Sunday, July 20, 2014

Requiem for a Ray-Gun

This summer has seen a lot of time for nostalgia for me, and one of the big sources has been going through the old papers that my parents passed to me at the beginning of summer.  They're preparing for downsizing, and finally made good on the request / threat / reasonable-demand that I take all the remaining boxes of my old stuff off of their hands.  Since we're back in Boston for the summer, it was easy enough for them (relatively speaking) to pass on a carload of bankers' boxes as a side effect of one of their trips down to visit, and thus give me custody of things I probably should really have dealt with long ago.  And so it is that I've had a while going through twenty-year old boxes and unearthing some remarkable reminders of who I was as a youth.  And sometimes also, who I still am, to an uncomfortable degree of accuracy.

Interestingly to me, the earlier that I go in my education, the higher a percentage of the papers I find worth saving.  From grad school, I basically threw everything into the trash.  Undergrad, a few things survived.  High school yielded a great deal of fascinating essays and uncomfortable personal truths, but also a lot of translated Latin and math problems to simply be discarded.  Pretty much anything from earlier that had survived was still worth keeping.  Some of it, I think, is that my parents only held on to the memorable things from back when they were making decisions: there are no piles of practice sheets drawing letters of the alphabet, nor are there the arithmetic quizzes that my fourth grade classmates and I used to race each other to completion on.  Once we hit my own eras of curation, the pre-filtering has not yet happened.  Another and more important thing, however, is that as I grew older and my education became more specialized, my own set of life choices have tended to dictate that the classwork is more technical and less creative.  Reading essays and stories that I wrote in high school is like taking an archaeological core sample of my personality and history.  Reading algebra notes is just reading algebra notes that could have been taken by anyone.  Although, as I think about it, I'm sure that a lot of other people took more interesting notes than me, putting little cartoons or editorials about their feelings on the material in.  I just wrote it down and never once looked back to read it, except in unusual circumstances.  And having saved class material that is essentially just a poorly transcribed technical manual, why on earth should I hold onto it?  Either I use it every day and I know it still, or I have forgotten it and will re-learn the knowledge from some online source when I find a need.  My creative output shifted out of the classroom and into other areas, and by the time that I reach grad school, you can see my records in the early papers and screeds on my website.  There are times when I am tempted to purge the earlier and more embarrassing of these, but so far I have resisted.  I feel like it's something I need to just be honest and live with, even if some of the memories associated with those papers are ones I think that I would just prefer to forget.  And why, oh why, do people cite them?  I can only assume that they have found things more valuable in certain of them than I the author know in retrospect.

The motivating artifact for this post, however, was not a school paper, but one of the halo of other related objects that I found in those boxes.  You see, back in high school, my little nerd clique and I were all involved in writing computer games, and managed to compete each other into something approaching real competence.  We released a few games that were pretty awesome for our egos and tried to get serious and make bigger and better and more significant contributions.  One place that we over-reached was getting into 3D.  Oh, it worked and all, but despite our wishes we just weren't quite Bungie and couldn't aspire to match our engine to our idol Marathon.  But we put together a working engine that ran at a decent frame rate and started building worlds and enemies and such.  And here is where my ray-gun comes from:
Rather than try to draw the art that we were nowhere near capable of, we did a photo shoot with the fancy new "digital camera" thing my brother's friend Jeff had.  We set up a studio in one of the rooms of our house (now a guest room, but I think it was my mother's art studio at the time), used a white sheet as a "green screen", and got into costumes with the awesomest future bad-guy gear that we could come up with.  I wore a green SWAT-team outfit left over from playing a garbage man in a school musical (it was an odd show), carried a shotgun we'd borrowed from somebody, and scowled beneath the darkest aviator shades I could lay my hands on.  My brother wore hockey padding and a hockey mask and carried the ray-gun above (in the game, it shot energy rings at you).  Jeff wore the same hockey gear and a handheld small vacuum cleaner strapped upside down to his back, holding the straight steel tube out as the business end of his "flame thrower."  We shot from all angles, getting walking animations, attacks, injuries, and deaths.  Some PhotoShop time on the secondhand probably-legal copy I'd gotten my hands on, and we had glorious, glorious enemies that made everybody laugh at us because they knew who was trying to look badass under those shades.

It was great fun, and we got a long way, but the game never finished and never got released.  I'd wander around "debugging" by shooting myself and finding geometry problems that had to be addressed.  Our ambitions grew bigger and we kept trying to get a better engine and tell this giant story that was trying to brew, but none of us had read The Mythical Man-Month yet and we never just stopped at "good enough" and finished a game of some sort.  I moved on to another project, then college, and our software-making club dispersed as everybody else did the same. By now, the images are all long gone, dead long ago on obsolete media and obsolete computers.

The ray-gun, though, was waiting for me, coming up slightly dusty and otherwise good as new from one of the many boxes of archival stuff.  Showing it to my wife, I fired it, just to see.  The staple shot out and bounced pinging off a wall into nowhere, and then I needed to scramble and find it so it wouldn't pose a toddler hazard.  The ray-gun didn't get a decision that day.  Instead I put it off, and shoved it high on top a bookcase where Harriet would never see it, let alone get to test whether she could injure herself with either staple-gun or pneumatic door-closer.

I looked again up there today, and took it down to disassemble.  The choice was obvious, but bittersweet.  I just don't need this artifact: all that it can be is a trap for an unwary child some day to discover.  What I care about is the memory, to know this wonderful ray-gun once existed, made for a hot summer day in a makeshift studio in an appropriated third-floor room, where half a dozen kids dreamed of fame and fortune and dystopian future storm-troopers.  Remembering all of this, I laid the ray-gun on a black towel (shades of its earlier backdrop) and snapped photos until I had one I was satisfied could be enough for memory.  Then off came the packing tape securing the two halves together, and the gun was gone.  The old door closer went into the trash; the staple gun will join my tools, and will in time no doubt be put to its old and original use.  But if it's me that uses it, I guarantee that every time I fix a staple, a part of me instead will want to stop and wave it around in the air making ray-gun sounds: "P-tanngg! P-tanngg!"

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