Saturday, November 9, 2013

Steve of Blue's Clues, Judge Alex, and Other Obsessions and Non-Obsessions

I had exactly two difficult experiences in my childhood. * One was the somewhat extended experience of my mom developing leukemia, my brother and I being left in the care of someone who didn't take care of us, and my getting sick as a result of the substandard care I received while under the supervision of the incompetent sitter. I've talked about that experience before, so it's been adequately covered. The other difficult experience of my childhood was when Steve left Blue's Clues.

Someone reading this may think I'm being melodramtic or even outrightly stupid for equating my mother's bout with cancer to the departure of a character from a TV program. I'm not actually equating the two difficult times of my life. Difficult Time #1 was exponentially more traumatic than Difficult Time #2. I'm merely saying they were, comparative levels of trauma notwithstanding, the two most traumatic events of my childhood.

Anyone still reading this is probably convinced that I've lived a charmed life if the departure of a character from a TV program made even my top ten list of childhood tragedies. Anyone reading this and assuming such is correct. Other than those two events, my childhood has been largely uneventful. No one I know was ever kidnapped or, to the best of my knowledge, molested. Everyone in my family who ever died thus far did so before I was born. No one I knew had a house fire. No one in the secondary layer of family and friends surrounding my own immediate family was ever divorced. Our house was never burglarized. We never had a car accident. I don't think I ever witnessed a car accident until I was well into my teens. I did accidentally cut myself with a broken drinking glass when I was three, but it wasn't a terribly upsetting event in the grand scheme of things. I spent a night in the hospital then because an artery was cut, but my parents stayed in my room with me, and my relatives from all over the state drove to the hospital to visit me and to bring me toys, so I have rather fond memories of that particular injury.

So the departure of Steve from Blue's Clues hit me a little harder than it hit most kids. I totally bought into all the hoopla surrounding what happened to Steve and more or less obsessed on him. The Internet was already around, so every night after gymnastics, once I had showered and eaten, I would log onto one of my parents' computers and read up on the latest conspiracy theories concerning what had happened to Steve. My mom saved my school journals from that year, and each day's entry reflected something I had read the previous night about Steve. My teacher wanted me to see the school psychologist. "I am a school psychologist," I remember my mom saying on the phone in a conversation with my teacher, "and I see her every day." My interest was whetted, and I listened in on the rest of the conversation. I remember my mom also saying something to the effect of, "Alexis is the child of a man who spends ten hours a day looking through a microscope at cancer cells, and then comes home and dreams about them at night. Do you really find it so unusual that she would display somewhat narrowly focused interest in a particular topic?" That's really good, Erin. Blame my other parent and minimize the relevance of your own 200-plus-volume library of books about the Kennedy family to my obsession.

I developed a degree of local fame, or perhaps it was closer to infamy, for my unwavering devotion to Steve and to the cause of unearthing the mystery surrounding his disappearance. I used to sneak away from the balance beam (my least favorite event, which was conveniently located adjacent to the door of the gym office) during gymnastics workouts to access the office computer and conduct my research from the gym office. Anytime I was discovered missing from the gym floor, one coach or another would check the office, find me, carry me out of the darkened office, and drop me back onto one of the balance beams. Whenever my school principal saw me, he would ask me what was the latest news on Steve, as would the chief librarian of our city's branch of the county library, my doctor, my dentist, our pharmacist, the cashiers who frequently rang up our purchases at our grocery store, and our parish priest. Most of my confessions from that time had some connections to various acts of disobedience or dishonesty I had committed in my quest for information about Steve.

I recently came across my parents' Christmas card letter from that year, written on December 1, 2002. The part about me stated, "Alexis, who also turns eight this month [even back then my parents always wrote about the favored child before discussing my pathetic and insignificant existence though I was the first-born twin], continues working toward her binary mission in life, which is both to win an Olympic gold medal in gymnastics [vault, floor exercises, or maybe uneven bars, but definitely not the beam, as she seems to be allergic to that particular apparatus] and to solve the mystery surrounding Steve's departure from Blue's Clues, and not necessarily in that order. We thank God that she was not yet alive during the proliferation of urban legends surrounding Paul McCartney's rumored death." He might as well have written, "Oh,we have a daughter, too. I keep forgetting to mention that." His only daughter read and calculated several grade levels ahead of her actual placement and played the piano proficiently already, yet all the man could find to say about her was that, in so many words, she was in need of therapy.

At some point, despite my mother's earlier downplaying of my teacher's concerns, my parents, too, became concerned that I would never let go of Steve and move on. Just as the threat of of psychiatric intervention began to loom on the horizon, two things happened. The first was that Steve appeared onThe Rosie O'Donnell Show to dispel rumors concerning the various tragic fates ascribed to him, including but not limited to a heroin overdose, a fatal motorcycle accident, and suicide. I had read that he was to make an appearance on Ms. O'Donnell's program, which I recorded because my mother did not fall for my laryngitis ruse for the purpose of skipping gymnastics for the day in order to watch the program live. It was with a heaping dose of skepticism that I watched "Steve" converse with Rosie O'Donnell on the recorded version of the program, but eventually I had to conclude that it really was Steve, that he was indeed alive and well, and that he really had left Blue's Clues to pursue a musical career.

If Steve's appearance on The Rosie O'Donnell Show had been insufficient evidence to me of Steve's survival, a letter from Steve to me came in the mail shortly thereafter. I remember the letter arriving on Christmas Eve. It was postmarked from Marina Del Ray, CA. Not every post office postmarks its own mail; it probably could have been mailed virtually anywhere in the west Los Angeles area. The letter read simply, "Dear Alexis, I'm sorry that you miss watching me on Blue's Clues. I had to go away to college. I encourage you to continue to watch Blue's Clues. My brother Joe isn't exactly me, but he's not a bad guy. Sincerely, Steve." Years after the fact, I realize the "Steve" who wrote that letter was almost certainly either one of my dad's Los Angeles-based colleagues or my dad himself, who mailed the letter to a colleague inside another envelope and asked the colleague to drop it in the mail from LA.

I felt rejection, not unlike that of a lover scorned, but I'm not presently nor was I ever a stalker. It was time to get on with my life, and I did just that, plunging myself into gymnastics with renewed vigor. Adults continued to ask me about the status of Steve, only now I would look at them as though I felt they were exceedingly silly. Steve was so incredibly last month's news.

Since then, anytime I've remotely followed any given TV program, my dad (yes, he of the cancer cell-laden microscope slides and dreams) would find it necessary to label my very ordinary viewing habits as my "next obsession." He came into my room when I was watching Judge Alex last week, and when he saw what was on the screen, he referred to the judge as "this year's Steve." He expressed concern about what I will do when Judge Alex is one day replaced on the show. I blew him off much as I dismissed the acquaintances and relatives who asked me about Steve after he was no longer my obsession du jour. "The program is called 'Judge Alex' because Alex Ferrer is the judge. What do you think they're going to do? Find another judge named 'Alex' to host the program? The show can [God forbid!] be cancelled, but they can't just replace Judge Alex. Duh!"

* I went through a series of unfortunate experiences as a teen, but that wasn't my childhood per se.

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