Earliest Memories, Part II: So Much Blood

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My parents’ lackluster filtering skills are probably why I remember the seventies as a house of horrors with no exit.

I was born in the spring of 1975, and very few of my earliest memories actually happened to me personally. The ones that did showed no signs of being for posterity at the time; my brain just sort of grabbed onto them as they rushed past.

I can remember visiting “the California Cousins” on vacation when I was three, returning to the motel after our trip to Disneyland and putting one of my mom’s bras on my head, pointing to the cups and saying, “Look, I’m Mickey Mouse!”

I can remember the way I used to let go of the lever on my View-Master* with a jarring, springy CLANG when I was three or four, oblivious that the noise terrified our dog Lady out of her mind. I remember Mom scolding me as Lady bolted to the safety of the laundry room, yelping the canine equivalent of “what the fuck is your problem, man?” The fact that you could release that little lever gently, without taking your finger off of it, was completely lost on me; I remember thinking, essentially, “I don’t know why you gave me this thing, then, if you didn’t want to hear that noise. That’s the noise a View-Master makes,” and going right back to CLANGing. Lady would run away for good within a year.

With a few exceptions, though, almost all of my earliest memories are of seeing things on TV in the seventies, and most of those things were incomprehensible nightmare seeds.

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My mom and I are alone in her bedroom late one night. My sister is either sleeping or absent, meaning I am no more than four. On the 10” black and white TV in the corner of the room, Dan Aykroyd is on Saturday Night Live pretending to be Julia Child. Look at the funny man doing the funny voice in the funny outfit! Yay! Funny funny funny, BLOOD BLOOD BLOOD. Suddenly funny Dan is spraying arterial blood in high, wild spurts all over the kitchen, and he is dying in front of us, and the people watching him die are shrieking with laughter and grownups are crazy monsters running a nonsense devil world.

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I am almost five. My mom is in the kitchen. My dad is in the Green Room, so named because of its thick shag carpet the color of Kermit the Frog. The Green Room can’t be renamed after its furniture or its function, because it has neither; someone meant it to be a dining room, but Mom and Dad never got a table. The only things in the Green Room are an echoing void, a hand-me-down TV from the sixties and, at the moment, my dad sitting on the floor in front of it in the dark. He goes to the Green Room sometimes if there’s a hockey game on or he wants to watch something away from kids. Mom warns me to leave him alone in there, but I creep in anyway; if they don’t want me in the Green Room, they shouldn’t keep it where I can find it. Dad is watching a Steve Martin comedy special, and right as I walk in behind him they’re showing a commercial parody about drunk driving. Instead of driving a car, Steve Martin has a steamroller. A little boy my age chases a ball into the street, and Steve Martin is drunkenly rolling along, and the boy is flattened in the street and everyone is laughing and oh my God can that really happen look at the expression on his flat face I am never going outside again.

I am five. Oh no, is this that scary show from last time? Should I hide? Wait, this isn’t scary. This is silly and fun! Look at the little cartoon clown man, Mr. Bill. He’s saying “hi” to us kids! Hi, Mr. Bill! I like this show. This is funny wait, who is that, what is happening oh no Mr. Bill look out he’s going to OH MY GOD MR. BILL IS MURDERED. WHY DO THEY KEEP LAUGHING.

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In general, Saturday Night Live was a goddamned minefield, almost as if a show broadcast at 11:00 at night was not made for preschool children to watch because that would be an insane time for them to even be awake.

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The less said about the band Kiss at the height of their popularity, the better. Bear in mind, at this point I am being told that devils are actual things that are around.

The people I’ve known who were exposed to slasher films at an early age were all creepshow-loving gore hounds. They say that little kids who are exposed to pornography at an early age become hypersexualized and have relationship problems later in life. I wonder sometimes about whether the things I was exposed to ruined me the same way. I read Bob Woodward’s Wired: The Short Life and Fast Times of John Belushi when I was in sixth grade and still follow SNL the way most men follow baseball; thank God there is no SNL radio call-in show, or I would have wasted hours asking strangers, “What is Michaels thinking up there in the main office? You’ve got a talented young utility player like Abby Elliott on the bench, and you put in Wiig with another ‘Gilly’ sketch? This is shaping up to be a bad season.”

Even without K-SNL Talk Radio to sidetrack me, I have self-inflicted many wounds in my adult life that may share a common origin now that I think about it. I tend to go for the wisecrack when it’s not called for; my sense of humor often gets too dark for the person I’m talking to; and I usually don’t notice where the line is until I’m half a mile past it. Whether or not that’s because watching Dan Aykroyd bleed out is the first thing I can remember, I have no idea, but now that I’ve thought about it I will certainly be using it as an excuse next time someone is blocking me on Facebook.

*What is a View-Master, you ask? Why, only the most fun a child could have before the invention of fun. View-Masters held a cardboard “reel” containing seven (7) stereoscopic slides of your favorite licensed characters doing things. You would insert the “reel,” stand in front of a light source, and peer into the device for as long as you liked. They were like binoculars that gave you a closer, clearer look at how bored you were. Cradle your smartphones, children. Cradle and cherish them.

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“REVIEW”: Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. by Marvel

Man oh man, S.H.I.E.L.D. is hard to watch. Ugh.

Thanks for reading!

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To put it another way:

In this, the Age of Immediacy, it can be tricky deciding how to dole out leeway. Entertainment is as serialized as it has ever been, but it is also as readily available as it has ever been; television shows increasingly ask you to buy in for tens of hours to get a story, but Netflix, Hulu, and DVRs make that buy-in incredibly easy. As a result, we (and by this I mean both viewers and TV producers) have trained ourselves to think that shows are building to something now, and even when they burn so slowly you’re not positive the wick is still lit the modern viewer is faced with the tantalizing possibility that the show is about to “get good” any minute.

This is the thought process that will underlie my justification next May, when I realize that I let Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. by Marvel waste twenty hours of my precious, dwindling life over the course of a television season.

Some of the shows I have enjoyed the most in my life had wince-inducing beginnings. The first season of The Simpsons has the timing of a nursing home singalong, to say nothing of a Homer who talks like Walter Matthau for some reason. No one on Seinfeld has any idea what they’re doing; Michael Richards in particular seems like he and Kramer have never been introduced. During the first season of The Muppet Show, a puppeteer’s head can be seen at the bottom of the screen on at least one occasion, and at least three different people perform Miss Piggy before they figure out what she’s for. Why, it took Star Trek twenty-one years and a complete recasting to get good.

It is possible that years from now, I will be talking about Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. by Marvel Like The Avengers Was the same way. But how likely does that sound?

Say what you want about Joss Whedon, but most of his work to date has had something to say, as any worthwhile creative endeavor should. Buffy the Vampire Slayer had things to say about growing up; Angel had things to say about the inevitability of Bad Things Happening to Good People, the value of Fighting the Good Fight anyway, even addiction. Even DollhouseDollhouse, for crying out loud!– was conceived with something to say before Fox said “oh, please do not say that” and the whole thing spun out into a whole lot of nothing.

What is anyone trying to say with Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. by Marvel Just Like in All Those Marvel Movies You Saw? Is someone expressing themselves through this synergistic corporate object? Is what they’re expressing “people got so excited about those Easter eggs at the end of the credits; let’s make a show that’s just those”? If so, their plan has a fatal flaw. All of those scenes were teases for a new exciting thing that was going to happen in another story later.

This show has all the tools at its disposal that it needs to be great as long as the talking humans on the screen are not classified as tools. It’s a show based on a hugely popular set of concepts, set in a world the audience already knows the “rules” of from the outset, that deals with a government agency facing new threats to our security that we are completely unprepared for and asking, “How do we move forward in this new world?” Stop me when those start sounding like familiar issues worth exploring.

That show sounds amazing. And it’s about the Marvel Universe I’ve been infatuated with since I was ten? I would barricade myself in my house to watch that show.

So, where is that show? And what is this thing being dropped at my feet on Tuesday nights? Is this the placeholder until that show gets here, and how much longer should I wait to find out?

Above: two interesting actors, about to get ushered off the screen as quickly as possible.

Above: two interesting actors, about to get ushered off the screen as quickly as possible.

Apologists who heard my opinion of the actors might say that the Avengers spoiled me, or gave me unrealistic expectations. To them, I would say it’s not that I would rather be watching a story about Robert Downey Jr.; I’d rather be watching a story about a Downy paper towel. I don’t know anything about these characters, and they don’t make me want to know more. Right now, the main character is the logo on the plane. I didn’t know a thing about Firefly or the people in it the first time I watched it, but Nathan Fillion and Alan Tudyk and Jewel Staite and the others were so winning that I bought in before the halfway point. I know everything about Marvel’s Agents Marvel of Marvel S.H.I.E.L.D., and I do not care about these people and their uninteresting job at all.

Look at the edge-of-your-seat, paranormal superaction being brought to you by this elite squad. On tonight’s episode: the team is too busy to show us anything about themselves because an enigmatic featureless cube has been found in a hole, and they must go investigate the mystery of who gives a flying fuck.

The featureless cube, by the way, is a weapon (based on the exact same technology that plagued the Avengers, and that will clearly plague S.H.I.E.L.D. in every subsequent episode until the drinking game kills us all) and though this may be a quibble, it drove me craaaazy that the weapon was “the weapon.” In all of human history, has anyone ever invented something like a weapon and not given it any name? It’s not called anything? While it’s not quite as egregious and painful as when sci-fi characters call their money “credits,” it has a similar effect of making everyone who’s talking sound like sleeper agents trying to blend in with English speakers. “Once we have the weapon, we can drive our vehicle to the malted shop, like teenaged North Americans.”

It is a gun. You push a part of the cube, and an explosive ray comes out. It is a ray gun. Own it, you empty bores.

Despite it all, though, I know I’m going to keep watching. The show is a boring, fat dummy, but it has quality in its bones. It has Something to Say in its DNA. Are those genes recessive, or will they make themselves known? I’m sure I’ll be able to tell you in May. Dammit.

Earliest Memories, Part I: Boning Dudes in the Seventies

fifties-family[1]My mom and dad were children of the 1950s, so it wouldn’t really be fair to hold them to the standards we civilized people of the dystopian future know as “parenting.” In the mid-eighties, my friends and I were able to wander unwatched out the front door and amble around the neighborhood like hoboes for hours at a time. In fact, never mind wandering the neighborhood: Jamestown Mall was three miles away up US 67, and my friend Derek and I biked there (or, really, walked our bikes there while panting like dogs in a kiln) at the peak of summer just to look at other people buying things. My comic book shop was two miles away in the other direction on the same highway, and Mom was all too happy to let us take our lives in our own hands just for the sake of not having to drive us there again.

These interstate expeditions by 12 year olds happened in the eighties without the benefit of a single bike lane, sidewalk, or helmet. The shoulder was a muddy ditch. Abduction and banditos were the least of our worries; by all rights, we should have been killed by a nice lady in an Aerostar who never noticed we’d ended up under her tires.

"Are you lost, little boy?" "Nope, I'm doing this on purpose."

“Are you lost, little boy?” “Nope, I’m doing this on purpose.”

We never had to file a flight plan. While that’s not the way I’d do it with my kids, I can see why it made sense then. Mom and Dad had basically only been parents for the previous ten minutes, and they had yet to develop the crippling paranoia that keeps us alive today. They grew up before local news stations discovered that breathlessly reporting every bad thing that ever happened to a child is ratings gold. Even now, I refuse to believe that there are, or were in 1985, any more “child predators” than there have been in previous eras. (The internet was frustratingly tight-lipped just now when given the chance to refute this and shut me down; where is this silence when I need it, Internet?) There is simply more of a willingness—a lust, really—to tell stories about the predators to uninvolved strangers across town.

Okay, maybe today’s three weirdos are a lot weirdo-ier than the three weirdos they had in 1950. I don’t have the data. Grabbing a kid off his bike, locking him in your apartment, and introducing him as your son for five years seems like it might be new.

Either way, parents my age are terrified to leave their kids alone with their own priests and teachers. When my parents were my age, they barely wondered where we were. When my parents were kids themselves, they literally hitchhiked to school every morning. Raising us, they had every reason to believe their parenting compass was pointing them in the right direction, even as they hiked right over a waterfall.

This is what I tell myself, anyway, to keep from remembering my childhood like I was chained up in the yard and left to fend for myself in the winters.

Another story I choose to tell myself about my parents is a crucial one about television. It goes like this: Mom and Dad grew up with Howdy Doody and The Lone Ranger. They started watching TV when married couples couldn’t be depicted sitting in the same bed together or broadcast the word “pregnant.” They didn’t get cable until they were 36 years old, and they were 40 before my mom’s mom bought us our first VCR (while Dad was out of town on business, so he couldn’t stop us). That is why they were in the last generation of parents who could honestly, plausibly think, “If it is suitable to be broadcast over the public airwaves, it cannot be objectionable for children to watch. The president would throw them in jail or something.”

That’s how my tender brain ended up marinating in garbage for so long. It’s the only explanation that makes sense.

When I was a preschooler, there was a sitcom called Three’s Company. On this show, two swinging, sexy chicks needed a third roommate to make rent, but their only choice was a man and the landlord would not stand for young unmarried people living in sin. There was only one thing for them to do: pretend their new roommate was a homosexual.

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This was not the subplot of an episode; this was the premise of the series.

“Don’t worry, Mr. Roper!” the girls would regularly say. “We aren’t going to bone Jack! Jack only bones other men!”

“Ha ha!” Mr. Roper would say, prancing around Jack with a limp wrist. “Silly men boning other men in the seventies, when all of this is on TV somehow.”

When I was four years old, I never missed an episode of this show.

I try to reconstruct it now. Dad was always either at the office working late or at the bar “working late”; was Mom not in the room with us? She must have been. Our only fully functional television was a wood-paneled behemoth the size of a card table in the living room. Did we exhaust her so much that she could not lift her head and point it in the direction of the screen by the end of the day? Did she sit down to watch her shows and tell us to play, assuming we wouldn’t be paying attention to the shrieking laugh track and John Ritter’s wildly flailing limbs?

I wouldn’t let my son watch that show now if it taught him Mandarin.

Then I remember that Mom’s parents were boisterous drinkers who brought her along to the bar and set her up in front of the pinball machine every night. Mom is still great at pinball.

Compared to her parents, my mom was a governess, and compared to her I’m my kids’ commanding officer. And there is nothing I can do to stop them from being baffled at the memory of me one day. “What was with all the pizza for breakfast? We ate like raccoons at a camp site.”