Will J. J.

Day-to-day musings and occasional short stories for your delight.


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The Last Toy

 

Have you ever longed to return to a specific moment from your childhood, and change something? I can’t go back, but today it feels like I’ve finally done right by the little boy inside me, and I can’t help but smile.

 

Growing up, my family was very poor. My toys were few, mostly ragged trinkets from the goodwill. Every Sunday, my mom read the newspaper, and I would scour the toy ads, knowing that we couldn’t afford any of them. I would cut out the pictures of the toys and save them, playing with those pictures as if they were the toys themselves. I had an entire fleet of Star Wars ship pictures, and they were far more portable than most toys, because I could slip them all into a folder and take them anywhere. Still, any time one of my pictures was ripped or got wet, I was reminded of just how little I had.

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In 1998, Kraft ran a promotion with their macaroni and cheese products for DC superheroes. If you mailed in a certain number of box tops from these kraft boxes, Kraft would mail back one of three toys: a Superman, Batman, or Wonder Woman figure from the cartoons running at the time. As a kid, superheroes were the one fandom I was a part of, and seeing this promotion lit up my eyes. I had my sights set on the Superman balancing toy, because it portrayed him in flight, and I thought that was incredibly cool. We already ate mac and cheese on a regular basis, so all I had to do was collect the box tops and mail them in.

 

For the next couple of months, I carefully collected and stored the labels, until I had enough. I still recall the day I licked the stamp and mailed the envelope, specifying that I wanted the Superman toy. After that, I waited. Weeks went by, then months. In my naivete, I assumed that Kraft was simply slow with their response, and it would arrive any day. After over 6 months, I finally asked my mom, who had forgotten about the matter entirely. We called Kraft and explained that we had mailed in the box tops but never received anything back.The representative apologized, but said that they no longer had that toy line in stock. They offered me a Rugrats toy instead. A RUGRATS toy??? Are you kidding me? Rugrats cannot compare with the joy of imagining a hero flying over buildings and beating bad guys. Through tears, I told them not to send the Rugrats toy.

 

It might seem like a small matter, but to a 6 year old boy, it was devastating. I did everything I was supposed to. I collected the box tops. I mailed them in, following the instructions. I waited patiently for months, and I received nothing. When you’re a kid, your world is much smaller. You focus on the few things you’re aware of, and they are your everything. My view was even more narrow than most kids, so I invested a great deal of hope on that toy.

 

In the months and years to come, my life moved in other directions, but I never forgot about that Superman toy and that experience. I think it was the feeling of sorrow and injustice that stuck with me. Obviously I wanted the toy, but had I received it, I doubt I’d still be thinking about it years later. The lesson seemed to be that, no matter what you do, the world doesn’t always respond fairly, and that lesson stung. From that moment on, the toy represented far more to me than just play value.

 

When I reached my teenage years, I started intermittently combing through the internet, searching for the toy. It was years before I found any mention of the toy line or promotion, and I never found any for sale. After over a decade of looking, I had little hope of finding the toy, but I’d check every now and then, just in case. I never found any for sale until last week.

 

Emily and I were discussing a package UPS had shipped my way. There were issues with the shipment, and I was thinking through the steps I would need to take to get my package or a refund. Something about that thought reminded me of this toy, once again, and I offhandedly searched for it, the first time in a few months. Lo and behold, I found a man selling the exact toy on ebay, and I hastily bought the item, more excited than I would have thought possible.

superman toy

The toy came in yesterday, and I unboxed it in a fury. The man had never opened it, as the toy was still wrapped in the sealed plastic bag, as it would have in 1998. It felt like I was a 6 year old boy again, and all the expectation and sadness came rushing back to me, this time capped with a warm blanket of satisfaction, made all the more fulfilling because of the extremely protracted wait. I can’t go back and give this toy to that 6 year old boy, but even now, 19 years later, this is something worth celebrating 🙂


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Friends and Siblings

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Several weeks ago, a close friendship crumbled in my life. It devastated me, and it’s taken quite a bit of time for me to reach any level of normalcy since then. In the time following the collapse, I detailed the situation to several of my friends, and one of them asked me something that really got me thinking.

“Are you an only child?”, he asked me. Why would that matter, I wondered.

“Yes,” I responded, hesitantly.

“I thought so.” As my friend explained to me, he had a theory that siblings and friends are linked. If you grew up with siblings, you may have grown up with strong, family ties, such that you consider friends less permanent and the bonds less binding. If you grew up an only child, you may consider your friends to be your family, and fight harder for those friendships, because you didn’t have siblings to bond with.

This theory really resonated with me, despite being overly-simplistic. It’s a connection I had never considered before, and it rings true, at least for me. I grew up an only child. I didn’t have any siblings until I was almost a teenager, and even then, there were none that I saw on a regular basis. The closest other relatives I had were my two cousins, that I saw on school breaks every few months. I’ve always fought for my friendships above all else, often to the bitter end and my own detriment, because I do consider my close friends to be my family. I’ve been willing to go above and beyond, and it simply hadn’t occurred to me that I’ve considered them my surrogate brothers and sisters all these years. I can’t be certain that I would value or fight for my friendships less if I’d had siblings growing up, but I also can’t deny that I value my friends higher than almost anything else.

None of this is to say that all siblings are close, or that strong families lead to weaker friendships, because those are clearly not true. I think the point my friend was driving at is simply the nature of familial bonds. For some, those bonds are formed in the household, while for others, they must be built in alternate ways, and those bonds can shape peoples’ perspectives on their relationships.

What do you guys think? Does being an only child make you more likely to value friendships highly?  I’d love to hear your thoughts 🙂


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The Last Day Of Childhood: 10 Years Later

Day 3245

 

Around the time I turned ten years old, my parents began the process of divorce, setting in motion events that would forever change me and my outlook. The brutal custody battle lasted nearly three long years full of pain and struggle and culminated in my father disowning me completely because I chose to love my mother also. That fateful day was exactly ten years ago, on October 22, 2004.

Ten years. Ten years ago, I stood up for myself, and my father decided that he no longer wanted to be my father. It’s difficult to measure exactly what ten years means. I could tell you about how much I’ve changed, from a young boy to a man, or how my perspective on those days has evolved, from someone struggling to comprehend events swirling around them to someone peacefully recalling the wounds as they were inflicted. I feel like I’ve come so far, and I’ve tried to make sure my life had meaning and stood for something, in large part because I remember so clearly a time when I wasn’t sure how much more life I had to live. When you have no one to trust, nowhere to turn, and you’re faced with issues far beyond your understanding, you’re forced to grow up far quicker than anyone should have to. Looking back, it doesn’t seem like that life could possibly be part of the same life I live now. Recalling those memories feels akin to reading a book whose ending is already too familiar.

I remember soon after the madness ended, I was obsessed with remembering. Everyone around me seemed content to let it all simply fade away, but I didn’t. I couldn’t. I felt this sense of duty to preserve and document the tragedy, because if I didn’t, no one would. I didn’t want to change, and I fought every attempt to alter my personality. It wasn’t until several years went by that I understood; change is inevitable, your only choice is how you change.

For a long time, I missed my father. He had been my closest, and for much of my life, my only friend, and I mourned his departure from my life. I thought back on all the joyous moments we had shared, a stay-at-home dad and his only son, who looked like mirror images of each other from different generations. As a child, your memories tend to be very one-dimensional, and as I grew older, I began to discover new meaning in my own memories. My father had kept me so isolated for so much of my childhood that I, of course, thought of that life and his ways as the standard. I just didn’t know any different. After several years without him, I began to realize that my father was not the man I had pictured him to be.

People ask me all the time if I miss my father or if I think our relationship will ever be repaired, and I’m never sure what kind of answer they are searching for. The truth is that, while I used to miss the man I thought my father was, there is little left for me to miss of the man he actually was. To this day, I still struggle to reconcile those two conflicting visions of him. The father who cared so deeply for me and watched over me like no other, and the man whose hatred and anger consumed him until they meant more to him than his only son, inflicting upon me the greatest and most ceaseless pain I have ever known. Do I long for him to call me up, apologize from the bottom of his heart, and beg me to forgive him? No. There was a time when I wanted nothing more, but I could not go through my life basing my happiness upon the slight chance of his change of heart. That is no way to live. In truth, what stung the worst, then and now, is knowing that he continues to live out his life with a new family and new children, while I am dead to him, or perhaps never existed.

My father never understood, or perhaps simply lost sight of the fact, that when you have a child, your life ceases to simply be about yourself. You cannot live as selfishly as you once could because you are no longer living for yourself only but for another who is looking to you for their every cue on what it means to be a good human. Using as a child as a bargaining chip and a weapon for vengeance is not only selfish but downright cruel.

Ten years beyond that fateful day, I don’t think it or about him nearly as much as I used to, and when I do, the pain is less sharp, the stab replaced with a dull ache. The memories have never faded; they remain every bit as vivid as the moments they record. I can recall them anytime I desire, but I don’t desire to very often. My life no longer faces backward but forward. Those moments and agonies forever changed my course, but I have not let them define my character. Bitterness accomplishes nothing, neither does dwelling or self-loathing. You can only carry so much baggage before it weighs you down completely, and when that moment comes, you must choose whether to remain in the mire of your anguish or free yourself from its bondage and move forward. Circumstances don’t have to define you. Take the good, learn from the bad, and let go of the poison. Ten years later, that is what guides me.


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The Ten Year Bet

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Day 3000. Day THREE THOUSAND!!

 

Feels like a long time when you say it like that. I guess that’s just how life goes. You spend your time looking forward and don’t realize how far you’ve gone until you look back. Anyone who follows this blog will notice that I have a day count at the beginning of each post. While I only recently started this blog, this count is nothing new. In fact, it has been one of the only sources of permanency in my life. Allow me to explain.

 

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Me, David, and Bryan in 2005

 

When I was 13, I bet my younger cousin David $5 that I could go ten years without drinking any carbonated beverages. At the time, I was neck deep in mountain dew all the time, and I’m sure David must have thought I would lapse back into my old ways after a few days. But I didn’t. I even upped the ante for myself, adding caffeinated drinks to the challenge.

Over the past 8+ years, people have asked me countless times why I didn’t bet more, but it wasn’t about the money. It was about proving to myself that I could. What began as a test of will power has grown into something much more. I can honestly say that the choice to take on that challenge was one of the most influential decisions I have ever made. It forever altered my perception, in ways I would never have imagined at the time.

When you willingly choose to step away from something everyone else buys into, even if that something is tiny, it plants a seed. You start to question things that other people don’t think about. You realize that there are other ways to live, and you are empowered to choose a life for yourself. What you do consistently becomes you, whether you make that decision consciously or not. I broke one of my biggest habits at the time, and that opened the door for me to be more conscious of my actions moving forward. I started thinking about my impact on the world, and I became a stark advocate of recycling and other technologies to reduce environmental destruction. I went exploring, scouring my world for the treasures others didn’t see. I started informing myself of current events and researching alternative ways of thinking because I wanted to understand both sides of contemporary conflicts. Essentially, I changed myself into something different than anything I had ever known, because I saw that I had a choice.

Don’t misunderstand me; fighting the flow is not easy. It can be a lonely path, and anyone who chooses to blaze their own trail must be willing to take that risk. I chose to cut soda out of my life, and that seemingly minor decision laid a foundation for me to stay away from alcohol when I reached high school and college, a choice I likely would not have made otherwise. I knew that not drinking might make me a social pariah, but I was willing to take that chance. It was more important to me to keep alcohol out of my body than it was to go clubbing or hit up the craziest parties, and I remain a teetotaler to this day. I chose a different path, one I have never regretted.

 

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Bryan, me, and David last August

 

I am not trying to say that what is popular is wrong or that you should give up drinking. What I am saying is that mindlessness adherence to anything is almost never good. Recognizing and acknowledging our choices and the effects they have on us and the people around us is an integral part of being a responsible human being, and it can start with something as little as soda. Three thousand days ago, I made a choice, and that choice has meant everything for me.