Sunday, July 8, 2018

My Thirteen Takeaways

Author’s Note: As is often the case for posts dealing with specific media, this post does include some spoilers. I’ve tried to avoid or more substantially flag when I reveal specific plot twists—of which the show has many—and stick more to points that are already out in popular media about this show. Nonetheless, if you intend to watch the show and don’t want any spoilers at all, you’ll probably want to hold off on reading.

In the spring of 2017, I got lured into the world of 13 Reasons Why, the teen drama on Netflix established on the premise that high schooler Hannah Baker committed suicide and left behind her a set of audio cassettes fingering thirteen reasons (and, loosely, people) who pushed her toward killing herself. The show’s based on a YA novel by the same name that I have not read, but that I’ve generally heard was well-received.

Why did I, a man in his mid-thirties, watch this show? Some of it’s a predisposition to love brooding, soapy teen shows. I was all in on My So-Called Life as a pre-teen for what I interpreted, and in some ways was, a glimpse at high school life. As a proper teen, who more cleanly fit the target demographic, I got a bit obsessive over Buffy the Vampire Slayer, and turned in weekly, if a bit less fervently, to Felicity and Dawson’s Creek. Later, Freaks and Geeks engendered a similar vibe to MSCL for its less glossy presentation, and eponymous outsider characters I more readily identified with and recognized from my own world. There were other shows, before and since, but I think this sampling makes the point--it’s not a reach to think I’d watch a show like this. Add on the considerable buzz and controversies around the show at that time (we’ll get into more of that soon) and you have a show that the universe all but dared me to give a try while I was sitting on the recumbent bike in my apartment complex’s exercise room.

I had mixed feelings on the show when I watched that original season, and feel a good bit more conflicted after mowing through season two at a clip of one or two episodes a day. In fitting with the schematic of the show, I give to you my thirteen takeaways from watching up to this point.

1. Questions of Artistic Responsibility
One of the key questions about 13 Reasons Why, and indeed one of the ones that first lured me to the show was the questions it evoked about artistic responsibility. Anytime art represents violence, sex, drug use, or foul language, there are questions to consider about what its role modeling or conceptually introducing to its audience.

As a writer, I tend to feel dismissive of these arguments. While I do so with reserve and with purpose, I have written scenes that capture some level of sexual assault, and characters with racists attitudes. These things exist in the world, to take a more puritanical stance against including them in art feels an awful lot like dodging the tough conversation, or marginalizing victims from having their stories told. (There are most certainly other sides to these arguments, and how unsavory dynamics are ultimately rendered on the page matters a lot more than authorial intent, but, well, there’s a lot more to get into than this aside in this single entry of this single blog post is really equipped to do.)

A show about teen suicide, aimed at a teen audience, broadcast on a ubiquitous platform like Netflix--I get that it calls these questions into sharper relief.

In particular, a culminating scene in season one actually shows Hannah slitting her wrists in the bathtub. The moment’s not as shocking as it might be if it weren’t already clear in the show’s mythology that this had happened, but it’s nonetheless a stark visual that doesn’t pull any punches, and that critics of the show has labeled as outright instructive to viewers who might be contemplating suicide.

A willingness to go there all but defines, this show, but it does also raise reasonable questions about whom the target audience for this show really is and if a major media platform like Netflix that’s so accessible to teens—including more vulnerable populations—needs to take more responsibility in what it not only makes available, but actively markets to a younger audiences.

The creative writer in me doesn’t want to see artistic vision compromised. The guy who has spent most of his professional career in one form or another working with a demo aged ten-to-twenty wonders if there is a need to rein things in, particularly when Netflix isn’t governed by the cable TV standards I grew up with, nor does it require a theater ticket taker checking IDs to only let viewers of a certain age through the door.

2. Suicide as Sexy
One of the main points critics of the show brought up after watching the first episode of season one was the degree to which suicide is portrayed as sexy. Indeed, particularly in her early portrayals, we see Katherine Langford’s Hannah Baker as the sexualized crush of Dylan Mennett’s Clay Jensen, and her borderline sultry delivery on her suicide tapes more than reinforces that read. In the end, there is some legitimacy to the claims that the show at least romanticizes the idea of killing oneself in ways that are far from healthy, particularly for at-risk viewers.

3. This Show Hooks You
Maybe it’s my aforementioned predisposition to liking teen dramas, but this show has an addictive quality to it, and as some socially minded critics pointed out, and uncanny ability to embed itself in a viewer’s psyche based on the hypnotic quality of Hannah’s voice and deep dive into her and, later, other characters’ psyches. While I found the second season a bit less binge-worthy, it nonetheless draws viewers into its world with a strong, steady hand.

4. It’s Brutal
While season one wasn’t afraid to get rough and tumble with depictions of sexual assault and other violence, I found season two somehow even more brutal. There are times when the show is utterly unapologetic in its realism, and in the #metoo era, there is merit to not sidestepping uncomfortable truths. Just the same, by the late stages of season two, I found myself feeling as beaten down as the characters. (The spoilers will get most explicit in the next paragraph if you want to jump ahead to number five.)

I, for one, wasn’t surprised when the verdict came in, and Hannah’s parents did not win their case against the school, because to win the case might have afforded them some peace and solace, or might have effected some change in a toxic school environment. In a show, and particularly a season so relentless in its beatdowns and disappointments, it felt less shocking than inevitable that this would be the outcome. And then there was the bathroom scene from the finale--truly one of the most brutal scenes I’ve ever witnessed on television. I can, in a sense, understand the impulse to depict bullying violence at its most raw and graphic, particularly to set up our understanding of Tyler deciding to shoot up a school dance. However, I’m also in the camp that feels this scene went over the edge, past art to a particularly graphic depiction of unnecessarily shocking violence.

5. The Teen-Adult Balance
There’s a consistent quandary in the teen-centric drama genre: where are the grown-ups? Feature them too little, and we start to question what world these kids are living in, or why the parents are so absentee. Feature them too much and they risk overtaking the show and, well, that’s not why we tuned in.

In defense of 13 Reasons Why I’ll argue this show is uncommonly good at striking an appropriate balance in this particular area. The roles of parents and school administrators are mostly understated and mostly believable when they are on screen, and bolstered by the core question/value judgment that no, the adults are not involved enough and they’re leaving these kids to the wolves.

6. The Nexus Point of Technology
13 Reasons Why faces the persistent challenge of trying to translate a story from before the smart phone and social media explosions into modern television or film. To be fair, the original novel was published in 2007, and was thus not totally removed from cell phones or Facebook, but nonetheless predates today’s ubiquity and functionalities. The show feels a bit clumsy in its first episode, with Hannah explaining reasons for using audio cassettes to deliver her message in what is ostensibly 2016.

I’ll credit the show, however, with incorporating new technologies naturally throughout the show, weaving text and picture messaging and social media posting in generally authentic ways that advance plot nicely.

7. Moments of Joy
Make no mistake about it--as referenced earlier in this post, 13 Reasons Why is persistently brutal. However, I do have to cede that out of a combination of writing, soundtrack choices, and acting--and perhaps the very contrast to the shows most brutal moments--when it does arrive at its moments of joy the show shines. These moments include the close of season one, and a portion of the season two finale as the woebegone, hard-won friends the show features cut loose on the dance floor.

Happiness is all too hard to come by on this series, and maybe that’s the point. But when we do glimpse it, it feels organic, true, and earned.

8. Soundtrack
This show’s music—particularly for season one--is awfully well chosen, and sets a killer (no pun intended) mood.

9. No Trivializing Teens
One of the great quandaries in how to present teenagers in a teen-centric drama is to resist the adult urge to look back at this time in life with condescension--i.e., sure everything seemed like a big deal with heightened hormone levels and limited scope of experience, but it was all kind of silly in retrospect.

13 Reasons Why certainly doesn’t trivialize the teenage experience. If anything, the show may go past even the teen perspective to render the most dramatic and at times dark representation of this time in life imaginable.

10. Hitting All Hot Buttons
Particularly in its second season, this show doesn’t shy away from hot-button issues. In fact, there’s a pretty reasonable argument to be made that the show leans into the hottest issues excessively, past the point that they necessarily feel organic to the show, and up to an extent that they feel wedged in and forced. This isn’t to imply that suicide, self-harm, domestic abuse, violent bullying, cyber bullying, sexual assault, drug addiction, and school shooters don’t come up in the real world--they very obviously do. The ubiquity and weight of so many of these pieces in the confines of a school year at one school, however, can feel overwhelming and, at times, as though the show isn’t giving many of these individual issues the full attention they deserve if the show is going to introduce them at all.

11. LGB Representation
Maybe it’s me who’s out of touch with recent teen TV, but I’m accustomed to high school shows with the token gay character or relationship--the Willow Rosenberg, Jack McPhee, Ricky Vasquez (side note: I love Wilson Cruz being cast as an attorney in 13 Reasons Why) character who, regardless of how well written or acted the part is, nonetheless also feels a little token-y.

While one might argue that openly gay, lesbian, and bisexual characters are disproportionately represented in the cast of characters for this show, in a disproportionately barren landscape for such a long time a show could do a lot worse than normalizing a spectrum of sexuality.

12. The Mysteries Generally Meet Aristotle’s Ideal
Each season of 13 Reasons Why has featured at least one mystery--the first what the thirteen reasons are, and particularly how Clay might figure in; the second who is pushing the misfit characters to speak the truth, and who is trying to intimidate them into silence, particularly after it becomes increasingly clear what’s happening and that these two forces are at odds with one another.

Aristotle wrote that the ideal ending should not only feeling satisfying in and of itself, but also simultaneously surprise the audience and feel inevitable. In each of the prominent mysteries of the show, I’d contend that it delivers the goods on the reveal.

13. Should We Watch Season 3?
After I finished season one of 13 Reasons Why I assumed that my time with these characters was done. There was only one book for source material, we’d gotten through the thirteen tapes and their thirteen reasons, and even arrived at a happy ending (if one tinged with the appropriate degree of sorrow, based on the premise of the show).

I watched season two less out of eagerness to follow up on the next step in these characters’ journeys or out of a sense of stories untold, and more a leap of faith based on what I perceived as the quality of season one.

Season two wasn’t as good.

Worse, the brutality of the season, and particularly that bathroom scene from the last episode left me mentally fatigued and almost regretting having watched. The saving grace? (Big spoiler ahead.) That the show opted not to deliver upon the much-foreshadowed school shooting with a braver statement about compassion (if a murky, arguably icky “walk up, not out” vibe).

The end of season two most certainly set up a season three. So will I watch?

There’s a sense in which the experience of watching season two felt like my experience of watching the first two seasons of Orange is the New Black. I don’t think 13 Reasons Why--especially season two--is as good, but it also didn’t leave me as down-trodden to the point that I had no real desire to spend another hour in its world.

At the end of the day, I probably will at least start watching a third season, if only out of curiosity, and if only because I like more of the characters than I don’t. If I’m busy, or if Netflix releases a lot of other shows I’m interested in a similar time frame, I imagine it will go on the back burner.

OK, so that’s a bit of an anticlimactic close to this post. I’ll leave you, then, with Joy Division’s “Love Will Tear Us Apart,” the song from one of the show’s finer moments, the final scene of season one.

Sunday, June 24, 2018

While You’re Here

Live long enough, and you’ll say goodbye to people.

I grew up in Utica and lived in New York State for the first twenty-four years of my life. I’ve since lived in Maryland, Oregon, North Carolina, and Georgia. I’ve moved less than some, more than I necessarily expected to earlier in life, but I expect if I’d stuck around longer in one place, I still would have seen people around me go, and wound up with a similar number of goodbyes as I’ve had.

In college, I got invested in my college newspaper. More than an activity or a job, it was my world--the center of my social life at school, and I probably spent more waking hours in the newspaper office than I did any room where I’d lived those four years. It was tradition to go out to dinner after our weekly meetings, and I remember the end of one of those last meetings, as goodbyes loomed too large to ignore they were coming.

A group of my friends from back home made a surprise visit.

It was a strange moment, because I was happy to see my closest friends--the guys I’d travel with and travel to visit for years to follow, who’d wind up being the groomsmen at my wedding. But at the same time, I was conscious that in their visit, and spending the night with them, rather than my newspaper friends, I was foregoing one of my last opportunities to spend time with the latter group, and particularly so all together at that time in our lives, in that place.

I got to thinking about that sense of feeling torn, well over a decade later, and how arbitrary it is. After all, now I pine for spending time with my guys from Utica. I suppose it comes down to understanding that I’d see those guys no matter what. They were like family, and though we didn’t live in the same place anymore, either, we would have holidays and vacations and special occasions. I didn’t have to appreciate them while they were there, because they’d never be far--at least not in a temporal sense.

And now I look at our weddings as something like a farewell tour. There was the one in 2011, but all the more so the two in 2015, mine bringing up the rear in 2016. In the moment, these times felt less like goodbyes than culminations--in television parlance, less like series finales than special episodes.

But then, I suppose the biggest goodbyes are like that, not in someone disappearing all at once and forever, but rather by degrees of visiting a little less or going from phone calls to the very occasional email to no contact at all between birthday greetings on Facebook.

I think of my Grandma Jean. She was my favorite figure from childhood, and I can remember Sunday afternoon visits to play board games with her and my sister as the good old days in the purest sense. Grandma grew older and more tired before giving way little by little to dementia, until I wasn’t sure she recognized me when I visited her at the nursing home. Until she didn’t entirely wake up when I came to see her. Until she passed away.

It was the first loss I’d had of someone who was a regular and truly dear part of my life, and my first encounter with the very specific kind of regret that comes with wishing you’d spent more time and paid more attention and had more appreciation for someone before she was gone.

I wish she were still around to know my son.

It’s foolish to wish for Grandma Jean, who made it to ninety years old, to have instead made it past a hundred instead, and Riley’s lucky to have two great-grandparents still around. But as I reflect on people past--gone not only to death, but to moving away (whether they or I headed off), or simple changes to the times in our lives, I recognize that my relationship with Riley, too, will change.

There are those times, I’m ashamed to admit, when I resent him or, more to the point, the responsibilities that he entails. It’s a paradox, to love someone more than I’ve ever loved anyone else, but to still lament the loss of time to write or read or exercise or watch a movie. And then there’s the advice I receive time and again about treasuring what time I have, because before I know it, he won’t want to cuddle, and his feet will stink, and he’ll prefer time spent with friends to time spent with me, and he’ll be off to college.

It’s a paradox. But then, if we lived every moment with each other as if we knew we’d miss each other later--not so much in appreciation as fear and premature sorrow for something that isn’t yet lost--well, that’s not really a way to live, either.

So, I hold him close and I set him down. I sing to and coo at and laugh with him, and I also feel grateful when he goes down for a nap. In this way, I live a life with him, while he’s here.

Sunday, June 10, 2018

A Room Changes

When I look back at my childhood bedroom through the eyes of an adult, I tend to remember it as a mess.

A dogpile of stuffed animals, originally arranged in relatively neat rows like some kind of misfit choir, grown progressively less organized for each time I’d pulled one from the mix to play, or the times I’d fallen into them for an ultra-clumsy semblance of crowd-surfing—not to mention my mother fumbling through the crowd to get to the closet behind it where she still kept some of her work clothes, an ironing board, and extra luggage.

My bed—-made only so often and thoroughly enough so my father wouldn’t give me a hard time about leaving it a mess, though I failed to understand why it should matter if I made my bed when only I would use it, and I’d only end up messing it up again.

And papers. Papers everywhere, from early attempts at writing, from constantly drawing. Magazines and books adding to this vaguely post-apocalyptic wasteland of abandoned projects, none of which I had the heart to throwaway.

There was a point in my late-elementary, early-middle school years when I did begin to, periodically take a crack at clearing the space. I recall a particular instance feeling inspired by a round of listening to The Indigo Girls’ “Hammer and Nail” and putting an earnest effort forth to get the space cleared out.

Attempts like this tended to end in one of two ways. The insurmountable dust that had collected on the clutter and leaked through to the carpet below overwhelmed my sensitive allergies until I had a constant stream of liquid snot streaming from my nose and felt compelled to stop. Or I uncovered some project I’d left behind years before that I felt compelled to read through or pick up the work on, overtaken by some combination of nostalgia and creative drive, and thus utterly distracted from the original task of tidying my room.

Eventually, my father took control, as I’ve written about earlier and helped me clean the room, and while it wasn’t always entirely clean in the aftermath—particularly with my habit of shoving clutter into my nightstand drawer or under the bed—the room never reached the same disaster levels it had once occupied for a period of years.

And yet, when I put aside adult practicalities, when I try to drop into the headspace of someone twenty-five to thirty years my junior, I remember the room differently. A mess, sure. But also a place of possibility.

I remember the toys that never became canonized. While my sister and I named the majority of our stuffed animals, constructed personalities and interpersonal (or animal?) relationships between them, and while I played with my wrestling action figures on a regular basis, and arguably for long after they were age-appropriate, there were other relegated to decoration. A foot-and-a-half tall silver robot, for example. Or a hard plastic puzzle, not unlike a Rubik’s Cube but meant to lay flat that I never figured out, though I still dedicated a few minutes to it every few months when I stumbled upon it.

I remember the simultaneous joy and disappointment in finding the badly wrinkled remains an old marker drawing that I was proud of—at once marveling at the discovery and an early sense of nostalgia (yes, nostalgia for something only a year or two old is absurd, but when that marks a greater percentage of your entire life span, it’s not as ridiculous), and furious at myself for letting it get crushed in the broader mess, so that it would never be in pristine condition again.

I remember the tape recorder. Not the fancier “boom boxes” I would have in years to follow, but the single cassette recorder that I could use to record my own voice or, far more spectacularly, the music from my clock radio.

And I suppose all of this amounts to a sense of wonder. For while I had the same bedroom from my earliest memories until I turned left home for college at seventeen, it remains at least two distinct settings in my mind, in a way that I imagine it does not for my parents. When I was a teenager (and in revisiting the house after I moved out) it’s a small space that I was grateful to call my own—a retreat from my father’s racket, a place to write and read and do homework and daydream unobserved. But in childhood, the room was enormous, divided into sectors of work space and bookshelves, the dresser where I kept most of my clothes, the stuffed animal area, my bed. In those messy, cluttered days it was more than a private space, it was a private world.

It never occurred to me that that might change.

Sunday, May 27, 2018

Boy and Tiger

Author’s Note: If writing about Calvin and Hobbes in this blog feels familiar, you’re not mistaken. I did a previous post about enjoying the strip, and my own attempts at cartooning in a post back in 2015.

I’m just old enough to remember reading Calvin and Hobbes in its original newspaper form. Bill Watterson wrapped up his ten-year run with the popular comic strip when I was twelve years old, and thus old enough to have had several years of being able to read the strips (not to mention growing up in a time when everyone still got physical newspapers). I was at a point in life, too when I started to rank things and develop favorites, and remember it seeming to mean something that Calvin and Hobbes got the top left spot for the black and white daily comics page, and the top of the front page for the full color Sunday comic insert with my hometown paper.

More so than those newspaper days, I remember reading the treasury collections of the strip. Homicidal Psycho Jungle Cat was the first one I got my hands on, but I’d go on to accumulate the full collection, read them from beginning to end, and then read them over again over weekend mornings and holiday breaks.

Throughout these readings, I remember the strip introducing a fundamental question. Were the more speculative elements—Calvin’s transmogrifier, the monsters under his bed, or, of course, the matter of his best friend the talking tiger--all real or figments of the boy’s imagination?

After mostly putting Calvin and Hobbes aside for twenty years, I revisited the comic after my son was born. In his first months, he simply liked to hear my voice, such that I could read whatever literary work I’d have liked to have been reading anyway and entertain him. Around the four month mark he started to get a bit more discerning, and the old comic strip treasuries filled a space between what I wanted to read and proper illustrated children’s books. Watterson’s illustrations--particularly those full color Sunday ones--are beautifully drawn and compelling to look at while you listen to words.

In rereading the strips all of these years later, one of the more striking elements was how clear it was there was no speculative question at all. Of course the flights of fancy were Calvin’s imaginings. It's the only way the strip could function in the world we know, and the intensive friendship between the kid and his stuffed tiger is emblematic of not only the boy’s imagination, but also that he is lonely and seeking comfort in the inanimate for lack of living, breathing friends.

I’m not sure if I like the comic more or less for this reading, but I know it is not the same.

I hope that this first read-through will not be the last time Riley and I, or at least Riley himself, will engage with Calvin and Hobbes, if only because I want for him to encounter it all when he can understand the language and plots on whatever terms he may accept as true. Most of all, I want for Riley to encounter the world of imagination entailed in Calvin’s gravity reversing itself, or making a time machine out of a cardboard box, or breaking earth’s orbit through the sheer velocity of a downhill wagon ride.

It's good for a boy to believe.

Sunday, May 13, 2018

The Family Duty

My father and my maternal grandmother never really got along.

He thought her silly and short-sighted, in not having saved more for retirement, and not wanting to save money by living in the finished downstairs area of our house that he had prepared for her, but rather choosing to get her own little house when she moved Upstate. He criticized her for moving so slowly, and for the fact that she had, anecdotally, chosen to buy a new dress over going to college with the money she earned as her high school's valedictorian.

I don't know that my grandmother liked him much better, thinking him unnecessarily callous to my mother, my sister, and I. Her gratitude for him offering weekly transportation to the grocery store withered in her resentment for him rushing her and questioning her expensive purchases and failure to clip coupons.

My father tried to explain the difference between my two grandmothers and their relationship to me. His mother gave me money—admittedly a generous gift for each Christmas and for milestones like finishing high school. My mother’s mother gave me her time. I interpreted a pretty clear value judgment—-that the former was the more meaningful of the two gifts, the latter simply what an old woman had left to give. A conclusion that had always rung hollow to me for my maternal grandmother being my best loved figure growing up, and never having had a real relationship with my paternal one.

Growing up, I didn’t think much about the oddity of the pairing between Dad and Grandma Jean. My mother worked full time, my father was a stay-at-home dad who also became de facto caretaker for my mother’s mother. He drove her for those grocery trips, and eventually handled the bulk of the labor for moves from her little house where I have some of my fondest childhood memories, to senior citizen apartment building, and from there into a nursing home. Despite what appeared to be mutual disdain, these two enormous figures in my childhood world coexisted, and it seemed like an unavoidable part of being. Like so many parts of my childhood, I didn’t question it in the moment, because things were the way they were, and I didn’t have a concept they might look differently.

And it’s as I grew older—particularly after I’d left home for college, and after my mother had left my father and moved out of town, that this pairing grew stranger. When my father made twice-a-week visits to her apartment, not just for grocery shopping, but to have coffee with her and read a newspaper. He explained this to me as a service—that he was keeping her company so she wouldn’t be lonely, though my grandmother did have friends and regular social events put on by her senior living facility, so I had a hard time quite grasping that she needed him there. Concurrently, in the absence of my mother, I suspected he needed the companionship more than her.

But for all of my suspicions, I never heard Grandma complain about this particular dynamic. Maybe she did appreciate the company—I’m embarrassed, now, to think of how rarely I called her after I’d moved out of town. Perhaps all the more so, she saw my father as wounded, and perceived herself to be doing him as much a favor as he was doing her, but had the respect never to say it to anyone.

But then Grandma started slipping.

She literally fell--a stroke--mercifully in the hallway of her apartment building where she’d be found and tended to promptly. Afterwards, she was demonstrably more tired and more forgetful. When she moved into a nursing home, I lived only an hour away and helped with the move, and was able to visit with each of them, not often, but more than I had in college or than I would after I moved out of state. Visiting was hard, though, as it was no longer clear she knew who I was when I stopped in, and later it was difficult to rouse her long enough to have any sort of conversation.

And my father still went to see her, too--much more often than I did. I have to assume he’d given up hope on reconciling with my mother by that point, so there was nothing transactional about his time there, about driving her to off-site doctors’ appointments, or buying her the snacks she requested from the grocery store. As such, it became a relationship that was truly one-sided. My father--the man I’d vilified for much of my childhood for his short temper, quickness to criticize, tight hold on his wallet, and absence of social graces—now the entirely selfless provider and protector for the old woman the rest of our family so rarely made the time for.

I came to recognize a sense of duty there. That people come into each other’s lives for all manner of reasons and have the choice whether or not to give to one another, to sacrifice.

When I think of all of the people in my life who have divorced, all of the people who are estranged, the people who steam and feud over periods of years, I remember this simple lesson. Family’s not a bond that ever disappears entirely, and duty persists long after anyone calls you on it; past the point when anyone’s there to see you’re doing it.

I picture my father, perhaps cooperating with a nurse’s aid, to load my grandmother, barely conscious, into the front seat of his car. I picture him flipping through the pages of a magazine while she has bloodwork done. I picture him arriving back home after all of this, to recognize half the day is gone.

I think to myself, that this right.

Sunday, April 29, 2018

The Hug Goodnight

For a big chunk of my childhood, my mother stopped in my room to give me a hug and turn out the light before I went to sleep. It was a sweet, if generic ritual which probably shouldn’t stand out as much as it does in my mind, but for it being an oddity. We didn’t say I love you much, if at all in our house growing up. Mom worked long days, and I had a stay-at-home dad whom, in retrospect, I look back as particularly ill-equipped for the role. He’s more of a social creature than I ever realized as a kid, when he mostly closed himself off and seemed to locked in a state of arrested development from my and my sister’s early childhood, and a need to micromanage behavior and penny pinch--sensations that outlived their real-world necessity. Our home was a cold one—in the emotional sense I’m alluding to, sure, but also because my father insisted thermostats never reach over sixty degrees, and during the waking hours of the day insisted we stay in uncomfortably close quarters so as to only heat the house to that degree in just one room, with the door shut and a towel stuffed at the bottom for insulation.

When other people in my life talk about warmer childhood memories, I tend to come back to this nightly routine of the hug good night that went on longer than I thought normal, particularly for a boy, into some point in middle school. There was a period when it involved reading, too. There was a school program that involved parents and kids reading to one another, and I remember Mom reading the first few chapters of Jurassic Park to me under that premise. More so, I remember that I would read to myself, or sometimes write my own stories by hand on grid paper Mom brought home for work, until she came to my door.

Most of all, though, I remember when things shifted. I don’t recall the precise context, though I expect I was writing something, or reading something I was really invested in, or maybe I’d gotten in an argument with my father. More than likely, for whatever combination of circumstances, it was tinged with my pre-teen angst and feeling more tired than I would have admitted in the moment.

Mom came into my room earlier than I’d expected her to, and I lashed out. You know, you don’t have to come in here every night.

I regretted the words as soon as I’d said them. Even as my stubborn pride meant I couldn’t begin to take them back in the moment, I immediately felt the sensation of having given up something important. The closest experiences I can liken it to from adult life was the immediate pit in my stomach those times I broke off romantic relationships. Each time I did so, the decision was overdue, and I wouldn’t regret it in the long term. But in that moment? More so than wanting to avoid confrontation or a feeling of guilt at hurting my partner was a sense that maybe I was giving up on something I’d later wish I had back.

That next day, I told Mom that it was OK if she wanted to come to say good night sometimes. I thought myself logical, clarifying a matter of complicated wording. And though I should not have been surprised, Mom did come to my room that night around my standard bedtime, saying I’d made an offer that was too good to pass up on.

Mom came to my room more nights that not in those days to follow. I’m not sure when she stopped, though by high school I was staying up later for homework or to watch TV; the occasional later night phone call. Like so many pieces of childhood—like sleeping with my My Pet Monster, Honk; like playing with my wrestling action figures; like drawing for fun—goodnight hugs fell by the wayside without my noticing in the moment it had happened, and never to return.

I remember all of this while holding my son to my chest, bouncing seated on an exercise ball--a rhythm that soothes him when little else will. This practice, something I do every day now, will fade as he gets too big for it, doesn’t respond to the motion, or doesn’t need soothing in the same way anymore. He’s too little to remember these moments, but I know soon, there will be those memories does carry with him. A foundation for how he understands family and love and good in this world.

I promise myself I’ll hug him tight.

Sunday, April 15, 2018

Every Road Roamed

I remember “Forever Young.” Not the version by Bob Dylan, the objectively more insightful, more artful, more original, better song, released in 1973. The version by Rod Stewart that came out in 1988.

I remember hearing this song in a period of my life, just starting school, when I started to become conscious of music, not as background sound but as something to be enjoyed with individual artists to be identified. A stage before I owned any album or any music-playing device outside our bulky metallic portable cassette player/recorder, and when my sister and I just started experimenting with recording songs as they played on the radio so that we could get our first taste of owning music—the ability to play a song we liked on demand.

I remember that this song appeared in Chances Are, a schmaltzy flic starring Robert Downey Jr. and Cybill Shepherd that offered me my first glimpses into the concept of reincarnation.

I remember listening to this song on the radio, sitting at my grandmother’s kitchen table, and thinking that the lyrics were profound. This idea of what youth might represent, especially for someone much older. How we might cling to it. How we might wish that people in our lives would never change or go away.

I remember hearing this song on the car ride home from swimming lessons--those miserable, freezing summer mornings when my father drove me to the municipal pool to learn the crawl, back, and breast strokes. I remember a particular sense of gratitude, one of those mornings, not for lessons, and not for the time in the car with Dad, but for those parts of the day being over. That the rest of the day would be mine, and that that could mean anything. That notion was inspiring, even when the day’s greatest potential meant things like playing Castlevania, or sketching dragons on the unlined backs of the grid paper my mother snagged from work for my sister and I to write and draw on.

I remember sitting with my best friend at his kitchen table--maybe ten years old-—when he asked me to name a song I liked, and I told him “Forever Young.” I imagine he had just learned about the concept of calling a radio station to request a song, and went on place the call to Lite 98.7, with no concept of different radio stations focusing on different genres, and lucking out that this was a match. I remember lingering at the table, by the radio, as we crept up on the time I was due home for dinner, and finally staying later until we could hear our request made good. Until my mother called his house, midway through the first chorus, to ask his mother to remind me to get my butt home.

I remembered all of this, earbuds in iPhone on shuffle as I stepped off the city bus for a day of teaching and writing in Oregon, and this song came on. I’d forgotten I had it on my phone, and don’t remember what the occasion might have been to download it.

But on that particular spring day, when I didn’t need an umbrella or jacket and the sun beat down and the breeze was warm, this song sounded right. And I listened again.