Top 10 Favorite Smurfs: The 2020 Edition


It’s that time of year again. We present our annual best Smurfs of the year. The reason for the delay is that it was so challenging this year. There was great debate here in the office, as our panel spent long hours compiling attributes and characteristics to shore up our list. We might not ever be able to top our 2005 list, but we hope Smurfers appreciate how much work went into compiling our list this year. 

10) Pretentious Smurf- Pretentious Smurf wants other Smurfs to love him, but he doesn’t know how to make that happen. It’s a wonder more Smurfs don’t face this dilemma, as the primary source of information about love, for most beings, comes from their parents. Smurfs don’t have parents. Most Smurflings are delivered by storks, and some were created by Gargamel and others. Papa Smurf is the leader of the Smurfs, but he is not their father. There is no Mama Smurf, with whom they might witness loving interactions with Papa Smurf to help them define love. They also don’t receive influential paternal and maternal forms of love. They’re on their own to discover the definition of love. In the absence of paternal lessons, there are but a few definitions of attaining love: the love you give is the love you receive, and one cannot know love without first loving oneself.

As opposed to other Smurfs, Pretentious ascribes to the latter, as he pretends to love others for the sake of loving himself. The word pretends might sound harsh, as it speaks of artifice, and I’m sure Pretentious doesn’t intend to pretend, but the words pretend and pretentious have numerous unintended similarities. The questions we ask is why does Pretentious love his fellow Smurfs, and how does he love them? We think he loves them, because of what it says about him to love them. He loves them to define himself and love himself more.

He thinks he knows what everyone else is on about, but it doesn’t bother him when he’s wrong. He thinks he knows them better than they know themselves. He thinks he can read them, but he is often wrong, and his errors are costly when it comes to building relationships. He thinks he knows humor, yet when no one else gets his jokes, he doesn’t care. “This is funny, and I know funny,” he says when other Smurfs don’t even smile at one of his jokes. Pretentious Smurf’s exaggerated love of self might have started out philosophically pure, as he attempted to define the emotion, but it progressed into a protection device to avoid the fact that he doesn’t know how to love others, and that results in other Smurfs not knowing how to love him.

9) Writer Smurf- Writer Smurf wrote a popular piece sometime before we met him. The lore of that piece granted Writer Smurf the title of an artiste. He is unable to recapture the magic when we meet him. Writer Smurf informs anyone who will listen that he is not properly inspired to create another piece. Part of this is true, and part of this admission was inspired to fortify his legacy. After delivering this line a number of times, the other Smurfs begin to question his legacy. The desire to defeat this leads Writer Smurf frustration drove him to create pieces no one can understand. “Nothing happened in the story,” was the primary complaint Writer Smurf heard regarding his subsequent pieces.

To which Writer Smurf said, “The demand that something happens in a story is trite.” Writer Smurf chose to focus on writing beautiful scenes and incredible characters in a language few understood. He chose to litter his stories with limericks and songs that no one else has heard before. He also uses big words to impress upon the other Surfs how smart he is. He does this so often in one particular piece that we know it’s more about using those words than it is about entertaining other Smurfs. Writer Smurf appears to enjoy the motif he has created for himself. “Anyone can write a story,” he says to his critics, “but I create masterpieces.” Writer Smurf says such things, but we know what he would do for another great story.  

8) Reflective Smurf- Reflective Smurf read a wide array of books before we met him. We considered this a redundant error. Why not just give those same attributes to Brainy Smurf? We found out that that in this new generation of Smurfs, of unique depth, that Reflective Smurf learned how to analyze his actions by reading experts (i.e. authors of his favorite books) analyze their characters and their characters’ actions. Like many of the side characters in Smurf Village, Reflective Smurf is not fully developed. He is a vehicle through which the writers define other characters. When, for example, the good friends Salubrious Smurf and Quiescent Smurf argued, Lachrymose was upset by some of the the things Salubrious said. 

“They’ve loved each other for so long,” he said. “How could he say such things to his favorite Smurf Quiescent?”

“It was an argument,” Reflective said. “Some Smurfs will say whatever they have to say to win an argument.”

“You heard him. Salubrious said some things that will be difficult to unwind,” Lachrymose added. “I’m going to say something, before they drag this out too long.”

“You’ll do more harm than good,” Reflective cautions.

“He said some awful things though,” Lachrymose responds. “He’s going to regret it.”

“Be careful what you wait for,” Reflective says to close the scene. Our first impulse was to reach for the pen to write a letter to the writers of the show to correct them on the line. “It’s be careful what you wish for,” we want to write with apologies to those who note the dangling participle. Upon some reflection, we realized that Reflective Smurf probably intended to say this based on his experiences with Smurfs who are the exact opposite of him. He would probably be the first to admit that he analyzes situations and scenarios too much, but most Smurfs aren’t reflective, and some don’t reflect at all. If he were to expand on the topic, Reflective might add that some short-term thinkers say the most divisive, obnoxious things to the Smurfs who love them the most. They think their loved ones will last forever, he might add, so they say the meanest, most awful things to them to win an argument, and if some Smurfs confronts them to remind them that their loved ones won’t last forever, that Smurf will end up doing more harm than good. If the worst-case scenario happens, and their loved one dies, Reflective might say to Lachrymose, you could confront them at the funeral, and they wouldn’t see it. They might say you’re exaggerating, or that they don’t remember the argument being as bad as Lachrymose thought. We could even drop heartfelt comments from the subject of their scorn, and they wouldn’t see it. We might suspect that their ignorance on this issue is intentional, but Reflective’s experience on the matter suggests that that’s not the case. Some Smurfs simply don’t see it, and they never will.       

7) Jejune Smurf- I was not a fan of the early incarnation of Jejune Smurf, as there was something missing in his absurdist dada attempts at humor. As Heuristic Smurf later stated, “Jejune was not in a place where he could be a quality Smurf. He was without an identity, not quite a Smurf.” Jejune Smurf was but a shadow and little more than a disembodied voice until the light entered the room. He denied his physical identity and attempted to shut himself out of his own consciousness. Heuristic Smurf commanded the seas about Jujune, thus expanding Jejune’s dramatis personae and establishing Jejune’s raison d’etre in the Smurf motif.   

6) Bellicose Smurf- Bellicose Smurf’s early dialogue offended some of us so much that we wanted to crawl into a hole and cry. Many of us were unable to watch these episodes without a bottle of Merlot, a friend on the phone to talk us through it, and a warm, dry blanket. His discursive dialogue seemed so incongruent to the Smurf aesthetic. When acclaimed director Rama Eflue exerted some influence over the character, he introduced a holistic sense of cohesion in the whimsically conceived diegetic oeuvre. Eflue not only introduced us to the interiority of Bellicose, but he provided a basic honesty with his techniques and framed it in the Smurf schema with Homeric parallels. Introducing him with the Claudio Baglioni’s beautiful, orchestral arrangement E Tu Come Stai didn’t hurt either.

5) Contumacious Smurf- From his introduction to his bitter, unusually violent end, Contumacious Smurf provided us a form of drama in two different episodes last season that have no parallel in any prior or subsequent Smurfean fare. It was a mixture of fantasy, delicate political and personal satire, knockabout farce, obscenity (probably of ritual origin) and in the case of his far too infrequent interactions with Lachrymose Smurf at least, delightful lyric poetry.

4) Didactic Smurf- Didactic Smurf provided further definition of the eternal struggle between good and evil in his early encounters with Gargamel. The culmination might have occurred in the interaction in the Is it My Birthday Yet? episode. What does Didactic Smurf expect from Gargamel? What does Gargamel expect to extract from Smurf Village? What is Gargamel’s place in the broad edifice? Gargamel represents a past Didactic despises. To combat that, Didactic expresses a strong need for knowledge about Smurf Village in general and specific to Gargamel’s subterfuge. “I have much to learn,” Didactic’s interior narration says, as he writes to the Smurfling Invidious, “Learn and inwardly ingest.” These two ideas represent a near contradictory description of Didactic’s attitude. Was Didactic Smurf recalling a past episode in Smurf Village in which Didactic perceived, in a moment of metempsychosis, to see the ghost of Efficacious Smurf peering out through the vestments of the present? We don’t yet know, but we know he despises his creator, Gargamel, as a symbol of a guardian of the past.   

3) Taciturn Smurf- Taciturn Smurf completely changed what we considered the Smurf ethos when he opened the scene with the declarative, “I am another Smurf now and yet the same,” before turning out the lights to tacitly encourage the chaos and violence that followed. “A Smurf too. A Smurf of a Smurf. I am the Smurf of two Smurfs!” he shouted in a booming voice. “A crazy Smurf, old and jealous. Now kneel down before me.” Those who watched this with me considered Taciturn Smurf’s performance terrifying and exhilarating at the same time. One of my colleagues actually said he literally found Taciturn Smurf’s rancor so egregious that he was relieved when Taciturn Smurf reached his denouement during the great Smurf War. Taciturn’s performance made him uncomfortable. I agreed in a most glorious appreciation of his performance.  

2) Rhadamanthine Smurf: Rhadamanthine might not be on this list were it not for the existential questions involved in his interactions. Rhadamanthine Smurf is the most accomplished and decorated Smurf in Smurf Village. The other Smurfs, those outside his family, revere him. The old adage ‘he doesn’t know his own strength’ applies to Rhadamanthine Smurf in reverse. Rhadamanthine knows he is the strongest Smurf, physically. In episode after episode, Rhadamanthine shows his strength, compares it, and lectures other Smurfs on it for the good of the Smurf community. Physical strength is his raison d’etre, his comparative analysis, and the tool he uses to keep the random at bay. Is Rhadamanthine Smurf’s sole focus on outer strength, a window into his lack of inner strength? It’s possible that Rhadamanthine has only known weakness, and he considers it a strength. He constantly compares the strength of other Smurfs to something he once knew, but is he comparing or is he lecturing on a subject of keen interest to him, and is such interest always born of a subject on which we have no knowledge? He speaks of muscular strength, of course, but muscular strength is easily identifiable and concrete, but is it as easily attainable as inner strength? In the Less Unparalleled episode, we witness the idea that Rhadamanthine has no stature in his home. His Smurflings, including the Invidious Smurfling, are obnoxious and unruly. Rhadamanthine Smurf has an enviable reputation among the Smurfs who know him superficially, but in the confines of his mushroom, he is the weakest Smurf.

1) Solipsist Smurf– For the third year running, Solipsist Smurf is our favorite Smurf. We identify with his facile ruminations, and his jocose use of mnemonic devices to advise and entertain his fellow Smurfs, but most of all we love Solipsist Smurf for the way he manages to leverage all that with a unique level of depth and range. In the The Hat Becomes a Leaf episode, Lugubrious Smurf approached Solipsist for advice on how to tell Muliebrous Smurf that he loved her. Sopolsist’s answer reveals the rewards of self-reflection as it lends itself to occasional solipsism. “Touch her,” he said, “for touch is the one essential sensation we all share. Until we touch, we only dream. Touch creates a tangible connection to the person and to the dream. Touch is you, it is I, and it is Smurf Village. Avoiding touch permits us to never lose and never gain.”  

Destructive Personalities & Prodigies


Bulls & Wives– Tom did not appear to be a destroyed man who has no hold on the outside world, but a man with intimate knowledge of someone who was. When he informed me that his dad lived a relatively long life that surprised me, because I thought Tom’s personal knowledge of self-destruction had to be so intimate that it came from a dad. I figured that his dad had no idea how the system worked, and that frustration led him to destroy anyone and everyone within reach, before he eventually destroyed himself. I was wrong, his dad lived a relatively long life. I didn’t reassess, however, because I knew how to read my tea leaves. I just had to wait to found out how I was right. When Tom later informed me that his mother died a long slow death, I almost yelled, “I knew it.”

“Cirrhosis of the liver,” he said. I didn’t say anything, but I felt vindicated. I figured that Tom’s frustrated dad destroyed the only woman he ever loved, because she was within reach, and she was his alternative resource.   

My first guess was that Tom’s dad physically abused the woman, but that often results in a divorce, a separation of some sort, or even a suicide of one of the two parties. I knew that wasn’t the case with Tom’s parents. I knew he witnessed a slow, methodical destruction of someone he loved, and he felt powerless in the face of it.

A man who physically abuses his wife is also a bad guy, and my guess was that Tom’s dad did everything he could to avoid that label. My guess was that Tom’s dad rejected her in the small, insignificant ways those in his profession and in his personal life rejected him, until it manifested in ways he couldn’t manage or control properly. A little nip here and there made Tom’s mom feel a little better for a couple minutes. When the dad’s insignificant rejections began to snowball, her little nips followed suit, until it was too late.   

My guess was Tom saw her destruction very close up, during those young, formative years that leave an imprint nothing can erase. My guess was that he spent his life trying to avenge her, but he never figured out how to do it, and he spent the rest of his life cheering on the bulls in a bullfight.

The Phenomenal Phenom- “The worst thing about being the President of the United States at such a young age (Theodore Roosevelt assumed office at 42 and left office at 50), is what do you do with the rest of your life? How does one top being President of the United States?” That is not a direct quote from former president Theodore Roosevelt, but it is the general sentiment. We could argue that Roosevelt spent his whole life chasing windmills. He spent the first forty years of his life chasing his dad’s legacy, or the legacy he imagined for his dad. He spent the latter ten years of his life chasing his own legacy or trying to improve upon it. What does a man who assumed the most powerful position in the world in what he assumed was the middle of his life (he died at 60) do to top that act?

We move to a much less significant, but interesting corollary. In 1994, an actor named Jim Carrey was on top of the world. He had a year so successful that no other actor in his profession would dare even dream, and it happened when he was all but 32-years of age. In 1994, three of the films he starred in (Ace Ventura: Pet Detective, The Mask, and Dumb and Dumber) went to number one in box office sales, in the same year. Some fans of comedic movies mark two of those films some of the best comedic films of the generation. Although we don’t consider The Mask in that elite pantheon, we recognize how original that film was. We also recognize that without the unique talents Carrey displayed in that movie, the film wouldn’t have worked at all. It’s been 26 years since Carrey’s breakout year, and we can assume he will live another 26 years, but what can he do to top 1994? We have to imagine that Carrey looks back on 1994 as a bittersweet memory, because it happened so early in his career, and he probably thinks he didn’t appreciate it as much as he should’ve.

No one will feel sorry for either of these two, but imagine achieving such relative peaks at such a relatively young age. Relatively few recognize such achievements for what they are in the moment. We can only assume that Roosevelt and Carrey assumed that this was a new way of life for them. They probably assured others that they knew it wouldn’t last, but beneath that rational veneer, they probably assumed that they were such unique talents that it might. They probably grew accustomed to living how the other half lives. They were probably welcomed into rooms with proverbial and actual trumpets. Some part of them probably got so used to it that they considered it silly, until it went away, and they missed it. How does one top being the biggest star in the world? How does one top being president of the United States? Teddy only lived for another ten years, and while he packed a lot into those ten years, including another presidential run, it sounds like it might’ve been tough for such an ambitious man to live to a thirty to forty more years thinking he plateaued too early. He probably also knew that he could never top what happened in what he thought would be the middle of his life.     

Pining for a Prodigy– “I think you might have another da Vinci on your hands,” someone says when they see our kid draw something that sort, somewhat resembles a squirrel. Our normal, rational side thanks them for the polite sentiment, and we attempt to dismiss it as nothing more than that, but we can’t control the twinkle in our eye. Kids mature at different rates, we think, who’s to say that our kid isn’t some sort of prodigy? We consider the possibility for about twelve seconds, because we want the world to know what we know, our kid is special. Our flirtation with this notion is brief, because we’ve tried to do something creative, and we know how hard it is. Even though we won’t rule out the notion that our kid could do something special, it’s so far off that it’s not worth considering at this time. There’s far too much for a prospective artist to learn to inform his immature brain before he ever reaches for the creative ignition switch. No matter how many ways we turn his drawing, it’s gibberish, and we can’t will it into something great. He’s just a normal, happy kid. 

I’ve been obsessed with the creative process most of my life. I love reading about what drove the da Vincis, the Joyces, and the Mozarts of history to create their artistic masterpieces. With Mozart as the lone exception, most artists don’t do anything of note in their early years of life. One could also say that all of the other stuff they learn in their early, formative years, informs an artist’s art better than any school devoted specifically to the arts could do.

A teacher here and there might have encouraged them to draw, write, or sing more in their free time, but most artistic output of kids in grades 1-6 can be accomplished on their own time. I encourage artistic creativity in my home, but I don’t want my kid spending an inordinate amount of time in school drawing sharks and Spongebob. He needs to learn the foundational tools to help him in life. Reading, writing, arithmetic, a level of science he can handle, and some history is all my kid needs right now.  

The obsession I’ve had with the start-to-finish creative process is now decades old, and I’ve yet to stumble upon an artist other than Mozart who cited anything that happened in their elementary years as a direct source for their great works. The bios of most artistic geniuses suggest that they succeeded in the arts in spite of what happened to them in school. Most of my favorite artists created their best pieces in a rebellious reaction to those who never believed in them. They had some something to prove to the people who didn’t believe in them. It drove them more than any amount of encouragement could. It’s almost grist for the artistic mill for most artists to embarrass those who considered what they do as silly. If their parents believe in them, and they entered them into a school devoted to the arts that might have deprived them of the righteous anger that drove them to be better than they were in the first place.

How many movies about prodigies depict parents who thought their young prodigy was wasting his time with paintbrushes, a piano, or a pen? How many of parents wanted their kids to do something more substantial with their lives? When the prodigy turned out to be something substantial in the arts, the parents looked like the bad guys, and no parent wants to be a bad guy. The parents also looked like fools in the end for not recognizing their prodigy’s prodigious talent, and no parent wants to look foolish. So, we recognize our child’s doodle as something more than it is, and we do everything we can to encourage them to pursue that talent.

“He could be the next Mozart,” they say when our kid fiddles around on a piano. “Did you know Mozart created his first symphony at five years old?” That would be great, we say with that twelve second twinkle in our eye, but I’m still going to focus my kid’s mind on becoming a math whiz, relative to his age. I would rather see him display an unusual aptitude for spelling and reading than I would re-engineer his life according to some exception to the rule that occurred almost three hundred years ago. 

“I just wanted my kid to have a well-rounded education,” parents say when I ask how they selected their kid’s school. “I liked the way [this school] sandwiched art and music between the reading and writing and arithmetic.” If they added that they just want their children to find some way to express themselves creatively, I would have no argument. I think if I learned how to express myself creatively when I was young, I might’ve been a healthier and happier kid, teenager, and young man. Maybe. When I found a creative outlet, I thought I needed it all along, but I was taught art and music appreciation at a very young age, and I didn’t appreciate it back then.  

“It’s important to encourage creativity,” they say, and I have no argument. If my kid develops a creative outlet, such that he believes in himself a little more than I did, I will applaud him. I’m an artist who devours and regurgitates artistic pieces, but I would never choose an elementary school that devotes itself to expanding my child’s mind artistically. That just seems so far-fetched that it’s not even worth considering.

Unrealistic and Unreasonable Expectations


“Try to avoid unrealistic and unreasonable expectations,” I say to my son when he becomes frustrated that he isn’t as great in sports as he thought he should be, and he throws the same fiery, embarrassing temper tantrums I once did.

“What makes you think you should be great?” I ask him. “How have you arrived at such unrealistic and unreasonable expectations? How much work have you put in? How much instruction have you received? Is it because you’re not great at hitting the ball? How long have you been playing this game? You have unreasonable expectations of yourself, and that will not serve you well in life, trust me.”

‘Why can’t I jack the ball out of the yard every time?’ he asks himself. ‘I’m already seven-years-old, I should be able to do this by now.’ Perhaps it has something to do with the idea that I have unreasonable and unrealistic expectations of him, and I’ve passed it along. I’ve tried hard not to be that parent, but as someone who had unrealistic and unreasonable expectations of myself, throughout my youth, maybe I passed that along. Whatever the case is, my son shows signs of wanting to be better, and I think one of the keys to accomplishing that is to teach him that his unrealistic and unreasonable expectations might impede that progress. 

Failure can be humiliating and embarrassing, but how we deal with it defines us. “Don’t get mad about your momentary mistakes. Learn from them,” I say. “What did you do wrong this time, and how can you correct it next time?” We ignore such instruction, because we believe we are already there. We disregard advice, because we’re already seven-years-old, and it’s probably too late to change our ways now. We consider tidbits annoying chunks of information from some know-it-all who claims to know better than we do. We also fail to process most of the small information that it takes to succeed, because “we already knew that”.    

Former Major Leaguer, and Hall of Fame, pitcher Randy Johnson once talked about the advice that former Major Leaguer and Hall of Fame, pitcher Nolan Ryan gave him. Ryan instructed Johnson to alter his finishing step one inch to the left. Johnson said that seemingly irrelevant piece of information changed his whole career. He says he wouldn’t have been half the pitcher he was without that advice. By the time, Ryan gave Johnson that advice, Johnson was already a major leaguer. He probably pitched, at various levels, for ten years at that point. He probably heard enough advice and tidbits to fill a copy of War and Peace from pitching coaches throughout his maturation as an athlete. One of them probably spotted the same flaw in Johnson’s mechanics that Ryan did, but Johnson ignored that piece of advice. Did Johnson ignore that advice for years, because he thought he was already a great pitcher, only to cede to one of the greatest pitchers of all time, or was Ryan the only one to spot it?

What’s the difference between a Hall of Fame pitcher and a pitcher who never pitched beyond high school? Most would say it’s all about natural, God-given ability. What’s the difference between an all-star pitcher and a Hall of Famer? Baseball is simple. You throw a ball, you catch a ball, and you hit a ball. Some naturally gifted athletes will be able to throw and hit the ball better than we can, but the seemingly insignificant minutia involved in the mechanics of the process might enhance that natural ability. How open are we to such instruction? Are we a blank slate, an eager student in life, or what they call a coachable player?  

Learning, in any venue, is a methodical, meticulous process that requires the mentality of a coachable player to succeed.  The best students enter into each new venture they pursue a blank slate, eager to learn. How many of us enter into a new venture, a curious sponge seeking to learn everything we can to be better? How many of us enter into the same situation believing that with our God-given abilities we’re already halfway there? Once they see us perform, really perform to the best of our abilities, they will see that we don’t need instruction, tidbits, or piece of advice. Those giving this advice might be shocked to see how great we are, we think. How many of us miss the tiny nuggets of information that could define a separation between those who are halfway there and us?

We say such things to the young kids around us, but how amenable are we to instruction, advice, and tidbits? If we could go back in time, via a time machine, and speak to a younger us, would we be as open to advice? Are we now? Did we think our natural abilities would eventually shine through, or did we, do we, have unrealistic and unreasonable expectations?

My brother had an awkward, inaccurate jump shot. My friend and I tried to coach him up with some of the tidbits we learned over the years. He said, and I quote, “It’s probably too late to learn anything new now.” He was sixteen-years-old at the time. I laughed at him then, but I lived by the same philosophy in basketball and many other things.

Most people find sports analogies tedious, but they’re illustrative. When I played recreational sports, I never received proper coaching, and I never had an attentive mentor, but I expected to be a quality player no matter what the sport was or how much coaching I received. Everyone I knew was self-taught, and we considered advice and tidbits of information insulting. When we found out we weren’t as great as we thought we were, we found it embarrassing, humiliating, and infuriating.

“Even the most successful fail more often than they succeed and they’re wrong more often than they’re right,” I will tell my son when he’s older. “Even with proper coaching, and a mindset conducive to coaching, most people won’t excel at sports, but if you can use everything playing sports teaches a person, you might be able to use it in other venues. Most people aren’t great at fixing things either. You might think I’m insulting you, but I’m trying to teach you how to approach matters with a mind that is open and conducive to learning.”

We say such things to our kids, because we wish someone would’ve said such things to us when we were kids, yet when we take our first crack at operating a power saw, we find it humiliating and embarrassing that we can’t do it properly.

Our inability to succeed might be that we want to succeed on our own. We don’t want to give other people credit. We receive a great deal of satisfaction constructing a toy without consulting the instructions. If we’re able to successfully build that toy on our own, without any of these tidbits or advice, we might enjoy it more. We want to surprise people with our natural ability. We want to be what others call a self-made man, a prodigy, and an artist who stuck by his guns, no matter what the experts said. We want to prove how smart we are, and how athletically, artistically, mechanically inclined we are. We don’t want to know “an easier way”, or that we can do something better if we adjust our approach ever-so slightly, and we hate it when someone tells us we’re doing it wrong. We hate it, because we think we should have everything all figured out by now. We want to be “special” and special people give instructions, they don’t receive instructions. Nobody told Mickey Mantle and Alex Rodriguez how to swing, nobody ever had to tell Steve Jobs how to run a company. There was no doubt something special about them, and all of the special people that litter history, but what separated them from equally talented and skilled people of their craft? Were they able to see beyond their unrealistic and unreasonable expectations to see that there was nothing special about them, until there was.   

How many times will we attempt to construct a toy without following the instructions, until we realize that there’s nothing special about us. We’re just not very good at fixing things. Our ability to admit that there’s nothing special about us is frustrating, embarrassing, humiliating, illuminating, and the mindset we should have in any such ventures. We see the latter in the unreasonable and unrealistic expectations our children have, and it proves to be something of an epiphany for us.  

I’ve grown so accustomed to failing the first time I try to construct a toy that it doesn’t bother me that much as it once did when I wasn’t able to without instructions. I now expect to be wrong five to six times more times, even with instructions, and when I exceed that number in the reconstruction process, it might involve some inflammatory curse words, but I no longer find it a humiliating condemnation of my ability. If someone spots my struggle, and they offer a suggestion, I am not as insulted as I used to be, because I’m starting to see that most people know more about fixing things than I do. My motto, throughout this process is, “If one way does not work, try another.” That might sound simple, but we complicate these trivial matters with our unreasonable and unrealistic expectations. “I should be able to fix something as simple as this by now,” we say to ourselves. Some of the times, these unrealistic and unreasonable expectations get in the way of us completing even trivial matters. If we could get out of our way, we might realize there is another way, and once we’re done we might wish that someone introduced us to how counterproductive our unrealistic and unreasonable expectations were years ago.  

Parents can talk about the philosophy and psychology of sports all day long, and we love doing it, but nothing penetrates better than doing it over and over again. This is what sports psychologists call kinesthetic learning. Throw the ball, catch the ball, and hit the ball. He hits the ball solid, he learns. He misses a perfect strike, he learns. He also learns that one of the keys to success in sports, as in life, is to have a short term memory. He learns the power of forgetting what he did last week, yesterday, and in the last at-bat. We can discuss the philosophy of rewarding our sons and daughters with words of encouragement, and we can debate whether the drill sergeant approach might be more effective, and kids are so different that we witness how these approaches can work differently for young individuals, but nothing is better than just plain doing it. We sign our son up for various leagues, and he gauges how he’s doing compared to his peers. He also wants to be better than them. He wants to be great, and I encourage that, but he gets so frustrated when he realizes he isn’t there yet. He’s just a kid, and when kids play sports, they not only want to be great, they expect it. When they aren’t, they don’t understand the difference between their unreasonable and unrealistic expectations and reality. It confuses them, and that confusion leads to frustration. What’s the difference between being a quality seven-year-old athlete and a poor one? Some of it’s natural ability, of course, but most of it involves just doing it over and over again, in practice, in the backyard, and in their dreams at night. Doing it, also allows them to put all of our psychological and philosophical tidbits and advice into play, and it’s there, somewhere in that complex mix, that they learn the various nuances and intricacies of the game.

Movies Operate in Patterns Humans Don’t


“Henry, I don’t think we’re going to catch this guy!” a policeman says as he and his partner chase a motorcyclist down a winding road through some scenic mountains at a dangerously rapid rate, during the opening credits of our movie.

“I think he might be the best we ever saw,” Henry replies. Even if the policemen could get close enough to see the motorcyclist, she is wearing a helmet with a heavily tinted visor that covers every inch of her face. “We’re not going to catch him,” Henry concedes. “He’s too good.” Chance intervenes, and they somehow manage to pull this woman over. When they remove her helmet, they discover that the alleged culprit is a woman. “It’s a woman?” the males whisper in awe.

“And I would’ve gotten away with it too,” she whispers between bared teeth, “if it weren’t for you meddling males.”

Movies operate in patterns humans don’t.

Two grizzled, burly men play darts. The pinpoint accuracy of the men impresses us, but it does not impress the main character of our production, a woman. Some clever wordplay ensues in which the woman, while downing shots of a highly alcoholic drink, subtly and confidently implies that she can beat both of them. “You? But, you’re just a woman,” the men say. They laugh. They laugh harder when she downs that alcoholic drink without so much as a grimace, as she prepares to stand. They’re near hysterics when she takes a dart, and she looks at the laughing men while throwing the dart. She doesn’t even look at the dartboard. The dart hits the center of the target so hard that it blasts through the center, and the wall behind it, where it hits an oxygen tank in a neighboring medical supplies store. The explosive blast sends the two men, now locked in silent awe, through the wall of the saloon and out into the highway. The blast only musses the dart-throwing female’s gorgeous locks of hair a little. She calmly walks toward the men with other blasts, from other oxygen tanks, exploding in her background as she nonchalantly steps on the highway. The 110lb woman then picks one of the 250lb men up with her index finger, as he whimpers, begging for mercy. She ignores his pleas and pulls him in closer, whispering, “And you, you’re just a man.” She then pulls out her sawed off shotgun and blows the man’s head clean off.

Movies operate in patterns humans don’t.

*“There are three things,” according to author Scott Adams, “to know about human beings in order to understand why we do the things we do.

  • Humans use pattern recognition to understand their world.
  • Humans are very bad at pattern recognition
  • And they don’t know it.”

We see patterns in movies, because most of them follow patterns. As Roger Ebert once said, “The motto in Hollywood is if something works, try, try and try it again.” Movies also fall into patterns because movie makers are lazy, they’re not as creative as we think, they to try to affect social change, and they know how much we love patterns. We find patterns pleasing, and they make us feel smart when we figure them out. We find those artistic enterprises that don’t follow our patterns “confusing,” “weird,” and “hard to follow.” They usually end up in “art house” bargain bins. 

We want movies to follow patterns, because we want life to follow patterns. We want to be able to figure people, places and things out. We want to be smart and being smart means spotting outcomes before they occur. We use pattern recognition to predict how others will act and react on a situational basis. We’re wrong on occasion, but we don’t expect to be right all of the time, and we focus on the times when we were right. We’re wrong in life as often as we are when we watch Jeopardy! Yet, how many of us knew the answer soon after the Jeopardy! contestant provided it? We clinch our fists in frustration, because we were so close to getting the answer before they did. How many of us accumulate so many of those almost-got it, should’ve-known, and after-the-fact answers that we actually believe we knew the answer, and we knew so many of those answers that we now consider ourselves trivia masters?

How many after-the-fact, should’ve-known trivia masters, who know a little something something about human nature, can tell us what we’re going to do next, after we do it? “I knew you were going to do that,” they say.

“Wait a second,” we say when they do this to us one too many times. “I already did it. You’re brilliant at predicting what I’m going to do next, after I do it, but if you want any credit for predicting what I’m about to do, you have to say something before I do it.”

“But if I tell you,” they say, “you’ll do something else to prove me wrong.”    

“Fine,” we say. “Tell someone else. Whisper it to them. If that person verifies that you were right, we can start putting together your scorecard.” 

They might have a brilliant response for us, regarding how they knew what we were going to do. They might be able to provide interesting details regarding their meticulous study of human nature, their knowledge of us, and their observational skills in general, but they didn’t put that knowledge on the line when it counted. They might know the patterns and routines of humans, and they might say they can use that knowledge to predict what we’re going to do next, but most of us aren’t as great as recognizing patterns as we think. 

***

The last emotional, irrational cerebral crush I had on someone was a man named John Douglas, a man many credit with being the first to use the art of profiling to capture serial killers. Douglas used extensive interviews with serial killers to gain insight into the mind of men who do such things. His book influenced the creation of the movie Silence of the Lambs, and Netflix later used Douglas’ book Mindhunter for a series of the same name. Silence of the Lambs wasn’t the first movie to focus on the magic of criminal profiling, but it launched the idea of it into the zeitgeist. The idea that certain people exhibit certain patterned behavior can predict future crimes seemed so obvious that we couldn’t believe no one ever thought of it before. If you’re looking for a serial killer, these profiles suggested, look for a single, white man who has military experience and mother issues, and is between the ages of twenty-five and thirty-five. Look for a guy who visits the scene of the crime. Look for the guy who pulled the wings off grasshoppers and tortured other small animals in his youth. Of course, we think, he’s just like my cousin Kirk. I always knew he’d grow up to be a serial killer.   

Movies operate in patterns humans don’t.

The cerebral crush I developed involved far too many emotions, as I fell in love with what I considered Douglas’ rational deductions and persuasive prose. I ignored the idea that Douglas’ study of patterns in human behavior often led to after-the-fact, educated guesses that could help law enforcement officials gain convictions. This earns the “Wait a second …” question all authors dread. Wait a second, I thought your book implied that following the patterns of behavior could lead to the apprehension of suspects that were on the loose. It’s been a while since I’ve read this book, but in my opinion Douglas is not the creative genius he purported to be in this regard. I believed that this veteran FBI expert had enough experience in his field to spot patterns beyond otherwise trivial coincidences. I’ve since heard that veteran law enforcement officials groan when their superiors call profilers in on a case, in the same manner they groan when psychics are called upon. 

John Douglas was correct on occasion, and he trumpeted his success in his book, but how often was his attempts to use patterns of human characteristics and behavior to pinpoint the serial killer wrong? Douglas did not provide a scorecard for his “creative thinking” in his book, but he did confess that there could be a psychic component to it. “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.” This line led to some of us to run away from him. 

The “creative thinking” that some credit Douglas for starting is so ubiquitous in movies and TV shows now that we all know the bullet points, and the procedures that profilers use. We know them so well that we can spot the serial killer twenty minutes into any production. We know, for example, that when the head strong, female FBI agent creates a profile on an Episcopalian from Newark, New Jersey that she’s hot on the trail. None of the other FBI agents can see the correlation between the Episcopalian religion and someone wanting to tear the head off buxom young collegiate blondes, but she has a gut instinct based on years of experience, and we know she’s right. We don’t understand why the other male FBI agents don’t see how the trail she carefully lays out that will lead to the correct suspect. They begrudgingly see the errors of their ways before the credits roll, but they don’t want to give her the credit she deserves. That would shake up their whole world.

Movies operate in patterns humans don’t.  

If we know the pattern, we can spot the climax of a movie far before it arrives, a punchline of a joke before the joke teller gets there, and the return to the refrain of a song, after the bridge, before the band starts in on it. The idea that we can detect patterns and predict outcomes pleases us, and it makes us feel more intelligent for spotting it. We then employ that confidence in our ability to figure out patterns and see coincidences in our everyday interactions to know the people, places, and things around us a little better. The question we rarely ask ourselves, because we rarely remember when we guessed incorrectly, is how often are we wrong? The complicated algorithm can be broken down to a line the Coen Brothers wrote for the actor who played The Dude in The Big Lebowski, “That’s just, like, your opinion man.”

***

I never personally encountered one of those “supercomputers” from the sci-fi movies in the 50’s and 60’s. Those supercomputers were the size of a large room, and the moviemakers depicted them as having knowledge beyond human capacity. The supercomputers in these movies are usually entities in their own right with some ominous one-to-two syllable name, and the movies rarely mention a human programmer. The humans in the movie feed these allegedly autonomous computers data for a problem they want to solve and the “supercomputers” spit out an answer on a tiny, yellow slip of paper (it’s always yellow for some reason). The autonomous computers has data on the patterns of human behavior, and it spits out an answer allegedly not subject to human opinions and biases. If that were the case, one would think that the yellow slip of paper would say, “not much will change in the next fifty years.” That would not move the plot of the movie well, nor would a prediction that suggested, “There will be nothing but good times ahead for the human race.” The prediction on that yellow slip of paper is almost always dreadfully negative, and it’s often something we can’t handle. The only suitable answer, for the characters of the movie is to destroy the supercomputer before it infects the world with its brand of unbiased truth.

Movies operate in patterns humans don’t.  

Hindsight now allows us to view these scary, sci-fi movies as silly. The fear of computers, robots, or any artificial intelligence progressing past human intelligence is evergreen, but the idea that those archaic, room-length 1950’s machines could act independent of a programmer’s influence, or the movie maker’s influence, seems so silly now. We know those yellow slips of paper displayed a prediction based the mover maker’s opinion based upon an “expert’s” opinion, dressed up as a fact from a computer that allegedly escaped the bounds of human opinion and bias. If we could find one of those room length supercomputers from the 50’s to recreate the situation, we’d ask, “Okay, great, now who programmed this computer?” Computers are still not autonomous at this point, and they are still programmed with an opinion, based on an opinion, dressed up as a fact.

When we bite into a bland piece of chicken, loaded with preservatives, one of the first questions we ask is how many generations ago was this piece of meat actually attached to a chicken? We could ask the same questions of facts we receive from our modern, yellow slips of paper from a computer or device, in the form of search engine results, “Who wrote this?” Who provided the data for that modern, yellow slips of paper, and how many generations ago was this answer a primary source fact? 

The response writers of search engine results might have is that their answers are based on agreed upon historical facts, but how much of human history is based on some form of propaganda? How do other countries view our historical facts? Are there any discrepancies? The old saying is that winners write the history books. If that’s the case, how much of our history is based on propaganda, and an opinion based on an opinion of that propaganda that leads to an agreed upon fact? How many generations ago was that fact, upon which we all base our opinions, a fact? How many different incarnations has this grapevine truth gone through before it reached us?

We’ve all heard the George Santayana quote, “Those who don’t know their history are doomed to repeat it.” I’ll confess that I’ve probably used this quote as often as anyone else has without vetting it thoroughly. I also never read a contrarian, like author Scott Adams, dissect the quote and question its greater value. I heard so many brilliant minds drop this quote whenever people, or their leaders, were on the precipice of disaster that I did not question it enough. My prior interpretation of this quote was that if we study the patterns from the past, it will help us know more about our present, and it might help us in future endeavors. If human history is based upon an opinion, based on an opinion from some propaganda, based on a perceived pattern that led to some fact that we now all consider true, how often do we know what’s going happen in the future, how often will we be wrong, and how often will we have to repeat if necessary?

If we follow the patterns of history, will we learn that they are always going to be some human beings who are inherently violent, corrupt, and deceptive? Do we need to study patterns in history to know that? Can we use the map of past human behavior to dictate how we should act and react to others in the future, maybe, when it comes to specific individuals, but how does studying the interactions between ancient Athens and Rome help a country in their current relations with Uruguay? Adams alluded to the idea that the Santayana quote might help naïve leaders who believe that specific leaders of generally corrupt countries will somehow act less than corrupt when the naïve leader proposes laying a path for a new relationship. If that leader and his people fail to study the patterned history of this country, and its leader, they will be doomed to repeat the failures of other leaders who believed they could achieve a different result.

Humans are inherently routine, some might argue, and if we study their general patterns and the trends in history and society today, we can understand how humans will react on a situational basis. We know that residents of South Dakota will react different from residents of Uruguay, but if we gain a general sense of human nature and interaction, we might be able to determine human behavior through patterns. Maybe, to a certain degree, on a case-by-case basis, and depending on situation or issue involved, but how many qualifiers do we need to add to reach a desired conclusion that supports our thesis, opinion, and our biased worldview? If we dig deep enough, in our study of patterns, we (like my friend who could correctly guess what I was going to do after I did it) might find data that supports our opinion and makes us feel like a genius student of human behavior. Our best bet, according to Scott Adams, is stop searching for patterns, trends, and coincidences when trying to figure human nature out, because we’re wrong more often than we’re right. Our best bet is to remove our desire, our need need to be right, and the ego it feeds and admit that we are flawed prognosticators who can predict what will happen in the future.  

How many times have we had someone or something all figured out, only to discover that we were wrong? How many times do we rely on patterns, trends, and the overwhelming, “how could you miss it”, coincidences to figure something or someone out? How many of times have we realized that we were so wrong that we’ve been all wrong, all along? Here’s a line some of us love, “I’m more right than they know.” Some of us love that line so much that we live it. Some of us smile a conspiratorial smile in the face of a correction, believing that they do not know now how right we are, but they will … eventually. They will eventually see the light. They consult their experts, we consult ours, but how often are experts wrong? It depends on who you ask and which experts we consult. We passionately believe our informed beliefs system, and they passionately believe theirs. Who wins, who loses, who cares? Our best bet might be to avoid using other’s opinions to inform our opinion on patterns in human behavior, and while we’re at it, we might want to delete our opinions when trying to form an opinion too. Our best bet is if one way doesn’t work, try another. 

*Adams, Scott, Loserthink, 2019, New York, Penguin, page 66

An Unhealthy Competitive Streak


“The next time we play a video game, can we do it without complaining so much and criticizing each other?” my son asked me. The question was illustrative on so many levels. I know that I’m an overly competitive person who can get a little frustrated when I don’t succeed in video games, but I didn’t think I was so competitive that it was affecting my relationship with my son. I saw friends of mine pound their face into coin-op game screens, when I was younger. I heard kids swear so loud in arcades that I was embarrassed to be around them, and I knew kids who viewed their inability to get to the next level of a computer game as some sort of personal failing. I remember these kids, because they were so hilarious. Now, my son implied that I might be one of them.

Anyone who knows a seven-year-old knows that seven-year-olds don’t imply. They discovered language fairly recently, and they don’t fully understand the full power of it. They say the meanest, most awful things, and if their words offend you, that’s on you. We might use their comments as examples of what not to do. We might take them by the hand to help them retrace their steps to show them how others might misconstrue their words as offensive, but those lessons require months and years of repetition, and in the interim, we have to deal their unvarnished truth.  

Most fathers want to spend time with their kids. Most fathers want their kids to enjoy spending time with them. My son wanted to play games with me, and he wanted to have as much fun as the father-son combo did on a YouTube video he watched. I watched this YouTube video with him, of a father and son playing a game together, and they did appear to be having one heck of a good time. My son wanted to do that with me. I, too, wanted to play a game with him just for the fun of it, but to do so, I knew I would have to reverse engineer some 35 years of conditioning.

If you’re the type who plays games, because you enjoy playing games at the end of the day, and you don’t really care if you win or lose, you can stop reading now. You can leave with the knowledge that I envy your healthy mindset, but I could probably never be friends with you.

For the rest of us, it’s always all about winning. Our grandfathers taught our fathers to teach us that there’s something special about winning, and it’s something that we all need to learn. We need to learn it, they suggest, because we need to be it. Winning is an attitude we need to learn when we’re young, and a life well lived is all about fortifying that attitude with our own special ingredients. It doesn’t matter if you’re an aspiring businessman who is willing to risk it all for a profitable business, playing a video game with your kid, or joining a group of young girls you’ve never met before in a game of hopscotch, it’s all about winning.

When I played games as a kid, video and otherwise, I don’t remember ever doing it for fun. Games weren’t fun for me then, and they aren’t now. Games are a test of my abilities and the qualities of my character. I still remember some games I won in sports, when I was young, and some of the games I lost still weigh on my soul. Some games require strategy, some require brute force, and others require some combination of the two? Video games rely on strategy, ingenuity, and all of the creative ways a player can find to defeat their opponent? These games involve one winner and one loser, and it wasn’t enough for us to finish second when I was younger. If you finished second, you lost. Before those of my generation dismiss this argument that there might be something wrong with being overly competitive, we have to consider how unhealthy this mindset can be at times.

We all love to read stories about how six-time NBA champion Michael Jordan needed to beat everyone on the team bus in checkers, cards and any game he could think up. We love to hear about how NFL Quarterback Phillip Rivers constantly challenging his teammates to a game of dominoes, and how Tom Brady needs to beat everyone he knows in any game that they want to play. It wasn’t enough for these guys to be at the top of their respective fields, they needed to win relatively meaningless games in their free time. These three decorated and accomplished athletes have a ferocious, almost to the point of the unhealthy, appetite to win all the time. Some suggest this ferocious competitive nature is what separates them from those of equal ability, but is there a another side to their stories, a dark side?

What would those people who love to hear stories about famously competitive athletes think if Phillip Rivers upended a table after losing a game of dominoes to his seven-year-old son? Phillip Rivers never did this, as he likely has a very healthy hold on his competitive instincts now, but if he did, wouldn’t we say that’s a little unhealthy? We can guess that Rivers probably never felt the need to do that, because he has an outlet for his ferocious competitive instincts. He has already accomplished great feats among the greatest athletes in the world, and such a display would speak of frustration. My guess is that earning one of the most prestigious positions in all of sports quells those frustrations and any other sense of unhappiness that would drive such a display.

Yet, how does one earn one of the most difficult and prestigious positions of  quarterback in the NFL. How does one earn such a position when they lack the athletic talent necessary to achieve it, as many have said Tom Brady does. How much drive does that require, and is there an ugly side of that drive that no one discusses in these fun-loving, “He’s so insanely competitive” stories?

Most of us would be satisfied to be the starting quarterback of one of the most prestigious college football teams in America, as Tom Brady did at Michigan, some might be satisfied just to be drafted to play quarterback in the NFL, then start. We might consider it a life well lived to earn chance to play in just one Super Bowl. For Tom Brady, that wasn’t enough. He worked through whatever demons chase a player throughout a season to appear in nine of them and win six. Does Tom Brady have a secret formula to maintaining such a consistent, championship levels of success, or does the state of being perpetually unsatisfied almost require some level of perpetual unhappiness and inner frustration? We all know the follow-up joke to this. If a coach, or a fan, learned that certain levels of unhappiness drove Brady and Jordan to win six championships, they’d ask what do I have to do to get four or five more unhappy, frustrated people on my team? It’s funny, because it’s true that professional sports teams, corporations, and anything and everything between want ferociously competitive people who crave whatever challenges put in their way to greater achievement. 

Does being unsatisfied with some success lead to more success, or is there some measure of fundamental unhappiness and frustration attached? Imagine being Tom Brady’s sibling, growing up, knowing that every time he loses he’s going to freak out and upend the table? Imagine purposefully losing to him, so he doesn’t cause a scene. Imagine what you might have to do to keep such a person happy as a spouse. Imagine being their seven-year-old child, and your dad questions your character when you’re not able to keep up with them in a game of Super Mario Brothers Deluxe. We probably assume such people don’t take it home with them, but if they’re that competitive, we have to assume that their loved ones see some of the components of the dark side that drive their ferocious, competitive instincts.

I’m sure that there are men and women from as far away as China and Liechtenstein who think it’s not worth playing the game if you don’t do everything humanly possible to win, but the idea that narrowly finishing second destroys a person emotionally appears endemic to males who are Americans.

If we enter into a friendly contest for money, and we lose that contest by cents, it upsets some of us so much that we can’t sleep at night. Most second place finishers might feel some frustration by being so close to winning, but some view this as just as devastating as a last place finish loss by hundreds of dollars. I’m competitive, and I might be so bad that it’s a little unhealthy, but that ferocious level of competition is something I can’t completely comprehend.

If I suffer from this unusual, and unhealthy, need to win, that does not extend to games of chance. I know I have no control of the dice or the next card a dealer sends me. These games involve some strategy, and an advanced poker player could clean me out in under an hour, but there’s still an overriding element of chance to these games. Gamblers talk about the thrill of victory, and I’ve experienced that, but my experience with games of chance almost always involves the agony of defeat. If I ever won, other than the few times listed below, I might develop a problem, but I’ve never had a problem with gambling.   

I may be upset when chance doesn’t roll my way, but it does not destroy me emotionally. These are games of chance, and I know if I get lucky, I don’t expect that luck to continue. In a friendly game of craps, for instance, I once committed what others considered a cardinal sin of pulling my money off the table in the middle of a hot streak. I knew my luck couldn’t continue, and I knew that with every roll, so I stopped right in the midst of it. I did so, in my opinion, before my luck could run out. I was satisfied by my meager winnings, and I knew that the chances that I would continue to win were against me. My friends complained that true craps players don’t pull their money off the table, without giving the other players a chance to win their money back. “But I was playing against the house,” I said.

“Still,” they said. “It’s considered poor gamesmanship to take the money and run. Plus, if you let it ride, you could’ve been the biggest winner of the day. You were on a roll.” 

To their utter amazement, I was just fine with my meager winnings.

I did this again, sometime later in a poker game. This time, I let my money ride and ended up finishing second. If anyone, anywhere, considers this bragging, I add that in a lifetime of playing these stupid games of chance, there’s a reason these two instances are memorable. The game ended with me drawing one relatively inferior card, and I finished one card away from winning the pot. I finished second in the winnings of that day, and I had no designs on playing a bluff and pushing my pot to the middle. I was perfectly happy to finish second that day, and that didn’t make sense to my friends.

It didn’t matter to them that I played the big money winner down to the final hand. It didn’t matter to them that I managed to walk away with the second most money. He won. I lost. Game over.  

“You need to learn how to lose if you ever hope to win,” Woody Allen’s mom once told him. I don’t care if you’re Tom Brady, Tony Gwynn, or Michael Jordan, you’re going to lose more than you win in life. Tony Gwynn didn’t get a hit 66.2% of the time, Michael Jordan missed 50.3% of the shots he took, and Tom Brady had to fight in college and in the early years of his NFL career to become, and remain, a starting quarterback for those squads. We need to learn to manage and learn from our losses if we ever hope to win. Yet, we don’t want to manage it too well, for as O.J. Simpson said, “He who loses well loses often.”  

I apparently didn’t manage losing well, as evidence by the fact that I don’t win often enough. “But did you have fun?” my mom would ask to start the healing process after I finished second. “If you did, that’s all that matters.” She enjoyed racing her peers, when she was young. She didn’t care if she won. She just enjoyed spending time with friends. She had the healthy mindset of course, but it didn’t ease my sense of devastation. Having fun was for girls as far as I was concerned. I enjoyed winning, and I wanted to beat my opponent so bad that I demoralized them.

There was one kid I could never beat in one particular game. There was nothing I could do different to beat this kid. He was just better than me at this game. He didn’t rub it in, and he didn’t celebrate his victories in any way. He was just better than me, and he knew it. When I finally overcame him, I continued to play hard, and ran up the score. “How’s this any fun for you?” he asked. “Do you enjoy humiliating me?”

“I do,” I said. “I consider it fun.”

Seven-year-olds know nothing of these complexities. They want to win when they play sports, and they want to beat video games, and they feel some frustration when they don’t. They might even see upending tables as a way of coping with loss, until they see an example of the opposite. They might also find playing video games with Dad to be less than fun, because he always gets so upset, and he’s always criticizing me and complaining about his own inability to defeat the game. Seven-year-olds don’t view the video game as a vicarious way of accomplishing what they can’t do in real life. They might view getting past stage eleven of the game as a moment of pride, but they don’t have the baggage on their back that the rest of us do. They don’t lord it over their friends who haven’t done it. They just think that video games are fun, and they look like more fun when others play it than when we do.

After my son issued his character-defining challenge, I accepted it and attempted to erase my lifelong conditioning, and I did it. When we played the game together, and he fell behind, I patiently waited for him to catch up. When he killed us, I said, “Hey, it’s just a game.” He freaked out however. When I fell behind, or caused us to die, he was rude, insensitive, and ferociously competitive. “What happened?” I asked. “I thought we were supposed to be playing this game without criticizing each other or complaining?” He had no answer for that, which led me to believe that as hard as I focused on putting my conditioned responses in the off position for one game, he couldn’t do the same with the conditioned responses I taught him.