Sunday, May 29, 2016

In My Twenties

For this post, I’m breaking from my more traditional format of reflecting on my life through stories, and resorting my next favorite device—a list.

As I write these words, I’m 32 years old. I have few illusions about being old or particularly wise, but I do feel that I have the benefit of perspective from which to reflect on a key period of my life when I, in earnest, transitioned from childhood to adulthood.

So, without further ado, here are twenty things I did in my twenties, and what I got from it.

1. I graduated. I mentioned above a transition from childhood to adulthood. Such movements are subtle, inexact, and happen more in steps than isolated moments. My time in college moved me along toward being a grown up. I had my first supervisory roles over my summer work at CTY and for my junior and senior years of college, I oversaw staffs of forty or so other undergrads at the newspaper. I worked shifts as a writing tutor on campus and behind the counter at McDonald’s when I got home.

All of these experienced primed me for adulthood, but I’d argue I didn’t really get there until graduation—at 21 years old I completed a year-long creative writing senior thesis project, delivered a speech at the commencement ceremony and headed off into the world--in that moment, facing the revelation of how little everything up to that point meant to prospective employers and a more global community beyond the campus perimeter. “Getting over” my four years of college may have been harder than any breakup, death, or other form of loss I’ve experienced. But I came out the other side better for having done it.

2. I revised. My senior year of high school, I drafted a novel called Meddletown, a nearly-four-hundred-page speculative work about a city in which android robots that were programmed to physically grow over a normal human lifetime replaced actual human beings. It was an ambitious project, for sure.

And it sucked.

I put Meddletown aside for nearly five years because I had faith that it was a project worth pursuing and the maturity to recognize I wasn’t yet a skilled enough writer to do it justice. So, for pockets of time throughout my twenties, I picked up the charge—first in the year after I finished college, and again for my first couple years in Baltimore.

3. I let go. For a number of years, I felt Meddletown might be my ticket to fame and fortune as an author. Hell, there are still times when the old story comes back to me and I think I might have something.

But not yet. I revised and re-wrote, and with each draft of Meddletown, at least three full-fledged overhauls in my twenties, I remained certain I still didn’t have it right. At it’s core the story remained too convoluted, with too many holes, with problematic prose, and more than Band-aid solutions at stake.

So, for the time being, I let it go. After doing so, I crafted two other novels, a novella, and about twenty to thirty short stories of varying quality. I haven’t yet regretted letting “the one” cool off, perhaps for me to come back to some day, and perhaps for me to release altogether.,

4. I forgave. Regular readers of this blog know that I have some issues resulting from my childhood relationship with my father. And truth be told, the older I get, the more I realize that parts of those early life dynamics remain a core part of me—of my idiosynchrasies, insecurities, my good habits and my bad ones.

But for all the pain I’d harbored around all the instances of feeling devalued and bullied and scolded, I discovered the monster of my childhood to be, like most people I’ve ever feared or suspected I might hate, just another human being doing the best that he knew how at the time. And I forgave him.

5. I fell in love. If you had asked me at any given moment in middle school, high school or early college, I probably would have told you I was in love with someone. I was prone to crushes and infatuations and getting way too invested in way too many situations that would never amount to anything of substance.

In my twenties, the narrative shifted. I started to have relationships that lasted more than a few weeks, but rather stretched into periods of years. They were rooted more in friendship and real experiences than fantasy. They were, by and large, healthier. They were real.

And along the way, I learned one of the least logical and perhaps most patently obvious lessons about love that I like to think most of us stumble upon at one time or another: it’s most likely to happen--to really happen--not when you want it, seek it, or pursue it, but rather when your mind is somewhere else and life happens.

6. I failed. A half year out of college, I decided to launch Preston Burns: Life Unlimited, a fictional blog, updated on a daily basis that told the story of the man facets of a college students life. The experience of writing this blog was cathartic, for reimagining so many stories rooted in my own college years. It was valuable, too, for the degree to which it got me writing regularly and ruthlessly to accumulate material and advance stories--habits that were invaluable the further I got from college, when more and more of the responsibility was on me to motivate my own writing and creative processes, and when other real-life obligations weighed in more and more steadily.

All of that said, the project was an objective flop. On its very best days, when I bugged friends that they really ought to read, and invested time and money into advertising, I flirted with the 100 unique visitors line. By my best estimates, I had about a dozen regular readers, all of them friends or acquaintances.

And though I had felt invested in the project and a had fairly concrete plans to see through the project all the way through four years of undergrad, and sketchy outlines of how the plot might carry on for another couple years after that, there came a time to cut my losses. I recognized that for all of its benefits, the blog was sucking time and resources from my more serious attempts at fiction that I considered my top priority (even when I wasn’t treating them as such), from my musings about a cappella that were starting to get some traction, and all of the other odd-ball projects percolating in the back of my mind. So, after Two years, three months, I closed up shop on Preston Burns.

7. I rooted down. At the age of 22, I conceived of The A Cappella Blog. When I was 23, I launched the website with my best friend. In the years to follow, we traveled up and down the east coast and into the Midwest to cover various competitions and shows. We hosted two events. We self-published a book about a cappella music. Partnering with another close friend, we gave the site a new, more professional design.

There were plenty of times at which I thought the ACB might be a short-term project. We had our share of hecklers, questioning our content and credentials. There were questions of whether we could produce enough content and if the relationship I was involved in at the inception of the site--with a former a cappella singer who had introduced me to the form--could co-exist with a site she seemed to resent.

Nine-and-a-half year later, though, the site is still up and running. And though my move to Oregon and the pay cut I took to go to grad school full time have slowed the site, we have, nonetheless, enstated our little blog as one of the best established, best known publications in the field. And I’ll maintain that much of the site’s success, like success in many different facets of life, came from a continued insistence on showing up, working, and committing to the task at hand.

8. I said goodbye.I’ve written about Grandma Jean on this site a number of times. As a quick summary, she was a benevolent soul who embraced and encouraged my imagination and passions, gave generously of her time, offered the best gifts at Christmas time and is, in so many ways, the person I consider most responsible for my turning out to be a reasonably high functioning adult.

As I neared the end of my teenage years, my grandmother was fading. Her memory failed her and she would fall asleep in the middle of card games. She had a stroke.

There came a time when I had to recognize that she wasn’t entirely the same woman I’d grown up with. I still spent time with her, visiting in her new dwelling in a nursing home where her dementia rooted down and she lost weight. But the roles reversed and on these visits, I became the caretaker and the one to humor inane ramblings.

It’s one of the my great regrets that, during a time when I only lived about an hour away from my grandmother, I only visited her once every two or three months. When I look back on all she did for me, my failure to return the favor seems, at best, ungrateful, and, at worst, cruel.

But I do take some solace in knowing that that’s probably how she would have wanted it--that she wouldn’t have wanted to have been anyone’s burden, and that she would have wanted for me to live my life to the fullest.

Grandma Jean passed not so long after I had moved to Baltimore. I happened to be traveling through New York when it happened, and was able to come back for her wake--an understated affair in which my parents, my uncle John and I were the only ones in attendance. I held her hand as she lay in her casket. Kissed her cheek and said goodbye.

9. I moved. I never intended to live my life in Upstate New York. Not that it’s such a bad place, but I wanted to see more of the world and had vague aspirations of heading to California.

I didn’t make any moves that were quite so radical in my twenties, but I did head down the east coast to Baltimore, to my first residence outside New York State, and the farthest from my hometown that I had ever laid down any roots. The transition was tough at first, as the realities of such a move settled in--a long distance relationship, yes, but also much longer trips to get home for holidays, and having to make harder decisions about whether it were worth my while to drive twelve hours round trip for friends’ birthdays and performances and big moments.

I’m happy to have made the transition, though. While there will come a time when I intend to stay some place longer than six and a half years--to really settle down—I’m glad not to have accepted the easy route of inertia, staying put for the sake of the ease of being around the people and places I already knew. Moving to Baltimore facilitated travel to locations all over the east coast, into the Midwest, and several week-or-two stints in California, not to mention preparing me for the first move of my thirties, across the country to Oregon.

10. I read. I’ve thought of myself as a writer since childhood, and while I had perpetually heard the advice that great writers needed to be great readers, I don’t know that I ever truly bought in. I had periods in my elementary, middle, and high school years when I loved reading, most often when I found particular books, series, or authors that I loved, but I was rarely all that consistent in my consumption. Moreover, when college set in, and I had a steady stream of books to read for my English and sociology double major, I had a hard time feeling compelled to read much outside school--if I finished a book or two over the summer, I had some sense of accomplishment.

Without school hanging over my head, in my twenties, I recognized the importance of routinizing for myself. Staying in the habit of writing came more naturally to me. Reading was more challenging. So I started to read in the mornings over breakfast. Then between sets at the gym. While I waited for buses and trains. As a warm up before I wrote. I set a modest goal of reading at least one book a month, then as I felt the simultaneous lure of literary volumes and more pop lit, I started reading two books at once--one from each loosely defined genre, and recalibrated to read at least two books per month.

I wasn’t going to read one hundred pages a day, consistently read a book a week, or make it through every great novel in a year. The moral of this aspect of my story was that if you have something you know you should do that isn’t immediately appealing, there’s little better approach than to figure out a sustainable system and just plain do it.

11. I embraced a passion. I’m a huge pro wrestling nerd. There, I said it.

But I wouldn’t have said it through my late teen years and early twenties. My lifetime has spanned a pretty interesting period for wrestling fanship. My boyhood, when being a wrestling fan would be most socially acceptable, happened to coincide with one of the wrestling’s biggest boom periods, making it not only cool, but awesome to be a wrestling fan. Everybody knew Hulk Hogan, Randy Savage, and The Ultimate Warrior, and there was no shame professing my love of them. And then, as I reached the age when folks grew out of wrestling, the business as a whole took a downturn, thus making it particularly uncool to be into it. All of this happened, only for another turn to occur in my high school years--the rise of Stone Cold Steve Austin, The Rock, and The nWo that made wrestling cool again. Similarly, this period passed and, throughout my college years, I became a mostly closeted wrestling fan who spent study breaks secretively reading recaps of what had happened on the last episode of Monday Night Raw, and whenever anyone caught me watching any wrestling in real time, I passed off my interest as nostalgia.

But in my mid-twenties, something shifted. I kept my fanship close to the vest when I moved to Baltimore, and watched WrestleMania 24 alone in my apartment. And I decided that I was ready for more.

I started writing weekly wrestling columns for one of my favorite sites, 411Mania. And I started openly talking about my fanship with other guys in the office who had expressed inklings of interest. I made a pilgrimage to Houston for WrestleMania 25, and for the five years to follow, I hosted WrestleMania viewing parties at my apartment, drawing together casual fans and people who were, at best, curious, for a night that everyone seemed to enjoy, almost in spite of themselves.

I’m not as forthcoming about my love for wrestling as I was when I was a child--fully aware of all of the preconceived notions about someone who watches a product so full oversized musclemen rolling around on a mat half-naked together, or the misogyny that’s been so integral to much of the business’s past. But for all its limitations and stigmas, I also won’t deny this passion any more, and coming to terms with it was one of the best things I did for myself in my twenties.

12. I rebuilt. When I look back at my childhood, I tend to remember my Grandma Jean as my favorite person to spend time with; a title that transferred to my best friend Mike in my teenage years. But if I’m going to be more objective about it, in my youth I don’t know that there was anyone I was really closer to than my sister, Diane.

In our childhood, we constructed elaborate worlds in which our cast of stuffed animals played (probably too) well-defined parts. We made hand-written magazines together, watched movies together, and were the best companions either of us had to offer on our largely miserable thrice a year family road trips to visit our Chinese grandparents in New York City.

Just the same, at heart, we’re both relatively private people--thus our teenage years grew especially insular as the both of us closed our bedroom doors more often, and grew closer to friends outside the house than each other. Then Diane headed off to college and made no bones about spending as little time back home as she reasonably could.

We still spent Christmases together, and the occasional odd-ball occasion when she would find herself home, but after I left for college and she moved to Chicago our time together grew scarcer still.

I can imagine an alternate universe in which we stayed apart, or drifted even further.

And I’m glad I don’t live in it.

I’d be lying if I said that my sister and I were as close as we once were, or that we talk all the time. But after her wedding, and after a spring break trip to Chicago, and after she moved back to the east coast, we did start seeing each other at least couple times a year, which usually involved me staying at her house for at least a couple nights, with some phone calls and emails sprinkled in between. I’m grateful that, in my twenties, we were able to rebuild some semblance of relationship, and moreover that I’ve gotten to spend time with her husband and her in-laws to the point that they now feel more like extended family than friendly acquaintances. But it didn’t just happen. It was a process. And I’m glad that we took steps to make it happen.

13. I saved. There are many ways in which I have been lucky when it comes to money, or, to use one of the buzzwords of the day, privileged. Case in point, three of the biggest financial turns in my life happened with minimal intentionality on my part:

-When I got my first job at the age of sixteen, folding sweaters at a discount clothing store, my father opened a Roth IRA retirement savings account for me.

-I put off going to grad school. Had I gone straight out of undergrad, without an assistantship or financial aid (which was the road I came precipitously close to walking down) I would have accrued pure, unadulterated debt. Eleven years later, I’m closing in on finishing my second graduate degree, neither of which I had to pay for.

-My first job out of college--and, to be up front, the only job offered to me at the time--was a live-in residence life position. The salary was minimal, but with a roof over my head and utilities included, plus a meal plan to take care of close to half of my food, I had the opportunity to put away more than half of what I was making.

I got lucky in the three aforementioned incidents, and I don’t write about that to brag but rather to suggest that there are similar paths that others might emulate. If you know a young person, challenge them to start saving for retirement absurdly early (or if you aren’t doing so already, what are you waiting for?). Consider holding out on funding for grad school. And if you can find opportunities that you can stomach to save on living expenses, by all means do so.

In my twenties, I was set up with the foundation of savings, and I did everything I felt was reasonable to further that path. I contributed as much as I felt comfortable contributing to my Roth IRA every year. And when my next employer offered a 403B retirement account on top of that, I arranged for modest automatic payroll deductions to go there, too—money I never had and thus would never miss, and that I never had to think about.

I won’t claim to have lived a Spartan lifestyle throughout my twenties. As other items on this list suggest, I traveled, and there were times when I indulged. Just the same, I also brown-bagged peanut butter and jelly sandwiches for lunch better than eighty percent of the time, at an estimated cost of a dollar for every two sandwiches. Outside special occasions, I paid attention to the cost of my meals and the cost of my drinks.

Saving isn’t necessarily fun, but in my early thirties, I look back on it as one of the best habits I forged in my twenties.

14. I routinized my writing. For the overwhelming majority of my twenties, I worked in office jobs. Sometimes they adhered to a 9-5-ish schedule. But working in residence life and planning summer programs, there were also quite a few points in each year when that schedule burgeoned to consume ten-to-fifteen hours of a day. For someone who liked to call himself a writer, it’s not hard to see that those days didn’t afford a wealth of time for my own work.

Thus, routinization became key. I espoused brief, but regular bursts of creativity. Aiming to write for half an hour a day. Or for five hundred words. Or, during those busiest periods, to at least write or revise a paragraph.

One of the lessons I learned--that I suppose most writers learn at one point or another--is that you can’t necessarily depend on inspiration or wait for the ideal circumstances under which to be creative. More often, I needed to seize on any opportunity, and simply get to work. Some days were better than others, and I won’t deny that there were times when I went a few days without meaningfully writing, when I was simply too busy at work or with travel or with company from out of town.

But I got back to it.

In my twenties, writing was all about making time and making things happen.

15. I published. I self-published two novels in the fledgling stages of my writing career, at the ages of 17 and 19. The experience felt good at the time, and I’m still proud of the sheer volume of writing I produced at that age. Just the same, as I progressed into the late stages of college and into adulthood, I recognized that publishing without any meaningful editorial standards wasn’t really the same as the accomplishment of being selected for publication.

I sent a few stories to journals during my first years out of undergrad, and started submitting more aggressively after I had moved to Baltimore and more specifically as I made headway in the MA program at Hopkins. I accumulated my share of rejections, until I reached a point when I wondered if I really could consider myself a serious writer if I couldn’t get anything published.

But then it happened. In the least likely of circumstances, I had a poem I had written in college and only recently revised accepted for publication in an online-only journal. I won’t claim that publication opportunities started flowing steadily after that point, but I was pleased to see that the longer and harder I worked at it, the more publications I saw, and that before I turned thirty I had added six short story publication credits to my name.

Publications are not the be all, end all of being a writer, but in my twenties, I did get a foot hold in that world via modest publications in small journals--a record I’m eager to improve upon in my thirties.

16. I lived with a cat. Excluding a less-than-a-year period when we kept fish as a child, I never had a pet. My father didn’t like messes. My mother was allergic to most any fur imaginable. Thus, the closest I came to caring for an animal was feeding a friend’s dog, and letting her out into the backyard to relieve herself when his family was on vacation for a week in high school.

But when I moved to Baltimore, so many of the people in my life had cats. When they went out of town, I started getting requests to house and cat sit, and, by the end of each stint, started to form connections with the little buggers.

Then, a friend who was house sitting for a professor asked if I would take in her cat for a nine-month period.

It’s no exaggeration to say that I fell in love with Archie. He waited by the door each day when I came home from work and rubbed against my legs, following me around the apartment until I picked him up, and so I took to opening the door each evening and picking him up first thing, hugging him close and listening to him purr as I wrested off my bag and my coat and started removing food from the refrigerator to make dinner. He was my companion while I wrote and read and watched TV.

I didn’t have to deal with much in the way of hard times with Archie. He never needed veterinary care while he lived under my roof and never broke anything too valuable. And while I did sneeze more while he was around, he didn’t affect my allergies so badly. Thus, I’ve always surmised that I got the best parts of having a cat and didn’t have to face the worst. I also fear that the relationship I forged with Archie will mean that any other cat-friend relationship I may embark on in the future will pale in comparison.

All of that said, living with a cat was good for me. It made me consistently put someone else’s needs ahead of my own, whether it was carrying him around the apartment, holding him still to clip his claws, or getting up at five in the morning to answers his calls to be fed. It wrested me from my self-absorbed obsession with the stories I was trying to write. And it resulted in hundreds of adorable cat photos that I still turn back to every now again.

17. I worked on my body. Throughout my childhood and teenage years, I was about the skinniest boy I’ve ever known. And it’s not that I didn’t eat—as best I can tell, I just had an overactive metabolism (and, to be fair, in my late teenage years I started running). In any event, I headed off to college standing 6’1” and weighing all of 130 pounds.

On account of my waif-like physique, I never felt a need to pay much attention to my diet. I drank a lot of Mountain Dew. I ate a lot of cookies, chips, and Pop Tarts.

I aspired to a more muscular physique. As a big fan of pro wrestling, I was bombarded with images of genetic freaks and steroid users. But I didn’t bother with weight lifting. For as skinny as I was, I figured I’d might as well wait until my metabolism settled down until I bothered trying to put on muscle mass.

But upon seeing my best friend take to weight lifting and noticeably develop his physique, and upon a girlfriend making one ill-timed joke about how skinny I was, at the age of 20, I bought myself a set of dumbbells. I started a clumsy routine, lifting weights more or less every other day, using fifteen to thirty-pounds of adjustable weights. Presses using my air mattress as a bench. Bicep curls. Flies. I carried on like that for three and half years and started to take on some definition. When I moved to Baltimore, I bought myself a Wal-Mart weight bench, bar bell, and more plates.

Finally, after the first serious workout of my life while I was on vacation with friends who far more serious about and experienced in their weight training endeavors, I joined a gym, and started using it three-to-five times a week.

As I started to see gains muscle, I also saw gains in my waistline--my metabolism finally faltering, but not in a balanced way that thickened my entire body, but rather in a pot belly. So, I changed my diet, too. More vegetables. Fewer carbs. More cardio and sit ups.

I can’t claim to be a world-class athlete, or to say that I look anything like one. But, in my twenties I did take control of what I could surrounding my physical appearance and my health. Thus far, I haven’t looked back.

18. I traveled. When I reflect on my life and changes in it, some of the numbers are still remarkable to me. At the age of nineteen, I had visited, by my rough count, six different states and had never left US soil. By the time I had turned thirty, I had hit twenty-seven states, and broadened my list of far off places visited to Canada, Scotland, England, and France,

I traveled for business. Work took me on regular trips to California that, before long, I extended into vacations to explore a goodly percentage of the state. I vacationed in Europe, the Carolinas, and in Texas. A cappella trips took make to hitherto unexplored regions of the northeast, to Nashville, to Michigan, to Missouri.

Early in my thirties, I made the cross country drive to start a new life in Oregon, along the way crossing off a bunch more states from my list (I sincerely hope to see all fifty) and establishing the first meaningful, sustained chapter of my life away from the east coast. I don’t know that this would have happened without the foundation of traveling over the preceding decade.

The travel I did in my twenties opened my eyes to the fact that there really is a wide world out there--sights to be seen, foods to be tasted, people to be met. The funny thing about travel is that the more you do, the more you realize you haven’t done.

I plan to do a lot more.

19. I held on to childish things. As we grow up, we’re taught to leave behind childish things. When I hit junior high, my father chided me for still playing with action figures. So I stopped. After college, a friend knocked me for wearing too many t-shirts, and I started to grow my collection of polos and collared shirts.

You get older and you play less. You work more. You go to bed earlier. You read and watch documentaries and listen to podcasts about serious topics.

But that doesn’t mean that you need to give it all up.

One of the best things I did in my twenties was to reject more sophisticated, more mature voices, and remain loyal some of the pieces of my childhood that remained entertaining, enlightening, or fundamentally important to me. It meant salivating over The Muppets film’s release and listening to “Life’s a Happy Song” on repeat on my iPhone. It meant hosting WrestleMania parties. It meant bringing Honk, my most treasured toy from childhood, back from my childhood home to my apartment in Baltimore (and later Corvallis), regardless of how impractical it may have been.

I came to understand that just because I loved something when I was younger didn’t mean I needed to give it up in my older age. In fact, such childish things could be all the richer for time and perspective.

20. I jumped out of a plane. While I hadn’t put much serious thought into it, I was always vaguely intrigued with the idea of skydiving. At the age of 29, I tried to consider something big I might do to end a decade in my life, and on a whim, I Googled the best locations to skydive in the US.

Ten minutes later, I had discovered that one of the top spots was Santa Cruz, California, where work would have me wrapping up my summer that August.

Twenty minutes later, I had booked my first jump.

Skydiving is dangerous. I had to sign waivers that included recognition that this activity had a high probability of resulting in death. Just the same, strapped to an experienced professional who made his living jumping with tourists strapped to him, I struggle to fathom that tandem skydiving is actually all that much more dangerous than driving on a crowded freeway at rush hour.

Jumping from that plane represented more than a fall from a great height, though. It was a leap into the next phase of my life--days before a first date that would change my life, weeks before I would turn 30, weeks before I would start applying to MFA programs, a year before I would move across the country. And yes, from a height of tens of thousands of feet, everything below did look strangely small.

In my twenties, I took the leap.

So, there you have it--a look at twenty things I did in my twenties. Writing all of this was a reflective exercise for me, and if you’ve reached this ending, I appreciate your patience in coming along with me for an unusually long post. Here’s hoping you might have gotten something out of the journey as well.

Sunday, May 15, 2016

Superman Isn’t Brave

The summer between tenth and eleventh grade, I came upon Angus, a teen movie starring Charlie Talbert, James Van Der Beek, Ariana Richards, and Chris Owen, with Kathy Bates and Geroge C. Scott in supporting roles. I’d been conscious of the movie when it hit theaters four years earlier, mostly because of its soundtrack that featured Green Day’s “J.A.R.,” which got some radio play at the time.

But when I encountered the movie, it was free on TBS. At the time, I was hooked on some terrific teen TV dramas like Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Felicity, as well as some pretty bad shows of a superficially similar ilk, such as Dawson’s Creek. Were it not for Van Der Beek starring as both Dawson on his titular show and Rick Sanford the quarterback bully on Angus, I don’t know that I would have tuned in that day.

But I did, and I watched straight through.

And in typical TBS fashion of that era, they reshowed the movie during the daytime hours, once or twice a day for the week to follow. So, the next day I insisted we watch it at my best friend’s house. The day after that I plugged a blank VHS tape in the VCR and recorded it as it was happening.

So what got me hooked on Angus? Hooked to the point that, to this day, I’ll still call it my favorite movie. It has little to do with the quality of the film itself. There are plenty of moments of poor acting and questionable direction, besides which the overarching narrative is largely cliché and its resolution is pretty saccharine.

This is an example of the right piece of art (or pop culture, if you’re more comfortable with that term for a movie like this) reveals itself at precisely the right time in a person’s life. I don’t know that I’d love professional wrestling had I not grown up in a period when Hulk Hogan made it so inviting for the masses to love the form. I don’t know if I would call Counting Crows my favorite band if I hadn’t first encountered them in middle school, on the cusp of truly discovering music as something that I could have my own, meaningful opinions about. Maybe I wouldn’t favor Chinese food were it not for my father and grandmother’s cooking, or Italian food if I hadn’t grown up in Utica, New York, where there are so much of the stuff, and so much of it is good, too.

Angus got me--nerdy and slight and not very good at sports, when I was prone to profound and melodramatic infatuations on the girls around me. And while so much of the film is objectively unoriginal and uninteresting, the teenage cast--ironically, all but James Van Der Beek--looked like kids I would feasibly know in my own school; the music was the kind of music I would listen to (confirmed when I bought the soundtrack and listened ad nauseam). And then there’s the ending. (Note: spoilers follow.)

Angus’s grandfather gives him an impassioned pep talk, with the signature line, “Superman isn’t brave.” He goes on to explain that Superman is impervious to pain or destruction, so it’s easy to engage in heroic deeds because he knows he won’t come out the worse for it. The grandfather cites Angus as a counterexample--because he is completely vulnerable, and thus actually does need courage if he’s to get anything he wants out of life.

So Angus goes to the dance. He slow dances with his crush, pushes the bully to the ground, delivers an impassioned speech of his own about embracing weirdness and diversity, and ultimately walks the pretty girl home at the end of the night.

I won’t argue that this resolution is believable, sharp, or particularly unpredictable. But again, it comes back to seeing the right movie at the right time in my life--when I’d might as well have been Angus getting that pep talk.

I don’t know that I’m particularly brave, or that I’ve ever done anything particularly heroic. But I do think that, for all of my tendency to criticize and my sarcasm, at the end of the day, I am an optimist. A believer that life is by-and-large good, and that things in this life have a tendency to work out, not necessarily by any grand design, but because of making the most out of opportunities and the life you have available to you.

And this is the point--the critical point--at which it’s debatable whether Angus influenced me, or the film and I found each other at the right moment to complement each other’s philosophies. But what I may appreciate most about Angus is its unapologetic optimism. Unbridled happy endings usually don’t make for great films or great literature, but in the context of a pop movie, made for a mass audience, I find something very sweet, very appealing about it. A movie with moments that take me back in time. A movie that, after all these years, helps me continue to believe.

Sunday, May 1, 2016

The Umbrella Gun

The summer between my senior year of high school and the start of my college career, I took a job working the register at McDonald’s.

My first day on the job, as the lunchtime rush tapered (and as I questioned whether the spending cash this job would afford me was really worth an onslaught of annoyed customers against a backdrop of the smell of fry grease and burger sweat), George came in. White-haired, bespectacled, skin wrinkled and freckled, back curved. He wore a navy blue windbreaker and carried a little black umbrella with a duck’s head carved into its wooden handle. He waited in my line, and when his turn came up, he stooped further, lifted the umbrella to eye level and held it as if it were a rifle, and told me to give him all my money.

It was my first day. We hadn’t gone over the procedure in the event of a stickup, much less what to do in the case the robbing party were delusional enough to think his umbrella were a gun, and a case in which I actually felt fairly confident I could physically subdue the would-be villain.

As all of these thoughts passed through my consciousness, a flurry of motion began behind me. A Styrofoam cup holder came down on the counter. Then one cup of hot coffee, regular, one cup of hot coffee, decaf. George tapped the umbrella against the counter and I understood he was joking, though he said, “Just so you know I’m still dangerous.” He set the point of his umbrella gun on the ground and, without the hint of a smile progressed with his order in slow but jerking speech. “I want two cheeseburgers. I want two cups of coffee. One of the cheeseburgers plain.” He pointed at me. “Nothing on it. And the other one with extra onions. And I need two ice cream sundaes. Make sure one of the coffees is decaf.”

As those who shared my fast food experience may recall, the order was a nightmare. The procedure goes that you enter an item—a cheeseburger, for example—and immediately enter any customizations the customer wanted. Then it’s on to the next item. Regular and decaf coffee on separate buttons. Each sundae needs to be entered with its respective topping choice, and it’s fifty cents extra for nuts.

And yet, as I stumbled my way through inputting the order--my manager leaning over the shoulder to zero out the completely errant parts—my coworkers assembled the order with striking efficiency, packing the coffee cups and the two sundaes in to the Styrofoam carrier, one serving of ice cream plain, the other smothered in hot fudge.

With startling efficiency that was in no way to my credit, George had his food and had one of my coworkers holding the door for him to walk out.

After he left, someone explained to me that George came in every single day and made the exact same order. He lived in a house a block away with his ailing wife and they shared that same lunch together. He liked his ice cream plain and couldn’t stomach caffeine after breakfast. His wife liked hot fudge and drank at least three cups of coffee each day.

At that moment the very idea of inputting, much assembling George’s on a daily basis without everyone around me knowing what to do seemed insurmountable.

And yet, like so many things, it became routine.

George only aimed his umbrella gun at me once more, about a week and a half later, but after that initiation period I became regular to him just as he was a regular to the rest of the crew behind the counter. And after three months at McDonald’s I became something like a veteran, helping to coach wide-eyed newcomers, getting George’s order ready when I saw him coming.

I left for college but came back to work that winter break, and for the month between spring semester and the start of my summer camp job. The pattern repeated throughout my undergrad, and each time I saw George again. In the passage of years, sometimes he remembered me, sometimes he didn’t. By my last tour of duty, he was no longer a daily customer, but instead stopped by once or twice a week. I learned that his wife’s condition had worsened to the point that George couldn’t care for her alone, so she moved into a nursing home. Just a year before my own grandmother would move into the same facility, I felt especially sympathetic to him if, at the same time, incapable of really expressing that—after all, what did a 21-year-old kid with his life in front of him know about lost youth and losing people?

I don’t know that George or his wife are still alive. I don’t have last names to research it, and the last few times I’ve stopped at that McDonald’s back home I haven’t recognized a single face on staff. In all likelihood, they never even met George. And there’s probably another cast of characters that supplanted that old crew of regulars.

But every now and again, when the morning gray turns to drizzle, I fish my little umbrella from my backpack and prop it open, over head. In the process, for a just a moment, I think of a man who would hold such a thing like a gun. Maybe to be funny. Maybe just to show he was still a little bit dangerous.