For over a decade, starting as early as I can remember and going on into the middle of adolescence, The Simpsons was the most important manifestation of culture in my life. This was also true for everyone I chose to have a relationship with. It stopped being true around the time I turned thirteen, when I had the first major friend turnover of my life, and when I stopped watching the show; I can’t remember which came first. Another thing that happened around this time is I decided—or maybe realized—I was going to give my life to Serious Art, to living—as David Lynch calls it—the Art Life.
It’s not that I thought the Art Life couldn’t involve something like The Simpsons. It’s more that I became suddenly overwhelmed with the sense that in order to make Serious Art, I had to reject everything I’d known so far. This included (maybe primarily) the community I grew up in on the South Side of Chicago, which is inextricably tangled with both my attraction to and my departure from the show. It’s only now, at 27, after I’ve long since left that community, and after the show has spent as much time out of my life as in it, that it seems possible to start to reckon with the forces that helped create all the selves I’ve been. Selves that have been diagnosed as being unable to take anything seriously. Selves that have used humor to deal with pain and, more consciously, have used pain to make humor.
Growing up—becoming yourself—involves points of departure. We leave histories, systems of belief, systems of organization: religion maybe, family, home. Some of my most formative departures were from things my mother was born to and hasn’t fully left: i) Irish-Catholicism, ii) the culture—especially the culture of masculinity—of West Morgan Park, the Chicago neighborhood where I was born. One of the most telling facts about WMP, to my mind, has to do with its name. Neighbors uniformly call it Beverly, the result of two particular forces central to Chicago’s history: a needy aspirationalism born of economic insecurity, and racism. See, Beverly has always been wealthier and more prestigious than Morgan Park at large. Also Beverly, like West Morgan Park, is overwhelmingly white, whereas the rest of MP has a much bigger and more visible black population, from whom many of my white neighbors were more than happy to distance themselves.
I left Catholicism at nine, and by all accounts the Confirmation Class of ’04 at St. Cajetan went much more smoothly without my budding iconoclasm(/pedantry). One of my last memories from Sunday school is of a less-than-annual Q&A we were granted with the parish’s priest, an opportunity to seek clarification on the minutiae that had been dogging our respective faiths for the last year. The teacher forbade me from asking the priest any more of the questions I’d covered my entire left arm with, both because we were running out of time and because most of them were designed to poke fun at some bit of absurdity or contradiction in the catechism. It would be almost another decade before I was able to leave WMP and its culture of masculinity, and the damage would be much more lasting.
A memory: my first year playing rec soccer, age six. (Photographs testify: vaporwave lime-green jerseys, and I smiled easily. The body was tight; I had that good young skin.) The soccer fields were in a wide clearing inside the Dan Ryan Woods, one of the only places in the city left mostly for nonhuman life. Aside from the clearing, anyway. Twice a week I’d get the experience of running on grass during magic hour, when the heat would break and the last bit of day would light up all the dandelion hands come free of their flowers, floating, night starting to happen, lightning bugs morsing horniness to each other. One such twilight I forgot about the soccer game and was inspired to start picking some of the dandelions. I didn’t notice the change in the crowd until I brought the bouquet I’d gathered over to my mother. There were two dozen red-faced dads screaming at me at the same time. I was immediately taken out of the game—punished in front of my community. The statute was explained after the sentencing: flowers are for fags.
This was a Krakatoan event in the development of what you might call my superego (trauma : self :: light : filmstock). Flowers were collateral damage—I was hardly aware they existed for the next twenty years. While playing in a different soccer game, a year later, I got in a fight with Tommy H., who had until then been a friend. The same number of fathers, instead of screaming at me, laughed approvingly. Started to cheer. The fighting became more technically earnest, more spiritually ironic, more theatrically ambitious—like the best professional wrestling—and the game completely stopped to allow this spectacle. I remember feeling disembodied, even though I was slapping, being slapped. People were laughing. Laughing. Holy shit it felt good. A fight everyone won. I walked off the field to
congratulations, embraces. My first fight, an initiation.
The following is a top-of-my-head list of things I was taught (usually after I followed some natural impulse and was punished by my best friends, my brothers, my teachers, my parents and their surrogates) I was not allowed to do, because they were not for boys or men but for fags: pick or think about flowers or plant life of any kind, wear costumes, wear interesting clothes, wear jewelry, try to make my hair look different from one of two basic architectures, write poems, play musical instruments other than those played in the nuclear rock band (playing the violin = incontrovertible evidence you were a fag, e.g., and you could be exiled for this, you could have friendship and social inclusion withheld from you), listen to music other than that made by a nuclear rock band, draw, sculpt (woodworking = okay if product useful), take photographs (= aesthetic regard/experience of beauty = as gay as it gets), cook, paint, touch a man in a non-sporting/non-violent context, touch a woman in a non-sexual context, be non-sexual friends with a woman, volunteer any emotional intimacy or vulnerability to anyone, watch black-and-white movies, watch movies without violence or comedy, go to a museum, purposely learn anything more than one category away from military science/history or sports, dance, admit to or experience any negative emotion besides anger, look at the moon or the stars or the sky on purpose. (I could go on—way on.)
One thing males were allowed to do, though, was make each other laugh. Humor continues to be the foundation of all my inter-male friendships, even though I’m not as funny as when I was younger, when I felt more powerless and less happy. My mother was the primary inculcatrix: being funny, in her eyes, is the most important quality to possess, cultivate or display. It’s the second most desirable quality in other persons, second only because there’s nothing as endearing as when someone finds you funny. (She rarely describes people with more affection than when she says, “Oh [s/he] thinks I’m hilarious.”) Now, maybe “sense of humor” is a useful shorthand for a whole complex of winning qualities, but for my first quarter century of life, it did not occur to me to make or seek relationships on the basis of, e.g., open-mindedness, creativity, kindness, diversity or commonality of experience or interest or values or anything else. Friends were for laughs.
But those early humor-relationships were etched deep with WMP’s signature: little creativity, mucho homophobia. Mostly it consisted of causing each other survivable amounts of suffering (doinking—slapping or punching someone in the testicles—was very popular, though it didn’t always feel survivable), its violence a natural immunization against just how intimate it is to share laughter.
One of the ways I have long pictured life is as an ocean made of liquid boredom—traumatic, psychotic boredom, the boredom of death—interrupted by islands of vitality. In WMP, to my particular ocean, there were only certain kinds of islands available, namely the multiplex and the television. I would’ve lived at the movie theater if I could’ve, though nothing as far out there as even Lynch made it to the Crestwood Theater’s eighteen screens—it was strictly studio fare, most of it more ocean than island. Plus, going to the movies got more expensive all the time, and even if you had the scratch you needed someone to drive you. So I ended up, moth-to-bulb, spending almost every free minute in front of the television. It’d humble most weekend Netflix warriors to go back and see the kind of dawn-to-dawn couch time I was putting in in my prime TV days (the decline starting as soon as I moved out of that neighborhood).
TV was, and still is, mostly shit: it was hard to get any real kind of buzz off of, say, anything in the Law & Order family. But somehow, almost by accident, the odd broadcast thing would deliver what you might call the spirit in unadulterated form. The Simpsons was the most consistently inspired, broadly successful, and intensely important of these.
Loving The Simpsons was a—almost the—de facto criterion for social inclusion among my friends; it would’ve been aberrant not to love it, rather like announcing oneself an unbeliever among the devout. As you’d expect, we found ways to make it competitive, this being the only way we knew how to love: who could remember the joke perfectly (usually me); who could best mimic any of the show’s hundreds of distinct characters (usually me, save for the family Wiggum). Deciding one’s favorite episode took on a bizarre importance. It was less a study of which episode naturally compelled you the most than it was (or maybe this is no different) a decision about what relationship to the show you wanted to signify; in a culture where boys are more or less prohibited from expressing/displaying their non-aggressive, love-capable selves, this was one way do to it in open air. At gunpoint, in 2017, I’d probably go with “El Viaje Misterioso de Nuestro Jomer (The Mysterious Voyage of Homer)” (S08E09), in which marital discord and a psychedelically incendiary chili pepper send Homer on a vision quest to find his soul mate. He’s led on this journey by Space Coyote, voiced by Johnny Cash, naturally.