Grisly, Man

I recently finished a double-bill of non-survivalist media by reading Jon Krakauer’s Into the Wild and watching Werner Herzog’s film Grizzly Man. The thread running through both works is obvious—young to youngish fellow enters the Alaskan wilderness to escape civilization and become one with nature, eventually perishing when nature proves a terrible host. They’re both fine, entertaining works that provoke interesting debates—both external and internal. As you’ve come to expect, however, I’m less interested in discussing the works themselves than the way in which the stories were told and debated.

Treadwell and McCandless were anti-establishment, outdoorsy fellows who preferred to sleep under the stars, live off the land, and groove on all the natures, man. McCandless graduated college, gave away all his money, and hit the road for three years, telling everyone who’d listen that he planned to rough it in Alaska’s bleak wilderness. When he finally made it, he lasted about 112 days before succumbing to starvation at the age of 23. Treadwell had a couple of decades on McCandless, was a former substance abuser, and had walked away from a failed acting career. He eventually decided to enter Katmai National Park to observe and interact with the park’s brown bear population. After 13 summers of filming and, in his mind, befriending the grizzlies, he and his girlfriend were mauled and eaten by one.

The instant reaction of most people, particularly Alaskans, was to write off both men as nut-jobs without a lick of goddamned sense. Anger is an understandable reaction. Humanity’s history is a record of divestment, not reunion, with the wild. Our species left Nature behind because Nature tried hard to kill us. The idea of entering that world without the skills, supplies, or technological advantages, humanity developed to deal with Nature’s cruelty, is romantic, yes, but also highly unrealistic—if not inane.

Looking at both men’s lives the similarities are unavoidable. McCandless was a child of privilege from a relatively stable family. Predictably growing disgusted with his life of wealth, comfort, talent, and achievement, he ran the opposite way at full tilt as soon as he came of age. For three years McCandless hoboed across America, working shit jobs and living in a tent on the outskirts of town. Like a modern My Man Godfrey, he decided living on the edge of poverty and associating with peripheral humans was somehow more real than the life he was already living.

While McCandless’ resilience and resourcefulness are impressive, his sense of duty and loyalty appeared highly mutable. Anyone reading Into the Wild will nod sadly at the stories of McCandless’ issues with his father (who, at his worst, seems to be a demanding but caring hard-ass [Later note: Sean Penn’s Into the Wild suggests spousal abuse, though it’s not entirely clear what was happening or how often.), and understand that urge to escape Daddy’s gravitational pull. But how many readers, I wonder, note that McCandless abandoned his beloved sister without a word as well?

Krakauer touches on this selfishness in his and other adventurers’ lives, but fails to make more of it. In Krakauer’s descriptions, McCandless comes across as a twitchy savant with an entirely self-constructed personality (going so far as to assume the trail name of Alexander Supertramp). McCandless engages in multiple poses as a literary rebel, vagabond, social activist, and philosopher of nature, all performed with overweening self-awareness. It’s funny then that—despite being a former college journalist and avid reader who chose to pursue a Jack London by way of Walden lifestyle—McCandless is silent, or at least non-reflective about his adventures. The grievously brief notes he left behind, scrawled in the margins of his heroes’ books, are terse unto meaninglessness. As a writer I wonder why he bothered going if he wasn’t interested in communicating what he found.

McCandless comes off as a sweet, dim, arrogant, but highly functioning kid, however, beside the sweet, dim, arrogant, but severely damaged Treadwell. While McCandless’ decision to enter the wild with minimal supplies can at be ascribed to an addle-pated search for adventure and self-actualization, Treadwell’s decision to not only live amongst the grizzlies but also approach, nay, interact with them, was incomprehensible. Watching Grizzly Man, directed by weirdo-collecting  weirdo Werner Herzog, we have to opportunity to see and hear the pre-mauling Treadwell. He is sincere, excited, committed, and completely sliding off the rails. His ongoing, self-directed pep talks… His creepy baby-talk with the bears, foxes, and other critters that cross his path… His rants against the park service, which apparently dealt with him with an exorbitant amount of patience… The segment where he palpates a bear turd with an awe reserved for views of the Grand Canyon… If there’s a segment where he sounds sane, I can’t remember it.

It’s saddening, because his message—preserve nature and protect the bears—is a necessary one. By film’s end, however, you can’t really tell what good Treadwell did, or even if he was out there for reasons other than ego. His role as a filmmaker seems tacked on—a pose even—but that might be Herzog’s fault, who pastes together the hapless man’s footage to suit his needs, only commenting favorably on the parts of the film—several minutes of waving, whispering, wind-blown grass—where Treadwell is off-camera.

At least Treadwell has his chance to speak from beyond the grave, an opportunity not afforded McCandless’, who remains a bearded wraith in the few photographs he snapped of himself. Interestingly, I started watching Sean Penn’s film version of Into the Wild. I noted that Penn and Emile Hirsch flesh out McCandless beyond Krakauer’s series of vignettes showing “Alexander Supertramp” as a predictably rebellious post-adolescent of tremendous emotion but outstanding shallowness. If we had footage of McCandless disjointedly declaiming his adulterous father and cushy upbringing while babbling about social activism, transcendental philosophy, and Doctor Zhivago, would we find him more or less sympathetic than Treadwell? Would religions, or at least religious feelings, erupt in others?

McCandless and Treadwell have their defenders (residents of the edge who favor ambiguity and taking risks without taking precautions always will), but this is not surprising. It’s a human quality to look at the more romantic segments rather than the whole of lives like McCandless’ and Treadwell’s. The positive reaction to their “sacrifices” goes back centuries. We see it with the Christian Desert Fathers—often wealthy men (the poor already know only sacrifice, after all, which somehow cheapens it) who shed their worldly possessions, cut off ties with their families, and entered the wilderness to search for a greater connection with God and personal and spiritual gnosis through self-denial. To a part of the human population, any human willing to subject him or herself to suffering must be extraordinary—ordinary people just don’t do things like that.

People traveled through inhospitable climes and environments just to chat with St. Anthony the Anchorite through the crack between the tomb he lived in and the boulder rolled in front of it. I wonder what he told them that kept them coming? Probably a reiteration of the example of Christ and his admonishment to reject worldly things, take up your cross, and join him. Not that Jesus was an original thinker in that regard. Diogenes suggested the same thing, albeit in a nastier way. But according to legend even Alexander the Great was in awe of that foul-smelling, -speaking, and -behaving cynic, saying that if he couldn’t be Alexander he would want to be Diogenes. Again, anyone so off-putting must be on to something. We must seek their approval; we must realize we can never achieve the pain and failure they’ve experienced. That didn’t prevent Alexander from ruling the known world, of course.

Unconditional compassion is a worthy goal, but it often becomes entangled in rationalization. People can be so compassionate it blinds them to incredibly asinine behavior. I find it staggering that in the face of the evidence—McCandless’ insistence on not carrying the basics for wilderness living; Treadwell’s anthropomorphizing of the Katmai bears—people continue to sew angel wings onto them. No one’s life should be defined or criticized for a single act of self-injuring foolishness; but systematic, life-ending foolishness? Hell, it should be open season on that all year long.


So, I stepped in some dog shit at lunchtime today. It wasn’t the first time, and it won’t be the last, sadly, I’m sure. After a trip to the bathroom I was able to pick out (with a plastic knife) all but the most embedded crumbs of dog grumpy from my shoe’s waffle. What kills me is that while much of my trip to and from the Art Institute is a blur, I remember crossing Randolph Street, stepping around a barrier on the other side, and then feeling a momentary sliding sensation along my left heel. “I’m not going to look,” I said. “It was probably some garbage—a bit of beef, a blot of mustard, a crumb of cheese, a fragment of an underdone potato.” I hoped for the best and trundled on, unwittingly tracking Canis lupus familiaris feces past the Institute’s van Goghs, Vuillards, and Modiglianis.

During the stepping, I experienced my usual irrational fear that I’d accidentally crushed a baby bird underfoot. Once, as a young man, I unwittingly kicked a semi-formed robin, and when I looked down and saw its shuttered eyes, membranous skin, and pathetically snapping beak, I wanted to vomit. I couldn’t even bring myself to end its misery, and moved on. I’m sure it all turned out okay in the end. Sure.

The fun part came when I was sitting at my desk, and the odor began to waft upwards. I couldn’t quite smell it at first, but the progression of scents and the Proustian thoughts they engendered were interesting.

1. “What is that?”—At first my brain was only attuned to the presence of an out of the ordinary scent. I must have crossed my legs quickly, sending a momentary geyser of scat molecules up into my nose. I couldn’t quite place it, and it hadn’t lingered long enough to be unpleasant. It was more a pungent ghost—a brief breeze of earthiness.

2. “Okay… What the hell is that?”—The smell grew strong, and I began to worry. No one else was around (the person in the next cube was in a meeting), making me suspect I was somehow releasing foulness. I’d showered that morning, and while my belly was making the expected post-lunch digestive grumbles, no matter, gas, liquid, solid, or plasma, had exited Mr. Dan Kelly. Certainly not at my desk, for Christ’s sake.

My next thought was that somehow the cats had dosed my clothes, but to not have noticed it until late afternoon was absurd. Furthermore, if you own cats you know what their crap smells like. Cat refuse smells more like ammonia—at least their pee does, which tends to dominate however bad their dung smells. This wasn’t cat though, it was dog. And I knew this because I was a dog owner long before I started adopting cats. I recognized that sour kibble and meat-tinged pong. Strangely enough, this week we just happen to be minding a dog for my wife’s dad, but I knew that Lola (the dog) had been nowhere near my clothing. Plus, unlike the cats, venal creatures that they are, she had no reason to seek olfactory vengeance on my duds.

But then I remembered that this had all happened before. I looked at the bottom of my shoe. Et voila. Figuring out the source of the smell was easier than the last time I stepped in dog doody. That’s a funny story, and I don’t think I’ve shared it with anyone before today.

Several years ago, the same thing had happened. I was walking to work and somewhere along the way the merest bit of dog log got stuck to my shoe without my noticing—I think there was snow on the ground. When I arrived at work I got my coffee, sat down, and set up for the day. Suddenly, a familiar smell, but familiar only in that I knew it was rectally related, but not necessarily canine. I let it pass, imagining it was an olfactory illusion. Then I smelled it again. It was stronger this time. Still not thinking dog, I imagined this was the work of man. The man in the next cube. Let’s call him Jimmy.

Jimmy was a fellow whom I liked greatly. A talented soul with a wry sense of humor, Jimmy could always be counted on for an appropriately off-color response when, say, the receptionist announced that an earring was found (“It’s mine… But it’s not an EAR ring!” He didn’t make that joke, but they were usually in that vein.). I remembered he’d been sick recently, so I thought, “Well… Maybe he’s having some GI problems, and had to let one sneak out.”

Then I smelled it again.

“What?” I thought, eyeing the wall that separated us. “What the hell?” One was a mistake. Two was ill-mannered. The bathroom was just a short walk away in case the cooling tower had to let off a little steam to avoid critical mass, if you know what I mean. And I mean farts.

Again, the scent of stink arose. My mucous membranes died by the thousands; my nose hairs were singed and reduced to ash.

“JESUS CHRIST!” I thought. I stood up and looked over the wall at Jimmy, who was diligently working away. He looked fairly unbothered by gastrointestinal or any other difficulties, other than his daily duties. He looked back.

“Yes?” asked Jimmy.

“Nothing,” I said.

The perp seemed unperturbed, so I had to rethink my approach. I sat back down and leaned over, sniffing the air beneath my desk. I thought the same things I thought above: cat sabotage, poor hygiene, etc. I kept smelling until I pinpointed the hellish stench’s location. Somewhere near the floor, somewhere down there, around… my shoe. I lifted and tilted my shoes, left, then right. On the bottom of my right shoe, pressed deeply into the soul, was a small bowser sausage. Oops. Hehehehehehehe…

All apologies to Jimmy. I’m glad you didn’t have it in you.

Joaquin Phoenhoax

If the 1990s were the age of irony, where everything sat between double quotes, the 2000s and 2010s are promising to be the age of the participatory lie. Bush’s claim of WMDs was the most egregious example. Even in the face of contradictory evidence, even now, long after it’s been proven that Hussein had no WMDs, we’re simply supposed to accept that we were lied to, but what’s done is done. We’re not even allowed to be outraged, being told that it serves no purpose to pursue legal action or demand resignations and apologies because… just because. Go along with it, chumps, until the next lie.

Now we have the semi-revelation that Casey Affleck’s documentary, I’m Still Here, purportedly charting Joaquin Phoenix’s descent into madness and shame, is a hoax. Practically everyone knew that Phoenix was faking it. His behavior was too sudden, too contrived, and too bizarre to be real. When it was learned that Affleck was filming the documentary, it became more obvious. Then the film came out, and while a handful of sensitive creatures bought the film’s premise and sent out pleas for Phoenix’s reclamation, most critics who saw it (I didn’t) found it discouraging, disgusting, and ultimately fake. Now that Affleck has admitted his fake documentary is fake, there’s an inevitable backlash. Sort of. Reaction has been annoyed but subdued, and the NY Times blog has even run a piece with a final swipe at those who dare complain about being duped.

Such behavior is endemic on the Internet. I remember a particularly nasty soul who believed anyone who was ever duped in any way on the Net had only him- or herself to blame. This judgmental attitude is completely appropriate when reprimanding those who e-mail their social security and bank account numbers to strangers, play on railroad tracks, or stand up on roller coasters, but to stigmatize the basic, very human instinct to empatize with others is just wrong. The blame has been shifted from the perpetrator of the lie to those who believed it; the attitude being that the victim should have known better, even when evidence refuting the lie wasn’t immediately present. This supports the passively evil practice of reflexive cynicism. Reflexive cynics aren’t terribly useful as commentators, advisers, or human beings. I’m not making a plea for brain-dead optimism; I’m saying that permanent cynicism is childish and ultimately leads to stasis—you’ll never be hurt if you never act, but you’ll never accomplish much either. I’d add that if you ever choose reflexive cynicism as a personality trait—never screw up, because you will be consumed by your fellow scolds.

So, what does this have to do with the participatory lie? Because during the course of Phoenix’s little drama in real life, there didn’t seem to be a serious effort to investigate if he was putting it on or not. Even David Letterman chose to participate—I’d hesitate to say “knowingly” but I’d likewise hesitate to say “unwittingly”—going for the laughs offered by a genuinely flaky Phoenix rather than coming out and saying, “Come on. What’s the game?” Then, with the film’s release, the tone shifted to, “We knew all along,” setting a new course for the marketing of the film vis a vis a debate over the propriety of Affleck/Phoenix’s gag. We supported the lie, now let’s react strongly over being duped (even though it was all done with our full participation). Furthermore, let’s mock those people (Roger Ebert was one) who thought it might be real. Amazing. If all of this was constructed in a marketer’s office somewhere, it’s cause for being very afraid of how easily the mass of journalists and public intellectuals can be manipulated. Present company included.

I’m Still Here is also another instance of the impractical joke. In terms of hilarity, I’d put it on the tier between giving someone a fake winning lottery ticket and a phone call stating a loved one just died in a car accident—ha ha, just kidding! Descriptions of the film describe a series of events in which Phoenix is arrogant, insane, abusive, and self-destructive, but, as far as I can tell, without a hint of amusement or a tip-off that it’s all a game.* In one apparently unforgettable scene, an abused underling shits on a sleeping Phoenix. The penetrating commentary on the nature of celebrity oozes from every frame I’m sure. If anything, it sounds like Affleck and Phoenix overreached, and their satire became bloated with so much unpleasantness, no one feels much like laughing.

Affleck and Phoenix didn’t especially hurt anyone—though their own careers may be a bit dinged. But the hoax of I’m Still Here is comparable to taking an exceedingly long time to tell a terrible and offensive joke, blowing the punchline, and then standing uncomfortably in front of a group of confused, insulted, and slightly angry individuals who’d like the last 10 minutes of their lives back. Who could blame them?

* Okay, the rapping was a tip-off, but it seems like the absurdity of the rapping becomes submerged by Phoenix’s increasingly erratic behavior. If Affleck and Phoenix were going for a more plausible case of celebrity overreaching, they would have had Phoenix trying to become a rock star ala Keanu Reeves or Russel Crowe. Instead they went for the off-the-rails insanity of a rap career, and it doesn’t sound like they did much more with it than annoy P. Diddy.

Dreary Fear

I used to cram in a post or two a day, and turn out an article a month. I don’t blame parenthood entirely, because things used to be much looser in other areas of my life. I used to fear being crammed into a box. Now it’s obvious that there’s an organized campaign to stuff me in one by others who prefer living in boxes, thank you.

I thought all this adolescent rebellion and angst would be spent by now. Nope.

Above all, I’ve got to stop making others’ shitty writing read better, and get back to making my own shitty writing read better.

Look at My Dumb! Gee, You’re Thumb!

I love a good hoax or practical joke, but the gist of the Dry Erase Board Jenny hoax seems to be, “Ha ha! You thought she was real! But she wasn’t!” There’s no game here, other than, I suspect, an attempt to garner some hits with a hot piece of… Uh, a very pretty girl.

The moral, I suppose, is that you shouldn’t believe everything you see on the Internet. Hardly a new piece of advice, yes? At the end of the day, we come away from this hoax not chuckling, but with a feeling of disappointment that a young woman who’d been sexually harassed hadn’t wreaked revenge on her pig boss. Let me highlight that word: disappointment. I’ll come back to it later.

First, I’d like to address what I’ve just decided to call the “impractical joke.” I had a friend who pulled plenty of impractical jokes that left me more confused than amused or embarrassed. Once he left a note on my desk (I believe he had a female friend write it for him, to achieve a more girly look and feel) “from” another woman at work. The note stated that she knew I enjoyed Nintendo video games (which I did), and maybe we could hook up, play a few at her house, and brush up on our skills. Nudge nudge, wink wink. Something like that. Sexually speaking, I’d hit a dry spell, and I likely would have grabbed most any opening a woman offered me (snicker). However, something didn’t gibe.

A Nintendo date? What the hell is a Nintendo date? If it was sincere, why wouldn’t this woman simply approach me and ask me out? Is this a gag, and if so, what’s the punchline? And again: Nintendo? Maybe it sounds funny in this context. I think I’m making it sound funnier than it was. I was mostly perplexed. I was especially perplexed since I didn’t recognize the woman’s name, and there’s the rub.

I walked over to where my friend and a few other co-workers were standing and asked, “Anyone know what this is all about?” (Note: I’m a lousy subject for practical jokes. I already expect to be handed an exploding cigar or to sit on a whoopee cushion at any given moment).

“I don’t know, Dan. Did you talk to _____________? You should really follow that up!”

“No, because I have no idea who this woman is,” I replied.

“Well, maybe you should talk to her (giggle, titter). I bet you have a lot in common,” he answered.

“Um, I’d have to know who she is first.”

“You know…” and he gestured to another part of the office. “She’s in sales. Over there.”

“Huh?” I replied.

My lack of reaction showed that the jig was up, or that, at least, I wasn’t about to make an ass out of myself. Like I said, practical jokes are wasted on me.

“I wrote it,” said my alleged friend. “This is _________. You know, she has legs like stovepipes.”

I shrugged. I had no clue who he was talking about. Now it was just uncomfortable.

He walked me over to a place where we could see her sitting in her cubicle. She was middle-aged, frumpy, dumpy, and, God forgive me, ugly as sin.

Ah, there’s the gag. Ha. Ha.


“You know, if you play a practical joke, it should make sense,” I told my friend. “It shouldn’t be mean, either.”

He shrugged. He probably still thinks he pulled a long con on the level of the Spanish Prisoner.

The Dry Erase Board Jenny gag wasn’t mean, but it wasn’t all that amusing either; more accurately, it was no longer amusing once it was revealed to be hooey. Also, as I said, there was no context; no chance for a sharp individual to know he or she was being gaffed. We assumed this young woman had quit her job, and despite the 20/20 hindsight of the “I knew it all the time” crowd, it wasn’t immediately obvious that we were being gulled. It’s as if I said to you, “I’m going to give you $20.” Then, when you put out your hand I’d laugh and say, “Ha ha! Dumbshit! You believed me!” Impractical. People thought they were reading an amusing story, but they weren’t. Ba-dump-bump. My goodness, it doesn’t even perform the primary practical joke function of pricking at anyone’s pride. I’d add that it mostly worked because of the site’s lack of high profile. The Chive is apparently known for practical jokes, so I guess that’s an argument for taking anything they say with some skepticism… but only if you’d heard of them. Which I hadn’t. I wonder how many others have?

Some might suggest this is yet another lesson that the Internet, if not life itself, must always be approached with a belief that everyone is trying to fuck you blue, and if you ever, EVER fall for a gag, hoax, or scam, you had it coming. I am a fairly skeptical person who isn’t prone to abusing his emotions, but I haven’t reached the point where I could live with such a clenched mind and pickled heart. I appreciate skepticism and pragmatism, but reflexive cynicism is the province of dull minds.

Coming back to the concept of disappointment… While I hate describing anything as a trend (that should be left to the Times, which sees trends everywhere the way paranoiacs see Men in Black 1), Dry Erase Board Jenny typifies a notion that keeps popping up in the media: you cannot fight back. Jenny was fake. A young woman tormented by a chauvinist boss zings him beautifully in public… But she didn’t. She didn’t exist. That ‘s a little sad. 2

Let’s review: We were gleeful when this charming young lady stuck it to The Manâ„¢, or rather the little The Manâ„¢ most of us face day in and day out. Then the rug was pulled out. The redemptive final board that said she knew things would turn out okay (which, largely, is how life works. That’s “okay,” not “perfect,” by the way) was invalidated. In the same day, we learned that after the flight attendant’s final speech and beer-swilling slide to freedom, he was not just fired but arrested. Arrested. Fictionally, more and more TV shows build up adversaries who know all, have infinitely deep pockets, and are untouchable—leading to the grim spectacle of watching Our Heroes in a continual cycle of futility. Nietszche explained that we enjoy watching tragedies because we thank the gods it’s not happening to us. Dry Erase Board Jenny goes a step further brings the tragedy home, saying, “Idiots. You didn’t really think there was hope, did you?”

I dislike the Dilbertian attitude of giggling through hell. “Ha ha! The people in charge are incompetent monsters! Ho ho! We’re doomed to repeat the same monotonous, soul-killing tasks again and again! Hee hee! Nothing can be done! Get back to your cube, swallow your daily shit-lump, and let your supervisor grab your crotch, or The Manâ„¢ will have you wearing a paper hat by day’s end! Hahahahahahahahahaha!”

What? Don’t you get it? 3


1. When Megan Jasper of Sub Pop pranked the Times by creating a list of nonexistent grunge slang words the Old Grey Lady published without verification, THAT was funny as hell. Why? Because the Times could have solved it all with a few phone calls. Moreover, the terms were so insanely stupid (Big bag of bloatation? Swingin’ on the flippity-flop? Wack slacks?), it’s difficult to believe the article passed through the hands of the editorial profession’s supposed creme de la creme. Again, it’s all about context.

In the spirit of the grungespeak list, I’ll grant that the invention of the word “HPOA/HOPA” was ingenious. I do suspect the Chive folks ran over to and added it because people like me might seek verification. Ha ha! I thought that was a viable source! What a dope!

2. Arguably, another tip-off that this was a hoax was that Jenny was an aspiring broker, and as such, would have no conscience.

3. They were wise not to say that “Jenny” was groped, propositioned, or otherwise directly threatened. I’d like to know how many feminists, lawyers, and general activists were ready to rain holy hell on her former place of employment strictly on the basis of her being described as a “hot piece of ass.” I wonder how much the Chive people thought this through?

How to Declare an Unsung Genius, No Matter How Rightfully Unsung He or She May Be

1. Find a period in history during which great strides were made in a particular artistic field and/or large groups of noteworthy individuals were lauded for their inarguable levels of talent.

2. Note appearances of peripheral attention-seeking figures (PASFs) in the noteworthy individuals’ lives. You may need to go all the way back to art school.

Look for these qualities:

a. Was the PASF known for outrageous behavior, usually to a distracting degree? (e.g., Nakedness in the classroom, nakedness in a public fountain (a classic), or nakedness in the shower, while others were trying to shower alone).

b. Did the PASF dress funny? Was it funnier than you’d expect for the time period? (e.g,, green hair during the Regency period, live animal hats in the Jazz Age, scrap metal undergarments at any given time)

c. Was the PASF stoned to the gills six days a week and unconscious the remaining day?

d. Were they sexually active to a degree that didn’t seem quite right? (e.g. voluminous anonymous group sex in public bathrooms with albino quadriplegic dwarves)

e. Was the PASF expelled from an educational institution because the instructors were close-minded simpletons who lacked vision by insisting the PASF turn in assignments?

f. Was the PASF frequently involved in criminal actions that seem amusingly quirky now, but which would piss off the reader if he or she were the PASF’s target today?

g. Did the PASF perform some stupid-ass action that done got their ass killed?

Having three or more of the above traits in their goodie bag is a good start for the PASF’s qualification as an unsung genius. Unsung geniuses don’t just live… they live, live, LIVE! (i.e., acted like selfish assheads.)

3. Going back to that golden epoch of artistry (e.g. the Renaissance, 1940s New York, any urban nightclub environment during the late 1970s), observe what took place about a year before anything interesting happened. Note the PASF’s behavior:

a. Did they appear onstage, play guitar badly, shout out a few lyrics, stumble around, vomit, and then pass out? Did the crowd, according to the two old-timers who swear they were there remember that the crowd howled for their blood, because their minds could not accept the violent and uncompromising truth they just saw, even though it took place at a church talent show? Congratulations, your PASF invented punk rock.

b. Was their creative output so minimal as to be nonexistent? Did their pamphlet, 7″, song fragment, or doodle inspire a larger work by a greater talent? Can you at least draw an imaginary line between it and, say, Ulysses or van Gogh’s Starry Night? Go ahead. Nobody’s looking.

c. Did they inspire more noteworthy artists through bizarre behavior, joyless fucking, extended crying jags, and destruction of the artists’ works, homes, and egos? Did this “inspiration” give way to productivity when they were finally driven off or died?

4. When presenting your theories, be sure to buy into your own bullshit, and forget that you’re engaging in revision for the sake of self-promotion. You really DO believe that this person was overlooked by all the major scholars of a field out of spite, obstinacy, or, I dunno, just to poke holes in their credibility and make their jobs harder. Goddamn it, it stands to reason.

Speak Softly and Carry a Big…

Someone I know asked me why I don’t respond to her e-mails—usually ones with funny links or forwarded messages—with longer replies. She’s right about my brevity. Unless I have a point to make requiring extra verbiage, I’m spare with words. If you send me a link to a funny video or a photo of a dog in flippers and a sombrero or whatever, I’ll write back, “Cute!” or “Funny!” and leave it at that. If, in another instance, you compliment a piece I’ve written, unless you ask me a direct question I’ll just reply with something like, “Thanks for the kind words. I really appreciate that.” And I do appreciate it. I’m just not going to gush. That would be unseemly. Also, I never figure anyone is really waiting for me to babble. I don’t want to waste their time.

Outside of e-mail, but in the same vein, I’ve always been vaguely aware that my quietness can be taken as rudeness, especially when people try to engage me in conversation. I’m not very good at picking up verbal and visual cues, so I go for the safety of assuming I’m boring everyone. Hence, I keep things brief, unless the situation requires length.

But as I’ve grown as a person and trained myself to pick up on those cues, I’ve learned that some people are not particularly interested in hearing me speak at length, ever. People have different ideas about what “at length” means. I’ve been interrupted while offering very short answers to questions. I’ve been asked my opinion, and after 10 seconds the questioner is off speaking to someone else. In my favorite moment, I was asked a question, and as I opened my mouth, someone next to me (not Mike) started answering the question FOR me. Sometimes it’s better to be silent and still.

Largely, it’s my voice and demeanor. Like my father, I speak in low, modulated tones; unlike him I mumble. As a lawyer and ex-politician, Dad learned to project his voice when needed, but in conversation he only raises his voice when noise pollution rises in the immediate vicinity. Even then he’s not a shouter. I’m with him on that one—in most conversation there’s no need to to yell. Hilariously, if you rudely interrupt my dad, he’ll adjust the power, not the volume, of his voice and run you over like a bulldozer. I’ve noticed this mostly happens with people who fancy themselves mavericks. They ask Dad a question, and as he methodically outlines his answer they try to “help” him along, interrupting, shout-talking at him as if they’re at a nightclub, trying to prod him into reaching the answer they want, not the answer they need. Then Dad takes a breath and lets fly with his deep, bludgeoning locomotive voice. I’ve seen people step back, startled, when he does that. Defying authority has become so rote these days, it amazes people when they encounter an authority figure who won’t bend to their desires. I suppose it’s a turn off for some people, and they think Dad is being overbearing, but from my perspective he’s doing what’s best for them, even if they don’t know it. Whenever I meet someone who takes their time explaining something, I listen, especially if they seem to know what they’re talking about. In conversation, what is a person supposed to be doing instead?

So, why don’t I speak up? Why don’t I engage?

If I’m at work it’s because I’m there to work, not gabble. I shoot the breeze like anyone else, but I’ve been hired to edit and proof, and edit and proof I shall. I think my reputation for rudeness (or, at least, aloofness) comes from my habit of not realizing when people I barely speak to want to talk to me. I come into the cafeteria, say “Hey” or “Good morning” to whoever, get my coffee, and leave. When someone (again, usually someone I barely converse with) asks me “How’s your son?” or “Going anywhere for vacation?”, it doesn’t register because I’m thinking “Get coffee. Go back to desk. Proof. Edit. Write.” My co-workers often have to (“have to”) ask the question again, which boggles me for a few seconds as my brain registers what they’re saying.

“Excuse me?” I ask.

“How’s your son?/Going anywhere for vacation?/Etc.”

Okay, there’s a little rude part of me that causes me to knit my brow when I hear these questions. I can’t for the life of me understand why a passing acquaintance is asking me about my life. It hasn’t occurred to me—and I suppose I’m an ass for this—to wonder about their life. I’m a liberal guy, and I believe in fair play, freedom, happiness, and all that shit, but I don’t get into the nitty-gritty of the lives of (key word) EVERYONE around me. I won’t say I don’t care, but I can’t say I care all that much because I fail to see the relevance of such conversation. It’s okay, I don’t expect my life to enthrall anyone. That’s not self-effacement, it’s just fact.

Which is minorly monstrous, I guess, though in my defense I don’t think I’m hurting anyone as long as I keep my mouth shut and maintain an expression of rapt interest. Mike has coached me on this over the years. I’ve learned to make eye contact and have a set of answers ready now. My humanity is coming along nicely.

How’s my son?

* He’s healthy and happy and growing every day.
* He’s all boy.
* He’s into everything.

Going anywhere on vacation?:

* Nope, staying home and working on the house.
* Yes, we’re heading to XYZ destination.
* I am a Lincoln/Architecture/History/Whatever buff.

I cleave to a script, and it’s interesting how little difference it makes since everyone else has his or her own script as well. I don’t do this to be a jerk. I’m just missing a necessary something that many people seem to have in order to engage in normal social interactions. When people who I don’t know very well  try to have conversations with me, I’m incapable of recognizing that they want to talk to me, because when I talk I’m usually interrupted, because, I guess, I’m not honoring the rules. I just wish I knew what the rules were. If nothing else I’d be a better conversation faker.

And that, dear children, is why I write.