Friday, October 30, 2009

Easily Amused

Recently, I reminisced about how, during my boyhood, I would sometimes spend time watching raindrops splashing into puddles on rainy days. This may not seem like the sort of pastime that would hold most peoples' attentions for very long. Although I never timed myself, I daresay that this activity probably held my attention for far longer than most people would deem reasonable. Apparently I was already sorely in need of a life, even during my tender years.

It was always thus with me. My mother sometimes reminisces about my toddler years. Anyone who has ever parented a little boy between the ages of two and five years will agree that raising such a child is very much a "hands-on" activity. They tend to be full of energy, and they're into everything. You can't turn your back on them for a moment. Not so with me. According to mom, all I needed was a handful of Matchbox cars and I would sit quietly in some corner, playing with them for hours. Sometimes, she barely knew that I was there.

In fact, I've heard her recount, on a number of occasions, an anecdote about the time that our family moved to a new apartment. Mom set me down with my collection of Matchbox cars and left me to play while she went about the business of unpacking and arranging our new home. After several hours, as the sun began to set outside, I finally put down my cars, walked up to my mother and asked, "When are we going back home?" I spoiled my mother during my early years but, that's okay; I'm making up for it in my adulthood.

Things didn't change as I aged. During my schoolboy years, I would often pass the time when it wasn't raining playing bizarre solitary games which I had invented and whose appeal was apparent only to myself. One involved sitting in the backyard with plastic ships (essentially, bathtub or beach toys), dropping ants which I had caught onto their decks and watching as they clambered around. I was particularly satisfied when one of them would move between decks in the proper manner, by scurrying up or down a staircase or ladder, rather than straight up or down the wall, which I of course regarded as "cheating". I could never quite make the ants understand the rules of the game.

Another favorite game involved squeezing drops of water onto the north pole of a model globe, then turning the globe slowly and watching the droplets run down the northern hemisphere, toward the equator. If one of the mountain ranges, which were slightly raised, obstructed a droplet's path, I watched in fascination as it detoured around the perimeter or, more rarely, as it actually crested the summits and rolled down the other side, a giant tsunami besting even the mountains themselves. Once past the equator (i.e. the underside of the globe) I would muse as to how long the droplet could cling to the globe's surface before gravity overcame its adherence and it dropped off the face of the world. Antarctica was by far the driest continent on my globe.

If I happened to have inflated balloons handy (usually after a birthday or some such festivity), I would while away the hours with a game of "Battling Balloons". This involved dropping the balloons, which were filled with plain old carbon dioxide rather than helium and were therefore heavier than air, onto a heating vent on the floor. The rising warm air would toss the balloons around and, whichever one was the highest, was deemed to be "winning". I should point out that said heating vent was positioned near a corner of the room at the foot of a bed. The two walls that formed the room's corner and the foot of the bed served to corral the balloons over the heating vent, so that they couldn't easily escape the warm air current. Hence, they would jostle around, rising and sinking, jockeying for the coveted high ground while I watched. Good times!

Not all of the odd games that I invented were solitary. My neighbour and best friend, Mart, and I came up with a number of unusual two-player games. One was called "Hide-On-Each-Other". It's like Hide-And-Go-Seek, except that all players are both hider and seeker concurrently. The game involved skulking around our homes, trying to find and watch the other guy without being spotted ourselves.

Then there was the classic "Comeback Wheels". This involved the use of small plastic colored discs from some board game or other. We would set the discs on their edges on the floor, with the edge facing ourselves, then press our index fingers diagonally against the discs, exerting a simultaneous downward and forward pressure. Friction would hold the discs in place until the pressure caused them to spring free, in effect "flicking" the discs away from ourselves but spinning them in the opposite direction from their movement. The result was that the discs would skid away from us at first but then, as they lost momentum and gained traction from the counter-spin, come rolling back toward us. This game had no obvious object or conditions for winning. It was just fun to do.

You would probably think that, having reached adulthood, I've matured to the point where I no longer pass my time with such mindless pursuits. You would be mistaken. I've mentioned before, in this blog, that I enjoy computer games. What I didn't mention is that I don't always play games in the intended manner. (Well, come to think of it, I sort of did, didn't I? But that's not what I mean in this case). Even in the virtual world of the computer, I seem to have retained my youthful fascination with simply watching things unfold.

I'm an avid fan of Microsoft's Flight Simulator series. Their latest release provides a camera view that focuses on A.I. aircraft; that is, air traffic controlled by the computer rather than myself. I'd be embarrassed to admit how many hours I've spent, not actually flying, but just watching the A.I. aircraft while my simulated aircraft sat idle at an airport. In my own defense, or at least in the way of explanation, I'm intrigued by the behavior of the computer's A.I. (artificial intelligence). I find it fascinating to watch an A.I. aircraft taxi to a runway, take off, follow its flight path, enter a pattern, land, and then taxi to parking, all without any input from me. Sometimes, at busy airports, I've even seen A.I. aircraft abort an approach and go around because of traffic on the runway. The thought of a machine handling all that while (for normal people, at least) simultaneously modeling the flight characteristics of the player's aircraft and rendering the world realistically, not to mention weather, air traffic communications and even ground traffic, never loses its awe for me.

I've also spent a fair bit of time with The Sims, one of the more popular games available for the PC. For those unfamiliar with The Sims, the game is a sort of virtual doll house. You create a family, move it into a house, and control every aspect of their lives; their careers, their friends, their jobs, how they spend their leisure time and how the furnish and decorate their homes. I say that "you" do all of this. I do not. When I run The Sims on my computer, I often refrain from giving any of my characters any sort of guidance or instruction whatsoever. Instead, I simply watch them, curious to see what they will do when left to their own devices, much like the ants on the deck of my ship so many years ago. If they're tired and don't know enough to get some sleep, so be it. Watching them return from work the next day, only to pass out from exhaustion and crumple to the pavement before they can even enter their homes, much less reach their beds, only amuses me. Watching other passer-by Sims come across their dormant forms, stop to examine them, shrug their shoulders and go on their way amuses me even more.

I suppose that people like myself (and I do hope that there are others, else I'm worse than I thought) are so easily amused because we live largely inside of our own heads. Our own imaginations are our chief forms of entertainment. This has its advantages. If I ever become a quadriplegic, I'll wager I adjust to it much more easily than most would. Not that I'm suggesting anything.

1 comment:

Tubes said...

We used lay our kitchen chairs on their backs and then sit on the backs, leaning back on the seat aka everglades air boats as in Gentle Ben..