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.” 


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.”

Finding the Better, Happier Person Through Change

Are you happy? I mean happy. You can tell me. I’m just an anonymous writer. Are you happy? Whisper it to me. You’re not? Well, what are you going to do about it? Are you just going to sit there like a chump while the rest of us are living in the land of sunshine with fortune smiling down upon us? Go out there and get you some happy sistas and brothas!

I used to believe I was close to happy. I thought that I was so close that if my Dad would just loosen the purse strings and purchase this one, solitary item of the moment for me, it would launch me through the entrance of the land of hope and sunshine. I wasn’t running a con game. I believed that if my Dad would just purchase this one pack of Kiss cards for me, it would go a long way to helping me achieve an ideal state.

He told me “No” on more than one occasion (cue the dark and foreboding music), and there were even times when he would follow that ‘No!’ with a big old heaping pile of “Shut up!” (Cue the B roll with the creepy B actor, with bushy eyebrows that point inward, playing my Dad in this segment.)

A part of me believes that the constant “No’s!” I received from him developed into a minor psychosis. Another part of me wonders what kind of man I would be today if he purchased everything I wanted. Would I be a spoiled brat? Would I have some sort of obnoxiousness about me that expected to be able to have everything I wanted –deserved– regardless if I had to go into debt to get it? Would I be one of those ‘I deserve it’ adult babies that permeate the culture? Another part of me knows that I would’ve had to work my through whatever psychosis my Dad chose to inflict on me, and that I would end up in the exact same place I’m in right now.

The point is that almost all of us are on a point on the equator just south of happy. Most of us are not miserable, depressed, or depressed in the sense that we should seek diagnosis. Most of us are just a little unhappy, and a little unsatisfied with the way our lives turned out. We had incompetent parents; we lived in broken homes; we were the subject of bullying in schools; our grades weren’t what they could’ve and should’ve been; and if we were able to do it all over again … we wouldn’t want to go through it all over again.

We are who we are, based upon what we’ve been through. Am I unhappy? No. Could I be happier? What do you got?

Was I unhappy in that temporary sense that every teen is unhappy when their parent tells them no? I’m quite sure that if a casting director spotted me in the dramatic aftermath of one of those denials, they would’ve had their guy call my guy, and “That kid’s got the goods,” is something they might have said.

My dad bought me things. Did those things make me happy? I’m sure they did, but throughout my reflective examinations, I have found those moments to be absent in a conspicuous measure. I’m sure I received some sort of validation from those sparse moments in life, until the next time we went to the department store. The next time we went to a store, I had the same notion of being on the cusp of happiness again, and I believed his decision of whether or not to make a purchase for me would land me in a land of sunshine once again. Until he didn’t make that purchase. At that point, the cyclical drama would begin again. The question is, was I so unhappy in that my definition of happiness was dependent on my dad’s decisions in department stores?

What I thought I was talking about, when I talked to my Dad about making these purchases, was definition. I wanted to be a somebody that had a something that someone else had. I wanted to be a “have” in a world where I felt like a “have not”, and I knew that those “that have” are happier. I was also talking about fulfillment, whether I knew it or not. I was talking about a “quick fix” that would help me live with the self-imposed, teenage, “all hope is lost” problems that I had. I was talking about becoming a real player in a world of people that had products.

How many unhappy people get their Kiss cards and realize that that was it? One simple pack of Kiss cards, that cost about twenty-five cents back then, was all it took. That may have been thirty-five years ago, but I’m happy now. I reached the point, after all these years, of fundamental happiness. I have no wants or desires any more. I am what you could call a fulfilled man.

“And Dad, it was those Kiss cards that you purchased, when I was all but thirteen years of age, that accomplished that for me. I find it hard to believe too, but all I can say is, ‘I told you.’”

Are we happy people in a fundamental sense, or do we define fundamental happiness on the basis of attaining things? If we experience fundamental unhappiness, we may not know what caused it, but we know we need things, and change, and things that change us. We need constant change. Change for definition and redefinition, until we achieve the ideal state of being that we believe is forever beyond our reach, but one solitary purchase away.

Are we so bored with our lives that we need something to provide us a lift out of the tediousness of today, regardless what we did to get a lift yesterday? If we’re unhappy, in a manner we define, how do we achieve constant and fundamental happiness? To what do we resort? How do we define ourselves, and if we make sweeping changes, are we ever happy in the aftermath, or are we in need of more change?

A friend of mine resorted to drastic change. She needed it. She pursued it. She achieved it. The drastic change was so elemental to her makeup that she believed it bisected her personal timeline into a B.C/A.D. demarcation. When I ran into her –after years of separation in which the drastic change occurred– she no longer wanted to discuss the B.C. (before change) life that I knew. That discussion seemed irrelevant to her when compared to the A.D. (after decision) lifestyle that she was now living. She was no longer that person I knew. She changed, and any observer could see that my attempts to relive our past bored her. The topic she wanted our focus on, regarding our discussion of the past, was how I thought all of the various characters therein would’ve reacted to her drastic change … if they had lived long enough to see it.

The question that I would’ve loved to ask her –as if I didn’t already know the answer– is did this fundamental change do anything to help her achieve greater fundamental happiness? The inevitable ‘yes’ would follow. Change is good, change is always good, but more change is better. Once she accomplished these drastic changes, was she able to wipe those memories of a rough upbringing off the slate? Yes she was. Did these changes accomplish everything she hoped they would? Yes they did. These questions would go to the very heart of why she decided to change, and very few would admit that they were an utter waste of time, but the greater question would be was this change so complete that she would no longer need drastic changes in future? I’m quite sure that the next time I run into her, she will have undergone a number of other, drastic changes, now that she’s married a man that can afford them for her.

“Could you achieve the same amount of happiness without those drastic changes?’ I would’ve loved to ask her. “Yes,” I’m sure she would say, “and I did try them. Nothing happened. I needed change.” O.K., but how much effort did you put into taking inventory of everything you have that should have made you happy, versus everything you could have that could make you happy, and how much of you have you lost pursuing these total transformations?

If you run across that rare individual that admits that their transformational changes didn’t accomplish what they thought they would, they will have their remedy all ready for you. They will tell you that they need more change, other changes, and a transformation into something they hadn’t considered before. The point of all these changes is to save them from what they were, or to prevent them from becoming what they might become if they don’t change. At some point in this process, they have too much invested in change, and they cannot turn back.

Are we ever happy? I mean happy! Is happiness a state of mind that will receive internal activation soon after a series of events occur in a very specific way that we define? We’ve suffered damages that leave us damaged, and we can’t fix it on our own. We have flaws, but there is hope. There is always hope. We can change, and those changes can change us. We have the money. We have the technology. We can rebuild it. Better than we were before. Better…stronger…faster…happier. We can make more money, with a better job, a different job. Change. We can have more love…more sex…better sex. We could have an affair, and that could lead to therapy, and a divorce, and more change. At that point, we may need pharmaceuticals, and alcohol. This might lead to use being more concerned about our beauty, and better products and supplements that could lead to more gym time that will lead us to be thinner and happier, until it dawns on us that we a tummy tuck, collagen injections, and more colonics. We’ll need more boob, or better boobs, at some point that will lead us to feel younger, better, and thinner. We’ll have more definition, we’ll be more feminine, or less feminine, and more masculine, and who cares about gender specifics anyway? We’ll live the rock and roll lifestyle. We’ll have more “me” time, but that will lead to some depression. It always does. It will lead us to focus on the fact that we need better appliances, more extravagant trips, and greater self-indulgence, until we get what we deserve. Something different. I’ll try anything once. Changehappinesschange…repeat if necessary.

Conquering Fear: A Few Tips from Psychopaths

“99% of the things we worry about never happen,” says a mental patient in the best-known psychiatric hospital in England called Broadmoor. Yet, we spend 99% of our time worrying about these things? “What’s the point?” asks this psychopathic patient named Leslie. “Most of the time our greatest fears are unwarranted.”

What is a psychopath? The word drums up horrific images of serial killers, cannibals, and Hannibal Lecter in an old hockey mask. Some shudder at the mere mention of the word, and for good reason in some cases, but is there anything about the way a psychopath thinks that we could use to live a more fruitful, eventful, and less fearful existence? Is there something we could learn from an otherwise twisted sense of reality to better our lives?

Author Kevin Dutton believes we can, and he conducted an interview of four different psychopaths –for a book called The Wisdom of Psychopaths: What Saints, Spies, and Serial Killers Can Teach Us about Success to prove it. “What is a psychopath,” the thesis of this book asks, “but an individual that exhibits ruthlessness, charm, mental toughness, fearlessness, mindfulness, and action.” The psychopath also exhibits a level of fearlessness unknown in most quarters.

“Who wouldn’t benefit from kicking one of two of these (characteristics) up a notch?” Dutton asks.

The theme of Dutton’s piece, and the interviews he conducted with these psychopaths he lists simply as Danny, Jamie, Larry, and Leslie is that fear rules much of our lives, and the fears of what others might think of us.

Most of what we hear from others is ninety-percent self-involved gibberish, and psychopaths are no different. Their gibberish receives further damage by their other hysterical rants. Before dismissing them entirely, however, we might want to consider delving into their gibberish –that can border on hysterical at times– to see if they have something to add to our discourse. In doing so, we might gain some perspective on ourselves and learn how fear has rooted itself deep into our decision-making process.

Most psychopaths don’t allow guilt from their past, or fears of the future, to rule their present in the manner that most of us do. Most psychopaths have a callous disregard for the plight, the feelings, and the emotions of their fellow man, unless it serves them to do so. For this reason, Dutton doesn’t focus on the crimes these men committed. This may seem to be a crime of omission by some to placate a controversial argument, others may deem Dutton’s argument incomplete and immoral, and the rest may not want to consider the wisdom of those that have committed an unspeakable atrocity to be worthy of discussion, but Dutton did not consider their crimes germane to his piece. It may also be worthy to note, that the crimes these psychopaths committed are not germane to their presentation either. They appear, in the Scientific American summary of Dutton’s piece, to have simply moved on. They don’t appear to relish, or regret, their acts in the manner a Hollywood production would lead us to believe psychopaths do. They appear to have gained a separation from their acts that allows them to continue living an unfettered life. This separation, Dutton believes, receives further illustration from an unnamed lawyer that wrote Dutton on the nature of psychopathy:

“Psychopathy (if that’s what you want to call it) is like a medicine for modern times. If you take it in moderation, it can prove to be extremely beneficial. It can alleviate a lot of existential ailments that we would otherwise fall victim to because our psychological immune systems just aren’t up to the job of protecting us. But if you take too much of it, if you overdose on it, then there can, as is the case with all medicines, be some rather unpleasant side effects.”

Although the patients Dutton interviewed do not appear to relish, or regret, the specific incidents that led to their incarceration, this reader believes that they do appear to enjoy the result. They appear to enjoy the fruits of their actions: our fear of them.

“We are the evil elite,” says the patient named Danny.

“They say I’m one of the most dangerous men in Broadmoor,” says another patient named Larry. “Can you believe that? I promise I won’t kill you. Here, let me show you around.”

The question this reader has is do psychopaths simply enjoy the idea that we’re fascinated with the freakish nature of living a life without fear, or do they enjoy the fear others have of their thoughtless and spontaneous capacity to cause harm?

Fear causes inaction: The patients named Jamie and Leslie received an “every day” scenario by the author in which a landlord could not get an uninvited guest to leave his rental property. The landlord, in question, attempted to ask the guest to leave the property in a polite manner. When the tenant ignored the landlord, he tried confronting the man, but the man would not leave, and the man would not pay rent either. That landlord was stuck between doing what was in his best interests, and doing what he considered the right thing.

“How about this then?” Jamie proposed. “How about you send someone pretending to be from the council to the house? How about that councilman go to house and say that they are looking for the landlord to inform him that they have conducted a reading of that house? How about that councilman asks the uninvited guest to deliver a message to the landlord that his house is just infested with asbestos Before you can say ‘slow, tortuous death from lung cancer,’ the wanker will be straight out the door.

“You guys get all tied up trying to ‘do the right thing’,” Jamie continued after being informed that his resolution was less than elegant“But what’s worse, from a moral perspective? Beating someone up who deserves it? Or beating yourself up who doesn’t? If you’re a boxer, you do everything in your power to put the other guy away as soon as possible, right? So why are people prepared to tolerate ruthlessness in sport but not in everyday life? What’s the difference?”

“You see I figured out pretty early on in life that the reason why people don’t get their own way is because they often don’t know themselves where that way leads,” Leslie continues. “They get too caught up in the heat of the moment and temporarily go off track. I once heard a great quote from one of the top (boxing) trainers. He said that if you climb into the ring hell-bent on knocking the other chap into the middle of next week, chances are you’re going to come up unstuck. But if, on the other hand, you concentrate on winning the fight, simply focus on doing your job, well, you might knock him to the middle of next week anyway. So the trick, whenever possible, is to stop your brain from running ahead of you.”

The point in this scenario, I believe, is that most unsuccessful boxers lock up when considering the abilities of their opponent. They want to knock their opponent out, before the extent of their opponent’s talent is realized in the ring.

“Our brains run ahead of us,” Leslie points out.

Our fear of how talented the other guy might be gets in the way of us realizing our talent, in other words, and this causes us to forget to employ the methodical tactics that we’ve employed throughout the career that brought us to the bout in the first place. We have these voices in our head, and the voices of our trainers, telling us to knock our opponent out early, before they get their left hook going, while forgetting to work the body and tire them out to the point that our own knockout punch is more effective.

The gist of this, as this reader sees it, is that we end up fearing failure and rejection so often that we fail to explore the extent of our abilities in the moment. We care about the moment so much, in other words, that we would probably do better to just shut our minds off and act.

If we place a goldfish in a tank, we may see that fish knock against the glass a couple of times, especially early on, but sooner or later that fish learns to adapt to its parameters, and it no longer bumps into the glass. We may believe that there is some sorrow, or sadness, involved in the goldfish’s realization of its limits, but there isn’t. We’re assigning our characteristics to the goldfish, because we know our parameters, and we’re saddened that we can’t break free of them. Even though we have the whole world in which to roam, we stay in the parameters we’ve created for ourselves, because everything outside our goldfish bowl is unknown, or outside our familiar, routine world.

Asking for a raise, or a promotion, can be a little scary, because we know that such a request will call our ability into question. The prospect of quitting that job is scarier, and the idea of hitting the open market is horrifying, because we know the limits of our ability will come into play in every assessment and interview conducted. The ultimate fear, and that which keeps us in a job we hate, lays in the prospect of landing that other job for which we are either unqualified, and/or ill equipped to handle. What then? Are we to shut out all those worries and fears and just act, and is it possible for a human to do without some fear?

“When we were kids,” Jamie says, “We’d have a competition to see who could get rejected by the most women in a tavern. The bloke that got rejected the most, by the time the last call lights came on, would get the next night out free.

“Funny thing was,” Jamie continued, “Soon as you started to get a few under your belt, it actually got harder to get rejected. Soon as you started to realize that getting rejected didn’t mean jack, you started getting cocky. At that point, you could say anything you wanted to these women. You could start mouthing off to these women, and some of them would buy into it.”

“I think the problem is that people spend so much time worrying about what might happen, what could go wrong, that they completely lose sight of the present,” Leslie says. “They completely overlook the fact that, actually, right now, everything is perfectly fine.”

Fear can also get you injured 

On the subject of fear, a Physics teacher once informed our class that the reason we get injured is fear:

“Fear causes people to tense up, it causes muscles to brace, and it usually puts a person in a position for injury when, say, another car is barreling down on them. This is why a drunk driver can plow into a light pole, demolish their car beyond recognition, and walk away unscathed. With that in mind, the next time you fall off a building, relax, and you should be fine.”

What is a psychopath was a question we asked in the beginning of this article. There are greater answers, in greater, more comprehensive articles out there, that spell the definition out in more clinical terms, but the long and short of it is that they’re “don’t care” carriers. They don’t care about the people that they’ve harmed, they don’t care about the pain they caused their victim’s family members, or the communities that their actions alarmed, and they don’t care that they have a greater propensity to harm more people in the future. They may know why they need to be incarcerated, on a certain level, but they don’t care what those reasons are.

Naysayers may suggest that empathy, sympathy, guilt and regret are almost impossible to shut off entirely. Caring is what separates us from the alligator, the bear, and just about every other life form. They might also suggest that psychopaths are not as immune to the emotions as they suggest, but that they’re playing to the characteristics of their psychological categorization. It would be impossible to deny this in all cases, as the individual cases of psychopathy are so varied, but it could be said that these people are, at the very least, so unaffected by their deeds that they are not incapacitated by them. We could also say that when casual observers evaluate the characteristics of others, they often make the mistake of doing so through their own lens. We all experience moments in life when we do not care as much as we should, and some of us that experience moments of apathy achieve a level of exaggeration that others might characterize as psychopathy. These moments are few, however, and loosely defined as psychopathic. Yet, our own limited experience with the mindset suggests that there are limits, and we find the exaggerations listed in Mr. Kevin Dutton’s book as incomprehensible, yet these psychopaths find it just as incomprehensible that we are so inhibited by the exaggerations of the opposite that we are left incapacitated by it.

These psychopaths may currently live confined in the world of a psychiatric institute, and they may be preaching to us from an insular world in which they don’t have to deal with the real world consequences of pursuing their philosophy. They do believe that they’ve lived a portion of their lives freer than we’ve ever known, however, and that the only reason they’re locked up is that they may have been granted a little bit too much of a good thing.

Source: Dutton, Kevin. Wisdom From Psychopaths. Scientific American Mind. January/February 2013. Pages 36-43.