Mindhunter


“The stories and legends that have filtered down about witches and werewolves and vampires may have been a way of explaining outrages so hideous that no one in the small and close-knit towns of Europe and early America could comprehend the perversities we now take for granted. [These] Monsters had to be supernatural creatures. They couldn’t be just like us.” John Douglas and Mark Olshaker wrote in an excellent memoir titled Mindhunter to explain that serial killers are not a recent phenomenon.

What’s more scary the idea that monsters are real, or the idea that your neighbor could commit monstrous acts? Before we giggle at our predecessors for believing werewolves and vampires walked among them, we need to keep a number of things in mind. They were afraid. We’re afraid, and we still don’t know drives ordinary people to commit monstrous acts in general. We might have better theories and educated guesses, thanks in part to the interviews conducted by John Douglas and Robert K. Ressler and many others, but we still don’t enough to stop current and future monstrous acts. When we’re afraid, we want answers, and future generations might giggle at us for our “more modern, informed answers”. The answers we have, thanks to advancements in the fields of law enforcement, science, and technology inform us that we’re not surrounded by vampires, werewolves, or any kind of literal monsters, but ordinary people who are in some ways triggered to commit monstrous acts. The question is, do these answers provide us more comfort, or do they make it more frightening?

Our predecessors obviously considered the latter more horrific, and they developed the idea of monsters to help create some distance between themselves and those who would commit such acts.

We could very easily say that our predecessors were less informed on such matters, but that is almost solely based on the idea that they didn’t have the science and technology we have to help them explain matters. (Anyone who thinks it’s a stone cold fact that we’re smarter on average, need only take an 8th grade examination to compare.) I don’t think they were less intelligent, or that most of them truly believed that men all over the world were turning into wolves and vampires. I think they wanted an explanation that might help them avoid discussions on the subject of whether or not a normal man was capable of such monstrosities.

Those of us who watch the NFL often enough begin to think we know what we’re talking about when we question our favorite team’s general manager (GM). If I were a GM, I would open my press conference with eleven words, “You know nothing. Please keep that in mind throughout our Q&A.” If I led an investigation on a psychopath committing serial crimes, I would issue the same intro. Most of us know nothing about law enforcement. Most of us know nothing about the long, laborious task of collecting evidence, and the mind-numbing task of studying case files. We might think we do, because we log thousands of hours watching movies and TV shows on the subject, but we know nothing.

If we were to devote our lives to learning more, by way of TV shows, movies, and the books in the true crime section of our favorite book store, we might one day reach a point where we know next to nothing. If, that is, are engagement is studious. I knew nothing when I first picked up the book Mindhunter decades ago, and I probably know next to today. I knew nothing when I proceeded to buy all the books written by Douglas and Olshaker, and all of the other books that line the true crime section of the book store, and I know next to nothing now. I do know that Mindhunter was the best of these books, and I couldn’t believe it took over two decades for someone to make a movie, or a TV show on Doulgas’ excellent memoir.

Those haven’t yet watched season one of the Netflix series, based on the book, should know that the consensus is that it starts out slow and confusing. To some, each episode of the series is slow and laborious, because it does not involve FBI agents knocking down doors, taking over investigations, or engaging in gun fights. Mindhunter is not the typical profiling show of FBI agents trying to catch a serial killer before he acts again. It is the story about two FBI agents who used the information gathered during interviews with psychopaths to understand such people better for the purpose of helping law enforcement identify them sooner, apprehend them later, and then convict them. Uber fans of the book, who never understood why no one made a movie about this chapter in John Douglas’ life, and this chapter in criminal justice, realized that sometimes even fantastic books don’t play very well in visual mediums. The Mindhunter series on Netflix is largely cerebral, and if you have no interest in this subject, the pace can appear plodding in parts.

Those of us who loved the book and wanted viewers to see the genius of the book for themselves cringed through the slow start, because we know that a slow start can be a death knell for any movie or series on a streaming device. The reason for the slow start is that a series such as this one needs to establish the modus operandi (M.O.) behind the FBI agents interviewing criminal minds to understand the criminal mind better, the series also has to establish the characters involved to spark interest, and the series creators needed to add the requisite (albeit fictional) romance. The characterization and the modus operandi of the FBI agents is necessary for any show, of course, but if I were the head writer of the series, I would’ve opened with the Ed Kemper interviews and dropped the backdrop information in accordingly. I might have also attempted to integrate the M.O. into the first episode, but I would have done so after the initial Kemper interview. My cringe was not because the series was done poorly, but as a member of the short attention span generation, I cringe when a series start out at a snail’s pace, because I can hear the millions of viewers who didn’t read the book, flipping to the thousands of other options available at their fingertips. Those who are patient enough to work through the largely fictionalized characterizations, will learn of a fascinating retelling of a 1995 memoir, by the same name, written by John Douglas and Mark Olshaker.

Although Mindhunter, the book, would influence some award winning movies and TV shows, the more faithful-to-the-book Netflix series, contains little to no action scenes. The book, and the series, are more about the groundbreaking work two FBI agents did to change the procedures law enforcement officials use to investigate violent crime. This story is more about the cerebral tactics these two agents advanced to a level unseen in the FBI prior to their arrival. Previous work done in the FBI influenced their work, as did the work of local level law enforcement officials, and the occasions when law enforcement officials brought in a psychiatrist to assist them with a case. In the book Mindhunter John Douglas also noted that his work derived some influence from literature, specifically, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes, Edgar Allen Poe’s The Murders in the Rue Morgue, and a British novelist named Wilkie Collins.

The work Douglas and Robert Ressler did inspired the creation of numerous gun-toting FBI-chasing serial killer Hollywood movies, including Manhunter, The Silence of the Lambs, The X-Files and hundreds of other movies and TV shows, but John Douglas says he didn’t care for any of those portrayals. “They don’t put across accurate portrayals, and [that] aggravates me,” he said. “I can’t look at those movies.” As for the Netflix series, Douglas says, “They’re going by the book and I am very pleased.” Watching the series, he said, “is like reliving my life all over again.” We can guess that Douglas didn’t care for the Hollywood attempts to tell his story because they felt the need to Hollywood his story up, and I join him in this general sentiment. I loathe movies that do whatever they can to add action scenes, and a romantic angle, to involve the audience in the lives of their characters.

After watching the Netflix series, however, I now understand why various producers, directors, and all the players involved in making the Hollywood versions of his tale, felt the need to Hollywood it up in their versions of the story. If they maintained a stance that their versions would adhere to the book more faithfully, they probably wouldn’t receive funding for it. Their rejections would probably state that no one wants to watch FBI agents doing behind the scenes work.

John Douglas characterized his twenty-four year career in the FBI, as putting himself in the mind of the hunter. To do so, Douglas developed a process of interviewing and studying psychopaths for the purpose of understanding their methodological approach to choosing victims, securing their removal from the public space, and covering their trail.

On the latter, Douglas wrote, “No matter how much a criminal thinks he knows, the more he does to evade detection, or throw us off the track, the more behavioral clues he’s going to give us to work with.”

When asked how John Douglas would describe his role in these investigations, he said, “If you’re a cop and I work with you on a case, I help to develop a more proactive technique.”

Douglas also tried to clarify the role the Investigative Support Unit (which is part of the FBI’s national Center for the Analysis of Violent Crime at Quantico) played in investigations, “We do not catch criminals. What we try to do is assist local police in focusing their investigations, then suggest some proactive techniques that might help draw a criminal out.” Douglas then writes, “We (also) try to formulate a strategy to help the prosecutor bring out the defendant’s true personality during the trial.”

My analysis of John Douglas, the work he did after the interviews in the field of profiling, and what I once considered the most brilliant books I’ve ever read on the subject, might sound like a love affair gone awry from this point forward. The one chapter that no one will ever be able to make me see the light on is Everybody has a Rock. In this chapter, Douglas writes that he attained a confession from an alleged perpetrator by placing an ordinary rock in the corner of the room. It was not the rock that various law enforcement officials believed alleged perpetrator used to inflict blunt force trauma to the head of Mary Frances Stoner. It was just a rock that Douglas found that he considered roughly the same size and shape as the one law enforcement believed a perpetrator used in Ms. Stoner’s murder, and he placed it in the corner of the interrogation room. Douglas used numerous behavioral techniques in that interview with the alleged suspect to inform him that he knew the suspect as well, if not better, than anyone who interrogated him previously. Throughout the interview, the suspect kept glancing over at the rock waiting for Douglas to broach the topic of the rock. John Douglas never did. He used it as a triggering stressor, combined with the detailed information he had on the suspect, to make him sweat. Long paragraph short, the man confessed, and Douglas concluded this by writing:

“If the triggering stressor is a legitimate, valid concern, it will have a good chance of working. [The rock] could be mine. Yours would be something else and we’d have to try to figure out in advance what that would be. But there would be something. Because everybody has a rock.”

We all have a vulnerability, in other words, a susceptibility of sorts in the case against us, and it’s law enforcement’s job, and the prosecutor’s job to find it. It’s not a ground-breaking idea, of course, but when it works, it can sound so perfect, as in this case, that it sounds like a magician revealing that he’s had a rabbit in his hat the whole time.

Most also credit John Douglas as a pioneer for a controversial art form called profiling. When I first read Mindhunter, I was an unquestioning fan. I considered John E. Douglas a flat out genius, and I thought he personified the idea that every problem is one genius away from a solution. In the decades since, I’ve read numerous naysayers state that many of the profiles Douglas and other profilers have created for unknown subjects (UNSUBs), are equivalent to Forer Effect.* I was a little shocked by the pushback for I considered profiling an art form, if not a scientific approach to help law enforcement locate and determine which type of criminal was most probable. I considered profiling on the verge of hard science. I was also shocked to learn that many law enforcement officials groan when profilers enter into an investigation, because they don’t believe profilers can help them in investigations any more than they believe psychics can.

One of my naysayer friends asked me the pointed question if I thought psychics could help law enforcement locate and determine suspects. “Of course not,” I said, “but that’s not what John Douglas does.” After a back and forth that involved the details we both knew from the book, the naysayer encouraged me to re-read page 151 of his Mindhunter book.

Page 151 of Mindhunter contains John Douglas’s description of profiling, a description I now consider tantamount to a confession. “What I try to do with a case is take in all the evidence I have to work with –the case reports, the crime-scene photos, and descriptions, the victim statements or autopsy protocols– and then put myself mentally and emotionally in the head of the offender. I try to think as he does.” So far so good, this was the summary I provided my naysayer friend. The next part is what I presumably skimmed over in my first reading. “Exactly how this happens, I’m not sure, any more than novelists such as Thomas Harris who’ve consulted me over the years can say exactly how their characters come to life. If there is a psychic component to this, I won’t run away from it, though I regard it more in the realm of creative thinking.” {Emphasis mine.}

The next paragraph details Douglas’s praise of psychics, “I’ve seen it work,” he says. Douglas does admit, however, that hundreds of psychics were brought in to help law enforcement officials solve the Atlanta child murders, and they weren’t even close in their descriptions of killers and methods.

Other naysayers who argue that the effectiveness of criminal profiling John Douglas is suspect, ask how many profiles were wrong. One suspects, if other naysayers are correct, and what Douglas does is equivalent to what psychics do, that he is wrong more often than he is right, but that he might say that that’s the nature of profiling. If Douglas and others’ profiles had a praiseworthy track record, he would’ve proudly listed those statistics. He probably still would’ve added that profiling is an art form, it’s not a science, but our figures show that qualified profilers have been proven correct ‘X’% of the time since we developed the technique for law enforcement. It’s been a long time since I read the book word for word, but I can’t remember the chapter listing the success rates, and there is no statistics of listing in the index. In the end, this is a memoir of John Douglas’ life as an FBI agent, and the many successes he’s had. He doesn’t have to list anything he doesn’t want to list, but for those of us who believed in him and his techniques, these facts would’ve given us ammunition against his naysayers. Having said all that Mindhunter is a great read, and he never claims he found a scientific approach to crime solving.

As has been reported, season two of this Netflix series will focus on profiling and the Atlanta child murders, but those who might fall prey to the belief that profiling is a hard science that will result in some sort of exactitude must keep all of this in mind.

They should also keep two key facts in mind when watching the focus on the Atlanta child murders. The state was able to convict suspect Wayne Williams of killing two grown men, they were never able to convict him of a killing a single child. As Biography.com states, “Once the trial (of the case of those two grown men) was over, law-enforcement officials declared their belief that evidence suggested that Williams was most likely linked to another 20 of the 29 deaths the task force had been investigating. DNA sequencing from hairs found on different victims revealed a match to Williams’s own hair, to 98 percent certainty. But that 2 percent doubt was enough to prevent further convictions.”

I noticed that the first season of Netflix’s Mindhunter paid little attention to the art of profiling. I cannot remember if the series used the term, unless they said something like, “we could use this information to build a profile on him”. As far as I remember, the first season didn’t use the term at all. Perhaps, that was because Douglas didn’t coin the term in the time period season one covers, or it may be that the series producers wanted to stay away from the controversial term. (If they used it, I expect fans will help me correct the record.) Regardless, I read that they will put more focus on profiling in season two.

The almost painful confession I must make in regards John Douglas, and his insight into criminal profiling, is that I 100% believed it. Even though Douglas confessed in his book that profiling was more art than science, I considered the art of profiling based on science, behavioral science, and I considered John Douglas an indisputable genius. Even though he said, if someone were to accuse him of using psychic components, “I won’t run away from it.” He then added, “I’ve seen it work.” Any rational mind would respond, ”Okay, fair enough, but how often do psychics provide unequivocal assistance to law enforcement work? How often does their information lead to a suspect that is later convicted?” I’m sure there are some who might cite a case for me that pinpoints a case in the history of law enforcement where a psychic helped solve a case, but my rational mind takes me back to that question, ”If this particular psychic has a gift, and they were able to help law enforcement solve a case, how often have they been wrong throughout their life?” If there were more documented stats on the powers of even one psychic, perhaps juries and the overall court system would accept and acknowledge evidence that was obtained with a psychics insights in the courtroom. At this point in history that has not happened.

In my excitement, I failed to read his book with enough skepticism. I did this, because I enjoy falling in love. I’m a relatively intelligent person who appreciates how math and hard science can help explain most of the inner workings of the universe, but I will not apologize for the emotional almost romantic attachments I have to ideas before the facts roll out. I continue to believe, for example, that for every problem that plagues man we are one genius away from finding a solution, but I am now more skeptical of the former FBI agent’s influential approach, techniques and procedures than I was when I first read his book. Although I was wrong, painfully wrong, I believe a book such as this one highlights the discussion of belief. When I learned that many in law enforcement do not value criminal profiling as much I thought they should, and I reread Mindhunter in a more skeptical mind frame, I was swayed that it wasn’t the hard science I assumed on initial reading. I’ll take the arrows when they come my way, but I won’t give up the optimistic beliefs that have served me well over the years.

*The Forer Effect is the observation that individuals will give high accuracy ratings to descriptions tailored to their personality, but is in fact vague and general enough to be assigned to a wide range of people. This effect can provide a partial explanation for the widespread acceptance of some beliefs and practices, such as astrology, fortune telling, graphology, and some types of personality tests.

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Scat Mask Replica VIII


How much money does the average Fortune 500 Company spend learning the mind of consumers? How many psychologists, linguists, and marketers do their preferred advertising agencies consult before they start production on a commercial? They have to know how to make us laugh, what makes us cry, and they need to know what intrigues us. They also have the unenviable chore of finding a way to keep us from fast forwarding through commercials. The average commercial is only thirty seconds long, so advertisers need to pack a lot into a tight space. With all the time, money, and information packed into one thirty-second commercial, one could say that commercials provide a short, detailed report on the culture. If that’s true, all one needs to do is watch commercials to know that the art of persuasion has altered dramatically in our post-literate society. Booksellers argue that we don’t live in a post-literate society, as their quarterly reports indicate that books are selling better than ever. I don’t question their accounting numbers, but some of the commercials big corporations use to move product are so dumbed down and condescending that I wonder if fewer and fewer people are buying more and more books.

When advertisers make their pitch, they go to great pains, financially and otherwise, to find wonderful messages. They then hire a wonderful actor, or spokesman, to be the face of the company. By doing so, of course, the companies hope that we associate the wonderful person with them. If you’re not a wonderful person, their carefully tailored message suggests you can be if you follow their formula. If I am forced, for whatever reason, to watch a commercial, I find their pitches so condescending that I try to avoid their message.

Thirty seconds is not a lot of time when it comes to the art of persuasion, so advertising agencies are required to take shortcuts to appeal to us. These shortcuts often involve quick, emotional appeals. The problem with this is that people who watch commercials adopt these shortcuts in casual conversations, and they begin using them in everyday life.

This mindset is so ubiquitous in our society that I find it refreshing when someone approaches me with fact-based, critical thinking. I walk away thinking, “Hey, that’s a good idea!” Whether it’s actually a good idea or not, I appreciate the thought they put into making the appeal.

Some appear to think that the art of persuasion involves crying. “Don’t cry,” I say. “Prove your point.” A picture says a thousand words, right? Wrong. We’ve all come to accept the idea that powerful figures and companies require an array of consultants to help them tailor their message for greater appeal. Yet, if one has facts on their side, they shouldn’t need consultants, they shouldn’t need to be attractive, and the idea that they “seem nice” shouldn’t matter either. I know it’s too late to put the genie back in the bottle, but I don’t think the art of persuasion shouldn’t require superficial appeals.

***

What if we had a time machine and we could visit the future? How disappointed would we be to learn that little to nothing has changed? There’s little doubt that we would witness some leaps and bounds in technology, and we can guess that science will advance our knowledge on some matters, but what if everything else is pretty much the same? How many hundreds of millions do movie and TV producers spend trying to tell us that the future will be awful? Do they want to make a prediction that turns out correct? Do they have a message on the present that they want to propagate? Regardless, the provocative nature of such a forecast is lost on most of us, because movie producers have made that prediction so many times before that it has lost its effect. My bet is that the future will not change as much as these doomsayers want it to, and if it does, it will probably be for the better.

***

Brian Dettmer

How many people truly want to create works of art? “I would love to write a book,” is something many people say. How many want it so badly that they’re willing to endure the trial and error involved in the process getting to the core of a unique, organic idea? How many of us know firsthand, what a true artist has to go through? If others knew what they have to go through, I think they would say, “Maybe I don’t want it that badly.”

On the flip side, some say that there are artistic, creative types, and there are the others. There’s no doubt that there are varying levels of talent, but I believe that with enough time and effort most people could create something beautiful and individualistic.

Leonardo da Vinci was a talented artist, who painted some of the greatest pieces of art in world history. From what I’ve read about the man, however, he achieved so much in the arts that it began to bore him. After working through his apprenticeship and establishing himself as one of the finest painters of his day, he received numerous commissions for various works of art from the wealthy people and government officials around him. He turned some down, never started others, and failed to complete a whole lot more. One theory I’ve heard on da Vinci is that if he had a starving artist period, he probably created hundreds of thousands of pieces in that period, but that a vast majority of those pieces were lost, destroyed, or are otherwise lost to history. By the time, he achieved a level of stature where those in his day wanted to preserve his work, painting bored by him so much that he created comparatively few pieces. Either that, or in the course of his attempts to create that elusive “perfect piece” da Vinci began studying the sciences to give his works greater authenticity. In the course of those studies, he became more interested in the sciences than he was in painting. These are just theories on why we only have seventeen confirmed pieces from Leonardo da Vinci, but they sound firm to me.

***

There is a hemispheric divide between creative types and math and science types. One barometer I’ve found to distinguish the two is the Beatles. So many types love the Beatles that we can tell what type of brain we’re dealing with by asking them what Beatles era they prefer. With the obvious distinctions in style, we can break the Beatles down into two distinct eras, the moptop era includes everything they did before Sgt. Peppers Lonely Hearts Club Band, and the “drug-induced” era that followed. Numbers-oriented people generally love the moptop era more, and the creative, more right brain thinkers tend to prefer Sgt. Peppers and everything that followed. The moptop era fans believe the Beatles were a better band during the moptop era, because “they were more popular before Sgt. Peppers. Back then,” they say, “the Beatles were a phenomenon no one could deny.” Moptop era fans often add that, “the Beatles got a little too weird for my taste in the “drug-induced” albums that followed.” Although there is some argument over which album sold the most, at the time of release, it is generally argued that the latter half of their discography actually sold more than the first half. Numbers-oriented people should recognize that the latter albums were bound to sell more if for no other reason than the moptop Beatles built a fan base who would purchase just about anything they created after the moptop era. Those who lived during the era, however, generally think that the Beatles were less controversial and thus more popular during their moptop era, and if you’ve ever entered into this debate you know it’s pointless to argue otherwise. We creative types would never say that the pre-Sgt. Peppers Beatles didn’t have great singles, and Revolver and Rubber Soul were great albums, and we understand that those who lived during the era have personal romantic attachments to their era of Beatles albums, but we can’t understand how they fail to recognize the transcendental brilliance of the latter albums. We think the brilliance and the creativity they displayed on Sgt. Peppers and everything that followed provided a continental divide no one can dispute.

Further evidence of the popularity of the latter half of the Beatles catalog occurred in 1973. In 1973, the Beatles released two greatest hits compilations simultaneously for fans who weren’t aware of the Beatles during their era. The blue greatest hits album, which covered the 1967-1970, post Sgt. Peppers era has sold 17 million to date, while the red greatest hits 1962-1967, moptop-era album has sold 15 million. As anyone who has entered into this debate knows, however, it’s an unwinnable war.

Portion Control


“Excuse me,” a customer calls out to a server. “I ordered a roast beef sandwich, and I believe my slices are insufficient.” Has this ever happened? Has a customer ever called a server back, with bread pealed back, to inform a restaurant employee that they need more slices? I know it has. I know if I interviewed a number of servers on this topic, they would tell me to sit down before they began their tales, but I’ve never witnessed it firsthand. The more common complaint occurs in whispers long after the server walks away, as most of us avoid confrontation and situations that could draw attention to us. Most of us quietly cede portion control to the restaurants we choose for our dining experiences.

“MORE? You want more?” a Dickensian character might say in a manner that drops a proverbial spotlight on us. When we go to an established franchise we’ve learned to accept their nationally accepted portion control, but do we accept the same norms from an upstart mom and pop’s deli at the end of the block? Anyone who has worked at a restaurant has heard a wide array of complaints from customers, but how many hear that the portion of meat on a sandwich is too small, or that there aren’t enough fries? Would we deem that so bold as to be obnoxious? It might seem like such a violation of sorts of our conditioning that we might view the complainant as gluttonous?

Franchise websites suggest that portion control is vital to establish a level of consistency in a national chain, and they discuss the health benefits of lesser portions for the consumer and the profit potential for franchise owners. “Customers don’t complain about more portions,” they write, “but they will certainly complain about less.” I realize that writers of such columns have franchise owners in mind when they write such things, but I’ve never heard customers openly complain about less.

How many ounces of roast beef should we expect when we purchase a roast beef sandwich? Is there a generally accepted or preferred amount? How much does it vary with each restaurant? We could look this amount up, but the actual number is relatively unimportant when compared to our expectations. It’s a ‘we know it when we see it’ amount that varies, and if the restauranteur violates that principle most of us simply go to a restaurant that meats (sic) that expectation.

If the restaurateur notices our absence and finds a way to ask us why we left, they might say, “Well, why didn’t you say anything? We could’ve provided you a couple more ounces of roast beef to make you happy.” The problem for most restaurateurs is that most of us are members of the silent majority who don’t complain. We don’t fill out suggestion cards or comment cards, then we tell the cashier that everything was fine when they ask how our meal was, and we never go back. We also whisper things to our friends that close restaurants down.

If it benefits all parties concerned to speak up, why don’t we? As with just about every adult predilection, it goes back to high school. We see the hungry patrons in line behind us at the deli, and we remember the groans, fidgeting, and ridicule we heard when we asked one too many questions in our Algebra II Trig class. Even if we still didn’t understand the teacher’s explanations, we learned to shut up and stop asking so many questions. Our peers’ audible fatigue conditioned us to stop asking questions, don’t appear difficult in any way, and avoid complaining. Thus, when we feel the hungry patrons behind us, who just want us to move along so they can get their sandwich, we do. Even though we’re not satisfied, we shut up and move along to avoid causing a scene, and some of us do this so often that we start ceding portion control to the restaurant.  

How many customers prevent a waiter from leaving their table with the complaint, “I only have four broccoli florets on my plate, I’m accustomed to having five?” How many people would say, “I’m accustomed to a half a cup of mashed potatoes. Does that look like a half cup to you?” The more likely complaint would be, “I ordered the eight ounce steak, but this looks like six ounces to me.” I’m sure there are some who complain about this portion control restaurants have on us, but I have to guess that that percentage of the population is so small that it’s hardly representative. The rest of us know that they’re in charge, and we’ve learned to accept this facet of life. 

Most complaints lead to a manager visiting our table, and that manager brings a proverbial spotlight with him. When that manager kneels before our table that we’re being difficult, and we experience the same anxiety we did in Algebra II Trig. “It’s not a big deal,” we say to attempt to soften the blow, “I just thought I should get a couple more slices of beef for my roast beef sandwich.” I’ve witnessed some go bold in the face of a one-on-one with a restaurant manager, but most people shrink from the magnitude. We don’t want to appear difficult. The manager might consult a franchise advisor, as I’m guessing that a person complaining about portions happens so infrequently that they don’t have a standard operating procedure, but my guess is that the manager does whatever he has to do, under the “customer is always right” imprimatur to make us go away.

The inclination most restaurants might have to avoid such stated and unstated complaints is to go “bigee” on the portions. I witnessed this as a deli employee at an upstart, now defunct bagel shop franchise. The national chain decided to allow an owner to open a franchise in our area, and they apparently believed that their key to success was bigger portions. They never said that they wanted to compete with the portions Arby’s provided, but that was my takeaway. They provided over-abundant roast beef portions on a bagel sandwich. I was a dumb kid who didn’t know anything about market testing, or any of the particulars franchises uses to establish themselves in a given area, but when I took my first bite of their roast beef sandwich, all of my fixins fell out the other side. The sandwich was excellent. The roast beef was so tender, and I thought all of the other fixins were fresh and tasty, but their portions were so large, on a comparatively weak bagel, that everything fell out the other side. I told the owner of this particular franchise that I thought it gave the sandwich a sloppy presentation.

The manager lifted an eyebrow on me, but he said nothing further. I thought he totally dismissed my observation, until the franchise advisor walked in the bagel shop, days later, to see how things were going. My manager encouraged me to ask my question. I repeated my question, and I added, “We’re a bagel shop. My motto would be if you want more meat go to Arby’s.” I said that the bagel shop didn’t have to say such things openly, but that it should be our M.O., and I said that I thought bagel shop patrons would understand that, even expect it, before they set foot in our restaurant.

We all enjoy eating out at restaurants, but how much of our enjoyment of the food centers around presentation? How many of us would be turned off by a sloppy sandwich at an otherwise clean bagel shop? I told the franchise adviser that I thought portion control, and the art of presentation were everything. I said that a patron of Arby’s might find a sandwich overflowing with meat more attractive, whereas a bagel shop patron is more likely to prefer a clean presentation that appears more structured, regardless of the portions. To me, it was all about demographics. 

I’m sure that their insider information told the owners of the franchise that if they wanted to open a location in the Midwest market, they had to increase their portions, but my gut instinct told me that if you’re going to increase portions, make a larger, stronger bagel. The bagel they sold did not adhere to the illusory notion of portion control, and when the bagel shop went out of business in our area, I felt vindicated.

Harry Frazee, Ed Barrow, and The Curse of the Bambino


Have you ever had a bout of insomnia over a mistake you’ve made? Have you ever stopped in the midst of obsessing over that topic with the realization that it happened thirty-two years ago? Most people don’t. Most people are blessed and cursed with short-term memories. We’ve all made mistakes though. We’ve made errors in judgment based on uninformed choices, and dumb decisions that seemed so right at the time. Most of us are able to move on in life, even after making decisions that proved catastrophic at the time. Most of us have never made a decision, or series of decisions that proved so catastrophic that people will be talking them one hundred years from now, characterizing our choices as some of the worst mistakes in human history. Other than those decisions made by those involved in the Black Sox Scandal, there might only be one person, in baseball, that continues to be mocked, ridiculed, and scorned one hundred years after he made historically poor decisions, Harry Herbert Frazee.

Ed Barrow, Babe Ruth, and Harry Frazee

Harry Herbert Frazee (June 29, 1880 – June 4, 1929) was an American theatrical agent, producer, and director, and he remained successful in this field until the day he died. He also happened to be a successful boxing promoter who once landed one of heavyweight champion Jack Johnson’s matches. Harry Frazee also bought the 1915 and 1916 World Series champion Boston Red Sox, who won the 1918 World Series for him. One of the players he sold was also on the 1912 World Series championship team. The error in judgment, uninformed choices, and dumb decisions that Frazee made were to sell, and sell/trade almost all of the best players on those teams. Yet, for all of the successes and failures of Harry’s life, many believe his tombstone should read, “Here lies Harry Herbert Frazee, the man who sold Babe Ruth.”

Most writers love to write provocative articles from an angle no one has ever considered before. We enjoy taking a well-known story and providing a non-traditional perspective that opens our readers eyes to “the other side”. The other side, of the story we now call The Curse of the Bambino involves a suggestion that the conditions surrounding Harry Frazee’s sale of Babe Ruth to the Yankees were a lot more complicated than most people know. The author of such a provocative article is then obligated to back up his assessment with data that supports his thesis. This thesis becomes more provocative when the author can provide data that most people don’t know.

The Curse of the Bambino suggests that the sale of Babe Ruth from the Red Sox to the New York Yankees prevented the Red Sox from winning the World Series from the point of sale in 1920 to the publication date of the Dan Shaughnessy book in 1990 (the Red Sox won the World Series in 2004). Some of the authors, who attempted to write the other side of the sale of Babe Ruth and eight other players from the Red Sox to the Yankees, looked at the data from a baseball perspective, others chose a financial lens, and some had slide show presentations that suggest while history will never judge Harry Frazee kindly, the reactions to his sales and trades were evenly divided among fans and sportswriters at the time. Anytime we read an article that suggests a matter is far more complicated than we ever knew, our natural inclination is to weed through their narrative for the simple truths. One simple truth that permeates all of the articles written on this topic is that Harry Frazee made historical mistakes, and those mistakes led to the Yankee dynasty of the 1920’s and the early part of the 1930’s.

Another simple truth that is impossible to ignore is that the Red Sox won three World Series in four years before the sales and sale/trades, and they finished no higher than fifth in the thirteen years following the sales/trades. Other than a blip in 1925, the Yankees finished no lower than third in their league, and they won seven pennants and four World Series championships over the same thirteen-year period, following the trades. Another fact that’s impossible to ignore in all of the data is that among all the players involved, there were three people most responsible for this shift in the balance of power, Babe Ruth of course, Harry Frazee, and former Boston Red Sox manager-turned-New York Yankee business manager (general manager) Ed Barrow. 

Those of us who enjoy reading authors take those simple truths and attempt to provide another perspective on them, enjoyed the article written by Glenn Stout titled Harry Frazee. In this article, Stout writes that The Curse of the Bambino, and the subsequent demonization of Harry Frazee, was largely a myth created by writers to help Boston Red Sox fans explain their team’s disastrous loss to the Mets in the 1986 World Series. The thesis of the The Curse of the Bambino was there was no other way to describe that inexplicable loss. Stout writes that 1986 Red Sox fans were looking for someone to explain the inexplicable to them. They wanted a scapegoat, and they found one in Harry Frazee. His actions, over sixty years prior, allowed them to think there was more going on than some clutch hitting by the Mets, and an error in game six of the series that led to the Red Sox defeat that year. It was, of course, the ghost of Babe Ruth haunting them.

Stout also writes that Harry Frazee was not a greedy owner who wanted money more than a successful franchise. He writes that Frazee was independently wealthy from an early age, and he died that way. He also writes that Frazee was a wealthy and successful man before and after the trades that depleted the Red Sox and built the Yankees eventual dynasty. He writes that when Frazee died, a majority of the fan base, a majority of the sportswriters, and a majority in baseball didn’t hold him singularly responsible for the fall of the Red Sox. He states that while history might make Frazee appear incompetent, the reality of the situation that occurred during the 1920-1923 period was a lot more complicated than most people know.

To illustrate his point, Stout wrote a book with Richard A. Johnson called Red Sox Century, in which they provide a note Harry Frazee wrote to explain that the sale of Babe Ruth was based on Ruth’s contractual demands, and “[Ruth’s] disruptive influence on the team, and the fact that [Ruth] had “jumped the club” at the end of the 1919 season.” In the book, they also provide Frazee’s frustrations with The Bambino:

“While Ruth without question is the greatest hitter that the game has seen,” Frazee wrote in a 1,500-word statement, “he is likewise one of the most inconsiderate men that ever wore a baseball uniform.”

The Red Sox owner said Ruth had “no regard for anyone but himself” and was a “bad influence on other and still younger players on the team.”

He continued: “A team of players working harmoniously together is always to be preferred to that possessing one star who hugs the limelight to himself. And that is what I’m after.”

The sale of Ruth aside for a moment, Glenn Stout attempts to defend the fire sale of the other eight players by writing that the minor leaguers the Red Sox received in those subsequent trades didn’t pan out, as some of them suffered career-ending injuries.

Injuries are a part of the game, of course, and they can make owners and GM’s look bad when they make deals for players who were injured so early in their careers they appear anonymous to history. This attempt to defend Frazee is valid, until one asks the question how many minor league prospects reach their full potential? Whatever the actual answer is, it surely pales in comparison to the prospect of whether or not a player who has already won three World Series might succeed. Stout does not specifically address this particular idea in his defense of Frazee.

Stout also writes, “no one could know that Babe Ruth would become Babe Ruth”. Fair enough, but at the point of sale in 1919, Ruth played six seasons for the Red Sox, and in that brief span, he set the record for home runs in a season twice, and he led the league in eight different batting categories in 1919, the year before Frazee sold him. He was also a dominant pitcher early in his career, before he switched to hitting. 

As one of his peers, Rube Bressler said in his interview for the book The Glory of Their Times “[Ruth] played by instinct, sheer instinct. He wasn’t smart, he didn’t have any education, but he never made a wrong move on a baseball field. He was like a damn animal. He had that instinct. [Animals] know when when it’s going to rain, things like that. Nature, that was Ruth! 

Stout’s point that Frazee couldn’t know Ruth would be one of the top five players of all time is a valid one, as I point out, but it sounds like if he wanted to know the potential The Babe had to be great, all he had to do is ask around. Some of those who provide an alternative view of this story suggest that Frazee saw how undisciplined Ruth was, and how unintelligent he was, and he figured that Ruth’s 1919 season was a peak performance, and he wanted to receive peak value for his services.

Stout, and numerous others, state that the previous owner of the Red Sox was calling in Frazee’s loan, and that Frazee was in a tight spot financially. If Frazee didn’t pay the loan back that year, he might have lost the franchise. Yet, Stout and others assure us Frazee was never personally broke and none of the sales between the Yankees and Red Sox involved Frazee’s attempts to enrich himself personally. If that’s the case, and I appreciate the author’s attempt to dispel this simplistic notion, I cannot understand the deals Frazee made with the Yankees following the Ruth sale. If those latter deals involved Frazee’s continued efforts to save his franchise, one would think he might dip into his considerable personal finances and help the Red Sox over the temporary blip. I prefer to think, as Daniel R. Levitt, Mark Armour, and Matthew Levitt write, that Frazee somehow became addicted to making deals with the cash rich Yankees to help him resolve the Red Sox debts. 

Those of us who know history, cannot put blinders on. No matter how many alternative “time and place” perspectives various writers put before us, we know that Frazee sold Ruth for money, and no matter how much money he received from that sale, it paled in comparison to the money Ruth would’ve generated for Frazee in the coming years. Stout’s argument that, “no one could’ve known that Babe Ruth would’ve become Babe Ruth” is a decent one when we think about how many could’ve been should’ve beens dot baseball history, but Frazee received $100,000 and a loan of $300,000 from the Yankees for the services of Babe Ruth. We can speculate that this wasn’t the initial offer from the Yankees, and we can guess that Frazee and his people drove that initial offer up by detailing for the Yankees Babe Ruth’s current, 1920 market value. We can also guess that they had detailed forecasts on Ruth’s future, market prospects to drive that price up further. We can speculate that in those dark room negotiations, Frazee and his people displayed intimate knowledge of Ruth’s current and future market value to persuade the Yankees to pay more for Ruth than any major league franchise had ever paid for a single player before. One thing we do know is that many around the league considered the Yankees fools for paying that much money for one player.

Harry Frazee probably tried to feed into this with his explanation for selling Ruth, “With this money the Boston club can now go into the market and buy other players and have a stronger and better team in all respects than we would have had if Ruth had remained with us.” Sportswriters and fans believed this at the time, for they probably shared the sentiment that one man does not a team make. With the amount of money the Yankees were paying, many inside baseball thought Frazee got the better end of the deal, but no one knew how addicted Frazee would become to using the Yankees’ money to escape debt, no one, it seems, except Ed Barrow.

***

Ed Barrow

Authors Daniel R. Levitt, Mark Armour, and Matthew Levitt introduced this name Ed Barrow to us in an article titled Harry Frazee and the Boston Red Sox. Ed Barrow, they state, played a prominent role, perhaps the most prominent role, in the sales/trades the Red Sox made to the Yankees following the sale of Babe Ruth.

“[Glenn] Stout and [Richard A.] Johnson claim that Frazee made sound baseball deals with the Yankees and that he could not have foreseen what the trades would do for either club,” Daniel R. Levitt, Mark Armour, and Matthew Levitt write. “This argument does not hold up. Ed Barrow, manager of the Red Sox from 1918 through 1920, left the Red Sox and became general manager of the Yankees. Barrow knew the Red Sox players as well as anyone, and he spent the next few years grabbing all of the good players, like future Hall of Fame pitchers Waite Hoyt and Herb Pennock, catcher Wally Schang, shortstop Everett Scott, third baseman Joe Dugan, and pitchers Joe Bush and Sam Jones, among others. In fact[,] Barrow liked his former players enough that he got the Yankee owners to give Frazee $305,000, convincing evidence that both teams agreed that the talent was imbalanced. To argue that Frazee made good deals is to suggest both that Barrow and the Yankees somehow lucked into their dynasty and that the money was not the central piece of the deal for Frazee.”

In my opinion, the answer to the many questions we have regarding why Frazee sold so many players to the Yankees revolves around the question why did Ed Barrow quit his job as Red Sox manager to become the business manager (general manager) of the Yankees? The answer to those questions involves the insider information Barrow had about Harry Frazee, the debt the Red Sox were experiencing in those years, and how Frazee planned to resolve that debt.  

Before Ed Barrow left the Red Sox in 1921, we can assume that for most of his three year tenure, he was so satisfied to be the Red Sox manager, that if it were up to him he would retire from baseball as their manager. He led the Red Sox to the 1918 World Series championship after all. When Frazee sold The Babe, it probably came as a shock to Barrow, but we can guess that Frazee sat him down and explained to his manager why the sale was necessary. When Frazee sold four more players, we can guess that Barrow required a more detailed explanation, as Frazee opened the books for him to show the manager the debt Frazee incurred as owner of the Red Sox. This moment, right here, resulted in the changing of the tide in baseball more than anything else. Regardless what the books said, Barrow obviously realized that his owner was susceptible to bad deals that arrived with large sums of cash. 

Ed Barrow also knew, as many did at the time, that due to the “Black Sox Scandal” and Frazee’s disputes with American League Bam Johnson and the other teams in the American League loyal to Bam, Harry Frazee was limited to dealing exclusively with the Yankees. (Note: There is a consensus among the writers of the various articles I read on this particular topic that these circumstances forced Frazee to deal exclusively with the Yankees for the reasons listed here. The idea that Frazee and the Red Sox could have dealt with a team in the National League is not mentioned in any article I’ve found, and there is no reason listed for why this wasn’t a possibility for them.) We can also presume that in his dealings with Frazee, Barrow saw the writing on the wall for the Red Sox franchise, and his owner’s willingness to sell his team down the river for large sums of cash.

As anyone who has experienced debt knows, if we find one way to resolve some of our debt, we are prone to follow that path down the drain to become debt-free. Barrow may have experienced some disgust when Frazee began selling his 1918 World Series Champions, but he was probably one of the few who knew the situation so well that when the previous Yankees general manager died in 1920, Barrow probably raced down to the Yankees front office to pitch them on how he, if hired him as their next general manager, could persuade Frazee to sell more players to the Yankees and help them build a dynasty.

As the new business manager for the Yankees, Ed Sparrow helped the owners of the Yankees engineer four subsequent trades with Frazee and the Red Sox that involved 12 players and $305,000 “to help Frazee recover from his debt”. As the Levitts’ and Armour article suggests, the idea that Barrow convinced the Yankees to add $305,000 to the deal provides compelling evidence that both teams knew the Red Sox were getting the raw end of the deal. If we are to believe the writers who write from another perspective, it’s simplistic to say that Frazee made these maneuvers for the money, and “the reality of the situation was a lot more complicated than most people know”. If he didn’t need the money, as they write, and it was his goal in life to continue to own a profitable, winning major league baseball franchise, then he was either an incredibly poor business man, or someone who did not know baseball very well. Whatever the case was, Barrow knew who he was dealing with, and he knew how to convince Frazee to sell/trade twelve more players to the Yankees.  

When Barrow’s new team, the New York Yankees, won their first World Series two years later, in 1923, four of the eight starting position players were from the Red Sox, and four of the five starting pitchers on that championship roster were former Red Sox players. The Red Sox finished last in the American League that year, and “their skeletal remains would be the doormat of the league for many years”. With this team of former Red Sox players, Barrow would oversee the Yankees winning six more pennants, and three more World Series. During his tenure as general manager, the Yankees would win a total of fourteen pennants and ten World Series. This level of success, initiated by Barrow’s maneuvers with Frazee, would lead many to call Barrow an “empire-builder for the first quarter-century of the Yankees’ dynasty.” These sales/trades also landed Ed Barrow in the baseball hall of fame and Yankee Stadium placed a plaque of him in center field.

As Harry Hooper, the center fielder for the ‘15,’16, and ’18 World Series champion Red Sox, states in his interview for the book The Glory of Their Times, “The Yankee dynasty of the twenties was three-quarters the Red Sox [dynasty lineup] of a few years before. All Frazee wanted was money. He was short of cash and he sold the whole team down the river to keep his dirty nose above water. What a way to end a wonderful ball club.

“Sick to my stomach at the whole business,” Hooper followed Ruth’s hold out with a hold out of his own just to get out of Boston before it all came crumbing down, and Frazee sold Hooper to the Chicago White Sox.

It would be devastating to any franchise, of any sport, to sell one of the top players of his era, who would become one of the top five greatest players to ever play the game. Yet, even selling a once-in-a-generation talent like Babe Ruth is not enough to sink a franchise for eighty-four years, in a manner suggested in The Curse of the Bambino. It’s even difficult to believe that Ed Barrow taking advantage of Frazee to the point of selling/trading twelve other players over the course of three years can curse a franchise for that long, but as we all know winning breeds winning. In the course of those eighty-four years (1918-2004), the Red Sox did have some high quality, competitive teams. Various Red Sox teams won division titles, pennants, and they competed for the World Series in 1946, ’67, ’75 and ’86 only to fall short. The Yankees, of course, would win 26 World Series championships in the same time-frame, and they would appear in 39 World Series. Many of those Red Sox teams were unlucky, but unlucky is difficult to grasp when it occurs over the space of eighty-four years and the score with their cross town rivals was 26-0 when it came to World Series championships. Some people need an explanation, any explanation, to explain how some bizarre plays and unlucky events lead to a championship drought, and the 45% of the population who believe in ghosts thought they found the reason in Babe Ruth, Harry Frazee, and The Curse of the Bambino. Now that it’s over, and Boston Red Sox soaked the curse for all that it was, what do Red Sox fans talk about now that Boston has won the World Series four times including 2004?

Patterns and Routines


Why do certain chores attempt feel more time consuming when we do them a different way? If we mow the lawn in a different pattern, chances are it will still take around 45 minutes if everything else remains constant. We thought if we mowed in a different direction, it might shave a couple minutes here and there, but it doesn’t. The perimeter equation of a rectangle remains constant regardless how we do it. Our primary goal was not to shave minutes. It was to do this tedious chore different. We don’t get too far into the mow before it dawns on us that this tedious chore appears to be taking longer. It isn’t, and some part of us knows it isn’t, but we can’t shake the perception. We realize that on those occasions when mowed in our typical pattern, the reason it flew by was that we probably sleepwalk through it. How many typical patterns and routines do we sleepwalk through in this manner? How many times do we wake up with the realization that it’s July, and we forgot to appreciate the beautiful month of June for what it is. How many times do we realize that we’re almost fifty, and we forgot to appreciate our forties for what they were? How much time do we lose following typical patterns and routines?

I saw a bunch of bright yellow bananas in a supermarket bin on Monday, and I couldn’t wait to sink my teeth into its brand-new solidity. I thought about that first bite a couple times in the store, and on the short drive home, but by the time Tuesday rolled around, I realized I slipped Monday’s banana into the routine of eating breakfast that Monday. I eat two eggs, toast, and I drink a glass of orange juice for breakfast. Then I top it off with a banana. I absently ate that banana as part of my breakfast routine, and I totally missed its freshness. When I bit into Tuesday’s banana, it was delicious, and I tried to appreciate it, but I couldn’t help but think about how much more fresh and delicious that recently purchased banana might’ve been if I remembered to appreciate it.

Most of us hate to admit that our lives have fallen into patterns and routines, but to those who might argue that they’re an exception, I say add a dog to your life. Dogs spend so much of their lives studying our patterns that when they peg them, they can often tell us what we’re about to do before we decide. On that note, my primary takeaway from the movie My Dinner with Andre was that we should try to break routines and patterns whenever we can. If we can break a couple of rituals one on day, we might feel more aware of one Monday before we turn fifty. In that movie, one of characters talked about opening the door with his left hand for a day or two just to break that routine in a way that might lead to other breaks. The gist of that exchange was that we have so many patterns and routines that some of the times we accidentally sleep walk through life.

One of the best ways I’ve found to avoid falling too deep into routine is a grueling workout. I’m not talking about a simple workout, because some of the times we workout so often that working out becomes nothing more than a part of our routine. I’m talking about a grueling workout that leaves the buns and thighs burning, and when the buns are burning, the brain cells are burning just as bright. This idea led me to believe that a grueling work out might provide a brief, temporary cure to what ails us.

When too many Mondays melt into Tuesdays without notice, the best way to break the routine is to push our body beyond our otherwise lazy boundaries. If we’re feeling excessive fatigue, we can burn our brain and body bright with a long and grueling workout. I’ve expressed variations of this cure so often that some people say it before I do, to mock me for routinely advising that this is the ideal way to break up routines. The footnote I now add to that routine advice is before we put our mind and bodies through a rigorous workout, we need to make sure we’re happy first. It doesn’t happen after one grueling workout, of course, and it might take a regular routine of three workouts a week, with at least one grueling workout mixed in, but after a while, we might start to become more aware of the choices we’ve made in life. We need to make sure we’ve attended to life’s matters, because the acute awareness grueling workouts provide can make us happier than we’ve ever been, but they can also make us angrier and more depressed. If we have dotted our I’s and crossed out T’s, a grueling workout can cause us to appreciate life a little more than we did yesterday, but it can also lead to some painful critiques.

I’ve snapped at people on a Tuesday for something that didn’t bother me that Monday, and the only difference was I had a grueling workout the night before. My various computer chairs were comfortable for years before I decided to discipline myself to working my buns rock hard. I’ve always liked Peanut M&M’s, but after a couple of grueling sessions, I considered the candy so delicious that I thought of eating them by the pound. I also realized how unproductive my job was in the grand scheme, how fraudulent my bosses were, and how I had little to no home life to look forward to once my excruciatingly slow workday ended. The grueling workouts made me more aware of the little things life has to offer, and some of them made me happier, but others made me so angry and depressed that I realized one of the reasons that people drink so much and smoke so often is to dull their brain to a point that they don’t question the choices they’ve made in life.

The mantra of patterns is, “If at first you don’t succeed try, try, and try again.” An addendum to this quote, that some attribute to W.C. Fields, suggests, “If at first you don’t succeed, try, try—and then quit! No use being a fool about it.” A quote by the Canadian humorist Stephen Leacock and published in 1917, suggests that, “If you can’t do a thing, more or less, the first time you try, you will never do it. Try something else while there is yet time.” My addendum to this line of thought is, “if one thing doesn’t work try another.” If you can’t jam a square into a round hole, there’s no sense in making a fool out of yourself by continuing to jam it home. Try something else, or look at the thing and realize that it’s never going home. How many people make fools out of themselves by screaming at the manufacturer of the shapes? We scream to gain distance from our personal failing, “It ain’t me. Don’t look at me. The instructions say do this and that should fix it.” We throw a fiery temper tantrum to distract from the fact that we’re incompetent. We just fixed something just last week with wonderful aplomb. There’s nothing different about us with this particular project. It’s the manufacturer. “That’s fine, but have you tried a way other than just jamming it home? Try another way.” We then paraphrase Albert Einstein, “The definition of insanity is trying one thing one way, over and over, and expecting different results.”

We’ve all heard the phrase life is short, enjoy every minute you’re alive, because before you know it you’ll be on the other side of fifty thinking about how much life you’ve missed. “I agree with that in principle,” a person in pain told me, “but, at times, life seems to take forever.” No one wants to be in pain, and when the conversation switches to that topic, most people say, “Pull the plug.” I don’t want to face that scenario, but if I do, I believe I might think that I want another 45 minutes of being alive in an otherwise pattern life of too many routines.  Mowing the lawn might be a poor example for this scenario, for no matter how one mows a lawn, the results will always be the same. Unless we push a mower faster, it’s always going to take the same amount of time, and unless we change the levels, it’s always going to mow the same length. Nothing will change in other words, unless we realize that we’re not sleepwalking through it in the manner we normally do. On this particular mow, I thought about how much time we lose by adhering to the routines we develop. I was thinking about writing this piece too, and while writing this piece might not add much to my life, it’s different from anything I’ve written before.

Scat Mask Replica VI


My son has a very healthy imagination, and I encourage it in every opportunity I can. We play all sorts of imaginary games, some involving his stuffed animals. We put these animals through various life scenarios. I am in charge of developing these stories, but he will often spider web these stories into other side stories. In one of these sessions, he gave his stuffed turtle an unusual name. Playing the role of the tiger in this production, I asked the turtle if his parents were weird. “If they gave you such an unusual name,” Tiger said, “your parents must be weird people.” I was not testing my son, or playing any type of psychological game. The reader might flirt with such notions, because it was an odd thing for a dad to say to his six-year-old son. My only defense is that we play so many of these games that he wears me out.

Tiger pressed turtle for an answer on this question, and the turtle refused to denounce his parents in anyway, saying, “No, I have great parents who love me and don’t let me get hurt.” That was all turtle said, and we moved into other areas of the turtle’s life story. Months prior, someone suggested that my son’s lack of displays of affection could suggest that he might be on the spectrum. Boulderdash, I say. I say his lack of displays of affection means that his parents are doing one hell of a bang up job. I’ve seen my son’s six-year-old friends worry when they can’t see their parents at the park. ‘Shouldn’t that be the other way around?’ I wonder. I know my son doesn’t worry about such things. I know he considers every minute we can’t see him a momentary minute of freedom. I’ve witnessed other boys appreciate their parents. I’ve seen other kids his age, kiss their dad without him having to ask for one, and my reaction is 180 degrees different from envy. I think if a six-year-old voluntarily displays affection for their parents, it suggests there might be some deficiency in their home. It’s a guess, and it’s probably wrong. Some six-year-old boys are just more affectionate than others are, but that just seems so unnatural to me. If my six-year-old boy says, “Leave me alone”, and he hates hugs and kisses, it means he takes me for granted. He takes it for granted that I’ll always going to be there for him, and he knows that I will always “protect him from getting hurt”. As a person who has never had a parenting job before, it strikes me that if you’re doing your job, your child should be surprised to learn that other kids like you and think you’re fun to be around you, because he thinks you’re one of the most boring people on earth. Then, if you’re doing one hell of a bang up job, you might eventually reach a point when you’ll hear how much he appreciates what you do from his turtle.

A forty-something man on our block died recently. It’s a sad thing when any person dies that young, but I didn’t know this guy as a man. I knew him as a rival when we were in our early teens. One could go so far as to say we “hated” each other in the harmless way young, testosterone-driven teenage males hate each other. We did whatever mean, harmless territorial peeing things that two teenage boys do to each other. I tee peed his house, he egged mine, I threw an M-80 in his yard, and he shot a bottle rocket under our car. I sidewalk chalked something awful about him on his driveway, and he lit firework snakes on the sidewalk leading up to our house (some of those stains are still there some 35 years later). I spotted him on our old block some 35-years later, and I waved at him. He did not wave back. He apparently believed that our teenage rivalry should extend into our forties, and I found this out soon after I waved at him. I was driving into our old neighborhood, and he was driving out when I stuck that hand up. He gave me the nastiest look he could. That look said, “I don’t like you, and I never will!” That’s fine, I guess, but how about I wasn’t asking if I could come over for dinner, or if I could play with his Star Wars figurines. I was putting my hand up in the air to him as nothing more than a momentary, symbolic greeting. It’s your job, sir, to put your hand up in the air back at me! You don’t have to smile when you put your hand in the air, and a wave is not a promissory note on future conversations. You just wave back, and everyone moves on with their lives. It’s what we adult humans do when we somewhat, sort of recognize each other. If you can’t forget the things I did to you at 13, well, that’s kind of on you. If he was still alive, I’m sure he could give you a laundry list of things I did to him, but I don’t remember them, and none of them would post date 1983. If anyone suspects that I bullied him, and it affected his personality in such a way that he could never forgive me, I can only say this in my defense, this kid gave as well as he got. When my family would drive onto our block, he would have a special twinkle in his eye when he spotted me, knowing that we would be spotting his latest bit of carnage. When I saw how much he enjoyed this, I realized what I was up against, and I stopped. He didn’t, and he apparently didn’t want to let it go 35 years later.  

Sports announcing is a cut-throat business. The person who gets more excited will win the job. I know that’s not an earth-shattering revelation, but when I hear a hockey announcer almost lose his lunch when a goalie sticks their foot out, I see the profession for what it is.

“HE STUCK A FOOT OUT! HE STUCK A FOOT OUT!” the announcer screams.

As we watch the replay about seven times, the color analyst speaks about the command the human being playing goalie has of his body, as if he’s never seen it before. “I hope the viewers at home recognize how brilliant this save was,” the analyst says with reverence as we watch it. “To have the wherewithal to know not only how, but when, to stick that foot out, you just can’t teach that. The goalie is in the zone, and he’s just playing on another level.”

As one who has never played hockey, I have to imagine that sticking a foot out is the very thing they teach goalies that when they see a puck nearing the goal line. It is not our intent to diminish the athleticism it takes to play goalie in this piece. When a puck is traveling at a high rate of speed and the goalie has a center in front of him, trying to block his view, and that goalie gloves the puck, it’s impressive. Those of us at home know we probably couldn’t do that on a regular basis. When a wing flicks a puck to the goal and a goalie sticks his foot out to stop its progression, however, that’s just what we call sports.

The key to most sports (spoiler alert!) is to cross lines. The other people on defense don’t want the offense to do that, so they will use the parts of their body to try to prevent that from happening. The idea that a person puts a hand out to block a pass, and another puts a hand out to catch that pass can be brilliant at times, but most of the time it’s just a guy doing what he’s practiced for years. If an announcer can convince a viewing audience that’s brilliant, they will win the job.

Some of my favorite inspirations arrived in tight spaces. My manager put me on suspension. “Get your numbers up in 90 days or you’re gone!” he said. With my little world crashing down around me, flashes of inspiration bombarded me. Some were so good that I had to write them down. A guy interrupted me with a question, and I thought his mannerisms were perfect character-driven piece. The inspiration for another piece arrived when another fella said goodbye to me. My mind was on fire when I heard a set of lyrics from a Sufjan Steven’s song, and those lyrics inspired a novel I would spend the next two years writing.

It turned out it wasn’t a great novel, but the inspiration for it struck me during a very inopportune moment of my life. I’ve had these moments before, I think we all have. They’re the “You’re not supposed to think about that now” moments when creativity seems to flourish. I had an “in-class” friend one time. We engaged in “what you’re not supposed to do” fun in class, when the teacher wasn’t looking. When we ran into each other in the hallway, we had nothing to say to one another, other than a conspiratorial “there he is” point. I used to love to make my brother laugh in church, with stupid, little in-jokes that would not have been funny anywhere else. This was naughty “You’re not supposed to do that here” fun that required subtlety and a deft hand to avoid getting caught. Was that what I was doing here, with my job on the line and my boss watching every move I made? Regardless, my mind was on fire with naughty, “You’re not supposed to be thinking that now” thoughts that I would spend the next two years completing.  

I did manage to quiet the inspirations long enough to survive the suspension, and I spent the next five years juggling my need to be creative and the need to be productive for the company. I wouldn’t say that these tight spaces always resulted in creative inspiration, but I was never that close to losing my job again, and I would never have that much inspiration flooding my brain either. 

So, you want to be a Kindergarten, Flag Football Coach


“Coach! Coach! Coach!” is something every kindergarten, flag football coach will hear in a huddle, on just about every play. When the coach responds, they are likely to hear classic gems like these, “I have a new shirt,” “I felt a raindrop,” or “I have a loose (or new) tooth.” Then there are the most common questions that follow every play, “When do I get the ball?” and “When do I get to score a touchdown?” The other comments I’ve heard are, “I don’t have a mouthpiece,” and “how come you’re not wearing sunglasses today?” Some of the kindergarten children repeat the shouts of “coach!” so often, while you’re attempting to tell the players involved in the next play how to run it that by the time we get to their question/comment, they forget what they wanted to ask/say. Once we complete that exercise, and get the kids to the line of scrimmage, ready to run the play in the time allotted by the referee, be prepared for them to forget everything you just said. (Even when we keep it as simple as possible, by telling them to hand the ball off and run left or right, they often run the opposite way about 50% of the time.) 

For those interested in prepping themselves for this adventure, try herding small kittens, not cats, kittens into something. I’ve never tried that before, but I have to imagine it is similar. Then, try to get the kittens to perform a very specific task. I know that the average 6-7-year-old brain is superior to the felines, but I’ve found that the attention and retention levels are about the same.

The easiest part of being a FF coach is putting flags on your team’s players throughout the game, as the other team will pull those flags off on every play, and some flags mysteriously fall off on every other play. (I’ve tried to show the kids how to put those flags on themselves, but it takes a level of dexterity for which most kindergarten-age kids are not quite capable yet.) The coach will be responsible for doing this while telling those involved in the next play, what that play is. The coach must do this while answering all of the questions and comments the other 5-7-year-old children can think up in the middle of a huddle. (Even though I provided some of the highlights above, they are but an example of the questions/comments I’ve heard in the past five weeks.) The volunteer, with no discernible experience in this regard, must be able to juggle these three things while trying to adhere to the referee’s unspoken timetable for getting your players to the line of scrimmage to pull next play off in a timely manner.

In this, my fifth game, I flirted with dropping the whole notion of plays, as they only invite more questions and different levels of chaos, but just handing the ball off on every play doesn’t teach kids the fundamentals of the game very well. On the subject of plays, I don’t think it will shock the potential volunteer to learn that if you plan to have a playbook, the goal should be to keep it as simple as possible. I thought adding a simple reverse would fall under this heading, until I witnessed in real time. (Picture a herd of wet cats attempting to run to the source and away from it at the same time.) I also added a pass play, in which the receiver runs a simple curl route. I thought this was a simple enough play, until I saw it play out live. (If the coach is lucky, they’ll have one player who can throw and one player who can catch.) The coach should also prepare for the idea that most players won’t know what they’re supposed to do on any given play, so you’ll have to provide individual instructions to each player before the snap, and you’ll have to tell them where to stand, and you’ll have to repeat it. Again, the coach will have to accomplish this while trying to keep the referee happy by getting your players to the line and pulling off a play in time.

The coach should also prepare to repeat those very specific instructions at least twice, and answer all questions that follow. The most popular question a coach will have to answer in each huddle is, “When do I get to I score a touchdown?” My pat response is, “That team over there is not going to let you score a touchdown. You have to go get it, when it’s your turn.” The reason we must continually express the idea of taking turns is that once they score a touchdown, they want to do it repeatedly, and as many times as we express the idea, most kindergarten-age children don’t fully comprehend the idea of taking turns.

As stated in the opening paragraph, they will introduce questions in each huddle by shouting the word “Coach” an average of two to three times a play, and this can be overwhelming in a five-man huddle. I’ve instructed them that, “We can only have one voice in the huddle,” so many times that some understand, but most do not. I’ve instructed them to keep all comments and questions related to football, but they’re kindergartners. One important note to add here is the patience and understanding a flag football coach must employ. Remind yourself, throughout the game, that they’re kindergarten kids. They can’t remember what we said five seconds ago.

As kindergarten kids begin running toward one another they will inevitably run into one another, and the volunteer coach with no prior experience handling such matters, will have to address such injuries on about every third play. The coach will also have to deal with the emotional aftermath of a child having their flag pulled. To us, this is part of the play. Person A runs down the field, person B pulls their flag, and the play is over. To the kindergarten mind, this is a humiliating condemnation of their athletic ability. They might regard it as an unfair part of the game, or the coach’s fault, and some of them may display their frustrations.

My advice to the kids throughout the season was to run straight down the field. Do not dance, do not juke, and focus your attention down the field. After the first practice and the first game, the kids followed this instruction well. They almost always gained a couple yards as a result, so when they had their flag pulled, I always focused their attention on how many yards they gained. 

Some kids still considered it humiliating, and they displayed their frustrations. When we experienced such a display, we simply moved on and let his parents handle the matter. As a voice of authority, on the field, the inclination might be to correct that child’s behavior in some way, but we have to remember that these are other people’s kids. It may embarrass us to have one of our team members act this way, but we have to respect our boundaries while trying to keep control of the individual players. The best advice I provide the kids who don’t succeed on their play is to have a short-term memory. “Try your hardest on every play, but if you don’t succeed, employ a ‘next play’ mentality.” I developed this mindset after years of playing recreational sports. It worked well for me, but it’s too complex for the disappointed, kindergarten mind to comprehend. 

My advice to anyone who chooses to volunteer for such a role is to enter into it with a plan. Watch some YouTube videos on kindergarten flag football. Some videos there show some very helpful drills a coach can run, in practice. Have a plan, but ditch the playbook. I whittled our game plan down to my handoff left and handoff right. We mix one, maybe two, reverses a game and a pass play. Conduct a practice that is very active and participatory. Don’t let them stand in line idle. If there is some idle time, you might want to have them do jumping jacks or something else active, until their turn arrives. When you provide any instructions, ask them to repeat the things you said. One question I ask is, “How do we catch the ball?” They raise their hands, and I call on one of them. “Two eyes and two hands,” is their response. In my recreational league, we have 20-minute practices before each game, and the option of having a midweek practice. I tried one midweek practice, and it was so chaotic that it was pointless. I learned that kindergarten-aged children have an increased level of focus on game day that applies in the 20-minute practice, because they want to prepare to score a meaningful touchdown in the game, and they want to tackle the other team, but to a kindergarten-aged kid, a one-hour, midweek practice is all about directionless, unfocused fun. The two most important elements of coaching kindergarten, flag football is to try to teach them some things that stick, and let them have some fun. Let them worry about winning and losing, for you need to focus on what you can control. We should also make sure we take turns giving the ball to each kid. Not only is that what they signed up for, but it maintains their focus. I try to compliment each player on their strengths and ignore any weaknesses they might have. This keeps them happy, focused and interested. The most important ingredient is to try to keep it fun for the kids.

After dealing with these kids one hour a day, for six weeks, I now have profound respect for anyone who chooses to have a career dealing with kindergarten children full-time. If, at one time, I considered my son’s teachers unreasonably strict, by instituting a level of structure to try to establish some level of order, I now empathize. I’ve heard kindergarten teachers say things to their assistant teachers, such as, “Could you take care of Johnny today. I can’t deal with Johnny today.” I now have a couple of Johnnies that I only deal with for one hour a week, and if I could have one on-field assistant answer the questions, and tend to, just one of my Johnnies, I probably wouldn’t be writing this piece to release my frustrations.

For all of the frustrations, there are numerous joys. There are the touchdowns that the quicker kids score, and those touchdowns scored by the kids who want it so bad that they’re willing to learn whatever techniques you teach them to score. There are also the tackles, which in this case involves pulling a flag. We had two kids, who weren’t as quick as the others, who learned the flag-pulling techniques from the drills we taught them. They learned them so well that by the end of the season, they had a couple of touchdowns but they had so many tackles that I think they learned a lot throughout the season.