When Fish Look Back


The reason we love watching fish swim around an aquarium is not complicated it’s simple. It’s one of the most simple pleasures in the world, and that’s why we do it. It’s a simple, guilt-free pleasure. We might find a way to feel guilty about it, but to my knowledge no one has yet. Is our guilt-free pleasure based on the fact that most aquarium don’t appear to want more freedom, that they have a comparatively limited sense of their life, or is it because they rarely look back at us?     

There are some complications attached to owning a dog. When we look at our dogs, we can feel some guilt for forcing them to live a limited existence. We might have a huge backyard, and we might take them on long walks to exercise, or to a dog park, but we live with this sense that we’re depriving of the full extent of the glorious dog’s life. The dog’s I’ve own don’t appear to miss what they never knew, but I still feel guilty about not doing more. There is no such guilt with fish, and some say there might be some medicinal properties to owning a fish. Some suggest that watching fish is so relaxing that it might help some who suffer from depression. Family physicians and dentists often find purchasing an aquarium a worthy investment, because it relaxes their clients. Some homeowners find feeding them and watching them so relaxing that they want an aquarium in their home. Are these properties attained in the relative silence of an aquarium, does the order of fish in an aquarium provide some relief to chaotic minds, or does it have something to do with the fact that fish rarely look back at us? 

Some of us enjoy looking at fish, because it gives us a weird sense of superiority that can be difficult to explain. If we feel trapped by our responsibilities and obligations, we might enjoy seeing another being trapped by glass, because it makes us feel freer by comparison. Both parties know we are the superior being, but some fish look back, and some of those looks become stares, challenging stares.

We don’t expect fish to look back, but some of the times they do, and some of the times it’s cute. Sometimes, we tap on the glass to try to get one fish to give us one quick look to acknowledge us in some quick, meaningless way. They usually swim away in quick, jetting motions, but some of the times they look back. “Look at this, Myrtle, he’s looking back at me!” we say to their casual, happenstance glance they offer us. When that casual glance holds, and that cute, little look back becomes a stare, it can feel unnatural. Even though it feels a little odd at the outset, we stare back. We don’t have any reason for continuing to stare back, but we do, until we achieve some inexplicable and unnerving connection. If this odd connection continues, we think that they’re testing the boundaries and borders nature inflicted upon them, regarding our respective roles in the food chain. We know it’s foolish to assign human characteristics to such a brainless creature, but the otherwise enjoyable stare leads us to question that which we’ve never considered before.

Our first instinct is to believe the fish just happens to be looking in the general direction we’re standing in, and that the stare we share is nothing more than a happenstance glance. Something about this particular stare unnerves us though. We remind ourselves that they have no eyelids. They might have a membrane to protect their eyes from water, but they have no eyelids, so they cannot blink. They have pupil, and they can move their eyes, but this particular fish doesn’t even move his pupil. It’s staring right at us and through us.

What does it think it’s seeing? Is it really looking at us, or just toward us? We make a jutting motion toward the fish to establish the fact, in our minds, that it is indeed staring at us. Another, relatively embarrassing component of that motion involves our need to establish dominance, so the fish doesn’t forget what we can do to them if driven to act. The fish will react to our jutting motion, but what happens in our interiority if after the fish flinches, it assumes its former position and resumes staring? Do we complain to the management of the pet store? What if the fish stopped staring the moment we brought the manager over to the tank and it resumed staring after the manager left? It looks at us, as if it thinks it knows us, and it’s unafraid. There are times when it’s okay to remind other creatures that we’re their superiors, and there are times when we consider it necessary to do so. You wouldn’t be so bold if I reached into your tank, grabbed you, and did awful things to you? we think its way. It’s unmoved by that threat. We know we can’t do such things, no matter how long this thing looks at us. We know those looks the other patrons of the pet store might give us. We also know what we would go through on the drive home, in bed, staring up at the ceiling, remembering what a fish drove us to do. We know they wouldn’t understand, and something about that fish’s stare suggests that it knows that. At some point in this staring contest, it strikes us that the hundreds of thousands of years of our respective conditioning inform both parties who is superior. Yet, this means nothing to this particular fish. Its stare suggests that it is challenging that conditioning, because it knows there’s nothing we can do about it.   

Pet psychologists tell us that if we own a dog who is particularly disorderly and disobedient that one of the ways to re-establish dominance is to engage it in a staring contest. If confronted by a wild animal, they tell us, the worst thing we can do is look that animal in the eye, because both parties know, on some primal level, that we’re challenging their nature, and any hint of this challenge enrages such beasts.

If we try to engage in a staring contest with a lion, in the lion’s den at the zoo, most lions won’t even bother looking back at us. They have hundreds of people confidently challenging them in this way every day. What happens when they look back? What happens to us when we look at a fish, and it looks back? What happens when that fish stares at us? Is it happenstance, or is the fish challenging our nature? Are we so confident in our stature that we stare back? How long do we participate in this staring contest, to establish our superiority, and what happens if we lose?

What happens the next time we near a fish tank after such a devastating loss? More often than not, we don’t invest ourselves into moments like these, but there are days when we’re feeling particularly vulnerable. There are days that affect us so much that the next time a friend invites us to look at their fish in the fish tank they have in their home, we hesitate. We know that if we begin shrieking, the fish wins. Our reputation would not only suffer at the hands of our host, but the ten people interested in her retelling of the story. Offering our host, a simple, “No thank you,” might open a big bag of questions that we don’t want to answer. Yet, acquiescing to their request might bring us right back to that day at the pet store when a fish’s stare served to undermine our confidence. When we glance over at our friend’s tank, considering her proposal, we see those probing eyes, and we remember the day when we thought we knew our place in the animal kingdom. We remember how confident we were in our respective roles in the animal kingdom before that staring contest, and though we know we can’t put all the blame for our insecurities at the fins of that fish in the pet store, its rebellious stare unearthed something in us that we never confronted before. We know how revealing it is to have a staring fish lead us to such existential questions, but it shook our confidence down to its foundation, and we politely refused our host’s request, fearing what another loss might do to our confidence.   

Yesterday I learned … II


1) Yesterday, I learned that some love to hug, and they hug so long that it starts to feel weird. We can feel the message they want to convey. We know that they want to tell us that they’re fond of us, that they miss us, and that they want to strengthen the bond we once had, but in the midst of trying to create that moment, some overdo it. ‘Why are we still doing this?’ we ask ourselves while in the embrace. ‘Is this becoming more meaningful to them, or did they lose themselves in the moment? Would it be impolite if I started patting their shoulder here to signify that this is over for me? Why are we still hugging? They didn’t fall asleep did they?’

Today, I learned that a hug is not just a hug. For a greater portion of my life, the hug was largely indigenous to the female gender. We knew males who hugged. We called them “huggers”, as in, “Watch out for that one, he’s a hugger.” At some point, a shift started to happen. Suddenly, men were hugging each other to say hello, to celebrate their favorite team’s touchdown, and to say goodbye. No one knows when this shift started, but I blame the NBA. We teenagers could distance ourselves and mock the huggers we knew, but NBA stars were the essence of cool in the late 80’s-early 90’s. When they hugged, it took an arrow out of our quiver. For these NBA players, a hug was nothing more than a physical form of saying hello. It was a step above a wave or a handshake, but to us, it was a deep and meaningful physical embrace. We didn’t have anything deep and meaningful to convey to our friends. Others did, and they appreciated the NBA influence. They took these “hello” hugs to another level.

“We’re cousins,” huggers would say. “Cousins don’t shake hands. Cousins hug. Get in here bro.” Some of them even embraced us when it hadn’t been that long since our last hug. Their hugs were so deep and meaningful that they thwarted our attempts to break free. Their hugs bordered on combative. “I think the world of you bra.” We non-emotional, non-huggers learned to adapt to the need others have to hug, but we never fully embraced it, and they could feel it. They adapted to our adaptation. “All right, I won’t hug ya’,” they would say, and they stopped, and we sighed in relief, until we were the only ones they didn’t hug. We never wanted back in, but we recognized the strange way abstinence makes the heart grow fonder.

2) Yesterday I learned that “a little after three” can mean 3:23. In what world is 3:23 a little after three? When I hear a little after three, I think 3:01-3:10. Anything after that should be a little more vague, such as “after three”. The next time block, the 3:23 time block, should list at “around three-thirty”. Today, I learned that we become more aware of time constraints and the relative definition of time blocks when a six-year-old is tugging at our sleeve.    

3) Yesterday, I learned that pop culture defines deviancy upward by defining any actions a criminal uses to evade law enforcement as those of a criminal mastermind. True crime authors characterize actions such as wiping fingerprints off door handles as brilliant. When compared to most impulsive, criminal acts, perhaps it’s worth noting when a criminal puts some thought into their criminal activity, but I’m not sure if I would call them brilliant criminal masterminds. If we take a step back from our desire to view them as brilliant, we might see that their methods are relatively mundane, based on information available to anyone with a TV and access to the internet. Today, I learned that criminals don’t want to get caught. They want to be free, and they want to be free to continue to hurt, maim, and kill as many people as they can. The Unabomber, for example, enjoyed the characterization of a secluded genius with a cause, but court documents of his trial reveal that he was “often unconcerned” with his targets. They reveal that he was meticulous about the construction of his bombs, and he went to great lengths to avoid capture, but he didn’t really care who the victim was as long as he maimed or killed someone. He basically wanted to shower in whatever rained down upon him in his elaborate fireworks show.    

4) Yesterday, I learned that criminal masterminds need a cause to justify their actions. They might not be able to justify their actions to anyone but themselves, but they do seek the satisfaction a cause provides. No self-respecting criminal mastermind would say that they did it, because they enjoy hurting, maiming, and killing people. That would diminish their value, their self-esteem, and their historic value. Today I learned that criminal psychologists say that we learn more from their initial crimes than those that follow, because impulses drive those initial crimes. If this is true, we find that most criminal masterminds are petty people who resolve internal and external, disputes in a violent manner. They also have a bloodlust, and as this bloodlust escalates the need for a cause escalates, until they slap a sticker on their actions to satisfy those questions we have about why they did it. It strikes me that everything these criminal masterminds say is window dressing to conceal their simple, primal bloodlust. They want to put a cause on it, because we want the cause. It wouldn’t be very satisfying, or entertaining, if a mass murderer, or serial killer said, “I just had some basic psychological, primal need to hear people scream.” No matter how many causes we assign to people hurting people, the simple truth is that some of us enjoy hurting people, and the rest of us enjoy reading and watching everything we can about it.

5) Yesterday, I learned that bad boys fascinate all of us. The only reason it’s noteworthy that bad boys fascinate women is that it goes against stereotype. Some of us want to know more about them than otherwise peaceful, normal individuals who accomplish great things. On a corresponding scale, too many of us want to know about the minutiae of the Unabomber’s actions, the motivations, and the aftermath of his terror, and too few of us, by comparison, are as fascinated by the actions and motivations behind Leonardo da Vinci’s artistic output. We label them both brilliant in their own, decidedly different ways, but the Unabomber fascinates us more. Today, I learned that I’m no different. Most of the people who fascinated me in my youth had violent tendencies. Some of my friends in high school, and some of my parents’ friends had violent tendencies on a much lower scale of course, but they fascinated me. I found their ways hilarious and engaging. Is this human nature, or do some elements of our culture encourage this mindset? Most of our favorite critically acclaimed movies have something to do with some low life committing violent acts. When someone found out that I listed the simple, feel good movie Forrest Gump among my favorite movies, they asked, “Why?” with a look of disdain. When I told her that I thought it was a great story, that didn’t help my cause. When I told her all of the others I had one my list that mollified her, but she still couldn’t understand why I would list a feel good movie like Gump among them. Today, I learned that the fascination with violence is universal and cool. 

6) Yesterday, I learned that I’m no longer interested in writing about politics. Today, I realized that I am far more interested in the psychology behind why every day citizens decide to become so political that they’re willing to create a divide between those who think like them and those who don’t.

7) Yesterday, I learned that psychologists state that we have a “God spot” in our brain. Today, I realized that this spot is inherently sensitive to the belief in something, if the rational brain accepts the rationale for doing so. This view suggests that the brain needs belief in a manner similar to the stomach needing food. We seek explanations and answers to that which surround us. Some of us find our answers in God and religion and others believe answers lie in a more secular philosophy, and the politicians who align themselves with our philosophy. They seek a passionate pursuit of all things political, until it becomes their passion, because they need something to believe in.   

8) Yesterday, I learned that there were as many differing opinions about Calvin Coolidge, in his day, as there are our current presidents. Today, I realized that no one cares about the opinions opinion makers had 100 years ago, and few will care about what our current opinion makers write 100 years from now. Some of those writers passionately disagreed with some of Coolidge’s successes, and history exposed some of their ideas as foolish. The historical perspective also makes those who passionately agreed with Coolidge seem boring and redundant. Once a truth emerges, in other words, it doesn’t matter what an opinion maker thought of the legislation at the time. Most opinion writers are less concerned with whether legislation proves effective or not, and more concerned with whether their philosophical views win out. In one hundred years, few will remember if our political, philosophical, or cultural views were correct or not, and even fewer will care. Yet, some of us believe in politics, because politics gives us something to believe in.

9) Yesterday, I learned that Tim Cook is an incredible, conventional CEO of Apple. Former Apple CEO, Steve Jobs, was the company’s incredible, unconventional leader, and he helped build the company from scratch. Steve Jobs was a brilliant orator, a showman, a marketer, and a great motivator of talent. If we went to an It’s a Wonderful Life timeline, in which Steve Jobs never existed, Apple wouldn’t exist. I had a 200-word list of superlatives describing Steve Jobs, but I decided to delete it, because it didn’t add any new information we know about the man and what he did. I decided to leave it at those two sentences. Better, superlative descriptions of the man, and what he did, are all over the internet. Walter Isaacson’s book might be the best of them. Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak created and oversaw a team of talent that created the most innovative company of our most innovative era of America, but Tim Cook has proven to be an incredible steward of that technology. If we flipped the timeline around, and Tim Cook was the first CEO, Apple wouldn’t be the innovator it is today, but I wonder if the less conventional and more mercurial measures Jobs employed would translate to the same consistent levels of growth of Apple we see today under Cook.    

10) Yesterday, I learned that Apple’s stock was ready to fall. Anyone who reads independent analyses from stock market analysts thinks that not only is the smartphone market capped out, but Apple’s position atop this industry is also nearing an end. Reading through some of the analysis of Apple’s projections for their various quarterly reports through the years, we arrive at some common themes. “There’s no way the iPhone (insert number here) can deliver on the projected sales figures Apple is promising,” they write. “Everyone who wants an iPhone already owns one, and numbers show they’re not going to upgrade. Those who don’t want an iPhone are loyal to another brand. The market is saturated, and Apple’s reign is about to end.” Today, I learned these analysts began making such predictions years after Apple began controlling the market between 2008 and 2012. Some of the times they were right, in the sense that Apple missed some quarterly projections, but most of the time they were wrong. Some think that there might be an anti-Apple bias, and there might be, but I think it’s human nature to cheer on the little guy and despise the big guy. I also think analysts/writers want us to read their articles, and the best way they’ve found to do so is to feed into our love of doom and gloom. These stories have a natural appeal to anyone who owns Apple products, Apple shareholders, and everyone else in between, because we love the prospect of the leaning tower. Apple will fall too, for what goes up must come down, particularly in the stock market, but the question of when should apply here. After it falls, one of the doomsayers will say, “I’ve been predicting this would happen for years.”

“Fair enough, but how many times did you make this prediction? How many times were you wrong? How many times did a reader act on your assessment and miss some gains? Nobody asks the doomsayer analysts these questions, because most of us don’t call doomsayers out when they’re wrong. The answer to this question was that on 2/3/2010, Apple stock closed at 28.60 a share, adjusted for dividends and stock splits, per Yahoo Finance. If one of the doomsayer analyst’s customers purchased 35 shares for a total investment of $1,001.00 that investment would be worth $11,170.60 on 2/4/2020. Anyone who invests in the stock market relies on expert analysis to know when to buy and when to sell. We consider the positive assessments and the negative, and some of the times, it takes an iron stomach to read the negative and ignore it. These negative stock analysts had all the information the others had, and yet they consistently predicted Apple would fall, because they knew a negative headline would generate a lot more hits than a positive one.

In our scenario, Apple experiences a significant fall in stock price, and the analyst finally proved prophetic. How many times were they wrong in the interim? It doesn’t matter, because a doomsayer need only be right once, for they can then become the subject of email blasts that state, “The man who correctly predicted Apple’s downfall, now predicts the fall of another behemoth.” The penalties for incorrectly predicting doom and gloom are far less severe than incorrectly predicting good times ahead. The former doesn’t cost you anything except potential gains, which most people inherently blame on themselves, regardless what anyone says. There’s the key, the nut of it all, an analyst can predict doom and gloom all day long, and no one will blame them for trying to warn us, but a positive analysis that is incorrect could cost us money.

The prospect of investing our hard-earned money in something as mercurial as the stock market is frightening. We’ve all heard tales of the various crashes that occur, and we know it will occur again. Most of us need Sherpas to guide us through this dangerous, dark, and wild terrain, and most of them are quite knowledgeable and capable. There are a few who will tell you that it’s so dangerous that you should get out now, and some might even tell us that it’s so dangerous that we shouldn’t even consider making the journey. Those with an iron stomach will tell us that we can get rich working for money, but we can get filthy, stinking rich when our money is working for us.  

Platypus People


They’re platypus people! They’re platypus people! It’s a kookbook!

Platypus people do not have a duck’s bill or an otter’s body, but in many ways they are as foreign to us as their Australian counterparts were to scientific community in England, in the late 18th century. These weird, strange, and different people tend to stray from the premise we all share from. We might not even know that we share a premise, until we hear someone say something so shocking and so far outside the mainframe that we think it suggests they’re operating from an altogether different one.

FullSizeRender_1__lPlatypus People are almost as shocking to us as the introduction of platypus was to Britain’s scientific community. They were so rocked by it that they thought the semi-aquatic, egg-laying mammal was an elaborate and well-conceived hoax. They thought they had a comprehensive catalog of the animal kingdom before the introduction of the platypus. Those of us who have met platypus people empathize, for before we met them, we thought we had a decent catalog of human nature.

“Doesn’t he have cable?” one of my friends asked after a platypus person said something so far out of the mainframe that we all stepped back for a second in confusion. Our jokester friend’s witty reply also implied that one of the reasons the rest of us shared a premise was that we watched too much TV.

Even though this joker and I disagreed on everything two people can disagree on, and we approached the platypus person from widely different perspectives, we both came to a similar conclusion about the man.

It was such a relief to hear this joke teller say that, because it suggested that my confusion over the platypus person’s thoughts of the world was not a matter of taking sides. The jokester was just as confused as I was.

We thought someone glued a proverbial bill of a duck on an otter’s body to try to pass him off as a new species. We did not physically dissect him to find the truth, in the manner the skeptical Brits did when they first encountered the platypus, to search for the taxidermist’s stitching. We did probe, however, and we came away thinking he was genuine, unlike those Brits who remained skeptical even after seeing a live platypus, but we had no idea how to process his thoughts.

As with the Brits and their introduction to the platypus, the more we learned more about our platypus person, the more that shock turned to intrigue as we began to think that his funhouse mirror perspective might tweak our worldview.

vandevelde1732010t152920Our path to formulating a final philosophy involves a wide variety of influences we encounter along the way. We learn that most of the voices we hear offer different perspectives from a shared premise, but others are unusual thinkers who formulate weird, strange, or just plain different impressions. Yet, there is a difference between those who exhibit organic differences and those for whom free-thinking independent thought is a bit more contrived. They are weird for the sake of being weird, they disagree just to disagree, and they follow the edicts of their overlords to become a cool person. “Dare to be different,” they say. They aren’t different, though, they’re just another same, and we learn this in the little bits and pieces we hear from someone who genuinely operates from a different premise. When viewed this through this looking glass, we see that if we’re all the manufactured free-thinking, independent spirits we see on cable TV, then none of us are, and the channel the platypus people are on affects us in a manner that motivates us to learn everything we can about their philosophy before we reach some version of what we consider our final formulation. 

When we hear someone who appeared to go through the same intellectual progressions we did, only to arrive at an entirely different conclusion, we want to know how they arrived at that. We want to know everything about their philosophy on matters and how it applies to their worldview, and we want to know the anthropological origins of their thought process. We might not agree with everything or anything they say, and by the time they’re finished, we realize that the specific subjects they discuss don’t matter either. We’re so fascinated by their process that we listen to them with some excitement, as we think about the sedimentary layers of their story and how we can apply it to our own.

All of these reactions to the platitudes of platypus people are subjective, but within these subjective reactions are autobiographical attempts to understand ourselves better, and whether we are going to eventually agree with them or attempt to nuke their theories, we want to know how to process what they are saying.

When we obsess over such matters, some of us have a propensity to overthink otherwise inconsequential matters. When someone drops a line like, “Doesn’t he have cable?” it only highlights this proclivity.

We might envy those quick wits who can diagnose a situation and summarize it in seconds, but we also wonder if they understand the import of what platypus people say. After chewing on the line, we realize that we probably didn’t understand the totality of the jokester’s joke. If the import of the joke was that the platypus person might be operating from the same premise as the rest of us if he wasted as many hours of his life as we had watching cable TV, then the joke was probably spot on. That line also effectively diverted us from processing the platypus person’s thought, and it allowed us to dismiss him as a joke. It’s rare that we consciously dismiss another based on a single joke, but when the joke is so spot on, we will have it bouncing around in our head in all future interactions we have with the platypus person.

Some are just quicker than the rest of us. They can listen to an hours-long discussion and sum it up in one quick line. Some of us are processors who need time to process information, and we enjoy hearing numerous opinions before forming a conclusion. We might obsess over otherwise inconsequential matters far too often, but we can’t understand how someone can come up with a quick, reflexive line like that and consider the matter settled. Do they develop this ability, because they are more comfortable in their own skin and that confidence allows them to swat nuanced, complicated ideas away? Or, do they develop this ability to come up with a quick assessment of a person, because they are so insecure that they seek to thwart unusual thoughts before they question the fundamentals of their being? Is it a defense mechanism they use to help them avoid dwelling or obsessing on such topics, or do they consider most of the mysteries that plague the rest of us settled?

Being Weird is a Choice 

grosz7After meeting a few more platypus people in the years that followed, I realized the matter was far from settled for me. I met some who were weird, others who were strange, and those who were so different that I was sure they didn’t have cable TV growing up. One of the best ways I found to define a relative term like weird is to define what it is not. It is not, for the purpose of this discussion, strange. The term strange, by our arbitrary definition, concerns those affected by natural maladies. They had a variance inflicted upon them that they could not control, and they cannot escape its influence. As opposed to a person we might consider strange, a person who chooses to be weird, can easily find their way back to the premise. They simply choose, for various reasons, to step away from it for a moment. Platypus people cannot find their way back for reasons that are less philosophical and more anthropological, as their philosophical makeup has been passed down their genealogical tree.

We don’t define these separations to be nice, though we do deem it mean-spirited to mock, insult, or denigrate those who arrive at their differences in a more natural manner. We don’t create this rhetorical device for our readers to consider us wonderful, more understanding, or compassionate, but we deem those who go out of their way to poke fun at the strange to be lacking in basic human decency. We also don’t want to leave the reader with the impression that we might be more normal, or more intelligent, than any of the species we discuss. We design this arbitrary separation for the sole purpose of providing some classifications for those who had no choice in the matter, against a backdrop of those who choose to be weird through the odd decisions they make in life.

We might think that anyone who chooses to be weird must suffer from a strange psychology. In my experience, it’s quite the opposite. For most of us, our decision-turned-need to be something different started out as a form of rebellion in our youth. Our parents, and various other authority figures, had a strong philosophical and spiritual hold on us. They set the premise from which we operate for the rest of our lives, whether we enjoyed it or not. Most of us didn’t enjoy it, of course, and we sought to break free those shackles in any way we could. For some of us, this involved momentary and situational breaks, but the rest of us sought total philosophical freedom. We wanted to be perceived as being just as weird, strange, and just plain different as those we were conditioned to dismiss and avoid by our friends and family.

My dad sensed this early on, and he did everything he could to guide me toward a more normal path. Through the decades that followed, he attempted to correct my weird ideas with more sensible, normal lines of thought. “That isn’t the way,” was a phrase he used so often that my refusal to acquiesce to his more structured ways of the world was one of my primary forms of rebellion. There were so many intense arguments, and debates in our household that no observer could escape it without thinking that it was, at least, combustible. Before we explore the ways in which the old man was strange, I would like to offer a posthumous thank you to the man who put so much effort into trying to make me normal. I now know he did his best to overcome his own obstacles to provide his children the most normal upbringing he could.

I rebelled to the relatively strong foundation he built without recognizing the luxury I was afforded. The primary reason for my gratitude is that some of the truly weird and strange platypus people I’ve met since I left my dad’s home lead chaotic lives that can be a little scary. They came from very different homes, with a less than adequate foundation, and they ended up expending as much effort trying to prove they were normal as I did to be considered weird.

This premise is often generational, as our parents pass on the fundamental knowledge they learned from their parents. As we age, we begin to see the cracks in that foundation. At some point, we assume our parents are so normal that they’re boring. They might have some quirks but who doesn’t? They might even have more quirks than others, but doesn’t that just make them quirky? When we begin to add these quirks up, as we age, and we compare them to others’ parents, an uncomfortable, irrefutable truth emerges in this dichotomy: Our parents are strange people. They aren’t a little weird, or goofy, and we can no longer find comfort in the idea that our parents just have some different ideas about some subjects. They have some bona fide, almost clinical, deficiencies.

If we ever gain enough distance from them to view their idiosyncrasies with some objectivity, the revelations we uncover can be earth-shattering. We witnessed, firsthand, some confusing elements of their thought process, and we began adding them up, but it wasn’t until we put all the pieces together that that uncomfortable truth emerged.

After that relatively daunting epiphany clears, a sense of satisfaction takes its place. Our rebellion to their quirky ideas was the right course to follow, and we now see how justified we were. At some point in our various stages of processing this newfound information, we realize that for much of our life, our parents were our beacon of sanity in an otherwise confusing world they were charged with helping us understand. When we couple that information with everything else we’ve realized, it’s no longer as funny as we thought it was. We reach a point where we want/need them to be normal, and we ask them not to express themselves in front of our friends, because if our friends learn how strange our parents truly are, how long will it be before they connect those dots back to us?

My dad was abnormal, at the very least. Some might say he was a kook, and others might suggest he was an odd duck. In the frame we’re creating here though, he was a platypus person who was difficult to classify. Either he was born with certain deficiencies, or they were a result of self-inflicted wounds. One could say that those self-inflicted wounds were choices he made along the way, and if that is true I believe he made them as a result of some of his natural deficiencies.

The point of writing about the man’s deficiencies is not to denigrate the man, but to point out that which separated him from what one would call a normal man. Those deficiencies plagued him, and he put forth a great deal of effort to convince the world around him that he was as normal as they were. The trials and tribulations he experienced in this regard marked his life, and he didn’t want his children to have to go through what he did, so he tried to establish a normal home without too much chaos. In his subjective approach to life, he thought fitting in with others and being normal were the keys to happiness, and he tried to pass that along to us. I rebelled to those teachings, because I couldn’t see his efforts for what they were at the time.

Even after years of reflecting on this, and recognizing what my dad’s efforts for what they were, I still like to dance in the flames of the weird, but once the lights come up I’m as normal now, and as boring, as everyone else. As hard as my dad tried to force normalcy on me, however, he couldn’t control the impulses I had to indulge in the artistic creations that glorified life outside the norm. I knew weird ideas were out there, and I pursued them with near wanton lust.

When I left the relatively normal home my dad tried to create for us, I ventured out into a world outside the realm of his influence. I lived the life I always wanted to live, and I found weird, oddball philosophies so intoxicating that I had trouble keeping them in the bottle.

My dad’s overwhelming influence on my life was such that I preferred the company of normal people long-term, but I remained eager to invite weird people in for a brief stay to challenge my status quo. Their brief stay would present me with different and weird ideas of thinking, weird platitudes, and oddball mentalities that shook the contents in my bottle a little bit more. I needed to know what made them tock (as opposed to the ticks I knew all too well). I became obsessed with the abnormal to find out what made them different, or if they were, and I had to deal with friends and family telling me that I should be avoiding these people, because they were so strange. I couldn’t, I said, not until I consumed all that they had to offer.

A Piece of Advice to the Young Weirdo Wannabes

george-grosz-new-york-street-scene-nd-webIf there are any young people seeking to disappoint their parents, and anyone else who has expectations of them, in the manner we did, we have one word of caution. Pursue the life of a freak, become that rebel that makes every square in the room uncomfortable. Violate every spoken and unspoken rule of our culture, and become that person everyone in the room regards as an oddball. Before going down these roads, however, an aspiring rebel needs to consider learning everything they can about the conventional rules that they plan to spend the rest of their life violating. Knowing the rules provides a blueprint for a successful rebellion. All rebels think they know the conventional ways of the conventional, and they might think there’s no point in studying them, but if there’s one thing that I learned as an aspiring rebel, and in the many conversations I had with other rebels since, it’s that a rebel needs to know the rules better than the squares do. A violation of rules comes with its own set of rules, and subsets, for those seeking to violate in a constructive and substantive manner. Failure to learn them, and the proper violation of them, will allow those who set the rules to dismiss a rebel as one who doesn’t know what they’re talking about, and a rebel without a cause.

Most rebels seek inspiration, and their preferred source of inspiration are the screen stars who violate standards and upset the status quo in their presentations. These stars provide color by number routes to rebellion that are provocative and easy to follow. These manufactured rebellions also look great on a screen, but those seeking inspiration often fail to account for the fact that the screenwriters and directors of these productions manipulate the conditions and side characters around the main character to enhance their qualities. We all know this is true, in some respects, but most of us do not factor it into our presentation. In real life, there are situations and forces that even a rebel with strong convictions cannot control. There are people who will present the rebel with scenarios for which they’re unprepared, and a failure to study the conventional rules from every angle possible, will lead the audience of the rebel’s argument to forget it soon after they make it.

James Dean was A Rebel Without a Cause, though, and James Dean was cooler than cool. For ninety minutes he was, and with all of conditions and side characters portraying the perfect contradictory behavior that would define the James Dean character’s rebellion as cool. The real life rebel cannot manipulate his conditions and side characters to enhance their presentations in the manner all the behind the scenes players did in that movie. In real life, the extraneous players who outdo the uninformed rebel with corrections consider the rebel, a rebel without a cause, and a rebel without substance. They may regard him as uninteresting, after the initial flash of intrigue with their rebelliousness subsides. 

Our advice to all aspiring rebels is to listen to those squares who are so normal they make them throw up in their mouth a little, for they may teach a rebel more about what they’re rebelling against than those who feed into their confirmation bias.

Everyone has that aunt, uncle, or friend of the family who knew everything there was to know about “Good and honest living”. They teach us the elements of life that bore the fill in the blank out of us with their preachy presentations. They don’t know where it was at, as far as we’re concerned. We seek entrée into the “Do what you feel” rock and roll persona that leaves carnage in its wake, and we debate her point for point in our ‘shake up the premise’ argument. We know the elements of our rock and roll lifestyle well, and they know their “Good and honest living” principles, but they can’t debate us point for point. When compared to the rock and roll figures of our culture, they have poor presentation skills. They’re overweight and unattractive children of farmers, and our favorite entertainers are attractive and thin who have strong jaw lines.

Our rock and roll philosophers tell us that life should be easy, judgment free, and fun. It shouldn’t involve the moral trappings of what is right and what is wrong. As long as no one gets hurt, a person should be able to do what they feel like doing. Viewing all of this in retrospect, however, we realize that the boring, pedantic, obese, and unattractive descendants of farmers taught us more in ten minutes than any of the entertainers did. The entertainers were just better at packaging their presentations.

The crux of our rebellion was that we wanted to expel whatever our body couldn’t use into the face of the mainstream. We want to be so weird that the various “theys” could taste it. The responsible grownups who played such a prominent role in our development had a boring sameness about them, and the idea that we might be able to be something different led to some growth in our undercarriage. They vied for this sameness in life, and they wanted the same for us, but no matter how hard they tried to make us normal, we continued to explore the abbie normal side of humanity.

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In our efforts to have someone, somewhere consider us weird, we spotted the now endangered platypus person. With the advent of the internet and all of the apps available on the devices we all own, the idea of unintentional nonconformity is even rarer than it was a generation ago when the dividing line was between those who had cable, and those who did not. The platypus person has, thus, become more of an endangered animal. The candidate vying for platypus person status must avoid all that is available to them in the information age, including the internet. It’s easier than it’s ever been for them to consciously and subconsciously replicate and mimic the thoughts, rhythms, and patterns of the mainframe. It also leads to greater assimilation, and it makes them tougher to spot. If, for whatever reason, they are not able to camouflage their duck’s bill on an otter’s body, we should know that it’s rarely by choice. As suggested earlier, platypus people strive to be normal, but their upbringing was such that it requires more effort on their part to do what it takes for others to achieve it. They don’t mimic to deceive anyone, unless one considers convincing oneself of a lie so thoroughly that they believe it themselves an act of deception.

In the course of our efforts to locate the rare bird, we realize that it can take weeks to months for them to show us their duck bill. They only show it to those they trust and that level of trust takes time to build. It also takes a level of familiarity for them to be comfortable. To get them to open up, we might have to give them our weaknesses, but we can’t do this for the sole purpose of getting them open up. They are skittish, and they will sense contrived attempts to open them up. This is not a problem, of course, for in most cases it’s almost impossible to spot them. We aren’t reporters digging for their story, a story, or the story. We’re just ordinary people establishing a rapport with another person. As with the egg-laying, semi-aquatic mammal, establishing a rapport that leads to a friendship with a platypus person requires a certain environment, and very specific conditions before they reveal themselves. When they do, there is some insecurity involved in their reveal, but they also experience relief in the reveal. It’s obvious that they have experienced levels of ridicule and abuse for their thoughts and ideas, and they are relieved to find someone who is so curious about the way they think.

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Building this level of trust requires spending quality time with the platypus person, and the only occasions I have been able to achieve an environment in which they feel free to speak their mind was in the prolonged confines of shared employment. On one occasion, I developed what we could call a cerebral crush on one of my fellow employees. We had numerous, fascinating conversations on a variety of unrelated topics. In one of our last non-work-related conversations, she replied to one of my stories with a, “Wait a second, did you just say you want to be weird? You actually want to be weird? People don’t want to be weird. They either are, or they aren’t.”

george_grosz_blue_ladyHer response wobbled me. I thought she was trying as hard to be weird as I was. I thought we were soul mates in that regard, laughing at all the other people climbing all over one another to achieve absolute normalcy. I thought she was weird in all the same mechanical and inorganic ways I was. She laughed as hard as I did at some of the things she said. I thought she was being self-deprecating. I thought she was messing with peoples’ heads in the same manner I did. I thought she wanted to be considered weird too. I had no idea that the things she did and said were more organically weird, strange, or just plain different. Her response told me that not only was this not a game to her, but I had no business playing with her toys. It also wobbled me, because I never heard anyone defend the organic nature of being weird before. The conversation went on for a couple minutes, but no matter what I said, she kept cycling it back to this two sentence theme: “People don’t want to be weird. They either are, or they aren’t.”

I would try, numerous times, after that conversation to steer her back to what I considered a fascinating topic, but she would have none of it. I wanted to know what she considered weird and what she thought it meant to be weird. I wanted her to elucidate on the differences between her and me, but unbeknownst to me, she considered that conversation over, and she found all of my subsequent questions on the topic insulting.

Therefore, I can only guess that the condemnation of my efforts was based on this idea she had that weirdness should be a birthright. It should be natural and organic. It was a ‘how dare you try to be one of us, if you’re not’ reaction to those who regard the organic nature of their oddities a birthright. She presumably regarded this as equivalent to a person who wears glasses to look sexier when they don’t have to wear them, an act that ticks off those required to wear them.

I felt exposed in the moment. I thought of all the attempts I made to have another consider me weird, and I thought of how inorganic they were. I felt like a fraud. As I said, my dad raised me in a manner that forced me to accept the norms, and I’m going to take another moment out of this piece to say something I didn’t say to him when he was alive, God bless you Dad for forcing a foundation of normalcy down my throat. God bless you for teaching me the premise from which we all operate and for creating a base of normalcy from which I rebelled, for without that base I wonder what I may have become if left to my own devices.

My guess was that this woman’s upbringing was probably chaotic, and she spent most of her adult life striving for what others might call normal. She was weird in a more natural and fundamental sense, and she condemned anyone who might dare play around in what she proclaimed her birthright, but there was also an element of sadness and misery in her being that was obvious to anyone who knew the details of her struggle.

Those of us who had enough involvement with her to know her beyond the superficial, knew that chaos dominated much of her life, and we learned that it led her to desperately seek the refuge of any substance she could find to ease that pain.

I realized through this friend, and all of the other platypus people who have graced my life before and after, that there was weird and there was weird. There is a level of weird that is fun, a little obnoxious, and entertaining in a manner that tingles the areas of the brain that enjoy roaming outside the nucleus. The other level of weird, the one that we could arbitrarily define as strange, is a little scary when one takes a moment to spelunk through the caverns of their mind.

Was this woman a little weird? Was she so weird that we could call her strange by the arbitrary definitions we’ve laid out, or were her sensibilities so different from mine that she was operating from an altogether different premise from which I sought to classify her in some way to help me feel normal by comparison?

When compared to all of my other experiences with platypus people, she was an anomaly. Was she weirder than I was though? “Who cares?” we might say in unison. She did. It may never have occurred to her –prior to this particular conversation– to use the idea of being weird as a cudgel to carve out some level of superiority. In that particular conversation, it was for her, and she didn’t appear to feel unusual doing so. It appeared, in fact, to be vital to her makeup that I acknowledge that she had me on this topic. She was weird, and I was trying to be weird. Who tries to be weird? Phony people. That’s who. Check, check, check. She wins.

What did she win though? Some odd form of superiority? How long did she search for some point of superiority? How many topics did we cover, in our numerous, unrelated conversations, before she was able to spot one chink in my armor? If either of these questions wreaks of ego on my part, let’s flip it around and ask how many battles did she lose trying to appear as normal as her counterpart was? She needed a victory. I had numerous conversations with this woman before we drifted apart, and I never saw this competitive side of her again. She thought she had me on this one weird, strange, or just plain different topic, and I can only assume it gave her some satisfaction to do so.

Are you weird, strange, just plain different, or an unclassifiable platypus person? No one cares, you might say, and quit judging people with labels. Our subjective reactions to define anomalies defines us. Some of us try to cut analysis short by accusing anyone who obsesses over differences as lacking in compassion. Others drop a quick, humorous line such as, “Doesn’t he have cable?” to dismiss subjects of curiosity. Those of us who dwell (obsess) over these topics don’t understand how others can turn this part of their brain off, because we think our story lies somewhere in the sedimentary levels of the strange and weird platypus people.

We all know some weird people, and we’ve encountered those who are strange, and some are so different that they’re difficult to classify. The one answer we could provide is that we all have a relative hold on the various truths of life, and those answers help us keep the idea of random chaos at bay. If you have had any prolonged involvement with a platypus person, however, you know that they have their answers too. Those answers might be different from everything we’ve heard our whole life, but does that make them weird, strange or just plain different? The frustration that those of us who search for answers in life know is that some of the times there are no concrete answers to some questions. Some of the times, questions lead to answers and some of the times, answers lead to other questions, intriguing, illuminating questions. Am I weird, strange, or so different from everyone else that they have trouble classifying me? Do these questions require the level of exhaustive analysis we devote to it, or does it have more to do with the idea that some of us didn’t have cable growing up?

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Most of the platypus people we will meet in this book, knew how to assimilate most of the time, but they have their moments. We all have our moments that reveal deep-rooted, embarrassing characteristics that others can never unsee once we reveal them. They might pretend they didn’t see it, and we might try to change the subject, but moments like these stick like peanut butter.

Some of us might prefer that platypus people have a duck’s bill plastered on their otter’s body, or some sort of distinguishing characteristic to help us separate them from us. We might give them a silly voice or a weird hat reading some of these platypus people stories. Distancing ourselves from different people gives us comfort, but I’ve found most of these people kind, generous, and relatively normal people who had some noteworthy quirks that defined them in a manner I found unforgettable. They spent so many years trying to cover these quirks, in their quest to achieve sameness, that they have accomplished some surprising results.

Almost all of the platypus people depicted in these stories were my good friends at one point or another, and if I were to run into one of them tomorrow, I’m sure our affection for one another would be obvious to anyone who witnessed it. Some of the stories involve character defining moments, others involve characteristic missteps that reveal all of us by contrast, and some of the other ones involve unforgettable types that we know we’ll never meet again no matter how long we live.

Our interest in these people is rooted in the idea that we see a little bit of ourselves in them. We might strive for objectivity, but it’s almost impossible to tackle any subject without some subjectivity. In doing so, as Ms. Elizabeth Alexander said, “We are telling our story while reporting on the stories of others.” We have to hear their stories, process them, and write about them if we ever hope to understand ours better. We have to compare and contrast, laugh and cry, and experience various levels of confusion if we ever hope arrive at some level of clarity.