Wrong-Way Harrigan


Things get reversed for the slightest reasons. I’m drinking coffee right now—it was made hours ago and I put too much sugar and cream in it. It doesn’t taste as good as the last cup—but I know if I were starving or dying of thirst, this simple mugful would seem nectar from the gods. Whenever I’m not enjoying my food, I try to imagine I’m in a death camp—I take small bites and chew for longer than I usually do—sometimes enjoyment is missed simply because we pass by too quickly.

It’s always ‘backwards-day’, in my view. I have found that ceasing to need to find something makes it suddenly appear—and you can’t fake it, it only works if you’ve really stopped caring. Another example is from our younger days, when Claire and I would frequently dine at the finest restaurants (and this was back before they outlawed smoking in bars and restaurants). Claire and I joked one night that my having just lit my cigarette was the cause of the waiter’s appearance with our next course. But we used it ever afterward—when we would tire of waiting for our food, I would light a cigarette and, voila!—our food would appear. It was really quite effective and rarely failed us.

And I am prone to noticing these things because I’m a great ‘achiever’—I want to get things done, I want to close that sale, I want to make friends and influence people. But I never do a proper job of it—no one who goes straight at their objectives ever has an easy time of it. The truly successful people in the world are those who want to avoid specificity, and straight lines.

A banker, for instance, will never look you straight in the eye, having just heard your uninterrupted business-proposal pitch, and say, “Loan approved, my good man.” Life doesn’t work like that. It took me a long time to appreciate the importance of being comfortable—comfortable people are in no hurry—they cannot be frustrated by long pauses, additional questions, or verbal BS without end. They are the ones who still have half their drink left when everyone else in the meeting room is trying to pretend they’re not chewing on the ice cubes.

Of all the things a person does, being patient, not being in a hurry, and most certainly not being eager, is one of the most important—successful people never buy during scarcity or sell during a glut—they wait. Successful people like to complicate things—they don’t waste a transaction when they can also use that transaction as leverage for some other, future transaction. Successful people are rarely gracious, although they will go to great lengths to appear so—being truly gracious is simply too much overhead and extra time for successful people to spare.

Successful people try to appear under many disguises (the better to eat you with, my dear): the knowing old man, the sensitive person, the philanthropist, the concerned friend. All these masks have been so effective over time that even corporations will try to wear the same masks—‘at Gadzooks, Inc. we really care…’, ‘Mutual of Plymouth helps protect you from the unexpected.’, or try, ‘We at BigOilDotCom are ensuring a cleaner world for your children and your children’s children.’ And to finalize the confusion, there actually are such things as ‘knowing old folks’, ‘sensitive people’, philanthropists, and concerned friends!

Advertisers use these transparent manipulations because they work. And they have worked, on a more face-to-face level, for centuries. People want to believe—they want to trust—and that’s very nice. But it’s really great from the standpoint of manipulative, non-linear, successful people who want to get something from someone less ‘worldly’.

That word bothers me—‘worldly’—as if learning about the commonness of human deception automatically equals the taking up of this practice without question. We who feel too soft to join in are despised out loud by the players and shakers. They assume we despise them, silently, in return—but we are more likely to feel sorry for their jaundiced view of life and the way in which such an attitude prevents anyone from ever finding happiness, or even contentment.

And there is another example—to pursue happiness itself is a foregone failure—one only finds happiness in forgetting oneself. This is often cited as a reason for charitable activities—but one needs only to forget oneself—it is not strictly necessary to serve others. Hence the popularity of movies, books, TV, hobbies, and gardening. Of course, there is nothing wrong with charity—but it should not be held up as a highway to happiness, only as a righteous activity—and an opportunity, for some, to forget themselves in service to it.

But this is just one aspect of ‘backwards-ism’ in daily life—we are happiest when we forget ourselves. Also, we are at our most capable when we don’t watch ourselves too closely. I used to be very good at eight-ball—I would make incredible shots simply by taking them without lining them up or aiming at all—it’s that ‘Zen’ thing—as soon as someone exclaimed at how great a shot I’d made, I would become too self-aware, and I always missed the next shot because of it.

That may even explain the ‘beginner’s luck’ phenomenon—on our first try at something new, we haven’t yet learned what to worry about doing wrong—we have no precedents to trip ourselves up with.

When we can’t quite remember something, we have to wait until we’ve stopped trying to remember before the memory will return. When we try to be friendly to others, we get tongue-tied—but if two people, total strangers, say waiting on line together, see a kid being really cute, and their eyes meet, they experience something together and they suddenly feel a connection that no amount of small talk would engender.

My motto has always been ‘Moderation in all things—including moderation’. It speaks directly to the issue of ‘backwards-ness’. If I like to eat something, I eat too much and I never enjoy eating it again. If I enjoy reaching out to others, I do it too often, and people begin to avoid me. If I want to be able to concentrate, suddenly the whole world is knocking on my door, ringing my phone, and emailing me multiple times. If I feel like company, the whole world has gone out of town for the week.

We delude ourselves with the concept of ‘qualities’. Example: “Women are weak”. It’s true. But it’s only true in one way—upper body strength and aggressiveness. In all other ways, Women tend to be superior—they’re better insulated against cold, they have greater stamina, their pain-tolerance is much greater, and they are less vulnerable to stress. I remember much was made of this subject at the time of the ‘Space Race’—the question arose, “Can women handle the rigors of space-flight?” and one pundit’s op-ed pointed out that, from a purely biological point of view, women were in fact better suited to space travel than men.

Women, though incredible, are not perfect. They have that whole menstruation meshegas to deal with every lunar month. Men are always quick to jump on that fact whenever the subject of female superiority is broached. We’re drones, trying to find self-justification in a women’s world—we can’t help it. But it is only ‘backwards-ness’—women are stronger but weaker, women are steadier but less steady. I think that’s what the whole Yin-Yang thing is about—everything contains its opposite because it wouldn’t be ‘everything’ if you left out opposites.

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