In his latest book, local author Gordon Hutchison explores the gamut of human emotion with 400 original aphorisms — from hysterical quips to thought-provoking adages.
An adventurous life has informed Hutchison’s eclectic perspectives. After graduating from Duke University in 1971 with a bachelor’s degree in psychology and religion, he set off on a hitchhiking tour of the United States. Eventually, Hutchison widened his range, spending time in Germany and the Virgin Islands before landing at a Zen monastery in Japan.
He would spend the next three decades in Japan, inadvertently cavorting with gangsters, manning the door at a major cabaret, teaching Hatha yoga and eventually building an auspicious career at the world’s largest ad agency.
I caught up with Hutchison to learn more about his background and what he hopes readers will take from his newest book. Now retired, Hutchison, 71, lives in Cary with his son Evan.
The interview has been edited for clarity and length.
You describe the book’s contents as “original aphorisms and other philosophical fragments with teeth.” We don’t use that word often — “aphorisms.” What are you talking about?
I talk about this at some length in the book’s introduction, but an aphorism is just a concise phrase with a kernel of truth. If you look it up, you’ll find there are different definitions, but there was one guy whose book I read and liked and he gave five conditions for something to be an aphorism. He said it has to be personal, it has to be brief, it has to be concise, it has to have a twist and it has to be philosophical.
Well, even in the book, I mention that I have no idea what he means by the last one, that it has to be philosophical, but then again, who cares? More important I think is it has to be personal, which comes from experience. And short is important because these things started 5,000 years ago in China as teaching mechanisms, especially spiritual teaching mechanisms, when people couldn’t read — they had to stick in the memory. So that’s where they came from and that has influenced their development over time.
So what got you so interested in aphorisms that you would write and compile several hundred of these into a book?
Here’s the backstory for these. When I was a sophomore in college at Duke, I took a psych course and I read a book by a guy named Norman O. Brown who back then was a hot item among college academics; he rethought Freud. It’s kind of embarrassing to admit, but that book really changed my life, it changed my thinking. Ever since then — and that’s, you know, going on 50 years or more — nothing else has changed my mind. He didn’t have a very high opinion of the human race, he didn’t think they were much in control of their own actions, and I haven’t seen much to contradict that. But also, these are like a diary of my life, just reacting to things as I went along. And being a copywriter, I would try to put them into some intelligible and concise form.
I think we’ve all heard the job title, copywriter, but might not be so familiar with the responsibilities. From what I understand, though, it made you quite an authority on aphorisms. Can you tell me some more about that?
I worked for a company called Dentsu, and in the late ‘80s when I was there it was the largest ad agency in the world. This was back when the Japanese were buying up properties around the world — I think they bought Rockefeller Center and a lot of places in Hawaii — and everybody kind of hated them. There were a lot of attack ads on Japan back then. Well, I was the only copywriter who could read and speak Japanese, so I did just about everything and anything. I wrote a lot of ads, I also wrote a lot of commercial videos and stuff for magazines, pamphlets.
But basically for a copywriter it’s all about wordplay, it’s inversion, one-liners, headlines. And so yeah, it did set me up to be good at aphorisms. I learned that even if you have a great idea, if you don’t really say it well, then the effect is lost. You get maybe half or nothing of the intended effect.
Your history in Japan is fascinating, and some of your adventures there are chronicled in an earlier book, “Gangsters, Geishas, Monks & Me.” Your life in Japan also informed some of the aphorisms in your newest book. Can you give us a sample of your most memorable experiences in Japan?
I was training at a Zen temple, which has it’s own set of stories, but this was in the late 70s and the locals didn’t really give me a warm reception. Many of them had never seen a white person in the flesh. But I met this local group of Yakuza — and they weren’t killer Yakuza, they were kind of country Yakuza — but the godfather of that group, who was just one year older than I, he and I got to be friends. And this led to many adventures.
In one that I recall clearest, the gangsters had kind of a party. They took me up to a hotel where they had Geisha serving. Now, what I didn’t know was there was a sex show going on. So my gangster friend asked me, “Which woman do you want?” Basically, I found out, you went up there and you ate and drank and then just slept with a geisha. But I didn’t want to do that! But, see, up until then, I had been hanging around with him for like a month. And I didn’t have any money, so he had bought everything. Whenever we went drinking or whatever he would buy all that stuff for me. And so when I refused him — because I really didn’t like the idea of sex for money — but when I refused him, he got very pissed off, because in Japanese culture I was shaming him in front of his men. Well, I was surrounded instantly by a group of scowling Yakuza, and it hit me all of a sudden what I was really into here: “With my responsibilities to this godfather, I have to sleep with this woman.” So, there was one little epiphany...
The aphorisms in your book range from hysterical quips to thought-provoking adages. What are some of your favorites?
Some bites started out as T-shirt captions: “Dirty minds think more;” “Life is too short to play fair.” These were, by and large, irreverent, sarcastic wordplay — something I have always specialized in, and later did for a living as a copywriter. As the one-liners grew in number, I got the idea for a book of illustrated captions, once again, largely irreverent.
Upon returning to America, however, the general tone grew more philosophical, possibly due to the different political and cultural environment. Now, in retrospect, the bites I am most gratified with are those that Kirkus Reviews referred to as “universal wisdom.” I call them “notes to self”: “It’s never too late to admit you’re wrong, and always too early to insist you’re right;” “The most beautiful art is life well lived;” “Procrastination is most regrettable in cases of kindness, because the time for kindness is always right.”
One thing that I think sets my book apart, is that you can find many compilations of aphorisms, but everybody writes about them, and nobody actually writes them. It was really incredible to discover, though, while writing my original aphorisms, that people have been saying the same things for thousands years. It was very validating for me, on the one hand. I felt I was in distinguished company. But on the other hand, I thought, “You know, the human race hasn’t really made any progress in 2000 years. What does that say about us?” It’s kind of a bittersweet revelation.
Where can folks pick up a copy of your book?
It should be basically anywhere, like Barnes and Noble and other outlets. It’s also available on Amazon, but a word of caution there: I actually put out an earlier version of “Reality Bites” in 2015, so there are two versions of the book on Amazon now. And if you just type in the title, it will go to the old one. So just look out that if you’re buying it online it’s the updated version.
Reporter D. Lars Dolder can be reached at email@example.com and on Twitter @dldolder.
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