“Rise ahnd shine! Rise…AHND…shine!”
I woke every school morning to my mom’s southern voice abrasively carrying through the house. I dealt with it by imagining her as a Pterodactyl, and I’d mimic her catchphrases with dinosaur screeches as I flapped my arms and ran around the house like a scene in a Ray Harryhausen film.
“RAAAARise RAaaaRR and ShiiiiineRAaaaarr!”
My mom or dad would always make some type of breakfast for my sister and me, before I’d move into the living room to watch The Three Stooges as I dressed for school. Occasionally, when my dad had a few extra minutes, he would join me for the end of an episode where we would laugh together. He’d sometimes thrill me with stories of watching those same film shorts in the theater when he was a kid, along with a featured western, and I’d listen in awe at how ancient that time seemed yet still felt so relatable.
Less relatable were my father’s interests in more traditionally masculine pursuits, like sports and hunting. I played Little League baseball from the age of 6, and after my initial discomfort, I grew to enjoy it until I was 15. My first year of playing T-Ball left me a self-conscious misfit. Even my glove showed that I didn’t belong, since my parents had given me a red leather glove as a gift for Christmas that year. I’d mostly ignored it until that season began, but couldn’t help but notice that the other boys had regular leather gloves, not something that looked like a bright red toy. Thankfully my parents insisted that I stick it out.
“After a time, you may find that having is not so pleasing a thing after all as wanting. It is not logical, but it is often true.”
– Spock in Amok Time.
In June of 2001, I lived in a loft space in the Bushwick neighborhood of Brooklyn. Bushwick hadn’t yet become the art and fashion hub that it is today. I often saw junkies slouched inside cars as they tied up their arms for the next fix. When walking to the subway, I’d stay alert to avoid being cornered by the pack of wild dogs that roamed the neighborhood, as well as the groups of bored boys looking for an easy victim to corner. Each week a car would be abandoned on the street and set on fire, the flames just further exposing the cold, hardness of the industrial brick buildings. The bland gentrification that Mayor Giuliani force fed the city during the 1990s wouldn’t reach Bushwick for another decade.
This was an important moment, since everything I’d worked towards during the previous decade had recently aligned. I was represented by a respectable gallery in New York that had held my first solo exhibition, and it was well received and reviewed. Despite this success, I was buried in a debilitating depression unlike anything I’d experienced before. Instead of basking in my newfound freedom by enthusiastically working in my studio, I was avoiding life by sleeping as long as possible, which ideally was 2:00 in the afternoon, when a local channel showed two episodes of Star Trek: The Next Generation. I’d eat a cheap sandwich while watching the shows, staving off my loneliness with the familiar comfort of the characters standing in as a rough approximation of family and friends. For the first time in my life I had no responsibilities aside from my time in the studio, but my freedom paradoxically left me feeling more depressed and trapped than I’d ever been while growing up in Texas.
“It is better to rule in Hell than to serve in Heaven.”
Captain Kirk quoting Milton’s Paradise Lost.
The opening phrase: “Space, the final frontier,” introduced me to the mission of the starship Enterprise, to explore strange new worlds, seek out new life and new civilizations, and boldly go where no one has gone before. This phrase, known as “The Captain’s Oath,” introduced the show by summarizing just what would occur during the following hour. It was a bold adventure I obsessed over during my youth, and by the time I graduated from high school, I’d decided that my life should also be an adventure.
In the Houston area in the 1970s, NASA was everywhere. When I was born, my mom worked as a secretary at NASA during the height of the Apollo missions. My earliest memory of watching television is seeing the Apollo 11 moon landing with my parents when I was only about 2. The details are faint, just like the grainy images relayed from space. As I grew older, I had friends whose parents worked at NASA in specialized jobs as engineers, or astronaut training. In school, astronauts would occasionally visit as special guests, bringing beautifully detailed models of rockets to explain the fundamentals of a moon landing. From my young perspective, it was a perfect era of hope, when the world seemed to be coming together, and space exploration was a part of my daily life. This was also a time when my parents, attempting to surround me with their idea of suburban utopia, protected me from news about the war in Vietnam, the Civil Rights Movement, or anything they deemed too upsetting. Like most sheltered kids, I only experienced a small, idealized selection of a much larger, more nuanced picture, but thankfully, outer space exploration always played a key role.
After school every day, I’d watch two back-to-back episodes of Star Trek, which transported me to exotic worlds far removed from Pasadena Texas. Later I realized how much those shows informed my morals, philosophy, and sexuality, as well as provided a framework to understand the importance of teamwork and leadership. At this time I still didn’t know there was anything Trek aside from the original TV series and the fascinating but clumsy animated series, though I was familiar with a few related toys. For my 8th birthday, my aunt Carolyn gave me a paperback set of the Alan Dean Foster stories from the animated series, and the first model kit I ever built was the phaser, communicator, and tricorder combination package known as the “Exploration Set.”