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Growing Up Geek: Dana Wollman


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Until now, I had conveniently forgotten that I collected Magic Cards. Not just collected, mind you, but hoarded -- a feverish obsession harking back to an earlier yen for stickers, pogs, and Happy Meals. While some kids played Truth or Dare in the back of the bus to I.S. 228, I kept my collection at the ready, wrapped with care in a rubber band. I'm not sure who I intended to show them to, save for a handful of guys who used to stake out a row in the front, but if I happened to have something good, I wanted to brag a little. At thirteen, I challenged a certain boy to a game, thinking that was all the hint I needed to drop. He beat me handily, and I never admitted my crush.

Let's just say I've evolved since then. I remember as little about mana as Peter Pan did about owning Rufio in a dissing contest. I seem to have kicked my shyness habit -- so much so that my coworkers have taken to calling me "Brass Knuckles." And while I haven't had to suffer dating for awhile, I like to think I've stepped up my game.

But I'm still a daydreamer -- fantasy-prone and nostalgic. And that's what it means to be a geek, really -- I see now that all of the things I used to love were just ways for a tentative, meek kid like me to get lost in her thoughts. Back then, I wanted to be a Disney animator, and would try to keep up with The Little Mermaid while drawing flip books of underwater royalty. It didn't hurt that I also spent an awful lot of time in front of our PC -- a Tandy from Radio Shack, followed later by a Pentium and an eMachines tower from Costco. The idea was that I would play Reader Rabbit to nail three-letter words, but that led to taking quizzes in a typing tutorial (you know, the kind you installed off a floppy disk) and tinkering in DOS, writing choose-your-own-ending tales. My memory's dim here, but I'm pretty sure one of them starred Brian Austin Green of 90210 fame as a protagonist.

In those early years, I got my kicks at an after-school course, where I practiced my two-handed typing and got to play Spellbound and Treasure Mountain when the skinny, tattooed teenager leading the group had decided we'd had enough. When we visited my uncle, the resident computer nerd in the family, I used to try my luck at Leisure Suit Larry (aka, the most appropriate game for a five year-old ever), but that got tiresome when I kept making poor Larry get hit by oncoming traffic. And don't get me started on Oregon Trail. I didn't own that one, so I had to wait until computer class at school, where we'd fight to be the one to write smart aleck things on people's tombstones when they died of cholera.

With few exceptions, my favorite games all had either a historical bent or a futuristic one. I loved Pepper's Adventures in Time, a story about a tomboy and her dog Lockjaw traveling to Ben Franklin's Philadelphia. Then came Conquest of The New World, a game I read about in Computer Games magazine (yes, I had a subscription). It didn't exactly give me an accurate education about imperialism, but man, did I love traversing the coastlines, fleshing out a colorful landscape from what always began as a pitch-black screen. If you've played this game before, you know that naming mountain ranges (and, possibly, engaging in turn-based combat) was the best part.

At some point during all of this, I got my first game console, SNES. Rather, my dad and I got Super NES. It was his idea, actually. I've never asked him why he got the sudden urge to upgrade consoles -- after all, he already owned an Atari, which by the early '90s had been unplugged and banished to the basement, where it's still collecting dust. Looking back, this was one of the few things we did together, just the two of us (the other was him escorting me to ice hockey practice where I moonlighted as a Brooklyn Blade). Together, we mastered Donkey Kong Country, with me picking up the slack when he was too impatient to wait until just the last second to press the jump button, sending Donkey and Diddy over broken tracks in a coal mine. We compared scores in Tetris for Gameboy, and he gave me tips for conquering The Simpsons and Zelda.

But our biggest project was Super Mario World. Anyone who's played it knows there's a lot of levels to tackle -- and I only had so much time allotted on weekends and after dinner. I wasn't half bad, though with so many Koopas and only so few hours to spare, pushing through the game proved a labor of love. The thing is, I never actually beat the game. While I was away at summer camp, reluctantly learning layups and hiding in the outfield, he slayed Bowser. I still give him crap for it.

Sometimes, he made no bones about being my adversary. Though racing games like Super Mario Kart were never his thing, he couldn't resist squaring off in NBA Jam. Patrick Ewing was my player of choice, but when I was in the mood for a challenge, I chose John Stockton, a point guard my dad warned me was short (he was 6'1", according to Wikipedia). Sometimes I won, but usually, he did. Whatever my record, he always did a victory dance when he won, a slow jog around the dining room table, arms locked above his head. It was especially obnoxious if he beat me by a number with a long "i." As in, Fiiiiiiiiive! Niiiiiiiiiine! Looking back, I'm glad he didn't let me win.

I gave up gaming a long time ago. I grew out of it, as did my dad and pretty much every girl I knew. Though I majored in English, my skill set has expanded to singing along to Edith Piaf in garbled French and speaking Monty Python as a second language. I spend a lot of time compiling a mental list of things to read and cities to visit. I imagine touring the pyramids, where I'll take thousands of photos with a camera I'm still lusting after. If you got me rolling, I could go on about why em dashes are my favorite punctuation tool. I grew up, though not into a reformed geek; just a more well-rounded one.

Dana Wollman is Reviews Editor at Engadget. On Twitter she is @danawollman, where she's mostly an armchair movie critic.

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