Yesterday I Learned … VII


Yesterday I learned that some of us still don’t know how to perform drive-thru transactions properly. Some say the first drive-thru restaurant to open a side window happened in 1928, some say 1947, but whatever the case is, they’re been around for as long as most of us have been alive. Thus, those of us who didn’t grow up in a subculture that avoids technology know how to perform a drive-thru transaction. Yet, we read a decades-old menu of a decades old franchise as if it requires a Rosetta Stone to decipher its hieroglyphs. When we finally decide what we want, we search for the button to ignite the speaker device. For those who don’t know, restaurants in the 1970’s had buttons customers were required to use when they were ready to speak. When the time to perform arrives, we scream into the speaker as if we don’t understand the mechanizations behind the audio amplification a speaker can provide. What should take two minutes, often takes ten. Today, I realized that those of us who fall prey to the confusion this transaction provides are officially as old as the people they used to mock for being old.

Yesterday I realized that most artists spend most of their time skimming the core. Think about your favorite artists in any milieu. How many earth-shattering pieces did they create? The best artists, be they in literature, music, painting, etc., are extremely fortunate to develop four unique pieces that stand alone and above their peers’ creations. How many pieces did da Vinci create? Two? We have under twenty definitively proven da Vinci works, and only two are known throughout the world. How many pieces did Van Gogh, Picasso, James Joyce, and Andy Kaufman create? Some artists limited themselves to a few creations, and they spent most of their time perfecting those pieces, but others created hundreds of pieces, but most of them were not great, as we’re defining great here. Those of us who love music, fall in love with certain artists. How many great, epic, I-can’t-wait-to-listen-to-them-again albums did these artists create? I’m not limiting this discussion to sales figures here either. I’m talking about you-know-greatness-when-you-hear-it great. Three examples from my youth are King’s X Gretchen Goes to Nebraska, Queensyche’s Operation Mindcrime, and Metallica’s Master of Puppets. I was so in love with each of these albums that it didn’t matter how great their next album was, I was going to greet it as a normal person might greet their child into the world. I would listen to these new albums thirty times, before I began skipping through some songs, until I eventually tossed them into my personal dustbin. Each of these artists followed up what were for me magical, transcendent albums with admirable efforts, but the albums top-to-bottom didn’t have the same magic as their predecessors. The subsequent albums had some great singles, but the artists seemed to skim the core of their greatness for the rest of their careers. Now that we’ve achieved some distance, we can reflect back and evaluate our favorite artists more objectively. I think most music aficionados will now admit that their favorite artists probably had two albums that stand the test of time in them. Yet, it’s so exciting to see an artist come so close to their core that we buy their entire catalog without hearing any of the songs or reading critical reviews. Today, I realized that I love a great book, and I enjoy the occasional painting or two, but I never understood how someone could stare at a great painting for a half hour. There is something different about music, however, something that reached me when I was far too young to understand the connection, and something that, to quote the cliché, soothed my soul. Music is the universal art form that brings us together and drives us apart. I gave three examples of albums that inspired me in ways no other art form could, but I could probably list 100 off the top of my head that ‘set the sick ones free’. That list of 100 albums is so personal to me, but could it have been a time and place matter, or is a great album always a great album no matter when they come out, and how difficult are they to follow up?    

“I’ve got no imagination. I never dream. My so-called inventions already existed in the environment—I took them out. I’ve created nothing. Nobody does. There’s no such thing as an idea being brain-born. Everything comes from the outside. The industrious one coaxes it from the environment.” –Thomas Edison

Does art reflect life, or does life reflect art? How many of the most brilliant pieces of art are nothing more than interpretations of the world around the artist? Isn’t that the definition of art? Aren’t all artistic pieces “brain-born”? I understand that Edison was trying to be humble, but it doesn’t make much sense, if you consider Edison artistic in a universal sense. Artistic pieces are born through a complicated algorithm that arrow through influences, experiences, and individual interpretations. Whether it involves the creation of the lightbulb, the novel, and every other form of art, most of the artistic minutiae of a creation occur in the individual interpretation stage, but most artists could not arrive at that place without the first two.

Yesterday I considered most psychological tests a total waste of time. I don’t put much value in Rorschach tests, I don’t know what the spiral eye test does for anyone, other than being a little neat, and I think fill in the blank tests, insert letters into this b_ _t, are pointless. They’re all neat and fun, and they seem to say something fun and interesting about us, but what does it say about us if we answer boat? Today, I found an interesting nugget from Malcolm Gladwell’s book Talking to Strangers suggests that suggests I might be wrong that they are a complete waste of time. In one test, the examiners gave a fill in the blank test to a group A. They then gave the results of that test to group B, to have them help the examiners decipher the answers. Group B psychoanalyzed the answers. Unbeknownst to both groups, the examiners created the test for group B, with the theory that we say more about ourselves when we analyze others than we ever do when we analyze ourselves. I still don’t know if they’re valuable tests to determine our characteristics, but this little twist suggests they’re not a complete waste of time. 

Yesterday, I wondered if others might consider what I was writing funny and interesting. We all have people in mind when we write. Today, I realized that that is an utter waste of time. You do what you do, work your tail off, and the accolades might follow. The ‘you do what you do’ principle does not work, however, if you don’t know the rules. As most comedians know, this is always funnier than that. The ‘this’ in this equation is rhythm. Most of the time one needs to economize. Brevity is the soul of wit, and all that, but one can get away with extended punch lines if they’re gifted. There are those especially gifted few who can upend and redefine the rules, but if we enjoyed betting, we would probably say that you and your gimmick are not for long.

Yesterday, I realized I’m probably as far from a ‘betting man’ as one can get. Anytime we hear analysts address a situation, they say, “If I were a betting man …” When I watch game shows, and the contestant is allowed to double their money by answering a final question, I don’t understand how anyone could take that bet. “You mean to tell me that you survived the three strikes and you’re out portion of the game with ‘X’ amount of money, and you risked it on the double or nothing final question?” Today, I realized that I would be that guy who disappoints the audience at home by taking the money and running so far away that I might not think about the chance I didn’t take. I might think of my refusal to take a chance every once in a while, but even if I took that chance and answered the question correctly, I wouldn’t feel so much gratification by answering the final question correctly that it would be worth it. It would pale in comparison to the face slapping nights I would endure if I missed that final question.

Defeating the Aliens


“The aliens are not evil, but they are here to eat us,” our main character replies to the first question the talk show host asks him. This contradiction draws some laughter from the studio audience, as they don’t understand the difference. “Do we consider the lion evil? Of course we don’t. When lions eat cute, baby antelopes, they don’t do it to satisfy some perverse love of violence. Anyone who thinks lions are evil is assigning their thought process to the primal actions of the lion, or they might watch too many cartoons. I agree with those who say that the aliens are not evil in the same vein, and I disagree with my colleagues on this note, but I can only guess that the lion’s prey don’t care what their intent is. We know the only reason lions kill is that they’re hungry. I think the aliens who landed on our shoes are desperately hungry, and they know we have meat on our bones. They just want to eat it. If you consider that evil, that’s up to you, but my bet is that the baby antelope doesn’t suffer their fate without, at some point, mischaracterizing the lion’s motive.”

The reactions the various players have to the main character’s appearance on the talk show ends up saying more about them than it does the main character, or the aliens. When the scientists and reporters attempt to interact with the aliens, soon after the shock and awe of their arrival subsides, they do so to understand why they’re here. They want to befriend them, and we follow their lead on the matter, because we want learn everything we can about them, so we can learn from them.

The aliens know their arrival is the greatest thing that has ever happened to us, and they know how much it excites us. They operate in good faith, in the beginning, and they focus on public relations to build trust with us to hide their real motives. When one of the reporters, assigned to cover the aliens, disappears, the aliens’ approval ratings suffers a dive. The public begins to suspect that the main character might be right when he suggested that the aliens captured her, filleted her and refrigerated her to take her meat back to their home planet.

“They had their eyes on that reporter,” the main character suggests, “because she had right combination of muscle and fat. My friends and I have studied all of the people who have gone missing since their arrival, and we’ve found no discernible patterns, other than they’re not too fat or too muscular. We think the aliens are eating those of us of a certain body mass index that contains a quality mix of fat and muscle. We think there are so many humans on earth that they’ve developed a finicky preference. They prefer those of us with a little fat to add flavor to our meat, in the manner a little fat flavors a ribeye steak. 

“Their initial landing was awe-inspiring,” our main character says on another talk show, “and I was as affected as anyone else by their initial messages, and their attempts to help us advance our science, but the number of missing people that followed alarmed me so much that I began studying them. It’s them, I’m telling you, they’re the reason we now have so many missing people. They’re filleting them, and refrigerating them to feed the starving population on their home planet. I don’t know why it’s so hard for us to accept this idea. Our water supplies have not diminished, nor any of our other natural resources, and I don’t think they’re here to build friendly relations between the planets, as they suggest. There’s no evidence to suggest that they’re here to breed with us, or any of the other things we’ve guessed aliens might want over the decades. So, what’s their motive? I don’t care what their public relations team says, we should still ask why they came here in the first place? We’ve heard them say they had the technology to come here decades ago, so why now? Why are they here? I think they regard us as food, and I’ve been trying to get that message out before it’s too late. As we sort through all these complex arguments regarding their intentions and motives, we forget Occam’s Razor, “All other things being equal, we may assume the superiority of the demonstration that derives from fewer hypotheses.” Simply put, the best answer is often the simplest.”

Most moviemakers line “alien attack” movies with hints of the adversary’s high-minded intelligence. The aliens, in these productions, are required to be of an intelligence we cannot comprehend, and they are of unfathomable strength and power. Our production would state that evidence suggests that power and strength usually counter balance one another in most beings. Is the lion smarter than the human is? No, but that wouldn’t matter in a one on one conflict. Is the body builder smarter than the average person is? Most are not, because we all focus on one pursuit to the usual detriment of the other characteristic. Thus, the alien cannot be of superior, unfathomable intellect and superior strength and power. Not only is it a violation of what I consider the natural order of things, it’s not very interesting.

Yet, even productions that try to have it both ways, be they sci-fi novels, movies, or otherwise eventually begin to train their focus on one of these attributes. If they depict the aliens as the literary equivalent to the bloodthirsty lion is this nothing more than a slasher flick? If they focus on the superior intellect, do they do so to achieve a level of complication that might lead to more favorable critical reviews? Whatever the case is, we now require our moviemakers to provide subtle hints of alien intelligence. The more subtle the better, as that makes it creepier. The moviemaker, as with any storyteller, might be feeding us the entertainment we want, but I don’t think so.

I think the quality moviemaker modifies his material in such a way that it provides subtle hints of the surprising and unusual intelligence of the aliens. They spool out hints of the aliens’ intelligence in drips to further horrify and mystify us. They do this to mess with our mind in a way that a slasher flick doesn’t bother doing. They want to creep us out and scare us somewhere deep in our psychology.

In our production, the aliens have developed powers that we cannot comprehend, but as with any decades-long reliance on a power, it comes at a cost. To explain this theory, the main character says, “Imagine if we could emit super gamma rays from our eyes, in the manner these aliens do. It would be a superpower to be sure, but it might lead us to neglect the intelligence we might otherwise employ in tactical and militaristic conflict. We might rely on those powers so much that it could result in a deficit of our intellect. I submit that even though these aliens employ some war-like tactics, they’re as intelligent as a lion and not as smart as we are. I think we can defeat them with our intelligence.”  

Every alien/monster movie eventually also eventually turns into an allegory about our inability to accept outsiders. In our production, the aliens would use our compassionate approach to outsiders against us. They are intelligent enough to put together a seductive war-like plan, and in doing so, they purport to support a cause that most humans adore. They don’t have a cause, but they know that we’ll follow them to our own demise if they cater to our heart correctly.

The reporters and scientists in every alien/monster movie are always correct in the designs they create for how we should approach and handle our relations with aliens. What would happen if they operated from a faulty premise? Everyone who employs the scientific method to resolve a crisis, approaches the situation with a question, does background research and eventually reaches a hypothesis. At what point in the attempts to prove or disprove that hypothesis, do we troubleshoot and find out if we approached the issue from a subjective or biased view? At what point, do we arrow back to the beginning on our algorithm and correct the question that led us to an incorrect conclusion? 

In our production, the reporters and scientists are operating from a flawed premise they develop as a result of their own biases and subjective viewpoints. The aliens enjoy that premise and begin building upon that narrative to sell it to all earthlings. These useful idiots inadvertently aid the aliens’ public relations campaign to soften us up. They discover, too late, that the less worldly main character’s simple truth that while the aliens are not as evil as their detractors suggest, they’re also not hyper-intelligent as the reporters and scientists theorized. The idea that they just want to eat us bears out, and we realize that if we all agreed to these facts earlier, we could’ve saved a lot more people. We all had a difficult time agreeing to the idea that we were of superior intellect, but once we did, we used it to defeat them. We used our intellect to nullify their superior force. We were elated with the victory, of course, but once life returned to normal, there was that sinking feeling that if we just ignored the reporters, the scientists, and all of the people who believed we should be more accepting of the aliens sooner, we probably wouldn’t have been victims of the worldwide slaughter that ensued. If we listened to the main character, and all of the people who supported his view, and we followed his simple strategy for attack, we could’ve saved a lot more lives.

Yesterday I Learned … VI


Yesterday, I heard a joke that suggested if we were to accept that the now decades old television show 24 as a realistic depiction of 24 hours of Jack Bauer’s life, we were going to need to see him go to the bathroom every once in a while. Every single person has to use the facilities every once in a while, this joke implied, and if we were going to accept the fact that Jack Bauer was truly human, the writers should’ve included a line like, “I know lives are on the line, Mr. President, and I’m well aware of the fact that every precious second counts, but I have to take a squirt.” The joke is funny, because it has an element of truth to it. We don’t need to know that Jack Bauer does this, of course, but if the show’s directors and writers seek a version of true reality, shouldn’t we see him relieve himself in some way?

It’s here now. Enterprising young directors heard that call, and they responded. Whatever remained of that artistic abstract, known as the fourth wall, is now coming down. These young and ambitious directors now force their actors to engage in the ultimate form of reality by relieving themselves on camera to indulge our desire for this ultimate form of reality.

Today, I realized that if a director asked me, twenty years ago, how far they should go to depict reality, I might have told them I’m all for injecting a sense of reality in various entertainment vehicles, and I might have encouraged them to pop whatever bubble they could find. I would’ve kept that advice general, of course, as I don’t know what I’m talking about when it comes to making visual productions, and I don’t know how to depict reality on screen. If that director then asked me what I thought an audience might think of seeing their favorite character squat on a commode, I would’ve told them that that’s probably a step too far. If they asked me if I thought hearing a character’s water hit the water might help audiences relate to their character better, I would’ve said, “No, I think most people accept the fact that the characters these actors are portraying are human, and while there are some elements you can introduce to provide some hyper reality on a cases by case basis, the idea that one uses the facilities is better left assumed. I also don’t think seeing or hearing bodily functions, add to that sense of association or cements that bond any further.” It turns out some modern directors decided that I was wrong. When they depict a character vomit now, it’s not enough for them to provide the audio of the act or show the convulsions a body goes through in the act of vomiting. In the king of the mountain mentality of depicting reality, these directors decided that we need to see the chunks and fluid flow from the mouth. We can only guess that these ambitious directions heard the 24 joke, and they decided to heed the call and add all sorts of bodily functions to address these complaints. We’re not at the point, yet, where we demand to see waste move out of the body before we accept the fact it’s truly happening, but recent evidence suggests we’re probably not too far away.

Go to Your Room

Yesterday, I heard a great joke from Jerry Seinfeld. “The penal system we have is so American. ‘You do something bad, you go to a room. You think about what you did,’” Jerry Seinfeld said mocking the convention of our country’s archaic idea of imprisoning criminals. I don’t think I need to qualify my reply to Jerry Seinfeld by saying I think he’s a comedic genius. If the reader thinks I do, let me just say that I think there are but a handful of comedians who can put a clever spin on the conventions of daily life, or our societal conventions, on a level anywhere close to Jerry Seinfeld. How many comedians could take a large societal issue like the philosophy behind incarceration and associate it with the punishments our parents inflicted on us when we were naughty as kids?

Today, I thought about how much his clever and hilarious point misses the mark. Before I write anything further, let me also write that I understand that his comments are satirical in nature, and that satirists should not be required to debate their jokes or provide solutions. The first, obvious rebuttal I would make is that the idea of crime and punishment is not exclusive to America. Other countries, throughout the world in history, tried imprisoning those who committed transgressions against their fellow man, and that historical precedent worked so well that America adopted it. The second question I would pose to Seinfeld is, “If you were king for a day, how would you handle this whole idea of people committing crimes? And before you answer, remember that there are victims of crime, and there would be subsequent victims that could be harmed by your edicts.” The third, and related, point I would make is that lawmakers decide laws and appropriate punishments to provide cultural definition. We know we live in a ‘You do this, you go there for a certain amount of time relative to the crime and the nature of the crime.’ In a Representative Republic, we select lawmakers and judges to decide those laws and the subsequent punishments, and if we don’t like them, we vote them out of office and select another representative we believe better represents our views. Again, I know Jerry Seinfeld is a satirist who pokes fun at conventions, and this joke involves some healthy, insightful commentary on a situation that plagues our country, but I’d love to know how he might better fix what he calls our flawed system of punishment.

It’s Not about You

Yesterday, I borrowed a book from the library on the former Nirvana singer/guitarist Kurt Cobain, and his influence on music and society. About twenty pages in, I realized that this author was personalizing his narrative under the ‘Where was I when I first heard?’ theme. “I couldn’t believe it,” he wrote. “I was so shocked. We couldn’t believe it. I called friends I haven’t talked to in years, and we consoled one another.” Who cares, was my first thought, and I couldn’t shake that thought no matter how much further I read. I didn’t care about this author’s reaction any more than he would mine. 

I learned a valuable lesson, twenty pages in, if an author is going to write about someone or something we all know, their first job is to tell us something we don’t know. If an author is going to make it about the author to illustrate a point, that’s fine, as long as they employ the ‘get in, get out’ methodology to achieve a greater point. At some point in his long-winded narrative, the author made it obvious that his book was more about him than his subject. As far as I’m concerned, there is no fine line here. In this case, the author described his reaction to Cobain’s suicide to be part of the moment. I don’t care what the subject is, whether it’s fiction or non, I read with an ‘I don’t care what the author thinks’ mentality. A gifted storyteller might tell us what they think, but they should do so in a carefully structured method that leads us to think we thought it first.

As a reader, my advice to all authors is, don’t write about you until people care about what you think. Even then, the reason we might care about you is that you’re such a gifted writer that we never know it’s you telling us what you think. Today, I realized how difficult this is in the Twitter age. We make posts about our friends, our feelings about our friends, our feelings about our feelings, and the fact that we’re now at Arby’s. People tell us that they enjoy our posts, and we morph this into creative ways of telling everyone how everything is about us in one way or another. We continue doing so, until we are unable to make the separation necessary to write about our subject without including our feelings on the subject. Some suggest that it’s impossible to be objective, but there’s subjectivity and then there’s subjectivity. Some authors obviously think that when they begin writing about their feelings on a subject that their readers will appreciate their ability to be vulnerable on paper and that they will value their unflinching and refreshing honesty on the subject they’re addressing, and we might, if we cared about the author. If we cared about the author, we would’ve knowingly purchased their autobiography, their memoirs, or some catalog of their musings. If the author decides, instead, to write about someone that someone else might be interested in reading about, the author needs to remember that we purchased the book, because we thought it was about them, and no one is ever going to purchase a book about you, because not everything is about you.

The Media and the Coronavirus

Yesterday, I believed in a couple crackpot, Chicken Little conspiracy theories and some depressing doomsayer stories. I didn’t believe a majority of them, but I believed enough of them to recognize these theories for what they are. It took some embarrassment to reach that point. “You don’t really believe that do you?” friends and family would ask when I would repeat their drivel. It also took the humiliation of being wrong more often than I was right to help shape and form my beliefs system, but as I said in another post on this topic, I was eventually able to shed that skin.

We believe these theories because we’re afraid, and fear can be a good thing when we use it properly, as it can lead to self-preservation. A fear of heights, for example, can prevent us from going so high that we could get hurt. Some fears are irrational, such as a fear of alien attacks, sharks, and ghosts, but the brain uses fear to protect itself and the body. The 24-7 news outlets, and other companies that send out email blasts, also learned how to manipulate fear to get us to do what they want us to do, mainly tune in. They played on our fears to get ratings and clicks, and they did it so often that we were numb to it when they begin reporting on what we should fear for our own self-preservation.

How much of our time and fear did these networks and email blasters waste over the years on frivolous matters that would blow over by the end of the week? How many “News Bulletins” followed by exclamation points did they waste on stupid stories that had no relevance? How many people were afraid to invest their hard-earned dollars in the stock market? “Just wait,” rational minds advised, “this whole thing will blow over by Wednesday,” and so many of these Chicken Little conspiracy theories and some depressing doomsayer stories did. The market rewarded diligent investors, who ignored these stories, for their patience.

The job of various news outlets is to report on matters that require our attention. When they report on natural disasters, for example, we tune into their broadcasts for information on how to act and react. They know when we tune in, as do their advertisers, and the two of them join forces to develop, or enhance, subsequent stories to demand our attention. As any artist will tell you, a novice can enhance relatively meager paintings with shading and artistic framing. The 24-7 news networks often enhanced such relatively meager stories in this manner, until we began believing every story was a national tragedy, and then we experienced burn out.    

I don’t know what difference it would’ve made, but I think we might have taken the coronavirus more seriously if they didn’t break us down with every over-hyped hurricane or political story that was going to end our country, as we know it. I also have a special place in the black parts of my heart for the financial doomsayers who, for years, predicted the market would fall for whatever reason they dreamed up to get us to click on their emails.      

Today, I realized that the coronavirus is a full-fledged pandemic, and it took a lot of convincing to break through the thick, hard shell I developed to all of these Chicken Little, crackpot theories and depressing doomsayer stories. I don’t know about anyone else, but I had a threshold. By the time the coronavirus broke, some of my instincts told me that this might be different, but after being inundated by so many disaster stories that required my attention for so many years, I thought it would all blow over without too much pain. So, I direct some portion of the blame of my financial pain on all those crackpot, Chicken Little conspiracy theorist and depressing doomsayers who exaggerated every story to the point that they scared me. Over time, I found that the best course of action was to do nothing and to recognize conspiracy theories and doomsayers for what they are. If I believed one-tenth of them over the decades, there’s no way I would have invested my relatively meager savings into the stock market. I wouldn’t believe in America, and I probably wouldn’t have left my home. I didn’t believe the coronavirus was as bad as they were saying. I thought it was more 24-7 news bulletins on a story that would blow over like an over-hyped hurricane, and I now blame them for it.   

Scat Mask Replica X


Money: “Show me the money,” Cameron Crowe once wrote in a screenplay to summarize his thoughts on negotiations. Winston Groom’s negotiations to sell the rights of his novel Forrest Gump to Paramount probably didn’t influence Crowe to write the line, but if you’re ever involved in negotiations keep this quote in mind.

For some reason, some of us have philosophical problems with “too much” money. We don’t want to appear too greedy, and we’ve all heard people say things like, “It’s not all about the money for me, money isn’t everything, and money is the root of all evil.” Most people who say such things already have so much money that it’s no longer a concern for them. If you’re ever at a negotiation table, and the other party wants something you have, wipe all of that nonsense about money from your mind. This might be the only chance you have to make real money.

If you hire someone to negotiate for you, and most people should, send them in with the instructions that you want them to bleed every last dime out of the other party. Once your team determines the other team of negotiators is not going to pay another cent, take it, take as much front-end money as possible, and run away as fast and as far as you can. Don’t think about the back end, the asides they offer in lieu of money, the otherwise symbolic, prestigious titles they offer, or anything but the money. The job of the other team’s negotiators is to pay you the least amount of money possible, and they will use several creative measures to accomplish that. Ignore all of that and the voices in your head screaming about the prospect of making money on another end, and remove those cartoon dollar signs from your eyes. As the negotiations between Winston Groom and Paramount suggest, “Show me the money,” should be the first and last things you say in any negotiations.

Winston Groom is a writer, and though he probably experienced some level of negotiations selling Forrest Gump and his other books to book publishers, he probably knew negotiating the rights of his book with a Hollywood production studio was a different league. This was probably the most advantageous position Groom had ever been in in life, and he didn’t know anything about such negotiations. He probably hired a team of lawyers and other specialists to handle the negotiations for him. We can guess that negotiators on Paramount’s side were so eager for the project that they showed their hand at various points. Groom’s negotiators probably knew, at some point, how much Paramount wanted his book. We can guess that numerous advisers probably guesstimated how much money this story could make for both sides, especially if they knew Tom Hanks and Robert Zemeckis signed onto the project at the time of negotiations, and Groom’s team probably walked away from that table with several proposals from Paramount. Groom ended up selecting the proposal that gave him $350,000 on the front end, and while this is a sizable amount, sources report that it was less than the top proposal of front-end money. Groom chose the proposal with less on the front end because his negotiators worked out a clause that would give Groom 3% percent on the backend, movie’s net profits. Who wouldn’t take less on the front-end if they knew they could make 3% of $661 million on the backend that, by my math, equals over $19 million?  

When Groom informed Paramount that he didn’t receive a single royalty check, Paramount informed him that this fourth highest grossing film of all time (at that time), that grossed $661 million didn’t make a net profit. Their accountants suggested that the movie ended up actually ended up $62 million in the red.

Groom sued Paramount and won, and as one part of the settlement, Paramount agreed to purchase his second novel Gump and Co. We have to imagine that the star and director of Forrest Gump didn’t have to sue to receive their royalty checks, because Paramount didn’t want to upset them. They didn’t extend the same courtesies to Winston Groom, however, because they probably figured they wouldn’t have any future dealings with him. Groom declared that the other parts of his lawsuit against Paramount left him as “happy as a pig in sunshine,” but these deals don’t always end up this way. Thus, if we’re ever lucky enough to be at a negotiations table, and they want something we have, we should walk in saying “show me the money” and leave screaming it.

Crazy: While involved in yet another discussion of crazy people, my friend displayed some acknowledgement that he had some vulnerabilities on the issue. The acknowledgement was a subtle reddening of the skin that suggested he no longer thought everyone was talking about everybody else when they talked about crazy people. He thought everyone was talking about him now. My friend has always been a little off base, but that never stopped him before. He’s always enjoyed conversations about crazy people, and he enjoys them as a spectator might a sporting event. I knew he was off base on many subjects, but I managed to disassociate him from his peculiarities while in the midst of our conversations. Something happened. Someone who meant something to him said something substantial that flipped him.

As a middle-aged man, my friend spent most of his life insulated by what he considered the truth. His belief in this truth was so entrenched that he couldn’t understand how anyone could believe anything different. He viewed his truth as the truth. We don’t know who flipped him, or if it was a number of people. We don’t know if there was an incident, or an accumulation of moments that led to his epiphany, but we have to believe that he had to have it repeated often enough by numerous people he respected that he had his thoughts altered. Whatever it was they said, they said it to a less malleable, middle-aged man. When we’re young and insecure, we’re more adaptable to the idea that we could be wrong, but this middle-aged man seemed to be backtracking on what he considered fundamental principles sacred to his personal constitution one year prior. His reddened skin also suggested his path to recognizing he had some vulnerabilities on the issue were not kind or easy.

Eating: “Eating is one of the only joys I have left in life,” my uncle wrote in a legal document to his caretakers, “and if you that away I will take legal action.” A muscular degenerative disease deprived him of 98% of his motor skills, and he couldn’t manage anything more than a soft whisper in the waning years of his life. Then the institute he loved as much as they loved him stated that his coughing fits proved so troubling that they decided oral feedings were no longer feasible, and they provided a list of alternatives from which my uncle could choose. At this point in his life, my uncle was no longer objective. He wouldn’t view this ordeal from the institute’s perspective, as he said he’d rather die than not eat. When we tried to encourage him to view this matter from objective perspective, however, we forgot to do view the matter from his perspective. The threat of a lawsuit, coupled with my uncle’s legal statement that the institute should have no legal consequences if something should happen, had my uncle eating until the day he died.

New Year’s Resolution: My New Year’s resolution is to put more effort into avoid reading any stories about the personal lives of known figures. I am as susceptible to click bait as anyone else is, and I fell for one. I accidentally clicked on a story about an athlete’s personal life. In my defense, the article contained a deceptive headline that suggested the article might be about his athletic exploits on the field. The minute I read the words wife, cheating, and divorce, I clicked out of it, but the damage was done. I accidentally rewarded the writer of a salacious article by clicking on his entry. My New Year’s resolution is to be more diligent to avoid this in the future.   

Christmas: Christmas is my favorite holiday by a long shot, but some people say that the commercialization of Christmas is ruining the holiday. First, that ship has sailed, and there’s no calling it back now. Second, can’t we walk and chew gum at the same time. I view Christmas as a multi-tiered holiday. It is a symbolic celebration of the birth of Jesus Christ, and I write symbolic because some suggest he was born in September, and that he was not born on 12/25. I have no problem with that finding, but I also don’t mind an arbitrary, symbolic celebration of His birth. I think we can celebrate His birth, let children enjoy Santa Claus, and spend some time with family. If, however, you feel that commercial enterprises are ruining Christmas for you, I suggest that you do everything you can to avoid their advertisements. Throw the ads away when you receive them in the mail and fast-forward through them on your DVR. I don’t understand why that is complicated. Those of us who don’t want anyone else to ruin Christmas for us don’t let them.   

Subjective Interpretations: Facts are facts and truth is truth, but how many truths are subjective interpretations of an event that boil down to perspective? A friend and I had what he called a wild weekend. He did not inform me how much fun he was having when we were out, but when he returned to work on Monday, he reported this to our co-workers. It was a forgettable weekend for me, bordering on a complete bust that I considered embarrassing. We flirted with some women, we followed them to a bar, we danced, and we followed them to a third bar. En route to the third bar, I knew the women were going to ditch us. All the markers were there. “Should we even go?” I asked my friend. He said, “Yes!” followed by a, “Hell yes!” I reiterated my guess that the women seemed bent on ditching us. “Well, we’ll never know if we don’t find out.” I considered taking a step in that third bar a punctuation mark on their ruse. I pictured them laughing at us. They probably weren’t laughing, but that was my mindset at the time. Even though they ditched us, our friend returned to work on Monday to tell anyone who would listen about our wild weekend chasing chicks. I considered his version of our weekend such an exaggeration that I thought he was lying. In hindsight, he didn’t say one falsehood. It was just a matter of perspective. He left out the part where the women ditched us, but who wouldn’t? He considered that weekend a lot of fun. He enjoyed hanging out with a friend and flirting with some women. That wasn’t enough for me. I wanted to forget about the weekend. I thought it was embarrassing. My friend didn’t care. He had a blast. It was a matter of perspective.

Friendship: Having friends is important. To balance our mental well-being, it’s important to have fun in life. It is also important have someone outside the home, and outside the office, with whom we can confide. We should spend time accruing friends and strengthening the infrastructure of those friendships, and to accomplish the latter it is important to develop a respectful and sympathetic way to say no to them every once in a while. Saying no to a friend can be one the hardest things to do, especially when they plan an outing that doesn’t sound very appealing. We might have substantial conflicts in some instances, but some of the times we just don’t want to do what they plan. Why is it so hard to say no to friends? We don’t want to hurt their feelings, so we sort through various ways of letting them down easy, but they all sound contrived and lacking in sympathy. When we don’t have conflicting plans, or a reasonable answer other than we just don’t want to do what they’re planning, some of us just ghost the friend and hope that the whole situation goes away. We might later apologize, suggest we had a conflict, and hope everything sorts out on that basis. How is that the best, most respectful way to say no to a friend? Shouldn’t we just say no thank you? We’ve probably all ghosted a friend once or twice, but when someone displays a level of friendship and respect that suggests they want to spend time with us, we should feel compelled to return that display of respect with a level of respect greater than or equal to that which they displayed. We all know that saying no thank you can be one of the easiest and hardest things to do, but it’s far more acceptable than ghosting someone.

My Favorite Band is Better Than Yours


“You’re favorite bands suck! Trust me, they SUCK.”

Why do I like them then?

“I’m telling you that the band members cannot play their instruments, and their lyrics are stupid. They ripped off just about everything they did from better artists, and they weren’t very good people.”

What’s the difference between my favorite bands and the more technically proficient musicians playing meaningful, important songs? The arguments that critics and other music experts make involve a long, complicated algorithm that involves, in part, the technical proficiency that their well-trained ears hear, meaningful, important lyrics, and insider stories that detail performance inadequacies. These insiders write about moments our favorite guitarist couldn’t complete a complicated riff, and the record company, or the producer, had to call in a studio musician to do it. They know that our favorite music involves drum machines and drum samples that our favorite drummer wasn’t talented enough to complete to anyone’s satisfaction, and they know when technical wizards enhance the vocalist’s voice in parts. They tell us about how our favorite albums, by our favorite musicians, were tweaked in final mixing process, with special effects boxes, overdubs, and everything that the non-musicians accomplished in the high priced studio for the right money.

“Your favorite album, from your favorite artist, is a fraud perpetuated on the public,” they say. “It is an overly produced, computer enhanced contrivance that your favorite artist will never be able to play live without assistance.”

For the rest of us, this long and complicated algorithm ends in a big fat, “No one cares!” box. No one cares if the lyrics in these songs are deep and meaningful. Some do, of course, as they want others to view them in a serious light, so they avoid silly music with silly lyrics. Most people consider lyrics anywhere from silly to irrelevant. They might seek out the lyrics to find out what the vocalist is singing in the song, but most people don’t care one way or another if the lyrics prove sophomoric. Most of us bake that idea into our listening experience. Most meaningful, important music is woefully overrated. Most of us also don’t care if our favorite musicians are good people or bad people either. Cringe worthy headlines might stain the reputation of a musician, but our emotional attachment to most musicians does not extend to their personal life. Experts and critics don’t consider this an adequate defense. They require us to defend our favorite musician based on their criteria.

We know that if we enter into a debate with experts and critics, standing toe-to-toe, to defend our favorite band, they would beat us to pulp. If our debate had an audience, would these critics and experts persuade anyone in that audience? Would they care? Who is their audience? Are they trying to persuade us, or are they writing these critiques to one another? How many sacred cows of rock receive less than four stars? Are critics afraid that no one will invite them to cocktail parties if they violate the standard ratings?

We know most experts and critics can hear technical proficiency better than we can, and we know that all of the reasons we have for enjoying one band over another are tough to explain, except to say our appreciation for creative flair is greater than our appreciation for technical proficiency.

The experts will also tell us everything we want to know, and some that we don’t, about better artists who didn’t achieve one-fourth the acclaim our favorite artists did. They will comb through the historical timeline and lament the cheated artists who were better at the craft, and they’ll tell us how our favorite artists stole the sound of those artists and simplified it for mass appeal. They’ll tell us something about those time and place intangibles that factor into the equation of how one artist achieves more popularity over another. They’ll tell us about some kind of successful, but contrived appeal our favorite artists made to achieve fame. They’ll also tell us that our favorite artist is a well-packaged marketing gimmick for people who know nothing about real music. Some of them will then give us a list of artists we should be listening to instead, and some of us will give those artists a listen.

Most naysayers do not list their favorite groups, because if they say that our favorite bands suck, and they offer an alternative, we might think their favorite bands suck. It diminishes a contrarian’s argument to provide an alternative, but putting themselves in such a position is also admirable in that sense. If we find their argument compelling, on that basis, we might listen to their favorite artists. After a couple listens, we might admit that their band is probably technically superior, but they don’t display the same creative flair our favorite bands did. Something is missing, as their band failed to capture the magic our favorite band did.  

Even if our favorite artist is guilty of all of the above, we think the people involved in the album(s) created something that the more accomplished, and perhaps more deserving, artists either wouldn’t or couldn’t achieve. At this point in the argument, the experts might ask us why we fell in love with our favorite band. Was it the iconography that surrounded our favorite artist at the time, and did your peers convince you that they were great? Were they a better celebrity? Did our favorite artists have a better voice, were they better looking, or did they have some other superficial appeal that we found more pleasing than the better artist’s appeal? This is difficult to answer for most of us, because most of our attachments to music are emotional, as opposed to rational, and we cannot defend or explain why we prefer our bands to theirs, but we’re also not susceptible to having our minds changed on the subject.

I used to be that guy. I used to engage in the “my music is better than yours” childish game that some critics and music experts do. I don’t think I ever said those words, but I thought you would know the truth the minute you heard it. Even though I had no personal stake in my favorite band’s success, I loved their music so much that it became “my music”. I introduced “my music” to everyone I knew. For all of the reasons inherent in why we identify with our music, I was personally insulted when they didn’t enjoy it, and I considered far too gratifying when they did. I was far too proud to be the one who “discovered” the band among my peers. I think I considered it creativity on my part. I knew the joy I felt was vicarious, but I wasn’t doing anything else creative at that point in my life, so I think it filled that void.

The problem others had with “my music” was that it was silly. My serious music aficionado friends wouldn’t go anywhere near that group, that album, or that track on the album, lest they be hit by the stank of unserious music. They didn’t want anyone to consider them silly. If I attempted to promote a new album, they said, “Didn’t you like that track from that one album?” I did, I responded, I do. I don’t think there’s anything wrong with silly songs. I don’t understand why serious aficionados dismiss a whole chunk of music because it’s unserious. My music doesn’t focus on depression, pain, anger, anti-social behavior, relationships, drug addiction (primarily heroin), war, death, and other emotionally charged topics.  

One particular instance involved an “undiscovered gem” I found from an “undiscovered” artist. That album blew my mind at the time, and I still, thirty years later, consider that album one of the top ten of all time. I wanted to be that guy who introduced that album to everyone I knew. I considered the album the product of creative geniuses. The music on that album spoke to me on a level I felt compelled to share with everyone I knew. Everyone I forced to listen to this album enjoyed it, but no one I knew bought it. Three years later, another band stole their sound. This other band personalized that sound a little here and tweaked it little there to make it fit with the zeitgeist better. I loved that album too, and I introduced it to everyone I knew. Everyone I knew loved it, and everyone I knew bought it. That album sold five million copies. This band went on to national acclaim, and critics still recognize them as one of the greatest, most original artists of all time. Yet, they stole that sound, and I learned later that they publicly admitted it. The band that I declared one of my favorite artists currently carries an asterisk no artist wants of being critically acclaimed, but never well received.

What was the difference between these two bands? The answer, again, involves a complicated, multi-tiered algorithm that takes us through a wide variety of boxes that might explain how one critically acclaimed band succeeds while another one does not, but it, too, ends in another big fat, “No one cares!” box. The artists who do not succeed probably went through a similar, frustrating algorithm that included paying their dues through exhaustive touring, spending mind-numbing hours in studios, doing radio interviews, and various other promotion efforts, until it ended in a big fat, “Thems the breaks” box to explain why they didn’t succeed. To the fans who, like me, vicariously wallowed in the misery of watching their favorite artist do everything required to succeed, only to end up in the bargain bin of record stores, hearing thems-the-breaks and no one cares doesn’t sit well. My advice to all of you is save your breath, and don’t waste your time trying to convince your world of the band’s virtues. It makes no sense to us, the critics, or the experts why some bands succeed where others do not. It can be as simple as time and place, looks, and a well-designed, comprehensive package that hits for whatever reasons. What we consider the greatest music of all time might be relatively boring to others, and music is as relative as comedy.

Being Little and Big in Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood


One of my favorite messages from the movie A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood involves the failure of the reporter Tom Junod to expose Mister Rogers as a fraud. One of the movie’s opening scenes involves Tom Junod’s editor assigning Junod to write a small 400-word bio about Mister Rogers. At this point in Junod’s career, he was the dictionary definition of the cynical reporter bent on uncovering unsavory characteristics about his subjects. “These people are not my friends,” the actor playing Junod says in reaction to his editor telling him that the reason she assigned him this piece was that no one wants to speak to him now. At this point in his career, Junod developed a reputation for destroying his interview subjects, and no one wanted to be the subject of any of his future pieces. The inherent nature of his defense was, “Isn’t it my job to report on these people, warts and all? The American public needs to see the warts. If they don’t need to see that, they want to see it. Shouldn’t I focus on the unsavory elements of the subjects I interview? Isn’t that the modus operandi of the serious reporter, “You build them up, and I’ll tear them down?” Ton Junod, like so many cynical reporters, and cynical, broken people who want to destroy institutions one person at a time. We give them awards, we make docudramas that memorialize their plight, and we can now repeat the inconsistencies they discovered at the drop of the subject’s name. “Isn’t it my job to tell my audience that everything we love and cherish is an absolute fraud?” they ask.      

Fred Rogers from “Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood”

These themes lay the foundation for Junod’s mission to try to destroy Mister Rogers. At one point in the film, we hear Junod openly state that he thinks Mister Rogers is a fraud, and that he thinks it’s his job to expose him. After his initial interview with Mister Rogers is cut short, Junod infers that Rogers and his people aren’t giving Junod enough time to interview Rogers properly. Those of us who know reporting in the modern era, know what the inference of proper reporting means. We know that Rogers, and his people, know Junod, and we know that short, evasive interviews prevent a subject from slipping up and revealing all that they have to hide. Even though the movie doesn’t go to great lengths to portray Junod’s frustration, we suspect that Junod probably asked Rogers and his people, “What are you hiding?” In a turnabout from what Junod was probably more accustomed, Fred Rogers personally creates more time for Junod. This leads to a series of interviews in which Mister Rogers begins asking Junod questions about his life.

“I’m supposed to be interviewing you,” Junod says at one point. Again, those of us in the audience are accustomed to believing that Mister Rogers is obfuscating. He answers some of Junod’s questions throughout, but we can only guess that the cynical, seasoned reporter has witnessed a wide array of rhetorical tactics subjects use to avoid answering questions, and he believes Rogers is engaging in them when Rogers continues to ask Junod questions. We can also guess that the interaction between the two men grew more heated than the movie portrays, as Junod attempted to expose Mister Rogers’ inconsistencies. The interesting turnabout happens when Junod realizes that Fred Rogers isn’t using rhetorical tactics, as he pokes and prods, and that the man genuinely cares about the self-described broken man named Tom Junod. The movie doesn’t involve the usual tropes that most on-screen exchanges do in which one of the two parties eventually experiences an obvious epiphany. It depicts Rogers as a somewhat naïve character who genuinely believes in what he’s saying, and he reinforces that notion with his answers. The implicit suggestion of these exchanges are that Rogers continues to ask Junod leading questions, because he genuinely cares about the broken man before him in the manner he cares about most complete strangers, and that implies that his care for children is as genuine.

Tom Junod’s final report does not culminate in a finding that leads to scandal, and he is not able to uncover an inconsistency that reveals what is wrong with Mister Rogers. Instead, he writes a story titled Can you say Hero? that thematically asks the question what is wrong with the rest of us? Why do we need/want to see the warts? Why do we need to complicate our heroes with inconsistencies that lead us to think they’re frauds and we’re frauds for believing in them? Though the movie, and the Junod story on which it’s based, depict Junod in a number of the revealing moments that characterize Mister Rogers, we find out that Junod heard about most of them secondhand. Regardless, the article pokes through the myth of Mister Rogers to portray Fred Rogers as “the nicest man in the world”.

The reason I love this angle in this movie is that we all know and enjoy “the story” of the nicest man in the world, who has an “inconsistency” of some sort that evolves into a lynchpin we can recite at the mere mention of the man’s name. “I know he performed for children for X number of years, but didn’t he …?” Americans prefer that angle. We love reporters who remove a brick from our foundation to reveal us as frauds. We grew to love and admire the various screen stars who, in some small ways, helped shape who we are today, and we all love to learn, in a bittersweet way, that it was based on a big lie. Either that or we enjoy seeing those who portray themselves as a paragon of virtue torn down, so we don’t have to feel so inferior in that regard. As Junod’s bio on Fred Rogers details, he couldn’t find that angle that would’ve and could’ve destroyed everything Fred Rogers built. He couldn’t produce that devastating expose to win that award from his peers for tearing down the American institution that was/is Mister Rogers. What he found instead was a man named Fred Rogers, whom he called “the nicest man in the world”. 

Tom Junod later summarized his time with Mister Rogers in a piece for the Atlantic, “In 1998, I wrote a story about Fred Rogers; in 2019, that story has turned out to be my moral lottery ticket,” Junod wrote in The Atlantic. “I’d believed that my friendship with Fred was part of my past; now I find myself in possession of a vast, unearned fortune of love and kindness at a time when love and kindness are in short supply.”

My takeaway from the legacy of Mister Rogers, as presented by the movie A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood, is that he mastered the art of being present. He would speak with fellow adults in a manner that suggested there was no one else in the room. When he talked with children, he listened to them with the same level of acuity he did with adults, and he didn’t get caught up in how cute they were, how precocious they were, he just listened to them in a way that wasn’t condescending.

Being present sounds like new age, gooey, foo foo fluff, because it is, because most of our foo foo friends use such words. Being present involves putting forth a concerted effort to be in the moment while in the moment. It involves forgetting about the big stuff for just a moment to tend to the little stuff. We might want a happy home, but we have to chop wood and carry water before we can achieve that. Before we win championships, we have to wax on and wax off.

When it comes to the little things, some pride themselves on their ability to multitask. Some are better at it than others are, and depending on what they do, multitasking might be required, but how many other tasks can we accomplish at optimum efficiency? Do the results of some tasks suffer in lieu of others when you’re multitasking, or are you just that much better at it than I am? It’s impossible to know the totality of a man from movies, books, magazine articles, and various YouTube, but from what I gathered Fred Rogers was the opposite a multitasker.   

Anybody who lived during the era of Mister Roger’s Neighborhood knew and loved the creative and elaborate intros of the various children’s shows. Some of us loved those intros so much that that was all we watched. The intro to Mister Roger’s Neighborhood didn’t have any of that. It involved a man changing his shoes while singing a song called Won’t you be My Neighbor? The pace of Fred Roger’s creation was purposefully quiet, and painfully slow, and those of us with varying levels of ADD or ADHD couldn’t watch the show. Those of us who eventually aged out of the show couldn’t think of it without thinking of Eddie Murphy’s Mister Robinson’s Neighborhood skit. For most of us, Mister Rogers Neighborhood was the premise of a joke. The movie A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood and HBO’s Won’t you be my Neighbor reminds us of the big things that led us to tune him out and the little things that annoyed us, and they informed us of Fred Roger’s little and big theme.

Actor Tom Hanks said he watched hundreds of episodes of Mister Rogers Neighborhood to prepare for his role in the movie, before he realized Fred Rogers created the show for children. As the comedian that he is, Tom Hanks left the ironic, obvious punchline as a standalone after he received a laugh. If he continued, I think he would’ve said that every minute and ever second of Fred Rogers’ creation was devoted to children. Fred Rogers took great pride in how quiet his show was, for example, and when he spoke, his tone was so measured we could almost hear the punctuation fall into place. Linguists say that our ums and ahhs are quite useful, because they help listeners follow our sentences better. Fred Rogers didn’t um and ahh, but his tones were so carefully measured and methodical that those of us with ADD and ADHD couldn’t watch his show. We wanted him to finish his sentences quicker. When he told us he was feeding his fish, it drove us nuts. “Just feed the fish!” we screamed at our TV. There was a method to this madness. He developed this routine after a blind child wrote him to say she was worried that he wasn’t feeding his fish. He fed the fish, as part of his introduction on the show, but she didn’t know it. So, he began telling his audience that he was feeding his fish. Then, there was the silence. If Mister Rogers brought in an expert on how to build or fix something, there were long periods of silence involved in the process. This drove some of us nuts, but it was a carefully orchestrated part of the show, designed to help children understand the methodical, quiet approach to building.

Some cultural writers state that the approach of Mister Rogers Neighborhood, and Fred Rogers personal approach, suggest that he was anti-consumerism. While I don’t doubt that, I don’t think there is direct correlation to the idea that Fred Rogers was an anti-capitalist. I realize that marketing is a fundamental element of capitalism, but I think Rogers disliked certain elements of marketing more than he did capitalism. I don’t think he minded when company XYZ would say that their product was better than their competition’s product in a pure marketing ploy. What bothered Mr. Rogers was this idea that some marketing ploys lead people (children in particular) to feel shame. I think he disliked this idea that some marketing ploys encourage children to think they need the latest and greatest toy, and I think he abhorred the idea that the other child felt a sense of shame for being stuck with what some marketing ploys encouraged them to believe was an “inferior” toy. I think he detested the idea that marketing arms created the need people have to have more products and better products than their neighbors had.

How many of us wear battle gear? We’re adults now, so most of us don’t wear Masters of the Universe gear anymore, but we wear T-shirts that have strong messages on them to inform our peers that we’re strong on the outside. Mister Rogers met just such a person, a young child who carried a pretend sword. The young child refused to show any of the signs of endearment to which Mister Rogers was more accustomed from children. This did not bother Mister Rogers in the least. After the child’s mother failed to convince her child to say something to Mister Rogers, Mister Rogers leaned in on the kid and whispered something in the child’s ear. When asked what he whispered, Mister Rogers replied:

“Oh, I just knew that whenever you see a little boy carrying something like that, it means that he wants to show people that he’s strong on the outside. I just wanted to let him know that he was strong on the inside, too. Maybe it was something he needed to hear.”

The movie A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood wasn’t a big movie. It focused on the little things Fred Rogers did, in an effort to focus us on his message that our primary job duty in life is to attend to the little things. He also gave other messages in a more overt, less symbolic manner that we shouldn’t get so tied up in trying to accomplish big things that we forget about the little things. “There’s nothing wrong with you, if you don’t accomplish stupendous things,” he said in various ways. “I like you just the way you are.” If we attend to the little things every day, for the rest of our lives, as we fortify our connections to the little people around us, who are just like us, we might be able to accomplish big little things. 

 

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 what 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’ve logged 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 who 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. Like an impulsive, physical attraction to another person, I was gaga over this book, and my initial impulses resulted in me failing to view this book objectively.

Before I get into that, however, there is one chapter that no one will ever be able to make me see the light on: 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 the 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 before the interview. 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 in the book 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 of his 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. Mindhunter is John Douglas’ book, and he can include any information he wants, but if Douglas and others’ profiles had a praiseworthy track record, I think 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 he could’ve added something along the lines of “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. As I wrote, 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, but 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.” (One has to imagine that the various levels of law enforcement were disgusted with the prosecuting attorney’s office for their unwillingness to pursue these charges to preserve their success record.) 

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 believed it 100%. 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 who 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 do 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.