the accused, was a real sonofabitch,” the judge stated. “Well, I knew accused’s husband, and he was a real sonofabitch. Case dismissed.”

“You could’ve knocked me over with a feather,” Dan said. “As I said, I’ve worked so many cases, and sat in on so many trials that swung in a direction contrary to the evidence that I compiled, that I thought I was above being shocked at what can happen in a courtroom. This was beyond anything I ever witnessed. I just sat there with my mouth hanging open.

“After the trial, I thought about the husband, and I thought that even if the man was a real sonofabitch, he doesn’t deserve to die for it. If this man physically assaulted his wife, he deserved jail time. If the wife feared that the abuse was escalating, and she feared for her life, I could see the judge being more lenient, or even dismissing the case based on the nature of that abuse. I could even see the courts dismissing a case against the wife if she physically assaulted the husband, and the court judged her assault to be retribution for the years of abuse. The idea that a judge could dismiss a murder on that basis that a man was deemed a disagreeable person, was unprecedented to my experience in such matters. I was a lawman who believed in the justice system, and I had had that belief tested throughout the years, but this dismissal shook my beliefs system to its core.

“I also thought about the man hours law enforcement officials put in to collecting evidence for a case. I thought about how what I believed to be either a corrupt, or incompetent, judge can undermine those efforts and our beliefs in a fair and blind justice system in such a manner that it makes one question everything they do in the aftermath. I didn’t let it affect how I conducted myself on the job, going forward, but one cannot involve themselves in such a bizarre case without being affected by it.”

*This story was used with permission.

Strange Days of a Small Town Sheriff I: “I Want to Kill Someone!”

The Strange Days of a Small Town Sheriff II: “Is He Dead?”

Advertisements

The Strange Days of a Small Town Sheriff II


Is He Dead?

 

“Dispatch called us to a lonely stretch of highway in a small county in Arkansas where we discovered the headless body of a young man lying in the middle of the road. We were able to locate the head some distance from the body. There were no signs of struggle in the dirt, on the shoulder of the highway, and there were no signs of activity on the road that would indicate that a car accident, or a hit and run, occurred. The preliminary indications suggested that the body was not moved or dumped there, so we widened our search out for any signs of activity that would lead to a decapitation out in the middle of a lonely stretch of highway. We were unable to find any answers.

“After we decide that the evidence at the scene will not further our investigation, I make the call that every lawman regrets having to make,” Sheriff Dan Anderson continues. “I call the man’s wife to inform her of the incident. When the wife answers the phone, I inform her that her husband was involved in an accident, and that I need her to come out to this lonely stretch of highway to meet me there, so we can discuss the matter further. Information like this is not the type that one should deliver over the phone, so my reason for calling her was to look her in the eye when I delivered the news about her husband, and so I could console her in her time of need. I began to tell her the exact location of the incident, and I’m ready to follow that up with any directions she might need to find it, when she cut me off.

“‘Is he dead?’ she asks.

“‘Your husband was involved in an accident,’ I said, and I asked her to come down to this stretch of highway, so we could talk,” Dan said. “I began telling her where we were on this highway again, and I prepared to give her the directions to this location again, when she cut me off a second time.

“‘Is he dead?’ She repeated this with a sense of urgency that I believed contained a desire to cut through what she might perceive to be the painful details of a matter that would shock her. My experience in such matters is that when a sheriff calls a home, most people fear the worst, and they don’t want to flirt with the possibility of a worst-case scenario on their drive over. They think that they will be better able to deal with such matters better if they can have those fears confirmed as soon as possible. I have not found that to be the case. I have found that most people need immediate comfort at such a moment in their lives. Most people need to have someone call their family members, to drive them to the scene, so that they can share that grief with a loved one.

“I began to inform her that it might want to consider asking someone drive her to the location,” Dan said, “but I’m not halfway through that sentence when she cuts me off a third time with her, ‘Is he dead?’ question.

“‘Yes ma’am,’ I say breaking all protocol. ‘It appears that your husband met an untimely demise at the side of a highway.’ I also inform her that with the details available to me, at the scene, that I am not able to report to her exactly what happened.

“‘I can tell you what happened,’ she said. ‘I can tell you exactly what happened. That sonofabitch would not leave me alone. He was always on me about such stupid stuff, and I warned him to leave me alone on this particular night, he said he wouldn’t, and this led to a big fight. I decided that I wasn’t going to put up with his stuff anymore, so I got into my truck to take off. Well, he up and jumps into my truck bed, saying, ‘I ain’t leaving.’ I tell him he is, and he says he ain’t, so I tell him he is. One way or another, I said, you’re leaving. I drove down the road as fast as I could, and I swerved to the left and right, and he does leave … the hard way.’

“With that new information in mind,” Dan said. “I walk up the lonely stretch of highway to find a highway sign bent at the corner. The logistics suggest that when the wife swerved at one point, at a high rate of speed, the husband flew out of the truck’s bed, and his neck met with the corner of a roadside sign in such a manner that it led to his decapitation.

“The reason I remember this case, to this day, has less to do with the sad and horrific details of it,” Dan continued, “and more to do with this woman’s callous reaction to the news of her husband’s death. Was her reaction the result of a flurry of emotions she still felt regarding the argument she had with her husband? Was the reaction fueled by a sense of remorse over what she did? The instinct is to discount remorse, as she didn’t sound remorseful, but I’ve found that remorse takes many forms. I couldn’t answer those questions, and I still can’t, as I don’t know what was in her head, but my experience, while working in this particular county in Arkansas, suggested that her reaction to the news of her husband’s demise was characteristic of the people in that Arkansas county. My experience with the residents of this county suggested to me that these people didn’t value life in the manner the rest of us do. This wasn’t the only example of the experiences I had with this characteristic in this county, but it was one of the more brazen. I didn’t witness such uniform callousness in Kansas, in Phoenix, or in any of the places, I’ve worked in throughout my career. It would define for me,” Dan said of his characterization, “how I would work in this county, and it happened early on in my tenure there.”

*This story was used with permission.

Strange Days of a Small Town Sheriff I: “I Want to Kill Someone!”

The Strange Days of a Small Town Sheriff III: He was a Real Sonofabitch

The Strange Days of a Small Town Sheriff I


I Want to Kill Someone

 

“I want to kill someone,” a man said after entering a small town’s police station. Any time someone issues such a threat, it can be alarming. When that person enters a police station to confess such a desire to his local sheriff, all parties concerned should consider this an elevated threat. When that individual making that threat is a 6’8” and 350lb. man with a history that warrants a level of scrutiny from local law enforcement officials, the audience to such a threat drops everything else to address the man’s concerns.

Officer June, the wife of Sheriff Dan, was on front desk duty the morning this 6’8” and 350lb. man entered the station and issued his threat, and she was also working the radio dispatch. The problem was she was the only person in the station when this man entered.

The sheriff’s office did not consider the man violent, as he had no criminal record, but he did have a history of unpredictable behavior that put him on their radar. He suffered from a mental illness that required regular medication, and the idea that he was not on his medication on this particular morning was obvious, for he did not direct his anger at one particular person. His anger was more general, and he sought a release.

“He had his hands splayed out at the sides of his head, and he was squeezing his fingers together, as he repeated that line, ‘I want to kill someone,’” June said. “When I asked him for how I might be able help him, he repeated, ‘I want to kill someone,’ and he added, ‘I need to talk to Dan.’

“Dan is not here right now,” June informed the man. “Dan is at the hardware store, and he’ll be back soon. The man told me that he could not wait,” June added, “and that he wanted to kill someone, and he started in with the fingers again.”

“I’m six foot tall,” Dan said, “and I would have to look up to the man when he talked. When I run across a person that has a somewhat troubled past, I’ve always consider it a lawman’s job to lay some groundwork in the event that something could happen at a later date. Especially, when that person is large as this man was, and his history suggests that he might be capable of really hurting someone. It’s been my experience that the key to diffusing possible future situations is day-to-day contact. When I would see this man on the streets, or in the hardware store, I would stop to say hello to him. ‘Hey, how you doing today?’ I’d say. I would ask him about the particulars of his day, and I would ask him about his job. I would then ask him questions about how his family was doing. I would make small talk, in other words, to establish what I considered a vital link with the man. I did this so often with him that he and I developed a relationship. I would do that, with the thought that if a day like the one June is describing should ever arise, he’d look for me, his friend, if he needed to talk to someone.”

“The first question I’ve been asked,” June said. “Is if you were on radio dispatch that day, why didn’t you get on the horn and tell Dan what was going on in the station? The problem was that Dan never answered his radio.

“I was lucky this day,” June continued, “because Dan informed me where he was going before he left. He told me he was going across the street to the hardware store. He normally didn’t tell anyone where he was going. He just went. So, when this 6’8” and 350lb. man walked in talking about wanting to kill someone in such a manic state, and with him being so insistent that he wanted speak with Dan, and only Dan, I sprinted across the street to the hardware store and retrieved him.”

“Learning the details of such a situation might have led a less tenured law enforcement official to believe that such a situation required force, especially when your wife is the one providing these details in such a distressed manner,” Dan said. “I thought I laid the foundation for a decent relationship with this man, and I thought this might lead to a peaceful resolution, but peaceful resolutions are a two-way street. I knew this man could be unpredictable, and I decided that the best course of action was to prepare for the unpredictable nature of this man.

“Before we made it back to the station,” Dan continued. “I told June to put a gun on the two of us, and if anything should happen, just start firing. My rationale being, that if my interaction with this man devolved to a tussle, I would rather take a bullet than the haymakers I feared this man could deliver.”

“He had these enormous hands,” June said to illustrate why Dan’s concerns might have led him to believe that it would be better to take a bullet as opposed to a punch from this man. “I don’t know how else to describe it, except to say I’ve never seen hands as large as his, in person, and I would say that if you think you’ve seen large hands, go ahead and assume his hands were larger than that.”

“So he and I start talking once I arrived at the station,” Dan said, “and he informed me that he wanted to kill someone today, and I suggested that he might want to go back into a cell and cool off, but he did not want to do that.”

“He did not want to go into a cell,” June interjected. “I invited him to sit in the cell when I went to retrieve Dan from the hardware store, and he made it abundantly clear that he did not want to be in a cell.”

“So, I said, okay,” Dan said, “and we start talking again. He began explaining his situation to me, and I decided that the best course of action for me was to just sit back and listen. I developed a relationship with him as I said, and I knew various details about his family, so when he went through the details of his situation, I offered a sympathetic ear. When he finished, I told him that I understood his situation and that we would work together to rectify it. I also told him that when I was done at the hardware store, I had been planning to get some ice cream when. I told him that I still wanted to go to the ice cream store, and I asked him if he would like it if I bought him a dish of ice cream too. He said, ‘Sure.’ I knew the man had a weakness for ice cream, so I said, ‘Well, why don’t you go have a seat, and I’ll go buy you some ice cream.’ We looked for a chair for him to sit in, but we couldn’t find one, until I suggested one. The chair I suggested happened to be in a cell. When he sat, I locked the door behind him, and I went to get him some ice cream. We called the family and told them to find the medication this man required, and there were no further incidents. The man ate his ice cream and took his medication.”

“One of the things I tell less tenured law enforcement officials is that one simple act of kindness, and understanding, can go a long way with people,” Dan continued. “Some of the times, a lawman needs to be strong and forceful, but some of the times, a lawman can be just as effective by listening to the complaints a person has about their day, and that they should display a genuine level of interest and understanding for the person’s problem. A lawman can be too kind of course, and people like this 6’8” 350lb man can sense this. They can misconstrue it as weakness. In the case of this 6’8” 350lb. man, however, diffusing the situation that happened that day at the station, occurred long before he entered the station all worked up. He and I developed a friendship founded on mutual respect, and it concluded with one simple act of kindness.”

*This story was used with permission.

The Strange Days of a Small Town Sheriff II: “Is He Dead?”

The Strange Days of a Small Town Sheriff III: He was a Real Sonofabitch

Willie and Kenneth


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

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

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

“What’s up?” I asked.

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

“What’s a death voice?” I asked.

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Master Reset on Washing Machines


 

Our washing machine stopped spinning. It would reach the spin cycle and just stop, until the spin cycle ended. I went to the phone for answers. I pictured YouTube videos that would instruct me to tear the machine apart to get to a belt that needed replacing. I pictured an afternoon of frustration and uselessness, as I attempted to fix something above my pay grade.

The first internet page I pulled up, informed me that my first step was to perform what it called a “Master Reset”. It sounded complicated. I read the definition of the Master Reset. It said, “To perform a Master Reset, carefully unplug the washing machine from the power outlet and leave it unplugged for one minute. After one minute is up, plug the washer cord back into the wall. Next, open and close the door of the washing machine 6 times within 12 seconds to send a “reset” signal to all the components.” I read through those steps a couple of times. It seemed too simple, and I knew that a remedy this simple would not work for someone like me. My cynicism leads me to believe that corporations build these things to keep people like me from fixing them, and to keep the whole industry that surrounds washing machines, and repairmen afloat. I also thought this sounded like one of those “home remedies” that people spread via word of mouth, but no one uses, because they don’t work for “me”, and such solutions only leave those of us that are not able to fix anything with this inept feeling for being one of the few for which miracle cures don’t work.

In my mind, I was already at Sear’s writing the check for a new washing machine, but I considered the idea of trying this step-by-step process on a ‘what the heck’ basis. I thought this option might have a better chance of working than stabbing myself in the eye would, so I tried it and it … it worked. It worked so well that we did it twice just to convince ourselves that it actually worked.

I went back to the website that said, “This is a common fix that many appliance repair mechanics use – it works on about 50% of all washing machines.” This led me to wonder how many times has an appliance repairman has removed the back panel on a washing machine while we were in the room? How many of them fiddled with the machine, until we left that room? How many of them then executed the steps of this master reset and called us back to show us their prowess, and a bill of $130 for parts and labor?

“You just needed a new flux capacitor, and I happened to have one on me,” they said to our amazement.

How many of us were so relieved that our old washing machine now works, and that we do not have to pay $300 for a new one, that we didn’t question it. How many hundreds of thousands of dollars have passed from desperate customers to appliance repair mechanic over the years and decades in which this master reset option has been available to us? How many new washing machines have desperate customers purchased to replace a washing machine that most people, salesmen or not, will tell you are cheaper to replace than fix? How many of those same washing machines just needed a master reset? This led me to two conclusions, I could either become an appliance repairman that specializes in fixing washing machines, and fix 50% of them, or I could spread the word and hopefully prevent others from being duped by repairmen and salespeople that tell their customers it is in their best interests, over the long haul, just buy a new one.

What if You’re Wrong?


“You’re wrong,” a friend of mine said. “You’re wrong about me, you’re wrong about these little theories you have about other people, and you’re so wrong about so many things that I’m beginning to wonder if you might be just plain stupid.”

I don’t care what level of schooling one achieves, or the level of intelligence they gain through experience, a charge as harsh as that hurts. The subject of such an assessment might attempt to diffuse the power of the characterization by examining their accessor’s intelligence level, and their motivations for making such a charge, but it still leads to some soul searching.

“How can I be wrong about everything?” was the question I asked after she made the charge. “I may be wrong about some things, but how can I be wrong about everything?”

“I don’t know,” she said. “You just are.”

In the course of licking my wounds, I remembered something my eighth grade teacher once told me.

She gave me a harsh grade on a position paper that she assigned. I worked my tail off on that paper. I poured my soul into that paper. The reason I devoted so much energy on that paper had to do with the fact that I was not a good student. I rarely applied myself. I had this notion that that if I ever did apply myself, my true intelligence would finally be revealed. This particular paper, I thought, was that opportunity. I also thought it might prove something to this teacher I respected. As a result, I looked forward to receiving her grade and all of the effusive praise I felt sure would follow. It was one of the few times in my life I looked forward to receiving a grade.

“I worked my tail off on that assignment,” I said when I held that graded paper in hand.

“It was mealy mouthed,” she said. After she explained what mealy mouthed meant, I informed her that she instructed us to be careful to present both sides on this paper. I said I did that. “You were instructed to provide evidence of the opposing opinion,” she said. “You presented too much evidence,” she said. “The assignment involved taking a position. At the end of your paper, I wasn’t sure what side you were taking.” In the midst of the back and forth that followed, she added ten words that have stuck with me since. “If you’re going to be wrong, be wrong with conviction.”

***

“Have you ever considered the possibility that you might be wrong?” another person would ask me years later.

The first element of such a charge that the recipient must address is that their presentation is so arrogant that the provocateur feels the need to bring them down a notch. Once the recipient addresses that charge, and a person that seeks an honest presentation should reflect on it, the recipient should immediately focus on the motivations for making such a charge.

Some people pose this notion as often as possible. It’s a silky, smooth method of stating that they think the speaker is wrong, and so wrong that they might be stupid. They often pose the notion as if the speaker has never considered that idea before. If it’s not that, then they need the speaker to satisfy their needs, and their ego, before the speaker continues. As for the idea that I’ve never considered it before, I want to ask them if they’ve ever met my dad. The provocateur knew my dad well. They knew that my dad questioned everything that came out of my mouth. They also knew that my dad believed I was wrong about everything, and he assumed that I didn’t have the facilities to be an independent thinker. I considered this an insult in my younger years, but I now understand how difficult it is for a parent to believe that that person they knew as a toddler can arrive at independent thought, but it took me a while to reach that level of understanding. I don’t think my dad introduced this mindset to lead me to try to prove him wrong, but that was the result.

The interesting dynamic in these conversations is that prolonged involvement with a person that makes such a charge will reveal the idea that they’ve never considered the idea that they could be wrong. Their vantage point is often that of the contrarian, and that contrarian challenges what they consider a status quo relative to their own life. This mindset does not lead to reflection on one’s own set of beliefs. They have focused their energy on refuting the speaker’s words and the “Have you ever considered the idea that you might be wrong?” is the best weapon they have in their arsenal.

The ideal method of refuting further questions of this sort is to qualify every statement a speaker makes with, “I could be wrong but-”. As I’ll note below, I used to do this, but I found it tedious after a while.

***

I could be wrong, but I think any attempt a person makes to describe human nature is going to be fraught with peril. Most people will not agree with such descriptions, and they might view that person’s conclusions as simplistic, trite, and anecdotal. Some might even view the positions a person takes, as so wrong, they could be stupid.

In one regard, I view such assessments with envy, because I don’t understand how one person can unilaterally reject another’s opinion with such certitude. I still don’t, as evidenced by the fact that I still remember my friend’s ‘You might be stupid’ charge more than twenty years after she made it. I assume that she dismissed the assessments I made of her so well that she doesn’t remember them, as she was as certain then, as I assume she is now, that she was right and I was not only wrong, but I could be stupid.

Somewhere along the way, I learned that one’s definition of human nature relies on the perspective they’ve gained through their interactions and experiences. If it’s true that definitions of human nature are relative, and that one author’s assessments are based on the details of the their upbringing, then the only thing anyone can say with any certitude is that the best story an author can tell is that which is listed in their autobiography.

What if I am as wrong as my friends here have stated, and my stories don’t even come close to achieving what some would call a comprehensive study of human nature. What if every belief I’ve had over the course of the last twenty years are so off the mark, or so wrong, that they might be stupid? These questions should haunt every writer, artist, and theoretician that attempts to explain the nouns (people, places, and things) that surround them. The answer for those plagued by the enormity of trying to explain the otherwise unexplainable is to pare it down to the knowable. An author can only write what they know, and often times what they know is limited to what they hear, learn, and experience firsthand.

Those that know me often say that for all of my faults, I am a great listener. They also say that my curiosity appears genuine. I don’t listen with an eye towards developing content, in other words, but the content was a natural byproduct of a curious mind seeking to learn the details beyond which the person considered their motivation for doing what they did. The trick to arriving at such a truth is to listen and watch these people beyond the initial conversation, until we are experiencing their triumphs and failures vicariously, and we begin processing their autobiographies so thoroughly that they become a part of our own. Go beyond hearing what a person wants others to hear, to fortify a thesis, and listen to what these people say.

Some will dismiss some of the stories I use to explain human nature as anecdotal evidence of human nature. Some of them may be. To my mind, they explain the motivations of the characters involved, and the stories and theories I arrived at that have shaped my definition of human nature, and presumably my autobiography, better than any other stories can.

If there is a grain a truth to the Chinese proverb, “A child’s life is like a piece of paper on which people leave a mark,” then those that preceded the author have shaped his definition of human nature. This is not to say that one’s definition of human nature is limited to experience. Yet, when we read theories and see movies that depict questions and answers, we’re apt to be most interested in those that apply to our own experience. So, the question a reader might ask is, ‘Why did these particular stories appeal to your theories?’ The only suitable answers I’ve been able to find are, “All theory is autobiography,” and “I’m telling my story, as I heard and responded to others.”

These quotes form the foundation of these pieces, coupled with an attachment, via a complicated circuitry, to the philosophy that drove Leonardo da Vinci’s numerous accomplishments. I don’t know if da Vinci said these words, but from that which I’ve read on da Vinci, questions informed his process more than answers, and I derived a quote: “The answers to that which plagues man can be found in the questions he asks of himself.” The second is a direct quote from playwright Anton Chekov: “It is the role of the storyteller to ask questions not to answer them.”

As such, the curious reader might find more questions than answers in these stories, and they may not derive anything beyond simple entertainment, but to the author each story comprises a central theme I have regarding motivation. The goal of each of these pieces was to explain, to one curious mind, human nature. The answers hit the author based on the questions I have asked people in the interactions I have had, from my very small corner of the world. Some of the people the author interacted with were on the fruitloppery index, and some of them were a bit delusional, but most of the characters of these stories appeared so normal that the author thought they might be boring, until they told their story. When they told their story, the author asked follow up questions, until the characters opened their vault up, and the author engaged with the storyteller until he all but physically entered the dark caverns of their mind.

Even though most of these stories are based on real life experiences, there will always be some readers that require “I may be wrong, but …” qualifiers, lest they view the author as obnoxiously sure of himself. The readers that insist this is how an author should present such ideas need to ask themselves how interesting such a presentation is. Those authors are out there, I’ve read them. They spend so much of their time dutifully informing their readers that they’re not “obnoxious blowhards” that they end up saying little more. It’s so redundant and tedious that I can’t help thinking that if those authors fear they might be wrong, they should be so with conviction.

Find Your Own Truth


“Find your own truth,” was the advice author Ray Bradbury provided an aspiring, young writer on a radio call-in show.

Most people loathe vague advice. We want answers, we want that perfect answer the helps us over the bridge, and a super-secret part of us wants those answers to be easy, but another part of us knows that a person gets what you pay for in that regard. When we listen to a radio show guesting a master craftsman, however, we want some nugget of information that will explain to us how that man happened to carve out a niche in the overpopulated world of his craft. We want tidbits, words of wisdom about design, and/or habits that we can imitate and emulate, until we reach a point where we don’t have to feel so alone in our structure. Vague advice, and vague platitudes, feels like a waste of our time. Especially when that advice comes so close to a personal core and stops.

Bradbury went onto define this relative vision of “the truth” as he saw it, but that definition didn’t step much beyond that precipice. I had already tuned him out by the time he began speaking of other matters, and I eventually turned the channel. I may have missed some great advice, but I was frustrated.

If the reader is anything like me, they went back to doing what they were doing soon after hearing advice, but the quality of deep, profound advice starts popping up in the course of what a person does. It begins to apply so often that, we begin chewing on it, and digesting it. Others may continue to find this vague advice about a truth to be nothing more than waste matter –to bring this analogy to its biological conclusion– but it begins to infiltrate everything an eager student does. If the advice is pertinent, the recipient begins spotting truths that should’ve been so obvious before, and they begin to see that what their thought was the truth –because it is for everyone else– is not as true for them as they once thought.

Vague advice may have no import to those that don’t bump up against the precipice, and for them a platitude such as, “Find your own truth” may have an of course suffix attached to it. “Of course an artist needs to find their own truth when approaching an artistic project,” they may say. “Isn’t that the very definition of art?” It is, but go ahead and ask an artist if the project they are currently working on is any closer to their truth than the past pieces they attempted. Then, once they’ve completed that project, go ahead and ask them if they’re any closer to their truth. The interrogator is likely to receive a revelation of the artist’s frustration in one form or another, as most art involves the pursuit of a truth coupled with an inability to capture it to the artist’s satisfaction. Yet, it could be said that the pursuit of artistic truth, and the frustration of never achieving it, may provide more fuel to the artist than an actual, final, arrived upon truth ever could.

Finding your truth, as I see it, involves intensive knowledge of the rules of a craft, locating the parameters of the artist’s ability, finding their formula within, and whittling. Any individual that has ever attempted to create art has started with a master’s template in mind. The aspiring, young artist tries to imitate and emulate that master design, and they wonder what that master of the design might do in moments of artistic turmoil. Can I do this, what would they do, should I do that, and is my truth nestled somewhere inside all of that awaiting further exploration? At a furthered point in the process, the artist is hit by other truths, truths that contradict prior truth, and this begins to happen so often that everything the artist believed to be a truth, at one point, becomes an absolute falsehood, and this is where the whittling comes in.

In a manner similar to the whittler whittling away at a stick to create form, the storyteller is always whittling. He’s whittling when he writes. He’s whittling when he reads. He’s whittling in a movie theater, spotting subplots, and subtext that no one else sees. He’s whittling away at others’ stories to what he believes to be the core of the story that the author of the piece may not even see. Is he correct? It doesn’t matter, because he doesn’t believe that the author’s representation of the truth is a truth.

Once the artist has learned all the rules, defined the parameters, and found his own formula within a study of a master’s template, and all the templates that contradict that master template, it is time for him to branch out and find his own truth.

The Narrative Essay

Even while scouring the RIYL (read if you like) links provided at the bottom of the webpages of books I’ve enjoyed, I knew that the narrative essay existed. Just as I’ve always known that the strawberry existed, I knew about the form some call memoir, that others call creative non-fiction. The question I have, is have you ever tasted a strawberry that caused you to flirt with the idea of eating nothing but strawberries for the rest of your life? If you have, I’m going to guess that it had more to do with your diet than it did the actual taste of that strawberry. A person may go long stretches of time carelessly ignoring the nutrients that this gorgeous, little heart-shaped berry has in abundance for. They may suffer from a vitamin C depletion, for example, in ways that were not apparent to them, until they took that first bite of this gorgeous, little heart-shaped berry.

That first bite caused a person inexplicable feelings of euphoria that they didn’t understand, until they learned of the chemicals of the brain, and the manner in which the brain rewards the person for fulfilling a biological need. The only thing they may have known at the time was that that strawberry tasted so glorious that they stood at the strawberry section of a buffet line gorging on strawberries while everyone behind them waited for them to starting moving.

I am sure, at this point, that the reader would love to learn the title of that one gorgeous, little narrative essay that caused my feelings of creative euphoria. The only answer I can give the reader is that if they’re suffering a depletion, one essay will not quench this depletion any more than one strawberry can. One narrative essay did not provide a eureka-style epiphany that led me to an understanding of all of the creative avenues worthy of exploration. One essay did not quench the ache my idea-depleted mind endured in the more traditional parameters, with the time-tested formulas and notions I had of the world of storytelling. I just knew that I needed more, and I read all the narrative essays I could find in a manner equivalent to the effort I put into exploring the maximum benefits the strawberry could provide, until a grocery store checker proclaimed that she had never witnessed one man purchasing as many strawberries as I had at one time. She even called a fellow employee over to witness the spectacle I had laid out on her conveyor belt. The unspoken critique being that no wife would permit a man to purchase this many strawberries at once, so I must be single and self-indulgent.

An unprecedented amount of strawberries didn’t provide me an unprecedented amount of euphoria, of course, as the brain appears to only provide near-euphoric chemical rewards for satisfying a severe depletion, but the chemical rewards my brain offered me for finding my own truth, in the narrative essay format, have proven almost endless. As have the rewards I’ve experienced reading others reach their creative peaks. As I’ve written, I knew narrative essays existed, but I considered most of them to be dry, personal essays that attempted to describe the cute, funny things that happened to them on their way to forty. I never thought of them as a vehicle for the exploration of unique creativity, until I found those authors that had.

It is difficult to describe an epiphany to a person that’s never had one. Even to those that have had one, I would say that the variables within an epiphany are so unique that they can be difficult to describe to a listener with an “of course” face on. I could’ve informed them that, more often than not, an epiphany does not involve the single, most unique thought ever considered, but a common place “of course” thought that the recipient has to arrive at of their own accord. When that doesn’t make a dent in their “of course” face, we can only concede that epiphanies are personal.

For me, the narrative essay was an avenue to the truth that my mind craved, and I may have never have ventured down this path had Ray Bradbury’s vague four words failed to register. For those that stubbornly maintain their “of course” faces in the shadow of the maxim the late, great Ray Bradbury inscribed in the minds of all those that heard it, I offer another vague piece of advice that the late-great Rodney Dangerfield offered to an aspiring, young comedian:

You’ll figure it out.”

If a vague piece of advice, such as these two nuggets, appear so obvious that they’re hardly worth saying, or the recipient of such advice can’t understand how it might apply, no matter how often one thinks about it, does it, attempts to add to it, or whittles away at it to find a core worthy of exploration, I add, you’ll either figure it out, or you won’t.