I never really got South Park. I mean, I get that it's satire, and I get the layers of biting commentary on social issues, but its delivery just never resonated with me. The few times I tried to watch the show I always walked away wishing I'd done something else with my time. It's one of those things where I get the appeal in a very analytical way, but I don't feel it like other people do.
South Park fans always sympathize with me in a very ... almost pitying way, when I talk about this. It's not because they are smug, superior jerks, but because they want me to feel and share the joy the show brings to their lives. It's the way I feel when people tell me they don't get Arrested Development. I look at them and ache for their simpleton ways, thinking, "You poor, dumb, son of a ... ."
Ok, mine's the more smug, superior kind of pity, but you get the idea.
So despite the release of the long awaited South Park: The Stick of Truth this week, I'm giving the nod to the second episode of The Walking Dead: Season Two.
The local video store wasn’t just a staple of my childhood, it was the most important building I could visit, given my surprisingly limited sphere of travel. Now grown, I remember the everyday things about the space: blue carpeting; a row of horror VHS tapes that seemed endless and terrifying, but beckoned with cover art that burned itself into my memories as something exotic and frightening; a wall of NES games at the rightmost corner; the checkout area that, like a vault, had rows of cartridges and tapes and test units; and the ever-changing collection of two arcade stand-ups alongside a never-the-same-twice pinball machine. Much like in a bookstore now, I would wander the rows aimlessly, peering at actor stand-ups, searching for new releases, watching impossibly-tall teens play for ages on a single quarter. Most of all, I remember the place expanding, adding a service window that processed photos for passports, sold bus tokens, and performed services that I didn’t have a use for, becoming a place that – in my mind – rivaled the larger chain-stores that were too far to be of any real use. It was a vibrant bubble of concentrated escapism that I loved to visit.
I like to think that the store, Video Hot, would have continued to expand and take up more of the strip-mall that it sat in. I like to think that it would have kept a great collection of NES games as the new gen creeped in, that it would have created a small section for Laserdiscs, or that it would have dedicated a section of the store for more arcade games. Or maybe it could have included vending-machines along the foreign and classics nook to build up traffic there.
I like to think that these things might have happened, because the store never got a chance to live up to the potential it was building. It never expanded its collection of games. Never again featured arcade cabinets. Never grew out. It never did this, because in the middle of the day on April 30th , 1992, it ceased to be the space I remember — because, by the morning of May 1st, there was a giant, charred wound where the checkout counter once stood.
There are echoes from my childhood, and usually they are nothing more than that. Snippets of emotional impressions that resonate as both old and distant. A lot of people I know talk about childhood memories in specific and detailed ways that are alien to me. Before age 13 or so, my life is a scattered patchwork of vague sense memories and snapshots of recollection. Very few things can make me feel connected to a strong sense of my own childhood.
But if you play the opening theme song to the series Cosmos around me, "Heaven and Hell" by Vangelis, I am transported as clearly and as keenly to my childhood as if I had stepped into a time machine and the out onto the shag carpet of my 1980 home. For its thirteen episodes, I could be found stretched across the floor with my gaze transfixed on the television screen where Carl Sagan, with a kindness and patience in his eyes that made you believe in the authenticity of his every word, doled out an explanation of a universe far more vast, more majestic and more interesting than I had ever guessed.
I would forever after be fascinated by the night sky, curious about the intertwining sciences that make up the machinery of reality, aware of the world I inhabited in a way that was more sophisticated but also more awestruck. I would never have the patience to learn a scientific discipline professionally, never have the right alignment of synapses to navigate the mathematics it would take to be truly knowledgeable on these topics, but as concepts and thought experiments, I was endlessly fascinated. The idea that all of mankind was encapsulated within the last few moments, of the last day, of the last month on the cosmic calendar, was the kind of idea Carl conveyed to me, and millions of others, and which would be with me for decades to come.
As a new Cosmos series launches this weekend with Neil DeGrasse Tyson, a worthy successor, at the helm, I find myself reminded of and celebrating the fact that the original Cosmos had such an impact on me over such a short time. Looking back, Carl Sagan was one of the best teachers I ever had.