Are There Basic Laws of Human Stupidity?

A fascinating new book took 43 years to receive its first widespread publication in its original language. Why should you care? Because the belated arrival confirms the machine of the world doesn’t operate well. A logical, predictable planet under wise management is the one we want.

Carlo Cipolla offers us a sort-of-comic essay called The Basic Laws of Human Stupidity.

Is it playful? Yes.

Is it serious? Yes.

Is it enlightening? Yes, again.

Moreover, at 74 pages, the slender volume is worth the slim slice of time and money to find out yourself. No extra calories, either, so discovering the five rules won’t blow your diet.

Here are the laws our friendly adviser asserts, with a few edits and comments to ease your understanding:

  1. Always and inevitably, everyone underestimates the number of stupid individuals in circulation.
  2. The probability that a person be stupid is independent of any other characteristic of that person. The author Carlo Cipolla means you will find the same percentage of the stupid everywhere. They inhabit all jobs in all societies, all races and genders, and all education levels.
  3. The Golden Basic Law. A stupid person is (someone) who causes (harm) to another person or group while himself (gaining nothing) or even possibly (hurting himself).
  4. Non-stupid people always underestimate the damaging power of stupid individuals. In particular non-stupid people constantly forget that at all times and places and under any circumstances to deal and/or associate with stupid people infallibly turns out to be a costly mistake.
  5. A stupid person is the most dangerous type of person. A stupid person is more dangerous than a bandit.

Cipolla’s description of stupidity concerns the ill-timed actions of the souls he describes, a kind of bizarre giftedness for catastrophe creation. They lack self-awareness of their talent for messing things up for those who don’t recognize their toxicity and flee.

These creatures use their strange, malign, unintended capacity to cause misspent energy, squandered time, spoiled appetites, perplexity, unhappiness, physical distress, and lost wages and property. Misery floats in their wake. This unknowing band carries habits similar to people Joseph Epstein refers to as Chaos Merchants.

Here is a personal example. My wife was driving to an unfamiliar Chinese restaurant in Philadelphia around 1974. We were attending a professional conference. Several bright attendees we just met were with us.

One bloke insisted he knew the way. He exuded absolute confidence. We were moving at speed when he insisted the time demanded we make a left turn. A moment later, we were facing four lanes of oncoming traffic.

This well-educated guy embodied stupidity.

Think about the people you’ve dated, married, befriended, and worked beside or for. I’m sure many were conventionally bright. I imagine you believed your continuing acquaintances harmless.

Cipolla would suggest some were stupid (by his definition), and the world is more dysfunctional for their being here. He might have entitled his volume The Inconvenient, Unpredictable Doings of Preposterous People.

The book attempts to differentiate its target from the helpless, the corrupt (bandits), and the intelligent. The author also tells us how some in this crowd arrived in positions of power.

Possible explanations include being born into a higher class or caste, entry to an advantaged and protected religious order where male authorities have lacked oversite, and elections. His opinion of the political misguidedness of his targets echoes the words of H.L Menken:

On some great and glorious day the plain folks of the land will reach their heart’s desire at last, and the White House will be adorned by a downright moron.

What can you do about the danger? Since many of us defend against senselessness by reasoning with others or maneuvering around them, the author instead tries to persuade us that success and safety require us to keep a distance.

He quotes the German poet Friedrich Schiller, who wrote, “Against stupidity, even the gods fight in vain.”

I would add this. Most people of reasonable intelligence make mistakes in managing the totality of humanity. First, we think of ourselves as more rational than we are. Second, we judge others and predict their actions without adequate skill whenever we base our expectations on sober consistency and astute instincts they do not possess.

Our tendency to ignore so much of what we learn also comes into play. And they, the dangerous ones, often appear innocent and well-meaning. We want to give people second chances and desire the same from them.

Nor do we wish to live in fear of disasters brought by members of our species who, we believe, don’t roam the earth with distinctive hats announcing their presence. (Oops, we could be wrong).

As the 4th Basic Law reminds us:

Non-stupid people always underestimate the damaging power of stupid individuals. In particular non-stupid people constantly forget that at all times and places and under any circumstances to deal and/or associate with stupid people infallibly turns out to be a costly mistake.

There are reasons to doubt the author’s contentions. He was an economist, not a psychologist, and doesn’t present data to support his ideas. Yet, in my judgment, he is devilishly wise and has hit upon something of importance.

Here is my recommendation. You might get a laugh and a new perspective on the human condition if you take on his writing. At worst, you’ll be out a few dollars and a miniature amount of time you won’t get back.

Read the book. With luck, you’ll come away with a little wisdom and a smile.

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The second photo comes from a Tax March, San Francisco, CA, on April 15, 2017. The final image is called Naughty Carrot Wearing a Dunce Cap, November 13, 2019. In order, the creators of these two visuals are Punk Toad and Schmidti333. The source was Wikimedia.com/

When God Wrote a Symphony

God can do anything.

At least the All-powerful One who created the universe and all the living things in it.

But, on a remarkable day, the Almighty got bored. “I’ve done everything,” he said to himself. “What might I yet do to enhance the world?”

Thus came the idea of a new, mammoth orchestral composition–a piece in three long movements on the largest possible scale. “And so it was.”

The next morning every person on the planet, no matter their age or place, awoke with sheet music and the musical instrument required.

They’d shared a dream overnight, instructing them to practice their portion each day with the newfound talent instilled by The Timeless Being.

In six months, they now knew, God would lead the premiere.

Ah, but we creatures aren’t perfect, are we? Otherwise, why did the Lord drown his people in The Flood? All but Noah, his family, and an ark full of pairs, that is.

Sodom and Gomorrah didn’t come out well, either.

Indeed, one little man in the Deity’s band was already troubled. A diminutive tailor named Thomas read through the score, distressed to discover he had a solo. A star turn in front of the whole world. A cymbal crash, no less. His would be the climactic moment of the entire piece, the capping culmination, its ending excellence.

The clothier, you must understand, preferred the shadows to the stage, avoiding attention his entire life. He worried about bringing his cymbals together a moment too soon, a beat too late, making his noise too loud or soft, or bumping into a fellow percussionist.

Thomas doubted everything about himself. He always had. On this occasion, however, he’d not only be letting himself and humanity down but The Big Guy. Or Woman. Or whatever gender description is appropriate for the Immortal.

What might happen? Would the Supreme Being submerge the earth a second time? The responsibility squeezed Thomas’s heart. He couldn’t sleep, didn’t eat, and lost weight. “God, help me!” pleaded Tom.

No answer came.

The day began. All the living world instantly arrived at an enormous space in Africa. Humankind found itself onstage, surrounded by the rest, in the water, trees, open lands, air, and hills.

After the ensemble tuned, the Maker stepped off his golden chariot and took the podium. The music commenced.

The first movement took eight years to play, but even Thomas thought the celestial tones beautiful beyond imagination. It enchanted the universe of listeners, too, even the man in the moon. Still, as time passed, this musician’s timorous anticipation grew.

After a brief pause, the Lord’s downbeat launched the second section, seven-years in length. The flawless symphonic sounds soared even beyond the loveliness of what had preceded it. Birds froze in mid-flight, transfixed. The giraffes and hippos, the alligators, too, found their eyes glistening. All the collective hearts conjoined, every living creature in synch.

Except for our buddy, of course.

By the beginning of the symphony’s third part, the single suffering soul was beside himself. The cymbal crash lay 10 years ahead. He wrung his hands, wiped his brow, and began to shake.

The decade passed. At last, the moment!

God turned in the cymbalist’s direction, providing the cue. Thomas lifted the metal plates, and then…

Everyone heard the clatter. But it was the sound of Tom dropping the cymbals, not putting the intended final punctuation to the Divinity’s glorious score, 25 years of perfection since the heavenly baton first moved.

The Deity lowered his arms, the performers froze, and the world held its breath. Thomas looked down, but the Immortal One raised the tailor’s head and opened his humiliated, terror-struck eyes to meet his own.

The gaze, as Tom experienced it, felt as though it went on for eternity. In clock time, however, perhaps just a few seconds elapsed.

The composing Creator composed himself and turned to behold the philharmonic altogether.

And he said the only thing a great, eternal musician would say.

“From the top!”

================================

The first design is Frontiepiece K, The Ancient of Days, to William Blake’s 1794 work Europe a Prophecy. The next image is God Speed! by Sir Lawrence Alma-Tadema, sourced from wikiart.org. Shiva as the Lord of the Dance is the last artwork, created in India. It dates from the 10th or 11th century, now part of the Art Institute of Chicago’s Collection.

The Proper Attitude for the Moment

Few would argue the upside-down nature of the world. People ask me two questions:

How are you doing?

Will you help me understand what’s going on?

The second query reflects their desire to comprehend why people are behaving the way they are: masks or no masks, safety or freedom, vilifying folks who don’t agree with you, etc.

I’ll leave the answer to this for another time.

As to the first question, my younger grandson has the right idea. He is lucky in his possession of two loving parents, a (so far) affectionate older brother, and the appropriate attitude for our time.

His take on life is best reflected in one verbal and one nonverbal form of communication.

The verbal one is “Uh-oh,” which he offers with the perfect degree of clarity, inflection, and facial expression.

Put crudely, he recognizes we are in deep crapola.

His behavioral, nonverbal vantage point is evident from the picture above. I’m told he often takes this posture, though the photo is of a one-year-old girl. He is her age.

If the world is upside-down, so he appears to say, look between your legs with your eyes below your chin, and you’ve made it right-side up.

Were he 35-years-old or more, I think he’d make a terrific President. OK, an adult performing the stunt would shock people but, I think we are getting used to shocking strangeness in top-of-the food chain elected officials.

He’d fit right in and offer leadership by example superior to that which we often get.

Sometimes you have to laugh–all of us at every opportunity.

How I Discovered Girls

They’d been invisible before. Girls, I mean. Then something out of this world happened.

I began to notice them.

Females.

Aliens from another planet, yes, but charming ones previously distinguished only by dress and laughable athletic ability.

Now — not until now — did we all see each other for the first time, them and us.

We’d been told this might happen and viewed TV programs in which the strange awareness descended, like fairy dust, upon fictional young men. The event itself, however, existed somewhere in an absurd and distant future beyond contemplation.

All the pedestrian maidens became beguiling at once. They possessed an unfamiliar, magnetic quality absent the day before. Their presence mattered.

I can pinpoint the moment the world changed for me. It occurred in fifth grade at Minnie Mars Jamieson School, a bizarre name even in the ’50s.

Many of our teachers, antique past imagining and unmarried, betrayed no hint of sexuality. Curious, I asked my father how I came to be.

I planted the seed.

That’s a quote.

My brain buzzed. Dad’s farming background must have been a family secret.

The beginning of a real answer arrived in class when I discovered my eyes drawn to legs. Not any pair of lower limbs, but the appendages of Sharon M.

A day earlier I held an attitude of indifference to their attachment to a female body. They helped those creatures move, nothing more. The skirt-covered supports propped them up and hung down under their chairs as a necessary accessory for their feet, I supposed, if I considered the question at all.

Legs now sent other signals. Moreover, to my astonishment, I managed to decode the message without a magical incantation or a foreign language translator.

Sharon presented me with other fresh features if you count a cheeky gleam to which I was now awake. Nature endowed her with wavy, thick brown hair, an all-season, creamy almond complexion, and symmetrical, softly pleasing facial turns and twinkles that distinguished her from her friends.

When I looked (and I spent more time looking), my eyes perceived colors not present in the muddy, gray, khaki world of boys.

Sherry, a nickname she preferred, brought me turquoise, baby blue, and bisque. The angular, rectangled, straight-lined male domain remained arid, sandpapered, and dusty in contrast.

How did I come to understand she also fancied me? Were notes passed in the classroom? Did one of her buddies whisper, “Sharon likes you?” In any case, we recognized we wanted to connect.

My girlfriend told jokes, too. She delivered the first at a party thrown by Mary Lynn D. Soon enough we began a kissing game called “Spin the Bottle.”

I’m told this entertainment has lost favor since the ’80s, so here are a few details. All the players sat around in a circle. When your turn came, a soft drink bottle placed in the middle of the ring was spun until it pointed to a lass.

The two of you went into something approximating an oversized closet or spare room to kiss. Sherry tried to create the mood once we got there:

Gerry, do you know the most beautiful girl in the world is deaf?

No.

What did you say?

I believe Sherry took the lead in much of our time “going steady.”

One afternoon we went to a movie together, chaperoned by my mother, who sat a small distance away. Friendly fingers soon encroached upon my head and ran themselves through my hair. Yes, I once own hair rated first-class, may each strand rest in peace.

After the date ended, mom made some comment to me about Sharon and her “aggressiveness.”

Another time I went to my girlfriend’s house to receive dancing instructions from her and, rather more, from her older sister.

I’d guess Sherry soaked up whatever she grasped about dating etiquette from watching this sibling entertain young men in the family living room.

Just a hunch.

My female-preoccupied interest hibernated for a few years, something Freud called the latency period, in which you are believed to forget any suggestion of being a sexual being. Some guys are so skilled at the misremembering process they begin to behave like they arose from chickens, hatched from an egg.

Fast forward to the last couple of years at Mather High School. Now, these mating matters become significant.

Friends brave enough asked each other how to talk to the fair sex. The blind leading the blind.

We also discussed sign language. How did a dating newbie detect a 16 or 17-year old’s interest? I realized later your pursuit of someone on the distaff team was often sufficient to direct her surveillance your way.

The girls, many of them, marked the time, eyeballing their land-line residential telephones, waiting, wishing, and hoping for them to ring. When they didn’t, the young women wondered, “What’s wrong with me?”

They disclosed their covert shame years later, long after graduation.

All genders carried invisible membership cards in a secret society of hidden insecurities. We suppressed the self-doubts so well, each of us had no idea we belonged to the same club or that such a clique bound us together.

Personal uncertainty was evident on the occasion of my first call for a date.

The sole family phone resided in our kitchen. In the sixties, at least in my working-class neighborhood, two phones would have been an uncommon luxury. No internet nor iPhone yet existed, and my across-the-alley neighbor Jerry and I had long since abandoned two-tin-cans and a long string to communicate.

I wanted to launch into the dating pool after school. My target, the tall, slender, blond CB, would be home. An exceptional student, I figured she’d be studying.

The phone stared at me. Trying to be the hard guy, I glared back. Some amount of time elapsed. Maybe five minutes or 15, perhaps much more. The clock time mattered not, eternity would have been shorter.

The staring contest continued until I admitted defeat.

Much later, I understood this as an early lesson in the importance of “getting things over and getting over things.” Though I didn’t then own the insight to explain myself to myself, there was no need to endure the suffering more hesitation would have inflicted.

Man up, do the hard thing and be done with it. Let go of the misery you create. I still believe this.

The conversation wasn’t long, and CB said yes.

My place on the manhood ladder moved one rung up.

Funny to remember the anguish. Those kinds of contacts and much else became a pleasure beyond pleasure.

I must have puzzled all this out because I managed to produce two children with one of the pretty females I met later.

No masterful advice on the subject shall I offer you. If you enter the game, you find your way. Persistence tends to work most of the time. No matter your doubts, you can partake of blissful beauty, fireworks, and melding with another’s generous heart.

How do I know this?

A stork didn’t deliver you to your parents. Your mother didn’t lay eggs, either.

You come from one female and one male who implanted the seed.

My goodness, dad was right!

_____

The above images, in order: 1. Portrait of Silvia Kohler by Egon Schiele. 2. Photo of Sharbat Gula, an Afghan teen, that appeared on the cover of National Geographic Magazine in June, 1985. 3. Peter Behrens’s The Kiss. 4. An undated photo called School Cafeteria, from the Adolph B. Rice Studios via the Library of Virginia. 5. Two Sisters (On the Terrace) by Renoir, from the Art Institute of Chicago. 6. The First Whisper of Love by John Douglas Miller, from the Art Institute of Chicago. 7. The Author at age 16 or 17, photographed by Steve Henikoff.

November Anniversaries

This week brings two anniversaries to mind, not of the wedding kind.

A birth and a death, both. A man I knew well and one I never met. I’ll concentrate on the former.

My dad would have been 108 had he lived another 19 years. When I think of him, it is not as a man near life’s end, but the middle-aged version. Perhaps that’s because he was 35 when I walked on stage, and never less than 40 during my school days.

I think of the challenges he faced getting a job in the Great Depression and his wartime service in the army. I recall how hard (and how much) he labored to make a living for his three boys and our mother. I witnessed how the responsibility was like a machine-lowered ceiling pressing down on him.

Milt Stein was a sweet man. My brothers and I saw him express that affection to my mother with tender words and embraces. She occupied his world. We were satellites circling a planet named Jeanette.

How might one celebrate his memory?

I could revisit the video interview I did when he was about 75.

No, too weighty. Moreover, the four-hour recording won’t fit my schedule right now.

I might arrange one of his favorite hot meals and uncap a lava flow of ketchup on top of it, as was his habit. My mom, you see, was not a master chef.

Another possible homage would be to stir a creamer in my morning coffee as he did, for what seemed like minutes at a time, almost long enough to wear his metal spoon to a nub.

The bell-like sound echoed too early and too long inside our two-flat on Talman Avenue. You knew dad was home — so announced the clanging — as it did that by 5:30 AM he’d be off to his job at the downtown post office.

If I had the urge to go to Chicago’s Loop today, a visit to the main library would serve as a symbolic honor. He borrowed books there and read novels and the Sun Times on public transit to and from work.

My memories take me to all these places and more: to excursions on the elevated train beginning at the Western stop, to trips on the #11 Lincoln Avenue bus, to Riverview Park’s high-rides, and Cubs games at Wrigley Field.

In the bag full of a lifetime’s remembrances, those ritualized, repeated events stand out. One such repetition occurred at the baseball contests. We understood the drill, though Milt Stein never failed to remind his boys of an essential feature.

The relative poverty of dad’s childhood required continued focus on the dearness of a hard-won dollar, even as time moved him away from the economic challenge of America in the 1930s. Thus, this man told his three sons we could each have only “two items” on our day at Wrigley.

Mom packed us all lunches. Corned beef on rye bread was typical, maybe a banana, too. But if we wanted ice cream or a Coke or a hot dog, my father limited us to any two of these, not more.

Ed, Jack, and I thought the restriction unreasonable, but we’d never experienced want. Our sire got categorized as a miser. Only years later did I recognize his limitations offered protection against a future when food might be a question not of how much, but whether we’d have any.

This little story leads me to salute Milton Stein’s 108th birthday anniversary the way he’d have advised. I intend to shop at the grocery, especially those aisles filled with all the goodies I likely wanted on a day at the ballpark in, say, 1959.

You know what I’m going to do, don’t you?

I’ll buy just two items.

—–

The top image is a sign of The Four Candles, a Wetherspoons pub in Oxford named after The Two Ronnies comedy sketch. Matt Brown is the author. It was sourced from Wikimedia Commons.

All Dressed up for a Bout with Clothing Insecurity

In the realm of insecurities, the eternal question — “How do I look?” — stands high on the list.

As I dove blindly into adolescence, my mom reflexively gave me two answers: “Oh, your fine.” Then the follow-up: “People wear anything these days.”

I learned not to ask.

Many clichés offer more helpful advice, unless taken together. Here are a few:

  • Dress for success.
  • Don’t garb yourself better than the boss.
  • Clothes make the man. Remember that women came from Adam’s rib, so ancient scrolls tell us. Here then is the corresponding answer to every boy’s early question, “Where did I come from?”
  • Choose attire for the next job, not your current one.
  • Use a wide-brimmed hat. My first dermatologist made the suggestion, the better to avoid sun damage. If you meet me outside, you’ll notice either a fedora or a baseball cap.
  • No one cares, so put on anything you want. The voice of wisdom?
  • I don’t give a crap what people think. This is closer to the attitude of the Medicare-eligible crowd. Well, not always true for me, but often.
  • “You don’t dress-up because the occasion is special, you dress-up to make the event special.” The words of Lee Sechrest, a grad school professor of mine. Good perspective.

Sixteen-year-old young men, if I can remember back, want to drape themselves with something to disguise uncontrollable projectile erections. What is a projectile erection, you ask? Any phallic enlargement moving from zero to 60 mph in the time it takes to say “boo!” I’m relieved kids on Halloween don’t know this.

Not only beautiful women produce the unwanted upsurge. A thought, a memory, or a sentence in your book will do the job. Your penis does what it wants when it wants, a thing untamed. Spring-loaded, rather like the abrupt opening of an automatic, switch blade knife. The type of display causing a woman of antique years to demand, “I know what’s under there. Put that away young man!”

Where? How? In a backpack or a paper bag or my pocket? The latter enclosure recalls a legendary movie scene. May West, the cheeky sex symbol of her time, asked the actor opposite her “Is that a pistol in your pocket or are you just glad to see me?”

Clothes can be thought of as having a few different purposes. Mae West authored the first one:

  • “Its better to be looked over than overlooked.”
  • Comfort of fit.
  • Appropriateness for the weather.
  • To show respect.
  • Display your body to advantage.
  • Cover up a less than ideal shape or aspect of your physical self. Kind of like the tailor’s equivalent of a comb-over.

I don’t buy attire too often, other than another pair of blue jeans and more underwear. Standards of adornment for classical concert-going, for example, now permit almost anything. Holy cow, my mother was right! Just 40-years ahead of everyone else.

A stalwart few continue to don a suit and tie when attending the opera, too, but they are dying out. Literally.

When I courted my wife the jacket and tie issue arose in an upscale restaurant. We went to dinner at the Blackhawk in downtown Chicago. The snooty middle-aged maître d’ told me I needed a sport coat, “at least.” He gave me one to put on.

I did, but was bummed out for a few minutes. My future wife said nothing about the embarrassment. A lovely person even then.

The Blackhawk is long gone. The maître d’ by now is departed, as well.

Moral: if you can’t beat ’em, try to outlast ’em. And don’t slip into a hoodie made of red meat if you want to work in a zoo!

Before I sign off for today, here is a tender piece just published by Chicago Tribune columnist Rex Huppke on the loss of his father: Holidays, Loss, and a Tattoo My Dad Would Hate/

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The top photo is called Mystery Man and His Wife, All Dressed Up, from September 10, 2010. It is sourced from Wikimedia Commons and displayed there by whatsthatpicture.

A Therapist’s Private Life: An Indelicate Moment Requiring Delicacy

Some things ought not be mentioned in mixed company. Perhaps, therefore, those of refined sensibilities should not proceed further. The tale, if I can call my saga that, might prompt shock, sympathy definitely, and wonder — about who I really am that I should place this in public view. You have been warned. By reading, you are indemnifying me against psychological damage you might suffer.

Sunday, September 2, 2018.

I was minding my own business. The last three words are chosen with care. Confused? OK. Let me get closer to the matter. I stood in the smallest room in my home — not, I must add, before the mirror or the sink below and in front of it. Those still with me should recognize your number is smaller than when I began the paragraph.

The question is one of proper handling of equipment. Human, fleshly equipment. How many thousands, maybe hundreds of thousands of times do men use this device for one of the two activities we are required to perform with said attachment. Put differently, I had lots of rehearsal. I knew how it worked, how the object should be held, where to direct its attention. Even without time spent at a firing range. I had some practice in using a garden hose dating from a Chicago childhood, but this experience came only after acquiring my washroom competencies, not before.

I finished. As you know, the process requires the replacement of said mortal apparatus back where it belongs, a familiar vanishing act. Most of the male persuasion wear zippered pants, though I realize string and buttons made their civilized appearance long before Herr Zipper created the metal or plastic method of opening and closing two pieces of fabric.

Allow me to correct the record. Whitcomb L. Judson, the type of name you don’t encounter much anymore, deserves the credit. His gadget’s first large-scale display was at the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair, some buildings from which still exist, including the Museum of Science and Industry. With such knowledge, I’m sure your visits there will never be the same.

Employing Judson’s invention, either closing or disclosing, does not demand brain power or concentration. You can’t do it in your sleep, but you can without sleep or preoccupied; and often when conversing, as sometimes happens when two men mind their own business while facing adjacent porcelain receptacles.

Ah, what arrogance! What foolishness! Too assured, confident, and mindless.

If you haven’t guessed what happened, here it is: the star of this essay (and I’m not talking about the whole of myself) — got snagged on the metal zipper for just an instant at, shall we say, its most sensitive point. An eye-opening moment. I should have remembered why the interlocking segments of the zipper are called teeth.

I am not much of a singer. Despite my limited musical skills, I immediately hit a high note only dogs can hear. In another second, I de-snagged the snag.

Carefully.

Some blood appeared at the accident site. To be specific, one drop. I felt better in a few more moments, soaping myself first.

Emergency rooms see far worse.

Now an apology. To my ex-patients, in particular. I suspect some of you never thought I owned this appliance or — occupied with weightier considerations — didn’t ponder its quiet presence in the room we shared. There were others, however, who — briefly at least — maintained focus on the additional function for which this machinery was designed and hoped to work their magic on it and on me. In either case, you might not have wanted to be reminded.

So sorry.

Now back to the six people who are continuing to read. Those who peruse counselor blogs are not all aware that therapists are regular folks. Our staged performances can fool you. Yes, but I am an iconoclast, a man willing to betray our slight-of-hand and step off the pedestal on which we perform, this for the sake of truth and a laugh.

Promise me something, dear reader. And by now, I do mean singular. Please do not tell my grandson any of this. He is just learning to master his small portion of the paraphernalia with which God equipped him.

I’m done, but worried a bit. Will you still respect me in the morning?

——

The perceptive among you will notice that the images above are almost identical, an Animated Zipper closing, the other opening (reversed). The creator of both of these is Demon Deluxe (Dominique Toussaint). They are sourced from Wikimedia Commons.

A Simple Explanation of Everything

We are prone to four mistakes in trying to make sense of ourselves and the world:

  1. Oversimple explanations.
  2. Answers of mind-bending complexity incapable of being grasped  — except when smoking marijuana.
  3. The following twin assumptions: a) reason explains more than emotion and b) others would reason as we do if they were reasonable.
  4. The belief we can fathom life in all its fullness.

Why #4 you ask? If I try to understand my inner workings, I only know myself on a conscious level. I do not have quick access to my unconscious even if I enter psychoanalysis with an expert. Nor can I see myself from outside.

Brain scientists don’t agree whether I have “free will.” My decisions — all the ones I think I’m in charge of — might be determined by the intersection of biology, history, and the fixed pathways of the brain pudding. The researchers cannot tell me if my actions are pre-baked into the cake of my being. My choices would only seem voluntary.

I search for comprehension, even so, but the morning’s newspapers cause mourning.

I’m distressed by the factual reports I find in these venerable, award-winning periodicals. I’m disturbed by elected and appointed officials — the kind who offer self-serving opinions without evidence and often without truth — who lack either conscience or courage. I’m troubled by the sightless idolators who follow these Pied Pipers toward the cliff. I’m unsettled by the thoughtlessness of some in opposition to them; and those citizens who complain or worry, but do nothing to defend the democratic republic.

What then is the explanation of the Bizzaro World at the tippy-top of the federal government’s executive branch?

In one sentence, here is the best I can do. This 17th-century wisdom fits into the first and last categories above. Over simplistic, for sure. Perhaps tongue-in-cheek or maybe dead serious.

Sometimes an idea waits nearly 400-years for a person who embodies it:

“All of humanity’s problems stem from man’s inability to sit quietly in a room alone.”

Blaise Pascal (1623-1662), Pensées

—–

The image at the top is Paul Klee’s 1921 Portrait of a Yellow Man. The 1978 painting that follows is called Loneliness, by George Stefanescu. Both are sourced from Wikimedia Commons.

When Life Laughs at You

The details are a problem. Spare yourself the details. No good comes from the details.

Except, perhaps, when they help you free-up your life and recognize the grand experiment offered all of us: the opportunity to remake ourselves by caring less about those same selves.

OK. You’re still reading? You really want to know the details?

Here they are.

I am in the middle of the crusty stage. Never heard the phrase? Here is the proper placement of this particular life plateau:

  • Youth
  • Middle age
  • Crusty stage
  • Old age

The crustiness is not the kind in a good piece of French bread. The temporary condition finds your face dry, red, and raw: the expected side-effect of a dermatologist’s handiwork to keep the skin on top of its game. Not cosmetic, but medical. A good outcome is predicted. I’ll be out of the crusty stage soon.

The story improves from here, although I must relate a few more details.

Better yet, I’m going to tell you what I learned by passing through this small period of discomfort; and what you might learn, too.

The procedure left my face painful, slightly swollen, and itchy for some days: a bit mask-like. The treated skin gradually flaked off and the rosy, sunburned toastiness faded. Lots of moisturizer and other unguents made my presence shiny. I was a beacon of reflected light in the half-dark.

I considered exposing you to a picture of myself in, what I can only call, the “full crusty.” I may be shameless, but I decided not to inflict this on you. Should you be grateful, just send a donation to your favorite charity.

The question was, while I was fully into this fullness – unable to put a good face on things, Halloween-ready two months too soon – “What am I going to do with my visage?” Several possibilities presented themselves. I could …

  • hide, kind of like The Elephant Man.
  • curse the hearing-impaired, indifferent gods.
  • concentrate on the pain of the first couple of days.
  • observe it.
  • obsess about the slowness of the healing process.
  • petition the authorities to make Halloween earlier, in which case I’d be able to save on a costume.
  • shroud the mirrors in my home.
  • focus on how I was getting better and better.
  • ignore the condition and occupy my mind elsewhere.
  • count myself grateful compared to those worse off.
  • worry what others might think if they saw me.

I could learn from it.

Notice how many ways we can make ourselves miserable. Instead, I decided to treat my face as the subject of an experiment.

The first two days offered restrictions: stay out of the sun lest I become some version of Dracula in the daylight. On Day Four, however, my kids, son-in-law, and  grandson visited. The adults were slightly unsettled, the two-year-old took my appearance in stride. I was still grandpa.

Day Five offered the real experimental possibility. My semi-annual dental exam gave me the chance to create some high-pitched screaming in public (not mine). Then I needed to pick up new glasses, where the patrons at Lenscrafters would scan me through their own fresh pair and surely say, “This can’t be right. I liked my vision better before. Refund please!”

In the event, only the dental assistant noticed, the dentist and office staff treating me as they always do. This either means that my regular appearance was already brutal, or they absorbed the big picture of me being me, kind of like my grandson. I vote for the second possibility.

Next stop was to pick up my glasses. Again, no crowds ran shrieking into the parking lot once I stepped into the mall. No fists were raised, no refunds requested. The experiment ended much as I expected: attention was not paid. If my countenance had grabbed some eyes? No matter. Well, OK, being chased by a shouting, torch-bearing mob would have been trouble. Fortunately, the Boy Scout in me brought earplugs.

“Always prepared” or “Be prepared,” the Boy Scout Motto

Buddhists talk of “non-self.” No soul. Nothing permanent. They state that a belief in a “self” is one of the causes of suffering. This turns the “Me, me, me” of the West’s competitive juggernaut on its head.

I could have said this turns the view of what is important in life on its face. If you have no face, no self, you have no face to lose.

Western philosophy and people like Martin Heidegger put the problem differently: we are beings for whom “being” is a question. If we think about our being, including the impression we make, self-awareness is a challenge, something our animal friends are free of.

We are far too preoccupied with our “selves.” Some say self-awareness is a disease. Or can be.

Worried about others laughing at you?

Life will laugh at you. The universe will laugh at you. Count on it.

Laugh back.

Take it from a man in the crusty stage of life.

The top photo, Breads, is the work of fir0002 at flagstaffotos.com.au/ The second image is called Two Papier-mache Masks in the NYC Village Halloween Parade, authorized for posting on Wikimedia Commons by parade director Jeanne Fleming. The 1916 German scouting manual, “Allzeit bereit,” was made available to Wikimedia Commons by Mediatus.

Dealing with Daily Indignities

One does well not to dwell on the routine indignities of life. That said, I shall relate a minor one, freshly issued last week from the Indignity Assembly Line, Chicago Division.

It is a man vs. woman story. I play the man.

Typecasting.

I walked into the Adams Street entrance to Symphony Center in downtown Chicago at about 1:15. Lovely, sunny day, temperature about 80-degrees Fahrenheit. The concert would begin at 1:30. I wanted to go to the men’s room before the music began.

A long line slithered its way down the narrow hallway. The ladies’ room queue, of course. A few feet before its entrance was a male facility with no line. I turned left to enter the anteroom to my gender-appropriate W/C.

A short, trim woman, perhaps 70-years-old, stood in front of the door to the men’s room proper. I imagined she was waiting for her husband, though most partners do this by standing outside the anteroom, not within it. As I stepped in, she planted her feet and stretched out her arms as far as possible to block my way. An American football linebacker would have been impressed by a stance signaling her determination to stop me. Moreover, she was not wearing a helmet. In other words, no push-over.

“You can’t go in.”

“Excuse me?”

“There is a woman inside.”

“Oh.”

Not being an idiot, I gathered the reason had to do with the daisy chain of ladies a few steps away. I wasn’t in a rush, so I waited. The thought occurred to me, however, that the guardian might have directed her friend to another one of the many washroom facilities in the building. Or, if the trespassing lady were in urgent need, she (without assistance) could have gone to the door of her restroom, reported her distress to those nearby, and received the consideration my wife tells me is commonplace under such circumstances. These were among the many thoughts I had as I waited, coming and going in an instant.

A frail, white-haired man, bent forward with the weight of perhaps nine decades, walked slowly around me, his mission the same as mine. He probably didn’t recognize I was waiting to enter myself. The female guardian stopped him with a somewhat less aggressive stance than she took with me. I imagined the woman figured she could impede his forward progress with less effort, kicking him to the ground if necessary, or blowing him down like a big, bad, she-wolf.

He was given the same directive. He, too, would have to wait. Or else.

The assumption, of course, was that we were not in immediate need. Maybe the doorkeeper heard no grinding teeth, saw no crossing of legs, perceived no agonized distress in either of us, overheard no barking bladders. Neither did she ask.

Only a chunk more time passed before the men’s room opened to release its cheery occupant. She appeared unconscious of our presence. She began chatting with her buddy as if nothing remarkable had happened; as if she makes a habit of visiting whatever w/c suits her. The newly “relieved” woman did not look ashamed. Just unconscious or entitled or needy of immediate conversation with the she-wolf, to whom she began speaking.

Neither one of them thanked us. You are not thanked if you are invisible.

No other men entered and I quickly joked with the older owner of a Y chromosome that we had just witnessed the fall of the last bastion of male supremacy. He responded that it could be worse. We laughed. Both of us had experienced worse, for sure. I love an entertaining story and here was my daily allotment. More than adequate compensation for the short wait.

Matinee concerts have their own demographic. The audience tends to be old – really old – not within a discus throw of working age. Women outnumber men by a huge margin. Several reasons: many of the women are widowed, some of the more able-bodied men are still working, and other men are either watching sports on TV or yelling at kids to get off their grass. In other words, doing man stuff.

Indoor plumbing stations are of particular importance to us humans, a unique part of our mental space.

Earlier in life, when we were engaged in toilet-training, they’d been a battleground and a place where “accidents” lead to ultimate triumph. Once we are old enough to gauge storage-tank-capacity, we don’t think about them much. A little later, most of the time spent inside has to do with working on our appearance; chisel, sandpaper, and spray paint in hand.

Somewhere around middle age, physical changes cause men to notice the locations of the facilities more, think about ingesting less caffeine (because it is a bladder irritant), and the mental space I mentioned gets larger. We can no longer take for granted that will-power will prevent us from “peeing ourselves.” When the bell rings signaling the symphony players have five minutes before they must be on stage, the stream of male musicians waiting to take care of their nether regions can resemble a conga line.

As the older man in the men’s room said, “It could be worse.” It has been worse, much worse. It will yet be worse and also better, depending on the moment. Such is life.

Someone will cut you off in traffic, jump ahead of you in queue at a store, clobber you with their backpack, perhaps not even knowing anything happened.

Bigger personal indignities exist. You will, for example, get older and become less physically attractive. Your body will demand more maintenance, more stretching, gallons of sunscreen. As my primary care physician told me years ago, when I asked why my left knee meniscus tore, “things wear out.”

Or, you could be like the teen-aged version of my mom, who lived with her parents and three siblings. There were times, she told me, when five of them were awaiting the sixth to exit the smallest room in their apartment, to replace the person on the throne. The frustration built until finally, someone used the nuclear option, yelling:

“Break it off and get out!”

A younger woman with whom I’ve recently become acquainted tells me she can still do the splits, a different kind of evidence things could be worse. More power to her. On the best day of my life, I couldn’t do the splits. The only splits I ever thought about were banana splits.

I am not talking here about war and peace, revolution, obstruction of justice, climate change, flood, hurricane, corruption, tax fraud, marital infidelity, or the like. I’m not talking about financial disaster, homelessness, or malnutrition.

We don’t think much about it, but nearly all of us in the Western World have indoor plumbing. Mozart, whose music I heard at Symphony Center on the day in question, used a chamber pot.

The frail, white-haired, 90-year-old man had it right.

Don’t sweat the small stuff. You won’t get those 30-minutes of grumbling discontent back.

Have a banana split instead and drown your sorrows.

The top image is  of a Pink Bunny-Shaped Roadblock , near Narita, Japan; a 2010 photo by Hopefully Acceptable Username. The second photo is a Replica of the Capitoline She-wolf, Palazzo Senatorio, Rome. It is the work of Jebulon. Finally, a 1942/43 called Men’s Room Marines won’t Win This War  It came from the Office of Emergency Management. War Production Board. All are sourced from Wikimedia Commons.