Tuesday, May 10, 2011

A Line of Flight (Gold Medal Challenge 92, Golf, Golf Grand Slam, Greg Norman's Golf Power)

The subject is the 1992 Summer Olympics in Barcelona. But as with any attempt to capture a subject on film, the resulting image is framed by background. Any instant is held taut in the overall weave of personal history and memory by other threads. The subject morphs into the lens itself, its background becoming a foreground anchored by the thing. Suddenly our map links Barcelona to Mahopac, the golf course to the graveyard. Remove it, avert your eyes, and the weave unravels, the ordered skyline of associations and moments dissolving back into disordered chronology. Tack back to Seoul or forward to Atlanta and the illusion is gone, the coherence of the metaphor shattered, and Barcelona is as far from Putnam County as Spain is. To disentangle this edifice is to watch it crumble to undifferentiated noise. Instead we must work along the individual strands, traveling this rhizome from within.

By 1992, the NES was dying. We all had Super Nintendos, or at least I did. I got mine in fourth grade, the school year that ended in 1992, and by fifth grade was running what was, for a ten year old, a reasonably successful side business selling off NES cartridges for $10 a pop, a process I'd begun at my grandparents' moving tag sale the previous summer before they moved from Mahopac, New York to Newtown, Connecticut in tacit admission that my grandfather was getting sick (although to be fair, it had been planned since my parents bought the Newotwn house), although it would not be until 1993 that we gave up on the prospect of pretending it wasn't Alzheimer's.

The Nintendo generation winds its way through my grandfather in odd ways. The height of the NES era, from an objective and historical perspective, was the summer of 1990, which I spent much of living at my grandparents' house while the Newtown house was vacated and readied for our moving in. The basement was converted into my bedroom, with the cot I was used to sleeping on following Christmases and other major family holidays becoming my bed. But more importantly, my NES was hooked up to the television there, and my mother, as ever pragmatic and knowing her way around a major retailer, loaded me up with a fresh stack of games so as to make the prospect of a summer with no friends living with my grandparents something that appeared vaguely survivable.

Follow either string and eventually you come to me studiously attempting a legitimate, IDDQD-free clearing of Map 30 of Doom II, holed up on my PC. It is the fall of 1996, a scant few days past my birthday, and both the Nintendo generation and its odd second wind on the Super Nintendo have given way to the brief interregnum of PC gaming that would hold way from there until 2001. This is the uncertain space of adolescence, cut off from my history by technological obsolescence and, as we will eventually see in my other blog, Paul McGann.

There is a hand on my shoulder, and a tangible silence. It takes a second to realize that I should pause the game, and in that second I know the news that is about to come. My father, clearly having through through the words in his head, simply says "it's over." Before I have processed this - an oddly momentous task given that I knew what was coming and that my grandfather has been dying in a nursing home for some time, given that I saw him a week ago and fled the room in awful horror at the gasping, frail shell impersonating my grandfather from a hospital bell - the silence is cut by the wail of my still three-year-old sister from downstairs as she processes the same news. Some hours later, I realize my computer is still paused. Mute and dumbfounded, I make another failed attempt at legitimately killing John Romero.

Here on the fringes of the event, the threads go everywhere, lines of flight linking more and more disparate pieces of my life.

Summer of 1992 was squarely in the middle of this. My sister gestated determinately. The spring prior I skipped a school field trip to the Natural History Museum, which I'd seen in memory, in favor of a day off and a copy of the new Zelda. The fall after, my sister was born. Focusing in further we can pin the moment down in other terms - the golden age of comics, at least if you were conveniently nine when it happened, with Marvel publishing what at the time seemed like its sure classic The Infinity War, in which evil space duplicates of Marvel heroes... ummm... attacked things. And there was an evil version of Adam Warlock. And more to the point, we cared that there was an evil version of Adam Warlock, which gives you a good sense just how fucked up things were getting over there.

We might ask what significance can be granted to the fact that my sense of these times is based entirely on family and media. There is no point in lying and pretending this is anything other than a character trait on my part. By and large video games were what I opted for in lieu of friends. I can think of one I had at the time, the very definition of a good bloke, Eric Richter. I ran into him at the Newtown Library Book Sale last summer, shortly after I moved back here, and exchanged pleasantries. If I recall, he's involved in making cell phone games now. He seemed well, if, given the age at which we were closest friends, eerily unchanged.

But even here my social memories are hazy reconstructions. I can take it as a given that I was not yet friends with the people discussed here, as they were in different elementary schools - Newtown at the time had four, which only pooled together in sixth grade. Now they pool at fifth grade, the town having built a 5/6 school to alleviate the pressure on the middle school, which, for plot-related reasons, cannot be effectively expanded. This is part of the town's bafflingly incompetent strategy for handling demographic trends, simultaneously requiring an expansion to the high school only ten years after the last one. How exactly they did not notice the very large Kindergarten class that would eventually become ninth graders and realize they would need the expansion is somewhat beyond me. More puzzling is the town's ability to simultaneously try to close the smallest of its elementary schools, Hawley (actually the one geographically closest to me, but not the one I went to) while simultaneously expanding the high school, a maneuver that indicates nothing so much as a bewildering lack of long-term planning.

Being the gap between fourth and fifth grade, my sense is that I was not yet close friends with Tom Zimmerman, who I would later impugn as the person who hacked into the new girl's AOL account. In truth, the fact that she was openly obsessed with dragons made guessing that her password might actually be "dragon" surprisingly effective, causing me to have one of those heart-sinking moments when the mischievous and naughty thing you expect to fail actually works. I went on to date the girl in question as I graduated high school, and tend to think of her as my earliest in-some-sense-remotely-mature relationship, a status I strongly suspect she does not endow me with in return, and quite right of her.

I am under no illusions that this is not a character flaw. The entire reason The Infinity War is a tentpole is that when I moved to Newtown, the latest fad was the first series of Marvel Universe trading cards - the set where Arthur Adams and a young Mark Bagley, among others, do their damnedest to draw like George Perez. Being wholly incapable of any strategy for social integration beyond obsessive knowledge, I proceeded to get into Marvel cards, along with Marvel comics, and, with minimal effort, blew completely past all lines of actual social chic into pathetic nerdery as Marvel cards went out of style. Thankfully, I actually liked Marvel comics, so this was not a particularly high cost investment.

The technique, of course, is the nerd equivalent to the spoiled kid whose mother simply buys him whatever the cool thing of the moment is - a phenomenon I encountered with staggering efficiency a few years later when I went to a trading card store with a friend and watched in shock as he proceeded to buy hundreds of dollars of Magic: The Gathering cards. Given that my mother was, as I've already mentioned, no slouch in the strategic retailing world, the sudden realization that it was possible to be beaten at my current geeky hobby not by virtue of actual skill but purely by virtue of the size of one's allowance was, to say the least, a bit of a downer.

But it is worth zeroing in on exactly why I had this character flaw (eventually reverse engineered by realizing that a token amount of effort in learning to be effective at social niceties was both wholly within my MO and a bloody good idea). The Magic: The Gathering anecdote is strong evidence here. The central feature of my geeky completist approach to life (And seriously, knowing me at age ten makes the existence of this blog as obvious as can be) is that knowledge was a matter of skill. I could know more about Marvel superheroes, Magic: The Gathering, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, or, in my more spectacularly useless move, Doctor Who than anybody else. And I understood implicitly that this was a matter of skill. That in a measurable sense, I could be better than other people.

I have a vague sense that "normal" people encounter this phenomenon via sports. The obvious problem with this is in the word normal, which by definition has trouble applying to people who are good at something, "good" generally being definable precisely because of its departure from the mean. But obvious problems have never stopped the patriarchal march of society before, so it's probably optimistic to hope that they might wake up and give it the old college try on this issue. Instead we have the form of institutionalized torture recognized as gym class. I will be the first to recognize that instilling kids with healthy living habits such as nutritious eating and exercise is a noble goal. What I am more skeptical of is the proposition that dodgeball is remotely useful for this task. And I say that as someone who was reasonably good at dodgeball, given that its basic skill - avoiding overt efforts at violence towards you - was one I practiced more or less constantly through the school day. (In point of fact, of course, Dodgeball is the very definition of bad game design. It is a game played virtually exclusively at the elementary and middle school levels, where the primary goal of sports is to cause kids to engage in physical activity. Given this, a game that rapidly eliminates the less fit players and makes them stand impatiently on the sidelines is possibly the biggest pile of steaming failure ever to become an institutional fixture since *insert punchline here*.)

I have spoken before of my intense desire to maintain the sensible line between those who were good at sports and those who were good at video games. This line is oddly reinforced by games like Gold Medal Challenge '92, a button mashing track and field game from Capcom in the style of the more famous Track and Field 2 from Konami. Gold Medal Challenge, which goes aboslutely as far as it is legally possible to go to pretend to be an actual Olympics game without actually paying the IOC money. The genre of game relies on modeling sports via the experience of rapidly trying to mash the A button at as high a speed as possible.

These games have what is either a staggering flaw or a transcendent virtue. Which one you view it as comes down entirely to whether you're actually trying to enjoy the games as fun, or whether you are a mildly sociopathic existentialist. The thing about these games, you see, is that they are completely impossible. Even fewer people are actually physically capable of the level of fast button pushing necessary than have gotten anything worthwhile out of playing dodgeball. On the surface, this seems like it is clearly a problem, in that it renders the games functionally unplayable. But given the existence of a sports/video game divide, an unplayable video game about sports is, if you are completely and utterly insane, quite nice.

The only trouble is that it was an Olympics game. The Olympics, after all, are the sporting event that even pathetic nerds can safely enjoy. Given that it has no sports of any social prestige to a nine year old American, it can be watched and enjoyed without any of the pesky expectations that come with watching, say, American Football, where one feels a vague sense of obligation to, for instance, understand the rules. (It is worth noting that, in terms of complexity of rules and amount of the game in which absolutely nothing happens, football is far more like cricket than Americans would like to pretend.) The 1992 Olympics, however, remain the high nerd watermark, because that was the year of the Olympic Triplecast.

The Olympic Triplecast was one of those tragically ahead of its time ideas. NBC reasoned that the rise of cable meant that people would pay a bunch of money ($95-170) for three cable channels for the duration of the Olympic Games that would show all events live and without irritating touchy-feely features about the athletes. The service was a legendary flop that has kept any similar service from being offered in future Olympics even though they're now the complete norm for other sports. Needless to say, my mother ordered it in a heartbeat. The thing about the Triplecast was that it was a flop for being ahead of its time, not because it didn't work. It worked brilliantly. It was the one year I actually followed the Olympics. I made detailed study of the scheduling tables and what would be on when, and made a detailed schedule of everything I would watch, then promptly ignored it and played video games when I realized that, actually, swimming was boring.

These were the summers where our swimming pool was oft-used (these days it's mostly the dog in there), our air conditioning was non-existent, and summer camp was a thing. Mine were usually in the vein of drama camp, failed stabs at craft camps, and, in one memorable disaster leaving me with an ankle with chronic tendon problems and a tendency to twist out from under me, track and field camp. These were the days when my grandmother made me french toast every Saturday morning, I grudgingly went to church every Sunday morning, grudgingly then because it was boring. Later grudgingly because of an intense and visceral rejection of a god who considered being bored for an hour a week to be necessary in order to avoid eternal torment. Still later I would realize that the Catholic notion of salvation is miles weirder than that, sparking an ongoing quest to see just how far from being Catholic I can manage to be without quite tripping the "going to hell" alarm just in case I have another relapse.

These were also the time my grandfather was going to church. I'm not sure anyone quite knows why he had a late-life religious revival. And so we circle back to the unsettling flip side of this entire time period, which is that I spent, for no particularly good reason, my entire childhood afraid of my grandfather. There is no good reason for this. I cannot stress this enough. In hindsight, I realize he was an intensely loving man who adored me. But staring at each other from opposite ends of the twentieth century, there was simply no way to communicate that for either of us.

I was still years away from understanding the reasons I was bored in church, and thus to comprehending a reason why they made me go that didn't involve them being in some fundamental sense objects of fear. But I was well past the point where I couldn't stop trying to understand why I had to be there. Boredom was a problem like social interaction, and the only hammer I understood was trying to outsmart it. The cultural divide - the fact that they were simply, unlike me, not people with a fundamental mistrust of authority because of the growing suspicion that authority just meant that you had to do things even though they didn't seem like the right things to do.

And where my grandmother was in some sense comprehensible - we spoke the shared language of baked goods such that I could translate a given piece of booger cake into "I am fundamentally unable to understand you but think you're pretty awesome," and she could translate my peering under her door on Saturday mornings to see when her light turned on so I could pounce in and get a time estimate on the french toast into "I really wish you'd shut up about the God thing, but I love you anyway" - my Grandfather and I lacked the common tongue in which to adequately communicate these essential concepts.

Well. There was golf. A sport my grandfather played with some avidness. My father even briefly picked it up, quitting after getting a hole in one and realizing that he had almost surely peaked. Golf was the thing I could understand about my grandfather. And so when I, in the basement of his house played with my Arnold Palmer putting set (a truly bizarre game with no visibly intelligent sense of audience in which you hit a miniaturized golf ball with a club held by a plastic Arnold Palmer who was at the head end of a golf club and controlled by a lever and string at the top of said club), this was in some sense an act of love.

The problem was that I was rubbish at it. No particular reason. Just sucked at it. It's not even a very physical sport, as things go. Didn't matter. I was complete shit. It's just another blind spot in my capabilities to be made up for via exhaustive knowledge in other areas. Like video games.

There are three golf games in the G section of the NES library. Nintendo's own 1984 Golf game, Atlus's 1991 Golf Grand Slam, and, pulled from the future of the alphabet, Virgin Games's 1992 Greg Norman's Power Golf. Greg Norman's Power Golf is the easiest to deal with because, hey, glitch game. Apparently it's an early example of procedural gaming, generating a custom course with each play. So that's cool. Or would be if I could play it. Golf Grand Slam is a golf-lover's game, with a play mechanic dependent on hitting the ball in the right place on the ball as a dot moves around it. And Golf is a nice, classic Nintendo simple game about timing power meters.

I suck at all of them. That's just how I roll when it comes to golf, it seems. The incompetence is deeply seated. I can understand the games intellectually. I can see the way they are structured with narrow corridors of successful actions with penalties for going out of the ideal path, and, perhaps more importantly, a low prospect of recovery. Thus games tend to either be outrageously successful (wholly on the success corridor) or outrageously fail-tastic. Which, actually, sounds not dissimilar to golf as I experienced it from my miniaturized perspective. And with this knowledge, as with so much else of adult life, there is finally a language for the misunderstandings of childhood to be spoken. The sense that the unknowable and thus scary figure of my grandfather could be known, that I could now talk to him, and that in some sense we could communicate what we both already knew.

But there is no shared language with the dead.

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