atariXmas3

When I was a kid, me and my brother used to get sent to my grandparent’s for a whole week. They lived on the north side of the state so it was kind of a big deal since it was a 3 hour drive and about the only time we saw them.

We hated that week. The grandparents had different ideas on how kids were supposed to behave and be raised. Nowadays I think it was that, even though they were older, they had more energy and attention to put into it than a single mom raising two boys. They could divide the work among two. They only had to muster the will to deal with it for a single week, not 51 weeks consecutively. Anyway, that week wasn’t exactly like boot camp, but we got away with less. Less screaming and running around and mock fighting that led to my brother crying and me being scolded but, through it all, both of us knowing that our mother cared – cared enough to pay attention to us, even when we misbehaved. But the grandparents weren’t up for such mildly  hijinks and maneuvers for attention so we found ourselves being more reserved. Their discipline was a catch-all discipline where single rules applied to all, where personality and temperament and individuality didn’t apply. It was extremely utilitarian, I suppose, and consequently efficient. So in that sense, maybe the grandparents didn’t have that much more energy to devote to us than our mother did. Maybe they were lazy. It was a style of discipline and forced conformity better designed for animals or the military and, as a consequence, we couldn’t be ourselves with each other – my brother and me that is. We couldn’t enjoy each other like we wanted – for who we were really were. And, sans that, couldn’t even enjoy our things either. We wanted our Atari and his comic books and I wanted my Mego’s. But Mom said we spent enough time with that stuff. She said the grandparents deserved some attention too. I imagined she really wanted that to be true since she was the one doing all the driving back and for to Toledo. So she made us leave all our fun stuff at home. Why drive us 6 hours round trip just so we could do the same shit up there that we would have been doing at home? So instead of video games and action figures, what we got was a week’s worth of grandparents who, through their previous experience of childhood, figured they knew us. But they never really knew us, nor cared to know very much – no more than we really cared about knowing them. It wasn’t that we disliked them, it was more like they were casual acquaintances who happened to send Christmas and birthday cards with money and let us stay over at their house all week, unlike Johnny Altsman’s mom, who only let me stay overnight. That’s not saying that the cards and money and scribbled sentiments weren’t cool. Hell, we started checking the mailbox for those cards weeks before the actually birthday or holiday. It didn’t mean we didn’t like our grandparents. It just means we didn’t know them. And not knowing, it was hard to truly care. That may seem callous, but at least it’s the truth so far as I know it. You think our grandfather really knew or cared about when our birthdays were? He was too busy, as he probably should have been, managing the tire and appliance side of the local Firestone. I get it. So, without Missile Command, we played that game of phony endearment for the week instead – a phony endearment shared between them and us, reciprocally.

There were a few good things about staying with the grandparents though. They kept their house cooler in summer. They had a bigger TV which was better for watching wrestling but they negated the benefit by making us sit further back, as if closeness to the TV made us philistines. And anytime the leglocks and clotheslines got us to feeling feisty, me throwing a feigned punch or whatnot, grandma was quick to scold with a “nah – nah.”

And the grandparents got a push button microwave before we did. And the food was better, except for the cereal. They insisted on the healthier cereals like Kix and King Vitaman and some shit called Bran News, whereas Mom let us have Quisp and Cap’n Crunch and Freakies. For some reason I always had high hopes for King Vitaman. It was probably because it had a silly character like the good cereals: Cap’n Cruch, Lucky Charms, Quisp and Frosted Flakes. I found a box as an adult and realized that King Vitaman’s character gimmick was just a ruse. It tasted like shit, goofball king character and all. And I got news for parents, kids don’t like Kix for what Kix has got, they fucking hate it. We hated it so much, when the grandparents weren’t looking, we’d stuff our pockets full of the shit and sneak off down to the creek and toss it in. We figured if we got rid of it, we could move on to something else. But then grandma noticed how quick we were going through the boxes and figured that must mean how much we were growing to like it. That’s when the regular size box became the Family Size Kix and we knew we’d really fucked up.

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Another thing that really stands out now , something far more pleasant than the cereal,was playing Hugo with my brother. It was easily the most captivating of the toys our grandparents kept for us to be entertained by. Hugo was this creepy toy that was sort of a mannequin bust that came with all kinds of accessories that you temporarily pasted on him. You could give Hugo a variety of glasses and styles of facial hair (mutton chops or goatee). You could give him teeth to make him smile or yellow, pointed monster teeth. You could give him a bloody eye patch or paste a scar on his face. He even had a Beetles-style wig that you sat, not pasted, atop that sinister bald head. For whatever reason, I tended to render Hugo nice. My brother tended to make him sinister. In my mind, Hugo was a master of disguise, maybe solving mysteries. To my brother, Hugo’s essence was the menace that my brother always made him.

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I guess we coulda asked to take Hugo home with us but my memory says we never did. And Hugo, for as awesome as he was, was one of those toys that only went through a single iteration. That is to say, a single season. He was released in 1975 and that was it. You either got him in ’75 or you didn’t. But to my knowledge we never asked to take Hugo home. I guess he gave us a minor reason for wanting to return.

Our grandparents were thoughtful enough to give us that and other games and toys too, including a Fisher-Price record player with a stack of records like Frog and Toad and kiddy Peter Pan records. They knew we had the same player and similar records at our own home. The only difference was the arm and turntable on ours was orange, theirs was blue. But the grandparents had mostly give us stuff like Popeye and Wizard of Oz or Bugs Bunny (classics, they said), instead of Spider-Man and Mark of the Man-Wolf or the Six Million Dollar Man records we’d seen in magazines, that been released a year earlier and  were sadly no longer available at K-Mart.

I remember we used to call Frog and Toad “faggot shit” well before we or the rest of the world understood the malevolence in that statement.

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It wasn’t the records or Ants In Pants or even their Snoopy and the Red Baron game which, though released just a year before my birth, making it only 8 years old at the time, still possessed a vintage, aesthetic appeal. But the aesthetics didn’t translate to fun. It was mostly the cereal and Hugo that stuck with us over the years.

Through high school we grew apart. For him, Iron Sheik vs Hulk Hogan turned to Hotwheels vs Matchbox. Then it became Chess King vs. Casual Corner. For me, it went from Iron Sheik vs Hulk Hogan to Marvel vs DC to real metal (Motorhead) vs fake metal (Guns ‘n’ Roses).

My brother tried real hard to be cool, to have the most fashionable clothes and hair and jewelry and cologne – all that bourgeois teenage bullshit. Styles that, to me, were too expensive to turn goofy so quick. I thought I was smart enough to see through all that so I went the opposite direction – metal and punk – the opposite of what others thought was cool. Well, turns out we both ended up playing a character and looking like morons at opposite ends of the social spectrum. Like I said, he tried real hard to be cool. I tried equally hard to be cool through irony rather than fashion.

My brother started partying and going to football games and dances and chasing girls. I joined a band and started smoking a lot of weed.

When I turned 18 I went away to college. My brother went to college the next year too. He went to Miami (Ohio), close to home so he could drive back to the house and his friends most weekends. I went further away.

After college, my brother got married and moved to Indianapolis. He and his wife had two children. A few years later they got divorced. His son now lives in California where he works in marketing. His daughter moved to Miami where she work in a spa, doing hair and nails for people with a lot of money. My brother now lives by himself in a condo in a suburb of Indy. His wife is now a dental assistant somewhere around Indy.

 I never got married. I moved to the city – Cincinnati to be exact – bouncing around from job to job and college discipline to discipline before finding something that seems to suit me. Sometimes I get lonely, just like my brother. I’ve tried filling my loneliness with various things: girlfriends, reading literature, starting a satirical website, writing a blog, training for a marathon, and more. Years ago, in some hollow attempt to recapture the promise and innocence of my youth, I even started collecting old toys and records, taking what pleasure I could from the shallow satisfaction of the freedom to scavenge flea markets on sweltering summer afternoons for some tender reminder of a past that seemed to hold far more prospects than I’d yet discovered.

But nothing seemed to work.

There’s still this thing between my brother and me that binds us. It’s not just blood. It’s not just those weekends at our grandparents and an acute and intimate awareness of the flaws of parents and particular teachers and friends – a nuanced awareness and understanding of instances and particulars that only come through a shared experience.

As kids, we loved the Reds – listening to games and pretending to be Barry Larkin and Jose Rijo with wiffle ball and bat. These days, my brother doesn’t like sports much. He mostly sits in his condo, I think. He’s argued that, with the television or radio or internet on, it’s more than just sitting in a condo. So I guess, technically, it’s sitting and listening or sitting and watching. Either way, he doesn’t like to go much of anywhere. So, from time to time, I go there and we catch an Indians game. The Indianapolis Indians are minor league, not the major like the Reds. And when we do go, my brother mostly laments about not seeing his kids enough and about how much of a cunt his ex-wife is. Yeah, the Indianapolis Indians aren’t the Cincinnati Reds. And the hot dogs and National Anthem don’t still don’t distract him much from that condo.

It was a few summers ago when I went west on 74 to visit my brother and catch a game downtown. He told me ahead of time he had a big surprise. It was a surprise. He welcomed me into his condo and there it was, propped on his dining table: Hugo, his head and face all naked and neutral and vulnerable, not unlike a newborn except for the creepiness instead of cuddliness.

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“Damn. Where’d you get this?” I asked.

“I got to thinking about it one day so I hopped on eBay and bought it. You used to collect old toys, right?”

“Yeah, but I never came across this at a yard sale or Craigslist.”

I picked up the bust, asking,”Wow. Was it expensive?”

“Less than a hundred bucks,” he said. “Go ahead and play.”

I pulled up a chair and sat close and tried to reacquaint myself with the reality of this old friend.  Time gives us time to imagine and reflect and in all that, things change. We remember an old girlfriend’s curls different than what they probably were. We fill in the gap and details with what would make sense or how we want it to be based on the narrative we construct around it. We remember the good times spent with the family dog, not the time it shit all over the floor, sending you into a rage. Well, we remember the rage from time to time, but try not to. But there was Hugo again, confronting me with the truth. This was the real, not imagined Hugo. I could see the powder blue of his eyes – a color that would have otherwise been a guess – a guess that I would have construed as a memory. It mighta been the glue or his plastic head or the rubber pieces of disguise that brought back some feeling through their smell.  A feeling of nostalgia, I guess, that took me back decades to my grandparent’s basement, even though this Hugo had spent his decades somewhere else.

“Pretty cool, huh?” my brother said.

“Yeah. Neat.”

He pulled up a chair too. We sat at his kitchen table, swapping out Hugo’s hair and scars and glasses and teeth while reminiscing about Stevie Altsman and Coach Perkins and the time Mom force fed us lentils cause they had been cheap. She’d boiled a whole pot and they tasted like shit but she made us eat them anyway. But not her. Just us. We complained and were told, “you’re complaining just to complain,” a fine response when that’s what you wanna believe. We laughed now, even though is a shitty thing for our mother to do.

We tell that story about the lentils to each other a lot because, to us, it sums her up perfectly. But to anybody else it wouldn’t mean much. To them it’s just a silly story about lentils. You had to experience it, I guess. Anyway, Hugo and the rest of that day’s nostalgia seemed to bring my brother out of his chronic funk for a spell. He didn’t mention anything all afternoon about his ex-wife. And I made sure not to either, just like I (and maybe him too), never bring up that expletive we used to use to describe Frog and Toad, even though it was shared about as much as Hugo.

The next summer I asked my brother if he’d rather drive to my city to catch a real ball game like when we were kids. He declined.

“I’ve come to prefer the Indians,” he said.

But it wasn’t that. He didn’t care about them very much. It was just another excuse to stay close to home.

“How bout you come here? We’ll go to an Indians game. I’ll pay for the tickets and parking – for the inconvenience.” He meant the inconvenience of me leaving home. But it wasn’t a genuine acknowledgement of anything. It was facetious and passive-aggressive. He knows I like to do things. I make time for running and writing and women but I can’t make time for the two hour drive to see him. That’s the message he sends with “inconvenience”. My message has been that relationships go both ways. One person’s effort deserves an approximate reciprocation. He’s gotten the message, sorta. That’s why he offered to pay.

With full awareness of the manipulation that did little for my will to give my free time to someone who insists on such manipulations, I went to him anyway.

When I got to his condo, there was Hugo on the table again – all bald and bare and neutral with his accessories neatly arrange around him.

“How about some more Hugo?” he asked. There was a nervousness to my brother’s joviality.

To me, the surprise of Hugo this time wasn’t one of excitement. Hugo had been fun the year before. But, honestly, I hadn’t much thought about playing Hugo since. I write and I run and I work and sometimes have women around who tell me I’m pretty good and then, as if by whimsy, tell me I’m an asshole. So even when they’re not around anymore, they linger in my mind, causing me to wonder how much of both interpretations are the truth. These are the things that occupy my time and mind along with stories about dogs with anal cysts on their assholes. But among the millions of choices to fill the gaps – writing, running, women, work, etc. – Hugo’s hadn’t been and isn’t likely to be one.

“I was really looking forward to the game,” I said. “I don’t think we have time.” Both statements were true.

“Okay,” my brother said. “Maybe next time.”

“Maybe,” I said.

As he picked up his keys and phone and we headed out, leaving Hugo there all alone, I asked my brother if he’d kept Hugo out on the table all year. He said no but I wasn’t sure I believed him.

We got to the game and grabbed our seats in the shade and my brother started in on his ex being a real bitch and his kids and job not appreciating him enough. He was too wrapped up in himself to understand that I really wanted to watch the game, as I’d stated and was the reason I’d driven 2 hours. To me, his bitching was even less interesting than a dog show or episode of Big Bang Theory. Maybe I could connect if something of value was being presented. But it was nothing new. It was the same old story, told for the hundredth time. I’ve never watched a bad movie multiple times, hoping the plot or acting would somehow change to something better. But he held true to his word and paid for the tickets and parking, so I gave latitude to his venting. Sea changes of comprehension or understanding don’t happen overnight. The transition from an understanding of basic mathematics to calculus takes time and attention. Understanding and appreciating Kurosawa just doesn’t happen at 8 years old when you’re into Spider-Man. It’s a gradual process through maturation and sometimes guidance. My brother had paid for the tickets and parking and we understand our mother perhaps better than any other two people. And we understand what Hugo meant to us better than any other two people, so I entertain this interpretation as recompense for it all.

I used to write this myopia off as just narcissism, which would have fit my narrative of  him from his high school days of faux gold necklaces and parachute pants and Esprit labels. But I image now that it’s too simple a way of trying to understand him. Maybe our mother, for the uncomplicated soul she was, was more attuned to him than either me or our grandparents.

They say one thing that distinguishes us is the degree to which we’re introverted or extroverted. Extroversion, not necessarily being gregarious, rather, defined (roughly) as being stimulated by things external to us. Maybe it’s watching an athletic contest or engaging in a card game. But it’s things external to ourselves that draw our attention and engages us. Conversely, introversion is characterized by things internal being the primary source of our engagement. It could be an idea that we ingest and, if it’s interesting enough, we build on it. We add layers of complexity to it. Maybe we write about it for hours, hoping to craft something that makes more sense of the idea. We spend hours laboring over that idea than someone else might spend at the casino or in the garage restoring the upholstery in a vintage car.

I’ve tried to understand my brother in terms of this introvert/extrovert dichotomy. Maybe he’s a natural introvert. Obviously, much of his attention is given to his own emotions, which, like ideas, exist within. And the strongest of those emotions, for him, are the pain he feels from so many years ago. He’s stuck on that pain like Tolstoy or Kierkegaard were stuck on understanding their relationships with God. You gotta figure the later two spent a lot of time and energy, internally, working though all that shit; then externally, giving it form through words on a page. And maybe that’s what most folks need, a healthy balance between the two. Or maybe that’s a vain excuse for justifying these silly words.

And there’s another thing I’ve noticed about some people. Well, not just people…animals too, I suppose. It’s how individuals, by temperament or instinct (I don’t know), have a need for intimacy. Not intimacy as in intellectual or emotional, just in terms of space. Proximity. Somebody needs a spouse or kids to come home to. An adult son needs the proximity of someone, his mother, for example, when he can’t find anyone else. And, likewise, having been divorced or widowed, she needs her son too. Or a dog may cozy up on the couch, fine to be alone. His roommate, the house cat, could choose its solitude too, off in the upstairs bedroom. But it doesn’t. It cuddles up with the dog, almost always, while the dog remains mostly indifferent to the intimacy.

There’s this idea that for some reason I think comes out of  phenomenology that suggests, maybe, that what’s most meaningful to us is what we focus on or that we’re most attuned to. And intuitively that makes sense. Like, as kids, spending hours playing video games together instead of sitting on the riverbank with fishing poles. And instead of video games or fishing, it coulda been playing baseball or the trombone or reading Conan novels or playing Army, either alone or with somebody else. But we chose the video games. It’s hard to understand at the time that maybe, at that moment, that was what was most meaningful to us. But, by that virtue, so too was my searching for those lost remnants of the past at the flea market. And then, so too, is my brother’s attachment to those raw and painful emotion from so long ago.

It can be a toxic combination, I think – introversion and a desire for acute companionship. The introversion can lead to a toxic attachment to the rawest emotion, from which it’s difficult to dissociate; whereas the extrovert attaches to things outside himself – people and things, which, in and of itself is tricky, since those things can be so far outside our control.

The introvert isn’t much drawn or attracted to things outside himself. But then this toxic attachment makes it even more difficult to attach with someone outside himself. Some animals can smell cancer. People don’t need such a keen sense to narrow down on a toxic emotional attachment. Those things show themselves pretty clearly, like at baseball when baseball should be the focus but it never is.

I sat there with my my brother and 8 dollar beers, trying to drown a lot of things out – the fact that this was the minor leagues and that perhaps that all things that are fresh or inspiring eventually get old. It occurred to me that maybe these years of talking about his ex was an attempt to get me to understand her like he and I understood our mother. And by that means we might re-strengthen our bond. But it could never be. I imagine it’s sorta like men who’ve been to war. They know what war is unlike anybody who’s only heard it described, no matter the detail. And no matter how many times he tells me that story about his ex manipulating him to forget her birthday – that anecdote he hoped through repetition might someday signify as much to me about her as we knew about our mother by way of those lentils. I think he longed for that though. And maybe it was me and the beer and the baseball that prevented it. But maybe it was something else….the way of life and the world….that prevented it. I don’t know.

There’s some common sense belief that our loneliness and emptiness and despair comes from lack of intimacy. So we long for that intimacy through understanding. We explain ourselves to ourselves and once we’ve figured that out, we explain it to others. Then, when they understand us like we understand ourselves, we’ll be known, from which intimacy will follow. Well, first, that seems inherently impossible. We simply can’t be that objective in analyzing ourselves so the version of ourselves that we pitch to another is inherently false. But knowing knowing our experiences far less intimately than we know them, their interpretation will inevitably be false too. And sometimes the reason for our loneliness is because people already understand us well enough and the way they understand us isn’t gonna change, no matter how many times you cover what a cunt our boss or ex are or how cute and cuddly our cats are and how important any of that shit is to you.

Sometimes we want Missile Command, and if somebody else wants it too, then fine. And maybe the intimacy comes from a mutual understanding and love of the game, not each other. And maybe the loneliest are those who don’t understand that. Or maybe loneliness has nothing to do with intimacy or being understood. It may just be a necessary condition of it all. Or maybe intimacy is just that cat lying on the couch with the dog, even though the latter’s indifferent to it all.

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But, if it was Missile Command and Hugo that facilitated our bonding then, then we need proper facilitators now. For, like our clothes, we grow out of Hugo and Atari too. We need facilitators…catalysts….as adult. But my brother doesn’t see it that way. He thinks there should be a direct connection based on who we were decades ago. I see him as being too lazy to search for or capitulate to those catalysts. He wants to be understood and accepted directly. The catalyst only serves as a distraction from him being acknowledged. He wants there to be a direct connection between the frequency and my ears, for the radio is nothing but a distraction from the frequency, which is him. And that’s our divide. It’s like a person believing in God or Wicca or Dynamic 5-Step Meditation and another one not, each trying to convince the other of the error of the other’s ways. Either way, there’s no better understanding of the other. One’s views or life don’t conform to the other’s. It is not a source of bonding. But not seeing it that way,  one still conspires to convince the other, “Just believe in Wicca like I do, then we will be that much closer. You’ll understand me through this religion” when a far more productive use of effort might have been through finding something on which they agree, like Missile Command then or something like charter boat fishing now.

Things change. I still love my brother – whatever love is. That hasn’t changed. Unfortunately for us, a lot else has, even Hugo.

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