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Of Hats and Letters

This post is split up into two parts: the first is a personal story; the second is the blog post inspired by it. Enjoy!

The first thing I noticed about him was his hat.

It wasn’t the style, really, that snagged my attention. It was an ordinary ivy cap, the flat-paneled topper initially made famous in the British Isles. Nothing extraordinary about it—there’s a nearly identical one sitting on my closet shelf.

It was the way he wore it.

By nature, caps are worn to shade the eyes. But his seemed to shade his soul.

It was pulled low, at a harsh angle, nearly covering his dirk-like eyes. The moment his gaze met mine, it was like two magnets pointing North at each other: something inside each of us was at odds.

His gaze left mine as quickly as I averted my own. I couldn’t decide whether he’d felt it too, whether it was all in my mind … but I was immediately confident that he was hiding something. Some kind of anger, bitterness, or even guilt. He never removed the hat, never looked up, never met my eyes again. His gait was similar to a gunslinger; you could almost see the chip on his shoulder when he walked in the door.

Every day, in the local coffee shop we both frequented, we ignored each other’s existence. On most days his wife was with him. They both sat in the corner of the coffee shop, the only seats which afforded a clear vantage point of the whole shop while staying mostly out of view. I couldn’t help but notice his wife seemed to carry the same spirit in her; while she didn’t avoid my eyes, she never smiled. It was like life passed her by when it handed out joy.

I watched them for months from behind my laptop, distracted from writing by the enigma surrounding them. What had caused this relatively young man and his wife to shade their souls from me? What was he hiding? Why did he wear his hat so low over his eyes?

My opinions were set; the judgment was made. He was at odds with the world, choosing to shield the windows of his soul from penetration by the light. I’d seen this kind of darkness many times. The darkness in them hated the light in me. This was clearly a similar case.

I had no clue that he would prove me wrong.

One morning, the couple brought their daughter to the coffee shop.

And in seconds, all my judgments and prejudices tumbled down like blocks in a Jenga game.

He was attentive, loving, and careful about his daughter, a ten- or eleven-year-old girl with brown hair that matched her eyes. He gave her a pair of headphones and a tablet; made sure she was comfortable; dropped a kiss on her hair. She held no reservation with him near. She trusted him. He was no eviler than a staunch bulldog, who may have a gruff, callous exterior, but will endlessly protect his own with a paradoxical gentleness.

I had misjudged him.

And it had taken all of three seconds for him to prove me wrong.

Keep that story in mind. We're going to switch gears for a second, but I promise you'll see why.

Certain letters just have a bad reputation.

Like the letter X, which we associate with canceled or forbidden. Or the letter L, which we love to evoke by sticking our thumb and forefinger out at right angles and planting the gesture right on our forehead: LOSER.

Of all the alphabet, however, the letter F is definitely the one who got voted “Most Likely to Get in Trouble” in high school.

The word failure comes to mind. Or, depending on your upbringing, another f-word is prominently imagined. There’s even a specific finger that is very closely associated with it.

Does the letter F officially stand for either of these words? Does it actually have a definition?


But I’ll bet one of those words still popped into your mind, the moment I mentioned it.

Though it has no definition, we define it anyway.

Though the letter F has no definition, we define it anyway.

Sure, we could pretend that F stands for family or fun. Or faith or forgiveness.

But, frustrating as it is, once the letter F got nailed with a bad rap, it stuck.

Sometimes appearances can also take on a meaning that was never intended.

Why? Because it’s far easier to forget a kind deed than an egregious offense. We easily mark those who have hurt us and forget those who showed us kindness.

I'm as guilty of this as anyone.

As a writer, I often see “letter Fs” walking all around me: people who look a certain way and evoke a certain association according to their appearance.

Sometimes they wear dreadlocks and tattoos.

Some sit with half-closed eyes in a haze of putrid smoke, a joint hanging loosely from their lips.

Some refuse to meet my eyes, pulling their cap tightly over their forehead, hands buried in their pockets.

Some dress in the wrong person’s clothes.

I'm familiar with all the stereotypes. So when I see a “letter F,” I'm instantly tempted to assume I know what it stands for.

Even when it doesn’t mean what I think it does.

Granted, sometimes the outside appearance is directly tied to a person's heart condition. Sometimes they are exactly what I perceive them to be.

But to gain an accurate perspective of a person, I have to know the rest of the letters after the letter F to see who they really are.

To gain an accurate perspective of a person, I have to know the rest of the letters after the letter F to see who they really are.

The next time I meet a letter F—whether it's a character in my story or a person in my life—I need to dig deeper than the first letter.

First impressions are overrated and inaccurate. People are much more complex than their first dimension; appearances are not what they seem; true motives are not always obvious.

Understanding this makes us not only better writers, but wiser humans.

Understanding this makes us not only better writers, but wiser humans.

So the letter F may never lose its bad reputation. That's okay. We've all been hurt by a letter F in one way or another, so it's perfectly natural to assume every word starting with F is a bad one.

But, then again, we're called to be more than natural, aren't we?

So my challenge to myself: the next time I meet a "letter F," it's not my job to assume what it stands for.

It’s my job to find out what letters follow it.

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Joshua Sword

I'm twenty-six and work as a livestream producer by day. I'm highly facetious. It's very hard to take me seriously, a fact that I carefully nurture and protect, because I don't want people calling me Mr. Josh and kissing my hand and handing me scotch or whatever they do in the serious world. I like my own world just fine.

Can I send you something?

Are your characters stuck? Download my quick guide, The Character Generator, to create a motivated, conflicted character in five minutes. Or all your money back. (Well, it's free. But you get the idea.)

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