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April 27, 2004

  • Three Minutes To Midnight
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    I don't have dreams of nuclear war anymore. And yet, twenty years ago, they were within sight of my mind's eye whether I was waking or sleeping. I lived in the miasma of potentialities, waiting for the moment where Andropov or Reagan might do something stupid somewhere near the Afghan border. The moment where there would be MX missiles delivering a payload of a blinding flash and mushroom cloud and, depending on how far away you were, a quick or a slow death.

    And yet, in 1984 I can't say that I necessarily lived in fear of the end of the world; it was more like background noise for the year of Orwell. The Day After was very much with us, but I spent the better part of the spring of 1984 wearing rugby pants and enduring the unbearable cruelty that is known as grade nine. It was a year of punishing boredom from classes and just sheer punishment from my peers. The 1980s were populated by daring people with even more daring haircuts. I had a perm, so it was established early on that I was not to be running with the pack of alpha dogs. I did what any underachieving geek would do: I spent most after schools working on the yearbook. I tried, and mostly failed, to be the class clown.

    Going to high school gave me the tremendous freedom to go where I liked on my lunch hour. I could leave the school grounds and, so long as I was at my next class, I could do anything I liked. The previous fall, Oakville's first comic book store was opened about a 10-minute walk away. Target Comics became my lunchroom. Comics had begun to be printed on bright white paper that year—the sort of paper that allowed for the printing of bold colours. There was a resulting proliferation of gore and blood—the sort of gore that the adolescent or perpetual adolescent could appreciate. They killed off Phoenix in X-Men two years before and suddenly everyone knew how killing off a character struck a chord in the death-obsessed teen and spiked sales. It worked for me. I plunked down money for the issue of New Teen Titans when Terra died; the same month Guardian died in Alpha Flight.

    If the comics were vivid, the music videos were more vivid. It was the days of Video Singles on CMFT and Toronto Rocks on CITY. The days when an hour of local programming was devoted to showing "Every Breath You Take" by the Police and "Karma Chameleon" by Culture Club. The immediacy of nuclear war seemed to cause everything in pop music to become unstuck. Gender became fluid. Simon LeBon wore makeup and Boy George…well…

    It was like everyone was going for broke. The music was synthed up but felt…honest. The soundtrack for the spring of 1984 was the Thompson Twins, singing "Hold Me Now" and Tears For Fears' "Mad World". And when all was said and done, there was always, always Cyndi Lauper:

    If you're lost you can look and you will find me
    Time after time…

    The funny thing is that I didn't seek any of this music out. I was so nerdy then, I listened to Frank Mills and the Beatles. I didn't buy any of these albums. And yet I know all of these songs by heart. And today I'm the only man in the world who wants David Bowie to sing "Let's Dance" instead of "Ziggy Stardust".

    I was probably the only boy in the world who never frequented the arcade. I was lousy at Pac-Man. I lost whole dollars on Dragon's Lair. But if I close my eyes I can still hear the bleeping aural collage of Centipede, Donkey Kong, Defender, Star Wars and Time Pilot all being played at the same time.

    I wished I could have a cool computer at home. I'd love to say I wanted an Apple IIe, but I actually wanted a Radio Shack TRS-80 so I could be like Matthew Broderick in WarGames and hack NORAD. Instead our family owned a Commodore VIC-20 that plugged into the back of our TV. I comforted myself by constructing games in BASIC about hacking NORAD, and contented myself by getting the high score on a so-so rendering of Super Cobra.

    I had a crush on two women that year: the unattainable classmate who was smart, worldly-wise and had a boyfriend in grade 11; and the even more unattainable Mrs. A, my grade nine English teacher. The former I admired from afar; the latter I wrote a poem telling my feelings, and she sweetly wrote a note turning me down. In a moment of drama, and wanting to alleviate the embarrassment of holding on to such a thing, I burned her note in the laundry tub and set off the smoke detector at 11pm, much to the consternation of my father.

    I wrote lots of poetry that spring. I would spend my nights bashing out juvenilia on my Dad's orange portable Smith-Corona. The most important six weeks of grade nine was taking typing with a drill sergeant of an old woman. I dropped the course, but as a result I picked up possibly the most important skill I learned in high school.

    I spent that spring hanging out with my best friend and his family. I suppose I was looking for some kind of a hole to be filled in my own life—a brother, adults who understood me. And yet, nothing prepared me for the day when my friend told me his parents were splitting up and he would be moving away to Mississauga. Everything was moving and changing. I just never realized it.

    And that was the eighties for me. Everything moving, changing, a constant synthpop dance of promises obliterated by reality, and fears proven unfounded in the daylight. It was a time of vivid colours and dark clouds. It was three minutes to midnight on the nuclear clock, I was fourteen years old and life was a Eurythmics song:

    Sweet Dreams are made of these
    who am i to disagree
    I travel the world and the seven seas
    Everybody's looking for something

    Posted by graeme | (0) Comments | Permalink

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