The first in an occasional series of riff-style essays.
I’M someone with a lot of theories about things. I can’t help it. I’ve been like that ever since I can remember. When I ask people about their theories on things, they often look at me in bewilderment or irritation, because I’ve frequently brought up something they’ve never thought about at all — or, worse, don’t see any reason for thinking about, period. (One of my many theories is that these are possibly the most important subjects of all to consider, because they’re seemingly invisible, ignored — even despised.)
As a consequence of my curiosity, I have on occasion over the years been treated to some wonderfully eccentric theories of other people — or I’ve just been presented with a perspective that’s made me revise my thinking. For example, I was sitting in one of our local sports books having a beer recently, and I got lured into conversation with an out-of-town insurance salesman from the Hoosier State. OMG, I thought, this is like a bad movie! But the guy was lonely, not too drunk and I figured at least he wasn’t out cheating on his wife — so I put on my listening face.
Well, as pathetic as it may first sound, the guy was really into insurance. That’s what he was meant to do in this life, for sure. He believed his spiel like unto gospel.
About two beers in, though, what started to seriously impress me was how deeply he understood the mechanics of insurance: fraud investigations, actuarial tables, you name it. And as various sporting events flared up on the giant TV screens, he’d make occasional comments of genuine insight into how the underlying philosophy and practices of underwriting relate to sports betting and to gambling at large. I started to get sincerely interested. A lot of the stuff he said were things I knew (or thought I knew), but he exposed it all with a fresh, new clarity, and made it seem significant. Living here in Vegas, I’m sure we all think about gambling, but if we’re involved in it ourselves, a lot of the details become assumed and go unexamined, or become second nature. And if we’re not involved, we feel the enterprise is either boring or outright sad. It’s easy to forget how gambling is a model for so many activities and aspects of society. It could be one of the core paradigms.
The next evening, still twistedly energized by my tutorial in insurance, I got more of a glimpse into my core paradigm — a fascination for all things counterintuitive. I think if I were rich, I’d found a research body … The Center for Advanced Studies in the Counterintuitive.
It started with a dinner discussion with neighbors about kitsch, the peculiar modern appreciation of total and utter crap. How can snow-dome paperweights and velvet Elvis paintings come to be valued with a perverse delight? How can absolutely awful movies and songs come to be savored for their awfulness? This is completely counterintuitive, and is a relatively recent historical phenomenon — which I would argue is also one of the defining strangenesses on the blurry boundary between the modern and postmodern era (whatever the hell that really means).
It was noteworthy that everyone around the table acknowledged the phenomenon, and indeed could riff on it (it turns out we’re all connoisseurs of the dreadful in some way). There were many stories and a lot of laughter (a lot of it at Las Vegas’ expense). Here we were, trying to dissect the appeal of kitsch in arguably its sacred city. But despite the fact that I’ve personally given this topic more than a little thought, and might even claim some expertise, I don’t believe it’s understood with any true precision. Beyond the sense that dramatic irony is at work — we’re somehow in on a joke — I didn’t feel we really nailed the beast down.
For instance, everyone was stumped on the issue of why it’s so challenging to create something that becomes famous for its ineptitude or crassness. There are a ton of bad, stupid films — but Plan 9 from Outer Space is considered a classic of the ludicrous. How ironic is it that it appears to be as difficult to get into the Canon of Kitsch as it is to crack the Canon of Quality? I came away feeling that the Theory of Awfulness hasn’t been finally and satisfactorily articulated. What we seem to do is imagine that we grasp the inner workings, because we can swap tales and guffaws, and develop scales and fine gradations of delicious laughability and head-scratching disbelief. But even as we do that, the subject matter insidiously expands into complex realms of fashion and architecture, media presentation — the whole of culture, in fact. It’s very tricky to pin things down as neatly as my Midwestern Zen Master of Insurance. (Hence the need for The Center for Advanced Studies in the Counterintuitive, which I feel should be based in Vegas, the spiritual home of the tacky.)
In my next communiqué from the front lines of the hard-to-fathom, I’ll tell you about what also happened that night — the discovery of one my neighbor’s means of earning a living. I won’t say I was shocked, exactly. I have heard of that scene — but even though I might try to waffle on about understanding it, I flat out don’t. Nope. It’s one of the most counterintuitive things I can conceive of. But there you have it, further proof that irrationality and the bizarre are windows into the mysteries — and worth our special attention. Space travel? The depths of the ocean? There could be something far odder going on two doors away. I think the Vegas odds are pretty good on that.
KRIS SAKNUSSEMM is local author of 10 books translated into 22 languages. He’s on Facebook and at krissaknussemm.com