This is RPG-ology #21: Living In the Past, for August 2019.
All four of my grandparents have died. I have also lost my father, and both of my wife’s parents are gone. I had a long list of great uncles and great aunts at one time, but it has dwindled to nothing, and of my uncles and aunts I might still have one.
The five and dime at which I bought candy on my way home from school is gone, and I am one and a half hundred miles from where it once stood. There’s a long list of good friends with whom I have lost touch—Jay Fedigan, Artie Robins, Jeff Zurheide, Jack Haberer, not to mention Peggy Lisbona, Nancy Codispoti, Ann Hughes, and the girl to whom my mind often returns, on whom I had an impossible crush for two or three years beginning in second grade, Christie Newcomb. At least two of those people, all within a couple years of my age, are dead; and although I have spoken or corresponded with some within the past decade, I cannot say for certain that any one of them is still alive today.
No one will be surprised that the past is disappearing into—well, into the past. That’s expected. Young people will wonder why I even mention it. You’re living in the past, old man. Get over it. Life goes forward, and will leave you behind if you don’t keep up. I know this; I can sigh and let life leave me behind, or I can keep moving forward.
But I’ve got news for you.
You’re living in the past, too.
That talk you had with your girlfriend yesterday—that’s now in the past. Get over it; the moment has come and gone. Whatever you should have said, well, you didn’t, and you’re not going to be able to go back and fix that.
You got beat up last month. It’s in the past. It’s over, and fading faster and faster into oblivion. Ten years and you might not remember his name. Twenty years and you won’t remember that it happened. Yes it hurt, and it hurts, and you’re angry and upset about it. But it’s the past now. You can’t hold on to it; you might as well let it go.
That A+ you got on your math test (or was it the “letter” you received in varsity football, or the badge you earned in boy scouts, or the award you won for your picture or article)—well, that’s also in the past. Time is leaving it behind. You will eventually forget it. And everyone else will forget it long before you do.
Was breakfast good today? It’s gone already.
You are living in the past. Everything you know, everything you remember, everything you’ve ever said—even the thoughts you had when you started reading this article–everything is in the past. You can’t have it back.
Don’t feel bad about it. It’s the same for everyone else. In fact, it’s the same for the world, quite apart from the people. I’m one of those who are often quoting C. S. Lewis. There are enough of us out here that there ought to be a DSM-IV classification for us. So you’ll probably see his name in a lot of these articles if you stay with the series. This time he comes to mind because of a very simple observation he mentioned more than once: most people are already dead.
That is, of all the people ever born, only a very few are alive now.
This moment in time is interesting; if you could know everything that is happening at this instant, it would overwhelm you—even if your knowledge was limited to your own town, there would be more happening this instant than you could grasp, enough ideas for a lifetime of stories. Yet when compared with the past, this instant is no time at all, a desert devoid of interest. In trying to get readers to think and create, I often focus on now. Last month’s article, entitled Pay Attention, might at first glance have seemed to have been about the past—but it was actually about capturing the present, living in the moment and learning from what is around you immediately. Writing it down served to preserve it, certainly; but it also served to force you to notice it. The present is always a source of ideas. But the ideas you can get from the present are dwarfed by those you can get from the past.
Assuming you can find them.
My father was a ramblin’ wreck from Georgia Tech, and a helluvan engineer. He drove a reconditioned Model-T to school, poured fifty-weight oil into the crankcase to keep the worn bearings running smoothly, and had to crank-start it by hand on cold mornings. He played fourth sax (tenor) in a dance band to help pay for college, and went to work in an electronics lab for Western Union. When he was head of the lab, he proposed “Young’s Law.” Accidents occasionally happened in the lab, usually because someone didn’t have the right piece of equipment and so tried to use the wrong piece of equipment on the theory that it really wasn’t different; the results of such experiments were always strange and confusing. My father’s law reads, “Things that are not the same are different.” He missed World War II, having been enlisted just as the war ended. All this, and more, was before my birth.
He later took an interest in computers, and in the late 60’s spent a lot of time nagging the few computer tinkerers at the company to explain things to him. This led to a few courses, more investigation, and ultimately to his position as head of engineering for Western Union Data Services Corporation, where he designed systems before there were PC’s. He holds a couple of patents in focusing microwaves, but he says they really aren’t worth much because modern microwave applications rely on reflection rather than refraction.
He met my mother, a New York girl, after he started work in New York; he courted her for a while. She tried to pair him off with a girl from Virginia, thinking that two slow-moving southerners would be a good match, but he wouldn’t hear of it.
As for her, she got her bachelor’s degree from City College in New York at nineteen. She had skipped a lot of half-grades in the New York City schools, and excelled in math. For quite a few years she worked as an efficiency expert for, I think, General Electric. If you visited her at home, you would see the efficiency expert side of her still maintaining everything in order even now in her nineties as her grandchildren are all adults and she has a couple of great-grandchildren. She left work to raise a family, and when the youngest was old enough she returned to teaching, mostly math, as a substitute primarily although she got roped into substituting full time for several years at one point. She has always looked young; the day after her college graduation, an immigrant bought her a lollipop.
When they were courting, they would ride the train together from Freeport Long Island to The City; they sat with an older man who had known my mother for some time. He did not think that the quiet, slow, polite Mississippi gentleman that was my father was at all right for my fast-paced New York mother. But one day, as my mother was yacking a mile a minute about nothing of any importance and the other two sat in silence listening, she abruptly stopped, and said, “Oh dear, I forgot what I was going to say.”
Quietly my father replied, “Don’t worry, dear. You’ll think of something else.”
Their companion roared with laughter, and accepted my father as the right man for my mother from then on.
So, what did your parents do? Have you ever asked? Did they tell you? Their lives are fading from their memories even as you read this; and they were full of stories. Life itself is an adventure. I’d think you’d want to know about them merely because they’re your parents, and thus in some sense your story. But if not, consider it a source of game, world, and character ideas.
This article has been slightly updated from Game Ideas Unlimited: Living In the Past, published at Gaming Outpost in the summer of 2001.