Past, Present, Popcorn

By on Nov 19, 2017 in Essays

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Popcorn with four filters

In my teens, I still largely subscribed to my parents’ politically conservative worldview, but the more I learned, the more I read, and the more people I encountered, the less I could accept those old views. I was cocky and rebellious. My father’s recent whole-hearted embrace of fundamentalist Christianity and Southern Baptist values coincided with my own increasing unease with and rejection of them, so when he forced me to attend a small and, to me, spiritually dead church, I resisted. I went on Sunday mornings without much protest, but on Sunday afternoons, I would intentionally play tackle football until it was almost time for evening services. When I came home sweaty and filthy, with no time to bathe, my parents were furious. My mother lectured me and yelled and threatened dire punishments. My father demanded that I follow his ideas and his beliefs and his orders because, he believed, his position as paterfamilias meant I had to. This, of course, inspired me to resist even further. And when my father made me accompany him to Wednesday evening church business meetings, where I had absolutely nothing to do, I fumed. I believed him a hypocrite and a tyrant. When we took the Lord’s Supper, the Baptist version of Communion, the grape juice tasted bitter because it was being forced down my throat.

In short, as my parents became more conservative and demanded unquestioning obedience, I pushed boundaries—sexual, legal, intellectual. In church, three times a week, I listened to hellfire-and-brimstone speeches about how we were all likely going to hell. No one seemed to consider that this kind of scare tactic might backfire. No one seemed to ponder how those kinds of sermons would engender deep self-loathing in kids who were, after all, just doing what most kids do—fumbling their way toward adulthood through direct experience. I never turned from God, but in my heart, I rejected that church.

My father and I still played catch, but I had long since quit hunting, and I tried to spend as little time with my parents as possible. I stayed outside or in my room. Late at night, I crawled out of my bedroom window and met my friends. We roamed the neighborhood, drinking bootlegged liquor and exploring our sexualities and talking about how stupid and annoying grownups were. We played sports and rode ATVs down backroads and dabbled in recreational drugs. We vandalized and fought and hooked up and broke up. Our parents demanded and dictated. We hung our heads in faux shame and, when they turned their backs, extended our middle fingers.

I never openly revolted. What would have been the point? My parents were always sure they were right. I was sure they usually weren’t. I kept climbing out that window, and drinking, and having whatever kind of sex I could manage with whoever was willing, and planning to be a rock star or a writer—a shadow rebellion, the genesis of my determination to live life on my own terms.  

I am not a Luddite, but I have realized that the heights of these teenage escapades paralleled changes in our nightly ritual. We now lived in the age of the VCR and the microwave. Popcorn came in folded bags, pre-buttered and oiled. You just had to stick the bag in the microwave, punch a button or two, and wait. You opened the bag, wary of the steam, and put in some salt. Then you dumped it into a bowl, or, better yet, ate straight from the bag. Now it mattered little what was on television or who made the popcorn or when. If Dad made some and I missed it, I could make my own and take it to my room. If he wanted to watch Show A, I could record Show B and watch it alone. 

None of this can be blamed on technological advances or the increased convenience of microwaved food. The child’s moving into a life beyond his or her parents is natural and necessary. I am, by nature, a private person, an introvert, so it is unlikely that I would have confided in my parents about my dreams and fears, even if we still sat circled around that same old bowl and that same TV.

It seems, though, that there are many ways to measure the evolution of a life. Families once had, if anything, a single telephone, probably located on a counter or mounted on a wall. Now, even grade-school kids carry cell phones. Once, a household might have owned one television, likely located in the living room. Now, many houses have a television in every bedroom. Once, a family might have owned a home computer. Now, everyone has a laptop and a notebook and a cell phone and an iPod.

In 2017, what was old is new again. Everyone wants vinyl records and a turntable. Bulky headphones have replaced tiny earbuds as the audio accessory du jour. You can buy a cell phone case that looks like a cassette tape—the same kind that used to get snarled in your player and break a week after you bought it. Even hot-air popcorn machines are back, and online, you can find instructions for making microwaved popcorn out of hot-air kernels, a bit of oil, and a paper lunch sack.

My parents and I often don’t know how to communicate. They have embraced fundamentalism, while I ascribe to a nontraditional, nondenominational spirituality. They vote as down-ticket Republicans, while I am a registered independent who is horrified by conservative ethos. And on and on.
I recognize the seductive danger of nostalgia. And yet, as I lose more family members and friends to the complications of adult life, I sometimes cannot help but long for a time when a bowl of popcorn, a little salt, and Fantasy Island could bring us all together, at least for an hour. 

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Brett Riley is the Pushcart-nominated author of The Subtle Dance of Impulse and Light (Ink Brush Press) and the feature-length screenplay Candy’s First Kiss, which won or placed in five contests. His short fiction has appeared in journals such as Solstice, Folio, The Wisconsin Review, Red Rock Review, The Evansville Review, and many others. His nonfiction has appeared in Role Reboot and Foliate Oak Magazine. Follow him on Twitter: @brettwrites