One of my earliest memories of your grandmother is learning how to spell words. She would draw a picture and write the word beneath it. I asked her multiple times to run this lesson for me, and every time she did do it for me, she’d place a cup of juice with Vienna Fingers on the kitchen table by my side.
There was something about a visual representation of an idea that blew my mind. I’d ask her to draw different words to see what they look like. By then, I’d seen every one of those objects in artistic depictions, but there was something magical about your grandmother doing it before my eyes. She knew the world in a way that I couldn’t yet process, and the drawings solidified her power in my mind.
Sometimes I swear I can feel abstract ideas as tangibly as I can feel the keys on this computer. I can perceive their texture and their weight. Sometimes I can see the cost of manifesting them into the world, and sometimes I can see their consequences. This phenomenon has fueled my art and maybe my humanity.
I’m sure there’s an earlier memory of your grandmother somewhere in my unconscious. I’ll keep it there until it needs to be replaced, and I’ll keep the memory from you until something more pressing needs to be said. I’ve learned that it’s better to see loved ones at their greatest moment if you can help it. For everything else, there’s Vienna Fingers and juice.
I let him hit me. Not punch me and not “I let him” as in “Sure! Go ahead and hit me” but I let him hit me. He’d push my head with an open hand. I told him to stop, but he didn’t. He’d hit me more than I’d like to admit, and sometimes I even told myself we were really friends.
Some time ago, I started to believe that it began in Algebra class, and that I was Tourette’s-and-facial-tic-free until I sat in front of Axel Sidezski that sophomore year of high school. I don’t remember having or feeling the tics before then, and for years I felt shame for knowing that I let him do that. It took many more years to begin to understand why I did.
I googled searched Axel the other day, asking two questions: Is he still the same? And is he doing better than I am? I searched for 10 minutes, and I only found white-page profiles of other Axels. Nowhere could I find that parted, reddish-blondish hair. Nowhere could I find that smirk.
I made a promise to myself long ago. I told myself that I would write things and create things of immense beauty. I told myself that if the Axels of the world ever came back, I could do one thing better than they could, one thing no person can take away.
Is he still the same and is he doing better than I am?
I remember asking the Ritter Elementary School librarian for a book on Spielberg in the 1988-1989 school year. I waited two weeks for it. Every other day, I’d bother her about the book, but the date of arrival never changed.
At age 8, I wanted to be Steven Spielberg. He made daydreams come to life. He turned regular people into giants. A rainbow always shined in the end, and evil always lost. My world was my family, my home, and a movie theater, and I could see no other calling.
At age 42, I just want to live well and write well and maybe have a wider audience. I try and sometimes succeed at the first one every day. I feel better about the second. Maybe I’ll have the third eventually, but I think I’ll be okay if it never happens. Until then, I finally own that Spielberg book.
One-and-a-half trips around The Sun today, Emile. There will be no party, but I celebrate all the same.
You are here. You are healthy and strong and absorbing new words faster than I ever could. You were meant to be here and will inherit the world in ways that I could not.
There was a time when my head was a carnival of light, my son. Thoughts, ideas, and emotions all intertwined in a kaleidoscopic feast, and I believed that if I just put it out there, put it on paper or film or on stage, people would understand me. I was convinced I was here to save the world and show them things hidden under the blanket of their fixed views and idealogy.
But no one seemed to care, and I engaged in a protracted and misanthropic self-conversation that robbed me of joy and gratification with even the most delectable of occasions.
It doesn’t matter what they think of me anymore, at least not like it used to. I see the psychedelic-Kodachrome cavalcade in your smile and I am reborn. It makes its way down the abandoned roads of my soul, and some days I think I can see barren fields filled with life again. I ask myself, “How could I ever have allowed others such power over me? How could anyone torture themselves as I did?”
I will be your audience, my son. I will be your witness. I know that if I can do anything it will be to see you in your most noble and extraordinary wardrobe, a tapestry of confidence and sweetness patched together with no visible seams. I will be your champion. The world doesn’t know what they’re in for like I do.
Happy 18 months old, Emile. We’ve come so far in such a short time, and we have miles and miles to go. Sometimes I wonder what I would do for a few miles more.
When something doesn’t go Emile’s way, he says that it’s stuck. When he can’t open a door, it’s stuck. When a ball or toy is lodged under something, it’s stuck. When he can’t push his carriage across the sidewalk, it’s stuck. When an object is too heavy to lift and throw outside of his playpen, it’s stuck. Stuck no longer means stuck to him. Anything that serves as a source of frustration and forces him to solve a problem, anything that he can’t control and must learn to overcome, anything that he can’t manipulate and must learn to leave alone, all of it is stuck. With that said, I have a possible name for my future book of stories and essays that I’m writing for Emile. The World Is Stuck.
Your Daddy writes to be heard. Your Daddy writes to let the world know that he’s here. Your Daddy writes because he feels that he has something to say, a message that needs to be delivered and pulled out of his gut like some-type of science fiction movie. Your Daddy writes to not be interrupted when he speaks. Your Daddy writes to be loved. Your Daddy hopes to be understood, but at this point feels that most people will never understand him. Your Daddy writes because he cannot say what he means on the top of his head without the other person giving him time to think or respond. If Daddy were to try to verbally express what you’re reading now, he would sound like the under-educated, working class kid that he was. Your Daddy writes because he’s an artist. Your Daddy is an artist, someone that sees things so…
10-year old Devin Maguire held onto his BMX handlebars and stared at my new bike. “Your dad got that bike from a thrift store.”
“No, he didn’t!” I said.
“Yes, he did. I can tell.”
“No, he didn’t.”
“Yeah, cause there’s marks on it.”
I looked down at the bike. There were scuff marks on the handlebars, but that was it.
“He got it from K-Mart,” I said.
“Okay, which one?”
“The one down the street.”
“I know all the bikes at K-Mart. I didn’t see that one there.”
I shrugged my shoulders. “Well, that’s where he got it from.”
“Did he tell you he got it from there?”
“Then how do you know?”
Devin stared right into my eyes. He had a blank expression, but I swore I could see a smirk. It was the same smirk he always had, the same one he had whenever he beat a kid in a race.
“So?” Devin said. “How do you know?”
Devin kept staring. He looked as though he had all the time in the world and the absolute certainty that he was right. I knew that I had only a beat or two before I looked like a fool. I had to answer.
“Cuz,” I said, “My parents don’t shop at thrift stores!”
Devin continued to look into my eyes. I felt like he was searching for something, and I needed to keep my composure. Didn’t he see my brother with a new bike last year? Didn’t he know it was my turn?
I tightened my lips and gripped my handlebars. Devin scrunched his eyebrows. I quickly glanced down at his bike.
“Alright,” he said, letting out a snicker. Then he rode off towards his apartment building.
Nearly a century and a half of music recordings and centuries more of musical compositions are at your disposal. Use it. Find it. Let it talk to you. It can help you at any time. Never expect it to solve the problem, but music can expose the underlying issues of your life that make the problem seem real.
I was sad in my early 20s. Very sad. Everything was tragic, and everything I tried to do seemed to end in failure. I felt as though I couldn’t even get a hello from people and from the world. I wanted it all to end sometimes. Music was that hello.
It talked to me directly, and it made me believe that there are and have been others just like me. They think like me, and they feel like me. Music was the code between us, and the message was, “I am an artist.” Music told me that my role was to reevaluate norms. I was never to be satisfied with what we assumed to be true, but I was never to change my core beliefs. There was nothing wrong with me. I was normal. It was the conversation between the individual and the world that was distorted.
There’s a link between youth and music and the way it shapes our views. How will you allow it to shape yours?
A mini-story from my mini-book, So You Say You Want An 80s Childhood?
The Homework Thief
Brian Ross was my friend.
“Are you friends with Brian?” Anna said to me, sitting on the floor in gym class. “I think he puts mayonnaise in his hair.”
“No, he doesn’t,” I said.
“Yeah,” Frieda said. “He smells like my lunch bag.”
“No, he doesn’t.”
Brian Ross was my friend, even if he were to put peanut butter on his head. Brian liked what I liked on TV, and we could play the same characters every recess without my having to tell him about them. He was the only other kid that laughed at my cartoon jokes and references. Brian Ross was my friend. Then Brian Ross stole my homework.
It was there in the bin. I told Mrs. Cain that I swore I did my homework and put it there when I arrived at 8am. So she looked through all of last night’s assignments and pulled it out. I could see my name erased and Brian’s name now on top of it.
“That’s it,” I said. “I know because I wrote my name nice and big.”
Mrs. Cain turned to the class. “Alright, let’s go to lunch. Marc and Brian I want you to stay behind.”
At recess, my classmates surrounded me, trying to piece together what happened.
“He tried to make it look like it was his homework?”
“Did he ask to take it?”
“Is he getting in trouble?
I answered the questions as fast as they were given, and I assured them that I didn’t give him the assignment. I liked this feeling, this attention. It felt good. All eyes were on me for the first time in a very long time. The boys even stopped playing kickball to question me, and the hopscotch girls left their beanbags unguarded. This was nice.
Within two minutes, they’d gotten all the information they needed, and I ran out of things to tell them. They began to talk amongst each other about Brian.
“Yeah, he smells like ham sandwich.”
“He took my pencil.”
“Why’s he always dirty?”
They kept going on about different circumstances involving Brian. I laughed at a joke without even hearing the punchline.
“Mrs. Lee looked mad,” I said.
They kept talking.
“He got upset.”
They kept talking.
“I think he’s scared.”
They kept talking.
“He picks his nose too.”
They looked at me.
“I know. I saw it,” Lucy said. “He does it all the time.”
I continued, “He used to be my friend, but he acts stupid sometimes.”
“He thinks he’s funny,” Elvin said.
Their circle opened up, enough for me to fit in. It was as though they made the perfect spot for me with my name on it. I walked forward. The circle closed again. I was in. I was there. I was one with the rest.
Brian walked out of the building and onto the playground pavement. His head was pointed down to the ground as he zipped up his thin red jacket. The kids turned towards him. I backed away just a bit.
He stopped and scanned the playground, then turned and looked at me. I looked away. A kid in the group said something that made the other kids laugh. I chuckled at the joke without even hearing the punchline.