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Ms. Pac-Man Is a Life Lesson
To Play the Game, Learn the Pattern
Priscilla Jane Dancy gave birth to me in October 1968, the same year that DARPA, the US government’s Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, which studies advanced technologies, ordered the first router to power what you and I call the internet.
My mother was famous in our extended family for her attention to detail, handwriting and ability to walk up and down steps on her hands while smoking a Pall Mall Gold. From my mother, I inherited her undiagnosed obsessive compulsive organization.
My mother kept checklists, journals and notebooks filled with dates, facts and figures. Her organization rituals were broken into daily reviews and yearly planning. These were times where she sat down, pens, paper and index cards in hand, and asked for my assistance.
The most elaborate ritual of each year came around Thanksgiving, when my mother would go to the Hallmark store at the mall to pick up a new 18-month calendar for the upcoming year.
I would sit with her for hours over multiple days, reviewing each month of the current year, looking for special events, holidays, anniversaries and birthdays. This calendar would become the holy grail of our family’s year.
My father, who kept the family in perpetual debt with his desire to purchase the latest consumer electronic or new accessory for his motorcycle, passed on to me his ability to be both the center of attention in any gathering and the most hated person after leaving the room because of his ability to articulate anyone’s deepest vulnerability.
The few friends I had growing up were not allowed to visit our home. We were that family. The one with the unkempt lawn in a neighborhood of perfect lawns. The family with the parents that were never home yet had a driveway full of cars.
Retreating into my bedroom, I would hide out, making lists of my own, obsessively reorganizing my music and book collections and color-sorting my clothes. It was where I felt safe.
The power of being able to catalog a database of items was intoxicating, it helped me feel in control. By the time I was 14 years old, these systems of categorization and documentation could be computerized. So it came as no surprise that technology would become my next all-consuming passion.
If and when I left the house in these formative years, I headed to Blazing Flippers, where I would spend hours on Ms. Pac-Man.
Ms. Pac-Man, each ghost a different color, each color representing a different set of behaviors. Blinky, the red and most aggressive ghost, was my favorite to study.
Four different mazes, each level a brand-new prize, a colorful fruit at the center of the board that offered you the chance to gain a few extra points.
After a summer mastering Ms. Pac-Man, I was picked up by my father at the arcade one day. Lost in the music and a near-perfect game, I felt a tap on my shoulder.
“Christopher, we have to go,” he said. I looked over my shoulder and was shocked to see him standing there. My father never came inside.
“Hold on, I have a nearly perfect game here!” I murmured. I could feel him gazing over my shoulder. “Damn, you’re really good at this,” he said.
My father, who rarely congratulated me on matters outside of physical labor, a tucked-in shirt or staying quiet when company visited, was obviously excited to see me master this game.
But outside of those carefully ordered patterns on-screen, my life was a bit more unpredictable. The summer before I entered high school, everything came crashing down around me. One night, my father asked one of his regular customers, Wanda, to close his bar so he could head out early. While closing, Wanda and her husband were shot and killed, and the bar was robbed.
A lawsuit, along with a civil action started by Wanda’s family, would drive my parents into foreclosure. One afternoon, my parents called my brother and me into the kitchen and told us to pack up. There was an auctioneer at the front door. We had lost our home.
I started high school mere weeks after our move to Westminster, a small town with not much going on. My father managed to find a job working at a used car dealership. It was 1983, and this was his first job with a computer. It changed my life far more than it did his. Up until that point, I had only ever used my uncle Joe’s Tandy TRS-80, and I thought my father’s new computer was magical. Like any 14-year-old eager to please his dad, I was happy to help him learn how to use it.
I made frequent trips to his office to install and configure software and teach him how to input his customers into Lotus 1-2-3, a relatively simple DOS (disk operating system) spreadsheet program that defined office computing in the early 80s. My heart filled with hope just sitting down at a keyboard, even if my only task was typing “DIR,” the directory command for DOS, and watching my life scroll by on the screen.
After I had finished training my father, I started visiting the dealership to work on my own projects. This computer would eventually house all the lists my mother would ever create, a place where all my memories would be collected, sorted and, most importantly, saved and recalled.
My first personal project on my dad’s computer would be to build a spreadsheet of my extensive Michael Jackson memorabilia. Anyone who came to see my family between 1984 and 1988 spent quite a bit of time staring in awe at my room. Literally thousands of Michael Jackson photos, records, T-shirts and other souvenirs littered the walls, filling every nook and cranny. It looked like a museum.
Upon graduation from high school, I went off to college at Mount St. Mary’s in Emmitsburg, Maryland, a Catholic university and seminary. While my parents didn’t have the funds to send me, a combination of loans and grants got me in the door. There I explored Eastern philosophy and spent a lot of time reflecting on life, religion and meaning. Unfortunately, by the time the second semester came around, my mother had misused some of the funds that had been set aside for me and I was asked to leave. I was devastated. On the ride home, I stared out the window as Michael Jackson’s “Man in the Mirror” played on my Walkman. How would I ever become a real adult if I didn’t go to college?
College had been a safe place for me to explore and look inside myself. My family home was the opposite—never safe, never secure. But I could always find comfort in the green glow of a computer screen, in the stream of 0s and 1s running through my head in repeating and predictable patterns. On a computer I was always in control. Online I understood myself.
Several weeks after I was forced to drop out of college, my mother’s best friend reached out to me. Judy ran an antiques shop in Westminster. She wanted me to set up a computer system that could track her inventory and sales. Things were looking up. I now had a paying gig as a computer consultant.
No matter how unruly my life became, I made sure my jobs always included access to machines. In September of 1992, I got my first copy of Microsoft Office for Windows 3.1. It was revolutionary!
I was finally branching out beyond the world of the spreadsheet and finding the playgrounds of word processing with Ami Pro and my first real calendar program, Lotus Organizer. I was that odd employee who carried a diskette back and forth to work so I could update my files, my calendar, even my contacts on work computers while I was on my lunch break. A cigarette in the ashtray next to me, the churning mechanical sounds of a floppy drive reading my files in front of me and a Double Big Gulp of Diet Coke—I was in my element.
Unfortunately, my unhealthy lifestyle was starting to take its toll. Between home and work, I was sitting in front of a computer for 18 hours a day. I was eating junk, indulging in as many cigarettes, as much alcohol and as many illicit substances as I could get my hands on. One Friday afternoon, shortly before diving into another weekend bender, I was sitting quietly at my desk when something snapped. It felt like my hands were not my own. I was in the middle of my first full-on panic attack.
Up until this point, there had been a few scary moments in my life where I felt afraid, but never like I was going to lose my mind. I got up from my desk and walked over to a nearby convenience store I frequented and asked John, the store manager, to help me. John, a catty old queen, probably all of 33 years old, went right into the back room, got a pill out of his drawer, put it in my mouth and locked me in the walk-in fridge.
My trips to see John to handle my panic only became more frequent over the next few months until finally, I was dependent on Xanax. This, my first dip into drug addiction, led me to finally see a shrink, who put me on the antidepressants and benzodiazepines I would take for the next 20 years.
Fortunately for me, this was also the start of me chronicling my medical symptoms in Lotus Organizer. I was patient zero in the digital health revolution—just 20 years ahead of the curve. The information I recorded in those days taught me the power of life-logging.
In 1994, I left Maryland to move in with my boyfriend, Doug, in Indiana. A couple of years after that, we resettled in Colorado, where I started working for a medical software company now known as WebMD. During this stretch of time, the consumer internet was birthed, email started becoming a necessity for anyone in business and the PC became mainstream, making Bill Gates one of tech culture’s first heroes, an unlikely titan who had dropped out of college and made something of his life. (Maybe there was a chance for me after all!)
By the close of 1998, I basically lived in Microsoft Outlook, and I was copying mountains of stats and facts into my calendar each day. Years of sitting with my mother making lists had morphed into a daily and sometimes hourly relationship with software and computers. Microsoft Outlook, the flagship PIM (personal information manager), would define the next decade of my career, and I was just turning 30.
Copyright © 2018 by Chris Dancy