Postcards from a Wasted Youth: Episode I

(This essay originally appeared in Whale Magazine. It was intended to be a series, but that didn’t come to fruition. This is the first essay in the series. Others were written and will appear here soon. – Ed.)

I could start this at my birth, but that isn’t where it really begins. So I’ll give you the short version of the early history, leaving out just enough so you can’t pretend later that you’re Freud and make an Oedipal complex where none exists, okay?

My parents got divorced when I was six, and it didn’t bother me. Honestly, there was no confusion about what was happening. It just didn’t make a whole lot of difference – my mother was going to live somewhere else, and I would see her on the weekends. No biggie. She cried, but we didn’t. It’s not that we didn’t care, it’s just that, for me at least, it was a change in living arrangements, and not really the end of anything. My mom ended up working at some English pub not far from where I was growing up, and my dad would drop me off there on Friday nights. These days, it might be considered odd, but back then no one really thought it was strange (and if they did, they never said anything to me about it). I really loved that place. I got to know all the strange and lovable characters there,  and I learned a lot. I learned how to work, I learned how to throw darts, and I learned how it is that drunkards live. Not a bad education for a seven year old.

The rest of the next six years, well, I’m pretty sure they were standard issue years. You know what I mean, the kind of years where your dad marries some crazy woman who takes the house away – twice – and your brother decides to become a career alcoholic party animal who never gets his life together.

Yeah, I’d say it was a normal childhood.

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Losing My Religion

God is dead.

I was in denial of this very obvious fact, like a man holding a still-smoking gun who can’t believe he had the tenacity to pull the trigger. There was no such immediate moment, however, when this realization came to me. One day he was there, and on another he wasn’t, and I can’t draw a distinctive line between the two days.

I guess it all started with doubt in a coffee shop in New Jersey.

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Dancing With Drugs

The Italian kid next to me was electrically tense. In fact, the presence of him standing over me was probably the thing that made me the most nervous and was also the biggest factor that made me blow out of my nose nervously, spraying cocaine all over the kitchen counter.

“Dannato!” he shouted. “Dannazione!” Something like, “goddammit,” I knew. Anyhow, Vito was pretty pissed off at me.

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Will McAvoy Isn’t Real, But He Should Be

“I’m a registered Republican,” he says. “I only seem liberal because I believe hurricanes are caused by high barometric pressure, and not gay marriage.”

No, it’s not Bill Maher—who is unabashedly a registered Democrat, anyway—it’s the anchor of cable news network ACN’s nightly news show. His name is Will McAvoy, and he recently caused a stir among fans of the formerly staid and standard newscast when he gave a lengthy, expletive-filled explanation of why America is no longer the greatest country in the world.

“In case you wander into a voting booth one day,” he spat at a college student who asked him why America is the greatest country in the world, “there’s some things you should know, and one of them is that there is absolutely no evidence to support the statement that we’re the greatest country in the world.”

“We’re seventh in literacy, twenty-seventh in math, twenty-second in science, forty-ninth in life expectancy, 178th in infant mortality, third in median household income, number four in labor force, and number four in exports. We lead the world in only three categories: number of incarcerated citizens per capita, number of adults who believe angels are real, and defense spending, where we spend more than the next twenty-six countries combined, twenty-five of whom are allies. None of this is the fault of a 20-year-old college student, but you, nonetheless, are without a doubt, a member of the WORST-period-GENERATION-period-EVER-period, so when you ask what makes us the greatest country in the world, I don’t know what the fuck you’re talking about.”

Man off his rocker? Or someone just speaking the truth?

Either way, it may not matter, because Will McAvoy is just a character on Aaron Sorkin’s The Newsroom, now in its second season on HBO. Mr. McAvoy, played with earnestness by Jeff Daniels, is delightfully honest and human, a man on a mission to save America by reporting the news in an informative and truthful way because, as he sees it, it’s the only way to save America.

Will McAvoy isn’t real, but he should be.

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On a Sunday

9:30am. No alarm; my eyes simply open, and the act of focusing is slow and arduous. On these mornings, when I have little on a to-do list and even less of a plan of how to spend my day, even the process of awaking is slow and intentionally laborious. I even forget for several minutes that I need glasses to see.

Once I finally muster the kinetic energy required to sit up, the evolution of the day is spread before me, like a 3D map of possibilities. Statistically speaking, at least as far as statistics of my choices exist, I will probably not be too adventurous on this day. The extent of my decision making will be whether or not to attempt the Sunday Times crossword.

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The Soundtrack to Your Life

I’m eleven years old, in Netcong, New Jersey. MTV is on the television, and it’s probably two in the morning; even then, I stayed up far too late at night. Some concert is on the TV, called Knebworth, apparently somewhere in England. I’m only paying a little attention, because I’m also reading a book.

Some band comes on, a group I’ve heard of but never listened to. They’re called Pink Floyd. They play this long instrumental suite before getting to some odd lyrics, in a song I’d later learn is called “Shine On You Crazy Diamond.” I become captivated by the sprawling guitar and pure connectionits player has on his face to the notes coming from the instrument.

It’s this night that I learn that music is so much more than something on the radio, more than a background cacophony to keep the brain busy. Music is life, and life is music.

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Teach a Man To Fish: Pictures of My Father

The thing I’ll remember most fondly about him is fishing. More specifically, teaching me to fish, on the edge of Lake Musconetcong, behind the Old Morris Canal Inn.

It was just down the street from our house, where we were lucky enough to live on a hill overlooking the lake. There was always a serene view just outside our dining room window, a postcard picture of nature, tranquil and placid. Down at the lake, with our poles rested on our tackle boxes, we would sit, quietly. There would rarely be spoken words, except for the occasional bite on my line, during which he would try to help me learn how to set the hook and reel in the fish.

This is the essential picture of my father. He enjoyed the quiet. My mother, by contrast, loved the bar and loud voices and chaos. There was a primal difference in the way my parents approached life, resulting in a divorce when I was six. My father won custody, unsurprisingly.

Even though he promised my brother we would never move from our house in Stanhope, when my father remarried, the very next year, we spirited our things from that lake view house to one on a lake, in Jefferson. My dad loved water. Fishing, or just sitting on the boat in the middle of the water, was the one proven balm for his troubles.

My stepmother and he eventually divorced (thank goodness, for she was—quite literally—insane), but my brother continued lashing out against Dad, until he was finally given what he wanted: freedom. He moved back to Stanhope to live with a friend’s family and continue playing football with his home team.

Then it was just me and Dad.

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The Thorniness of Trust

TRUST. One dictionary defines it thusly:

n. firm belief in the reliability, truth, ability, or strength of someone or something

It’s a quintessential component of humanity that’s often shared, instinctively, among the animal kingdom. We make it more complex than that, of course; a baby elephant probably has no distinction between its own instinctive trust of its parents and the fallibility of nature to protect it against outside threats. We make that leap of faith, and it’s a choice, not instinct.

Instinct and experience lead us astray from trust. Maybe that’s as it should be. The world is full of people who scam, manipulate, cheat and even murder; there’s no shortage of pitfalls and dangers, sometimes even among our closest allies.

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Splitting Hairs

Since my emphatically dramatic teenage years, I’ve tried many times to reinvent myself. I went from clean-cut kid to nerd, from nerd to metalhead, metalhead to grunge kid, and back to nerd — and that was just at 15.

From the time I was 25, however, I became more or less settled into an identity that was kind of a non-identity. I was overweight, always had facial hair, and was identifiable by my long, tied-back hair. I wore the same glasses for nearly a decade, my gait was always familiar, and I was just me.

I always said that I wanted to change, but my efforts at doing so were always half-hearted. I wanted to go back to school (or so I told my girlfriend, who wanted me to go back to school), but I never sent any applications. I wanted to lose weight, but couldn’t even make myself walk into a gym. I wanted to start writing, but couldn’t get past a blog post.

I’m a purist at heart; I don’t watch Doctor Who because I can’t watch every single episode (some early episodes are no longer extant), and I don’t change myself much because I’ve always felt like there was just too much to change. I let the idea flounder around in my brain like a fish that needs water until it just dies for awhile.

So, for the last ten years, I stayed roughly the same.

And then, I got a haircut.

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© 2017 J.A. Bell

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