Yesterday I Learned …


Yesterday, I learned that TIL is an abbreviation for “Today I learned …” Today I learned that in the era of texting and Tweeting, we are abbreviating far too often. I knew that yesterday, but it’s annoying me today.

1) Yesterday, I considered myself intelligent. Today, I learned that I’m not half as smart as I thought I was yesterday. We curious types ask questions and questions can lead to questions, such as, “How is it that you did not know that?” They ask this with that strained smile that suggests they have a haymaker awaiting us. Curious types often wipe the slate clean to learn different perspective, new angles, and nuanced approaches to known procedures. There are also times when we just don’t know. Decades of cultural and societal conditioning train us to avoid asking such questions, for we know the abuse that’s coming from those who know and those who quietly pretend to know so they’re not the subject of such abuse.

2) Yesterday, I learned that kids hate cotton candy as much as I do. Today, I learned that no matter how great it looks, cotton candy is pretty awful. Cotton candy, fairy floss, candy floss, tooth floss, or whatever we call it around the world looks so good on a stick or in a bag. It looks so beautiful in other mouths, but how many of us, kids or adults, make it past the third bite? After watching others tongue their way through the confection and appear to be having one heck of a good time doing it, my son pleaded with me to purchase some for him. “You’re going to hate it,” I told him. “No, I won’t,” he said. Amid the back and forth that ensued, one that mirrored the many arguments I had with my dad, I conceded. I remembered how alluring the confection was for me. My son took one bite. He wouldn’t admit that he hated it, he wouldn’t give me that satisfaction, but he gave it back to me saying, “I can’t eat it.” I was frustrated with him, but as I said, I remember going through all of that myself.  

3) Yesterday, I learned that the Astros cheated by stealing signs, the Patriots cheated by filming the other teams’ practices, and the New Orleans Saints cheated. Today, I found out that no one has accused my favorite teams of cheating. If the other team has such obvious signals that my team can steal them, why aren’t they doing it? If the other team is giving away their game plan in any way, and you’re not taking advantage of any opportunity you can to win, why, the hell, am I still cheering you on?  

4) Yesterday, I learned that some of the times we accidentally buy junk for a kid’s birthday gift. Is it our fault that the toy was a piece of junk? Today, I learned that it depends how long it works. The reveal is the most vital moment for any birthday present. If that kid wants to play with it moments after opening it, and it works for that first hour, we’re in the clear.

5) Yesterday, I learned the need to teach our kids to appreciate gifts they receive. “That isn’t what I wanted,” my kid said after opening a Christmas gift. Most of us learned gift etiquette from our mom when we were young. “You pretend that you love that gift, no matter what,” my mom told me, as her mom probably told her. Today I learned to phrase this in such a way that the child’s rationale might view it as more honest. “You don’t have to talk about whether you like the gift or not. You just say, ‘Oh, thank you so much’ with a bright, shiny smile on your face, and everyone moves on in life.”

6) Yesterday, I learned that there’s nothing more compelling than a well-placed, succinct disclaimer. If I were the owner of a fireworks company, I would test the limits of that theory by placing disclaimers listed all over my creations. I would warn my potential customers that this might be the most dangerous firework ever created. One part of the reason we think we need disclaimers is to protect the consumer, another is to protect the company from lawsuits, but they also serve to generate hype and excitement to those who seek dangerous fireworks. Today, I learned that this principle applies to music, movies, and anything that might lead a parent to warn a child. The more we warn, the more exciting the subject of our warnings will appear to the warned.  

7) Yesterday, I heard someone say, “You’re whole life in anecdotal!” I had no idea what that discussion concerned, but I couldn’t help but think about how that quote could apply in context. Today, I realized that we’re all anecdotal.

8) Yesterday, I learned that some of the times I move out of another person’s way without complaint, regardless if I have the right of way or not. Most people cede space in an open area for another to pass. Some do not. Some walk straight for us, expecting us to cede the space necessary for them to get through, and we can read those signposts as they head our way. When we see them coming, we know it’s better to move out of their way. Some form of compassion often motivates this decision.

9) Yesterday, I learned that, “One of the key components to having an open mind is admitting that you’re wrong,” says the person with whom we disagree.

“That’s probably true in some personal instances,” I argue today, “but you’ll need to show me the person who was richly rewarded for admitting they were wrong, and I’ll take a look at it.”

The first thing a person who wants to have an open mind will do is listen, read, and gather all of the information they can attain to formulate a philosophy. After selecting a philosophical train of thought that aligns with ours, we should continue to gather as many dissenting opinions as we can to challenge that logic. Some people say that an open mind often contains some conflicting opinions. We all have some conflicting opinions, but the best way to limit it is to listen to, and read, as many conflicting opinions as we can find, as often as we can, so that we can philosophically defeat dissenting opinions in our own mind. If we can’t defeat their rationale, we adjust accordingly. If we can, dissenting opinions often strengthen our own. We should also compare our ability to have an open mind versus the person who requires us to have an open mind so that we might agree with them. Their mind is often as closed to dissenting opinions as those they accuse.

10) Yesterday, I learned that too many say that they are so honest that others can’t take their brand of “brutal honesty”. Today, I learned that too few of us use such brutal honesty on ourselves.

11) Yesterday, I learned that there are two types of people in this world. Those who prepare an order before they reach the drive-thru window and those who put their family of eight in park and turn to them, “Now, what does everybody want?” Today, I realized that there is a third type, the person often trapped behind that family of eight.

12) Yesterday, I learned that I think we can tell a lot about a person by the way they drive. I sat behind a person who would not turn until they had a “clear” opening. Today, I realized that I could never be friends with such a person, in part because the man who raised me would not turn unless he could see Wyoming unobstructed.

13) Yesterday, I learned that too many of the most horrific things that ever occurred to us often take less than a minute of our lives. Today, I learned that Americans, on average, live 41,942,880 minutes. Those of us who spent too much time in our life grieving know that it doesn’t help to hear others say that we should just move on, but there is a point when we begin to obsess over it so much that we ruin too many moments in our own lives. No matter what happens in the moments before our death, I can’t help but think that we’ll regret wasting so much time obsessing over death.

Brutal Honesty in the Age of Being Real


It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of being real, it was the age of delusional thinking, it was the epoch of honesty, it was the epoch of lies, it was the season of transparency, it was the season of delusions, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us, we were going to achieve, what we had already achieved, what we would never achieve – in short, it was a period of time that needed to exist to rectify a period that may never have existed to the superlative degree of comparison that some of its noisiest authorities defined for the era.

As that paraphrase of Charles Dickens’ epic intro to A Tale of Two Cities suggests, reality TV did not the divide American culture in the manner some purported it would in the age of being real. The doyens and doyennes of our culture asked if reality TV was art imitating life, or if it was reflecting it? Others suggested reality TV represented such a small sample of the culture that the shows’ producers projected it out into the society as a measure of realness that wasn’t real to the superlative degree they portrayed? Others wondered if the culture used reality TV for what it was and dispensed of it in manner similar to the way a body puts out byproducts it can’t use?  Some people I knew, very real and intelligent people, acknowledged that while reality TV focused on a sample of a society none of us knew that didn’t mean it wasn’t real.

"Lars and The Real Girl"

“Lars and The Real Girl”

How many times in one episode did an actor say, “Hey, I’m just being real with ya” to assuage the guilt they might otherwise have while insulting another person? How many times did these show participants gain a certain degree of realness on the back of another? How many times was being real used as a confrontational device to belittle those who were less real, until the real proponent managed to gain some real definition on them?

Being real, in such instances, was nothing more than a cudgel used to diminish a person who wasn’t like the speaker. They used this device to make the unreal more like the real, and the viewer at home was supposed to accept all that as real thinking, if they ever hoped to gain real stature in the real world. Most of us now reflect back on the being real era, and see it as an intellectually dishonest era, designed to promote the position of the proselytizing speakers. 

Those of us who thought the age of being real was anything but, couldn’t deny the influence it had on the culture in general, and our friends and family. Otherwise kind and polite individuals who wouldn’t say an unkind word about anyone yesterday, started lobbing verbal grenades at us. “Hey,” we would say. 

“I’m just being real with ya,” they would respond. For word watchers in search of colloquialisms, it was mandatory for real people to use the less formal incarnation of the word you as a literary device to gain familiarity with the subject of their insults.   

“Why did you say that? That was not very nice.”

“We can do that now, in this era of being real.”

No one said that latter line, of course, but that was the import of the discussion. It didn’t happen in a day, and it didn’t happen this way, but friends and family felt they could say anything they wanted in this era, and they didn’t need to bother being conscientious, if they were just being real with ya. 

Those of us who experienced this era and studied it for what it was, learned it was based on the false premise that one could be real with ya without undergoing any substantive reflection of their own. Even those who may have watched a total of one hour of the more sophomoric shows of reality TV, could not escape its influence.

We thought the era of white lies were over. Even if being real had nothing more than a conjugal relationship with brutal honesty, and some of us used the nuggets of that message to put more brutal honesty in our presentation, regardless if anyone thought we were being real or not. In any repeated message of this type, there is a personal takeaway for some. Most of us didn’t believe the real characters in reality shows were being real, in other words, but the presentation affected us nonetheless. We changed our presentation to one that could be called brutal honesty, in regards to how we thought we should be perceived, and we encountered a number of surprising reactions.

The most surprising reaction we received was no reaction. We would detail our weaknesses for our audience and our trials and tribulations, and they would not say anything. We would finish our testimonial, and if someone didn’t say something to change the subject, the lunchroom table would go through a seven-second lull. Our audience presumably took it in stride, because they thought they were as honest with themselves as we purported to be. They lived with the idea that they were so honest that most people couldn’t handle their special brand of honesty. It didn’t dawn on them, however, that that interpretation of brutal honesty was limited to assessing others. Very few have the wherewithal to evaluate themselves honestly, and their particular brand of being real incorporated many of the elements the dictionary uses to define the word delusional. Those who attempt to help them be more real learn that it’s pointless, because the subject will attempt to be more real than you, with you, until the discussion devolves to something equivalent to the type of gunfight banter Hollywood writes into scripts to provide a tense setting for paragraphs of exposition.   

Those who have never made a concerted effort to be honest about themselves, might expect that being harshly critical of one’s self to be somewhat influential. The expectation I had was that others might “raise their game” in this regard, to be more honest. They didn’t, because, again, real people already think they are brutally honest.

Another surprising, and somewhat depressing, reaction to displaying brutal honesty, in the age of being real, was that our friends began to think less of us. In any other era, it might make sense to consider a person who provides us a laundry list of weaknesses a weak person. In the era of being real, we might fall prey to the belief that our friends and family might consider such brutal honesty refreshing, and that they might consider that moment the perfect time to be just as honest in return. No such luck. What often happens is that they join in on the discussion and add other weaknesses that the brutally honest person neglected to include.  

“How do you think you’d do in jail?” A Delusional Person asks Frank.

“Not well,” Frank replies with refreshing, brutal honesty.

When Frank provides a laundry list for why he probably wouldn’t do well in jail, the Delusional Person might laugh, because being this honest can be humorous when the recipient is allowed to bathe in the weaknesses of its purveyor. The Delusional Person will often agree with Frank’s frank assessment of himself, but they won’t assess themselves by the same measure.

“How do you think you would do?” Frank returns.

“I think I’d do all right,” the Delusional Person replies.

Even in the age of being real, most people fell prey to the idealized images they have of themselves. One of the more effective measures weight loss programs will employ are progress charting photos. They ask their clients to do this, because we can look in the mirror every day and fail to see our progress or regressions. We need a somewhat distant perspective to truly evaluate ourselves, and the same holds true with conversational scenarios such these.     

Most of us live with idealized images of ourselves, as if they happened yesterday for the rest of our lives. This particular Delusional Person was a championship-level wrestler in his teenage years. While on the wrestling team, he endured exhaustive workouts, and exercised levels of self-discipline, that most non-athletes will never know. This resulted in The Delusional Person being a finely crafted specimen who at that time may, indeed, have been capable of handling the hand-to-hand combat situations reported to occur within the confines of a cell block. When he answered Frank’s question, the Delusional Person remembered himself as finely tuned wrestler who won championships. The idea that lifted a weight or sprinted in fifteen years didn’t enter into his equation. A more brutally honest assessment of his stay in prison should have been, “I don’t know how I would so in jail, but I suspect that all of the years I’ve spent sitting behind a computer, and avoiding physical activity, would be exposed early on.”

We all picture ourselves in peak physical condition when we listen to others speak about how they have let themselves go. We laugh when others joke about those who have gained weight, conveniently forgetting that we just graduated to a thirty-six inch waist pair of pants last week. We’ll do this when we speak about the people we grew up with who “now look so old”, even though we’re now using hair-dye, wrinkle cream, and supplements to fight the aging process. We aren’t lying when we do this either, we’re projecting an idyllic image of ourselves into these scenarios that used to be able to lay out an entire prison yard when we were called upon to do so … in the movies.

Another surprising, and somewhat depressing, reaction I encountered was a kind, polite person who had no interest in being real, adding brutal honesty to my brutally honest presentation. 

“Are you sure that you’re capable of that?” she asked after I informed her that I threw my hat in the ring for a promotion that had everyone abuzz. The surprising element of this question was not that she asked it, for it could be said that she was looking out for me in her own way, but that she never asked that question of any of our other co-workers. With them, she expressed in what we could call a Hallmark card-style response to their desire to advance within the company. “Good luck!” she would say to them, or “I know you can do it.” She may have said those words to be polite, but she wasn’t polite with me. 

She asked me to reconsider whether I might be qualified. I told her that I had as many, if not more, qualifications than some of the others who applied for it. I assumed her question was borne of jealousy, but I didn’t say that. After processing her warning, I acknowledged that she was kind person, and I realized that her concerns were simple reactions to my presentations of brutal honesty. She didn’t want me to get hurt by the realities of my limits, limits that I had expressed in the course of being honest about my vulnerabilities, and she was just reacting to what I told her over the years.

Yet, people like my sweet, polite friend can inadvertently assist those striving for brutal honesty into a depressing state of their reality. The honest assessor realizes, about halfway down the spiral, that they’re doing this to themselves, and that they’re becoming too honest. Their friends aren’t helping, but their friends are just reacting to what they’ve heard us say, and they’re regurgitating our harsh and brutal opinions of us to us. Our friends are, in fact, greasing the skids to a form of depression. An honest assessor realizes, about halfway down this spiral, that they’ve become so realistic in their assessments that they’ve become brutally realistic.

We might start avoiding attempts to advance ourselves, because we’ve become so realistic in our abilities that we’re now asking ourselves so many brutally honest questions that we’re afraid to try and advance. As a result of such thorough examination, we’ve also become so realistic that we don’t think it’s realistic for any honest assessor to succeed. These could be called minor setbacks in the grand scheme of becoming more honest with one’s self, until we begin to see the Delusional People around us –some with half of our talent– begin to succeed beyond us. These Delusional People may even know that they’re lying to themselves, on some level, but they’re harmless little, white lies that everyone tells themselves in the quest for advancement, and if you can get all of them to add up just right, they may become a reality that no one can deny.

When the company selected Molly for this promotion, the confusion it created was almost painful. It wasn’t Armageddon, and no one was harmed by the company’s decision, but the aftermath of this tragedy left a proverbial wasteland of confusion. Those who devoted a large portion of their lives to this company felt that it could only be outweighed by familial or personal tragedies. The world moves on after political disasters, and religious hypocrisies can be overcome through personal devotion, but a seismic disaster on par with a person of Molly’s character, and work ethic, landing a top gig in their company can lead to reverberations that are felt throughout a person’s life. The company is where most people live most often. It’s a better indicator of how they’re living, as it’s the place where most people devote most of their resources. When matters in the workplace take a divergent path, different from all of the scenarios workers list in their head, it can lead to a company wide crisis.

“Part of an interview involves salesmanship,” those in the know tell the employees gathered in a team meeting, and that assessment was to remain within those closed doors, as off the record comments. This assessment was a “wink and a nod” attempt to assuage the confusion building around what many considered an absolute travesty. 

Those who have been in similar situations know the term “new reality”, as it becomes the theme of the many presentations that follow. If those in the know do comment on such a situation, they will say something along the lines of “You should be happy for Molly”. This leaves the suggestion that most of the confused, are confused about her promotion as a result of personal animus.

“We wouldn’t have a problem if Marsha, Kelly, or Dan received this promotion,” one person argued to reflect the general sentiment of the aggrieved, “but if Molly has any moral fiber, or conscience, she won’t be able to sleep at night.” No one cares. Molly has scoreboard. It’s the new reality. Deal with it. 

Amid the personal and professional confusion, one honest assessor, from the out of the loop sector, stepped forth and professed the harsh reality of the situation: “Molly simply fed into the leadership mystique of her superiors better than us.

“When we were concerned themselves with learning the inner machinations of the company’s system in a proficient manner they hoped might impress their superiors,“ the honest assessor added, “Molly was purchasing gift baskets for her bosses on boss day. When others were out volunteering for special projects to pad their resumé, and working untold amounts of overtime to put a smile on their bosses’ faces, Molly was at the bosses’ lunch tables laughing at their jokes, and when all of the applicants were drilling the interviewer with the bullet points of their resumé, Molly was feeding into whatever mystique they wanted to gain in that particular setting. This was Molly’s primary skill set.“

It was a bow atop the corporate basket of lies given to bosses, on boss day, in the age of being real. In the age of being real, employees began to demand more recognition for their accomplishments, and management responded, but in the end the employees realized that it was all part of a scripted, choreographed, and edited production designed to pacify their audience by mentioning their name in the credits that rolled out at the end of the day. When crunch time came, however, it was the Delusional People who had learned how to feed the mystique of those in the know that left everyone else feeling malnourished.

“Those who live in a dishonest manner will eventually get theirs,” our nuns told us in grade school. They also told us that, “Truth has a way of prevailing”. The company eventually discovered what everyone knew at the time, Molly was eventually discovered to be “not a good fit” for the position, but she was promoted up and out of the position, and out of the department, and the person who replaced her was yet another mystique feeder.

Those of us who lived and breathed corporate America heard all the stories about evil corporations, but we knew our corporate leadership board. They weren’t faceless corporate entities. They were people named Jeff and Sandy, and all the others who had kids and cats. We had one boss who was learning how to ride a motorcycle, and she drove one of her friend’s beloved Harleys into the ground, and it wasn’t funny, but it was. She was a real life, flawed individual who wasn’t afraid to show us her scars, literal and otherwise. When they speak in our corporate meetings, and our one on ones, we learn a little bit about their essence. We learned how they took their coffee, and what shows they went home to watch, and it all seemed so real, until they selected Molly for a big promotion.

We were all temporarily and permanently disillusioned. We thought our corporation was different, and that they hired and fired, and promoted and handed out raises based on merit. We believed that our corporation did not rise and fall based on the whims of faceless corporate entities. Ours was a real corporation comprised of people who knew us as well as we did them. We weren’t so delusion that we thought Jeff and Sandy knew us, but we thought some knowledge of our essence ascended from our bosses through the spider web, hierarchy, until we felt our efforts were recognized. 

The problem –those naïve enough to believe in the age of being real– discovered was not with Molly, but that Molly was emblematic of the problems inherent in a system that honest people once believed would find a way to provide rewards to those honest, hard working people who put their nose to the grindstone. The problem that seemed so complex to those of us who tried to wrestle with it, turned out to be so simple. The problem was that the various Jeffs and Sandys who controlled the spigots of reward for the hard working women and men in our company were humans themselves, and humans are inherently susceptible to flattery.

The nuns also provided their grade school students the proviso that if you’re living the honest life with the expectation of eventually receiving concretized recognition for it, you’re doing it for all the wrong reasons. We knew they were preaching gospel when they said this. Even if we didn’t know the depth of their statement, or how it might apply over time, some part of us knew that the rewards of living the honest life involve intangible, internal, and spiritual rewards. When the Delusional People begin to beat us to the more tangible goals in life, however, even the most honest assessors in a group will admit that it is difficult to avoid being affected by it, if they are being real with you.

How to Succeed in Writing VII: Being Authentic versus Being Entertaining


authenticity_strengthIn a previous post, I wrote that being entertaining is far more important than being honest when writing fiction. {1} That thesis has recently been challenged in a blog written by Diane McKinnon called Writing Authentically.  In her blog, Ms. McKinnon suggests that: “It’s better to write it as authentically as possible, and decide not to share it, than to write a sanitized version of it and have it move no one, not even me.” {2} Ms. McKinnon writes that those that have read her “sanitized” versions have found something lacking.  “The story’s good, but there’s no emotion in it,” one commenter said.  “How did you feel?  We want to know,” said another.  The insinuation that Ms. McKinnon leaves with these comments is that she wasn’t able to achieve an emotional truth in her piece without, first, writing the total truth of the matter in an original version.  She writes that she would never publish the unvarnished truth, for she wouldn’t want to hurt those involved in the truth, but she felt the need to write the truth, so that she could get to the inner core of the matter, before eventually revising the truth out in the final, published, and sanitized version.

How does a fiction writer avoid the truth, is a question I would ask her, even in a sanitized version?  If you’ve been a writer for an amount of time, and you’ve mined your soul for depth, I don’t know how you avoid the truth.  I do know my truth, I would argue, and I probably know it better than those that experienced it with me.  I feel it incumbent upon me to know the truth, and to study it from every possible angle I can think of, if I ever hope to embellish upon it properly, and I don’t think I need to first create an “authentic” version first to know it better.

My job as a writer, as I see it, is to take the experiences of my life that I’ve found entertaining, and combine them with a degree of creativity to create a fascinating story.  As I’ve said in previous blogs, some of the best writers I’ve ever read were also some of the best liars, and for a liar to become a really good liar they have to know the truth, and for a really good liar to become a writer they have to know the truth better than anyone else involved.  If a liar is just an outrageous liar, with no fundamental basis of truth, they’ll get called out on it, and most of us have, so we adapt and evolve, and we become intimate with the truth before moving onto the lie, and then the eventual fabricated story about it. For a liar to become a really good liar, they have to take the truth, combine it with their fabrication, and twist it around so that even those that shared the experience with us begin to question their memory of it.  If the liar is going to achieve this optimum level of confusion and believability, they will have to eventually reach a point where they twist the truth around so often, and so artfully, and with such conviction, that they accidentally convinced themselves of the story about it.  After doing this for a significant amount of time, the really good liar learns to channel that gift for lying into something that doesn’t cause embarrassing ramifications or harm to those affected by the lies.  They learn that writers tell lies that make people laugh, and it’s usually the reason why they became a writer in the first place.

The lies of our character.  When writers write characters we want to write the most entertaining characters that have ever graced an 8 X 11, but for these characters to achieve life-like qualities, we’ve learned that they can never stray so far away from our core that we feel lost within the characterization.  Even when we write bad guys, we may achieve some distance, but if that character strays too far from who we are, we lose touch with him.  That character may be based on that surprisingly uncaring friend we have that is capable of causing some people harm without conscience, and we may even take our characterization of him out to a limb that that even he couldn’t contemplate, but for those characters to move us, and others, we will eventually run into some element of our truth.

Larry David (Seinfeld and Curb Your Enthusiasm) states that the show Curb Your Enthusiasm is based upon experiences that have occurred in his life.  The difference, says Mr. David, is that the character says and does things that the real Larry David wishes he could’ve said or done.  Larry David is writing a character that is the complete opposite of him in these given situations, but that character still has a truth about him that Larry can identify with.  He has his character do things that tick people off, he has him do things that are occasionally immoral and spiteful, but he also has this character do things that entertain him, and in doing so he may be saying more about his personal character than the real life Larry David that couches his personality to be polite.

If you’re a writer that has written at any length, or with any measure of depth, I don’t know how you can avoid the truth of who you are.  I don’t know how you can write a sanitized version of the truth without complete exploration of that truth.  I don’t know how you can write a complete character, a decent setting, or a captivating conflict without exhaustive reflection of the way you see the world, or your truth, and I don’t think you have to write a “true” version and an “embellished” version to achieve it.

{1}https://rilaly.com/2012/05/10/how-to-succeed-in-writing-part-ii-the-search-for-the-great-story/

{2} http://nhwn.wordpress.com/2013/01/31/writing-authentically/