10 March 2011

Little House Syndrome

I got a call from my real estate agent yesterday--a pleasant woman named Shelly--letting me know that an apartment I'd been interested in a few months ago was back on the market and that the seller was now, in her words, "very motivated."

As with all real estate fantasies, I'd enjoyed a brief, torrid affair with the apartment in my mind, but had since moved on to other fantasy apartments and concerns. Or, had I?

I woke up this morning thinking about the apartment, obsessing over it, wondering if I would be happy there. I thought about the cats. What would they make of the place? I wondered if the kitchen would need to be renovated before I moved in. Were there smokers in the building? Particularly on the lower floors? I'd once lived above a smoker in Brooklyn, which led to a conflict, which led to several months of misery. I certainly didn't want a repeat of that episode. I wouldn't wish that on anyone.

I also thought about the future. Could I invite people over for dinner? If my parents visited, would they be comfortable sleeping in the downstairs area? And, if I ever did meet someone who could love me and, by extension, my rich and varied eccentricities, could we possibly co-habitate there together?

Yet, what I wondered most was this: Could I play videogames there?

Let me clarify: One can ostensibly play videogames anywhere. Upstairs, downstairs, inside, outside, etc. But some spaces are better suited for gaming than others. For example, the apartment I currently live in receives an abundance of sunlight in the summer months between the hours of 3 p.m. and 9 p.m. And when I say "abundance," I mean that it feels as if the sun itself pulls up outside my building and parks in front of my windows for six straight hours like the Eye of Sauron. And, since the apartment I live in, in another instance of real-estate jargon, is "open concept" (translation: it features the fewest amount of walls possible), any chance of either watching anything on TV or playing games is erased by that blinding, angry glare.

Which is all very nice, if you enjoy the sun. Which I do. Mostly. But it's far from nice if you've got a 20-hour survival-horror game set in an underground network of pitch-black caves to get through before the morning. How I've cursed the sun in these moments. I.M. Pei could not have designed and built more impressive structures out of couch cushions and afghans and throw pillows than I have, all in the name of creating a small patch of shade and, therefore, being able to glimpse even a fraction of what is happening onscreen in Cave Horror Party 4: Still Caving.

Of course, you're no doubt thinking, "Jesus, Jones, just go out and buy some curtains." Fact 1: I have blinds. Fact 2: Unfortunately, they are the sort of blinds that are sheer, and allow in light, but prevent people from seeing any of the untoward things I might do while nude (eating Pringles, using my fitness ball, watching Footloose on cable, sewing my woman suit out of human skin, etc. etc.). In Vancouver, where, for eight months out of the year the sun peeks over the horizon each morning only to say, "Oh, the hell with this," before going down again, curtains/blinds are not something anyone here wants to invest in.

But the apartment I woke up fantasizing about this morning? It's not the usual wall-of-glass condo-type apartment typically found in Vancouver. This place is all brick and wood beams. The windows are small (well, small-ish). Direct sunlight is so limited that the average houseplant wouldn't last more than three weeks in that place. In other words, the apartment would make for an ideal gaming space.

Probably the most ideal game-friendly dwelling I've ever seen is the house that Bilbo lives in in The Fellowship of the Ring. Look at those low ceilings, the alcoves, the little nooks. Every gaming space should be outfitted with at least two (x2) alcoves and four or five (x4-x5) nooks. I also love the sense of warmth that the place has, and the feeling that the cupboards are forever stocked with delicious food items.

Another great gaming space, and one that I still think of often for reasons that have never entirely been clear to me, is the tiny house where Rudolph, Yukon Cornelius, and Hermie spend the night at the start of their long journey in the 1964 stop-motion holiday special, Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer. I particularly remember the fabric of the curtains hanging in the house's diminutive window. Snow is falling outside, the Abominable Snowman is roaring in the distance, and the camera pulls out to show the impossibly small house--which is really no bigger than the period at the end of this sentence--lost in the center of a sprawling, snowbound landscape. Despite the surreal, enjoyable journey that the three wind up going on together, part of me always wished at that point in the story that they would have simply stayed in that house. Namely, because I think that's what I probably would have done: stayed there, where it was safe and warm, with those tiny curtains drawn against the dangers ahead.

True story: After graduating from college, I was enduring a couple of restless months living back at home with my parents--for those who are regular readers, yes, this is the time when I was working as the mall Santa Claus--when a friend phoned and asked if I'd be interested in housesitting for him for six weeks or so while he was away. My friend lived in a renovated one-room school house on a couple of spare, wind-blown acres in the hills outside of town. It was a chance to enjoy some privacy--the first true privacy I'd had in my entire life. Of course, I couldn't say the word "yes" fast enough.

I saw the six weeks, and the privacy, as an opportunity to do some serious writing. I was trying to be a serious writer, and this is what serious writers did: they went to the woods and wrote in solitude great works of literature. My plan was to produce an entire novel in six weeks. I'd be crowned der wunderkind of the literary world. I imagined how I'd be introduced at the 92nd Street Y before my first reading: "Here is a brave man who holed up in a one-room schoolhouse located on a couple of spare, wind-blown acres in Upstate New York and wrote his first novel in a mere six weeks. Would you please welcome to the stage der wunderkind... WRITER SCOTT JONES."

But after a few miserable days of trying to write--honestly, is there anything worse than the trying-to-write state?--I gave up and drove to a local department store and purchased a Super Nintendo for $199. My second order of business: drive to a porno store a few towns over called ADULT WORLD--which was a window-less barn--and purchase the first pornographic movie I ever owned: a $29.95 VHS copy of Andrew Blake's Night Trips, starring Tori Welles. Tori would go on to star in other films such as Shaved and Dangerous, Breast to Breast, and Butts Motel 2.

I steeped myself in Super Mario World--the SNES's terrific pack-in cartridge--playing the game with a level of obsession and drive rivaled only by my obsession/drive for Tori Welles and Andrew Blake's Night Trips. I gamed with zeal, with passion. I believe this was the first real gaming--and by real gaming, I don't mean just fooling around with a game; I mean engaging the game in a see-saw battle of dexterity and patience and tenacity and wonderment--that I'd ever done in my life.

And when I wasn't gaming, I was watching my new porno movie and masturbating with wild abandon, blowing huge, copious loads all over that one-room schoolhouse.

If I'm going to be honest with myself, I wouldn't exactly say that I was happy during this period. But I wasn't unhappy, either. I was mostly somewhat disappointed in myself, I guess--which, little did I know back then, would be the state I'd basically stay in for the rest of my life. I was out on my own for the first time (college didn't count; there were chaperones and roommates and dining halls, and a medical clinic). I couldn't blame anyone but myself for not writing, and for not becoming the person who I wanted to be. Here was a chance--my first real chance--to do something truly constructive with myself and my life, and what did I do? I jacked off like an escaped zoo chimpanzee, played Super Mario World until dawn, and did not write a single word.

One night, exhausted from gaming and self-pleasure, I climbed up into the sleep loft in the schoolhouse and covered myself with a great many quilts. The temperature had dropped severely over the last few hours. Snow had been falling since the afternoon. It was still falling, accumulating on the eave of the tiny, octagonal window in the sleep loft.

On the verge of sleep, I heard a sound outside the house. I recognized it as a car engine, rumbling by. It was strange to hear a car out here, out this far, at that hour. In all my time at the schoolhouse, only a half dozen cars had ever passed this way. People rarely came out that way. The only reason to come out that way was if you lived out there.

The car engine faded in the distance. I reshuffled the quilts and was on the verge of drifting off again when the car, to my surprise, returned. This time, it slowed and stopped outside of the schoolhouse, its wheels crunching in the snow. The engine idled steadily. I peered over the edge of the sleep loft. I could see, through the schoolhouse's side windows, the red glow of the car's taillights. I thought, I am alone here in the middle of the night. I thought, Did I remember to lock the door? I thought, Maybe if I remain quiet and keep still whoever is out there will go away.

The car idled on. I held my breath in the dark. I could feel my heart pounding in the tips of my ears. An chill spread through my abdomen and down through my hips. I was as afraid as I've ever been in my life.

I began to chastise myself. Why did you come out here? Why the hell didn't you stay at home, where it was safe?

Where there was food in the cupboards.

Where my parents were snoring in their room down the hall.

Where my father built the fire in the wood stove each morning.

I listened to the car. I watched the taillights. I waited. A few minutes later--it's difficult to say how much time had elapsed--the car finally drove off. It didn't return. I never learned who it was, or why they'd stopped there, outside an old schoolhouse in the middle of a snowy night on a remote backroad. It was probably just some kids drinking, or maybe a randy couple looking for a place to make out. Whoever it was, and whatever their reason for stopping, that moment has always stayed with me.

After that, the spell of the schoolhouse--the head-spinning pornography and gaming and privacy and safety and free time--was broken. My fantasy of staying there, right there, forever--though I knew that, realistically, I could not (my friend would be returning and reclaiming his house soon)--left that night along with that strange, idling car.

I've done a lot of brave things in my life. And I've done a lot of cowardly things, too. No matter what I was doing, I kept playing games, and kept trying to find safe, small, comfortable dwellings to live--and game--in. I realized--after a recent conversation with fellow writer, Chris Plante--that what I'm doing, what I've always done, is I'm trying to somehow get back to the safe, small, comfortable places of my childhood.

Of course, I can't get back there, not literally, not anymore. The house I grew up in has been sold, and, as I learned on my last trip home, sold again. What I can do is create--or recreate--approximations of those places in my adult life.

Recently, on a rare, snowy afternoon in Vancouver, I sat on my couch playing a videogame. My cat, Bee, had climbed up into my lap, where she likes to curl up and fall asleep. I paused the game and sat there feeling Bee's small cat breaths--in, out; in, out--and listening to air whistle through her small nose, while looking out the windows at the falling snow. It was really starting to come down now. A hush was coming over the city.

I don't remember what I was playing. BioShock 2? Demon's Souls? What I do remember is feeling about as happy as I ever feel in my life.