Mentored by a madman with a box

Toastmasters wants me to speak about a time I was mentored and I have been putting this off for months because here’s the thing: until joining Toastmasters, I was never really mentored. At least, not in the traditional, ‘take me under your wing and give me all your wisdom and advice’ sort of way.


To be fair, I’ve rarely asked for advice or wisdom. We moved around a lot when I was little so I was always the new kid in school and I coped with that by shyly hovering in the background, intensely observing but rarely engaging with my peers or teachers. So, no mentors there.


Growing up, I had twenty-four first cousins, all of them older than me, but the only guidance I ever got from any of them was when Lloyd counseled me, “Xan, NEVER try cocaine. You might like it.” Sage advice but hardly a mentorship.


Gen-Xpertise

As a proud member of Gen-X (formerly known as the latchkey kids or the lost generation, but currently known as the only generation able to handle the Coronapocalypse without losing our shit), I was raised on video games, isolation and PB&J – perfect training for quarantine but not well suited to developing mentor relationships. Except, maybe it was. I spent my formative years almost exclusively in virtual relationships I found in movies, books, music and television. My mentors were either fictional or had no idea I existed but they guided me nonetheless.


As a 10-year-old protégé of Freddie Mercury, I learned that I too could be a champion if I proudly declared my true self to the world. Later, I learned that same lesson from Molly Ringwald, Judd Nelson and my other Breakfast Club pals. They taught me that everyone is dealing with their own insecurities and the best we can do is to fully own our supposed weaknesses; wear them like an armor so that no one can use them against us. Deep stuff for some high school brats in 1985.


Four Channels and a Homosexual

We may have only had four channels on TV back in the day, but still the mentors and lessons were bountiful. I gleaned makeup tips from Gilligan’s Island, discovered how to navigate a cantankerous boss from Mary Tyler Moore, and was gifted with with my first encounter with a homosexual on The Bob Newhart Show, thanks to a character played by the great Howard Hesseman (later to be Dr. Johnny Fever, one of my crushes from WKRP in Cincinnati).


Mork & Mindy was a tutorial two-for: I learned we’re all a little alien in some way and OMG I should move to Boulder, Colorado. I really took that one to heart. Shows like Chico and the Man and Good Times made me realize that pretty much all races were cooler than mine and that no matter how much I wanted to, I just did not have the street cred to say things like, “looking gooood” without utterly humiliating myself.


I could, however, pull off a phrase I heard on Saturday Night Live’s Weekend Update: “Jane, you ignorant slut.” I bombarded my 7th grade classmates with that one for weeks before my friend Janelle finally shut it down by asking me if I actually knew what the word “slut” meant. I did not.


Family Ties taught me that even when people’s ideals are on the opposite end of the political spectrum from mine, I can love them and disagree with them at the same time. A lesson that is particularly important to remember today.


Everybody’s Got a Lonely Heart and a Towel

Of course, I had mentors in other areas of entertainment as well. Bruce Springsteen taught me it’s okay to be lonely, everyone is from time to time and most of us survive it. The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy gave me hope that I was not alone in my weirdness and as a bonus, opened my eyes to the ultimate usefulness of a good towel. John Cusack taught me that big romantic gestures always win the day; Cyndi Lauper became my guiding light in the art of self-expression through fashion; U2 validated my earnestly righteous political indignation; and Tom Petty showed me the value of being true to myself no matter what anyone else thinks by being the very embodiment of a zero fuck-giving hero, slinking across the stage, wielding his Rickenbacker like a sword that could either slash or protect depending on how he was needed. God, I loved him.


But my favorite mentors have been brilliant ensemble sitcoms like Cheers, Taxi, Scrubs, and Community because they proved to me time and again that it was okay to form a new family when the one I was born into wasn’t doing the trick. As I moved from town to town, my TV family went with me. Hawkeye and Radar were just as irreverent and sweet in Austin as in Aurora. The White Shadow dispensed wisdom in both Colorado and Kerrville. Even as an adult, Monica, Chandler, Rachel, Ross, Phoebe and Joey came with me from Dallas to Boulder and made that transition to Mork & Mindy’s hometown much easier just by being there, being a familiar grounding element in my upturned life.


Four Funerals and a Roman Holiday

Earlier this year, The Hubby and I were in Rome for our 30th anniversary. The architecture, the food, the people, everything was amazing and awe-inspiring and entirely overwhelming. Every night, after a day spent visiting magnificent ancient sites, wandering the Colosseum or the Sistine Chapel, we’d go back to our spectacular hotel — built atop the ruins of third-century Diocletian Baths — and we’d curl up in bed to watch Big Mouth together on my laptop. It was oddly comforting. Having that crass, hilarious bit of home in bed with us worked like a touchstone in a foreign land. Among all the momentous sights and experiences, Big Mouth is one of our favorite memories of Rome.


Now I have I discovered that I’ve passed on my use of virtual mentors to the next generation. In the last few months, my daughter and I have lost four loved ones, including two of our best friends, and the persistent mourning has left us both walking through life milliseconds away from tears at all times. The other night we were comparing notes on how we’re dealing with that grief and we listed all the usual coping mechanisms — friends, my Hubby, her beau. But we also share another strategy, our secret weapon against a broken heart: we watch copious amounts of Doctor Who.


The Doctor is able to solve all problems, across all time and space; saving the universe again and again. Doctor Who makes sense out of chaos while staving off the crippling loneliness of being the last of his kind. He does it by helping others as he travels through his endless life with loyal, loving companions. For me, that seems like a pretty good example of how to live a life. Sure, extracting life lessons from a cheesy, British sci-fi alien might not be the traditional mentor/protégé relationship but who needs tradition when you can have a sonic screwdriver and a madman with a box instead?



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