Year 5, Piece Thirty-Two: 11. Orange Green

Nickelodeon made me weird. Rocks and reverence.

Last week I went to a wedding. A destination wedding. Without my kids. Without my partner, who stayed home with the kids. Before heading to the airport I woke at 5am to determine the week’s colors. 

I drew the card for Orange Green: Creating with Love. An appropriate combination for a wedding, it seemed. And one that also seemed appropriate for the landscape I was headed to of Southern Utah, with its green shrubs against red (orange) rocks. 

But I wasn’t actually thinking about the colors specifically once I was on the airplane. I think I was just giddy to be on an airplane at all, and sitting next to my best friend, Jimmy. In fact, it was thirteen years ago to the day that we first flew together on an airplane when we moved to San Francisco.

I flipped through the movie selections on the touch screen monitor in front of me with glee. Time to watch things! Weeee! Finally something caught my eye: a retrospective documentary about the first children’s television network, Nickelodeon.

The plane landed when we were about halfway through the movie so we couldn’t finish it. But that’s when it dawned on me. That morning, the colors I drew were Orange Green. The title of this movie? “The Orange Years.” Even the thumbnail image was orange and green, for Nickelodeon’s iconic shade of orange and its accent color, slime. 

Now “The Orange Years” wasn’t necessarily great cinema. It is a nostalgia fest, brain candy for millenials wanting to relive their childhoods. But Nickelodeon was a great part of my childhood. So while I felt a little manipulated, I was on board for the manipulation.

Of course, Nickelodeon was and still is a commercial enterprise. But apparently what set Nickelodeon apart from other networks at the time was an emphasis not only on kids but on creators. Most popular cartoons in the 1980s existed primarily to sell toys: G.I. Joe, Transformers, My Little Pony, She-Ra. Nickelodeon, on the other hand, deliberately sought out creators to make original content for its initial line-up of cartoons in 1991, content that was strange and even a little ugly. Rugrats, Doug, Ren & Stimpy: content created with love. Of course, the merchandising and toys came later, but the content came first. 

Nickelodeon bet that kids wanted weird and gross, and I certainly did. The close-ups of boogers on Ren & Stimpy, the absurd consumer crises of Rocko’s Modern Life: even when I didn’t understand it, I loved it. Then there were the live action characters I wanted to emulate: Clarissa Darling of Clarissa Explains It All, Alex Mack of The Secret World of Alex Mack, even Little Pete on The Adventures of Pete and Pete. These characters were seemingly independent, creative, dressed outside of mainstream fashion, and were, yes, a little weird. 

I think I would have been a weirdo whether or not Nickelodeon existed. But it certainly influenced the flavor of my weirdness, or let me claim it with a little more pride. Sometimes I think this television network penetrated the fabric of my identity. 

I guess that’s something I should keep in mind with my own children’s media diet. I mean, I’m no Waldorf parent: my child is actually watching a movie right now so that I can struggle to edit this, far after my usual deadline. But my siblings and I watched hours and hours of television as kids. We turned on a TV and tuned to a channel and watched whatever was on. Now we don’t even have a TV, we have multiple multiple-use digital screens with apps to seek out and select specific media after much deliberation and scrolling. I think I am grateful that there isn’t a particular monolith doling out shows to my kids, but maybe the soup of the entire internet that they will be entering soon enough is actually a little scarier. 

Speaking of being a kid, going to this wedding was sort of like going back in time. And it was great. People asked all weekend how I was feeling, and I asked myself the same question. I think I expected to feel some phantom pangs of obligation and caretaking, sort of how I imagine breeds of herding dogs must feel when they live in a city and start herding ducks or people instead of the sheep that their ancestors did. But I didn’t feel that way. I just felt like myself. And not even like a previous version of myself, just myself when I am actually able to be with other people, other amazing people. When I am able to talk to them without multitasking or being interrupted every other sentence.

So you could say I was able to be an adult last weekend, at a wedding without my kids. But you could also say that I was able to be a kid myself. In the best way. Not taking care of anyone else, just hanging out with my friends, going on (hiking) adventures, dancing my face off to 90s hits, staying up all night. I got to play. Not facilitating my children playing, but me playing myself, deeply. 

And able to be in nature.

There are perhaps few places on the planet with as much natural splendor as Utah. Rocks jutting out of the earth everywhere, not just rocks but whole mountains and cliffs and canyons and towers and arches. If I was wondering last week whether tiny rocks are alive, the big rocks answered: yup. 

Being in the presence of those rocks does something to you. Makes you feel present, but also makes you feel like you should feel present, makes you wonder if it is even possible to ever be present enough around beings like that. Maybe it's the Midwestern in me that is so used to flat land, but sometimes I can’t fully comprehend that the tall things in the distance on the horizon are actually there, or that I am here looking at them. Are those rocks even real? Is this a simulation? How would I know?

And why am I thinking about simulations when I am in nature? Perhaps I have filled my brain with too much media, not just Nickelodeon but all manner of cartoons and shows and songs so many songs and books and conversations and thoughts that I can never and will never truly just be where I am. Not just looking at what I am looking at, but being there, and being there with. I close my eyes to try to listen to the rocks sing their songs, and instead I hear: “It’s Log! It’s Log! It’s big, it’s heavy, it’s wood. It’s Log! It’s Log! It’s better than bad, it’s good!”

So, welcome to this week’s chaotic animation, which maybe for once does a better job of expressing in images than what I am trying to express in words about what it's like to be behind my eyes (any human eyes? I don’t know) trying to look out and not really being able to control what I am looking at. 

Trying to reconcile the orange rocks and green shrubs of natural splendor with the orange and green brand identity of a television network. What is our relationship to the commercial entities that shape our consciousness? Maybe as problematic as any parent/child relationship.

Or as problematic as any human/nature relationship. Though certainly human people have lived in these rocky landscapes for centuries, if not millenia, and until relatively recently, the Ute and Paiute peoples that Utah is named for. It was the people who came later that messed things up, as the framed pictures on the walls in our hotel room would frightfully attest. Now as I walk these landscapes as a tourist I wonder if I’m experiencing them like more television, passively consuming nature like more brain candy.  

But human existence itself is weird. Maybe it is all worthy of reverence: if it exists, it's holy. Right now we are in the Days of Awe, the days between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, the holiest days of the Jewish calendar. I certainly don’t feel present for these days this year; maybe it’s all the sleep that I (delightfully) sacrificed. But I did bring my shofar along to Utah, a ram’s horn that has been used as a ritual musical instrument since Biblical times. 

The sound of the shofar is loud and bracing, designed to bring you back to the present moment. To remind you of who you are and help you to return to it. When I first blew the shofar last weekend in Utah, we all gaped in wonder as the sound ricocheted over the rocks and through the canyons, bouncing on and on and back and back. Maybe that’s how you talk to rocks. Or maybe I can dig into the memory of that moment to orient somehow. That moment passed and this one will too when I am still somehow sitting here early on Sunday morning trying to make this essay make sense when it can’t because, well, it’s maybe about how nothing makes sense. All I can do is create with love, to blast that shofar until the walls of my psyche come crumbling down. 

Orange Green. My child self seeing its weirdness reflected on a screen and then ultimately reflected in its adult self. It doesn’t make much more sense now than it did back then. But here I am, still creating with love, boogers and all.