That’s Not Dirt


“In my professional opinion,” a plumber said. “I think we’re stuck.” The plumber said that after assuring me that a cranking mechanism on his truck would make “easy work” of snaking the sewer line of my home. He allowed that mechanism to snake the drain for about fifteen minutes. When that didn’t work, he attempted to assist the mechanism manually. He finally turned the mechanism off and attempted to perform the task manually.

I was impressed when the plumber informed me that his mechanism would make this a quick process, for that went against everything I heard. Everyone from the tree experts I talked to, to the plumber that snaked this drain before told me that the silver maple leaf was the worst possible tree a homeowner could have when it comes to plumbing. Our silver maple leaf was about sixty-feet tall, and the previous plumber informed me that that means it probably goes sixty feet down, “and as I’m sure you can guess, a sixty-foot tree does not go straight down. It builds itself a foundation by spreading outwards infiltrating whatever is in its way.” I told this current plumber this, but he insisted that his truck’s cranking mechanism would make easy work of this task.

“Just watch,” he said before flipping the switch on the crank.

The crank on the plumber’s truck did make some progress before we reached that point of being stuck. Evidence of that progress lined my basement in the form of piles of debris on newspapers throughout my basement. The debris consisted of numerous silver maple leaf’s twigs and some dirt that I assumed followed the twigs in the drain.

“Well,” I said, looking down at one of these piles. “It should be easier to work through since all the dirt is wet?”

“You’re kidding, right?” he said looking down at the same mound of debris. “There is some dirt in there, no doubt, but most of that is not dirt.”

I looked at him in confusion for about half a beat, until it dawned on me what he was saying. I colored with embarrassment for a moment. “Wait a second,” I said, “isn’t that what we’re supposed to have in there?”

“Sure,” he conceded, “but it’s not dirt.”

The plumber’s confidence turned out to be false bravado, as evidenced by the fact that the effort he put into trying to clear the drain physically drained him. His hopelessness led him to consider calling a professional colleague at one point, and he considered calling the home office for advice. “I hate to ask you this,” he said, “I’ve never done this before, and I’m sure my colleagues would frown at this, but could you help me?” After I agreed to do just that, he added, “I think the two of us could do this together, don’t you?” He put me on the lead, and he said he would also be pulling from behind. He then added, “I want you to pull as hard as you can, of course, but when I say stop. Stop.”

He asked me to look at him, and he repeated that line to make sure I understood the importance of stopping. I told him I would do as instructed. As I began to pull, however, I began making significant progress. It was obvious, at one point, that I was making more progress than a certified plumber had. I was proud. He was helping me to a point, but when I started making real progress, he stopped pulling from the back and said, “You’re getting it.” That led me to start pulling even harder.

I don’t know about anyone else, but when another fella tells me that I’m displaying feats of strength beyond his own, it invigorates me. When I’m outdoing a professional on his own profession, I try to live up to that compliment and expound upon it. As I sought to expound upon it, the primary source of our concern appeared in the sewer clean out fitting built into the wall of our basement. I was excited, I thought I was accomplishing something huge, but the plumber informed that working it through the fitting was often the hardest part. I had this in mind, coupled with the progress I made, when I began pulling for what I thought would be one last time. It wouldn’t happen on the first couple of pulls, as the entanglement popped up in and out of the fitting on the side of the wall like a ground squirrel taunting its tormentor.

After those first couple of tantalizing pulls failed, I let the snake go slack and regrouped for one final pull. I inhaled and grabbed ahold of snake line, and I put everything I had into one final pull.

“Stop!” the plumber shouted. He was too late.

The mass, that was not dirt, entwined with silver maple leaf twigs, finally made it through the fitting. Its release, combined with the force of my pull, caused me to fall backward until I was flat on my bottom. The result of that fall not only prevented the mass that was not dirt from hitting me, but it put me in a perfect position to watch the mass fly up over my head.

As anyone with a basic understanding of physics can guess, this did not happen in slow motion. It happened so fast that I didn’t see the glop hit the plumber in the face, and I didn’t have enough time to see if the plumber failed to duck in time, or if he accidentally ducked into it. Regardless what his reaction was, some of the glop that was not dirt landed on his nose and eyeglasses.

It took the plumber about two seconds to digest what happened. Once he did, the expletives flew. One of those expletives could adequately describe some of material in the glop that was not dirt, now on his face. He blamed me for not stopping when he told me to, he blamed himself for not calling in a professional colleague to assist him, and he displayed some anger at the world for a moment. Throughout this understandable tirade, the plumber did not wipe the glop from his face. He just stared at me, and with me, in mutual disgust for what just happened.

“This is, by far, the most disgusting thing that’s ever happened to me,” he said after he cooled down a little, “and I’m sure you can guess that this profession has provided me quite a list!” That was a good line, I thought, and I wasn’t sure if he valued good lines as much as I did, but I wondered if he allowed this glop to remain on his face, because he thought his appearance might enhance the comedic value of such a line.

I don’t know what he was thinking, or if I was assigning my values to his reaction, but my guess was his years spent as a plumber raised his tolerance level for that which others consider unspeakably disgusting. What I couldn’t understand, however, was his ability to stand there with that on his face without feeling embarrassed. I also couldn’t understand why wiping this glop off his face wasn’t an instinctual response. Whatever his reasoning, he continued to leave it on his face to deliver one last comedic line, “All I can say, and I never thought I’d be saying this, but I’m glad I need to wear glasses.” 

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Dumb Guy’s Disease


“Taken care of me. Mike, you’re my kid brother, and you take care of me? Did you ever think of that. Ever once? Send Fredo off to do this, send Fredo to take care of that… take care of some little unimportant night club here, and there; pick somebody up at the airport. I’m your older brother Mike and I was stepped over! … It ain’t the way I wanted it! I can handle things. I’m smart. Not like everybody says, like dumb. I’m smart and I want respect!” –Fredo from The Godfather II

“What happened?” we ask ourselves. “I thought I’d be one of the smart ones. I know I was a disinterested student in school, and I probably cared more about partying for far too long in the afterlife (the afterlife being the era of life that occurred immediately after we finished school), but I thought I would’ve gathered enough wisdom by this point that someone would consider me wise, but I have to face it. I have a mean case of dumb guy’s disease.”

Dumb guy’s disease doesn’t necessarily mean that the carrier is dumb, but that they are not as smart as they thought they would be at this point. We all know dumb guys, those men and women that by our calculations don’t know enough to enter into our league of intelligence. We never considered ourselves one of them, until someone far more intelligent than us gave us a condescending “you don’t know do you?” smile. We would love to dismiss that look with the notion that they had an agenda, but we know that we choked in crunch time, because we didn’t know. When enough of these moments happen, we conclude that we’re not half as bright as we thought we would be at this point in our lives.

To prove ourselves to us, we seek less structured forms of education. We might begin reading better websites and better books, we might watch more documentaries, and listen to a wide array of podcasts. No matter what venue we choose, we will focus our renewed thirst for knowledge on vanquishing the structured concepts we failed to learn in school. This is our way of putting all those poor grades behind us by rejecting traditional, accepted knowledge as a form of intellectual rebellion.

“Everything they taught you in school is wrong,” is popular click bait for dumb guys hoping to succeed beyond the fools in school that regurgitated accepted facts back to the teacher. We dumb guys learn the truth, but this version of the truth should not be confused with the truth, in most cases, but rather a subjective truth that an author spends decades writing in various forms and incarnations. This is one of the many attempts we make to rectify the past.

***

Literary agents and publishers provide prospective clients a preemptive list of ideas for books that they will accept and reject. These lists normally include a list of genres that they are interested in and some notes regarding what their institution is about for the interested writer. On occasion, they will provide a note to humiliate those that have poured their heart and soul into a book. “I do not want a book that seeks to rectify a past transgression committed against the author,” one agent’s note read. “Please, do not send me an idea fora book that puts your bully in his place, or one that suggests your parents were wrong all along.” This agent was alluding to the idea that anyone that attempts to write such a book is, by his estimation, a hack.

My initial reaction to this note was that a total upheaval of my writing might be necessary if I ever hoped to have a prestigious outlet consider one of my works for publications. It also caused me something of an artistic identity crisis, because I realized that most of my fictional stories focused on rectifying my past.

With this comprehensive condemnation in mind, I put everything I read, watched and heard though this agent’s funnel, and I thought, ‘Listen, Mortimer, this is kind of what we do.’ When I write the word we, in the context of describing rewriting the past to rectify it our mind, I don’t find this characteristic to be exclusive to writers. I consider it a comprehensive term that applies to all human beings, artists and otherwise. When that fella at the water cooler provides us a testimonial about his days in high school, and how bullies subjected him to cruel and inhumane levels of abuse, how much of his testimonial is 100% factual? He might say that bullies picked on him, a confession that we consider more acceptable in our anti-bully climate, but how many people delve into the specifics of the pain they experienced in those moments? I met the guy who did, and he was such an anomaly that he characterized for me, the 99.99% of the population who won’t. For the rest of us, our rewrites involve a main character of our story reacting to our bully in a manner equivalent to Indiana Jones shooting the Arab swordsman after his intricate displays of prowess with a scimitar. If this agent’s goal was to limit the number of authors vying for his services, I suspect this note accomplished that for him, and put the fear in a whole lot more.

Those that attempt to rewrite their past at the water cooler with fellow employees that no nothing of the man’s past, might be lying. When an author writes such a piece in a book, however, they do have a license to do so. It’s called an artistic license. Now, readers of this site should know by now that I consider nonfiction more compelling than fiction. They should also know that when I encounter an image, a story line, or a turn of a phrase that could make a retelling of an event better, I will err on the side of nonfiction. Nonfiction is simply more compelling to me, even when it is not as entertaining as a creative spin could be. The second rule concerns fiction, and that is there are no rules regarding truth, as I believe the reader and author have entered into an agreement that it’s likely that none of this is true in any way. I do have one rule with fiction, however, and this might fall under the agent’s note. It is that I do not exaggerate my main character’s prowess to the point that he is an Indiana Jones character with little in the way of vulnerabilities. My main characters do make mistakes, and they are wrong, but I don’t do this to follow some elitist agent’s guidelines, I just find flawed characters more interesting. It’s why I’ve always preferred Batman to Superman. Perhaps the agent should’ve included some variation of the word exaggeration. Without that word, the agent is condemning about 95% of the world of fiction.

***

To be considered a successful author, Truman Capote once said, “All an author needs to do is write one great book.” The initial thought, and that which informed much of what Capote said, was that he was saying that all an author has to do to achieve fame is write one great book. Capote, after all, appeared to enjoy the fruits of fame as much, if not more, than any other author did on the back of In Cold Blood. Capote’s brief quote might have also referred to the idea that greater sales result from one great book, for one could say that writing one great book puts an author on the radar, and any books that follow will achieve greater attention on the coattails of that one great book.

The rhetorical question I would’ve asked Capote is one solely concerned with artistic integrity. Such a question might not concern anyone outside the literary world, but I would ask him if an author writes one great book, how many other self-sustaining works can one author create based on his or her experiences in life? How many creative plotlines, varied characters, and philosophical chunks of exposition can one writer develop before treading upon the familiar ground exposed in that one great book? They will try, of course, because the competitive drive of every artist compels them to try to write two self-sustaining books to differentiate them from the well-traveled idea that everyone has one good book in them. On a side note, some cultural critics have argued, “Everyone has a book in them, but in most cases that’s where it should stay.”

For most authors that aspire to write two great books, to four, to so much more, the astute reader can spot their formula. The author’s formula encapsulates their worldview, the imprint the world has made on them, and that which they hope to leave on their readers. There is also, within the artist, the drive to escape the imprint left on them, but most human beings, artists or otherwise, have a difficult time escaping their philosophical DNA. We are creatures of habit that can’t help giving our bad guy the characteristics that terrified us most in our friend’s dad. We can’t avoid the urge to harm him, or kill him off in the creative ways fictional outlets provide, and we can’t avoid telling him, in all the ways our creative minds have at our disposal, that he isn’t as terrifying to us as he was when we were young.

On that note, writing can be therapeutic. I was well into rewriting my past when it dawned on me how therapeutic it was. My main character could come up with the witty retort that I didn’t when his bully confronted him, and the main character forced the bully to confront the main character’s attributes. I had a number of plots, subplots, and asides built on this premise, and they were all pretty awful, but they provided seeds for the better material that would follow, and it helped me get over some of the psychological bumps I have experienced in life. It was my formula, and my drive to right the wrongs done to me in life by rewriting my past in such a way that I could live, vicariously, through my main character. I discovered, soon after reading that agent’s post that I could not escape this route, as it was part of my artistic DNA.

The faults of my imprint, as it pertained to what I was writing, dawned on me when an interviewer asked one of my favorite musicians why his lyrics were subpar. (The interviewer’s question was more artful than that, but that was the gist of the question.) “Too many lyricists attempt to write a song, as if it’s a college thesis,” is a rough synopsis of the musician’s answer. “I just write lyrics that fit the music.”

The dumb guy’s disease involves the author of a book, or song, informing the world that they’re not as dumb as they were in school or in the immediate aftermath where the focus of their life was partying. The quote informed me that when I injected politics and music appreciation into my fiction, I was writing my college thesis. Some big name fiction authors make political overtures to enlighten their readers, and they attempt to woo us into listening to their favorite groups with forays into music appreciation. I used to write about my main character’s appreciation for my favorite group of the moment, in the manner that big name author does. My modus operandi was if he can do it, why can’t I? I hit a realization that he could do it, because he was a big name in the fiction world, and I wasn’t. I finally realized, under the guise of a dumb guy writing a college thesis, that this big name author didn’t introduce his political, or music, preferences as well as I thought he had when blinded by the awe I had of his big name.

In the years I spent trying to prove that I was not a dumb guy, I never heard the notion that intelligence and brilliance could be considered different strains of intellect. (I realize that in the strictest sense of the terms, some might consider another so intelligent, in a structured manner, that they consider them brilliant, but for the sake of argument let’s say that brilliance and intelligence are two parallel roads.) The two strains of intellect could be broken down to left-brain versus right brain, as in that one type of brain has an almost natural aptitude for math and science, while the other is more of a creative type. One could also say that the intelligent person knows how to fix a saxophone while the other knows how to play it brilliantly, and while both can learn how to accomplish the other’s feat, neither will ever do it as well as the other, for their brains work in decidedly different ways.

This idea applies to dumb guy’s disease, because some creative types do not discover their aptitude for creativity, until the afterlife. (Again, this term refers to the life after school.) We recognize some forms of artistic expression, such as an ability to draw or play an instrument, early on, while an aptitude for creative writing usually occurs later in life. The math and science types discover an aptitude for the structured learning, memorization, and problem solving that occurs in school, and it puts them in the upper echelon of learners, whereas the young, creative types live outside the bubble, looking in with jealousy. Screaming, as Fredo did in The Godfather II, “I’m smart. Not like everybody says, like dumb. I’m smart and I want respect!”

If I had one piece of advice that I could give myself twenty years prior it would be to try harder to succeed within the system. Do whatever it is you do to the best of your ability and quit thinking your above such structured knowledge, or that some subjects are pointless. I would also ask myself to work harder to acknowledge that there’s nothing special about me, but hold onto the idea that I could be. I know this sounds confusing, I would add, but it’s the key to prosperity and happiness. The reason you’re experiencing an individual strain of dumb guy’s disease is that you focused too much energy on the idea that there was something special about you. It’s the reason you were so frustrated that you weren’t a better athlete, student and employee. You got ahead of yourself in other words. Slow down and capture the moments better.

If there were an antidote to dumb guy’s disease, I would say it involves an unhealthy dose of self-reflection coupled with a dose of self-actualization. As our grandmother’s told us, there is always going to be someone stronger, more attractive, and smarter. There is always going to be some that have their areas, and we might know little to nothing about that area, but we have our areas too. Unfortunately, when someone backs us into a corner, intellectually, there is a tendency to panic. If we were able to sit back and say, hey, you have your areas and I have mine, we might be able to avoid the fear that we’re not as dumb as we think we are.

What if You’re Wrong?


“You’re wrong,” a friend of mine said. “You’re wrong about me, and the little theories you have about people always end up being wrong. You’re so wrong about so many things, in fact, 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 one gains through experience, such a charge hurts. The subject of such an assessment might attempt to defuse the power of the characterization by examining the accessor’s intelligence level, and the motivations they have for making such a charge, but it inevitably leads to some soul searching.

“How can I be wrong about everything?” I asked after she made the charge. “I might 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 told me, after harshly grading a paper I wrote.

I was a disinterested student for much of my schooling years, but I chose that paper to display whatever ability I had at the time. I’m not sure why I chose that particular paper, but I think it had something to do with my desire to prove myself to a teacher that I respected, and I think I wanted to prove something to myself too. Whatever my motivation was, I poured my soul into that assignment, and I couldn’t wait to see the grade I received. I also thought there would be effusive praise to follow.

I was wrong on both counts, and it crushed me. “I worked my tail off on this assignment,” I said with the graded paper in hand.

“It was mealy-mouthed,” she said.

After she explained what mealy-mouthed meant, I informed her, “I did as you asked. You said that we had to be careful to present both sides.”

“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. When I finished your paper, I still wasn’t sure which side you take.”

She concluded the back and forth that followed with ten words that have stuck with me ever 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 asked me years later.

Some people pose this question so often that those of us that receive it so often, can’t help but wonder about their motivation. Is it a silky, smooth method of stating that they think the speaker is wrong, and so wrong that they might border on stupid? Do they truly think that we’ve never considered the possibility that we could be wrong before, or is it a way of undermining our credibility?

As for the idea that I’ve never considered it before, I want to ask them if they’ve ever met my dad. The second example of a person asking me this question, knew my dad well. He knew my dad questioned everything that came out of my mouth. He also knew that my dad believed I was wrong about everything, and that my dad assumed that I didn’t have the facilities to be an independent thinker. During my younger years, I considered this an insult, but I now understand how difficult it is for a parent to believe that the person they knew as a toddler can arrive at independent thought. Of course, it took a while for me to reach that level of understanding that my dad didn’t introduce me to such a mindset just to lead me to try to prove him wrong, but that was the result nonetheless.

The interesting dynamic in such conversations is that prolonged involvement with such an accuser reveals that they’ve never considered the idea that they could be wrong. Their vantage point is often that of the contrarian, of one who challenges what they consider the status quo, relative to their own life. This mindset does not lead to reflection on one’s own set of beliefs. They focus all of 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 with a preemptive strike, such as, “I could be wrong but-”. I used to do this, as often as social dictates require, 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. Some will not agree about various descriptions, and many will view the conclusions the author reaches as simplistic, trite, and anecdotal. Some might even view such positions, 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 later. I assume she summarily dismissed the assessments I made of her, and I doubt she recalls them at all. I assume that she’s as certain now as she was then 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 an individual has gained through their interactions and experiences. If it’s true that definitions of human nature are relative, and that one’s assessments are based on the details of 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 have stated, is a question I must ask. What if my stories don’t even come close to achieving what some might call a comprehensive study of human nature? What if every belief I’ve had over the course of the last twenty years is so off the mark, or so wrong, that they might be stupid? These questions should haunt every writer, artist, and theoretician who attempts to explain the nouns (people, places, and things) that surround them. As for an answer to those plagued by the enormity of trying to explain, the otherwise unexplainable, I suggest that they 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 who know me often say that, in spite of all of my faults, I am a great listener. They also say my curiosity appears genuine. I don’t listen with the aim of developing content, but content is a natural byproduct of a curious mind seeking to learn the details beyond which the person considers their motivations. The trick to arriving at their definition of the 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 part of our own. The curious mind must go beyond hearing only what the person telling the story wants us to hear if we are to fortify a thesis, and listen to what these people say.

Some will dismiss some of the stories contained herein as anecdotal evidence of human nature, and in some cases that might be true. To my mind, these tales 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 in the old Chinese proverb, “A child’s life is like a piece of paper on which people leave a mark,” then those who preceded the authors have played an integral role in shaping their definitions of human nature. This is not to say that one’s definition of human nature is limited to experience, but when we read theories and see movies that depict questions and answers, we’re apt to be the most interested in those that apply to our own experience. A reader might ask, “Why do these particular stories appeal to your theories?” For that, the only suitable answers I’ve found are, “All theory is autobiography,” and “I’m telling my story, as I heard and responded to others.”

These quotes form the philosophical foundation of these pieces, coupled with an attachment, via a complicated circuitry, to the philosophy that drove Leonardo da Vinci’s numerous accomplishments. I can’t confirm that he said the actual words, but based on what I’ve read about da Vinci, questions informed his process more than answers. As such, I’ve derived the quote: “The answers to that which plagues man can be found in the questions he asks of himself.” Another quote that the reader will want to keep in mind is from playwright Anton Chekov: “It is the role of the storyteller to ask questions, not to answer them.”

It’s entirely possible that the curious reader might find more questions than answers in these pages, and they may not derive anything beyond simple entertainment. For me, the author, each story comprises a central theme, one that I believe relates to my questions about motivation. The goal of each of these pieces was to explain, to one curious mind, human nature, and the answers touch on the questions I have asked people in the interactions I have had, from my small corner of the world. Some of those I’ve interacted with might fall on the fruitloppery index, and some might appear a bit delusional, but most of the characters of these stories appeared so normal, on the surface, that the author thought they might be boring. When these characters began their story, the author asked all the right questions, as evidenced by the fact that they opened up and allowed the author into the darkest recesses of their mind.

While most of the following stories are based on real-life experiences, some readers might still require an “I may be wrong, but …” qualifier, lest they view the author as obnoxiously sure of himself. Those who prefer this should ask themselves a question, how interesting is it when an author qualifies all of their characterizations and conclusions in such a manner. Some authors do this, I know, I’ve read their work. 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 they do so in fear that someone somewhere might tell them they’re wrong. Some might even go so far as to suggest that their experience is so different from the author’s that the author might be stupid. If this is the reason behind the need some authors have for qualifying so many of their conclusions, my advice to them would be to heed the words from my eighth grade teacher, “If you’re going to be wrong, be wrong 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 an 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 the person that seeks easy answers often gets what they 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.

A Simplicity Trapped in a Complex Mind


“That’s David Hauser,” my friend Paul responded when I asked about the guy who sat in the corner of the liquor store, the one who appeared to have full-fledged conversations with himself. “He’s crazy, an absolute loon. Went crazy about a year ago. People say he got so smart that he just snapped one day.” Paul snapped his fingers. “Like that!” he said.

I frequented The Family Liquor Store for just this reason: I loved anomalies, and I learned that The Family Liquor Store was a veritable breeding ground for them. In the sheltered life I lived, I knew little to nothing of anomalies. I knew that some people succeeded and others failed, but the failures in Dad’s inner circle were a rung or two lower. I knew nothing of the depths of failure and despair that I would encounter in the liquor store owned by my friend Paul’s parents, where Paul also worked.

Even while immersed in that world of despair, I encountered pride, coping mechanisms, and lies. A customer named John informed me that he once played against Wayne Gretzky in a minor league hockey match, Jay informed me of the time he screamed “Go to Hell JFK!” to the man’s face, and Ronny told me of the various strength contests he won. The fact that I flirted with believing any aspects of these tales informed those in The Family Liquor Store that I was almost as laughable as the fools that told them.

“Why would they lie about things like that?” I asked to top off the joke.

“Wouldn’t you?” they asked when they reached a break in their laughter. “If you lived the life they have.”

The unspoken punchline to this ongoing joke was that I might be more lacking in street smarts than any person they had ever met. The answer to the question that was never asked regarding my standing in their world was that a thorough understanding of their world could be said to be on par with any intellectual study of the great men of the book smarts world, in that they both involve a basic understanding of human nature.

“You see these guys here,” Paul’s father whispered to me on a previous day at The Family Liquor Store, gesturing out to its patrons. “I could introduce you to these men, one by one, and you’d hear varying stories of success and failure, but the one thing you’ll hear in almost every case is the story about how a woman put them down. They all fell for the wrong woman.”

Knowing how this line would stick with me, I turned back to Paul’s father while still in the moment.

“What’s the wrong woman?” I asked. “And what did those women do to these guys?”

“It varies,” he said. “You can’t know. All you can know is that you don’t know, because you’ll be all starry-eyed in the moment. Bring them home to meet your dad, your grandma, and all your friends, and you listen to what they say.”

In the life I spent following that advice, I met a number of fussy guys. Some wouldn’t even look at a woman below an eight, on the relative scale of physical appearance. Others looked for excessive class, intelligence, strength and weakness, and still others were in a perpetual, perhaps unconscious, search for their ma. For me, it’s always been about sanity. I’ve date some beautiful women throughout my life and some strong women who could school me in intelligence. Most of the women I decided to date brought that sassy element I so enjoy, but it’s always came back to the FrootLoopery index for me. I had an inordinate attraction to the mama-that-could-bring-the-drama for much of my life, but when those ultimatums of increased involvement arrived that sage advice from Paul’s father would weaved its way into my calculations. I did not want to end up in an incarnation of my personal visage of hell, otherwise known as The Family Liquor Store, where it appeared a wide variety of bitter, lost souls entered by the droves, but none escaped.

For all of the questions I asked in The Family Liquor Store, there was one question that I dare not ask: Why would a normal family, with normal kids, want to open a liquor store on the corners of failure and despair? I would not ask this question, even as a young man with an insufferable amount of curiosity, because I knew that the answers I received would reveal some uncomfortable truths about the one that answered. One answer I did receive, over time, and in a roundabout way: Surrounding one’s self by failure and despair does make one feel better about our standing in the world by comparison.

“How does one become so smart that they go crazy?” I asked Paul, still staring at David Hauser, the man who was still discussing things with himself

“I don’t know,” Paul said. “They say he had a fantastic job, prestige, and boatloads of money, but he got fired one day, and no one knows why. His wife divorced him when he couldn’t find other work, and he ended up sitting in the corner over there, talking to himself for hours on end, and drinking on his brew.”

Among the possibilities he listed was the idea that a woman might have led to David’s fall. I latched onto that possibility, because it suggested Paul’s father was right. I was satisfied with the answer, but Paul and those who informed him wouldn’t let the too-smart angle go in regard to David Hauser’s condition. They declared that was the, “The nut of it all.”

Speaking to oneself was a common practice of The Family Store patronage. Those who didn’t do so, in fact, stood out. The interesting and unique thing that separated David Hauser from the pack was that he was a good listener in those one-sided conversations, a characteristic that made him an anomaly in a world of anomalies. There were times when David looked to the speaker whom no one else could see, but he reserved those shared glances with the speaker for the introductory portion of the speaker’s conversation. When the purported speaker’s dialogue progressed, David Hauser’s gaze then took on a diagonal slant, and it morphed into an outward glance, followed by an inward one that suggested he was contemplating what the other was saying. At times, David Hauser and the purported speaker said nothing at all.

Prior to David Hauser, I assumed that people who speak to themselves do so to fill a void. In a world of people with no listening skills, most intangible friends are excellent listeners. David Hauser filled that void, but he and his companion created other voids, what some might call seven-second lulls. At times, the lulls in those conversations ended with active-listening prompts on David’s part. This display suggested that the purported speaker ended the lull, and David’s listening prompts encouraged the speaker to continue. At other times, David stopped speaking abruptly, as if someone had interrupted him. Those elements deepened my already deep fascination with David Hauser. I knew the abuse I took for this would be brutal, but I couldn’t take it anymore. I had to know what this guy was saying.

“I have to know what he’s saying,” I told Paul.

I went on to inform Paul that my curiosity was based on comedic intrigue, but that was a ruse to cover for the fact that my need to know what David Hauser was saying grew into a full-blown obsession to understand something about humanity, something I didn’t think I could learn from my otherwise sheltered life of books. I needed to know if a person as incapacitated, as David Hauser appeared to be, speaks to himself to sort through internal difficulties, and if such an individual recognizes it for what it was on some level, or believe they are talking with someone else.

“For God’s sake,” Paul said. “Why?”

I’m don’t recall what I said at that point, but I know it was an attempt to defuse the situation, so Paul wouldn’t have material on me later, when it came time to mock me for my odd curiosity. I think I said, “I don’t know, I just do.”

I didn’t know what would’ve satisfied my curiosity. I didn’t know if I was searching for listening prompts or seeking the particular words that David Hauser would use to answer my questions. Is there a word that can inform another that a person genuinely believes another person is there? Is there a word, or series of words, that will inform an observer that a person has manifested another person to satisfy a psychological need? The latter was so far beyond my comprehension that I didn’t want to spend too much time thinking about it, but I figured David’s mannerisms, his tone, and the context of his active-listening prompts would somehow form a conclusion for me.

“Be careful,” Paul said.

The two words slipped out as if Paul was repeating a warning he received when he considered further investigation, and he focused his attention on me and said, “Be careful” again.

I was willing to accept these words of caution on the face of what they implied, at first, but my curiosity got the best of me.

“Why?” I asked.

“I don’t know,” he said. “What if he says something so intellectual that it gets trapped in your brain and you go insane trying to figure it out?”

“Could that happen?”

“How does a guy go insane by being too smart?”

Perhaps Paul was messing with me and my obsession kept me from seeing the joke, but it was just as probable that he believed it. We were both avid fans of the horror genre, and we were both irrational teenagers who still believed in various superstitions, black magic, curses, elements of dark art, and the supernatural. Our minds were just starting to grasp the complex, inner workings of the adult, real world, but we were still young enough to consider the childlike belief in the possibilities of how reality occurring under an altogether different premise.

Long story short, Paul’s attempts to warn me, followed by his questions, did set me back, and I did try to avoid the subject of David Hauser for a spell. I was not what one would call an intellectual young man. My curiosity was insatiable, and I was an observant sort, but tackling highbrow intellectual theory or highbrow literature was beyond me. I was ill equipped for that, ill-equipped, naïve, and vulnerable to the idea that a thought, like a corruptible woman bent on destroying, could leave a man incapacitated to a point that they frequent a low-rent liquor store for the rest of their days and speak to non-existent people.

I thought of the idea of an intellectual peak in the brief moment that followed Paul’s warning. It seemed like one of those foolish, rhetorical questions I ask that results in ridicule, but I found the question fascinating. If there was an intellectual peak, I figured that hadn’t even come close to mine at that point in my life, but I thought that I should work through the dynamics of it in the event that I ever brushed against that border. Will a person know when they’ve arrived at an intellectual peak? I wondered. Is there a maximum capacity one should be wary of crossing? If they do cross it, do they risk injury, similar to athletes who push themselves beyond the actual limits of their physical ability? I thought of a pole-vaulter, sticking a pole in the ground, attempting a jump he should have reconsidered and the resultant physical injuries that could follow.

When I put those irrational fears aside, other irrational fears replaced those, as I walked over to David Hauser. Paul’s “Be careful” played in my head, along with the realization that prior to building the courage to step near David Hauser my fear of him was speculative in nature. It dawned on me that all I did was brave my fears of an unknown quantity, I had no idea how I would deal with whatever reality lay ahead. His volume lowered a bit, as I neared his sphere of influence. I considered that a coincidence and I progressed, pretending to look at something outside the window behind him. As I neared closer, his volume dropped even more. I didn’t that was a coincidence, but I wasn’t sure. I wondered if he was trying to prevent me from hearing him.

Whatever the case, I couldn’t hear what he was saying, and I was more than a little relieved about that. I felt encouraged by the fact that I had neared him, even though I was afraid. I was wary of getting too close, because I feared the idea of having his overwhelming theories implanted in my brain. I assumed such an implantation might be equivalent to an alien putting a finger on a human head and introducing thoughts so far beyond that brain’s capacity that it could cause the victim to start shaking and drooling, like that kid in The Shining. I considered it plausible that I could wake in a straitjacket with that theory rattling around in my head, searching for answers, until I ended up screaming for a nurse to come in and provide me some relief in the form of unhealthy doses of chlorpromazine to release the pressure in my head.

I later learned that David Hauser achieved a doctorate in some subject, earned from some northeastern Ivy League school. That fact placed him so far above those trapped in this incarnation of hell, known as The Family Liquor Store, that I figured everyone involved needed a way to deal with his story, and everyone did love the story.

I wasn’t there when David Hauser told the story of what happened to him, so I don’t have primary source information of his fall from grace. The secondhand story of this once prominent man of such unimaginable abilities falling to a level of despair and failure was on the tip of the tongue of everyone that heard it. “Like that!” they said, with a snap of their fingers to punctuate the description. Bubbling beneath that surface fascination were unspoken fears, confusion, and concern that if it could happen to a guy “Like that!” it could happen to any of us. In place of traveling through a complex maze of theories and research findings to find the truth, there was an answer. No one knew who came up with it first, and no one questioned if that person knew what they were talking about. We just needed an answer, a coping mechanism.

The fact was that no one knew the undisputed truth of what really happened to David Hauser. We knew some truths, the ones he purportedly revealed, but he didn’t give us an answer, because he likely didn’t have one. My guess was that even if we could’ve convinced David Hauser to sit down in a clinical setting or create some sort of climate that would assure him that no one would use his answers to satisfy a perverse curiosity, we still wouldn’t get answers out of him, because he didn’t have any to offer.

The man who spent most of his life answering the most difficult questions anyone could throw at him reached a block, a wall, or some obstacle that prevented him from finding the one answer that could prove beneficial to his continued existence. His solution, therefore, was to talk it out with a certain, special no one for answers.

That led me to believe that the reason his volume dropped as I neared was a mixture of pain and embarrassment. If David Hauser’s mind was as complex as those in The Family Liquor Store suggested, and it was stuck on a question repeating in his head, to the point of needing to manifest another presence to help him work through it, how embarrassing would it be for such a man to have an eavesdropping teenager, that knew little to nothing about the world, find that answer for him?

I did have an answer for what happened to David Hauser, we all did, but I’m quite sure our answer didn’t come anywhere close to solving the actual question of how a man could fall so far. I’m quite sure it was nothing more than a comfortable alternative developed by us, for us, to try to resolve the complexities of such an intricate question that could’ve driven us insane “Like that!” if we tried to figure it out and it trapped itself in our brain.

If you enjoyed this piece, you might enjoy the other members of the seven strong:

The Thief’s Mentality

He Used to Have a Mohawk

That’s Me In the Corner

You Don’t Bring me Flowers Anymore!

… And Then There’s Todd

When Geese Attack!

That’s Me In the Corner


I never considered the possibility that I might be witnessing a physical manifestation of me –that speculative writers might call a doppelganger– dancing on the dance floor. I did not expect this kid to take to a corner, open up an NFL preview guide and eat an entire bag of soda crackers, while listening to the band Kiss. I don’t know what I would’ve done, if that happened, as I had already reached a frequency of thought I might never have reached on my own –thanks to that near impenetrable, crusted shell of good and bad memories that prevents, and protects, the human mind from seeing who we were when we weren’t paying attention– just watching the kid. By watching the kid, to the point of an unusual, momentary obsession, some part of me thought I might be able to answer some unanswered questions I had from my youth.

I wasn’t watching the kid at first. He was the bride’s son, from a previous marriage, and as distant from my attention as every other participant in the wedding ceremony. He did little to nothing to stand out, in other words, until he took to the dance floor.

“Look at the kid,” I heard some wedding patrons whispering to others. “Look at Kevin!” I heard others say. I was already watching him. I thought everyone was. How could one avoid it, I wondered, this kid was putting on a show.

There was a ‘something you don’t see every day’ element to this kid’s step that challenged the audience to look away. He didn’t look out into the audience, he didn’t smile, and he did not attempt to communicate with us in a manner I suspect a well-trained dancer might. There was, however, an element of showmanship in his step that should not have occurred in a normal nine-to-ten-year-old’s “conform as opposed to perform” step.

The kid’s shoulders dropped low in his dance step. I don’t know what this suggested exactly, but he did appear more comfortable on the floor than any of the other kids his age. His handclaps were also a little harder than the other kids were. I don’t know if it was the volume of Kevin’s claps, but the other kids appeared to be struggling to follow the beat, or his beat. His gyrations were so out of step with the rest of the participants that those of us not in the wedding party had trouble stifling our giggles. This kid was dancing.

“Who’s the kid?” I asked my uncle.

“That’s Kevin,” he said. “The bride’s son.”  His smile mirrored mine, and those of all of the whisperers watching.

After I asked that question, I realized I was one of those whispering and pointing at Kevin. My initial assumption was that everyone watched this kid in the same manner I was, with one bemused eyebrow raised, but the sheer volume of whisperers called to mind the first time I heard Miles Davis’ Kind of Blue. Some consider that album a masterpiece. Some called it Davis’ Sgt. Peppers. I liked it, but I wasn’t sure it was a masterpiece. The structure seemed so simple. I discovered its simplistic brilliance after repeated spins, but the point is I may not have listened to it a second time if group thought hadn’t conditioned me to believe that there was something I was missing out on.

It was this fear of missing out, FOMO in common parlance, that prompted to continue to watch this kid. I knew as little about dance as I did jazz, so I figured it was possible that I was missing something.

“Why are we watching this kid?” I asked my uncle.

“Because it’s cute.”

My Uncle gave me a look that informed me that we shouldn’t try to make more out of it than what it was. He then went back to watching the kid, and he even regained an appreciative smile after a spell.

There was no simplistic brilliance going on in this moment, in other words, it was just cute to watch a young boy carry on in a manner that suggested he knew what he was doing. The kid didn’t know how to dance, most nine-to-ten-year-old boys don’t, but the effort he put into it was cute.

Anyone that focused attention on the kid’s step –as opposed to the surprising amount of bravado he displayed by attempting to dance– knew that the kid didn’t know what he was doing. He had no rhythm, no choreography, and no regard for what others might think of the fact that he had no knowledge of the crucial elements of dance. The latter, I think, was the point, and it was the reason we were watching him.

My guess was that at some point, someone somewhere had informed him that free form dancing has no choreography to it. You just get out there, lower your shoulders a bunch of times, throw your arms about, pick your feet up, and jiggle every occasionally. It’s free form dancing. A trained chimp could do it.

When the kid made a beeline to his chair the moment this obligatory dance concluded –a dance I assumed his mother had forced him to participate in– I imagined that some people might have been shocked at the manner he exited. I laughed. I thought it added to the spectacle. I laughed loud, believing that those that laughed while he danced would share my laughter. They didn’t. I received confused looks from those around me. His beeline exit did not elicit shock, or any other response. They’d moved on. I tried to, but I was fixated on this kid.

Some may have characterized this kid’s exit as a statement regarding what he thought of the art of dance, but I didn’t think that captured it. I thought that a desire to watch how this party would unfold fueled this kid’s exit.

The kid’s exit suggested that he was one that preferred to watch. It was aggravating to those of us that watched his initial dance steps and thought he had something to offer to this otherwise routine wedding reception. He didn’t appear to be the least bit embarrassed by his performance, so why would he prefer to watch?   

Psychologists state that we have mirror neurons in our brain that seek enjoyment from another’s perspective, and that that enjoyment can be so comprehensive that we may reach a point where we convince ourselves that we’re the ones performing these actions. Others describe it as a frequency of thought, or a through line to a greater understanding of being: being funnier, more entertaining, and better in all the ways an insecure, young man thinks that his elders are better. Honing in on this frequency is something that TV watching, video game playing nine-to-ten-year-olds know well. It goes beyond the joy of watching others make fools of themselves, for entertainment purposes, to a belief that when watching better performers attempt to be entertaining, we’ve achieved that level ourselves without having to deal with all the messy details involved in the trials and errors to get to that point.

I knew, even while I was doing it, how odd others might find it that I was obsessing over the actions of a nine-to-ten-year-old boy, in such an innocuous moment of the boy’s life, and I attempted to look away several times. Every time a member of the party made some kind of misstep, however, this kid would draw my attention by laughing harder than anyone else would. My guess was that the relief that he wasn’t one of those in the position to commit such errors fueled that raucous laughter. This kid would laugh so hard at every joke that it was obvious he wanted to be louder than any others laughing.

“He’s attempting to cross over,” I thought.

“What’s that?” my uncle said.

“What?” I said. “Nothing.” 

My uncle’s ‘What’s that?’ is often characterized by a preceding pause. The pause suggests that either they know that you’re talking to yourself, and they’re looking to call you out on it, or they believed the comment was situational, until they chewed on it for a bit and realized they couldn’t place it.

Whatever the case was, I hadn’t intended for anyone to hear that thought. I was embarrassed. I was embarrassed, but I also wondered if I intended to think that aloud, so that I might have it on the record if it went down the way I thought it would.

What I would not tell my uncle, for fear of being deemed one that is far too interested in self-serving minutiae, was that this ‘cross over’ is the Houdini milk can of the observer’s world. It is an attempt to establish one’s self as a participant in the minds of all partygoers without participating.

The initial stages of a crossover are not a difficult to achieve. Anyone can shout out comments, or laugh in an obnoxious and raucous manner that gains attention. The crossover does require some discretion, however, for it can be overdone. When one overemphasizes an attempt, they could run the risk of receiving a “We know you were there. You wouldn’t shut up about it” comment. The perfect crossover calls for some comments and/or attention getting laughter interspersed in the emcee’s presentation to lay the groundwork for the stories the subject would later tell others regarding his participation.

“He knows what I’m talking about,” the groom, acting as the emcee of the event, said at one point. He was alluding to Kevin, and Kevin’s over-the-top laughter.

It would be almost impossible for me to know if this kid achieved a total crossover, for I had no familiarity with the family, and I would have no opportunity to hear the kid’s after-party stories. The kid did accomplish an excellent first step, however, thanks to a groom that, I assume, had spent the last couple years trying to have the kid accept him as an eventual stepfather.

The answer to why I was so obsessed with a 9-to-10-year-old crystallized soon after the groom’s comment. Kevin’s mother called upon Kevin for increased participation. The kid waved her off. He waved her off in the manner I waved off so many of my own calls for increased participation. It dawned on me that my preference for observation went so deep that it was less about fearing increased participation and more about a preference for watching others perform that was so entrenched that any attempts to have me do otherwise could become an obnoxious distraction.

That’s me in the corner I thought. That’s me in the spotlight, losing my sense of belonging.

“You were just integral to the party,” I wanted to shout out to that kid with such vigor that I would’ve revealed myself. “Why would you prefer to sit on the sidelines of your mother’s wedding?”

Could it be that this preference for observing has something to do with the idea that we’ve all been participants and observers in the audience at various points in our lives, and we’ve all witnessed this idea that those roles can somewhat interchangeable in people’s memories? Unless the participants are so over-the-top funny, entertaining, or in all other ways memorable, observers have can manipulate the memories of participants, if they know how to enhance their role as an astute observer.

When one is an athlete, for example, the members of the audience may cheer their athletic exploits in ways that display the pride they might feel through vicarious connections. When an athlete commits an error, or underperforms in any way, they may feel sorry for the athlete, but they won’t associate with them in any meaningful way. They may not disassociate themselves from the athlete, depending on the error, but the error allows them to believe that put in the same position as the athlete was at the time of the error, they would not have committed it. ‘All you had to do was catch the ball,’ is something they may say, ‘and it was hit right to you.’

Some may view the desire to view an activity, as opposed to partaking in it, as a bit of a cop out. It may have been a cop-out for this kid, just as it may have been for me, but I do have fond memories of various events that I refused to participate in, in the same manner this kid might have of his mother’s wedding. I laughed with my fellow party goers, as we all recalled those past events that took place with fondness, and I did offer funny anecdotes to those conversations, but my role was often limited to that of an observer. Actual participation in these events was the furthest thing from my mind.

If this kid shared as many traits with me, at nine-ten-years-old, my guess was that he was already documenting stories that he would retell for years. Some of these stories might involve slight exaggerations regarding his role in them, but my guess is that few listeners would have the temerity, or the memory, to dispute him. Some of his versions of the story may offer interesting insights, and if those little vignettes involve creative, entertaining nuggets, they might become a part of the narrative in a manner that listeners to join him in making the leaps of re-characterizing his actual involvement.

If this kid manages to accomplish this, and he gets so good at it that others start corroborating his version of other events, he may make the leap to an almost-unconscious discovery of a loophole in his interactions that provide him a future out on all requirements of participation.

If he already does this, on a conscious level, and his evolution is so complete that he’s already choosing vicarious participation over actual participation on a conscious level, then that is where the similarities end. I thought he was too young for all that however, but I did consider the idea that he might be slipping into an all too comfortable position where he is neglecting the importance of participation on purpose.

The problem that I foresaw for him, a problem I now see as a result of watching him act out a page in the first chapter of my autobiography, was that he was learning what to do and what not to do through observation alone. I considered this portal equivalent to the type of learning one can experience while watching too much TV and playing too many video games, with all the same vicarious thrills of victory and dissociative feelings of failure. I also thought that he would come to a point where he had problems learning the lessons, and making the vital connections, we only make by doing. If I had been in a position to advise this nine-to-ten-year-old of the lessons I’ve learned, but did not heed at his age, I would’ve shouted:

“Get back on the dance floor, kid! I don’t care if you were already out there. Get out there and do it. Then get out there and do it so often that you tailbone is on the line and you’re making an absolute fool out of yourself. Then, when that obnoxious observer steps up to laugh at you for making such a fool of yourself, you can turn on them and say, ‘At least I was out there. Doing it! What were you doing? Sitting on your can watching me!’”

If you enjoyed this piece, you might also enjoy the other members of the seven strong:

The Thief’s Mentality

He Used to Have a Mohawk (This is not a prequel to this piece, but it is another story that occurred in the same wedding.)

A Simplicity Trapped in a Complex Mind

You Don’t Bring me Flowers Anymore!

… And Then There’s Todd

When Geese Attack!

Anti-Anti-Consumer Art


I may be in the minority, but I prefer the work of angry, bitter artists that tend to be maladjusted people. If I deign to offer an artist my bourgeoisie, Skittle eating, domestic beer drinking, and Everybody Loves Raymond-watching opinion on their artistic creation, and they don’t offer me a red faced, spittle-flying “YOUR OPINIONS ARE EXCREMENT!” rebuttal, I might begin to question if they have the artistic temperament I require of those that have no other way of venting their rage on the world than through artistic creation.

Margaret Roleke “Hanging”

If I am going to view their art in a serious manner, they had better view me as symbolic substitute for that America loving, God-fearing, football fan of a father that ruined everything the artist held dear as a young child. I want them to view me as a symbolic substitute for that art critic that deigned to call their work pedestrian, the fellow artist that told them they’d never make it in this world, or the art teacher that told them to consider changing their major to Economics.

The path to artistic purity is different for every artist, of course, but most true artists do not set out to create pieces consumers enjoy. For most, the struggle of art artistic expression is to locate and expound upon unique, individual interpretation of nouns (people, places, and things). For these people, the idea that others may share their interpretations is exciting and fulfilling, but it is not why they felt the need to express themselves. Outside adulation is of secondary concern, but it is also gravy. Some, however, create complicated pieces of literature, or other forms of art, for the expressed purpose of airing their complications, and for these people the loathing they have for the common man’s opinion is so complete that they’re looking at something else before the common man can complete their second sentence. Even those authors that write bestsellers, for the sole purpose of writing a bestseller, will argue till they bleed that their intention was not to create something that consumers love. They will argue that they just happened to create something that consumers love. We can’t blame them, no matter how much we might disagree, for if they stated that they intended to create a product of universal appeal, few would consider them serious artists.

If a starving artist declares how much they love fans in their artistic statement –and they’re hoping to one day have their art exhibited in a New York City gallery– they may want to avoid the heartache, and headaches, and just consider another profession. They may want to consider trying out for the Atlanta Falcons instead, because they’re probably going to have a better chance of making that team than the ones that have their works considered for a New York City art gallery. A true artist can say that they value input from those that have experienced their piece, but they must word it in such a manner that avoids anyone interpreting their artistic statement as one of appreciation.

The best chance an artist might have for achieving the placement in a prestigious gallery is to condemn everything that that consumer purports to stand for. Their best bet might be to find an artistic method of denouncing everything everyone believes in. Their best bet might be is to find an anti-consumer theme.

The anti-consumer theme has a timeless quality about it that goes to the heart of the artist. Its provocative nature does not yield to pop culture winds. It is anti-pop culture, and thus a “hot ticket” in any era that appreciates their artists.

Little, old ladies that are attempting to be young and hip, will walk up to an artist in these galleries and try to find some way of telling them that they find the most disturbing pieces in their portfolio: “Wonderful”, “Amazing”, and “Wonderful and amazing?!”

“You are so not my demographic,” is something a true artist of an anti-consumer piece of art might say if they received such comments from a little, old lady. A rejection of such compliments, from such an artist could enshrine that artist in the word-of-mouth halls of the art world, and their opportunity for such prestige might increase, if the artist puts some sort of exclamation point on their rejection, by spitting on the old lady’s shoes.

Receiving a compliment from a little, old lady has to put an ant-consumer artist in an odd place. The intention of such a creation is to reject everything that old lady holds dear. Its purpose was to disturb her, and its intent was to shake up her conformist thoughts of the world. To hear that such a woman “gets” the artist’s piece denunciation of her generation, and the way her generation screwed us all up with their toys, and wars, and unattainable gender-specific imagery has to be vexing for the artist. The artist must feel a reflexive warm glow rising whenever someone compliments them on something they worked so hard on, but the artist knows better than to concede to that impulse.

The best way to handle that might be to spit on her shoes. An enterprising, young, anti-consumer artist may even want to set a situation like that up, in a publicity junket, for she could become the talk of the town if she pulled it off.

“Did you hear what happened when some old bag complimented Janice on her anti-50’s piece?” word-of-mouth patrons would say to one another. “She spit on her shoes.”  It could become the artist’s folklore.

Criticism of the theme of the piece would be the next-best reaction for the angst-ridden, bitter, and angry artist, were it to come from some old crank from the 50’s. This would allow the artist to say, “Good, it was meant to make you angry. It was meant to have you re-examine all that your generation has done to us.”

If the patron is not of the 50’s generation, and they deign to criticize anti-consumer art, they might want to consider if they’re part of the problem. They may want to consider going outside more often, or carefully considering the full scope of the artist’s narrative. It would seem that the sociopolitical theme of anti-consumerism is immune to criticism by its very nature. If that were the case, why wouldn’t a curator want their gallery lined with anti-consumer pieces?

The anti-consumer artist doesn’t have to worry about using current products in their art either, for an anti-consumer artist can use whatever consumer-related products they need to, to denounce the ethos of an era. A pro-consumer piece does not have such allowances, for to try and create an artistic expression that professes an enjoyment of Superman cereal the consumer must have some experience with Superman cereal that they can use to relate to the theme. That piece may evoke some sentiments of quaint nostalgia, but little more. If the artist is not willing to include some underlying, angst-ridden subtext regarding the ways in which eating Superman cereal created unrealistic expectations in the patron’s mind, and thus messed up patron’s childhood, the artist can be sure that their piece is not going to fetch the kind of price tag that a bitter, condemnation of being forced to ingest the cereal, and thus the ideals of Superman, will.

The question that I’m sure many anti-consumer, starving artists would love to know is, is there a sliding scale on anti-consumerist statements? If their piece contains sophisticated irony in its anti-consumer theme, with an ironic twist, what kind of return can they expect for their time? If the artist is vehement in the declarations they’ve made with this theme, how much more profitable will that piece be, and is there a percentage by which the price tag increases in conjunction with their bullet point adherence to the sociopolitical, anti-consumer theme?

Walking through these galleries, one can’t help but feel overwhelmed by the amount of anti-consumer art for sale. It has become the most consumer-related, rebellious, and radical theme in the art world. It’s become a staple in the art world. If a starving artist is not painting, sculpting, or putting together some sort of disturbing, anti-consumer collage, I’m guessing that their fellow artists have already approached them with the ‘what the hell you waiting for?’ question. It’s become the safest theme for an artist to explore if they want their work exhibited.

Curators don’t have to worry about fads or trends in the art world, for the very idea of fads and trends are anti-consumer, and that which an anti-consumer artist speaks out against in their work. All a curator has to do is rotate their anti-consumer art year around, and their gallery can exist in the radical, counterculture milieu 365 days a year. It’s progressed to a point where one would think that a righteous rebel –looking to be capture a counterculture theme in their work, regardless what it said in their pocketbook– would take one look around at all the anti-consumer art in the art world and stick their artistic, middle finger up in the rebellion to expose it for the unintended parody it has become.

The question of how to frame such an artistic creation would be an obstacle of course, for it would be career suicide to have your anti-anti-consumer art be confused with pro-consumer art.

“Eat at McDonald’s”

“It says eat at McDonald’s,” a curator might say with absolute disgust.

“Right on,” the anti-anti-consumer artist would say. “It’s my attempt to highlight the stereotypical art of anti-consumerism. Grimace is a vehicle for the larger idea through which I attempt to explore the tendency our counterculture has to use social media and propaganda to prescribe narrow, contrived definitions of art to individuals and the nation.”

The hip, avant-garde patrons of the anti-anti-consumer artist’s piece would be prone to consider the artistic statement to be a stab at consumerism that contains sophisticated irony. They might consider it quaint, hilarious, and an incredible salvo sent to consumers around the world that don’t get it. If the artist were made available to answer questions, and they implored their artistic friends to accept their anti-anti-consumer theme for what it is, the hip, avant-garde smiles would likely flatten, and they might consider the anti-anti-consumer theme obnoxious, and they may even consider such an artist to be a whore for corporate America.

“I just want to celebrate the history and tradition of the McDonald land character Grimace,” would be the anti-anti-consumer artist’s intro to the patrons of their exhibit. “I also want to explore, in my painting, all the joy and happiness Grimace has brought to so many lives?”

“Is that sophisticated irony?” the patrons would ask.

“No. It’s an anti-anti-consumer theme that I attempt to explore here.”

“So, it’s a pro-consumer statement?” one of the more obnoxious patrons might say to intrude upon the artist’s pitch.

“Good God no!” the artist would be forced to say at this point, if they hoped to generate the amount of interest that might result in a sale.

If the anti-anti-consumer artist has the artistic temperament of one that doesn’t care about the sale, however, and they’re able to maintain focus on the artistic theme, they might be forced to engage in a substantial back and forth with the patrons of their piece before they came to the conclusion that the artist wasn’t putting them on, and that they weren’t being obnoxious. As stated earlier, being obnoxious in an anti-consumer stance is not just acceptable, it’s expected, but stubbornly pursuing an anti-anti-consumer stance will cause others to deem them obnoxious and pro-consumer.

I’m guessing that attracting patrons to the anti-anti-consumer exhibit would not even be the beginning of the artist’s problems, as no self-respecting curator would deign to showcase their work. I’m guessing that most curators aren’t bad people, and that they would have some sympathy for the anti-anti-consumer artist’s frustrations that would follow. I’m guessing that if the curator knew enough about his industry to be objective about it, they would sit the artist down, at some point, and say something along the lines of this:

“I know you are a passionate artist, but you should reconsider this anti-anti-consumer theme. I know that you built it to counter the counter, but you should know won’t play well over the long haul. If you want serious cachet in the art world, you have two genres to consider, the anti-consumerism theme and the anti-consumer works that are vehement with their theme. I’d suggest you drop this whole anti-anti-consumer statement and make it known that your works contain a sophisticated irony with an anti-consumer twist, if you ever hope to sell anything.”

If the anti-anti-consumer artist somehow managed to achieve some degree of success with their theme, they would likely become the scourge of the art world, and at some point, their fellow artists would form a consistent condemnation for their audacity. “You’re ruining this for all of us. What are you doing?”

At which point the anti-anti-consumer artist could look them in the eye and ask, “Is that sophisticated irony?”