Childhood


The scene: last week in my apartment.  I found the bright green plastic bowl underneath the kitchen sink, careless tossed into the milk crate that held bottles of various cleaning solutions and soaps.  A bulbous knob extended from one end with a smile, and eyes peaking from behind a thin red mask painted on it.  “What is this doing in here?” I asked my roommate.  “Oh yeah,” he said. “I wasn’t sure where to put it.  What is it?”  I looked down into its goofy painted eyes. “It’s my Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles cereal bowl,” I said.

Twenty years ago, when I first dug the bowl out of the bottom of a Cheerios box, I didn’t want it.   My TMNT obsessed kindergarten brain immediately recognized the red mask as the identifier of Raphael and no one wanted to be Raphael.  Whenever playing Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles with your friends, you would want to pretend to be your favorite turtle. Young “type A personalities” were drawn to Leonardo (succinctly described in the theme song with “Leonardo leads”), while the more creative kids wanted to be Donatello (“does machines”).  A rare few even liked Michelangelo (“a party dude”).  But no one, not a singe kid, liked Raphael (according to the song, he was “cool but crude”); and some unlucky latecomer who didn’t call dibs to be one of the other three early enough was general stuck playing Raph.  His other option was playing April O’Neil and she was a girl which was way worse (though I now wonder why no one volunteered to be Splinter, the giant rat that was the group’s sensei).

“Aw man, Raphael.” I remember saying with disdain, then turning to my mother, trying to enjoy her first cup of tea of the day, and inquired if we could run to the grocery store before school and get another box of cereal that would probably have a Donatello bowl (my first choice, but I would have settled for either of the other two) inside it.  Without having to say anything, I could tell her answer was a strong and definite “No.”

And so I made due with my Raphael bowl.  Years after the Ninja Turtle fad had died out, I found it again and brought it with me to college (mainly for its kitschy throwback value) and now keep it at the office so I can eat cereal at my desk (I had brought it home to wash last week, which is why my roommate didn’t recognize it).  And you know something?  Raphael has really grown on me.  What I mistook for a grumpy cynic was actually the group’s speaker of truths, who never beat around the bush and always said what was on his mind.  And his hot-headedness?  While many will agree that it constantly brought the group into dangerous situations, it was also the acting force on most of their greatest adventures (many of which forged their strongest alliances).  In essence, Raphael was probably the best Ninja Turtle and I am proud to own his cereal bowl.

palinThis past week, I’ve been thinking about quitting—not about me giving anything up or renouncing anything in particular, but the actually act of quitting something.  First, Sarah Palin up and randomly announces she’s going to resign as a Governor of Alaska and then while I was joyously dancing, my friend Chris quit twitter.  Someone leaving twitter is hardly noteworthy. But it was a little surprising because Chris was one of the people who poked and prodded me into getting an account and tweeting (Shameless shelf-promotion: follow me @WordyNinja.)  Chris was also the person who got me into blogging and he also recently quit his blog, which was pretty popular.   “I decided to quit twitter and my blog because I just felt they were draining too much of my creative energy,” he told me later, “and I needed all I could muster to focus on my other writing.”  I can’t really hold it against Chris for wanting to quit.  If the constant writing grind for both were distracting him from what he truly want to do, then it was his responsibility to himself.

For the most part, unless it’s in regards to something negative (i.e. smoking or shooting heroin between your toes), quitting is viewed as weak.  It’s a sentiment my father made sure to impart on me while I was growing up. Phrases like “Always see things to the through,” and “Finish what you start,” were throw about.  And whenever I did quit some activity or association (Boy Scouts or the track team) he was sure to express his disappointment.  When I smoked about a pack of cigarettes a day, I used to joke to anyone who suggested that it was not the best for my health that “my dad hates quitters.”

But how often do we honestly see things through to the end?  I can only think of a handful of times where I’ve had the opportunity to follow something all the way to its natural conclusion—let alone done it.  Everything ends by quitting.  Got a new job? Quit your old one.  Need to move forward past a bad relationship? You’ve got to breakup.  If that extra activity isn’t an enjoyment anymore, why not stop and do what you really want to?  If you never quit, you would still be in situations after you were ready to move on and your life would be  stagnant.  There is something cathartic about saying “Fuck this” and walking away.

I get why Chris quit.  It was the only for him to move forward.  I haven’t gotten there yet—so I don’t expect I’ll quit blogging or tweeting anytime soon, but I hope to someday.

[Pic via Flickr.com]

200310679-002It’s late.  It’s late at night and I’m writing this post.  I could have done this hours ago.  Hell, maybe even days ago.  But this isn’t another rant about my problem with procrastination or lack of ideas to write about (God knows I beat those two horses to death!).  See: there’s nothing better than staying up late writing.   Chabon calls it “the midnight disease,” and its one of the greatest feelings in the world.  Ever scored a game-winning touchdown? Or saved a child’s life?  And his/her supermodel mom thanked you…sexually?  Yeah, those are great.  I mean what I’m talking about makes you rundown and question your sanity over debating word choices when you need to leave for work in four hours.  It isn’t that the writing is any better than from a normal time, I just love the idea that while everyone else in the entire world is sleeping, I’m creating something.  I know.  I’m a weirdo.

I was the king of all nighters.  Just ask any of my college roommates—I even drove one to the brink of insanity by disrupting his sleep so much (Don’t worry, he was from Poland—they don’t count.).  I don’t think I ever started working on a term paper before 11PM. And for my graduate school thesis?  I was up till 2AM every night, except when I slept all day on Sunday.  I would even stay up late writing my own stuff just for me.  I could stay up the entire night without any sleep and make it into work the next day.  Of course, I’d be groggy, but that’s why there’s coffee.  Glorious, glorious, coffee.  The thing is: I always remember being able to do this.  Even as a little kid, I would stay up late reading or drawing my own comic strips until my dad came in and yelled at me to go sleep.  And then I would pretend to go to sleep so he’d leave me alone and I could get back to work.  I think it’s why my parents won’t let me move back in with them.

But that’s all over now.  Now, if I don’t get at least six hours of sleep, I’m a zombie.  And coffee, my sweet nectar of the caffeinated peppy Gods?  Well, you know how a drug addict’s body builds a tolerance to their narcotic over time and they have to increase the dosage to keep attaining the same high and then they end up just taking massive quantities to feel normal? My bladder can’t take it.

In the end, maybe it’s a sign that I’m no longer a kid anymore.  That I need to tackle my writing in a more mature, orderly manner, and not just with a childish manic excitement.  Still makes me feel old though.  Now if you will excuse me, I’m off to get some sleep.

Can't sleep, clown will eat me.

Can't sleep, clown will eat me.

For the past few weeks, I’ve been having trouble sleeping.  This is nothing new, I’ve had periodic insomnia for years .  If you’re one of those people who have no problems falling sleeping (and I hate you),  you maybe unaware that one of the more fun aspects of it is  your mind running completely off the rails, making leaps and bounds in logic and constantly segueing between self-doubt and fear.  I think it has something to do with lying in the dark, like when you were a kid and heard monsters in the closet.  Only now, they’re in your head.  Anyway, last night I decided to keep a notepad by the bed and record exactly what I was thinking and feeling, keeping note of the ever slipping time.  Today, I transcribed it.  Enjoy:

12:15 AM: I’m probably dying of something.  Cancer, it’s probably cancer.  I smoked for over five years, so it’s probably lung cancer.  I think I have to cough.  I’ll probably cough up blood. [A half-hearted attempt to cough that sounds like a dog panting].  I probably have Lupus.  If I get really sick and have to spend days in the hospital getting treatment, do I still get paid?

12:30 AM: I wonder who would come to my funeral. [Insert long rambling narcissistic imagining of my own funeral/wake that I will save you from having to read.]

1:25 AM: God, I hate my job…God, I’m such an ass for taking my job for granted.  I know so many people who’ve been laid off.  Though, they all seem so much happier than me.  Oh man, if I got laid off, I’d be so happy.  I’d collect unemployment and write all day.  Maybe I could even move back in with my parents, that’d be sweet.  I wouldn’t have to pay rent, or buy groceries, and they have a Wii and premium cable.

1:57 AM: I distinctly remember when I was eight or nine and I was sitting at the kitchen table, writing out my English homework.  I looked up and asked my mother if I’d correctly spelled “friend.” To which she replied “I before E, except after C or when it sounds like A, as in ‘neighbor’ and ‘weigh.’

2:10 AM: I wish was more like Dr. House/James Bond/Spider-man at least when they have purpose.  I mean it’s pretty simple—as along you save the day you can pretty much do what you want. Cure patients that no one else can, you get to be an ass.  Fight villains bent on world domination, you get to be a man whore.  Fight cartoonish super villains, you get to be awesome.  Maybe I just need a marketable skill that I can argue saves the day?

2:40 AM: When I was a kid I thought my life would be filled with opportunities to say melodramatic phrases from TV and movies, like “We’ll probably never meet again.” Grown up, I’m a little heartbroken that I’ll never get to say “That’s just crazy enough to work.”

3:30 AM: Words that feature I after E without C and don’t sound like A: Weird, their, being, either, feisty, foreign, albeit, forfeit atheist, and reimburse.

3:42 AM: Words that feature I before E after C: Ancient, science, conscience, efficient, omniscient, concierge, prescient, society, efficient, and sufficient.

4:00 AM: My mom was wrong?

4:17 AM: What am I doing with my life? I should have accomplished something noteworthy by now…I really want a cigarette.

[This is about where I briefly fall asleep and have my most reoccurring nightmare that’s basically a zombie movie.]

4:28 AM:I wake up screaming “Get away from me, Zombies!”

5:00 AM: If I travel back in time and kill my father before I was born, then I would cease to exist.  But if I cease to exist, then I wouldn’t travel back in time and my father wouldn’t die and thus I would be born and then still kill my father and thus not exist. And so on, and so on.  I’m pretty sure that this could destroy the universe, but I would need a time machine to be sure.

5:30-6:30 AM: I go over the plot of the new Star Trek movie which I saw the night before and concentrate on how awesome it was.

6:45 AM: If there was a real Star Fleet Academy, I’d totally join.

7:00 AM: [Alarm goes off.]  I hate my life.

cs-salute1

An artist's rendering of what I may have looked like then.

I remember when I first spent any real time away from home. It was just a week at a Cub Scout camp during the summer I was eight-years-old. I had felt the thrill of sleepovers at the homes of friends for a couple years by then and my parents and I believed that I was ready for an extended time away. Years later, my memory of the experience is cloudy. Like trying to remember a dream, only the sharp plot points stick out. I remember the hot dustiness of the place, earning something called “the polar bear badge” which required a jump into the frigid lake every morning and swimming around the dock, and I remember that it was the first time that I ever felt homesick.

“You wanted to go,” my mother says during a recent phone conversation and then corrects herself: “you were ambivalent about going—sometimes you wanted to go and sometimes you were afraid of going.” I remember the sensations: impending excitement followed by dread and then excitement again and back and forth. My mother was guiding me through my own foggy memories. “We got a phone call, probably about Tuesday,” she says. “And they said that somebody else had left, one of the other kids had left and that had caused you some anxiety.” Yes! I remember that. He was my tent-mate, my swimming and hiking buddy. We were told to keep tabs on one another, to make sure that we were both safe. It was the backbone of summer camp life—the buddy system. And my buddy was so homesick he left. “You were homesick,” says my mother, “but they thought you could make it through to the end of the week.” Yes, that was right. But I don’t remember any phone call home. “They wouldn’t let us talk to you,” she says. “They just wanted us to know.”

I remember the melancholy striking me while I lay in the dark waiting to fall asleep. “I think you really only had trouble at night,” my mom says. “You know you were so busy during the day that you didn’t think about it.” What’s odd is that I wasn’t homesick for an actual home. As an army brat, I’d lived in five other houses by that point in my life. So I knew that I didn’t miss the physical place, but rather the comfort and stability of being there. That’s what “home” was.

Years later, I would spend one week every year at Boy Scout camp and with each stay the homesickness was less and less. I was older then and felt the burning need for independence. I even spent one whole summer away as a counselor and comforted the teary eyed kids who just wanted to go home. Eventually, I went away to college. Those first few weeks of late August felt strangely familiar. “It feels like we’re at summer camp,” we said to one another. And it did, but then over time things became settled and one day I woke up and went about my morning routine before my 9AM Spanish class when I realized that it didn’t feel like camp anymore. It didn’t feel like a different place. I felt at home. Since then, I never lived with my parents again. Sure, I visited for a couple weeks over the holidays and a week or two before I took off for wherever I would spend the summer break. But from then on, I was at home wherever I was.

Reflecting now on those nights spent quietly crying in my cot, I realize that being away wasn’t what upset me the most. I missed my parents, but I knew that I would see them again. I think I knew that first week away and on my own was the beginning of me growing up. And I think that being “homesick” was nostalgia for being a child and wanting to stay one. Today, as an adult living on my own, I find myself often laying in bed at night and thinking of my responsibilities, my dreams, and my memories. And on occasion, I feel just a flash of that homesickness from that one summer week when I was eight-years-old.

So yesterday, I was involved in a conversation which led to the other person reciting a rather long winded explanation of the biological purpose for the padding on dogs’ feet (don’t ask me how we got to it, it just sort of happened). To which I responded in my usual sarcastic tone, “Gee, thanks Mr. Wizard.” It wasn’t a particularly good burn (in fact the person I was talking to was a woman and even pointed out that “shouldn’t it be Mrs. Wizard?”) but it cracked open something inside me.

It was a perfect Proustian moment. You know, when you see or smell something that reminds brings up a flood of memories. Suddenly, I was eight-years-old, sitting on the floor in front of the television with a bowl of cereal in my lap, watching “Mr. Wizard’s World” just before school.

If you’re  unfamiliar with it, the concept of show was simple—Don Herbert, that’s Mr. Wizard, would demonstrate basic scientific principles through cool experiments that you could do at home, very often with a young assistant ohhh-ing and ahhh-ing next to him. And although not too a lot of episodes were produced (all of them in the early 1980’s), Nickelodeon ran them ad nauseam for years afterwards. Here’s a promo to help you get an idea:

And as I was running the show through my head, I came to the realization that it was a bit inappropriate. To make the show seem, I assume, more personal or prove that the kids really could do the experiments on their own—it was set in what appears to be Mr. Wizard’s house. He would show Little Bobby, in his basement lab without any other adult supervision, how to light a match directly under a balloon without popping it. I try to imagine what my father would say if I’d come home one day and told him that a nice old man who lived down the block was showing me “science experiments” in his basement—I’m pretty sure that there would be an eyebrow or two raised, followed by a call to the police.

Now, I’m not saying that Mr. Wizard was a pedophile, by all accounts he was just a nice guy who liked teaching science to kids, but his method does seem odd. It’s probably why his successors, Beakman’s World and Bill Nye the Science Guy, did their shows in elaborate studios. You also have to wonder about the precedent that the show set in the minds of its viewers: how many children got into windowless vans because they actually wanted to learn how to get a hardboiled egg into a bottle without touching either one?

Maybe I’m just imagining it. It seems that we’re automatically suspicious of all males, specifically their sexual intentions, now. Maybe a by-product of an over-sexed culture is that we believe all men think about is sex, that even the nicest guy has the ulterior motive of “getting laid.” It’s a shame that we can’t give people the benefit of a doubt, but of course it’s in that doubt that real pedophiles hide. Maybe it’s a good thing that I we’re suspicious of men like Mr. Wizard—it keeps us vigilant for real child molesters. Now, that Mr. Rogers was a strange one too. What kind of grown man keeps a whole room filled with puppets and a train set that goes through the wall?