Two-Thing Story

Eric Chandler - Saturday EssayI sat with my kids and played “two-thing story” as I tucked them into bed. This was a game where my kid picked two nouns out of the air and I had to come up with a story that included the two things. Then we swapped and I picked the two nouns and the kid would come up with a story. It was simple. Two kids, two things, and lots of laughs.

I like to make complex things simpler. I usually view my fellow man through a simple, digital filter. Ones or zeroes. Happy Shmo or Angry Shmo. Here’s an example: “There are two kinds of people: Those who think there are two kinds of people and those who don’t.” (Aren’t I clever?)

Here are some of the filters I use.

The first is called the Dunning-Kruger effect. David Dunning and Justin Kruger conducted studies and wrote a paper called “Unskilled and Unaware of It: How Difficulties in Recognizing One’s Own Incompetence Lead to Inflated Self-Assessments (1999).” They published it in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. I gather we live in a post-fact world, but this is science if you still care. This is what it says in the paper’s abstract: “People tend to hold overly favorable views of their abilities in many social and intellectual domains. The authors suggest that this overestimation occurs, in part, because people who are unskilled in these domains suffer a dual burden: Not only do these people reach erroneous conclusions and make unfortunate choices, but their incompetence robs them of the metacognitive ability to realize it.”

In a nutshell, stupid people view themselves as smart. Smart people view themselves as stupid. I’m sure you’re already coming up with dozens of examples.

Here’s the next filter I use. It’s called Pournelle’s Iron Law of Bureaucracy. Jerry Pournelle was a science fiction writer who split the world into two groups of people, thank you very much. The first group is people who are devoted to the goals of the organization. The second group is dedicated to the organization itself. The Iron Law of Bureaucracy states that, in every case, the second group will gain control of the organization.

This is the filter that I recite to myself when I’m staring at the ceiling in the middle of the night wondering why my “career” didn’t go any further with Uncle Sam. It was because I was naively devoted to preparing for combat (the organization’s goal) and got shown the door by the bureaucracy. (Could it be because I was kind of a douchebag who got angry too often? Nah.) Yet again, I’m sure you can find examples in the newspapers of people who care about the ideals of our government (the Constitution and Bill of Rights; “Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free”) vs. those who care about the machinery of government and their ever-climbing role in it.


Here’s a third and mildly profane filter. I just finished reading a book by Sherman Alexie called The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian. In it, the young protagonist realizes something: “The world is only broken into two tribes: The people who are assholes and the people who are not.” I agree with this view. I think a lot of my fellow citizens do also, but too much. I fear that one half of the country thinks that the other half of the country is filled with assholes. Simultaneously, the other half of the country thinks the same thing right back. Well, in the immortal words of Dire Straits in the song “Industrial Disease”: Two men say they’re Jesus. / One of them must be wrong. I don’t believe we’re an entire nation of assholes.

I’m not saying that everybody’s great and we should all smile and hold hands. There is evil in the world. Some people in the world are beheading other people. Some people are killing other people by dipping them in nitric acid until their organs dissolve. Some of that evil is even on our own soil. So maybe, just maybe, when we’re inside our own borders, we can focus our rage like a laser on genuine assholes: Bigots. Vandals. Misogynists. Let’s make sure we include all the overseas genuine assholes on the targeting list, too.

But at home, can we stop spraying bile on whole groups of people over policy disagreements? Don’t forget what Elmore Leonard wrote: “If you meet an asshole in the morning, you met an asshole. If you meet assholes all day long, you’re the asshole.”

And here’s one last, two-thing thought that I try to teach my kids. I ask them, “What are the only two things that matter?” They answer, “What’s in your heart and what’s in your head.” Hey, look at that guy with one leg. What matters about that guy? What’s in his heart and what’s in his head. Hey, that person doesn’t look like me. What matters about her? Her heart and her head. You don’t have to remember a wicked long list about what not to care about. You only have to remember two things.

It’s the two-thing story I hope my kids remember long after their unrecognized genius of a father is taking his dirt nap.

Outside DuluthEric “Shmo” Chandler is a husband, father, and pilot who cross-country skis as fast as he can in Duluth. He’s the author of Outside Duluth, a collection of his magazine articles about family outdoor adventures. Th above article first appeared on his website, Shmotown.

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