hobart logo

November 21, 2014 | Nonfiction

The Star Trek Essay

Amanda Goldblatt

The Star Trek Essay photo

I knew a woman in college who was once mowing her parents’ lawn in New Jersey, whereupon an SUV stopped to ask directions, the driver stopped I mean; it was Jonathan Frakes, “Riker” I mean, Picard’s first in command, on the Starship Enterprise, of Star Trek: Next Generation, I mean. Riker asked her: where was the nearest McDonald’s? But she didn’t know. Or perhaps she didn’t want to tell him, hoped he would ask, in absence of a McDonald’s, for the location of the nearest replicator.

Months later after writing the first draft of this essay, I make a joke about replicators, at a work function, to two strangers in boat shoes. They are brunch drunk, and don’t get it. It’s a chamber, I explain, that makes whatever food you ask it to. It’s from Star Trek. Oh, says one. Trippy, says the other. I turn my head as if to cough but really I just roll my eyes, which I do both at myself, and for myself. Not everyone spends a large chunk of their 31st year re-watching Star Trek, man alive, Amanda! Probably, these men are not yet 31. Maybe they never will be. Not the way I am.

So the other thing I remember about my pal who told me about Riker asking after McDonald’s is that when we came back from October Break our first year, she was in a stinker of a mood. 

I asked her why. It turned out that her parents had already redecorated her childhood bedroom to make it fit for her mother’s quilting-and-exercising. That they had painted the walls lavender. “Lavender!” In her mouth it was a curse. She said something not unlike: When I saw those walls I knew I could never really go home again.

My parents would never paint my childhood bedroom without asking. Rather they are very concerned that I still think of their beige stucco house in Maryland as “home,” even as I am elsewhere, fourteen years hence, playing at adulthood, no—being an adult, with a life partner, with a signed lease on a two-bedroom in Chicago, an apartment that we usually clean on weekends together, even though neither of us is any good at floors. My parents are the arch nemesis of “lavender,” in their sweet hearts.

I am mostly an only child; which is to say: I have a tall and smart and interesting half-brother, eight years my senior, who lives in England and has since he was very small. We are both wistful, I think, about how we have less of a relationship than we might have, but also are both busy and struggling to do our best, loving each other from the either side of the Atlantic Ocean, one of two final frontiers, transgressed only by the potent whiffs of our best intentions. He has a partner and two beautiful kids. I’d like to meet them one day soon.

Oh, human mobility. Wherein space is a final frontier, and the Atlantic Ocean a permeable one.

I decided to watch all of Star Trek: Next Generation again because why. Because in my memory it was a blanket, a comforting thing or a covering one.  As a child I watched it with my father. Now I am 31 and having watched it again, I am glad for having watched it again, but its particulars are soap opera all the way ‘round. A Ferengi does something untrustworthy. Deanna Troi is gasping at Riker, in pleasure or upset. Captain Picard is proto-Shakespearean, or a stellar version of Mount Rushmore made flesh. Parse that and come upon his truth! The Borgs hum in their hives. Repeat, repeat!

I am not a primary text supremacist. I am, it appears, no Trekkie. We all use pop culture for different reasons. Belonging and adoration are simply two.

 

A turn: often I mention my mother in my writing but not usually my father; it is not for lack of love, only a result of comprehension or lack thereof: I can see every dimension of my relationship with my mother, the selfhood of the relationship is explored; yet it is my father who I am most like, our angles tucked away in our own self-mystery.

After age seven, let’s say, I had difficulty spending time with my father. He also had difficulty spending time with me. This was also around the time his own father died; the same year his wholesale jewelry business failed. In the wake of this he had returned to his accounting career in the basement office of our home. This is not necessarily a statement of causation.

When sent out alone, the two of us, by my mother, to ride bikes in the park or hike around a lake, my father and I always came back fighting, over something small, one or the other shutting the heavy front door heavily: an exclamatory sound. “You have to have a relationship,” my mother would say when she came up to my bedroom sighing. As a kid I was confused that having a parent necessitated anything more than being his child. I huffed into my pillow, dramatic as a sitcom teen.

A thing that we discovered we could do together, peaceably, was watch television. I believe a lot of pairs and groups to be this way. It provides a text and occupation simultaneously.  It happened naturally: someone turned on the television. Someone else let me watch it, while she washed the dishes, happy to see her husband and child sitting beside each other with matching expressions on their faces.

This essay is not about Star Trek in the way that Star Trek is not about space.

The spectatorship was pure social instinct. Together we liked Geordie for his kindness and techno-glasses, Riker for his beard, Data for his minor confusions regarding the nature of man. Unselfconsciously I’d lean against my father and feel his sighs and laughs equally. Afterwards we’d make clean, corny jokes about wormholes and the bridge. (No, I can't imagine what they were either, anymore.) Then, directed, I’d take a bath and go to bed, and feel nicely beloved. The covers would fall upon me sweetly, and my dreams just as.

 

Twenty years later, time-tracking, on the occasion of returning to Next Generation, I found it extraordinarily khaki. Khaki in the sense of the pants I’d be loath to wear, even to look at. And not only khaki, but a baggy, sexless, puke-burp khaki: no military rush nor easy country road, but only and merely and at the last khaki. 

When Kyle Riker, father of Picard’s first mate, upon his entrance onto the series (“Icarus Factor” 2:14) he wore greige and therefore looked all the worse, virile supposedly, but more like a member, wilting, under a bright light and beyond pressed glass: a mammography only of the Virile Male Father looking to dominate his bearded son, abandoned at age 15. 

Close up: a snapshot of young William Riker, Alaska, a fish on a rod, earth mountains as beautiful as in a beer commercial beyond. "I hooked it... but my father took the pole…wouldn't even let me reel it in…he said I might lose it."

 

What is the opposite of khaki, chrome? What is the opposite of lavender? A pumpkin paint that changes color with a moving sun. (That is the color my mother recently painted their dining room.) My first summer home from college my mother and I repainted my childhood bedroom saw grass and sage with a yellow-rose-of-Texas trim, but that was my decision: a revision. We also hung drywall on the ceiling. My father was two floors away, with an adding machine. Profession, circumstance, he was still so much closer than so many other fathers.

“Superman" is a game you can play with one child (lighter person) and one parent (heavier person), wherein the lighter person is leg-pressed into a flying position by the heavier person. The hands of both can be interlocked to increase stability.

Kyle Riker knows nothing of William really and Will knows not much of Dad save they loved the same woman in different ways, that they lived in Alaska on a planet named Earth and now they are among the stars, at Starbase Montgomery. (That name: how Anglo! How American!) They are exchanging briefs of information and offering opaque beside-the-point soliloquys behind doors that whisper pneumatically as they slide shut. 

Father Kyle has come to Son William in order to assign him a dangerous assignment. It is even more dangerous than the daily pomp-and-thrust of the Enterprise, supposedly. It gets a bit rote after this so I’ll leave it. In the episode prior Picard was forced to kill his future self in order to end a Mobius time-loop; interpret that however you like. Space is full of unexpected space viruses, and battles with unknown races, and also the matter of nothingness. 

If your teacher is good enough, learning to ride a bike is a snap, and you won’t know you’re doing it alone until you’re halfway down the driveway and your father informs you of this.

Ultimately any parent may shepherd a child to confront things unknowable. I am not giving Star Trek the credit for this, but anything can be a cue.

 

A few years ago, when my father was getting rid of cancer, he said often that he was “working on keeping body and soul together.” It was an alien phrase that was far folksier than he. (Alien, ha.) This is basically all the members of the Enterprise are ever doing, however. Next Generation is pragmatically atheist, thinking of primitive theist cultures as allegorical, but at the same time deeply empurpled with metaphysics. Keeping the self inside the body is a daily task, a calibration and a battlefront. 

By “strange new worlds” Starfleet means "the nature of being itself," but also, parents. The bad alien makeup and plaster of paris sets are merely the pop culture pabulum in which is secreted the thing that anchors the viewer’s heart. 

When you give a dog a pill it’s best to put it in some peanut butter or cream cheese. 

The Star Trek metaphysicists go out into the limitless constellation of possibilities, looking out past the deck, wondering only about origins, obsessed and embarrassed to be so. For keeping body and soul together requires a narrative of birth. For birth requires an equation of organisms. 

When casting a fishing line from a boat, keep your eye on the horizon; aim for it.

All people, moving in any direction, are historians are anthropologists are archeologists are cosmologists are metaphysicists. Daughters beside fathers are space ship explorers are Travelers are adults who wonder what it will be like to be an origin, if that is what will happen, for it is a possibility. 

 

One Thursday morning I am standing against a tree across the street from the Spaulding-Logan Square El stop, listening to a sui generis mc through failing ear buds. It is the first hot day of the year. I am wholly in my own world; I’ve been cleaning all morning. It is a contemporary trope: the buzzy nervousness that descends in expectation of a visit from one’s folks. “Heyyyyyyy,” my mother says as she emerges up the escalator first, yes, saying all of those y’s. Behind her my father, a little, in true form, “kerfuffled": hair winged out at the sides, a little trip upon debarking the escalator. 

Almost as soon as I’ve led my parents up to our third-floor apartment—they are still heaving yet—my grandmother’s elder care home calls to say she has fallen out of her wheelchair. It is the second time in as many years; apparently it was a light fall but she has a bruise on her forehead and will be needing extra staff attention and x-rays as soon as possible. My uncle, up from Florida, is there to visit and make decisions. 

Two moments later I go to put on some shorts for some zoo-and-lake tourism in this heat, and when I return my parents are in the middle of conversation about what life would’ve been like if. If they had left Maryland, and the mothers who lived there. I had gone to school in New England and they had loved it there, its walkability and moderation. But my father’s client list was centered in their current geography. In response I make some yelping pup noise and my father turns to say, “Oh, we talk like this. If life had been different.” “But you’re always in the plan,” he says. “You and your brother.” I suppose I admit to having felt, then, an un-innocuous pang in a lavender color.

Too much? Sure.

After the zoo, where both my father and mother fall a little bit in love with the Lincoln Park Zoo polar bear who is doing flip-turns, and before the comedy show, we find a bar to catch some cool air and a set. We have wine and sweet potato fries and it’s about seven hours into the visit, which means it’s time for my parents to ask about what I’ve been writing lately. In a bland voice, I say essays and then drink most of the wine in my glass. Essays about what. Essays about Star Trek

“Ah?” my father says, in an un-invested inflection.

“Yeah, we used to watch it together every night after dinner.”

“We did? I guess what matters is that you remember it,” he says.

And next he says: “In the nineties I was interested in vampires and immortals, but I got over that.” 

Perhaps in mentioning it I was hoping to get an end for the Star Trek essay. This is me attempting to end the Star Trek essay. 

Fathers are narratives, Riker. We fashion them into the story we need. This is the final component of adolescence, or so my therapist has told me. When they become people to us, we can perhaps start to become people too.

So, yes. The next morning I walk into the kitchen and my own father is getting out the milk for his coffee. “I remember now, that we watched Star Trek. You just had to remind me.”

 

image:


SHARE