Being a man is about a lot of things: It’s about morality, it’s about strength of will, it’s about maintaining honor in the face of adversity. But mostly it’s about involuntary, delusional, immature power fantasies launching at the slightest provocation. They say that “A rich interior world is a joy to own,” but if you’re anything like me, your interior world is less “joy” than it is a constant, unceasing Tony Jaa movie that unfolds in response to every minor annoyance. If you’ve ever asked a man what he was thinking and thought you detected a little something false in his answer, I’d like to try to give you the real one right now. But first, there are a few things you should understand about the interior of some men’s minds. Like …
#5. It Always Starts Small
It’s not like every man is spending every minute of every day looking for an imminent terrorist attack or carefully plotting the deaths of his enemies. That’s not a harmless, delusional male power fantasy; that’s a proactive paranoid schizophrenic. No, most of our thoughts are just ordinary fare — Is that burrito place new? Do I have time to stop for a burrito? If that makes me late for work and I get fired, can I buy burritos with food stamps? — it’s just that the power fantasies are tricky little bastards. They’re seductive; they worm their way into your head so slowly that you don’t even realize it’s happening until the rational part of your brain checks back in to see how everything is going and finds you knee-deep in bloody ninja.
Oh, I uh … I see you’re busy. I’ll just be hanging outside with reality. Let us know when you need us again.” — The Rational Brain
Here’s a purely hypothetical example that is in no way based on reality: Let’s say you’re at the grocery store, mentally weighing the pros and cons of potential burrito fillings. After careful debate, you pay for your two dozen tortillas and 20 cans of chili (it’s beans and meat pre-mixed! Holy shit! Is there a Nobel Prize for Burrito Construction?), but as you turn to go, the cashier hands you the bag all wrong — like kind of sideways and twisting it a little bit at the crucial hand-off point. It slips right through your fingers, and you drop it, sending chili cans rocketing in every direction and drawing the other customers’ attention to your secret gastrointestinal shame. Now you’re embarrassed, you’re annoyed and you start wondering why he did that: Don’t they have, like, bag handling classes or some shit? What is this guy, a birthday party magician at Chuck E. Cheese’s; what kind of human being hands somebody a bag with a fucking wrist flourish?
No, he did that shit on purpose, and now he’s just standing there — not even thinking about helping you — smirking and exchanging knowing looks with the other customers. He’s an asshole, is what he is. You can tell. You can spot an asshole with a mere glance; you’re like the Sherlock Holmes of asshole detection, and this guy is the Moriarty of assholes. Asshole.
You should say something. “Sweet bagging, Bilbo.” No, that’s crap. “Nice bag handling, B … uh … Bagger Vance.” Shit.
You know this is going to be one of those L’esprit de l’escalier moments, when you think of the perfect thing to say just 10 seconds too late. But it’s not too late right now. You’re pissed off, and your brain is demanding some kind of response, but you don’t have a killer quip …
#4. It Escalates Quickly
“You should just punch him in the dick,” the Revenge Cortex says calmly, as if presenting the most rational possible plan. “Then throw him on that little conveyer belt and zip him back and forth for a while, punching him in the dick again every time his crotch arrives at the register. And then when you scan his stupid face, the display will just read ‘Sold.’ Yes, that’s it. That’s the plan. Let’s get lost constructing the precise visuals of this fantasy instead of just focusing on picking up all these cans of Harmel, the store-brand knock-off chili with the suspicious dents everywhere.”
“Don’t mind me, ma’am: Just hammering dents into all the cheap stuff. Gives the poor folk something to grab onto, with their malnourished little hands.”
And, because your attention was entirely wrapped up in a Sidekicks-style fantasy revenge world, you’ve dropped the bag again. Did he just laugh? He did, didn’t he? “Maybe he was coughing,” your rational mind interjects, but it’s too late: The Revenge Cortex has got you.
“People can’t be allowed to get away with this kind of crap,” it coos. “Whip this can of Double the Meat, Quintuple the Beans at his head.”
#3. We’ll Retcon History to Justify It
But we’re not going to actually consider violence as an option. That’s crazy talk. You can’t just go around assaulting strangers with discount meat slurries — everybody will think you’ve snapped. They’ll see your disproportionate physical response and they’ll totally dismiss the real issue: this asshole’s flagrant bag-handling shenanigans. History will not witness that you were righteous in this conflict, and he’ll be free to continue his reign of slippery bag-relaying villainy. No, if you just jumped up right now and started wailing on the dude, even you would have to admit that you’re the bad guy: “He dropped his groceries everywhere and then just flipped out and started calling for price checks on dick punches,” the old lady in line behind you will tell the police.
So what can you do? The rational part of your brain usually checks back in at this point, and relays a number of realistic options: Say something self-deprecating. Apologize. Shuffle the goods out of the aisle so you’re not blocking anybody’s way. Let it go.
“Or go outside and light his car on fire. That would also be way more reasonable than what you’re thinking right now.”
Then the Revenge Cortex slithers on in and says, “I bet if you stood up, right now, and just looked him in the eye like you were onto his game, you know he’d pull something. He’d try to hit you first, or pull out a switchblade or something.” Yeah! And you could disarm him like you’re pretty sure Jackie Chan did to that one guy in that one movie that one time (I mean, that guy was trying to hit Jackie with a swordfish, but it’s gotta be the same principle, right?).
See, if that happened — if he pulled some shit on you first — then you could beat his ass, and everybody would recognize you for the hero you truly are. You’d have stopped the Bag Twisting Menace. Hell, they’d probably throw you a parade. Why wouldn’t they? After all …
#2. You’re Always the Hero
And now that our stupid brains have moved past the idea stage and are issuing casting calls for this intricate fantasy of legumes, martial arts and revenge, the revisions start to come in. It’s never enough for your greedy Revenge Cortex to just equally distribute throat-kickings among the Asshole Proletariat. That’s not what heroes do, and you’re the main character of your own life, so doesn’t that make you, by default, the hero? You’re supposed to rise above petty revenge. Maybe you should just walk away …
“He wouldn’t pull something on you,” the Revenge Cortex quickly interjects. “Look at his name tag: Devin. What kind of asshole name is Devin? The kind that probably wouldn’t take a real man on in a fair fight, that’s what kind of asshole name Devin is. No, he’s not going to draw down on you; he’s gonna pull that knife on the old lady behind you, because she sees it — she sees that Devin started all of this with his arrogant bag acrobatics — and he can’t have that. He’d threaten to cut her face to stop you both from revealing his awful secret, and then … then you’d have no choice but to fight him. ”
“I swear, I’ll cut the bitch if you even THINK of telling people that I handle grocery bags poorly!”
You never wanted to be pulled into this life and death drama. You’re Toshiro Mifune in Yojimbo. You’re Han Solo just trying to get the hell out of Hoth with your paycheck. You came here to buy bulk burrito ingredients in peace, but the world just won’t leave you alone. This son of a bitching clerk set you up, couldn’t handle your razor-sharp wit, and now he’s pulling butterfly knives on pensioners. Jesus, how did he even get this job? Doesn’t Safeway do background checks?
Regardless of how it came about, what comes next is clear:
It’s time to vault over the counter — which you’re pretty sure you can do, even though you ate shit walking up a curb yesterday — and use your momentum to jump-kick that knife right out of his hands. Then you’ll catch the knife — which you’re pretty sure you can do, even though the last time somebody threw something at you was when Billy Meyers tossed you that ginger ale in seventh grade and you broke your nose trying to catch it. He probably did it on purpose, the son of a bitc- holy shit! This Devin guy looks a lot like Billy Meyers. I’ll bet it is Billy Meyers! He probably changed his name — because what kind of asshole name is Billy Meyers? — and got a job at your local grocery chain just to facilitate this awful moment.
“Yep. Threw away my career, my education, my family — all to make you look stupid next to a guy in a Rascal and some chick reading the tabloids. Totally worth it.”
Jesus, this villainy cannot be allowed to continue. This slippery-soda-curveball-tossing, awkward-bag-handling, knife-wielding psychopath must be destroyed at all costs. Truly, he is the greatest monster of our generation, and it’s up to you to Shoryuken him in the neck before it’s too late. And once it’s over, the hot young redhead he was holding at knife-point (wait, wasn’t she just a kindly grandma? What happened to the grandma?) will assuredly reward your bravery with two heaping scoops of boning.
You see what we have to contend with? It all started with a moment of totally unjustified annoyance, and then we’re off, shooting down a water slide of imagined slights, lubricated with the blood of our enemies. It sounds crazy, I know, but …
#1. It’s Not Just You
I know not every man will relate to this: Some men are well-adjusted, normal human beings who spend their internal monologues carefully considering hot-button political issues, only pausing, occasionally, to give kittens booster shots and orate on the virtues of public service.
But this delusional revenge imbalance goes way further than you normals might think, and it’s not hard to see why:
A lot of men in my generation were raised on the everyman action hero. Even as children, we knew we were never going to have the merciless biceps of Schwarzenegger, or the dashing cool of Flynn, or even the threatening bulge of Van Damme — but then Die Hard came along and switched the whole genre up. Action movies aren’t about well-trained ubermensch mowing down ninjas in an ambiguous jungle — they’re about balding, normally built dudes who annihilate the shit out of elite terrorist cells over Christmas vacation. Most action flicks nowadays are about totally unremarkable folks who find themselves caught up in a crisis and suddenly discover, to the surprise of all, that their feet are already lodged firmly in some effete, well-dressed German’s mouth.
“Everybody down! Ve are taking zis buildink and nobody vill stop u-mmmfGHRB!”
And we were stupid kids. Of course we believed the movies. So now we’re all left waiting for our moment, our chance to shine, the perfect combination of events that will engage the Action Drive spinning within the secret core of all men that transforms us from everyday shmoes into whirling Justice Tornadoes ready to reap righteousness on our foes until their asses are just totally sore from what is, let’s face it, an objectively excessive amount of ass-reaping.
Do you know what that means? That means there’s like a 1-in-3 chance that Devin “Billy Meyers” Asshole over there is doing the same thing as us right at that moment. He’s been smiling his best patient, understanding smile at the nice old lady behind you, all the while internally seething at the knob who dropped his groceries everywhere, and then just started fucking around down there — slapping cans of knock-off chili back and forth like a game of E. coli air hockey — not even caring that he’s holding up the goddamn line. Not giving one shit that these customers are gonna be pissed off at the cashier for some reason, like he wanted to make them all wait while some bearded freak gives a brief interpretive dance about failing applied physics. He’s probably even going to have the nerve to complain to the manager later, and holy shit, is that a chainsaw? Did that scruffy moron just pull a chainsaw on that nice old lady?!
This looks like a job for Devin!
“I shall beat him with this Lady Speed Stick.”
So now there’s an imaginary psychic war being waged inside both of your heads, with neither of you having any idea that the other has just mentally ripped out his opponent’s throat, Road House-style, and has already moved on to nailing the hot redhead/old lady atop the gore.
Again, please don’t mistake me: I’m not talking about this because I believe men of today have a genuine anger problem, or some excessive tendency toward violence that society should be concerned about. It’s like video games, or action movies: When it comes right down to it, we know this is fantasy — just harmless daydreams that have been conditioned within us from a young age by Willises and Swayzes and the occasional errant Bosworth. I’m just offering this up in the hopes that it serves as an explanation: The next time somebody accidentally bumps into your friend on the street and he goes all quiet and gets that glazed look in his eyes, don’t worry.
He’s just off fighting ninjas right now (that guy was their secret ringleader). He’ll be back in 10 minutes.