I live in the same county where I grew up. So when my family and I drive to the Oldham Theatre to see a movie, almost always a superhero movie, because it seems like there’s a new one every single week, it’s hard not to remember eating Jolly Ranchers in this same theater while watching Batman in 1989. My sons, fourteen and nine, are sitting in the same chairs that I sat in when I was their age, and they have to hear me say, every single time we go to the theater, “You know, I saw my first Batman movie in this very same theater.” And they say, “Yes, god, we know. And you ate Jolly Ranchers from the concession stand.” And I say, “But not the Jolly Ranchers that you kids eat—” And they interrupt to say, “Yes, they were a different size. We know. Dad, the movie is starting.”
Watching the new Batman movie means that the entire time, I’m thinking, Michael Keaton was a very good Batman, and then thinking, Val Kilmer was criminally underrated as Batman, and George Clooney was Batman? Jesus, and Christian Bale was supposed to be the last Batman I ever had to deal with, and I never saw any of the Ben Affleck movies when he was Batman. I used to go see all the superhero movies. Eventually, I think about the first time, probably in eighth grade, when my parents decided it was okay to just drop me off at the Oldham to meet up with friends, simply letting me walk up to the ticket counter on my own, the slight fear when I didn’t immediately see any of my friends in the crowd. I remember looking back as my dad waved to me before he drove off. I think of how weird it is to have a formative moment in your life take place at a showing of Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles II: The Secret of the Ooze. I think about walking out of the theater after the movie, searching for my parents’ van, those little moments when you separate and come back together, over and over.
And then, back in the real world, my kids start to get up because the movie is over, and I realize that I’ll have to watch it again to know what happens.
I feel the recurrence of time, of memory, constantly now. I’ve lived long enough that experiences are immediately stitched together with what came before. I cannot eat a barbecue sandwich without comparing it to a barbecue sandwich that I ate in 2004 in Lexington, North Carolina, when my wife and I had just moved in together. We thought nothing of driving an hour to eat barbecue, both of us just so happy to be in the same place. And so, with each new sandwich, I’ll look at her and say, “Almost as good,” and she’ll know what I mean.
The concept of middle age is honestly not something I’ve really considered until, you know, right now. It feels wildly optimistic to assume that, at age 44, I’ve arrived at the midpoint of my life. But if I am indeed at that point, imagining 44 more years also feels impossible, like, how in the world will I occupy myself with that much time? That’s a lot of hours to fill. How many more hobbies will I need? Should we have had five children instead of two? How many more times will we paint the walls of our bedroom? Once? Twice? Will I publish enough books to build an Updikean bibliography of my own? Or maybe I’ll be writing one novel for the next 40 years that my agent keeps saying needs just a little more work, until I die and it’s finally published and people think, This was what he was working on for so long?
Now when the past comes to me, I can look back at a moment and pull the thread of something that happened 20 years ago to see how it connects to me right now. It’s dizzying. When you’re 20, you’re too close to the past for it to really matter all that much. When you’re 70, you’re too far away from it. I think about how maybe I became a writer because after I’d mowed the grass one day the summer I was 19, spectacularly depressed following a terrible year in college, my dad, holding a story I’d written, sat down with me and told me that I should keep writing if that’s what I wanted to do. And I think about how, if my sons want to do anything with their lives, when I am in that moment, I should tell them to keep doing it, that it’s possible, that I support them with my whole heart. So that if they’re standing onstage someday to receive a major award, they will say, “I remember my dad was the person really who encouraged me to pursue this particular thing for which I am winning this major award.” And so it goes; the past reverberates into the present and makes me consider the future.
This article appeared in the Oct/Nov 2022 issue of Esquire
In workshop with my writing students, sometimes getting aggravated that they can’t turn in their work by the deadline, I remember how, the night before my essay for Philosophy 101 was due, I called my professor at his house at 8:00 and, realizing that his answering- machine message was just him playing the guitar part, badly, of the Dave Matthews Band song “Satellite,” I called back three more times to listen to it, the halting, tentative plucking made by someone I’d only ever seen in the classroom. I wondered why, because it was so poorly played, he had chosen it for the machine. Finally, he answered, unbelievably annoyed, and I was so stunned that I didn’t ask him to help me brainstorm ideas for the essay. I just said, “Sorry,” without even announcing who I was, and hung up. And he still gave me a C for my paper on Freud despite the fact that it interchangeably used the terms philosophy and psychology. I always give the students an extension. A week. Two weeks. Take your time.
Because the future is so uncertain, and because middle age is the very top of the roller- coaster tracks between birth and—oh, god—death, I can’t really imagine the future with clarity. That is to say, I can’t place myself in the future. All I can do, at this stage in my life, is focus on the ways in which my actions can echo into the future.
I can consider my two boys, imagine their lives, try to give them what they need to get them to that point where they no longer need me. I can think about the students I teach at my university and try to be a person whom, if they remember me at all, they will remember with fondness. I can think about the town where I live and try to take steps to ensure that it exists in some way that will sustain whoever comes next. I can write books that, when they go out of print, might linger enough in the memory of someone that a publisher reissues them with a foreword by a young writer who is really famous. At the very least, I can be a person about whom, when things go very wrong down the line, no one will say, “Kevin Wilson is solely responsible for this.”
For now, the kids will let me watch movies with them, and that’s all I can ask for. Eventually they’ll tell their own kids about Batman, or the seven live-action versions of Batman that they grew up with, and they’ll talk about how some candy they’re eating is kind of like the candy they used to eat, just slightly different, and that difference will feel so important that it will be hard to articulate exactly why. I hope this happens, at least. As a writer, I believe in the power of the ending, but it’s not real life, which always keeps going. Another beginning, and another, and another, and you write it for as long as you can.