Everything from Z to A: Misery Loves Company


“Why is everyone on TV so miserable?” Z asked. “I’m serious, nothing can make these people happy. They’re hopeless, angry people who raise miserable children. It’s all so realistic, and I say that in the most sarcastic, or sardonic, way possible. Does this reflect us, or do we reflect it? The truth, as they see it, is that we’re not happy, and anyone who says they are is lying in these movies.”  

The Sopranos didn’t start the miserable anti-hero motif,” A said, “but it definitely popularized it to the point that negative and nasty themes are just more interesting to us. We want complicated, torn characters who do awful things to one another. We don’t want to see a show about positive people anymore. Miserable people are more complex and entertaining. Happy, positive people are simple-minded, and as we’ve seen in the 50’s and 60’s, they always find a reason to break into song.” 

“I loved Breaking Bad, The Sopranos, and all the negative, realistic movies and shows that dot the recent past,” Z said, “but our comedies are negative and realistic now too. When did that happen?” 

“I think it started as a set up for happiness,” A said. “A character couldn’t truly be happy without first being truly miserable. Then they got more miserable to make the happiness at the end resound more. Then we started saying, “I hate happy endings.” Everyone I knew started saying it, and we all thought it was funny, until it caught on.”  

“I remember that,” Z said. “It didn’t last long, but everyone started saying happy just wasn’t very realistic. Negative cynicism is the truth. The happy endings diminished the drama of the unhappiness, because everyone knew, eventually, the happy ending was coming. The enterprising writers then wrote unhappy endings, and we said that’s real. We’re all miserable people. Life is book-ended by two screams. The one at the beginning of life and the one at the end, and everything in between involves groans of misery.” 

“I don’t think people hated happy endings so much as they hated the predictable lead-up,” A said. “I think the ‘I hate happy endings’ line caught on so much that screenwriters and directors thought they might lose street cred if they wrote another happy ending, so they wrote the ‘all hope is lost’ movie that ended when they discovered that there was no hope.” 

“The actors influenced it too of course,” Z said, “as they would only work with directors and writers with street cred.” 

“And the critics, don’t forget about them,” A said. “Back when they had influence, they hailed the misery as a tour-de-force.” 

“As a teen, I was attracted to most pessimistic, cynical people I could find. I thought they were real, hilarious, and so fresh and honest. They were also original to me. I grew up in a broken home, but my people were mostly normal with normal outlooks, normal habits, and normal relationships with normal people. We were unhappy people We bought into this whole idea that happiness was a big lie sold to the public. We thought normal people were covering up all of their indiscretions, and once we successfully uncovered them for who they were, we’d all realize we’re all just as miserable as everyone else.” 

“And that was the big lie.” 

“That was the big lie,” Z said. “Maybe not 100% of the time. I’m sure some of these happy people were unhappy, but I grew up in a broken home, and we were counting on the idea that this happiness was a lie. We thought they were covering up a number of indiscretions. When I entered the work force, I found out that most of these people were happy, well-adjusted people, and there was no big cover up. They led happy, uneventful lives. It also didn’t do me any good to think that they were corrupt and evil. Did it get me some laughs? Sure. Did it make me appear more worldly, and that I had street knowledge? It did, but it never paved the way for a raise or a promotion, or some kind of unforeseen career path. These ideas did not serve any purpose for me. Most important, they clouded my mind to such a degree that I had to unlearn their ideas and learn the truth. All those ideas did was make me feel better about myself in a short-term, unproductive way. 

“I know one entertainment medium more miserable than the movies,” Z continued. “Sports. Watching sports on TV, and following a team, is just a miserable experience. I’m not going to tell you what teams I follow, but let’s just say that the lifetime I’ve spent watching sports has been miserable. I was born with an NFL jersey, and I’ll probably die that way, but I wish I could remove whatever gene I have that causes me to care so much about my teams. I wish I could just pluck that gene right out of my body.” 

“If I could advise a younger me on living life well and all that,” Z continued. “I’d tell a younger me to watch sports the same way you do every other program on TV. If it isn’t going your way, turn it off. You think you get some kind of fan points by sticking with them to the bitter end? You don’t. No one will ever know that you turned that game off, and if they find out, guess what, they won’t care. They might rib you. They might call you a fair-weather fan, but how many weekends have you ruined by sulking about the house, because your team lost? It’s ridiculous and embarrassing.”  

“Or fast forward the game,” A said. “Tape the game on the DVR, wait an hour to watch the game, then you can FF through the horrible plays, the moment after a referee drops a flag, the constant replays, and the commercials.“

“I do that now,“ Z said. “I usually need two hours of lead time, because I FF so much, but I cannot shut the damn game off. I blame the gene, because my dad had it, but as you say I can FF it. It’s the wimpy way out, but I can’t take watching kids who could be my grandchildren let a game slip away with silly mistakes. I wish I did it sooner. I just fast forward through games when my team is getting blown up now, and I go outside and do something else, but I can’t help getting agitated. To this day, I still get so angry that I wish I had the option now to go in and pluck that gene right out of my body.” 

“There’s so much frustration and pain in life,” A said. “Why double down on it when you have a choice in the matter?” 

“My dad used to tell us to shut it off,” Z said. “If it’s making you that mad, just shut it off. He used to say that about sports on TV and video games. We’d laugh at the simplicity of it. With our laughter, we were basically saying, ‘Dad, I don’t think you don’t understand how much we have tied into this.’”  

“That’s really the nob of it is, isn’t it?” 

“It is,” Z added. “It’s personal. If your team of players on a football field beat my team of football players, I see it as a condemnation in the most personal way. It suggests I have a character flaw, and you’d better not rub it in, or we could go down. It’s also, as I said, a family tradition. When I was younger, we would get together with friends and family to watch these games, then as a teen and into my twenties, I got together with my own friends and fellow employees. So, if your team beats my team, and you rub it in, you’re desecrating my family. You can see why it took me so many years to arrive at a point where I could finally fast forward through all the misery.” 

“Seinfeld has a bit where he says, and I’m going to mess this up a little,” A said, “but he says with free agency in the NFL now, there’s little to cheer on anymore. Now with the ease with which college players can transfer schools, the same element applies to college football. We grew up cheering on Franco Harris, Tony Dorsett, and Walter Payton, and their modern-day equivalents are changing teams every four years now. Those old players stuck with their respective teams for most of their careers, and you could make an argument that they were forced to stay, based on the stifling contracts and collusion back then. We could argue that the current collective bargaining agreements are better for the players, more capitalist in nature, and all that, but the end result is it’s more difficult to maintain loyalty to teams that are changing dramatically every four years. Seinfeld doesn’t go into the inherent positives and negatives of the current systems, but he does say, with players switching teams constantly, nowadays, we’re basically cheering on laundry. My team’s laundry is better than yours.” 

“And, as I said, we’re cheering on kids young enough to be our grandchildren.” 

“I accepted that fact long ago,” A said. “I’m over that now.” 

“While we’re plucking genes,” Z said. “We should eviscerate all of the genes that clog our arteries over things we can’t control. It affects our quality of life. It affects my quality of life anyway, and life is too short to scream about the house that some eighteen-year-old kid can’t catch a pass, and some twenty-two-year-old can’t throw properly. We’re here one day, gone the next. Why don’t we just enjoy the fact that we’re alive today, and greet each day as if it’s our last.” 

“Because one day,” A said, “in the not so distant future, your team could start crossing their lines with impressive regularity, and they could prevent the other team from crossing lines with equal regularity, we could experience a championship, and I use the word we in the most sarcastic and condescending manner possible. We could experience a level of vicarious joy that is so vicarious that it could be our own. We could have our very own championship. We could buy a T-shirt that says it. “I stuck with them through all of the vicarious pain, and I am a true fan. Look, my T-shirt says it.”  

“We could jump up and down and scream, and finally be happy for once in all of the decades-long viewing experiences,” Z said. “We’ll have a day to remember for months, decades, years. You remember that day that one guy caught that football and crossed that line? What was his name again? Oh yeah, if I ever run into that guy, I’ll buy him a beer for providing me such a glorious moment in my life.” 

“Put in that context, watching sports feels pretty silly,” A said. 

“Especially when you put it into the amount of pleasure we experience as a result of us winning that championship,” Z said, “and I say us in the most sarcastic and condescending manner possible, then when we compare it to the overwhelming amount of pain experienced in all the years we don’t win a championship.” 

“In our dreams,” A said. “We rewrite the past.” 

“Speaking of which, have you ever rewritten an incident with your grade school bully?” Z asked. “It’s three in the morning, and you’re staring up at the ceiling, reliving that moment in the boy’s bathroom, and instead of passively letting the bullying go, as you did at the time, you haul off and punch him in the mouth?” 

“How many coming-of-age movies did they build around that premise?” A said. “I think we’ve all had that dream.” 

“I wake from these dreams, reliving them in real-time,” Z said. “I’m serious. In my mind, I’m twelve-years-old again, and I’m in the bathroom with that bully saying whatever silly thing he said, and I come up with a great line to put him in his place, or I drop the haymaker on his chin. I know the dream was silly the moment I wake, but I then spend the next couple hours staring at the ceiling, remembering every detail of the moment. These obsessions are so embarrassing, but I get so tied up in them that my muscles tighten up, and I’m in the throws of a minor anxiety attack, until I grab my device and watch a movie for five minutes to void my mind of it. I have to do that, or I’ll never get back to sleep.”  

“You want to know what a priest said to me? He said, ‘The best way to rid yourself of bullies is to pick the biggest one and punch him in the mouth,’ a priest, a priest, once said to me,” A said. “I didn’t expect that from a priest. “Some kids are violent,” the priest, who was our prefect of discipline, said, “and to avoid violence, some of the times you have to learn how to be violent.” Can you believe he said that to a sixteen-year-old kid? Then he said, “I know it’s hard and scary and all that, but it might give you some confidence, and animals can smell confidence.” 

“So, what did you do?” 

“I didn’t punch the guy,” A said. “He was bigger than me. He would’ve annihilated me. I couldn’t believe a priest, someone who should be married to pacifist principles, said that to me. He concluded by saying, “I could say something to these kids, but I think you handling this yourself will be better for you long-term.”  

“So, what we have here is a young you at an existential crossroads in life,” Z said. “Nerd punches bully, nerd’s whole life turns out different. I understand that this is an exaggerated cinematic assessment but I think there might be some elements of truth in it.”  

“The alternative route should also involve that nerd being fully prepared to have his bottom kicked. That’s the alternative reality. That’s the harsh reality of such situations that no one wants to talk about when discussing these matters theoretically. That dream you talk about involves the nerd delivering a haymaker that sends his bully flying into a rattling trashcan, but the reality is that 200-pound bully has two older brothers who punch him all the time. He’s used to getting punched, and he loves to fight. The nerd is 160 pounds, soaking wet, and he’s never been in a real fight before. He probably had to punch twice to kill a housefly. In his dreams, this punch is the shot-heard-around-the-world. In reality, the bully takes this haymaker and turns on the nerd with menace, and the nerd ends up being violently placed in that trashcan. No one remembers the punch. They just remember him sitting in that trash can with injuries that require a soft diet for a decade. I’m exaggerating, but no one would’ve remembered his haymaker. 

“How does a small teenager deal with a bully then?” 

“I wish I found a universal answer that would work for all parties concerned,” A said, “but there isn’t one. The answer is there is no particular answer. The answer is it’s situational. The answer to ending bullying is as complicated and situational as starting a friendship. The playground is a jungle. There are hierarchal structures and moves for advancement on the playground that are similar to any in the jungle, and that metaphor extends to high school too. There are times when a kid needs to fight back to establish themselves somewhere in the hierarchical structure of the playground, and there are times when a kid should demure and concede to his or her station in the jungle.” 

“Some kids overreact to every slight imaginable, and bullies love that,” Z said. “They end up doing more harm than good. Kids, like adults, love to get a rise out of us, and if you’re well-known for reacting to every slight, they’ll drop the hammer on you harder and more often.” 

“It’s because they’re desperate to make it stop,” A said. “I tried to tell my friends how to manage it better, but it’s difficult to foresee strategic reactions when we just want to do anything we can to make it stop.” 

“I know it’s anecdotal, but I know a woman who was never bullied as a kid,” Z said. “She was so beautiful that everyone wanted to like her, and everyone wanted to be liked by her. She’s now an adult who doesn’t take kind-hearted teasing well. She takes it to heart, because no one ever teased her before. My question, is is there some merit to bullying?”  

“That depends of course,” A said. “Bullying is a broad term. If we’re talking about simple teasing that’s one thing, but we all know how far some can take it. It’s a tool of dominance as evident as any other kind of display in the animal kingdom. If we were able to vacate it from human existence, I don’t see any negatives coming from that.” 

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