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? How many of us gloss over the specifics that make us look bad, how many of us dress up our retorts to make us look better. I met the guy who didn’t do any of that. His testimonial was full of incriminating details, and he left us waiting for a triumphant response. 

“What happened?” we asked after a lengthy pause.

“Nothing happened,” he said. “I didn’t do anything. I’m not a fighter, and I’m guessing those guys were stronger than me.”

This guy was such an anomaly for me that he defined, for me, the other 99.9999% of the population who tells this story. Our rewrites involve the main character of our story reacting to a bully in a manner equivalent to Indiana Jones shooting the Arab swordsman after his intricate displays of prowess with a scimitar. If that agent’s goal was to limit the 99.9999% of 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 our 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 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 99.9999% 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 goes to the bone. 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 still 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 by offering me the opportunity to rewrite the paper, but before I left her desk she cautioned me with words that have stuck with me ever since. “If you’re going to be wrong, be wrong with conviction.”

We’re all wrong, all the time. Knowing that might help us go deeper. Our attempts to understand human nature are going to be incomplete, fraught with error, and vulnerable to scrutiny. We’re going to encounter anecdotal evidence. “My aunt Judy is a person similar to what you are describing,” she says, “and she does not do what you are saying.” It bothers me in the moment, no one enjoys being wrong, but I go deeper. Am I wrong, or is that anecdotal evidence that only disproves me on a situational basis? Some naysayers argue that we deal in generalities, as if that is all that is necessary to disprove what we are saying. Yet, if what we say is generally true, 50.0001% of the time, it is a generality, and it is generally true.

The fear of being wrong is similar, in some ways, to the fear of being punched in the face. We all fear a punch to the face. Not only is it painful, but it might reveal things about us we don’t want our friends to know. It might reveal that we don’t know how to take a punch, because no one ever punched us before. It might reveal that we don’t know how to punch back, or fight in general, because we never fought anyone in our young lives. As we dig deeper into our fears, we realize that most of them are of the unknown qualities of our existence. If we’re ever lucky enough to receive such a punch square on the jaw, it can be liberating in an odd way. “I consider that punch a gift,” a boxer once said of his powerful punch to an opponents jaw. “He can probably live the rest of his life unafraid of being punched, because no one will ever hit him harder than that.” It’s a twisted logic, of course, but if we apply it to being wrong, we can see the logic for what it is. 

How many of us have been so wrong, in front of so many people that we still cringe when we think about it. We can view it two ways. We can never say, or write, anything else again, fearing that we might be wrong again, or we can view it as a gift. We can say we’ll probably never be that wrong again, so what’s the big deal, or we can say, “I was wrong, big deal. I survived it, and in some ways it’s liberating to know that it’s not as bad as I feared it would be.”

✽✽✽

“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 the idea that I’m wrong about everything, every day for about eighteen years.” I considered it an insult, during those formative years, that my dad 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, until I had my own child. 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 the question that person asked me, somewhere down deep that the provocateur did 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’re 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 on the pages of their autobiography.

What if I am as wrong as she claimed 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 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.”