Assorted Childhood Memories

Leave a comment

When I was a baby, the wallpaper in my room had forest animals. I have been told that the design I remember was only a horizontal stripe, not the whole wall, but I remember it as covering more space than that because I was so small and it was right at eye level from my crib.

This picture was actually taken long before I was born, and I never knew Lysander as a kitten, but it's the only picture of him that I happen to have on my computer. He lived back in those olden days when cameras used film.

This picture was actually taken long before I was born, and I never knew Lysander as a kitten, but it’s the only picture of him that I happen to have on my computer. He lived back in those olden days when cameras used film.

I was adopted at birth by Lysander, one of my parents’ three cats. Lysander was black with yellow eyes, larger than average, and had the voice and personality of a Siamese. He was so intelligent and so capable of communication with people that I was about eight years old before I even realized that cats were supposed to be inferior to people in any way. From the time when I was a baby, Lysander would watch over me at night. When I went to bed, he would come with me and lie down next to me. I would put my arm over him so that I would know he was there even with my eyes closed, and he would reach out and put a paw on my cheek. My mother thought that we were so adorable that one time, when my parents had friends over late at night, she brought them to look at me through the doorway when she thought I was asleep.

There were nights when I would wake up crying and my father would take me downstairs and sit on the sofa in the darkened living room and sing Hey Jude and American Pie until I fell asleep. I remember staring at the grandfather clock and wondering what a Chevy was and what a levy was.

I don’t very clearly remember our church in Chicago, but I do have very specific memories of looking around the congregation and noticing that whenever I made eye contact with someone, they smiled at me. And I wondered if all adults had a rule that when a child looks at them, they had to smile. At some point, I thought that those smiles were in response to me putting a coin in the offering plate, because that was the only part of the service that involved any participation, since I couldn’t read yet. Sometimes, I would accidentally drop the coin instead of getting it in the plate, and then when I would look around and people would smile at me anyway, I would feel a little guilty.

When we lived in Chicago, there was a large family who lived near us, and a couple of the older girls babysat us. I don’t remember any of their names or very much about them, except that we were very good friends with them. I think that they homeschooled, and that their influence was probably part of what led my parents to start homeschooling. We were pretty close to our neighbors across the street, too. I don’t remember anything about them except that I think they were an elderly couple, and that one time, when we were at their house, I licked their glass door because I thought that was the only way to clear condensation off of a glass surface. There was a woman from our church that was a very good friend of the family, and she frequently babysat us, either at our house or where she lived. My memories of her home are very jumbled and vague. I don’t even remember if it was a house or an apartment or some type of condo, because I think I recall that other people lived in the same building, but I remember the outside of the building as a regular house similar to ours. The only memories I have of her home that I know are accurate are the wooden ducks that she had. I was fascinated by the fact that the male duck had a green head and the female duck was tan. I think that she also had a lot of small glass decorations displayed on shelves right past her front door, and that there was a large stuffed lion or tiger or something like that.

There was a girl named Brittany in my dance class, and she sometimes came home with me and my sister. I was jealous of her because she had Disney princess underwear. My underwear was pretty cool, too; it had the days of the week, but at the age I was then, Disney princess underwear outranked days-of-the-week underwear.

Every morning, Lysander would tell me when to get up, and I would go to my parents’ room and say, “Is it morning yet?” And they would look at the clock and say, “Not for you.” I would then point out that Lysander had told me it was morning, before going back to my room to pet Lysander. I have no idea what time I usually got up back then, but it must have been pretty early, because I do remember that it was always still dark.

Look what I just found on Google images! Oh, the memories!

Look what I just found on Google images! Oh, the memories!

My mother taught me to read using a book called “Teach Your Child to Read in One Hundred Easy Lessons”, or something along those lines. It was a large paperback book with an off-white cover, although that cover had mostly fallen off long before the youngest of my siblings finished the book. Those lessons actually weren’t very easy at all, but they evidently were effective, because after I got through that book, I was always considered a good reader for my age. As frustrating as it was at the time, I have fond memories of that book, and I still remember a lot of the goofy stories that were at the end of each lesson.

I went through a phase where I was obsessed with manatees. It started when my grandmother gave me a manatee Beanie Baby, and I didn’t know what it was. I hadn’t realized there were animals that I didn’t know; it astonished me that the world was still full of those kinds of wonders and surprises even when I had already reached the mature and sophisticated age of four and a half years. As it happened, the world still had plenty of new animals I had never heard of, such as the duck-billed platypus and the sloth and various odd sea creatures and bizarre insects, but none of those revelations fascinated me quite as much as the discovery that there were things such as manatees. So manatees became my favorite animal, and I can’t remember exactly when or why I stopped being so interested by them.

In our front yard at the house in Iowa, there was a large maple tree. My mother took a picture of me hugging that tree the day we moved in. That tree really meant a lot to me and I don’t even remember why. (Incidentally, I happen to know from Google Earth that it has been cut down since we moved away from that house, which is really sad.) In our back yard, we had a tree that we later found out was a crabapple tree, but for the first few years we lived there, we didn’t know what it was. Most years, it didn’t produce any fruit at all, but it had beautiful flowers in the springtime. They usually only lasted for about a week.

Look what else I found on Google images! This was what my first Bible looked like.

Look what else I found on Google images! This was what my first Bible looked like.

One Sunday in church when I was about five, my mother handed me a hymnal and told me that I could follow along now that I could read. It actually took me a little while to figure out the format of the hymnal, but that was a pretty big deal to me to be old enough to use a hymnal in church. On Easter 1997, my parents gave me my own hymnal. It was the LW (Lutheran Worship) because that’s what our church used at the time, although I’m now much more familiar with both the TLH (The Lutheran Hymnal) and the LSB. (Lutheran Service Book) My favorite hymn was “Dear Christians One and All Rejoice”, and I kept a piece of paper on that page. It was pink, and it stained the edges of the hymnal. My first Bible was a Christmas gift; I don’t remember whether it was in 1996 or 1997. It eventually fell apart, and I was going to get rid of it after I got a new Bible in 2004, but I think the old one is actually still packed up in a box that got put in my parents’ garage when I left for college.

At one time, each of my siblings and I were limited to two sheets of scrap paper a day for coloring and writing. Later, we each were allowed to own a ream of colored paper. Mine was pink. We still were originally limited to two sheets a day, but that was still a major upgrade because the paper was double-sided and because colored paper is a lot more interesting than white paper. I wish I had kept more of the stories I wrote when I was little. I have memories of a story that overused the word “declare” because I was proud of myself for knowing what it meant, and a story where I didn’t allow myself to ever use a word twice consecutively, and a lot of stories where I started by introducing all of the characters and didn’t get much farther because that was the best part. As I wrote, I had a habit of letting each line slant downward as it approached the right-hand side of the page, and the slope of that diagonal would become steeper with each line. For that reason, every single page had a blank spot in the lower left corner. It was a major, life-changing event when I started using lined paper.

The television was downstairs, and we didn’t use it very much. There were occasional family movies on weekend afternoons, but those were special and unusual events. My father would sometimes watch television late at night, either alone or with my mother, but he usually didn’t start until after I was in bed. The sounds of the television would sometimes come up through the air conditioning vents, which bothered me because the sounds were distorted and sometimes sounded scary. Long before I ever saw Doctor Who, I knew it as something my father watched that had a very eerie theme song. We did watch sports sometimes. For a while, we were major Chicago Bulls fans. I don’t actually remember much about the game of basketball and I no longer enjoy it. I think that the main reason I liked it so much when I was little was that it was fun to watch television with my father, especially when there were pretzels involved.

There was a member of our church who worked for the local radio station. I don’t even remember his real name, because I always referred to him as Mr. Radio Station Man, which my parents thought was pretty funny. Once a week, on Friday mornings if I recall correctly, he played nothing but requests for a certain amount of time. My father called in a request every single week. Sometimes it was a song that had come up in conversation recently, sometimes it was a song that he had sung around the house that we had doubted was a real song, and sometimes it was just a song that we really liked. There were a number of songs that were major family favorites for a short amount of time, and most of us also liked anything by the Beatles. Mr. Radio Station Man liked the Beach Boys. There was a special event that occurred once a year on a Saturday in the summer. It was called Superbee Saturday because the radio station called itself “The Bee.” Beforehand, all of the radio station’s listeners would submit a vote for their five favorite songs. It had to have been a top 40 hit during a certain time period. (I don’t remember what that time period was, but all of the songs that won were oldies) The votes would be tallied, and on Superbee Saturday, the top 100 songs would be played in descending order over the course of the day. My father would turn on every radio in the house so that we could all listen no matter what we were doing.

In our town in Iowa, there were parades on a regular basis. The best part about parades was the high school marching band. We actually got to see and hear them even if there wasn’t a parade, because they would often pass right by our house when they were practicing. In the fall, there would be high school football games, and we would usually go a couple times a year. The marching band was the highlight of that, too, but it was also exciting to get to stay up late. And it was exciting to walk to the football field, which was only a couple blocks from our house, along with a crowd of other people, many of whom we knew. I was unaccustomed enough to sports events that to me, the crowd that gathered to watch a small-town highschool football game seemed like a multitude. I never understood the game at all and I never cared who won or lost, and it didn’t bother me at all that we always left before the game was over. It was fun just to be there. But it was also kind of fun when we were at home while a game was going on and could hear the sounds coming from the field.

Lysander’s birthday was on May 13, which was conveniently when the catnip was most plentiful. We had lots of catnip in our yard in Iowa, and it came back more profusely each year. By the time we moved, the catnip plants were growing to sizes that surpassed garden-store-catnip to such an extent that it was getting ridiculous. Of course, we brought catnip leaves inside for the cats on a regular basis throughout the spring, but Lysander’s birthday was the biggest catnip day of the year. We would use my plastic tea set to have a party for Lysander. For tea, we soaked catnip leaves in water. Lysander loved it.

Meet KirstenFor a few years, my mother would read books to us before bedtime. The American Girl books were the ones that I remember most clearly. I distinctly remember that we started with Kirsten, and that we read the third chapter of the first Kirsten book on Halloween one year. I also remember one night when my mother accidentally sat on Lysander’s tail while reading to us. I interrupted her to point that out, and she stood up and moved his tail out of the way and told him that he should have said something. He looked at her with confusion and annoyance that she had stopped reading.

Next door lived a couple who sat out on their porch very frequently. They had a ramp going up to the porch because the woman was in a wheelchair; I think I remember my father saying that she had had polio when she was young. They really enjoyed watching us play and talking to us, so we spent a lot of time sitting on their porch and chatting. One time, when they had some friends over, they made a point of telling my mother how sweet it was when I would sing while I was swinging, and I was really embarrassed and literally hid my face in my mother’s clothes.

Friday was pizza day, and for that reason, it was the best day of the week. My mother would go grocery shopping in the morning and would bring home frozen pizzas. They would go in the oven as soon as she got back. My father was always the one who cut them. The pieces were squares rather than wedges, so that there would be less pizza wasted if someone didn’t finish theirs. Nobody wanted the corners, because they were the smallest pieces.

I was a big fan of peanut-butter-and-jelly-sandwiches when I was little, especially after I was old enough to make them myself. There were two different tuna casseroles that I really liked, too, and they were the first non-sandwich and non-dessert foods I learned to cook. Then there were tacos. We didn’t have tacos very often because it was a time-consuming meal to prepare, so when we did, it was a special treat. We always had two kinds of fillings: beef and chicken. The chicken filling was the one that I liked. It had almonds and pimento and sour cream. I didn’t know until I was older that the recipe my mother used for her taco fillings was not what most people think of when they think of tacos. When it came to side dishes, my favorite foods were fruit salads. My mother had two fruit salads that she made fairly frequently, both of which were pretty quick and simple. The one that I especially liked was cherry jubilee, or at least that’s what we called it, although I’ve been told that it wasn’t real cherry jubilee. It was made out of cherry pie filling, whipped cream, canned pineapple, and chopped walnuts. I know that now because I made it once or twice, but when I was little, I had no idea what was in it except cherries.

Every Wednesday morning, we went to the library. If the weather was nice, we would walk, because it was fairly nearby, and all but the last couple blocks of the trip were through residential neighborhoods. By the time I was ten or eleven, I was allowed to walk to the library by myself occasionally in addition to the family library trip on Wednesday. The library was a three-story brick building. The basement floor was used for children’s programs, the ground-level floor was the children’s section, and the top floor was the adult’s section. The children’s librarian was called Miss Liz. She had short dark hair and often wore a denim dress. There was a man with white hair and a white beard who spent a lot of time in the library; I don’t even know whether or not he officially worked there. He was an artist, and he painted the walls in one room with a garden scene full of various animals. It was fun to walk around that room and count all of the animals, and I didn’t necessarily get the same number each time. My mother let us each check out two books each week. At any given time, we had a certain favorite series, and would mostly check out books from that series, then spend all of Wednesday afternoon reading them. By the time I was about eight or nine, I liked to check out non-fiction books from upstairs. I recall that I frequently told people that, but added that I still checked out fiction from the children’s section because I didn’t like adult fiction. It took me years to figure out why people thought that was funny.

Next door to the library, there was a place called the Sanctuary because it had once been a church. I could be remembering incorrectly about either the name or the reason for the name, because I don’t really remember that place very clearly. I don’t even remember if that was its real name or just a popular nickname. We went there for milkshakes as a special treat every now and then. I think they served other foods, too, but I don’t remember ever actually eating anything besides milkshakes there. I don’t remember exactly what flavors they had, or which were my favorites. I do remember that my mother absolutely always got a hazelnut milkshake.

I mean, I can understand why other people might think this looks gross. I just don't happen to think so.

I mean, I can understand why other people might think this looks gross. I just don’t happen to think so.

We had a lot of cicadas, and we would find the skins that they had shed on trees and walls all over the neighborhood. Sometimes, we like to count them when we went on walks. I never thought they looked disgusting, and I didn’t have any qualms about touching them. For some reason, I only saw whole cicadas a couple times, and I was astonished at how big they were. I had imagined that they would look exactly like their skins.

My siblings and I used to play outside a lot. In the winter, we would play in the snow and roll giant snowballs because that was somehow much more fulfilling than building snowmen. Sometimes the snow plows would leave a pile of snow on the edge of our yard that was big enough for us to bring out the sleds. My brother would always be the last one in; when he got involved in a building project, he’d forget all about the cold. In the autumn, we would play in the leaves. My father would rake them into a big pile and we would all jump in them together. Of course, the swings were there all year round. We used to like to swing as high as we could and then jump off. There were a few severe bruises that resulted from that sport, but somehow it never caused any serious injuries.

Holidays were always a big deal in my family. For some holidays, like New Year’s and Valentine’s Day and Saint Patrick’s Day, we didn’t have any specific traditions, but it was always necessary that we do something to celebrate. (Saint Patrick’s Day, of course, became a much bigger deal after my sisters started Irish Dance in 2006. But there never was a time when it went unobserved in my family.) Birthday celebration customs varied from year to year and from person to person, but they were extremely important. Then there was Easter, Thanksgiving, the Fourth of July, Halloween, and Christmas. I always saw Christmas as the big one. In fact, I had a tendency to get overwhelmingly excited about Christmas as early as mid-October. I was so impatient that, for a number of years, I had it in my head that it was bad to be excited about a holiday, and I tried to repress my anticipation. There were a couple years that I was actually proud of myself for not getting too extremely excited until Christmas actually was pretty close.

Making a wish list for my birthday or Christmas was a complicated process that took the good part of an afternoon. For reasons that I cannot explain, I made it a personal policy that I couldn’t send the exact same list to different people. For each relative, I had to make a unique list. They naturally contained more or less the same requested items, but the order was determined by a combination of how much I wanted the item, whether or not it was something I actually needed, how likely I thought that family member was to give it to me, and how many other family members were being asked for that particular item. I don’t actually know whether or not my family was aware that my wish lists were such carefully crafted masterpieces.

My brother and I tried to dig to China one time in the space under the clubhouse my father had built for us. Another time, we found particles of yellowish dirt under the swings, and decided that it was gold. A few years later, after my father had put leaves under the clubhouse, my sister and I discovered that there were lots of earthworms in those decaying leaves. We spent about a week digging around and collecting earthworms and carrying them around before my parents told us not to do that.

I had this set! I remember being so excited when I got it.

I had this set! I remember being so excited when I got it.

Paper dolls were one of my favorite and most long-lasting hobbies. My grandmother gave me my first few paper doll sets when I was very little, so little that my mother cut them out for me, and they usually didn’t last very long before getting thrown away. As I got older, though, it became very important to me to cut them out myself and to keep them permanently. The main thing that I did with them was beauty contests. My sister and I developed a game that entailed taking the children paper dolls from each set, lining them up in age order, splitting the line into pairs, and choosing the prettier paper doll from each pair. The pretty ones would then repeat that process over and over until only one doll was left, and that one was the winner. The contest would then start over in order to select the second place winner, and then the third, and so forth. Later, the beauty contests included all of the paper dolls, not just the children, and they were stacked rather than lined up, and they were in groups of three rather than in pairs. The entire contest could take weeks, and now that I think about it, it’s both a little strange and a little impressive that I would dedicate so much time to such a complexly regulated game when I was so little.

In the summer, we would take in some black swallowtail caterpillars that we found on my mother’s parsley and dill plants. We would keep them in a glass jar with cuttings of dill so that they could climb on the stems, and we would feed them parsley and watch them grow. We got to see first-hand how they transformed first into chrysalises and then into butterflies. Then we would set them loose, which was always kind of a bittersweet occasion. Usually, we had named them and had tried to keep track of which caterpillar was which, so we came to see them as pets.

Every year in the autumn, my father would record a Christmas tape to send to family and friends. It would include a lot of Christmas music recorded from his vinyl record collection and from other cassette tapes, it would include a few favorite songs of the family, and it would have medleys and other things he had thought of and taken the time to edit, usually humorous things. Sometimes, we would sing a song or two. The older Christmas tapes, from before I was born and from the first few years of my life, contained more references to current events and a good deal of current music. The ones that I like best are the ones from the first half of the 1990s, but I don’t actually remember when those were made. When I got a little older, I was a little more aware of what was going on in the recording process, even when it didn’t involve me, and it was exciting when the tape was finished and we got to listen to it.

My bedroom had a walk-in closet, and it was so large that we could even keep furniture in there. One of my sisters and I kept pretty much everything we owned in there, because we shared our room with two little sisters, and they frequently damaged our things. They got into the closet so frequently that my father eventually put a hook on the door so that we could keep them out. I spent a lot of time in that closet. It was a miniature playroom that I shared with only one sibling instead of all of them, and sometimes, I could use it as personal space just by myself. In the month of December, it became a workshop where my sister and I would take turns making little paper gifts to give family members, including cards, tiny handwritten books, and paper snowflakes.

My sister and I shared a biography about Paul McCartney that my parents had given us for Christmas one year. We argued over it so much that we eventually had to draw up a peace treaty concerning it. Essentially, the peace treaty said that we would take turns owning the book for a week. Whoever was not in possession of the book would keep the peace treaty, because it was understood that the peace treaty must be presented in order to compel one party to turn the book over to the other party. For this reason, that was an incredibly important document that was treated with as much care as the Paul McCartney book itself. It eventually came to pass that my sister forgot to bring the peace treaty to my attention and legally force me to give her the book, so I got to keep it for a while, until we eventually ended up keeping it on a shared bookshelf after all.

For a couple years, after my sister and I finished our math lesson each day, we would go downstairs to play with our Barbies and Kellies. Even after we no longer played with them every day, we would spend at least a couple afternoons a week with our dolls. Sometimes, they would explore castle ruins that we would build out of cardboard boxes, or sometimes they would stay at home and do schoolwork or have elaborate popularity contests that would be utterly ridiculous in real life. Other days, we would reorganize their houses, which were precarious stacks of cardboard and plastic boxes. My parents wished we would organize our toys in more space-efficient ways that weren’t in constant danger of being knocked down, but we couldn’t do that without mixing together the possessions of various dolls.

For a while, the Lees were the predominant characters. We each had a doll named Lee, and the Lees had more or less the same characteristics and talked in the same weird voice. Over time, the Lees decreased in significance and their roles were filled by Jane and Catherine, otherwise known as JAN! and Cafwin. Those two characters outlasted my doll-playing years; their tales lived on for many years through their diaries and through written D&D adventures. (Not only did our dolls play D&D, but our dolls’ D&D characters told long stories, and occasionally, the characters in those stories played D&D.)

Yes, we stuck with 2nd edition. The 2nd edition was cool.

Yes, we stuck with 2nd edition. The 2nd edition was cool.

I think I had been about ten when my father taught me, my sister, and my brother to play D&D. I played a chaotic neutral thief named Jacqueline. She was constantly endangering the mission by running after treasure, so everyone else simultaneously hated her and thought she was hilariously funny. We normally played on Friday evenings. I remember certain scenes of our adventures as clearly as if I had seen them in real life or on a TV screen. There was the fight with the giant boar that nearly killed my brother’s fighter at the very beginning of our first adventure, there was the time that my thief ran away from the group to search a fortress for a hidden treasure by herself, there was the battle with the giant that we won because of my sister’s mage’s blindness spell. There was a beholder and dwarves named after the children in The Sound of Music and mermaids who were weresharks.

For a while, we would play with legos every Sunday afternoon. I don’t actually remember how many of us were involved in that. It’s possible that I even did it by myself sometimes. At that time, we were going through our Phantom of the Opera phase, and so we would generally call our structure the Paris Opera House and name the lego people after Phantom of the Opera characters. The actual storyline of our playing rarely had anything to do with the Phantom of the Opera, except that the mirror in Christine’s dressing room always played an important role. Before the legos were our favorite toy, we used to play with duplos. (In case anyone isn’t familiar with those, they’re made by the Lego company and are basically just larger lego blocks.) Our favorite game to play with the duplos had something to do with the underground railroad. At one point before that, I think we used to play zoo with those blocks, because that’s apparently what the set was originally supposed to be. We had a lot of zoo animals, and there was a train that they rode. Sometimes, when we weren’t playing with the duplos, my father would take all of the blocks and build a pyramid.

In the summer, we went to the pool several times a week. Normally, we went in the evenings. There were various reasons for that, but I think the original reason was that the pool was significantly less crowded late in the day. Also, we were less likely to get sunburned. After we moved, our new swimming pool was much farther away from our new home than we were accustomed to, and it was a giant water park instead of the comparatively small kind of pool we were used to, but we still kept our old swimming pool schedule. I spent so much of my childhood summertime going swimming that I there are a lot of books, foods, and computer games that make me think of the pool.

At one point when I was about thirteen or fourteen, I invented a game that was basically a fantasy dance school. I would make up charts listing all the students, class schedules, cast lists, recital programs, and all sorts of fictional records. I started over with a new fictional dance school several times, but there were certain details that we always the same. It’s a little ironic that I actually started doing that back when I was still taking dance classes only once a week myself, and I think that’s part of the reason that I had to start over a few times; I felt a need to keep it somewhat realistic. I remember days when I spent hours of my free time on my “dance class thing” before going to my actual real dance class, just to do the exact same thing the next day and the next and the next. Somehow, even when I had hundreds of fictional dance students, I could remember details about all of them. I thought of them as characters in an epic tale, even though they were actually just names accompanied by a line of coded statistics that represented plot points of a story that had never been written in words.

Two of my sisters and I started recording CDs together in February 2008. At first, we made a CD about once a month, and each one took less than a day to make. They were basically themed playlists with a couple tracks of talking. We would have to script the talking, record it with background music, choose the songs, decide on an order, save each song onto the computer, and burn it. Our first medley was on a CD we made in May 2008, and it was pretty low quality, but we were proud of it. By the end of that summer, our standard for the quality of our recording was a lot higher, and we eventually started making CDs a lot more frequently and spending a lot more time on them. At any given time, we were in the process of making our next CD, and the computer always had a file full of works in progress. Over the course of a year and a half, we made 30 CDs. There were a few in there that weren’t particularly good, but overall, we were pretty proud of those CDs, and there was a lot of stuff on them that was funny, clever, and well-edited. I still listen to those CDs every now and then.


My kitten and her laser toy

Leave a comment

laser toyI’m pretty sure that if I was a cat, I’d find laser toys extremely frustrating. You just chase a spot of light, and even if you put your put your paw right down on it, you can’t catch it. The game could go on for hours, but you’d never win. You can’t even make progress, because chasing games are all or nothing; either you catch it or you don’t, and you can’t catch a spot of light. But my kitten doesn’t seem to mind at all. In fact, she thinks it’s a delightful game, and she prefers the laser beam to any of her other toys. When I turn it on, she trills with joy and proceeds to chase it all around the room, bouncing off the walls and doors as it seems necessary.

I admit that sometimes I do a mean thing to my cat. I hold the laser toy with one hand and “catch” the light with the other hand, while turning the laser off so that it looks like I actually did capture it. Then I turn the laser back on as I open my hand. My kitten is completely baffled as to how I can catch the laser light when she can’t. But if I alter the trick and turn the laser off when she puts her paw on the spot of light, and then congratulate her on her victory, this is unacceptable. She will stare at me accusingly, because I clearly cheated. I tried to end the game prematurely, and she wants to keep playing.

Here's a picture of my kitten not playing, because I can't get good ones of her when she is playing.

Here’s a picture of my kitten not playing, because I can’t get good ones of her when she is playing.

As far as she’s concerned, the goal isn’t to actually catch something, anyway. Running around and smashing into furniture is the whole point. Lasers are so much more fun than spiders, because when you catch a spider, it dies and stops running, and when you eat it, it disappears. This ruins the game, and it’s not cool. The other day, she found a frog. I’m not sure how it got into the house, but it did, and my cat found it. She was very pleased for a little while, but the frog wasn’t a fun toy because he kept playing dead. Whenever she started to walk away, he moved and caught her attention again, but when she stared right at him, he held perfectly still. When she lightly batted at him with her paw, politely requesting that he hop away so that she could chase him, he continued to hold still, and if she batted at him a little more forcefully, he actually slid along the floor. It was no better than playing with a fabric toy, so that’s what she did, and the frog got away.

I remember one time hearing about a study that said that people were happier when working towards a goal than they were after achieving a goal. On the one hand, this seems like one of those studies that was completely unnecessary and a waste of funding, because I think most people find that conclusion almost as obvious as my cat does. On the other hand, it’s also a very interesting point. But in the life of a human, I’m not sure if it’s always true. I think it depends upon the nature of the goal. Right now, I’m looking for a job and an apartment, and I find it hard to believe that my life won’t be cooler once I’ve acquired those things. But there are definitely some goals that are more fulfilling to strive for than to accomplish, and anything that exists solely for entertainment purposes falls into that category. If you’re glad or relieved to finish a book or a movie or a game, that probably means you weren’t really having that much fun with it. That’s why it’s so hard to resist watching several episodes of a TV show back-to-back. That’s why it isn’t frustrating to play a computer game where, every time you win, you just start another level that’s more or less exactly the same as the previous one.  That’s why most successful books and movies have sequels, and why those sequels sell even if they aren’t nearly as good as the original.

Glypha IIIBut there’s still some sense of achievement in getting a high score in a favorite game or finishing a long book or a jigsaw puzzle or craft project, no matter how much fun it was. I think most people are goal-oriented, even if the process is what they really enjoy. I think that people need small victories along the way in order to stay interested and motivated, regardless of whether the goal is something important and meaningful, like learning a useful skill, or something fun and comparatively trivial, like a game. This is one difference between the personalities of humans and animals; people like to work towards goals and animals live in the moment and enjoy the game regardless of whether anything cool happens when they win. That’s all for the best, since human beings are the ones who are responsible for running the world and getting stuff done, while animals are either just trying to survive or just trying to enjoy life. (Depending upon whether or not they’re domestic, because domestic animals generally have the survival part taken care of for them) The human way of living is a lot more purposeful, but it’s also a lot less fun.

Computer Games Are Awesome

Leave a comment

For at least as long as I’ve been alive, it has often been said that children nowadays are too obsessed with things like video games and computer games. You shouldn’t spend your life staring at a screen, people say. There are better ways to spend your free time, they add. Of course they’re right. Books are wondrous and awesome things for many important reasons, and it’s good to spend time outdoors when the weather’s nice. And then there are board games and jigsaw puzzles and Lego blocks and all sorts of other awesome toys that are considered much more wholesome than computer games. And there are many cool and interesting skills that are worth taking time to learn. One could really go on all day talking about all the worthwhile things to do that don’t involve using a computer. I’m not denying for a minute that any person, child or adult, can have lots of fun without using a computer.

But let’s not ignore the fact that an awful lot of computer games are pretty awesome, too. If you have free time on your hands, computer games can still be a perfectly acceptable and enjoyable way to use it. (I’ve never been into video games, but I am willing to extend my defense of computer games to cover video games as well.) There are a lot of computer games that I played as a child that were very important to me and that I miss very much now that I don’t have spare time for that kind of thing. In fact, I would go as far to say that some of my favorite computer games had educational benefits for my younger self. But besides that, they were a lot of fun. It’s probably kind of pathetic just how nostalgic I can get about old computer games. In memory of some of these cherished games, I now present an incomplete list, in no particular order, of some of the coolest computer games that I’ve ever played.

(Note added later: In some of these cases, I found a video on youtube and included a link. But I didn’t find those videos until after I wrote the description, and in some cases, particularly Treasure Mathstorm, the videos prove my memory to be incorrect and sketchy. But that’s inevitable when you’re trying to describe a game you haven’t played since you were a little kid.)

Glypha IIIGlypha III. This was a fairly simple arcade-style game with an ancient Egyptian theme. The avatar thingy was a little person riding an animal that looked like a duck or a goose. The goal was basically to kill lots of flying sphinxes. There were three different kinds of sphinxes. Each time you killed one, it would turn into an egg thingy and the egg would hatch into a sphinx of the next level. If you wanted to, you could land your duck/goose on an egg and kill it, but you’d get more points if you’d let it hatch and then kill the sphinx instead. And there was an evil eye and a hand that tried to pull you into the lava at the bottom of the screen. It was very cool. Granted, I can’t offhand think of any life lessons I learned from playing this particular game, but it was infinitely fun, and that’s definitely worth something.

Here is a youtube video someone made of themself playing Glypha III.

Treasure MathstormTreasure Mathstorm. I vaguely recall that this game involved frequently solving basic arithmetic questions. I think that you had to catch elves with a net, and if you got them, they asked you a question, and if you got it right, you got points or jewels or gold pieces or presents or something cool like that. There was also something about throwing snowballs, but I don’t remember why. Really, the only specific things I remember about this game had to do with the graphics. The avatar was a mountaineer guy. He was trying to save this snowy mountain from something evil, which required climbing the mountain over and over again. There were three levels, and I don’t remember how they were different. Then when he got to the top, he got a prize and he parachuted to the bottom of the mountain and put his prize in his cave and started up the mountain again. At some point, the game ended, but I don’t remember how, or what happened at the end. The point of this game, of course, is to learn basic arithmetic and to learn to catch elves.

Here is someone doing the last trip up the mountain before winning the game.

Brickers Plus: I’ve played many different games similar to this, but Brickers Plus was my favorite. I don’t even remember if that was its real name; I know I can’t find it by googling it. It’s a simple arcade game where the center of the screen is filled with bricks and there’s a bouncing ball that makes the bricks disappear when it hits them. The point is to move a paddle at the bottom of the screen to catch the ball and bounce it up at the bricks. If the ball reaches the bottom of the screen and the paddle isn’t there to catch it, you die. The cool bit is that, if you end a level by killing the last brick from above, the ball starts the next level at the top of the screen, and you can just sit around doing nothing for most of the level. The moral of this story is that winning takes less effort if you know how to be in the right place at the right time.

TetrisGames where pieces fall from the top of the screen: I can’t remember the name of the game I played and loved when I was little, but there was another version called Drop that I really liked. Tetris also falls into this genre, although I didn’t discover Tetris until comparatively recently. The goal of these types of games is to move pieces as they fall in order to make them fall in certain patterns. In most of the versions I’ve played, you want pieces of a certain color to line up, but in Tetris, the pieces have different shapes and you line them up so that they fill rows. In both cases, pieces disappear when you put them in a good place, and the objective is to make the game last as long as possible before the stack reaches the top of the screen. Obviously, these types of games involve attention to patterns, which is considered a valuable mental skill. But also, success requires that the gameplayer know how to work around the mistakes he or she has made. Perhaps there’s some metaphorical significance to the fact that the only way to solve these mistakes is to avoid covering them up as gameplay continues.

SimAntSimAnt: In this game, you are an ant. A yellow one. And there are black ants and red ants. The black ants are the good guys, and the yellow ant belongs to the black ant colony. The red ants are the bad guys, and they must die. Aside from the red ants, other perils include flooded ant nests, ant lions, a spider, and the occasional foot of a human. As far as I can remember, there were three different modes of this game. (Not counting the tutorial, which I never played, because tutorials aren’t fun.) There was a simple mode in which the game took place on a small plot of virtual land, and the goal was either to kill the red queen or to kill all the red ants; I don’t remember which. Then there was a more complex mode, where the game took place throughout an entire yard and house, which was divided into little squares, each of which was equivalent to the entire simpler mode of the game. I don’t even remember the goal of the complex game. I do seem to recall that the yellow ant was allowed to join the red ant colony in that version, and that’s the way I generally liked to play it. Finally, there was an experimental mode in which you could do whatever the camaduka you wanted. You could turn into the spider, you could create food and rocks and walls and stuff, you could even conjure additional ants into existence at the touch of a button. There was no goal to the experimental mode. You just did what you wanted and ended the game when your parents called you for supper or bedtime or something. SimAnt taught me to have an appreciation for little and seemingly insignificant things like ants, and it taught me a number of specific facts, such as what an ant lion is. (An ant lion is neither an ant nor a lion; rather, it is a type of insect that, in the larvae stage, lives underground in a shallow pit and devours any ants that inadvertently enter the pit. What the game did not teach me is that ant lions mainly live in Africa.) Also, it taught me that, even as a human, it makes sense for me to get involved in conflicts between ant colonies and to pick sides. Finally, it taught me that, if you ever find yourself in a situation where there are no particular objectives, that means that you’re in experimental mode and you get to choose your own objectives.

Here’s a youtube video of someone playing SimAnt.

Zoo TycoonZoo Tycoon: Technically, I don’t need to feel nostalgic about this game because I can still play it on my current computer, and in fact, there were two days last week that I did play it. Zoo Tycoon, as the name implies, is a game in which you build a zoo. You build exhibits for a wide variety of different zoo animals (the full version includes dinosaurs and water animals) and you place concession stands and various zoo attractions for guests. The goals are to keep the animals happy by making the exhibits suitable, to make the guests happy by making the zoo cool, and to make a profit. The first two goals aren’t too hard, but the third one is basically impossible unless you cheat. In Zoo Tycoon, unlike in most aspects of life, cheating is perfectly okay and cool. The best way to cheat is to pause the game when the game’s calendar is in October and to buy and then immediately sell lots of dinosaur eggs. Dinosaurs cost less in October, so you can make a profit this way. If you are very patient and don’t get bored easily, you can get really rich that way. That is the main moral I can find in Zoo Tycoon.

Dinopark TycoonDinopark Tycoon: Dinopark Tycoon was the older and simpler version of Zoo Tycoon. Instead of having a bajillion different types of animals, you had a few different species of dinosaurs. Instead of having a bajillion different types of fence pieces, you had four. Instead of having a bajillion different buildings, you had a couple. Or maybe there weren’t any buildings; I don’t remember that for sure. Also, the graphics weren’t as good and the music was a more prominent part of the game. And I don’t remember any of the cheats. But there definitely were some, and it was this game that taught me the useful fact that there is such a thing as cheating in a computer game. I’m not sure if you can consider that to be a valuable life lesson, but it’s some kind of life lesson anyway.

And this is what Dinopark Tycoon looked like.

Wild WheelsWild Wheels: It’s a game where you drive cars and carry robots and there’s TNT and stuff. Need I say more?

Oregon TrailOregon Trail: I remember playing two different versions of Oregon Trail. The one I played when I was little was one of the oldest versions and it was a lot simpler. Then a few years later, my sister got a newer version for a Christmas or birthday present. It was more complex and had more options and the graphics were a lot more advanced. The two versions were very different, but I remember really loving them both. I wasn’t particularly good at Oregon Trail; my people died a lot. Sometimes, I even started the game with the intention of killing them on purpose. When I wasn’t on a suicide mission, one entertaining aspect of Oregon Trail was naming the people. Generally, I either named them after my family members, the cats, or Doctor Who characters. (From the classic Doctor Who, of course, because this was in those long-ago days prior to the current Doctor Who series.) But sometimes, I would give them all the same name because that seemed hilariously funny to my little-kid brain. Or I would give them names like “The corn”, or “All your oxen”, because it was highly entertaining when the computer would inform me “The corn is sick with dysentery”, or “All your oxen drowned”. This is the height of sophisticated humor, I tell you. Then there were the times that my sister and I would use the diary and write absurd and pointless things the whole time long instead of actually playing the game. Every now and then, I did actually play the game according to the intended objectives, but those instances were less memorable. One life lesson that I learned from Oregon Trail is that you shouldn’t eat just any plant you find growing on the side of the path.  I also learned a fair amount about the geography of the American West, despite the fact that I had a bad habit of somehow managing to turn around and go back the way I had come. This is also how I tend to drive in real life.

Carmen SandiegoCarmen Sandiego: We had several different Carmen Sandiego games. I think my favorite was “Where in the World is Carmen Sandiego?” just because I was more interested in international trivia than state trivia. We had another version geared more towards little kids, and I think that was also international. Then there was a game that had word puzzles rather than geographical trivia, but I don’t have specific memories of it, even though I did enjoy it. And at one point, we had an older Carmen Sandiego game that I found complicated and difficult to play. I seem to recall that I never even figured out how to win it, but then again, I was pretty little at the time. For all of the intellectual and informational benefits of the Carmen Sandiego games, the thing that really made them cool was Carmen Sandiego herself. You’ve got to love Carmen Sandiego. It’s probably an official law or something.

Here’s a video. Also, these opening credits were so cool.

Castle ExplorerCastle Explorer: This game actually belonged to my brother, but he was pretty generous about letting me play it, which is a favor for which I am not sure I ever adequately thanked him. Thank you, O brother, for letting me play Castle Explorer so much when we were small children. It was truly an awesome game. It was sort of a role-playing game, except that the character, who was a spy sent by the king, didn’t have a personality at all, and never in fact spoke or did anything besides wandering around the castle. Castle Explorer included an interactive map of a baron’s castle, where you could click on things and read random fun facts about castle stuff. There were also gold coins that you could click on and collect, although I don’t remember what you did with the gold coins. And there were four virtual rooms that you could enter and look around and click on stuff. One was the kitchen, one was the armory, one was the alchemist’s study, and one was the baron’s chambers. In each one, there was a hidden piece of a map, and the goal was to gather those four pieces. When assembled, they showed the location of a secret tunnel, and for some reason, the existence of the secret tunnel proved that the baron was guilty of treason. Aside from all of the really awesome factual information that I learned from that game, I also learned that it’s not a good idea to have an emergency escape exit, because that proves that you’re a bad guy. Actually, I didn’t learn that because it isn’t necessarily true. But I did learn that if you’re a spy and you have to go into a certain room to find something, make sure you talk to the person in the room before sneaking through all of their stuff, because they’ll catch you if you start searching right away. But they’ll just randomly ignore you as long as you say hi to them first. Wait, that doesn’t seem applicable to real life, either. But I definitely learned some really cool factual information from that game, and that’s enough to make it worthwhile.

Here’s a video of the opening thingy.

Lego IslandLego Island: I first encountered this game on the computer at the library when I was little. My siblings and I loved it and would spend as much time playing it as our mother and the librarian would allow. Years later, while washing dishes, my sister and I were reminiscing about the awesomeness of Lego Island, and we ended up finding it on eBay and buying it. This was a greatly exciting moment in our lives. Lego Island is a collection of various short games, most of which are arcade-style. There’s an underlying storyline connecting all these games, though. In the first phase of the game, the avatar, who is a pizza delivery Lego boy named Pepper, is trying to build a house. Each time he delivers a pizza to one of the townspeople, they give him bricks for his house. Eventually, he finishes his house, and the next pizza he delivers goes to the guy in jail. The guy in jail is called the Brickster, if I recall correctly. The reason for this is so that he can use the phrase, “The Brickster is ready for some tricks, Sir.” But that’s not the good bit; the good bit is when he says something along the lines of, “That’s funny. And I don’t mean the ha-ha kind of funny, I mean the gee-that’s-interesting kind of funny”. We always said that part out loud with the computer. We also said the bit about it being a sad day today on Lego Island. The second phase of the game involved chasing botheads, which really was what the Brickster’s robot thingies were called. And then phase three consisted of travelling to various places and completing various puzzles and games. Somehow, they led to the defeat of the Brickster, but I don’t remember why. One cool thing about Lego Island was that you could change someone’s hat or their hairstyle just by clicking on their head, which was a fun thing to do when they were talking and you didn’t feel like listening. This, I have noticed, does not work in real life. Another cool thing about Lego Island was that you could throw pizzas at people whenever you wanted, which, again, isn’t the way reality works in my experience.

I’m cutting this list really short because I don’t want it to take all evening to write, but there are many others that deserve a mention, such as Kid Pix, and the game with the maze thingy, and American Girls Premiere, and the one with the robot and the killer tomatoes that was on the computer at the library, and Drone, and the entire Jumpstart series, and that game that takes place on an island where there’s that evil scientist guy, and all the computer games that were basically an interactive computerized version of certain children’s books, and so forth and so on. (Many of those games didn’t make the list for the simple reason that I just cannot remember their names.) And I also didn’t mention any of the various computer games that exist as actual board games, such as chess and Scrabble and Risk and Clue. They were awesomely fun as computer games, too.  I’m sure there are some others that I don’t even remember, at least not off the top of my head.

To make a long story short, awesome computer games played a fairly significant role in my early childhood, and I benefited greatly from their awesomeness. I have lots of good memories involving staring at a computer screen.

The Hall of Fame

Leave a comment

They looked like this. That was back when computers were big enough for a cat to take a nap on top of the monitor.

Once upon a time, when I was a small child, my family had two old Macintosh computers that were used exclusively for playing games, mainly simple arcade games like Glypha III. (I use this game as an example because it was especially awesome and because it’s the only name I remember offhand) Those games were a lot of fun; they defined a significant portion of my existence for several years of my life. When we moved and got rid of those computers, my mother said it wasn’t such a big deal and we’d eventually get over it, but it’s been nine and a half years, and I still think about those games frequently with feelings of bittersweet nostalgia and great sadness. But I digress.

Glypha III, one of the awesomest computer programs ever to be invented

The point is, the real reason that those types of computer games are so addictive is that you can always live in hope of getting a new record and putting your name at the top of the hall of fame. (Some of the games just called it the “high scores”, but we always preferred the term “hall of fame” for some reason) Thus, the hall of fame on a current favorite game would become a measure of achievement, a quantification of accomplishment, and an outlet for sibling rivalry.

The greatest offense a person could commit would be to clear the hall of fame without the express knowledge and permission of all other players. Such an act of villainy would be met with fury and heartbreak. Not only had the tangible results of the accomplishments been erased, but the very memory of them had been savagely destroyed. Never could they be regained; even if the exact same score was achieved at some other time, it would be a separate occasion worthy of a second placement in the hall of fame. Deleting another person’s records of accomplishment is an ultimate act of cruelty.

Sometimes, though, we would mutually agree that the time had come to clear the hall of fame. After a period of time of obsessive game-playing, the high scores would inevitably reach a pinnacle that would be well-nigh impossible to surpass. As we failed to match or beat our previous achievements, frustration would set it, and sooner or later, we would realize that something had to be done. Of course, it was important that, before such a drastic deed should be done, the current hall of fame must be written down and the paper must be reverently deposited in a computer desk drawer. There, it would be forever available for reminiscence of former glories. Then, with mingled feelings of remorse and relief, the “clear high scores” button would be clicked, and the hall of fame would become blank.

Thus, the potential would be opened for many future victories. At first, any score would be guaranteed a spot in the hall of fame, and even after the hall of fame filled up, winning a spot on the list would be easy for a few days. Eventually, there would be high scores that would merit pride and joy equivalent to or greater than those of the previous high scores. The hall of fame would sooner or later reach another plateau, but in the meantime, winning would be possible once more.

It’s hard to set new high scores when you’re competing against everything you’ve ever done before. The best way to set new high scores is to take the old ones and hide them away in a drawer. They’re still there if you want to see them and remember them nostalgically, but they won’t clog up your hall of fame and prevent you from setting future high scores.

What metaphor? I’m just talking about computer games.

Things I did when I was little


When I was little, I used to have a hobby which was aptly named “Running Around and Reading”. Technically, it wasn’t really reading, but it was kind of like reading in that it involved holding a book in my hand and looking at it for long periods of time. The rules of this game were fairly simple. I would run around the room while telling myself a story that was loosely based on the book in my hand. Occasionally, I would turn a page, and the idea was that I was supposed to progress through the book at about the same rate as if I was actually reading it. Some details changed over time. I used to ‘read’ out loud, but I eventually decided that was a little awkward and I got into the habit of thinking the words instead of actually saying them. Originally, any place in the house would work, but later I confined ‘running around and reading’ to my bedroom. At some point, I realized that the book was in fact unnecessary, and so the game changed into pacing around my room and making up stories in my head, which is something I still do every now and then. The rules are a little less formal than they used to be, but I don’t like to just randomly daydream; my daydreams need to be structured and planned ahead of time.

Another one of my favorite pastimes when I was little was paper doll beauty contests. I’ve always loved paper dolls, but for me, playing with paper dolls didn’t just mean putting paper clothes on them. I had a few paper doll sets that had specific games associated with them, usually involving complex methods for deciding which dress was my favorite, but the funnest and most absurdly time-consuming game was when I took out every paper doll from every set, put them in a big stack in order of the age I decided that each paper doll looked, and then systematically chose the prettiest. The paper dolls would be taken off of the stack three at a time, and in each group of three, one would be deemed pretty, one ugly, and one in the middle. After all of the paper dolls had been thus sorted, the ugly and middle piles would be set aside and the process would be repeated with the pretty pile. This would continue until there was one paper doll left, which would therefore be the winner. Then all of the other paper dolls would come back out and the contest would start over for round two to determine the second place winner. This would continue until all of the paper dolls had won and there weren’t any left in the contest. The full game could take weeks.

Sometime around the year 3 BC (Before College) I developed another pointless game, which was known as my “Dance Class Thing”. Essentially, it was a fantasy dance school, where all of the students were my own characters and I got to decide how good each person was and determine casting for ballets and show orders for recitals and end-of-the-year awards for my favorite characters. I actually had several different versions which were all a bit different, but they all had a few things in common. Every year would start with a chart showing all the dancers at the school with information about things like their age, what classes they were in, and numerical values that served as an easy reference for remembering which were the most talented ones. I also liked to use a system where characters would win points for various achievements, like dancing a major role, and these points would gain interest over the years. When a character graduated, the number of points they had accumulated would show how awesome they were. Incidentally, I have never heard of a real dance school doing anything like that, and I’m not sure it would even be such a great idea in real life. Depending upon how much time I spent on it and various other factors, a year in my ‘dance class thing’ could take anywhere from a few days to a couple months. This game took up a lot of paper. My first version needed a new notebook for each year, and my last version filled three three-ring binders with 20 years’ worth of charts and lists. All of these documents were written in my smallest possible handwriting in order to save space, so I made them easier to read (and also awesomer) by color-coding everything.

It probably goes without saying that, when I was little, I got very accustomed to people who saw me playing asking me what I was doing and why. My personal games generally don’t make sense to other people. Poor people; they just don’t understand how to have a good time.