Dispatches, thoughts, and miscellanea from writer Jon Konrath

random.yahoo.com is better than any Ouija board

I don’t know why, but I suddenly remembered that random.yahoo.com used to be an obsession of mine.  I mean, this was back when there were only like 800 web sites and 680 of them were under construction and had one of those stupid animated GIFs of a construction worker or bulldozer, but it meant that every reload of that URL brought you to something interesting to read, while now, 9 times out of 10, you get directed to a spam farm that’s full of harvested content someone’s using to game their search rank.  But I was going to write something about that, and it made me think about the Ouija board.  And now I wonder if anyone still plays with these, or if the slow demise of the board game and all things printed is going to make those go away.  I mean, you can’t really do a spirit seance with your Nintendo Wii.  (Or can you?)

I remember when I was 14 I had this babysitting gig for the better part of a summer, where I watched these two boys, went to their house every day while their mom worked, and tried to entertain them for the working day, for something like $45 a week.  I can barely get out of a California Pizza Kitchen for less than that now, but I think my allowance at that point was something like $5 a week, so that was gold rush money.  The two kids were unholy terrors, and in today’s modern world, would probably get drugged out of their minds for ADHD, bipolar disorder, or whatever the hell they diagnose hyperactive kids with these days.  They weren’t bad kids, I guess, but this wasn’t one of those gigs where I could sit around and watch TV all day – I had to actively think of something to do all day every day.

Anyway, their mom had a bunch of board games, and we burned up maybe a week of time playing those.  She had all of the basics: Life, Monopoly, Clue; she also had that game Anti-Monopoly, which was in the news because they got sued by Parker Brothers, but I think it was too complicated or too boring, so we never played that.  But she had a Ouija board, and we spent a lot of time screwing with that, trying to figure out if we could call up any ghosts or dead people.  I think we spent the better part of a summer trying to call up various professional wrestlers, because this was when WWF was really huge and the kids were really into Hulk Hogan and the Iron Sheik and all of that crap.

I just started googling Ouija because I wonder how it works.  I mean, I don’t believe in the paranormal and never believed all of the various Christian fundamentalist types who said I’d go to hell for playing with a board game, or introduce some kind of trapped demon spirits that would somehow channel into this world through a piece of plastic dancing across a board of letters printed and sold in a Kay-Bee toy store.  Wikipedia says something about the ideomotor effect, and I’ll buy that, even though wikipedia is generally full of shit.  Still, it all makes me wonder if there’s some way to write an iPad version.

That whole summer though – it was such a weird little period of time, because it was after junior high, before high school.  I absolutely hated junior high, because things seemed almost normal as a kid in grade school, and I knew my place among the few dozen people in my class, and then all four grade schools got thrown into one big school, and everything changed.  And everyone makes this weird jump from being little kids in an almost socialist situation where everyone is equal to this place of cliques and castes and a social pecking order based on who you know and what you wear and how you look.  And I never got the memo, and spent way too long infatuated with computers and D&D and science fiction and model airplanes, and did not do well on that jump.

So in a sense, that summer was this weird sort of “end of innocence” thing, where I built at least one or two 1/48 scale fighter jets a week, and mowed lawns when I wasn’t babysitting, and pretty much memorized every Rush album to date while pushing a 3.5 HP Briggs and Stratton across a manicured bed of green and getting another five bucks closer to someday buying a drum set and learning every single thing Neil Peart laid down in a recording studio.  That summer, I did buy a drum set, my friend Derik’s old double-bass set – I have no idea how I talked my parents into that one – but I never did learn much, and sold the whole thing a year later to buy a new bike.  I played a lot of D&D when D&D was totally uncool, and spent a lot of time typing in computer games from Compute magazine into my Commodore-64.

I think I also underwent some shift in brain chemistry in that period.  Every psychiatrist I’ve talked to said that’s when things hit, that last spurt of puberty that changes the plasticity of your brain or something, alters the structure in some way.  I never remember ever being depressed before that, and it seems like after that summer, when I grew like a foot in three months, I spent all of my time in some undefined funk.  At the time, it was all situational – it was all a lack of friends or popularity, a lack of whatever clothes or haircut or social placement that made me unsuccessful.  And all of that was true, but there was also this new serotonin imbalance or whatever it was, masking the whole thing.

No real moral to the story here – I just fell into a brief time hole, thinking about this.  I remember watching TV when I was babysitting those kids, there was some morning news program, the last thing they would show before they got into the soap operas, at which time we had to shut it off and go play game #263 of Life that week.  But they were talking about the 40th anniversary of the atomic bomb in Hiroshima, showing the grainy newsreel footage of the giant mushroom cloud, and the decimated little paper and kindling wood city after the 18-kiloton blast.  And the 65th anniversary just passed – and that screws with my head, thinking that summer was 25 years ago.

I should wrap this up.  I’ve started googling Hiroshima, and will probably waste the next two hours reading stuff online, and eventually convince myself I need to dig up the Richard Rhodes book, and I have other crap to do instead.