There’s an old joke that I always thought did a good job of capturing the frustration we feel when we want to be known for one thing, but wind up being remembered for something else.
A man walks into a bar and sits next to a talkative old drunk, who introduces himself as Fergus.
The old man says: “I built this bar with my own two hands. Did the woodwork and the finish on it too. But do you think they call me Fergus the bar-builder? No. “
“And do you see those docks outside the window there. I built those as well – single handedly. But do you think they call me Fergus the dock-maker? Or even Fergus the boat-launcher? No.”
“And did you see those houses just up the street? I painted them all – beautifully. Two coats. You would think they’d at least call me Fergus the house-painter. No.”
“But you shag one sheep….”
I learned a little about this a few years ago, when I decided to volunteer at my then five year-old daughter’s school fair. It was supposed to be an easy gig – just two or three hours of manning one of the fund-raising booths. I thought it would be a good opportunity to meet people and get involved, as we were new to the school and I didn’t know too many of the other parents or staff.
I wound up being assigned to run an activity called “Splat the Rat.” Apparently, this is a game that is relatively well-known here in the UK, but I had never heard of it before. It involves dropping a stuffed toy rat down a short length of tube and as it falls the rat is revealed just for a moment, giving you a brief opportunity to hit it with a stick. If you’re successful, you earn a prize.
I was told to collect 20 pence for every attempt and to give out some sweets as a reward to any child fast enough to “splat” the rat.
The fair quickly got very crowded, with hyperactive children running to and fro – going everywhere except to my game. The Tombola, the Lucky Dip, the Cake Stall, the Raffle Stand – these were all packed with children eager to spend their coins and win some prizes, but hardly anyone was trying to splat my rat. After half an hour, I glanced at my collection tray – I had only made 80 pence.
There was no mystery as to why business was so bad – Splat the Rat is a really difficult game and the kids seemed to know it. Even with three chances, the rat fell so quickly, and the opportunity to hit it was so brief, that it was not really worth the effort. Why spend money on the remote possibility of winning a small piece of candy when you could walk over to the next table and just buy yourself a whole cupcake?
I was starting to feel like a failure.
I didn’t want to be known as the “chap who only earned 80 pence at the fair,” so I decided to use some strategy. All those other games had better odds of winning and better prizes, but I had something they didn’t – I had a toy rat.
Up until then, my Splat the Rat marketing strategy mostly consisted of me repeating these lines:
“Splat the Rat. Twenty pence to try to splat the rat.”
“Win a prize if you splat the rat. Maybe.”
What if, instead of making the game the focus, I made the rat the star? What if, when children came by my booth they didn’t see an unwinnable game, instead, they were confronted by a villain – a rodent in desperate need of a comeuppance.
You – child! Yes, you! I am the rat. And you cannot splat me! I DARE YOU TO TRY!’
I find the children in this school to be particularly weak-armed. And lethargically slow. It is true.
I scoff at all the children here. SCOFF SCOFF SCOFF.
Children were soon stopping in their tracks to argue with my rude rat. They said things like “Why are you so mean, you stinky old rat?” And then they would hand over 20p for their chance to teach him a lesson. And then they would go again. And then their parents would give it a go. A crowd started forming and the whole time, my rat continued its patter. I was putting on a show worthy of the London stage, quoting Shakespeare, mixing in French accents, Monty Python, lines from Star Trek Wrath of Khan – anything I could think of.
Another underachieving child has failed to splat me! How lamentable.
I fart in your general direction. Now go away or I shall taunt you a second time.
Now is the winter fair of your discontent!
I loathe children. From hell’s heart I stab at thee, just as you stab at me with your sticks.
None of it was particularly original or clever, but the little kids didn’t care. They were just clamouring for a chance to hit that arrogant little creature with that stick. Everyone wanted to have a whack. It was hard to keep up. My tray filled with coins. A few kids did wind up actually splatting the rat, but it only made him more insolent.
You have hit a poor defenceless creature of God! Now who is the animal?
By the end of the fair, I had made more money than any other Splat the Rat booth in the school’s history. My voice was hoarse from all the arguing and shouting my rat had done, but it was a great time. The school staff seemed particularly grateful for how it had went and they went out of their way to thank me.
The following Monday morning, when I dropped my daughter off at school I noticed that something was different. People I didn’t know came up to me. It seemed everyone wanted to have a chat.
“Hey, great job with Splat the Rat. The children loved it.”
“You should do Splat the Rat at every school fair!”
“Hey, look, it’s that chap from Splat the Rat!”
And that’s how I became That Splat the Rat Chap.
That day, one of the teachers made me promise that I would run Splat the Rat again at the next school fair – more than two months away. Did they usually book school fair tables that far in advance? Then another parent, whose name I didn’t know, asked me if I wanted to join the PTA. I got invited by another dad to go out for a beer. And then, strangest of all, the school’s chair of governors invited me to her home for a cup of tea.
Apparently she had been at the fair and something about the way I had used a stuffed toy rat to insult and cajole children into spending their money had convinced this eminent person that I had leadership potential. Over an Earl Grey she asked me if I wanted to join the school’s Board of Governors. I was no longer just “That Splat the Rat Chap,” I had become “That Splat the Rat Governor.”
Probably it would have been better if people had gotten to know me as a complex and multi-faceted person, with a long history of personal accomplishments and an impressive set of professional skills. But unlike that old man Fergus from the joke, I was actually pretty happy with being known for the wrong reasons. Being that Splat the Rat Chap had worked out pretty well for me.
My fame was short-lived.
Eventually, as people got to know me, they forgot all about my Splat the Rat origins. I didn’t wind up being a school governor for very long, but that’s a story for another day. But I’m pleased to say that a few people did learn my name and I did wind up making some lasting friendships with other parents at the school – something I don’t think would have happened otherwise. My main takeaway from the experience is that I would have remained anonymous if I hadn’t been willing to really put myself out there.
This was all on my mind a few years later, when I found myself once again feeling a little bit invisible. This time it was at church. I had discovered an amazing church right in the heart of London – it was a place that had it all. It was liberal and non-judgmental, it actively worked to help the poor and homeless locally, as well as refugees internationally. And most important to me, it was a truly spiritual place that wasn’t obsessed with dogma. This was an institution that I wanted to be a part of. (I’ve blogged in the past about how Conan the Barbarian helped me go from religious cynic to active church-goer.)
I had been attending for more than a year and while people recognised me and were quick to smile and say hello, I felt a little on the periphery of things – once again, no one seemed to know my name. So when I found out they were looking for volunteers to take part in the Easter passion play, I signed up.
I was assigned a small, but high-profile part. At the height of the service, I was meant to go up on the altar and slowly hammer nails into a giant wooden cross that had been erected there. The nails were already embedded in the cross and all I had to do was strike one of them, three times, commemorating Jesus’ crucifixion. The sharp, loud sound – I was told by the Vicar – would be a dramatic highlight of the proceedings, focussing the congregation’s mind on Jesus’ sacrifice.
It was exactly what I was looking for.
I would go up there with my hammer, give that nail a few good whacks and as the loud <CRACK>, pause <CRACK>, pause <CRACK> of hammer on nail reverberated through the building, everyone would notice me. Then I would no longer be a stranger who happened to attend the same church. They would remember me as “That chap who did such a good job during the passion play whacking those nails with that big hammer.” Maybe they would invite me over for tea and make me an honorary church warden or something like that. This promised to be my next big Splat the Rat kind of moment.
The service wound up being more nerve-wracking than I had anticipated as I hadn’t realised just how much I would be on display. For much of the mass, I was centre-stage in front of a packed house, standing silently with nothing to do but hold a hammer, not far from a huge, looming cross. Everyone knew what I was there for, but that seemed to only increase the pressure. I had just one job to do and I felt as if everyone was watching to see how I would do it.
When it finally was time for my big moment, I tried to make the best of it. I lifted my hammer high and swung it down in a big sweeping motion, prepared to make a powerful impression.
And I missed the nail.
Instead of a loud, satisfying <CRACK> that would break through the solemn silence and punctuate the momentousness of the occasion, I managed only a dull <thump> as the hammer bounced off the soft wood. It looked like I was going to be “That chap that couldn’t even crucify Jesus properly.”
Realising this, I overcompensated for my miss and started whacking the nail over and over again, as hard as I could manage. But because I was now deathly afraid of further misses, I didn’t dare lift the hammer more than a couple of inches away from the nail, limiting my momentum. My subsequent strikes had all the visceral impact of a chicken pecking at a ball of cotton.
<crack> <crack> <crack> <crack> <crack> <crack> <crack> <crack> <crack>
If Jesus had actually been there on the cross, my first blow would have smashed his fingers, rather than properly secured him to the wood and my follow-ups would have only extended his pain needlessly and ineffectively. Another Roman soldier would have had to relieve me of my duties and started the whole thing all over again.
I had actually found a way to make the suffering of Jesus even worse than it was portrayed in the bible and I did it on the holiest day of the year in front of a full crowd of church-goers who I had been looking to impress.
Okay, maybe it wasn’t as bad as that. But also, it sort of was. I felt pretty awful at first and I was hugely embarrassed. People managed to be nice about it afterwards – it was a church after all. No one threw stones at me or suggested that I should have been the one to be crucified or anything like that. Maybe they assumed I had been given instructions to symbolically nail Jesus to the cross quickly and quietly and not make too much of a fuss about it.
But in any event, it turns out that even doing something very poorly can still get you noticed. Shortly after the service, I was invited by one of the clergy members to a church”newcomers” dinner and I soon officially joined the church’s rolls. Just being up there in front of everyone made me more familiar to people and quite a few church-goers seemed to know my name after that day, which is what I was after, I suppose.
I was even asked to take part again in the East passion play this year – but this time doing only a short reading. I wasn’t surprised to discover that they got somebody else to do the hammer and nails part. I think his name is Fergus.