I like Turtles.

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Donatello: You’re a claustrophobic.
Casey Jones: You want a fist in the mouth? I’ve never even looked at another guy before.

Leonardo: [Raphael has brought an unconscious April O’Neil into the sewer] Are you crazy?
Raphael: Yeah, Leo, I’m crazy, OK? A loony, OK?
Donatello: But why?
Raphael: Why? Why, oh I don’t know, ’cause I wanted to redecorate. You know, a couple of throw pillows, a TV news reporter, what do ya think?

Leonardo: Awesome!
Michaelangelo: Righteous!
Donatello: Bossa Nova!
[Leonardo and Michaelangelo look at Donatello]
Michaelangelo: Dude, “Bossa Nova”?
Donatello: Chevy Nova?
[Leonardo and Michaelangelo groan]
Donatello: Excellent!
[Leonardo and Michaelangelo cheer in approval]

[Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles (1990)]

Bossa Nova. Is it surprising that jazz once again inspires me to put finger to keys? (It did here, I want to be Kelsey Grammer”, but I don’t think I said it.) I favorited a song on Pandora, and not until seeing the album’s name did I understand to what Donny’s nerdy reference was! And now, here we are: talking about the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles.

“Green Against Brick,” as put by Jerry Sachs, ad consultant of Sachs-Finley Agency and collaborator with Playmates Toys Inc., is probably the best way to stage the scene. Perhaps it’s better to expand and say that it’s lit in a harsh yellow, cast by a street lamp onto concrete. Surrounded by a lady’s spilled affects, a hood rat is gagged and tied up, and over his garbling you can hear the clatter of high-heels escaping, and a sewer lid dropping into place. It’s nostalgic, isn’t it?

Millennials, like myself, grew up with those covert heroes. The cartoon had a near intangible 80s charm to it: implausible villains with oversimplified motivations; pizza addiction; random trash cans materializing out of nowhere, simply to be thrown at said villains; sophomoric humor; MacGuyver-esque contraptions; blimps—it’s a continuing and endearing list. But Gen-Xers had the better incarnation.

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Peter Laird and Kevin Eastman originally crafted a darker, more violent series. One where the turtles enforced the Bushido code when they cornered their dishonorable samurai foe, requiring him to commit seppuku. It was also more snarky, drawn as a joke meant to lampoon contemporary comics such as Marvel’s Daredevil and Frank Miller’s Ronin. And the turtles were true to their age in their low-brow, sarcastic humor. This is the better version.

The 1990 film returned the story closer to its roots. It was designed to be familiar to the cartoon’s kid audience, yet was darkly lit, and served themes on death and loss, honor, juvenile delinquency, and New York City culture. This film, regardless of my age, will always be in my top ten films. I reminds me of my childhood and the fantasies that I dreamed [I once spaced-out in first grade, imagining I was secretly Leonardo under a human costume, and would tear out, in a furry of batting, to (as bloodlessly and benignly as a six-year old would) stab my teacher with my twin katana and lead a revolt with my classmates (they declined—imbeciles).], and, now that I’m old enough to understand the dialogue, induces deep, belly-laughter.

This. THIS! It’s not only my youth, but my burgeoning adulthood. The reconnection of my current self to who I was. It’s the self-powered light bulb that not just feeds, but produces off the same current. It helps to center and direct myself to identity and even a code of ethics. You see, Ninja Turtles, as a concept, doesn’t just represent fantasy, but a quasi-Bushido: discipline, mind-over-matter, physical fitness and deftness, responsibility, altruism, humor, youthfulness, and, lastly, achieving dreams. Since I was a kid, I wanted to take karate (what early 90s kid didn’t?—it was the martial arts era!). Rediscovering TMNT in 2010, coincidently in the franchise’s 25th anniversary, helped me to pick up the sport. Actually, let me be more explicit.

In 2010, I suffering from a break-up. I was engaged to a girl who I thought I’d spend eternity with, and the relationship quickly fell apart. Since relationships often help us reaffirm our qualities, and thereby ourselves, since our character effectually defines us, losing this relationship felt like I’d lost myself, especially since we were still in the infatuation stage of love. Never mind that our connection was more puppy-love and immature; perceived loss is actual loss to the mind. I was mourning, and with absoluteness. I was blindly grasping for who I was.

I came to live with my mother, who had an extra room and could help me get back on my feet. Naturally, my mother’s materialism coupled with my seeming lack of identity led me to feel very childlike—and childish. I didn’t have a job for the first month, so it fit. Don’t get me wrong: I’m not trying to nobilify myself. It was a pathetic time, indeed. But in this state I drew towards the things I knew I enjoyed, even as a kid. I quickly snatched up the TMNT 25th Anniversary DVD set, and even donned the ninja masks that came with it, while shiftlessly playing Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas.

Being a curious cat (a not-always desirable trait), I wanted to know more about this media empire. With cursory research, I discovered its satirical origins, and began reading the comic. I also borrowed Ronin from the library, and fell into the feudal Japanese atmosphere. I even borrowed an academic textbook on samurai. I remembered my youth’s unrequited love, and began to study the distinguishers between each of the martial arts disciplines. I definitely wanted to learn ninjutsu, but the closest dojo was in California. Karate was the next closest thing to my heart.

I called around, and had a ridiculous time getting my calls returned. Even finding a dojo that was still in business was hard. One address lead me someone’s suburban home. Awkward.

It wasn’t until I was running errands a few months later than I passed by a red sign on the roof of a strip mall: “KARATE,” naked and in sans-serif type. Luckily, I was in Utah, or else I would have been ticketed for my ensuing traffic maneuver to reverse my course and get me into the parking lot. I dropped in, and was welcomed to come back for the adult training night. Six months later, I had my orange belt.

See, for me, TMNT isn’t about being a man-child; it’s about reinvention. And that’s very personal. Through karate, and the values it disseminates, I began to master myself, and have dignity. Like an athlete develops self-confidence through understanding his or her own capabilities and skills, so did I. And that was very important for me. The last time I achieved something substantial was when I completed my mission in 2008, and that was more spiritual discipline than physical. This was change I could see by taking my shirt off. And TMNT got me there, via nostalgia.

The lesson of self-improvement was probably the most important for me, but it’s not all. The Bushido code is one I plan to teach my kids. It’s a credo. Leonardo, Michelangelo, Donatello, and Raphael—they’ll all learn it.

Ethics. NYC. Perpetual advancement. Childhood. Ninja Turtles mean a lot to me.

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