Wednesday, September 9, 2009

A Tickling Ghost

My niece and I have a special relationship. Truth be told, she fell in love with me when she was six and we have been going steady ever since. I've always tried to set a good example for her because I know that the first cut is the deepest. I live a couple of hundred miles away but whenever she finds out I'm coming she goes, as my sister-in-law puts it, ga ga. I payed a surprise visit one time and she ran down the steps, flew into my arms and almost knocked me over so intense was her excitement. As she put it in her sweet childish voice, "Others are important but you're the most important."

My nickname for her is Mac-a-doodle-doo because whenever anything positive happens she crows like a rooster. When she was seven I discovered her happily jumping on her bed her arms wrapped around her chest; when I asked her why she said with disarming candor, "because I am in love with me." Even now in her tween years she loves me to tickle her and after an intense session she will brag in a breathless voice to anyone who will listen, "I almost got tickled to death."


Since the official Blizzard announcement of the next expansion I've been thinking about memories and mementos. While each expansion has changed the game in some form there has been a core consistency, a basis for shared experience. Almost everyone that has played the game has quested in Barrens at some point, defeated Hogger. All druids felt the pain of 20 minutes runs to turn in quests in Darkshore. If they haven't, they still can. After Cataclysm we'll just have to shrug our shoulders and say "you had to be there" when we reminisce about the pain of leveling a Druid or what Barren's Chat meant to us.

This concept of the shared experience of the community is a central theme of the work of the Christian theologian St. Augustine. In his vision a marriage isn't required to be public, with witness, because people need an opportunity to gawk. Marriages are public because first and foremost they are a community artifact; marriage finds its social power precisely because it is an event that takes places within a community of believers. A marriage isn't valid because the priest pronounces it to be so, or because the two individuals pronounce it to be so, but because the whole community itself pronounces it to be so because everyone shared in its creation. A marriage is a story the community tells itself about the way life is and ought to be.

In this way there are in fact two Warcraft stories. There is the story in the game itself, the story of the Horde vs Alliance, the story of the Titans, the story of the fate of the world of Azeroth. Then there is the story the players tell themselves about that story; a story told in podcasts, in blog posts, in forums, in machinima. This second story is our marriage ceremony, our shared creation.

Gloves of Token Respect

In my family I'm the historian, the genealogist. I know who is married to whom; I can tell you who my third cousin is twice removed. One thing that you learn quickly in genealogy is the paucity of tangible evidence from the past. Often the only record of a past life is a tombstone or a record in the basement of a dusty church. My maternal grandfather loved to walk and one of my cherished mementos is antique pedometer that he wore, given to me by my grandmother shortly before she died of brain cancer when I was twelve. I still remember her head all wrapped up in a white turban to hide the affects of the radiation. It seems odd sometimes that I cherish the memory of that painful time but the fact of the matter is that I met my maternal grandmother just that one time and was grateful for it; all my other grandparents died before I was old enough to remember.

It's a sobering thought to realize that the only shared experience your grandchildren may have with you will center around a small memento. I have an original version of my 3rd great grandfather's birth certificate written in German that has been handed down in each generation. I have an antique clock made in 1880 owned by his second daughter. And that's it. My parents and their siblings had no interest in family history whatsoever and much of the lore and history was simply lost. I considered myself lucky indeed when I came across a tattered photo stuck in dilapidated trunk in the attic. One of the hardest emotional aspects to being a genealogist is admitting that you just don't know; the data just isn't there; the cataclysm that is decay came and wiped out the writing on the tombstone, the paper is too weathered to read. You learn to be thankful for the smallest token, a pair of gloves even, to which you can pay your respects.

The other difficult part about looking at the past is to see it realistically. As I talked more with my extended family I learned more about my grandfather and the news wasn't always positive. I see that pedometer in a different way now as an adult: it's was only a tool of man, a husband, a father and not the symbol of a god. I doubt that he ever dreamed in his life that the one thing a grandchild would cherish about his life was a set of rusted gears and levers bound to a rotting leather strap. If he could spring back to life as a ghost he might be angry or bemused about his intentions going so astray. In a similar vein, I doubt that the original developers of Warcraft had any intention of making the early levels of a druid such a pain; they probably cringed inside every time someone mentioned it; they are most likely delighted that the memories of such events will now fade away in time after the Cataclysm.

Spiritual Unrest

The difficult thing about the story is that we are always telling different stories about it; the shared experience of the community changes as the community changes. As old timers drop out there are few people to even remember what Barren's chat really felt like to participate in. The stories we tell ourselves about the story change even within our lifetime; what we think life is all about as teens is not always the same thing we think life is about at 40 or at 80.

Once, after a lengthy visit of about week, it was time for me to leave. Mac was distraught. As I was pulling away in my car she rushed out to the curb and stood their waving and waving goodbye as I disappeared down the road. I kept looking in my rear-view mirror and still she stood their waving until her mother came out and took her hand; then they both began to wave. They were still waving as I turned the first bend in the road.

As I drove down the road tears flooded my eyes. She cannot know, I think to myself, that it's just a ghost that's tickling her. That one day in a time beyond my time, a life beyond my life, a world beyond my world all I will be is a ghost. A tattered picture, a faded memory, a part of history. What token of myself, I wonder, will she hand to her own children as she tries to share with them her experience of my life. I cry so hard I have to pull off the interstate. As I blow my nose I think of the Highborne Lichlings of Azshara. I don't want to be that type of ghost. I don't want her hating me in her head when she's 40; I don't want to be a terror roaming the landscape of her heart. Dear God, I say between gasps, let me be a happy phantom, let me be a tickling ghost.


Azurae said...

Zomg!!!!!! Elnia, you had me tearing up at work! Beautifully written and so poignant. Thank you.

Anonymous said...

WoW Elnia!

This post had me all messed up as well...

Such a timely post, as I sift through the "trash" left behind by my Mother... sometimes it's the tiny scraps of paper that mean more than the valuable silver.

So true about the memories that we carry. For years now my Father's siblings have told me what a wonderful man he was, how he was so like me... a man I hated.. yet at my Mother's funeral, they all one by one admitted he wasn't such a good man.. but he was their brother, thus his memory was clouded by their good memories.

I too worry about the family artifacts, there is no one past me that will carry the same concern, across 20 grandchildren and 14 great grandchildren, my hope lies with my own son, that I may instill in him the importance of these long gone memories that need to be shared beyond our own memories.

Ixobelle said...


Stabs said...

There may be no tombstone but the tracks someone leaves are in the memories of future generations.

Your niece will have certain outlooks and behaviour patterns as a result of her association with you.

She in turn will pass her behaviour and outlook to the next generation.

In terms of who we are we're not immortal but in terms of what we do we can be immortal.

Cassini said...

What are the "tween" years? I guess at like 10-12?

Llyrra said...

Damn it, Elina; that was a beautifully written, thought provoking piece that completely knocked me over. I'll have to quickly come up with a reason why I'm all teary-eyed at work today!

Stabs said...

Tween = 20-29 years of age.

Cap'n John said...

In 1998 when I moved to the U.S., among the family I left behind were my niece and nephew, both under 10 years old.

I understand :(

Elnia said...

@stabs. LOL.

@Cassini. yes.

Anonymous said...

Truly amazing writing; was moved. Well done.

Tesh said...

Genealogy is indeed fascinating, stories clouded in vague melancholy, punctuated with bittersweet pangs.

Indeed, let my ghost be a benevolent one. I'm doing what I can to make it so.

Great article!

Wolfshead said...

What a wonderfully touching article! Thank you for sharing these personal observations about life. You have a real and genuine gift for writing.

River said...

WoW that post was the most beautiful thing I read in awhile.

I'm going to have to kill alot of stuff to wash the taint off.

Anonymous said...

This was incredible.