16 July 2007 | Vol. 7, No. 2

What You Know Now

Admittedly, I should have been more dubious at the outset. But Monty had so few achievements to celebrate that I felt obligated to attend the commencement, or whatever it was he had called it.

"It's not a graduation," Carla, Monty's girlfriend, said. "That's probably what he told you, but that's not what it is."

"What is it then?" I asked, taking into account that Carla had once been jealous of an Easter haiku Monty had written for his mother.

"It's one of those cult thingies," she said, sounding like she wanted to whisper, if only for effect.

Again, something should have registered on my dubious meter. Maybe the reason nothing did was because I had had previous experiences with cults and they weren't all bad.

I had volunteered and worked, in various capacities, for the semi-notorious Peppino family, Amway, and the Sierra Club—but none of them seemed to have the clout that Monty's organization did. I could tell the minute we entered the windowless brick building that they weren't any old run-of-the-mill outfit. The men and women in charge wore wire-rimmed spectacles and power watches. They had gelled hair, pressed suits, and spit-shined shoes. Security wore earpieces just like secret service agents and weren't afraid to openly wield their electric stun batons, which they held at the ready during the entire two-hour spiel.

Although Monty had put me in compromising situations before, and on a few occasions in immediate peril, I thought he might be doing me a service for once by dragging me to that meeting. I was especially impressed by the Grand Professor's eloquent speech which began: "Ladies and Gentlemen, you have to ask yourselves one question here tonight—how can you live with the disgrace of knowing that you are nothing if not a Who Knower?"

As intrigued as I was by the opening, I don't think most of the other investigators (as we were referred to) shared my enthusiasm. They began grumbling to the people who had brought them, shifting in their seats, probably wondering when the graduation ceremony would begin.

"Who Knower," the Grand Professor repeated. "It just has an ugly ring to it. But what can we be if we are not Who Knowers?"

One of the members raised her hand, displaying an animated set of spirit fingers.

"Yes, Scholar Patsy? What is it we have the potential to be?"

"What Knowers!" she shouted feverishly.

"What Knowers!" the GP repeated, pulling down a screen behind him that read, in big block letters, WHAT YOU KNOW.

"Investigators, your scholar friends have invited you here tonight to educate you on a subject you've been misinformed about your entire lives. You're here tonight to discover the power of what you know and to renounce your dependence on who you know. You cannot go through life relying on others to do things for you. You have to take the initiative and start being responsible for yourself."

Following the GP's homily were several testimonies from members who were still coping with guilt from all the special deals they had received from their travel agent connections, the bar tabs they never paid because the restaurants were owned by family, and the cuts they had accepted to get to the front of the lines at amusement parks and sporting events. At one point I had to wipe a tear from my eye as a woman confessed to receiving a dishwasher from her husband for Christmas. "As if accepting a gift weren't bad enough, I was making the dishwasher responsible for cleaning my dishes," she sobbed.

Some other investigators weren't as enchanted by the testimonies as I was. They cursed under their breaths the whole evening. Sighed or yawned every time a member professed their allegiance to the cause. One woman (I thought) took quite a bit of responsibility for herself by beating her husband senseless with the investigator pamphlet before security was able to remove her from the building.

At the end of the meeting the Grand Professor asked those of us who wanted to change our lives for the better to form a line at the podium. One by one we took responsibility for all the friendships we had corrupted, all the acquaintances we had used. In the fervor of the moment I told off Monty in front of the Grand Professor, God, and all his fellow scholars.

"You exploited our friendship by bringing me here tonight," I said. I paused for effect, doing my best to appear offended. "But because I wasn't responsible enough to find my own way to What You Know, well, I guess it's okay."

For a moment the members seemed stunned, the investigators dazed. Then the Grand Professor began to applaud, setting off a chain reaction of clapping and whistling among the audience. (I didn't know until later that Monty received a reprimand for using our friendship to get me to the commencement, which cost him nearly three hundred of his hard-earned dollars.)

Once the responsible investigators had been granted membership into What You Know and the covetous ones had left the meeting, only to return to their shallow Who Knowing lives, Monty and I went to our favorite tavern, The Ragged Duke, for a celebratory cocktail.

"Why are the initials for the organization WYKN?" I asked, sucking the head off my pilsner.

"What You Know is a relatively new organization," he explained and pointed to the header on my certificate of membership that read: Empowering individuals with a sense of responsibility since 1983. "It was launched to counter the less successful organization Who You Know, which was founded in the late seventies by a conman named Norman Lawler. Even though his two-bit union didn't stand the test of time, he still owns the WYK trademark."

Monty was full of useful knowledge about WYKN. He told me that membership had doubled every sixth year over the last decade and that the organization was a proud sponsor of other philanthropic societies like MADP (Mothers Against the Disbursement of Pez) and the International Penguin Class Dinghy Association.

Monty was so excited about my membership that he not only offered to pay for our drinks (which I couldn't let him do since I was now taking responsibility for myself), but he let me borrow his directory of WYKN approved businesses.

"These are the only establishments we're allowed to conduct business with or work for," he said matter-of-factly.

I examined the list and rubbed my eyes.

"Where's the rest of it?" I asked.

"Well, it may not look like much now, but more businesses are complying with our standards every day." He tossed back the last of his beer and slowly shook his head. "The world we live in lacks integrity, my friend. We're part of a cause to restore dignity to the human race."

Those were the words I repeated over and over to myself when I went in to work the next morning to offer my resignation. It killed me to do it, but I was living by a new code of ethics and I would have been a hypocrite if I didn't abide by them. When I told the principal, Mr. Richards, that I could no longer teach my fifth-grade class, or work for the school district in any capacity, he of course wanted an explanation.

"I'm out to make the world a better place now," I said.

"What can be nobler than educating the leaders of tomorrow?" he asked, as if repeating a slogan he had heard on a government-funded PSA.

I glanced at the cheat sheet WYKN had given me for when I was confronted by Who Knowing questions.

"There's no excuse for mediocrity," I said. "Even blank needs to be more responsible. I mean, children. They need to be more responsible."

"I couldn't agree with you more," he said.

I skimmed the cheat sheet again.

"It's time to bring knowledge back to the workplace," I said, with a little less confidence.


Mr. Richards waited patiently for me to pull out another whopper, but I could see he wasn't going to let me leave without a fight. I decided to come clean and tell him the real reason I was quitting: "This school district is not on my list of WYKN-approved businesses."

We discussed the list for a while and attempted to make sense of the criteria for the included establishments. (He too was appalled at how heartbreakingly short the directory was.) Ultimately, he ended up being much more sympathetic than I expected.

"What can we do to get our school on your list?"

"I'm not really sure," I said. "But I'll find out at next week's meeting. In the meantime, I'm afraid I'm going to need a substitute for my class."

At the next meeting I brought up the subject of expanding the business directory to the Grand Professor.

"What does a business need to do in order to be WYKN approved?"

"Excellent question, Scholar Greg. The rules are simple. No hiring friends. No hiring based on recommendations. No promotions based on recommendations or friendship. No workers are to be given special treatment of any kind. All advancement should depend strictly upon the merit of the employee."

"Then I nominate Gordon B. Hinkley elementary to be added to the directory!"

"Duly noted, Scholar Greg! As soon as we receive the one thousand dollar initiation fee, your school will be up for consideration."

Needless to say, I was crushed. More than anything I enjoyed teaching ten-year-olds about the California Gold Rush and the differences between rocks and minerals. I had led the school's wrestling team to four consecutive all-state victories. And—being a WYKN member taught me not to be ashamed to toot my own horn—I was one of the hardest-working faculty members in the district. But because Mr. Richards didn't have the budget to pay the WYKN initiation fee, I was forced to quit the best thing I had going for me.

"So how's the cult life?" Carla asked when I went to visit Monty, who was also unemployed.

"To be honest, it's hard maintaining a belief system that goes against the public norm."

"Duh. That's what cults do. They uproot you like a weed in the flowerbed of society and expect you to survive in a world full of marigolds and poppies."

"The only local job opportunities I have right now are being a night watchman at a fish hatchery or doing entry level data processing for the IRS."

"Could be worse. You could have been in the entertainment industry."

Carla did have a point. Things could have been worse. She really helped me to focus on what was positive in my life. Thanks to WYKN I was becoming more responsible for myself. And, as the Grand Professor reminded us each week, we needed to not only be responsible for ourselves, but for the rest of society as well. That meant boycotting all restaurants, markets, dry cleaners, department stores, and coffeehouses that weren't WYKN approved. It also meant that I had to refuse service from the SBC repairman, Internet providers, deliverymen (including the postal worker), the electric company, and I was obligated to cancel my gym membership.

But the most important part of being responsible for society was recruiting new members for the cause. So, because I had nothing else to do in the time I spent outside the weekly meetings, I began frequenting local parks and other public places in an attempt to lure investigators to a commencement. Because my appearance had become increasingly disheveled, (you try going six weeks without electricity, shopping only at Goodwill stores, eating chow mein and fried rice from the one WYKN-approved restaurant in the area), I was constantly mistaken for a homeless person. And since people thought I was homeless, they sometimes offered me part of their picnic lunches or pocket change, which, of course, I wasn't allowed to accept.

I considered that period of my life to be the true test of my faith. I discovered the hard way how difficult it is not to accept things from people when you really, really need them. As was the case when Monty insisted on loaning me some cash so I could pay my rent.

"You can't offer me that," I said, pushing away the folds of bills.

"Sure I can. It's a free country."

"I mean your membership will be revoked."

"Oh, that. I quit last week. Carla gave me an ultimatum. She said if I didn't get my old job back she'd move to Bakersfield and find a man who was big enough to depend on others."

I didn't feel betrayed by Monty at first. It seemed like he had no other alternative if he wanted to hold on to the best thing he had going for him. But that didn't do a whole lot for my situation. I was still broke. I had no friends. (Monty thought it best if he didn't associate with cult members. "You're no longer on my list of Carla approved friends," he said.) The other members of WYKN weren't really friends, considering we weren't allowed to fraternize outside of meetings or do any favors for each other. Everyday I thought to myself: If I quit now I'll just be one more person promoting Who Knowing in the world. I'll not only be letting myself and the Grand Professor down but I'll be assisting in the degradation of our great civilization.

Finally, after months of going against the grain of society, I really did become a homeless person. I deposited the few WYKN-approved possessions I still owned in a storage unit, spent my days handing out flyers in the free speech areas of college campuses, and slept in a tent under an overpass downtown. Coincidentally, this was around the time I was expelled from WYKN. Before a commencement one evening, the Grand Professor invited me into his office and said, "Scholar Greg, I'm sorry, but you're no longer welcome here at What You Know."

"But why?" I asked. "I've been a devout member for nearly a year now."

"Well, let me see here," he said, perusing my membership profile. "You haven't paid your monthly dues, you haven't recruited any new members in over a month, there was the allegation that you accepted half of a Krispy Kreme donut from a hobo in the park, and frankly your appearance does not reflect the standards of our institution."

"But, but…"

Nothing I could have said would have made a difference. Carla had been right from the beginning. Organizations like WYKN used their members as a means to an end. "Everyone but the higher-ups are like brake pads," she had warned me. "They're perfectly replaceable."

Shortly after I was ousted from WYKN, Carla and Monty took me in to live with them. They were happy to have me, especially since they had just begun organizing a program, called What You Know Now, to help former cult members reintegrate themselves back into mainstream society. For three months I was their guinea pig, so to speak, having to relearn everything I had abandoned in order to live a more responsible life.

They began by spoon feeding me the more fundamental customs and norms of society that I had forgotten. They encouraged me, for example, to ask passersby for directions if I ever found myself turned around on the street. (That was a difficult obstacle to overcome since, as a member of the male species, I had never accepted that kind of assistance, even before joining WYKN.)

Some force was also necessary in my readjustment, particularly when it came to getting me into non-WYKN-approved establishments. I wish I had seen the expressions on the employees' faces when Monty ordered an Iced Caramel Macchiato at Starbucks with me slung over his shoulder. But, as I recall, I was red faced and bawling at the time, which I'm sure influenced some of the confused coffeehouse regulars to reevaluate their caffeine addictions.

Eventually, Carla and Monty helped restore me to a manageable state of independence and, more importantly, dependence. After just a few months of their rigorous tough-love tactics, I was helping out with chores around the house, running errands at previously forbidden stores, and I even got my old job back.

It wasn't until one day (not long after I had again become a productive member of society) when I was in the county library doing some research for one of Carla and Monty's What You Know Now pamphlets, that I was approached by a WYKN member. At first, due to his unkempt appearance and tattered clothing, I thought he was another anonymous vagrant who spent his afternoons catnapping among the stacks. But when he approached me muttering something about not using others as a crutch to get ahead in life (which prompted my recently modified dubious meter to go haywire) I recognized him as someone I had once invited to a commencement.

"Responsibility begins and ends with the self," he said, reciting to me the same words I had to him only a few months prior.

"There's no excuse for mediocrity," I said back. "Even the homeless need to be more responsible."

"Yes!" For a moment all the weariness and despondency disappeared from the man's sandbaggy eyes.

"It's time to bring knowledge back to the workplace."

"You're a scholar too!" he said, trembling with validation.

I wanted to tell him, right then and there, all that I had experienced with WYKN so that he could avoid making the same mistakes, but I knew I had to choose my words carefully so he wouldn't simply dismiss me as an uncompromising Who Knower.

For a moment I found myself wishing I had some kind of cheat sheet.

"Was a scholar," I said. "Then I began taking real responsibility for myself."

Like a prince transforming into a toad, the man lapsed back into his forlorn state.

"Then I suppose there's no sense trying to recruit you," he mumbled, more to himself than to me.

I felt sorry for the lonely scholar, as I distinguished the telltale signs of disillusionment beginning to surface, but I knew there was nothing I could do at that point to persuade him to leave WYKN. The fact of the matter is he wouldn't have listened. I know because when my family and friends had tried to fish me out of that downward spiral I refused to accept their help. Like me, he'd have to have his membership revoked before he would realize that organizations like WYKN actually promote the opposite of the values they claim to uphold.

As he moped away, dragging a threadbare pack that contained his few remaining personal possessions, I tried to think of something to say that might help steer him away from What You Know without sounding like I was reciting anti-cult propaganda. That proved to be more difficult than I thought. The only things my brain could put together, as I watched him patter down the aisle, were old adages and catchphrases from groups who seemed to oppose organizations like WYKN. Finally, I just blurted out the most original thing I could think of at the time.

"Instead of being a Who Knower or a What Knower you might try being a How Knower," I shouted across the reference section.

The man stopped for a second and glanced over his shoulder with raised brows, and I thought he might come back to ask what a How Knower was, but then he continued on through the stacks, searching for investigators to help him feel once again like he was performing a service for the greater good of society.

In retrospect, I'm glad he didn't ask me what a How Knower was because I didn't really know myself. Like Who Knowing or What Knowing I had made it up just to offer the guy another way of looking at things. In any case, the Grand Professor would see to it that the man did see things differently by having his membership revoked. Maybe then the man would be more wary of organizations that tried to recruit him for their causes. Maybe then he would learn the importance of dubiousness.

About the author:

Jeff Tannen, like Monty, has come to the stark realization that one can't get by on what knowing. When he's not trying to demonstrate his merit at writing, he can usually be found on a racquetball court or curled up in a corner with a good sci-fi novel. Jeff is a tutorial coordinator in Fresno, California and is married with children (two cats and a dog that are nothing if not who knowing). Jeff enjoys receiving feedback—even the critical kind—from other readers and writers. You can contact him at [email protected].

For further reading:

Browse the contents of 42opus Vol. 7, No. 2, where "What You Know Now" ran on July 16, 2007. List other work with these same labels: fiction, short story.

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