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 computer 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, by taking 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.

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.

When I played games as a kid, video and otherwise, I don’t ever remember 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 overly competitive people who think winning is the whole point of playing games, we have to consider how unhealthy this mindset can be, at times. 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, and 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 about winning 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 these 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.

We all love to read stories about how six-time NBA champion Michael Jordan needed to beat everyone on the team bus in checkers and cards. We love to hear about how 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 too. These three decorated and accomplished athletes have this ferocious, almost to the point of the unhealthy, appetite to win all the time. Some suggest their ferocious competitive nature is what separates them from those of equal ability, but is there a dark side to their stories?

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 also 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 become a quarterback in the NFL, a position many argue is the most difficult and most prestigious position in sports? How does one earn this 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 colleges in America, as Tom Brady was at Michigan, some might be satisfied to just 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 freaks out and upends 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. “You finished second, narrowly, and you want to completely overhaul your whole strategy? I could see a tweak here and there, but you’re talking about a complete overhaul?”   

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 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 it still involves chance. 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 the cardinal sin of pulling my money off the table in the middle of a hot streak. I knew it 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,” someone’s mom once said to 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 never managed losing well, as evidence by the fact that I don’t win often enough. “Did you have fun?” my mom asked to start the healing process after I finished second in a race of seven. “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.

Distant, Disengaged, and Detached Parents


Why does it sicken Adrienne so much when we attend to our child’s injuries after an accident? I don’t get it. Are we overreacting, as she says? I don’t know. She seems pretty convinced that we are, and when I disagree with her, in the most polite and respectful ways, she becomes visibly agitated. She takes it personal. You can see it in her face. I understand what she’s saying. I’ve seen parents overreact. I think we all have, and it makes us sick too when we seek a parent overreact to a kid who cries out for no reason. We know when they’re not truly hurt. We know when they’re crying out for attention, and some of the times, their parents give it to them. Some of the times, we give such unwarranted attention to our child. No harm, no foul right? Well, she acts as if this is a violation of nature. There are other accidents. We know those too. Those that call for a special kind of TLC that only a mother can provide. She berates me on those occasions too. “It’s just not good for the kid to do that,” she says, “and he’ll never learn if you don’t teach him how to deal with it himself. You know what the kid’s doing, and yet, you still go so far overboard. You’re coddling the boy.”  

We know that there are extremes in both situations. We know it’s vital for their growth that our child learns to be self-sufficient, and we employ tough love on a case-by-case basis, but how often are we supposed to reinforce these measures? We know we shouldn’t cater to his every need and whim and that it’s not good for the kid when we do, but it disgusts Adrienne so much when she witnesses us console him that she can’t hide it. Why does it sicken her so much, and why is it so important her that we do nothing when our child gets hurt?   

Most childhood accidents are relatively benign, but some of the times those harmless incidents shock and scare kids. Proponents of tough love, such as Adrienne, don’t see that in the moment. Perhaps, the kids fear that they’re hurt more than they really were. They’re kids. They don’t know any better. She doesn’t see that either. She just sees a kid blubbering and a parent smothering. She thinks that if we employ tough love often he will learn what he doesn’t know any better. She thinks we need to let him cry it out of his system, and she suggests that we “Rub some dirt on it. It will better for him in the long run.” There are arguments to on both sides, but if we’re to follow her advice how far do we take it?

“Our parents employed tough love whenever we were injured,” Adrienne says, “and look how we turned out. I just think most parents coddle kids too much in the modern era. No one sprinted to our rescue, when we were kids, and we turned out just fine, and so did our kids and their kids.”

Adrienne has far more experience in parenting than we do, so our natural inclination is to cede to her knowledge on this matter, but who is Adrienne. Who informed her ideas on parenting. She would be the first to admit that her parents didn’t know how to love. “They were dirt poor, and they probably had too many kids, but they loved us the best way they knew how,” she said. When she went out on her own, she made the mistake of marrying a man she now admits was a person who “didn’t know the first thing about love”. She was young, too young to know any better. She probably married a man who reminded her of a father “who didn’t know how to love”. We all make mistakes when we’re young and we could chalk her first marriage up as mistake of youth, but how did it affect the kids she had with the man? Her first daughter entered into a loveless marriage, but she was young and she made the same mistake Adrienne did. Why did she make that same mistake? Was it a cyclical mistake? Now that we’ve met most of Adrienne’s children and grandchildren, we know that they’re all good people. They appear, at first glance, to be the type of children and grandchildren we all want. Everyone from the matriarch of the family, Adrienne, to the youngest grandchild, appears to be nice and well mannered. It’s obvious that she taught her kids how to raise their kids to be pleasant and respectful people, but if we spend time getting to know them, we notice that they all have a certain detached quality about them. They’re all successful in their own right, and they know how to be on their own, which is a quality all parents should strive for in their children, but they’re not exactly warm, inviting people. They’re reserved, detached, and they don’t accept outsiders well.

Tough love is such a vague term. We can employ it on a case-by-case basis, but we can overdo it. We can use it so often that we accidentally slip into some realm of ambivalence to our kids’ injuries, and we can do it so often that we slip into some level of emotional detachment? Is it possible that such progressions could serve to harm the child’s adult relationships, later in life? If we fail to react to his small accidents and accidentally begin to ignore his larger accidents too, our children will be disappointed. They’ll adapt and all that, and they might develop tough skin, but they could also develop some problems with attachments and love as an adult? Our initial instinct is to laugh that off as a dramatic example, but the human being is so complex and varied that there is no one-size-fits-all guide to parenting. Could our child develop such a thick skin that he develops personality disorders that lead to unusual levels of selfishness? When a child doesn’t receive the kind of attention from their parents that they need, some adjust and adapt to it wonderfully, and they become more independent and everything the tough love proponents profess, but others seek refuge in the form of substance abuse to mask that pain. We can say that Adrienne’s generation was tougher that we are, but how many of them became alcoholics to swallow the pain they could never communicate properly?

“No matter what you do, you’re going to mess up as a parent, we all do, and the kid will have to deal with the ramifications of your mistakes, but they’ll probably be in the same exact place, at around age 35, whether you were the best parent who ever existed or the worst. The trick is to prepare them for the years between 18 and 35, and the best way to do that is with tough love.”    

Those of us who had parents who intended to employ touch love measures and probably took it too far now find it difficult to watch those movies, or TV shows, that depict parents who don’t care about their kids. With the full power of honest reflection, those of us with an adult, rational mind know that our parents cared about us, but something about the depiction of emotionally detached parents still affects us so much that we can’t watch. The art of comedy involves breaking taboos, and at this point, there aren’t many left to exploit, so the exaggerated jokes about parents not caring about their kids is one of the few left. This situational story line is not new though, as there were shows, movies, and various other productions in the 70’s that depicted narcissist parents who wouldn’t make time for their kids. The kids were the main characters of these productions, as the parents floated in and out of their lives, and the thrust of these pieces involved how children learn to adapt. The children in these pieces would say heartwarming things like, “Our mother was a wandering soul who couldn’t stay in one place for long. We knew her, and we knew she loved us in her own way, but we had to learn how to love her [on her terms].” These productions never portrayed such parents as selfish narcissists, and their perspective was invariably favorable to the mother. They painted her as a strong woman who considered the term mother stifling. We were too young at the time to ask the question, “Why did she have them then?” but that question wasn’t too far away. Most of these concepts were too complex for us, but the portrait they painted in these productions left us with a pit in our stomach, and we often just changed the channel. We didn’t know the details regarding why we considered this such a painfully flawed model, but our exaggerated reaction to it should’ve told us more than we wanted to know about our situation.

Our exaggerated reactions to our parents’ emotionally detached ideas on child rearing might also result in our exaggerated reactions to our child’s accidents. Those of us who cater to our children too much might be trying to rectify the problems of our past, and we might be trying to break the loveless cycle.

Kids learn the nature of their world at a very young age, and the imprint their parents provide often shapes their worldview in an almost irreversible manner. They have a wonderful ability to adapt to the changes that occur in the home, but that imprint often remains. They also gravitate to the notions people have regarding their characteristics. If they’re pretty when they’re young, for example, they gravitate to that notion. Similarly, if they’re funny, smart, strong, athletic, etc. they develop a passion for the pursuits that call for those attributes. In this sense, we could say that passion is almost exclusive to the young for they don’t know better than to invest emotions in something otherwise consider unattainable by more experienced adults. The pain involved in learning limitations is also the province of the young, for nothing hurts worse than discovering limitations for the first time. “You’re pretty,” the guardians at the gate say, “but you’re not that pretty.”

We all learn our limitations, at some point, and we adjust. We learn our limitations when that employer says we’re not smart enough, when our peers say we’re not as funny as we thought, or when a woman says we’re not so handsome that they will date us. We might adapt and adjust by choosing a different pursuit, or a different profession, but we never have the same amount of passion for our adjusted pursuit as we do the dream we pursued in youth when we fantasized about what we might become. On that note, we could say that when a child cries out for attention, as opposed to pain, they are passionately seeking the extent of their parents’ unconditional love, and if the parents fail to respond, the children will adapt, but they might never pursue love again with the same passion. That might prepare them for the ways of the world, but it will also leave an almost irreversible imprint.

In debates such as these, we often reach an impasse. One of the two parties might say, “Can we agree to disagree on this matter?” Proponents of tough love might even say yes, at first, and they might try to move on, but they can’t drop it. It sickens them too much to see parents climb all over themselves to react to a child’s obvious cries for attention to remain silent in the face of it. They cannot hide it, and they keep coming back to it.

Why does this make me so angry?” I asked myself while witnessing a parent fall all over herself to run to the aid of her child. I never considered that question before was the first thing I realized. I was so convinced that my dad, Adrienne, and all proponents of tough love were right that I never considered the ramifications of overdoing it before. I considered the ‘smothering’ reactions to benign accidents such a violation of everything I knew that I considered it a limited ‘I’m right, they’re wrong’ debate, and I still do to some degree, but I never explored why seeing egregious violations makes me so angry before. The answer to that question is that some of the times these impulsive reactions are so impossibly complex that we don’t even bother searching for them. Another answer that calls upon Occam’s razor, suggests that some of the times the answer is so simple that it gets lost in our search for complexities. The answer also has something to do with the idea that when we get so angry over something so trivial that we’re all but baring our teeth is that it might involve some deep-seeded begrudged feelings and psychological underpinnings. The simple answer might also have something to do with the idea that when we were involved in accidents no one ran to our aid. We remember how everyone probably employed tough love a little too often, and while we concede that we might’ve been drama queens, it hurt our feelings when they left us alone, in the middle of the park, crying. Some of the times, the answer is so simplistic that it can’t possibly be true, but when we think about how bent out of shape we, otherwise reasonable people get on this issue, we realize that we might just be jealous.   

Gorillas and Lions and Wolves, Oh My


Yesterday, I watched a gorilla at the zoo have what appeared to be a brain-tingling moment when he removed some dung from the anus of another gorilla. I might be assigning human emotions to the gorilla when I write this, but soon after eating the concoction, the gorilla closed his eyes. There is a variety of reasons why a gorilla might close his eyes, and most of them are most of the reasons we close our eyes, but I thought he was taking a moment out of his day to savor whatever that other gorilla ate and whatever flavor that other gorilla’s digestive system added to it. The elongated, almost spiritual closing of the eyes might have been a coincidence, but I thought the gorilla enjoyed the concoction so much that he wanted to savor it for a moment before going back to the dispenser. There was a full tray of food awaiting the gorilla, in the southeast corner of his enclosure, but he preferred going to the dispenser before him. Watching that gorilla go back for more, I realized that individual tastes are so relative to the flavors we create that it’s pointless to try to fashion our work in such a way that it pleases everyone. We can only create whatever our nervous system produces and we flavor it with the dispensaries we have at our disposal in the hope that someone somewhere might enjoy it for what it is.  

Yesterday, I realized the roles those two gorillas played in this display defined for me what proved to be one of the most unusual and successful pairings in music history: Ben Folds and William Shatner. I enjoy the music of Ben Folds, and I’ve been a fan for a long time, but there is something missing in his music. He has some fantastic singles, but I’ve never been so attracted to his oeuvre that I would list him as one of “my guys”. If I informed Folds how frustrated I am that he comes so close to reaching me, I’m sure he wouldn’t care. Not only would he not care, he shouldn’t care. If I met him and told him that most of his music misses the mark for me, he should say, “That’s on you. I can only do what I do. I can’t worry about pleasing you, offending you, or infinitely pleasing you. If it pleases enough people that I can make a living at this game, that’s great, but I’m not going to change what I do to please you or Betty Beatle from Idaho.”  

William Shatner is not one of “my guys” either, but he’s always around. He’s the green bean casserole of the entertainment world. I doubt anyone who has yet to try green bean casserole would look at it and think, “Yum!” but it’s at so many family get togethers and potluck dinners that we eventually “what the hell” it, until we discover it’s not so bad. As long as we don’t overdo it, repetition can even lead to a level of fondness for it, until we look forward to the next get together or potluck dinner that has a tray of it.

No one should confuse the term “my guys” with a description of talent. I’ll drop the typical line people drop to explain the discrepancy. “I respect the heck out of what Folds and Shatner do, but it just doesn’t reach me on a personal level.” I know people who love John Lennon so much that they suggest Paul McCartney was not talented. I understand that we all take sides in any rivalry, but to suggest that a talent on par with Paul McCartney has no talent is ludicrous. The Silly Love Songs vs. Important Songs debate rages on in some quarters, as Lennon fans suggest Lennon was not only more important he was more creative. These people relate more with Lennon, and because of that Lennon was “their guy”, but to prove that point, some try to so by belittling McCartney’s Silly Love Songs talent.

I missed Folds and Shatner’s collaboration for years, because they weren’t “my guys”. When I eventually heard the album Has Been, however, I was blown away. It reminded me of one of my favorite concoctions: cranberry granola and banana flavored yogurt. On its own, this yogurt flavor is too sweet for me, and while this flavor of granola is tasty, I probably wouldn’t eat it as a standalone. When I put the two together, however, I enjoy it so much that I’ve considered submitting it to the overlords as my reward for living a decent, moral life. When I pass on, I want to meet my long-deceased relatives of course, and I wouldn’t mind it if someone played me a Brahams Sonata on the harp, but if your’re wondering how best to reward me for a life well lived, might I suggest that the floors and walls of my reward taste like the banana-flavored yogurt and cranberry granola concoction I created.

When we eat concoctions like these, we spoon too much of one flavor most of the times. Some of the times, we spoon too much yogurt, and some of the times, we spoon too much granola, but there are occasions, at least once a container, when we hit a Goldilocks spoonful. The album Has Been is the Goldilocks concoction of talent for me, and when I listen to it, I close my eyes to savor the moment. I’ve listened to that album so often that I’ve tried listening to the other concoctions they’ve made together, but they rarely hit the mark in the same manner. On their own, Shatner and Folds create interesting, quality material that doesn’t quite hit that brilliant, Holy Crud! mark, but together they created what I consider their Goldilocks moment. I would think that such moments are so fleeting in any artist’s career that when they hit one, they would immediately run back into the studio to dispense another collaboration, but perhaps they don’t think they can create another Goldilocks moment. I know they did singles together before and after Has Been, but that album was so good that I would think it would drive them right back into the studio to do another collaboration. We know that Folds affinity for Shatner brought them together, but we don’t know why they don’t make another album together. They might also think that fate and whatnot permit but one Goldilocks moment a life.

Carnivores in Cartoons

Yesterday, I thought carnivores were the mean, bad guys of the wild. Today I realized that the cartoons we watched conditioned us to believe that when a lion, shark, alligator, or any animal at the top of the food chain eats one at the bottom, they do so with some evil intent. We can find a definition of this in Aesop’s fable in which a mouse removes a thorn from a lion’s paw. The lion, in turn, agrees not to eat the mouse. The mouse does something nice for the lion, and the lion, in turn, agrees to do something nice for the mouse. The inference is that if the lion betrays this agreement, and instinctually eats the mouse, that means the lion is mean.    

Think about all the cartoons we watched and books we read in our youth. They depicted carnivores with jagged teeth and menacing growls. As we often do, we confused being scary with being mean or bad. Today I learned that they’re not mean, or bad, they’re just hungry, and like all other animals, they eat when they’re hungry. Regardless what it does to their reputation as a beautiful animal, wolves enjoy eating fluffy bunny wabbits. They do awful things to bunnies if they’re able to catch them, but that does not mean they’re mean or evil in the manner we define such terms. By teaching young humans lessons, using animals as main characters, some of us anthropomorphize these characters to such a degree that we assign them human characteristics. Lions, tigers, and bears aren’t nice, they aren’t mean, and they don’t make decisions on what to eat based on how other animals interact with them.   

Yesterday I learned that even if the animals at the top of the food chain are not the meanies we thought they were when we were kids, we should still consider doing everything we can to avoid one in the wild. After watching videos that focus on animals biting humans, nature lovers qualify the instinctual actions of these wild animals by saying, “We are not on their diet.” The nature lovers then provide a number of theories regarding how these incidents often involve nothing more than a case of mistaken identity. These theories are true, of course, as most animals in the wild, and in the ocean, have never seen a human, and self-preservation is more important to animals than eating in most cases. Animals often take a pass on anything unfamiliar if they think they could get hurt in the process. Sometimes, however, they’re so hungry that they’re willing to eat anything that moves, especially if it moves slower than other prey.

Most animals don’t know what a human is, and that’s why they fear us, but we are also a point of curiosity for them. Thus, when they see us walking around in their domain, or floating on the surface, they’re curious, and that curiosity is almost exclusive to considering whether they should consider adding us to their diet. Yet, seeing, hearing, and smelling us might not be enough to satisfy their curiosity, and they obviously cannot communicate with us, so their last resort is to taste us to try to figure out what we are to determine if they might want to start adding us to their diet.

The nature lovers further their argument by opening up the belly of a bull shark. “When we open up the belly of a bull shark, we find everything from license plates to cans of paint to packs of cigarettes. The bull shark, unlike other sharks, is not very discerning. They’ll eat anything they see floating on the surface of the water, even if it happens to be a human on a surfboard.” Translation: They do not intend to devour us. They’re just curious. They just want to taste us to see what we are. I see the nature lovers working here. I know they’re trying to relieve our fears about sharks, and in turn preserve the shark population, and I know wild animals are not bad or mean in the context humans define the terms, but it does not comfort me to know that all they want to do is taste me. If I happen upon one of these carnivorous beasts, and it’s clear that all they want to do is taste me, I’m still going to do whatever I can to get away. If I fail to escape, I’m probably going to shoot it, because I have to imagine that even though they’re just tasting me, it’s still going to hurt like the dickens.

Sprinting and Age


Yesterday, I realized we’re all sprinting to old age. Today, I realized that those who are lucky enough to make it to old age should refrain from sprinting. The aging process is a relative state of mind, of course, as we’ve all witnessed young sixty-year-olds and old forty-year-olds, but no matter how old we are, we occasionally receive reminders that we’ve aged. The aging process rarely hits us in an “Oh, my God I’m (fill in the age here)!” one day in the mirror. Aging is more of a gradual process that hits us in tiny, little, and seemingly insignificant hits, every day. We fell on a Tuesday doing something we’ve done our whole lives. We tripped trying to skip a stair on a Wednesday, and we’ve skipped a stair since our legs grew long enough (Mental note, skipping stairs is no longer in our repertoire.) On Thursday, we caught ourselves making old man sounds when we sat, but we can’t even remember when we started doing that. We admired a beautiful person on Friday, and someone informed us that we’re probably too old to continue doing that. “It’s just odd,” they said, “considering the age gap.” It’s considered inappropriate years later, and then it morphs into “Absolutely disgusting” that we should admire the beauty of a 20-year-old, “because you’re old enough to be her grandpa!” We all know we’re aging on a physical, superficial level, but mentally we’re not so far removed from that energetic, wildly enthusiastic 20-year-old who was afraid to talk to girls, until someone informs us that we should know better. We do know better on one level, but their scorn is a painful reminder of how much we’ve aged. We do the calculations in our head, and we realize they’re right, we are, in fact, that old now. The realizations that we’re that old now are not about any of one of those little things. It’s about all of them. It’s about that big old snowball that’s been accumulating over the years without notice.

“You know you’re old when you fall and no one laughs,” a comedian once said. You know you’re old when they’re surrounding you after a fall, and they’re not there to point and laugh. They’re there, because they’re concerned. You know you’re old when you feel them ask you to refrain from such activities in the future. You know you’re old when no one laughs about it later, even behind your back. People didn’t laugh when we fell when we were very young, and it’s now come full circle back on us. People aren’t laughing. They’re concerned. It’s humiliating. The science of their silence involves a calculation of our age and the impact of your fall. It’s no longer funny. It’s so disturbing that some consider it alarming. What happened? He was sprinting. “Ok, well, he probably shouldn’t be sprinting at his age,” they instructed one another.

You know you’re old when you’ve become the subject of group concern, and the group addresses the subject of their concern in the third person, as if to suggest that they’ll take care of this going forward, because it’s obvious that we can’t anymore. They addressed us in the third person when we were young, implying that some authority figure in our life should’ve seen to it that that didn’t happen. Everything in between involved laughter, directed at us in the first person, because they knew we were old enough to know better but young enough to sustain the damage of our stupidity. We might feel some warmth when we realize how much these people care about us, but that fades when we realize their resolutions mirror those family members make when our loved ones reached a point when they were no longer capable of caring for themselves. They have no problem telling us when we’re too old to oggle, but no one tells us when we’ve reach a point where it’s considered ill advised to sprint.

This game of ‘keep away’ developed organically. My nephew was in the middle, laughing as hard as the two adults were on the sides. Another kid ran into help him, then three, then four, then so much more. It wasn’t young versus old, but it evolved into it. It started out friendly, but it evolved into a competitive definition of whatever remained of our athletic ability.

I started out tossing the ball from a stationary position. I was laughing and failing on purpose, giving the kids a chance, until one of them said something that I considered a provocative definition of my athletic ability. When it came time to catch the ball, I followed the same pattern. I went from light-hearted attempts to get open to employing quick, ankle spraining jukes. When I realized I couldn’t shake my nephew, those quick movements evolved into some running. I ran every single day at one point in my life, so it was not a concern to me. I don’t know if I started losing, or if I sensed that the others were further questioning my ability, but I began sprinting to open spots to capitalize on the holes in their coverage. It dawned on me, while doing it that I haven’t done this in years. No one gave this a second thought for most of my life. Some people run, some people sprint. I didn’t see the spectators watching, but I could feel it. I even saw a couple stand with some concern. Did they see the game for what it was, or were they wondering if they should begin sprinting too? Did they stand to source the emergency that sparked my progression? I looked over to verify that they were watching me, but in that casual glance, I almost tumbled. I couldn’t look back at them. I had to be mindful of my feet. (Mental Note II, running now requires more focus.) Running was not my greatest concern. Stopping was. I had a myriad of little feet under mine, and I had to focus to avoid them.

I know I’m not as athletically inclined as I once was, but who is? I am smarter now. I know how to use my faculties much better than I did when I was younger. In the midst of these throws, my competitive juices got the best of me. I overdid it. I knew my best presentation could be had sitting on the lawn furniture with the other old people, talking about what old people talk about with lemonade in hand on a sunny day, but I didn’t decide to play this game. An impromptu game broke out and evolved into a character-defining match of my ability against theirs. I could not just quit. “Why did you quit?” I imagined one of them asking me. “Because I’m old and I can’t handle the physical requirements of such a game anymore.” Yeah, that’s not in my nature.

The nephew I once held as an infant was shutting me down in coverage at one point. I encouraged it verbally, but I also wanted to discourage it physically. I wanted to prove to be so dominant that he left our little game demoralized. To do so, I employed some of the know how I picked up along the way, using the bag of tricks I developed in the years I spent playing intramural football. Michael Jordan developed a fade away when his skills started to decline. I developed a few moves of my own over the years. “Youth is wasted on the young,” Winston Churchill said. What if I had this wide array of jukes when I was younger, I asked myself, would I have been better? I sprinted to the right, juked, and went further right. In doing so, my fellow old man led me well with a pass. My ability to stop on a dime and juke surprised my nephew. He went left to cover the traditional juke, and he did so right under me. To avoid taking him out, I had to adjust. (Mental note III, my ability to adjust on the fly has receded.) I tripped over his feet. (Mental Note IV: Studies show that the chances of tripping increase exponentially when we sprint.) Been there, done that. (Mental note V, watch out for the ground, it hurts. Parked cars can hurt too when approached at top speed. Try to avoid them as much as possible, because they can be unforgiving.) Hitting the ground was humiliating, and I thought the people surrounding me with looks of concern was the peak of my humiliation, until my nephew called me to apologize for getting me so worked that I almost ended up impaled on a car.

When Fish Look Back


We don’t know why we enjoy looking at fish in a fish tank, but we enjoy seeing them in friend’s homes, at pet stores, and zoos. Some of us enjoy looking at fish so much that we decide to purchase some of our own, so we can look at them every day in the comfy confines of our own home. Some of us enjoy looking at fish, because it gives us a sense of superiority that can be difficult to explain. We might enjoy seeing another being trapped by glass, because it makes us feel freer by comparison. Both parties know we are the superior being, but some fish look back, and some of those looks evolve into stares, challenging stares.

We don’t expect fish to look back, but some of the times they do, and some of the times it’s cute. Sometimes, we tap on the glass to try to get one fish to give us one quick look to acknowledge us in some quick, meaningless way. They usually swim away in quick, jetting motions, but some of the times they look back. “Look at this, Myrtle, he’s looking back at me!” we say to their casual, happenstance glance they offer us. When that casual glance holds, and that cute, little look back becomes a stare, it can feel unnatural. Even though it feels a little odd at the outset, we stare back. We don’t have any reason for continuing to stare back, but we do, until we achieve some inexplicable and unnerving connection. If this odd connection continues, we think that they’re testing the boundaries and borders nature inflicted upon them, regarding our respective roles in the food chain. We know it’s foolish to assign human characteristics to such a brainless creature, but the otherwise enjoyable stare leads us to question that which we’ve never considered before.

Our first instinct is to believe the fish just happens to be looking in the general direction we’re standing in, and that it’s nothing more than a happenstance glance. Something about this particular stare unnerves us though. We remind ourselves that they have no eyelids. They might have a membrane to protect their eyes from water, but they have no eyelids, so they cannot blink. They have pupil, and they can move their eyes, but this particular fish doesn’t even move his pupil. It’s staring right at us and through us. What does it think it’s seeing? Is it really looking at us, or toward us? We make a jutting motion toward the fish to establish the fact, in our minds, that it is indeed staring at us. Another, relatively embarrassing component of that motion involves our need to establish dominance, so the fish doesn’t forget what we can do to them if driven to act. The fish will react to our jutting motion, but what happens in our interiority if after the fish flinches, it resumes staring? Do we complain to the management of the pet store? What if the fish stopped staring the moment we brought the manager over to the tank and it resumed staring after the manager left? It looks at us, as if it thinks it knows us, and it’s unafraid. There are times when it’s okay to remind other creatures that we’re their superiors, and there are times when we consider this necessary. What if we reached into their tank, grabbed it, and did awful things to it, we think its way. It’s unmoved by that threat. We know we can’t do either of those things, no matter how long this thing looks at us. We know those looks other patrons of the pet store might give us. We also know what we would go through at home, in bed, staring up at the ceiling, remembering what a fish drove us to do.

People wouldn’t understand, and something about that fish’s stare suggests that it knows that. At some point in this staring contest, it strikes us that the hundreds of thousands of years of our respective conditioning that have informed both parties who is superior mean nothing to this fish. Its stare suggests that it is challenging that conditioning, because it knows there’s nothing we can do about it.   

We’re accustomed to animals we encounter knowing these principles and acquiescing to our superiority on most matters, and most of them don’t even bother challenging us. Pet psychologists tell us that if we own a dog who is particularly disorderly and disobedient that one of the ways to reestablish dominance is to engage it in a staring contest. If confronted by a wild animal, they tell us, the worst thing we can do is look that animal in the eye, because both parties know, on some primal level, that we’re challenging their nature, and any hint of this challenge enrages such beasts.

If we try to engage in a staring contest with a lion, in the lion’s den at the zoo, most lions won’t even bother looking back at us. They have hundreds of people confidently challenging them in this way every day. What happens when they look back? What happens to us when we look at a fish, and it looks back? What happens when that fish stares at us? Is it happenstance, or is the fish challenging our nature? Are we so confident in our stature that we stare back? How long do we participate in this staring contest, to establish our superiority, and what happens if we lose?

What happens the next time we near a fish tank after such a devastating loss? More often than not, we don’t invest ourselves into moments like these, but there are days when we’re feeling particularly vulnerable. There are days that affect us so much that the next time a friend invites us to look at their fish in the fish tank they have in their home, we hesitate. We know that if we begin shrieking, the fish wins. Our reputation would not only suffer at the hands of our host, but the ten people interested in her retelling of the story. Offering our host, a simple, “No thank you,” might open a big bag of questions that we don’t want to answer. Yet, acquiescing to their request might bring us right back to that day at the pet store when a fish’s stare served to undermine our confidence. When we glance over at our friend’s tank, considering her proposal, we see those probing eyes, and we remember the day when we thought we knew our place in the animal kingdom. We remember how confident we were in our respective roles in the animal kingdom before that staring contest, and though we know we can’t put all the blame for our insecurities at the fins of that fish in the pet store, its rebellious stare unearthed something in us that we never confronted before. We know how revealing it is to have a staring fish lead us to such existential questions, but it shook our confidence down to its foundation, and we politely refused our host’s request, fearing what another loss might do to our confidence.