Steamboat Operator (Hedberg + Birbiglia Edition)

Sometimes, the people we are closest to can’t understand why we’re doing something in the moment. 

It’s more than a communication thing.

Especially for the overly excited and creatively delusional amongst us (no judgment, I am one of you, this is a safe space). 

It’s just that, the people we end up closest with, in our lives, they tend to understand most of what we do, most of the time, without requiring much extra thought. 

So on occasion, we inadvertently make it hard for them to see over our pile of current stuff in order to gain perspective on the other work/ideas/plans we have forming. 

Because we’re a mess. 

(Still a safe space. Relax. I know.)

We’re all a mess. In our own way. With just the top of the mess peaking out, kind of the trashcan  lid on Oscar’s head if you need a “tip of the iceberg” alternative.  

And that’s OK. It’s just… confusing. Mostly to the people who understand us the most. Which is counterintuitive – but it’s kind of a junk drawer theory of mind. We know it’s in there somewhere. We just don’t exactly know why the potato masher, the super glue, and the old ruler need to co-exist in one space, so much as we accept it’s their place to hang out until being called upon. 

My wife and I talk about this regularly. I’m usually going in too many directions at once by default. Checking in on what’s currently in my trashcan/junk drawer/beneath the visible surface is a big deal. It’s as big as finding a person to go through your messes with you. I didn’t marry her by accident you know.  

So you can imagine how relieved I was when I found out Mike Birbiglia and his wife talk about it a lot too. And even more relieved to learn they have an expression to signal when it’s happening. It’s less a cry for help and more of a call-out for attention and exploration. 

Plus, if a comedian and a poet can work it out, there’s hope for a finance guy and a caretaker. 

The Birbiglia’s go-to expression comes from a Mitch Hedberg joke, 

I wrote a letter to my dad. I wrote, “I really enjoyed being here,” but I accidentally wrote rarely instead of really. But I still wanted to use it, so I crossed it out and wrote, “I rarely drive steamboats, Dad. There’s a lot of s*** you don’t know about me. Quit trying to act like I’m a steamboat operator.” This letter took a really harsh turn right away. Hello Dad. 

When something doesn’t make sense to one person, and the other person is struggling with how they even make sense of it, the Birbiglia’s say some version of, “I’m not a steamboat operator.” 

It’s a signal something is being misunderstood. Even if neither party knows what or how it got there. It’s mentioning there’s a connection somewhere in this mess, and a higher purpose requiring a step back. 

It’s a dad and a son and a reason to start over and communicate better. 

It’s why the joke ends with “Hello Dad” too. 

The connection becomes past tense without the restart and reset of reconnection.  

We’re all a mess. If you’re defending yourself because you committed to an idea and didn’t realize where you’d end up, but now feel even more confused, try saying, “Quit trying to act like I’m a steamboat operator.”

Send up a message you’re confused too. 

That’s junk drawer living. Trash can lifestyle. Beneath the water iceberging it. We’re all a mess. It’s ok to be lost in the moment amongst disparate ideas. So long as we remember,

I’m not a steamboat operator,

Neither are you, and

After we’ve announced the confusions, clarified whatever you or I is not, and we’ve gestured towards the mess – we never forget to follow it up with “Hello.”

You know what love is.