Nostalgia for Now

Thirty years ago the world shifted. The X-Files, soon to be my favourite show, premiered; In Utero was released, an album that I sadly would not truly appreciate until I was much older; and sweat pants were forbidden—I had entered Junior High.

In 1993 our family acquired its first PC computer: a 486DX with 4MB of RAM, 200 MB of spinning-disk hard drive space, and a 2400 baud modem. This was not our family’s first computer, my great aunt said that, “Computers were the future” and laid out $5000 of 1980s cash for an Apple IIe and a colour monitor. So I had grown up playing Think Quick! and the Sesame Street games Mix & Match, and Spotlight—all of which had been legitimately purchased by my parents—alongside “real” games like Montezuma’s Revenge, Karateka, and Miner 2049er. I also learned the ways of FID and Copy II Plus, and was recruited by friends and parents of friends to spread the wealth of any game or software that happened to find its way into one of our lives. Where the games originated was never clear, they simply appeared, like manna from heaven.

My best friend’s family also acquired a computer around this time, and I forever lusted for the 8 MB of RAM and “fourteen four” modem. Communication changed the world, and these modems were no exception. They opened up the world of BBSes, which at the time felt like the universe unravelling before me. You could dial up any star as long as you knew its phone number, and I had a printed list of all the local ones. Once I even convinced my parents to foot the long distance charges so I could play Doom on “Brazen’s Hell”, an experience that went as well as expected at 2400 baud, but the possibilities were intoxicating.

My friend and I were soon spending all of our free time on the local BBSes. If my friend was sick from school, their parents would call home repeatedly during the day to make sure the phone line wasn’t constantly connected; mine eventually sprung for a second phone line so that phone calls didn’t need to be scheduled around the modem.

One time my mom asked me if I had played the game, “Alone”. I had never heard of it and asked if it was supposed to be good. It wasn’t until she volunteered me to help a colleague of hers with his computer that I realized what she had really been asking.

I went unaccompanied from my mom’s office in this man’s car. His computer was in the basement, so he took me around the back stairs. He booted up his computer and logged in to a BBS that I also frequented. Whatever computer problem he ostensibly needed my help for had miraculously remedied itself.

“You ever play this one?” he asked, and hit the letter to open the door game entitled, “Alone”.

“No,” I told him.

It turned out not even to be a game, but a rudimentary dating app or something similar. You had to fill out a profile, and it wasn’t until it reached questions like, “What is your breast size?” and “How long is your penis?” that I realized why my mom had been so keen to see if I had played it.

The colleague turned expectantly to me at these questions, after he had started to fill out a profile based on my twelve year old self. I deflected the questions with what I thought was humour but felt like shame.

I’ve heard that nostalgia is just regret—not a desire to re-live “better times”, but a desire for a redo, to realize a “what if”, to open a door that had regrettably remained closed. For deeds left undone. For a future that will never come to pass.

And daydreaming about the future only leaves the aftertaste of regret for having wasted the present.

The present is active. Nostalgia is passive.

Playing XCOM and Syndicate—the only game I felt physical withdrawal from, when I was away for a weekend—were active experiences. Playing Realms of Despair with hundreds of others in a text-based world that seemed impossibly large, printing out the help menus and reading them in Social Studies class was an active undertaking. Logging back in thirty years later (though I swear it was 1993, but the website says it didn’t open to the public until July 1994) and seeing only avatars is decidedly more passive. No yearning to discover the unknown, rather sitting around reminiscing about when there was an unknown.

When connecting to the rest of the world was amazing. When the Grade 7 class was astonished as the teacher recounted surfing the internet, complete with overhead slides, about how slow the connection was when he was browsing Chinese websites. When religion had not yet ruined me, and I acted for the simple reason that I wanted to.

When the present was all there was.

When it was Cancer Man and not the Cigarette Smoking Man, a tobacco lobby conspiracy in a show about conspiracies. When I was too scared to watch the werewolf episode (which I just learned is called “Shapes”, written by Marilyn Osborn for Season 1, Episode 19), and had to watch it at my friend’s house on the weekend, since they had taped it.

What good is this kicking over the bucket of nostalgia? Tradewars 2002 and bootlegs of soundless satellite soaking into the carpet. Forced showers in competitive sports. Don’t worry, the shampoo bottle was just clenched between my cheeks. Yes, I am the same age as you; please stop laughing.

I screamed in the present. At the top of my lungs at school dances, along with the lyrics and the others, into the faces of those we wished we were dancing with instead. I Alone indeed.

Someone smokes Du Maurier, the same neighbour that recommended having someone go down on you—not that I would even admit to knowing what sensation they were referring to, let alone have someone else bring it about. I have a child the same age now. I still won’t.

Don’t worry, by the time this Halloween party is over people will be Frenching. Instead some kid I didn’t know lit his hair on fire.

Don’t worry, I stay up late to watch SNL too! And in so doing discovered the Outer Limits (imagine my surprise finding Kevin Nealon starring in an episode). I looked forward to it more than SNL sometimes, and didn’t know that it was a reboot, only that it was exactly the type of thing that I wanted to watch, and if I was ever honest with myself—which of course was impossible at that age—what I also wanted to create.

Don’t worry, I’m allowed to watch The Kids in the Hall. And Grrr Brother Lawrence, the same goes for reading Disclosure, as the signature from my mom on page 223 attests.

But not to play MKII after my mom witnessed me playing it; however, the store wouldn’t return it, so it was exchanged for an unopened, cellophane wrapped copy. One that would be impossible to play without it being obvious. Unless of course at a sleepover only the flap was cut with a razor blade and glued back to the top. I’m not sure how Baraka’s finishing move is still etched into my brain.

The same brain that could deal with being home alone in the dark with no blinds, as long as TNG was on TV. SciFi and fantasy seeped in, but so did the dreams of being attacked and having nowhere to hide that wasn’t visible from the outside.

A mind that began leaving the present, longing for the future, when things would be different. Better. When the omnipresent tide of divorce would recede. Come back, come back, I’m all you’ve ever known.

Open the door, Janus, and come on in (2024), I’m so glad to see you again. You’re like a rainbow coming around the bend. Let this be the threshold not back to the past, but to an active present that finds me enjoying the future.