…And Then There’s Todd


[Editor’s Note: This is a sample of an essay in the Falling down Manholes: A Collection of Essays. As the reader will note, some essays are serious and some are quasi-serious, but they all have a point. I doubt that anyone will fall off their chair laughing at one of these essays, for these essays aren’t hilarious. I prefer to view them as accidentally humorous. My favorite books are humorous. I prefer humor over horror, drama, and every other genre. Yet, we all know “hilarious” presentations that are short on story. Story is sacred to my mind. Not every story has to be epic in proportion, but there should be enough story to procure involvement for the reader. I worked very hard to balance these elements in such a way that they appear seamless. If any of these stories do not accomplish what I set out to do, feel free to provide constructive criticism.]   

I had no idea that Todd would prove to be the exception to just about every rule I thought I knew regarding how to attract a woman when we became friends, but moments after he introduced me to his mom, I knew I would be able to have relations with her. She wasn’t shy, or coy, but she avoided giving me extra looks when she knew her son was looking. Those penetrating looks informed me that all she needed was a thumbs-up to start the proceedings. If Todd’s mom was attractive, my humility wouldn’t permit me to write such a thing, but there were reasons that a 40-something female made it clear that her intentions with her son’s 20-year-old friend were less than honorable, and most of those reasons had more to do with her marketability than mine.

Todd’s mom wore a frayed, yellow T-shirt that said something funny on it. Her hairdo led observers to believe she spent quite a bit of money on oils, and a considerable amount of time curling. I wasn’t able to determine if either of these enhancements were natural or not, but judging by her overall appearance, my educated guess was that the woman hadn’t darkened the door of a beauty salon since Mikhail Gorbachev stepped down as the Russian general secretary. She also wore a what-are-you-looking-at? expression that led one to think an apology might be necessary, until it could be determined that this was her natural facial expression.

Todd’s mom was the first parent I met who didn’t have puritanical notions about underage drinking, smoking pot, and premarital sex. She was a proverbial free spirit, open about her disregard for the conventions of our constrained society. In other words, Todd’s mom was the first cool parent I ever met, so cool that she offered to drink and smoke with us as soon as she was off work.

After she extended that invitation, and Todd gauged my reaction to it, Todd’s mom shot me another extra look, over Todd’s shoulder that said, “Those pants of yours will be coming off!” No full-grown woman had been that attracted to me at that point in my life, so her extra looks were quite a turn-on, even though there were things going on with her that my young mind could not yet process.

She also said snarky, bitter things that slipped beyond the definition of cool to a dreaded arena few can escape of trying too hard. I’m sure that cynical bitterness did not lead her to name her only-begotten son Todd, and I do not believe that his mom’s near palpable hatred of men had anything to do with her sentencing her son to a life of misery with the moniker. I’m sure she just liked the sound of the name.

Most people don’t consider it plausible to curse a child with a name. Even a person with an odd, one-syllable sound attached to their identity is not cursed, naysayers might add. A child can go onto achieve great things as an adult, in spite of their name. The illustrious career of Aldous Huxley is but one example. They can gain acceptance among their peers, they can be happy, and they can escape anything put before them. A name is a trivial concern in the grand scheme of things. Even the most vocal contrarians would have to admit that some names might cripple a child, such as those that rhyme with embarrassing body functions, but seldom will a parent intentionally set out to hinder their offspring in such a manner.

And then there’s Todd. Naming a child Todd might not seem cruel, on the surface, as it’s a rather common name in American society today that dates back to medieval England. It means “fox”, as in “clever or cunning”. Chances are everyone knows at least one Todd, and most don’t presume that the name boxes the recipient of such a name into any sort of predestination. They might consider the notion irrational, but I would venture to guess that most of those that believe that do not have the name Todd.

✽✽✽

When I first met Todd, I thought he was an idiot. That assessment was unfair, of course, because I based it on the sound of his name. When I learned that Todd couldn’t tie his own shoes, however, I considered that a bit of a stretch beyond my initial assessment.

This revelation occurred soon after Todd asked his girlfriend, my friend Tracy, to tie his shoes. I joked that I considered this an excellent domination technique that I might explore the next time I was around my girlfriend, but that little joke paralyzed the room to silence. If Todd considered it funny, he didn’t show it. He feared Tracy in the manner a lamb fears a border collie, and she wasn’t even smiling politely. I could’ve told them that all I was doing was joining in on the joke that Todd started by asking Tracy to tie his shoes, but Tracy’s expression informed me that I should not pursue this matter further. She had a “don’t-go-there!” glare on. My initial thought was that her glare had more to do with the domination theme of my jest, and I felt some remorse for saying that, considering that my girlfriend was Tracy’s best friend. That remorse ended for me when I convinced them I was joking, but the cloud continued to loom over us. I soon realized that that glare had less to do with my joke and more to do with a storm that gathered in the silence that followed. I began to feel trapped, as if I’d tripped a tripwire that would reveal domination techniques, or some sort of sexual peccadillo I didn’t care to explore with them. Their pregnant silence, combined with the looks they shared, suggested they were ready to share if I was ready to hear it, but I feared I might have placed them in the uncomfortable position of having to reveal a whole bunch of unusual details about their relationship. The glare and the weighted silence were such that I was considering the idea that they could lead to some sort of physical altercation between Todd and I, when he finally broke down and told me the reason he asked Tracy to tie his shoes. He never learned how to tie them.

“Come on!” I said, “You’re 19!” I was a naïve 20-year-old, and I was not difficult to fool. I didn’t know that at the time, of course, but I sensed a certain susceptibility that I would have to expend effort to defeat. Even with that acknowledgement, I thought the idea they were trying to sell me was beyond the pale.

Todd did not willingly reveal his story. I had to prompt the revelation, after I tired of the silent tension occurring between us.

“So, if you don’t know how to tie your shoes,” I said, believing the shoes were symbolic of a Pandora’s Box that I would regret ever opening, “why would you buy tennis shoes that have laces?”

The answer to this question was what he called a funny story. His funny story involved a loving mother purchasing Velcro and slip-on shoes for her son throughout his youth. Purchasing tennis shoes with strings, I thought, was a way for Todd to break the shackles of a mother’s hold with the first paycheck he earned. The funny story involved the shoe store attendant tying the shoes for him and Todd walking around the store saying, “I’ll take them” with the pride so many young people experience with their first, individual purchase. “I was so proud of my purchase that I wore them out of the store,” Todd continued. “The clerk said that was just fine, as he would be able to use the UPC symbol on the box. I wore them for so long that day that when I went home and got ready for bed, I began to take them off as a matter of routine. That’s when I realized that once I untied the shoes, I would never be able to wear them again without assistance. And since I knew I couldn’t get my jeans over my shoes, I ended up sleeping with my jeans and shoes on.”

I was the only one in the room not laughing.

“It was like buying a sweater with a stain on it,” Todd said to expound on the funny story, “but you don’t see the stain until you get home.”

As a younger man, I sought out the weaknesses of my fellow man to use against them when the need would arise. Some juicy tidbits, however, go beyond the typical malleable information one can tease into mockery and ridicule. It wasn’t just that Todd never learned how to tie his own shoes. If that were the case, I would’ve used this intel without a second thought. It was the whole backstory, and the idea that Todd’s mother did things to prevent him from learning and progressing in life, to a point where he needed to find another enabler to help him deal with the consequences of that by tying his shoes for him. It was so funny, to my mind, that it rose to the level of tragedy, and revealed the particulars of the relationship Todd had with his mother and now Tracy. Even when Todd joined a bunch of fellas engaged in a round of competitive, good-natured ribbing against me, I knew couldn’t say, “What are you talking about? You can’t even tie your own shoes.” As painful as it was to withhold this information, I chose to refrain from using it because I wanted to remain friends with Todd. I refrained from using it so often that I eventually forgot about it, and I realized that if a guy wants to be friends with another guy, he has to block out large chunks of matters otherwise considered unforgettable.

In the moment, though, while Tracy tied his shoes, I found myself trapped between not wanting to pursue the matter and demanding an answer to a question that I did not want to ask.

“How did you get out of first grade without tying your shoes at least once?” I asked. “Don’t teachers have to check that box on a report cart before they advance you the next grade?”

The answer to that question was another funny story, and more material about a mother’s desire to protect her son by continuing to purchase slip-ons and Velcro for her boy, in spite of his teachers’ instructions. I had more questions, but I feared they would only lead to more revelations about a single mother’s stubborn attempts at protecting her son in a manner I considered bordering on neglect. It was then that I realized the full import of Tracy’s don’t-go-there glare, so I flipped the switch of my curiosity to the off position. I kept that switch off for much of my friendship with Todd, and I even defended him against the ridicule from those who train themselves to go after weakest in the herd, until I later learned of Todd’s lifelong fear of cotton.

“Oh, c’mon!” I said. I was naïve as I stated, and I had some difficulty coming to grips with certain characteristics I learned about the various Todds I’d met in life, but I now had to deal with the idea that one of them was afraid of cotton. It was the second such hurdle our friendship would have to traverse, and Todd and I had to work through the fundamentals of his fear. We established the fact that Todd had no fear of towels, for example, and he wasn’t afraid of the 50 percent of my shirt that wasn’t polyester. Unmanufactured cotton and cotton balls, such as the cotton aspirin companies use to keep the pills in place, however, terrified him. “It’s what they call an unexplainable fear,” Todd explained, as if that was a suitable explanation. The fear was also, I would soon learn, a type of fear that called for a strong woman to step in and defend.

“Who has inexplicable fears?” Tracy asked rhetorically. “I’ll say it, everyone!” she answered. “That’s what most fears are, an irrational, emotional reaction. Can you explain your irrational fears?”  

Yes!” I said. “Yes, I believe I can! I have an irrational fear of heights, but I believe I fear falling more than I fear being high up. Whether it’s a learned behavior or primal instinct, I’ve learned that hitting the ground at a high rate of speed hurts and it could damage something that I enjoy using. I’m not just talking about reproductive organs here either. I’m talking about arms, legs, and brain matter. If you have a problem with that, you’ll have to take it up with my brain. My brain is the epicenter of self-preservation, and that brain has learned over the years and through the many mistakes I’ve made to use the emotion of fear to prevent me from harming myself. And I think my brain has been doing a damn fine job thus far.”

The silence that followed that, and the faces of my opponents, suggested that I weakened them with my body blows, and all I had to do now was deliver my haymaker.

“I can accept the premise that most fears are irrational, and they provoke emotions that can be difficult to explain, but if you are arguing that my fear of falling and Todd’s fear of cotton should be placed on equal ground, someone is going to have to explain to me how a brain I can only assume is equipped with all the same tools as mine, and is as undamaged as mine is, can convince a grown man that a ball of cotton presents a danger equivalent to falling from a great height.”

I wasn’t sure if the silence that followed was because they didn’t know what to say, but I decided I didn’t have to pound the point home by listing my numerous experiences with paraplegics who ended up that way by falling. I didn’t need to recount the number of fatalities that resulted from falls, and I didn’t need to compare those grim statistics to the number of people maimed or killed because of an episode with a cotton ball. I had no need to go into that, because I made my point. I wasn’t the type to engage in verbal touchdown dances anyway, because I knew that doing so would only make Todd look bad in front of his girlfriend. Thus, I was fully prepared to allow the matter to die at that moment, no harm no foul, until I recalled that I had an aspirin bottle in my bathroom cabinet.

I was old enough to know that I should refrain from making a man look bad in front of his girlfriend, if I wanted to remain friends with that man, but I was still young enough to follow my impulses.

I hoped that I hadn’t fallen prey to my typical routine of throwing the cotton ball out the minute I opened an aspirin bottle, and I was excited when I saw I hadn’t. I smiled anxiously at the billowy white ball. I knew it was bound to be an obnoxious moment, and I knew Todd’s feelings would be hurt, but at 20 years old, those considerations take a back seat to the prospect of having a moment that could prove hilarious to the point of being historic.

I was so anxious that when I pulled that cotton ball out of the bottle, I scattered aspirin all over my bathroom counter. I didn’t even bother pick them up. I thought timing was of the essence, and I knew that I could always pick the tablets up later.

I raced toward Todd and Tracy with the cotton ball dangling from my fingertips. “Ooga booga!” I said. Ooga booga were not words I typically used to strike fear into the subjects of my cruelty, but I felt they captured the perfect hybrid of comedy and horror. I would later attach all sorts of brilliant thoughts to my decision to use those words, I would tell people about the decisions I made to perfect this moment with the perfect ooga booga face, and I would walk my listeners through it frame by frame to capture my thoughts in the moment. In reality, the choices I made at the time were all impulsive.

“Dude! Dude, don’t! For the love of God don’t!” Todd said leaning back against Tracy, clutching her in a position that approached fetal.

Todd was the first “Dude!” I ever met. Todd spread the word across the spectrum of grammar. He could use it as a noun, verb and transitory verb, adjective, in an introductory declaration, and as ending punctuation in an interrogatory sentence. I would meet many “Dudes!” later, and I would call them “dudes” in a derogatory fashion, but Todd was the first.

In the brief moments preceding “Ooga booga!” I thought about Todd’s fear of cotton. My reaction to it was equivalent to my first reaction to the much-ballyhooed fear of clowns. Over time, these coulrophobics convinced me that their fear of clowns was a bona fide and documented terror that would not go away, and it was not just a means of garnering attention or sympathy. I doubted that sidonglobophobics, those who fear cotton balls, could win me over as easily. My first experience with the coulrophobics involved them saying, “I don’t know why I fear clowns. I just do. They’re creepy.” That didn’t do it for me, especially since such confessions seemed to conveniently follow Cosmo Kramer’s hilarious portrayal of coulrophobia in the series Seinfeld.

I remained skeptical, until a coulrophobic added, “They are creepy, but there is something familiar to their creepy vibe, something that reminds me of a time when I was a little girl, when I thought they were a different species who lived in carnivals. I enjoyed their antics onstage as a girl, but I’m not sure if that laughter was based on the idea that they weren’t near me anymore, or if I was relieved to learn that they weren’t as evil as I imagined. Whatever the case, I was just as afraid of them the next time they were near me, as a little girl. People who dress as clowns all say they’re all about the fun, but they have to know that part of their allure involves the fear children have of them. I think this subtle distinction between the imagined horror children experience when they encounter a person with a painted face and the relief they feel when they realize that their fears are unfounded is part of the allure of clowns all children have to them, and I think that’s what it is for me to this day.”

That explanation provided me better insight into the mind of a coulrophobic, but I wasn’t convinced on the spot. Those words familiar creepiness stuck with me, however, and the idea of familiar fears touched a core. I had familiar fears, we all do, but we might not ever know we have them until something taps into them.

The movie The Blair Witch Project, for example, tapped into my familiar/creepy nerve. The reactions to that movie divided evenly among the people I knew, and that fact confused me. I didn’t understand how the naysayers missed the horror I experienced. They thought I was being silly, in the same manner I initially thought those who feared clowns were either silly or faking it. The Blair Witch Project recalled moments in my childhood when I camped out in a forest, however, when I would imagine what populated the trees around me. Those dark scenes in the movie were so real to me that I could almost smell the burnt wood in the theater. Those moments on the screen carried me back to a time in my life when I considered the unimaginable real.

When I posed that all of these theories to another coulrophobic I met, she said, “Like a cancer sufferer, I think my fear of clowns was in remission for much of my life. I feared them as a kid. As I grew older, I kept those fears at bay with the notion that they were nothing more than irrational childish fears, but as with your experience with The Blair Witch Project, I never experienced a trigger point, until I saw the movie for Stephen King’s It. That movie triggered that old fear in a way I have not been able to shake since. I didn’t like clowns in the intervening years, as they’ve always unnerved me a little, but I didn’t go out of my way to avoid them in the manner I do now. It, and more specifically its character Pennywise, caused a recurrence of that fear that I believe was exacerbated by my otherwise rational, adult mind.”

Even with my newfound understanding of coulrophobia, I didn’t draw any correlations between it and Todd’s case of sidonglobophobia. I didn’t bother looking into this with any depth in other words. I didn’t consider the notion that Todd might have had some traumatic experience he associated with cotton balls, and I didn’t consider sidonglobophobia a real thing. I just decided Todd’s fear of cotton balls was a little freaky, and I considered it my comedic obligation to put that freakishness on display for all to enjoy.

My “ooga booga!” moment revealed the exact opposite of what I expected. Todd’s fear of cotton balls was as real, and as freakishly familiar to him as the fears others had of clowns, and as I had a camping out in the dark woods. For him it was a vein-straightening fear and a terror so deep and real that it caused him to clutch his girlfriend as if his life depended on it. When I threatened to put it on his skin, I sensed that he might shriek.

Even after Todd’s humiliating reaction, I maintained that I was just trying to be funny, and that made it all right with me. That immediate reaction did subside somewhat when I considered the idea that I might be assigning my mindset to his actions and reactions. Yet, those who met Todd’s mother knew that his upbringing was, at the very least, unusual, and his unusual fears might have resulted from those unusual circumstances that altered his thought patterns. I realized that this moment I so enjoyed might have opened some dark caverns in Todd’s soul, freeing up archived fears that he might spent the next twenty-five years recounting on psychiatrist’s couch.

Regardless the amount of reflection I would put into this moment, or the ultimate effect it had on Todd, I had to deal with the fact that I brought my party to a crashing halt. Most in attendance were now staring, with sympathy, at Todd, and they were staring at me in scorn with the same intensity. Some of the females said some awful things to me, and then they insisted that their boyfriends take them away. I ruined my own party, but I also ruined Todd in the eyes of those who were there, or so I thought. I had my moment, the moment I sought when I remembered I had a cotton ball in my medicine cabinet, but the partygoers obviously didn’t appreciate the moment in the manner I thought they would.

The partygoers, I can only assume, probably thought I sought to ruin Todd. They might have considered the idea that I made a conscious effort to somehow defeat him, and if my efforts weren’t of a conscious variety, then they were in some ways subconscious. I can’t answer the latter charge, but I can tell you that there were no conscious efforts to ruin him. Todd was my friend, and the worst charge one could make against me was that I used a good friend as a comedic foil.

If my moment did consist of some subconscious effort to ruin Todd, I was woefully unsuccessful. For the girls who loved Todd before ooga booga, appeared to love him even more after it. Years later, the only explanation I can come up with is that he displayed an endearing element of vulnerability about him. He also had those eyes, the crystal-blue kind that made women swoon. “Could one call them dreamy?” I asked.

“Dreamy?” one woman asked. “I don’t know if I’d use the term dreamy, but they definitely make him more attractive.”

Todd also had that hair, the same oiled and curled hair his mother had, only more natural blonde. It was a little dirty and somewhat unkempt, but he fit the mold of one who could get away with such a look. That look even seemed to work to his advantage with some women, in the sense that it might have added to this endearing element of vulnerability he had.

His most glaring vulnerability was that he was not very bright, but the reaction to Todd led me to believe that women dig a man who is not very bright, even if no self-respecting woman will admit to such a thing. They might not want to settle down with such a guy, since the people we date is a reflection on us, and the psychological, and some might say primal, instincts suggest that we seek a suitable provider for whatever children we might have if we marry them. Those instincts do nothing for Todd, in my opinion, but the compassionate instincts that compel them to defend such a man, regardless of the ideas we all have about him, are the key to someone like Todd having so much success in the dating world. She might want to convince the Todds of the world that everyone is wrong about him. While doing so, she might spend so much time defending and befriending him that she becomes attracted to him in a way that she cannot explain.

These were all guesses I made trying to understand the inexplicable attraction women had to the man, but whenever I posed them to the women that never met Todd, scorn and ridicule followed.

“That is all so ridiculous!” is what they said. This reaction was so ubiquitous among women, from all walks of life, that it requires notation, but the time I spent around Todd informed me that if a guy has all the ingredients listed above, the eyes, the hair, and the air of vulnerability about him, and he has a way of making a woman feel smarter on top of all that, he’s bound to land permanent residence on “hotty” isle. As long as that guy doesn’t say or do anything to tarnish his presentation, and Todd never did anything to diminish that presentation.

One measure of a man is how many women he is able to attract. If that were the lone measure, most men would list Todd as a man among boys. I don’t know many men who would want to follow Todd’s blueprint for landing women, but when such discussions arise among young men looking to become players, I inform them that I’ve witnessed one successful formula firsthand. I’m as in the dark on this topic as they are, I tell them, but I’ve witnessed a real-life asterisk in the equation for them to consider. I tell them about how Todd could work a room of women without effort. I saw the man move from one woman to another without leaving any of them upset. He had one-night stands with a woman who was not his girlfriend, and I saw those two girls begin yelling at one another, screaming insults and threats over a breakroom table, without considering the role the Todd –the man who sat between them– might have played in the situation. When these fights would erupt between the scorned women, Todd would play peacemaker, and he would do everything a man could do to prevent them from harming one another. Then, when the smoke cleared, he would begin hoping, with all sincerity, that they could all be friends. The most annoying aspect of my Todd testimonial occurs when I attempt to convey the idea that Todd did all this without considering the true import of his actions.

Most people who hear Todd’s tale believe he had a carefully orchestrated plan for achieving success. I’ve tried to explain the Todd anomaly to these people, and they naturally assume that he was smarter and craftier than I assert. There was no plan, I tell them, for he did not accentuate certain aspects of his personality to appeal to women, and he did not work on his faults. As far as I know, he did not develop schemes and plot paths to take that would attract more women. At one point in the arguments I’ve had with people on this matter, we reach a bottom line. “Bottom line, you’re jealous,” they all say in numerous ways, “if he had as much success with women as you suggest, he obviously had more success than you, and he must’ve been craftier and smarter than you.” He did have as much success as I detailed, I tell them, but he wasn’t craftier or smarter, he was just Todd.

No research, I know of, concludes that giving a child a name like Todd, Gil, or Ned affects them in any way. There is no sociological evidence to suggest that the Todds, Gils, or Neds, of the world, live different from anyone else. If you’ve ever known one of these unfortunate, possibly cursed individuals, however, you know there is a fundamental difference about them that they will spend most of their lives trying to overcome. Something about those odd, one-syllable sounds affects their identity so much that it affects their existence. They don’t all become square pegs in a round-hole world of more pleasing sounds, some of exceptions to the rule, some of them are just Todd, but the preconceived notions most of us have of such sounds grease their slide to the outer layer.

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Don’t Go Chasing Eel Testicles: A Brief, Select History of Sigmund Freud


We all envy those who knew, at a relatively young age, what they wanted to do for a living. Most of us experience some moments of inspiration that might lead us toward a path, but few of us ever read medical journals, law reviews, or business periodicals during our formative years. Most of the young people I knew preferred an NFL preview guide of some sort, teenage heartthrob magazines, or one of the many other periodicals that offer soft entertainment value. Most of us opted out of reading altogether and chose to play something that involved a ball instead. Life was all about playtime for the kids I grew up around, but there were other, more serious kids, who we wouldn’t meet until we were older. Few of them knew they would become neurosurgeons, but they were so interested in medicine that they devoted huge chunks of their young lives to learning everything their young minds could retain. “How is this even possible?” some of us ask. How could they achieve that level of focus at such a young age, we wonder. Are we even the same species?

At an age when so many minds are so unfocused, these people claim they had tunnel vision. “I didn’t have that level of focus,” some said to correct the record, “not the level of focus to which you are alluding.” They may have diverged from the central focus, but they had more direction than anyone I knew, and that direction put them on the path of doing what they ended up doing, even if it wasn’t as specific as I guessed.

The questions we have about what to do for a living have plagued so many for so long that comedian Paula Poundstone captured it with a well-placed joke, and I apologize, in advance, for the paraphrasing: “Didn’t you hate it when your relatives asked what you wanted to do for a living? Um, Grandpa I’m 5. I haven’t fully grasped the mechanics or the importance of brushing my teeth yet. Those of us of a certain age have now been on both sides of this question. We’ve been asking our nieces and nephews this question for years without detecting any irony. What do you want to do when you grow up? Now that I’ve been asking this question long enough, I’ve finally figured out why we ask it. Our aunts and uncles asked us this question when we were growing up, because they were looking for ideas. I’m in my forties now, and I’m still asking my nieces and nephews these questions. I’m still looking for ideas.”

Pour through the annals of great men and women of history, and that research will reveal legions of late bloomers who didn’t accomplish anything of note until late in life. The researcher will also discover that most of the figures who achieved success in life were just as dumb and carefree as children as the rest of us were, until the seriousness of adulthood directed them to pursue a venture in life that would land them in the annals of history. Some failed more than once in their initial pursuits, until they discovered something that flipped a switch.

Those who know anything about psychology, and many who don’t, are familiar with the name Sigmund Freud. Those who know anything about Freud are aware of his unique theories about the human mind and human development. Those who know anything about his psychosexual theory know we are all repressed sexual beings plagued with unconscious desires to have relations with some mythical Greek king’s mother. What we might not know, because we consider it ancillary to his greater works, is that some of his theories might have originated from Freud’s pursuit of the Holy Grail of nineteenth-century science, the elusive eel testicles.

Although some annals state that an Italian scientist named Carlo Mondini discovered eel testicles in 1777, other periodicals state that the search continued up to and beyond the search of an obscure 19-year-old Austrian’s in 1876.[1] Other research states that the heralded Aristotle conducted his own research on the eel, and his studies resulted in postulations that stated either that the beings came from the “guts of wet soil”, or that they were born “of nothing”.[2] One could guess that these answers resulted from great frustration, since Aristotle was so patient with his deductions in other areas. On the other hand, he also purported that maggots were born organically from a slab of meat. “Others, who conducted their own research, swore that eels were bred of mud, of bodies decaying in the water. One learned bishop informed the Royal Society that eels slithered from the thatched roofs of cottages; Izaak Walton, in The Compleat Angler, reckoned they sprang from the ‘action of sunlight on dewdrops’.”

Before laughing at any of these findings, one must consider the limited resources these researchers had at their disposal, concerning the science of their day. As is oft said with young people, the young Freud might not have had the wisdom yet to know how futile this task would be when a nondescript Austrian zoological research station employed him. It was his first real job, he was 19, and it was 1876. He dissected approximately 400 eels, over a period of four weeks, “Amid stench and slime for long hours” as the New York Times described Freud’s working environment. [3] His ambitious goal was to write a breakthrough research paper on an animal’s mating habits, one that had confounded science for centuries. Conceivably, a more seasoned scientist might have considered the task futile much earlier in the process, but an ambitious, young 19-year-old, looking to make a name for himself, was willing to spend long hours slicing and dicing eels, hoping to achieve an answer no one could disprove.

Unfortunate for the young Freud, but perhaps fortunate for the field of psychology, we now know that eels don’t have testicles until they need them. The products of Freud’s studies must not have needed them at the time he studied them, for Freud ended up writing that his total supply of eels were “of the fairer sex.” Freud eventually penned that research paper over time, but it detailed his failure to locate the testicles. Some have said Freud correctly predicted where the testicles should be and that he argued that the eels he received were not mature eels. Freud’s experiments resulted in a failure to find the testicles, and he moved into other areas as a result. The question on the mind of this reader is how profound of an effect did this failure to find eel testicles have on his research into human sexual development?

In our teenage and young adult years, most of us had odd jobs that affected us in a variety of ways, for the rest of our working lives. For most, these jobs were low-paying, manual labor jobs that we slogged through for the sole purpose of getting paid. Few of us pined over anything at that age, least of all a legacy that we hoped might land us in annals of history. Most of us wanted to do well in our entry-level jobs, to bolster our character, but we had no profound feelings of failure if we didn’t. We just moved onto other jobs that we hoped we would find more financially rewarding and fulfilling.

Was Freud’s search for eel testicles the equivalent of an entry-level job, or did he believe in the vocation so much that the failure devastated him? Did he slice the first 100 or so eels open and throw them aside with the belief that they were immature? Was there nothing but female eels around him, as he wrote, or was he beginning to see what had plagued the other scientists for centuries, including the brilliant Aristotle? There had to be a moment, in other words, when Sigmund Freud realized that they couldn’t all be female. He had to know, at some point, that he was missing the same something everyone else missed. He must have spent some sleepless nights struggling to come up with a different tactic. He might have lost his appetite at various points, and he may have shut out the world in his obsession to achieve infamy in marine biology. He sliced and diced over 400 after all. If even some of this is true, even if it only occupied his mind for four weeks of his life, we can feasibly imagine that the futile search for eel testicles affected Sigmund Freud in a profound manner.

If Freud Never Existed, Would There Be a Need to Create Him?

Every person approaches a topic of study from a subjective angle. It’s human nature. Few of us can view people, places, or things in our lives, with total objectivity. The topic we are least objective about, say some, is ourselves. Some say that we are the central topic of speculation when we theorize about humanity. All theories are autobiographical, in other words, and we pursue such questions in an attempt to understand ourselves better. Bearing that in mind, what was the subjective angle from which Sigmund Freud approached his most famous theory on psychosexual development in humans? Did he bring objectivity to his patients? Could he have been more objective, or did Freud have a blind spot that led him to chase the elusive eel testicles throughout his career in the manner Don Quixote chased windmills?

After his failure, Sigmund Freud would switch his focus to a field of science that would later become psychology. Soon thereafter, patients sought his consultation. We know now that Freud viewed most people’s problems through a sexual lens, but was that lens tinted by the set of testicles he couldn’t find a lifetime ago? Did his inability to locate the eel’s reproductive organs prove so prominent in his studies that he saw them everywhere he went, in the manner that a rare car owner begins to see his car everywhere, soon after driving that it off the lot? Some say that if this is how Freud conducted his sessions, he did so in an unconscious manner, and others might say that this could have been the basis for his theory on unconscious actions. How different would Freud’s theories on sexual development have been if he found his Holy Grail, and the Holy Grail of science at the time? How different would his life have been? We could also wonder if Freud would have even switched his focus if he found fame as a marine biologist with his findings.

How different would the field of psychology be today if Sigmund Freud remained a marine biologist? Alternatively, if he still made the switch to psychology after achieving fame in marine biology, for being the eel testicle spotter, would he have approached the study of the human development, and the human mind from a less subjective angle? Would his theory on psychosexual development have occurred to him at all? If it didn’t, is it such a fundamental truth that it would’ve occurred to someone else over time, even without Freud’s influence?

We can state, without too much refutation, that Sigmund Freud’s psychosexual theory has sexualized the beliefs many have about human development, a theory others now consider disproved. How transcendental was that theory, and how much subjective interpretation was involved in it? How much of the subjective interpretation derived from his inability to find the eel testicle fueled it? Put another way, did Freud ever reach a point where he began overcompensating for that initial failure?

Whether it’s an interpretive extension, or a direct reading of Freud’s theory, modern scientific research theorizes that most men want some form of sexual experience with another man’s testicles. This theory, influenced by Freud’s theories, suggests that those who claim they don’t are lying in a latent manner, and the more a man says he doesn’t, the more repressed his homosexual desires are.

The Williams Institute at UCLA School of Law, a sexual orientation law think tank, released a study in April 2011 that stated that 3.6 percent of males in the U.S. population are either openly gay or bisexual.[4] If these findings are even close to correct, this leaves 96.4 percent who are, according to Freud’s theory, closeted homosexuals in some manner. Neither Freud nor anyone else has been able to put even a rough estimate on the percentage of heterosexuals who harbor unconscious, erotic inclinations toward members of the same sex, but the very idea that the theory has achieved worldwide fame leads some to believe there is some truth to it. Analysis of some psychological studies on this subject provides the quotes, “It is possible … Certain figures show that it would indicate … All findings can and should be evaluated by further research.” In other words, no conclusive data and all findings and figures are vague. Some would suggest that these quotes are ambiguous enough that they can be used by those who would have their readers believe that most of the 96.4 percent who express contrarian views are actively suppressing their desire to not just support the view, but to actively involve themselves in that way of life.[5]

Some label Sigmund Freud as history’s most debunked doctor, but his influence on the field of psychology and on the ways society at large views human development and sexuality is indisputable. The greater question, as it pertains specific to Freud’s psychosexual theory, is was Freud a closet homosexual, or was his angle on psychological research affected by his initial failure to find eel testicles? To put it more succinct, which being’s testicles was Freud more obsessed with finding during his lifetime?

[1]https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Eel_life_history

[2]http://www.theguardian.com/environment/2010/oct/27/the-decline-of-the-eel

[3]http://www.nytimes.com/2006/04/25/health/psychology/analyze-these.html

[4]https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Demographics_of_sexual_orientation

[5]http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/pages/frontline/shows/assault/roots/freud.html

If you enjoyed this unique perspective on Sigmund Freud, you might also enjoy the following:

Charles Bukowski Hates Mickey Mouse

The History of Bloodletting by Mark Twain

The Perfect Imperfections of Franz Kafka’s Metamorphosis

James Joyce: Incomparable or Incomprehensible?

Rasputin I: Rasputin Rises

Rasputin II: A Miracle at Spala

Rasputin III: Rasputin’s Murder

The Thief’s Mentality: A Preview


The best thief I ever knew accused me of stealing from him so often that I began to question my integrity. I dated a woman who cheated on me so often that I’m still embarrassed that I wasn’t more aware of her infidelities. Her octopus ink involved psychological projection in the form of repetitive accusations of infidelity on my part. Her charges were so effective that I spent most of our relationship defending myself. These are but the greatest hits of compulsive liars who used tactics on me, so often, that I forgot to question their integrity. If their goals were to prevent me from analyzing them, they were successful. The more I thought about it, the more I realized their accusations said more about them, and their worldview, than it ever did me. Some might call this projection, others might call it deflection or obfuscation, but I believe the games these people play fall under a comprehensive, multi-tiered umbrella I call the thief’s mentality.

Kurt Lee introduced me to the confusing mind of a deceptive person, even though I wasn’t aware of it at the time. The art of deception was such a key component of his personality that he was hypervigilant to the signs and signals of possible transgressions occurring in the minds of those around us. He spent his life so attuned to this frequency that his instincts often led him astray.

Kurt taught me more about how a deceptive person thinks, than any other person I’ve encountered, movie I’ve watched, or book I’ve read on the subject. He would serve as my prototype for those who would exhibit a wide array of similar traits, traits I would only later deem the attributes of the thief’s mentality.

The most interesting aspect about the man, a characteristic that might defy that which I will describe throughout this piece, was his charm. When it served him, Kurt Lee had the propensity to be nice, engaging, and infectious. He was also a funny guy, and a genuinely funny person can disarm us, unless we stick around long enough to learn more about their sensibilities.

Those who knew Kurt Lee, on a superficial level, envied him for the ways in which he openly defied authority figures without guilt. Those who actually spent as much time around Kurt Lee as I did, however, witnessed that for all the charisma a piece of work (POS) displays, they ultimately end up destroying themselves from the inside out.

One afternoon while on a city bus, Kurt decided to play with the crocheted ball on top of the stocking cap of the elderly woman that sat in front of him. My reaction to this spectacle may be one of the things I have to answer for on Judgment Day, because I found his appalling act hysterical.

Hindsight informs me that my youthful attraction to Kurt Lee’s antics may have had something to do with learning about the mores and rules my mother taught me. Why haven’t I ever played with the ball on top of an old woman’s stocking cap? What’s the difference between Kurt Lee and me? Is it about morality, or does it have more to do with common decency? My mother taught me that when a young, healthy male sees an elderly woman, he should smile at her and try to think up something nice to say. My mother taught me to hold the door for her, and she said that I should consider it a privilege to give up my seat to a woman like that on the city bus, if no other seats were available.

Not only did Kurt Lee ignore those typical conventions, he chose to pursue what we could term the exact opposite. He decided to violate the most vulnerable member of our culture’s sense of security by playing with her stocking cap. Of course, it was wrong, but it was also a fascinating exploration of human nature. How would this old woman react? How would a real POS counter that reaction? Why did he do it in the first place? Did he think he would get away with it? Did he even care? I would never know the answer to the latter questions, but my fascination with the answers to the former led me to urge him on with laughter. That was wrong, too, of course, but I now believe my laughter was borne of curiosity. I wanted to learn more about the moral codes by which we all abide. I hoped to learn that by watching another solidify my rationale, with no regard for the consequences of violating them. At the time, I really didn’t have those thoughts, but I couldn’t wait to see how it would end, and I dare say that most of those who are more successful in abiding by the standards their mothers taught them would not have been able to look away either

The vulnerable, elderly woman did eventually turn on Kurt, and she did so with an angry expression. She allowed the first few flicks of the ball atop her stocking cap go, presumably taking a moment to muster up the courage to tell him off, and then she gave him that angry look. Kurt Lee appeared ready to concede to that initial, nonverbal admonition, until he spotted me laughing. Egged on by me, he did it three more times before she reached a point of absolute frustration that led her to say something along the lines of, “Stop it, you young punk!”

To that, Kurt began thrusting his hips forward in his seat, while looking at me, whispering, “She just wants unusual carnal relations!” As a teenager trying to elicit more laughter from another teen, Kurt Lee did not use that term. He selected the most vulgar term he could to describe his extrapolation of her desires.

Had Kurt Lee decided to stick his middle finger up in the face of a healthier, younger adult, it would have been just as difficult to avoid watching. The fact that he chose such a sacred cow of our culture for his rebellion, however, made his actions over-the-top hilarious. In my young, unformed mind, this was a real life equivalent to David Letterman’s man-on-the-street segments, taken up ten notches on the bold-o-meter. I would later learn that Kurt Lee was not the type to make profound statements about our societal conventions. He was more of a doer, and doers just do what they do and leave the messy interpretations of what they do to others. I would also learn, by the manner in which Kurt Lee selected his victims based on their inability to fight back, that Kurt Lee was something of a coward. At the time, though, I found his actions so bold that I couldn’t look away, and I couldn’t stop laughing.

As time wore on, I discovered a wide array of fascinating explorations of human nature, but those paled in comparison to Kurt Lee’s mentality, his philosophy, and what drove him to be so different from everyone I had ever met. To listen to him speak on the topic, there was nothing different about Kurt Lee. He simply had the courage of his convictions. He ascribed to the more conventional line of thought that we were all afraid to be like him, but he also suggested that the rest of us have had this part of our makeup denied by parents and teachers instructing us to act differently for so long that we now believe we are different. The import of his message was that this was not about me, and it was not about him. It’s about human nature and the thief’s mentality.

“If you could get away with it, you would try,” was his answer to any questions posed to him. “You mean to tell me you’ve never stolen anythingEver? All right then, let’s talk about reality.” Kurt Lee was a thief, and like most thieves, he did not defend his position from the position of being a thief. He would substitute an exaggeration of your moral qualms regarding thievery, claiming that any person who has stolen even once is in no position to judge someone who steals on a regular basis.

In short bursts, and on topic, Kurt Lee could lower the most skilled debater to the ground. We called him a master debater, with the innuendo intended, because it was almost impossible to pin him down on specifics. It was a joy to watch. Prolonged exposure, however, opened up all these windows into his soul.

When we asked him how a guy from the sticks could afford the latest, top-of-the-line zipper pants, a pair of sunglasses that would put a fella back two weeks’ pay, and an original, signed copy of the Rolling Stones, Some Girls. He would tell us, but even his most ardent defender had a hard time believing Santa Claus could be that generous.

Kurt Lee stole so often by the time I came to know him that the act of shoplifting lost its thrill. He decided to challenge himself as top athletes, and top news anchors do, by hiring third-party analysts to scrutinize the minutiae of their performance. He asked me to watch him steal baseball cards from the shop owner that we all agreed was in need of a good lesson because the man refused to buy our cards 99 percent of the time. On those rare occasions when he agreed to buy them, his offers were so low they were almost insulting.

I posed a theory about our transactions with this shop owner. I theorized that the intent behind his frequent refusals to buy our cards was to establish his bona fides as a resident expert of value. That way, when he informed us that any of our cards were of value, we were ready to jump at the chance, no matter what amount he offered. “By doing so,” I concluded, “he actually makes us feel more valuable, because we think we finally have something worthy of one of his offers.”

“You’re right,” Kurt Lee said. “Let’s get him.”

I felt validated for coming up with a theory that Kurt Lee accepted, but in hindsight, I think Kurt Lee would’ve used anything I said to motivate me to conspire against the owner.

“One thing,” Kurt Lee said before we entered. “I don’t know if this needs to be said, but I’m going to say it anyway. Don’t watch me, don’t talk to me, and be careful about how often you look at me. Don’t try to avoid looking at me either.” When I laughed at that, a laugh that expressed some confusion, he added, “Just don’t do anything stupid or obvious.”

It was an invitation into a world I had never known, and Kurt Lee’s provisos might have been necessary, because I was as nervous as I was excited. I considered the idea that my foreknowledge of this crime could implicate me as an accessory, but I couldn’t shake the asexual intimacy that Kurt Lee was sharing with me, with this invitation into his world.

Before we entered the shop, Kurt Lee opened his pockets, in the manner a magician might, and he asked me to confirm that he had no cards in his pockets.

Throughout the course of our hour in the shop, I didn’t witness Kurt Lee steal one thing, and I mocked him. “What happened? I thought you were going to steal something,” I said. “I’m beginning to think you’re chicken.”

He allowed me to mock him without saying a word. When I finished, he opened his jacket to show me his inner pockets. What I saw knocked me back a couple steps. I actually took a step back when I witnessed the number of baseball cards that lined his inner pockets. I would’ve been impressed if he displayed one card, and three or four would’ve shocked me, but the sheer number of cards he stole without me noticing one act of thievery, led me to believe that Kurt Lee wasted his abilities on the petty art of shoplifting. I considered telling him to try his hand at being a magician for I thought what I was witnessing were the skills of a maestro of deception. If he could hone in on those skills, I thought the possibilities were endless for Kurt Lee.

Soon after recovering from that awe, I began to wonder how one acquires such a deft hand. As with any acquired skill, trial and error is involved, but nestled within that lies the need to find a utility that permits the thief to proceed uninhibited by shame. A skilled performer in the arts or athletics delights in displaying their ability to the world, in other words, but a thief prefers to operate in the shadows, and they acquire their skill with a modicum of shame attached. Success as a thief, it would seem to those of us on the outside looking in, requires the potential thief to either a defeat of that sense of shame or find a way to manage it.

Shame, some argue, like other unpleasant emotions, becomes more manageable with familiarity. When a father introduces shame to his child, in the brutal assessments a father makes regarding the value of the child, the child becomes familiar with an intimate definition of shame before they are old enough to combat them. When such brutal assessments are then echoed by a mother’s concern that their child can’t do anything right, the combined effort can have a profound effect on a child. When those parents then console the child with a suggestion that while the child may be a bad seed, but they’re no worse than anyone else is, something gestates in the child. The moral relativism spawned from these interactions suggests that the search for the definitions of right and wrong is over, and the sooner the child accepts that, the more honest they will become. Seeing their mother scold a teacher for punishing their child for a transgression only clarifies this confusion a little more. In that relativist scolding, the child hears their mother inform the teacher that the child can do no wrong, and they see her unconditional support firsthand. Over time, the child must acknowledge that their parents will not always be there, so they will need to develop personal defense mechanisms in line with what they’re learned. The child also learns to accept these realities for what they are, for the Lee family has never had the courage necessary to commit suicide.

I hated discounting the level of individual ingenuity on Kurt Lee’s part, but he was simply too good at the various forms of deception for it to have been something he arrived at on his own. Attempting to source it might be a fool’s errand, but I wondered if I were able to sort through Kurt’s his genealogical tree, if I might find sedimentary layers of grievance, envy, frustration, and desperation that worked their way down to him. To those who consider this a bit of a stretch, I ask how much of our lives do we spend rebelling against, and acquiescing to parental influence, and how many of us can say we are entirely free from it?

I was so obsessed with this, at one point, that I bridged a gap between being curious and badgering, something Kurt Lee made apparent in his volatile reaction:

“You think you’re better than me?” Kurt Lee asked, employing the universal get-out-of-judgment free card of moral relativism. This time-honored redirect relies on the lessons taught to us by our mothers, that we are no better than anyone else is, but Kurt Lee’s rant began to spiral out of control when he tried to pivot to what he believed its logical extension.

If no one is better than anyone else is and everyone resides on the cusp of whatever Kurt Lee was, the logical extension required the inclusion of an individual that many perceive to be so harmless it’s almost laughable to suggest otherwise. The individual, in this case, was a kid named Pete Pestroni. If Kurt Lee’s arguments were going to hold water, the idea that Pete Pestroni was a wolf in sheep’s clothing would have to become an agreed upon fact. I’m still not sure why Kurt Lee went down the Pete Pestroni road so often, but I suspect it had something to do with the idea that if Pete was immune, in one form or another, everyone else had to be too. Pete was just too weak, or too scared, to let his wolf run wild, in Kurt Lee’s worldview. We would laugh at the implausibility of Pete Pestroni having a Kurt Lee trapped inside, a thief dying to come out. Our intention was to laugh with Kurt Lee, but he wouldn’t even smile. Some part of him believed that if everyone was a thief, then no one was, at least to the point of separating the thief out for comparative analysis. This was a sacred chapter in Kurt Lee’s personal bible, and an ingredient of the thief’s mentality that took me decades to grasp.

The thief’s mentality is a mindset that involves a redirect of exposing an uncomfortable truth, or a hypocrisy, in others, so that the thief might escape a level of scrutiny that could lead to an uncomfortable level of introspection. An individual with a thief’s mentality may steal, but that person is just as apt to lie and cheat. The thief’s mentality begins as a coping mechanism for dealing with the character flaws that drive the thief to do what they do, but it progresses from those harmless, white lies to a form of deception that requires a generational foundation. 

The thief’s mentality is deflection, by way of subterfuge, a means to explain the carrier’s inability to trust beyond the point that they should be trusted, but some thieves’ outward distrust of others reaches a point of exaggeration that says far more about them than those they accuse. Their cynicism is their objectivity, and others’ faith in humanity is a subjective viewpoint, one that we must bear. We live in a dog-eat-dog, screw-or-be-screwed world in which those who trust anyone outside their own homes are naïve as to the point of hopelessness. If the listener is to have any hope of surviving in such a world, it is incumbent upon them to see past the façades and through the veneer, others present to the truth.

The truth, in Kurt Lee’s worldview, held that TV anchors with fourteen-inch parts, and perfect teeth, ended their days by going home to beat their wives. He didn’t believe that a person could attain wealth by honest means. He insisted that because some states convicted some Catholic priests as pedophiles that meant all Catholic priests were, and he had a particular fascination with infidelity in the White House. “You think JFK and Clinton are different? They’re just the ones that got caught is all.” There was also his contention that little old ladies who complained about having someone toy with the balls on the stocking caps just want to have unusual carnal relations. As with most tenets of a person’s worldview, there was some grain of truth in Kurt Lee’s, but he often had to put forth a great deal of effort to support it.

In most such discussions, Kurt Lee’s audience was immune. “I’m not talking about you,” he would say to the parties concerned, so they would view the subject matter from the perspective of an ally. If we began to view ourselves as an ally, we might join him in convincing our world that he’s not that bad, or the world is as bad as he is. Yet, our agreed upon immunity from his charges begins to fracture in the course of the thief’s logical extensions. When that happens, the thief turns their accusations on us. We may consider ourselves virtuous and moral, but the thief knows everything there is to know about hidden agendas. They maintain a perpetual state of readiness for that day when we break free of the constraints of morality and loyalty to expose our evil, naked underbelly to the world. They have us all figured out, because they know those lies we tell. It’s the thief’s mentality.

Thieves may even believe their exaggerated or false accusations, regardless of all we’ve done to establish ourselves as good, honest people. The validity of their accusation, however, pales in comparison to a thief’s need to keep a subject of their accusations in a perpetual state of trustworthiness. They make this accusation to keep us in check in a manner they know we should keep them in check. The import of that line provides us a key to understanding why an individual with a thief’s mentality would make such a charge against us, and the Pete Pestronis of the world that are so honest it’s laughable to suggest otherwise. Some might call such accusations psychological projection, the inclination one has to either deny or defend their qualities while seeing them in everyone else. Others might say that it’s some sort of deflection or obfuscation on the part of the thief, but I believe it all falls under a comprehensive, multi-tiered umbrella that I call the thief’s mentality. Still others might suggest that Kurt Lee’s accusations were born of theories he had about me, the people around him, and humanity in general. If that is the case, all theory is autobiography.

Whether it was as complex as all that on an unconscious level, or some simple measures Kurt Lee developed over the years to prevent people from calling him a POS, I witnessed some try to turn the table on the accusations by telling Kurt Lee that other people trust them.

Kurt Lee’s response to one particularly defensive combatant was so clever that I thought it beyond his years. Again, I hate to discount individual ingenuity, but it just seemed too clever for Kurt to deliver as quickly as he did when he said:

“So you think if someone trusts you that means that you’re trustworthy?” is how Kurt Lee responded. He said the word trustworthy, as if the word itself was an accusation, but that wasn’t the brilliant part of his response. As brilliance often does, his arrived in that section of an argument when the participants say whatever they can to win, regardless what those words reveal. Kurt Lee suggested, in not so many words, that those who consider themselves a beacon of trustworthiness are suffering from a psychosis of another stripe. The reason I considered this response so perfect, as it pertained to this specific argument, was that it put the onus of being trustworthy on the person who challenged Kurt Lee trustworthiness. It also put any further questions regarding Kurt Lee’s character –or what his inability to trust the people in his life said about him– on the back burner, until the questioner could determine whether the level of his own trustworthiness was a delusion that group thought led them to believe.

With all that Kurt Lee taught me about this fascinating mentality, always fresh in mind, I’ve had a number of otherwise trustworthy friends ask me how to deal with the thief in their life. They fail to understand why their beloved doesn’t trust them in even the most banal arenas of life. These worried friends said things like, “I don’t know what I did to damage our bond of trust, but they call me irredeemable.” My friends are insecure about their trustworthiness, as we all are, yet they wonder what they did to trigger the damning accusations regarding their trustworthiness.

“How do I win him back? How do I regain his trust?” they asked, with sorrow in their hearts.

“I’m sorry to say it’s not about you,” I tell them. “It’s the thief’s mentality.” 

I am sorry to say this, because these concerned friends have consigned themselves to some sort of relationship with the afflicted, one that requires them to spend long hours, days, and years with this person. I have explained the plight of the thief, to the best of my ability, via my personal experiences with Kurt Lee, and it has helped these concerned and confused souls frame the accusations with a name for what their loved one does. The idea that there might be a name for it, also suggests to them that someone has had similar experiences so often that they developed a name for it. Whatever short-term relief they experience in the moment, the idea that their loved one is never going to trust them anymore than they trust themselves dispels it.

The damage that thieves, like Kurt Lee, incur is irreparable. They may not enjoy the lives they’ve created for themselves, and the idea that they can’t even trust the one person in their lives that they could, or should. On the flipside, their accusations do allow them to spread their misery around a little. It lightens their load to transfer some of their toxins to others. It also gives them a little lift to know that we are a little less trusting than we were before we met them. They must find some relief in the belief that they are not such an aberration, but this relief is temporary, as the toxins that have made them what they are as endemic to the biological chemistry as white and red blood cells. Nevertheless, it must please them to know that after our interactions with them, we now view humanity in the same cynical, all-hope-is-lost manner they do.

If it’s true that a mere 2 percent of people are self-aware, then the lack of self-awareness, at least as it pertains to what we are, and what we are to become, is as endemic to the thief’s mentality as it is in every other walk of life. Like the rest of us, thieves do not believe they live on an exaggerated pole of morality. Rather, they believe they reside in the middle, right alongside the rest of us, somewhere on the good side of the fuzzy dividing line. They also know that we’re all tempted to do that one thing that could place us on the other side. What separates them, to their mind, is their lack of fear, coupled with their refusal to conform to the norms our parents and other mentors taught us. They are also keenly aware that we place most of humanity on their side of the fuzzy line because we all have problems trusting those we don’t know well enough to determine whether they will make moral decisions in life. Some take this natural state of skepticism a step further. Some thieves’ exaggerated, outward distrust for those around them says far more about them than about those they condemn and accuse. It’s the thief’s mentality.

 

 

 

 

 

The Thief’s Mentality IV: The Umbrella


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Thief’s Mentality: The Search for Something Different


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

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

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

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

Attention all book lovers, our search is for something different is finally over, The Thief’s Mentality is here. How many times do we go to the bookstore (online or otherwise), scouring the racks for something different? We don’t even know what we’re looking for, but we know it when we see it. When we find it, we can’t wait to get home, crack the binding, and enter into another author’s slice of life. Most book lovers enjoy other art forms, but there’s nothing more exciting to us than finding a great book. When we think we’ve found it, we tell our friends and family about it, and we call it a “find”. This find is the book lover’s literary equivalent to an archaeologist digging through some catacombs for an artifact.

Some book lovers call themselves book connoisseurs, but there are others. A subset in the book lover subset of the art connoisseur, master classification is someone others might call a “book snob”, and it often includes a group of book lovers who have read so many books, and been through so many finds, that our desperate search for something so original that meets our stringent, snobbish standards have led us to create it. We want our own “Take that bottle off the thing. Put it over on the dingle” lyrics. We want to create something so unique and weird, and meaningless and poignant at the same time. The constraints restricting (and constricting) an author of any fictional and non-fiction art form are far greater than those of a lyricist, of course, but some avid readers are so hungry to find a different book that we decide to write our own.

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

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

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

The Nature of the Artist

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

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

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

The author did not write these essays for the sole purpose of producing something different, just to be different however, but his biggest influences are those artists who displayed breathtaking originality at one point in their career. No one artist influenced The Thief’s Mentality, and no one piece from any of these artists did either, but I’m not going to deny there wasn’t some influence from the myriad of books I’ve read over time. At some point in my favorite artists’ careers, they made a break from their formula, and it often occurred after they achieved a certain level of acceptance. The subsequent artistic creations were so unusual and revolutionary that the artist’s closest friends and family members didn’t see them coming. “I don’t know where that came from,” they confess. “They were on a different level when they created that piece.”

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

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

It’s almost impossible to escape some influence in any artistic pursuit, but the author suggests that rewriting and editing these essays have drained whatever influence may have inspired him to begin writing them. All but two of the essays contain the unique experiences he’s had with the unique people he encountered in life, so the only probability for influence lies in the analysis, but thanks to hundreds of rewrites, the author doesn’t think the author who influenced the analysis would be able to spot their role in it. Commenting on the originality of the collection, an independent editor said, “It truly is, in my opinion, a bit of a world all its own, something different than what I’ve seen in my editing queue or even in the library where I work part time.”