5. Write about a babysitting experience.

“Very Special Episodes” were an important part of my moral development. They piped the complex world into my sheltered suburban life and then told me how to feel about what I was watching, which was very helpful. Drugs are bad. Stranger danger is real. Cults will make you hug cute girls (Boy Meets World kind of muddled their message on that one.) 

Although I had never seen, held, or knew anyone who owned a gun, I took the Family Matters episode in which Laura feels threatened and responds by wanting a firearm very seriously. The episode ends with Urkel rapping about the importance of turning in one’s weapon and Freddie Prinze Jr. is tough, as his wont as the credited “Tough Guy”.  

My brother and I watched this episode with our babysitter, Dale, who, as far as we were concerned, was the coolest. He wore flannel and had holes in the knees of his jeans. He let us eat pizza in front of the TV. He watched Tales from the Crypt like it was no big deal.

Dale tolerated our questions to him about guns and gangs and had he ever seen a gun (yes) and whose was it (his buddy’s dad’s) and had he played with it (of course not). Dale could tell this episode would stick with us so he did what good babysitters do: he changed the topic and cheered us up. He probably just flicked the channel over to a John Candy movie, which was a small kind thing, but meant I wouldn’t have nightmares so I was grateful.

About a year later, my mom told us that Dale hadn’t woken up one morning. He’d been rushed to the Emergency Room where his stomach was pumped and the doctors found a plethora of narcotics in his system. 

Dale OD’ing completely shattered my worldview. Hadn’t he been paying attention during those episodes? Why hadn’t someone called one of the many hotlines always listed at the end? But most importantly: I still really liked Dale, which made the whole thing so confusing. He was the best babysitter. And if drugs are bad then is Dale bad? Is he an addict? Do I call a hotline?

Dale survived, but wasn’t allowed to babysit for us anymore. That was it. He didn’t die, go to jail, or even rehab. 

There wasn’t any message or moral. No Urkel rapping or fourth-wall-breaking from an actor or audience cheering the show’s social conscience. The complex world was still there, except, this time, no one was telling me how to feel about it.

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2. Describe your neighborhood bully

The strange thing about Mike wasn’t that he was an asshole. That much became clear to my brother and I shortly after we moved in.

The weird thing was that he was also an idiot. He once proposed that air pollution could be solved by instructing the National Guard to stand along the Canadian border and blow the air to the other side. He wanted to re-create Pangea using giant magnets. He broke his ankle one time because he leapt into an above ground pool without checking to see if it was full of water.

Mike’s stupidity was counteracted by his assholery. Two years older than most of the kids on the block, Mike cursed freely through his braces-clad teeth. Whenever we were playing some game in somebody’s front yard, he’d ride his bike by, slowly looping around, like a shark, and toss off some half-hearted homophobic epithet to whoever looked weakest before riding away.

Those were the good days.

He’d pick a target, like all bullies do, and, since he was an idiot, he’d pepper that person with insults, working from generalities to hyper-specificity, finding the entry point like a virus. Once he knew it, he’d use it. Over and over.

Once he found yours, those were the bad days.

My brother and I found some solace in the reminder that he was a dumbass. Whenever he’d say something like “Native Americans and Indians are the same thing?!?” or “I can outrun those wasps” we’d chalk up another tally and feel a little better about the world.

My cousin Alan came to visit us one summer. The sudden presence of an Irish kid, replete with accent, caused a stir among the kids of our little suburban corner of Syracuse, New York.

We used to ride our bikes up to the local golf course, which had the only restaurant accessible to us. Mike came along.

We sat down at the table, standing out like sore thumbs, a dozen sweaty kids to whom the concept of “Free Refills” was very, very exciting.

We ordered burgers and Mike asked, “So, Alan, have you ever had a burger before?”

Alan had tolerated a lot of ridiculous questions about his and my native country–about leprechauns, about Lucky Charms, about all manner of curious, tentative inquiries concerning that guy St. Patrick and his magical snake-banning staff (…or whatever).

Perhaps it was his status as an outsider, or the fact that he would be leaving this country shortly, or maybe Irish kids are just mature or some shit, but Alan had little respect or fear for Mike. Which made his dry wit so perfect, so devastating. “No, Mike,” he said. “In Ireland, we eat rocks.”

It was such a childish, perfect retort. My brother and I smirked, while Mike reacted as though he had just made the anthropological discovery of the decade. “Really?!” he said, his braces fully exposed as his jaw dropped.

Chalk it up. Call it a win.

A New Thing I’m Going To Try

I just Googled “100 Journal Topics” which led me to this list.

Sure, it’s an Angelfire page, which seems laughable. I copy and pasted all of them into a Google Doc and I’m going to try to do at least one a day.  This being the Internet, where even I, an English teacher, merely glance over “walls o’ text”, I’ll try to limit my responses between 300-500 words.

I’ll go in order. Here we go.

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