In Defense of Fuller House
I *love* the Fuller House reboot on Netflix.
Give me a lazy Saturday morning and 10 episodes of tone-deaf Kimmie Gibler antics and I’m a happy man.
And this is maybe just a little strange because I’m not particularly drawn to saccharine, bubble-gummy, wink-winky entertainment. I like a lot of serious drama, deeply emotional stories, complex narratives, dark humor. But I can get down with that Tanner family. They were one of the very few TV shows I was permitted to watch when I was young. I looked forward to tuning into TGIF on ABC every week - it was a time to unburden myself of the requirements of my religion for just a couple of hours and watch how a family navigated life’s quandaries without praying about everything or consulting the Bible or feeling watchful eye of Jesus silently judging their every move. That was my normal, but the Tanner family had a different M.O., and watching them was something of a relief.
So, I have a question for you: when you look back and think of yourself as a kid or a teenager, or even in your young adulthood, does it ever feel like you’re remembering a stranger?
Or are your past selves a succession of memorials you fondly revisit?
Some folks I know seem very connected to their pasts. Not that they haven’t changed or grown - we all change and grow. But some folks hold their stories from childhood or high school like they hold a piping mug of cocoa in a Colorado ski lodge in December. They breathe in the aroma, their face flush from the warmth. Their reminiscences are underpinned with knowing laughter and affectionately adorned with comments like, “We were so young back then,” or “Classic Joey!”
I often wonder what it’s like to feel like you know the child you remember. To be able to get inside the head of the teenager in the photographs whose face is a fresher version of the one you still have. To be able to say “Classic Matthew!” after a mischievous tale of former behavior that could only have been carried out by… well, in my case, a different Matthew.
So, what is this long distance relationship I have to my former self? Where does the disassociation come from? And when did this podcast turn into a series of questions I should be asking my therapist instead of hurling into the digital void?
Right now, I’m thinking about the songs I started writing when I was nine. The first one I ever wrote was called “Your Love.” I penciled it out in my basement bedroom and brought it upstairs to sing to my mom. And I still remember every word:
Lord your love is so strong
It’s what keeps me going through the day
Lord, your love is so powerful
It can drive any doubt away
And Lord, I wonder how it could be
That your love could love even me
Lord your love is like a river
That keeps flowing on and on
It never stops to rest
It’s always there
And in my times of trouble
I know that you care
Lord, your love
I believed that lyric would win a Dove Award one day. For anyone confused, the Dove Awards are basically the Christian Grammys. And since I didn’t know what the Grammys were when I was nine, the Doves were my highest aspiration.
But this derivative, treacly first composition, was I just parroting the party line of my faith, or did I really believe what I wrote? Did I actually find my 9-year-old self so unlovable that it was beyond comprehension that a God of infinite grace and hope and joy might, I don’t know, love me? What doubts was I having in fourth grade that needed to be driven away? And what were those “times of trouble?” I mean, I can only assume I was referring to John McGinnis, the bully a grade above me who made recesses and PE and walking to the bathroom an absolute nightmare - that was probably the worst of my times of trouble. Unless you count my unrequited crush on Jennifer Clark, who ruthlessly returned the box of Andes mints I had purchased for her from Rite-Aid on Valentine’s Day that year. Some wounds never heal.
The second song I ever wrote was a more upbeat praise standard inspired by the lively anthem “Sing Your Praise to the Lord” by Amy Grant. I titled it “Hey, Everybody,” because it was obviously a real attention-grabber.
Clap your hands and shout and sing and
For the Lord is our mighty King
We will be victorious
We’ll win the battle that draws so nigh
Because the Lord’s so glorious
We’ll reign with him on high
He won the victory
So that we can be free so
Clap your hands and shout and sing and
Praise the Lord, our mighty King
Do ya, do ya know
Jesus is God’s Son
Let the whole world show
That he’s the only one
Woah, look out everybody, we’ve got an evangelist-in-training over here!
But again, I’m completely perplexed by the kid who wrote this. What was the battle I was so convinced was coming? Was I singing about Armageddon, or did I just pull this from the very common war metaphors that permeated the church back then - you know, “Onward Christian soldiers,” and all that? And unless he’s a character in a Dickens novel, what nine year old uses the word “nigh?”
It’s not just the songs that baby Matthew wrote that feel alien.
There were so many things I did that don’t feel familiar, they don’t feel normal or healthy or happy when I look back on them today. Things like watching TV shows in secret because they were forbidden. Hiding the first secular album I ever bought - Tigerlily, by Natalie Merchant, which is still my all-time favorite album - because in the tenth and final song she sings, “Damn you, betrayer.” Bringing another kid in our church to tears because I told her God would be disappointed in her behavior. Why was that my job?
Maybe even stranger than the things I did, though, are the things I didn’t do, that I kind of wish I had. Things that feel like little voids, little missing pieces of the Matthew that could have been. A sense of wonder and freedom and shared camaraderie that just isn’t in my memories because the Matthew I look back at said no way more often than he said yes.
I remember celebrating one New Year’s Eve with our church when I was in middle school. The youth group kids went to hang outside in the parking lot, and our hang sesh turned, as it does when you have more hormones than headspace, into a game of spin the bottle. My lifelong friend Jenny Kane walked to the center of the circle and spun. A Dr. Pepper label blurred into a maroon vortex, and when it came to rest, I found myself staring at the open mouth of an empty bottle. And that would be the only open mouth I would encounter that night, because when push came to shove and lips came to kiss, I declined. I laughed it off and went back inside to count down the new year because… why? There really wasn’t a Bible verse I could point to that identified momentary, awkward adolescent lip-locking as a sin against God, but I guess that young Matthew wasn’t going to risk something so... promiscuous?
And, by the way, the precedent was set. Even though I would, you know, “stumble” and fool around a few times in high school, I actually wouldn’t experience my first kiss until a decade later, when I was 24.
Shouldn’t everyone have a good spin the bottle story? I mean, Kimmie Gibler and DJ Tanner did at DJ’s 13th birthday party in Season 3, Episode 17—"Thirteen Candles!"
Look, I know these aren’t exactly the gravest of oppressions. I know there are severe and even life-threatening forms of spiritual abuse that people suffer all over the world, all the time. That for many people, not feeling safe comes from the fact that their faith systems put them in actual physical danger, which is not the same as being afraid you might get caught watching Dawson’s Creek.
But it’s still a sad thing to look back on your life and feel like a stranger to your younger self. To only discover in adulthood a freedom and joy and hope that you now realize is missing from your memories growing up. And to realize that the very faith that promised freedom, joy, and hope is actually what stole it away.
The little traumas are still traumas, and for some of us, they’re the main story we have to tell. They are rote, quotidien, commonplace. They’re the underpinnings of our upbringing, and they’re the reason the child we remember doesn’t feel like us.
I think it’s okay to take some time to be a little sad about that.
And I think it’s okay to just unabashedly revel in any small way that you can trace a thread of joy, hope, and wonder that you were able to manifest in your childhood. To live now what you couldn’t live then. To catch up with your old pals DJ and Stephanie and Kimmie and just celebrate the smarmy, cloying empty calories of a show like Fuller House that might help you remember a moment or two in your childhood when you were, for just 30 minutes a week, relieved of the burden of an oppressive religion that turned you into someone you’re not.
I mean, really - how rude.