Saturday, October 16, 2021

Review: Sting-Ray Afternoons by Steve Rushin

I was born in the early 1970s so I am about 5 years younger than Steve Rushin but I saw a lot of myself in his funny memoir about growing up in the 70s. I also had a father who traveled a lot for work. We watched Saturday morning cartoons before spending the rest of the day playing outside. I felt the disappointment when I was gifted off brand clothing my classmates would clock in a second. I remember many of the situations he discusses, the constant cigarette smoke, riding backward (and getting car sick) in the station wagon, tucking the blisteringly hot seatbelts down the crack between the seat and backrest, trying to hit play and record at the perfect moment to tape a song off the radio, the picture on the television screen shrinking and disappearing, using plastic bread bags to keep your socks dry in your snow boots, and so many more. Reading his memoir, Sting-Ray Afternoons, was without a doubt a nostalgic read for me.

Steve Rushin had a pretty idyllic childhood. Moving from Chicago to Bloomington, Minnesota when he was a toddler, he had a stereotypical Midwestern upbringing. His father was a salesman for 3M and traveled a lot, leaving Steve's mother to take care of the eventual family of five children. Steve was the third son in this chaotic bunch and while he was as sports obsessed as any of them, he also presents himself as a little more sensitive and bookish too. He took the expected beatings from his brothers and was afraid of a lot. His love of information and language, especially words and word play, shine through his account of his childhood. And he either has a prodigious memory or he's done a lot of research to refresh that memory because he has included just about every commercial jingle, tv show, toy, and cultural touchstone possible from the 70s. Often when he mentions one of these, he includes the history of the thing or its place in the era. These tangents, about things as varied as leaded gasoline, the Boeing 747, and the Sears Wish Book to name just a few, can overwhelm the narrative of his actual childhood. And in truth, there's little of a traditional narrative line here, with his own life just lightly woven in between lists of products and the Minnesota world around him. But perhaps that's the point: we are all formed as much by our own particular childhoods as by the outside influences we grow up immersed in. Rushin is humorous and still skilled with word play and I enjoyed this jaunt down memory lane even if I'm not certain how resonant it would be to people who did not share these experiences and this world. It's a memoir that probably works best for people who are within a decade either side of Rushin since the actual memoir piece of the writing is slight.

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