Last week I took part in a Write Club bout (http://writeclubatlanta.com) at Eddie’s Attic in Decatur, Georgia. My theme was “Truth”. I struggled with the topic, false-starting a few short story pieces before I finally just wrote from my gut. This piece is a bit on the preachy side, but it’s from my heart. This version includes links to all my random references. Enjoy.
I turned 37 years old last Sunday. As I round the corner towards 40, there are a few truths I’ve had to accept. I’m entering the stage of life where my body isn’t going to work like it used to. My weight is harder to keep under control. My joints ache more than they used to. I can’t drink until the wee hours of the morning and still function like a normal human being the next day. That’s not to say I don’t still drink until the wee hours of the morning on occasion, just that now it leads to a full day of regretful recovery. I’ve had a pain in my side for 10 years, the source of which no doctor has found. So we’ve stopped trying to figure it out. At 37, it’s become my own personal example of that Louis C.K. bit: I just have an incurable shitty side now. That is just part of my life.
My father died of a heart attack when he was 60 years old. Though he had battled a weight problem for most of his adult life, he exercised daily and had no known health issues. My mother was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease when she was 61. These two facts do not leave me with a very positive outlook about my own future past another 20 years or so. But I can’t spend too much time dwelling on all of this, beyond doing what I can to take care of myself in the meantime.
Instead, I turn my focus to my three children. They are young. The world stretches out before them as an endless vista to be explored, with no darkness at the end of what they see in front of them as a very brightly lit tunnel. They have a long way to go. There are truths about the world they’ve yet to learn; truths I’d rather they didn’t have to.
The cold hard truth. The naked truth. The truth hurts. Policy of truth? Moment of truth? Do you want new wave or do you want the truth? Some days I’m sure I’d prefer new wave. You can’t handle the truth. Ain’t it the truth?
My kids must learn the truth of living in a world where unarmed black teenagers are gunned down, often by the very police officers sworn to protect and serve them, and in the midst of widespread protest, there will be those who rally behind the shooter. The world will attempt to smear the dead teenager’s reputation, as if any amount of angry faces in photographs, marijuana usage, or petty theft justifies being shot dead in the street. My kids have to learn that since they themselves are white, this is a threat that doesn’t necessarily reach them, a fact that I am both horrified by and thankful for.
They must learn that if their bodies betray their gender identity, and they take steps to correct that, they will be called freaks. They will be mocked, insulted, and attacked. There are those who will condemn them to hell if they discover they prefer the love and companionship of their own sex; total strangers who will fight against them with their voices, their votes, and their dollars. There will be those who use religion to justify their hatred, quoting bible verses as they vomit bile all over the one pure thing we all claim to celebrate: love. God is love, but god hates fags? That can’t be the truth.
My kids must learn that even if they fight to get the good guy (or gal) elected, The President is still going to drop bombs on houses on the other side of the world, killing countless innocent people in the name of freedom and, oddly enough, peace. They must learn that sometimes, that’s the only way. And that there are many people around the world that we will simply never be able to help.
They must learn that a great many people believe that the planet is ours to use and abuse however we see fit, and that respecting the planet is such a joke that they’ll outfit their pickups to blow even more exhaust smoke just for fun. They’d rather roll the dice on an ongoing environmental crisis, even in the face of overwhelming evidence from the scientific community (who they don’t trust anyway) than be even slightly inconvenienced in the name of conservation.
This may seem like a bleak outlook to present to my children, whom I love and want nothing but the best for. But believe me when I say I am not a pessimist. I do not think all hope is lost. I do not pine for the “good ol’ days” or feel that the world is spiraling down the toilet. These truths are not the only truths. We are not fucked.
Striving for peace is not a cliché holdover from simpler times. The truth of violence is that it’s a destructive force with a much greater reach than the here and now. It spirals out in ever widening circles, infecting all who come in contact with it. Yes I want my children to fight: for themselves, their loved ones, and their beliefs. But they must fight with their hearts, their minds, and their ideas.
Love can conquer hatred. It may not save the next teenager, whether they’re black, gay, transgender, poor, depressed, or simply afraid. It may not save the one after that. But over time, love is the spotlight that shines into the darkness and causes the cockroaches to scatter. Even the darkest, most hateful hearts can be transformed by love. Love leads to understanding. Understanding leads to acceptance. Acceptance leads to celebration.
Truth. At the very core of our existence, there is truth. My kids must learn to find the truth, uncover it, expose it for all to see. Without the truth, we are hopeless. We must fight for truth, tearing the wool from the eyes of those who refuse to see it. Truth is the number one agent of change, the weapon peace wields, the platform love stands on.
Clearly there are two versions of the truth at play. One version weeps for our losses, while the other rejoices for our ability to change the future for the better. I cannot choose which one my children accept. I can only guide them with my words and through my actions. I can embrace those who are different from me and celebrate those differences. I can respect the people of this world, all of them, even those who have committed the most grievous offenses. I can do my best to respect and protect our planet. I can read a preachy, self-serious, liberal-dad manifesto to a room full of strangers, even though my kids are too young to attend, and getting a sitter is expensive, so their mom isn’t even here either. I can try.
I did things in my 30s that were ignored by the world, that could have been quickly labeled a failure. Here’s a classic example; in 1974 I did a movie called Phantom of the Paradise. Phantom of the Paradise, which was a huge flop in this country. There were only two cities in the world where it had any real success: Winnipeg, in Canada, and Paris, France. So, okay, let’s write it off as a failure. Maybe you could do that.
But all of the sudden, I’m in Mexico, and a 16-year-old boy comes up to me at a concert with an album - a Phantom of the Paradise soundtrack- and asks me to sign it. I sign it. Evidently I was nice to him and we had a nice little conversation. I don’t remember the moment, I remember signing the album (I don’t know if I think I remember or if I actually remember). But this little 14 or 16, whatever old this guy was… Well I know who the guy is now because I’m writing a musical based on Pan’s Labyrinth; it’s Guillermo del Toro.
The work that I’ve done with Daft Punk it’s totally related to them seeing Phantom of the Paradise 20 times and deciding they’re going to reach out to this 70-year-old songwriter to get involved in an album called Random Access Memories.
So, what is the lesson in that? The lesson for me is being very careful about what you label a failure in your life. Be careful about throwing something in the round file as garbage because you may find that it’s the headwaters of a relationship that you can’t even imagine it’s coming in your future.”
In 1989, a band called Faith No More released their breakthrough album The Real Thing. I’ll always remember that it came out that year, because the tape was in my pocket when I went flying off the hood of my brother’s 1972 Chevy Malibu, cracking my head across the asphalt when I landed. It took a coupl’a dozen stitches to keep my brains from slowly seeping out, but all things considered it wasn’t that serious. I was back at school in a week or so, where I was welcomed back by classmates who’d heard all sorts of twisted versions of what had happened to me, ranging from simple misconceptions, like I’d been hit by someone rather than falling off a car I’d willingly got up onto, to outlandish tales, one of which involved falling into a pool and being mauled by a dog. What actually happened was pretty mundane: I’d gotten off the school bus and was walking toward my house when my brother drove up. He told me to get in the car and he’d drive me the rest of the way, but instead I said “I’ll just hop up on the hood.” He hit the gas a little too hard, and I bounced off the windshield. It was an honest mistake, though he was understandably broken up by it while I was in the hospital. I used his guilt to my advantage for quite some time, just as any shithead little brother would do.
As is often the case with head injuries, I don’t remember too much about the events after I bounced off the windshield and took to the air, but the one clear memory I have of it all is sitting in the middle of the road with my arms folded on my knees, head down, staring at a record I’d been carrying with me called Freddy’s Greatest Hits. This record featured A Nightmare on Elm Street villain Freddy Krueger singing originals like “Do the Freddy”, and “Down in the Boiler Room” as well as classic covers like “Wooly Bully” (Freddy wore a wool sweater, see), and “In the Midnight Hour”(pretty self explanatory). I don’t know why this record isn’t more well known.
While I was sitting there staring at Freddy’s disfigured, smiling face, I thought I was going to die. Would this really be it? My final moments staring at a novelty horror record? That didn’t seem right. My final moments should’ve been doing something badass, like headbanging to Guns ‘n’ Roses or giving the finger to a teacher. They got me in an ambulance (where I promptly vomited), got me to the hospital, and had me stitched up in no time, though. There would still be plenty of time to give the finger to a teacher. It would probably be a little while before I was up for headbanging, though.
Remembering this scene got me thinking about how it’s sort of unfair that we can’t choose what our final moments will be. If I’d died that day, I’d be remembered as a huge fan of A Nightmare on Elm Street (and, for the record, I have always strongly preferred Friday the 13th) and the band Faith No More, who, admittedly, I do love to this day, but still. The tape was in my pocket that day because I’d somehow managed to convince the bus driver to let us listen to it on the ride home. If I’d died, maybe she would’ve gone out and bought it herself to play on the bus in tribute to me. “He just loved novelty music and rock songs with rapping in them,” they’d say at my funeral. Then they’d play Freddy’s version of The Everly Brothers’ “All I Have to do is Dream” while everyone sobbed.
It makes me think about any number of embarrassing things I did or was into at various points in my life. Most of these things were mere blips on the radar that quickly faded as my life went on, but thank god I didn’t die. I mean, in high school I was really into plaid. I had several plaid suits (at least one of which was actually meant for a woman; my mom removed the shoulder pads before she gave it to me). And if I’d died? “I always said he should’ve been born Scottish!” they’d wail as they lowered my tartan casket into the grave. Or how about the novel I worked on throughout my first couple of years of college? To call it a Douglas Adams ripoff would be insulting to Douglas Adams. “I’m going to send this around to publishers, see if I can get some interest. It really was his life’s work!” my mother might say. Dear god.
So, if I had actually died that day after falling off the hood of my brothers car, I can’t help but think that the real tragedy would be that 7th grade me would be preserved in the memories of my friends and family, this little chubby kid with a mullet, wearing a jean jacket with the KISS face-paint painted on the back. Regardless of whatever else I had accomplished at that admittedly young age, for all of history, this would be the definitive me, the true Cory Byrom. The real thing.
Growing up in the Atlanta area, snow storms like the one we just had were pretty rare. I can only remember a couple that were anything like it, where snow was on the ground for multiple days. Usually we got a day to play at best, then it was back to just being wet and cold, or wet and warm, depending on the day of the week. But one snowstorm sticks out in my mind more than any other, and it’s what I immediately think of when I think about getting a “snow day” from school or anything like that, and it’s the snow we got when I was in 4th grade.
The snow lasted 3 or 4 days, and while I’m sure my parents had to deal with the real-world implications like so many Atlantans did just a week and a half ago, for my brothers and me and the kids on my street, it was wonderful. We spent hours upon hours playing in the snow. And it was a typical Atlanta snow, meaning it was like 2 or 3 inches. We weren’t building snow forts or families of snowmen or anything, but it was such a rare treat for us that just being out in it was fun.
My yard was flat, and we lived next to a pasture that was equally flat, but the two kids across the street from us both had big hills as driveways, so we spent hours sledding down their driveways, skidding across the street, then dismounting in the ditch at the front of my yard. But the problem we faced was that none of us had sleds. I think one kid had a sled, and we all had to share it. We got snow once every three or four years, so our parents weren’t exactly racing to the store to buy us sleds. So we just used whatever would work: a trashcan lid, one of those cheap styrofoam surf boards you buy at the supermarket when your family goes to the beach, a piece of flimsy wood panelling.
Eventually going down their driveways started getting old, so we turned our sites on our street itself. We were all usually strictly forbidden from playing in the street. It was basically a long hill with a sharp curve at the top and a busy intersection at the bottom. If you’ve ever gotten off of 85 south by the airport and driven down highway 314 through Riverdale to Fayetteville, you’ve driven past it. Anyway, with the snow slowing down traffic on both ends of the street and most of our parents at work anyway, we started going down the street.
But then, again, we were all getting frustrated with the lack of sleds. There were like 8 or 9 kids total, ranging from ages 7 to 14, which meant there was a lot of standing around in between sled runs. But then one of the older kids, a guy who we called Fishbait well into adulthood (though it was eventually shortened to just Bait, which is somehow worse I think), had a brilliant idea. His stepdad had an old car, a 1962 Plymouth Valiant. It didn’t run, and it wasn’t taken care of or anything. It sat out by the fence in their back yard collecting rust and flat tires. Bait and my older brothers left the rest of us to our sledding for a half hour or so, and when they returned, they were pulling the hood of this car by a rope attached to one corner.
Six of us could fit on it at one time. We’d pile on while one person stood to the side holding the rope to keep the thing from sliding off before launch, then that person would hand off the rope, give a little shove, and off we’d go, down our street toward West Fayetteville Road. About 3/4ths of the way down the road, someone would yell “stop!” and everyone would stick an arm or leg off of the car-hood-sled onto the icy street to slow us down. Hopefully it would slow down enough for easy exit, or, worst case scenario, we’d all roll off and the person holding the rope would be responsible for keeping the hood from crossing onto the busy street. This was the most fun thing I’d ever done in my life.
After a while we went in for lunch and to warm our feet a bit. It was around 11:30 or so, and we sat in front of the tv eating sandwiches and soup. My parents were both gone. We were kind of excited because there was a space shuttle launch on tv, and we’d come inside just in time to see it. Of course you know what happened next: the Challenger exploded on our tv screen in real time.
Almost immediately our phone rang. I answered and it was my grandfather, who was a very emotional man. He asked if we were watching tv and if we’d seen what just happened. He was crying.
I was 9 years old and had never witnessed any sort of public tragedy, but I knew this was a really horrible thing. The crowd reactions seared into my brain, along with my grandfather’s voice. It wouldn’t take too long before the 9-year-old boy in me took back over and I would be cracking “Need Another Seven Astronauts” jokes on the playground with my friends, but for a few minutes in between sledding down the street on a car hood, I saw and felt an immense amount of sadness. Not the sobbing, temper-tantrum sadness of a 9-year-old, but the numb, hole in your heart sadness of someone who’s just witnessed or experienced something that they can’t comprehend.
Our attention spans appropriately short, we soon headed back out into the snow to meet back up with our friends, saying things like “did you see that?” before the explosion faded from our immediate concerns as we refocused on the snow.
Last week, the snow had my kids in a perpetual state of excitement. We went out in it a little each day, getting them as bundled up as we could and just enjoying watching them play in snow for really the first time in their lives. They didn’t know or care about traffic problems, people stuck in cars, city or state politics, or space shuttle explosions. They only cared about the moment of being in the snow, experiencing pure bliss even as their pants soaked through with water and their toes went numb from cold. Of course, we didn’t have any sleds. I got out the boogie boards that had been collecting dust in the garage since our beach vacation last summer, but they didn’t work that well for sledding. As I pulled them around the yard and listened to their whoops and hollers, I found myself wishing we had a trashcan lid, an old flimsy piece of wood panelling, or maybe even the hood of a 1962 Plymouth Valiant the whole family could pile onto and experience, for a few moments, the uninterrupted joy of childhood.