The Expectations We Create
On August 21, 1999, I saw Wilco for the first time.
It was Midway Stadium in St. Paul, and Wilco was opening for R.E.M. We arrived early, because we wanted to be in front. Because we love R.E.M. Because this was our chance to see the biggest rock band we’d ever see in our lives.
- “Pigs on the Wing 1” — Pink Floyd
- “Everybody Knows This is Nowhere” — Matthew Sweet & Susanna Hoffs
- “Double Trouble” — The Roots (w/ Mos Def)
- “ABC” — Polyphia (w/ Sophia Black)
- “Crown” — Run the Jewels (w/ Diane Coffee)
- “PDA” — Interpol
- “When It Started” — The Strokes
- “Letter From an Occupant” — The New Pornographers
- “Love, Try Not to Let Go” — Julia Jacklin
- ”Dog It” — Digable Planets
- “Ex-Factor” — Ms. Lauren Hill
- “Youth Against Fascism” — Sonic Youth
- “Holier Than Thou” — PUP
- “Hold My Hand” — Wild Pink & Julien Baker
- “Local Memory” — Willie Nelson
- “Bird Without a Tail / Base of My Skull” — Wilco
Standing two or three rows from the stage, about 50 feet from superstardom, I was focused enough to forget how big R.E.M. actually was. And then I looked over my shoulder. There’s a kind of anxiety that comes with realizing you’re at the front of a mob — the crowd behind me was unending, flowing back across the baseball field and into the bleachers. We were at the front lines, leading a charge — as if we were the ones who discovered the show and the rest had wandered in to catch the fuss.
Obviously, it was great. Halfway through, clouds started forming. By the time the encore hit, it was beginning to rain. They cut three songs from the setlist and slammed through “It’s the End of the World as We Know It (And I Feel Fine)” as the sky opened up, then hurriedly waved goodbye. Lightning struck near the stadium. The power went out as we were walking out of the show. It was epic and amazing and wonderful and perfect.
With one exception. I don’t know what our expectations were with Wilco — we didn’t know them very well, and we probably assumed they’d rock out a bit more — but those expectations weren’t fulfilled. Wilco was underwhelming and boring, and, to us, that’s what they’d continue to be.
I’ve started mountain biking again. From a fitness and activity standpoint, it’s been an interesting change – mountain biking, particularly on wooded single-track trails, tends to use a much different skillset, in which endurance and speed are replaced with focus and quick bursts of energy. Shorter rides provide the same level of work, both physically and mentally. The bike’s heavier. The trails wind and add significant climb. It’s completely different; a welcome change of pace.
These skills take time, and they take a unique mindset. When biking on the trail, or even on the road, you’re bound to make some major assumptions. You assume the trail is smooth and relatively unbroken, and you assume people will follow some general rules and expectations. Your mind is free to wander a bit.
Not so in the trees, on single-track. When you start, your focus is in one place: the ground directly in front of you. Your expectations are dashed, because expectations haven’t formed — on the first ride through a new trail, you can’t fully prepare for every turn or obstacle. You’re always a turn away from an accident — from an embarrassing run-in with a tree, or something actually more serious.
So you forget those expectations you learned on pavement and you let the trail lead the way. You have to give in, or you’ll be thrown off.
And then, over time, those hard parts are softened. They’re made more comfortable, because you become more comfortable — you anticipate the turns, the dips, the branches, and you start to trust your bike. You start to remember the entrances, and can begin to plan ahead again. Your focus lifts from the trail right in front of you and into the woods themselves. You start to see the peculiarities — a weird bird, a good tree, a pile of sticks left by a teenager in a hammock.
They were always there, but you weren’t. You were still stuck on the path, learning the angles. You were still stuck on learning how to ignore your own expectations and give yourself over the trail itself.
You were still growing. The trail doesn’t change: you do.
On September 16, 2003, I saw Wilco for the second time.
This time, it was back home, in Sioux Falls. We’d just moved back after five years of Minnesota college life. I had tried (and, to that point, failed) to land a job as a teacher, and was substitute teaching in between days working at the local TTY relay center. We were recently married. We had a dog named Becket. We rented a home from Kerrie’s parents, which we’d eventually buy.
None of these details matter, other than to say it was a very different life from four years earlier. Things move faster when you’re younger — the last time I’d seen Wilco, I wasn’t even old enough to drink. I hadn’t yet graduated, and was still foolish to think a career is something that comes as a result of a degree. More than that, I’d gone from “thinking Wilco was boring” to “being obsessed with a single Wilco album” — specifically, the universally adored Yankee Hotel Foxtrot.
It didn’t matter what Past Corey thought about them — my expectations were high.
Unusually, Past Corey was right. Once again, Wilco was was boring. The Yankee Hotel Foxtrot songs sounded thin. They jammed to songs we still hadn’t bothered to learn. We had paid decent money for the tickets, so we felt obliged to stay through the entire set, but it felt unending, and we left with the same feeling we’d had four years earlier. We expected things to change, and were somehow surprised when they didn’t.
This isn’t about Wilco, and it’s not about mountain biking. This is about kids — all kids; the collective of “kids” that we encounter and take care of as humanity, regardless of whether we are legally in charge of them. This is about the kids. It’s about our kids.
Mostly, it’s about how we have expectations for our kids.
The bulk of parenting — and teaching — kids is focused on exposure and direction. From basic human needs to interpersonal relationships to critical decision-making, we don’t tell kids what to do as much as we guide them toward possible solutions, because we know that telling anyone what to do is a surefire way to get them to do the opposite. We provide them with samples of life — we play certain music around them, and introduce new foods into their diet, and buy them violins, and sign them up for soccer, and take them to museums. We know not everything will stick. We know that parts of these sampler platters will be sent back, uneaten.
That doesn’t stop us from setting expectations.
Haha, but not me! As a parent, I have been proud of my own lack of expectations — of letting my now-teenagers sample the bits of life they felt most worthy of sampling, of not pushing them in one direction or the other. Of being a real free-wheeling, hippie kind of dad, I guess.
Except, that’s not even close to true. I have had expectations for them since they were born. I imagined what they’d be like in middle school and high school: what things they’d like, what relationships they’d be in, how they’d treat their friends, and how they’d treat us. I knew that at some point they’d rebel, and at another point they’d have their heart broken, and they’d obviously always want to come home every weekend for dinner. I still have expectations. I still have dreams.
I still have these things because I love them and I hope they are happy, and that means I hope they do the things that make me happy. That sounds selfish. It’s not. It’s simply all I’m qualified to offer.
The great disconnect between kids and their parents isn’t usually ideological — instead, it’s a failure of expectations. As humans, even at our most tolerant and free, we see the world through our own needs and expectations, and so it becomes difficult to advise any differently. Adults feel an obligation to parent — and teach — kids based on what we know, and that’s the extent of our qualifications.
But here’s the thing: our kids don’t know what we have planned for them. Usually, our expectations are unspoken assumptions — they’re dreams with no foundation. We pile things on top of them — not because we want to form them, but because we assume they’ll be like us. It takes a lot of strength to drop those assumptions.
The truth is, kids will veer off any path we set in front of them. Our expectations are nothing to them: they are who they are, and they’ll grow into what they’re meant to grow into. That’s beautiful, and energizing. But it’s also really hard. It’s nearly impossible, honestly.
Our role isn’t to push them down a specific path, but to provide them access to the choices they’ll make — to enforce the rules of being a good human being and let them find their way. To start, this looks like a lot of failure. We’ll introduce them to dozens of things and they’ll be dropped, and then a few things will catch. We realize they’re just warming up for their own future. They fill into their songs. They grow into what they’re building. The friction isn’t from them changing, because they’re kids. All they do is change.
The friction is from us as adults; as parents; as teachers. We’re trying to pull them back to the paved road, while they’re wandering through the woods. Until, eventually, we follow them in, focus for a bit, and start seeing the birds.
It’s hard. And then: it’s beautiful.
On September 12, 2022, I saw Wilco for the third time.
I was in nearly the same spot — near the front of the mezzanine in the Great Hall at the Washington Pavilion in Sioux Falls. It was 19 years later, and I was there with Kerrie, again.
Beyond those two things, everything else was different.
Life had changed dozens of times. Career, home, dog — all different. Two kids, both teenagers. Attention span. Patience. The world had gone through multiple recessions and a pandemic, had seen three new presidents and hundreds of fresh attacks on humanity and choice. Everything felt more tenuous, more taut.
Something else was different, too: I had no expectations. We had arrived home from a mountain-bike-focused vacation and hadn’t even purchased tickets to the show. We didn’t know who was opening. We didn’t know anything from the last few albums. We figured we’d take another flier, to see if they’d changed.
They hadn’t changed. More importantly, they weren’t boring. They were fantastic.
Moods change. We reassess our life and the things we like, and sometimes they change for the better. We accept what we can and celebrate what’s worth celebrating. We wake up and realize it was always there — waiting for us, sometimes. And sometimes, not waiting at all — confident we’d come around, letting us do our own thing until it happened. We see the light through the trees, and know it was always there, even when we weren’t looking.