My mother sold her house and had to move in April of 2020. Yes, April of 2020, otherwise known as April From Hell, April of Terror, April Of Peak Pandemic. The fun part was that in addition to it being scary, in that my then-79-year-old mother was going to have to deal with a ton of people in the process of moving, it also was frustrating, because we were all under lockdown, so nobody in my family could help her move out of the house she’d been in for 32 years, less than a year after my father had died. My husband and I had been down to help start getting rid of things and pre-packing (like pre-partying, but terrible) a few times in the months prior, but now, I couldn’t help her with the real packing, or do a final look-through of all the stuff from my old room to figure out if there was anything left that I wanted before she got rid of it. (Of course, her being my mother and me being me, she’d been saying for months already that I needed to clear things out and I’d been saying “We’ve got plenty of time!” Guess who turned out to be right.) In the end, my mom was lucky in that the buyers of the house were very sweet people who were fine with getting rid of anything she left behind, and the movers took care of the rest of the packing. Badly, as it turned out; so many items disappeared or were broken during the move that to this day, she’s still calling to tell me about stuff that she’s just discovered is missing. But they did get her to her new apartment in Central Jersey without giving her Covid, so that counts for something, even if they do 100% deserve the salty review she gave them online.
One of the pieces of furniture she decided to keep, however, was the desk in my old room. I can’t exactly call it “my desk” because I had never really used it, since it was purchased after my parents moved to California the summer after I graduated high school. Plus, even when I was in high school, I tended to do my homework elsewhere: at the dining room table, on the floor of the sun room listening to my brother’s Styx albums, sprawled out on a beanbag in front of the TV. This is an indicator of both how I did not yet have to worry about having an ergonomic work environment (ah, to once again be naïve to the vast variety of repetitive stress injuries), and how little effort I put into high school — though even in college, my favorite places to “study” were out on the grass somewhere or at the campus Coffeehouse, where I convinced myself that the hubbub kept me focused, and I wasn’t just there to hang and feel beatnik-y (it was the Bay Area after all). So this desk was mostly just a repository of random detritus from my childhood or adolescence that I had decided not to sell in the big yard sale we’d had when we left New Jersey (where I sold many of my 150 stuffed animals, something which my dad would complain about for years to come as part of our ongoing difference of opinion over my stubborn insistence on growing up). It all got packed up again by my parents when they moved to Pennsylvania two years later, where it was then augmented with new flotsam that held significance for me the summer after my sophomore year. Because of that, the room kind of became a 1986-1988 time capsule. The walls were decorated with the free poster I’d gotten at an early screening of Ferris Bueller’s Day Off (a seminal film for me and my high school friends when it came out at the end of our senior year. As suburban kids who’d also been sophomores when Sixteen Candles’ Samantha Baker was a sophomore and juniors when The Breakfast Club came out, we more or less considered ourselves John Hughes movie protagonists), black and white photos that I’d taken and printed in my freshman and sophomore year photography classes, flyers that I’d created in MacPaint for dorm parties, and art posters either from exhibits I went to around that time or that I thought reflected my budding “taste.” This was probably best exemplified by a framed poster of a photo by Yuri Dojc: an overhead shot of a bunch of chairs scattered in an interesting way on a patio that I now realize would not look out of place on the wall of a W Hotel — sort of the fast fashion of art. And the bookcases still held my favorite books from childhood through adolescence, from Harold and the Purple Crayon to Howards End.
So thanks to Covid, there were things that I had never emptied out of that desk when it landed in my mother’s new office/guest room in an adult community in Iselin. When lockdown ended, I went to see her, and after we had lunch in the park, she suggested I come back and finally clear it out. Though I was a little nervous, since easy access to testing wasn’t a thing yet, much less vaccines, I went back with her and, masked, looked through the drawers.
One of the few odds and ends I decided to take back home with me was this game, Nintendo Time Out: The Exterminator™. I think it wasn’t so much an important memento as a hilarious reminder of how much has changed since the early 80s, when this was actually considered a game. First thing you notice is that the LED “graphics” are only slightly more sophisticated than Pong. Next, the “gameplay” is just moving the little guy with the hammer arms from side to side as fast as you can to bonk the gophers on the head when they surface — but it still gets impossibly hard really fast, because there is no real strategy, so it’s all about your basic twitch skills, thumb thumb thumb thumb thumb. Then the sound effects are both rudimentary and irritating, with the one you hear when you fail being kind of like a cross between the little electronic scream your android hamster might make when you step on it and the grating alarm of a teeny tiny car. Oh yeah, and the thing doesn’t turn off. When you’re not using it, it’s a “clock,” with the man with the little hammers going back and forth endlessly to mark the seconds, eating two tiny, 1.5 volt batteries every couple months or so.
But the thing I can’t get over is that, in 1980 when I was 11, it was the best thing ever — and I guess not just for kids, because, based on this ad, the target market was supposedly teens and adults?? I find it amusing that the pitch here is that you should play Time Out if you’ve injured yourself playing sports, considering how this little beauty is definitely going to cause repetitive stress pain in your hands and shoulders in no time (which I know because, again, sadly, repetitive stress expert) — something, of course, that we knew nothing about at that time, because next to nobody had computers. No internet. No social media. And by extension, no Trump, no pandemic, no fucked Supreme Court, no democracy on the verge of collapse. Blondie, Rubik’s Cube, the opening of what is still the best Star Wars movie (fight me on this, I dare you), cost of a house $69K — aside from the hair and the shoulder pads, it’s easy to get nostalgic for that time. Except that 1980 was also the beginning of the Reagan era. He and his government of the anti-government led the Radical Right in a straight line directly to where we are today. And it was the start of the AIDS epidemic, and eight years of the government ignoring it, and not protecting LGBTQ folks who were coming under an even greater amount of discrimination because of it. Post-Grease, pop culture was in the grips of a 50s throwback phase — poodle skirts, the Stray Cats, Joannie Loves Chachi (an awful show even not knowing then what we know now about Scott Baio)— and full of stereotypes about everyone who wasn’t a white man. The way women were portrayed and treated in popular culture? Let that gratuitous butt shot in the ad remind you of a time that was all about gratuitous butt shots, with a direct line from that to unequal pay, sexual harassment, rape culture. To take it back to my man John Hughes, look no further than how the geek is — hahaha! — encouraged to take the blitzed prom queen and do whatever he wants to her in Sixteen Candles, how Bender — hahaha! — sexually assaults Claire when she’s hiding him under the table in The Breakfast Club, and basically everything about Weird Science.
And yet, people have this rosy nostalgia for the past — so much so, that a whole lot of them are trying, right now, to take us back there. They very explicitly want to roll back women’s rights, civil rights, voting rights and protections, affirmative action, protections for the environment and for consumers and prisoners and school children who don’t want to be shot and maybe just everyone who isn’t a cop or a corporation — and they’ve already basically achieved most of that, and what they haven’t achieved yet, they’re about to, most likely tomorrow, when the Supreme Court hands down the rest of its decisions. And then at the state level, they’re taking steps to stop us from protesting these changes, from talking about both the past of this country and the present if what we want to talk about involves something they would rather just didn’t exist, so that they go back and live in their “simpler time.”
Only here’s the thing about the past: like this Time Out game, it was just crap. In a similar way to this little primitive LED dude with his hammer who, if you bother to look closely, has dotted lines for arms, the history of this country that they love oh, so much that we can’t tell the truth about it was fucking janky; so much so, that we couldn’t see how stupid and terrible it was. We were so caught up in that reality of how things just, you know, were at the time, 100, 50, even 25 years ago, that we had no idea how much better the world could be, for practically everybody. There are plenty of negative things about this particular time in history: a global pandemic, this backlash born out of fear and extreme inequality and exploited by those who want to profit from both. Sure, we keep coming up with new and exciting ways to kill each other and ourselves and destroy the planet. But overall, the history of humanity is science, technology, human knowledge and human rights moving in one direction: forward. Because that’s what progress is. It only moves in one direction.
There’s a reason why the past is in the past. Anyone who wants to go back to a “simpler time” is welcome to move to a cabin in the woods with just my Time Out The Exterminator™ game to play to their heart’s content. But please just get the hell out of our social and political lives and leave the rest of us alone to enjoy the fruits of progress. It belongs to us, and we are going to fight like hell for it, because we are not going back.