Denial

“Nobody knows anything…… Not one person in the entire motion picture field knows for a certainty what’s going to work. Every time out it’s a guess and, if you’re lucky, an educated one.”

William Goldman.

 

The above quote is intended to describe the chaotic, unpredictable nature of the film industry, but I think it applies to a great deal more. As in, everything else.  

As a child, I was fairly certain that the adults in the world knew what they were doing. I really did. Growing older, you slowly begin to understand that people don’t change all that much beyond their twenties and thirties, that wisdom doesn’t necessarily accompany age.

Watching the internet dissolve the old boundaries is both fascinating and utterly horrifying. The astounding, almost unfathomable level of incompetence, the dribbling ineptitude openly displayed by our leaders is remarkable – it never fails to astound me.

There is a catastrophe coming, an apocalyptic event that our leaders should have been preparing for, should have been trying to halt. It’s not around the corner, but at our doorstep, and we’ve known about it for a very long time.

This short news article summarizes it nicely, stating that the effect of burning massive amounts of coal is inevitably going to lead to an increase in carbon dioxide, with the subsequent rise in global temperature thought to be “considerable in a few centuries.”

That article was written in 1912.

We’ve gathered a great deal more information about the upcoming calamity since, and aside from a growing sense of underlying anxiety, of impending doom, our solution has been, essentially, to try not to think about it too much.

Those at the top, those with the power to halt the environmental apocalypse, decided to ignore the problem, to actively suppress, smear, and ridicule proposed solutions, even simple efforts to spread awareness.

Our increasingly deadly deadline has been intentionally ignored for decades; humanity is like a student who desperately needs to study for a life-altering exam, but can’t stop indulging in intoxicants for long enough to consider the future. The survival of the entire human race hangs in the balance, but for some reason, the increased stakes make the reality of the situation much more difficult to absorb, and easier to ignore.

It’s been suggested that the narratives we tell ourselves, the stories that put reality into context, are not designed for a calamity of this nature. There is no big, bad antagonist to battle, no single messiah that can come to the rescue of the planet. The problem is practically unnoticeable, the solution requires radical, collective action, and our stories aren’t really structured like that.

We’ve all watched ecologically themed films, from the artful animations of Hayao Miyazaki to the blockbuster spectacle of Avatar. But in those stories, the planet is saved by a single hero, a battle between good and evil. There is no binary battle regarding climate change, no two opposing forces; every single one of us is trapped in an exploitative, wasteful system that is systematically destroying our habitat. It’s simple, and yet, immensely complicated.

Individual efforts to recycle and reduce waste are one way to actively reduce the destruction of the Earth, but amount to mere droplets in a tsunami. It’s not enough. Even those who loudly and proudly preach that lifestyle understand that, and it’s incredibly frustrating to know, despite one’s very best efforts, that one can’t clean the oceans or clear the smog from the skyline single-handedly. There’s an inherent impotence in sustainable living (though it’s infinitely better than nihilism).

The most successful story ever told about climate change is denial.

And sometimes, the stories involving denial manage to acknowledge the reality of climate change, but warp the message. I once took the time to look into the “chemtrail” conspiracy theory, and it was rather remarkable.

The theory states that “the elites” are controlling us from above, changing Earth’s atmosphere using airplanes, spraying chemicals into the air which shorten our lifespans, poison our minds, and … change the climate. This convoluted theory would be amusing if it wasn’t so frustratingly close to the truth – the wealthy are indeed causing all of these symptoms, indirectly, through pollution.

The difference lies in the intent.

In reality, the men responsible for climate change are not cackling villains, but shortsighted profiteers. Their intention is not to make our lives awful – that’s merely a side-effect. They’re not even our enemies – most of us would likely behave in the exact same way, if we were in such a privileged position. It is the system itself that is incentivizing this self-destructive behaviour, and that is much less appealing than the concept of an insidious cabal of elites, controlling the world from the sky.

There is no superhero film in which the superhero seeks to change the world; instead, they protect the status quo, from supervillains who seek to drastically alter the way we operate.

Until we work out a way to properly communicate the problem, a narrative in which people can get excited, inspired to solve the issue, many are going to continue to choose denial; even when the evidence is staring at them in the face.

Because it’s not about evidence – it never has been. That article from more than a century ago proves that, as does the continued assurance from climate scientists that we have a major problem. It’s the fact that the solution feels abstract, at best, and deeply uncomfortable at worst.

Fighting a bloody battle against an evil force is infinitely more palatable than restructuring our entire society. War might be hell, but it never changes. And that familiarity, that simplicity, is oddly comforting.

We’re going to have to figure out a way to tell this particular tale, to take inspiration from the conspiracy theorists and climate-deniers, and come up with a story that people want to believe, and act upon.

And as cynical as this article might sound, I’m confident that we can, and will, do it. We might know nothing, our leaders might be hideously incompetent, but somehow, we always manage to stumble upon solutions.

Twisting complete disasters into compelling narratives is something that humanity has always excelled at – Hollywood does it now, and the holy books have always done it. We can do it with climate change.

But it’s going to be a close call.

Dad Problems

When I was young, my dad once burst into my sister’s room with a hysterical shriek, declaring, without any evidence whatsoever, that she was using a disproportionate amount of toilet paper and was going to have to find a way to cut down, or face serious consequences.   

It’s unknown how exactly he’d come to this oddly specific conclusion, but once my sister had come to terms with the fact that this wasn’t a fever dream, but a situation occurring in reality, she practically burst a blood vessel telling him to get the fuck out, like any sane human would.

And now, I find myself yelling at my son about the exact same thing. But it’s a little different – he’s four, still mastering the intricacies of bathroom hygiene, and using at least half a roll per poop. Sometimes, he just bundles it all up and mixes it with water, for no reason, creating a thick, impenetrable paste that perfectly blocks the sink.    

See what I’ve become? I am my father, fixated on bathroom utilities, seriously considering the prospect of toilet paper rationing. I spend my days wandering from one household disaster to another, always slightly out of my element, armed with duct tape and a wobbly Ikea screwdriver.

I give people detailed descriptions of the cruel things my children do to me on a daily basis, while they try their best to look as though they give a flying fuck. I just want to go back to worrying about non-dad problems, problems that other people actually want to hear about.

But fatherhood is tough, man. You have this incessant build-up of first-world problems, combined with scary responsible adult ones, and then you get like 3 hours sleep to process it all, until the toddler pays a visit to your bed so he can jump on your head for a bit.  

So, you start to crack. You reach the fractured psychological state that leads to dad jokes. You find yourself muttering Cat in the Hat rhymes under your breath while walking down the street, eliciting sympathetic looks from strangers, and saying, “oh sugar,” unironically, when you drop something on the floor.   

It’s a strange existence, to be sure. And annoyingly, when I complain to my wife, she unloads all of her problems, which involve considerably more stress, considerably less sleep, and to top it off, an insane amount of guilt.

That’s the really crazy thing about motherhood; most of them work their asses off, every hour of every day, and don’t sleep, ever. Somebody always needs them for love, comfort, or sandwiches. And when they finally get, like, half an hour to chill on their phone, they instantly search for a mommy article that chastises them for doing a terrible job, and then they believe it.

They become convinced that they’ve permanently destroyed their kid’s confidence because they don’t brush their hair enough, or give them back massages before bed, or teach them the alphabet before 2, or after 2. Some articles even state, with alarming confidence, that you’re damaging your children’s ability to learn by teaching them to read before the age of seven.

The average mother dips into this swirling cesspit of wildly conflicting opinions, and absorbs the ones that make her feel the shittiest, because there’s always the chance that the 17-year-old intern who wrote it knows more about parenthood than they do, because of that childcare course they took in college.

But when you’re a dad, you don’t feel much guilt. You feel satisfied by just existing. And the world validates you for simply being present, for not running away. I high-fived my kids goodbye the other day and some woman actually chased me down the street, out of breath, to tell me that I’m a great dad. What does she know? I might have beat them within an inch of their lives the same night, all she saw was a damn high-five.

But if my wife looks disheveled, or yells at the kids for being whiny little shits, every other woman in the room will notice, and they shame her with their eyes. It’s pretty intense. But I give my son a kiss on the forehead, and I practically get a standing ovation.

As an added bonus, I never read dumb parenting articles (just write them), so I don’t really feel guilty for giving my kids the wrong kind of eye contact, or whatever. So I guess fatherhood isn’t all that bad.  

But the issue I’m highlighting is an inescapable part of modern-day parenting – (mis)information overload. There are moments when you won’t be quite sure which decision will fuck up your child, so you just have to go with your gut, and sometimes, your gut is wrong.

An old woman, mother of five, once gave me great parenting advice in a bar. She told me that I was guaranteed to make mistakes, massive mistakes, so it’s foolish to strive for parental perfection. You simply have to live with whatever you did to mess up, and trust that your kid is more resilient than you think.

Then, she proudly declared that none of her children had any trouble with the police before the age of fifteen, which, apparently, was meant as a testament to her child-rearing skills. I think. But I met her a few of her kids, and they were really cool, lawbreakers or not.

Point is, parenthood is tough, so go easy on the guilt. Unless, of course, you’re one of those people who makes a Facebook page for your baby.

Then you should feel bad.

Milestones

Not long ago, the youngest successfully took his first steps. Around the same time, the eldest attended his first day of school.

Overnight, the baby and the boy evaporated, replaced by a toddler and a schoolboy. Time flies when you’re having fun and raising children (one of these things is not like the other), and the second you’ve got things figured out, the rules suddenly change, and the game grows in complexity.  

Now that the eldest has started school, a massive part of his upbringing and influence is outside our control, forever. Initially, that was a strange, sad concept; it almost felt cruel to send him off into the school system, a world of drudgery and apathetic adults.

When I was little, I hated school. But then again, I was a strange child, prone to drifting off into elaborate fantasies, particularly when being given detailed instructions.

My pleasant daydreams would inevitably be shattered by the panicked realization that the other children were confidently striding out of the classroom, toward an unknown destination, brandishing wire cutters or something. I’d run after them, unsure where to find wire cutters, quietly praying that the teacher would repeat herself.

But I was pretty good at concealing my ignorance; I didn’t memorize the order of the alphabet until I was ten, and somehow, nobody noticed. But I carried an intense paranoia of one day being stopped by the police and being forced to say the alphabet backward, or even forward, as they did to people on tv.

My childhood years were spent fretting about unspoken anxieties like that, and I was concerned that the eldest might have a similar experience. Well, not quite the same as mine because he’s not an introverted oddball – far from it, in fact.

But Kate started to get paranoid that the eldest wasn’t quite ready, and one day, out of the blue, proposed that we just not send him to school that year.

“Umm … is that legal?” I asked.

“Literally everybody does it now. Think about it – he’s going to be one of the youngest kids in his class. And I just read a poorly researched, hastily written article that said that, in kindergarten, the kids born later in the year are practically guaranteed to crumble from the pressures of the education system and become, like, losers when they get older.”

“And this is a thing people do?”

It absolutely is. “Redshirting,” the practice of waiting another year to enroll your child in school, so that they are more likely to be one of the oldest, tallest, and presumably, the most dominant, is relatively common. Pretty much every mother we asked had at least considered it, if not done it.

I’m not joking about the dominance thing – the mothers we talked to about this first-world phenomenon seemed convinced that human society is binary, divided into “leaders” and “followers,” and were determined to forge their four-year-old into a leader.

I’m not sure what “leader” in this context means. A CEO? Football captain? Assertive extrovert? An asshole?

I think they mean an asshole. But we went ahead and tossed the eldest in the education system regardless, and instantly, all of our fears were confirmed, especially when he had to be physically torn from Kate, finger by finger, sobbing like he was being thrown into Victorian-era foster care.

The stressful scene momentarily made me question whether I’d been too hasty in my dismissal of redshirting. What if he really was too young, and the pressure morphed him into one of those dreaded “followers?”

The next few days were intense. Kate fed her ever-growing guilt by reading more redshirting articles to assure herself that she’d done the wrong thing, while I anxiously asserted that he’d probably be fine and that we should just ignore the problem until it goes away. Incidentally, this pretty much sums up my approach to life.

Thankfully, my approach paid off; he chilled out after a week, made tons of friends, and nowadays when I drop him off he doesn’t even turn his head to say goodbye. I know he’s fine because when I ask him how his day went he says “fine,” and that he did “nothing.” Maybe these are early indications of leadership qualities, I don’t know.

The eldest has changed though; his vocabulary dramatically improved, his maturity level shot up, and he already knows the order of the alphabet. Now, when I pretend to be impressed with something unimpressive, he feels patronized rather than validated, which is oddly intimidating.

So, I pretty much just talk to him like an adult, and if he doesn’t understand my misinterpretation of today’s geopolitical landscape, well, that sucks for him.

Meanwhile, the youngest is slowly building a vocabulary, meaning that his adorable baby babble is doomed to disappear, sooner rather than later. Once walking and talking is mastered, you only have about a year of true innocence left.

Innocence is indescribably precious, not just because it is fleeting, but because of the golden smile that accompanies it. That expression of raw, unfiltered joy you see on the face of a beaming toddler just doesn’t exist in the adult world. Except, perhaps, when dangerously intoxicated.

But it isn’t quite the same.

How to Try to Meditate

I’ve been trying to meditate for a year now. “Trying” means that once in awhile, I spend ten minutes with my eyes closed, and then annoy friends and family by insisting that I’ve reached Nirvana (you’re not allowed to do it if you don’t brag about it).

There was a time when I was doing it daily, and I felt a difference. But it’s subtle. It’s as imperceptible as a sugar high; you might be buzzing, but you don’t really notice until you come down, and the mild irritation hits.

And that’s a bit like what meditation is like; you notice when you don’t do it, not when you do. And that really sucks, because it’s difficult to convince yourself to do anything regularly, let alone something that you can barely register.

It’s only ten or fifteen minutes a day, and everybody has time for that. That’s a YouTube video. That’s a masturbation session. That’s a scroll through a timeline, a procrastination, a daydream.

But it’s just so much easier to do those things than it is to sit with your eyes closed and concentrate on your breath. Your breath is pretty damn boring, and like everyone else, I’m used to being constantly entertained; I could be spending those precious minutes watching some dick on YouTube desperately trying to change my political views through articulate misinformation, reading about how Trump’s tweets physically tore a hole in the ozone layer, or contributing to the pointless democracy of Reddit and Facebook with my “likes.”  

I slowly slipped out of the habit, the way you carelessly slip out of any healthy activity, and now I meditate “once in awhile.” Whenever that is.

Irregular practice of an activity often means failure, even if you enjoy said activity. Without scheduled sessions, my meditation attempts are easily disrupted by mild inconveniences. I attempted to meditate the other day, hoping to clear my notification-obsessed mind during an unsatisfying writing session.

I sat in the living room, setting a timer for an ambitious fifteen minutes. All I could hear was the steady tick-tock of the clock, and I spent the first few minutes with my blood pressure slowly rising, unable to think about anything but dismantling that clock. It took every ounce of self-control I had to stop myself from removing the batteries, but eventually, I got over it. I stopped hearing the clock, and settled into deep breathing.  

Then my cat found me. My cat, Dylan, is like a sexual opportunist at a house party; he’s excellent at spotting weakness, and will seize any opportunity to trap an unsuspecting victim into a heavy petting session.

I focused on breathing slowly, in, and out, while Dylan furiously massaged himself against my unmoving hand. I believe that if I dropped down dead on the floor, Dylan would spend several days rubbing his face against my cold, unfeeling fingers.

In desperation, I got up, and put some wet food in his bowl, out of schedule, just to distract him during my remaining eleven minutes. But have you ever heard a cat eat wet food before?

While I sat trying to regain my concentration, the slurpy smacking sound resonated from the bowl as though it were playing through a speaker beside my ear.

It sounded like a sea snail performing cunnilingus on a particularly slimy jellyfish, with great relish. And it takes Dylan at least forty minutes to finish a can, because he licks it off one molecular layer at a time.

Haunted by the sound, and distressing mental imagery, I gave in. But the defeat sparked a flash of insight.

Because every time I feed my cat, I ring a little dinner bell first, so that he knows not to beg for food until he hears the bell. I do it so that he doesn’t wake me up at 3am asking for snacks (which he still very much does). But I figured Pavlov’s Bell applies to humans too.  

And I happen to have a pair of tingsha bells in my office, because I am, at heart, a white stoner who fetishizes Eastern belief systems. The bells are some kind of meditation aid, but I found my own use for them by ringing them just before I meditate.

And so far, it’s actually working. The sound triggers a little thing in my brain that takes away the urge to go do something else. Once I’ve rung them, I simply have to sit down and breathe slowly.

Now all I have to do, is convince myself to ring it more often.

Frightened Rabbit

The other day, the family and I were taking a walk through the local nature trail (I say nature trail, but it’s really just a footpath with trees). While Kate was giving me a step-by-step rundown of Kim Kardashian’s latest feud with Krunchy Kardashian, I was staring into space and nodding sagely.

“That’s insane. Krunchy should not have spoken to her like that,” I said, making sure to throw in a slow head-shake, to express my sincere disapproval at Krunchy’s brazen, on-camera disrespect to her sister, or cousin, or whatever.

“Right? So Kim says that there’s no place for that in her family. None whatsoever. And so I was thinking we should apply the lessons learned from this blatantly false feud to the genuine disagreements I sometimes have with my sister, and listen to Kim Kardashian’s hollow, soulless advice that is so far removed from my reality, it might as well be an infomercial, which I think it might be, and tell my sister there’s no place for that in our family. None whatsoever,” Kate said, while texting her sister a message to go fuck herself.

“You should,” I nodded. “That sounds like the actions of a sensible person. Hey look – is that a rabbit?”

In front of us, in the bushes, there was a flash of brown fur. We all hurried over to catch a glimpse, and sure enough, within the bush lay a terrified, yet adorably photogenic, baby rabbit.

“Awwwwwwwwwwwwwww,” Kate said, practically collapsing in a teary-eyed heap. “Can we take him home?”

She was perfectly serious. But in her defense, I think the many demands of motherhood warp your perspective a little bit. In fact, before Kate became a mother, she didn’t give the slightest shit about baby animals, viewing them as a potential snack that hadn’t yet gone through the meat-grinder.

But sometime during the middle of pregnancy number 1, Kate had a dramatic, hormone-fuelled change of heart, and can now be brought to tears at the sight of a mama cat licking her kittens, or of a baby elephant doing absolutely anything.

The eldest’s eyes widened. This wasn’t an option he had ever considered, but it came out of the mouth of mom, so it must be legitimate.

“I want to bring him home, daddy.”

I thought for a second, and decided I didn’t want to be viewed as an asshole, because as the father, that’s usually your role. So I said, “Sure. If you can catch him, we can take him home.”

Obviously, the baby rabbit, whose heart was pounding in his tiny chest, would bolt the second we got a step closer; it was a safe bet that’d make me look momentarily well-intentioned.

Kate edged closer, and reached for the rabbit. He didn’t react at all. He even let her stroke his fur.

“What the fuck?” I thought.

Kate was as taken aback as I was. No doubt, the creature was paralyzed with fear, but the eldest interpreted it as consent to be taken captive.  

“Pick it up mummy!” he shouted, a steely glint in his eye.

Kate gently wrapped her fingers around the rabbit and was weirded out by how gross it felt, or something, because she screamed and let go. Finally, the bloody thing scampered off, out of sight.

The eldest gave out a loud, frustrated yell. The youngest giggled, always amused by the eldest’s despair.

“That’s a shame,” I shrugged, trying to conceal my relief. “If you caught him, we could have taken him home. But he’s gone now. That sucks.”

“Look, he’s right there!” Kate cried, pointing to the path ahead.

I couldn’t believe it. The wretched creature was sitting three steps ahead of us, right on the path, frozen with terror again. Clearly, the thing had no sense of self-preservation whatsoever, and was destined to be devoured by the next fox that happened to pass by.

“Can you pick it up and take it home, daddy?” the eldest begged.

Kate looked at me with her giant anime eyes, pleading silently.

Goddammit. What the hell was wrong with this thing?

I edged toward it, making as much noise as humanly possible. The rabbit didn’t move a muscle. It was right there – if I picked it up, I don’t think it would have protested in the slightest. And I was just about to, when a comment I read on Reddit the other day flashed through my brain. Read it here, and be prepared to be paranoid about contracting rabies every time you step outside, for the rest of your life.

In a nutshell, the commentator describes how the slightest scratch, or bite, from a wild animal could result in a deranged descent into incurable madness and death, even several years after the seemingly-innocuous scratch. After reading, I had resolved to never-ever touch so much as a squirrel.

What if this weird little bunny bit me? There was clearly something wrong with it, at least from an evolutionary perspective. I moved closer, and the creature’s instincts finally kicked in, and it ran off, away into the deepest part of the trail, to a place that I decided was unreachable.  

The eldest gave out another wail of anguish. The youngest giggled again. Kate was sincerely disappointed.

“Why didn’t you pick it up? It was so cute.”

The eldest echoed her sentiment, with more exclamation marks.

Later that night, after putting the kids to sleep, we finally relaxed on the sofa and put on Netflix, trying to avoid thinking about all the tasks we had to do tomorrow.

Kate sighed satisfactorily, and said, “I’m like, so glad you didn’t pick up that rabbit. I’m not in the mood to deal with that right now.”

The Parenting Paradox

Kate and I have two small children, which means that our life is kind of awful. Everyday activities like “having breakfast” and “leaving the house” are impossibly Herculean tasks that require an inhuman amount of patience, coordination, and energy. But you’re completely drained of these attributes (if you even had them to begin with), because you were woken up at least three times last night; first by the baby, then the toddler, then the cat, who has decided that 2am should definitely be mealtime, and is willing to shriek like a banshee in labor until someone gets out of bed.

A single child requires a serious change of lifestyle and attitude, as the demanding little creature tweaks the settings to your reality, forcibly twisting the dial all the way up to “hard mode.” But having a second child unlocks a hidden, “expert” mode, one reserved for those androids that do their taxes on time and have savings, while you’re still stuck on the first level, unable to keep a dentist appointment.

It’s a bit like living with two chubby-cheeked, anime-eyed dwarfs, designed by a gifted Disney illustrator, except both are severely mentally ill, and view your attempts to put pants on them, or feed them nutrition, as a serious attempt on their life and are willing to fight to the very last breath to resist. Every single time.

But the unrelenting chaos is, sometimes, broken by a moment of awe-inducing innocence, of practically poetic beauty that would melt the hardest of hearts into a weepy, pathetic puddle. These moments serve as a much-needed-reminder that these difficult days are infinitely precious, in a way that you can’t really comprehend until they’re gone forever.

One such moment happened the other day when I took my eldest on a day trip to the Science Centre, our favorite hangout for educational overstimulation. After enjoying a sugar-fuelled speed-run through the building, we were sitting on the bus home, finally at rest. The eldest asked me for a drink of water, and after a search through my backpack, I realized I’d forgotten to bring it, as I often do with vital supplies.

The eldest shot me a strange look, and rooted through his backpack (which I assumed was full of toys, or rocks, or whatever), pulled out his water bottle, and casually took a drink. He’d actually had the foresight to pack it himself – pretty impressive for a three-year-old, and perhaps, a damning assessment of my organizational skills.

Then he pulled out a crumpled piece of paper, on which was scrawled a shapeless cluster of crayon lines, and informed me that it was a letter. Humoring him, I asked what it said. He told me it read: “Dear Daddy, you are my best friend.”

I was floored. It was as though somebody had punched me in the face with sheer love. Every passenger on the bus seemed to momentarily forget the horror of rush hour and soak in the warmth of the moment; the bitter old ladies looked at me with practically orgasmic approval, and the driver’s blood pressure lowered a notch. We stepped off the bus in a blissful haze of wholesomeness, until the eldest informed me that he’d just shat his pants. Obviously, I didn’t pack a spare pair.

This, in a nutshell, is the parenting paradox; it’s both the highest privilege and the heaviest of burdens, the worst experience imaginable, and undoubtedly, the very best years of your life.

Now if you’ll excuse me, I have some ass to wipe.

Buzz Lightyear – The First Superhero

Kids love superheroes. Aside from the obvious visual appeal of billowing capes and colorful costumes, they love the concept of a divine protector, a guardian with authority beyond that of their parents, the certainty that justice will triumph.

For children, the world is an intimidating place. They get glimpses of how cruel it can be when they encounter the thugs in the sandpit, when they get shoved off the swing and taste blood. The dynamic of the playpark is strangely similar to a prison yard; it’s a place where the strong and snatchy thrive, where the parents are often blissfully unaware of how much of an asshole their little angel actually is.  

But in a cruel and chaotic universe, superheroes inspire hope, confidence, and a sense of responsibility. When a child dresses up as a caped crusader, they are enacting a power fantasy in which they can right the many wrongs they see in the world, and finally teach the bully in the sandpit a lasting lesson before his simpering mom can offer him another sugar-coated word of encouragement.

And the first superhero children are introduced to, is likely to be Buzz Lightyear, because you’re going to want to show them how awesome Toy Story is. Buzz was the first superhero my eldest encountered, and the deluded action figure sparked an obsession. On Christmas morning, his pair of Buzz Lightyear pajamas were valued far higher than the actual toy itself, because he didn’t so much want to play with Buzz – he wanted to be Buzz. This led to regular sessions of adorable roleplay around the house, and a surprising surge in confidence.

These days, having watched Toy Story more times than I ever thought humanly possible, I’m starting to think that Buzz might be the greatest superhero of them all, at least to children. And that’s because his narrative arc perfectly mirrors the tumultuous journey of childhood – it’s not a simple power fantasy. Quite the opposite, in fact.  

Buzz Lightyear’s story isn’t an ascent to power, it’s a dramatic dismantling of ego. Buzz has no origin story; he’s instantly a superhero, the center of attention the second he’s unwrapped from his box. Not only do Andy’s toys practically worship Buzz, he is actually under the impression that he is a real superhero, one responsible for defending the entire galaxy.

Buzz genuinely believes that he is the most important person in the universe, and almost every individual in his social circle treats him that way. Almost like a baby, in a sense. But Buzz’s blissful bubble is broken when Woody, blinded by envy, semi-accidentally pushes him from a window. From there, Buzz descends into the unknown, into the real world, where he is nothing more than a piece of plastic.

In the ensuing journey back to Andy’s house, Buzz constantly ignores the red flags that are pointing toward the true nature of his reality. There comes a point, however, where the delusion is finally shattered – Buzz plummets to the floor after boldly attempting to fly out of a window. As an insult to injury, and further proof that his body is cheap Chinese plastic rather than flesh, his arm painlessly breaks off once he hits the ground.

At this point in the movie, Buzz (understandably) undergoes a complete psychological breakdown. He laments to Woody that all of his memories are completely false. He’s gone from intergalactic superhero to a child’s plaything; it’s difficult to imagine a steeper plummet. It’s quite intense for a kid’s film, when you think about it.

Eventually, Woody helps Buzz come to term with his existence. He’s not the center of the universe anymore, but that’s fine – he can live a fulfilling life, regardless. He’s never going to save the world, but he can make the people close to him happy.

We all go a similar revelation as we grow up. Or least, we should do.

In the sequel, Toy Story 2, the depth of Buzz’s insignificance is really hammered into him, as he walks down the aisle of a toy store and sees shelves filled with hundreds of Buzz Lightyear figurines, all completely identical, all under the exact same superhero delusion that he once was.   

They all have the same buttons, the laser, the retractable wings. The things that make him interesting and unique in his social circle are frighteningly common in the wider world. Hell, an imposter Buzz even manages to replace him, and none of his friends even notice the difference.

So, when Buzz finally catches up to Woody, who is caught up in his own ego after realizing he is a valuable antique, Buzz can relate. Woody wants to live the rest of his life in a glass case, being admired by strangers, but Buzz knows that this road doesn’t lead to happiness. He understands what Woody is feeling, and convinces him that the inflated sense of self-importance is artificial.

Buzz has learned that the only thing that really differentiates him from countless other plastic clones is his personal life experience, which is utterly unique to him, and him alone.

Again, all of us go through something similar, perhaps upon leaving high school and entering college, university, or the job market.

We all get to the point where we realize we’re just another guy or girl, another face in the crowd. We’re not supernaturally talented or destined for success. We’re not special. But our individual perspective and life experience make us all unique.

It’s pretty heavy stuff for a kid’s animation starring sentient action figures. But then again, the films have been playing nonstop at my house for months now, so I may be reading a little too much into things.

The Scary Man

 

 

Christmas is approaching, and my 3-year-old son can’t stop thinking about Halloween.  

Back in October, when the macabre decorations invaded the serene mundanity of my neighborhood, my son was instantly intrigued. The once-immaculate lawns and flowerbeds were now littered with plastic corpses, the dull, suburban houses suddenly wreathed in spiderwebs, and bulbous orange vegetables grinned at him from every corner.

The arrival of the twisted oddities frightened and fascinated him equally, as the most interesting things in life tend to. But there was one decoration in particular which really captured his attention, and terrified him beyond reason, known as the “Scary Man.”

The Scary Man was technically a woman, a witch, to be precise. It had a ghoulish face lined with sharp teeth, and sported a wide-brimmed hat which I could slowly lift to reveal “his” hideous features. My son took this particular decoration very seriously indeed, and would refuse to touch it, lest it bite his fingers or something.

But he was also completely obsessed with it, and always demanded that we walk the route that passed it by. At completely random intervals, he would express a strong desire to see it, usually when we were several miles away, at the other end of the city.  

Eventually, he began seeing it in our house. Children seem to develop a fear of the dark as soon as they have the capacity to imagine what horrors might lurk within, and he’d just been provided with a genuinely unsettling visual. Suddenly, he didn’t want to be left alone anywhere, not even for a moment. Our shadow-filled hallway was the official territory of the Scary Man, and required adult supervision to cross.

I felt kind of bad that he’d conjured a personal boogeyman at such a young age, so I attempted to lighten him up by making fun of the Scary Man, or explaining that he wasn’t “real.” But real is a difficult concept to explain to a toddler, so I made a foolish comparison to his toys, in an attempt to prove that the Scary Man had no life of his own.

That wasn’t a good idea, seeing as his favourite movie at the time was Toy Story, and the concept of sentient plastic figurines who move only when adults leave the room didn’t seem far-fetched in the slightest.

Finally, I had the idea of shooting a video of the Scary Man, with a Snapchat filter superimposed over his face, in an effort to soften his image. I chose the animated dancing turd, and shot a few seconds of it prancing over his robes. The video greatly amused my son, but the threat of the Scary Man remained untarnished.

Eventually, Halloween passed, and the decorations started to disappear. I explained brightly to my son that the Scary Man would most likely be gone forever, and was startled to see his eyes fill with tears. He was absolutely inconsolable until I reassured him that the Scary Man would return, one day. I’m still confused to how he felt about the thing.

Once the last trace of Halloween had disappeared, we went on our last pilgrimage to visit the Scary Man, in a bid to prove that he was really gone, and hopefully, erode the fear. My son stood in front of the house, staring at the empty wall with a mixture of relief and disappointment.

He still insisted on checking up on it once in awhile, just in case. Sometimes he would randomly bring the Scary Man back into conversation, speculating that our next-door neighbors had thrown him in the garbage, though I’m not entirely sure why he decided to blame them.

Eventually, the warm glow of Christmas filled our neighborhood, the soft, ethereal lights intriguing him almost as much as the zombies. I figured now was the time to explain the concept of Santa Claus, before he developed any critical-thinking skills.

At the mention of presents, he was excited, and I offered to show him a picture of the rosy-cheeked deity of capitalism. He enthusiastically agreed, and I took a moment to consider what his first impression of Santa Claus should be. Being a modern-day parent with the infinite landscape of the internet before me, I had the luxury of being able to choose any depiction of Santa I could imagine.

I decided that, as stupid as it sounds, the Coca-Cola commercials, with their hand-painted, propaganda poster Santa was actually my favorite depiction of St. Nick, and the one I felt most accurately summarized his role in society.

“This is Santa,” I said proudly, holding the phone out.

He beheld the twinkly-eyed, morbidly obese stranger in utter terror, and I suddenly realized what was going through his mind. He’d just spent a month walking through neighborhoods filled with twisted, demonic creatures, and now, I’d just told him that this grinning, bearded man was about to break into our property and deposit wrapped parcels, for reasons he couldn’t even begin to imagine.

Stuttering, I tried to explain again about the presents, but he held up a tiny hand to silence me.

“Daddy,” he said, firmly. “I don’t want that man in our house.”

A Tribute to Leo

My cat died yesterday. I no longer live with him but I can’t help feeling somewhat devastated at the loss of the interspecies family member. Leo may have been a spoilt, cantankerous asshole but he had a strength of personality that was impossible not to admire.

A bit of a difficult pet, Leo fancied himself as a gourmet and buying a new, untested brand of cat food was truly a humbling ordeal. With bated breath, I would watch him carefully inhale the air inside the bowl, as though at a wine tasting. If approved, he would devour it in under a minute. If disapproved, he would turn and “bury” it, scratching the floor with his hind legs as though covering the food with soil, like one of his foul-smelling shits. After the ceremonial burial, he would let out a hideous shriek, unbearably shrill and piercing, like a banshee being gang-raped. The shrieks would continue infinitely, without pause for breath, until a higher-quality product was offered.

He viewed my mother as his personal chef, my youngest brother as his best friend, and regarded the rest of us with varying degrees of suspicion. My relationship with him would teeter on a knife edge between friend and foe, due to my habit of chasing him around the house without warning. Undoubtedly he believed I was some sort of unhinged psychopath. He tolerated my presence only because I fed him occasionally. My elder sister, however, was not to be trusted.

Being a foul-tempered loner, Leo alone decreed who could touch him and when, yet my sister displayed an unshakeable dedication to the pursuit of his love. She would often bribe him with snacks from the dinner table or sit and comb him for hours on end, only to be rewarded with a vicious bite. He would keep a vigilant eye in her presence, ever prepared to be snatched into a non-consensual cuddle. Eventually, she learned to creep up on him when asleep and bundle him in her ams, barely conscious, stealing him away to her bedroom and locking the door.

An unapologetic hedonist, Leo was a big fan of catnip and was always deeply unsatisfied with the portion offered to him. Somehow, he would invariably manage to obtain the full bag and tear it open, spending the night rolling around for hours in hallucinogenic ecstasy. We’d find him lying there in the morning, comatose and coming down, presumably regretting his poor life choices. Once, I playfully stole a catnip toy from his mouth and received an alarmingly deep cut at lightning speed, that spurted blood down my wrist like a clumsy suicide attempt. I didn’t even see his paw move. In that moment I realized that he’d actually been holding back on every previous attack and left the encounter feeling grateful for his leniency.

Leo may have had little patience but he certainly didn’t lack empathy. When my mother became life-threateningly ill, Leo ensured he was a constant, purring presence by her bedside. Apparently, a cat’s purr consists of some kind of magical healing vibrations, a power Leo was perhaps aware of.

My youngest brother, Leo’s chosen favorite, was constantly assaulted with demands to be petted and cuddled. Their relationship was totally exclusive, and up until his dying day, adorable.

Like many cats, Leo was the true master of his household, looking down upon his loyal subjects with deep contempt and occasional sympathy. I’ll always regard his gluttony, his profoundly selfish approach to life as something of an inspiration in how to live honestly. Sometimes, we’re just not in the mood to be petted.

Trapped in the Bottle

Working as a bartender as I do, outnumbered by the inebriated, you see how many people need alcohol to allow themselves to truly relax and socialize. Miserable old men sip at their pints and magically transform from monosyllabic curmudgeon to social butterfly.

I serve a considerable amount of alcoholics (the bar sells Viking-size tankards of stupidly strong beer for ten dollars) and they’re all the same. They love conversation with strangers as it gives them the opportunity to tell the same story again and again for eternity, to endlessly discuss the same topic without making any headway. It’s a bit like Groundhog Day without the comedy.

Out of all these desperately unhappy people, one in particular stands out; my father’s cousin, Mando. A short Scottish-Italian man with a bushy mustache, Mando resembles a substance-abusing Super Mario. Highly opinionated and talkative, much of what he says is either misformed or a flat-out lie, but he’ll say it with such certainty, that you genuinely want to believe him.

My little brothers and I loved him, obviously. We found him absolutely hilarious and would laugh uncontrollably in his presence, but he never seemed to notice. He had trouble distinguishing between the three of us (four if you count my stepbrother), and was never fully certain who he was talking to. He lived on the very fringes of reality, inhabiting his own world with its own rules.

He once failed to recognize himself in a photo, stating that because his eyebrow scar was on the wrong side it was obviously a fake. When the reflection reversal thing was explained to him he dismissed it as an “optical illusion.”

Being Italian, he took great pleasure in the sound and smell of his bodily functions and would use them to entertain others. He once grabbed a broom, and with each exaggerated sweeping motion, released a loud fart timed perfectly to the movement, like an expertly choreographed, repulsive ballet. He made a habit of farting inside my father’s office and locking him inside, forcing him to inhale his essence. He was absent the day of my parent’s wedding, because he shat his pants while wearing a rented suit.

As hilarious as we found him, Mando was really a tragic character. The older we grew, the less funny he became. He seemed quite incapable of sobriety, and in order to spend his entire life intoxicated, was forced to rely on the sympathy of others. Thus, his every movement was carefully calculated to appear weak and helpless.

He walked with a terrible limp, which would disappear when nobody was watching. He would stroll up our apartment stairwell with ease, and, perfectly composed, wait for the door to open. The moment it did he would collapse to his knees and wheeze theatrically. I know this because I always looked at him through the spyglass before I opened the door.

He would sometimes visit my parent’s delicatessen, usually after being bruised from a pub scuffle the night before. After telling his story he would ask “for a wee cup of coffee.” The wee cup would turn into several, and maybe a packet of pasta, or two.

He is, inarguably, a survivor. Practically illiterate, unable to hold down a job for more than a few days, Mando fits the description of those famous “benefit scrounges” the Daily Mail loves to hate. His false limp is exaggerated in front of his doctor to such a degree that the medical professional is under the impression that Mando can barely walk. This, along with a host of other imagined medical conditions, ensures Mando lives a life completely free from the burden of work.

I haven’t seen him in years, but I hope he’s still going strong, stumbling from pub to pub, talking shite, living life in his own way. I admire him in a sense, as a man who never been able to face the realities of life sober, he has done all he could to successfully stay intoxicated and unemployed without succumbing to homelessness.

The man even has a girlfriend; she comes and cleans his flat every week in exchange for a tenner. They like to drink, and argue about the same subjects repeatedly. Often, he’ll proudly inform my father that he forced her head under the covers and farted on it the night before, though it’s unclear if it’s a punishment or some kind of reward.

Somehow, Mando found a way to live a life completely free from responsibility. He found a way to live without contributing anything to anyone. Most impressively, he found a woman that will listen to his opinions, drink at his level, and tolerate the occasional fart on the head.

I think there’s something beautiful about that.