1988: My grandmother woke us in the middle of the night. I saw her standing there in the hallway in her velvet bathrobe looking quite the grande dame and knew instantly. My brother and I leapt from our beds and jumped up and down like little howler monkeys. Our parents were home!
They’d only been gone for two days on a trip to Portland, a little adult time. We jumped and shrieked, jumped and shrieked. It was pure ecstasy. What’s more, they’d come bearing gifts. My dad laid the box before us. “I looked everywhere,” he beamed, “but I finally found one.”
One what? we wanted to know. The box had a mysteriously long word on it. I’d never seen it on my spelling tests.
“What’s that say?” my little brother asked, cocking his head to the side.
“Nintendo,” my mom replied.
We soon figured out that Nintendo was the toy to top all toys. The particular package they’d bought us had a track and field game that came with a mat. The running events were pretty simple. You ran on the mat and tried to run faster than the computer player, who mysteriously rain or shine always ran the same speed. What a bad ass. For the jumping levels, you would jump as high as you could, and the computer would calculate your height through simple physics and project that into distance. Our parents were pleased. It was great exercise and of course great fun to watch us overexert ourselves.
That was of course until my cunning plan. I quickly became suspicious of the machine and set out to outsmart it.
I knelt on the floor and slapped my hands on the foot pads on the mat in a quick alternating pattern. My player zipped ahead of the frumpy old computer schmuck like a streaker in January. It was glorious!
But that left the jumping events. Watching my sister with her long legs leap into the air, I surmised what I must do. On my turn, I jumped off the map — sideways to the floor beside it. My little track man flew and flew. I counted to 10 and then confidently stepped back on. This Olympian had jumped a half a mile.
Unfortunately, I was not praised as a savior. I had ruined the game. Track and field had degraded into an exercise in demon drumming and popping out for a snack during jumping events, track man flying miles above earth, his tiny pixellated face staring wide eyed at trees and houses below as he careened towards the planet, chanting oh god oh god oh god…
1990: My countless hours of high-pitched appeals had not gone to waste. “But moooooom, all real writers use them – and how’m I supposed to get into Harvard without one?” I had finally conned my parents into buying me my own computer for my birthday. In actuality, they were probably just sick of me hogging the typewriter, the incessant peck-peck-peck in the dining room at hours past my bedtime. No matter.
To my delight, my father, all too aware of my incessant hero worship of Alex Trebek, had also included a Jeopardy game where I could compete against either a computer player or another human being, if of course I could somehow convince somebody to join me. It’s on! I thought, setting out in search of a sucker to hustle. My siblings, no doubt knowing how much of a trivia sadist I could be, weren’t having any of it. My mom also refused but suggested, “Maybe your father will play with you.” How quick she was to throw this man to the lions. When I approached him, to my delight, he agreed – but of course, he would be working a shut-down for the next three weeks, stopping only to sleep and eat, so our showdown would have to wait, “you know how these things go, kid,” but I knew I had heard a yes.
My life became all about the Jeopardy. All my hobbies went on hold, stamp albums pushed into the closet, half-finished manuscripts into the desk. I crouched before the lit screen for hours every night, monastic in my conviction. While my father toiled on the paper machines before driving hours to collapse in his bed, I devoted myself to the memorization of knowledge. I began to feel as though I could sense computerized Trebek’s thoughts. I was one with the Daily Double.
When the shut-down finally ended and dad was again spending some of his moments conscious around the house, I broached the subject of our match. He seemed confused and had forgotten but after some prodding agreed to the showdown.
The battle was on! I wheeled him in a second chair, trying hard to conceal my smugness. My father fought furiously but buzzed in before even knowing the answers, wringing his hands in frustration as the CPU rejected his spelling. The result was inevitable. I sleep-walked through the questions, having seen them all a myriad of times. I emerged the victor! My father shuffled out of the room, disgusted. Alex Trebek shouldn’t care about “i” before “e.”
That sore loser couldn’t ruin my fun. I had beaten my father, The Machine. I was John Henry from the picture books at school. Unstoppable.
2009: I’m a child of the Information Age. My living room is a hall of mirrors. There are screens in every direction, a 42-inch flat-screen plasma on a stand, our trailer’s crown jewel, a floor model snapped up for 60% off, purchased with our stimulus check. It is large enough that I could dive easily into it if there were something on the other side. Sitting atop a 3-foot speaker, there is a 14-inch color TV we dragged out with rabbit ears to watch election night results live nearly 3 months ago. We can’t be bothered to put it away. My husband and I each have 2 monitors apiece hooked up to our computers. While I write, do research, or play games on one monitor, streaming video is playing on the other. Our shelves are lined with video games, movies, and TV box sets.
The first thing I say when someone asks me a question is, “I dunno. I’ll Google it.” My mom calls me as a kind of “information support.” For her I cradle the phone between my shoulder and neck and look up low-phosphorous foods. For her I visit Eastern Maine’s on-line newborn nursery and print off photos of her grandson while he’s still on the neonate floor. For her I research the tax implications of gifting real estate. Each morning, I start my day with an hour of news recorded the night before. I read headlines on my lunch break. I wallow in the past, present, and future.
I’ve met all kinds of characters traipsing about on the Internet, people that mirror the ones I meet in the real world and ones that seem to be troubling though interesting new forms of life. When I befriend the son of a Pakistani ambassador, I brush up on basic Urdu and learn how to cook biryani. When I become acquainted with an escort living near Seattle, I visit the forums where she advertises and read “provider” reviews and learn industry euphemisms. At parties, I am a real hit.
We spend an embarrassing number of hours playing video games. Now I’m even programming one, fleshing it out from within, crafting the perfect toy. When our mothers call and ask if they’re interrupting anything, we tell them we are “watching a movie.” We hate to admit some of our best friends don’t even exist and still others we don’t even know.
When I was a child, the world was still real. Now the digital has replaced the tangible. I think in shorthand.