On Stories: Feelings are the best feelings

Cartoons make me cry. Well, not all cartoons obviously– The Bugs Bunny/Road Runner show never made me tear up, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles have ne’er pulled a glistening drop from mine eyes. Cartoons that conjure up genuine feelings, though, I’m especially susceptible to. Look, I get it– everyone cries during the opening to UpGrave of the Fireflies has devastated more souls than there are stars in the sky, The Iron Giant *sniff* wants… he wants to be Superman and then he…

Okay, I’m back.

My point is I’ve always been emotionally vulnerable when I was watching cartoons… and probably not many other times. In high school, my friends described me as “stoic,” which looking back on it was a funny way of saying “70% dead inside.”

Having a daughter changed this for me. When my wife was pregnant, I would joke that I could feel things changing inside my brain, I could feel myself softening up as my body prepared to be a father. Except it wasn’t really a joke, I could feel things shifting around inside that ridiculous gray organ, making room for another person in my life, getting ready for changes my conscious mind could barely comprehend. Having a kid turned me into a gentler, more sensitive person… and now I cry at Young JusticeThe Incredibles, Steven UniverseFrozen. It’s the scenes of familial loss or jeopardy that get me– the boat carrying the sisters’ parents vanishes into a stormy sea, Elastigirl realizes that her children are trapped on board that doomed plane with her. And yeah, I’m tearing up as I write this because it’s all so scary!

I also like it, though, because the feelings are just so… real.

I also like horror movies, but caring for an infant human– now a smart and chaos-filled toddler– has made those harder for me to enjoy. I think it was Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark where I first saw a child in supernatural jeopardy and thought “Nope. I’m out.” Not because it was too scary for me (it might have been too scary for me) but because it wasn’t fun. So it started out that I stopped enjoying seeing kids in horror films, then it progressed. I’d never enjoyed torture scenes; I’ve always avoided franchises like Hostel and Saw but suddenly on-screen suffering became genuinely painful for me. These feelings have mellowed out some, but there was a time in that sleep-deprived first year of parenthood where I couldn’t enjoy a classic like John Carpenter’s The Thing without getting unpleasantly weepy. I couldn’t enjoy the shocks or the genuine sense of empty dread as the film ends with two men– one almost certainly a secret monster– face each other, a cold Arctic death the best they can hope for. I felt genuine despair as I wondered if I’d ever be able to enjoy one of my favorite pastimes again.

Then I started reading Joe Hill comics and novels; I think his short story “Best New Horror” reminded me why I enjoy horrors. So my standards have been raised– didn’t finish Midnight Meat Train because of its lazy-ass writing– and I appreciate that, but I miss being able to turn off my brain and enjoy watching a zombie impale an eyeball on a spike of wood.

Alas.

The other day my little girl asked me if I’d ever had a cat– we currently are surrounded and virtually overwhelmed by a sea of mostly black cats– and I told her about Watson. Watson was a little gray kitten my mother and I stumbled across on a walk. Playful and friendly, he clearly loved people, but also clearly thought we were only good for a few moments of fun before he started wandering towards the surrounding woods. A half-Persian kitten, his fur was matted; he was tiny and scrawny and sheltering in a lot with a few discarded Christmas trees dumped in it. We carried him home, infuriating our other cat, but we had no regrets. He grew up tiny but tough– a fluffy ball of dusky tiger stripes, he attacked any invading cats mercilessly, knocking out a tooth and almost blinding one big male that started hanging around our porch one Winter. We gave that cat, Clarence, to my mom’s parents and he lived the much happier life of not being beaten to death by a much smaller animal.

Mean as he was to other cats, Watson loved us intensely. I don’t know that I was his favorite; he was always my favorite. As a kitten he was small enough he could walk on my skinny, outstretched, teenage arm. He would often purr when– audibly, loudly– whenever one of us walked into a room. Even after neutering, he was a fighter, and would disappear for days, coming back limping but proud.

As I told my daughter about all of this, she asked why she’d never met Watson. And I teared up, like I do, and told her that Watson had gotten sick (FIV, aka kitty AIDS, probably contracted during his roving and dueling) and he had died, but that he had purred when I came home from college. On a vet’s cold steel table, explanations of impending mortality in the air, Watson started purring the second he saw me.

So I explained this as best I could to a toddler, glossing over most of the details… but I must have looked sad. And then my little girl says, brightly “I can be Watson for you!”

My daughter pretends to be a cat pretty regularly. It’s just a game she plays, and it’s cute and fun; in this game, cats usually start talking pretty quickly. So she got down on her hands and knees and said “It’s me! Watson!” And… it worked. I talked to her like she was Watson for a little while, told her how I’d dreamed he’d came back, dreamed it so many times, how I still miss him. “But I’m right here!” she said, and yes. She is.

The Dar Williams song “When I Was A Boy” has a line that always spoke to me, about how growing up as a boy means you lose certain things and how “I have lost some kindness.” And having a daughter, being a father, I lost some things.

And I got a lot more back.

 

On Youth: I Was A College White Boy

This article came out of the previous article. Sort of a natural bi-product of writing about someone else’s horror movie.

At the risk of making this story about me, I’m going to tell you a tale about my college friend O. O’s a good guy, an intellectual, a black man. He’s currently at large in the world as a pretty radical academic thinker and speaker about race in the U.S. I’ve seen him complain about his ignorant white students on Facebook; he’s not wrong, and he has a sense of humor about it. When we lived in the same dorm together we acted together– did drama. Years later I saw O in a national commercial spot and reached out to him because he was a complete badass in the commercial, and he wrote back to tell me he appreciated it and he’d appreciated the notes I’d given him when I sat in on a different rehearsal, many years before. So I don’t think there were any hard feelings between us.

I told you all that so I can tell you this: I fucked up.

It was during an improv game O, myself, and my lovely friend M were playing after rehearsal. The scenario that blossomed organically was that he was coming home with her to meet her disapproving countrified father, played by myself. We skated around the issue of race, making it feel like my character was racist without actually saying it– so much so that I accidentally dropped a “boy,” in there, which I immediately regretted but didn’t have the sense to apologize for. To us white folks it was a joke, with the punchline being that my character was actually confused by O’s bald head; he was scared of skinheads without really understanding what they were.

Well, I thought it was funny. At the time.

A few weeks later O freaked out and very angrily dumped his white girlfriend; I was told he called her and a lot of other folks “white devils.” This was during the heyday of Louis Farrakhan, so I can guess where it came from, but it was pretty bad, a lot of feelings were hurt. Much later he made amends, but the fact is he’s still a kind of thoughtful firebrand, an intellectual bomb-thrower and I can’t blame him. Now more than ever there’s ideas that need blowing up.

I know O’s life is not about me and his decisions weren’t about me. He’s dealt with far worse things than one ignorant teenager’s empathy fail. I also know that O has very little use for white liberal bullshit, which is more about making people in my position feel better than it is about improving the world or getting anything done. That said, I wish I’d apologized to his face. I had a sour taste in my mouth after that improv session, and now I can articulate the obvious: you don’t make light of what you don’t understand.

I don’t want to be a part of anyone else’s horror movie ever again.

On Youth 1: Lydia speak

My daughter is almost 3 now. She’s quite a talker– a huge vocabulary, articulate and funny. But language is culture; culture has a lot of quirks.

For example, this sentence appeared this morning, living in a context all its own:

Lydia, spontaneously at the breakfast table:

“I’m gonna make a snowman and give him eyes and ears and nose and a head and a vulva and butt.”

I don’t think I could get away with that one.

Similarly, it’s funny when she says this:

Mustachios

She’s better at dad jokes then I will ever be.