I can't tell you how important the following story has been in my life because it taught me - maybe just confirmed for me - multiple lessons. I say this even though what transpired was so innocuous, so trivial, that I am positive no other person alive today would possibly remember it happening or think it had the slightest importance. I hope I've lowered your expectations sufficiently, anyway. But, it meant something to me and still does.
Among the several hats I've worn, movie theatre usher came first when I turned 17. My friend, who had worked at the theatre a while, got me the job. There were a number of other kids working there about our age and it was both fun and crazy. How so? For example, we used to go up into the attic of the theatre above the customer seats to put light bulbs in the ceiling. I don't remember anymore if it was my friend or I who accidentally pushed a heavy bulb through the ceiling, nearly hitting a customer on the head, but it was one of us. We also used to change the signs for the movies outside in front of the theatre, which at that primitive time was accomplished by snapping plastic letters with built in clasps over thin railings in order spell out the movie titles. We even had to do the main sign on top of the building, putting us up high in the air, with no safety restraints, no hard hat, no nothing, just hanging on by the very tips of our sneakers and one hand, while we snapped the plastic in place with the other, sometimes in freezing weather. It really was fun. But, yes, crazy.
Our manager was not the nicest man in the world. He was grim and unforgiving if you made a mistake, or even if he thought you might have. He was also cruel. For instance, he would every day send an illiterate black custodian who had worked with him for many years to their bank to get some change. Mr. M. would write out a note for him to deliver explaining what was needed each day. This went on for years. Then one day, when he handed the note his boss had written to the teller, he found himself facing a drawn gun and eventually a lot of policemen. Why? The note had read "Give this n****r all your money." Because it was the 1970s, everyone laughed it off. But, nice guy, right? I knew the story because my manager told me himself. When he got brain cancer, the other managers made a pool to see who would get closest to his date of death. The old crusty thing beat them though and returned to work. We did not have a good ending. He tried to tell me what I could wear outside of work and I quit.
But, before he returned, while I was still happily showing people to their seats and the like, we had a substitute manager named Mr. Fat. . . . . He was a nice man, but true to his name, really, really fat. It was really a strange coincidence. Though we liked him, we would make jokes about him. My favorite was that his would be the only ghost that couldn't fly. These days, they'd probably make me take a sensitivity class for that one. One day I was acting as doorman and I saw a young man come up to the outside ticket window. When he left, the cashier began waving frantically to me. At first, I thought she was just saying hi and waved back. But, she gave me a "No, you idiot!" look and I went up to her. She had been robbed. The kid had stuck his hand enclosed in a paper bag through the slot. We had to tell Mr. Fat. . . . . so he could call the police. But, we couldn't find him for about 20 minutes. Then we did. He was sitting in the driver's seat of his car, right in front of the cashier's window, sound asleep.
None of those is the actual story. I'm getting there. I'm getting there.
So, I was working the floor one day when we were showing a Clint Eastwood movie. I think it was The Gauntlet. Mr. Fat. . . . bustled over to me like Fezziwig and said that the company had sent us a game and I'd have to operate it. The game was constituted of a life size cardboard cutout of Clint with a circle around his heart and a dart gun with a rubber tip that was supposed to stick to the board. You had to stand about six feet away and shoot the dart at the board so it would stick in the circle in order to win free tickets to the theatre. Since I was in charge, I enforced the rules strictly. Toy dart guns are very difficult to aim. Almost no one could even hit the cut out from six feet. And the two people who hit the board with the dart out of the hundreds who tried, couldn't get it to stick, never mind strike the heart. After a while Mr. Fat. . . . . came by and watched. He saw everyone failing and asked me how many people had won. I said none. He stood there some more watching.
Finally, someone's dart came within a foot of the heart and bounced off. Fat. . . . . screamed "Winner!" What the hell, I thought. This violated all my notions of fair play. Two others had gotten as close and lost. And it didn't stick. It was against the rules!
But the really interesting part came when the gentleman who was told he had "won" started giving advice to others on how to do it. And they listened to them - just as if they had actually hit the target or could aim better than they! By my new orders, anyone who got even close to the target was a winner. The point was apparently to give away tickets - not have a competition where everyone failed.
Welcome to the world, David (a subconscious voice said). This is the way things work. I probably can't say the experience opened up my eyes. Maybe more so it confirmed a feeling of skepticism I had been developing since I was little. The rules are the rules until they aren't. They are subject to change to make someone victorious or maybe even a specific someone. Often the call, the advantage, the declaration of victory goes to whoever people expect to or want to win. Often when no one can do something, but we just decide someone can and we lower the bar until someone can leap it. Many things we do are based on a host of fictions about ourselves and others including attributing skills to winners where none exist. We nominate certain people as "experts" when they know nothing more than anyone else. This is especially true in the field of law, I've learned, where the courts allow the testimony of so-called experts who have, in actuality, no more ability to say what or have an opinion about their topic than anyone else. In fact, sometimes there opinion belies common sense.
Of course, sometimes people are talented at something or very good. And, I'm not leaving my long held believe that most people who are good at a particular mental challenge and often physical ones too are so not because they were inherently smarter or more athletic, but because they were more motivated. The question still remains as to what motivates them. But, often, the playing field is tilted by a Mr. Fat. . . . clone or clones and the expected victor is sometimes celebrated and even given extra attention or training that leads to increased performance. One great example of this was given by the writer Malcolm Gladwell in his book Outliers, where he describes how great Canadian hockey hall of the famers tend to be born in the same few earliest months of the year. It appears that because of the January 1st cutoff for junior hockey, some children were nearly a year older than other children with whom they were competing. At very young ages even a few months often makes a tremendous physical difference and it was the older children, born closest to January 1, who were successful and thereafter singled out for extra training, attention, praise, etc.
The truth is, though when discussing this relative age effect, most people now associate it with Gladwell - who had nothing to do with the study. It was made by a Canadian psychologist named Roger Barnsley and others about two decades earlier. Though many online articles mention Barnsley, try to find one about this subject that doesn't refer to Gladwell as the more important person. The reason is only that Gladwell is a bestselling author and Barnsley is not (I think I located him online and alive at something called Island Health, but not sure).
My adventures with Clint Eastwood's cut out is hardly unique. I'm not suggesting I wouldn't be so cynical or skeptical if it hadn't happened that way. But, somehow the way it happened had a tremendous impact on me such that almost 40 years later I consider it a signature moment in my life - a secular epiphany.