Welcome to Growing Up Geek, an ongoing feature where we take a look back at our youth and tell stories of growing up to be the nerds that we are. Today, we have our very own Associate Editor, Sean Buckley.
The hardest question I was ever asked as a kid was "What do you want to be when you grow up?" When the boys all cried "Fireman!" and the girls unanimously pledged their life to marine biology, I came up short. Growing up? I hadn't planned on that.
Peter Pan complex (and book collection) aside, I had it as good as any boy during the 80s / 90s split. I grew-up in the pre-internet stone age, when the world was still a mystery that couldn't be Wiki'd away. Playground rumors went without debunk, and wild stories ran amok across the schoolyard -- pixies in England, aliens in New Mexico, and magical robot cars in Japan. The world was a fantastic, impossible place. It still is, but I'd be lying if I said the finality of reality isn't a small disappointment compared to the lies I loved as a child. With the information superhighway still under construction, I had to find other ways to spend my summers. Sure, countless hours were
wasted well spent saving 8-bit princesses (and the world of course), but the best weeks of summer were had at Boy Scout camp, the County Fair, and trudging across the country on family road trips.
When most folks think of County Fairs, they think of the Carnival. Forget about that, the Carnival is rubbish -- I spent summer weeks at the fair cleaning animal pens, running through corn mazes, eating BBQ and showing pigs and lambs in 4-H competitions, eventually selling the livestock at auction. It was fantastic. Cleaning a pigpen might not sound like a summer highlight (and on its own, it's really not), but it was an essential part of the fair experience. My brothers and I spent the week with our friends -- working together, supporting each other, and getting a hands-on feel for the rich agricultural history that built the foundation of today's Silicon Valley.
And then there were summer days at Camp Chawanakee -- Boy Scout camp. Nestled on the southern shore of Shaver Lake in California, Chawanakee was my home for one week of every summer of my teenage life. It was comradery through earning merit badges, small boat sailing, and complaining about the grub that passed for breakfast in the mess hall -- truly a unique culinary experience. Where else can you get pancakes that double as frisbees? Most of the week we suffered through cozy cots and canvas tents, but one night a year we would get the chance to canoe out to an island in the center of the lake and sleep under the stars.
The very last summer I spent at Chawanakee, our island getaway was rocked by a thunderstorm, forcing us to make a tough decision -- take cover under the strike-prone trees, or huddle under an all-metal conductive canoe? Yikes.
My 4-H and scouting excursions may have been light on gadgetry, but I made up for it in other areas of my life. Gizmos and toys were always around growing up; long before my arrival, my entire family had taken up an interest in amateur radio. I can't remember a childhood car ride without squawk box chitter chatter crackling through the voices of my Uncle, Grandfather, or the robotic monotone of "Charlie," our family-owned repeater. The portable ham rigs saved our skin a couple of times -- calling for help on a cell phone may be child's play today, but back then our ham radios were a unique and powerful tool. Stuck on the side of the road? Call Charlie, he'll help you out. The ham radio was a grown-up toy, a special gadget so exclusive and cool, you needed to pass a test just to use one. It took me a few tries, but I finally got a license of my own -- and although I now pocket a smartphone as my wireless doodad of choice, I'll always be proud of my "family gadget."
Be it a stroke of geeky luck, or just a consequence of being born in the 1980s, I've always had a thing for gizmos, gadgets, and computers. There was always some sort of PC around the house growing up. For awhile we had an Apple IIe in the garage, and for a number of years it was all DOS and batch programs -- Windows was a rare treat I would see when visiting my grandparents. Despite the abundance of PCs in my home, we were always just behind the curve. I remember dialing into BBS networks specifically to pretend I was getting in on some of that "internet" action all my friends were talking about. It just wasn't the same. We too eventually joined the information age, and I got lost in a horrific Geocities jungle of atrocious web design, badly sourced rumors, and inane pre-teen AIM conversations. It was great.
Leaving video games out of my history would be an omission so egregious it would be tantamount to lying. I'm not sure where exactly our Nintendo Entertainment System came from (Christmas, I think?), but you can bet your britches I spent far more time parked in front of it than I should have. When the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake stuck, I was playing Super Mario Bros. 2. Not even a major seismic event could get me to drop that controller -- my mother had to rescue me from my obsession, not to mention the TV that almost fell on me that day. To be fair, I was on the ice level, and there were no save points back then!
It was a great time to be a gamer -- we grew up with the games industry, absorbing video game history as it was made. Today, I play anything and everything, but back then I was on Nintendo's side of the console wars, scrounging pennies and mowing lawns to try to keep up system releases. The task even turned me into a little entrepreneur: I spent months collecting recycling returns and selling my mother's homemade cookies door-to-door to save up enough to buy my own Super-Nintendo. It was probably the crowning financial achievement of my childhood.
A (questionably healthy) video game obsession isn't my only childhood fixation to persist through adulthood -- I've always had an affinity for those nerdy man-child standbys: cartoons, comic books, and science fiction. Just check out those Halloween costumes: Ghostbusters. Star Trek. Batman. They're awesome, and you know it. The one thing I actually wanted to be as a child was a cartoonist, but I'm the first to admit that I never took it seriously. Four years behind the counter of my local comic shop was the closest I ever came, and I was happy to be there. Best retail job in the world? You bet. I never broke into comics or cartooning beyond scribbling in the margins, but I'll always love animation, comic books, and ridiculously cheesy (and awesome) science fiction.
Despite my aversion to growing up (geek or otherwise), time trudges on, and we deal. I dealt by hopping over the ocean and spending about a month in Amagasaki, Japan. If I had to grow up, I wanted to see for myself who I was when I was out of my element. Big surprise: pretty much the same guy as I was in my element. The premise for the adventure may have been weak, but it was worth every ill-advised second. I spent a month with a Japanese family that welcomed me as if I was their own, and who still refer to me as their "American son." The rest of the trip was a whirlwind around the greater Tokyo area -- getting lost on trains, meeting interesting people, and being a general tourist.
Eventually I had to go home, shape up, cut my hair, and finish college. I began my collegiate career with a focus on radio broadcasting, inspired by my family's ham radio days. I was eventually seduced by celluloid dreams and wound up shifting to the film / television side of my degree -- but my real passion was extracurricular. A niche gaming blog I followed went out on a limb, and let me cover Nintendo's fall media summit for them in 2008 -- soon I was spending my off-hours not playing games, but writing about them. The gig soon developed into the best hobby I'd ever had, and when graduation, unemployment, and jobs in cubicle hell came and went, I held fast my dream of turning that hobby into a career. One night, in a local Chinese restaurant, a fortune cookie promised me that I would one day become "an accomplished writer." Less than a year later, I was living the dream here at Engadget. No joke.
I never did answer that famous childhood question -- in fact, I'm not even all that sure that I grew up. I have the same geeky dreams I've always had, and I am blessed with the unique privilege of swimming in them for a living. So, what do I want to be when I grow up? Exactly what I am right now. Sometimes not knowing where you're bound can take you to where you belong.
Sean Buckley is really bad at social networking, but should you want to play Twitter roulette, he can be found under the name @seaniccus. Don't mind the errant comic book chatter, that's normal.