“Runaway with me tonight, dream the dream and light the light.”
Maybe it’s just part of growing up, feeling the depth of responsibility which that role entails- or the side effect of a tendency to lean toward narcissism- but I’ve never been able to let go of guilt. Lying in bed at night, thinking, how could I have been better or what could I have done differently. You put pressure on yourself to live up to an arbitrary ideal, and when you don’t, you never let yourself forget it. Maybe this is why I can’t sleep at night.
And when I’m lying in bed restless, I’ll often think about Christmas 1983. I don’t think I have coherent memories earlier than 1983, and if I take a moment to really focus, I can remember the feeling of newness and exploration I felt at that age- almost as if I were conscious of it at the time, but I know this is probably only how I see things in retrospect. I was obsessed with Masters of the Universe– captivated by the cartoon, and there were no better days than going to Toys R Us and getting to pick out one of the figures to take home. Of course, I preferred Skeletor to He-Man; even at three-years-old, I wanted to be the bad guy.
It’s amazing how quickly kids understand the concept of Christmas as an orgasm of consumption- like a beagle who’s found his way to the top of an unattended breakfast table; I felt entitled to a massive bounty of molded plastic just for being me. Still a few years out from when the holiday would take a sharp turn to video games, 1983 was the year for He-Man toys- and I knew that Christmas would be my only chance to pick-up elusive, top-shelf items like the awesome Castle Greyskull or the Battle Cat. If you’ve seen the commercials, you’d know that the only proper way to play He-Man was to have more figures than you’d be able to play with at one time, so come December, my expectations were high.
And on Christmas morning, I threw a fit. My parents were hard-up for money by the end of ’83- my father had gone from a lucrative managerial position at a prestigious company to unemployed; my mother was recovering from cancer treatments, and I think he folded under the stress. You wish you could go back and tell yourself these things- act as the embodiment of why your parents wanted to have children. A symbol of hope, to light their way during dark times.
As an adult, it’s difficult to separate the role you’ve taken on for them- as caregiver- from the role you left behind as a child- and it’s easy to blame yourself for what you should have done had you known. Thinking about it for long enough, on those sleepless nights, you can’t help but cry. You could have saved them.
I threw a fit because I didn’t get what I wanted. I’m sure every bit of He-Man paraphernalia in my Sears Christmas Wish Book– consumerist pornography for children- had been circled and re-circled. There was no way my mother didn’t know what I wanted, but she hedged her bets on thinking a three-year-old doesn’t know what the fuck’s going on and went with Remco’s knock-off line, The Warlords.
On its face, this wasn’t a terrible idea. Notorious for being cheap toys for budget conscious shoppers, and having a keen-eye for ripping off trends, Remco secured the Warlords license from DC Comics in order to compete with the early-80’s hot property, The Masters of the Universe. On its face, this made sense- even if He-Man had the backing of a cheaply made Saturday morning cartoon, which functioned more as an infomercial for the toy line, the Warlords had the support of a comic book– and kids love comic books. Each figure line was mostly indistinguishable from the other- had the same scale and points of articulation, the same heavily muscled physiques, and the same lot of eccentric character designs- instead of a yellow skeleton in a purple hood, you had an anatomically correct, hoodless white skeleton. To an adult looking to give their only child a memorable Christmas, while cutting costs, The Warlords seemed like a smart buy.
But if you were a child in the first half of a decade defined by consumption, you’d surely understand the horror and disappointment I felt waking up on Christmas morning to find thematically similar characters whom I had never seen on television.
Even if imagination could have bridged the gap between sets of similar toys, the television exposure of one made the other insignificant. A lifeless comic book, even if I had heard of it at the time, could never compete with fully animated images- forcing characterization and directing play. You didn’t want to create your own fantasy adventure, you wanted to re-enact what you had seen on TV.
After ruining Christmas in what was surely a barrage of tears and screaming, my mother returned the toys and learned what would ultimately define my generation: we take our cues from marketing and media- a trend that would follow us through adulthood. We wanted to experience the ebb and flow of romance and heartbreak alongside John Cusack and Matthew Broderick, one crazy night like in License to Drive, college hijinks while evading the crusty old dean- our adult lives would be like Friends or Seinfeld, perpetual dormitory living, purposeless dating and meaningless sex. Television created these expectations for us, and certainly life wouldn’t turn out anything like Christmas 1983.
How could you have saved your parents when you couldn’t save yourself- a thought that doesn’t provide comfort as much as resolution; it helps you get to sleep for another night. There were intrusive forces set against us- at least one part of which was maybe even purchased at Sears, set in the living room, and used voluntarily. The rest was a combination of bad luck and human weakness, but you can’t help but dissect how things could have been different- like Bruce Wayne replaying that night at the Opera again and again, obsessed with action that he couldn’t have taken.
You say it shouldn’t haunt you, but it will- and maybe the only thing you have left is to protect them from accountability- and maybe that’s what will absolve you from your own sins.