Thank You Stephen Hillenburg

As I sit down to write this, I’m drinking out of a Rugrats coffee mug – bright yellow, features all of the ‘stupid babies,’ with the legendary starburst reading “Squad Goals” instead of “Rugrats,” because I’m THAT millennial – wearing Batman pajama pants, and resisting the urge to partake in my preferred Saturday morning routine: Saturday Morning Cartoons.

I might be 28, but damned if I don’t still adore watching Tommy talk Chuckie into something legitimately dangerous and completely infeasible (remember the time they snuck away from Didi at the bank and caused the ATM to spit out globs of money, got into the bank vault, and were responsible for catching the bank robbers?), cringing at Helga’s undying love for Arnold, and joining Spongebob and Patrick for some nautical nonsense.

I’m incredibly nostalgic – to a fault at times. I’ve also always been a HUGE TV watcher. Which, I know, every kid was. But the amount of time I spent in front of the screen, always too close of course, well… let’s just say it’s a good thing TV doesn’t actually rot your brain.

I’m a sucker for a story. (Hello, I’m a writer.) TV, movies, books, plays, (well, I’m actually not a fan of musicals, don’t @ me), I’m fascinated (read: obsessed) with the power of story. That no matter what struggles or tough realities you’re currently working through, you can always briefly escape. Get sucked into a completely different world and laugh or cry or cringe or hide behind a blanket in fear – pick your poison. I’m not talking Cable Guy level of escape from reality here, but when your brain just needs to shut off for a bit.

Stories are a solution for boredom. Are a way of communicating information. Are how we get to know one another. Are woven into our culture. Think about it – pay attention to what you chat with your co-workers about most often, bond with friends about, use to find common ground on a first date. There’s a good chance it’s either Game of Thrones, Stranger Things, or The Bachelorette. (Or in many cases, all of the above.)

Stories can help us process emotions or feel less alone or give us something familiar to reach for when charting new territories. Or something familiar for our every day lives; the amount of times I say “this is like that episode of The Office where Michael…” is kind of absurd.

But that’s the power of story.

Stories become part of our identities. And the stories that mean something to us…will always stick with us.

On a weekly basis, my dad will say, “hey Tori, when is Mailbox’s birthday?” in reference to a Blue’s Clues episode he watched with me in which the plot centered around…Mailbox’s birthday.

Or he’ll sing, “tra la la!” in the same voice he always used when reading Captain Underpants books aloud.

Or he’ll ask, “when is the best time to wear a striped sweater?” because in one of the greatest Spongebob moments ever, Spongebob sings the words, “the best time to wear a striped sweater, is all the time…”

Of all of these references, Spongebob Squarepants is rooted deepest. Spongebob was such a huge part of my adolescence, as it was for millions.

I was in 5th grade when the show was released. My obsession began immediately, and didn’t really begin to subside until probably 10th grade.

In 5th grade I had a massive crush on…well lots of boys, but this kid Austin in particular. He also loved Spongebob – thus began my countless (and always failed) efforts of trying to impress him by saying, “I’m ready, I’m ready, I’m ready eddy eddy ready!” or, “Iiiiiiiiii’m Spongebob!”

(My efforts to impress boys haven’t really changed much in 18 years.)

In 5th grade I also met Brittany, who became a lifelong friend, and the cornerstone of our friendship is still texting each other random Spongebob quotes or GIFs.

I had a ridiculous amount of Spongebob merch: t-shirts, pajama pants, fleece blankets, posters, a phone case for my 2003 Nokia, bedding, a woven basket a friend had custom made for me in the Bahamas with Spongebob’s face on it, giant stuffed characters (they’re not really stuffed animals…or are they?)

And what an utter delight it was when BFF Sarah and I discovered our shared love of Spongebob. We met as adults, yet literally every time we hang out, one Spongebob reference or another surfaces. Our most used is, “chooooooooocolate,” from the episode Spongebob and Patrick decide to become traveling chocolate bar salesmen. Because why wouldn’t they?

I even created this amazing birthday banner for Sarah and have used it two years in a row now:

And each time we quote that yellow sponge, we giggle until we cry. Even at ages 25 & 28. Because it’s that powerful, and that special.

News of Stephen Hillenburg passing has been heartbreaking to say the least. But what a gift he gave us.

Stephen – thank you.