The difference between childhood and adulthood is the difference between square Christmas presents and asymmetrical ones. To this day, I know the distinctive geometry of a wrapped G.I. Joe blister pack by heart: the action figure encased in the lower right quadrant forcing the paper to form a sort of off-center plateau. The mystery of adulthood crystallized on Christmas morning. My parents did not receive toys, yet they still seemed excited about their presents. What did they look forward to? What did they cherish? The lives of adults seemed so crushingly barren I decided there must be something more, invisible to me and unimaginable. I did not look forward to discovering what it was.
My interest in toys was sufficient and complete: from the tightly rolled newspaper swords my father fashioned for us in 1984, to my Entertech pump-action water shotgun of 1987 (soon made obsolete by the Larami Supersoaker), to the Nerf Bow and Arrow of 1990, a toy so awesome my Dad got his own.
I grew up in the golden age of action figures. I was born two years after Kenner released its groundbreaking line of 3¾-inch plastic Star Wars figures. When I was two, Hasbro repurposed the twelve-inch G.I. Joe dolls from my father’s childhood into 3¾-inch toys with back stories, codenames, and articulations in the neck, shoulders, elbows, waist, hips, and knees, including the revolutionary “swivel-arm battle grip.” My childhood spanned Masters of the Universe, Gobots, Transformers, ThunderCats, SilverHawks, Rock Lords, MUSCLE men, Voltron, M.A.S.K., Army Ants, and, finally, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, the decadent apex of the action figure era. I could even get a McRobot with my Happy Meal. I lived vicariously through the toys themselves, but also through the boys in the commercials, blessed not only with every toy and vehicle, but with incredible landscapes to use them in.
I had an extraordinary capacity for transforming my environment into imaginary landscapes for my action figures.
Whenever I discovered a promising new world—like the patch of weird grass on our lawn that seemed uncannily like the jungles of Vietnam—I would enter it by deploying my action figures and launching them into a story. And that, I think, is the key to understanding why I so obsessively used my imagination to enact scenarios of unmitigated violence. Conflict is the essence of storytelling, and violence is its most primitive form: the only story a six-year-old boy can reliably tell.
This also explains why I was reading books about World War II battles when I was eight and Tom Clancy novels when I was ten. I couldn’t imagine a conflict that hinged on anything more subtle than physical violence, but my aspirations for back-story did become more sophisticated than Good Guys versus Bad Guys in conflict with each other by definition.
And then it all fell apart. One year I couldn’t understand how my parents looked forward to a Christmas without toys, the next I was asking for a Bart Simpson nightshirt.
As a kid, I’d used my imagination unselfconsciously: the point of play was to lose myself. As a teenager I used my imagination in exactly opposite fashion: to achieve complete self-consciousness. Instead of floating god-like above my action figures I floated above myself, the way you do supposedly before you die. Helplessly, I watched myself navigate mundane social interactions that had suddenly become both debilitatingly complicated and supremely important.
At least by then I was reading books that taught me to conceive of conflicts beyond violence. I read Hemingway and imagined myself as the wounded fisherman, read Kerouac and imagined myself a Zen firewatcher, read Krakauer and imagined myself a mountain climbing novelist. But none of these borrowed identities ever changed who I was. They may have been more reality-based than pretending the bathtub was a sewer for my Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, but in the end each of them faded away, just another unsustainable effort of the imagination.
Life, I finally understood, is like living in a shotgun house with an infinite number of rooms. Every time you walk into a new room, you realize how deluded you’d been in the previous one. And there is always another room. Usually the realization happens gradually: looking back on a breakup and realizing it was your fault. Sometimes it comes abruptly: your parents tell you they’re getting a divorce, or your therapist, Eva, gives you a homework assignment.
I saw Eva one semester in grad school; my girlfriend at the time had told me I needed therapy. At the end of our third session, Eva said, “I want you to think about the question, In what ways do I gratify the emotional part of me? Do you understand what I’m asking?”
“I’m not sure,” I told her. In truth, I had no idea. But a few days later, I sat down in the library, opened a notebook, and wrote: “What does it mean to be emotionally gratified? Is it a feeling in my body? An emotion?” At a loss, I started listing situations that made me feel any emotion at all: the sadness of saying goodbye to people in my family; the exhilaration on alpine mountaintops; the high I got from a good run; how certain novels felt like part of my own life; the time I cried uncontrollably when my girlfriend told me she knew how hard I tried to make others happy and how unappreciated I usually felt; the terrible fear I sometimes got in the middle of the night; the good, empty feeling I got on winter walks, and how I ruined it by intellectualizing; the pride I felt the first time I rode my bike a hundred miles in a day. The list got so long I started to repeat myself. Three times I described being more comfortable with other people’s emotions than my own. Twice, I wrote about crying whenever I heard stories of heroic dogs.
Liz gets annoyed by how often I declare something “my favorite.” I definitely overdo it. The urge goes back to that list. As I wrote, I realized that so many of the things I took for granted in my daily interactions with the universe were, in fact, unique to me. They made me who I was. They mattered.
Becoming aware of your own stuff is like driving to a breeder intending to buy a pedigreed Irish Setter and realizing along the way that the three-legged ferret that’s been skulking around for as long as you can remember is actually the pet you needed all along. It’s so obvious, now that it occurs to you. No one else you know has a friggin’ ferret following them around. How could you ever think it was normal?
At first you can’t get over how ugly it is. It’s like the time you came home from that party and realized you had spinach dip in your teeth, only a billion times worse. Then you remember how the ferret slunk into your arms and warmed up your belly on all the nights no one else even remembered you existed, and you feel so guilty and so loved that you start crying uncontrollably.
You’re self-conscious, at first, about hanging your name on its collar, putting it on a leash and walking it, tagging yourself in a picture with the ferret snuggled in your lap, but what a relief it is, to stop striving for some more socially acceptable pet you never wanted in the first place, to free up all that energy you’d been expending to keep yourself oblivious of the real situation, to love the thing that’s loved you for so long.
Out of all the stories in the Bible, Christmas was the only one that ever felt like it belonged to me. David and Samson and Jonah were all fixed in place by Sunday school, their meanings frozen. But they couldn’t suck the weirdness out of Christmas: the young family looking for shelter, the shepherds and dead babies. Christmas was the only time of year that the world of mystery coincided with my own world. It invaded the house, first with the advent calendar, then with the crèche and the electric candles in the windows, finally with a tree, the weirdest thing of all.
I’ll always love novels and movies and games that let me enter someone else’s world, and I can’t wait to follow my future kids into the worlds that they invent (especially now that NERF makes a battleaxe), but my goal is to bring the tree into the house. I think it’s possible to walk into a room that’s as awesome and mysterious as you ever dared to hope for, and that you’ll never have to leave. You’ll know you’re there because you’ll run in in your pajamas and see that everything’s been taken care of: the fire is lit, the carols are playing on the stereo, the presents are piled under the tree and you have no desire whatsoever to tear off the paper.
John Teschner’s stories and essays have appeared in The Iowa Review, The Florida Review and other journals. He is completing a collection of linked stories and beginning his first novel. He lives in Minneapolis.