Breaking bad, or, for the better somehow

Column by Michael Alcorn
Posted 5/12/21

There was a television series on one of the cable networks about 10 years ago called “Burn Notice.” It was about a “burned” spy — a spy who loses their official identity, and so they exist …

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Breaking bad, or, for the better somehow


There was a television series on one of the cable networks about 10 years ago called “Burn Notice.” It was about a “burned” spy — a spy who loses their official identity, and so they exist completely outside the system without any government protection or, effectively, life. In one of the last episodes of the show, a government official was trying to explain how the same terrible home environment could turn one person into a hero (the burned spy) and turn another person into a wreck (the spy’s brother). The explanation went like this:

“Imagine you’re holding on to two bottles, and they drop on the floor. What happens? They both break. But it’s how they break that’s important. Because you see, while one bottle crumples into a pile of glass, the other shatters into a jagged-edged weapon. You see, the exact same environment that forged the older brother into a warrior, crushed baby brother. People just don’t all break the same, Mrs. Westen. Just don’t.”

That odd little quote — from one of the show’s villains — has stuck with me over time, and every once in a while something happens that calls it to mind. And, actually, there have been a lot of somethings happening lately. Like the massacre at the Boulder King Soopers. Like this weekend’s Mother’s Day massacre in Colorado Springs. Like the anniversary of the STEM school massacre. Like the heartbreaking number of emails I’ve opened in the past nine months telling me about school kids who have died (cause never mentioned).

We’ve got a lot of broken glass.

In a couple of weeks, we will all take a moment to pause and consider the men and women who died in the service of their country. And I think of my Dad, and of several uncles and my grandfather, all whom served in wars, all who saw their share of horrors. I think of my Dad’s family, who buried a son after he died on Christmas Eve in the midst of the Great Depression. I think of my Mom’s family, who struggled and fought (and lost, once or twice) to keep a family farm going through Depression and the Dust Bowl era. And I think to myself, “wouldn’t all of these events constitute the dropping of a bottle?”

And yet, they came through. The generation that eked out a living in the Great Depression saw the Japanese bomb Pearl Harbor, saw the Death Marches of the Pacific theater, saw the Nazi concentration camps, saw the fire bombing of major cities and the dropping of two atomic bombs. And they came back from those times and built the future. If they broke at all, they broke into sharp little tools that carved the Space Age and the Information Age out of nothingness.

But somewhere along the way we seem to have lost our ability to make good bottles. You know how when you drop a bottle, there’s always a fleeting, momentary hope that the bottle will survive? It happens, sometimes. But, for the sake of this beaten-to-death metaphor, that doesn’t seem to be the case with our kids. They hit the ground from minimal heights and immediately shatter. And again, within the context of this dead metaphor, it’s not a matter of what we’re doing with them — it comes from within, from the nature of the bottle. … child ... thing.

And I don’t think there’s much more we can do to soften all the landings. We practically put our kids in bubble wrap as it is — and still, allergies, autism and anxiety are epidemic. Has American life gotten so convenient, with our computers and our cell phones, that we should just expect bad bottles from now on?

If so, then we have to stop breaking things. Because the ones that break into jagged weapons seem to want to just break everything around them, and the ones that crumple just become sad, whispered statistics.

Michael Alcorn is a teacher and writer who lives in Arvada with his wife and three children. His new novel, “Valkyrie’s Kiss,” a finalist in the ScreenCraft Book Competition, is available now at His opinions are not necessarily those of Colorado Community Media.


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