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On Watching My Mother Play Centipede for Twelve Hours Straight

My mother was born in 1944. She remembers sitting in front of a radio listening to programs at night until her parents sent her to bed. Then came the television set in the early 50s and she watched test patterns until the Howdy Doody show came on the air.

This was the extent of technology for her.

The innovations that came out of the atomic age seemed distant and impersonal, nothing tangible that she could touch on a regular basis. Nothing that a young girl could want or use. She remembers crouching underneath desks during bombing drills, of people building fallout shelters, of hoping that somehow she would see her twentieth birthday.

By the time Kennedy died she was a teenager and all that technology represented to her was fear and possible death.

But then Neil Armstrong stepped onto the surface of the moon in 1969 and she was overwhelmed that anyone could touch the universe or look into the sky and not just see the stars but the earth as well and she wondered if it looked beautiful and peaceful from that distance.

And again, the technology available seemed so big, so far away from her, that the possibility of holding something in her hand so powerful that it could connect her to the world was a dream straight out of science fiction.

And she didn’t think about how much life would change in the future, what a decade after the moon landing would mean. How could she have known that in the coming years that her children would yearn for the very things that seemed so distant to her? How could it be possible that some blips and pixels and echoic melodies of electronic games would fit into her hand and cause her to connect to some cosmic, primal force that would unleash an instinct to shoot a Centipede?

But it did and she did.

And for one glorious day my mother was the technological warrior caught in an addictive state and became, in a word, stunning to behold.

She was apprehensive at first of playing the game. She had seen her children become zombified by it and was worried that it was rotting away their potential to be useful members of society, but we insisted my brother and I, thinking she would play one game and then leave us alone.

She agreed and settled in next to us on our yellow linoleum floor and began to play.

At first she was terrible, lasting seconds. Her hand-eye coordination was too slow even at the beginner’s stage to do anything more than die.

But then something clicked and she handled the black Atari joystick like Luke Skywalker taking to the lightsaber.

She shot and maneuvered and finished levels, advancing past even her children (who had taken to the game like a fish to water) while hours slipped away and the sky darkened outside the windows.

As my brother and I forged for food in the cabinets, my mother reached the inner peace of Atari Zen, a state of being where real time ceased to exist and instead moved in slickly smooth motions. To explain it better, it was as if she was enveloped in Bullet Time where every movement was caught in a scene-by-scene stuttering, like being moved in a slow-motion fast-forward from a remote control.

You could barely discern any obvious life coming from her (that’s how intent she was to destroy the Centipede) except for the rhythmic popping of the joystick and the clicking of the red button as she destroyed sections of the menacing insect.

For hours, we watched her play (and had we known she wasn’t a sharer we never would have asked her to take a turn). As the clock crept far past our bedtime and into the darkest part of night, our eyelids drooped and fell shut but our brains were still alive with the sounds of the game.

When I awoke the next morning curled up to my brother, we were covered by a blanket (a sure sign that our mother was again our mother). The Atari had been put back on top of the mammoth television console and there was no evidence that a gaming marathon had taken place.

I got up off the couch and made my way to my mother’s room where I found her awake but her eyes were covered by the crook of her arm.

She heard the sound of me coming closer and said, “I have an Atari migraine, could you make me some coffee?”

I smiled and went out to the kitchen where I carefully measured a scoop of Folgers and dumped it into the coffee-maker.

There has only been two other times when we witnessed our mother becoming one with a game. The second occurred when she played Tetris on my brother’s Gameboy for weeks without giving it back to him (and where we physically had to take it from her) and the third was more recent.

You see, I wanted to see if, at 66, she could still feel the pull of the game, that maniacal fever that overtakes you when you are in the zone (and I needed to know since I am turning 37 this year and am wondering if I am, perhaps, getting too old for this shit, to quote Lethal Weapon).

And so I bought her a Nintendo DS XL, complete with an Atari compilation cartridge that included Centipede and waited.

Then the call came, from my brother no less.

“Mom doesn’t sleep; she’s been up every night playing the game.”

And I smiled.

My mother has indeed become one with technology.

There’s hope for humanity yet.

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