So I heard on Twitter, a notable internet celebrity saying “I just watched The Goonies for the first time. My childhood SUCKED.” - and I thought about it for a moment, knowing I disagreed with him somehow, but not certain why.
There’s a lot of legitimate nostalgia for the 1980s, it’s regarded as a golden age of Western animation on TV for kids, lots of retro hipsters loving stuff without the pretense of irony even, but the absence of a certain thing bothers me when people my age say “My childhood sucked”.
I’m not talking about whether your childhood was unfairly deprived of The Goonies. Not even talking about Transformers or He-Man being seminal works of childhood wonder.
I’m talking about why nobody seems to remember playing with simple sticks and rocks, and instead remember the storebought childhood memories that people cling to with a passion at their advanced age.
I absolutely suck at talking about social justice issues, I suck at talking about even celebrity gossip since I haven’t been Keeping Up With The Kardashians with the passion I can only assume they expect of me without deserving it. But get between me and my childhood ability to imagine shit under comically large trees that I used to pretend were like the Great Deku Tree from Ocarina Of Time and I will end you, good sir or madam.
It’s time I brought out the big guns, you Tumblrites want real talk about Childhood Nostalgia, I’m about to bring the pain so hard your nostalgia will be in hospital for a week after the beating your corporate Hasbro memories are about to receive. I’m gonna talk to you for a moment… about the importance of actual imagination when you’re bringing up your kid.
Not saying that video games or cartoons never enter into it. Not saying that children’s books like Harry Potter should be cut out of the equation either. I’m talking about that dirty little secret that grown ups don’t admit, because they feel awkward about the fact that they used to make fun of the kids who actually did use their imaginations for fun.
I remember it. I was there. 1990s. Ocarina Of Time was the hot new cartridge in Nintendo 64’s slot rotation, edging out even the immortal Goldeneye for a bit while young boys, and girls so I hear, tried to assist an elf-like man in a green outfit save a princess in three dimensional graphics. It was a big deal, but you may want to sit down for this one. It’s about to get real.
I suck at video games, I often lament this, but the real reason I hated video games as a kid, the real reason my crippling motor skills preventing my joining the other kids at play time around the console hurt so much, wasn’t the isolation alone. It was bad, but not as bad as this other aspect of why I get a little wistful when I hear people mention how they cried over Final Fantasy VII and I have to politely tell them that I never played that game and I just wasn’t there for that, like how my Dad tells me about the time he watched Woodstock on his neighbour’s TV when he wasn’t allowed and my brain can’t process what that must have meant to him.
It’s the fact that video games had such expansive, imaginative worlds to play around with but the delivery mechanism that gave you access to them and let you play there locked me out of them because of my shitty-arse motor skills I was born with. So I was stuck as a wallflower who watched on as people played these magnificent games, the only games I ever managed to finish as an adult were the HD Remix of Street Fighter II, Ocarina Of Time and Phoenix Wright: Ace Attorney. And yet I still bought a lot of games for my Game Boy and Nintendo DS hoping that by learning to be as obsessed a gamer as a lot of kids I knew were, I’d somehow gain the social skills that allowed them to make friends. It didn’t happen, but something else did.
I mentioned before that I was gonna rip into the whole store bought memories thing nostalgia trends seem to buy into. Here’s where that comes in.
I enjoyed Ocarina of Time and Pokemon not so much as games, but imaginative concepts that I was shit at playing, but gave my brain imaginative fodder for hours. I recall a time when I was playing outside with my friends with Game Boys and link cables, but instead of just battling Pokemon, we imitated the Trainers in the game by doing this routine where before we battled through link cable, we stood in the grass, adjusted our baseball caps, looked at each other dead in the eye and approached each other in a straight line. Then and only then could the ritual of Pocket Monsters begin.
My friend’s mum came out and saw us bashing buttons on our Game Boys right after that happened, didn’t understand the complex, imaginative ritual that came before, so she groaned, saying “Shouldn’t you boys be playing outside?” - to which we replied, looking up from the paused battle royale: “We are”.
We weren’t just playing a video game, we were pretending to be the characters in the game using the game console and the environment around us.
Remembering little things like that gets me misty eyed, because it reflects something I think gets neglected in adult’s understanding of how exactly children interact with their toys and their imaginations as one entity. Kids use their imaginations far more than they’re given credit for, and adults just look at their kids playing with action figures in the dirt and assume there’s no imagination of their own that’s mixed in there.
But there is, there always was. Pure Imagination as Willy Wonka understood it however, I recall to be much more threatening a concept to the cooler children, as absurd as it is to think of pre-pubescent hipsters, that’s what some kids in the playground were like in the late 90s. Maybe it was the attitude of the times, maybe it was the hangover from Pokemania, but round about 1998 or so, children started to think of Pure Imagination as something to be feared. It was when children started turning on the other kids who thought that imagination based entertainment was fun as crazy loons who should be mocked. I know this because I was the kid the cool kids mocked for this.
And the crux of this was centered around my seemingly bizarre habit of walking around the Thinking Tree, as I dubbed it, where I thought up many of my best ideas, and created designs for monsters I built out of recycled materials to scare teenage girls who were using my treehouse at my old home up north as a make out spot, later drawing them on graph paper and even making the monsters from said designs with real vision… other kids thought I was weird for finding so much entertainment from walking around this tree, stepping on each root it had in sequence and thinking, just… THINKING of all kinds of fresh new ideas for things to create.
I would never have saw something so grand in this Thinking Tree had I not encountered Ocarina Of Time, with its moving sequence where the Great Deku Tree bestows its last gifts of wisdom to the child hero Link who’s too young to understand just how weighty this gift truly is at his tiny age and size. I saw part of the Great Deku Tree in my Thinking Tree, and though it had no face or moustache like it did in Ocarina Of Time I could certainly imagine it would sport one if it chose to.
And all this creative wellspring came from an overlapping of a video game, often blamed as a medium that destroys imagination, from a natural object in the real world that to the eyes of the other children was barely remarkable. From this tree, was given some of the greatest secrets the world ever had. Yet nobody else seemed to hear its secrets because everybody else was too cool to try and listen, even though cool as an eight year old has little future application in the stakes of cool adulthood at all.
I saw children my own age sacrifice the beauty and wonder of their childhood for a cool, snarky sameyness the rest of the world adopted with them, it wasn’t their fault as much as the times, and after 9/11 happened there wasn’t really any hope of turning them back to earnest, pure imagination.
But I never stopped imagining things. Sometimes it got me through tough times. Other times it got me into some serious trouble. But I never gave it up, because I knew that once the Pokemania fad was over, once the kids I knew in the playground gave up their Lego blocks for video games, and later iPhones… I would still have that very special gift, the ability to see the world in a way that could never be replaced by something that was store bought as a hip new trend. In every hoodie I saw, I saw a slight glimmer of Jace Beleren the Planeswalker from Magic: The Gathering, every chopstick I ever saw after reading Harry Potter became a wand that yearned for the chance to believe in magic.
I never gave up imagining things because I knew there would come a day when too many people gave up on it and suddenly there’d be a big kerfuffle in the world and suddenly everybody would panic that there was nobody to bring the magic back.
Cut to 2012 and I see articles like this by Leigh Alexander where people are all worried about what’s to be done about this generation. Age of Feelings my arse, and I say that in a way that’s not so much mean as frustrated. You want to know why a generation of men and women are frustrated with their lives, feeling beaten down by the economy crumbling and not knowing what direction their future is headed in?
The problem was not what were were promised, what we were sold as a myth about how the world worked. Because a generation of men and women simply stopped imagining, sacrificing their souls and innocence for a paltry reward of being cool and popular, not knowing that popularity and being cool doesn’t last forever… they didn’t have the tools to equip themselves with when there was no money left to buy the things that made you cool in the eyes of your peers and no jobs to provide that money in a meaningful way that fulfilled them.
Because they stopped imagining, they lost the direction in their lives because they forgot that imagining things was what gave them direction to begin with. In an age of remakes and sequels, people just forgot that maybe it was time for the wizards to come out of their mystical caves and announce “Time to make the world new again, and this magic we’ve been surviving off of is all we have to do it”.
Closing out, I’ll recall what happened when I voted in a federal election for the first time, I was voting at the same school hall I attended as a boy, the same playground where my Thinking Tree stood. But after I cast my vote in that election, whether or not I truly believed my vote meant a damn thing in the scheme of politics I gave far more of a damn whether my Thinking Tree was still there.
But when I looked across the playground, I saw a bare, grey stump rotting. They cut down the Thinking Tree, and I didn’t weep strangely. I didn’t feel like weeping because I knew nobody else ever bloody cared about that bloody tree, and I wasn’t going to waste any tears in front of grown men and women too cool to shed a tear over anything it wasn’t trendy to shed a tear over.
I was surprised, however, by the closure of it. I didn’t need the tree to keep imagining. It was like visiting the grave of a friend, and panic turned to a bizarre calm that came over me when I touched the stump of the old, dead Thinking Tree.
For a moment, I felt what I knew Link must have felt, when he saw the big, dying Great Deku Tree choke out its last words of wisdom. I never stopped imagining, because I knew one day the world would need some poor fool like me to bring the magic back.
I never gave up imagining because whether or not I’d have to serve coffee as a clerk in some trendy cafe, I’d always have the imagining, and putting that imagining into real things I had made with my own hands… I didn’t care about what job I would be doomed to as an adult because I knew whatever office Kafkaesque hell I was damned to, there would be wizards like myself lurking in the shadows, making the most of their magic when nobody with any real insight would be looking.
Your childhood doesn’t suck because you didn’t have The Goonies growing up as a kid. If you had playing in the grass, sitting under a big Thinking Tree contemplating the secrets of the universe given up from deep roots buried in the Earth… if you had a mind that never stopped making things in a space where nobody else could see because it’s hidden behind your head… your childhood never sucked, no matter what anybody tells you because they have no idea how a childhood that didn’t have whatever junk you were sold by a corporation for a buck back in the day in it could be worth anything. But it was, it always was because no other child had that.
And if you had that… fight to the tooth and nail so your kids have that too.