"Roman Candle" turns 20: Secrets of Elliott Smith's accidental masterpiece (slideshow)
Elliott and the friends with whom he recorded in middle school in Texas (photo courtesy of Dan Pickering)
Last fall, I spent months reporting a story about the new trend in “family coaches,” folks who promise to hand you the keys to the kingdom: Perfect Parenting. Yep, add to the list of fitness coaches, life coaches, financial coaches — the family coach. As the latest manifestation of Americans’ driving quest for clean closets, superkids and tidy lives, family coaches are newly minted experts who’ve sensed a void in American life and stepped forward to fill it — for a fee that, in the D.C. area, ranges from $350 to $450 a month for weekly 45-minute sessions. A cross between “Nanny 911” and “Clean House,” family coaches promise a personalized system of parenting that will help (mostly) moms hone their communication skills, set goals for their kids, prioritize, organize and streamline their busy lives.
They join a $2.1 trillion “mommy market,” according to the marketing firm BSM Media, which specializes in the field — from Arts ‘n Motion for your baby Botticelli to Gymboree for your kid Komenich. And what if you resist such costly “enrichment” for junior? Bad mommy!
In a flurry of insecurity about whether we’re adequately preparing our kids, we turn for advice to the professionals — who proliferate. Search Amazon, for example, and there are 87,608 experts telling us how to be better parents. From “Confident Parenting” to “Connection Parenting” to “Screamfree Parenting” to last year’s “Revolutionary Parenting” and this year’s bestseller “NurtureShock,” the books are testament to our boundless quest for the holy grail of parenting.
How come all these well-intentioned tips just stoke my anxiety?
Driving home from observing my first family coaching session, which was chock-full of advice on how to be a better parent and a more productive entrepreneur, I am stressing out. I am on the Beltway in D.C. Traffic is crawling. My thoughts, racing. This is totally unproductive time, I think. Someone slices across the lanes and cuts in front of me. I hate him.
I tick off the suggestions this family coach made to her client as she patiently explained what every entrepreneurial mom needs for success. A business plan? I have no five-year business plan. Never have. (Maybe that’s why I’m always broke?) Charts? I have no charts that look at my job cycle next to my husband’s to make sure our busy periods are staggered. Never have. (Maybe that’s why breakfast is a tense wrestling match over whose schedule reigns supreme: “Are you getting Zack from school today — because I can’t?”) I have no clear boundaries with my child. Never have. (Maybe that’s why he is so contrary?)
By the time I get home, I’m in a snit.
“Have you done your homework? How about your 20 minutes of typing practice? How come your cereal bowl is still on the table from breakfast? Why are your shoes and socks in the middle of the living room floor?”
Suddenly, I am looking at my son through somebody else’s eyes, and he is found lacking in the responsibility department. Maybe I am one of those “helicopter parents” that the family coach and attendant experts insist are coddling today’s youth? (Columns and books are filled with dire warnings regarding the dangerous slew of infantile slackers such parenting has spawned.) I’ve been doing too much for him. How is he going to make it out there in the world if he can’t even remember to put his socks in the hamper? Will he grow into one of those men who struggle loudly with a jammed Xerox machine as they wait for a female co-worker to come along and fix it? Look at him, he’s 11, and he has to be asked to put his cereal bowl in the sink.
Clearly I’m doing something wrong.
As I hustle him out the door later, dragging him to a neighborhood planning meeting I have to attend, I tell him to bring a book to read so he won’t be bored. He grabs “Charlie Bone.” And a tennis ball.
“Why are you bringing the ball?” I want to know as we stride down the street — late — and begin the five-block rush to the meeting.
He shrugs. He sees it as a rhetorical question. He always has a ball in his hand.
He bounces the ball. Catches it. Bounces the ball. Catches it. Bounces the ball. Misses — and goes for it with both hands, letting the book he held in his left hand flutter down onto the sidewalk.
“Mom, can you take my book?” he asks.
“Pick it up yourself,” I say. Who does he think I am? His servant?
He picks it up. “Will you carry it for me, though? So I can bounce the ball?”
“Cross!” I say, ushering him across the street. “No, carry it yourself.”
“Please,” he says.
“No!” I say. “You’re 11 years old. I think you can carry your own book five blocks.”
“But I can’t bounce the ball at the same time,” he pleads.
“Put it in your sweatshirt pocket,” I suggest.
He tries but the book, slightly oversize, won’t fit. “Here, try this,” I say, taking the book from his hand and tucking it into the hood of his sweatshirt. It sort of works. For a minute. Both hands are free and he bounces the ball and catches it. Then he bounces the ball and lunges for it, sending the book hurtling up into the back of his head where it ricochets off his noggin onto the ground.
He looks at me, hoping I’ll offer to pick it up for him since he has raced farther up the sidewalk in his chase while the book lies at my feet. “Pick it up,” I tell him. I am looking at him through the family coach’s eyes. Objectively, I tell myself, I am seeing him. And I am growing angrier. Because he is 11. Because he can’t carry a book five blocks. Because he presumes I will solve this dilemma. Because I must have been “rescuing” him too much. Because I’m a bad mom. Because. Because.
“Cross,” I say.
And I am cross.
So I try to trace the origins of my irritation, why I grow impatient with who he is when I hear these parenting “experts” whisper in my ears who he ought to be. Maybe it’s the squeeze between an external developmental timeline that spells out exactly where my kid should be — and I actively seek out this yardstick in moments of anxiety — and a reality that doesn’t jibe. How come my son still can’t write in cursive? Forgets to punctuate? Lacks the focus to play a musical instrument? Am I doing everything I should, I wonder.
And the “shoulds” run rampant — and conflict.
“The nurturing mother is always there for her children,” say those who suggest child rearing is incompatible with ambition. “Over-involved parents are creating a generation of irresponsible students,” scold the teachers as stay-at-home moms run in their child’s forgotten homework. “How can her mother let her wear that?” chide the moms on the playground as a tween in a tight camisole strides by. “How can his parents let him walk home alone?” tsk the parents who carpool. “I’ve never seen his mom at a soccer game,” accuse the moms in the bleachers. “I’ve been to all my son’s games.”
As our culture assails us with fantastical standards, the definition of “good mother” shifts under our feet like sand.
Enter the experts who reassure us they’ve got all the answers, including a system of steps and processes with charts and wheels and evaluations to gauge the efficacy of modifications. (Hey, it works in the military and business — why not standards-based parenting?) Surely the keys to success are similarly identifiable, quantifiable and teachable? No matter that “family life” has layers of emotions that cloud each moment with secret histories (“Why do you assume it’s my job to clean up after you?” a harried feminist asks her adolescent son) or times when we channel our own parents (“You’re thirsty? Swallow your spit,” a father tells his whining children on a road trip as his father regularly told him). This is not psychotherapy, in which folks are asked to look deeply at what drives them. This is parenting advice, where folks are asked to note that what drives them is counterproductive. The experts lure us with “10 easy steps to better parenting” and we’re hooked on the promise that bad patterns can be broken with a smattering of tricks, a smidge of willpower and a few strategically placed buzzwords: Just be “proactive,” the experts reassure us (“Buy my book now”).
There is no need to wade through our personal, emotional history to discover how it colors our parenting, the experts assure us. And there is certainly no need to shine the light of inquiry on our ultimate goal: the good child. Is the “good child” we’re working so hard to mold simply a euphemism for “the good worker” society’s really after?
Don’t even go there, the experts advise, there’s no profit in it.
Introspection is hard to package — and doesn’t sell.
I have been at work all day, and I am tired and cranky. Worse, in the eyes of my 11-year-old, I am cruelly forcing him to learn to type. Every day he has to practice for 20 minutes. Rain or shine. Sundays and holidays. No rest for the weary.
And he complains. Endlessly.
He hates the software, Mavis Beacon Teaches Typing. Misremembers her as Beavis Butthead Teaches Typing. Gripes at her insincerity (“I could get 100 percent of the paragraph wrong and she’d still say, ‘Nice work. I’m seeing steady improvement’”). Complains she is a snob.
“How can she be a snob? She’s an animation,” I point out. “She’s not even a real person.”
“Yes, she is!” Zack says.
“She’s a product line,” I insist.
“You can be a product line and a real person,” Zack argues. He loves to argue. “Look at Harry Potter. Harry Potter dolls. Harry Potter wands. Harry Potter Bertie Bott’s Jelly Beans.” He is triumphant.
Should I point out that Harry Potter is a fictional character, I wonder? Zack is 11. He knows that. Just like he knows there is no Santa. But he still retains the ability to believe — and to simultaneously know otherwise. All he requires to adeptly straddle the rational and imaginary worlds is an interior consistency in both. Still, this is an argument, and I would like to win it. “Umm, Zack,” I say, pointedly. “Harry Potter?”
He looks at me for a moment, blank-eyed. And then: “Oh, yeah,” he says sheepishly.
In my own head, Zack is winning the argument (Martha Stewart towels, Paul Newman salad dressing, Kathie Lee Gifford frocks). “Get typing,” I say. My finger is poised over the timer on the stove, ready to activate the 20 minutes.
He scowls at me, real venom creeping into his voice — and hurls the time-honored epithet: “You are such a mean mom.”
It doesn’t take much to create disequilibrium for mothers. Motherhood, a sense of oneself as a Good Mom, is frequently precarious and doubt is always ready to creep in. A comment on the playground can do it. (“Your son’s very competitive,” a mom says, breaking up an argument over kickball. “Oh, God, I haven’t taught him to be a good sport,” you think.) A column of parenting advice read while waiting for a dentist appointment creates paroxysms of doubt. (“Don’t be too quick to the rescue. Let your child work out petty playground arguments himself. It’s all part of learning to negotiate with others,” an expert advises.) Parenting tips in the school newsletter can throw you. (“Always be there for your kids. Support them as they learn to assert themselves,” the expert insists. “Have I?” you wonder.) And, in this swirl of conflicting (constricting?) orders, even the most confident mom can be thrown off balance.
“You’re a mean mom!”
“Could be,” we shrug off in our most confident moments.
“Am I?” we worry, in a flurry of insecurity.
These are the moments when we turn to the experts — Parenting, Parents, and BabyTalk, iVillage, the seven shelves of parenting advice books at the local Barnes and Noble — plunking our money down to contribute to the $668 million Americans spent on self-help books in 2005 (44 percent more than they spent a decade ago). We pretend to read them for advice — What do I do about this preteen obstinacy? — but really we are looking to see whether, according to the markers, our kid is normal. We are hoping against hope that the experts will tell us “good job” (the near-meaningless mantra we reflexively toss our kids, but we’ll take it!) and “stay the course,” and reinforce the parenting we’re already doing — because, heck, that’s pretty much the best we can do at the moment.
There are a few books out there that take a different tack. The Gesell Institute of Human Development series — “Your One-Year-Old,” “Your-Two-Year Old,” “Your Ten-to-Fourteen-Year-Old,” etc. — can be reassuring since the authors are more descriptive than proscriptive:
“Eleven tends to burst, to bounce, to throw self around. Activity, especially when the child is in any way confined (as when sitting in a chair during an interview), is so constant that one almost becomes seasick when watching … Hands seem to be in constant motion. If there is an object in hand, such as a ball or a glasses case, they repeatedly toss it up and down.”
The Gesell books don’t tell parents what to do with this irritating, irrepressible energy, but at least they assure you that your kid is not a freak of nature. Originally published in the 1950s, the Gesell books’ tragic flaw is the gender stereotypes that proliferate:
“Boys and girls mostly separate in their choice of outdoor activities. The girls are busy at jacks, hopscotch, jump rope and roller-skating. The boys may join in at times, but they prefer to hunt or fish if they have the opportunity.”
Fortunately, the gender stereotypes are so dated and outlandish that one is quick to dismiss their relevance. Unfortunately, they are delivered with such authority — and are so clearly wrong — all expertise is suddenly rendered suspect. What do they know?
I awake at 2:30 a.m. gulping for air in a mini panic attack.
I do this every night at 2:30 — and have been doing so ever since my now 11-year-old son was an infant and chose that as the time for his nightly feeding. That year-long night shift of breast-feeding wore a groove in my subconscious that interrupts my REM like a needle skipping the same scratch on an LP. I bolt up, my heart racing slightly, and then try to trace my thoughts back to my dream and the anxiety that yanked me out of sleep this time.
Usually it is work I am fretting about. Often it is money. Occasionally it is my son. Sometimes — jackpot! — it is all of the above. In my calmer moments, I look at my son with equanimity, confident that he is happy, challenged intellectually at school, has good friends, moves through his world with confident ease, leads a rich life.
But it doesn’t take much to throw me: an article, a stray comment, a grim headline.
My son is not worried. He has his future all mapped out. Replete with backup plans. He intends to be a rock star when he grows up. If that fails — or doesn’t produce adequate income — he will be a major league baseball player. Barring that, he will be a Blue Angel, one of the Navy’s finest stunt pilots. Worst-case scenario, he will be a commercial airline pilot for JetBlue (you know, the airline with a mini TV for each passenger), because, certain that the pilots share this amenity, he is looking forward to navigating the plane while simultaneously watching Cartoon Network.
The future doesn’t worry him a bit.
Me, I am waking up at 2:30 a.m. panicked. I trace my insane thought process backward, thinking to dispel my fears by naming them. Like any crazy person’s thoughts, mine have their own interior logic.
Tonight, my scorched-earth scenario goes like this: I had thought that teaching my son to type would free him. He lacks fine motor skills, which severely hampers his handwriting — a condition that got worse when he broke his right arm at age 8. He can write, but it is slow, laborious and nearly illegible. When he types, his fingers can almost keep pace with his thoughts — and any teacher can read it. But suddenly, a sentence that I read in an article the day before jumps out and grabs me in a stranglehold: This particular article on college admissions made passing reference to the newly required essay component of the SATs. At 2:30 a.m., I have suddenly realized that six years from now my son will be forced to handwrite an essay in order to ace the SATs. If he doesn’t score well on the SATs, how will he get into a good college — and how will he get the scholarship he needs in order to attend that good college?
Fortunately, I fall back asleep before I have a no-more-wire-coat-hangers moment with the computer keyboard.
Fortunately, sanity returns with the sun.
Unfortunately, the low-level anxiety about the future stays with me for days and the minute I let my guard down, my thoughts go back to their warring ways where they line up behind opposing generals. You know, the “troop buildup” general who says marshal all forces to secure the future (guitar lessons, Little League, typing, test prep) — no matter the cost to the present. And the “draw-down” general who knows less is more. I wrestle with these things because I’m his mom — for better or worse — in the hopes that he won’t have to. And I try to resist the temptation to mold his plastic mind in preparation for successful living when he is already happily living the good life right now.
Much better than I am, thank you very much.
He is peacefully sleeping at 2:30 a.m.
Karen Houppert is a freelance journalist and author of "Home Fires Burning: Married to the Military -- For Better or Worse"More Karen Houppert.
Elliott and the friends with whom he recorded in middle school in Texas (photo courtesy of Dan Pickering)
Heatmiser publicity shot (L-R: Tony Lash, Brandt Peterson, Neil Gust, Elliott Smith) (photo courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Elliott and JJ Gonson (photo courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
"Stray" 7-inch, Cavity Search Records (photo courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Elliott's Hampshire College ID photo, 1987
Elliott with "Le Domino," the guitar he used on "Roman Candle" (courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Full "Roman Candle" record cover (courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Elliott goofing off in Portland (courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Heatmiser (L-R: Elliott Smith, Neil Gust, Tony Lash, Brandt Peterson)(courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
The Greenhouse Sleeve -- Cassette sleeve from Murder of Crows release, 1988, with first appearance of Condor Avenue (photo courtesy of Glynnis Fawkes)