Tuesday, November 22, 2016

Times When You Do and Do Not Know Jack

From time to time, your father would observe of something you'd done a judgment of "Pretty good," or "Well played," or even "Nice touch, there." Given the depth of your relationship with him and your sense of knowing him, these seemingly mild words of praise were sufficient to maintain a relationship that was healthy and supportive. As you were later to judge father-son relationships, you counted yourself polar opposites from Pat Conroy, a writer you much admire, and his father, whom he memorialized in the novel The Great Santini.

Without realizing it at the time, for that would have given you too much credit for having too much insight, you felt somehow promoted to the higher stratosphere of relationships and regard on those times when your father's observations went beyond "Pretty good," and "Nice touch" to the majestic rhetoric of, "What are you, some kind of wise guy?" or the more declarative "Wise guy."

A wise guy is an essential demonstration of a sarcasm sandwich, either the closest thing to a non-Yiddish put-down or an expression of admiration. Starting with basic ingredients, a wise guy is a savant, a magi, a learned person. 

Level one of being called a wise guy is another essential demonstration, one of exaggerated otherness; it is being singled out after having said or done something of incredible gaucheness or stupidity, the equivalent of being accused of "You think you know everything, but you don't know jack."

One of your first times in memory of being called a wise guy came after you observed to your father, scant seconds of his observation that you didn't know jack, "It is my good fortune to have a father named Jack."

Depending on its use, the term wise guy is a mantra evoking praise or disdain. You spent many years thinking you were a wise guy, acting as though you were one, and not always getting along in the world about you because of it. Somehow the observations from your father were recognition that you could be prized for knowing one or two things as opposed to knowing well beyond things you had no hope of knowing.

Being a wise guy meant you were apt, funny, observant, relatively able to cope, sometimes even more than relatively able; you were more than the sorcerer's apprentice, you had a leg up over the horse of Reality.


Wise guy is other. If you have learned anything at all about story at this stage of your career, you have learned that story and the kinds of humor you prefer are about other, which is to say one thing being compared with another. Things that are merely themselves are neither story nor funny. A dandelion growing in a patch of grass is merely a thing; the same dandelion growing out of a crack in the sidewalk is other, unexpected, story.

As a lad, you used to sell newspapers on a corner near a Branch of the social service providing unemployment payments. Indeed, some unemployed were now able to afford a copy of the Herald-Express you were selling, presumably to check the Help Wanted ads. The Other, the unexpected or story, was the arrival of a character named Adolph Menjou to pick up his unemployment check between his relatively steady employment in films, driven by a chauffeur in his employ and in a limousine he owned. 

That was Other; that was funny and it was story. The universe abounds with things, persons who use those things, yet other persons who make those things. The universe abounds with an ever-expanding awareness of tenets of behavior. These tenets are sometimes called laws. There are natural laws, which may even be named after you for all eternity to see if you were the first to observe them.  In your matriculation through high school and university, you became aware of such laws as the many of Newton, at least one of Ohm, one you know of from a fellow named Lavoisier. Such laws apply to the observable behavior of matter.

There are other laws, laws enacted by people, trying to exert a sense of behavioral boundaries beyond which the so-called reasonable or prudent person will not trespass. Look at the consequences of two individuals, Prometheus and Sisyphus, who overstepped boundaries.

The more of a wise guy you become, the more you see yourself as having been formed in ways agreeable to you because you knew some jack and, indeed, some considerable Jack. The Other you notice is the dandelion in the cement and your own growth therein rather than a patch of grass.

The stories you relish most are of the Other and if one of your own should happen to come to fruition along those lines, you are the happier for it.

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