The Trap of Nostalgia

I grew up in two places, primarily, and they are both special to me, but the first thing I think of when I reflect on either one is gunfire.

The place where I lived was the home I grew up in on Buckingham Way. My parents moved us away from there after a FBI sting operation at a mini-mart a stone’s throw away resulted in two Agents dying and the killers hiding out in our neighborhood. One of them in the house behind ours. We were trapped until the criminals were found later that morning; my first experience with quarantine. I remember it being a lot more fun than the current one.

The second place I grew up in was my Dad’s store on the very outskirts of Fresno, where he sold guns, fish bait, sodas, candy, and cigarettes—and not always safely (I’ll spare you the details in this post). Despite the violence of the area and my father’s occupation, I spent a LOT of time in “The Shop” working, playing, shooting plastic army men out back with a BB gun, waiting for dad to finish work so we could go to a movie, and playing “fish out of water” with the minnows in the tanks he kept in the back. Just to torture them. The Shop is firmly imprinted as a magical place on my brain, burned alongside every terrible thing that happened there and because of it. In The Other Side of Fear, my forthcoming book* about all the violence Dad suffered at the Shop and the growing up I did in between it all, I describe my time there this way:

A full-sized Donkey Kong video game cabinet sat near the front door. I spent every possible minute jumping barrels and rescuing damsels in distress, my Atomic Fire Ball cooling in a Dixie Cup full of water next to the joystick (a low-rent chemistry experiment that made it easier for me to skip the “fire” and get right to the sugar). Meanwhile, just a few feet away, someone would ask Dad if he could see a handgun before purchasing a Coke and a pack of Marlboros.

I knew there wasn’t much to it. The entirety of the Shop seemed quite a bit smaller than the three-bedroom house we lived in. Definitely dustier. Winds from the surrounding countryside and farmlands kicked up the dirt surrounding it on the regular, pushing it all inside and casting a thin blanket of wispy grime on the cracked cement floor. A broom behind the counter justified its existence by shooing it all away on at least a quarterly basis. Deep, muddy puddles dressed the Shop on all sides after a rain, with the exception of the side it shared with the bar next door. The front faced out toward the highway, a flat slab of concrete its only accouterment. If you could see it. The manmade parking surface was usually covered in oil and sludge.

The backrooms—secret places at every grocery store and mini-mart my father didn’t own—didn’t hide anything special. Just palettes of beer and soda. The walk-in freezer housing the fishing bait Dad distributed throughout the Valley, as effective as it was as a refuge during the summer, reeked of worm and earth.

I was Bill’s Son, the little prince within the Shop that was his kingdom. The Donkey Kong games were always free of charge. So were the New York Seltzers (always the Vanilla Crème) that gave such sweet relief when the temperatures swelled and the swamp cooler wasn’t cutting it. Drinks, Frozen Burritos of questionable nutritional value, and candy (whose nutritional value—or lack thereof—was never in question) were all there for the taking. Long as I asked King Dad first.

That is a child’s description of a childlike time, devoid of any discussion of the perils or appropriateness of such a place. I didn’t even blink as I ran past the .45’s and the 30 ought 6’s on glorious display in their glass cases. The moral implications of my father making his living by selling instruments of death were too unknown for me to even consider. Neither did I ever imagine that any of the many robberies or arson fires the Shop suffered could occur while I was there. They never had, so why would they? And it never, ever crossed my mind the emotional and financial toll running such a place and depending on it for income took on my mother and father. Not even when Dad desperately sought employment or business opportunities elsewhere did it occur to me that maybe he didn’t love the Shop as much as I did. I thought he just wanted a change of pace; somewhere else fun that I could run around in.

I try not to be nostalgic. There’s so much that’s new, and so many things old in this world I’ve never experienced that I think looking back, even wistfully, can be a trap. We can sometimes mistake times gone by as the very best times, especially compared with today, but it’s often not really the case. Saturday Night Live isn’t “not funny anymore,” you’re only remembering the good sketches. Likewise, recalling the 1950’s as a golden age for morality in the United States is to deny the reality of so many Black Americans and women for whom it was a time of denied rights and diminished personhood.

The Shop wasn’t just my own personal arcade and Dad’s kingdom. It was his death trap.

When I look back on my childhood, the wonderful sits alongside the horrific, comfortably. This is why I can both be glad my daughters haven’t ever experienced the violence and fear my brothers and I did, and I can want to tell them all about it like it was the coolest thing ever, too. Because it was. It was very cool. Fun, even. That’s both the prerogative of youth and the privilege of looking back. Of nostalgia.

TheShop2020

Yesterday, I went and visited the site of the Shop, right at the end of Hwy 180 going West out of Fresno. It’s not there anymore. It was demolished some years ago, and nothing has been built to take its place. The Shop was right there, in the space where there is now only dark brown dirt and odd pieces of litter thrown out of speeding, passing cars.

I got out of my car and walked around a little. At near 100 degrees, it was hot, as it always seemed to be whenever I visited the Shop, even in the winter. There’s an AM/PM going up across the street and the highway didn’t used to end right there, but otherwise the surrounding area looks the same.

But it doesn’t feel the same. I got out of the car because I wanted to feel the space again, or at least see if I could. But I couldn’t. The Shop is gone, and it took all the ghosts with it.

Probably better that way.

*The Other Side of Fear is due out Oct. 13, 2020 from Cedar Fort Publishing and will be available in a variety of formats.

 

Should You Punch a Nazi?

Should you punch a Nazi?

There’s a thought in some circles that goes like this: Nazis bad; punching Nazis, good. There are even videos of people smacking modern day Nazis out of nowhere while they’re talking to a reporter or walking along the street, a vicarious cathartic release spread far and wide over social media in a time when racism and the rejuvenation of white supremacy is rightly called out.

But, should you punch a Nazi?

If a person is evil* and is promoting an evil thing, is it a bad thing to knock their block off? How could it be, right? After all, the world would be a whole lot better off if we’d done a lot more Nazi punching back in the 1930’s instead of waiting for the 1940’s to roll on out.

Maybe. Probably.

So, if I hate and oppose evil, I can hate and punch Nazis, right? That tracks?

What about people who disagree with me, politically? Their ideas are bringing the country down, and if the country goes down, people will suffer. Better punch them. What about people who discriminate against others for their gender, race, or how they identify sexually? Or Pro-choicers? Gun enthusiasts? Atheists? Fundamentalist Christians? Non-mask wearers? Progressives? Conservatives? People with mullets in the Year of Our Lord 2020? All doing harm in their own way. All punchable.

Right?

Let’s toss Doug in there, too. Doug was having a hard time and I lent him money when he needed it most and he never paid me back, even after he got that huge settlement. Doug is a jerk and definitely deserves a punch in the face if I’ve ever know anyone who does. And Roberta. She looked at me sour, cut the line at the Save Mart, and ruined my whole day with her nasty face. Punching her would be a blessing to all, and might even improve her looks a little. Bonus blessing.

Look, there’s a lot to be mad about is what I’m saying. You know this. I know this. But, this call to punch, to insult, to disparage, to ostracize, to dismiss. To demonize.

To hate.

And all in the appeal to some moral high place upon which the righteous stand but the unrighteous do not? It’s nuts. Who is the righteous? Who is the unrighteous? Well, that’s simple. The righteous is us. The unrighteous is them.

The othering of those who do not believe “correctly” is not helping. Anything. It’s not helping you or me or anything at all. What it is doing is dividing. It’s defeating conversation and honest debate. It’s defeating kindness and love and change.

That’s right, change. If those who rail against evil do not temper their invective with genuine love and care, they defeat their own cause. They prove that their cause is less important to them than ego and self-satisfaction. Because to what end? What does punching a Nazi accomplish?

“Well, it makes me feel good.”

And how many evils have been done in the name of that?

There’s a great Martin Luther King Jr. quote that’s getting a lot of play lately and that my wife reminded us of during our in-home church yesterday:

“Darkness cannot drive out darkness. Only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate. Only love can do that.”

Hate is corrosive and evil. It doesn’t matter who you hate or what they’ve done, hate is not justified. Ever.

I recently participated in an online discussion about whether it’s possible to “love everyone,” including rapists, serial killers, pedophiles, etc. The notion that anyone on this planet could love everyone was called “silly.” It was dismissed outright as a fairytale. But, it’s not.

I have love for everyone. Some people annoy me, some I think are toxic and don’t need to be part of my life…some have even killed people close to me, but there’s still love there. Even if I don’t know a person personally, I still see them as my brother and sister in this world.

And I’m not special! There a plenty just like me quietly shaking their heads and hoping for more kindness and a better world.

Because we know hate does not drive out hate and we hold fast to this one truth: no one enters this world determined to be a monster.

Not one.

And so, when someone does something horrible—when they injure or rape or kill or abuse or commit any other terrible number of atrocities—it is a great sadness. I am sad for them. The monster.

And that sadness is a tragedy adjacent to the horrible thing they’ve done.

It’s what we have in common that makes me love them. Our shared humanity and divine promise. Whatever they have lost along the way, whatever someone has done, I still want better for them. And that’s love.

When you have a love like that, it’s hard to insult and disparage and ostracize and dismiss and demonize and hate. It’s hard to feel any satisfaction at all from doing something as pointless as punching a Nazi.

When you love, not only do you not want to punch, you also know it just won’t do any good. You see that so clearly.

Except for Doug. He owes me money.**

* I would argue we should never, ever call a person evil. Acts can be evil. Deeds can be evil. Knievel can be Evil. But people? Sure, they CAN be evil. But for you to say so is to place a judgement on them and their heart, and that you cannot do. You simply cannot know such a thing. Let God sort out who is evil and who is not. It’s just not our job. 

**There is no Doug. Sorry, Doug! You exist only in my heart.

…One last thing. The video below was also part of the lesson my wife shared with us on Sunday. It’s a beautiful rendition of the Savior’s words, direct from the New Testament. He, of course, is the originator of all these thoughts.

Photo by Lukas from Pexels