Thursday, September 25, 2014

4.8. They Shot Jane Fonda, Didn't They?

Guild Leader in training,
1983 (8 yrs. old)

Arbitrary Math

The keepsakes in my mother's hope chest smelled of wet newspapers and old people. I stifled a gag while sorting through bags containing personal history I preferred to ignore. Down the hall, in the living room, a faint outline of my hand could be seen on the wall above the TV, visible only from a certain sunny angle. A dufflebag containing my XBox and laptop sat near the base of the TV stand, neglected. Wishful thinking had led me to pack them, even though, deep down, I knew.

I wasn't entirely clear why Mom asked me to rifle through my childhood memories: an old Boy Scout uniform, various bowling trophies, photos of me in the little league softball and soccer teams. A never-ending stream of activities designed to keep me out of the house. All I wanted to do was to sit down and play a video game, uninterrupted. There was no evidence to that in this wooden box. Her and I had a difference of opinion on what constituted time well spent.

Wandering the house of my youth felt strange. Flowery patterns lined the walls on the way to my former bedroom, long stripped of its plastic cartridge smell. I'd spent many nights there devouring Sonic the Hedgehog, Street Fighter II and Samurai Shodown. It was in that room I wrote a FAQ about a fighting game which, in turn, led me to make new online friends, one of whom was Zoid. It was my first glimpse outside the tiny world of of Qualicum Beach. Holy shit! There were actually other people like me: gamers who recorded themselves playing video games and preferred Yuzo Koshiro over Metallica or Smashing Pumpkins. But with the joy of having a Sega Genesis, a NeoGeo, a SuperNES and more, came with the apprehension that my mother had the power to take them away at any time, for any reason. It was leverage she liked to hold over me.

Groundings were a battle of wits in my teen years, once the leather belt stopped working. The most miniscule infraction would send her into a rage. Like a child, I'd be forced to put the game console high up on the shelf in her bedroom closet. She suspected I hooked it up when she was at work, sneaking game time, so she one-upped me by placing a penny on the console. She'd leave for work, I'd grab the console, and the penny would fall silently to the floor. She'd come home and accuse me of defying her, I'd deny it. The groundings were endless. As of this writing, I'm still serving several grounded for life sentences.

I continued to sift through the items buried in Mom's hope chest, stopping to consider the room I was in. The ol' 286 used to be in here. It was a piece of shit computer that was the cheapest available. High school friends were up to 386s by this point, and Ultima VII was all the rage -- that, and Wing Commander II. I couldn't run Ultima VII on my 286, missing out on perhaps the best game in the series, and as for Wing Commander, well...this was the room she had once caught me playing during a lunch hour break. She saw the strategy guide laying next to the computer, and tore that book into a million pieces.

Yeah, it was a piece of shit computer, but I found a way to make it work. After winning the childhood-long battle of convincing Mom that I could use a computer for things other than games, the truth couldn't have been far from her mind. Mom was always watching, always waiting for me to mess up the rules. One hour of homework + One hour of trumpet practice = one hour of computer. I ended up pitching the trumpet, one of the few classes I enjoyed and excelled at, in my quest to balance the effort with the reward. One hour of studying for one hour of games, Mom. That's how it should be.

Mom's arbitrary math was yet another tactic, and one that had a way of grinding any lasting enjoyment out of anything I took pleasure in. Several years before giving up music, she caught me sneaking by the local arcade, trumpet crammed into the back of my bike's newspaper baskets. The "Fun Center", owned and operated by a sweet elderly couple, had come to recognize me by the trumpet case. Always friendly, they called me by name as I meandered through the darkened room, eyes on games like Renegade and Rush 'n Attack.

Mom had a hunch. One day, she played some of the kids I hung around with, getting them to cough up hints about my possible arcade shenanigans. She called the arcade and sweet-talked the couple into giving me up; they never suspected her ulterior motives. Mom had a way with people -- she not only read them like a book, but could adjust her demeanor with the ease of a professional actor to get what she wanted. The Fun Center debacle mathed out as follows: Five visits to the "smoke-filled", "drug-infested" video game shithole, multiplied by the three lies I allegedly told -- denying my having ever been there -- which brought the grand total to fifteen leather belts across the ass.

My newspaper delivery went slowly and painfully that week.


Nearing the bottom of the chest, I pulled out a worn plastic bag with a few elementary school books inside. One revealed a piece of history I'd sooner forget: my fifth grade report card. Fifth grade was the most hellish year of school in my academic career. A fat, bearded man with a British accent and an obvious distaste for children drove every student’s grades into the ground that year. Even Nina, the star, straight A student, earned Cs and Ds. There was no hope in Hell for me. Driscoll had done me one better, though, making sure to twist the knife. I flipped the card open and reread his comments, even though I’d committed them to memory years earlier:

Shawn would do much better in class if he spent more time on task, and less time drawing pictures of video game characters on his notebooks.

At the time, I knew what kind of punishment those words would bring, and I remembered how Mr. Driscoll knew so little of the impact of his comments. I held the report card at my desk as tears welled up in my eyes; he looked down at me, all smiles and hand gestures as he described the examples of Mario and turtles I sketched into the corners of my math and English papers, as if I didn't already know. I was certain to see the belt that night.

Mom remembered the report card -- there it lay in her hope chest, her wooden box filled with her precious memories of the myriad activities I was never interested in. The only evidence that reflected my actual interest -- video games -- was a piece of paper that fueled her suspicions that games would somehow, undoubtedly, ruin my life.

I bundled up the childhood artifacts and stuffed them into an old grocery sack, wondering when it would be, exactly, that I'd get some time to myself.


Mom kept me busy the entire time. If we weren't taking care of dishes or walking the dogs down to the park, she was encouraging us to go out, to go show the kids the beach, to let them roll around in the sand and collect up shells. Take them out to the mini-golf where you always used to go. Take them out. Go. Do. Enjoy the fresh air, the warm breeze, the sun, the sunset. Enjoy life. Enjoy it, son, before it's too late.

Her distractions were grating on me. I wanted to write. I needed to write. My guild rules needed revising and this was when I had intended to get most of my work done. I was out of the city, away from the game, on vacation. Yet as each day plodded along there was more to do, more to see, and more to keep busy with, thanks to my mother's unrelenting schedule. There was no time to work on loot guidelines. No time to write guild rules. No, there was never time for that.

Our first day there, while Mom was at work, I thought I'd hook the Xbox up. While reaching past the stereo equipment to plug the cables into the TV, I lost my balance and caught the wall for leverage. I thought nothing of it. As luck would have it, the living room patio door faced west, allowing the sun to beam in at the end of the work day. Anyone entering through the front door had a perfect view of its light reflecting off the wall, catching my hand print in the process. And in a disappointed tone, Mom reminded of how the wall was ruined, and would have to be re-painted and papered. Ever melodramatic.

Family Tradition

The extra baggage I returned home with,
following the summer vacation of 2010
The relationship I have with my Mom, now in adulthood, is quite awkward, offset only by her slightly twisted sense of humor. We have little in common, although we both love music and movies. We can even joke about how awful Joan Crawford was, what with her whipping her child with coat hangers, yet mentions of the actual movie Mommie Dearest always hung heavy with a deep unsettling irony. I avoid discussing topics surrounding video games and tech in general, yet any time my career comes up, she responds inexplicably, "Son, I always knew you'd do well in computers." It's laughable. Still, I can't quite brush away those years of brutality that put Mortal Kombat to shame.

Toward the end of the vacation, I still hadn't had an opportunity to gather my thoughts about WoW, yet there I sat, compelled to spend another evening discussing movies with my mother. I suddenly remembered something she had once told me as a child: the worst movie she had ever seen.

"Didn't you tell me...this must've been years was something about shooting horses?" I asked, bringing it up.

She let out a single laugh, "Ha! They Shoot Horses, Don’t They? Absolute worst movie of all time, son. It was awful. Just torture to watch."

The title was misleading. It had nothing to do with horses. Instead, it told the story of a dance marathon held during the Great Depression. She nodded in agreement, "Yes. Yes, that is exactly what it was about. Your Grandfather and Grandmother dragged me to that, son, and I had to sit through the entire two hours of it. Around and around they went, over and over. It was ridiculous. Complete waste of time and energy."

I never understood why, until I did some arbitrary math of my own. Pollack's Academy-nominated film came out in 1969; Mom would've been fourteen years old. I imagined a rebellious teenage girl, forced to sit in a theater, as Red Buttons and Jane Fonda circled the dance floor for two straight hours. I imagined her agonizing, wanting to be done with the horrific nightmare so she could return to her bedroom, with its dangling spiders and black lights, to crank Iron Butterfly and Jimi Hendrix and forget the insanity of the movie. I pictured her withdrawing from her parents, wondering Who are these people? and Why the hell did this guy just blow Jane Fonda away? And I could see Grandpa and Grandma sitting there, taking it all in: family time at the movies. Because they could. There didn't need to be any other reason. They were in charge.

Just like she was.

Just like I was.


The morning after I arrived home from vacation, I took the bag of belongings pulled from my mother's hope chest and hung it in the closet. Then, I sat down at my computer, opened up my State of the Union draft -- wherein I proclaimed the death of the 10-Man teams in DoD -- and deleted it.


Joe said...

wow very powerful entry. I had an almost opposite experience where my mother pretty much let me do anything which has its drawbacks also. I experienced life very quickly through experience, made a lot of mistakes, but learned my lessons and became self motivated, strong and mature because of it. I have friends though who had the same freedom that ended up in some very dark places with drugs etc. Like everything else I guess it's about finding that balance as a parent. I lean on the side though of letting people make mistakes because learning from experience is so much more powerful than having someone else tell you what is correct. I think sometimes maybe I could have accomplished more at a young age if I had more structure, but deciding I needed structure and learning it myself is also a valuable tool. I remember starting college and seeing these kids getting their freedom for the first time and being lost because they couldn't function without someone telling them what to do and when ... partying their way out of school. Anyway I'm getting off topic to the entry, good job keeping the fun in the game for your guild.

Anonymous said...

Well that was rather unexpected. Twists and turns abound it would seem.


kizmet said...

That hit amazingly close to home.

Anonymous said...

This hit disturbingly close to home, and brought up a lot of memories I would rather have not remembered. XD

Glad you decided to not end the 10 mans like that. :)


Andrew said...

This was a well-composed tragedy about missed opportunities and failed obligations. I really appreciate you sharing that so freely.

After reading it, the first thing I did (before I even wrote this) was text my mom a long, heartfelt, thank you for being so understanding and accepting of my gaming hobbies as a kid.

I am in my mid-20s now and I work as a developer, and while gaming had little to do with it, it seems that self-taught development skills and gaming are strongly related concepts. The fact that I didn't have to grow up wondering what was wrong with me, or being ashamed of my interests, is something that I greatly appreciate. I am glad you told me this so I could let my mom know of something else I am grateful for.

Anonymous said...

This song popped up in my head reading this.

Anonymous said...

Shawn, I just want to take a moment to reiterate what everyone else has said countless times. Thank you for writing this. It has brought so much nostalgia of my time playing WoW in the olden days that I actually rejoined and got back in contact with my old guild because of this. I usually don't comment on these types of things, but this post was so relatable to my own childhood that I couldn't help myself. So above all thank you for getting through all of that and for being you.