On a Greyhound chugging westwards, squeezed up against the window by the flabby arm of a sleeping farm boy, Doug Sachs struggled against the darkness of it all. Maybe things weren’t so bad, he thought. You’ve got to see these things as opportunities to grow: The worse things are, the better they will be (Sachs, 23). This would be good. He had helped so many people through their bleakest hours, and this was quite an accomplishment—but what of his own battles? He could now see that it was time to turn his healer’s gaze inwards.
The farm boy was drooping towards him, closer and closer, breathing hot hamburger breath onto his neck. Doug tried pushing him back towards the aisle, but the big boy was out cold and wouldn’t budge. Wish I could’ve taken the car, he thought. But again: an opportunity. Lemons/lemonade. Despite the discomfort, by taking the bus he now had time to prepare for his homecoming.
His mom would inevitably blow things out of proportion: Carol kicked you out? What did you do? What the hell is wrong with you? That kind of thing. But there were subtleties and nuances and complications involved, and it would take finesse for Doug to unpack and lay out the delicate details of the situation for his mom to see and understand. Which was no problemo. Finesse he could do.
He looked out the window at passing cars, the people inside them on their own journeys, both geographical and spiritual. He was an hour outside of Ottawa; in another four hours, he would change buses in Toronto. From there, it would be five more hours until Sudbury, followed by a ten-minute cab ride to his mom’s building. He would sleep on her couch for a few days, a week, a month—as long as was needed to come up with a flawless action plan.
In Sketch Artist, Boxer, Party Planner, Baker, Doug’s self-help book, he encouraged the readers to picture their problematic situations as a human body. Try and give everything that’s going wrong in your life a face and clothing and expressions, he advised. Gather up all of the confusing, messy, shitty things that keep you awake at night, stitch them together like a Frankenstein’s monster, and stick a name to it. That way, you had a single adversary to overcome, which was encouraging. This was “Sketch Artist,” the first of four steps in Doug’s system for tackling dilemmas.
He decided to call the current situation Norman. Sorry, old Norman! he thought. I’m taking you out!
Doug made a list in his head of all the bad things that made up Norman:
- Carol, his wife, finding a photograph of her older sister, Karen, tucked underneath his side of the mattress.
- How he, when confronted by Carol about this photograph, confounded her suspicions by failing to produce any kind of explanation, because
- It was difficult to explain an already tricky situation when suddenly confronted with a picture that he had
- Been actively hiding from the very person waving it in front of his face, and,
- Stared at, pondered, and examined for a rough estimate of five-hundred hours.
- Really, there was nothing to say. He was completely obsessed with his wife’s sister.
- How, when Carol left the room to see if the photograph had been plucked from her own family album (it was), he had
- Failed to seize this opportunity to think of something to say that might assuage his wife’s reasonable concerns, and,
- Instead, upon Carol’s return to the room, said, “You’re not going to tell your sister, are you?”
- Carol telling her sister about the photograph.
- The message he then left on Carol’s sister’s voicemail, which amounted to him saying: Hey, I know your whole family is kind of rallying against me right now, and that we haven’t shared but a few sentences between us in the five years I’ve known you, and that you probably think I’m a huge, unstable creep, but what say we take a secret trip to the Dominican together?
- Carol kicking him out of the house. And finally, the cherry on top
- The hulking mass of the sweaty farm boy in the neighboring seat closing in, ready to crush him into a sad little diamond.
So that was Norman.
The next step in Doug’s system would be difficult to complete; a crowded bus was not an optimal space for “Boxer,” which involved yelling and punching. The idea was that once one’s troubles have been compiled and personified as part of “Sketch Artist,” the next thing was to express and release one’s “surface anger” by verbally and physically abusing an inanimate object representing the figure imagined as part of step one. Carol had sewed together a featureless doll for this purpose, which he had left back at home, but his neck pillow would suffice for now. Of course, he could wait until Sudbury and really let loose on Norman the Neck Pillow while his mom was at work, but the long bus ride ahead would be perfect for working on step three, “Party Planner.” So he would find a way to do “Boxer.”
The washroom at the back of the bus was Doug’s best option for privately abusing his neck pillow—he could mutter insults over the racket of a flushing toilet, throw medium-strength punches out of view of the other passengers, and even give little Norman a swirly—but the farm boy had him trapped in his seat for now. Instead, Doug took the pillow from his neck and turned towards the window where he could secretly bite into it.
Fuck you, Norman! Doug whispered through clenched teeth. I hate you and hope you die and rot in hell and get bit by strong teeth like mine every fucking day! He gnawed on the pillow, making threats and cursing at a volume just below that of the hum of the bus until he began to drool all over the armrest. And that was step two. His surface anger flew out the roof ventilator, and he was calm.
But by leaning into the window, Doug had caused his seatmate to shift further towards him, so that the farm boy’s face was now on his shoulder. He tried nudging him off, but the big sleeping head was like a concrete slab. Doug wasn’t overly bothered by this, however. Nope. He had bitten his pillow, and so was able to calmly observe the situation for what it was.
Step three, “Party Planner,” was about carefully plotting a series of actions which, once performed, would defeat the antagonist imagined in step one of Doug’s system. First, you try to visualize the most desirable outcome to your troublesome situation. Then, you work backwards to figure out a reasonable chain of events that would make this outcome really happen. Factor in all limitations, account for variables, and use logic to derive a solid, workable plan. Depending on the scope of one’s adversary—Norman, for example, was a giant—it often helped to work a small, easily fixed problem into the overall dilemma. That way, you can get the ball rolling. The farm boy would be this ball, Norman-wise.
First, Doug tried clearing his throat, but the kept on sleeping. Next, he tried kicking the guy’s legs—still nothing. Then he reached into the seat pocket for his water bottle and poured a tiny amount of liquid on his fingers, which he then flicked at the farm boy’s face.
After five or six good flicks, the farm boy awoke and moved back into his own space.
Step one: complete.
Step two: complete.
Step three: mini-problem assigned and resolved.
Now, Doug had zero surface anger because of step two, plus peak confidence levels from defeating the farm boy/mini-problem, which would allow him to plot Norman’s demise with a razor-sharp, clear, and methodical mind.
Unpinned, Doug reached down between his legs and retrieved his phone from his bag. No calls, no texts. He sent himself a text saying “hello” to make sure his phone was working—it was. Then he went into his photo file and brought up the snapshot of the picture of Carol’s sister. He had wanted a handy digital copy of the tactile photograph on his phone so he could sneak peeks on his way to work, at work, on his way back from work, etc. Carol had come home early from craft night while he was taking the snapshot, and he had tucked the original photograph under the mattress before she walked into the room. That night, by chance, Carol decided to change the bedding before Doug had a chance to put the photo back in its album. This was further proof that the whole situation was actually a good thing: the dumb luck of his wife finding the picture during such a brief window of opportunity was a sign that things needed to change. And change was good. We would all benefit to be more like the bum on the sidewalk, always asking for change (Sachs, 10).
At first, looking at the photo of Carol’s sister was harmless fantasy. He would stare at Karen until her tight Disney sweater and sly smile were etched into his brain and then hop in the shower. It was fun to sneak in a little danger while Carol was at work and flirt with taboo. Karen wasn’t even that attractive; it was more the excitement of playing evil that drew him towards the photo. Soon, it became a ritual—once Carol left the house, Doug would pull out the picture and go through scenarios in his head:
—Karen coming over, teary-eyed, and confessing her spicy passion for Doug, whom she would call “Lil’ Tamale.”
—Sneaking into Karen’s hotel room with a bottle of champagne and condom strip at an out-of-town wedding or funeral.
—Carol in a coma; he and Karen acting out a sexy nurse/patient scenario in the adjacent hospital bed.
Eventually, the fact that the photograph was of his wife’s sister, or even of a woman, had become irrelevant. What excited Doug about the photograph now was that it was this thing he had stared at for so many hours. If you pay attention to something long enough it takes on a certain aura, Doug realized. There was a religious quality to the photograph now. Carol’s sister had the presence of a god or some kind of prophet.
Doug didn’t need any gods or prophets, however. He had his system. And as the bus swept past fields and silos and little towns full of people who desperately needed Doug’s guidance, he began to plot his triumph over Norman.
After changing buses in Toronto, Doug had a seat to himself, and he fell asleep against the window for an hour. When he woke up, a heavy rain was pelting the roof of the bus. For a moment, Doug thought the rain sounds were the withered, knocking hands of Third World children trying to get on the bus, and he instinctively reached for his bag. When he snapped out of it, he pulled an organic apple oat bar from the bag and chewed half.
Things were looking up, Doug thought. “Party Planner” was going extremely well. Not only had he designated a plausible ideal outcome for the whole Norman thing, he had already thought up five possible routes towards reaching it.
The outcome he had come up with was only one compromise away from his first imagined ideal outcome, which was very good. Usually, someone following Doug’s guidebook will dream up some romantic, blissful outcome, and then have to whittle it down, compromise after compromise, until a more modest and realistic outcome can be decided on. For example, some guy’s problem might be that he wants the respect of his father. The guy’s unemployed and always asking his dad for money. And so he’ll imagine this perfect outcome where his father respects the hell out of him because he owns a giant, successful company. But then he’ll realize he can’t own a company because he doesn’t know anything about business, so he thinks: OK, I’ll be some kind of hot-shot executive that doesn’t need to know all of the business stuff. But then he’s not sure if that kind of position actually exists, so he settles for an assistant, then clerk, and on down the line until he decides to become the guy who mows the lawn out front of the building. The guy with all the keys on his belt, who has to pull dead birds out of the big fountain in the garden. And that’s the plausible ideal outcome for this guy who wants his dad to be proud of him—to become this maintenance man. Because at least he’s working now, even if it’s not in an office on the top floor.
Doug’s first imagined outcome to the Norman situation, before compromise came into the picture, was that his wife would take him back, her family would forget everything, and the sister would see him on the side—they’d go on secret Dominican trips and give each other leg massages under the table at family dinners. But that would never work. Carol’s sister didn’t like him, and that was that.
So to compromise, Doug simply cut the sister out of the picture and made it simple: the ideal outcome for the Norman problem would be for everything to go back to the way it was. He would be with his wife, and her family would forgive and forget. He’d stop obsessing over that damn picture, too. A basic “reset” outcome. And this was all within his reach because he had already cooked up five rough plans for achieving this outcome:
- Claim Ignorance —Basically: Gee, Carol, I have no idea what that photo was doing there! I was so confused by your reaction to finding it. I thought I’d just let you run with it for awhile—it was clear you needed to work some things out. Hope you’re all better now. And someone called up your sister, pretending to be me, and left a weird message? Well, who would do that? Let’s go watch something relaxing on the computer and forget all this madcap nonsense, am I right?
- Misdirection 1 —In the background of the photograph, behind Lisa in her Disney sweater, stands a man in a tiny swimsuit. Kind of muscular, and not bad looking. If Doug were to claim a mysterious attraction to this man, and explain the mattress-tuck as a necessary measure while he explored these confusing feelings of possible homosexual leanings, there would be many benefits: Carol’s lefty family would be too afraid of being seen as insensitive to continue rallying against him; he could pass off the sister-loving stuff as a ploy to hide his embarrassment during this time of self-discovery; and he could explain the whole thing by claiming a hormonal imbalance due to an overdose of estrogen because of all the soy he’d been consuming in his shakes at the gym.
- Misdirection 2 —He was hiding the photograph because he was turning Carol’s sister Karen into a knight. He had planned on taking pictures of all their friends and family out of the album—one by one, so Carol wouldn’t notice—in order to scan the faces and make a chess set for Carol’s birthday. She was to be the Queen, and he the King. The other family members would be pieces on the back row, and their acquaintances would be pawns. He didn’t want to ruin the surprise, and so he let his wife jump to conclusions while he finished off the set. Only problem: he would have to actually make this chess set, using whatever pictures he could find online since he didn’t have access to the photo album. But not really a problem, because he could do it.
- Shadow Doug —It wasn’t me, Carol! I just plain wasn’t myself for a minute there. Because of work stress, or allergies, or a hormonal imbalance due to all the soy ...
- Hidden Camera Hoax —He could make a video where he would place the photograph in the mattress, turn to the camera, say, “Shhh,” and leave the room. Then, an actress who resembles his wife, but whose face you couldn’t really see because of the camera angle, would come into the shot and re-enact finding the photo. And then Doug would come back into the room, and he and the actress would go through the whole fight (as best as he could remember and choreograph). He would have to be wearing the same clothes he wore at the time. But when the fake Carol left the room, he would come back in and hold up a sign saying “Gotcha!” and give a big thumbs up. He would show the video to Carol, and she would think the whole thing was a crazy prank that went haywire.
All Doug had to do now was pick a plan and follow through with it. That was “Baker,” the following through part. If a plan was solid, one only had to stick to it and the plausible ideal outcome would soon become a reality. Like a baker—just follow the recipe.
The sky was full of dark clouds and the rain made an enormous racket as it dinged the roof of the bus, but Doug had the advantage of being an optimist. The clouds and the rain were not for him; the gloom spelled out impending disaster for Norman. He could see Norman quivering at the sight of nature gathering together and conspiring against him, under Doug’s supervision. Norman wasn’t a giant at all; he was just fat. He was that big fat farm boy from earlier. Greasy and foul and fat, and easily dominated by Doug. All he had to do was flick his fingers, and Norman would back right off.
Doug fell asleep against the window again but woke up a minute later, clutching his bag. He was sweating through his shirt. The worse things are, the better they will be, he reminded himself. It was only rain—it would pass.