Don't Stop Believing

Hold on to that feeling (of nostalgia)
June 28, 2023

Allison: It's unavoidable. It just happens.
John Bender: What happens?
Allison: When you grow up, your heart dies.
John Bender: Who cares?
Allison: I care.

John Bender talking to Allison in "The Breakfast Club" (1985)

I’ve been stricken with a grievous feeling lately, almost a heavy heart if you will. It feels as if Sir Isaac Newton’s laws are at play in my emotional life. Is there a natural gravitational pull between my childlike sense of wonder and my down to Earth adult brain? Do we have to let the past go completely? Maybe its nature, we have no choice. Or maybe…

Let me start from the beginning. As a child, I always had a very vivid imagination. I grew up in a small town in the middle of farms, dairy pastures, and woods galore. I didn’t experience the hustle and bustle of large metropolitan city life as some often do. I didn’t even have the Middle American suburbs childhood that even more were exposed to. No sir, I was surrounded by grass, trees, animals, and my imagination.

I don’t regret living in the middle of nowhere because it was my circumstances that fed my imagination and allowed that magic to last longer than the peers of my age. I didn’t have prefabricated community playgrounds, museums, places to guide my imagination. I had to invent everything from scratch. My feet would feel the give of the dirt as I ran through rows of pine trees, my damp sweaty hair would stick to my forehead as I jumped on hay bails in the middle of July. I would hop on my grandfather’s tractor and imagine I was Rambo in a tank, grab a corn cob and instantly it was a stick of dynamite. I would climb to the top of a treehouse fort built on my family’s 20 acres of land, take my TMNT action figures, my Green Ranger, and the Dragonzord in a bag with me. I could spend three or four hours just going on adventures with Batman (the animated series action figure), Hulk Hogan (WWF yellow and red, not the Hollywood N.W.O. Hogan), and Transformers. I could bear witness to the greatest battles in the history of our galaxy, my child-like creative imagination made them feel bigger than anything Spielberg could put on the silver screen. My cognitive distortions of memories made them feel as if I had lived through something spectacular, and how lucky was I? The only boy witnessed such a spectacle.

The perfect supplies for my treehouse fort

As I grew older, my imagination evolved. I turned to pop culture movies, tv shows, and other retro junk to entertain my time in the middle of nowhere. I also began to use art as an outlet for my creativity. I loved Saturday morning cartoons, Nickelodeon’s “Nicktoons”, Disney’s animated films and of course the “Disney Afternoon”. There were so many days I would record a television program on my Magnavox VCR. I would find the perfect shot or frame from the movie and pause it. It may have been sort of fuzzy, a few lines running across the tube, but it looked perfect for inspiration. I would draw characters such as Doug, Hey Arnold, Aaahh Real Monsters, Simba and Mufasa, the world’s finest Batman and Superman, X-Men, Goofy, and so many more. Eventually, I would make them into comics, with the most amazing crossovers you could imagine. I invented Cyclops Goofy by drawing the lovable goof with Cyclos from X-Men’s mechanical goggles and replaced his arm with a robot limb with a claw hand. My Cyclops Goofy would team up with Batman to fight against Joker and Pete. Halfway through the comic an even more nefarious force would arrive and the four of them would stop fighting to team up and save the planet from Sephiroth (Final Fantasy VII). Cloud would randomly run up to them and ask for their help. I once even created a Superhero Tournament hosted by Shaggy and Scooby Doo. There were no licensing contracts to stop my fun.

My own world of imagination drew inspiration from these cartoons

This lasted into my early adulthood. I got married, we have one son. Even though I was in my 20s, I would never let my childhood die. I was reminded of a quote from “The Neverending Story” (1984).

G'mork: Foolish boy. Don't you know anything about Fantasia? It's the world of human fantasy. Every part, every creature of it, is a piece of the dreams and hopes of mankind. Therefore, it has no boundaries.
Atreyu: But why is Fantasia dying, then?
G'mork: Because people have begun to lose their hopes and forget their dreams. So the Nothing grows stronger.
Atreyu: What is the Nothing?
G'mork: It's the emptiness that's left. It's like a despair, destroying this world. And I have been trying to help it.
Atreyu: But why?
G'mork: Because people who have no hopes are easy to control. And whoever has control has the Power.

The nothing attacking our own fantasia

I didn’t want to be Bastian at the beginning of the movie. The sad, nervous kid whose father was telling him he needed to get his head out of the clouds and grow up. I had plenty of that rhetoric from my peers and community adults. Remember when I said I grew up in this vast farmland? There were plenty of adults in my life telling me, “Stop with this art nonsense, you need to be a man and grow up.” Others would give me suggestions, “Hey, why don’t you learn how to farm like your grandpa?” Some would even preach, “The Bible says a kid has to put away his childish things and become a man at some point.” This went on for years. I felt bullied into hunting, fishing, playing sports. I do enjoy shooting hoops once in a while, or a game of catch with my dad, I didn’t want to put hours and hours into conditioning, practice, a season of games. I didn’t want to shoot deer, or clean a fish. (There's nothing wrong with those who do love that stuff, I'm not bashing anyone). I just wanted to have time to do what I love. One year after graduating High School and learning how to farm, I moved to a new city and went to college. I escaped from the backwoods' country like Snake Plissken escaped New York. I couldn't be in a place where people wanted me to be something I didn’t want to be. No, I was going to be the Bastian at the end of the film flying around on Falcor the dog dragon. Full of confidence, living my own life. Fist pump in the air.

I want to be this Bastian, riding on Falcor, a sweet dog dragon off on my next adventure

Being a father kept this drive inside of me going. My imagination flowed like a river from my noggin into the world I surrounded my son in. From the time he was old enough to sit upright on a baby mat to the summer between fourth and fifth grade, I would always carve out time in the evenings or weekends for him. We built a fort and made pirate flags when he was three years old. Aaargh, it was our Black Pearl as we set sail for treasure and adventure. After many hours of sawing, nailing, and pouring sand like my TV idol Tim the "Tool man" Taylor, we had a homemade sandbox. We had many adventures in the desert with Ben 10, Heat blast, Four Arms, Diamondhead, and more. I would provide the voices and he would laugh so hard. If he wanted something built as a set for his imagination, we worked on it together. We used wood, cardboard, paint, and made race tracks for his Mario Kart figurines. Our crowning achievement was rebuilding “Moo Moo Meadows” from “Mario Kart Wii” as an actual physical track in his bedroom. We weren’t allowed to move it for a month. We tip toed around this magical grand prix track for weeks. The two of us built forts in his room with blankets, pillows, chairs, and brooms. The pride he felt beaming from his eight year old face as we marveled at our creation was something money couldn’t buy. He forced me to watch TV and read books in that fort for weeks. He slumbered, having many dreams about Captain Underpants, Greg from Diary of a Wimpy Kid, and Goosebumps as he rest peacefully in his sleeping bag.

Spending so much time in our fort, reading books, watching movies, making memories

However, something changed deep from within after the pandemic year of 2020. I began to notice slight differences in me, not big at first, but slowly growing over a period of time until it transformed me from the inside out. My son graduated from elementary school into middle school. He no longer yearned for his father to play with him on the weekends. My dad jokes weren’t funny anymore, the innocent child laughter that once followed was now replaced with that familiar embarrassed look of pre-teen angst. Toys, books, handheld video game systems, bikes, all replaced with a “Samsung Galaxy”. My wife said something for the first time of our marriage, “Your son needs a father, not a best friend.” That caved in my skull like Marv from “Home Alone 2” getting hit with a barrage of bricks from a New York rooftop by Kevin McCallister. So I took it to heart.

Winnie the Pooh: “We didn't realize we were making memories, we just knew we were having fun.”

You never know when the last day will come when it's happening, so just enjoy each moment as if it's your last

I began small by cleaning out the toys, video games, old books he no longer wanted. I slowly started to notice other changes. I began watching cable news, following the pandemic story, political drama of the election year in the United States, eating healthier, and so on. However, it consumed my life. I began to notice I wasn’t cracking jokes anymore, I wasn’t dressing the same, I was even doing things old people do “for fun.” I went from the cool Robin Williams from all those 90s comedies like "Jack", "Hook", "Mrs. Doubtfire" and "Jumanji" to the lame Robin Williams making those depressing indie films in the 2010s. Everything became so serious, life began to feel routine and monotonous. The moment that triggered this feeling of dread I described at the beginning of this article is something that happened on a random Sunday afternoon.

On this particular Sunday afternoon, I walked inside my home, exhausted from mowing my yard. Walking through the halls towards my shower I looked the smoke detector on my ceiling. For no particular reason it caught my eye. Just a round, white piece of plastic with a blinking light. I kept walking towards my bathroom and continued on with my day. After my shower (now as an adult, supposedly a reward for my hard work) I sat down on my L-shaped couch. I grabbed the remote and turned on our television. For some reason it was left on “Cartoon Network”, a channel that we hadn’t watched in nearly a year and a half. There was a UFO on the screen as an episode of “Steven Universe” played out before my eyes and I felt as if Ivan Drago from “Rocky IV” had punched me in the gut. I felt a wave of nostalgia and sadness sweep over me. I used to see the world through a specific lens. I remember seeing smoke detectors and imagining they were UFOs. I would see a door stopper and think it looked like a baseball bat for my toys, tractors were tanks, and broken pieces of wood were swords. My mind used to have a conditioned response to seeing inanimate objects as something more. It was how my brain was wired since I could remember, and now I had reprogrammed my way of thinking. I was no longer Bastian riding on his magical dog dragon, I was his curmudgeon old balding dad with that bizarre egg and orange juice breakfast shake in his mustache. I pictured myself in my 30s, this broken down old fart, the very villain I vowed to never become. I was Peter Pan, looking down at my prosthetic metal sickle hand realizing I had mutated into Captain Hook.

Me looking at who I was versus who I had become, battling myself from within

I flipped the channel to Bob Ross on a streaming service and became enamored with his show. I passively watched it as a kid, but I usually went outside to play when he came on PBS. His show would come on during the middle of the day after all the children’s programming went off. However, as an adult, it kicked me in the face harder than Daniel Larusso's crane kick smacked Cobra Kai's Johnny Lawrence in that 1984 All Valley Karate Tournament. After binge watching these shows full of inspirational quotes, encouragement, and a sense of wonder I became inspired to oil paint. I bought the kit from Amazon and began my journey. I had never picked up a brush in my life. It unlocked a whimsy inside me I thought was dead. Bob Ross was the embodiment of who I had become. He talked about spending twenty years in the military and how painting was his escape to a world he could create and control. This was a natural outlet for me. Every time I begin to unveil the mountains, clouds, and trees hidden in my brush onto the canvas, it brought me peace and joy I hadn’t experienced in a long time. I noticed something happening within me again. The “nothing” that wiped out my fantasia hadn’t completely destroyed that place from existence. My sense of humor returned, my vision for seeing fantastic creations from inanimate objects became focused again, most importantly I was having fun. Falcor had picked me up for a ride once again. My fist pumped in the air.

The man, the myth, the legend. The reason my child-like sense of wonder didn't die

Bob Ross Quotes (that inspired me):

"In painting, you have unlimited power. You have the ability to move mountains. You can bend rivers. But when I get home the only thing I have power over is taking out the garbage.”

"The secret to doing anything is believing that you can do it. Anything that you believe you can do strong enough, you can do. Anything. As long as you believe.”

"Look around. Look at what we have. Beauty is everywhere—you only have to look to see it."

"We want happy paintings. If you want sad things, watch the news.”

"The secret to doing anything is believing that you can do it. Anything that you believe you can do strong enough, you can do. Anything. As long as you believe.”

The purpose of writing this article is to remind every adult who feels as if they have to let go of their past, grow up, ignore the nostalgia, they don’t. It’s true you can’t just sit in your room and play old video games forever, we can’t just pull out action figures and play with them in a tree fort for the rest of our lives. We have lives, children, spouses, jobs, and responsibilities. What I’m saying is, our child-like sense of wonder can evolve, and it can mature with us. We don’t have to let it die, we don’t have to grow apart and journey our own separate ways. I can still throw on a marathon of “Doug” episodes while I paint. I can still play SNES on a Saturday afternoon with my wife as we defeat Bowser in “Super Mario World.” The clicking of the controller’s buttons as I feel that hard plastic at my fingertips. The world doesn’t have to be all or nothing. I can still be a parent, a very good one at that, and still have fun with my son. I’ll just let him come to me, and do the things he enjoys. I can do my own thing in my down time. Life is about balance. So go out and ride your Falcor my friends, don’t ever let your Fantasia die.

These are some examples of my oil paintings, I wanted to leave you with a glimpse into the worlds I create on canvas

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