One of the many things I dislike about getting older (besides everything) is how boring and mundane my dreams have become. As an adult you sometimes forget how vivid, how epic your dreams were in your childhood. That age when the veil between what’s real and what isn’t is a lot more diaphanous than it becomes in the ordered, structured, logical everyday of the 9-5 life of the adult. Our child is still in the former age, where shadows lurking in the corners of his bedroom at night take on a malign, malevolent presence.
However, every now and then I do have one of those vivid, deep dreams where everything feels so real despite all signs of it not being so. One such dream I had last summer, not long before we took our end-of-summer vacation to Toronto, Canada.
It was in this dream that I found myself standing on my old street in my old Toronto neighborhood growing up, standing in front of the house I lived in from April 1982 to the end of June,1985. It was nighttime, and all was dark except the street lights. Most of the houses on my street were dark, except for ours, where warm, inviting light blazed from every window. The front door was closed, but somehow in that dream logic I knew it was unlocked. I knew I could walk up the driveway, mount the front step of the front porch, and open the door and I could step inside.
This also being a dream, I was performing these acts as I was thinking about them. I went up the step and found all the little details I had forgotten over the intervening years still there. The creeping ivy, the door to the garage, the doorbell.
So I opened the door and stepped inside the house, standing there for the first time in nearly forty years, and found it all exactly as I remembered it, save for the fact it was completely empty. The rooms were all where they should be but there was no furniture, no furnishings, no pictures or artwork, no signs that a family – any family – lived there.
I wandered through the house like I was some ghost, silent and unseen. I threaded my way through the main floor, the living room, the dining room, the kitchen. I moved down the hall to the living room, where I looked out the patio doors to the backyard and swimming pool we would spend the next three summers enjoying (now filled in by earth, if Google Earth is any indication).
I avoided the basement because, well, come on right? But I went upstairs, breezed through my parents’ room, my sister’s room, the spare bedroom, and finally stood in my old bedroom.
That was when I knew I wasn’t alone.
There was someone else in the house. Someone downstairs, waiting for me.
I slowly descended the steps to the main floor and found him in the family room. he was an older gentleman, who resembled the Glad Garbage Bag Man. White hair, white suit, white toothy smile. Really, really white.
I can’t really recall details of his face. Frankly he reminded me a bit of the actor William Daniels who played Dr. Craig on St. Elsewhere (also the voice of KITT from Knight Rider) with a bit of Efram Zimbalist Jr. from 77 Sunset Strip and The FBI (can you tell I watched a lot of TV as a kid?) thrown into the mix.
So anyway there I was, facing William/Efram/The GLAD Garbage Bag Guy. He told me that where I was standing was April 9, 1982. A Friday night. The next day was the day we – my family and I – would move into that house and live there for the next three years.
Okay, so far, so good.
He then told me I had a choice. I could stay there, and reset the clock, and wake up in my old room, my old bed, a fresh new day in April 1982. I would to my old school anew, I would meet my old friends again, I would live my life over again, from that point on, from then to the here and the now.
Every aging person’s dream, right? Haven’t we all, at some time or another, wished we could go back, reset the clock, and re-live our lives? To experience the things again that were gone to us now? Christmas dinners with family members no longer here. Amazing, transformative vacations and holidays? Seeing classic movies in the theater, for the first time again? To go through my teens and twenties and make smarter, possibly wiser decisions than I did at the time. Heck, even going to the video store to rent The Right Stuff or Robocop or Strange Brew on the day of their release would have been enough.
I have to say it was sorely tempting. But there was a catch. There always is.
William/Efram/The GLAD Garbage Guy explained I could have all those years back – all forty of them – but it would be the same life. The life I already lived. All the triumphs, all the pains, all the mistakes would be mine to make again. I would break my leg skiing in Vermont the following winter. I would endure a disastrous move to North Carolina three years down the road. I would witness the breakup of my parents’ marriage, I would have to endure those long, difficult, profoundly unhappy years of the late 90s-early 2000s again. I would end up in the same place I am now.
There would also be those moments of grace. Of profound happiness. Of meeting my future wife. Of the birth of our son. But those would be years away. Decades in some cases.
The most important thing to note, I was told, was that nothing would change. My memory of the future would essentially be wiped clean and I would revert back to that child again, and would live the next four decades identical to the ones that actually followed. I couldn’t change anything. I couldn’t make different decisions. All my mistakes and accidents and errors I would get to experience again for the first time.
All I had to do was go upstairs, to my bedroom. I’d find the furnishings from 1982 – my bed, my dresser, my desk. My Star Wars and Indiana Jones posters. My books, my toys, my games, all waiting for me. All I had to do was crawl under those covers and fall asleep and reawake in 1982 and reset the clock from that moment on. I’d have my bowl of Honeycomb or Honey Nut Cheerios for breakfast, I’d head out the door for the ten-fifteen minute walk to my school.
I would learn it all over again. I would discover favorite authors again. I would make those old friendships again. I would get to experience birthday parties at Chuck E Cheese, day trips to Canada’s Wonderland, a return to the world of three major TV networks and a dozen channels on the dial. I’d go back to TV sets with dials. I would discover David Bowie, Duran Duran, Queen, U2, The Cars, the Miami Vice Soundtrack, Alternative Rock and Grunge. I could see it all then and there in that moment; the safe and the familiar.
I could see my grandparents again, alive and well. Aunts and uncles no longer with us. Friends and faces long gone, brought back to me.
The other choice?
Wake up. Resume my life in the present day of 2022. The dream would remain just that – a strange dream, nothing more. I would resume my life where I left it off the night before. I would continue on as I have been these last few months.
I thought about it. I thought about all my life in the next forty years, and experiencing it all again, the good times and the bad. It was tempting. Very tempting. For who among us hasn’t wished they could go back to a time in their lives when life seemed simpler and happier and overall better?
But then I realized it would mean nothing, that the memory of those years was already with me, locked away inside.
Yet what really baked my noodle was what happened when I told the mysterious figure that, as tempting as a return to the world of 1982 was, my place was in the present, In 2022, in the life I had created for myself. Good and bad, it was where I belonged. Not as some shade reliving his life over and over again, but as an adult moving ever forward as we all must.
The man smiled, and said:
“I’m glad to hear you finally say that. Because we’ve had this conversation before. Twice, in fact. And both times previous you chose to go upstairs to your room.”
That was when I woke up. In 2022. In my bed, my wife sleeping beside me. My son in the next room over. I took a breath in, I let it out slow, and laid there until sunrise.
The past is very much on my mind as of late, especially through what has been a very difficult year. I’ll even go so far to say 2022 has been the worst year for me in recent memory. Over the past twelve months many people I knew or have known in some fashion have passed away. Some were quite old, some were younger than I. Some were anticipated. Others were shocks. I’m entering that age when people begin to leave. A trickle at first but soon that trickle becomes a flood as an older generation passes on. In the last twelve months I wrote and delivered the eulogy at one relative’s funeral; I’m currently penning the obituary for another relative. The father of my oldest, closest friend passed over the summer. Two of my wife’s uncles also passed – one suddenly so just a month or so after we visited him in Toronto.
Despite not being religious I am not so arrogant to believe in an absolute certainty such as death. None of us know it’s what comes next, if anything comes next. Wiser men and women have debated this since the beginnings of human civilization. But it’s a question we all find the answer to eventually.
But in reflection I have been looking back at my life a little more than I used to and I have done that a lot these last dozen or so years. The nostalgia of the past holds a much greater appeal because the past is there, it’s safe, and the people who are gone in the present are still alive back there.
I realize I have been fortunate and cursed by the fact that death has spared its intrusion into my life over the last 30-odd years. My grandparents both passed in the early 90s. An aunt and uncle passed in the early 2010s. And now this year. That’s where the difficulty come in; I know I won’t be spared such a lengthy period again.
I think the significance of that aforementioned dream is a reflection of that, because of the time and place. People will often talk about the best years of their lives. That time and place where they were – or at least felt were – their happiest. For me it was those years, 1982-1985, that house, that street, that neighborhood. I don’t think I was ever as happy as I was in those years, and that includes the time I broke my leg in a ski accident. Even now with all I do have – which is considerable – I find myself reflecting more on that time and place when I was happy, when I felt loved, when life was full of hope and promise. I look to the future with much less hope of things getting better than I did five, even ten years ago. I do the best I can, I put on the best brave face I can but it’s not something I can say I look forward to.
It’s funny how the big changes in life happen without you realizing it. Weirdly enough I was thinking about malls and mall culture and how they’re fading away, a temporary blip in the human landscape. Malls were a retail location, but they were also a meeting place. A place your teenage self went to be seen, and went to see others. A place where you worked your part-time after-school job. A place to to tell the world – or at least your very small part of it – that you exist.
[God, I can’t believe I’m actually nostalgic for shopping malls, but it’s 2022 and here we are.]
Social media and smart phones have eliminated that need now because now you can send out a photo of yourself, what you’re wearing, what you’re doing, to a wider range of people and places. But the interactions are a lot more shallow online; I’m talking a mile across and an inch deep here. Not that the food courts at the local shopping malls were the Algonquin Round Table, but you could sit there eating fries and run into someone you knew, and the trajectory of the evening or afternoon changed. Even if it was just a conversation, one party coming, the other going. Now it’s all by design, managed and algorithmic.
That’s why I subscribe to the view that loneliness is the challenge of our age, mental health wise. The pandemic exacerbated what was already an endemic problem for many of us. This sense of longing, a need for connection. Social media and smart phones in particular do a better job of driving us apart than bringing us together. Ask yourself, do you have more “friends” online than in real life? Think of the online friends you do have, how many do you also know in the real world and know well. What social media has done is given us the illusion of closeness. And it is an illusion. It’s made us susceptible to bad actors, bad influence. It’s given us a skewed, funhouse mirror version of reality presenting itself as fact.
I have found the best way to alleviate that loneliness is by strengthening the real-world/real-life relationships I do have. More one-on-one time with people, less screen-time and phone-time. To get out into my community more frequently, to not be in such a rush to drop my kid off and pick him up from school. To take pause from all that the 21st century tries to continuously shove down our throats.
That is why I’m stepping away from this website for a little bit. Ditto the remaining social media I still use. I gave up twitter in 2019, my wife runs the Facebook page, and I have a small private Instagram page to keep me distracted with photos from travel and art accounts, and to keep up with friends I’ve made over the years. But i think going forward into 2023 my focus will be on two things; writing things that actually matter, and living my life in The Real.
So those are my thoughts as we head into 2023. There will be no December or January updates to this website as I plan to take a hiatus from posting anything through the holidays and likely will not be returning until spring. I do have more content planned for 2023, including a couple more installments of my surprisingly popular “Celluloid Heroes” series, and a new short story that will drop just before summer. I will also re-share a link to my Christmas story “Marley’s Ghost” on or around December 24th. A lot of you read it and liked it last time around so if you missed it and are too busy to search back through the website archive, check back in a month.
So on that note, good-bye for now, happy holidays, and if you happen to have a dream of standing in your childhood home with the GLAD Garbage Bag Guy who offers you a chance to go back and live it all again, think very carefully before you decide.