At the Check Out with Child

“Oh shoot!” I said in a checkout aisle at a store. 

“What’s the matter?” my son asked.

“I just realized, I don’t have enough money to pay for these items,” I lied. I double-check my wallet, and I added a theatrical check of my pockets. Three customers stood between the Promised Land and us. I write Promised Land to characterize how much my son hates going to stores of any kind. Most people accept the fact of life that when we need goods, we need to enter a store. My son is not there yet. Entering stores is the great inconvenience of his life. When we mention that we must go to the store, he throws a fit that lasts until we enter the store. He indulges us, while in the store by behaving, but throughout our brief stay, he is looking for anything and everything that might cut short our stay and take him to his personal vision of the Promised Land, the store’s exit.

Back before debit cards, and back before we went and got all growed up, we had incidents like this,“You still need twenty-seven cents,” a checker told me in the most dismissive manner imaginable. I remember this transaction every time I pass this convenience store. I remember standing there with insufficient funds thinking that I wasn’t ready for the rigors involved in completing such an adult transaction. I was in no position to question this sentry at the gate of maturity, but this transaction occurred before we all went digital. We could question analog, or manual, cash registers back then, because they required manual entries that could fall prey to human error. I told the cashier that I carefully added the total, and that I couldn’t see how I could be wrong. I showed the cashier my addition. “You forgot the sales tax kid,” the guy said. He was right. I heard about sales tax, but I didn’t know how to add it to a total yet. I was so humiliated and embarrassed that I walked away with my tail between my legs, vowing that this would never happen to me again. Remnants of that anxiety remain with me to this day. I over prepare in the aisles of the store. I check and double-check the price of my items, I project a total, and I allow abundant room for any errors in my calculations. Some of the times, I put much-wanted items back just in case I added the percentage of sales tax incorrectly. It’s still such a deep seeded anxiety that I would rather not have some items than risk the prospect of that embarrassment and humiliation I experienced as a young kid.

When an incident such as that leads to such hypervigilance throughout our lives, we make the mistake of believing that everyone knows about it on some level.  

I turned to my seven-year-old son at the checkout stand, “Do you have any money?” He had money in his pockets one time at a store, when we took him there to spend his birthday money. So, I thought this was such a ludicrous question that we might share a laugh. What I didn’t realize was that by insinuating that it was ludicrous that he should have any money, I was calling him ludicrous to his mind. He didn’t think it was ludicrous that he should have money. He had money, in fact, and he told me so.

“Yes,” he said. “I do have money.” Through some back and forth, we realized that he meant he had money in his piggy bank in his bedroom.

“No, I’m asking you if have any money on you right now,” I said, “I need you to help me pay for all this?”

“I don’t have any,”my son said. He was a little disappointed, but it dawned on me that he wasn’t disappointed in himself, or his role in this, because why should he be? Plus, he was rarely disappointed in himself, as he rarely cared about such situations. Thus, whenever he exhibits any disappointment in himself, it’s based on the idea that I might be disappointed in him.

If I ask him, “Did you score any goals in your last soccer match?” and he has to say no, he does so in a way that suggests to me that he never thought about it, until I asked. “Did you get 100% on your last spelling test?” He knows when he didn’t, of course, but he forgot about it soon after he received his test back. He doesn’t care about any of these things in the fundamental manner I do, just like he didn’t care that we didn’t have enough money to help pay for all the items we have in our shopping cart, but he doesn’t want to disappoint me by saying so. He’s no more ambivalent to such matters than any other normal seven-year-old boy, and just like every other normal boy his age, he knows that his happiness is based on the parameters that his authority figures set for him. He cares what I care about, in other words, and he knows that I’m trying to teach him to care. He also doesn’t want to disappoint me by revealing the truth of the matter that both of us know.

Do our kids worry about scoring goals in soccer matches? Do they even think about it? Do they care about winning? Parents on the sideline do, and we show it by building ourselves into a lather as the game progresses. We hoot, holler, and scream anytime they make a halfway decent move on their field. Kids enjoy hearing that, and they want more of it. Yet, nine times out of ten when an opposing player has the ball, our kids watch them dribble the ball along with the rest of us, until a parent or coach yells their name out, “There you go Freidrich. That’s yours.” We parents now say such things, because we’ve learned from our parents. We remember the pain and humiliation our parents induced when they screamed, “Wake the hell up and go get the ball!” in front of everyone. We use better, less inoffensive ways to encourage our children to wake the hell up now. When we now yell these inoffensive things, we awake them out of whatever momentary stupor they’re in, and they try to take the ball away from the other kid.

“Why didn’t you take the ball away from the kid before I said something?” we want to ask them.

“I don’t know,” they say. If they were more reflective and analytical, they might say, “The thought didn’t even cross my mind. I thought it was that feller’s ball at the time, and I thought he was doing just fine with it.” They might not be able to express themselves at the time, but we can see it on their face, as they watch the other kid dribbling. When they watch the opponent, along with the rest of the spectators, some of them even smile. We don’t know if they’re daydreaming in the moment, or if they’re appreciating the other kid’s ability, imagining what their parents might think of them if they were that skilled. When we instruct them to take the ball away, their expression flips, as if by a switch, from the daydreaming smile to one of determination, as they attempt to take the ball away from the opponent.

“You don’t just let the opponent dribble the ball in front of you,” we say with some exasperation after the game is over. We think they should understand that fundamental element of sports by now. “When the opponent has the ball, you need to steal it from him. That’s the key to most sports.”

If he was able to articulate the complex inconsistencies in the worldview I try to pass to him, he might say, “Well, doesn’t that fly in the face of everything you, and all my teachers, have taught me about sharing?”    

Other than “I don’t know” my son didn’t say any of these things, because he knows it would disappoint me that he hasn’t learned all of these complex concepts at age seven. He also isn’t able to articulate my inconsistencies on matters of large and small. Even though we enter our children into various sports, they’re brains are still so young that it’s tough for them to make quick connections. Even though we’ve logged hundreds of hours playing sports with them in the backyard, coaching them up with our philosophy on sports, they’re still so young that they have a tough time grasping difficult concepts. Their whole world is about having fun, laughing, and not caring about things. How many of us wish we spent our early, elementary years being more serious? They focus their mind on the simple, enjoyable aspects of life, and they know that the key to living that good life is to do everything they can to avoid disappointing the authority figures in their life.

After spending some time in theatrical deliberation, in the checkout line at the store, I looked at my son, “I think we might have to put some of these items back.” I affected this with grave disappointment that I hoped might transfer to him. He didn’t appear to be the least bit moved by it. He looked at the items, and he looked back at me.

“Well what are we doing standing around here then?” he said. “Let’s put these things back and get the heck out of here.”

His response suggested a certain level of ambivalence that threw me a little, but the full scope of his ambivalence didn’t dawn on me, until I said, “I’m just kidding. I have the money.” I don’t know how I expected him to respond, but I thought it might come somewhere close to relief. What I received instead was:

“Well what are we doing standing around here then? Let’s pay for these things and get the heck out of here.”

The prospect of the embarrassment and humiliation involved in putting things back obviously didn’t hit him yet. The embarrassment derives from not having enough money, not being able to add correctly, and being called out in front of a group of people. He hasn’t yet grasped the concept of money, and how others could view one with insufficient funds as not earning enough to buy something at a convenience store. He thinks we just go to the ATM to get the money necessary the complete a transaction. He doesn’t understand that we put money in there for later withdrawal. He’s seven years old, he doesn’t understand the complex emotions of embarrassment, shame, and humiliation on the level we do. 

If we spend enough time with our child, we will overestimate them as often as we underestimate them. We will also assign our complex emotions and values to them, and even though we teach them they’re young, unformed brains cannot grasp them yet. 

Even though I knew that my son had no experience with such situations, I incorrectly assumed that most people came equipped with that inherent sense of doing everything they could to avoid them. He, of course, didn’t know enough to know he should be embarrassed. We think we know them, but more often than not our experiences in life are not theirs, and they don’t understand how experiences, good and bad, shape the life we lead in various instances. If we spend enough time with them, however, we think they should naturally do what we want them to do, even without us telling them one way or another.

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.

Unrealized Gains in the Music of the 90’s

Whenever an artist dies, there’s always a sense that they’re irreplaceable, but there’s something different about music. There’s something special cathartic and spiritual about the music that uniquely gifted creative artists offer that binds us all. We can’t explain our connection to these artists, but we enjoy the beauty and craftsmanship of their art so much that when they die, we feel a sense of loss that we find personally painful. Most of us never met the artist, yet in a strange, inexplicable way, we feel we know them. Losing an ingenious comedian might be the only comparable loss, as they offer us the precious commodity of laughter. An ingenious musician might offer everything but laughter, but when they die, some unusual, inexplicable part of us dies with them. The connection is so strong and heartfelt that, in some cases, their death almost feels like the death of a family member.

Who’s your favorite musician? Are all of your favorite musicians from a certain era? Some of us go retro, some of us try to stay hip to music’s latest styles and trends, but most of us remain true to the era of music we listened to in our formative years, usually between the late high school years and college years. My friends and I love music from every era, but our sweet spot occurred somewhere between ’86 and ‘99.

We all know the artists from the 60’s inspired the artists of the 70’s to try to do something somewhat similar but different and better, and the 70’s artists inspired the 80’s, and so on. Did the 70’s stable of hard rock artists do it better than the 80’s or the 90’s? It depends on whom you ask. Yet, if we were to hand out grades for the various eras hard rock, we might have to give the 60’s a (‘C’) based on the idea that most of the artists of the era focused on pop rock, we might give the 70’s an (‘A’) and the 80’s a (‘B’). Due to the unrealized gains in the 90’s, however, we would have to give that decade an (‘I’) grade, as in incomplete.

Most general debates about the greatest music in rock n’ roll focus on the 60’s and the 70’s. Yet, even with the sense that the 90’s were incomplete, it was such an insanely creative period for underground and established artists that some of us consider it the most underrated era in music. We could provide a list of the incredibly diverse and creative albums produced in this era, but few would argue that it was one of the most free, most wide-ranging eras in music history. When we dig beneath the surface, and we account for the unrealized gains from this period, in a hypothetical contest with other eras, the idea that 90’s was the greatest era in rock could’ve been a fact as opposed to one man’s opinion.

Unrealized gains is a tool corporate accountants use to determine a company’s profit margin. I realize I am taking some literary license when I use this term to define how much greater the 90’s could’ve been, but if we are going to compare these eras, in an artistic sense, a tweaked definition of this term unrealized gains illustrates this thesis that the era could’ve been so much greater if so many of its young, talented artists didn’t die from drug overdoses, accidents, and suicides.

There are a number of artists we could list in this space whose lives were cut short in the 90’s, but there are three in particular who some believe could’ve changed the landscape of music had they survived. Andrew Wood, Kurt Cobain, and Jeff Buckley were three very different artists, but when we take the creative output they achieved, and we speculate about the potential they had to create more diverse and creative songs, we arrive at substantial unrealized gains for music and the culture. Based upon the frequency with which these artists completed production on their albums, I figure that the three of them, combined, could’ve probably released ten more albums before the close of the 90’s, and this does not account for any side projects, or solo projects, they might have pursued. How many of those ten albums would’ve been classics, and how many of them would’ve redefined the era? We can only imagine, unfortunately, that these artists would’ve grown bored in their genre, and they would’ve explored other genres and enriched us all with their creativity in so many fields of music. We can also speculate that those ten albums would’ve spawned a greater algorithm of other artists taking their influence and trying to do something different and better with it before the end of the 90’s.  

The one asterisk we must account for in this equation is that it’s possible that these three artists would’ve never made another decent album again. They may have gone solo, as all but Buckley were members of groups at the time of their demise, and they might have quit the music industry altogether, but that proposition seems improbable. They might have been nothing more than products of a system that helped them create, finesse, and complete these albums. They might not have been as creative and ingenious as we assume. They might have owed more to other people than we’ll ever know. They might have had a uniquely gifted producer, a quality mixer, or a specific band member who propelled their creative output. Losing those people could’ve exposed these artists as nothing more team players, as opposed to uniquely gifted creative artists in their own right. Whatever the case is, they might not have been as talented as we assume. We can only comment on what we know, and we don’t think anyone can listen to a collection of the best material from these three artists without thinking about how much more they had to offer. All three of them were in their 20’s when they made some of their best earth-shattering songs, and they all had, at the very least, ten more years of quality songwriting ahead of them.

Andrew Wood might be the most tragic, as he died of a drug overdose in 1990, at age 24, shortly before his band Mother Love Bone would release their first album Apple. Kurt Cobain died at 27 years of age, in 1994, and Buckley did in 1997 at age 30, but I don’t think anyone would argue that Cobain and Buckley achieved a greater narrative arc than Andrew Wood did.

Some suggest that Cobain’s group Nirvana was so groundbreaking that it killed the brand of arena rock called heavy metal, but others would argue that the death of the charismatic and creative Andrew Wood was another contributing factor to its demise. If he survived his overdose and decided to go clean, Wood might’ve kept heavy metal on life support with his creative and inventive flourishes.

The 90’s also involved the death of Shannon Hood, lead singer of Blind Melon in ’95 at 28 years-old, and the death of Sublime’s lead singer Bradley Nowell, in 1996 death at 28 years-old. We could also include Layne Staley on this list, but he died of an overdose in ’02, at 34 years-old, and the 90’s saw his creative output fully realized. When comparing the various eras, however, the idea that the 90’s could’ve been so much richer with the potential creative output these incredibly artistic artists could’ve and should’ve produced is an almost painful thought.

We have a love/hate relationship with the idea of comparisons. Most people would caution us against comparing any artists, particularly when those comparisons involve icons. “Comparisons often have no basis, and they usually anger more than they intrigue,” some say. “My advice is to avoid doing them.” In the spirit of throwing caution to the wind, let’s get nuts. Andrew Wood wrote silly love songs, as Paul McCartney did. Kurt Cobain wrote social songs that appealed to young people on such a profound level that some would call him a voice of his generation, as they did with John Lennon and Bob Dylan in the 60’s. Jeff Buckley wrote beautiful, soulful melodies that appealed to our spiritual side in the manner George Harrison did. The point in bringing these comparisons up is not to suggest that these artists could’ve been as talented as the icons mentioned here, but to suggest that we cannot talk about the 60’s without mentioning Harrison, McCartney, Lennon, and Dylan. Leaving them out would not only be foolish, it would feel incomplete. Those of us who love the 90’s feel it’s almost as unfair to compare the 90’s without considering the prospect of its unrealized gains in the vein of those artists who died during the era, with special consideration devoted to the prospect of what Wood, Cobain and Buckley could’ve produced.  


The documentary, Brainiac: Transmissions After Zero, introduces us to another name that could be included on that list, Tim Taylor. The documentary also introduced us to Taylor’s band Brainiac (often stylized as 3RA1N1AC). The music of Brainiac is not the type of music I typically enjoy, but as with the other artists on this list, there was undoubtedly something there for anyone who loves music.  

For those who watch such documentaries, this one follows the typical narrative. There’s an underground band on the rise, some big labels start to sniff around, and soon there’s substantial talk of a deal on the horizon. The lead singer, and primary writer of the band’s songs, in this case Taylor, then dies on the doorstop of fame.

Brainiac: Transmissions After Zero does offer a slight twist on the narrative, however, when its documentarians place some focus on the surviving members of Brainiac. The other members of the band wrote some of the songs, they supplied some of the music involved, and they brainstormed with Taylor on the style and direction of the band, but in many ways, the other members of the band were riding on the coattails of their uniquely talented primary writer and lead singer. Thus, when Taylor died of an unusual, one-person car crash, the remaining members of Brainiac, like the members of the other bands listed here, not only lost their best friend and someone they deeply cared about, they also lost daily routine and their purpose in life.

It’s difficult for most of us to imagine being on the cusp of superstardom, and as such it’s probably difficult for us to empathize with how difficult it must’ve been for the remaining members of these bands to come to grips with the fact that it was all over for them. The loss of their friend was paramount of course, but most of us fail to consider what the loss of potential fame and glory must’ve done to them. In the stories of these bands, we learn that some of them regrouped. Some of the remaining members of Mother Love Bone formed Pearl Jam after Andrew Wood’s death for example. Alice in Chains eventually reformed around a new lead singer, and the remaining members of Sublime found a way to make money off the band’s unreleased material. The remaining members of Brainiac (save for the guitarist who formed his own obscure band) had to return to the normal world after Taylor’s sudden death. It’s possible that if they were an L.A. band, or a Seattle band, they probably could’ve landed a gig elsewhere, but Brainiac was a Dayton, Ohio band. The band members probably weren’t able to make enough quality connections to continue in the industry.

“Holy crud,” bassist and one of Brainiac’s founding members, Juan Monasterio said, recalling this realization, “now I have to get a job.” They were probably so excited to get this next phase of their career started that they couldn’t sleep at night. They had a taste of it, touring with Beck, but the next phase seemed so much more promising and exciting. Prior to receiving the horrible phone call that informed them what happened to Taylor, the remaining members of Brainiac spent so much time in garages and lofts practicing their craft that soon after receiving that horrible call they realized that they had no marketable skills. All the work they put in, the dreams they shared, and the plans they had for the future ended after receiving one, horrible phone call. They thought they were realizing the dream on a Monday, and on Tuesday they had to begin sorting through classified ads with no marketable skills.

Tim Taylor is now but another name to add to this unfortunate list, and I wouldn’t put him high on the list of talented should’ve been, could’ve beens, but as with the rest of these names, we only have to listen to one of his songs to realize how much untapped, unrealized talent there was. Watching Brainiac: Transmissions After Zero is almost painful at times, because it reminds us of the talent lost during this era, the talent never realized, and ultimately all of the art and beauty lost as a result of self-indulgence, senseless accidents, and a suicide.

Looking for Emotions in All the Wrong Places

“Looking for love in all the wrong places can be dramatic, exciting, and fun,” nobody said. Nobody says this, but a number of us have a number of ten minutes to midnight relationships, and while some consider come of them exciting and fun, they know they aren’t built to last. The music stops at midnight, as we all know, and the curtain closes on our carefully crafted production. We take our costumes and makeup off and prepare them for the big reveal. 

The fairy tale romance is out there, and we know it. We’ve read about it, we’ve seen it in the movies, on TV, and we’ve heard about in rock and roll songs. We’ve heard about the turmoil and tumult that occurs in some relationships … in country music songs, but who wants to live like that? We shouldn’t have to settle. We might be embarrassed to admit that lust just doesn’t do it for us anymore, and we’re done trying to play a role in Gone with the Wind. We lick our wounds, we help them lick theirs, and we set about building our Frankenstein’s monster. We want someone funny, but not mean; somewhat skinny but not lean; dramatic but not traumatic; and nice but not sappy. We search far and wide, until we find that person who wants to get to know us while quietly watching reruns of the Andy Griffith Show and Three’s Company with us, eating a turkey sandwich and a bag of Lay’s original brand of potato chips.

When those after-the-show conversations casually morph into mundane conversation, we realize that some date-worthy people are normal, and they don’t mind listening to what we have to say. They also appear to be doing so with genuine interest. Our friends might not want to hear about the nights we spend with them, discussing the unheralded comedic genius Don Knotts, and they might even remind us how exciting and sexy our exes were.

We enjoyed those relationships for what they were, but they always find a way to transfer their toxic, emotional baggage to us. They affect and infect everyone in their wake, until the dating pool becomes an emotional, as opposed to physical, manifestation of the Cantina Bar scene in Star Wars. In our search for the perfect mate, we uncovered a precious commodity we never considered before normalcy. We never put the normal bullet point in our search engine, because we spent so much time condemning the normal. “Who wants to be normal? Normal is boring, and my parents were normal, and I’m anything and everything but,” we said various strains of this joke so often that we began to believe it. After all of the whirlwind romances leave us in an undefined state, somewhere near unstable, we begin to prize normal people. We seek someone who can yin our yang that might lead to a stable foundation that we can use to build something year by year, day by day, and hour to hour. We realize that the best romance is a “Little bit country and a little bit rock and roll.”


Elijah Wood and Tobie McGuire are two different people. I knew this on some level, but when I searched for a movie I just finished, to recommend it to a friend, I searched for Tobie McGuire. It turned out Elijah Wood read the screenwriter’s lines for the character of that movie. I used to know my cultural touchstones so well. Am I slipping? Who cares? We do. Knowing cultural references is important to us, and in many ways we think it defines our intelligence. As I’ve written elsewhere, in Abraham Lincoln’s day, it was vital to a person’s existence that they know The Bible and Shakespeare so well that you could drop and spot all references; in the 1990’s, it was The Simpsons and Seinfeld; and now with devices and streaming, the cultural touchstones are all over the map. There are still some cultural references everyone must know, however, and if a foreigner wants to assimilate into the American culture, they would do well to learn some of our cultural references. I slipped in one of mine, and I told a friend about this. She said, “That’s great, but I don’t know who either of those people are.” As someone who knows cultural references but doesn’t care too much about them, this placed me at a fork in the road. I used to care a great deal, and I once met a person who was as knowledgeable as I was in cultural references. She even topped me in several areas, a novelty I enjoyed. I had a crush on her, based almost solely on this area of her expertise. Our relationship didn’t last long however as she personified, for me, the idea that when selecting a mate in life, cultural knowledge might be on the tail end of the top 100 most important pieces of the pie in my decision making process.


“I’M MAD!” I yelled.

“No one cares!” my dad yelled back. Among the many things my dad taught me, one of the primary ones that stuck is no one cares when we’re mad. No one cares when we’re happy, no one cares when we’re sad, and no one cares when we’re mad. “If you choose to sit in the corner with a mad face on, that’s fine, but remember that’s your choice,” he said.

It was all quite frustrating at the time, but I now think my dad was probably, accidentally or incidentally, onto something. I now add to my dad’s emotionally callous response, “While you’re over there, in the corner, remember that it’s up to you to teach the world how they can help you avoid such messy displays of emotion. If you’re so mad that you’re now ready to tip the apple cart, ask yourself why you didn’t do, or say, something sooner. If you’re raging mad now, chances are you’re probably mad at yourself for your inability to do, or say, something sooner, when this was nothing more than a simple disagreement. We were all rational back then, and we probably would’ve listened to your solutions. Shoot that stuff at the source, and you might not ever have to be so mad again. If you’re mad at something someone said, or did, it’s your job to tell them about it.”

“But, they won’t listen to me,” the collective ‘we’ respond.

“Yeah, you’re probably going to have to do it a lot, and you might have to do it so often that it could lead to some form of confrontation or some sort of altercation, but if you don’t, you’re going to end up like Michael.”

Some twenty years prior to the day I met Michael, bullies were laying into him. The bullies were so relentless that whatever they did to Michael affected him twenty years later, when he told his story to a group of people who never met him before. These bullies picked on Michael so often, in his high school years, that he sought the assistance from an authority figure. That authority figure offered some advice that few authority figures would today. “Pick out the toughest one of the bunch and punch him in the mouth as hard as you can,” the priest, in charge of discipline at the high school we went to in different years, said. “He’s going to punch you back, and you’ll probably get beat up, but they will all leave you alone from that point on.”

“What did you do?” I asked after a pregnant pause.

“I didn’t do anything,” Michael said. “I couldn’t believe that a priest was telling me to punch someone.”

That was the end of Michael’s story as far as Michael was concerned. For those of us who never met Michael before, it was only the beginning of our understanding of him. If Michael found a forceful way to rebuke those bullies, his life from that day forward might be different. If Michael reached a point of desperation that required him to punch the biggest bully of the bunch, and he did it, he was probably a different man from the one we met that day. As the priest said, the big bully would’ve punched him back, and it would’ve hurt. Worst-case scenario, Michael ends up in a hospital, but most bullies simply punch back one time and leave their victim on the floor. Worst-case scenario, Michael ends up in the hospital, and he has to get his jaw wired shut, but Michael walks out of that emergency room a man who believes he knows how to handle his own situations. He doesn’t have to rely on the relative ineptitude of authority figures. He can handle himself, and he’s his own man, as opposed to the man we knew some twenty years who stepped away from his fork in the road.

As the years rolled along, in our working relationship, we learned that Michael was a seething ball of hatred. He hated certain people, until they came around. He said the meanest, most awful things about them, but when they stepped near him, he didn’t know how to express himself. Most of us have issues with confrontation, but most of us find a healthy, non-confrontational way of voicing our concerns. Michael didn’t even have that, and when I witnessed it firsthand, I wondered how different he might be if he followed that priest’s advice. It’s possible that Michael’s meek nature was a result of so many instances that one such instance wouldn’t make a dent in his approach, but it might have started the ball rolling.

It’s our job in life to teach others how to treat us. We might have to do it so often that they mock us for repeating ourselves, but we can add, “If you knew how I wanted to be treated, and you did it anyway, why do you continue to do it? What did you hope to gain?” We might have to repeat ourselves with such force that it results in what everyone fears most a punch in the mouth, but what’s the alternative? Where our we now? We’re so mad now that they’re under our skin. If people treat us poorly, we should recognize that as our inability to instruct them properly. Telling everyone that we’re mad, or giving them the silent treatment, is a complete waste of everyone’s time, including ours.” 

We didn’t enter into this argument with Michael. We simply felt sorry for him, but what if we had? We can imagine that Michael would’ve been able to counterpoint our every point. We would’ve argued, and he had twenty years of justifications for his actions. At what point in an argument, do we realize we’re doing more harm than good? At what point do we reach a zero point? We argue because we want everyone to know how smart we are. We argue because we want to persuade others to our point of view. We also argue to save our friends from themselves. At what point, do we realize the other party disagrees with us so much that no matter what we say, we’re never going to persuade them to our point of view? At what point do we realize there’s no point in continuing? Even when they’re demonstrably wrong, it makes no sense to continue the argument, as we can see that they’re not going to change their mind. We can also see that we’re insulting them at some point, and we might be damaging whatever relationship we have with them. As much as it pains us, we realize that some of the times it’s just better, less frustrating, and less maddening, to walk away.