Mandan News

Brian L. Gray: Finding inspiration between a rock and a hard place

Last Saturday I was taking a break and walking outside during my weekend job, enjoying what little warm weather I’ve been able to take in this summer, when my wondering eyes spotted something.

It was an inanimate object, but it looked alive. One eye and a mouth was what I saw, as the object seemed to be looking off in the distance with a pleasant looking smirk. I moved closer to the object and picked it up. It was a rock. On it was a crack, and above that a burned erosion spot, which made it appear like it had a mouth and an eye. While I inspected this thing I couldn’t help but laugh at it. It amazed me and suddenly brightened up my day.

I’m not one for collecting random items, but this, I figured, could be an exception. I put the rock in my pocket, determined to show it off to people. If it gave me so much joy I knew it had the capabilities of extending joy to others.

As I did this my head immediately began fast-forwarding through time, discovering the possibilities with this newfound interest in rocks. I saw myself beginning a rock collecting hobby, going to parks and spending hours pillaging through piles of rocks, looking for ones that stand out or resemble Abraham Lincoln. I envisioned myself at home, surrounded by boxes of rocks, as I proudly sat next to them in my desk, meticulously inspecting and cleaning them, as some of the more prominent rocks stood on display behind me in a bullet-proof case.

I foresaw myself getting older, taking every vacation from work over the years to travel the globe in search of special looking rocks. I’d share tales to my grandchildren about these rocks as the kids shyly look away, possibly to an outside window or a television playing in the next room, as I excitedly tell them when and where I found each rock. And as I near my 80s, surrounded by these special collections, I get a call from a producer of a late night talk show, who invites me to make an appearance and talk about my rocks. I become an instant celebrity, known across the world as The Rock Man.

As my health dwindles, museums begin calling me with ideas of starting special interest exhibits, and want to display my collection, which now has taken over my entire house, leaving me with little more than a small room for me and my wife, whose only wish at that point is that I die buried in a pile of rocks. And when I finally pass away, my headstone has engraved on it, “It all started with a smile.”

And that smile was in my pocket. This, I thought, could be my claim to fame, my legacy. Everybody needs a gimmick, and maybe this could be mine. Maybe instead of The Rock Man, I wondered, I could be known as The Pebble Punk, Boulder Boy, or The Stone Stud.

But the more I thought about it, the less that legacy appealed to me. In the last seven years I’ve moved six times, and if that trend were to continue there’d be no way I’d subject myself to moving boxes of rocks.

I also thought of hobbies or collections I’ve had in the past which died sudden deaths. I recalled a rock collection I tried in the past, which ended with me throwing them back into the wild. I even had a pet rock collection for a while. I have no idea where those are anymore. Maybe they’re back in the wild too, where they’re being made fun of by other rocks for being hairy and underevolved. Another hobby I had was buying tin foil for a large tin foil ball. This was inspired by a hero of mine at the time, Pee-Wee Herman, who owned a tin foil ball about seven feet in height. In later years I attempted sea shells, coffee mugs, pens, Pez dispensers, candles and many others, but like most other hobbies of mine, they were all ill-fated.

But yet the smiling rock reached me on a base level, and I wanted to pinpoint what it was exactly. After a few minutes of slamming my head against the smiling rock, it came to me – finding inanimate objects that display human characteristics triggers the imagination. It appeals to people in a fascinating way, and taps into our curious natures. I can’t help but wonder why it is that people are so drawn to staring at clouds for hours, or are convinced they have stumbled upon the face of Jesus on the side of a rutabaga.

Is it our way of reaching out to those objects? That if an external object shares some of our human traits, we can then relate to it and better understand it, because we see in it qualities that we possess? And in doing so, does it indicate our profound hope that a real living life could possibly be breathing in all existing objects?

If that’s true, maybe my pet rocks are actually being mocked right now. I do know one thing for sure – seeing that smiling rock allowed me to see something in a different way, which is an important lesson I once learned from the movie “Dead Poets Society” but often tend to forget.

These days my tastes are more clearly defined, and I have a strong sense of what I know will last through the years. For example, I still have a large collection of records and vintage cameras. These are hobbies I know will last with me. I_think. And as much as that rock moved me, I knew a large collection of them would do nothing for me.

So I walked away from the rest of the rocks in the area I found the smiling one, not interested in looking for any others, and returned to work. I figured I’d just stick with the one, and let someone else be The Rock Man.

If anything, I realized, it’s only fitting that I go back and finish what I started. So from here on out, you can call me The Tin Foil Fool.

Brian L. Gray (far right) during his eighth birthday party, unable to hide his excitement that a friend of his purchased tin foil as a birthday gift. Pictured with Brian are three childhood friends who, due to Brian’s odd fondness for tin foil, refuse to be identified. Arlene Gray photo

The smiling rock.