Wednesday, September 6, 2017

Amateur Essay

Here is a new version of this essay (newest proofread 9.18.17, then again 10.24.17), originally posted in April of 2015. It has been a tough essay to finish, and I'm still not sure it's done, but I'm using it in my composition classes as an example of an "Amateur Essay."

Here's the prompt I have used: the primary definition of “amateur” according to the OED is “one who loves or is fond of; one who has a taste for anything.” So, tell us how you came to have your tastes, maybe how your tastes lead you to do something you love, and how that something has shaped your life.  This post is doomed to be a mixture of black and white and oddly mismatched font, it seems.

TMNT and Me
As an adopted child, my mother brought a common painted turtle in a bucket into my kindergarten classroom. It was 1984 and no one had ever heard of a Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle. Eastman and Laird were just unveiling their black and white indy comic at a comic book convention in New Hampshire. Despite this fact, we were enthralled by the turtle.  Time Warp roughly thirty years later: as a parent myself, I decide to drive to my son’s school. It is his last day as a kindergartner at Marshallville Elementary School, and it is Marshallville Elementary School’s last day as a school. They are all set to tear it down during the summer. There’s something inherently sad about the demolition of an elementary school: all of those little amateurs will lose forever the opportunity to one day wander nostalgically through the halls of the building that helped nurture them. On the school’s last day, I am home early from teaching at my own school and in a rush to make it to Marshallville Elementary before they close their doors for good. I notice a turtle stopped in the middle of the hot summer highway. The year is 2013, and everyone knows what a Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle is. He is a painted box turtle, and because of red markings on his face, the kindergartners will name him Raphael.
Time warp back to 1988: the year Playmates released the first wave of Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle action figures. My family moved during the summer before I was to enter the fifth grade. Rather than moving twenty miles south that summer it seemed as if I had also entered a legitimate time-warp that matured children at astonishing speed. In short, it seemed that all of my classmates had outgrown playing with toys! My new classmates were listening to bands like Great White and Young MC on their Walkman cassette players. Songs about hanging with chicks. The only chick I wanted to hang with was April O’Neil, which wasn’t saying much. That yellow jumpsuit? That hair?C'mon, she was the most difficult action figure to find. Besides, she liked Casey Jones. Judging by his long hair and sleeveless shirts, he was probably listening to Great White.
The turtles, despite their apparent lack of popularity with the fifth grade class of Northwest Elementary School, were my solace during that transitional year. I played with the action figures, drew pictures of them, and watched the cartoon after school. They represented everything I wanted to be: tough, resilient, and despite the fact that they were total outsiders, they had a great sense of humor. Everything just bounced off their shells. I was on the cusp of adolescence, and I didn’t just want to be a "teenager," I wanted to be a "Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle." They all hand jived, man, and said stuff like “Awesome!” and “Bodacious!” in their nearly identical surfer-dude voices. In those early iterations the turtles were still relatively one-dimensional, but they seemed to me, the epitome of cool. Besides, the only dimension I was familiar with was Dimension X: home of Krang, the malevolent master brain.  The only folks that shared my opinion about the turtles were my next-door neighbors, Robert and Ryan. Robert was a grade behind me and drew turtles too. Even then he was an entrepreneur, keeping his originals and tracing copies for a dollar each. He is now partner in a design company called Commuter Industries in Sacramento, California. Back then Ryan seemed to appreciate the toughness of the turtles the way I did. He was a Mikey kind of guy, so we made nunchucks from the cardboard tubes on wire clothes hangers and practiced our ninja moves at dawn and dusk. At the time I couldn’t understand how such “Awesome!” and “Bodacious!” behavior could add to my status as the weird new kid, but it did, and if playing with the Cheapskate during class didn’t seal the deal, constantly doodling turtles and turtle related pictures certainly did: I found myself in a new grade with no friends. My new teacher seemed to understand all of this somehow and began wearing a brightly colored Ninja Turtle wristwatch that was inherently awesome and bodacious because it sent me a straightforward message. "You are not alone."  
Don’t get me wrong, she was still capable of acts of great cruelty. 
As an avid, egocentric artist I decided one day to carve my name into my own desk.... an act of exquisite boldness and stupidity. My teacher made me walk down to the janitor’s closet, borrow a piece of sandpaper, and, in tears, rub it out in front of the whole class. I thought this lapse in judgement might disqualify me from further artistic opportunities. Not so. When the contest to see who could decorate the class door came around, I was chosen to draw the design. I chose Ninja Turtles, of course.I drew a large, turtle-themed mural complete with all four heroes and the Party Wagon, which proclaimed, “Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles Want To Be Your Friend!” 
It should have said, “I Want To Be Your Friend!"   
Ironically, my unabashed love and fondness for the turtles led to my first real friend. Paul was the kid that could speed read, spoke Elvish, and got A’s on everything. This boy was Krang, the master brain. He was into Advanced Dungeons and Dragons. I aspired to be a Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle. Or, as my classmates might have said, Paul was the D&D Dork, and I was the Turtle Freak. I taught him how to draw and he taught me how to roleplay. We became great allies. It seemed that the people I bonded with most deeply during childhood were those with whom I was able to share a passion. Perhaps not such a brilliant insight, but one that still defines the terms of my relationships, as I’ve found it is only through this kind of interaction that you glimpse the real amateur. To borrow from Michael Chabon’s essay “The Amateur Family,” being an amateur is all about not being afraid to disclose that which holds you in a vulnerable state of wonderment.
Time warp back to 2013. Twenty-five years passed since I first learned and then forgot how to be an amateur. One day, on the ride home from his after-school program, my son Wyatt told me about his friend in kindergarten with whom he played Ninja Turtles at recess. “Do you play with anyone else?” I wondered. “No one else believes in them,” was his response, and in an instant I remembered being the original Ninja Turtle at my school. “They’re real, aren’t they dad?”I answered the way I do all of my son’s questions that deal with wonder.
"Of course they’re real." 
Each turtle played an important role in my upbringing. Raphael was my favorite turtle in those days when I was grappling with the relentless bully known as puberty. I was playing Raphael in armwrestling tournaments at lunch, while lifting weights in my basement, and while competing in the most brilliant contest ever conceived by the male teenage mind: bloody knuckles. I was Donatello studying with the Master Brain for straight As. I was painfully shy and, even worse, just as quiet. I struggled with the outward expression necessary for leadership roles. Unfortunately, I took everything way too seriously to be a carefree jokester like Mikey. As the years unfold these are still aspects of my personality I'm working on bringing to life. It seems any well-rounded guy needs to embody the tetrad of turtles. 
Some say comics, cartoons and toys are best left behind in adulthood, and that we should aspire to put away childish things as we mature; some may even go as far as Dr. Fredric Wertham and crusade against comics as trash that rots the mind. As a kid I got around to reading the original comics, had checked them out as graphic novels from the library in fact, but I got caught up in petty grievances like, “their bandanas are all red!” and “why are there so many Krang?” I absorbed the dodgy origin story. A random canister of mutagen bounces out of a random truck after the random truck hits a random pothole and the random canister of mutagen hits a random pedestrian holding a random glass bowl of turtles… see what I mean? I didn't understand or appreciate the Jack Kirby, Daredevil nod. Even today it seems a shaky basis upon which to build an entire world, and you may ask, "Didn’t the story eventually coalesce into a streamlined narrative the more you read?" Well, if by streamlined you mean they eat pizza and fight dinosaurs from outer space, then, yes, I suppose it did. It was the art that drew me in, and all puns aside, I came to revere the full page action sequences. The turtles were grittier than they were on TV, which had to do with the style of Kevin Eastman’s illustrations: thick, black lines and heavy cross-hatching. As an adult I have tried to put away childish things. I sold most of my turtle toys for twenty dollars at a garage sale and told myself I was too mature. My sons have been a blessing in many ways, but one of their unexpected benefits has been in healing me of the wounds inflicted by reason and adulthood by reminding me of my childish obsessions. I have truly enjoyed watching the Nickelodeon TMNT series with my sons, have begun obsessing over the excellent IDW comic line, and, I realize, still aspire to emulate the tetrad. I spend a fair amount of time and money buying turtle toys and comics. Some are for my kids but, let’s be clear, a lot of them are for me. In the novel Telegraph Avenue, Michael Chabon writes that nostalgia is just a way to try and reclaim some part of your youth. Tragically, my neighbor and close friend Ryan committed suicide in his early twenties. I know that part of my affection for the turtles has to do with the fact that we can no longer swing nunchucks, and every time I re-buy an old toy we shared, I remind myself it won’t bring him back. Those hallways may be just a memory, but it still feels good to walk down them. Now that I am an amateur father with two sons, the message of the turtles that speaks to me most clearly is that of the importance of family. I am in awe of the love, respect and obedience the turtles have for their “dad,” (a giant sewer rat that teaches them Ninjitsu) and how loyal they are to one another. In my most sentimental moments, the relationship the turtles have with Splinter reminds me of my own adopted parents, their unconditional love, the unusual fact that my dad and I look nothing alike, and the fact that they taught me how to survive in an imperfect world.  Now as a father, it is all I hope for my own sons: for them to see their father as a person worth obeying, to have the courage to stand up against evil, and to look out for one another no matter what uncertainties may lie ahead. Some believe that cartoons and comics are at best a waste of time, or at worst, trash that rots your brain. Just the other day, my oldest son Wyatt wore a policeman’s hat and a Ninja Turtle shirt out to dinner with the family. On the way home I overheard him telling his younger brother Jonas that he would run down any bad guys that ever tried to hurt him, and that he would always be there for him. Always. He made sure to emphasize the word “always.” It makes my heart swell with pride to hear my little turtles profess such loyalty to one another, and if that’s trash, then I guess this amateur belongs in the sewer.
Time warp back to my son’s kindergarten classroom. One of the last acts of my son's kindergarten class before the doors to the school closed for good was to name the painted turtle Raphael. They were taken with the way the turtle reared up and attempted, unsuccessfully, to climb out of the white plastic bucket that served as his temporary home. Despite the thoughtful touches (a smooth grey rock, a bit of grass and a twig), he seemed to really dislike his new digs. My sons wanted to keep him as a pet. “He needs to be free. He’d be unhappy as our pet,” I explained in my most reasonable dad tone as we stood next to a public lake. This was to be his send-off, but the kids were having trouble letting go. “But you took him away from his family,” they argued as we tipped the bucket on its side and, sure enough, Raph moved with all of his touted agility and speed out of the mouth of the bucket and into the water. If you’d have blinked, you’d have missed it.  “Maybe he’ll find a new family,” my wife said. It's all we could hope as we watched the still water, and, together, wondered.

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