I’ve been thinking a bit this week (in between dodging the killing rays of the scorching sun and bouncing from finding my son adorable to finding him deplorable and back again) about badassery.
I’m sure mostly this has to do with my pop culture diversions, both mental and actual. I was of course riffing on Dark Sun on Wednesday, and in case it wasn’t crystal clear (or if your eyes glazed over) the whole notion of post-apocalyptic Dungeons & Dragons in a world of gladiator slaves and cannibal savages and a dying desert planet is of course a naked attempt to take some of the inherent silliness of elves and dwarves and sparkly magic wands and make it extremely badass. The early part of this week, I was reading yet another (for better or worse, the only other) City of Heroes novel which focuses on the origin of that gameworld’s Superman analogue, the Statesman. The CoH twist is that Statesman was a scarred World War I vet who was both cured of his debilitating war wounds and granted extraordinary powers by drinking a mythological elixir, after a hunt for said elixir which was funded by various criminal activities, and even after he gained the powers he primarily used them to hunt down one specific arch-criminal only because that relatively more evil guy had murdered Statesman’s brother and foster father, and only towards the end of that hunt did he evolve into the kind of principled hero the rest of the world could look up to and be inspired by (but he was still kind of a badass). Yesterday the movie I watched on my VRE ride was GI Joe: The Rise of Cobra, the live-action joint from 2009, which managed to be both totally goofy and slightly badass (and I will have much more to say about the films merits and flaws next time Geek-Out Wednesday rolls around). And today on the VRE I started watching a movie called Suicide Kings which is about amateur criminals and mobsters and features both Christopher Walken and Denis Leary, so I expect much badass (albeit quirky) action to be in store there.
This is my escapism of choice, and this is indisputably the season for it. But speaking of the mix of badassery and absurdity, here’s a story from one of the summers of my youth.
When I was about ten years old my family took a week’s vacation to Lake George in upstate New York. A couple of memories that stand out from that trip include sitting in our rental cabin on a rainy day watching the video for Panama on MTV and arguing with my dad about whether Van Halen was the name of the lead singer in the band or the lead guitarist (I was arguing the former, clearly I was wrong, but I was only a dumb kid who just assumed that the frontman always got top billing, and this was obviously well before David Lee Roth became a household name.) and also going out to a mom-and-pop ice cream shop and getting a bowl of homemade Chocolate Cookies and Cream (which means they used chocolate ice cream and mixed in sizable chunks of store-bought Oreos, and if you think that would be an overkill of chocolate you and I must agree to disagree).
Another memory from that same trip is of the night the whole family went out to the local retail main drag to … I guess shop for souvenirs because it was near the end of the trip? That part’s a little hazy, but I do remember that we ended up going into lots and lots of custom t-shirt shops and my Little Bro and I being told we could pick out whatever we liked.
Ten years old is probably about the perfect age to form a deep, devoted emotional bond with your bicycle, and that was certainly true for me. I had actually been somewhat late to learn to ride a bike without training wheels, but once I did I took to making up for lost time with a vengeance. And the friends I hung out with at that age were really into their bikes, too, which just reinforced what a big chunk of my life they occupied and how all I really ever wanted to do with my free time was jump on my bicycle and ride for hours with no particular destination in mind.
So of course from time to time I would stumble across various signifiers and symbols of motorcycle culture but in my age-appropriate cluelessness (see above) it often would not even occur to me that the “bikes” to which they referred were not the same as the “bike” that was my prize possession. So when I was drawn to these things it was not a case of precocious subversive co-opting of counter-culture, it was pure dumb kid self-absorption.
Anyway, there I was in the t-shirt shop scanning the walls which were just papered floor-to-ceiling with iron-on decals, and I saw one which blew all others out of contention. Picture, if you will, a lushly painted vista of a highway stretching off toward the distant craggy horizon at sunset, the entire scene bathed in blazing oranges, yellows and reds (if you are picturing something done in a style which might also be seen on the side of a van, you are in the zone, my friend). Imagine this landscape circumscribed by a border of chains. Dream, if you dare, of a grinning steel skull with feathered chrome wings superimposed atop the middle of that circle, and finally add the words RIDE TO LIVE curving above the picture and LIVE TO RIDE beneath it. Holy sweet hell did I fall in love with that at first sight, and I desperately wanted to be emblazoned with that exact badass imagery every time I took my ridiculous, pudgy ten-year-old butt on my bicycle down to the dirt tracks in the woods.
Unsurprisingly, my father was not as super-enthused about it as I was. I think he had just expected we would get t-shirts to remind us of the trip in some obvious way, maybe even ones that said Lake George on them somewhere? I semi-remember him suggesting as much to my Little Bro, and Little Bro asking dad if I was getting a Lake George t-shirt, and my dad answering in this really aggrieved tone “no, because I guess all he’s into now is skulls and devils and crap like that” loud enough that there was no mistaking that I was meant to hear it and feel ashamed (and I didn’t mistake that intention, clueless as I was I still wasn’t that clueless, but neither did I feel particularly ashamed for all that). But, to my dad’s credit, he had said I could pick out whatever I wanted and he bought me a gray-and-black ringer tee with the RIDE TO LIVE skull logo affixed because that was exactly what I wanted. And I proceeded to wear the hell out of it until I outgrew it. (And I wish I had kept it all the same, maybe turned it into a small decorative pillow eventually or something.)
I have to say, for years and years I just kind of assumed that my father thought that certain things were proper and respectable and other things weren’t and he was just chagrined by the thought of his children getting into things he didn’t particularly care for. Once I got a little older and did realize the things I had thought were made just for me were actually aimed at the Harley crowd, and that that crowd was fairly rough around the edges in broad and general stereotypical terms, it only reinforced my theory about my dad wanting us to mirror his own tastes. But nowadays I’m not sure that was the whole answer, maybe not even most of the answer. I suppose when your own child gets into those pre-tween years (not that the term existed when I was that age, but you know) it’s not so much the differences between their personality and your own that can get you down, but simply the idea that they’re growing up so much, so fast, at all. There’s no doubt in my mind my father didn’t think very much of the trappings of heavy metal, punk rock and lots of other underground scenes, but I think his disdain when I gravitated towards those things was really masking a certain sadness about me being interested in anything vaguely mature at all (even if it was an example of the most puerile definition of the word). I am a huge fan of postures of badassery in ways that range from ironic to sincere to mindless, so I certainly won’t have any aesthetic objections or snide sighing comments to make the first time my little guy comes home with anything at all cut from that cloth. But it will break my heart a tiny bit all the same.