The Thief’s Mentality IV: The Umbrella

The Thief’s Mentality is not concerned with actual acts of thievery, as much as it is the worldview of the deceptive and the delusional. If all theory is autobiography, the deceptive and delusional view the world from the perspective that the world around them is as dishonest as they are. Furthermore, those who don’t know acknowledge that they are either as dishonest as the rest of us, are in some form of denial or suffering from a psychosis of another stripe. They also believe those who instructed us to act right throughout our maturation (our parents and our teachers) have done this for so long that we’re now convinced that we are more honest than we truly are. The thief’s job, as they see it, is to open our eyes to the world around us to provide us a perspective we’ve never considered before.

The Thief’s Umbrella. We’re no better than anyone else is, and we know it. Our parents pounded this principle home so often that many of us consider it our defining principle. If for any reason we forget that, in our interactions with deceptive people, they remind us of it. They’ll put so much effort into it that by the time they’re done with us, we might end up questioning our integrity. Most of us have had a lover cheat on us, but how many of us have had one cheat so often that we’re still embarrassed by how much they fooled us. Their octopus ink involved psychological projection in the form of repetitive accusations of infidelity on our part. Those of who have never cheated on a lover know how effective such charges are, for they keep us on defense. We’ve all encountered deceptive individuals who employed these tactics so often that we never considered questioning their integrity. If their goals were to prevent us from analyzing them, they were successful, but when we reflect back of those confusing entanglements, we recognize that their accusations said more about them than us. Some might call it projection, others might say that it’s some sort of deflection or obfuscation on the part of the thief, but The Thief’s Mentality suggests that it all falls under a comprehensive, multi-tiered umbrella called the thief’s mentality.

Delusions and Illusions. While some of the characters in these stories may be engaged in one of the various forms of deception, most of them (actual thieves, liars and cheats excepted) are not lying in the manner we traditionally associate with a dishonest person. They believe what they are saying to be true, but the difference between them and most people is how they rationalize what they do. Some of us consider the ramifications of what we are about to do, others just act, and leave it to us to reflect on what they did.

Whether we’re the odd ones or not, their worldview is so foreign to ours, we dig deep to understand how, or why, they think so different. It might be a fool’s errand to try to source such a line of thought, but if we were able to meet their parents, and various other members from their genealogical tree we might discover the seeds of it. For those who consider this a bit of a stretch, The Thief’s Mentality asks how much of our lives do we spend rebelling against, and acquiescing to parental influence, and how many of us can say we are entirely free from it?

The Stories of Others. “You have to tell your own story simultaneously as you hear and respond to the stories of others,” by Elizabeth Alexander. This quote captures the essence of The Thief’s Mentality. The essays contained in this collection were not spontaneous creations. Rather, they are deep methodical dives into the motives of everyday people involved in everyday interactions. These are their stories, and it was the author’s job to capture them. Some of their stories might be similar to ours, but most of them provide a contradictory view of the world that is so different from ours. We learn through our reading that it’s all a big, tasty stew.

The Sitcom Formula. My favorite sitcoms involve the formula of a normal main character playing the eye of the storm. The ensemble cast members define the show and the main character, through contrast, but the central role the main character plays on the show is that of an observer. (Think Jerry Seinfeld on Seinfeld or Alex Reiger on Taxi.) The main character is so normal that they act as the conduit to the everyman in the audience, pointing out the flaws, foibles, and eccentricities of the side characters. “Wouldn’t your life be so much easier if you just did that this way?” is the main character’s response to the ensembles’ thoughts and actions. Our side characters in life often define us in similar ways, as they add unnecessary complications to their lives, and we play the center to their storm.

We found the “Wouldn’t your life be so much easier if you just did that this way?” questions a more engaging way of framing an argument in these stories. This isn’t to say that The Thief’s Mentality avoids arguments. In the most opinionated pieces in this collection, we present the “I” character’s opinion in conjunction with how the opposing view may have formulated. We do disagree with the manner in which they conduct themselves, but we catalog the probable gestation cycle of the begrudged, and the role we all played in it, but we “but” our way to achieving the final question regarding their nature.   

A POS. Do you know a true piece of work (a POS)? Have you ever met his parents? Yeah, nuff said, right? Chances are his parent’s friends were all POSs too, and so were their kids. Chances are our friend spent most of his youth running around with those kids. Without knowing it, he developed an affinity for likeminded people, until everyone he knew thought the same way and developed in a similar manner, until Ms. Comparative-Analysis came walking down the hall. By the time he encountered her, he knew how to use his “She ain’t all that” to combat uncomfortable comparisons. As he learned more about her, he added a splash of “Who does she think she is anyway?” to fortify his wall. If he eventually befriended her, most of his preconceived notions fell apart, but he wasn’t discouraged. He attempted to convince her that she was a POS too, and she didn’t even know it. He aided her enlightenment with a constant barrage of accusations, and he continued this onslaught to keep her as honest as he wanted her to be. His rationale was that he didn’t want her to do to him what he was more apt to do to her. Even if some part of him knew she never would, he did his best to keep her insecure and unsure of her moral integrity, so she didn’t flirt with the notion that she might be better than he is. He also did this because a part of him knew that if people wanted to keep him honest they would consider using such tactics against him. He also knows that the best defense is a good offense and a constant barrage of accusations will keep her on defense, so that she might never examine him and see his true POS nature for what it is. 

Listening skills. “You’re a great listener,” a casual associate once told me. “In a world of people waiting for others to stop talking so they can speak, you actually listen to what people say, and you pay attention to what they do. I just want you to know how rare that is.” I beamed with pride. I didn’t beam as much when others issued similar compliments, because by that time I happened upon a secret that might diminish their compliments: I didn’t actually care what happened to the people telling me their stories. I listened to their stories so well that I could repeat them with a surprising level of accuracy, and the questions I asked them throughout revealed how fascinated I was with their story, but I may have cared less about what actually happened to them than those who don’t listen. This little secret left me wondering if they would still give me the compliment if I revealed that fact to them. Would they smile in the appreciative way they did if they knew my motives were less than pure and some might say self-serving?

Others didn’t offer me that compliment in such a direct manner, but they opened up and told me things about their life I can only guess they didn’t dare tell anyone else. This indirect compliment expanded when I asked them active listening questions, and they answered every question I had. The intimacy we shared during those moments told me how rare it was for them to have a person so interested in what they had to say.

The easy answer I developed for my dilemma was that I love a great story, and when I hear one, I want to know every single detail of it. I want to explore it beyond the storyteller’s frame, to the extent that the storyteller is examining the short-term and long-term effects of their story in a way that the storyteller may not have considered before. No matter how urgent I became, however, I didn’t care about them. I just wanted to know everything about their story.

The final answer I arrived at was as confusing as the question, for the primary reason most people don’t listen to others is that they’re too self-involved. Yet, I was so self-involved that I was more interested in the stories of others than most are. When I listened to another tell their story, it was almost entirely self-serving, as I strove to know them better than they might know themselves, so that I might understand myself better through all the similarities and contrasts they present in their story. Did I deserve the title of being called a great listener if my motives were not pure, or was the “who cares why you’re listening as long as you are” concept more prominent? I still don’t know the answer to that question, but I do know that in some ways their stories helped shape my story in a way that shaped this collection of essays.

Rocking the Worldview. When we listen to others tell their tale, we develop an idea for how the world works one person at a time. Similar to the manner in which the universe works, we believe that all earthly bodies have a magnetic relationship to one another that defines their orbit, our orbit, and the general sense of order in our universe. When an exception to our rules comes along and redefines it, they do so at their own peril. We don’t allow them to breathe after they hit our tripwire. We rip them apart and help them put all their pieces back together according to our sense of order. Some might argue that that is the essence of The Thief’s Mentality, but this book focuses its theme on those people who tweak the premise of our sense of order.

The Epiphany Effect. The Thief’s Mentality is loaded with epiphanies. A reader could make the mistake in assuming that the reason we wrote the essays in question was to provide the author a vehicle to write all the epiphanies he learned over the years. While that’s not entirely true, we do find the epiphanies so compelling that there is some grain of truth to it, but what is an epiphany?

Most of us park in the same place for work every day, even if we don’t have an assigned spot, and we sit in the same spot for meetings and any other regular event we attend where there are no designated spots for us. Routines have a way of staving off the random and leading to a greater sense of order, and this all leads to a greater sense of overall happiness. One could say that any contradictions and inconsistencies we encounter could lead to confusion and ultimately unhappiness. We watch these contradictions live their lives in a way that makes no sense to our foundational structure, our values, and our way of living life. As we attempt to account for contradictions and inconsistencies and try to gain a greater hold on the way the world works, we experience more and that can lead to greater comfort and more happiness. The relief we feel can lead us to become stuck in our ways, and any idea that questions our newfound sense of order could make us uncomfortable and unhappy. Yet, most of us come equipped with a small window that we leave cracked open to ideas that might rattle our notions. These ideas are, more often than not, not revolutionary ideas that might shatter that window. Rather, they are eye-opening clarifications that tweak our understanding of the way the world works that The Thief’s Mentality calls epiphanies. defines epiphany as “An intuitive grasp of reality through something (such as an event) usually simple and striking.”

Even though there is a dictionary definition of the word epiphany, it is a unique word in the lexicon for most define it based on their individual experiences with it. The potential power an epiphany might have on a person’s life is characteristically patient for the immediate reaction we have to these thoughts is that they’re so obvious that we think either we have explored them before or we should have.

A revolutionary thought, by contrast, has an almost immediate impact. A revolutionary thought causes our jaw to drop, but an epiphany typically requires subsequent incidents for the recipient to understand how they apply to our lives. When this occurs, the recipient begins to see what they considered an accepted norm in a way slightly different than they did before they heard the thought. For some the word has religious connotations, for others it might involve striking moment, but some consider it nothing more than a subtle crank of the wheel. One noteworthy experience discussed in The Thief’s Mentality, involved an obvious thought the author spent far too much time tweaking. When he first heard it, he dismissed it as so obvious that he didn’t think about it for ten seconds. The characteristics of this epiphany reared its beautiful head later, when the author least expected it, and it continued to do so until he had it all shiny, redefined, and ready for use in his world.

This definition of an epiphany is similar to a subtle twist in a movie that does not reveal itself until the movie is over. “Why did that happen?” we ask our friends on our way out of the theater. “Because she said that to him? Oh, before she did the other thing. Ok, now it all makes sense.” When we begin to notice how often these subtle, otherwise insignificant thoughts apply to our situations we start chewing on it, until we’re digesting it, and we’re viewing the world a little bit differently than we did before we began processing the thought. Others might continue to find such tiny nuggets of information nothing more than waste matter –to bring this analogy to its biological conclusion– but when an eager student begins adding bits of their own thoughts to an epiphany, it snowballs into an individual truth. Once we clear these hurdles and embrace the power of epiphanies, we begin to see what we once considered the accepted truth, as it is for so many, is not as true for us as we once thought.

The Thief’s Mentality plants no flag on whatever unusual points of brilliance these epiphanies unearth for the reader, for the author is but a messenger repeating what should’ve been so obvious prior to processing it. These epiphanies provided eye-opening clarification on a topic we thought we understood, but the epiphany can provide a subtle crank of the wheel that we call the epiphany effect. As I wrote, the epiphany effect can lead the recipient to think they should’ve considered it before, even to the point of considering themselves less than intelligent in the aftermath. “I can’t believe I never saw it quite that way before.” Epiphanies can do that, but the individual who might consider themselves less than intelligent for not seeing it sooner should relax with the knowledge that this happens all the time to such a wide range of people.

One final note on epiphanies, they are elusive and fleeting. As author James Joyce once said, “[They] are the most delicate and evanescent of moments.” An epiphany is not a one size fits all, as most of them do not apply to most people. The delicate nature of an epiphany is such that even when they do apply they are so personal that no one else might understand why it means more than the obvious to us. Locating the qualities of an eye-opening thought and interpreting it for personal usage does not require a level of intelligence, as I wrote, but it does require some level of personal ingenuity to sculpt and shape them for individual interpretation. The fleeting nature of an epiphany suggests that it’s entirely possible that a person could stumble across an epiphany and miss it. Most naked epiphanies, or those that we haven’t shaped for personal interpretation, seem so obvious that we allow them to pass without further thought. By the time we recognize the substantive information of an epiphany, we may not remember the loose, delicate connection it could have had to our lives and the manner in which we could’ve applied it. The author has encountered many situations in which an epiphany could’ve applied, but he couldn’t remember the exact phrasing of the epiphany. How many times do we hear such a subtle crank of the wheel, and when we try to use it, we narrow it down to the author that wrote it, and the book they wrote it in, but we can’t find the exact passage in question when we need it. It’s frustrating. Some might say that if the epiphany were as profound as we suggest, we would’ve remembered it, and while that may be true in some cases, in others, it elucidates how elusive and fleeting they are by nature. As the Joyce quote alludes, the nature of their power requires diligence on the part of the recipient. The Thief’s Mentality is comprised of what some might consider so obvious that they’re hardly worth considering, but it’s these little, insignificant thoughts that end up shaping our thoughts more than the revolutionary ones might.

The Thief’s Mentality: The Hate/Love Relation with Reading Books

The Thief’s Mentality is for people who hate to read books. Most of us hated reading books for a chunk of our life, especially those our English teachers crammed down our throats in high school. We tried to love them, because he told us that these books were beloved classics enjoyed by millions of people for hundreds of years, but we couldn’t block out the “Get to the point!” voice screaming in our head. We looked forward to our teacher’s summations the next day, because they were so entertaining and informative that it prompted us to ask him, “Why didn’t the author just write that?” The teacher informed us that we probably didn’t have the attention span necessary to bring their complex structures together. “That’s probably true,” we acknowledged, “but isn’t it the author’s job to entertain me?”

2) “So, if I hate to read books, why would I buy yours?” I’m not going to say that The Thief’s Mentality is entertaining, I’ll leave that up to the reader, but I’ve written over 500 articles. Most of the articles are unique and they stand on their own. As such, I’ve tried with as much objectivity as possible to collect (for lack of a better term) a “greatest hits” package for the reader. When a writer is on point, they tend to belabor. We all do it. With extensive editing, I think I’ve kept this to a minimum. I’ve tried to write a book that is as stimulating, engaging, and entertaining to you, the reader, as I possibly could. Entertaining you is one of the hardest things to do, of course, as we’ve all jumped through the hoops, performed on the pommel horse, and removed some of our clothing to try to entertain you. For various reasons, most of us come up short, so we all get together, individually, and  try to entertain ourselves. We can only hope that you find it just as entertaining.

The Thief’s Mentality is for those who don’t have time to read, yet we all have time to kill. Some theorize that the average person spends one and a half years of their life waiting in line. Whether we’re waiting to buy tickets to a movie, waiting in line at the local supermarket, or waiting for our latest inoculation at the doctor’s office, we need to have something to do while we’re waiting. Some small time operations place mirrors around elevators, larger operations place digital ads around the areas reserved for the line, but what better way to lessen the pain of waiting is there than an entertaining and informative book? Something that feels substantial, yet not so substantial. This book will not fill that year and a half, depending on how slow you read, because it is a relatively thin book, but it may relieve a couple of hours of pain. We all play around on our phones, and most of us read internet articles, but how many articles can we read about the Kardashians before irreparable brain damage sets in? Human beings need constant stimuli to keep the synapses firing. We need substantive information and entertainment and when fiction writers spend twenty pages writing about a Wisteria tree by a lake, we experience burn out. We want to read an author who knows how to get to the point, and at this point in our lives, we want something entertaining, informative, and different.

3) The Speed Reader. “I can read any book you’ve read, in about an hour and a half, and tell you everything about it. I might even be able to tell you things you missed,” a friend told me after completing a class on speed-reading. “There’s just so much fluff in every book a person reads.” Her arrogance annoyed me, but I thought she had a point. I also considered the idea that the only reason she took a speedreading class in the first place was that she didn’t enjoy reading as much as I did, and she wanted to find an end run around the traditional and methodical ways of educating herself.

I never took her up on the challenge she posed, because I didn’t want to know if she could match my weeks of reading in a little over an hour. This led to another thought that chased me into adulthood, if her abilities to speedread were as accomplished as she suggested, and she could teach me things about books I carefully read, how much of my life did I waste reading that I could’ve spent being more active?

I love to read now that I can choose the books I read, and some of them are the books my English teacher forced me to read, but even the most avid book reader will acknowledge that they spend a lot of time reading them, time that we could spend being more active. Even the most avid readers will cede the point that most books contain a lot of fluff, but we would argue that in the course of careful reading, a reader learns how to use finer points to support their logic and conclusions. In doing so, I would think, the reader learns not only how to form an opinion, but how to map it back to the central point by tracing the manner in which an author uses various rhetorical devices to achieve a conclusion with supporting evidence. The fluff, as my speedreading friend called it, lies in the supporting evidence. The author’s job, as I see it, is to either delete as many extraneous (and in my opinion far too numerous) finer points or make them so entertaining that no reader will consider them fluff. One of my many goals was to find that author who accomplished this feat so well that speed-readers wouldn’t want to skim in fear of missing a word. I found some, of course, and I loved their work so much that I tried to write like them.

4) Descriptions. One of the finer points, this book lover detests are the unnecessarily lengthy descriptions of scenery some fictional authors indulge in. Some of our greatest authors spent so much time describing scenery that even the most ardent book lover might speedread to the point. In some cases, these authors don’t even deliver a payoff for these lengthy descriptions. The purpose of their lengthy descriptions, in some cases, was the unnecessarily lengthy description. The Thief’s Mentality did what this book lover wanted other authors to do, cut the crap and get to the point. The Thief’s Mentality doesn’t inform the reader about the shapes of the clouds in the sky the character walked under, and there are no tumbleweeds rolling across the prairie, because the settings do not involve prairies. We tried to avoid exclusivity, but the settings of all of these stories occurred on the planet Earth. As such, the reader can feel free to assume that the natural settings surrounding the characters in these stories are those familiar to Earth bound creatures. We felt no need to remind the reader that the situations involved in the stories occurred on Earth.

5) Writing to Writers. Some books are letters to their peers, critics, and other writers. The exhaustive descriptions of scenery, for example, are their single leg swings and scissor kick on a pommel horse appeal to the scoring system of their judges. I understand writing “Jack and Jill went up a hill to fetch a pail of water. Jack fell down and broke his crown, and Jill came tumbling after” is too simple and uninteresting for most writers. Writers want to dig into the characters of their stories to let the readers know who Jacks and Jill are, and they delve into descriptions of setting to place the reader at the scene, but those who hate to read consider so much of that nothing more than fluff. One writer I enjoyed reading spent so many pages describing a monster in his novel that I put my reading out of its misery, and I never read the author again. That author is a painter, so his ability to paint intricate detail with words was admirable and exhausting at the same time. I admired the author’s style and his ability to bring this monster to life, but I considered it a chunk of exposition only a writer could love. To paraphrase the late Christopher Hitchens, such passages are private letters, written to appeal to other writers, appearing in public space.

6) Strange Strategy. Most readers who hate to read enjoy it when an author includes some swearing, slang and colloquialisms. They can relate to a character that swears in the manner they do, and they may consider it a strange strategy to delete such words from a collection of essays about real people. The dilemma the author faced was largely self-imposed for while he recognized that using swear words and slang can customize a character to familiarity, abundant usage of such norms can be distracting. Using them is also a very “writerly” thing to do, and it shows how hard the author is working to be “cool” to the reader. The author opted to forgo all such efforts under the guise of consistency.

Another note to add on this subject is that most of us remember an era when network censors were more stringent, and those network censors defined an era. Back then, their edicts seemed so silly. We often said things such as, “Rambo can mow down an entire militia poised against him, but SNL has to fire a guy who accidentally drops an ‘F’ bomb on air? We need to loosen the restrictions on these artists. We need to follow the European model. People cuss on TV in those countries, and no one is harmed by it.” Now that these restrictions are essentially gone and actors can pretty much say whatever they want, some of us miss them. Morality plays an undeniable role, as we cringe when we hear ‘F’ bombs and ‘S’ words on non-subscriber cable stations, but it’s more than that for some of us. Some of us enjoyed the wink and nod creative ways in which scriptwriters dodged network censors, because we said, “They have to do it that way.” We didn’t know it at the time, of course, but looking back, we now recognize how creative those writers had to be to comply with the Broadcast Standards and Practices. What was also not so obvious at the time was how much material we all had regarding those silly standards and practices. When the higher ups considered something naughty, their edicts made the jokes and innuendos naughtier, more humorous, risqué, and more entertaining. As a product of that era, I found some of the efforts to “get away” with various dodges hilarious, and I employed some of them in The Thief’s Mentality.

The Thief’s Mentality: The Search for Something Different

“The Thief’s Mentality truly is, in my opinion, a bit of a world all its own, something different than what I’ve seen in my editing queue or even in the library where I work part time,” –Autumn Conley

 “And now for something completely different,” Monty Python’s Flying Circus.

 “Take that bottle off the thing. Put it over on the dingle,” Dean Ween Group.

“Just because something is different, or strange, doesn’t mean it isn’t quality material,” Dan Gillespie.   

The search is for something different is over. Critics might say many things about The Thief’s Mentality, but I don’t think anyone will question its originality. How many times do we go to the bookstore (online or otherwise), scouring the racks for something different? We don’t even know what we’re looking for, but we know it when we see it. When we find it, we can’t wait to get home, crack the binding, and enter into another author’s slice of life. Most book lovers enjoy other art forms, but there’s nothing more exciting to us than finding a truly original book. When we think we’ve found it, we tell our friends and family, and we call it a “find”. A find is the book lover’s literary equivalent to the reward an archaeologist who spent their whole life digging through some catacombs.

Some book lovers call themselves book connoisseurs, but there are others. We love books so much that the term “book snob” does not phase us. We are a group of book lovers who have read so many books, and been through so many finds, that our desperate search for something original becomes more and more difficult with time. Some of us grow so frustrated that we decide to create our own. We want our own “Take that bottle off the thing. Put it over on the dingle” lyrics. We want to create something unique and weird, and meaningless and poignant at the same time. The constraints restricting (and constricting) an author of any fictional and non-fiction art form are far greater than those of a lyricist, of course, but some avid readers are so hungry to find a different book that we decide to write our own.

As The Thief’s Mentality proves, writing is not a science. It’s an art form. What’s the formula for a great story? Is there one? I think all aspiring authors should cancel their subscription to Writer’s Digest and throw their ‘How to Write Best-Seller’ books in the nearest fire. Most authors of these books have never written one, so why do we follow their advice? This author has never written one either, but I’ll tell you the best piece of advice I’ve ever heard, and it’s so simple that most won’t follow it in favor of the lengthy, more professorial advice ‘how to’ authors provide. In Stephen King’s On Writing, King gives us the super-secret sauce to success: reading a ton and writing a ton. To understand the art form of storytelling at its most primal level, it’s the only piece of advice worth considering. Step one in this process involves the aspiring author reading so often that they want to read something decidedly different from anything they’ve ever read before. Step two involves writing so often that the writer almost accidentally creates something different. The aspiring writer should also forget about writing a best-seller and turn their focus on the only elements in their control. I wish I could take credit for thinking up these two elements, but they are Ray Bradbury’s advice, “Find your own truth”. Another piece of advice I take from singer Stephen Malkmus, “Story is sacred.” He sang that the “song is sacred”, but you get the point. 

It is important that an aspiring author learn the rules of their craft. They need to know how to spell and have a decent grasp of the grammatical rules, but no aspiring author should let that keep them from writing. At its most primal level, a storyteller should know how to tell a story? They should also learn how to generate reactions to everything from their grandiose, all-American tales to the tale they tell about their trip to Walgreens’. Write your story and learn the rules as you go. We all know those writers who can write a grammatically correct story with no spelling errors, because most of them will highlight all of our errors, but can they tell a great story? Most of them are excellent critics. It’s been my experience that if you write an excellent, captivating story, most readers (critics aside) will forgive the occasional error.

There is a continental divide between seeking success and finding it, just as there is a similar divide between the art connoisseur and the rest of us. Those of us in the “book lover” contingent have spent our 10,000 hours reading a wide range of books, until we reached a point Malcolm Gladwell might describe as a tipping point. This point of burnout is as hard to define as it is to see coming, but at some point, we know the formulas of most of the genres so well that we know them too well, and all the joy of figuring it all out has dissipated, and that’s when our search for something different begins.

The Nature of the Artist

One of the primary reasons most authors don’t write something different is that it is very frustrating and extremely hard. Those who haven’t tried it might fall prey to the notion that every revolutionary, transcendent artistic creation is simply the product of a talented author. What is a talented author of a book, a painting, or a transcendent song? Suggesting that one is talented suggests that the fruits of their labor are somehow God-given, otherworldly, or something that they should use. I think the term talented, more often than not, shortchanges a creator, for it allows us all to avoid the discussion of how hard they worked.  

We average-to-below average artists find some comfort in the idea that the great author just had more God-given ability, and this allows us to leave out some crucial details of the labor involved. When we look at Leonardo da Vinci’s oeuvre, for example, we might describe him as a comprehensive thinker, but he had comparatively few artistic creations. Those of us who know how hard he worked on each creation, thanks in part to Walter Isaacson’s book on da Vinci, know the excruciating amount of work he put into the pain-staking detail of each piece. As evidence of this, one reviewer of his book claimed that Isaacson’s book was nothing more than a boring recitation of da Vinci’s process. “A boring recitation of the process?” we ask, “of someone many consider the greatest artist of all time?” Before launching into a book-length rant against the reviewer, creative types must remind ourselves that non-creative types might find a compelling, thoroughly detailed book regarding the artistic mindset of a master a little boring. “Da Vinci was not only talented but smart. We got it already,” was the theme of such snarky reviews. They don’t seem to care that da Vinci combined an unusual understanding of science and mechanics with art, based on extensive experimentation and trial and error, and he used them in his work. They end the discussion with the conclusion that da Vinci had an unprecedented ability to portray real life artistically, and their reply to anything beyond that is, “We got it already.” That just seems like such a violation.     

Creating something different is so hard that most creators stop at some point in the discovery process. They decide, instead, to create a story from a master’s template, hoping that adding their voice will be unique enough that no one will consider it derivative. This isn’t to say that authors of a given genre plagiarize other authors, but when they read one author’s books too often, they cannot hide the influence. Their inspired book might even be entertaining and informative, but it does have a disappointing sameness to it. The idea that one book is more entertaining, or more informative, than another is relative to the reader, but the author of The Thief’s Mentality doesn’t know how anyone could read this book and declare it derivative or formulaic.

The author did not write these essays for the sole purpose of producing something different, just to be different however. Some artists are different in a kitschy manner we all enjoy, but others are different in an altogether fundamental and organic manner. These artists excite me, and they have my whole life. Their adventures don’t always work, of course, but isn’t that what makes the successful forays into the different that much more?  

The Thief’s Menality’s biggest influences are those artists who displayed breathtaking originality at one point in their career. No one artist influenced The Thief’s Mentality, and no one piece from any of these artists did either, but I’m not going to deny there wasn’t some influence from the myriad of books I’ve read over time. At some point in my favorite artists’ careers, they made a break from their formula, and it often occurred after they achieved a certain level of acceptance. For some artists, this foray into something different was a one-off. They were slapped back by their fans telling the world that they love every book in the author’s catalog, except this one. The negative Amazon review can be a powerful force in an author’s mind. Those who loved the switch were able to brave the harsh winds, and for them, the switch proved so invigorating that they didn’t mind the diminished sales and prestige they had in the industry. Their interest in “the formula” that landed them there began to wane, and they viewed the switch as invigorating in an artistic sense. For them, the temporary switch proved fundamental. 

Their subsequent artistic creations were so unusual and revolutionary that the artist’s closest friends and family members didn’t see them coming. “I don’t know where that came from,” they confess. “They were on a different level when they created that piece.”

After sorting through the various books in the genre of social sciences, philosophy, humor, and entertainment, we discovered a book we considered a transcendent book of breathtaking originality. It is a book by David McRaney called You are Not so Smart. Amid all of the Malcolm Gladwell books, the Freakonomics books, and all of the books influenced by them, You are Not so Smart reached this author on this very personal “Something different” level. It provided a blueprint for how to formulate The Thief’s Mentality. If the fan of that book decides to read this one, they might not find many similarities after all of the work that followed that initial inspiration, but You are Not so Smart appealed to us on such a personal level that we wanted to write our own version of it.

Even art connoisseurs initially greet breathtakingly original creations with confusion, disappointment and suspicion. “Why didn’t they just stick with what they do best?” we ask. Another question we ask is how can any person, even a critic who gets paid to listen to music, listen to an album one time and know that it is “revolutionary, brilliant, and a tour-de-force!” We all know that critics often receive advanced copies, but they don’t appear to need time to process the unique greatness of the material. Most people need a little time to appreciate works of breathtaking originality and transcendent qualities. Once their brilliance is processed and we lick the carcass clean, we all realize how brilliant their decidedly risky venture was. The artists who had the largest impact on The Thief’s Mentality were often unusual, offbeat individual trailblazers who viewed the world from a very different corner.

It’s almost impossible to escape some influence in any artistic pursuit, but we think that all of the rewriting and editing of these essays have drained whatever influence may have inspired us to begin writing them. All but two of the essays contain unique experiences we’ve had with the unique people we’ve encountered in life, so the only probability for influence lies in the analysis, but thanks to hundreds of rewrites, we don’t think the author of the piece who provided some momentary influences would be able to spot their role in it. 

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 was going to 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 now 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 who by social calculations don’t know enough to enter into the 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 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 defeating 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 who 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 various authors spend decades writing in various forms and incarnations. This is one of the many attempts dumb guys make to rectify the past.


Literary agents and publishers provide prospective clients a preemptive list of ideas for books they will accept and reject for publication. These lists normally include a list of genres the agents and publishers 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 who 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 for a 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 who 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 in one way or another most of my 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 we meet that fella at the water cooler who provides us a testimonial about his days in high school, and how bullies subjected him to cruel and inhumane levels of abuse, we ask ourselves how much of this narrative 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 for me that he characterized 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 who attempt to rewrite their past at the water cooler with fellow employees who know nothing of the man’s past, might be lying. When an author writes such a piece in a book, however, they do have a literary license to do so. We call it 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 might make a retelling of an event better, I err on the side of nonfiction. Nonfiction is simply more compelling to me. Even though the artistic license inherent in creative nonfiction allows me some wiggle room, I find hardcore nonfiction more entertaining than the creative spin. 

The second rule concerns fiction, and that is there are no rules regarding truth, as I believe when a reader purchases a fiction book, or reads a short fictional story, they enter into an agreement with the author 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. 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. The males characters I write about are as flawed as the females. Some might consider the latter a violation of current cultural edicts to the point of being a political statement, but if said flaws are honest and integral to the character, who is being more political the author or those who oppose the idea that an individual might have flaws? 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 plot lines, 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 those authors who aspire to write two great books, to four, to so much more, be forewarned an astute reader will spot your 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 who 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 would come up with witty retorts that I couldn’t when my bully confronted me. The main character also forces 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,” the musician replied. “I just write lyrics that fit the music.”

Dumb guy’s disease involves the author of a book, or song, informing the world that they’re not as dumb as everybody thought they were in school or in the immediate aftermath where the focus of their life was partying. The musician’s quote informed me that when I injected politics and music appreciation into my fiction, I was writing my college thesis to inform my peers in school that I was not as dumb as they thought I was. 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 one big name author often does. My modus operandi was if he can do it, why can’t I? I realized 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 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 parallel roads.) The two strains of intellect could be broken down to left-brain versus right brain, as in one type of brain has a natural aptitude for math and science, while the other is more of a creative type. One could also say that the intelligent person knows the machinations of a saxophone that they can fix it and tune it 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 often occurs later in life. The math and science types discover an aptitude for the structured learning, memorization, and problem solving 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 you’re above such structured knowledge, or that some subjects are pointless. When I heard someone say that learning Geometry was useless, I loved that line so much that I used it. I also began, perhaps less consciously, began applying to structured learning in general. I would advise myself to drop that whole line of thinking. Studying Geometry might not be useful to a person who seeks a career in Business Management, but it leads a person to use their brain in ways they might not otherwise. Thus, it might pay long term dividends to use your brain in as many ways as you can, while you’re young, to gauge your capabilities. 

I would also ask myself to work harder to acknowledge that there’s nothing special about me. I wasted far too much time thinking I was special, and I turned down a number of opportunities that might have made me special in lieu of what I already thought about myself. I would remind myself that I suffer from my individual strain of dumb guy’s disease and that thinking I was special was the root cause. The idea that you aren’t a better athlete, student and employee, and the resulting frustrations are directly tied to this idea that you think you’re already there or you should be. Remember those times when you failed to achieve in various athletic moments? Remember the temper tantrums you threw? Those moments were partially due to the idea that you wanted to show others you were better than that, but some of it was internal. Some of the frustration was borne of the fact that you weren’t already better, but you never did much, before or after, to get better. You get out in front of yourself at times. You didn’t slow your roll long enough to work within the confines of what you are to succeed within them. If I could advise myself, I would say slow down, realize what you are when you are it, tackle the inane minutiae before you, and prove yourself more than once. Don’t be a one-timer. A one-timer in hockey, involves a player hitting the puck as hard as he can and watching it travel down the ice. In youth soccer, participants kick the ball one time, as hard as they can, and they watch it travel down the field. If the play calls for a long kick, as opposed to the more strategic dribble, kick the ball, and then follow it up. When you achieve good stats in one quarter, don’t consider yourself a stat guy, you have to follow that up establish a long record of achievement.  

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 are 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 hits hard. The subject of such an assessment might attempt to defuse the power of the characterization by examining the accessor’s comparative 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 her. “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 told her with that graded paper in hand.

“It was mealy-mouthed,” she said.

After she explained what mealy-mouthed meant, I said, “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. “It was called a position paper, and that means you have to take a position when you write it. When I finished your paper, I still wasn’t sure which side you were on.”

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.

“Have you ever met my dad?” I asked the person who had. “I think we pretty much covered that ground every day for about eighteen years.” I considered it an insult, during those formative years, that he didn’t think I had the facilities to be an independent thinker, but I now know how difficult it is for a parent to believe that the person they knew as a toddler can arrive at independent thought. It also took me a while to believe that my dad didn’t introduce me to this mindset just to drive me insane. Whether he intended it or not, my dad’s constant badgering did lead me to try to prove him wrong about me.

There is a certain compliment in this question, somewhere down deep that the provocateur does not intend, regarding a confident presentation. People hate a confident presentation, so much that they feel compelled to douse the flame, but some people pose this question so often that those of us on the receiving end can’t help but wonder about their greater 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 method some use to undermine another’s credibility?

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 role in life, as far as they are concerned, is that of a contrarian. They challenge the status quo, relative to their own life. This mindset does not, however, 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 be humble. If a speaker wants to win friends and influence people, they should 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 with 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 someone 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 the 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 though? 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 what they know. An author can only write what they know, and often times what they know is limited to what they hear, learn, and experience firsthand.

One trick I employ to try to understand human nature and explain my findings in an entertaining manner, is to employ a technique painters call sfumato. This technique involves shading and drawing attention to the background to enhance the central figure. Most people will not sit down at a Starbucks on Tuesday and explain their philosophy of life, or if they do it is an enhanced version of their truth. Their truth is somewhere outside what they tell you, in the shading and the background. The only way to find it with them, or for them, is to watch them outside that 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 author have played an integral role in shaping his definitions of human nature. This is not to say that one’s definition of human nature is limited to experience, but when we read books 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 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 piece was to explain, to one curious mind, human nature, and the answers touch on the questions I have asked the people in these interactions, 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. It’s impossible to know if we’ve asked the right questions, but when they open up and allow the author into the deep, dark recesses of their mind, we can feel some confidence that we’ve at least tapped into something they consider worthy of discussion.

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’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.”

Thief’s Mentality II: Whatever Happened to Kurt Lee

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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