‘We think too much and feel too little.’
– Charlie Chaplin
I want you to reflect on your childhood for a minute. Channel every old person you know saying ‘Back in my day’ simultaneously, while trying to remember what it was like when you could barely operate a staircase correctly. Come to think of it, some things don’t change.
Remember the people you used to play with. All the fun, all the games, all the afternoons you wished the sun had never set as you waged walkie-talkie-coordinated Nerf wars in the streets. Remember the house you grew up in, your childhood room. Dwell not on the shadows that hid in the closet, or the monsters that lurked under the bed. Remember how big and wondrous and scary the world used to feel. The still-unmatched satisfaction you felt at earning your pen licence and brandishing your first ballpoint like a newly sworn knight does a mighty blade. Walk down Memory Lane and enjoy the world illuminated by rose-coloured streetlamps, as you drink in the heavenly scent of bacon pancakes and chocolate milkshakes, and hear the birds tweet out the tunes of Saturday morning cartoons.
Now that you’re in that state of mind, answer me this: If you had to distill your childhood to its essence, into a singular physical object, an artifact if you will, what would it be?
I don’t have to think twice, this would be mine:
These blue rectangles are my childhood made physical. They were more than just games to me. And today, they are a portal to that time.
A portal to brotherly competitions.
A portal to fun for the sake of fun.
A portal to simpler days where a weekend’s happiness was a Gameboy charging cable away.
Pokémon was my entry to videogames. And the fantasy genre. And getting completely lost in a cave of Zubats because I was a three year old who couldn’t read but still tried to brute force my way through with a now over-levelled Pikachu anyway.
I’m sure your artifact brings up equally potent (and possibly silly) memories for you. Dwell on it occasionally for old times sake. It’s good for you. Probably.
But what really got me thinking of all this again, was reading the Pokémon Adventures manga. It’s not the best manga of all time (you already know which one I think that is ;)), but it brought forth such a strong, nostalgia-fuelled wave of emotions in me I couldn’t quite explain it. The black and white panels seemed to burst forth long-lost colours that continued to spill off the page even when I looked away. And my logical, engineering-trained brain shied away from a thing it couldn’t easily label or sum up in a formula. All I knew was that I had found another portal to my childhood. Another nostalgia button.
But then I thought: Pokémon makes me nostalgic for that time nearly two decades ago, but in a decade's time (granted I’m not feeding the worms), what will make me feel nostalgic about today?
‘When I was ten, I read fairy tales in secret and would have been ashamed if I had been found doing so. Now that I am fifty, I read them openly. When I became a man I put away childish things, including the fear of childishness and the desire to be very grown up.’
– C.S. Lewis
I have a confession to make. In high school I hated English class. Like really, really HATED it. It was partly a series of teachers I couldn’t stand, partly a profound disinterest in this crazy old Shaksbeard chap (or whatever his name was) that they always tried to force on us, and partly because my English teachers were to me, what Gru was to everyone he passed in the first 5 minutes of Despicable Me.
Total fucking bellends.
You’ve definitely met these kinds of people. The ones who’ve forgotten how to smile or laugh, and start sentences with ‘Umm ackshually’, and use phrases like ‘Fun Quota’, and ‘Turn to page three-hundred and ninety four’, and ‘Stop licking the windows, it’s unsanitary’. What buzzkills. They’re the ones who, in 20 years time, kids will call poorly disguised AI bots. And from high upon their self-righteous thrones they cast scorn down upon my taste in the fantastical. I remember the smug look on one teacher’s face when I said that Lord of the Rings was my favourite book at the time. He dismissed my points the way one might shoo away a fly from their lunch. Barely an inconvenience. It probably didn’t help that my disinterest in English class made me less effective at formulating my arguments (and speaking more than a single coherent sentence before my brain had to load).
But school went on and eventually it ended, the way things that end usually do. And I found myself not required to read books picked by the kinds of people that don’t even know the difference between a goblin and an orc. But I didn’t have much reason to read anymore because there weren’t marks in it. So I went on studying my STEM subjects, learning how to distill ethers, and calculate the terminal velocity of my plummeting mental health, and something about mitochondria. Until one day I walked into a bookshop by some unexplainable stroke of providence, and picked up the kind of tome you might’ve confused for a brick at a first glance. It was a fantasy epic called, The Way of Kings by Brandon Sanderson, and it might’ve been the first book I picked out for myself that I truly loved. I can say for certain that it changed my life, because it made me fall in love with reading. For real this time. And that’s all it takes, one good book. A couple years later and now sometimes I read more books in a week than my teenage self did in a year. Books are my vice of choice. And as far as vices go, it’s not too bad (if you learn to ignore your bookshelf crying under the weight of unread books).
Now look, there are always going to be people out there who love to cut others down for their interests. It’s probably to cope with having lost to the buzzkills in their own lives. But don’t let those people win. If you are an avid fan of the kinds of books that have more footnotes than actual text, or only read fanfiction or self-help books, or are (god-forbid) a Colleen Hoover super-fan, I got three words for that.
You do you.
Feed that inner child what it wants. Whether that’s Froot Loops for breakfast lunch and dinner, or a diet of Booktok-acclaimed classics. The world’s got enough people pretending to be adults already, it needs more kids brave enough to keep being kids.
‘I cannot remember the books I’ve read any more than the meals I have eaten; even so, they have made me.’
– Ralph Waldo Emerson
When I was a kid I used to climb the tree in my backyard. It was a full ordeal. I psyched myself up, did a few stretches, strapped on an oxygen tank should the air be particularly thin in the sky today, and began on my climb. My ascent. A journey you could never be sure you’d come back from. I mean it felt like climbing into the sky itself. Battling the cloud giants and dodging stray bolts of lightning from a bored Zeus, all while trying to find hand holds on branches as thick as an elephant through the torrent of clouds racing past your face. And just when I thought I couldn’t go any further without bumping my head on the moon itself, there it was. My little perch. From which you could gaze down upon a sight unseen by the mortal plebeians milling about far below. I heard the voice of Mufasa in my head whisper, ‘Everything the light touches is our kingdom.’ And because the shadow of the fence lay over the neighbour's yard, he wasn’t entirely wrong.
This month’s bookclub features Percy Jackson and the Lightning Thief, and despite having binge-read the whole series as a kid, and being quite the mythology fan if I do say so myself, I don’t think I’ll read it again. Why?
To reminisce or not to reminisce? It seems a simple question. Why not?
Some memories get better each time you revisit them (case in point: my yearly Lord of the Rings rewatch).
But some are better left rose-coloured.
I just went outside and walked over to the tree. It’s tired old limbs waved at me in the gentle breeze, beckoning me to ascend like in the summer days of old.
I looked it up and down.
My legendary perch was barely above eye-level.
Some memories are more real than the moments that made them.
‘Difficult and easy compliment each other.
Long and short define each other.
High and low oppose each other.
Fore and aft follow each other.’
– Lao Tzu, Tao Te Ching
Icecream marathons, molten hula hoops, a cute penguin hiding an ancient eldritch alien within, a noir lipstick-wearing chicken named Lorraine, little smooth-brained hotdog knights and so, so much more . . .
Adventure Time is a spectacularly silly show at times (or most of the time). But like all the best children’s media, it was liberally seasoned with darker moments, hidden morals, and deeper philosophical musings. Except I’d argue it wasn’t just seasoning, but rather, the inclusion of these darker, more adult themes are what made the story so compelling. The darkness was central to its lasting impact. Or should I say, darkness tempered with silliness. The mixture of the two creates an effect far more potent than the sum of its parts.
All sillies is too little substance.
All tragedy is too much.
But a careful mix of the two is just right, the Goldilocks Zone if you will.
Contrast is at the heart of the best literature. Go read some Fredrik Backman, or watch Everything Everywhere All at Once, or listen to Bo Burnham and try not to laugh or cry or both at the same time. Light outlined by the dark produces the most potent of emotions, and they produce the longest lasting memories too. Bad literature isn’t the stuff that makes you feel bad, it makes you feel nothing at all. It’s meh. It’s just grey mush. But now we’re getting away from Adventure Time.
Let’s talk about that one line in the show that always gets me . . .
Some context: The Ice King is a character that starts out rather simple. He is the typical, fairytale-esque villain who goes about kidnapping princesses so our plucky teenage protagonist can come along to save them from his dastardly clutches. Classic, and not-terribly nuanced, pulpy heroics. But it doesn’t take long to notice the Ice King is not an inherently evil man. While his creepy advances are not excusable, we soon learn that he does it out of a deep loneliness and sorrow nestled far in his past. Before he was a sad wacky old ice wizard, he was once just a man, a collector of old relics named Simon Petrikov. And he was a good man. One who became irrevocably changed upon discovering a magical crown that gave him ice powers and whispered dark secrets that drove him mad. But even as his mind began to fail, he was still a loving caretaker and father figure for a sweet orphaned girl amidst a broken world. Until he was no longer himself.
Now, tragic backstories are nothing extraordinary on their own, but in a single line Simon became one of the most beautifully tragic characters ever written.
Spend two minutes watching this scene and try not to feel something. I bet you can’t.
Maybe it’s just good writing. Maybe it’s the nostalgia getting in the way again. Maybe it’s having seen the descent of close family members to Dementia and Alzheimer’s, but this scene still hits me like a truck. Every. Goddamn. Time. And this is just a taste of the depth hidden in this incredible show. A depth that is often overlooked amidst the wackiness of talking yellow dogs and sentient candybars.
Adventure Time is a spectacularly silly “kids show”, but through expertly melding childishness with darker moments, it became an absolute classic for any and all. Just go and watch it already, the fun really does never end.
But speaking of fun, did someone say One Piece?
‘Josh shut up about One Piece’
– Anonymous (there’s always at least one -_-)
Did I secretly join the Publications Team purely so I can publicly talk about One Piece without being silenced? Good question.
For the uninitiated: One Piece is the best manga ever written and follows the escapades of Monkey D. Luffy and his growing pirate crew and found family, as they search for the greatest of all treasures on the high seas, the mysterious One Piece. It has been written chapter-by-chapter each week for over 25 years with few interruptions and continues to this day. Regardless of your (possibly incorrect) opinions on it, you have to admire the sheer dogged dedication and bottomless imagination of its author. Oda sensei has earned his place among the greats.
Now let’s make this simple: Everything I said about Adventure Time applies to One Piece as well.
Completely wack beyond belief? Check. There’s a man who expertly fights with a sword in each hand and a third in his mouth, a chef who eats the ingredients for dough then excretes out fully-formed noodles from their nose, and lets not forget the bazooka that ate a magic-fruit that turned it into a living gun-dog. Yeah I couldn’t explain that one if I tried.
But is it filled to the brim with adult themes? Also check. From the main pirate crew each bringing their own (sometimes horrifically tragic) trauma-ridden pasts, to that one prison modelled on Dante’s Inferno with each layer featuring increasingly worse torments, or how it confronts big questions like ‘What is justice?’ and ‘Who gets to shape the narrative of history?’. One Piece is not afraid to temper its funnies with a healthy dosage of hefty themes.
But I brought up One Piece specifically for two reasons:
‘It’s too damn long, and I don’t have time.’
And they are half right there, they don’t have time.
They don’t have time to waste on poorly written stories.
They don’t have time to sift through mountains of trashy fiction for the nuggets of gold.
They don’t have time to invest into literature that won’t bring them value and make them think or feel something new.
But they are wrong in dismissing One Piece on those grounds. They are painstakingly, apocalyptically, smooth-brainingly wrong, and dare I say are only a few steps away from becoming one of those bellended buzzkills we spoke of earlier.
One Piece is not perfect, and it’s probably not for everyone. Nothing is. But it is beautiful when it wants to be, it is thoughtful when it needs to be, haunting when you least expect it, and it is pants-pissingly funny almost all the time.
I completely understand the reservations people have of it, I myself dismissed it for years and years. But I’m impossibly glad that I did finally give it a go because I couldn’t put it down. I feverishly binged the first two thirds of it in 2 months at the end of last year and I’ve been digesting it ever since. It’s one of the few stories I’m okay to let live rent free in my brain. And I think I’m finally ready to go back for round two to fully catch up.
If you haven’t given One Piece a try, please do. You only have time in your life for a few big stories, but they are the ones that shape us the most. They are the lodestones directing our nostalgia compasses that keep us from the rough seas of life. We all need a few mega-stories like that. And I’ll be the first to say, you can’t go wrong with a little-known manga about a bunch of pirates going on the adventure of a lifetime.
Let’s just hope it finishes before I die.
‘Life can only be understood backwards; but it must be lived forwards.’
– Søren Kierkegaard
At the end of Memory Lane, we return to the question at its beginning: what will make me feel nostalgic about today? Well I mean other than Unibro’s pide, that stuff is a staple of life as a uni student.
But we’ve walked down my memory lane now, so what’s the answer? Is it Pokémon? Sanderson? Maybe Adventure Time? You can’t forget One Piece? Is there something else?
What will light the rose lamps of nostalgia upon the empty plot marked ‘Today’?
Surely it will be something that appeases my inner child, or seems larger in memory than in reality, or has the perfect balance of opposites, or starts with the word ‘One’ and ends with ‘Piece’?
The real answer though, is I get to choose. You get to choose. With our time and energy and most importantly, our attention, we get to choose. And that can be scary, but also immensely liberating.
For if nostalgia is the fruit of a life well lived, then everyday we are sowing the seeds of future nostalgia.
The books we read, movies and shows we watch, the games we play, then never stop talking about.
The meals we share with friends and family, in celebration or commiseration.
The time we almost said no to that one event we thought was gonna be complete bollocks, but went anyway, and met someone who would become a lifelong friend, or discovered bouldering is surprisingly kinda fun (seriously you should try it), or bookclubs sound super boring on paper but are actually a guaranteed way to get chill vibes after a long day.
Each of the hundreds of tiny little momentously mundane oddities that make up each day and week and month in a lifetime.
You can’t know what any one moment will mean to you a decade from now, but you can go out and collect up as many of these little memories to plant for future you.
So we get to decide. But the cost of getting to decide, is we have to decide. Because you don’t get agency without responsibility. Carpe diem and all the rest, for the clock is always ticking.
In the end, there’s only one question left:
What kind of seeds are you sowing today?
‘I’ll still be here tomorrow to high-five you yesterday my friend. Peace.’
– Adventure Time