Commodore Dreams

When I was young my brothers and I had a Commodore 64 Personal Computer. We all three of us sat enthralled for many hours by the vast trove of video games available for the machine, but I wanted more. I wanted to create. I wanted to get under the hood of this 64K, 16 color processor that could display 8 sprites—8! onscreen at any given time. I wanted to unlock its secrets and make games myself.

I had no teacher. I didn’t know any computer programmers, and there was no school curriculum for it. All I had to guide me was my Commodore 64 User Manual and my own determination. I started writing simple programs in BASIC, gradually increasing the complexity until I could build something that almost resembled a playable computer game.

But there was always an obstacle. The documentation was spotty; there were several BASIC commands in the manual that simply did not work when I input them as shown. I checked out books from the library, but they were unclear on some key concepts; I could input a mass of command lines and they would function as the book described, but I couldn’t pluck out the principle behind them that would enable me to use the techniques myself, spontaneously.

We were a poor family. I first realized this when Transformers hit the airwaves; suddenly there was a line of toys I desperately wanted because the characters so fascinated me on the show, and me without an allowance to buy them with. At school I blurted out my despair and disbelief that Optimus Prime cost twenty dollars—and a classmate sneered at me, boasting that $20 was nothing, that he gets that much money from his parents every week. I learned a lot in that moment about how poor I was, and how uncool.

So it was a big deal that we finally had our own computer, rather than hanging around after class at the Christian school co-op to use their machines. A new game for said computer was a major purchase, and probably purchased at a secondhand store. Between that and all the Autobots and Decepticons I wasn’t buying, there wasn’t much room for programming resources.

So one December when I was in Junior High, the church youth group did Secret Santas. You all write wish lists, draw names out of a hat, and exchange gifts, only revealing who got whose name afterward. And to keep things reasonable and fair, the gifts could be no more than $5 value.

As I wrote my list there was only one thing I could think of that I wanted very badly for five dollars or less: Compute!’s Gazette Magazine.

And not just any Compute!’s Gazette Magazine, no sir! I wanted the current issue of Compute!’s Gazette Magazine, which contained a video game program you could play if you spent hours upon hours typing it into your computer. In Machine Language, no less not that dinky BASIC. Each issue of Compute!’s Gazette contained several of these, and I always had a burning ambition to type them in and play them but could never muster the time and patience. Still, I had my heart set on this particular game program that I’d read about on the newsstand, but I didn’t have the money to buy it.

So the Secret Santa seemed like my once chance to have this program that would surely change my life. On my wish list I wrote, “Compute!’s Gazette December 1988 issue (important!)” Because it was important that they purchase the right issue, you see.

When the lists got passed around, one of the boys in the youth group blurted out with a sneer, “Gee, Joel, I didn’t know Compute’s Gazette was so important!”

The room erupted in laughter.

At least that’s what I remember. Thinking back, there may have only been a few isolated giggles. But my 13 year old brain processed it as a chorus of derision. I was mortified and humiliated.

I never did get that December 1988 issue.

And I never did become a computer programmer.

*                    *                    *

When Monica Valentinelli initiated Speak Out With Your Geek Out week from Sept 12-16, I struggled with the topic. I mean, I talk about “geeky” things all the time, so what would be the difference? So I didn’t post anything during Speak Out, and then it hit me belatedly: this was the story that I needed to tell; the tale of a boy, a magazine, and the power of ridicule.

There’s a pressure in our culture to not care about stuff. To enjoy with reservations. To maintain a cool and detached pose. As Marian Call’s song “Nerd Anthem” goes, “All the cool kids keep enthusiasm rationed.” Caring is for nerds, for geeks. Caring is weakness, and open for ridicule. Unrestrained love is regarded practically as insanity.

Every time a child is ridiculed for caring too much, is labeled an outsider for allowing enthusiasm to bubble over in just the wrong way, it leaves a scar. Inflict enough of these wounds and the capacity for joyful play, for living in a universe of unbridled possibility, can be damaged forever.

Geeks are lovers. Geeks are people who respond to the absurd choice between caring and being cool with defiance: “Fine, I guess I’m not cool, then. I’ll just be over here, loving what I love.”

It was Giulia Barbano’s post, “Speaking Out is Geeking Out” that made the connection for me. She wrote, “as far as I’m concerned, geek is a synonym of enthusiast.” That’s it. To express enthusiasm is to geek out. While some receive the message of cool detachment and slay the dreamer within themselves, geeks stand tall—scarred, ostracized, but defiant in their unbridled love.

As Marian sings: “And I’ll still be a geek after nobody thinks it’s chic /Because I don’t require approval in the end.”

This is not to say that geekdom is a perfect, dreamers’ utopia. Geek culture is rife with problematic issues and behavior. Its status games of superior knowledge, its protectiveness of its media darlings, its misogyny and xenophobia, and its passive-aggressive forms of social bullying can all work to undermine the joy at times. The older boy who made fun of me for balking at the price of Optimus Prime was steeped in geek interests, from Transformers to Marvel Comics to Dungeons and Dragons. And he was the most memorable bully of my childhood. The abused are not immune to becoming abusers. Quite the opposite, in fact.

So this is my call to geeks and everyone else to remember the dreams. Remember the joy. Remember the love. Let’s work to include everyone in that love, and reclaim that universe of possibility.




8 Responses to “Commodore Dreams”

  1. 1 Dave
    October 8, 2011 at 2:57 am

    It was a TRS-80 model III for me.

  2. October 9, 2011 at 6:14 am

    Really great post. From reminding me of the hours spent typing that bloody code to make, (what was it now .. some Zombie game that I just had to master) because we couldn’t afford “real” games either, to the beautifully apt description of the geek, I enjoyed every word.

  3. 3 Joel
    October 9, 2011 at 9:54 pm

    Thanks, I’m glad it resonated. I’m a firm believer that when we tell our stories, we discover that a wealth of others who can identify and take encouragement.

    On another note, I suddenly realized that I left something out! I meant to reference “nerd-chanteuse” Marian Call‘s song “Nerd Anthem,” which wonderfully ties into the geek pride of this post. I’ve edited it in. Yay, the power of the internet!

  4. 4 Jesse
    October 10, 2011 at 5:55 pm


    I didn’t know you were taking CS classes. If you mentioned it this weekend it totally blew past me. You know I work as a video game programmer right? Is this still strictly a hobby interest for you?

    I know this is kind of side-stepping your main point about geek enthusiasm but this whole post made me think you might want to take a look at this:


    If you don’t know about it already.

    It was great meeting you in person this weekend.


  5. October 12, 2011 at 11:39 am

    Really nice, Joel. We had a Christmas in my family, the year the workers at my dad’s plant were on strike, where each of us three kids had $40 to “shop” with in the Christmas catalogs, so I know your pain.

    When I asked my 9yo son Connor (the Aspie) how he would feel if someone called him a geek at school, his response just blew me away: “I’d feel awesome! Because that means I’m excited about my things! And if the bully thinks that’s bad, then I just feel sorry for him, because he’s hiding what makes him happy, so somebody else who likes those things too wouldn’t know to be his friend.” Genius, huh?

  6. 6 Joel
    October 13, 2011 at 4:47 pm

    Jesse: I’m not sure where I stand with respect to computer programming and video games. I’ve chased vastly different dreams for the last 20 years, and was contend to let that one die on the vine…yet now I’m in CS writing program instructions for little imaginary robots and I confess it does stir the ghost of that 13 year old Commodore nerd in my heart.

    Inform7 looks intriguing, though I haven’t had much chance to scrutinize it yet.

    Jess: Genius for sure! That story makes me happy.

  7. 7 Matt J.
    November 3, 2011 at 6:00 pm

    You know the C64 is back? http://www.commodoreusa.net/CUSA_C64.aspx
    IT was my first computer, too, and I used to hand-type the programs from “Enter” magazine.

  8. 8 Joel
    November 3, 2011 at 6:37 pm

    I remember Enter magazine! I cut my teeth on that as well.

    I’ve heard about the new Commodore, and I’d love to have one. It’d be fun.

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