When We Never Die
Whither Legacy in a Digital Age? — Part 2
Whether you would leave a legacy was once a simpler question, one that was first answered for us in high school with another question: Were you good at sports?
The first exposure many of us had to legacy as such was high school, where we would see trophies of our school’s champions past, former students with names on plaques, pictures of winning teams and individuals in trophy cases in the hallway. Alumni who’d gone on to professional athletic careers often had larger pictures of their own, and some might be welcomed back to give a speech at an assembly about the importance of study and practice and saying no to drugs. State record holders in track and other sports were featured on a marquee in the gym. It was made clear to us: If you succeeded in a sport, your name would be remembered. You would be remembered. People would know who you were, not just now but in the future. (I think the champion academic decathlon team had a small plaque by the chemistry labs, near a bulletin board by the bathroom.) So it was obvious. If you were good at sports, you would have a legacy. If not, you wouldn’t.
Athletic kids make for easy taxonomy: They’re all athletes. Homo sapiens athletae, pupal stage. Knowing, admired, and self assured (if perhaps undeservedly so on all counts). Strong. Fit. Generally disproving the aphorism that youth is wasted on the young. Known to people they do not know, an attribute that forever eludes most of us and which can impart arrogance and/or responsibility in unequal parts (e.g., the former wide receiver with his name on the school-record marquee in the gym who stays late at work because he doesn’t want to return broke to a school reunion; or the one-time state tennis champ with her trophy and picture in a glass case in the cafeteria who never introduces herself to others). And known to posterity, some anyway, even if only among a small cohort of descendant athletes and local high-school sports aficionados/weirdos.
Unathletic kids, on the other hand, cannot be categorized without additional information. There are musicians, bookworms, goths, drama kids, sportos, motorheads, geeks, sluts, bloods, wasteoids, dweebies, dickheads, and all the rest. It’s a problem Tolstoy would have recognized. He was a bookworm, I’m sure.
I was one of those uncoordinated kids , skinny but with the muscle tone of a mid-career clerk at the county tax assessor’s office — as Dana Gould would say, with a body like a condom full of walnuts. Yet unlike those who, with acceptance if not pride, gathered in their little nerdy cliques and geeky social strata apart from the athletes/cool kids — rejecting their hierarchy and making their own — I could not be classified even with additional information. I was clearly not a jock, but I avoided the brainy bunch too — as the son of a construction foreman, I felt extra poor among their mostly Nautica-clad clan. So to avoid accusations of being a nerd (a/k/a a kid whose smarts are not counterbalanced by wealth and prep) I hid my wits behind a curtain of exaggerated apathy, avoiding AP classes and skating by all but the most critical of tests on the theory that any score above an 85 demonstrated a pitiable waste of study time, time better spent watching Cheers reruns in my case.
Yet I also avoided joining any social group of self-aware outsiders, not in obeisance to Groucho Marx’s possibly apocryphal aphorism, but in the far-less-admirable inchoate apprehension that doing so might disqualify me from someday accepting a position as a roguish, smart-alecky sidekick in some more popular clique, should such a slot open up. For much the same reason, I belonged to not a single club or student organization. If the social scene at my high school were the NFL, I was a prospect holding out for a bigger signing bonus… with the glaring handicap to my negotiating position that I had not been drafted.
Outside of school it was much the same. I could never focus on one interest for long because I was worried that if I spent too much time on one hobby, I might miss out on a better one that I’d find only once it was too late, having wasted all that time in the interim following Formula One racing, or playing tennis, or learning card tricks or whatever. I had FOMO not about parties (though those too) but about interests, long before FOMO was a thing. I had proto-FOMO. But I didn’t need social media to see what everyone else was doing, I could imagine it while I was alone in my parents’ basement leering at Kiana Tom on BodyShaping.
So I bounced from thing to thing for a month or two at a time, from drawing imaginary city maps and space stations on rolled-out newsprint in our hallway, to JROTC rifle drilling, to practicing jujitsu, to making movies with a friend on a VHS camcorder, to painting orc or space-marine miniatures, to building models, to writing stories, to following pro basketball, to creating radio shows on a Yorx cassette-boombox, and even to “deck jumping,” (i.e., basically [and sadly] only what it sounds like — jumping off people’s back porch-decks in the great pastures of the hilly, unfenced suburban back yards where we lived) a pastime only an under-sixteen misfit in a very boring Midwestern town could ever invent. Mostly, though, I remember watching a lot of MTV Real World marathons.
Ironic then were my flailing and failed efforts at fitting in, for they left me left utterly out. In retrospect, my junior- and high school years were ridiculous and a little sad. Maybe I was depressed. Maybe I was just a lame kid. I’m leaning strongly toward the latter.
Whatever I was, unlike the athletic kids I certainly wasn’t known to anyone I didn’t know. And unlike some of the best athletic kids, I for sure wouldn’t be known by posterity for any good reason I could imagine then. No trophies in the case, no name on a plaque, not even a second picture in the yearbook.
Looking back recently on my misapplied young times, I realized that my itinerancy of interest did have one exception. I had, in fact, had a long-running hobby as a kid, possibly the nerdiest of them all, actually: I was into role-playing games. So maybe I was classifiable after all… as an RPG geek.
Whether on paper, computer, or gaming console, I played RPGs from when I was about ten until even for a while after I got my driver’s license. Sometimes my graph-paper engrossment was forced underground, by nerd-sniffing classmates or my religious parents who still heard echoes of The Great 1980s Dungeons & Dragons Panic. But it was always there, occasionally indulged for days and weeks at a time after school and on weekends.
Sometimes it got to be too much even for me — What the hell am I, a healthy fourteen-year-old boy, doing playing [modern naval warfare “simulation” game] Harpoon on four hundred square feet of newsprint in a basement on a sunny day?! They now have this game on computers, for Chrissakes, so why am I holding a yardstick and a calculator to measure the progress of a Sea Sparrow missile fired from an Arleigh Burke-class cruiser? Have I been lured here by the world’s worst child molester? No. I am here of my own free will. Yet something is very, very wrong…
My credentials as a bona fide RPG geek are burnished by the fact that even more than playing them, I loved creating and designing my own role-playing games from whole cloth. A Gary Gygax in faded Girbauds and a too-big Hypercolor T-shirt. I remember designing regular board games and C-64 video games too, from a really young age. Maybe I was a game designer at heart. I wish I had figured that out twenty years ago, but at least law school paid for itself, and here we are.
Creating the game mechanics of my bespoke RPGs was really technical and fun: Inventing attacks, armor, defenses, weapons, attributes, and (sometimes)magic; drawing out dice-roll tables, conjuring character classes, building backgrounds, arcane rule-design, selecting and buying various-sided dice, photocopying homemade character sheets at Kinko’s, and gazing at bikini-armored nymphs in RPG books who looked like the girls on BodyShaping.
Then I’d move on to the setting. There, my imagination could run wild, creating continents, cosmologies, eschatologies, histories, species, ethnicities, empires, nations, tribes, and guilds. Next, I got to zoom in to the current invented-world-situation in terms of conflicts and influential groups and individuals, along with their respective goals and obstacles. All that work provided the large-scale setting for campaigns. At the campaign level I got to conjure up individual landscapes, drawing out maps of towns, towers, dungeons, and castles. Graph paper galore. Mechanical pencils for days. I had a whole new area of creativity to explore… in lieu of the bodies of my female peers.
Finally, I’d get to create individual characters and quests to fit into the larger strategic setting and campaigns, and perhaps several such adventures that would build upon themselves as the history of the world progressed toward an epic, cosmological climax. I might play a few scenarios with my brother and his friend (who probably pitied me, a sophomore, playing with their 8th grade selves all day). Most of the time, though, after outlining a few quests and carefully scrawling some detailed dungeons I moved on to something else.
The depth of it all was deeply fulfilling to my young self, like how a neatly placed lob must feel to an exceptional junior tennis player, or how a sublimely executed, game-winning football play must feel to a burgeoning young asshole. It felt like I was doing what I was made to do — waste time. I also got to create a world different from the lonely suburban one I was in.
Later, my brother branched off into wargaming with sci-fi themed miniatures. I finally did discover beer and parties, also jail (another story there), and then went off to college, leaving the RPGs behind — the hand drawn maps, the character sheets, the histories, the facsimiles of ancient documents made to look like weathered parchment — collectively a cheval glass reflecting my young, creative mind…
Or it would have been if somewhere along the line if all my imaginary menagerie of childhood creative works — characters, maps, rule sheets, compendia, backstories, illustrations — hadn’t disappeared, as those things have a way of doing. Whether my parents threw it all away or innocently lost it remains a matter of intense internecine dispute. However it occurred, it’s a legacy lost, even if only to me so far, a posterity of one. But now my daughter is born and she won’t ever know that bit of me either, would that she ever care.
I know I’m not alone; many of us get exasperated when we find that mom threw out the proverbial baseball card collection. But coming to grips with lost childhood memorabilia, even if it is a rite of passage for most of us, still hurts. I got really upset with my parents when, returning home a couple years after college to look for some of my old drawings, stories, and custom-RPG minutiae, I couldn’t find the cardboard filing cabinet under the stairs where I swore all those old pencil sketches and typewritten pages had been. They weren’t anywhere else either that I could tell. We’d been in the house only since my sophomore year of high school, not even a decade before — though that seemed a lot longer then — and I knew my archives had been there, I maintained! In the cardboard filing cabinet under the stairs, I’d emphasize! But alas…
Eventually, my parents would admit that they had cleaned under the stairs, and though they couldn’t remember throwing the stuff out, they must have. It was a disquieting revelation because there was no satisfying explanation. Either they recklessly threw things like cardboard filing cabinets away without looking in them, or they did and didn’t care about any of my childhood works (which reflected badly on them), or they looked in it and cared but didn’t think any of it was worth saving, (which reflects badly on me and them).
I can’t be too harsh on mom and dad for tossing the stuff — on the face of it, it might not have looked particularly important, and a handful of pages of stories have survived here and there, along with a couple drawings (more of my brother’s since he was two and a half years younger and a better artist). Moreover, marrying young, tough financial circumstances, and raising two headstrong teenage boys can batter any parents’ give-a-damn after a spell.
But I can’t help but think that if I were them I would have been more careful to locate and protect the bounty of my kid’s imagination — not only as a memento for my offspring and me, but also because I would like to think that I think it is incumbent upon the possessor of such gossamer and ephemeral evidence of the mental and cultural terroir in which one’s child came of age to maintain it, even if one doesn’t expect the kid to grow up to be Antoine de Saint-Exupéry or Danielle Steele. After all, one’s youth, especially one’s youthful imaginings, are almost by definition impossible to accurately recreate or fully recall, yet a facsimile of them can be conjured up by reading what one’s younger self wrote and seeing what one drew as a child. Letting such things disappear then is not only a loss of something physically irreplaceable, but is, in a way, to snatch away a piece of someone else’s self that, as a parent of that person, one ought rightly to have safeguarded.
To be charitable, though, it was just some old papers and shit in a musty closet next to a Nelson cassette single, a neon fanny pack, and some crusty Girbauds and a Hypercolor T-shit, and who are they, anyway, James F’ing Smithson?
But, then again, you can’t expect a child to know what is worth keeping until they’re old enough to view it as an adult. Until then, parents, keep your kids’ childhood creations. How hard is it to not throw something away? This is someone’s very essence we’re talking about! What if Elizabeth Branwell had thrown away the Brontës’ little books!?
Parents, keep your kids’ childhood creations. What if Elizabeth Branwell had thrown away the Brontës’ little books!?
I didn’t actually say that to my parents, of course, because there’s no good responses to the question, just several bad ones and one really obvious really bad one: You’re no Brontë.
You can see the dilemma: While I was upset that my childhood imaginaria was gone, I didn’t want to press the matter too hard. It still hurts, but maybe some things are better left to memory.
Such loss of our childhood fairylands is the second time most of us encounter questions of our legacy, after seeing the sporting legends in our high school halls. For, given the spotty memory most of us have of our early childhood, when we lose those artifacts, whether baseball card collections or stories or games, we’ve lost some of ourselves, something we won’t have the opportunity to have for ourselves in our adulthood, let alone hand down to our kids.
But for better or for worse, our children will face no such loss, or at least not to any degree close to their analog ancestors’. Sure, they’ll have paper dolls and fingerpaintings, but most of their childhood ephemera will live on forever: Pictures, stories, videos, paintings, all stored to eternity in the iCloud, Google Drive, DropBox, or Amazon Cloud Services. If at 25 or 35 they ever wonder what happened to their childhood story about the boy, the lion, and the football, the one that won that district-prize in third grade (like mine, lost), they’ll need only speak a few keywords to Google, Alexa, Siri, or some other NSA stealth-chaperone, and there it will appear, with full, original color crayon illustrations, waiting to be rediscovered and shown to their child and so on.
Yes, that permanent digital patrimony will likely still likely be forgotten sooner or later. But, a hundred years hence, if some keen, precocious great-great-grandchild were to be curious about what their great-great-grandmother, my daughter, wrote or drew in 2019, they may well be able to find it. As for my great-grandchildren, my childhood creative relics are gone, but maybe they’ll find this this essay, or some others, or my silly humor pieces, or the novel I’m working on, or my old spec script for The Office. I’d be lying if I said I didn’t hope so. I’d also be lying if I didn’t highly suspect my own children won’t be that interested in their dad’s jottings, and I don’t have any more hope that their progeny would either.
Perhaps only a few among us ever hope to be remembered by anyone beyond our grandchildren. Among writers such as, I’d wager, most of us reading and writing on Medium, the proportion is most certainly higher. After all, no writer wants to write and not be read, to be read and not known, or to be known and then forgotten. So the loss of my role-playing game papers, drawings, and other stories still bothers me some today, raising questions as it does of lost legacies — pasts, patrimony, posterity, and, if we’re honest, narcissism — questions that no doubt rattle around the heads of a lot of people who take the time to write down their thoughts in the hope that someone, somewhere, sometime will read them, even if only their children, or most likely, their future selves.
Though our (X, Y) generation’s tangible childhood imaginings may mostly be gone, our children’s creations will, to a much greater extent, remain in tact forever, on a server, there to be seen, by anyone with the right password. I hope this universal museum of ourselves proves to be a gift, a lifeboat of goodness in the nasty wake of anger, distrust, and self-regard that our digital world has left behind it so far as it goes full speed ahead toward some horizon it will never quite reach.
Return for Part 3…