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Monday, December 7, 2015

Atwood's Stone Mattress and a Dalliance With Video Games

Does she ever see him watching her through the picture window? Most likely. Does she think he’s a lecherous old man? Very probably. But he isn’t exactly that. How to convey the mix of longing, wistfulness, and muted regret that he feels? His regret is that he isn’t a lecherous old man, but he wishes he were. He wishes he still could be.
–Margaret Atwood, Stone Mattress

I was looking at my Amazon wishlist lately and realized that one could trace my obsessions through the years based on what I was wishing for at the time. It’s not subtle. It more or less starts with rock climbing paraphernalia, then longboarding, a brief dalliance with photography, US Presidents, board games, then disc golf. My most recent obsession, one that became at one point almost consuming, was collecting classic video games.

A story of frustration in three acts

It started when I brought home my childhood Super Nintendo and the games I managed to find. Then a friend gave me his Nintendo and some of his games. I started looking for more. I realized that I didn’t have a Sega Genesis and I was like what? So I went on social media and asked for one and soon one was under my TV. I started looking for rare games, buying and selling games from thrift stores and Goodwill sales in order to raise the money to get more. I met other people doing the same thing and admired their collections. I started meeting strangers wearing hoodies in parking lots, passing cash for gray cartridges in plastic baggies.

Doesn't it feel good just looking at it?

Rock bottom for me was bidding too much on a game I didn’t even want because it was scarce and valuable. Not because I wanted to buy it, even, but because I couldn’t stand someone else getting it that cheaply. I won the auction and had to scramble to sell games I actually wanted to keep in order to pay for this commitment I’d made. I was, in other words, sick.

I’ve stopped now. I sold that valuable game (Sunset Riders, if you’re curious) to a stranger in a gas station parking lot (like one does) and built a little computer that I can now plug into my TV that has virtually every game I could ever want and all of the bad ones I would never wish on my worst enemy (you know who you are), even though I would. I’m currently left drifting without a current obsession, but rest assured there will be one because it’s how I’m wired and at this point I try to just channel that energy into something cheap or at least beneficial to society.


When I was obsessively acquiring games I found myself showing a clear bias for a window of gaming starting with the original Nintendo Entertainment System and ending at the end of the Super Nintendo life span. I told myself that it’s a golden age of video games. That I just loved the controllers back then. That there was purity to the 8 and 16 bit graphics that modern games with their polygons and their processors and their murder and full-frontal nudity just don’t rival. In reality, though, I was chasing a time period because of how it felt.

I wanted to collect the cartridges that the Matt of 1985-1995 or so coveted. Games I once held with reverence, that I rented from the mom and pop video stores before they were taken over by chains which were subsequently taken over by internet streaming sites which I’m supposed to feel bad about now. Games I found waiting for me on Christmas morning and had to face the prospect of playing for the rest of the year whether they were good or not. Games that reminded me of a slumber party at a friend’s house. Or playing until late at night during summer vacation on a tiny Commodore 64 monitor while rocking back and forth in a blue banana chair and eating Funyuns.

Reader, I was not seeking classic video games for their historical value, though that was my argument at the time. I was seeking the feeling of that era. Holding a Super Nintendo controller in my hand felt right. Like we’d been separated and it was only when I felt those buttons (the top two concave, the bottom two convex) under my fingers that I was whole again. Or at least felt something.

But you guys, there is no golden age of video games. I would argue that there’s no golden age of literature or movies or music, either. The only golden age was the one in Greek myth, when the Greek poet said “[Men] lived like gods without sorrow of heart, remote and free from toil and grief: miserable age rested not on them; but with legs and arms never failing they made merry with feasting beyond the reach of all devils. When they died, it was as though they were overcome with sleep, and they had all good things; for the fruitful earth unforced bare them fruit abundantly and without stint. They dwelt in ease and peace.” Sound familiar? It’s not the art, it’s the you. What you love comes from a time that you look back on with fondness.

I’m always interested in our inability to see things from someone else’s perspective. Because this experience is the only one you’ve lived, it’s easy to make declarations like “they really knew how to make games back then.” Or “this new music is garbage,” or “wasn’t it cool back when I didn’t know that I had kidney disease?”

Ok, that last one might be a little too specific. But you guys I grew up when grunge music was popular. Flannel shirts and massive shorts that touched your shoes but were still shorts were acceptable attire for school. Boys shaved half of their head and grew the other side long. Girls wore babydoll dresses over long-sleeved shirts and leggings. All media aimed at children had to do with mutated animals. I heard girls my age say that Dave Matthews was handsome. There is just no way this was a golden age for anything.

Why is Mad Men a big deal? Because the decision makers behind TV shows are in their 40s. They remember the 60s and 70s like I remember the 80s and 90s. It’s comforting to them to see that kind of thing on screen, to imagine what it was like to be an adult at a time when you were a kid. Does it surprise you that The Wonder Years came out in ’88? Well, it may shock you to realize that something you still remember as kind of recent happened almost 20 years ago but guys that’s life. Everything changes except for Danica McKellar. Deal with it.

And the passion we feel for the things from that time period is only rivaled by the hatred we feel for what immediately replaced it. The Nintendo 64 and Playstation are hot messes to me. I have almost no nostalgia for them and find the majority of their games repulsive to look at, but for someone just a few years younger than me they are the sweet spot of gaming. The golden age. I hate the bands that make up the post-grunge/nu-metal movement. Creed literally makes me barf. Nickelback blows. Bush, Puddle of Mudd, Staind. I can’t even manage to like the Foo Fighters and they seem like the coolest dudes on earth. That list of bands is like a litany of the worst music created by human beings. When I hear them all I remember is seething (also there was a band called Seether and they were terrible.)

Why do I hate these things? Because I was in my late teens/early twenties. Everything was trendy and bullcrap and I was the only one seeing through their phony veneer. I was so advanced. Didn’t people realize they were being force-fed pap and thanking the manipulative media overlords for the privilege? Never mind that for the generation before me Atari was the only decent system and grunge was just a bunch of hair-metal wannabes but with uglier stage costumes.

To summarize, all of our opinions are garbage and growing up sucks.

This is 36-year-old me talking, by the way. I’m currently in a place where things are pretty good. They could be better (basically if I had more money and a new kidney), but not much better. My kids are at a good age and Kristin is still getting hotter. Like legit hotter, not the thing that guys say when they’re being nice but where I get distracted at work thinking about her. Thanksgiving is fun. Christmas is fun. Going sledding is fun. Throwing around a football is fun. I play old Nintendo games with my kids and Super Nintendo games with my wife after they go to bed (not a euphemism). I’m delighted that I live in a world where I can buy a package of Starbursts that only includes shades of red.

But there’s something weird about us humans that if things are going good, good becomes the status quo. Anything less than that is terrible and good is only kind of OK. We want to be great. And remember, if we become great, then great is the new good. That’s why sometimes we need to read Margaret Atwood to remind us that it could always be worse.
Atwood, in Stone Mattress: Nine Tales, reminds us all that we will be old and die someday. She’s 76 now and giving us a little glimpse of what it’s like to be a senior. Even someone as hip as Atwood acknowledges that that hip needs replacing at advanced age (I’m sorry) and stuff starts to crap out on you. It’s a book of short stories, and most of them are about the combination of confidence and not-giving-a-crap that comes with age along with the frailty it entails. The creator of a famous fantasy novel series rambles around her apartment alone while an ice storm rages outside. An aged poet reflects on his one true love who he betrayed. Residents of an assisted living facility watch as extremists rally to rid the world of the elderly.

And the vampires. You used to know where you stood with them – smelly, evil, undead – but now there are virtuous vampires and disreputable vampires, and sexy vampires and glittery vampires, and none of the old rules about them are true any more. Once you could depend on garlic, and on the rising sun, and on crucifixes. You could get rid of the vampires once and for all. But not any more.

They’re not all like this. There’s the story of a child with a genetic abnormality who is mistaken by her village as a vampire. A middle-aged woman gets revenge, decades later, on her rapist. And a great noir story about a storage unit entrepreneur finding more than he bargained for in a unit that would make for a great Hitchcock movie. These characters dwell in the past. The good old days, the bad ones, past betrayals and triumphs. But instead of taking lessons from them, take a lesson from Atwood. In her 70s she’s still writing relevant fiction that feels fresh and new while we in our 30s pine for our youth.

Nintendo’s good, guys. It’s real good. But there’s a lot more out there than Nintendo. Nostalgia can be bad for us. Literally, in my case, as a box of Kraft Macaroni & Cheese has a day’s worth of sodium in one bowl. Stuff’s nasty. Let’s grow up.

Not too much