“If every porkchop were perfect we wouldn’t have hot dogs” - Greg Universe
Tension was alive as we sat down outside that Athens, Georgia cafe. “I figured this was going to play out one of two ways,” he said after we shook hands and took our seats, “either you’d show up and we’d have breakfast, or you’d roll up with a few of your friends and beat the shit out of me.” This was the first time I had seen my father in 19 years, and the very brief time I actually knew him was far from ideal, if you could say I knew him at all.
When I arrived looking my worst - unshaven and disheveled wearing my maroon trucker hat - it was the first time he looked at me with pride in his eyes, “God damn, you’re tall”. His wife excused herself to use the bathroom and in that moment he shared a vulnerable and heartfelt apology for the way things played out so many years ago. It was a dark time in his life, he told me. Clearly this wasn’t the same man I knew then.
The broad strokes are enough to paint a tragically common situation. As far as I know the day I was born was the day my dad left. My mom married an older man who managed the drug store she worked at. I was Steven’s age when my mother got us out of that den of abuse; the memories before that emancipation play like an animated bruise behind some locked door in my brain. Visions painted in hues of dark blues and blacks - a nightly dance of domestic abuse, mornings of broken bottles, broken lamps. A community of denial.
The shift split the distance between New York and Georgia. There was a void of terror in my life and somehow my father took it upon himself to fix that, shattering the last remnants of hope I had for a nuclear family. I’m not sure if he was driven by disappointment in the person I had grown to be, or if he was, at heart, a weak beast wrapped in the nicotine-stained skin of a man. The night I came home and found my mother under assault was the last time I saw him, and the last time I would allow any man to raise his hand against her.
This is heavy stuff for a segment about a cartoon character, but my feelings about Greg Universe are complicated and bound eternally with my turbulent youth. With context established, let’s talk about cartoons.
Steven Universe is pretty much my favorite anything right about now, as some of you may already know (I recently wrote a bit about my love for this show over at HI45LOFI). It’s a really sweet and deceptively sophisticated cartoon about a seemingly normal little boy who is trying to come to terms with his exceptional superpowers that he inherited from the badass alien rebel mom who died to give birth to him. There are a million threads tethered to my heart that stem from the underlying issues this show presents; the emotional undertow is so overwhelming that I rarely make it through an episode without my eyes welling up with greasy tears.
For those of you who’ve not yet seen this masterpiece, Steven is the half-human son of a leader of an intergalactic band of righteous rebels. Since she had to sacrifice her form to give birth to Steven, the remaining members of the Crystal Gems -- three women who defend the Earth from supernatural threats -- raise Steven in her absence in their coastal temple. There’s likely no court in America that would grant custody of an impressionable twelve year old boy to three disaster-prone aliens, so when I started watching Steven Universe I had just assumed he was some sort of oddball orphan. In the show’s second episode Steven uttered a word that sent a spiderweb of fractures across the glass screen of my heart - ‘dad’.
Dad, that three-fingered fist that simultaneously means nothing at all yet defines everything. Steven’s eyes light up when he says the word yet Amethyst, the most irresponsible of the Crystal Gems, dismisses him as being ‘kind of a mess’. My heart ceased its idle pounding; I didn’t have the endurance to see some listless loser treat this hopeful child with disdain. When a balding man in sweatpants and an undershirt emerged from the back of a van brandishing a waffle iron I felt the careless hands of the father twisting a dagger in my heart. Ladies and gentlemen, Greg Universe.
It’s easy to recognize in Greg the father I always wish I had; maybe even moreso because he is the spitting cartoon image of my dad when he showed up on the doorstep of my life. A diminutive man with a crown of long hair encircling a bare head. The only thing Greg is missing to be an intentional caricature of my young father is a ball cap, a black t-shirt with the California Raisins and a slogan that reads “Raisin’ Hell” on it. From the beard to the bad tan, Greg was ripped directly from some parallel universe where my dad was everything I wanted; everything I needed.
Hard to swallow, but this Absolute Loser who lives in his old tour van is actually one of the good ones. You wouldn’t think it, but Greg has an unassailable love for his son and the truest moral compass of any cartoon dad I’ve encountered. To the Gems he stands as a beacon of imperfect human beauty - painfully aware of his own shortcomings and eager to put anything on the line for those he cares about; Greg’s faults are secondary to his endless heart. To Steven, Greg is as much a hero as any of his super-powered mentors.
I love Greg. When he shows up in an episode of Steven Universe it turns my dark heart into a glowing lantern. Not only do I see the father I longed for in his sunny disposition and the sensitive relationship he has with his son, I also see a man I wish I shared more commonalities with. Let’s get this straight: I’m no saint. I’m a selfish and brooding prick who is locked in this endless battle with depression and anxiety. The older you get the more you realize - as much power as we have to chose the way we live our lives, we have very little influence about the people we become.
Greg has sacrificed so much for his son - his youth, his career, the love of his life - yet so rarely do you see him wallow in the pains of yesterday. He is a selfless giver, a provider of laughs, wisdom and support. Someone who was able to make the most of a life he never planned for. While touring the country as Mr. Universe I doubt he once, ever, considered that he would be a middle aged man who runs a car wash. Yet he coexists with his broken dreams in such a beautiful way; always eager to see tomorrow yet holding his past like a baby bird in his cupped palms. A man with a lot of sadness, a lot of insecurity and many failures. In that sense I feel so aligned with him - where we differ is that he hasn’t let those failures define him.
Father’s Day is traditionally a celebration of paternal love, but for so many this is can be an empty day of fear and bitterness. For those of you who grew up with a strong and loving father I hope you appreciate the relationship you have -- for those who grew up with, or, heaven forefend, currently live with an abusive or absentee father please know that you are not alone.
One of the many organizations that seek to empower women and diminish the common threat of domestic abuse through education and outreach is Live Your Dream. It’s not just single mothers or victims of abuse that face hardships in the world; women from all walks and degrees of success are the targets of discrimination; everything from workplace harassment to rape and murder. Live Your Dream seeks to encourage women to live lives unfettered by the horrors of male aggression and systematic gender based oppression. I’m broke and barely employed (pro tip: running a small record label pays $0/hr) but I so firmly believe in a world where women don’t have to suffer these atrocities that I’m making a modest donation in honor of all the wonderful women, gender neutral readers and the male allies who support The Grey Estates. (*TGE note* we're inspired by Fredrick and for two weeks any proceeds from our compilations will go to LYD.)
So Happy Father’s Day to all the good ones, to Greg, and to my Mom, who sacrificed everything to teach me how to be a good man.
Happy Father's Day, Mr. Universe
Songs for an Absolute Loser
- Keith John Adams - Dad
- Twin Sister - Space Babe
- Delicate Steve - Positive Force
- Mercury Rev - Car Wash Hair
- Quiet Hooves - Can’t Catch a Break
- The Anomoanon - Kickback
- Destroyer - Watercolours into the Ocean
- John Vanderslice - Too Much Time
- June Star - You’re Still Here
- Simon Joyner - Some Fathers let the Sunset Bring them to their Knees
- Bonny ‘Prince’ Billy - I am Still what I Meant to be
- Fruit Bats - Absolute Loser
- Elf Power - Visions of the Sea
- Rose Royce - Car Wash
- Grandaddy - Summer Here Kids
- Tacks, The Boy Disaster - Man with a Plan
- Angel Olsen - Some Things Cosmic
- Jimmie Rodgers - The One Rose