Miscellaneous Mental Musings of an Emerging Artist
Originally performed at The Paper Machete, a weekly live magazine curated by Christopher Piatt.
The earliest memory I have from childhood is a memory I do not trust.
There is a steel swing set in the backyard, a few yards from the vegetable garden. I’m four, perhaps five, and Ricky Zabel is five, perhaps six; and there is a spider crawling up the slide that neither of us had noticed until Ricky had arrived at the top of the incline, sitting on the polished sheet metal in a ready position. It’s not a large spider, but at that age, at four or five or six, at that age all spiders are too large, too alien. Ricky is trapped there, not terrified so much as frozen in anxiety; at that age the idea that one can simply turn around and go back the way one came also seems too large, too alien.
“Spider,” Ricky does not exclaim, merely reports like an anchor with late breaking news.
I’m standing at the side of the incident. As Ricky tucks his legs into himself I sweep my hand along the slide, sending the spider shooting off into the untamed wilds of the suburban lawn.
“No spider,” I say.
“No spider?” he inquires.
“No spider,” I affirm.
I see this memory as clearly as a film strip, which is why I do not trust this memory: it is, point of fact, a film strip. This moment of my life was recorded by my father and then projected onto a collapsible silver screen, over and over again for friends and relatives, often while I was in the room so that those friends and relatives could look over and marvel at the passage of time.
I cannot decide if I recall this moment happening to me or if I only recall watching this moment played back to me. My earliest memory has ceased to be a memory at all—what may have once been a sense of experience is now just an awareness of event.
My earliest memory of politics and world affairs was the 1984 presidential election, and even in that case, not the election itself or any particular milestone of the campaign; something Reagan said, something Mondale did, no. What I remember was a one-day discussion unit in Mrs. Rakowski’s second-grade class, wherein she told us the names of the candidates and the parties they represented while carefully glossing over any of the positions those candidates and parties actually held.
We spent, in my recollection, a significant amount of time learning that the symbol of the Democrats was a donkey and that the symbol of the Republicans was an elephant. At the end of the class that day, we talked about the mechanics of elections and then held a mock vote between Reagan and Mondale.
In 1984, incumbent president Ronald Reagan won his second term in an indisputable landslide, taking every state in the union except Minnesota, based largely on the perception that he was strong on national security and that his economic policies were sound. In 1984, Ronald Reagan also won the popular vote in Mrs. Rakowski’s second-grade class based largely, I am guessing, on the perception that elephants were much cooler animals than donkeys. Reagan’s strong showing in my class included my own vote; this, combined with my early admiration for Abraham Lincoln, convinced me throughout my elementary school years that I wanted to be a Republican when I grew up.
I might be somewhat ashamed to admit all of that now, except first of all we were second-graders, and second of all I have now witnessed large swaths of Americans throwing their support behind candidates for reasons that are no less ridiculous.
This event, the 1984 election, an expensive advertising competition between a man nicknamed “Gipper” and a man nicknamed “Fritz,” this was the most vivid notion I had regarding the scope of the world’s experiments in society and order…because I grew up in the space between wars. Vietnam ended two years before I was born, Korea was the set of an Alan Alda show, and World War II was so far back that Nick Fury was a sergeant and still had both of his eyes and also he was a white guy. Operation Desert Storm, purportedly the most major conflict of my life to that point, was over so quickly that “Voices That Care,” the super-vocalist charity support jam recorded in support of our brave stealth bombers, never even had time to crack the Billboard Top Ten before the troops started coming home.
My wife and I are expecting our first child, a boy, early next year, pause for congratulations smile and say thank you. He will be born during the tail end of military operations in Iraq, the continuing boil of what we’re doing in Libya, and just after the tenth anniversary of Operation Infinite Enduring Freedom Toby Keith Justice, or, in layman’s terms, the war in Afghanistan. It will probably still be going on by the time he’s rolling over and stringing together consonant sounds, and if I’m being realistic, the war will still be going on when he starts walking and scribbling on the walls in the crayons he hasn’t eaten. I would like to believe, I would like to hope, that by the time he’s able to form his own pencil-sketch brain gallery of the world that these wars do not occupy any space at all, like my own reckoning of the Carter administration—they are understood to have happened but not to have happened to him.
I suspect, however, that at some point I will have to answer for all of this, as one of the most available representatives of the generation before him. I imagine my son coming home from school one day with a confused look on his face, and he sits down in front of me and says to me: “Dad. The weirdest thing just happened today.”
“What’s that, kiddo?” I say to him. Until he has an official name, in my imagination I refer to him entirely in casual, vaguely condescending pet names, as if I were Jay Gatsby. “What’s that, kiddo?”
“So,” my son says to me, “yesterday in American History class we finished learning about the end of the 20th Century. Your music was all terrible. That’s not the weird part. The weird part is that today, our teacher told us to open our books to the chapters on 2000 to 2010 and start reading…and while we were doing that, he just stood up at the front of the room, and he, he put his hand over his face, like, like this, and he just started sorta sighing heavily. Huuuuuuuh. Like that. He did that for the whole class. Huuuuuh. Then the bell rang, and he told us there’d be a quiz tomorrow. Anyway, dad, I finished reading that chapter and I had a question for you.”
This will be the question I dread regarding this decade, the where-do-babies-come-from, the when-is-the-dog-coming-back question.
“Were you all really that stupid?”
It’s exactly the sort of question I would have asked at his age, which is to say it is not a reasonable question but it’s also not an unreasonable question. And because I have promised myself that I would, that I always would, I tell him the truth. I supported the invasion of Afghanistan. To me it felt like a clear and appropriate response in light of the death and destruction that had been visited upon us from that region. In fact, I will tell him, I wished we’d gone into Afghanistan sooner, had helped the Northern Alliance to rout the Taliban long before, back when they were blowing up statues of Buddha and locking their women away from the sun and turning soccer fields into decapitation circuses. I wished we’d done that instead of recognizing them as the legitimate government and giving them monetary rewards for destroying the opium trade. I wished that the people in charge of facilitating the invasion and occupation of Afghanistan had been blessed with even half the multi-dimensional thinking to be found in a junior varsity chess team. And I wished that just a few hundred thousand more of our fellow citizens had had more logic in their heads than fear in their hearts.
We were not stupid, I’ll tell my son. We were not stupid but we were very, very foolish, which is a different thing. America, I will remind him, is still a young country, centuries younger than England and China and India. So America spent the first decade of this century at the age of 22, when you think you finally know everything, and when you’ll take any opportunity to do something that makes you feel like you’re teenager again. America was 22, acting like 16, playing around with the tools of 30 year-olds. And what happened in Afghanistan, what the leaders after Bush and Cheney had to deal with, was the result of that.
He won’t understand all of this when I tell it to him. I’m aware of that. I’m hoping that he either remembers me saying it to him when his mind is ready to perceive it; or, just in case — car accidents and aneurysms — that he remembers hearing a recording of me saying this before he was born, remembers that I wrote this down for him to consider later.
The doctors estimate that our son is due to arrive on January 20, which is exactly a year out from the next Inauguration Day. Assuming he arrives on schedule, it is all but inevitable that in 2017 I will look down at him and say “Happy Birthday, son. I got you a brand-new president,” and within a decade this running joke will be Exhibit D-12 in the evidence record that I am irredeemably lame and embarrassing. I will tell him that I got him a brand-new President but my fear is that my subtext is a wish for a brand-new country, a country more deserving of him, and I want so badly for that country to be this one.